The whisperers, p.20
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       The Whisperers, p.20

           John Connolly
 

  His foot slipped as he stepped into the lot. He looked down and saw the dark, spreading stain. To his left was Earle’s truck. The blood was coming from beneath it. Jimmy squatted so that he could see under the truck, and looked into Earle’s dead eyes. The big man was lying on his belly on the far side of the vehicle between the passenger door and the garbage cans by the wall, his mouth open, his face frozen in a final grimace of pain.

  Jimmy stood, and felt the gun nudge his skull, like death’s first tentative touch.

  ‘Inside,’ said a voice, and Jimmy couldn’t hide his surprise at the sound of it, but he did as he was told. He glanced at the truck as he rose, and caught a glimpse of a masked figure reflected in the window. Then the blows rained down on him for having the temerity to look. Kicks followed, driving him along the hallway and into the storeroom. The assault ceased as Jimmy crawled over to the liquor shelves, looking for some kind of purchase so he could raise himself. He could taste blood in his mouth, and he had trouble seeing out of his left eye. He tried to speak, but the words came out as hoarse whispers. Still, it was clear that he was begging: for time to recover, for the blows to stop.

  For more life.

  One of the kicks had broken a rib, and he could feel it grinding as he moved. He slumped against the shelves, drawing ragged breaths. He raised his right hand in a placatory gesture.

  ‘You killed a man for a hundred and fifty dollars and change,’ said Jimmy. ‘You hear me?’

  ‘No, I killed him for much more than that.’

  And Jimmy knew for sure that this wasn’t about the money in the safe. It was about Rojas, and the seal, and Jimmy Jewel understood that he was about to die as the black mouth of the suppressor gaped like the void into which Jimmy would soon pass.

  He gave away everything after the first shot, but his interrogator had fired two more anyway, just to be sure that he wasn’t holding anything back.

  ‘No more,’ said Jimmy, ‘no more,’ his wounds bleeding onto the floor, and it was both a plea and an admission, a rejection of further pain and an acceptance that all was about to come to an end.

  His interrogator nodded.

  ‘Oh my God,’ whispered Jimmy, ‘I am heartily sorry—’

  The final bullet came. He did not hear it, but only felt the mercy of it.

  It would be days before his body, and that of Earle, were found. Summer rains came that night and washed away Earle’s blood, sending it flowing across the sloped surface of the lot, through the wooden pilings that supported the old pier, and into the sea, salt to salt. Earle’s truck was left at the Maine Mall, and when it was still there after two days mall security took an interest, and subsequently the police arrived, for by then it was clear that Jimmy Jewel had fallen off the radar. Calls were going unanswered, and beer could not be delivered to the Sailmaker, and the drunks who worshipped there missed its cloisters.

  Jimmy was discovered in the storeroom. He had been shot through both feet, and one knee, by which point he had presumably told all that he knew, and therefore the fourth shot had taken him through the heart. Earle lay at Jimmy’s ruined feet, like a faithful hound dispatched to keep its master company in the afterlife. It was only later that someone noticed the correspondence of dates: Earle and Jimmy had died on June 2nd, ten years to the day since Sally Cleaver had breathed her last at the back of the Blue Moon.

  And old men shrugged, and said that they were not surprised.

  17

  Karen Emory woke to find Joel gone from their bed. She listened for a time, but could hear no sound. Beside her, the clock on the night table read 4:03 a.m.

  She had been dreaming, and now, as she lay awake trying to discern some indication of his presence in the house, she felt a kind of gratitude that she was no longer sleeping. It was foolish, of course. In less than three hours she would have to get up and get dressed for work. She had decided that she would keep working for Mr. Patchett for the moment, and had told Joel so when she came home and found him returned from his trip, a dressing on his face that he wouldn’t explain. He hadn’t objected, which had surprised her, but maybe her arguments had made sense to him, or so she thought at first: that work was hard to come by; that she couldn’t just sit around at home or she’d go crazy; that she’d give Mr. Patchett no further cause to go looking into her affairs, or Joel’s.

  She needed to sleep. Soon, her legs and feet would be aching from hours of service, but then her feet always hurt. Even with the best shoes in the world, which she couldn’t have afforded anyway, not on her pay, she still would have experienced the ache in her heels and the balls of her feet that came from standing for eight hours a day. Mr. Patchett was a better boss than most, though, better, in fact, than any boss she’d ever had before, which was one of the reasons that she wanted to remain at the Downs Diner. She’d worked for enough sleazebags in her time to recognize a good soul when she encountered one, and she was grateful for the hours that he gave her. The diner could easily get by with one less waitress, and as one of the most recent employees she would be among the first to be shown the door, but he continued to put regular work her way. He was looking out for her, the way he looked out for all of the people who worked for him, and at a time when businesses were letting staff go left and right, there was something to be said for a man who was prepared to shuck a little profit in order to let people live.

  But Mr. Patchett’s concern for her was a problem, especially since the private detective had started ‘nosing around,’ as Joel put it. She’d have to be careful what she said to Mr. Patchett, just as she’d tried to be careful when the detective came to the house, even though she’d ended up saying more than she should have.

  It was Joel who had first spotted the detective. Joel had a kind of sixth sense about these things. For a man, he was very perceptive. He could tell when she was sad, or when there was something preying on her mind, just by looking at her, and she had never encountered a man like that before. Maybe she’d just been unlucky with her choices before Joel came along, and most men were as attuned to the women they were with, but she doubted it. Joel was unusual in that way, and in others.

  And yet Karen hadn’t wanted to tell Joel about the detective’s visit. She couldn’t have said why, exactly, not at first, except for a vague sense that Joel wasn’t being straight with her about parts of his life, and because of her own fears for his safety, which was why she’d let some stuff slip to the detective when he came by. She had watched how the deaths of Joel’s friends had affected him: he was frightened, even though he didn’t want to show it. Then he had come home yesterday evening with the Band-Aid on his face and the wounds on his hands and wouldn’t speak of how he’d hurt himself. Instead, he’d retired to the basement, moving stuff in boxes down there from the truck, wincing sometimes when a box touched against his injuries.

  And when he eventually came to bed . . .

  Well, that hadn’t been so good.

  She sighed and stretched. The clock had moved up two digits. There was still no sound, no flushing of the toilet or closing of the refrigerator door. She wondered what Joel was doing, but she was afraid to go looking for him, not after what happened earlier. Karen wondered if he had been hiding that aspect of himself all along, and if she had been mistaken in her assessment of him. No, not mistaken. Misled. Taken for a fool. Manipulated, and abused, by a man she hardly knew.

  She had been looking to get away from the Patchett dorms. Oh, she’d been grateful for the room, and the company of the other women, but such places were always meant to be temporary stops, she felt, even though one of the waitresses, Eileen, had been living there for fifteen years now. That wasn’t going to happen to Karen, living like a spinster according to Mr. Patchett’s old-fashioned rules about not keeping male company in the dorm house. First, it had seemed like Damien might have provided an escape, but he had no interest in her. She thought that he might even have been gay, but Eileen assured her that he was not. He’d had a fling with the previous hostess in between d
eployments, and it had seemed like they might get together permanently, but she hadn’t wanted to become an army wife or, worse, an army widow, and it had fizzled out. Karen thought that Mr. Patchett might have liked it if she and Damien had become an item, and when Damien returned home permanently his father had done everything to steer the two of them together, inviting Karen to have dinner with them, or sending her off with Damien to buy produce and talk to suppliers. But by then she’d already begun seeing Joel, whom she’d met through Damien. When she had eventually allowed Joel to pick her up from work for the first time, she’d seen the disappointment in Mr. Patchett’s face. He hadn’t said anything, but it was there, and he’d never been quite as easy with her after that. When his son died, the possibility struck her that he might believe she was in some way to blame for what happened, that if Damien had someone to care for, and who cared for him, then he wouldn’t have taken his own life. Maybe that was what lay behind the hiring of the detective: Mr. Patchett was angry at her for dating Joel, but he was taking it out on Joel, not her.

  Joel made good money driving his truck, more money than she thought an independent truck driver could, or should, make. Most of his work involved him moving back and forth across the border with Canada. She’d tried to find out about it from him, and he’d told her that he hauled whatever needed to be hauled, but the way he said it left her under no illusions that this was a discussion he either welcomed or wanted to continue, and she’d dropped the subject. Still, she wondered . . .

  But she loved Joel. She had decided that within a couple of weeks of meeting him. She just knew. He was strong, he was kind, and he was older than she, so he understood more about the world, which made her feel secure. He had a place of his own, and when he asked her to move in with him he’d barely had time to finish the sentence before she’d said yes. It was a house, too, not some apartment where they’d be bumping into the walls and getting on each other’s nerves. There was plenty of space: two bedrooms upstairs, and a smaller box room; a big living area and a nice kitchen; and a basement where he kept his tools. He was clean, too, cleaner than most of the men that she’d known before. Oh, the bathroom had needed a good scrub, and the kitchen too, but they weren’t filthy, just untidy. She’d been happy to do it. She was proud of their house. That was how she thought of it: ‘their’ house. Not just his, not anymore. Slowly, she was imposing elements of her own personality upon it, and he seemed content to let her do so. There were flowers in vases, and more books than there had been before. She’d even picked up some pictures for the walls. When she’d asked him if he liked them, he’d said ‘Sure,’ and made an effort to examine each one, as though he were appraising them for a sale at some later date. She knew that he was just doing it to please her, though. He was a man largely unconcerned with trimmings, and she doubted if he would even have noticed the paintings if she hadn’t pointed them out to him, but she appreciated the fact that he’d made the effort to seem interested.

  Was he a good man? She didn’t know. She’d thought so at the start, but he’d changed so much in recent weeks. Then again, she supposed that all men changed, once they got what they wanted. They stopped being quite as caring as before, as solicitous. It was as if they put up a front to attract women, and then slowly shed it once that was achieved. Some dispensed with it more quickly than others, and Lord knows she’d seen men switch from lambs to wolves with the flip of a coin or with one last drink for the road, but his change had appeared more gradual, and was somehow more disturbing because of that. At first, he’d just been distracted. He didn’t talk as much to her, and he sometimes snapped at her when she persisted in trying to have a conversation. She thought that it might have been something to do with his injuries. Sometimes, his hand hurt. He’d lost two fingers from his left in Iraq, and his hearing wasn’t so good in his left ear. He’d been lucky. The other guys hit by the IED hadn’t made it. He rarely talked about what had happened, but she knew enough. He was away a lot, driving his truck, and there were his army buddies, the ones who used to come to the house but didn’t anymore. They never said much to her, and one of them, Paul Bacci, gave her the creeps, the way his eyes wandered over her body, lingering on her breasts, her crotch. When they arrived, Joel would close the living room door, and she would hear the steady buzz of their soft tones through the walls, like insects trapped in the cavities.

  ‘Joel?’

  There was no reply. She wanted to go and find him, but she was frightened. She was frightened because he had hit her again. It had come as she tried to question him about his wounds, after she opened the bathroom door and saw him applying salve to the burns on his hands, and the terrible one on his face. He had answered her question with one of his own.

  ‘Why didn’t you tell me about your visitor?’ he said, and it took her a moment to realize that she was referring to Parker, the detective. After all, how could he have known? She was still trying to come up with a suitable reply when his right hand had shot out and caught her. Not hard, and he’d seemed almost as shocked by what he’d done as she was, but it had been a strike nonetheless, catching her on the left cheek and causing her to stumble backward against the wall. It was different from the first time: that had been an accident. She was sure of it. This one had power and venom behind it. He’d apologized as soon as it happened, but she was already running to the bedroom, and it was a couple of minutes before he followed her. He kept trying to talk to her, but she wouldn’t listen. She couldn’t listen, she was crying so hard. Eventually, he just held her, and she felt him fall asleep against her, and in time she fell asleep too, because it was an escape from thinking about what he had just done. He woke her during the night to say sorry again, and his lips had brushed hers, his hands searching her body, and they had made up.

  But, no, they hadn’t, not really. She had done it for him, not for herself. She hadn’t wanted him to feel bad, and she hadn’t wanted him to . . . hurt her.

  Yes, that was it. That was the horror of it.

  Now, as she lay in the darkness, she realized that her view of him had changed as much as he had. She’d wanted him to be a good man, or at least a better man than some of those she’d dated before him, but deep down she thought now that he wasn’t, not really, not if he could hit her like that, not if he was changing so dramatically. Sex was no longer gentle. He’d actually hurt her some when he’d woken her earlier, and when she’d asked him to be more tender with her he’d simply finished and turned away from her, leaving her staring at his bare back.

  ‘I’m talking to you,’ she’d said, and had tugged at his shoulder, trying to get him to look at her. She’d felt him tense up, and then he had turned, and the expression on his face, even in the darkness, had caused her to let her hand fall, and she had moved as far away from him as she could in their bed. For a moment, she had been certain that he was going to hit her again, but he had not.

  ‘Leave me alone,’ he had said, and there was something in his eyes that might almost have been fear, and she’d had the sense that he might have been talking both to her and to someone else, an unseen entity of whom only he was aware. Then she had dozed, and the dream had come. She couldn’t call it a nightmare, not really, although it made her uneasy. In it, she was trapped in a small space, almost like a coffin, but it was simultaneously larger and smaller than that, which made no sense to her. She was struggling for breath, and her mouth and nostrils were filling with dust.

  But worst of all, she wasn’t alone. There was a presence in there with her, and it was whispering. She couldn’t understand what it was saying, and she wasn’t even sure that the words were meant for her anyway, but it never stopped speaking.

  A noise came from downstairs, an unfamiliar sound that did not belong in the darkness of their home. It was a giggle, quickly stifled. There was something childlike about it, yet also unpleasant. It was a spontaneous eruption of mirth at a word or act that was more shocking than funny. It was laughter at a thing that should not be laughed at.

&n
bsp; Carefully, she pushed back the blankets and put her feet to the floor. The boards did not creak. Joel had done much of the work on the house himself, and was proud of its solidity. She padded across the carpet and opened the door wider. Now she heard whispering, but it was his voice, not the voice of the others, the ones in her dream. Others. She had not recognized that before. It was not one, but more than one. There were many voices, all speaking in the same tongue, but using different words.

  She moved to the top of the stairs, then knelt down and peered through the banisters. Joel was sitting cross-legged on the floor by the cellar door, his hands in his lap, tugging at his fingers. He reminded her of a small boy, and she almost smiled at the sight of him.

  Almost.

  He was carrying on a conversation with someone on the other side of the basement door. He always kept that door locked. It didn’t concern her unduly, not at first. She’d gone down there with him to help him bring up some paint during the first week after she’d moved in, and it had seemed to her just the usual clutter of boxes, junk, and old machinery. Since then, she had rarely gone down there, and always with Joel. He hadn’t forbidden her from entering the basement. He was smarter than that and, anyway, she had no cause to do so. In addition, she had never liked dark spaces, which was probably why her dream was troubling her so much.

  She held her breath as she peered down, straining to hear what he was saying. He was whispering, but she could hear no response to his words. Instead, he would speak for a moment, then listen before responding. Sometimes he would nod his head silently, as though following the course of an argument that only he could hear.

  He giggled again, and as he did so he put his hands to his mouth, smothering the sound. He glanced up instinctively as he did so, but she was hidden in the shadows.

 
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