All the flowers are dyin.., p.9
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       All the Flowers Are Dying, p.9

         Part #16 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 9

 

  “What do you believe happens when you die?”

  “You first. ”

  His words brook no argument, and Applewhite seems indisposed to offer one. “I think it ends,” he says. “I think it’s just over, like a movie after the last reel runs out. ”

  “No final credits?”

  “Nothing at all. I think the rest of the world goes on, the same as it does when anybody else dies. Subjectively, I think it’s a resumption of the same nonexistence one had before birth. Or before conception, if you prefer. It’s hard at first to accept the notion that you’re not going to exist anymore, but it gets a little easier when you think of all the centuries, all the millennia, when you hadn’t yet been born and the world got along just fine without you. ”

  “One hears of near-death experiences…”

  “The tunnel, the white light? Some sort of hallucination, very likely with a physiological basis to it, and one that medical science will no doubt be able to explain to us at some future date. I won’t get to hear the explanation, but I guess I can live without it. Or die without it, come to think of it. ”

  “Gallows humor. ”

  “There’s a phrase due for an update. Hard to find a proper gallows in our enlightened age. Well, better the needle than the rope. But now it’s your turn. What do you think happens when we die?”

  He doesn’t hesitate. “I think we go out like a light, Preston. I think it’s like going to sleep, but with no dreams and no awakening. And why should that be so hard to believe? Do we think cattle go from the abattoir straight to cow heaven? What’s so special about our consciousness that it should be permitted to survive?” The rueful half-smile. “Although I expect I’ll be drawn down the tunnel to the white light. But when I pop through at the end of the tunnel I’ll cease to be. I’ll become part of that light, perhaps, or I won’t, and what possible difference will it make either way?”

  “I’d like to come again tomorrow, Preston. ”

  “I’ll be grateful if you do. Do you think they’ll let you?”

  “I don’t anticipate any problem. The warden thinks I might accomplish something. ”

  “Help me resign myself to my fate?”

  He shakes his head. “It’s his hope that you’ll tell me where the Willis boy’s body is buried. ”

  “But—”

  “But if I truly believe in your innocence, how can I possibly attempt that? Is that what you were going to say?”

  A nod.

  “I’m afraid I may have dissimulated some with Warden Humphries. I may have led him to think that I believe you believe in your innocence. ”

  Briefly, he sketches what he’d postulated for the warden, explained how the wish could be father to the thought, how a man, in the course of denying his crimes, could genuinely convince himself that he had not in fact committed them.

  “Is that what you think?”

  “Do I think it ever happens that way? I know for a fact that it does. Do I think that’s what’s operating in your case? Absolutely not. ”

  Applewhite ponders this. “But how could you be sure?” he wonders. “Even if you’ve got some kind of built-in lie detector, all that would tell you is that I’m speaking what I believe to be the truth. But if I’ve sold myself a bill of goods—”

  “You haven’t. ”

  “You sound so certain. ”

  “I’ve never been more certain of anything. ”

  On the way out, he gets the guard to take him to the warden’s office. “I think I’m making progress,” he tells Humphries. “I think it’s just a matter of time. ”

  It’s raining when he leaves the prison, a light rain that’s not much more than a mist. He has difficulty finding the right setting for the windshield wiper, and it makes driving less of a pleasure and more of a chore than it has been.

  It’s midafternoon when he gets to the Days Inn, and the parking lot is virtually empty. He parks in back and goes to his room. It’s a little early for a drink, he decides, but not too early for a phone call.

  It turns out there’s a message on his voice mail. He listens to it, deletes it. He makes three calls, all to numbers on his speed dial. The third is to a woman, and now his voice is different, the tone deeper, the phrasing more deliberate.

  “I’ve been thinking of you,” he says. “More than I should, actually. I have challenging work to do, and I should be giving it a hundred percent of my attention, but instead I’ll find myself thinking of you. God, I wish I knew. Four or five days, I would think. I wish I could tell you where I am. It’s a place where they have a different attitude toward privacy. I wouldn’t be surprised if this phone is tapped. My cell? I left it home, it wouldn’t work here. If you left me a message, it’ll be waiting for me when I get home. So there are things I’d say, but I’d better not. Yes, as soon as I know. And I miss you, too. More than I can say. ”

  He rings off, wondering if he’s made a mistake by denying that he’s calling from his cell phone. It’s set up to block Caller ID, so anyone with that feature should get a NUMBER UNAVAILABLE OR CALLER OUT OF AREA message, but glitches happen. Does she have Caller ID? He’s never thought to check, and that, he decides, is a sin of omission. Not necessarily a grievous sin, it shouldn’t matter, but he’d rather leave as little as possible to chance.

  He’s checking his e-mail when it strikes him that he hasn’t eaten in over twenty-four hours. He’s not hungry, he never gets hungry, but his body ought to have regular feedings.

  Emporia’s not a large town, the population’s around five thousand, but it’s the county seat of Greensville County, and it’s got an Outback Steak- house. He’s noted the sign several times now, near the Interstate exit for U. S. 58. He drives ten miles into Virginia, finds his way to the place, and orders a rare rib eye steak with fries and salad, and a big glass of unsweetened iced tea. Everything’s good, and the steak they bring him is actually rare, just as he ordered it, a welcome surprise in a part of the country where everything’s overcooked, and almost everything’s fried.

  Driving back to his motel, he wonders what Preston Applewhite will want for his last meal.

  Wednesday morning. It’s getting on for noon, and Applewhite has clearly been anxiously awaiting his arrival. They shake hands, and he lets his left hand cup Applewhite’s shoulder.

  He’s no sooner seated in the white chair than Applewhite says, “I’ve been thinking about what you said yesterday. ”

  “I said a number of things,” he says, “and I rather doubt any of them is worth thinking about. ”

  “About the theory you proposed to Humphries. That a man can be guilty but truly believe himself innocent. ”

  “Oh, that. ”

  “The one thing I’ve been sure of, from the first moment on, is that they were all making a horrible mistake. I knew I didn’t kill those boys. ”

  “Of course you didn’t. ”

  “But if what you say is true—”

  “For some people. Sociopaths, men with something missing inside them. You’re not like that. ”

  “How do you know?”

  “I know. ”

  “Well, how do I know? Believe me, I’d like to take your word for it, but failing that, how can I be sure? You can see where logic leads. It’s a conundrum. If I’m innocent, I’d know I was innocent. But if I was guilty, and had managed to convince myself I was innocent, I’d also know I was innocent. ”

  “Look at yourself, Preston. ”

  “At myself?”

  “At the sort of man you are, the sort of man you always have been. Have you ever committed a violent act?”

  “If I killed those boys—”

  “Before. Did you abuse your wife?”

  “I shoved her away from me once. It was when we were first married, we’d argued and I was trying to leave the house. I wanted to go for a walk and clear my head, and she wouldn’t let go of me, you’d have thought I was on my way to Brazil, and I pushed her to make her let go. A
nd she fell down. ”

  “And?”

  “And I helped her up, and we had a cup of coffee, and, well, it worked out. ”

  “That’s the extent of your history of spousal abuse? How about your children? Did you beat them?”

  “Never. We didn’t believe in it, either of us. And I never felt the kind of anger toward them that you’d want to express physically. ”

  “Let’s look at your childhood, shall we? Ever torture animals?”

  “God, no. Why would anyone—”

  “Ever set fires? I don’t mean Boy Scout campfires. I mean anything ranging from mischief to pyromania. ”

  “No. ”

  “You wet the bed as a kid?”

  “Maybe, when my parents were toilet training me. I don’t honestly remember, I was, I don’t know, two or three years old—”

  “How about when you were ten or eleven?”

  “No, but what does that have to do with anything?”

  “The standard profile of the serial killer or lust murderer. Bedwetting, fire-setting, and animal abuse. You’re batting oh-for-three. How about your sexual orientation? Ever have sex with young boys?”

  “No. ”

  “Ever want to?”

  “The same answer. No. ”

  “Young girls?”

  “No. ”

  “Really? When you approached middle age, didn’t teenagers start looking good to you?”

  Applewhite thinks it over. “I won’t say I never noticed them,” he said, “but I was never interested. All my life, the girls and women I’ve been attracted to have been around my own age. ”

  “And the males?”

  “I’ve never had relations with a man. ”

  “Or a boy?”

  “Or a boy. ”

  “Ever wanted to?”

  “No. ”

  “Ever found a male attractive, even without having any desire to act on it?”

  “Not really. ”

  “ ‘Not really’? What does that mean?”

  “I’ve never been attracted to a man myself, but I might notice that a man is or is not generally attractive. ”

  “You sound awfully normal, Preston. ”

  “I always thought I was, but—”

  “How about sexual fantasies? And don’t tell me you never had any. That’s too normal to be normal. ”

  “Some. ”

  Ah, he’d touched a nerve. “If you’d rather not go there, Preston—”

  “We were married a long time,” he says. “I was faithful. Sometimes, though, when we made love—”

  “You entertained fantasies. ”

  “Yes. ”

  “That’s hardly unusual. Other women?”

  “Yes. Women I knew, women I just… imagined. ”

  “Did you ever discuss your fantasies with your wife?”

  “Of course not. I couldn’t do that. ”

 
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