When a young boy's body is found in the town park, Detective Ralph Anderson finds the evidence and the witnesses all pointing to one of the city's most popular citizens.
Horrormeister King (End of Watch, 2016, etc.) serves up a juicy tale that plays at the forefront of our current phobias, setting a police procedural among the creepiest depths of the supernatural. If you're a little squeamish about worms, you're really not going to like them after accompanying King through his latest bit of mayhem. Early on, Ralph Anderson, a detective in the leafy Midwestern burg of Flint City, is forced to take on the unpleasant task of busting Terry Maitland, a popular teacher and Little League coach and solid citizen, after evidence links him to the most unpleasant violation and then murder of a young boy: "His throat was just gone," says the man who found the body. "Nothing there but a red hole. His bluejeans and underpants were pulled down to his ankles, and I saw something…." Maitland protests his innocence, even as DNA points the way toward an open-and-shut case, all the way up to the point where he leaves the stage—and it doesn't help And erson's world-weariness when the evil doesn't stop once Terry's in the ground. Natch, there's a malevolent presence abroad, one that, after taking a few hundred pages to ferret out, will remind readers of King's early novel It. Snakes, guns, metempsychosis, gangbangers, possessed cops, side tours to jerkwater Texas towns, all figure in King's concoction, a bloodily Dantean denunciation of pedophilia. King skillfully works in references to current events (Black Lives Matter) and long-standing memes (getting plowed into by a runaway car), and he's at his best, as always, when he's painting a portrait worthy of Brueghel of the ordinary gone awry: "June Gibson happened to be the woman who had made the lasagna Arlene Peterson dumped over her head before suffering her heart attack." Indeed, but overturned lasagna pales in messiness compared to when the evil entity's head caves in "as if it had been made of papier-mâché rather than bone." And then there are those worms. Y u ck. Not his best, but a spooky pleasure for King's boundless legion of fans. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Stanhope: Oh, yes.
Detective Anderson: Thank you, Mrs. Stanhope.
Stanhope: Who could believe Terry would do such a
thing? Do you suppose there have been others?
Detective Anderson: We may find that out in the
course of our investigation.
Since all City League tournament games were played at Estelle Barga Field—the best baseball field in the county, and the only one with lights for night games—home team advantage was decided by a coin toss. Terry Maitland called tails before the game, as he always did—it was a superstition handed down from his own City League coach, back in the day—and tails it was. “I don’t care where we’re playing, I just like to get my lasties,” he always told his boys.
And tonight he needed them. It was the bottom of the ninth, the Bears were up in this league semifinal by a single run. The Golden Dragons were down to their last out, but they had the bases loaded. A walk, a wild pitch, an error, or an infield single would tie it, a ball hit into the gap would win it. The crowd was clapping, stamping the metal bleachers, and cheering as little Trevor Michaels stepped into the lefthand batter’s box. His batting helmet was the smallest one they had, but it still shaded his eyes and he had to keep pushing it up. He twitched his bat nervously back and forth.
Terry had considered pinch-hitting for the boy, but at just an inch over five feet, he drew a lot of walks. And while he was no home run hitter, he was sometimes able to put the bat on the ball. Not often, but sometimes. If Terry lifted him for a pinch hitter, the poor kid would have to live with the humiliation through the whole next year of middle school. If, on the other hand, he managed a single, he would recall it over beers and backyard barbecues for the rest of his life. Terry knew. He’d been there himself, once upon a time, in the antique era before the game was played with aluminum bats.
The Bears pitcher—their closer, a real fireballer—wound up and threw one right down the heart of the plate. Trevor watched it go by with an expression of dismay. The umpire called strike one. The crowd groaned.
Gavin Frick, Terry’s assistant coach, paced up and down in front of the boys on the bench, the scorebook rolled up in one hand (how many times had Terry asked him not to do that?), and his
XXL Golden Dragons tee-shirt straining over his belly, which was XXXL at least. “I hope letting Trevor bat for himself wasn’t a mistake, Ter,” he said. Sweat was trickling down his cheeks. “He looks scared to death, and I don’t b’lieve he could hit that kid’s speedball with a tennis racket.”
“Let’s see what happens,” Terry said. “I’ve got a good feeling about this.” He didn’t, not really.
The Bears pitcher wound up and released another burner, but this one landed in the dirt in front of home plate. The crowd rose to its feet as Baibir Patel, the Dragons’ tying run at third, jinked a few steps down the line. They settled back with a groan as the ball bounced into the catcher’s mitt. The Bears catcher turned to third, and Terry could read his expression, even through the mask: Justtry it, homeboy. Baibir didn’t.
The next pitch was wide, but Trevor flailed at it, anyway.
“Strike him out, Fritz!” a leather-lung shouted from high up in the bleachers—almost surely the fireballer’s father, from the way the kid snapped his head in that direction. “Strike him owwwwwt!”
Trevor didn’t offer at the next pitch, which was close—too close to take, really, but the ump called it a ball, and it was the Bears’ fans’ turn to groan. Someone suggested that the ump needed stronger glasses. Another fan mentioned something about a seeing-eye dog.
Two and two now, and Terry had a strong sense that the Dragons’ season hung on the next pitch. Either they would play the Panthers for the City championship, and go on to compete in the States—games that were actually televised—or they would go home and meet just one more time, at the barbecue in the Maitland backyard that traditionally marked the end of the season.
He turned to look at Marcy and the girls, sitting where they always did, in lawn chairs behind the home plate screen. His daughters were flanking his wife like pretty bookends. All three waved crossed fingers at him. Terry gave them a wink and a smile and two thumbs up, although he still didn’t feel right. It wasn’t just the game. He hadn’t felt right for some time now. Not quite.
Marcy’s return smile faltered into a puzzled frown. She was looking to her left, and jerked a thumb that way. Terry turned and saw two city cops walking in lockstep down the third base line, past Barry Houlihan, who was coaching there.
“Time, time!” the home plate umpire bellowed, stopping the Bears pitcher just as he went into his wind-up. Trevor Michaels stepped out of the batter’s box, and with an expression of relief, Terry thought. The crowd had grown quiet, looking at the two cops. One of them was reaching behind his back. The other had his hand on the butt of his holstered service weapon.
“Off the field!” the ump was shouting. “Off the field!”
Troy Ramage and Tom Yates ignored him. They walked into the Dragons’ dugout—a makeshift affair containing a long bench, three baskets of equipment, and a bucket of dirty practice balls—and directly to where Terry was standing. From the back of his belt, Ramage produced a pair of handcuffs. The crowd saw them, and raised a murmur that was two parts confusion and one part
“Hey, you guys!” Gavin said, hustling up (and almost tripping over Richie Gallant’s discarded first baseman’s mitt). “We’ve got a game to finish here!”
Yates pushed him back, shaking his head. The crowd was dead silent now. The Bears had abandoned their tense defensive postures and were just watching, their gloves dangling. The catcher trotted out to his pitcher, and they stood together halfway between the mound and home plate.
Terry knew the one holding the cuffs a little; he and his brother sometimes came to watch the Pop Warner games in the fall. “Troy? What is this? What’s the deal?”
Ramage saw nothing on the man’s face except what looked like honest bewilderment, but he had been a cop since the nineties, and knew that the really bad ones had that Who, me? look down to a science. And this guy was as bad as they came. Remembering Anderson’s instructions (and not minding a bit), he raised his voice so he could be heard by the entire crowd, which the next day’s paper would announce as 1,588.
“Terence Maitland, I am arresting you for the murder of Frank Peterson.”
Another Ooooo from the bleachers, this one louder, the sound of a rising wind.
Terry frowned at Ramage. He understood the words, they were simple English words forming a simple declarative sentence, he knew who Frankie Peterson was and what had happened to him, but the meaning of the words eluded him. All he could say was “What? Are you kidding?” and that was when the sports photographer from the Flint City Call snapped his picture, the one that appeared on the front page the next day. His mouth was open, his eyes were wide, his hair was sticking out around the edges of his Golden Dragons cap. In that photo he looked both enfeebled and guilty.
“What did you say?”
“Hold out your wrists, please.”
Terry looked at Marcy and his daughters, still sitting in their chairs behind the chickenwire, staring at him with identical expressions of frozen surprise. Horror would come later. Baibir Patel left third base and started to walk toward the dugout, taking off his batting helmet to show the sweaty mat of his black hair, and Terry saw the kid was starting to cry.
“Get back there!” Gavin shouted at him. “Game’s not over.” But Baibir only stood in foul territory, staring at Terry and bawling. Terry stared back, positive (almost positive) he was dreaming all this, and then Tom Yates grabbed him and yanked his arms out with enough force to make Terry stumble forward. Ramage snapped on the cuffs. Real ones, not the plastic strips, big and heavy, gleaming in the late sun. In that same rolling voice, he proclaimed: “You have the right to remain silent and refuse to answer questions, but if you choose to speak, anything you say can be held against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney during questioning now or in the future. Do you understand?”
“Troy?” Terry could hardly hear his own voice. He felt as if the wind had been punched out of him. “What in God’s name is this?”
Ramage took no notice. “Do you understand?”
Marcy came to the chickenwire, hooked her fingers through it, and shook it. Behind her, Sarah and Grace were crying. Grace was on her knees beside Sarah’s lawn chair; her own had fallen over and lay in the dirt. “What are you doing?” Marcy shouted. “What in
God’s name are you doing? And why are you doing it here?”
“Do you understand?”
What Terry understood was that he had been handcuffed and was now being read his rights in front of almost sixteen hundred staring people, his wife and two young daughters among them. It was not a dream, and it was not simply an arrest. It was, for reasons he could not comprehend, a public shaming. Best to get it over as fast as possible, and get this thing straightened out. Although, even in his shock and bewilderment, he understood that his life would not be going back to normal for a long time.
“I understand,” he said, and then: “Coach Frick, get back.”
Gavin, who had been approaching the cops with his fists clenched and his fat face flushed a hectic red, lowered his arms and stepped back. He looked through the chickenwire at Marcy, raised his enormous shoulders, spread his pudgy hands.
In the same rolling tones, like a town crier belting out the week’s big news in a New England town square, Troy Ramage continued. Ralph Anderson could hear him from where he stood leaning against the unmarked unit. He was doing a good job, was Troy. It was ugly, and Ralph supposed he might be reprimanded for it, but he would not be reprimanded by Frankie Peterson’s
parents. No, not by them.
“If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided to you before any questioning, if you desire. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Terry said. “I understand something else, too.” He turned to the crowd. “I have no idea why I’m being arrested! Gavin Frick willfinish coaching the game!” And then, as an afterthought: “Baibir, get back to third, and remember to run in foul territory.”
There was a smatter of applause, but only a smatter. The leatherlung in the bleachers yelled again, “What’d you say he did?” And the crowd responding to the question, muttering the two words that would soon be all over the West Side and the rest of the city: Frank Peterson’s name.
Yates grabbed Terry by the arm and started hustling him toward the snack shack and the parking lot beyond. “You can preach to the multitudes later, Maitland. Right now you’re going to jail. And guess what? We have the needle in this state, and we use it. But you’re a teacher, right? You probably knew that.”
They hadn’t gotten twenty steps from the makeshift dugout before Marcy Maitland caught up and grabbed Tom Yates’s arm. “What in God’s name do you think you’re doing?”
Yates shrugged her off, and when she tried to grasp her husband’s arm, Troy Ramage pushed her away, gently but firmly. She stood where she was for a moment, dazed, then saw Ralph Anderson walking to meet his arresting officers. She knew him from Little League, when Derek Anderson had played for Terry’s team, the Gerald’s Fine Groceries Lions. Ralph hadn’t been able to come to all the games, of course, but he came to as many as possible. Back then he’d still been in uniform; Terry had sent him a congratulatory email when he was promoted to detective. Now she ran toward him, fleet over the grass in her old tennis shoes, which she always wore to Terry’s games, claiming there was good luck in them.
“Ralph!” she called. “What’s going on? This is a mistake!”
“I’m afraid it isn’t,” Ralph said.
This part he didn’t like, because he liked Marcy. On the other hand, he had always liked Terry, as well—the man had probably changed Derek’s life only a little, given the boy just a smatter of
confidence-building, but when you were eleven years old, a little confidence was a big deal. And there was something else. Marcy might have known what her husband was, even if she didn’t allow herself to know on a conscious level. The Maitlands had been married a long time, and horrors like the Peterson boy’s murder simply did not come out of thin air. There was always a build-up to the act.
“You need to go home, Marcy. Right away. You may want to leave the girls with a friend, because there will be police waiting for you.”
She only looked at him, uncomprehending.
From behind them came the chink of an aluminum bat making good contact, although there were few cheers; those in attendance were still shocked, and more interested in what they’d just witnessed than the game before them. Which was sort of a shame. Trevor Michaels had just hit the ball harder than ever before in his life, harder even than when Coach T was throwing meatballs in practice. Unfortunately, it was a line drive straight to the Bears shortstop, who didn’t even have to jump to make the catch.