The whisperers, p.16
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       The Whisperers, p.16

           John Connolly
 

  As if to remind him of the wisdom of his decision to wait until he got back to Portland before slaking his thirst, a border patrol vehicle passed him on the road, heading east. Tobias raised a hand casually in greeting, and the gesture was returned. He watched the border cop in his mirrors until he was gone from sight, then breathed more easily. It would be just his luck to cross the cops after what had happened the night before. Proctor was simply the shitty icing on that particular turd cake.

  Tobias didn’t care much for the older man. Proctor was a lush, and he believed that the fact they had both served in the military meant that they were brothers deep inside, but Tobias didn’t view the world in that way. They hadn’t even served in the same war: their conflicts were separated by more than a decade. He and Proctor were on different paths. Proctor was drinking himself to death, while Tobias was looking forward to making some money and improving his life. He thought that he might ask Karen to marry him, and once they were hitched they’d head south, get away from the damn Maine cold. The summers were better up here, not so humid as Florida or Louisiana, some August days excepted, but they weren’t good enough to make up for the winters, not by a long shot.

  He thought again about a drink. He’d settle for a couple of beers when he returned to Portland. He hated himself when he got messy, and hated seeing others get messy too. He flashed to Bobby Jandreau in Sully’s, Bobby shooting his mouth off and attracting attention, even in a place like Sully’s where most people were too busy getting drunk to pay any mind to whatever might be going on around them. He pitied Bobby. Joel wasn’t sure that he could have gone on living if he’d been wounded as badly as Bobby had. His own injuries were enough for him: he limped with every step, and he still experienced phantom pain where the tips of his missing fingers should have been. But Bobby’s injuries didn’t excuse him from getting loud and saying the things that he’d said. They’d promised him a cut, and Joel had been willing to keep to the deal, even after what was said at Sully’s, but now Bobby didn’t want it. He didn’t want anything to do with them, and that worried Joel. It troubled the others too. They’d tried reasoning with Bobby, but it had done no good. Joel figured that his pride had been hurt by what they’d done with him at Sully’s, but they’d had no choice.

  Nobody gets hurt: that was the essence of the arrangement that they had. Do no harm. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always possible in the real world, and the principle had been subtly altered to ‘Do no harm to our own.’ The detective, Parker, had asked for what had happened to him, and Foster Jandreau had too. Tobias might not have pulled the trigger on him, but he’d agreed on the necessity of it.

  Tobias was already anticipating the sign for Proctor’s Motel, giving him time to prepare for the turn. He was nervous. A rig turning into a disused motel was just the kind of action that attracted attention this close to the border. Tobias preferred those occasions when small items were being moved, and the exchange could be made at a gas station, or a diner. The movement of larger pieces requiring him to come to the motel always made him sweat, but there were only one or two more of those shipments to go, and now he’d find some place near Portland to store them. After Kramer’s death, a decision had been made that most of the larger items weren’t worth the risk, presenting, as they did, all kinds of logistical difficulties. An alternative means of disposing of them would be found, even if it meant a smaller profit. After all, they’d gone to the trouble of transporting them as far as Canada, and damned if they were just going to dump them in a quarry somewhere, or bury them in a hole. Still, buyers had already been found for a number of statues, and it had fallen to Tobias to get them across the border. He’d driven the first shipment, certified as cheap stone garden ornaments for those with more money than taste, straight to a warehouse in Pennsylvania without a hitch. The second shipment had to be stored for a couple of weeks with Proctor, and moving it had taken four men, and five hours. All the time, Tobias had been waiting for the state police, or US Customs, to come blazing in, and he could still recall his sense of relief when the work was completed and he was back on the road, heading for home, and Karen. He just needed to finish with Proctor this last time, then he would be done. If it was true that Proctor wanted out, so much the better. Tobias wouldn’t miss him. He wouldn’t miss him, or the stink of his cabin, or the sight of his lousy motel slowly sinking into the ground.

  A man who couldn’t hold his booze wasn’t to be trusted. It was a sign of a deeper weakness. Tobias would bet a dollar to a dime that Proctor had come out of Iraq One a prime candidate for PTSD counseling, or whatever passed for it then. Instead, he’d retreated to a rundown motel at the edge of the woods and tried to fight his demons alone, aided only by the bottle and any food that came wrapped in plastic with a microwave time written on the side.

  Tobias had never believed that he himself suffered from post-traumatic stress. Oh sure, he had trouble relaxing, and he still had to fight the urge to flinch at the sound of fireworks launching or a car backfiring. There were days when he didn’t want to get out of bed, and nights when he didn’t want to get into bed, didn’t want to close his eyes for fear of what might come, and that was even before the new nightmares. But post-traumatic stress? No, not him. Well, not the severe kind, not the kind where, just to get through the day, you had to be so doped up that it popped out of your pores like discolored sweat, not the kind where you wept for no reason, or you lashed out at your woman because she burned the bacon or spilled your beer.

  No, not that kind.

  Not yet, but it’s started. You did lash out, didn’t you?

  He looked around the cab, certain that someone had spoken, the voice strangely familiar. The wheel twisted slightly so that he felt his heart skip a beat before he readjusted, fearful of sending the rig off the road and onto the slope, fearful of tumbling, of ending up trapped in his cab, trapped almost within sight of the old motel.

  Not yet.

  Where had that voice come from? And then he remembered: a warehouse, its walls cracked, its roof leaking, a consequence of the earlier bombing and the poor workmanship that had gone into its construction; a man, little more than a pile of bloodied cloth now, the life already leaving his eyes. Tobias was standing over him, the muzzle of his M4 carbine, the gun that had torn the man apart, pointing unwaveringly at the fighter’s head, as though this bloodied rag doll could pose any threat to him now.

  ‘Take it, take it all. It’s yours.’ The fingers, stained red, indicated the crates and boxes, the shrouded statues, that filled the warehouse. Tobias was amazed that he could even speak. He must have taken four, five shots to the body. Now there he was, waving a hand in the flashlight’s beam, as though any of this was his to give or to retain.

  ‘Thanks,’ said Tobias, and he felt himself sneer as he spoke the word, and heard the sarcasm in his voice, and he was ashamed. He had belittled himself in front of the dying man. Tobias hated him, hated him as he hated all of his kind. They were terrorists, haji: Sunni or Shia, foreign or Iraqi, they were all the same in the end. It didn’t matter what they called themselves: al-Qaeda, or one of the bullshit names of convenience that they made up from their stock jumble of phrases, like those collections of magnetic words that you stuck to your fridge and used to create bad poetry: Victorious Martyrs of the Brigade of Jihad, Assassination Front of the Imam Resistance, all interchangeable, all alike. Haji. Terrorist.

  Yet there was an intimacy to death in moments like this, in giving it and in receiving it, and he had just breached the protocol, answering like a surly teenager, not a man.

  The haji smiled, and some white was still visible through the blood that had filled his mouth and stained his teeth.

  ‘Don’t thank me,’ he said. ‘Not yet . . .’

  Not yet. That was the voice he heard, the voice of a man with the promised virgins waiting for him in the next world, the voice of a man who had fought to protect what was in that warehouse.

  Fought, but not hard enough. That was what Damien had
said to him: they fought, but not as hard as they should have.

  Why?

  The motel came into view. To his left, he saw the line of boarded-up rooms and shivered. The place always gave him the creeps. No wonder Proctor had become what he was, holed up here with only the trunks of trees behind him and his bequest, this dump, before him. It was hard to look at those rooms and not imagine unseen guests, unwanted guests, moving behind the walls: guests who liked damp, and mold, and ivy curling around their beds; guests who were themselves in the process of decaying, malevolent shadows entwined on leaf-strewn beds, old ruined bodies moving rhythmically, dryly, passionlessly, the horns on their heads—

  Tobias blinked hard. The images had been so vivid, so strong. They reminded him of some of the dreams he’d been having, except in those there had only been shadows moving, hidden things. Now they had shape, form.

  Jesus, they had horns.

  It was the shock, he decided, a delayed reaction to all that he had endured the evening before. He pulled up within sight of Proctor’s cabin and waited for him to emerge, but there was no sign. Proctor’s truck was parked over to the right. Under ordinary circumstances, Tobias would have hit the horn and rousted the old bastard, but it wouldn’t have done to blast the woods, particularly not since Proctor had a neighbor who might be tempted to come and take a look at what all the noise was about.

  Tobias killed the engine and climbed down from the cab. His burned hand felt damp beneath the bandages, and he knew that the wounds were seeping. The only consolation for the pain and humiliation was the knowledge that payback would not be long in coming. The wetbacks had crossed the wrong people.

  He walked up to the cabin and called Proctor’s name, but there was still no response from inside. He knocked on the door.

  ‘Hey, Harold, wake up,’ he called. ‘It’s Joel.’

  Only then did he try the door. Even so, he was careful, and slow. Proctor slept with a gun close by, and Tobias didn’t want him coming out of a drunk’s sleep and loosing a couple of shots at a suspected intruder.

  It was empty. Even in the gloom created by the mismatched drapes, he could see that. He hit the lightswitch and took in the unmade bed, the wrecked television and the demolished phone, the laundry spilling from a basket in the corner, and the smell of neglect, of a man who had let himself go. To his right was the kitchen-cum-living room. Tobias saw what it contained, and swore. Proctor had lost it, the asshole.

  The remaining crates and boxes, the ones that were supposed to stay hidden in rooms 11, 12, 14 and 15, were stacked almost to the ceiling, visible to anyone who might just happen to stick a nose into Proctor’s place to see what was going on. The crazy old bastard had hauled them up here by himself instead of waiting for Tobias to come and take them off his hands. He hadn’t even bothered closing most of them. The stone face of a woman stared out of one; another contained more of the seals, their gemstones glittering as Tobias approached.

  Worst of all, on the kitchen table, entirely unconcealed, stood a gold box, about two feet long, two feet wide, and a foot deep, its lid comparatively plain apart from a series of concentric circles radiating from a small spike. There was Arabic lettering along the margins, and its sides were decorated with intertwined bodies: twisted, distended figures with horns protruding from their heads.

  Just like the figures I imagined in the motel rooms, thought Tobias. He had helped to move the box on that first night, recalling how they had opened the lead casket in which it was contained, revealing it to the flashlights. The gold had gleamed dully; later, Bernie Kramer, who came from a family of jewelers, would tell him that the box had recently been cleaned. There were traces of paint still visible, as though it had once been disguised to hide its true value. He had barely glanced at it then, for there were so many other artifacts to take in, and adrenalin was still coursing through his body in the aftermath of the fight. He hadn’t even seen the sides until now, just the top. There was no way that he could have known about the creatures carved into it, no way that he could have pictured them so clearly in his mind.

  Warily, he approached the box. Three of its sides were sealed with twin locking devices shaped like spiders, with a single large spider lock on the front: seven locks in all. He heard that Kramer had tried to open it, but hadn’t been able to figure out how the mechanisms worked. They had discussed the possibility of breaking the box open to see what it contained, but wiser counsel had prevailed. A bribe was paid, and the box was x-rayed. It was found to be not one box but a series of interconnected boxes, each of the interior boxes having only three sides, the fourth in every case being one of the walls of the larger box surrounding it, but every box still appeared to have seven locks, only the arrangement of them differing slightly, the locks themselves growing smaller and smaller. Seven boxes, seven locks on each, forty-nine locks in total. It was a puzzle contraption, and it was empty apart from what the radiographer identified as fragments of bone, wrapped in what appeared to be wire, each wire connected in turn to the locks on the boxes. It might have looked like a bomb on the x-ray, but the box, Kramer had suggested, was a reliquary of some kind. He had also translated the Arabic writing on the lid. Ashrab min Damhum: ‘I will drink their blood.’ It was decided that the box should remain intact, the locks unbroken.

  Now they were so close, and Proctor had almost blown it for them. Well, Proctor could stay out here and drink himself to death as far as Tobias was concerned. He’d said that he didn’t care about his cut of the final total, just wanted the stuff gone, and Tobias was happy to stick to that arrangement.

  It took him more than an hour to get everything into the rig. Two of the pieces of statuary were particularly heavy. He had to use the dolly, and even then it was a struggle.

  He left the gold box until last. As he was lifting it from the table, he thought that he felt something shift inside. Carefully, he tipped it, listening for any sign of movement, but there was nothing. The bone fragments, he knew, were slotted into holes carved in the metal, and held in place with the wire. Anyway, what he had felt was not a piece of bone moving, but an identifiable change in the distribution of the weight from right to left, as though an animal were crawling inside.

  Then it was gone, and the box felt normal again. Not empty, exactly, but not as though anything had come loose. He carried it to the rig and placed it beside a pair of wall carvings. The interior was a mess of animal feed and torn sacks, but he’d done his best to clean it up. Most of the sacks had been salvageable and they were now serving as additional packing for the artifacts. He’d have to come up with a story, and compensation, for the customer in South Portland, but he could manage both. He locked the box trailer and climbed into the cab. He backed the rig carefully toward the forest in order to turn back on to the road. He was now facing the motel. He wondered if Proctor was down there. After all, his truck wasn’t gone, which meant that Proctor shouldn’t have been gone either. Something might have happened to him. He could have taken a fall.

  Then Tobias thought again of the treasures left in open view in Proctor’s cabin, and the effort of moving them alone into the trailer, and the pain in his hands and face that had begun to return, and of Karen waiting for him back home, Karen with her smooth, unblemished skin, and her firm breasts, and her soft, red lips. The urge to see her, to take her, came to him so strongly that he almost wavered on his feet.

  To hell with Proctor, he thought. Let him rot.

  As he drove south, he felt no guilt at not searching the motel, at the possibility that he might have abandoned an injured man to death in a deserted motel, a veteran who had served his country just as he had served it. It did not strike him that such an action was not in his nature, for his thoughts and desires were elsewhere, and his nature was already changing. In truth, it had been changing ever since he had first set eyes on the box, and his willingness to countenance the killing of Jandreau and the torture of the detective was simply another aspect of it, but now the pace of that change was about to
accelerate greatly. Only once, as he passed Augusta, did he feel discomfited. There was a sound in his head like waves breaking, as of the sea calling to the shore. It troubled him at first, but as the miles rolled by beneath him he began to find it soothing, even soporific. He no longer wanted that drink. He just wanted Karen. He would take her, and then he would sleep.

  The road unspooled before him, and the sea sang softly in his head: breaking, hissing.

  Whispering.

  13

  The Rojas warehouse stood on the northern outskirts of Lewiston. It had formerly been a bakery owned by the same family for half a century, and the family name, Bunder, was still visible, written in faded white paint, across the front of the building. The company’s slogan – ‘Bunder – the Wonder Bread!’ – used to run on local radio, sung to a tune not a million miles removed from that of the TV serial Champion the Wonder Horse. Franz Bunder, the father figure of the business in every way, had come up with the idea of using the tune himself, and neither he, nor the gentlemen responsible for creating the ad, bothered to concern themselves greatly with issues such as copyright or royalties. Given that the ad was only heard in eastern Maine, and no aggrieved fans of black-and-white horse dramas had ever complained, the tune remained in use until Bunder’s Bakery eventually baked its last loaf, forced out of business by the big boys in the early eighties long before people began to understand the value to a community of small, family-run operations.

  Antonio Rojas, known to most of those in his ambit by his preferred pseudonym of Raul, could never be accused of making a similar mistake, for his business was entirely dependent on family, near and extended, and he was acutely aware of his links to the larger community, since it bought pot, cocaine, heroin, and, more recently, crystal meth from him, for which he was very grateful. Methamphetamine was the mostly widely abused narcotic in the state, both as powder and ‘ice,’ and Rojas had been quick to realize its profit potential, especially since its addictiveness guaranteed a greedy, and constantly expanding, market. He was further aided by the popularity of the Mexican variety of the drug, which meant that he was able to tap into his own connections south of the border instead of relying on local two-man meth labs which, even if they could source the raw materials, including ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, could rarely maintain the long-term consistency of supply that an operation like Rojas’s required. Instead, Rojas had it transported by road from Mexico, and now supplied not only Maine but the adjacent New England states. When necessary, he could call upon the smaller operations to boost his own supply. He tolerated these labs as long as they didn’t threaten him, and he made sure that they were taxed accordingly.

 
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