The whisperers, p.11
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       The Whisperers, p.11

           John Connolly
 

  The existence of the foundation troubled the investigating officers, but post offices and internet cafés were as close as they would ever get to it. As it happened, the foundation was Herod, and it was only one of the names that he used to disguise his affairs. After Webber’s death, the foundation effectively ceased to exist. In time, Herod decided, he would reactivate it in another form. Webber had been punished, and the small community through which both men had briefly moved would be aware of the reason why. Herod was not worried about someone approaching the police. They all had something to hide, each and every one of them.

  Two nights after Webber’s death, yellow tape still indicated the scene of the crime, but there was no longer a police presence at the house. The alarm system had been activated, and the local patrols made regular passes to discourage rubberneckers.

  The alarm on the house went off at 12:50 a.m. The local police were at the door just as the clock tipped 1:10 a.m. The front door was closed, and all of the windows appeared to be secure. At the back of the house, they found a crow with a broken neck. It appeared to have flown into the kitchen window, activating the alarm, although neither of the cops could remember ever seeing a crow in the dead of night.

  The alarm went off again at 1:30 a.m, and a third time at 1:50 a.m. The alarm company’s monitoring system indicated that, each time, the source was the kitchen window beneath which the dead crow had been found. They suspected a malfunction of some kind, which they would check in the morning. At the request of the police, the alarm was deactivated.

  At 2:10 a.m., the kitchen window was opened from outside using a thin piece of metal, warped at the center so that its top half was perpendicular to its lower half, enabling it to be twisted in order to move the latch, unlocking the window. A man climbed through and alighted gently on the kitchen floor. He sniffed the air uncertainly, then lit a cigarette. Had the light been better, and had anyone been there to see him, he would have been revealed as a disheveled figure wearing an old black jacket and black trousers that nearly, but not quite, matched. His shirt might once have been white, but was now faded to a bone gray, its collar frayed. The man’s hair was long, and slicked back, revealing a pronounced widow’s peak. His teeth were yellow, as were his fingernails, all stained from decades of smoking. His movements were graceful, although it was the predatory grace of a mantid or a spider.

  He reached into his jacket pocket and removed a Maglite. He pulled the drapes on the kitchen windows, twisted the top of the flashlight, and allowed its beam to play upon the table, the chairs, and the dried blood on the floor. He did not move, but simply followed the light, taking in all that it showed but touching nothing. When he had concluded his inspection of the kitchen, he progressed through the other rooms of the house, as before only looking, never touching. Finally, he returned to the kitchen, lit another cigarette from the first, and disposed of the remains of the latter in the sink. Then he retreated to the door connecting the kitchen to the hallway and leaned against the frame, trying to pinpoint the source of his unease.

  The death of Webber had not come entirely as a surprise. The man in the kitchen kept a close eye on the activities of Webber and his kind. Their occasional lack of scruples did not surprise him. All collectors were the same: their desire would sometimes overcome their better natures. But Webber was not really a collector. True, he had kept some items for himself over the years, but he made his money as a middleman, a facilitator, a front for others. A certain degree of good faith was expected from such individuals. They might sometimes play one buyer off against another, but they rarely actively cheated. It was unwise to do so, for the short-term gain from a single deal handled dishonestly might well damage one’s reputation. In Webber’s case, the damage, revealed in a smear of blood and gray matter, had been fatal. The visitor took a long pull on his cigarette, his nostrils twitching. The smell that had so disturbed Webber’s daughter and which, to her shame, she associated with the relaxation of her father’s muscles after death, had faded, but the intruder’s senses were intensely acute, and largely unaffected by his love of cigarettes. The smell bothered him. It did not belong. It was alien.

  Behind him was the darkness of the hallway, but it was not empty. Forms moved in the gloom, gray figures with skin like withered fruit, shapes without substance.

  Hollow men.

  And though he felt them gathering, he did not turn around. They were his creatures, despite their hatred for him.

  The man who stood in the kitchen called himself the Collector. He sometimes went by the name of Kushiel, the demon reputed to act as Hell’s jailer, which might simply have been a dark joke on his part. He was not a collector in the manner of those for whom Webber solicited items. No, the Collector viewed himself more as a settler of debts, a striker of balances. There were some who might even have termed him a killer, for that, ultimately, was what he did, but it would have represented a misunderstanding of the work in which the Collector was engaged. Those whom he killed had, by their sins, forfeited the right to life. More to the point, their souls were forfeit, and without a soul a body was merely an empty vessel to be broken and discarded. From each one that he killed he took a token, often an item of particular sentimental value to the victim. It was his way of remembering, although he also took a considerable degree of pleasure from his collection.

  And, my, how it had grown over the years.

  Sometimes, those soulless beings lingered, and the Collector gave them a purpose, even if that purpose was only to add to their own number. Now, as they prowled back and forth behind him, he sensed a shift in their mood, if such lost, hopeless shells of men could be said to retain even a semblance of real human emotion other than rage. They were frightened, but it was fear tempered by an edge of . . .

  Was that expectation?

  They were like a crowd of minor playground bullies, cowed by one stronger than them but now awaiting the approach of the big dog, the lead jock, the one who would put the usurper back in his rightful place.

  The Collector rarely felt uncertain. He knew too much of the ways of this honeycomb world, and he hunted in its shadows. He was the one to be feared, the predator, the judge without mercy.

  But here, in this expensively appointed kitchen of a house in a wealthy suburb, the Collector was nervous. He sniffed the air again, finding the taint that lingered. He walked to the window, reached for the drapes, then paused as though fearful of what he might see on the other side. Finally, he pulled them apart, stepping back as he did so, his right hand raised slightly to protect himself.

  There was only his own reflection.

  But something else had been here, and not the man who had delivered the shot that killed Webber, for the Collector knew all about him: Herod, always searching, never finding; Herod, who lived behind aliases and shell companies, who was so clever and so adept at concealment that even the Collector had failed to track him down. His time would come, eventually. After all, the Collector was engaged in God’s work. He was God’s murderer, and who could hope to hide from the Divine?

  No, this was not Herod. This was another, and the Collector could smell him in his nostrils and taste him on his tongue, could almost see the faintest trace of his presence like the condensation of a breath upon the glass. He had been here, watching as Webber died. Wait! The Collector’s eyes widened as he made connections, speculation hardening into belief.

  Not watching Webber as he died, but watching Herod as Webber died.

  The Collector knew then why he had been drawn to this place, knew why Herod had been assembling his own private collection of arcane material, even if he believed that Herod did not yet himself fully understand the final purpose behind his efforts.

  He was here. He had come at last: the Laughing Man, the Old Tempter.

  The One Who Waits Behind the Glass.

  9

  I woke feeling poorly rested, and with a deep ache in my throat, my nose, and my lungs. My right hand wouldn’t stop shaking, and hot water spilled on my
shirt when I tried to make a cup of coffee. In the end, it didn’t matter about the coffee: it tasted of filthy water anyway. I sat in a chair looking over the marshes; my rage from the night before had departed, to be replaced by a lassitude that was not quite deep enough to block out my fear. I didn’t want to think about Bennett Patchett and his dead son, or Joel Tobias, or containers filled with a rushing darkness. I’d experienced delayed shock before, but never like this. Added to the pain and the fear was the shame that I felt for naming Bennett Patchett. We’d all like to believe that, in order to protect another person, and to save a little something of ourselves, we might hold out against torture, but it’s not true. Everybody breaks eventually, and to stop myself from being drowned in stagnant water I’d have told them anything that they wanted. I’d have confessed to crimes that I hadn’t committed, and promised to commit crimes repugnant to my nature. I might even have betrayed my own child, and the knowledge of that made me curl in upon myself. They had unmanned me in the ruins of the Blue Moon.

  After a time, I called Bennett Patchett. Before I could speak, he told me that Karen Emory hadn’t shown up for work that day, and he hadn’t been able to get a reply when he called the house. He was worried about her, he said, but I cut him off. I told him of what had happened the night before, and confessed what I had done. He didn’t seem troubled, or even surprised.

  ‘They were military?’ he asked.

  ‘Ex-military, I think, and they knew about Damien. For that reason, I want to believe that they’re not going to cause you trouble, not if you just go back to mourning your son in silence.’

  ‘Is that what you’d do, Mr. Parker? Is that what you want me to do? Are you going to back away from all this?’

  ‘I don’t know, sir. Right now, I need some time.’

  ‘For what?’ But he sounded resigned, as though no answer I could give would be good enough.

  ‘To find my anger again,’ I said, and maybe, somehow, I gave him the one answer that sufficed.

  ‘When you do, I’ll be here,’ he said, and hung up.

  I don’t know how long I stayed in that chair, but eventually I forced myself to my feet. I had to do something, or else I would sink just as assuredly as if the men at the Blue Moon had released their grip and left me to fall headfirst to the bottom of a container of standing water.

  I picked up the phone and called New York. It was time to bring in some serious help. After that, I showered, and I made myself hold my face up to the falling water.

  Jackie Garner contacted me an hour later.

  ‘It looks like Tobias is moving out,’ he said. ‘He’s got a bag packed, and he’s out by his rig, giving it one last check.’

  It made sense. They probably figured that they’d scared me enough to proceed with whatever it was they were planning, and they might almost have been right.

  ‘Stay with him for as long as you can,’ I said. ‘He’s making a run to Canada. You have a passport?’

  ‘It’s at home. I’ll call Mom. She can bring it to me. Even if Tobias gets on the road, I can stay with him until she catches up. Mom drives like a demon.’

  That I could believe.

  ‘You okay?’ said Jackie. ‘You sound sick.’

  I told him the basics of what had occurred the night before, and warned him about keeping his distance from Tobias. ‘When you figure out the route he’s taking, you can pass him and wait for him over the border. Any sign of trouble, you let him go. These guys aren’t screwing around.’

  ‘So you’re not dropping this?’

  ‘I guess not,’ I said. ‘In fact, company’s coming.’

  ‘From New York?’ asked Jackie, and he could barely keep the hope out of his voice.

  ‘From New York.’

  ‘Man, wait until I tell the Fulcis,’ he said, and he sounded like a child at Christmas. ‘They’ll be buzzed!’

  I knocked three times, waiting a minute or two between each knock, before Karen Emory answered. She was wearing a robe and slippers, her hair was unkempt, and she looked as though she hadn’t slept much. I knew how she felt. She had also been crying.

  ‘Yes?’ said Karen Emory. ‘What do you—?’

  She stopped talking, and squinted. ‘You’re the guy, the one who was at the restaurant,’ she said.

  ‘That’s right. My name is Charlie Parker. I’m a private investigator.’

  ‘Get lost.’

  She slammed the door closed, and my foot wasn’t there to stop it. Sticking your foot in someone’s door is a good way to get maimed, or have your toes broken. It’s also trespassing, and I had enough of a reputation with the cops as it was. I was trying to keep my nose clean.

  I knocked again, and kept knocking until Karen came back to the door.

  ‘I’m going to call the cops if you don’t leave me alone. I’m warning you.’

  ‘I don’t think you’re going to call the cops, Ms. Emory. Your boyfriend wouldn’t like it.’

  It was a low blow, but like most low blows, it hit home. She bit her lip. ‘Please, just go away.’

  ‘I’d like to talk to you for a moment. Believe me, I’m taking more of a chance than you are. I’m not going to get you into any trouble. Just a few minutes of your time is all I ask, and then I’ll be gone.’

  She looked past me, checking to make sure that there was nobody on the street, then stepped aside to let me in. The door opened directly into the living area, with a kitchen ahead and stairs to the right, and what looked like the entrance to a basement beneath them. She closed the front door behind me and stood with her arms folded, waiting for me to speak.

  ‘Can we sit down?’ I asked.

  She seemed inclined to say no, then relented and led me to the kitchen. It was bright and cheerful, decorated in whites and yellows. It smelled of fresh paint. I took a seat at the table.

  ‘You have a nice house,’ I said.

  She nodded. ‘It’s Joel’s. He did all of the work himself.’ She leaned against the sink, not sitting, keeping as much distance between us as possible. ‘You say you’re a private detective? I suppose I should have asked for some ID before I let you in.’

  ‘It’s usually a good idea,’ I said. I flipped my wallet and showed my license to her. She examined it in a cursory way without touching it.

  ‘I knew your mother a little,’ I said. ‘We went to the same high school.’

  ‘Oh. My mom lives in Wesley now.’

  ‘That’s nice,’ I said, for want of something better to say.

  ‘Not really. Her new husband is an asshole.’ She searched in the pocket of her robe and came out with a lighter and a pack of cigarettes. She lit one, then put the pack and the lighter back in her pocket. She didn’t offer one to me. I didn’t smoke, but it’s always polite to ask.

  ‘Joel says that Bennett Patchett hired you.’ I couldn’t really deny it but, if nothing else, it confirmed that the men at the Blue Moon had spoken to Tobias after last night, and he, in turn, had spoken of it to his girlfriend.

  ‘That’s right.’

  She rolled her eyes in exasperation.

  ‘He meant well,’ I said. ‘He was worried about you.’

  ‘Joel says that he doesn’t think I should work there no more. He says I have to quit my job and find another. We had a fight about it.’

  She glared at me, the implication being that it was my fault.

  ‘And what do you say?’

  ‘I love him, and I love this house. If it comes down to it, there’ll be other jobs, I guess, but I’d prefer to keep working for Mr. Patchett.’ Her eyes grew damp. A tear fell from her right eye, and she rubbed it away hurriedly.

  This whole case was a mess. Sometimes that’s just the way things are. I wasn’t even sure why I was here, apart from ensuring that Joel Tobias hadn’t done to Karen Emory what, once upon a time, Cliffie Andreas had done to Sally Cleaver.

  ‘Has Joel hit you, or abused you in any way, Ms. Emory?’

  There was a long pause.

  ‘N
o, not like you, or Mr. Patchett, think. We had a big argument a while back, and it got out of control, that’s all.’

  I watched her closely. I didn’t think it was the first time that she’d been hit by a boyfriend. The way she spoke suggested that she regarded the occasional slap as an occupational hazard, a downside of dating a particular type of man. If it happened often enough, a woman might start to believe that she was at fault, that something in her, a flaw in her psychological makeup, caused men to respond in a particular way. If Karen Emory wasn’t already thinking along those lines, then she was close to it.

  ‘Was it the first time that he’d hit you?’

  She nodded. ‘It was – what do they say? – “out of character” for him. Joel’s a good man.’ She stumbled a little on the last three words, as though she were trying to convince herself as well as me. ‘He’s just under a lot of stress at the moment.’

  ‘Really? Why would that be?’

  Karen shrugged and looked away. ‘It’s hard, working for yourself.’

  ‘Does he talk to you about his work?’

  She didn’t reply.

  ‘Is that what you were arguing about?’

  Still no reply.

  ‘Does he frighten you?’

  She licked her lips.

  ‘No.’ This time, it was a lie.

  ‘And his friends, his army buddies? What about them?’

  She stubbed out the half-smoked cigarette in an ashtray.

  ‘You have to go now,’ she said. ‘You can tell Mr. Patchett that I’m fine. I’ll give him my notice this week.’

  ‘Karen, you’re not alone in this. If you need help, I can put you in touch with the right people. They’re discreet, and they’ll advise you on what you can do to protect yourself. You don’t even have to mention Joel’s name if you don’t want to.’

 

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