The whisperers, p.10
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       The Whisperers, p.10

           John Connolly
 

  ‘Like I said, I don’t know any Joel Tobias.’

  ‘Strip him,’ said another voice. ‘Strip him and cornhole him.’

  ‘You hear that?’ said the first voice. ‘Some of my buddies here aren’t as concerned about the niceties of conversation as I am. I could step outside to smoke a cigarette, and leave them to amuse themselves with you.’ A blade touched my buttocks, and glanced against my groin. Even through my trousers, I felt the keenness of its edge. ‘Is that what you want? You’ll be a changed man after it, that’s for sure. In fact, you’ll be a bitch.’

  ‘You’ve made a mistake,’ I said, and I sounded braver than I felt.

  ‘You’re a fool, Mr. Parker. You’re going to tell us the truth within the next minute. I guarantee you.’

  He let the sack drop down over my nose and mouth. Hands grabbed my legs, and I heard the sticky rasp of heavy-duty tape before it was wound tightly around my calves. The sack was twisted tightly against my Adam’s apple. Then I was lifted and carried across the room. I was turned so that I was facing up, and then my legs were raised higher than my head.

  The voice spoke again.

  ‘You’re not going to like this,’ it said, ‘and I’d prefer not to have to do it, but needs must.’

  I could just about breathe through the material, but I was already hyperventilating. I tried to bring my breathing under control, counting slowly from one to ten in my head. I got as far as three before I smelled fetid water, and then I was plunged headfirst below its surface.

  I tried to resist the urge to inhale, tried to hold my breath entirely, but a finger probed for my solar plexus and then began placing steady pressure on it. Water flooded into my nose and mouth. I started to choke. Then I began to drown. It wasn’t just a sensation of drowning: my head was filling with water. When I inhaled, the cloth tightened against my face, and I took in fluid. When I tried to cough it away more water flooded my throat. I began to lose track of whether I was inhaling or exhaling, of what was up and what was down. I was certain that I was on the verge of blacking out when they pulled me out and laid me on the floor. The sack was yanked away from the lower half of my face. I was turned on my side and allowed to cough up water and phlegm.

  ‘There’s plenty more where that came from, Mr. Parker,’ said my interrogator, for that was what he was: my interrogator and my torturer. ‘Who hired you? Why were you meeting with Jimmy Jewel?’

  ‘I don’t work for Jimmy Jewel.’ I gasped out the words.

  ‘Then why did you go to his place today?’

  ‘It was just a casual meeting. Look, I—’

  The sack was pulled back down, and I was lifted and immersed, lifted and immersed, but there were no more questions, no opportunities to make it stop, and I believed that I was going to die. When I went down for the fourth time, I would have told them anything to bring it to an end, anything at all. I thought that I heard someone say, ‘You’re killing him,’ but there was no anxiety about the fact. It was merely an observation.

  I was raised from the water and lowered to the floor again, but I still felt as though I were drowning. The sack was pressed against my nose and mouth, and I couldn’t breathe. I thrashed on the floor like a dying fish, trying to push the sack away, not caring as I scraped my face against the floor through the material. At last, mercifully, it was pulled up. I had to force myself to inhale, for my system seemed to have shut down in expectation of water, not air. Facedown, I felt hands pushing at my back, forcing the fluid from me. It seared my throat and nostrils as it emerged, as though it were acid, not filthy water.

  ‘Jesus,’ said the same voice that had earlier commented on the possibility of my death, ‘he pretty much swallowed half the barrel.’

  The first man spoke again. ‘For the last time, Mr. Parker: who hired you to follow Joel Tobias?’

  ‘No more,’ I said, and I hated the pleading tone of my voice. I was broken. ‘No more . . .’

  ‘Just be straight with us. But this is your last chance: the next time, we’ll leave you to drown.’

  ‘Bennett Patchett,’ I said. I was ashamed at my weakness, but I didn’t want to go under again. I didn’t want to die that way. I coughed again, but less water emerged this time.

  ‘Damien’s father,’ came a third voice, one that I had not heard before. It was deeper than the rest, the voice of a black man. He sounded tired. ‘He’s talking about Damien’s father.’

  ‘Why?’ said the first voice again. ‘Why did he hire you.’

  ‘He employs Joel Tobias’s girlfriend. He was concerned about her. He thought Tobias might be beating her.’

  ‘You’re lying.’

  I felt him reach for the sack again, and I pulled away.

  ‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s the truth. Bennett’s a good man. He was just worried about the girl.’

  ‘Shit,’ said the black man. ‘All this because Joel can’t keep his old lady in line.’

  ‘Quiet! Did the girl say something to Patchett to make him think this?’

  ‘No. They’re his own suspicions, nothing more.’

  ‘There’s more to it than that, though, isn’t there? Tell me. We’ve come this far. It’s nearly over now.’

  I had no dignity left. ‘He wants to know why his son died.’

  ‘Damien shot himself. The “why” won’t bring him back.’

  ‘That’s hard for Bennett to accept. He’s lost his boy, his only son. He’s hurting.’

  For a time, nothing else was said, and I experienced the first glimmer of hope that I might yet come out of this alive and, perhaps, that Bennett would not suffer for my weakness.

  The interrogator leaned in close to me. His breath was warm against my cheek, and I felt the terrible intimacy that is part of the pact between the tormented and the tormentor. ‘Why did you follow Tobias to his rig?’

  I swore. If Tobias had made that tail too, I was more out of practice than I thought. ‘Patchett doesn’t like him, and he wanted evidence to present to the girl that might make her leave him. I thought that maybe he might be seeing someone else on the side. That was why I followed him.’

  ‘And Jimmy Jewel?’

  ‘Tobias drives a truck. Jimmy Jewel knows the trucking business.’

  ‘Jimmy Jewel knows smuggling.’

  ‘He told me that he tried to recruit Tobias, but Tobias didn’t bite. That’s all I know.’

  He considered this. ‘It almost sounds plausible,’ he said. ‘Sleazy, but plausible. I’m tempted to give you the benefit of the doubt, except that I know you’re an intelligent man. You’re inquisitive. I’m pretty certain that Joel Tobias’s sexual habits were not the only branch of his affairs that you might have been tempted to examine.’

  I could see his boots through the gap at the bottom of the sack. They were shiny and black. I watched as they moved away from me. A conversation was conducted nearby in tones too soft for me to pick up on what was being said. Instead, I concentrated on breathing. I was shaking, and my throat was raw. Eventually, I heard footsteps approaching, and those black boots appeared in my field of vision again.

  ‘Now you listen, Mr. Parker. The girl’s welfare isn’t anything that you need to concern yourself with. She’s in no danger, I guarantee you. There will be no further repercussions for you, or Mr. Patchett, as long as you both just walk away. I give you my word on that. Nobody is being hurt here, do you understand? Nobody. Whatever you suspect, or think you know, you’re wrong.’

  ‘Your word as a soldier?’ I said. I sensed him react, and braced myself for the blow, but none came.

  ‘I guessed that you’d be a smartass,’ he said. ‘Don’t get any ideas. I’m sure that you’re all riled up, or you will be once we let you go, and you’ll be tempted to come looking for payback, but I wouldn’t if I were you. You come after us because of this, and we’ll kill you. This is none of your concern. I repeat: this is none of your concern. I regret what had to be done here tonight, I truly do. We’re not animals, and if you’d cooperated at the
start then it wouldn’t have been necessary. Consider it a lesson hard learned.’ He pulled the sack back down. ‘We’re done here. Take him back to his car, and treat him gently.’

  The tape was cut from my legs. I was helped to my feet and escorted to the car. I was disoriented and weak, and I had to stop halfway to throw up. Hands held me tight at the elbows, but at least I wasn’t being made to walk bent over with my arms raised behind my back. This time, I was put in the trunk, not the back of the car. When we got to the Bear, I was laid facedown on the parking lot, and my restraints were removed. My car keys jangled as they landed beside me. The voice that had earlier spoken of Joel Tobias’s old lady told me to keep my head covered for a count of ten. I remained where I was until the car pulled away, then raised myself slowly and stumbled to the edge of the lot. I could see the rear lights of a car racing away. Red, I thought. Maybe a Ford. Too far to make out the plates.

  The Bear was dark, and my car was the only vehicle still in the lot. I didn’t call the cops. I didn’t call anybody, not then. Instead, I drove home, fighting nausea all the way. My shirt and jeans were filthy and torn. I threw them in the trash as soon as I reached the house. I wanted to shower, to clean the dirt of the Blue Moon from my skin, but I elected simply to scrub myself in the sink. I wasn’t ready for the sensation of water pouring onto my face again.

  That night, I woke up twice when the sheets touched my face, and I lashed out at them in panic. After the second time, I chose to sleep on top of, not under, them, and lay awake as my mind shuffled names like cards: Damien Patchett, Jimmy Jewel, Joel Tobias. I replayed in my head the voices I had heard, the sense of humiliation I had felt as they threatened me with rape, so that I would know them when I heard them again. I let anger course through me like an electrical charge.

  You should have killed me. You should have left me to drown in that water. Because now I’m going to come after you, and I’m not going to do it alone. The men I’ll bring with me will be worth a dozen of you, military training or not. Whatever you’re doing, whatever operation you’re running, I’m going to tear it apart and leave you to die in the wreckage.

  For what you did to me, I’m going to kill you all.

  8

  The body of Jeremiah Webber had been discovered by his beloved daughter after he failed to make a lunch appointment with her, a meeting dictated at least as much by the desire to hit on her old man for a few bucks and a good meal as the child’s natural affection for her parent. Suzanne Webber loved her father, but he was a curious man, and her mother had hinted that his financial affairs did not bear close scrutiny. His shortcomings as a husband were merely one aspect of his flawed nature; as far as his first ex-wife was concerned, he could not be trusted to behave properly under any circumstances, with the exception of ensuring his daughter’s wellbeing. In that, at least, she could be certain that he would act according to what passed for his better nature. And, as has been said before, she liked Jeremiah Webber. His second ex-wife, who had no residual affection for him whatsoever, regarded him as a reptile.

  When his daughter found her father’s body lying on the kitchen floor, her first thought was that there had been a robbery, or an assault. Then she saw the gun by his hand, and, given the implied precariousness of his financial circumstances, wondered if he had taken his own life. Although in shock, she had retained sufficient self-possession to use her cell phone to call the police, and not to touch anything in the room. She then spoke to her mother while she waited for the police to arrive. She sat outside, not inside. The smell in the house distressed her. It was the stink of her father’s mortality, and something else, something that she could not quite place. Later, she would describe it to her mother as the lingering stench of matches that had been lit in an effort to disguise the aftermath of a bad trip to the restroom. She smoked a cigarette, and cried, and listened as her mother, through her own tears, denied the possibility that Webber had shot himself.

  ‘He was selfish,’ she said, ‘but he wasn’t that selfish.’

  It quickly became apparent to the investigating detectives that Jeremiah Webber had not, in fact, taken his own life, not unless he was a perfectionist who, having botched the first shot, had found the will and strength to pop a second one in his head in order to finish the job. Given the angle of entry, that would also have required him to be a contortionist, and possibly superhuman, considering the nature of the catastrophic injuries inflicted by the first bullet. So it looked like Jeremiah Webber had been murdered.

  And yet, and yet . . .

  There was powder residue on his hand. True, it might have been possible for his killer, or killers, to put the gun against his head and apply pressure to his finger in order to force him to pull the trigger, but that usually only happened in movies, and it was easier said than done. No professional was going to take the risk of putting a gun in the hands of someone who didn’t want to die. At best, there was a chance that, before he was encouraged to plant one in his own head, he might fire a shot into the ceiling, or the floor, or someone else’s head. In addition, there was no evidence of a struggle, and no marks on his body to indicate that Webber might have been restrained at some point.

  So what if, suggested one of the detectives, he shot himself, botched it, and then someone else finished the job for him out of a sense of mercy? But who stands back and watches another man kill himself? Was Webber ill, or so overcome by difficulties, financial or otherwise, that he saw no way out of them but to take his own life? Had he then found someone loyal enough to stay by his side as he fired what was intended to be the fatal shot and then, having watched him fail, to deliver the coup de grâce? It seemed unlikely. Better, then, to assume that the suicide was forced upon him, that the hands of another placed Webber’s finger on the trigger and applied the pressure required to fire the first bullet into his brain, and that those same hands finished him off instead of leaving him to die in agony on his kitchen floor.

  And yet, and yet . . .

  Who tries to make a murder look like a suicide, and then undoes all that good work by firing a second shot?

  An amateur, that’s who; an amateur, or someone who just doesn’t care about appearances. Then there was the matter of the wineglasses, three in all: one smashed on the floor, and the other two on the kitchen table. Both had been drunk from, and both had fingerprints upon them. No, that wasn’t quite true. Both had Webber’s fingerprints all over them, and the second glass had smears that were almost fingerprints, except that, when examined, they proved to be without whorls, or loops, or arches. They were entirely blank, leading to the suggestion that at least one other person in the room with Webber had been wearing gloves, or some form of patch to mask the prints, perhaps in an effort to put Webber at ease initially, for what kind of killer would choose to leave evidence upon a wineglass of his presence at a crime scene? The glass was sent for testing in the hope that DNA traces might be obtained from it. In time, that analysis would discover saliva which, when analyzed, revealed the presence of unusual chemical compounds: a drug of some kind. A clever lab technician, acting on little more than a hunch, separated the drug and its metabolites from the saliva using a metal-doped sol-gel immobilized in a glass capillary, and found it to be 5-fluoruoracil, or 5-FU, commonly used to treat solid tumors.

  The second person in the room with Jeremiah Webber on the night that he died was thus shown to be a male on chemotherapy, which led to a possible resolution of the fingerprint issue: certain drugs used in the treatment of cancer, among them capecitabine, caused inflammation of the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, leading to peeling and blistering of the skin and, over time, the loss of fingerprints. Unfortunately, by the time this was revealed, weeks had passed since the discovery of the body, and subsequent events had played themselves out to the end.

  And so, on the day after the body was discovered, the police began investigating Webber’s ex-wives, his daughter, and his business associates. In time, they would find more than one dead end
, but the strangest of all was the correspondence in Webber’s files relating to an institution described as the ‘Gutelieb Foundation,’ or, more often, merely ‘the foundation,’ because the foundation did not appear to exist. The lawyers who purported to represent it were shysters with holes in their shoes, and they claimed never to have encountered in person anyone from the foundation. All bills were paid by money order, and all communication was carried out via Yahoo. The woman who took messages on the foundation’s behalf worked out of the back of a strip mall in Natick, sitting in a booth surrounded by five other women, all of them purporting to be secretaries and PAs for companies or businessmen whose offices were their cars, or their bed rooms, or a table in a coffee shop. The secretarial services company, SecServe (which the detectives investigating Webber’s death felt was a name open to misinterpretation, particularly if spoken aloud), informed the police that all bills relating to the foundation were paid, once again, by money order. SecServe had never raised any objection to this form of payment: after all, it was perfectly legitimate. Some of the company’s other clients had been known to pay in bags of quarters, and in the current climate SecServe’s boss, whose name was Obrad, was just relieved when people paid at all.

  ‘What kind of name is Obrad anyway?’ asked one of the detectives.

  ‘It is Serbian,’ said Obrad. ‘It means “to make happy.”’

  He had even had it written on his business cards: OBRAD MAKE HAPPY. The cops were tempted to correct his grammar, and point out that statements like this, combined with the possibilities for misunderstanding inherent in his company name, were likely to get him into trouble at some point, but they did not. Obrad was helpful, and an enthusiast. They didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

  ‘And you never spoke to anyone connected with this foundation?’

  Obrad shook his head. ‘Everything done on Internet now. They fill out form, forward payment, and I make happy.’ Obrad did manage to produce a copy of the original contract form filled out over the net. They traced it back to a cyber café in Providence, Rhode Island, and there the trail ended. The money orders came from a number of post offices all over New England. The same one was never used twice, and the transactions were untraceable since the US Post Office did not accept credit cards as payment for money orders. They set about seeking court orders to examine security footage from the post offices in question.

 

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