The whisperers, p.12
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       The Whisperers, p.12

           John Connolly
 

  But even as I spoke, I could see that my words weren’t going to have any effect. Karen Emory had hitched herself to Joel Tobias’s star. If she left him, she’d have to go back to Bennett Patchett’s dorms, and in time another man would come along, one who might be worse than Tobias, and she’d go with him just to escape. I waited for a moment, but it was clear that I was going to get no more out of her. She gestured to the door, and followed me down the hallway. As she opened the front door, and I slipped past her to stand on the front porch, she spoke again.

  ‘What would Joel do if he knew you’d been here?’ she asked. She sounded like a mischievous child, but it was all bravado. Her eyes were bright with tears waiting to be shed.

  ‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘but I think his friends might kill me. What are they doing, Karen? Why are they so worried about someone finding out?’

  She swallowed hard, and her face crumpled.

  ‘Because they’re dying,’ she said. ‘They’re all dying.’

  And the door closed in my face.

  The Sailmaker was still barren of customers as I peered through the glass door, and Jimmy Jewel was still seated on the same stool at the bar, but there were now papers scattered before him, and he was checking figures on a desk calculator.

  The light was constantly changing in the bar. Shards of sunlight broke the murk only to be swallowed up again by the movement of the clouds, like shoals of silver fish disappearing into the ocean’s darkness. Although the Sailmaker should have been open for business by now, Jimmy had stopped Earle from unlocking the door. The Sailmaker had inherited some of the habits of the Blue Moon: it might be open before midday, or at five in the afternoon, but it might not. The regulars knew better than to go knocking on the door seeking entry. There’d be a place for them when Jimmy and Earle were ready, and once they were settled in nobody would bother them unless they fell on the floor and made a mess.

  But I wasn’t a regular, and so I knocked. Jimmy looked up, considered me for a time while he debated whether or not he could get away with telling me to go play with the white lines on I-95, then gestured to Earle to let me in. Earle did so, then went back to filling the coolers, which didn’t present too much of a challenge since the bar didn’t stock anything that might have counted as exotic when it came to beers. You could still order a Miller High Life at the Sailmaker, and PBR was drunk without a shot of irony on the side.

  I took a seat at the bar, and Earle departed to grab a fresh pot of coffee for Jimmy. If I’d drunk as much coffee every day as Jimmy did, I wouldn’t be able to write my name without trembling. On Jimmy, though, it seemed to have no effect. Maybe he had vast reservoirs of calm on which to draw.

  ‘You know, it seems like only moments since you were last here,’ said Jimmy. ‘Either time is passing more quickly than it should, or you’re just not giving me enough time to start missing you.’

  ‘Tobias is on the road again, as the song goes,’ I said.

  Jimmy kept his eyes on his papers, adding figures and making notes in the margins. ‘Why is this such a beef with you? You work for the government now?’

  ‘No, I prefer a private pension. As for why this is a beef, I made some new friends last night.’

  ‘Really? You must be pleased. Strikes me that you could use all the friends that you can get.’

  ‘These ones tried drowning me until I told them what they wanted to know. Friends like them I can do without.’

  Jimmy’s pen stopped moving.

  ‘And what did they want to know?’

  ‘They were interested in why I was asking questions about Joel Tobias.’

  ‘And what did you tell them?’

  ‘The truth.’

  ‘You didn’t feel the urge to lie?’

  ‘I was too busy trying not to die to make anything up.’

  ‘So you’ve already been warned off once, and not gently, and you’re still asking questions?’

  ‘That’s the point. They weren’t polite.’

  ‘Polite. What are you, a duchess?’

  ‘There’s also the matter of where they took me to ask their questions.’

  ‘Which was?’

  ‘The Blue Moon, or what’s left of it.’

  Jimmy pushed the calculator away. ‘I knew you’d bring bad luck with you. I knew it as soon as you walked in that first time.’

  ‘I think you might have helped by getting in Joel Tobias’s face over in Dewey’s, but, yeah, they connected me to you, or vice versa. Taking me to the Blue Moon was a way of warning us both, except you didn’t get the business end of the message.’

  Earle had returned and was now watching us. He didn’t look happy at the return to the subject of the Blue Moon, but it was always hard to tell with Earle. He had a face like a bad tattoo. Jimmy, meanwhile, had gone somewhere else for a time. When he eventually spoke, he sounded tired and old.

  ‘Maybe I should get out of this business,’ he said.

  I didn’t know if he was referring to the bar, or smuggling, or even life itself. He’d get out of them all eventually, if that was any consolation, but I didn’t offer that thought. I just let him talk.

  ‘You know, I have money tied up in this wharf. I thought it would pay dividends when they started developing it, but now it looks like the only cash I’ll see out of it is the insurance money when it collapses into Casco Bay, and then this place will probably take me with it so I won’t get to enjoy it.’

  Then he patted the bar softly and fondly, the way a man might stroke a beloved, if ornery, old dog.

  ‘I always thought of myself as a gentleman trader,’ he continued. ‘It was a game, moving stuff over the border, trying to steal a nickel or two from Uncle Sam. People got hurt sometimes, but I did my best to make sure that didn’t happen too often. I got into drugs kind of reluctantly, if that makes any sense to you, and I found ways to salve my conscience about it. Mostly, though, if I’m being honest, I don’t think about it, and it doesn’t bother me too much. Same with people, doesn’t matter if they’re Chinamen looking to work in the kitchen of some restaurant in Boston, or whores from Eastern Europe. I’m just the middleman.’ He turned to gauge my response. ‘I guess you think that I’m a hypocrite, or that I’m just fooling myself about all of this.’

  ‘You know what you are,’ I said. ‘I’m not here to absolve you. I just want information.’

  ‘Cut to the chase, in other words.’

  ‘Yes.’

  Earle snapped into life and refreshed Jimmy’s coffee, knowing instinctively that his boss now needed his gears oiled. He found a second mug and put it down beside me. I held my hand over it to indicate that I didn’t want any, and thought for a moment that Earle might have been tempted to pour the hot coffee over my fingers, just to let me know that he could care less what I did or didn’t want. In the end, he contented himself with turning his back on me and walking to the far end of the bar, where he retrieved a book from under the counter and began to read, or to pretend to read. It was a Penguin paperback, one of the old black-jacketed classics, although I couldn’t see the name. I’d like to have said that I wasn’t surprised, but I was. Earle didn’t seem like the kind of guy who was big on self-improvement.

  Jimmy followed the direction of my gaze.

  ‘I’m getting old,’ he continued. ‘We all are. There was a time when Earle wouldn’t have picked up a book, not unless it was a phone book and he was trying not to leave bruises on someone, but the years mellow us some, I suppose, in good ways and bad. There was also a time when Earle wouldn’t have been taken so easily by someone like Joel Tobias either, but the guy managed him without blinking. He wanted to, he could have hurt Earle bad. I could see it in him.’

  ‘But he didn’t.’

  ‘No. He really did just want us to leave him alone, but his needs are irrelevant, you might say. I want to know what he’s doing. It’s important to my business, but it’s also crucial that the existing balance is maintained. The Mexicans, the Colombians, the Dominica
ns, the Russians, the cops, me, and just about anyone else with an interest in the movement of goods across the border, we all exist in a state of equilibrium. It’s very fragile, and if someone who doesn’t understand the rules starts screwing around with it, then it will all collapse and cause wicked amounts of trouble for everybody. I couldn’t figure out Tobias’s angle, and being out of the loop makes me nervous. So . . .’

  ‘So?’

  ‘So, I could have given customs a heads-up, but never ask a question to which you don’t already know the answer when it comes to the law. If it suits me to feed Tobias to them, then I’ll do it, but only when I know what he’s carrying across the border. I’ve called in favors. Every time Joel Tobias gets a job, a copy of the paperwork comes to me. Lately, he’s been working interstate in New England, and it all seems legit. This week, he has a job transporting feed from Canada, and that means a border crossing.’

  ‘And you have men on him.’

  Jimmy smiled. ‘Let’s just say that I convinced some friends of mine to take a closer look at Joel Tobias.’

  And that was all I could get from Jimmy Jewel, barring the name of the company in Quebec that was supplying the feed, and the one in Maine that had ordered it, but I believed that it represented a great deal of what he knew about Joel Tobias. He was as much in the dark as I was.

  I walked back to my car. The smell of fetid water was in my nostrils again, and on my clothes. I realized that it was coming from the Mustang, which had absorbed some of the stink of the Blue Moon. Then again, I might simply have been imagining it, one more facet of my response to what had taken place.

  I drove out to the Blue Moon. I was always going to, eventually. There was an oil drum in the center of the floor, beneath what was left of the charred roof. Insects buzzed above the dark water inside it. I felt the urge to recoil at the sight of it, and I started to breathe faster as my system responded to the memories associated with the smell of this place. Instead, I took my little flashlight from my pocket and searched the ruin, but the men who had brought me there had left no trace of their presence.

  Outside, I called Bennett Patchett, and asked him to put together a list of the names of those who had served alongside his son in Iraq and who were now back here, especially those who might have attended his funeral. He told me that he’d do it straight away.

  ‘So I guess you got your anger back?’ he said.

  ‘It seems I had untapped reserves,’ I replied, and hung up.

  Psychological or not, the Mustang still smelled. I took it to a place in South Portland, Phil’s One-Stop, that usually did a good job, hand washing it instead of using a hose, as a hose found every leak in the seals and made the upholstery so damp that the windows fogged up. They cleaned the Mustang inside and out while I drank a soda, even working at the dirt behind the fenders.

  Which was how they found the device.

  In the best possible way, Phil Ducasse looked like the kind of guy who ran a one-stop valet and auto repair shop. I don’t think he owned any clothing that didn’t have an oil stain on it somewhere, he showed a five o’clock shadow by midday, and his hands appeared dirty even when they were clean. He was carrying a few pounds of burger weight, and his eyes held the weary impatience of one who would always know more about an engine’s problems than the next guy, and who could fix everything quicker than anyone else if only he had enough time to fix everything, which he hadn’t. Now he used a handheld lamp to point out an object around twelve inches long that was bound with black duct tape and attached to the inside of the fender with a pair of magnets.

  ‘Ernesto thought it might be a bomb,’ said Phil, referring to the little Mexican who had been working on the car when the device was found. Ernesto was now standing some distance from the auto shop, along with most of the other employees, although nobody had yet called the cops.

  ‘What do you think?’

  Phil shrugged. ‘Could be.’

  ‘So how come we’re standing here with our noses pressed against it?’

  ‘Because it probably isn’t.’

  ‘That “probably” is reassuring.’

  ‘Why, you think it’s a bomb?’

  I looked more closely at the device. ‘From its shape, it seems to be mainly electronic components. I don’t see anything that looks like explosives.’

  ‘You want to know what I think?’ said Phil. ‘I think you’ve been tagged. It’s a bug.’

  It made sense. It could have been placed on my car while I was being questioned at the Blue Moon.

  ‘It’s big,’ I said. ‘You couldn’t call it inconspicuous.’

  ‘Inconspicuous enough not to be found unless someone went looking for it. You want to be certain, I can make a call.’

  ‘Who to?’

  ‘Kid I know. He’s a genius.’

  ‘Is he discreet?’

  ‘You got a wallet?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Then he’s discreet.’

  Twenty minutes later, a young man with bright yellow dreadlocks and a scrawny beard, and wearing a Rustic Overtones t-shirt, arrived on a red Yamaha Street Tracker bike.

  ‘Seventy-seven,’ said Phil. He was beaming like a proud parent at graduation. ‘XS650, full restoration. I did most of that. The kid helped some, but I bled for that bike.’

  The kid’s name was Mike. He was scrupulously polite, and insisted on calling me ‘sir,’ which made me feel I was representing the AARP.

  ‘Wow, neat,’ he said, when he took his first look at the piece of equipment on my car. He carefully removed it and placed it on a workbench nearby. Using only his fingertips, he traced the outline of each piece of equipment under the tape. He then used a blade to make small incisions in the tape so he could examine what lay beneath. When he was done, he nodded approvingly.

  ‘Well?’ I said.

  ‘It’s a tracking device. Pretty sophisticated, although it may not look that way, what with all the tape wrapped around it. Some of this equipment, well, I’d guess that it’s military grade. Could be that the government doesn’t like you.’

  He looked at me hopefully, but I didn’t bite.

  ‘Anyway, whoever put it there probably didn’t have a whole lot of time to work. If he had, he’d have used something smaller that could be hidden more easily, and run it off the car battery so it wouldn’t need its own power supply. To do that, though, you’d need fifteen, twenty minutes to work undisturbed.’

  He used a screwdriver to point out a bulge at the center of the device. ‘That’s a GPS receiver, just like the ones used in a regular sat-nav. It pinpoints the car’s location so it can be checked on a PC. There are eight twelve-volt screw terminal batteries at the end providing the power. They’d have to be changed regularly, so if it was part of some long-term surveillance, it would make sense to come back and fit the smaller version to the car battery when the opportunity presented itself, but this baby would still do fine to be getting along with. The magnets wouldn’t affect the reported position, and it would be easy to remove once it had done its job.’

  ‘Will whoever put it there know that it’s been detached?’

  ‘I don’t think so. I deliberately didn’t move it far from the car, and I don’t believe the tracking is that sensitive.’

  I leaned back against the bench and swore. I should have been more careful. I had kept an eye on my mirrors when I was on my way to visit both Karen Emory and Jimmy Jewel, and had taken a circuitous route with dead ends and U-turns just in case, but had picked up no signs of anyone following me. Now I understood why. In addition, the men who had interrogated me at the Blue Moon now knew that I had been to see both Karen and Jimmy, which meant they were aware that their warnings to back off had fallen on deaf ears.

  ‘You want me to put it back where you found it?’ asked Mike.

  ‘You serious?’ said Phil. ‘Maybe he should just strap it to his chest so they can track him around the house as well.’

  ‘Uh, I don’t think you want to do that, sir,
’ said Mike. Sarcasm didn’t seem to have much effect on him, which made me like him more.

  I looked out at the lot. A big rig pulled in and flashed its lights for assistance. I thought of Joel Tobias. I wondered where he was now, and what he might be bringing over the border. The rig had Jersey plates. Jersey. Phil followed my gaze.

  ‘Hey, I don’t know the driver,’ he said. ‘Makes no difference to me.’

  Instead of sending the tracking device to Jersey, I told Mike to put the unit back where he’d found it after all. He seemed pleased that I’d managed to catch up with his own thought processes at last: my knowledge of the unit’s presence was a weapon that could be used against whomever put it there, if the right opportunity presented itself.

  I paid Mike generously for his time, and he gave me his cell phone number in case I ever needed his help again.

  ‘Good kid,’ I said, as Phil and I watched him go. ‘Smart too.’

  ‘My sister’s boy,’ said Phil.

  ‘He didn’t call you “Uncle Phil.”’

  ‘I told you he was discreet.’

  I also tipped Ernesto. He thanked me, but clearly felt that the shock he’d received merited a bigger tip. Since he hadn’t actually been blown up, I ignored his pained expression.

  ‘You got any idea who put that thing on your car?’ said Phil.

  ‘I do.’

  ‘You figure they’ll come at you?’

  ‘Possibly.’

  ‘You got help?’

  ‘It’s on its way.’

  ‘It was me, and someone was putting military-grade surveillance packages on my car, I’d want the kind of help with a gun. Is it that kind of help?’

  ‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s the kind of help with lots of guns.’

  10

  They hijacked Tobias when he was only a few miles south of Moosehorn on Route 27. A car had been behind him since he’d crossed the border, but he’d paid it little heed. He’d made this run so many times that he’d grown casual: his main concern was the US Customs post at Coburn Gore, and once he passed through safely he tended to switch off. On this occasion, he was also frustrated: he was bringing back only a fraction of what he had anticipated, and he was tired of taking on the burden of these trips alone. As the fatalities had mounted, their group had contracted to its core. It meant more work, and more risk, for everybody, but the rewards would be commensurately greater in the end.

 
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