The whisperers, p.14
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       The Whisperers, p.14

           John Connolly
 
‘You sure?’

  ‘Pretty sure. You ask me, I think the instruction to hit us came from him.’

  ‘Well, that’s where we’ll start, then. You say they took everything?’

  ‘Yeah. They got it all.’

  ‘Go home. Get some sleep, and see to those burns. Call me tomorrow as soon as you’ve rested. This isn’t the only mess that needs to be cleaned up.’

  Joel didn’t ask for clarification on the final comment. He was too tired, and too sore. He hung up the phone and walked to the gas station across the road, where he bought a six-pack of beer to drink in his room, occasionally holding one of the cold bottles to his damaged cheek as he stared out of the window at the lights of passing cars, and the darkness of Flagstaff Lake. After two beers, he felt nauseated. It had been so long since he’d experienced shock that he’d almost forgotten the sensation, but what had been done to him in the clearing brought back other memories, other moments. He scratched absentmindedly at his left shin, feeling the scar tissue and the hollow in the muscle. He called Karen but she wasn’t home, so he left a message on the machine telling her that he was tired and had decided to get a room for the night. He also told her that he loved her, and apologized for their fight that morning. The fight was all the detective’s fault; his, and that meddling old bastard Patchett. Tobias knew enough about the detective from local gossip not to underestimate him, and he wasn’t sure that threatening him was the way to deal with him, but he’d been angry as well as relieved when they’d come to him and told him that the detective had been hired to investigate him and his relationship, and not the larger operation.

  He wanted to sleep. He popped some painkillers and sat on his bed, his feet stretched before him. He searched in his jacket pocket, and withdrew the two exquisitely carved gold loops. He had said that the Mexicans had taken everything, but he’d lied. He figured he was owed something for his pain, and for the fact that what he had already shipped was worth a fortune, a fortune of which he had yet to see more than a few bucks in real terms. He also wanted to make up to Karen for their fight.

  He held the earrings up to the light, and even though in pain, he marveled at their beauty.

  II

  . . . I dream of horsemen in smoking hills, shadows on horseback, reed breastplates, quirts, half-breed moon. Some other war. Some other ancient war but this same place . . .

  Richard Currey, Crossing Over: The Vietnam Stories

  War smells. It smells of open sewers and excrement. It smells of garbage and rotting food and standing water. It smells of dog carcasses and human corpses. It smells of the homeless, and the dying, and the dead.

  They were flown from McCord AFB to Rhein-Main AFB, then on to Kuwait. They traveled in full kit with their weapons, the bolts removed and kept in their pockets. In Kuwait, they filled sandbags to line the bottoms of their vehicles and absorb shrapnel. It was only a couple of days later that they were told they were heading into the box. The officers cheered: they wanted to earn their combat patches. The chill was intense as they moved north through the desert night. He had never been in the desert before, not unless you counted the Desert of Maine, and that was just a field with some sand in it. He hadn’t expected the desert to be so cold, but then he knew about as much about deserts as he knew about Iraq. Before he was sent there, he couldn’t even have found it on a map. He’d never had any intention of visiting, so why bother trying to look for it? But now he knew. . . .

  What did these people do? How did they live? There was nothing growing that he could see. The kids were barefoot, and lived in houses made of mud and brick. They were told not to trust anybody, but he still handed out candy and water to kids when he could. Most of the guys did, at the start, until the insurgency kicked in, and the rivers began filling up with bodies, and the haji started using children as lookouts, or human shields, or soldiers. After that, they stopped treating kids as kids. By then, he was scared most of the time, but he’d entered a place where the concept of fear had ceased to have any concrete meaning because fear was always present, either as a whisper or a scream.

  Then there was the dust: it got everywhere. He tried to keep his M4 clean and well-lubricated, but it didn’t always help, and the gun sometimes jammed, There were those who said that the standard army cleaner wasn’t worth a shit, and guys asked for commercial lubricants as part of their care packages from home. Later he read that there was something about the Iraqi dust that was different from the dust used in the weapons tests stateside. It was smaller, and contained more salts and carbonates, which tended to corrode. It also reacted with some of the gun lubricants, creating bigger particles that blocked the chambers. It was as though the land itself was conspiring against the invaders.

  This place was old. They didn’t understand that. He didn’t understand it either, not then. It was only after, when he began tracing its history, that he realized this was the cradle of civilization: the ancestors of these people peering at him fearfully from out of mud houses had created writing, philosophy, religion. This army of tanks and rockets and airplanes was following in the path of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Mongols, of Alexander, and Julius Caesar, and Napoleon. This was once the greatest empire in the world. He struggled to grasp just how old it was, even as he read of Gilgamesh, and Mesopotamia, and the kings of Agade, and the Sumerians.

  That was when he came across the names, of Enlil and his wife Ninlil and the story of how Enlil took three forms, and impregnated his wife three times, and from those three unions sprang Nergal, and Ninazu, and one other, one whose name was lost, rendered illegible by the damage to the old stones on which the story had been written. Three unions, three entities: things of the netherworld.

  Demons.

  And that was when he began to understand.

  11

  Jackie Garner was all apologies when he called the next morning. He’d managed to stay with Joel Tobias as far as Blainville, Quebec, and had watched the loading of the animal feed. He hadn’t noticed anything untoward, and then had stayed with Tobias until the border, where something about the way Jackie looked or, possibly, smelled had aroused suspicion. A chemical test had been run on his bag, and traces of explosives had been found. Given that this was Jackie Garner, the munitions king, it would have been a miracle if traces of explosives hadn’t been found, but it meant that Jackie’s car was searched, and he’d been forced to answer a lot of awkward questions about his hobbies before he was allowed to leave, by which time Joel Tobias had vanished.

  ‘Don’t worry about it, Jackie,’ I told him. ‘We’ll find another way.’

  ‘You want me to go back to his house and wait for him?’

  ‘Yeah, why not.’ It would make Jackie feel that he wasn’t in trouble, if nothing else.

  ‘Any word from New York?’

  ‘They’ll be here tonight.’

  ‘You won’t tell them how I screwed up?’

  ‘You didn’t screw up, Jackie. You were just unlucky.’

  ‘I should be more careful,’ said Jackie, with regret. ‘But I do love explosives. . . .’

  Soon after, Bennett Patchett emailed me some names of former soldiers who had attended his son’s funeral. The first two were Vernon and Pritchard. Both had a note beside them indicating that he wasn’t sure of the spelling. He admitted that he couldn’t remember the names of all those who had been there, because not everyone had signed the book of condolences, and not everyone had been introduced to him, but he thought that at least a dozen ex-soldiers had been present. He did recall a woman named Carrie Saunders, who had something to do with counseling veterans, but as far as he knew she’d had no formal contact with Damien before he died. There was also Bobby Jandreau, who was now in a wheelchair due to the injuries that he had suffered in Iraq. He was on my list of those to whom I wanted to talk, once the help from New York had arrived.

  ‘Were any of those at the funeral black?’

  ‘Vernon’s a colored fella,’ he said. ‘Is that important?’


  ‘Just curious.’

  I made a note to call Carrie Saunders, and to find out more about Bobby Jandreau, but first I took a trip out to Scarborough Downs, where Ronald Straydeer lived in a cabin within shouting distance of the racecourse. Ronald had served in the K9 corps during the Vietnam war, and was haunted as much by the loss of his dog, which he’d had to abandon as ‘surplus to requirements’ during the fall of Saigon, as by the deaths of his comrades. Now his house was a kind of rest stop for veterans who happened to be passing through town and needed a place to sleep, somewhere they could have a beer and a toke without being bothered by foolish questions. I wasn’t certain what Ronald did for a living, but it probably wasn’t unconnected to the ready supply of weed that he always appeared to have close at hand.

  Ronald had also recently begun to involve himself in the issue of rights for veterans. After all, he’d had firsthand experience of the problems that they faced upon his own return from Vietnam and, especially after 9/11, he probably believed that he’d seen the last of such ugliness. Instead, a whole new bag of ugly had been opened on veterans, worse even than that faced by their Vietnam predecessors. Then it had been about returning soldiers being blamed for an unpopular war, their critics inflamed by images of kids dying on college campuses, or with burning napalm on their skin as they ran across a Vietnamese bridge. Now that anger had been replaced by ignorance of the consequences of combat, both physical and psychological, for ex-soldiers, and the reluctance of those who had been happy to send them to war to look after the injured and battle-scarred, whether those injuries were visible or not, once they came home. I’d seen Ronald on local television a couple of times, and he was often approached for comment by newspapers in the state when the subject of disabled veterans was raised in any form. He’d set up an informal organization called Concerned Veterans of Maine, and for the first time since I’d known him he seemed to have a real sense of purpose, a new battle to fight instead of old ones to relive.

  I saw a drape twitch when I arrived at his place. I knew that Ronald had a sensor fitted at the end of the private drive that led up to his house, and anything larger than a small mammal broke the beam. He was smart enough not to keep too significant a stash at his home, so that any raid would net possession, but not possession with intent to supply. Then again, Ronald’s activities were kind of an open secret among certain branches of the local law enforcement community, but they were content to let them slide because Ronald didn’t sell to kids, he didn’t use violence, and he was helpful to the cops when the need arose. It wasn’t as if Ronald was operating a drug empire anyway. If he had been, he wouldn’t have been living in a small cabin out by Scarborough Downs.

  He’d have been living in a big cabin out by Scarborough Downs.

  Ronald came to the door as I stepped from the car. He was a large man, his black hair cut short and heavily streaked with silver. He wore tight-fitting jeans, and a checked shirt hung loosely over his belt. Around his neck hung a leather pouch.

  ‘What is that?’ I asked. ‘Big medicine?’

  ‘Nope, I keep my small change in there.’

  His hand, tanned and corded with muscle and veins, gripped mine and swallowed it, like a gnarly old catfish consuming a minnow.

  ‘You’re the only Native American I know,’ I said, ‘and you don’t do any of that proper Native American stuff.’

  ‘You disappointed?’

  ‘Some. It just feels like you’re not making the effort.’

  ‘I don’t even want to be called a Native American. Indian does just fine.’

  ‘See? I bet I could have arrived here dressed as a cowboy and you wouldn’t even have blinked an eye.’

  ‘Nope. I might’ve shot you, but I wouldn’t have blinked an eye.’

  We sat at a table in his yard, and Ronald pulled a couple of sodas from a cooler. Music played softly from a boombox in the kitchen, a mix of Native American blues, folk, and Americana: Slidin’ Clyde Roulette, Keith Secola, Butch Mudbone.

  ‘Social call?’ he asked.

  ‘Sociable,’ I replied. ‘You remember a kid named Damien Patchett: local boy, served in Iraq with the infantry?’

  Ronald nodded. ‘I went to his funeral.’

  I should have known. Whenever he could, Ronald attended the local funerals of veterans. His argument was that, in honoring one, he honored all. It was part of his ongoing personal duty to the fallen.

  ‘Did you know him?’

  ‘No, never met him.’

  ‘I hear that he may have taken his own life.’

  ‘Who told you that?’

  ‘His father.’

  Ronald touched a small silver cross that hung from a leather strap around his wrist, a small gesture toward Bennett Patchett’s grief. ‘It’s happening again,’ he said. ‘You hope the brass and the politicians will learn, but they never do. War changes men and women, and some of them change so much that they don’t know themselves anymore, and they hate what they’ve become. You ask me, we’re just getting better at collating suicide figures, that’s all. More Vietnam veterans have died by their own hands since the war than were killed in country, and more Iraq veterans will die by their own hands this year than will be killed in Iraq, judging by the way the figures are heading. The same dictum applies to both wars: poor treatment over there, poor treatment back home.’

  ‘What was the talk about Damien?’

  ‘That he’d become isolated, that he was having trouble sleeping. A lot of guys have trouble sleeping when they get back. They have trouble doing a lot of stuff, but when you can’t sleep, you know, your head gets messed up, and you start getting moody and depressed. Maybe you drink more than you should, or you take something to bring you down and then you start needing a little more of it every time. He’d been on Trazodone, but then he stopped.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘You’d have to ask someone who knew him better than I did. Some guys don’t like taking sleep meds: they find they get a drug hangover from it when they wake up, and it screws up their REM sleep, but all I got was secondhand news about Damien. Did his father hire you to look into his death?’

  ‘In a way.’

  ‘I didn’t think that there was any doubt about how he died.’

  ‘There isn’t, at least not about his final moments. It’s what led him to do it that his father is curious to understand.’

  ‘So you’re looking into post-traumatic stress disorder now?’

  ‘In a way.’

  ‘I see that you’re still having trouble answering straight questions.’

  ‘I like to think of it as circling.’

  ‘Yeah, like before a raid. Maybe you should have worn that cowboy hat after all.’

  He sipped his soda and looked away. It wasn’t quite a huff, just the dignified Native American equivalent of one.

  ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I surrender. I’ll give you a name: Joel Tobias.’

  Ronald had a good poker face. There was only the slightest flicker of his eyelids at the mention of Tobias’s name, but it was enough to indicate that Ronald didn’t care much for him.

  ‘He was at the funeral too,’ he said. ‘A bunch of guys who served with Damien came to pay their respects, some from away. There was trouble at the cemetery, although they managed to keep the Patchetts from seeing any of it.’

  ‘Trouble?’

  ‘A photographer was hanging around from a small newspaper, the Sentinel-Eagle. He was taking some shots, part of a photo essay he was putting together and hoping to sell to The New York Times: you know, the funeral of a fallen warrior, the grief, the release. Someone in the family – must have been Bennett – had told him that it would be okay. Well, it wasn’t, not with everyone. A couple of Damien’s old buddies had a word with him, and he went away. One of them was Tobias. He was introduced to me later, at a bar. By that time, we were down to the stragglers.’

  ‘Has Tobias come up on your radar?’

  ‘Why would he?’

  ‘There might be
people who suspect he’s smuggling.’

  ‘If he is, it’s not pot. I’d know. You talk to Jimmy Jewel?’

  ‘He doesn’t know either.’

  ‘If Jimmy doesn’t know, then I got no chance. You spend a dollar, that man hears the change hit the counter.’

  ‘But you’re aware of Tobias?’

  Ronald shifted in his seat. ‘Whispers, that’s all.’

  ‘What kind?’

  ‘That Tobias is working an angle. He’s that kind of guy.’

  ‘Was he one of those who didn’t want his picture taken?’

  ‘There were four or five of them that spoke to the photographer, as far as I can remember. Tobias was among them. One of the others made the papers himself, a week or so later.’

  ‘How come?’

  ‘His name was Brett Harlan, from Caratunk.’

  That name meant something. Harlan. Brett Harlan.

  ‘Murder-suicide,’ I said. ‘Killed his wife, then himself.’

  ‘With an M9 bayonet. Those were hard deaths. Specialist Brett Harlan, Stryker C, Second Saber Brigade, Third Infantry. His wife was on leave from the One Hundred and Seventy-second Military Intelligence Battalion.’

  ‘Damien Patchett served with the Second Saber Brigade.’

  ‘And so did Bernie Kramer.’

  ‘Who’s Bernie Kramer?’

  ‘Corporal Bernie Kramer. Hanged himself in a hotel room in Quebec three months ago.’

  I thought of what Karen Emory had said to me: ‘They’re all dying.’

  ‘It’s a cluster,’ I said. ‘A cluster of suicides.’

  ‘So it seems.’

  ‘Any reason why that might be?’

  ‘I can give you general, but not specific. There’s a woman out of Togus, ex-military. Her name is Carrie Saunders, and I think she’d met both Harlan and Kramer. You should talk to her. She’s conducting research, and she came to me looking for some information: names of people who might be willing to be interviewed, both from my era and later. I gave her what I could.’

 

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