The whisperers, p.15
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       The Whisperers, p.15

           John Connolly
 

  ‘Bennett said that Carrie Saunders attended Damien’s funeral.’

  ‘She might have been at the church. I didn’t see her myself.’

  ‘What is she researching?’

  Ronald finished his soda, crushed the can, and tossed it into a recycling bin.

  ‘Post-traumatic stress disorder,’ he said. ‘Her specialty is suicides.’

  The sun rose higher. It had turned into a beautiful summer’s day, with clear blue skies and just the faintest of breezes, but Ronald and I were no longer outside. He had taken me into his small office, from which he was running Concerned Veterans of Maine. The walls were covered with clippings from newspapers, and tables of fatalities, and photographs. One, directly above Ronald’s computer, depicted a woman helping her injured son from his bed. The picture had been taken from behind, so that only the mother’s face was visible. It took me a moment to spot what was wrong with the photograph: almost half of the young man’s head was missing, and what was left was a network of scars and crevasses, like the surface of the moon. His mother’s face displayed a mixture of emotions too complex to interpret.

  ‘Grenade,’ said Ronald. ‘He lost forty percent of his brain. He’ll need constant care for the rest of his life. His mother, she doesn’t look young, does she?’ He said it as if noticing her for the first time, even though he must have stared at her every single day.

  ‘No, she doesn’t.’

  And I wondered what would be better: for him to die before his mother, so that his pain could come to an end, and hers could take another, perhaps less wrenching, form; or for him to outlive her, so that she could have her time with him, and be a mother to him as she was when he was an infant, when the possibility of a life like this could only have come to her in a nightmare. The former would be best, I thought, for if he lived too long then she would be gone, and eventually he would become a shadow in the corner of a room, a name without a past, forgotten by others and with no memories of his own.

  Surrounded by all of this, Ronald spoke to me of suicides and homelessness; of addiction and waking nightmares; of men left without limbs who were struggling to receive full disability from the military; of the backlog of claims, 400,000 and counting; and of those whose scars were not visible, who were damaged psychologically but not physically, and whose sacrifice was therefore not recognized as yet by their government, for they were denied a Purple Heart. And as he talked, his anger grew. He never raised his voice, never even clenched a fist, but I could feel it coming off him, like heat from a radiator.

  ‘It’s the hidden cost,’ he said at last. ‘Body armor protects the torso, and a helmet is better than no helmet. The medical responses are getting better, and faster. But one of those IEDs goes off beside you, or underneath your Hummer, and you can lose an arm or a leg, or take a piece of shrapnel in the back of your neck that leaves you paralyzed for life. Now you can survive with catastrophic injuries, but it might be that you’ll wish you hadn’t. You look at The New York Times, and you look at USA Today, and you see the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan rising in that little box that they use for the bad news, but not as fast as it once did, not in Iraq anyway, and you think that maybe things are getting better. They are, if you’re only counting the dead, but you need to multiply that figure by ten to count the injured, and even then there’s no way to tell how many are seriously wounded. One in four of those who come home from Iraq and Afghanistan needs medical or mental health treatment. Sometimes, it’s not available to them like it should be, and even if they’re fortunate enough to get a little of what they need, the government tries to shortchange them at every turn. You got no idea how hard it is to get full disability, and then the same men who sent those soldiers over to fight tried to close Walter Reed to save a dollar. Walter Reed. They’re fighting two wars, and they want to close the army’s flagship medical center because they think it’s costing too much money. This has got nothing to do with being for or against the wars. It’s got nothing to do with liberalism, or conservatism, or any other label that you choose to throw at it. It’s about doing what’s right by those who fight, and they’re not doing right by them. They never have. They never, ever have . . .’

  His voice trailed off. When he spoke again, he sounded different.

  ‘When the government won’t do what it should, and the military can’t take care of its own injured, then maybe it falls to others to try and do something about it. Joel Tobias is an angry man, and it could be that he’s gathered others like him to his cause.’

  ‘His cause?’

  ‘Whatever Tobias is doing, it grew out of good intentions. He knew men and women who were struggling. We all do. Promises were made. They would be helped.’

  ‘You’re saying that the money from whatever they’re moving across the border was meant for injured soldiers?’

  ‘Some of it. Most of it. At first.’

  ‘What changed?’

  ‘It’s a lot of money. That’s what I hear. The bigger the sum, the greater the greed.’

  Ronald stood. Our conversation was drawing to a close.

  ‘You need to talk to someone else,’ he said.

  ‘Give me a name.’

  ‘There was a fight at Sully’s.’ Sully’s was a notorious Portland dive bar. ‘It was after we buried the Patchett boy. A couple of us were in a corner, and Tobias and some others were at the bar. One of them was in a wheelchair, his trouser legs pinned up halfway to his groin. He’d had a lot to drink when he turned on Tobias. He accused him of reneging. He mentioned Damien, and the other guy, Kramer. There was a third name too, one that I didn’t catch. It began with R: Rockham, something like that. Boy in the wheelchair said that Tobias was a liar, that he was stealing from the dead.’

  ‘What did Tobias do?’

  Ronald’s face creased with disgust.

  ‘He pushed him toward the door. The guy in the wheelchair, there was nothing that he could do to stop it except put the brake on his chair. He almost fell to the floor, but Tobias held on to him. When he wouldn’t lift the brake on his chair – and he struck out at them when they tried to force him – they just picked him up, chair and all, and put him out on the street. They stripped him of his dignity, just like that. They reminded him of how powerless he was. They didn’t laugh after they did it, and one or two of them looked sickened, but it doesn’t change what happened. That was a low thing that they did to that boy.’

  ‘Was his name Bobby Jandreau?’

  ‘That’s right. Seems that he served alongside Damien Patchett. He owed Damien his life, from what I hear. I went outside to make sure that he was okay, but he didn’t want any help. He’d been humiliated enough. He needs help, though. I could see it in him. He was on the way down. So, now you know more than you did when you came here, right?’

  ‘Yes. Thank you.’

  He nodded. ‘Part of me, it wanted them to succeed,’ he said. ‘Tobias, whoever else is helping him, I wanted them to make the score, whatever it is.’

  ‘And now?’

  ‘It’s gone bad. You should be careful, Charlie. They won’t like you sticking your nose in their business.’

  ‘They already tried to warn me off by drowning me in an oil barrel.’

  ‘Yeah? So how’s that working out for them?’

  ‘Not so good. The one who did all the talking was soft-spoken, maybe with a hint of something southern in there. You get any ideas about who that might be, I’d like to hear them.’

  I tried to reach Carrie Saunders at the VA facility in Togus later that day, but the call went straight to her answering service. Then I called the Sentinel-Eagle, which was a weekly local paper in Orono, and from its news editor got a cell phone number for a photographer named George Eberly. He wasn’t a staffer, but he did some freelance work for the paper. Eberly answered on the second ring, and when I told him what I wanted he seemed happy to talk.

  ‘It was agreed with Bennett Patchett,’ he said. ‘He spoke to the rest of the family about what I wan
ted to do. It would be a memorial to his son, I told him, but also a way of connecting with other families who had lost sons and daughters, or fathers and mothers, to the war, and he understood that. I promised to be unobtrusive, and I was. I stayed in the background. Most people didn’t even notice me, and then suddenly I was confronted by a bunch of goons.’

  ‘Did they tell you what their problem was?’

  ‘They said it was a private ceremony. When I pointed that I had the family’s permission to take pictures, one of them tried to take my camera from me while the rest shielded him. I backed away, and a guy, a big guy with fingers missing, grabbed my arm and told me to delete any photographs that weren’t of the family. He said that if I didn’t, he’d break the camera, and then, later, he and his buddies would find me and break something else of mine, something that didn’t have a lens and couldn’t be replaced.’

  ‘So you deleted the photos?’

  ‘Like hell I did. I own a new Nikon. It’s a complicated piece of machinery if you don’t know what you’re doing. I pressed a couple of buttons, locked the screen, and told him that I’d done what he asked. The big guy let me go, and that was it.’

  ‘Any chance that I could take a look at those photos?’

  ‘Sure, I don’t see why not.’ I gave him my e-mail address, and he promised to send the photos as soon as he got back to his computer.

  ‘You know,’ added Eberly, ‘there was a connection between Damien Patchett and a corporal named Bernie Kramer, who killed himself up in Canada.’

  ‘I know. They served together.’

  ‘Well, Kramer’s family came from Orono. After he died we printed a piece that he’d written. His sister asked us to publish it. She still lives here in town. That’s how I came to be interested in this whole photo project, to be honest. The article was a big deal around here, and it got the editor in trouble with the military.’

  ‘What did Kramer write about?’

  ‘That PTSD thing. Post-traumatic stress. I’ll forward the piece to you with the photos.’

  Eberly’s material came in about two hours later, while I was cooking myself a steak for dinner. I took the pan from the heat and set it aside to cool.

  Bernie Kramer’s article was short, but intense. It spoke of his struggle with what he believed to be PTSD – his paranoia, his inability to trust, his moments of crippling fear and dread – and in particular his anger at the military’s refusal to recognize PTSD as a combat injury instead of an ailment. Clearly, it had been written as an extended letter to the paper’s editor, a letter never sent, but the editor had seen the potential in it and moved it to the op-ed page. Most affecting of all was a description of his time at the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Bragg. Kramer implied that Fort Bragg was being used as a dumping ground for soldiers who were suffering from problems related to drug abuse, and that constant staff changes meant that awards, record recovery, and retirement ceremonies were being ignored. ‘By the time we came home,’ he concluded, ‘we were already being forgotten.’

  It wasn’t hard to see how the army might have been unhappy with one of its ex-soldiers going on the record in this way, although worse had been written in soldiers’ blogs and elsewhere. Nevertheless, a small local paper would have been easy meat for a military press officer with a point to prove to his superiors.

  I printed out the article, and added it to those I had earlier collected regarding the deaths of Brett Harlan, and Margaret, his wife. I had also made notes for myself regarding PTSD and military suicides. Then I looked at the photos that Eberly had taken after Damien’s funeral. Helpfully, he had circled the faces of the men who had confronted him, Joel Tobias’s among them. I regarded the others carefully. Only one of them was black, so I figured that was Vernon. I checked the photographic printer to make sure that it had paper in it, then printed duplicate copies of each of the best pictures. I wanted to know the names of the rest of these men. Ronald Straydeer might be able to help me. I had his email address, so I forwarded some of the images to him. Eberly had also given me the name and phone number for Bernie Kramer’s sister, Lauren Fannan. I called her, and we spoke for a while. She told me that Bernie had come back ‘sick’ from Iraq, and his condition had worsened in the months that followed. She was under the impression that pressure had been put on him not to talk about his problems, but she couldn’t tell if that pressure had come from the military, or from his own buddies.

  ‘Why would you say that?’ I asked.

  ‘There was a friend of his, Joel Tobias. He was Bernie’s sergeant in Iraq. Tobias was the reason why Bernie was up in Quebec to begin with. Bernie spoke fluent French, and he was doing some work for Tobias up there, something to do with shipping and trucks. Bernie was taking medication to help him sleep, and Tobias told him to stop, because it was screwing with Bernie’s ability to work.’

  If Joel Tobias had told Bernie Kramer to stop taking his medication because it was interfering with his assigned tasks, might he also have been responsible for Damien Patchett setting aside his Trazodone?

  ‘Did Bernie seek professional help?’

  ‘I got the impression that he was receiving some kind of help, because of the way he started talking about his condition, but he never said from whom. After Bernie died, I called Tobias and told him that he wouldn’t be welcome at the funeral, so he stayed away. I haven’t seen him since. I found the letter that Bernie had written about his post-traumatic stress among his private papers, and decided that it should be printed in the newspaper, because people should know how these men and women have been treated by their own government. Bernie was a lovely man, a gentle man. He didn’t deserve to end his life that way.’

  ‘You mentioned Bernie’s private papers, Mrs. Fannan. Do you still have them?’

  ‘Some of them,’ she replied. ‘The rest I burned.’

  There was something here. ‘Why did you burn them?’

  She had started to cry, and I had trouble understanding some of what she said next. ‘He’d written page after page of just . . . madness, about how he was hearing voices, and seeing things. I thought it was all part of his illness, but it was so disturbing, and so insane. I didn’t want anyone else to read it, because if it got out I thought it would detract from the letter. He was talking about demons, and being haunted. None of it made any sense. None of it.’

  I thanked her and let her go. A message had appeared in my mailbox. Ronald Straydeer had come through for me: he’d printed one of the photographs, marked it, then scanned the image again and returned it. There was a short note above it:

  After you left, I remembered something else about the funeral that struck me as odd. There was a veteran of the first Iraq war hanging around with Tobias and the others at Sully’s. His name is Harold Proctor. As far as I can tell, he never gave a damn about anyone or anything, and there’s no reason why he should be close to Tobias unless he’s part of what’s happening. He owns a rundown motel near Langdon, north-west of Rangeley. You don’t need me to tell you how close that is to the Canadian border.

  Proctor wasn’t in any of the photographs. I knew that there was a system in place whereby veterans of former wars met returning soldiers, but I had no idea how to find out if Proctor had participated, or if he might have been among those who had met Damien Patchett when he got back home. But if Ronald was right in his assessment of Proctor, and I had no reason to doubt him, then the older man seemed an unlikely candidate for a meet-and-greet.

  Ronald had given me two more names: Mallak and Bacci. Beside Mallak’s name he’d written: ‘Unionville – but raised in Atlanta.’ He’d also formally identified the black man as Vernon, and a short, bearded man next to him as Pritchard. He’d put an X over the face of a tall man wearing glasses, and had written ‘Harlan deceased’: next to it. Finally, barely visible in the distance to the left of the image, there was a muscular man in a wheelchair: Bobby Jandreau. Kyle Quinn’s words returned to me, spoken as I looked at the photograph of Foster Jandreau in the newspaper.
r />
  A bad business.

  I picked up my pen, and formally added Foster Jandreau’s name to the list of the dead.

  12

  Tobias made the run to Harold Proctor’s motel early the next morning. He supposed that it was fate: he’d been on his way to Proctor’s place when the Mexicans had taken him, so it didn’t exactly throw him to be told to proceed there anyway, even without a cargo to deposit. The reason for the trip was more unexpected, although when he had time to think about it he believed that he had foreseen just such an eventuality.

  ‘Proctor’s flaking on us,’ said the voice that morning on the other end of the line. ‘He wants out. Take whatever is left there, and pay him off. It’s mostly small stuff that’s left anyway.’

  ‘You sure he’s not going to talk out of school?’ said Tobias.

  ‘He knows better than to do that.’

  Tobias wasn’t so sure. He planned to have a few words with Proctor when he saw him, just to make certain that he understood where his obligations lay.

  His face and hands were hurting. The ibuprofen that he’d taken had dulled the pain somewhat, but not enough to help him sleep properly. Lack of sleep was nothing new to him, though, not lately. In Iraq, he’d slept through mortar fire, he’d been so tired all the time, but ever since he’d returned home he’d been having trouble getting a good night’s rest, and when he did sleep he dreamed. They were bad dreams, and recently they had begun to get worse. He thought that he could even trace the start of his recent problems to one of the runs that he’d made to Proctor’s place a month or so ago. Ever since then, he hadn’t been right.

  Tobias wasn’t much for hard liquor, but he could have used a serious drink right about now. Proctor would give him one, if he asked, but Tobias didn’t intend to impose on Proctor’s hospitality for that long. Anyway, the last thing Tobias wanted was to be stopped by the cops with booze on his breath while driving a rig: a rig, what’s more, that would probably contain more potential wealth per square foot than any other that had ever previously been driven through the state.

 

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