The whisperers, p.17
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       The Whisperers, p.17

           John Connolly
 

  Rojas was also careful not to alienate any of his competitors. The Dominican cartels controlled the heroin trade in the state, and their operation was the most professional, so Rojas was scrupulous about buying wholesale from them whenever possible instead of cutting them out entirely and risking reprisals. The Dominicans also had their own meth business, but Rojas had organized a sit-down years before and together they had hammered out an agreement about spheres of influence to which everyone had so far adhered. Cocaine was a relatively open market, and Rojas dealt mainly in crack, which addicts preferred because it was simpler to use. Similarly, illegal pharmaceuticals from Canada represented pretty easy money, and there was a ready market for Viagra, Percocet, Vicodin, and ‘kicker,’ or OxyContin. So: coke and pharmaceuticals were in play for everyone, the Dominicans kept their heroin, Rojas looked after meth and marijuana, and everyone was happy.

  Well, nearly everyone. The motorcycle gangs were another matter. Rojas tended to leave them alone. If they wanted to sell meth, or anything else, then God bless them and vaya con Diós, amigos. In Maine, the bikers had a big cut of the marijuana market, so Rojas was careful to sell his product, mainly BC bud, out of state. Screwing with the bikers was time-consuming, dangerous, and ultimately counterproductive. As far as Rojas was concerned, the bikers were crazy, and the only people who argued with crazies were other crazies.

  Still, the bikers were a known quantity, and they could be factored into the overall equation so that equilibrium was maintained. Equilibrium was important, and in that he and Jimmy Jewel, whose transport links Rojas had long used, and who was a minority shareholder in some of Rojas’s business ventures, were of one mind. Without it, there was the potential for bloodshed, and for attracting the attention of the law.

  Recently, though, Rojas had become concerned about a number of issues, including the prospect of forces beyond his control impacting upon his business. Rojas was linked by blood to the small but ambitious La Familia cartel, and La Familia was currently engaged in an escalating war, not merely with its rival cartels, but with the Mexican government of President Felipe Calderón. It meant a definite end to what had been termed the ‘Pax Mafiosa,’ a gentleman’s agreement between the government and the cartels to desist from actions against one another as long as movement of the product remained unaffected.

  Rojas had not become a drug dealer in order to start an insurrection against anyone. He had become a drug dealer to get rich, and his ties by marriage to La Familia, and his status as a naturalized US citizen thanks to his now deceased engineer father, had made him eminently suited to his present role. La Familia’s main problem, as far as Rojas was concerned, was its spiritual leader, Nazario Moreno González, also known, with some justification, as El Más Loco, or the Craziest One. While quite content to accept some of El Más Loco’s rulings, such as the ban on the sale of drugs within its home territory, which had no effect on his own operations, Rojas was of the opinion that spiritual leaders had no place in drug cartels. El Más Loco required his dealers and killers to refrain from alcohol, to the extent that he had set up a network of rehab centers from which La Familia actively recruited those who managed to abide by its rules. A couple of these converts had even been forced on Rojas, although he had managed to sideline them by sending them to BC to act as liaisons with the Canadian bud growers. Let the Canucks deal with them, and if the young killers suffered an unfortunate accident somewhere along the way, well, Rojas would smooth any ruffled feathers over a couple of beers, for Rojas liked his beer.

  El Más Loco also seemed prepared to indulge, even encourage, what was, in Rojas’s opinion, an unfortunate taste for the theatrical: in 2006, a member of La Familia had walked into a nightclub in Uruapán and dumped five severed heads on the dance floor. Rojas didn’t approve of theatrics. He had learned from many years in the US that the less attention one attracted, the easier it was to do business. More over, he regarded his cousins in the south as barbarians who had forgotten how to behave like ordinary men, if they had ever truly known how to conduct themselves with discretion. He did his best to avoid visiting Mexico unless it was absolutely necessary, preferring to leave such matters to one of his trusted underlings. By now, he found the sight of los narcos in their big hats and ostrich leather boots absurd, even comical, and their predilection for beheadings and torture belonged to another time. He was also under increasing pressure through his trucking connections to facilitate the movement of weapons, easily acquired in the gun stores of Texas and Arizona, across the border. As far as Rojas was concerned, it could only be a matter of time before he became a target for La Familia’s rivals or the DEA. Neither eventuality appealed to him.

  Rojas’s problems had been compounded by the global financial recession. He had squirreled away a considerable amount of money, both cash to which he was entitled by virtue of his role in La Familia’s operations, and some to which he was not. Even in the early days, he had invested funds in shell banks in Montserrat, internationally notorious for being almost all entirely fraudulent, and willing and able to launder money. His ‘bankers’ had operated out of a bar in Plymouth, until the FBI began putting pressure on Montserrat’s government, and they had been forced to transfer their operations to Antigua. There it was business as usual under the two Bird administrations, father and son, until the US government again began applying pressure. Unfortunately, Rojas had discovered too late one of the downsides of investing with fraudulent banks: they had a tendency to commit fraud, and their customers were usually the ones who suffered. Rojas’s principal banker was currently languishing in a maximum security prison, and Rojas’s investments, carefully funneled offshore over two decades, were now worth about twenty-five percent of what they should have been. He wanted an out, before he ended up dead or in prison which, for him, would be the same thing, as his life expectancy would be measured in hours once he was behind bars. If his rivals didn’t get him, his own people would kill him to keep him quiet.

  He wanted to run, but he needed a big score before he could do so. Now, it seemed, Jimmy Jewel might just have given him that opportunity. He had already spoken with the old smuggler twice that day, initially to inform him of what had been found in the rig, then after Rojas had sent him photographs of the items in question. Neither Rojas nor Jimmy trusted email, as they knew what the feds were capable of when it came to surveillance. The solution they had come up with was to establish a free email account to which only they had the password. Emails would be written, but never sent. Instead, they were stored as drafts, where they could be read by one man or the other without ever attracting the attention of federal snoopers. After viewing the items, Jimmy had counseled caution until they evaluated precisely what they were dealing with. He would make inquiries, Jimmy told Rojas. Just keep the stuff safe.

  Jimmy was as good as his word. He had contacts everywhere, and it didn’t take long for the items to be identified as ancient cylinder seals from Mesopotamia. Rojas, who was not usually interested in such details, had listened in fascination as Jimmy told him that the seals in his possession dated from about 2500 BC, or the Sumerian Early Dynastic Period, whatever that was. They were used to authenticate documents, as testaments of ownership, and also as amulets of luck, healing, and power, which appealed to Rojas. Jimmy told him that the caps at the end appeared to be gold, and the precious stones inset on the caps were emeralds and rubies and diamonds, but Rojas hadn’t needed Jimmy’s help to figure out what gold and precious stones looked like.

  In the course of their second conversation, which had just ended, Jimmy had also told Rojas that the gentleman with whom he had spoken had predicted huge interest among wealthy collectors for the seals, and furious bidding could be anticipated. The expert also believed that he knew the source of the items: similar seals had been among the treasures looted from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad shortly after the invasion, which offered some clue as to how they might have come to be in the possession of an ex-soldier turned truck driver. The problem for Jimm
y and Rojas lay in getting rid of the seals that Rojas wanted to sell as his ‘tax’ on the operation before the authorities realized that he had them and came knocking on his door.

  But much as Rojas liked Jimmy Jewel, he was not about to trust him entirely. It was he, Rojas, who had taken the risk in hijacking the truck. He wanted to ensure that he was compensated appropriately for it, and he also wanted an independent assessment of the worth of the seals. He had already prized the gold and gemstones from two seals, and had them valued: even allowing for the middleman, and the fact that they couldn’t be disposed of on the open market, he was 200,000 dollars in profit from taking down the truck driver. He had experienced only a slight pang of regret when Jimmy had told him that the seals were much more valuable intact, so that by destroying them he had sacrificed four or five times as much money again, at the very least. The destruction of such ancient artifacts did not disturb Rojas unduly, for he knew how to make money from gold and precious stones, while the market for old seals, however valuable, was significantly smaller and more specialized. Rojas was now wondering how many other such seals or similar items the driver named Tobias and his associates might have in their possession. He didn’t like the idea that they might possibly have been running such goods through what he regarded as his territory without anyone suspecting, at least not until Jimmy Jewel became involved.

  The upper floor of the Bunder warehouse had been converted into a loft apartment by Rojas. He had kept the brick walls, and had furnished it in a determinedly masculine style: leather, dark woods, and hand-woven rugs. There was a huge plasma screen TV in one corner, but Rojas rarely watched it. Neither did he entertain women here, preferring to use a bedroom in one of the houses nearby, all of which were owned by members of his family. Even meetings were conducted in venues other than his loft. This was his space, and he valued the solitude that it offered.

  There were bunks on the floor below, and couches and chairs, and a TV that always seemed to be showing Mexican soap operas or soccer games. There was also a galley kitchen, and at any one time at least four armed men were in attendance. The floor of Rojas’s loft had been soundproofed, so he was barely aware of their presence. Even so, his men tended to keep conversation to a minimum, and the volume on the TV low, in order not to disturb their leader.

  Now, seated at a table, an anglepoise lamp adjusted so that it shone its light directly over his shoulder, Rojas examined one of the remaining seals, tracing the lettering carved upon it and allowing the rubies and emeralds embedded in it to reflect red and green shards of light upon his skin. He had no intention of handing all of the undamaged seals back to Tobias and whomever else might be involved in their operation; he never had, and he already had plans for a number of the gemstones. For the first time, though, he considered holding on to some of the intact seals for himself, and not damaging them or selling them on. Everything in his loft had been bought new, and although it was all beautiful, it was also anonymous. There was nothing distinctive about it, nothing that could not have been acquired by any man with a modicum of money and taste. But these, these were different. He looked to his left, where there was a fireplace topped by a stone mantel, and imagined the seals resting on the granite. He could have a stand made for them. No, better still, he would carve one himself, for he had always been skilled with his hands.

  The mantel already housed a shrine to Jesús Malverde, the Mexican Robin Hood and patron saint of drug dealers. The statue of Malverde, with its mustache and white shirt, bore a certain resemblance to the Mexican matinee idol Pedro Infante, even though Malverde had been killed by police in 1909, thirty years before Pedro was born. Rojas believed that Jesús Malverde would approve of the seals being laid beside him, and might smile in turn upon Rojas’s operations.

  Thus ‘could’ became ‘would’, and the decision was made to keep the seals.

  14

  The room was almost entirely circular, as though set in a tower, and lined with books from floor to ceiling. It was perhaps forty feet in diameter, and dominated by an old banker’s desk lit by a green-shaded lamp. Nearby was a more modern source of illumination, stainless steel and hinged, with a light source that could be adjusted to a pinpoint. Beside it lay a magnifying glass and assorted tools: tiny blades, callipers, picks, and brushes. Reference volumes were piled one on top of another, their pages marked with lengths of colored ribbon. Photographs and drawings spilled from files. The floor itself was a maze of books and papers set in piles that seemed forever on the verge of collapsing, yet did not, a labyrinth of arcane knowledge through which only one man knew the true path.

  The bookshelves, some of them seeming to bend slightly at the center beneath the weight of their volumes, had been pressed into service for other purposes as well. In front of the books, some leather-bound, some new, there were statues, ancient and pitted, and fragments of pottery, mostly Etruscan, although, curiously, no undamaged items; Iron Age tools, and Bronze Age jewelry; and, littered among the other relics like curious bugs, dozens of Egyptian scarabs.

  There was not a speck of dust to be found on anything in the room, and there were no windows to look out upon the old Massachusetts village below. The only light came from the lamps, and the walls absorbed all noise. Despite some modern appliances, among them a small laptop computer discreetly set on a side table, there was a timelessness about this place, a sense that, were one to open the single oak door that led from the study to elsewhere, one would be confronted with darkness and stars above and below, as though the room were suspended in space.

  At the great desk sat Herod, a fragment of a clay tablet before him. Pressed to one eye was a jeweler’s glass, through which Herod was examining a cuneiform symbol etched into the slab. It was the Sumerians who had first created and used the cuneiform writing system, which was soon adopted by neighboring tribes, most particularly the Akkadians, Semitic speakers who dwelt to the north of the Sumerians. With the ascendancy of the Akkadian dynasty in 2300 BC, Sumerian went into decline, eventually becoming a dead language used only for literary purposes, while Akkadian continued to flourish for two thousand years, eventually evolving into Babylonian and Assyrian.

  Aside from the damage to the tablet over time, the difficulty facing Herod in determining the precise meaning of the logogram that he was examining lay in the difference between the Sumerian and Akkadian languages. Sumerian is agglutinative, which means that phonetically unchanging words and particles are joined together to form phrases. Akkadian, meanwhile, is inflectional, so that a basic root can be modified to create words with different, if related, meanings by adding vowels, suffixes, and prefixes. Thus Sumerian logographic signs, if used in Akkadian, would not convey the same exact meaning, while the same sign could, depending upon context, mean different words, a linguistic trait known as polyvalency. To avoid confusion, Akkadian used some signs for their phonetic values instead of their meanings in order to reproduce correct inflections. Akkadian also inherited homophony from Sumerian, the capacity of different signs to represent the same sound. Combined with a script that had between seven hundred and eight hundred signs, it meant that Akkadian was incredibly complex to translate. Clearly, the tablet was making reference to a god of the netherworld, but which god?

  Herod loved such challenges. He was an extraordinary man. Largely self-educated, he had been fascinated by ancient things since childhood, with a preference for dead civilizations and near-forgotten languages. For many years, he had dabbled without purpose in such matters, a gifted amateur, until death changed him.

  His death.

  The computer beeped softly to Herod’s right. Herod did not like to keep the laptop on his work desk. It seemed to him wrong to mix the ancient and the modern in this way, even if the computer made some of his tasks immeasurably easier than they might once have been. Herod still liked to work with paper and pen, with books and manuscripts. Whatever he needed to know was contained in one of the many volumes in this room, or stored somewhere in his mind, of which the l
ibrary in which he toiled was a physical representation.

  Under ordinary circumstances, Herod would not have abandoned such a delicate task to answer an email, but his system was set up to alert him to messages from a number of specific contacts, for access to Herod was carefully regulated. The message that had just arrived came from a most trusted source, and had been sent to his priority box. Herod removed the eyeglass and tapped the Perspex lightly with the tip of a finger, like a player forced to leave the chessboard at a crucial moment, as if to say, ‘We are not done here. Eventually, you will yield to me.’ He stood and made his way carefully between the towers of paper and books until he reached the computer.

  The message opened to reveal a series of high-resolution images depicting a cylindrical seal, its caps inset with precious stones. The seal had been laid upon a piece of black felt, then moved slightly for each photograph so that every part of it was revealed. Particular details – the jewels, a perfectly rendered carving of a king upon a throne – had been photographed in closeup.

 

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