The whisperers, p.13
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       The Whisperers, p.13

           John Connolly
 

  There had been a problem at the warehouse that day. Canadian cops had been crawling all over the neighboring complex as part of a drug operation that was likely to be ongoing for a couple of days, and it seemed unwise to begin moving items within a stone’s throw of the law. Faced with the choice of hanging around, or trying another run when everything was quieter, Tobias had taken the second option. Later, though, he’d berate himself for not being more wary on the journey home, but he’d been assured that Parker had been taken care of, and the tracking device had confirmed that the detective had still been in Portland when Tobias was an hour into his trip.

  The detective concerned Tobias, but not as much as Jimmy Jewel did. He’d told the others about Jewel immediately after that first clumsy approach in Dewey’s, and how it looked like he was getting curious about the economics of Tobias’s operation, but they’d advised him to see how it played out. The best that he could do was to convince them to let the operation rest for a time, but as the days passed without incident they grew impatient, and soon he was back on the cross-border run, although for a while they kept tabs on Jimmy and the big elephant who watched his back, but it seemed like Jimmy had decided that Joel Tobias wasn’t worth worrying about. Joel wasn’t so sure, but the others had done their best to convince him otherwise. So with Jimmy apparently minding his own business, and no sign of anyone snooping around, Joel had begun to relax a little.

  He was also tired: he was taking on more and more runs as the demand for what they were selling increased. They’d told him that this would happen just as soon as word got around about the quality, and rarity, of what was on offer. Until recently, they hadn’t moved anything that wasn’t already sold, but now Joel was transporting items in anticipation of the final big sale: the ‘fire sale,’ as they had begun to refer to it. They had always known that those initial ‘trickle’ sales might raise warning flags somewhere, but they were necessary to bring in some funds and confirm the value, and extent, of what would ultimately become available. Now the big rewards were in sight, but Joel was the point man, and when Jewel and then the detective had come sniffing, he had been seriously unnerved. His advance payments had already increased substantially, but not as much as Joel would have liked, seeing as how he was taking all of the risks. Words had been exchanged. On top of their initial casual approach to the Jewel business, it had made Joel resentful. He knew that a confrontation was coming. Maybe he should have kept his mouth shut, but deep down he felt that he was right, which was why he’d spoken up to begin with. It took a lot to make Joel mad. He was a simmerer, but when he did go off, then heaven help anyone who got caught by the blast.

  He’d also been having more and more bad dreams, and the disruption of his sleep patterns had made him testier with Karen, and he hated that. She was a special girl, and he was lucky to be with her, but sometimes she just didn’t know when to stop asking questions and stay quiet. Ever since Damien Patchett and the rest of them had died, she’d been different, perhaps fearful that the same fate might befall him, but Joel had no intention of taking his own life. Still, Damien’s death had hit him harder than the earlier ones: three of them were dead now, three of his old squad, all by their own hands, but Damien had been the best of them. He always had been.

  Damien and the others had started appearing to him in his dreams, bloody and ruined. They spoke to him, but not in English. He couldn’t understand what they were saying. It was as if they had learned a new language on the other side of the grave. But even as he dreamed, he wondered if they were really his old brothers in arms that he was seeing. They scared him, and their eyes were wrong: they were black and filled with fluid, like oily water. Their bodies were warped, their backs hunched, their arms too long, the fingers thin and grasping. . . .

  Jesus, no wonder he was tense.

  At least the border runs were coming to an end. He’d carefully cultivated the customs officials, and the goons from Homeland Security. His license plate holder identified him as a veteran, as did the stickers and decals in the cab. He wore an army baseball cap, and was careful to listen to the stories from the older veterans who now manned the border. He would slip them a pack of cigarettes occasionally, even playing on his injuries when necessary, and in return they smoothed the way for him. The others had no idea how hard he had worked on his image, and how much the success of their endeavor was dependent upon him.

  With all of this on his mind, he hadn’t been paying as much attention as he should have been to the car behind him. When it passed, he was glad to see it go, but that was the rig driver’s natural response to any vehicle that got too close. Eventually, you knew that they were going to try to pass, and you just had to hope that they did it sensibly. Oh, there were truckers who liked playing around with impatient motorists, and others who just took the view that they were the biggest, baddest sons of bitches on the road, and if you wanted to screw around with them, then it was your funeral, sometimes literally. Joel had never been that way, even before he’d started the border runs, where drawing the attention of the law to himself by driving carelessly could see him end up in jail for a long time. Even though there wasn’t much room, and the trees were practically scratching at his cab, he had pulled over slightly to let the car pass. It wasn’t a smart place to pass as they were approaching a bend in the road, and if someone else came at speed from the opposite direction then everyone involved would need as much blacktop as possible if they weren’t all to end up as roadkill. But the way ahead was clear, and he watched the red lights disappear, leaving the road empty and dark.

  Half a mile later, he saw the flashing lights, and someone waving a pair of neon glowsticks. He hit the brakes as the beams of his truck caught the yellow Plymouth that had overtaken him earlier. It was side-on, bisected by the white line. Beside it was another car, the one with the flashing red-and-blue lights. He couldn’t make out any markings on it, though, which was odd.

  A figure in uniform approached him, its head slightly misshapen. He rolled down the window.

  ‘What seems to be the problem?’ he asked as a flashlight shone in his face, forcing him to raise his hand to shield his eyes. In that moment, the figure produced a gun, and two other men emerged from the tree line, armed with semiautomatic weapons. Their faces were hidden behind ghoulish masks, and now the man in uniform was pulling a mask down on his face too, but not before Joel got a look at him and thought: Mexican. This was confirmed when the man spoke.

  ‘Keep your hands where we can see them, buey,’ he said. ‘We don’t want nobody to get hurt. We cool?’

  Joel nodded. The fact that they were masked offered him some reassurance that he wasn’t about to be killed. Killers on a lonely road don’t need to worry about being identified by their victim.

  ‘My friends here are going to get in that cab with you and tell you where to go. Just do as they say, and this will all be over and you can go home to your novia, sí?’ Joel nodded again. So they knew that he had a girlfriend, which meant that they, or someone close to them, had been keeping tabs on him in Portland. He filed that particular piece of information away.

  The cab doors weren’t locked. Tobias kept his hands on the steering wheel as the two men climbed in. One slipped into the space behind the seat while the other stayed beside Joel, his body twisted slightly so that he was leaning against the door, the gun resting casually across his thigh. Casual seemed to be the order of the evening, thought Joel, although this changed when the radio of the uniformed man outside crackled into life.

  ‘Andale!’ he said, waving a hand first at the other vehicles, then at Joel. He pointed his gun at Joel through the windshield to make sure he got the message. ‘Apurate!’ The Plymouth reversed a few feet before heading south. The second car killed its flashing lights as the uniformed man ran back to join it. It pulled over to one side to allow Joel to pass, then fell into place behind him, so that he was hemmed in by both cars.

  ‘Where am I going?’ he asked.

  ‘Just watch the
road, buey,’ came the reply.

  Joel did as he was told, and remained silent. He could have asked them if they knew who they were screwing with, or made some threat of retribution if they didn’t get their asses out of his cab right now and let him go about his business, but he didn’t. All he wanted was to survive this in one piece, with his body and, with luck, his rig intact. Once he was safely back in Portland, he would start making calls, but he was already working on possibilities. If this was a standard hijacking, these guys had either picked the wrong truck or they’d been misinformed, which meant that they were going to score nothing more lucrative than a couple of grand’s worth of dry animal feed. The other option was that this wasn’t a standard hijacking, in which case they were very well-informed indeed, and that could only mean trouble, and possibly pain, for Joel.

  Ahead of him, the Plymouth began to signal right.

  ‘Follow him,’ said the man behind him, and Joel began to slow down in order to make the turn. The road was narrow, and sloped slightly downhill.

  ‘You want me to fit it through the eye of a needle while I’m at it?’ he asked.

  The machine pistol brushed the skin of his cheek lightly, its barrel icy cold.

  ‘I can drive a truck,’ said a voice. It was so close to his ear he could feel the warmth of the man’s breath on his skin. ‘You don’t want to do it, then I will, but then we got no use for you, mi hijo.’

  Joel figured the guy was bluffing, but he wasn’t about to test his theory. He made the turn perfectly, and began following the lights of the Plymouth once again.

  ‘Hey, you see what you can do with a little encouragement?’ said the gunman.

  The Plymouth flashed its warning lights as they pulled into a clearing before a ruined house, its stone chimney still standing intact beside its collapsed roof. There were two more men waiting beside a black SUV. Like the others, they wore masks, but instead of leather jackets they were dressed in suits. Cheap suits, but suits nonetheless. Joel hit the brakes.

  ‘Get out,’ said the gunman.

  Joel did as he was told. The brown car had joined them, and now he and his rig were lit by the headlights of three vehicles. One of the men in suits stepped forward. He was about a foot shorter than Joel, and stocky, but not fat. He stretched out a hand and, after a moment’s hesitation, Joel shook it. The smaller man spoke English with hardly any hint of an accent.

  ‘You can call me Raul,’ he said. ‘Let’s make this as quick and easy as possible. What have you got in the truck?’

  ‘Animal feed.’

  ‘Open it. Let me see.’

  With two guns trained on him, Joel unlocked the big double doors. Flashlights shone on the bags of feed, stacked on six wooden pallets. Raul pointed two fingers into the trailer, and two men climbed in with knives and began methodically tearing bags apart, scattering their contents inside the truck.

  ‘I hope they’re going to clean up after themselves,’ said Joel.

  ‘Don’t worry about it,’ said Raul. ‘I guarantee you that, if they don’t find what they’re looking for, you’ll have more significant concerns.’

  ‘And what are they looking for: more protein in their diet? It’s animal feed. You got the wrong rig, buddy.’

  Raul said nothing. He lit a cigarette and offered one to Joel, who declined. Together, the two men watched as bags were cut and searched, until the searchers were standing shin-deep in the mess.

  ‘It’s a nice rig,’ said Raul. ‘It would be a shame to damage it.’

  ‘Look, I told you: you got the wrong shipment.’

  Raul shrugged. Joel heard movement from behind him. His arms were grasped tightly, and he was forced down on his knees. Raul lit a fresh cigarette and squatted so that he and Joel were face to face. He grabbed a handful of Joel’s hair and placed the tip of the cigarette firmly against Joel’s right cheek, just below the bone. There was no threat, no warning, just intense pain, the smell of burning flesh, and a low sizzling sound that was swamped by Joel’s scream. After a couple of seconds, Raul withdrew the cigarette. The tip was still glowing faintly. Raul blew on it until it was entirely red once again.

  ‘Listen to me,’ said Raul. ‘We could take your rig apart, piece by piece, and then set it alight before your eyes. We could even kill you, and bury you in the woods. We might not even go to the trouble of killing you before we bury you. All of these options are open to us, but we don’t want to do any of those things, because I don’t yet have a problem with you personally. So here it is: I know you’re smuggling. I want to know what you’re smuggling, so you’re going to show me the traps, and I am going to keep burning you until you do. Now, tell me.’

  After the third time, Joel did.

  They left him in the clearing. Before he departed, Raul gave Joel a salve for his wounds. The burn on his face was bad; the two to his hands were worse. Raul had placed the cigarette to the skin between the thumb and forefinger on each hand. When that hadn’t worked, he had threatened to put it out in Joel’s right eye, and Joel had believed him. He told them where the trap was, but even after following his instructions they couldn’t find it. It was a professional job, designed to pass undetected during anything but the most painstaking of searches. He was forced to show it to them, first explaining how the seat came apart so that the space, which ran the width of the cab, could be accessed. He then opened it by the careful application of pressure to its two lower corners.

  The compartment was capable of being divided into smaller sections, depending upon what was being transported. On this occasion, there was a plastic tool box containing a dozen small cylindrical objects, similar in length to pieces of chalk, and wrapped in layers of cloth and plastic to protect them. The men in the cab handed one of them down to Raul, once it had been stripped of its protection. It was ornately carved, capped with gold at each end and inset with precious stones. Raul held it in the palm of his hand, testing its weight, then asked: ‘What is this?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ said Joel. ‘I’m just the transporter. I don’t ask questions.’

  ‘It looks old, and valuable.’ Raul held out a hand, and a flashlight was placed in it. He used it to examine the stones more closely. ‘These are emeralds and rubies, and that’s a diamond on the tip.’

  The seal in Raul’s hand dated from 2100 BC. It was an ancient bureaucratic device, used to verify business and legal transactions by impressing the seal into documents inscribed on clay tablets. By this point, Joel had seen enough of them to know, but he remained silent.

  Carefully, Raul rewrapped the seal, and handed it to one of his men.

  ‘Take them all,’ he said. ‘And handle them gently.’

  He lit another cigarette, and smiled as he saw Joel wince involuntarily.

  ‘So, you say that you just drive, and you know nothing about the items that you are paid to transport,’ said Raul. ‘I don’t believe you, but that’s of no consequence now. I’m going to ask around about those little cylinders, and if they’re as valuable as they look I may hold on to some of them. You can tell your employers, if that’s what they are, that they may consider it a penalty for attempting to run an operation like this without informing the proper authorities, and by that I don’t mean US Customs. If they want to continue transporting such items, then they should come talk to me, and we’ll work something out.’

  ‘Why should they talk to you?’ asked Joel. ‘Why not the Dominicans, or Jimmy Jewel?’ He saw something flash in Raul’s eyes, and knew that he’d hit a nerve.

  ‘Because,’ said Raul, ‘we have the cylinders.’

  Then he walked away, leaving Joel to nurse his wounds, but not before stamping Joel’s cell phone into pieces, and draining most of the fuel from his tanks, leaving him with just enough to get to a motel outside of Eustis. The burn to his face attracted a few glances when he entered the lobby, but nobody commented upon it. He found the ice machine, then wrapped some of the ice in a towel from his room and used it to ease the pain in his hands and face bef
ore making the call from his room.

  ‘There’s been a problem,’ he said, when the phone was picked up. He gave a detailed account of all that had occurred, leaving out almost nothing

  ‘We’ll have to get them back,’ came the reply. ‘You say that this guy Raul wants to keep the seals as some kind of fine?’

  ‘That’s what he said.’

  ‘Jesus. You think he’s going to use them to mark bags of coke?’

  ‘I think he’s going to try to sell them.’

  ‘We’ve succeeded so far because we’ve been careful. Those seals can’t turn up on the open market.’

  Joel did his best to hide his irritation. Why, just because he drove a truck, was it assumed that he was some kind of moron? After all, he’d been there at every stage of the operation, right from the start. Without him, it would have fallen apart long before now.

  ‘I’m aware of that,’ he said, and was unable to keep the edge from his voice.

  ‘Don’t get smart with me. I didn’t lose the consignment.’

  ‘Yeah, well, I haven’t seen enough cash to compensate me for the removal of an eye.’

  ‘You’ve seen more up front than anyone else. You don’t like the arrangement, then walk away.’

  Joel stared at the wounds on his hands.

  ‘That’s not what I meant. Let’s just get this mess fixed up.’

  ‘It won’t take this Raul long to find out what he’s got. After that, a child will be able to piece together what’s happening. I’ll start asking around, find out who he is.’

  ‘Jimmy Jewel knows.’

 

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