The whisperers, p.18
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       The Whisperers, p.18

           John Connolly
 

  Herod felt his heart beat faster. He drew closer to the screen, squinting at what he saw, then printed off all of the images and took them back to his desk, where he examined them again through a magnifying glass. When he was done, he made the call. The woman answered almost immediately, as he knew she would, her voice cracked and old, a fitting instrument for the withered old hag that she was. Nevertheless, she had been in the antique business for a long time, and had never yet led Herod astray. Their natures were also similar, although her malevolence was merely a dull echo of Herod’s own capacities.

  ‘Where did you get this?’ he asked.

  ‘I don’t have it. It was brought to me, and I was asked to offer an opinion on its value.’

  ‘Who brought it to you?’

  ‘A Mexican. He calls himself Raul, but his real name is Antonio Rojas. He works closely with a man named, ironically, Jimmy Jewel, who is based in Portland, Maine. Rojas told me that there were other seals; a number, regrettably, have been destroyed.’

  ‘Destroyed?’

  ‘Taken apart for their gold and gemstones. The fragments, too, he showed to me. It was all that I could do not to cry.’

  Under ordinary circumstances, Herod would also have mourned the annihilation of such a beautiful object, but there were other seals, and such treasures were not unique. What he wished to find was immeasurably more valuable.

  ‘And you believe that this is linked to what I seek?’

  ‘According to the catalog, it was stored in Locker 5. Other, less valuable seals from Locker 5 were found at the scene of the warehouse killings, along with the lock from the lead storage box.’

  ‘Where did this Raul get the seals?’ said Herod.

  ‘He wouldn’t say, but he is not a collector. He is a criminal, a drug dealer. I’ve facilitated him in the past with the sale of certain items, which is why he came to me. If he really has other seals, then my guess is that he stole them, or took them in payment of a debt. Either way, he has no idea of their true value.’

  ‘What did you tell him?’

  ‘That I would make inquiries and get back to him. He gave me two days. Otherwise, he threatened to cut out the jewels on the remaining seals and sell them.’

  Despite his priorities, Herod hissed in disapproval, and he found himself already despising the man who had uttered the threat. So much the better. It would make what he would have to do next even easier.

  ‘You’ve done very well,’ he said. ‘You’ll be amply rewarded.’

  ‘Thank you. Do you want me to find out more about Raul?’

  ‘Naturally, but be discreet.’

  Herod hung up the phone. His earlier tiredness began to fade. This was important. He had been searching for so long, and now it seemed that he might be closing in on that which he sought: myth given form.

  He felt an old man’s urge to visit the bathroom, so he left his library, breaking its bubble of solitude, and walked through the living room into his bedroom. He always used the master bath, never the main bathroom, because it was easier to clean. He stood over the toilet, his eyes closed, feeling the welcome release. Such a small pleasure, yet not one to be underestimated. His body was betraying him in so many ways that he felt a sense of elation at the minor triumph of an organ that functioned properly.

  As the sound of the last trickle faded, Herod opened his eyes and regarded himself in the mirrored wall of the bathroom. The wound on his mouth tormented him. The surgeons wanted to try again to remove the necrotic tissue, and he would have no choice but to acquiesce. Yet they had failed before, just as the chemotherapy had not arrested the metastasizing of his cells. He was being eaten alive, inside and out. A lesser man would have succumbed by now, would have chosen to end it all, but Herod had a purpose. He had been promised a reward: an end to his suffering, and a visitation of greater suffering on others in turn. That promise had been made to him when he died, and upon his return to this life he had commenced his great search, and his collection had begun to grow.

  He sighed, and buttoned himself up. No zippers for him. He was a man of older tastes. One of the buttons was giving him trouble, so he looked down as he struggled to slip it through its hole.

  When he glanced back at the mirror, he had no eyes.

  Herod had died on September 14th, 2003. His heart had stopped during an operation to remove a diseased kidney, the first of the fruitless attempts to stall the progress of his cancers. Later, the surgeons would describe the occurrence as extraordinary, even inexplicable. Herod’s heart should not have ceased beating, yet it did. They had fought to save him, to bring him back, and they had succeeded. A chaplain visited him while he was recovering in the ICU, inquiring if Herod wanted to talk, or to pray. Herod shook his head.

  ‘They tell me that your heart stopped on the operating table,’ said the priest. He was in his fifties, overweight and red-faced, with kind, twinkling eyes. ‘You’ve died and returned. Not many men can say they’ve done that.’

  He smiled, but Herod did not smile back. His voice was weak, and his chest hurt as he spoke.

  ‘Are you trying to find out what’s beyond the grave, priest?’ he said, and even in the man’s weakened state, the chaplain detected the hostility in his voice. ‘It was like dark water closing over my head, like a pillow suffocating me. I felt it coming, and I knew. There is nothing beyond this life. Nothing. Are you happy now?’

  The priest stood.

  ‘I’ll leave you to rest,’ he said. He was untroubled by the man’s venom. He had heard worse before, and his faith was strong. Strangely, too, he had the sense that the patient, Herod – and from where did such a name originate, or was it chosen as some bleak joke? – was lying. It was most peculiar, yet with it came another realization. If Herod was lying, the priest did not want to know the truth. Not that truth. Not Herod’s truth.

  Herod watched the priest go, then closed his eyes and prepared to relive the moment of his own death.

  There was light. It shone red against his eyelids. He opened his eyes.

  He was lying on the operating table. There was an open wound in his side, but it gave him no pain. He touched his fingers to it, and they came away bloody. He looked around, but the theater was empty. No, not merely empty: it was abandoned, and had been for some time. From where he lay, he could see rust upon the instruments, and dust and filth upon the tiles and the steel trays. A clicking noise came from his right, and he watched as a cockroach skittered into hiding. He was lying in a pool of light that came from the great lamp that burned above the table, but a gentler illumination rippled around the walls of the theater, although he could not detect its source.

  He sat up, then placed his feet on the floor. There was a bad smell, the stink of decay. He felt the dust between his toes, and looked down. There were no other footprints to be seen. He saw that the sinks to his right were stained brown with dried blood. He turned the faucet. No water came, but he heard sounds coming from the pipes. They echoed around the room, making him uneasy. He turned the faucet back to its previous position, and the sounds ceased.

  Only when the noise from the pipes disturbed the quiet did he realize just how deep was the silence. He pushed through the theater doors, barely pausing to take in the deserted prep area. Here, too, the sinks were stained with blood, but it had also splashed on the floor and the walls, a great gusher that seemed to have come from the sinks themselves, as though the pipes had spit back all of the fluids that had been washed into them over time. The mirrors above the sinks were almost entirely obscured by the dried blood, but he caught a glimpse of himself in a dusty but otherwise unmarked spot. He looked pale, and there were yellow stains around his mouth but, the hole in his side apart, he appeared well. He still could not understand why there was no pain.

  There should be pain. I want pain. Pain will confirm that I am alive and not . . .

  Dead? Is this death?

  He walked on. The corridor beyond the theater was empty but for a pair of wheelchairs, and the nurses’ s
tation was deserted. Each ward room that he passed contained an unmade bed, filthy sheets tossed aside or trailing across the floor, pulled from beneath the mattress where—

  Where the patients had resisted being dragged away, he thought, clinging to the sheets in a last effort to prevent what was about to occur. It resembled a hospital evacuated during wartime and never reoccupied, or perhaps one that had been in the process of moving its patients when the opposing forces had arrived, and the slaughter had begun. But if that was so, where were the bodies? Herod thought of the images from old news footage of the Second World War, of villages purged by the Nazis, littered with the scattered remains of the dead like broken crows dotting a highway on a warm, still day; of pale forms in camp pits lying on top of one another like figures from the nightmares of Bosch.

  Bodies. Where were the bodies?

  He turned a corner. A pair of elevator doors stood open, the shaft gaping emptily. He peered down cautiously, holding on to the wall for support. He could see nothing for a moment, only blackness, but as he prepared to withdraw he was certain that, far below, there was movement. The faintest scratching carried up to him, and there was a smear of gray in the dark, like a brush stroke on a black canvas. He tried to speak, to call for help, but no sound came from his lips. He was mute, struck dumb, and yet, in the depths of the elevator shaft, the presence below arrested its progress, and he felt its regard as an itch upon his face.

  Softly, quietly, he stepped back, as behind him the lights in the corridor extinguished themselves, throwing the path that he had followed into shadow. What did it matter, he thought? What was there to go back to? He should continue searching. Yet even as he made the decision, the lights to his rear continued to go out, forcing him to go forward if he was not to find himself trapped in the gloom, and as he walked the darkness pressed against his back, urging him on. He thought that he heard movement behind him, but he did not look over his shoulder for fear that those gray smears might assume a more concrete form of tooth and claw.

  The environs of the hospital grew older as he walked. The institutional paint faded and began flaking, until only bare walls remained. Tiles became wood. There was no longer glass in the doors. Instruments glimpsed in treatment rooms appeared cruder, more primitive. Operating tables were reduced to blocks of scarred and pitted wood, buckets of stinking water at their feet to sluice the blood from them. All that he saw spoke of pain both ancient and eternal, testament to the fragility of the body and the limits of its endurance.

  At last he came to a pair of crude wooden doors that stood open to admit him. Inside was a light, slight and flickering. Behind him, the darkness encroached, and all that it contained.

  He stepped through the doors.

  The room, or what he could see of it, was empty of furniture. Its walls and ceiling were invisible to him, lost in shadow, but he imagined his surroundings as impossibly high and immeasurably wide. Still, he felt claustrophobic and constrained. He wanted to go back, to leave this place, but there was nowhere to which to return. The doors behind him had closed, and he could no longer see them. There was only the light: a hurricane lamp placed on the dirt floor in which a flame burned faintly.

  The light, and what was illuminated by it.

  At first he thought it a shapeless mass, an accumulation of detritus brushed into a pile and forgotten. Then, as he drew closer, he saw that it was covered in cobwebs, the threads so old that they were coated in dust, forming a blanket of strands that almost entirely obscured what lay beneath. It was much larger than a man, although it shared a man’s form. Herod could discern the muscles in its legs and the curvature of its spine, although its face was hidden from him, sunk deep into its chest, its arms flung over its head in an effort to shield itself from some impending hurt.

  Then, as though slowly becoming aware of his presence, the figure moved, like an insect in its pupal shell, the arms lowering, the head beginning to turn. Herod’s senses were suddenly flooded with words and images—

  books, statues, drawings

  (a box)

  —and in that moment his purpose became clear.

  Suddenly, Herod’s body arched as the wound in his side was violated. It was followed by a violent convulsion. He saw

  light

  and heard

  voices.

  Before him, the patina of cobwebs was broken, and a thin finger emerged, topped by a sharp nail ingrained with dirt. The shock came again; longer now, more painful. His eyes were open, and there was something plastic in his mouth. There were masked faces above him, only the eyes visible. There were hands on his heart, and a voice was speaking to him, softly and insistently, talking of grave secrets, of things that must be done, and before his resurrection it spoke his name and told him that it would find him again, and he would know it when it came.

  Now, as he stepped back from the bathroom mirror, the reflection remained in place, a featureless, eyeless mask hanging behind the glass, before it found its place above the collar of an old checked suit like a fairground barker’s, a red bow tie knotted tightly at the neck of a yellow shirt decorated with balloons.

  Herod gazed, and he knew, and he was not afraid.

  ‘Oh Captain!’ he whispered. ‘Oh Captain! my Captain . . .’

  15

  The city was changing, but then it was in the nature of cities to change: perhaps it was just that I was getting older, and had already seen too much fall away to be entirely comfortable with the closure of restaurants and stores that I had known. The transformation of Portland from a city that was struggling not to drop into Casco Bay and sink to the bottom into one that was now thriving, artistic, and safe had begun in earnest at the start of the 1970s, funded largely with federal money through the kind of pork-barrel appropriations that are frowned upon by pretty much everyone except those profiting by them. Congress Street got brick sidewalks, the Old Port was rejuvenated, and the Municipal Airport became the International Jetport, which at least had the benefit of sounding futuristic, even if, for most of the last decade, you couldn’t fly direct to Canada from Portland, let alone anywhere that wasn’t part of the contiguous land mass, making the ‘International’ part largely superfluous.

  Some of the gloss had gone from the Old Port in recent years. Exchange Street, one of the loveliest streets in the city, was in transition. Books Etc. was gone, Emerson Books was about to close due to the retirement of its owners, and soon only Longfellow Books would be left in the Old Port. Walter’s restaurant, where I had eaten with both Susan, my late wife, and Rachel, the mother of my second child, had shut its doors in preparation for a move to Union Street.

  But Congress Street was still flying the flag for weirdness and eccentricity, like a little fragment of Austin, Texas, transported to the northeast. There was now a decent pizzeria, Otto, offering slices late into the night, and the various galleries and used bookstores, vinyl outlets and fossil stores, had been augmented by a comic book emporium and a new bookstore, Green Hand, that boasted a museum of cryptozoology in its back room, which was enough to gladden the heart of anybody with a taste for the bizarre.

  Well, nearly anybody.

  ‘What the fuck is cryptozoology?’ asked Louis as we sat in Monument Square, drinking wine and watching the world go by. Today, Louis was wearing Dolce & Gabbana: a black three-button suit, white shirt, no tie. Even though his voice was not loud, an elderly woman eating soup outside the restaurant to our left looked at Louis disapprovingly. I had to admire her courage. Most people tended not to give Louis looks of any kind other than fear or envy. He was tall, and black, and quite lethal.

  ‘My apologies,’ said Louis, nodding to her. ‘I didn’t mean to use inappropriate words.’ He turned back to me, then said: ‘What the fuck is whatever it was you said?’

  ‘Cryptozoology,’ I explained. ‘It’s the science of creatures that may or may not exist, like Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness Monster.’

  ‘The Loch Ness Monster is dead,’ said Angel.

  Today,
Angel was wearing tattered jeans, no-name sneakers in red and silver, and a virulently green t-shirt promoting a bar that had closed down sometime during the Kennedy era. Unlike his partner in love and life, Angel tended to provoke responses that varied between bemusement and outright concern that he might be color-blind. Angel was also lethal, although not quite as lethal as Louis. But then, that was true of most people, as well as most varieties of poisonous snake.

  ‘I read it somewhere,’ Angel continued. ‘This expert who was looking for it for years and years, he decided that it had died.’

  ‘Yeah, like two hundred and fifty million years ago,’ said Louis. ‘’Course it’s dead. The fuck else would it be?’

  Angel shook his head in the manner of one faced with a child who can’t grasp a simple concept. ‘No, it died recently. Until then, it was still alive.’

  Louis stared hard at his partner for a long time, then said: ‘You know, I think we need to set a limit on the conversations you can join in with.’

  ‘Like in a churrascaría,’ I offered. ‘We could turn up a green symbol when you can speak, and a red one when you have to sit quietly and digest whatever it is you’ve just heard.’

  ‘I hate you guys,’ said Angel.

  ‘No, you don’t.’

  ‘I do,’ he confirmed. ‘You don’t respect me.’

  ‘Well, that is true,’ I admitted. ‘But, then, we really have no reason to.’

  Angel thought about this before conceding that I had a point. We moved on to the subject of my sex life which, although apparently endlessly entertaining to Angel, didn’t detain us for long.

  ‘What about that cop, the one who’d started coming into the Bear? Cagney?’

  ‘Macy.’

  ‘Yeah, her.’

  Sharon Macy was pretty and dark, and she’d certainly been sending out signals of interest, but I had still been trying to figure out how to deal with the fact that Rachel and our daughter were now going to be living in Vermont, and that my relationship with Rachel was effectively over.

 

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