My 76,000-word detective novel, Cursing the Darkness, is now ready for literary representation. The prologue and first chapter appear below. Please contact me via my email or my other links for more information. Thank you.
CURSING THE DARKNESS
A Mystery Novel
By Steven E. Belanger
Monk: “Remember, it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
Hagar: “But I enjoy cursing the darkness!”
“Hagar the Horrible” cartoon strip, 11/27/94
Charlie Brown: “Sometimes I lie awake at night and I ask, ‘Why am I here?’ Then a voice answers, ‘Why? Where do you want to be?’”
“Peanuts” cartoon strip, 2/7/94
It’s the same every night.
There’s a solid blackness in my dreams that blankets the screams of the coked-up woman throwing her kids out the window. The darkness clears. I see the lit window four floors up the face of the spider- and lightning-cracked tenement building, past the bill of my policeman’s cap, though in real life it hadn’t been on my head at the time.
Her white, skeletal hands have just dropped the three-year old girl, Samantha, the one I couldn’t save, the one whose round cheeks whisper past my fingertips as she falls. And lands. On the sidewalk, in the street. Her neck snaps on the edge. The back of her skull caves in. Red and grey chunks of flesh and brain spray me—me and the short, round woman I had to push out of my way.
But I often don’t see that part; it’s not the gore that invades my dreams. It’s all the screams. It’s her neck. Snapping. Snapping like the sticks that, as a boy, I rested against trees and broke with my foot—my mother needed me to get the fireplace wood after my father left us.
The snapping. I hear it when I lift my tense shoulders, when I turn or cock my head, when I crack my fingers. When I drive; when I’m alone. When I dream. I no longer scream. But the coked-up woman does, all the time.
And Samantha, as she falls.
Richard Taylor was a supervisor for Ocean State Construction, had been for over nineteen years, and was not bashful about saying so. Thinning brown hair cut very close to his scalp. Balding on top. Tailored blue suit. Pants, pleated. Blue tie. Gold-plated, initialed tie clip. His heavily polished black shoes reflected the underside of Colleen’s desk. They did that because he was leaning over her desk, on the palms of his hands, screaming at her.
“If you’ve got something to scream at me,” I said, “then scream it at me. Don’t scream at my secretary.”
He didn’t hesitate. Colleen’s face looked drawn, her eyes glazed over.
I walked into my office and Taylor followed me, yelling. I closed the door and pressed the button on the phone that turned on the two-way speaker system. He’d hear himself in Colleen’s office if he listened carefully. But I knew he wouldn’t.
“Sit down and shut up,” I said.
He did, halfway into the word punctuality. My tone at such moments always sounds normal and conversational to me, and I feel a disturbing calmness, but I'm told that in reality I look and sound rather scary. One person used the word “crazy.” I didn't care. I knew he'd make me miserable and my mood hadn't improved from a disastrous weekend. He might've been my next client, and I knew he'd pay me a lot of money, but he could still go fuck himself.
I reached into the drawer and withdrew the bottle.
“Want a slug?” I asked him.
“What is it?”
“It’s a short, quick gulp, but that’s not important right now.”
“You ever see the movie Airplane?”
He just looked at me, confused.
I gave up. “It’s Dewar’s. No more Calvert Extra.”
“Move the tongue,” I said. “Don’t make so much of it come through the nose.”
I took a quick slug. The fire hit my stomach immediately. Colleen would say that feeling was the alcohol corroding my stomach lining. And I’d respond that at least something was getting accomplished. I replaced the bottle, pulled up the chair, and folded my hands on the desk.
“So. Here we are again. When’d she leave this time?”
“Five days ago,” he said. “Jesus, where’ve you been?”
I’d been at home all weekend, mostly watching Sox games and drinking. “On Sabbatical. How bad is it?”
He looked at me as if I d asked why rain was wet.
“C’mon, we’ve gone through this plenty of times before. What was her frame of mind? Did she say, ‘Honey, I’m going to the store and I’ll be right back’ or did she just pack up and leave?”
“She was gone when I came home from work.”
“What time was that? Be specific.”
“Four-thirty, quarter to five.”
“Did you call her from work at any time that day?”
“You have an answering machine, right?”
“You have the kind that says what time it is when someone leaves a message?”
“What time did you leave for work?”
“Paper brought in?”
“So she could’ve left anywhere between seven-fifteen and four-thirty, quarter of five?”
Nod. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess that’s right.”
“She still have her car?”
“No. I got her a new Benz. Dark blue.”
“Was it there?”
“No. You believe that? She left me in the goddamn car I gave her!”
I sighed and swiveled. What a miserable little bastard.
“Favorite shoes and clothes? Favorite pocketbook?”
He shook his head.
“She only takes her travel bags.”
“Okay. Were they gone?”
“Mr. Taylor,” I said, “I detect a pattern here.”
“What do you need? I just want her back. I’ll pay anything.”
“I know you will.”
“She might not come back this time. How’m I supposed to know she’s all right? How’m I supposed to know what she’s doing? How do I know where she is? How do I know who she’s with? She could be with anybody. How do I know she’ll come back this time?”
They either yell or they whine. Or both.
Sigh. Swivel. “Mr. Taylor, let’s be reasonable. It’s not like this is the first time.
You’ve got money. She’s got money—”
“She’s got my money!”
“—and she’s got her car, your car. She’s got her cell. She’s intelligent, strong and resourceful. I’m sure she’ll be fine.”
“She’ll be fine?” he screamed, his body jumping.“Of course she’ll be fine! But how ’bout me? How do I know she’ll come back this time?”
His left eyelid twitched, his mouth a frown.
“Mr. Taylor, I don’t know. I don’t know where she is. Maybe soon she’ll give you a call and fill you in. Maybe she’ll want a divorce. Maybe just a separation. Maybe she’ll just want to take a one-week vacation from you once or twice a year. I don’t know. If I were you, though, I’d be talking to my lawyer, not to me. Better yet, I’d be talking to a counselor, maybe a minister. Maybe a therapist—I can give you a few names. Whatever. But I wouldn’t be talking to me. Mr. Taylor, nothing’s changed. Nothing’s been accomplished between you two for a year. There’s nothing here for me anymore. I don’t make a difference with you two. And I’m not gonna suck you dry.”
Colleen sharpened a pencil she’d never write with for what seemed like a very long time.
Richard Taylor reached inside his blue suit coat and withdrew his checkbook. Blue flap, his initials emblazoned in big golden letters. The full names of he and his wife were scripted in very regal gold across the top of each check, and suddenly, again, I felt very sad. People who share a checkbook and a checking account should be in love. Otherwise why bother?
From out of a small vest pocket came a sleek gold pen. He leaned over his checkbook.
“Two hundred a day, you said. How about a five-hundred dollar retainer, plus another thousand? That’s five days, plus the retainer. How about it? That’s fifteen hundred bucks.”
I shook my head. A hopeless feeling opened its wide mouth deep in the pit of my stomach. We both knew how it was going to play out.
“Mr. Taylor, I’m sorry. But understand my position. I’m a detective. Because of my damn psychopathy, I detect all the time, but that doesn’t mean I can charge for it all the time. I can only charge for it when there’s been an actual crime. There’s no crime here.”
“There’s no crime here? I’ll tell you what the crime is, it’s—”
“And you two don’t need me here. Mr. Taylor, she either comes back or she doesn’t. It’s that simple. My involvement doesn’t sway her either way.”
The hand holding the pen clenched into a fist, the knuckles turning white. But the pen didn’t break. Strong pen. I looked. It was a Cross pen.
“What do you mean?” he said, barely above a whisper.
Two quick, grinding spurts from the pencil sharpener.
I spoke very calmly, very distinctly, very diplomatically:
“I’m saying maybe she leaves you like this because she feels she needs to. She leaves; you spend a lot of money to get her back; she gets pleased that you’re spending a lot of money to get her back; she comes back; she leaves again. The key here is that she comes back because she feels that when you spend money to get her back, it’s a sign that you care. When you spend all this money, she thinks that you’re showing you care. So then she leaves so you’ll show that you care again, and then she comes back because she’s happy that you’ve shown that you care again. It’s all about caring. I’ve been going around and around with you two for over a year now, and I can tell you that it’s all about showing you care. Maybe, if I can get you two to just talk about it, she won’t leave you anymore, and then you can show her that you care in much more productive ways.”
We stared at each other for several moments. For a guy who’s severely screwed up, I give really good relationship advice.
“You saying I don’t care about her? Huh? She leaves because I don’t show that I care about her? How the fuck do you know? Who the hell are you to give me fucking marriage counseling? Maybe she leaves so she can sleep around on me. Maybe she would leave me even if I was a goddamn saint. How do you know why she does it? How the hell do you know?”
Fuck him. “If she was just interested in sleeping around on you, she could do that at home, while you were at work. She wouldn’t have to leave the house. You don't think they'd come to her? You think she has to go to them? The point is, she leaves. For everything, Mr. Taylor, there’s a genesis—she leaves for a reason.”
The pencil sharpener ground ceaselessly. She must’ve sharpened the pencil to the eraser.
He just looked at me, angry, red-faced and sweaty. Maybe he knew. But I doubt it.
I sighed. Loudly.
“Anyway, Mr. Taylor, the bottom line is: she’s gone again, and here you are. Again. But I don’t have to get involved with you two again. There’s a pattern here that tells me you two like to play games with each other. I don’t want to play that game with you anymore. I’m breaking this widening gyre you two have going. I don’t make a difference with you two. Any other detective in this state would be happy to take your money. Go to one of them. I am not gonna suck you dry. And I’m not gonna let you suck me dry, either.”
We stared at each other some more. Colleen stopped sharpening pencils. Taylor still leaned over his checkbook, pen in hand. I’d rehearsed all morning and I thought I’d spoken well.
“Stop thinking about yourself,” Taylor finally said to me, “and start thinking about how I feel.”
My mouth opened and nothing came out. Colleen snickered audibly through the speaker.
“If you’re right,” he continued, calmly, as if he were explaining a complex scientific equation to a particularly stupid child, “and I don t hire someone to look for her, she might think that I don’t care anymore and never come back. You ever think of that? You ever think that I’m screwed either way? I shell out fifteen hundred bucks and she thinks that I care and she comes back. I know that she comes back only so that she can leave again so I have to show that I care again. And again and again. Okay? I know that’s what she does. But if I ever once don’t spend all that money, she might think I don’t care anymore. You get it? You get where I m coming from? I know it’s a game, but the game’s all I got. Take the fifteen hundred. Please.”
I leaned back. Swivel, left to right, revolving the chair with the tip of my left foot. They never think of counseling, or of giving up and moving on. Everyone loves the pull of the status quo.
“Like I said, Mr. Taylor, my involvement does not mandate what she does or does not do. She has no idea you’re paying anything at all unless she either assumes that you are, or she comes to one of us, and one of us tells her that you are.”
Taylor looked confused. “So?”
“So what’s to keep me from taking your fifteen hundred bucks and just sitting here until she comes back?”
He laughed, suddenly, all the anger and tension gone. “Oh, shit, is that what you’re worried about? Is that all this is? Hell, I don’t care what you do with the money. Spend it on that great-looking thing you have out there, if you want to. I don’t give a shit what you do with it. No matter what you do, I still show her that I care. If you don’t do anything, I just tell her that I paid you and assumed you were doing your job. Hey, it’s a win-win-win situation.”
“Sure,” I said. “We all get what we want.”
Smile. Scribble. Tear. Closed the checkbook, inserted it in his suit pocket, slid the check over the desk to me.
“I do love her, you know,” he said, as if he knew I didn’t believe him. “I don't have anybody else.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t move to take the check. No one ever really has anybody, but Taylor would never truly understand that.
“Just say no,” he said, “and I’ll go to somebody else. Like you said, anybody else in your line of work will take it. But I’d rather it be you. I’ve always come to you, and she’s always come back. Hey, you’re good luck, Foster.”
No taps. No pencil sharpening. The silence was like she was standing in front of me, her arms folded across her chest, waiting for an answer.
“Come on,” Taylor said. “You don’t need fifteen hundred bucks? Huh? Fifteen hundred bucks for doing nothing?”
I looked at the lime-green file cabinet and the plant and the clock and thought of the darkness of the alley. The vacant building. The peeling FOR RENT OR LEASE sign. The girl. The mattresses and the drugs. The homeless man with the paper bag. That one aluminum can. The DEAD END. And Elmore House. It always came back to Elmore House. Freud was right; it’s always the mother. And finally back to Richard Taylor. He must've seen the defeat in my eyes; he grinned. I hated him then, and I've never stopped hating him. I'm sure that was in my eyes, too, but he was too ignorant to notice.
I simply nodded and looked down at my cratered, unpolished desk.
“Alright, yes, excellent!” He slapped both palms on my desk as he stood. He pulled tight on his suitcoat, then tightened the tie around his neck slowly, with a pleased, confident air.
“You’ll find her,” he said.
I stood. “Yeah, I’ll find her.”
We shook hands. His shake was confident, strong. Pumped.
“Or she’ll find me,” I said.
He didn’t get it. He winked at Colleen as I followed him into the outer office; he opened the hallway door, shook my hand again, this time also slapping me once on the shoulder, and walked out, long strides, body straight.
I closed the door. It slammed.
“You’re going broke anyway,” Colleen said, very softly, from her desk.
“I can’t afford to work for free when you’re broke.”
“You had no choice. You did what you had to do.”
“I’m tired of having no choice.”
“Fifteen hundred dollars is another two months for the House,” she said.
“I know. That’s why I had no choice.”
“You know you’re better than that, don’t you?”
“I’d rather panhandle,” I said.
I walked back to my office, slamming the door. Sat and swiveled. Leaned back, my feet on the left corner of my desk. Suddenly the bottle appeared in my hand. I took a slug. My stomach protested. I didn’t, and took another. That mouth of hopelessness in my stomach opened wider, ready for more drink. Hopelessness is always thirsty.
We all have an alley mattress that we lay on our backs for. Mine was my mother.