The whisperers, p.22
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       The Whisperers, p.22

           John Connolly

  The Iranian sighed and shuffled on his seat. Rochman liked dealing with Iranians. The Iranians had been particularly keen pursuers of the stolen items from the Iraq museum that had so far made it on to the market, even if they, like the Jordanians, had ultimately been forced to relinquish most of the loot that had come their way. While many thousands of items remained missing, the most valuable of them had largely been recovered. Opportunities to acquire Iraqi treasures were growing increasingly rare, and the amount that collectors were willing to pay had increased accordingly. Although Rochman had not encountered this particular buyer before, he came strongly recommended by two former clients who had spent a great deal of money with Monsieur Rochman without troubling themselves unduly about matters of provenance and paperwork.

  ‘Will there be more?’ asked the Iranian. He called himself Mr. Abbas, ‘the Lion,’ which was clearly a pseudonym, but his goodwill deposit of two million dollars had cleared without a hitch, and those who vouched for him had assured Rochman that two million dollars barely represented a day’s earnings for Mr. Abbas. Nevertheless, Rochman was starting to grow weary of this particular lion hunt. Come, he thought, I know you’re going to buy them. Just say yes, and we can be done.

  ‘Not like these,’ said Rochman, then reconsidered. Who knew how much extra revenue a little patience might generate? ‘The ivories, or others even half as beautiful as them, are unlikely ever to resurface. If you decline, they will disappear. The seals—’ He tipped his right hand back and forth in the universal gesture of possibility, erring on the side of the negative. ‘But if you are satisfied with this particular purchase, artifacts of a similar quality may be made available to you.’

  ‘And provenance?’

  ‘The House of Rochman stands behind everything that it sells,’ said Rochman. ‘Naturally, were any legal issues to materialize, the buyer would be the first to know, but I am confident that no such difficulties will arise in this particular instance.’

  It was a standard line on the rare occasions when Rochman truly breached the boundaries of legality. Oh, there were often gray areas when it came to ancient treasures, but this was not one of them. Both he and Abbas knew the source of the ivories and the seals. It did not need to be spoken aloud, and no receipts would accompany this particular sale.

  Abbas nodded in apparent contentment. ‘Well, I am satisfied,’ he said. ‘Let us proceed.’

  He reached into his pocket and removed a gold pen, pressing the top to make the nib appear.

  ‘You won’t need a pen, Monsieur Abbas,’ Rochman began to say, which is when the door burst open, and armed police appeared, and Mr. Abbas smiled at him and said, ‘The name is Al-Daini, Monsieur Rochman. My colleagues and I have some questions for you. . . .’


  Angel and Louis had stayed with me at my house, and I suspected that neither of them had slept simultaneously that night, conscious that a move might be made against us at any time. The next morning, I spent an hour with them going back over everything that I knew about Joel Tobias. He was the principal link, and it was a useful exercise. The fact that he had served in the military helped, since it meant the existence of an official paper trail for a big chunk of his life. It all seemed pretty straightforward. He had signed up in 1990, straight out of high school in Bangor, and had trained as a truck driver. He’d been invalided out early in 2007 after an IED exploded while he was escorting medical supplies to the Green Zone in Baghdad, removing part of his left calf and two fingers on his left hand. When he returned to Maine later that year, he applied for a Maine commercial driver’s license after passing the written exam, eye exam, and road exam. He had also received a hazmat endorsement after putting his fingerprints on record and passing the requisite Transportation Safety Administration background check. So far, his license was clean.

  I found an obituary notice for his mother in the Bangor Daily News of July 19, 1998, and another for his father, who had served in Vietnam, in April 2007. It mentioned that his son, Joel, was also serving in the military, and was recuperating after being injured in the line of duty. There was even a picture of Tobias at the graveside. He was in full dress uniform, and was supporting himself on crutches. There were no siblings. Joel Tobias was an only child.

  I felt an unwelcome pang, the guilt of someone who had not made sacrifices for his country now faced with someone who had. It seemed, on the surface, that Tobias had served honorably, and had suffered for it. I had never even considered the military as an option when I left school, but I respected those who had. I wondered what had made Tobias sign up. Was it family history, a belief that he should follow in his father’s footsteps? Then again, his father had not been a career soldier. The obit made it clear that he had been drafted. A lot of guys had come back from Vietnam with a burning desire to ensure that their kids didn’t have to go through what they had. I supposed that, since Tobias had signed up willingly, he was either rebelling against his old man, or seeking his approval.

  I then opened up the file on Bobby Jandreau, who had gone to the same high school in Bangor as Tobias, although more than a decade separated them. During Jandreau’s final tour in Iraq, he’d been seriously injured in a gun battle in Gazaliya. The first bullet had hit him in the upper thigh, and while he was lying in the dirt the Shia militiamen who had attacked his convoy continued to fire shots at his legs in an effort to draw his comrades into a rescue and inflict further injuries on the squad. Jandreau had eventually been pulled to safety, but his legs were ruined. Amputation had been judged the only option.

  I knew all this because his name had been mentioned in a newspaper article on wounded Maine veterans who were trying to cope with life outside the military. Damien Patchett was named as the fellow soldier who had saved Jandreau’s life, but if Damien had been asked to comment, he had declined. In the course of the article, Jandreau admitted that he was struggling. He spoke of an addiction to prescription medication, which he was overcoming with the help of his girlfriend. As the reporter noted: ‘Jandreau stares out of the window of his Bangor home, his hands clutching the arms of his wheelchair. “I never really thought I’d end up like this,” he says. “Like most guys, I knew that there was a chance that it could happen, but I always believed that it would be someone else who’d get hurt, not me. I’m trying to find some positive aspect to it, but there isn’t one, not that I can see. It just sucks.” His girlfriend, Mel Nelson, strokes his hair tenderly. There are tears in her eyes, but Jandreau’s are dry. It is as if he is still in shock, or as if he has no more tears left to shed.’

  ‘Tough break,’ said Angel. Louis, who was also reading from the screen, said nothing.

  I couldn’t find an address for a Bobby Jandreau in Bangor, but the newspaper article had mentioned that Mel Nelson worked as an office manager in her father’s lumber company in Veazie. She was at her desk when I called, and we had a long conversation. Sometimes people are just waiting for the right call. It turned out that she was no longer Bobby’s girlfriend, and she wasn’t happy about the situation. She cared about him, and she loved him, but he had driven her away and she couldn’t understand why. When I hung up, I had Bobby Jandreau’s address and phone number, and a sense of admiration for Mel Nelson.

  Carrie Saunders called while we were eating breakfast. It would be untrue to say that she sounded enthused at the prospect of meeting me, but I had learned not to take that kind of response personally. I told her that I was working for Bennett Patchett, Damien’s father, and she simply confirmed an appointment at her office in the Togus VA Medical Center up in Augusta at midday before hanging up. Louis and Angel shadowed me all the way up to Augusta. I was interested to see what might emerge as we drove north, but they detected no sign of pursuit.


  Carrie Saunders’s office was located close to the Mental Health Service. Her name – simply ‘Dr. Saunders’ – was etched on a plastic plate by her door, and when I knocked the door was opened by a woman in her mid-thirties, with short blond hair a
nd the build of a lightweight boxer. She was wearing a dark t-shirt over black business slacks, and the muscles on her forearms and shoulders were clearly defined. She was about five-seven, and sallow skinned. Her office was small, and maximum use had been made of all available space: there were three filing cabinets to my right, and to my left there were bookshelves lined with assorted medical texts and cardboard document storage boxes. On the walls was framed evidence of qualification from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, and from Walter Reed. One impressive piece of paper indicated a specialization in disaster psychiatry. The floor was covered in hard-wearing gray carpet. Her desk was neat and functional. There was a disposable coffee cup beside the phone, and the remains of a bagel.

  ‘I eat when I can,’ she said, clearing away what was left of her lunch. ‘If you’re hungry, we can get something at the canteen.’

  I told her that I was fine. She gestured to the plastic chair at the opposite side of her desk, and waited for me to sit before doing so herself.

  ‘How can I help you, Mr. Parker?’

  ‘I understand that you’re conducting research into post-traumatic stress disorder.’

  ‘That’s right.’

  ‘With a particular emphasis on suicide.’

  ‘On suicide prevention,’ she corrected. ‘May I ask who told you about me?’

  It was probably my natural antipathy toward authority, especially the kind of authority represented by the military, but it seemed a good idea to keep Ronald Straydeer out of this for now.

  ‘I’d prefer not to say,’ I replied. ‘Is that a problem?’

  ‘No, just curious. I don’t often get private detectives requesting to see me.’

  ‘I noticed that you didn’t ask what this was about when we spoke on the phone.’

  ‘I did some checking up on you. You’ve got quite the reputation. I could hardly turn down the prospect of meeting you.’

  ‘My reputation is inflated. I wouldn’t believe everything that you read in the papers.’

  She smiled. ‘I didn’t read about you in the papers. I prefer to deal with people.’

  ‘Then we have that in common.’

  ‘It may be the only thing. Tell me, Mr. Parker, have you ever been in therapy?’


  ‘Grief counseling?’

  ‘No. Are you hustling for business?’

  ‘As you noted, I’m interested in post-traumatic stress.’

  ‘And I seem like a candidate.’

  ‘Well, wouldn’t you agree? I know about what happened to your wife and child. It was appalling, almost beyond countenance. I say “almost” because I served my country in Iraq, and what I saw there, what I endured there, changed me. Every day, I deal with the consequences of violence. You might say that I have a context into which to place what you’ve gone through, and what you may still be going through.’

  ‘Is this relevant?’

  ‘It is if you’re here to talk about post-traumatic stress. Whatever you learn today will be dependent on your understanding of the concept. That understanding may be commensurately greater if you can relate to it personally, however peripherally. Are we clear so far?’

  Her smile hadn’t gone away. It managed to stay just the right side of patronizing, but it was a close-run thing.


  ‘Good. My research here is part of an ongoing effort on the part of the military to deal with the psychological effects of combat, both on those who have served and have been invalided out, and on those who have left for reasons unrelated to injury. That’s one aspect of it. The other relates to pre-empting trauma. At the moment, we are phasing in emotional resiliency programs designed to improve combat performance and minimize mental heath difficulties, including PTSD, anger, depression, and suicide. These symptoms have become increasingly recognizable as soldiers undertake repeated deployments.

  ‘Not every soldier who experiences trauma will suffer from post-traumatic stress, just as individuals in civilian life react differently to, say, assault, rape, natural disasters, or the violent death of a loved one. There will be a stress response, but PTSD is not an automatic consequence. Psychology, genetics, physical condition, and social factors all play a part. An individual with a good support structure – family, friends, professional intervention – may be less likely to develop PTSD than, say, a loner. On the other hand, the longer the delay in developing PTSD, then arguably the more severely it will be experienced. Immediate post-traumatic stress usually begins to improve after three to four months. Delayed PTSD may be more long-term, up to a decade or more, and is therefore harder to treat.’ She paused. ‘Okay, that’s the lecture part over with for now. Any questions?’

  ‘None. Yet.’

  ‘Good. Now you get to participate.’

  ‘And if I don’t?’

  ‘Then you can leave. This is a trade-off, Mr. Parker. You want my help. I’m prepared to give it, but only in return for something. In this case, it’s your willingness to acknowledge when, and if, any of the symptoms I’m about to detail are familiar to you. You need answer only in the most general of terms. There are no records of this conversation being kept. If, at some point in the future, you would consider offering some deeper insights into what you’ve been through, then I would be grateful. You might even find it beneficial, or therapeutic. In any event, it goes back to what I said at the start. You’re here to find out about PTSD. This is your chance.’

  I had to admire her. I could leave, but I would have learned nothing, except not to underestimate women who look like boxers, and I’d figured that out long before I met Carrie Saunders.

  ‘Go ahead,’ I said. I tried to keep the resignation out of my voice. I don’t think that I succeeded.

  ‘There are three main categories of post-traumatic stress disorder. The first involves flashbacks, the re-experiencing of the event that may have sparked the disorder or, less severely, and more commonly, a series of unwanted, intrusive thoughts that may feel like flashbacks, but aren’t. We’re talking about dreams and bad memories on one level, or making associations with the event from unrelated situations: you’d be surprised at how many soldiers dislike fireworks, and I’ve seen traumatized men hit the deck at the sound of a door banging, even a child shooting a toy gun. But on another level there may be an actual reliving of what occurred, to the extent that it feels real enough to disrupt ordinary, day-to-day functioning. One of my colleagues calls it “ghosting”. I don’t like the term myself, but I’ve spoken to sufferers who’ve seized on the concept.’

  There was silence in the room. A bird flew by the window, and the sunlight caused its shadow to flit across the room: an unseen thing, separated from us by glass and brick, by the solidity of the actual, making its presence felt to us.

  ‘There were flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or whatever you want to call them,’ I said at last.





  ‘What would bring them on?’

  ‘Blood. The sight of a child – a girl – on the street, with her mother or alone. Simple things. A chair. A blade. Advertisements for kitchens. Certain shapes, angled shapes. I don’t know why. As time went on, the images that would cause problems for me became fewer.’

  ‘And now?’

  ‘They’re rare. I still have bad dreams, but not so often.’

  ‘Why do you think that is?’

  I was conscious of trying not to pause too long before my replies, of not giving the impression to Saunders that she might have hit on an interesting avenue to explore. The possibility that I believed myself to have been haunted by my wife and child, or some dark version of them that had since been replaced by forms less threatening but equally unknowable, would have qualified as an interesting avenue even if I’d been in group therapy with Hitler, Napoleon, and Jim Jones. Under the circumstances, I was pleased that my reply to her last question was v
irtually instantaneous.

  ‘I don’t know. Time?’

  ‘It doesn’t heal all wounds. That’s a myth.’

  ‘Maybe you just get used to the pain.’

  She nodded. ‘You might even miss it when it’s gone.’

  ‘You think so?’

  ‘You might if it gave you purpose.’

  If she wanted another response, she wasn’t going to get it. She seemed to realize it, because she moved on.

  ‘Then there are avoidance symptoms: numbness, detachment, social isolation.’

  ‘Not leaving the house?’

  ‘It may not be that literal. It could be just staying away from people or places associated with the incident: family, friends, former colleagues. Sufferers find it hard to care about anything. They may feel that there’s no point, that they have no future.’

  ‘There was some detachment,’ I admitted. ‘I didn’t feel part of ordinary life. There was no such thing. There was just chaos, waiting to break through.’

  ‘And colleagues?’

  ‘I avoided them, and they avoided me.’


  I thought of Angel and Louis, waiting outside in their car. ‘Some of them didn’t want to be avoided.’

  ‘Were you angry at them for that?’


  ‘Why not?’

  ‘Because they were like me. They shared my purpose.’

  ‘Which was?’

  ‘To find the man who killed my wife and child. To find him, and to tear him apart.’

  The answers were coming more quickly now. I was surprised, even angry at myself for letting this stranger get beneath my skin, but there was a pleasure in it too, a kind of release. Perhaps I was a narcissist, or perhaps I had simply not been so clinically incisive with myself in a very long time, if ever.

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