The whisperers, p.2
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       The Whisperers, p.2

           John Connolly
 

  He stared back at the shape of the nest, almost invisible among the leaves, as though reluctant now to leave it. His sharp eyes picked out spider webs, and ants’ nests, and a green caterpillar scaling a bloodroot, and each creature gave him pause, and each sight he seemed to store away.

  They could smell the sea when Damien stopped. Had anyone been there to see him, it would have been clear that he was weeping. His face was contorted, and his shoulders convulsed with the force of his sobs. He looked around, right and left, as if expecting to glimpse presences moving between the trees, but there were only birdsong and the sound of waves breaking.

  The dog’s name was Sandy. She was a mutt, but more retriever than anything else. She was now ten years old, and she was as much Damien’s dog as his father’s, despite the son’s long absences, loving both equally just as they loved her. She could not understand her younger master’s behavior, for he was tolerant of her in ways that even his father was not. She wagged her tail uncertainly as he squatted beside her and tied her leash to the trunk of a sapling. Then he stood and removed the revolver from his pocket. It was a .38 Special, a Smith & Wesson Model 10. He had bought it from a dealer who claimed that it had come from a Vietnam vet who was down on his luck, but whom Damien subsequently discovered had sold it to feed the cocaine habit that had eventually claimed his life.

  Damien put his hands to his ears, the gun in his right hand now pointing to the sky. He shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut. ‘Please, please stop,’ he said. ‘I’m begging you. Please.’

  His mouth curled down, snot running from his nose, as he removed his hands from his head and, trembling, pointed the gun at the dog. It was inches from her muzzle. She leaned forward and sniffed it. She was used to the smell of oil and powder, for Damien and his father had often taken her to hunt birds with them, and she would bring them back in her jaws. She wagged her tail expectantly, anticipating the game.

  ‘No,’ said Damien. ‘No, don’t make me do it. Please don’t.’

  His finger tightened on the trigger. His whole arm was shaking. With a great effort of will, he turned the gun away from the dog, and screamed at the sea, and the air, and the setting sun. He gritted his teeth and freed the dog from her leash.

  ‘Go!’ he shouted at her. ‘Go home! Sandy, go home!’

  The dog’s tail went between her legs, but it was still wagging slightly. She didn’t want to leave. She sensed that something was very wrong. Then Damien ran at her, aiming a kick at her behind but pulling it at the last minute so that it made no contact. Now the dog fled, retreating toward the house. She paused while Damien was still in sight of her, but he came at her again, and this time she kept going, stopping only when she heard the gunshot.

  She cocked her head, then slowly began to retrace her steps, anxious to see what her master had brought down.

  I

  I fought single-handed, yet against such men no one Could do battle.

  Homer, The Odyssey, Book I

  1

  Summer had come, the season of awakenings.

  This state, this northern place, was not like its southern kin. Here, spring was an illusion, a promise made yet always unkept, a pretence of new life bound by blackened snow and slow-melting ice. Nature had learned to bide its time by the beaches and the bogs, in the Great North Woods of the County and the salt marshes of Scarborough. Let winter hold sway in February and March, beating its slow retreat to the forty-ninth parallel, refusing to concede even an inch of ground without a fight. As April approached, the willows and poplars, the hazel and the elms, had budded amid birdsong. They had been waiting since the fall, their flowers shrouded yet ready, and soon the bogs were carpeted in the purple-brown of alders; chipmunks and beavers were on the move. The skies bloomed with woodcock, and geese, and grackle, scattering themselves like seeds upon fields of blue.

  Now May had brought summer at last, and all things were awake.

  All things.

  Sunlight splashed itself upon the window, warming my back with its heat, and fresh coffee was poured into my cup.

  ‘A bad business,’ said Kyle Quinn. Kyle, a neat, compact man in pristine whites, was the owner of the Palace Diner in Biddeford. He was also the chef, and he happened to be the cleanest diner chef I’d ever seen in my life. I’d eaten in diners where the eventual sight of the chef had made me consider undertaking a course of antibiotics, but Kyle was so nicely turned out, and his kitchen so spotless, that there were ICUs with poorer hygiene than the Palace, and surgeons with dirtier hands than Kyle’s.

  The Palace was the oldest diner car in Maine, custom-built by the Pollard Company of Lowell, Massachusetts, its red and white paintwork still fresh and spruce, and the gold lettering on the window that confirmed ladies were, indeed, invited glowed brightly as if written in fire. The diner had opened for business in 1927, and since then five people had owned it, of whom Kyle was the latest. It served only breakfast, and closed before midday, and was one of those small treasures that made daily life a little more bearable.

  ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Bad in the worst way.’

  The Portland Press-Herald was spread before me over the counter of the diner. At the bottom of the front page, beneath the fold, the headline read:

  NO LEADS IN SLAYING OF STATE TROOPER

  The trooper in question, Foster Jandreau, had been found shot to death in his truck behind the former Blue Moon bar just inside the Saco town line. He hadn’t been on duty at the time, and was dressed in civilian clothes when his body was discovered. What he was doing at the Blue Moon, nobody knew, especially since the autopsy revealed that he’d been killed sometime after midnight but before 2 a.m, when nobody had any business hanging around the burnt-out shell of an unloved bar. Jandreau’s remains were found by a road crew that had pulled into the Moon’s parking lot for some coffee and an early morning smoke before commencing the day’s work. He had been shot twice at close range with a .22, once in the heart and once in the head. It bore all of the hallmarks of an execution.

  ‘That place was always a magnet for trouble,’ said Kyle. ‘They should have just razed what was left of it after it burnt.’

  ‘Yeah, but what would they have put there instead?’

  ‘A tombstone,’ said Kyle. ‘A tombstone with Sally Cleaver’s name on it.’

  He walked away to pour coffee for the rest of the stragglers, most of whom were reading or talking quietly among themselves, seated in a line like characters in a Norman Rockwell painting. There were no booths at the Palace, and no tables, just fifteen stools. I occupied the last stool, the one farthest from the door. It was after 11:00 a.m, and technically the diner was now closed, but Kyle wouldn’t be moving folk along anytime soon. It was that kind of place.

  Sally Cleaver: her name had been mentioned in the reporting of Jandreau’s murder, a little piece of local history that most people might have preferred to forget, and the final nail in the Blue Moon’s coffin, as it were. After her death, the bar was boarded up, and a couple of months later it was torched. The owner was questioned about possible arson and insurance fraud, but it was just a matter of routine. The birds in the trees knew that the Cleaver family had put the match to the Blue Moon bar, and nobody uttered a word of blame for it.

  The bar had now been closed for nearly a decade, a cause of grief for precisely no one, not even the rummies who used to frequent it. Locals always referred to it as the Blue Mood, as nobody ever came out of it feeling better than they had when they went in, even if they hadn’t eaten the food or drunk anything that they hadn’t seen unsealed in front of them. It was a grim place, a brick fortress topped with a painted sign illuminated by four bulbs, no more than three of which were ever working at any one time. Inside, the lights were kept dim to hide the filth, and all of the stools at the bar were screwed to the floor to provide some stability for the drunks. It had a menu right out of the chronic obesity school of cooking, but most of its clientele preferred to fill themselves up on the free beer nuts, salted to withi
n an inch of a stroke in order to encourage the consumption of alcohol. At the end of the evening, the uneaten but heavily pawed nuts that remained were poured back into the big sack that Earle Hanley, the bartender, kept beside the sink. Earle was the only bartender. If he was sick, or had something else more important to do than pickle drunks, the Blue Moon didn’t open. Sometimes, if you watched the clientele arriving for their daily fill, it was hard to tell if they were relieved or unhappy to find the door occasionally bolted.

  And then Sally Cleaver died, and the Moon died with her.

  There was no mystery about her death. She was twenty-three, and living with a deadbeat named Clifton Andreas, ‘Cliffie’ to his buddies. It seemed that Sally had been putting a little money aside each week from her job as a waitress, perhaps in the hope of saving enough to have Cliffie Andreas killed, or to convince Earle Hanley to spike his beer nuts with rat poison. I was familiar with Cliffie Andreas as a face around town, one that it was sensible to avoid. Cliffie Andreas never met a puppy that he didn’t want to drown, or a bug that he didn’t want to crush. Any work that he picked up was seasonal, but Cliffie was never likely to qualify for employee of the month. Work was something that he did when there was no money left, and he viewed it entirely as a last resort if borrowing, theft, or simply leeching off someone weaker and more needy than himself weren’t available options. He had a superficial bad boy charm for the kind of woman who assumed a public pose of regarding good men as weak, even as she secretly dreamed of a regular Joe who wasn’t mired in the mud at the bottom of the pond and determined to drag someone else down there with him.

  I didn’t know Sally Cleaver. Apparently she had low self-esteem, and lower expectations, but somehow Cliffie Andreas succeeded in reducing the former still further, and failed to live up even to the latter. Anyway, one evening Cliffie found Sally’s small, hard-earned stash, and decided to treat himself and his buddies to a free night at the Moon. Sally came home from work, found her money gone, and went looking for Cliffie at his favorite haunt. She found him holding court at the bar, drinking on her dime the Moon’s only bottle of cognac, and she decided to stand up for herself for the first, and last, time in her life. She screamed at him, scratched him, tore at his hair, until at last Earle Hanley told Cliffie to take his woman, and his domestic problems, outside, and not to come back until he had both under control.

  So Cliffie Andreas had grabbed Sally Cleaver by the collar and pulled her through the back door, and the men at the bar had listened while he pounded her into the ground. When he came back inside, his knuckles were raw, his hands were stained red, and his face was flecked with freckles of blood. Earle Hanley poured him another drink and slipped outside to check on Sally Cleaver. By then, she was already choking on her own blood, and she died on the back lot before the ambulance could get to her.

  And that was it for the Blue Moon, and for Cliffie Andreas. He pulled ten to fifteen in Thomaston, served eight, then was killed less than two months after his release by an ‘unknown assailant’ who stole Cliffie’s watch, left his wallet untouched, then discarded the watch in a nearby ditch. It was whispered that the Cleavers had long memories.

  Now Foster Jandreau had died barely yards from the spot on which Sally Cleaver had choked to death, and the ashes of the Moon’s history were being raked through once again. Meanwhile, the state police didn’t like losing troopers, hadn’t liked it since right back in 1924 when Emery Gooch was killed in a motorcycle accident in Mattawamkeag; nor since 1964, when Charlie Black became the first trooper killed by gunfire while responding to a bank raid in South Berwick. But there were shadows around Jandreau’s killing. The paper might have claimed that there were no leads, but the rumors said otherwise. Crack vials had been found on the ground by Jandreau’s car, and fragments of the same glass were discovered on the floor by his feet. He had no drugs in his system, but there were now concerns on the force that Foster Jandreau might have been dealing on the side, and that would be bad for everyone.

  Slowly, the diner began to empty, but I stayed where I was until I was the only one remaining at the counter. Kyle left me to myself, making sure that my cup was full before he started cleaning up. The last of the regulars, mostly older men for whom the week wasn’t the same without a couple of visits to the Palace, paid their checks and left.

  I’ve never had an office. I never had any use for one, and if I had, I probably couldn’t have justified the expense of it to myself, even given a favorable rent in Portland or Scarborough. Only a handful of clients had ever commented upon it, and on those occasions when a particular need for privacy and discretion had arisen, I’d been in a position to call in favors, and a suitable room had been provided. Occasionally I used the offices of my attorney up in Freeport, but there were people who disliked the idea of going into a lawyer’s office almost as much as they disliked the idea of lawyers in general, and I’d found that most of those who came to me for help preferred a more informal approach. Usually I went to them, and spoke with them in their own homes, but sometimes a diner like the Palace, empty and discreet, was as good as anywhere. In this case, the venue for the meeting had been decided by the prospective client, not by me, and I was fine with it.

  Shortly after midday, the Palace’s door opened, and a man in his late sixties entered. He looked like a model for the stereotypical old Yankee: feed cap on his head, an L.L. Bean jacket over a plaid shirt, neat blue denims, and work boots on his feet. He was wiry as a tension cable, his face weathered and lined, light brown eyes glittering behind surprisingly fashionable steel-framed spectacles. He greeted Kyle by name, then removed his hat and gave a courtly little bow to Tara, Kyle’s daughter, who was cleaning up behind the counter and who smiled and greeted him in turn.

  ‘Good to see you, Mr. Patchett,’ she said. ‘It’s been a while.’ There was a tenderness to her voice, and a brightness to her eyes, that said all that needed to be said about the new arrival’s recent sufferings.

  Kyle leaned through the serving hatch between the kitchen and the counter area. ‘Come to check out a real diner, Bennett?’ he said. ‘You look like you could do with some feeding up.’

  Bennett Patchett chuckled and swatted at the air with his right hand, as though Kyle’s words were insects buzzing at his head, then took a seat beside me. Patchett had owned the Downs Diner, close to the Scarborough Downs racetrack on Route 1, for more than forty years. His father had run it before him, opening it shortly after he returned from service in Europe. There were still pictures of Patchett Senior on the walls of the diner, some of them from his military days, surrounded by younger men who looked up to him as their sergeant. He’d died when he was still in his forties, and his son had eventually taken over the running of the business. Bennett had now lived longer than his own father, just as it seemed that I was destined to live longer than mine.

  He accepted the offer of a cup of coffee from Tara as he shrugged off his coat and hung it close to the old gas fire. Tara discreetly went to help her father in the kitchen, so that Bennett and I were left alone.

  ‘Charlie,’ he said, shaking my hand.

  ‘How you doing, Mr. Patchett?’ I asked. It felt odd to be calling him by his last name. It made me feel about ten years old, but when it came to such men, you waited until they gave you permission to be a little more familiar in your mode of address. I knew that all of his staff called him ‘Mr. Patchett.’ He might have been like a father figure to some of them, but he was their boss, and they treated him with the respect that he deserved.

  ‘You can call me Bennett, son. The less formal this is, the better. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken with a private detective before, except you, and that was only when you were eating in my place. Only ever saw them on TV and in the movies. And, truth to tell, your reputation makes me a little nervous.’

  He peered at me, and I saw his eye linger briefly at the scar on my neck. A bullet had grazed me there the previous year, deep enough to leave a permanent mark. In recent times, I seemed
to have accumulated a lot of similar nicks and scratches. When I died, they could put me in a display case as an example to others who might be tempted to follow a similar path of beatings, gunshot wounds, and electrocution. Then again, I might just have been unlucky. Or lucky. It depended upon how you looked at the glass.

  ‘Don’t believe everything you hear,’ I said.

  ‘I don’t, and you still concern me.’

  I shrugged. He had a sly smile on his face.

  ‘But no point in hemmin’ and hawin’,’ he continued. ‘I want to thank you for taking the time to meet with me. I know that you’re probably a busy man.’

  I wasn’t, but it was nice of him to suggest that I might be. Since my license had been restored to me earlier in the year, following some misunderstandings with the Maine State Police, things had been kind of quiet. I’d done a little insurance work, all of it dull and most of it involving nothing more strenuous than sitting in a car and turning the pages of a book while I waited for some doofus with alleged workplace injuries to start lifting heavy stones in his yard. But insurance work was thin on the ground, what with the economy being the way it was. Most private detectives in the state were struggling, and I had been forced to accept any work that came along, including the kind that made me want to bathe in bleach when I was done. I’d followed a man named Harry Milner while he serviced three separate women in the course of one week in various motels and apartments, as well as holding down a regular job and taking his kids to baseball practice. His wife had suspected that he was having an affair but, unsurprisingly, she was a little shocked to hear that her husband was engaged in the type of extensive sexual entanglements usually associated with French farces. His time management skills were almost admirable, though, as were his energy levels. Milner was only a couple of years older than I was, and if I’d been trying to keep four women satisfied every week I’d have incurred a coronary, probably while I was soaking myself in a bath of ice to keep the swelling down. Nevertheless, that was still the best paying job I’d had in a while, and I was back doing a couple of days a month tending bar at the Great Lost Bear on Forest Avenue, as much to pass the time as anything else.

 
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