Will Howard lived next to an honest-to-god lighthouse, and as soon as Jack saw it, he knew he would love the place. Will’s lighthouse was a simple white tower with a black tarpaper roof – the kind you might imagine Rapunzel might have been kept in if she’d been raised a Yankee. The house itself was set back from the water, behind a stone wall – a small white cottage with a roof the colour of sun-bleached brick. It was the kind of place you saw on postcards – maybe there even was a postcard out there with the Howard Lighthouse on it. It wouldn’t have surprised Jack one bit. It was so picturesque and perfectly New England. He had a girlfriend in high school who used to sit on a rock by the water and sketch lighthouses just like this one.
Duck saw Jack gawking and laughed under his breath. He knocked once, twice, three times on the house’s door – red as a firetruck, with a brass door knocker, the number 38 in matching bronze, set right below that.
“I told you, Jack,” he said, motioning toward the lighthouse, “Will likes his solitude – or at least, he tells everyone he does. Fella like Will, between you and me, needs someone else around or else he goes a little soft in the head, you follow?”
With this, he tapped two fingers on his head just above his right eyebrow, precisely at the same moment as the door opened, revealing the man they’d come to see, wearing a plaid housecoat, with or without boxers underneath Jack couldn’t tell and didn’t want to know. He had a wild white mountain of hair that made him look like Mark Twain after a particularly rough night’s sleep.
“Are you telling porkie pies about me again, Huey?” the lighthouse keeper asked, then turned to Jack and held out a friendly hand. “Will Howard, local oddity.”
Jack gripped the man’s hand firmly and replied, “Jack. Uh, Jack Morse.” He thought for a moment to add a clever title, as Will had, adding a touch of curiosity, but he was never good on his feet like that – it always took a minute or two before he came up with the perfect aside, or comeback, and by that time, it was too late, of course. So, most of the time, Jack listened, which he believed had gotten him further in life than if he’d been more loquacious. A quiet man will be thought of as wise, his uncle had told him, and another proverb, almost like it: Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought of as a fool than open it and remove all doubt.
“Jack Morse,” Will said, rolling it around his mouth; tasting it. “That’s a good handle you have there, kid. Sounds like a bloody pirate, or maybe a spy – maybe it’s the name Morse, makes me think of the code, and espionage. Maybe I been reading too many John Le Carré novels.”
Jack smiled broadly, and nodded thanks.
“Though if you ask me,” Will said, turning back into his house and heading into what appeared to be the kitchen, “there’s no such thing. Man’s a genius.”
Jack looked to Duck for direction, and Duck made a twirling motion around his ear, and stuck out his tongue for good measure.
“I can see you, you toothless old fucker!” Will said gruffly, but clearly this was friendly banter between two old friends.
“Well,” he asked, turning around, and now his housecoat fell open, and Jack and Duck both averted their eyes and began laughing. “You comin’ in for a cuppa joe, or what?”
Jack chewed on what Will considered coffee and thought it might just be the answer to the world’s energy crisis. Each swallow made his stomach twitch, as if trying to reject it.
“Jesus!” he coughed. “What’s in this? Rocket fuel?”
Will, fully clothed and frying up what he promised would be “the best brekky y’ever ‘ad”, turned toward Jack and winked conspiratorially.
“Only to take the edge off, lad,” he laughed. “It’s whiskey drinker’s coffee. I done lost my sense of smell ages ago, so you’ll have to forgive me if everything I make’s a little “the dials all go to eleven”, you know what I mean?”
Jack had no idea, but nodded at the old man, as his kidneys prepared themselves for the dangerously high salt content of what Will called Scottish Breakfast. Jack smelled the sweet, smoky aroma of more pork products than he could identify, mountains of potatoes, eggs, and something sinister-looking that Will introduced as black pudding. Then there was the molasses smell of baked beans, the sizzle of tomatoes frying in enough butter to kill a healthy man, and the heavenly smell of freshly baked bread.
“This is the most food he’s cooked in months,” Duck warned Jack, “so I’d feed the first bit to the dog, m’boy. Out here all by hisself, like to go mad and run buck nekkid through the village scaring all the women and children.”
“And yet they let him operate the lighthouse,” Jack said, grinning with real joy for the first time in days. “Aren’t they worried he’s going to lead ships to wreck?”
Will put down his spatula and washed his hands on his apron, which featured Yosemite Sam wielding a butcher knife, with the caption RUN VARMINT! in big Looney Tunes letters.
“I see how it is,” he said, shaking his head. “You’ve found yourself a sidekick, eh, Duck? A Martin to your Lewis? Bugs to your Daffy – hey, that’d be good, wouldn’t it? Daffy Duck. Gonna’ take the act on the road, is that it? Come to try out your material on the village spook? Well, I don’t need any of it. Me and Clancy, we do just fine, don’t we, boy?
“Dammit all! Where is that dog?”
Clancy was a cross between a beagle and something that was definitely not a beagle, thought what it was, who could say? He was a sweet dog, older than Moses and completely blind. His hearing wasn’t much better, but he could still smell just fine.
“Fuckin’ dog,” Will said, not without affection. “Well, fine then, ye miserable cur! I s’pose you’ll come when you’re hungry, but not when you’re called. I get it. My last and only friend’s only in it for the gravy.
“You see what I have to put up with?” he asked Duck, who turned and looked at Jack and motioned toward Will.
“You see what you’ll have to put up with?”
Will gasped as if truly offended, hamming it up for the kids in the cheap seats.
“Well I never!” he cried, wringing his hands in his apron. “I’ll have you know, I am a peach, boyo!”
And then, Jack witnessed something he never would have considered likely – a old Scot trying to do a Foghorn Leghorn voice.
“Ah say, Ah say, boy – a Georgia Peach,” he tried, and failed, unable to clip the hard, rolling R of his heavy brogue.
Jack started laughing, and before long, both Will and Duck joined him.
“Alright, alright,” Will said, handing out plates filled with more food than Jack normally ate in an entire day, “you’ve had yer entertainment, lads, now it’s time to dig in.”
Without missing a beat, he crossed himself and said, “Hail Mary, full of grace, help me win this stock-car race. Amen.”
Then he shoveled a heaping forkful of potatoes into his mouth and began to chew, once, twice, three times, and then spit it out onto his plate, red-faced and coughing.
“Och, that’s disgustin’,” he cried. “Don’t touch it, lads – it’s not fit for consumption!”
The old man was a hurricane of motion, swirling around the table like a dancer, stealing back the plates of food and offering gruff apologies every thirty seconds. Jack felt bad for the poor guy – he’d obviously put so much effort into it, but was clearly out of the practice of entertaining visitors.
“Och, what would my dear mother say if she were still alive today, Jack? I’ll tell you what she’d say, m’boy. She’d say Help me, you wee bastard! Ye buried me alive! That’s what she’d say.”
Jack laughed, and Duck followed.
“Now, then. Can I get either of you miserable cunts some toast? Aye, I can do toast, I promise.”
Jack could barely breathe, and the tears in his eyes made him see two of the white-haired lighthouse keeper, neither of which had cracked a smile, despite the wild fire in his eyes. His face was a volcano just about to erupt; his hair the smoke rising out the cap.
“Or can I interest you in a smoke, and we can forget all about this nasty breakfast business.”
Duck nodded his agreement, but Jack shook his head.
“Thanks, but I don’t smoke.”
Will’s eyes twinkled like Santa’s in that famous poem, and, like that sneaky old elf, he reached into his pocket and pulled out an old leather drawstring pouch and tossed it to Jack, who smelled it before it ever landed in his hands.
“You want to bunk here, Jack, that’s going to change.”
Jack opened the pouch, poked his nose in, and inhaled deeply.
“That there’s my own crop, Jack, so you’re welcome to it whenever you like. Whaddaya say, lad?”
Jack looked up at Will, and if he had tears in his eyes, it was only because he thought he had died and gone to heaven.
“I think I’d like to amend my previous statement,” Jack said.
“Aye,” Jack said. “I mean, yes. I meant that I don’t smoke cigarettes.”
“It’s a fair distinction, Will,” Duck said. “You have to admit.”
“Aye, Huey, you old fart. That it is. That it is.”
Jack buried his nose in the bag again and inhaled, then sighed.
“When can I move in?”
Jack stood in the doorway of the room that he was going to rent, and didn’t know where to begin. The furnishings were fairly Spartan, with nothing but a bed, a small chest of drawers beside it, and a lamp on top of that. The rest of the room was filled with cardboard boxes, and there was at least a dozen of them, stacked three high. Each one, the size of a milk crate, and all full of books and papers. Jack wondered how they hadn’t toppled over into disaster yet. The walls were full of newspaper clippings, the most recent being from March 27th of that year:
UFO Comes for 39 Souls – Heaven’s Gate Cult Members Found Dead in Southern California Mansion.
There were several different accounts of this story – photocopies of west coast papers like the San Diego Union-Tribune, the New York Times, of course, and even a little blurb from the Portsmouth Herald, which was carefully clipped from the local paper. Beside them, covered with circles and notes, was the article pulled from Time magazine with the Heaven’s Gate cult leader, Marshall Applewaite, on the cover – INSIDE THE WEB OF DEATH.
Other articles tacked to the walls seemed to follow a similar theme – there were newspaper clippings from a few years back about all that Branch Davidian stuff down in Waco, Texas. Jack remembered that one from his senior year of high school. Mr. MacDonald, his history teacher, had brought a TV into class and had them watch the coverage of Janet Reno’s assault on the cult compound led by David Koresh.
“What a bloody mess that was, eh, boy?”
Jack jumped. Will could be a lot quieter than Jack would have thought.
“Sorry, lad. Din’t mean to sneak up on ya. Me Mum said I should’ve been a dancer.”
“What is all this?” Jack asked, taking in articles about Waco and further back, stories about Jonestown and the Manson Family, as well as some other stories Jack wasn’t familiar with.
“Ah, yes,” Will said, and sighed. “This would be the previous tenant I told you about. He came here about six months ago, a professor on sabbatical, working on this book of his, all about fringe religious groups in America. The Secret Religion of the 20th Century. French-Canadian fella, had that whole Acadian accent that sounds mighty close to what you might hear down south in the creole neighbourhoods of New Orleans. Went down there back in ’78 for Mardi Gras, saw more naked flesh than you can believe, and ended up catchin’ the clap from a hooker named Beatrice, of all the bloody names – but that’s another story for another day, my boy. Thing is, it weren’t all happy times.”
Will seemed far away, Jack thought. Remembering something, or maybe re-living something.
“There was a spookiness about the French Quarter – there’d been some bad business down the road the summer before, I guess. Bunch of kids went missing, turned up drowned. What with all the skull-and-crossbones, hoodoo Baron Samedi nonsense and people telling tales of ghost kiddies, it was all I could do to drink myself silly, and, I reckon, into the arms of a poxy whore. I’ve got none but meself to blame, boy, but you know, if you don’t live a little…”
Jack let the older man go on reminiscing, but his attention was really drawn to the story of the thirty-nine cultists who had committed suicide, casting off their earthly bodies, they believed, in order to board the spaceship that was actually the Hale-Bopp comet. He’d heard about it, of course – it had been something of a joke, which was kind of sick, really. He thought he’d read somewhere that one of the cultists was someone famous’ brother. It had a sci-fi connection, he remembered, because the joke was that they’d boldly gone where no man had gone before.
“What’s this got to do with the professor?” Jack asked, cutting the older man off in the middle of his description of the lovely, but pox-ridden, Beatrice’s magnificent breasts.
“What?” he asked, startled out of his reverie, his hands held out in a fondling pose. “Why, that’s where he’s gone, of course!”
Jack gave a blank stare. “The professor went to New Orleans? Why?”
“Well, maybe not New Orleans,” Will said, shaking a dismissive hand. He was thin and lanky and pale – like what a scarecrow might look in the winter, if it got down and danced around. “But somewhere down in the bayou.”
Jack searched the walls for something regarding Louisiana, but there was nothing.
Will shrugged. “Hell if I know, kid. He travelled quite a bit, talkin’ to folks; researchin’. A day or two here; a week there. But never more than that. Then that business out in California happened a few months back, and that seemed to light a fire under him. He’d lock himself in here and read old books all day one day, then tap all day on that fancy new portable computer of his the next.”
“What does Louisiana have to do with the Hale-Boppers?” Jack wondered out loud.
“What?” Will grunted. “Nothing. Who said it had anything to do with those quacks what killed themselves to join the spaceship?”
“But then why were you telling me about Mardi Gras and Beatrice, and…”
“Och, you got to clean the wax out’cher ears, boy. I said he went to Louisiana lookin’ for kin of his, three months back, and I ain’t heard hide nor hair of him ever since. And not a penny in rent. What kind of drugs you on to connect him going to Louisiana having to do with spaceships and cultists?”
“I don’t remember you saying anything about him hunting down family,” Jack said.
Will seemed to think about it for a minute, and scratched his head fiercely.
“Didn’t I?” he asked. “Well, I have now. I don’t know why he went to Louisiana, Jack. Only that he was writing a book about religions and cults, and I gotta tell you, Jack – some of the stuff he discovered would make you scratch your own head and question everything you believe. When them Heaven’s Gate loonies made the news, Gerrard – Professor Gerry, that is – he was talking to this little group of people up the coast who claimed that all the stuff that Lovecraft fella wrote was real, and they worshipped one of his, whatcha call’em? Old Ones. They’d claimed to have seen it and everything.”
“Oh, come on,” Jack said. “Really?”
“On my mother’s eyes, lad,” Will said, stifling a laugh.
Jack couldn’t help himself, and laughed nervously.
“I shouldn’t laugh,” he said. “I mean, it’s really sad.”
“It is, at that, but still… what if we’re the loons, and there really are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies?”
Will struck a dramatic pose, and spoke the last bit like a thespian of the Shakespearean stage. The effect was comical, and Jack laughed again.
“You know, I asked him what his interest in all this was, once,” Will said, suddenly serious, “but he wouldn’t really talk about why he was interested, just that he was. It was all he talked bout. He was so passionate about it, Jack – so intensely passionate. We talked about some of the folks he spoke to; about some of the crazy things they believed, and we talked about how people could believe those things, and what kind of person would believe such insane things, and he said something that I’ll never forget, Jack, because it chilled me. It honestly chilled me, and when he left for Louisiana, I admit I was a little relieved to have him gone.”
“What did he say?” Jack asked. Will had his complete attention now.
“He said, What if it’s in the blood? and I asked him what he meant by that, and he said, What if that kind of madness is passed down, like a genetic trait, from mother to son; son to grand-daughter, and so on?”
Jack said nothing. It was an unsettling question.
“It wasn’t just the question, Jack,” Will continued. “But the look in his eyes – like it wasn’t one of them hypothetical questions, if you get my meaning. Like it was something he was afraid was a certainty. Like it was something nobody had control of.”
“You think he has a connection to some kind of cult,” Jack said. A statement, not a question. “Maybe he’s gone looking for long lost relatives, or something, down in Louisiana.”
“Aye,” Will said, nodding. “That would be my bet, if that were my vice, but thank’ee Jesus I stick to whiskey, women and the good weed, and leave gamblin’ to the English.”
Jack couldn’t help but laugh at the old man.
“Now, do you want a hand getting rid of all this junk?” Will asked, and Jack was surprised at the question.
“No, I don’t think so,” Jack said. “If you don’t mind, I think I’d like to look through some of this stuff. It will give me something to entertain myself.”
Will feigned offence. “I’m not entertainment enough for you?”
“Fine, fine,” Will said, pretending to storm out. “I’ll let you get settled, then. But if Professor Gerry comes back and tries to give me shite, I’m gonna deny letting you keep them boxes.”