The whisperers, p.19
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       The Whisperers, p.19

           John Connolly

  ‘It was too soon,’ I said.

  ‘There’s no such thing as “too soon,”’ said Louis. ‘There’s just “too late,” and then there’s “dead.”’

  A trio of young men in loose-fitting jeans, oversized t-shirts, and fresh-out-of-the-box sneakers oozed along Congress like algae on the surface of a pond, heading for the bars on Fore Street. They had ‘out of town’ written all over them – well, written anywhere that wasn’t already occupied by a brand, or the name of a rapper. One, God help us, even wore a retro Black Power t-shirt, complete with clenched fist, even though they were all so white they made Pee Wee Herman look like Malcolm X.

  Beside us, two men were eating burgers and minding their own business. One of them wore a discreet rainbow triangle on the collar of his jacket, and a ‘Vote No on I’ badge beneath it, a reference to the impending proposition intended to overturn the possibility of gay marriage in the state.

  ‘You gonna marry him, bitch?’ said one of the passing strangers, and his friends laughed.

  The two men tried to get on with their meal.

  ‘Fags,’ said the same guy, clearly on a roll. He was small, but muscled up. He leaned over and took a French fry from the plate of the man with the badges, who responded with an aggrieved ‘Hey!’

  ‘I ain’t gonna eat it, man,’ said their tormentor. ‘Never know what I might catch from you.’

  ‘Burn, Rod!’ said one of his buddies, and they high-fived.

  Rod tossed the fry on the ground, then turned his attention to Angel and Louis, who were watching them without expression.

  ‘What you looking at?’ said Rod. ‘You faggots too?’

  ‘No,’ said Angel. ‘I’m an undercover heterosexual.’

  ‘And I’m really white,’ said Louis.

  ‘He is really white,’ I confirmed. ‘Takes him hours to put on his makeup before he can leave the house.’

  Rod looked confused. His face fell into the appropriate expression without too much effort, so it probably wasn’t the first time.

  ‘So I’m just like you,’ continued Louis, ‘because you’re not really black either. Here’s something for you to think about: all those bands on your shirts, they only tolerate you because you put money in their pockets. They’re hardcore, and they’re talking to, and about, black people. In an ideal world, they wouldn’t need you, and you’d just have to go back to listening to Bread, or Coldplay, or some other maudlin shit that white boys are humming to these days. But, for now, those guys will take your money, and if you ever wander into any of the ’hoods they emerged from, you’ll get stomped and someone will take the rest of your money as well, and maybe your sneakers too. You want me to, I can draw you a map, and you can go express your solidarity with them, see how that works out for you. Otherwise, you run along, and take Curly and Larry there with you. Go on, now: bust a move, or whatever it is you homeboys do to help you perambulate.’

  ‘Bread?’ I said. ‘You’re a little out of touch with popular culture, aren’t you?’

  ‘All that shit sounds the same,’ said Louis. ‘I’m down with the kids.’

  ‘Yeah, the kids from the nineteenth century.’

  ‘I could kick your ass,’ said Rod, feeling the urge to contribute something to the conversation. He might have been dumb enough to believe it, but the two guys behind him were smarter, which wasn’t exactly something worth putting on their business cards. Already they were trying to move Rod along.

  ‘Yes, you could,’ said Louis. ‘Feel better now?’

  ‘By the way,’ said Angel, ‘I lied. I’m not really heterosexual, although he still really isn’t black.’

  I looked at Angel in surprise. ‘Hey, you never told me you were gay. I knew that, I’d never have let you adopt those children.’

  ‘Too late now,’ said Angel. ‘The girls are all wearing comfortable shoes, and the boys are singing show tunes.’

  ‘Oh, you gays and your cunning ways. You could run the world if you weren’t so busy just making things prettier.’

  Rod seemed about to say something else when Louis moved. He didn’t get up from his chair, and there was nothing obviously threatening about what he did, but it was the equivalent of a dozing rattlesnake adjusting its coils in preparation for a strike, or a spider tensing in the corner of its web as it watches the fly alight. Even through his fog of alcohol and stupidity, Rod glimpsed the possibility of serious suffering at some point in the near future: not here, perhaps, on a busy street with cop cars cruising by, but later, maybe in a bar, or a restroom, or a parking lot, and it would mark him for the rest of his life.

  Without another word, the three young men slipped away, and they did not look back.

  ‘Nicely done,’ I said to Louis. ‘What are you going to do for an encore: scowl at a puppy?’

  ‘Might steal a toy from a kitten,’ said Louis. ‘Put it on a high shelf.’

  ‘Well, you struck a blow for something there. I’m just not sure what it was.’

  ‘Quality of life,’ said Louis.

  ‘I guess.’ Beside us, the two men abandoned their burgers, left a twenty and ten on the table, and hurried away without saying a word. ‘You even frighten your own people. You probably convinced that guy to vote yes on Prop One just in case you decide to move here.’

  ‘With that in mind, remind us why we’re here again,’ said Angel. They had arrived barely an hour before, and their bags were still in the trunk of their car. Louis and Angel only took planes when it was absolutely necessary to do so, as airlines tended to frown on the tools of their trade. I told them everything, from my first meeting with Bennett Patchett, through the discovery of the tracking device on my car, and finished with my conversation with Ronald Straydeer and the sending of the photographs from Damien Patchett’s funeral.

  ‘So they know that you haven’t dropped the case?’ said Angel.

  ‘If the GPS tracker was working, yes. They also know that I visited Karen Emory, which may not be good for her.’

  ‘You warn her?’

  ‘I left a message on her cell phone. Another call in person might just have compounded the problem.’

  ‘You think they’ll come at you again?’ asked Louis.

  ‘Wouldn’t you?’

  ‘I’d have killed you the first time,’ said Louis. ‘If they figured you for the kind of guy who walks away after some amateur waterboarding, they got you all wrong.’

  ‘Straydeer said that they’d started out with the intention of helping wounded soldiers. It may be that killing is a last resort. The one who interrogated me said that nobody was going to be hurt by what they were doing.’

  ‘But he made an exception for you. Funny how folk do that where you’re concerned.’

  ‘Which brings us back to why you’re here.’

  ‘And why we’re meeting in public, on a bright summer evening. If they’re watching, you want them to know that you’re not alone.’

  ‘I need a couple of days. If I can get them to keep their distance, it will make life that much easier.’

  ‘And if they don’t keep their distance?’

  ‘Then you can hurt them,’ I said.

  Louis raised his glass, and drank.

  ‘Well, here’s to not keeping one’s distance,’ he said.

  We paid our check, and headed to the Grill Room on Exchange for steak, for the prospect of hurting someone always made Louis hungry.


  Jimmy Jewel sat in his usual seat as Earle finished closing up. It was close to midnight, and the bar had been quiet all evening: a few rummies looking for a straightener after the previous night’s excesses, yet without the stamina or the funds to embark on another bender; and a pair of Masshole tourists who had taken a wrong turn and then decided to order a couple of beers while congratulating themselves on the authentic squalor of their surroundings. Unfortunately, Earle didn’t take kindly to people making unkind remarks about his working environment, especially not urban preppies who, in the good old days, woul
d have been kissing the lid of a trash can in a back alley as atonement for their bad manners. The Massholes’ attempt to order a second round was met by a blank stare and the suggestion that they should take their business elsewhere, preferably somewhere over the state line, or even over multiple state lines.

  ‘You got a way with people,’ Jimmy told Earle. ‘You ought to be with the UN, helping in trouble spots.’

  ‘You wanted them to stay, you should have said,’ Earle replied. His face was guileless. There were times when even Jimmy didn’t know if Earle was being sincere or not. Still waters, and all that, thought Jimmy. Occasionally, Earle would pass a remark, or make an observation, and Jimmy would stop whatever he was doing as his brain struggled to process what he had just heard, forcing him to reassess Earle just when he believed that he had him figured out. Lately, it was Earle’s choice of reading material that was throwing him: he seemed to be playing catch-up with classic literature, and not just Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn either. Earlier that evening, Earle had been reading a collection by Tolstoy, Master and Man and Other Stories. When Jimmy had questioned him about it, Earle had described the plot of the title story, something about a wealthy guy who shields his serf after they both become lost in a winter storm, so that the serf lives and the wealthy guy dies. The wealthy guy made it to heaven as a consequence, though, so that was all right.

  ‘Is there supposed to be a message in that?’ Jimmy had asked.

  ‘For whom?’

  ‘For whom,’ like Earle was John Houseman now.

  ‘I don’t know,’ said Jimmy. ‘For wealthy guys with bad consciences.’

  ‘I’m not a wealthy guy,’ said Earle.

  ‘So you’re like the other guy?’

  ‘I guess. I mean, I didn’t take it that way. You don’t have to be one or the other. It’s just a story.’

  ‘If we get caught in a blizzard, and one of us is going to die, you think I’m not going to use you like a blanket to keep warm? You think I’d take a hit for you?’

  Earle had considered the question. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I think you would take a hit for me. Wouldn’t be the first time, either.’

  And Jimmy knew that Earle was referring to Sally Cleaver, because he had sensed it playing on Earle’s conscience ever since the detective’s first visit. Jimmy knew Earle well enough by now to recognize when that particular ghost had chosen to whisper in Earle’s ear.

  ‘You’re out of your mind,’ said Jimmy.

  ‘Maybe,’ said Earle. ‘Thing of it is, I wouldn’t let you take that hit, Mr. Jewel. I’d keep you alive, even if I had to smother you to do it.’

  That sounded to Jimmy like a contradiction in terms, and he was also mildly disturbed by the image of his slender frame lost in the folds of Earle’s fleshy body. He decided that this was a conversation that they didn’t need to have again. With no further customers likely to trouble them, and with other, more pressing matters on his mind, Jimmy had told Earle to lock the door for the night.

  Now the floor was swept, the glasses were clean, and the night’s meager takings were safely locked up in the safe in Jimmy’s office. A newspaper lay, half read, by Jimmy’s left hand. This was unusual, thought Earle. By now, Jimmy would usually have dispensed with the paper entirely, even down to the crossword, but today he had seemed distracted, and he was currently staring at the pencil that lay on the bar before him, as though expecting it to move of its own volition and provide him with the answers that he sought.

  Jimmy was right about Earle. Despite his bulk, and the impression he gave that his family tree still had members hanging from it making ook-ook noises, Earle was not an insensitive man. The routine of the bar gave an order to his life that allowed him to function with the minimum of unwanted complexities, but also gave him time to think. His role was to lift, carry, threaten, and guard, and he performed all of these tasks willingly and without complaint. He was paid relatively well for what he did, but he was also loyal to Jimmy. Jimmy looked out for him, and he, in turn, looked out for Jimmy.

  But, as his boss had guessed, Earle had been brooding in recent days. He didn’t like being reminded about Sally Cleaver. Earle was sorry for what had happened to her, and he felt that he should have acted to prevent it, but it wasn’t like it was the first domestic that had ever broken out in the Blue Moon, and Earle was smart enough to know that the best course of action on such occasions was simply not to get involved but to move the feuding parties off the premises and let them sort everything out in the privacy of their own home. It was only when Cliffie Andreas had come back into the bar with blood on his fists and face that Earle had begun to realize his attitude amounted to an ‘abdication of responsibility,’ as one of the detectives had later put it, indicating that, in a just world, Earle would have spent some time behind bars alongside Cliffie for what had happened. Deep down, which was deeper than even Jimmy might have allowed, Earle knew that the cop was right, and so every year, on the anniversary of Sally Cleaver’s death, Earle would leave a bouquet of flowers in the garbage-strewn, weed-caked lot of the Blue Moon, and apologize to the shade of the dead girl.

  But Jimmy had never ascribed even partial blame to Earle for what had occurred, even though it had led to the closure of the Blue Moon. He made sure that Earle had the best legal representation close by when there was talk of charging him as an accessory to the crime. They had only ever discussed Earle’s feelings about those events on one occasion, and that was on the day that Jimmy had told Earle he was not going to reopen the bar. Earle had assumed that this meant he would be looking for employment elsewhere, and that Jimmy was washing his hands of him, just like a lot of people said he should, because around town Earle’s name wasn’t worth the spittle it would take to say it. Earle had begun to apologize again for allowing Sally Cleaver to die, and as he did so, he found that his voice was breaking. He kept trying to form coherent sentences, but they wouldn’t come. Jimmy had sat him down and listened as Earle described going outside and seeing Sally Cleaver’s ruined face, and how he had knelt beside her as her lips moved and she spoke the last words that anyone would ever hear her speak.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered, as Earle, not knowing what else to do, laid one of his huge hands on her forehead and gently brushed her bloodstained hair from her eyes. At night, Earle told Jimmy, he saw Sally Cleaver’s face, and his hand would reach out automatically to brush her hair from her eyes. Every night, Earle said. I see her every night, just before I fall asleep. And Jimmy had told him that it was a crying shame, and all he could do to make up for it was ensure that it never happened to another woman, either on his beat or off it, not if he could do anything to prevent it. The next day, Earle had started working at the Sailmaker, even though there was already barely enough custom for old Vern Sutcliffe, the regular bartender. When Vern died a year later, Earle became the sole bartender at the Sailmaker, and thus it had remained ever since.

  Now, after ruminating for hours on how he might broach the subject, Earle had come to a conclusion. He placed the last bottles of beer in the cooler, collapsed the box, then made his way tentatively to where Jimmy was sitting. He laid his fists on the bar and said: ‘Anything wrong, Mr. Jewel?’

  Jimmy emerged from his reverie, looking slightly shocked.

  ‘What did you say?’

  ‘I said, “Anything wrong, Mr. Jewel?”’

  Jimmy smiled. In all of the years that he had known him, Earle had probably asked no more than two or three questions of a remotely personal nature. Now here he was, his face filled with concern, and only minutes after indicating that he’d lay down his life for his employer. If things went any further, they’d be booking a church for the wedding and moving to Ogunquit, or Hallowell, or somewhere else with too many rainbow flags hanging from the windows.

  ‘Thank you for asking, Earle. Everything is fine. I’m just mulling over how to handle a certain matter. When I’ve figured it out, though, I may ask for your help.’

  Earle looked relieved. He’d
already come as close as he had ever done to expressing his affection for Mr. Jewel, and he wasn’t sure that he could cope with any further intimacy. He lumbered away to add the crushed box to the recycling pile, leaving Jimmy alone. Jimmy took a series of photographs from beneath the newspaper, and examined once again the images of the jeweled seals. The gems alone were worth a fortune, but combined with the artifacts themselves, well, Jimmy had no concept of how much the right person might pay for such an item.

  Now Jimmy knew that Tobias and his buddies were not smuggling drugs; they were smuggling antiquities. Jimmy wondered what else in a similar vein they might have in their possession. He had spent a day trying to work out the angles, figuring out a way that he could profit from what he had learned, and at the same time expand his knowledge. His only regret was that Rojas was involved. Rojas had let slip that he had begun trying to sell on some of the gems and gold, promising Jimmy a cut of twenty percent as a finder’s fee, as though Jimmy were just some rube to be palmed off with a chump’s cut. Rojas couldn’t see the big picture. The trouble was, neither could Jimmy, but unlike him, Rojas wasn’t prepared to wait until it was revealed.

  Jimmy twisted the saucer with his finger, causing the cold coffee in the cup to ripple slightly. He wasn’t hurting for money, but he could always do with more. The downturn in the economy, and the hiatus in the development of the waterfront, meant that he had cash tied up in buildings that were depreciating with every passing day. The market would bounce back – it always did – but Jimmy wasn’t getting any younger. He didn’t want it to bounce back just in time to provide him with a bigger headstone.

  He shivered. There was an unseasonably cool breeze coming in off the water, and Jimmy was highly susceptible to cold. Even in the height of summer he wore a jacket. He had always been that way, ever since he was a little kid. There just wasn’t enough meat on his bones to keep him warm.

  ‘Hey, Earle!’ he called. ‘Close the goddamn door.’

  There was no reply. Jimmy swore. He walked through the office and past the storeroom to where a door opened on to the bar’s small parking lot. He stepped outside. There was no sign of Earle. Jimmy called his name again, suddenly uneasy.

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