The whisperers, p.21
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       The Whisperers, p.21

           John Connolly

  ‘That’s bad,’ he said. ‘You’re naughty.’

  Then he seemed to listen once more. ‘I’ve tried,’ he said. ‘I can’t do it. I don’t know how.’

  He was silent again. His face grew serious. She heard him swallow hard, and thought that she could sense his fear, even from her perch above him.

  ‘No,’ he said, determinedly. ‘No, I won’t do that.’ He shook his head. ‘No, please. I won’t. You can’t ask me to do that. You can’t.’

  He put his hands to his ears, trying to block out the voice that only he could hear. He stood up, keeping his hands in place.

  ‘Leave me alone,’ he said, his voice rising. ‘Stop it. Stop whispering. You have to stop whispering.’

  He banged against the wall as he began to climb the stairs.

  ‘Stop it,’ he said, and she could hear in his voice that he had begun to cry. ‘Stop, stop, stop!’

  She slipped back into the bedroom, and pulled the sheets around her seconds before he opened the door and stepped inside. He did it so noisily that she couldn’t help but react, but she did her best to sound sleepy and surprised.

  ‘Honey,’ she said, lifting her head from the pillow. ‘Are you okay?’

  He didn’t answer her.

  ‘Joel?’ she said. ‘What’s the matter?’

  She saw him move toward her, and she was frightened. He sat down on the edge of the bed, and touched his hand to her hair.

  ‘I’m sorry I hit you,’ he said. ‘But I’d never hurt you bad. Not really.’ She felt her stomach contract so hard that she was sure she’d have to run to the bathroom to avoid soiling herself. It was those last two words. Not really: as if it was somehow okay to hurt someone a little now and again, but only when it was deserved, only when a nosy little bitch asked questions that she shouldn’t, or entertained snoops in the kitchen. Only then. And the punishment would fit the crime, and later she could spread herself for him and they’d make up, and it would be all right because he loved her, and that was what people who loved each other did.

  ‘When I hit you,’ he continued, ‘that wasn’t me. It was something else. It was like I was a puppet, and someone pulled my string. I don’t want to hurt you. I love you.’

  ‘I know,’ she replied, trying to keep the tremor from her voice, and only partly succeeding. ‘Honey, what’s wrong?’

  He leaned into her, and she felt his tears as he put his cheek against hers. She wrapped her arms around him.

  ‘I had a bad dream,’ he said, and she heard the child in him. Even as she did so, she looked down and saw him staring up at her, and for an instant his eyes were cold and suspicious and even, she thought, amused, as though they were both playing a game here, but only he knew the rules. Then it was gone, his eyes closing as he nuzzled against her breasts. She held him tightly even as she felt the urge to cast him aside, to run from that house and never, ever return.

  Stress damages the mind: that was what they didn’t understand, the people back home, the ones who hadn’t been there. Even the army didn’t understand that, not until it was too late. Take a little R & R, they said. Hang out with the family. Make love to your girlfriend. Occupy yourself. Get a job, find a routine, embrace normality.

  But he couldn’t have done that, even if his legs didn’t end halfway down his thighs, because stress is like a poison, a toxin working its way through the system, except that it affects only one vital organ: the brain. He remembered how he’d been in an automobile accident out on Route I when he was thirteen, shortly before his dad died. It hadn’t been a bad smash: a truck had run a red light, and had hit the passenger side of their car. He’d been in the back, on the driver’s side. It was pure dumb luck: there was an automobile dealership on that part of the road, and it always had some cool old cars lined up outside if the weather was good. He liked looking at them, imagining himself behind the wheel of the best of them. At any other time, he’d have been on the passenger side so that he could talk to his dad, and who knows what might have happened then. Instead, they’d both been shaken up pretty badly, and he’d been cut some by the glass. Afterward, when the tow truck had gone and the Scarborough cops had given them a ride home, he’d gone pale and started shaking before puking up his breakfast.

  That was what stress did. It made you ill, physically and mentally. And if you kept encountering stressful situations day after day, broken up by periods of tedium, of hanging around playing games, or eating, or catching some rack, or writing the compulsory monthly card home to let your nearest and dearest know that you weren’t dead yet, with no end in sight because your deployment kept being extended, then your neurons became so polluted that they couldn’t recover, and your brain began to rewire itself, altering its modes of operation. The nerve cell extensions in the hippocampus, which deals with learning and long-term memory, started to rot. The response capacity of the amygdala, which governs social behavior and emotional memory, changed. The medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in establishing feelings of fear and remorse, and enables us to interpret what is real and unreal, altered. Similar frazzling of the wiring could be found in schizophrenics, sociopaths, drug addicts, and long-term prisoners. You became like the dregs, and it wasn’t your fault, because you hadn’t done anything wrong. You’d simply done your duty.

  During the Civil War, they called it ‘irritable heart.’ For the soldiers of the Great War, it was ‘shell shock,’ and in World War II it was ‘battle fatigue,’ or ‘war neurosis.’ Then it became ‘post-Vietnam syndrome,’ and now it was PTSD. He sometimes wondered if the Romans had a word for it, and the Greeks. He had read the Iliad upon his return, part of his attempt to understand war through its literature, and believed that he saw, in the grief of Achilles for his friend Patroclus, and in the rage that followed, something of his own grief for the comrades that he had lost, Damien most of all.

  They left you this way. Your emotions are no longer under control. You are no longer under your own control. You become depressed, paranoid, removed from those who care about you. You believe that you are still at war. You fight your bedclothes at night. You become estranged from your loved ones, and they leave you.

  And maybe, just maybe, you start believing that you are haunted, that demons speak to you from boxes, and when you can’t satisfy them, when you can’t do what they want you to do, they turn you against yourself, and they punish you for your failings.

  And maybe, just maybe, that moment of obliteration comes as a relief.


  Herod arrived in Portland by train at 11:30 a.m., carrying only a black garment bag, the leather old but undamaged, a testament to the quality of its manufacture. He was not averse to flying, and rarely felt the necessity to carry anything that might make a bag search at an airport awkward, if not actively unwelcome, but where possible he preferred to travel by train. It reminded him of a more civilized era, when the pace of life was slower and people had more time for small courtesies. In addition, his debilitated condition meant that he found driving for long distances to be uncomfortable and a chore, as well as potentially hazardous, for the medication that he took to control his pain often led to drowsiness. Unfortunately, this was not a particular problem at present: he had reduced the dosage to keep his head clear, and consequently he was suffering. On a train, he could get up and prowl the carriage, or stand in the café car sipping a drink, anything to distract himself from the torments of the body. He had taken a seat in a quiet car at Penn Station, a contented smile on his face as the train emerged from below ground into hazy sunshine. The blue surgical mask hid his mouth, and attracted only one or two glances from those who passed him.

  He became aware of the Captain’s presence just as the Manhattan skyline vanished from view. The Captain was sitting in the seat directly across the aisle from Herod, visible only in the window glass, and then only partially: he was a smear, a blur, a moving figure captured by a camera lens when all around him was otherwise still. Herod found it easier to see him when he did not loo
k directly at him.

  The Captain was dressed as a clown. Say what you wanted about the Captain, Herod thought, but he had a fondness for the old reliables. The Captain wore a jacket of white and red stripes, and a small bowler hat from beneath which sections of a bedraggled red wig sprouted. There were cobwebs in the artificial hairs, and Herod thought that he could make out the shapes of spiders moving through them. His forearms were extended along the armrests of his seat, and his hands were mostly hidden by stained white gloves, except at the fingertips where sharp, blackened nails had erupted through the material. The forefinger of his right hand tapped rhythmically, slowly raising itself and then falling, like a mechanical device winding and then releasing, over and over. The Captain’s face was painted with white pan stick makeup. The mouth was large and red, and painted as a frown. There were blots of rouge on each cheek, but the eye sockets were empty and black. The Captain stared fixedly ahead, and only his finger moved.

  The car was full, but the Captain’s seat, while apparently unoccupied, remained empty, as did the seat next to Herod’s, as though something of the Captain’s aura had extended across the aisle. The woman seated by the window next to the Captain was old, and Herod watched her discomfort grow as the journey progressed. She shifted in her seat. She tried to put her arm on the shared rest, but she would only allow it to remain in place for a second or two before she withdrew it and rubbed her skin in distress. Sometimes her nose wrinkled, her face crinkling in disgust. She began to brush at her hair and face, and when Herod looked at her reflection he could see that some of the Captain’s spiders had begun to colonize her gray strands. Eventually, she picked up her coat and bag and left for another car. New passengers passed through the car after each regional station stop, and although a number paused at the two empty seats, some atavistic instinct caused them to move on.

  And all the time the Captain sat, and his finger went tap-tap-tap. . . .

  Herod alighted at Portland’s new transport terminal. He could still recall the old Union Station, where the service from Boston had once terminated. He had last taken it – when? 1964, he thought. Yes, certainly it was ’64. He could almost picture the big silver car with its interlinked blue B and white M. The fact that there was now a train, once again, between Boston and Maine, even if it meant switching stations at Boston, pleased him.

  He took a cab to the airport in order to pick up a rental car. Like his train ticket, the reservation was not in his own name. Instead, he was traveling under the name Uccello. Herod always used the name of a Renaissance artist when he was obliged to show identification. He had driver’s licenses and passports in the name of Dürer, Bruegel, and Bellini, but he had a special fondness for Uccello, one of the first artists to use perspective in his paintings. Herod liked to think that he, too, had an awareness of perspective.

  The Captain was no longer with him. The Captain was . . . elsewhere. Herod drove into Portland, and found the bar owned by the man named Jimmy Jewel. He parked behind the building opposite, and slipped his gun into the pocket of his overcoat before making his way to the other side of the wharf. The bar appeared to be closed, and he could see no signs of life inside. As he stared through the glass, the Captain returned, a bright reflected figure. He stood for a moment, that red frown fixed on his face, then turned and walked to the back of the bar. Herod followed, the Captain’s progress visible in the panes of the windows, like the frames of a film being projected too slowly. At the rear door, Herod knelt and examined the step. He touched his fingers to the spots of blood, then stared at the door for a moment before nodding to himself and turning away.

  He was back at the car, and about to start the engine, when he felt a coldness on his forearm. He looked to the right and saw the Captain’s image in the passenger window, the Captain’s left hand holding him in place, the nails like the stingers of insects. The Captain’s attention was fixed upon the bar. There was a man at the main door, his actions mirroring Herod’s own earlier attempts to see inside. He was about five-ten in height, his hair graying at the temples. Herod watched him curiously. There was a sense of threat to the new arrival: it was in the way that he held himself, a kind of grim self-possession. But there was an ‘otherness’ to him too, and Herod, aided by the Captain, recognized one like himself, a man who spanned two worlds. He wondered what it was that had opened the fissure, that had enabled this one to see as Herod saw. Pain? Yes, inevitably so, but not merely physical, not where this man was concerned. Herod picked up grief, and rage, and guilt, the Captain acting like a transmitter, pulses of emotion coursing through him.

  As if responding to Herod’s interest, the man turned. He stared at Herod. He frowned. The grip tightened on Herod’s arm and Herod understood the Captain’s desire to leave. He started the engine and pulled away, passing two other men as he turned right: a black man, exquisitely attired, and a smaller white man who appeared to have dressed in a hurry from his laundry basket. He saw them watching him in his rearview mirror, and then they were gone, and so too was the Captain.

  ‘You see that guy in the car?’ I asked Louis.

  ‘Yeah, the one with the mask. Didn’t get a good look at him, but I’d guess that he’s ailing for something.’

  ‘Was he alone?’


  ‘Yes, was there someone else in the passenger seat beside him?’

  Louis appeared puzzled. ‘No, it was just him. Why?’

  ‘Nothing, it must have been the sunlight on his window. No sign of Jimmy Jewel. I’ll try again later. Let’s go . . .’

  Herod drove to Waldoboro, because that was where his contact lived, the old woman who ran the antique store. He ordered coffee and a sandwich in a diner, and made a call from a pay phone while he waited for his food to arrive. Only a handful of other customers were present, none of them nearby, so he had no fear of being overheard.

  ‘Where do we stand?’ he said when the call was answered.

  ‘He lives above a warehouse in Lewiston. An old bakery.’

  Herod listened as the location was described to him in detail.

  ‘Does he keep company with his kind?’ he asked.


  ‘And the items?’

  ‘It appears that some interested parties have already emerged, but they remain in his possession.’

  Herod grimaced. ‘How did the other parties come to hear of them?’

  ‘He is a careless man. Word has spread.’

  ‘I am on my way. Make contact with him. Tell him I’d like to talk.’

  ‘I’ll tell Mr. Rojas that I may have a buyer, and that he should take no further action until we meet. As you know, he is not unaware of the value of the objects. It could be an expensive business.’

  ‘I’m sure that I can convince the seller to be reasonable, especially since I have no interest in what he is selling, merely in the source.’

  ‘Nevertheless, he is not a reasonable man.’

  ‘Really?’ said Herod. ‘How unfortunate.’

  ‘Neither is he unintelligent.’

  ‘Intelligent and unreasonable. One would have assumed such qualities were mutually contradictory.’

  ‘I have a photograph of him, if that might help. I printed it from the surveillance camera in my store.’ Herod described his car, and where it was parked. He told the woman that it was unlocked, and she should leave whatever material she had under the passenger seat. It was better, he felt, if they did not meet. The woman did her best not to sound disappointed at the news.

  He hung up. His food had arrived. He ate it slowly, and in a corner far from the other customers. He knew that his appearance had a way of putting people off their food, but equally he found eating under such scrutiny to be unpleasant. Eating was hard enough for him as it was: his appetite was minimal at best, but he had to consume to keep his strength up. That was more important now than ever before. As he ate, he thought about the man at the window of the bar, and the Captain’s reaction to his presence.

; There was a mirror on the wall opposite his booth. It reflected the road, where a little girl in a torn blue dress, her back to the diner, held a red balloon and watched the cars and trucks going by. A big Mack rig was heading her way, but she did not move, and the driver, high in his cab, did not appear to see her. Herod turned from the mirror as the truck hit the girl, driving straight over her. Herod almost cried out, and when the truck had passed the girl was gone. There was no sign that she had ever been there.

  Slowly, Herod looked back at the mirror, and the girl was where she had always been, except now she was facing the diner, and Herod. She seemed to smile at him, even as the dark hollows of her eyes mocked the light. Gradually she faded from sight and, in the reflected world, her balloon floated up toward gray-black clouds streaked with purple and red, like wounds torn in the heavens. Then the sky cleared, and the mirror was merely a reflection of this dull world, not a window into another.

  When Herod had eaten as much as he was able, he lingered over his coffee. After all, he had plenty of time. It would be some time before darkness fell, and Herod worked best in the dark. Then he would pay a visit to Mr. Rojas. Herod had no intention of waiting until the next day to begin negotiations. In fact, Herod had no intention of negotiating at all.


  Far away, in an apartment on the Rue du Seine in Paris, just above the sales rooms of the esteemed ancient art dealers Rochman et Fils, a deal was about to be concluded. Emmanuel Rochman, the latest in a long line of Rochmans to make a very comfortable living from the sale of the rarest of antiquities, waited for the Iranian businessman seated across from him to cease prevaricating and announce the decision that they both knew he had already reached. After all, this face-to-face meeting in the presence of the ancient artifacts was but the final step in a lengthy negotiation that had begun many weeks before, and items as rare and beautiful as those currently before him were never likely to be offered to him again: two delicate ivories from the tombs of the Assyrian queens at Nimrud, and a pair of exquisite lapis lazuli cylindrical seals, 5,500 years old and therefore the oldest such items that Rochman had ever been able to offer for sale.

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