The whisperers, p.23
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       The Whisperers, p.23

           John Connolly
 

  ‘Did you feel that you had a future?’

  ‘An immediate one.’

  ‘That lay in killing this man.’

  ‘Yes.’

  She was leaning forward slightly now, a white light in her eyes. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, until I realized that I was seeing my own face reflected in the depths of her pupils.

  ‘Arousal symptoms,’ she said. ‘Difficulty concentrating.’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Exaggerated responses to startling stimuli.’

  ‘Like gunshots?’

  ‘Perhaps.’

  ‘No, my responses to gunshots weren’t exaggerated.’

  ‘Anger. Irritability.’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Sleeping difficulties.’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Hypervigilance.’

  ‘Justified. A lot of people seemed to want me dead.’

  ‘Physical symptoms: fever, headache, dizziness.’

  ‘No, or not excessively so.’

  She sat back. We were nearly done.

  ‘Survivor guilt,’ she said softly.

  ‘Yes,’ I said.

  Yes, all the time.

  Carrie Saunders stepped from her office and came back with two cups of coffee. She took some sachets of sugar and creamer from her pocket and laid them on the desk.

  ‘You don’t need me to tell you, do you?’ she said as she filled her cup with enough sugar to make the spoon stand upright without a hand to support it.

  ‘No, but then you’re not the first one to try.’

  I sipped the coffee. It was strong, and tasted bitter. I could see why she was adding so much sugar to it.

  ‘How are you doing now?’ she asked.

  ‘I’m doing okay.’

  ‘Without treatment?’

  ‘I found an outlet for my anger. It’s ongoing, and therapeutic.’

  ‘You hunt people down. And, sometimes, you kill them.’

  I didn’t reply. Instead, I asked: ‘Where did you serve?’

  ‘In Baghdad. I was a major, initially attached to Task Force Ironhorse at Camp Boom in Ba Qubah.’

  ‘Camp Boom?’

  ‘Because there were so many explosions. It’s called Camp Gabe now, after a sapper, Dan Gabrielson, who was killed at Ba Qubah in 2003. It was basic as anything when I got there: no plumbing, no a/c, nothing. By the time I left there were CHEWS, central water for the showers and latrines, a new power grid, and they’d begun training the Iraqi National Guard there.’

  ‘CHEWS?’ I said. I felt as though I were listening to someone speaking pidgin English.

  ‘Containerized housing units. Big boxes to you.’

  ‘Must have been hard, being a female soldier out there.’

  ‘It was. This is a new war. In the past, female soldiers didn’t live and fight alongside men, not the way they do now. It’s brought its own problems. Technically, we’re barred from joining combat units, so instead we’re “attached” to them. In the end, we still fight, and we still die, just like men. Maybe not in the same numbers, but over a hundred women have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hundreds more have been injured. But we’re still called bitches and dykes and sluts. We’re still open to harassment and assault by our own men. We’re still advised to walk in pairs around our own bases to avoid rape. But I don’t regret serving, not for one minute. That’s why I’m here: there are a lot of soldiers who are still owed something.’

  ‘You said you started at Camp Boom. What about after that?’

  ‘I was seconded to Camp Warhorse, and then to Abu Ghraib as part of the restructuring of the prison.’

  ‘You mind if I ask what your duties there involved?’

  ‘Initially, I dealt with prisoners. We wanted information, and they were naturally hostile to us, especially after what happened in the prison in the early days. We needed to find other ways to get them to talk.’

  ‘When you say “other ways” . . .’

  ‘You saw the photographs: humiliation, torture – simulated and otherwise. That didn’t help our cause. Those idiots on talk radio who laughed about it had no understanding of the impact it had. It gave the Iraqis another reason to hate us, and they took it out on the military. American soldiers died because of Abu Ghraib.’

  ‘Just a few bad apples getting out of line.’

  ‘Nothing happened in Abu Ghraib that wasn’t sanctioned from above, in general if not in detail.’

  ‘And then you arrived with a new approach.’

  ‘I, and others. Our maxim was simple: don’t torture. Torture a man or woman for long enough, and you’ll be told exactly what you want to hear. In the end, all they want is for the torture to stop.’

  She must have seen something in my face, because she stopped talking and eyed me intently over her coffee. ‘You’ve been hurt in that way?’

  I didn’t answer.

  ‘I’ll take that as a “yes”’, she said. ‘Even moderate pressure, and by that I mean physical pain that doesn’t leave one in fear of death, is scarring. In my view, someone who has endured torture is never quite the same again. It removes a part of oneself, excises it entirely. Call it what you will: peace of mind, dignity. Sometimes, I wonder if it even has a name. Anyway, in the short term it has a profoundly destabilizing effect on the personality.’

  ‘And in the long term?’

  ‘Well, in your case, how long has it been?’

  ‘Since the last time?’

  ‘There’s been more than one?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Jesus. If I was dealing with a soldier in your position, I’d be making sure that he was undergoing intensive therapy.’

  ‘That’s reassuring to know. To get back to you . . .’

  ‘After my time in Abu Ghraib, I moved into counseling and therapy. It became clear at a very early stage that there were problems with stress levels, and those increased when the military instituted repeated deployments, stop-loss, and began calling up weekend warriors. I became part of a mental health team working out of the Green Zone, but with particular responsibility for two FOBs: Arrowhead and Warhorse.’

  ‘Arrowhead. That’s where the Third Infantry is based, right?’

  ‘Some brigades, yes.’

  ‘You ever encounter anyone from a Stryker unit while you were there?’

  She set her cup aside. Her expression changed.

  ‘Is that why you’re here, to talk about the men of Stryker C?’

  ‘I didn’t mention Stryker C.’

  ‘You didn’t have to.’

  She waited for me to proceed.

  ‘From what I can tell, three members of Stryker C, all known to one another, have died at their own hands,’ I said. ‘One of them took his wife with him. That sounds like a suicide cluster to me, which would probably be of interest to you.’

  ‘It is.’

  ‘Did you speak to any of those men before they died?’

  ‘I spoke to all of them, but Damien Patchett only inform ally. The first was Brett Harlan. He’d been attending the Veterans Outreach Center in Bangor. He was also a drug addict. For him, it helped that the needle exchange program was based next to a veterans center.’

  I couldn’t tell if she was joking.

  ‘What did he tell you?’

  ‘That’s confidential.’

  ‘He’s dead. He doesn’t care any longer.’

  ‘I’m still not going to reveal the substance of my discussions with him, but clearly you can take it that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, although—’

  She stopped. I waited.

  ‘He was experiencing auditory phenomena,’ she added, slightly reluctantly.

  ‘So he was hearing voices.’

  ‘That doesn’t fit with the diagnosis criteria for PTSD. That’s closer to schizophrenia.’

  ‘Did you investigate further?’

  ‘He discontinued treatment. And then he died.’

  ‘Was there a specific event that trig
gered his problem?’

  She looked away. ‘It was . . . nonspecific, as far as I could ascertain.’

  ‘What does that mean?’

  ‘There were nightmares, and he was having trouble sleeping, but he couldn’t relate it to a specific occurrence. That’s all I’m prepared to say.’

  ‘Was there any indication that he might have been about to murder his wife?’

  ‘None. Do you seriously think that we wouldn’t have intervened if we thought that there was such a risk? Come on.’

  ‘Is it possible that the same stimulus could have led all three to act as they did?’

  ‘I’m not sure what you mean.’

  ‘Could something have happened in Iraq that led to a form of . . . collective trauma?’

  Her mouth twitched slightly in amusement. ‘Are you making up psychiatric terms, Mr. Parker?’

  ‘It sounded right. I couldn’t think of any other way to explain what I meant.’

  ‘Well, it’s not a bad effort. I dealt with Bernie Kramer twice, shortly after he returned. He displayed mild stress symptoms at the time, similar to those being experienced by Brett Harlan, but neither referred to any common traumatic occurrence in Iraq. Kramer declined to continue treatment. Damien Patchett I encountered briefly after Bernie Kramer died, as part of my research, and, again, he spoke of nothing that might correspond to what you’re suggesting.’

  ‘His father didn’t mention that he was receiving counseling.’

  ‘That’s because he wasn’t. We talked for a time after Kramer’s funeral, and met subsequently once, but there was no formal therapy. Actually, I’d have said that Damien appeared very well adjusted, apart from some insomnia.’

  ‘Did you prescribe drugs for any of those men?’

  ‘It’s part of my job, when necessary. I’m not a fan of heavily medicating troubled individuals. It just helps to mask the pain, without dealing with the underlying problem.’

  ‘But you did prescribe drugs.’

  ‘Trazodone.’

  ‘For Damien Patchett?’

  ‘No, just for Kramer and Harlan. I advised Damien to consult his own physician, if he was having trouble sleeping.’

  ‘But that wasn’t the limit of his problems.’

  ‘Apparently not. It may be that Kramer’s death was the catalyst for the emergence of Damien’s own difficulties. To be honest, I was surprised when Damien took his life. But I approached a number of Kramer’s former comrades at the funeral, Damien included, and offered to help facilitate counseling services for them, if they chose to avail themselves of them.’

  ‘With you?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Because it would have helped with your research.’

  For the first time, she got angry. ‘No, because it would have helped them. This isn’t merely some academic exercise, Mr. Parker. It’s about saving lives.’

  ‘It doesn’t seem to be working out so well for the Stryker C,’ I said. I was goading her, and I didn’t know why. I suspected that it was resentment at myself for opening up to her that I was now trying to throw back. Whatever the reason, I needed to stop. She precipitated it by standing, indicating that our time together was over. I stood and thanked her for her input, then turned to leave.

  ‘Oh, one last thing,’ I said, as she began to open folders on her desk and return to her work.

  ‘Yes,’ she said. She didn’t look up.

  ‘You attended Damien Patchett’s funeral?’

  ‘Yes. Well, I went to the church. I would have gone to the cemetery too, but I didn’t.’

  ‘Can I ask why?’

  ‘It was communicated to me that I wouldn’t be welcome.’

  ‘By whom?’

  ‘That’s none of your business.’

  ‘Joel Tobias?’

  Her hand froze for an instant, and then continued turning a page.

  ‘Good-bye, Mr. Parker,’ she said. ‘If you’ll take some professional advice, you still have a lot of issues to work out. I’d speak to someone about them, if I were you. Someone other than myself,’ she added.

  ‘Does that mean you don’t want me to be part of your research?’

  Now she looked up. ‘I think I’ve learned enough about you,’ she said. ‘Please close the door on your way out.’

  22

  Bobby Jandreau still lived in Bangor, a little over an hour north of Augusta, in a house at the top of Palm Street, off Stillwater Avenue. Once again, Angel and Louis stayed with me all the way there, but we reached Jandreau’s place without incident. It didn’t look like much from the outside: single-story, paintwork that flaked like bad skin, a lawn that was trying its best to pretend that it wouldn’t soon be overrun by weeds. The best that could be said about the exterior was that it didn’t raise any expectations that the interior of the house couldn’t live up to. Jandreau answered the door in his wheelchair. He was dressed in gray sweat pants pinned at the thighs and a matching t-shirt, both of which were stained. He was building up a gut that the shirt didn’t even attempt to conceal. His hair was shaved close to his skull, but he was growing a rough beard. The house smelled stale: in the kitchen behind him, I could see dishes piled up in the sink, and pizza boxes lying on the floor by the trash can.

  ‘Help you?’ he said.

  I showed him my ID. He took it from me and held it on his lap, staring at it the way someone might examine the photograph of a missing child that had been presented to him by the cops, as though by gazing at it for long enough he might remember where he’d seen the kid. When he had finished examining it, he returned it to me and let his hands fall between his thighs, where they worried at each other like small animals fighting.

  ‘Did she send you?’

  ‘Did who send me?’

  ‘Mel.’

  ‘No.’ I wanted to ask him why she might have wanted to send a private detective to his home, because she’d given no indication of that level of trouble when we talked, but it wasn’t the time for that, not yet. Instead, I said: ‘I was hoping to talk to you about your army service.’

  I waited for him to ask me why, but he didn’t. He just wheeled his chair backward and invited me inside. There was a wariness to him, a consciousness, perhaps, of his own vulnerability and the fact that, until he died, he would always be destined to look up at others. His upper arms were still strong and muscular, and when we went into the living room I saw a rack of dumbbells over by the window. He saw where I was looking, and said, ‘Just because my legs don’t work no more doesn’t mean I have to give up on the rest of me.’ There was no belligerence or defensiveness to his words. It was simply a statement of fact.

  ‘The arms are easy. The rest—’ He patted his belly. ‘—Is harder.’

  I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.

  ‘You want a soda? I don’t have anything stronger. I’ve decided that it’s not good for me to have certain temptations around.’

  ‘I’m fine. You mind if I sit down?’

  He pointed at a chair. I saw that my first impressions about the interior had been wrong, or at least unfair. This room was clean, if a little dusty. There were books – mainly science fiction, but history books too, most of them relating to Vietnam and World War II, from what I could see, but also some books on Sumerian and Babylonian mythology – and today’s newspapers, the Bangor Daily News and the Boston Globe. But there was a mark on the carpet where something had splattered recently and had been imperfectly cleaned up, and another on the wall and floor between the living room and the kitchen. I got the sense that Jandreau was trying his best to keep things together, but there was only so much that a man in a wheelchair could do about a stain on the carpet, not unless he was going to tip himself out of his chair to deal with it.

  Jandreau was watching me carefully, gauging my reactions to his living space.

  ‘My mom comes around a couple of times a week to help me with the stuff I can’t do for myself. She’d be around here every day if I let her, but she fusses. You know ho
w they can be.’

  I nodded.

  ‘What happened to Mel?’

  ‘You know her?’

  I didn’t want to tell him that I’d spoken with her until I was ready. ‘I read the interview with you in the newspaper last year. I saw her picture.’

  ‘She went away.’

  ‘Can I ask why?’

  ‘Because I was an asshole. Because she couldn’t deal with this.’ He patted his legs, then reconsidered: ‘No: because I couldn’t deal with this.’

  ‘Why would she hire a detective?’

  ‘What?’

  ‘You asked if Mel had sent me. I’m just wondering why you might have thought that.’

  ‘We had an argument before she left, a disagreement about money, about ownership of some stuff. I figured maybe she’d hired you to take it further.’

  Mel had mentioned some of this in our conversation. The house was in both their names, but she hadn’t made any effort yet to seek legal advice about her position. The break-up was still new, and she hoped that they might yet be reconciled. Still, something in Jandreau’s tone gave the lie to what he just said, as though he had greater concerns than domestic issues.

  ‘And you trusted me when I told you that she hadn’t sent me?’

  ‘Yeah, I guess. You don’t seem like the kind of man who’d try to beat up on a cripple. And if you were, well—’

  His right hand moved very fast. The gun was a Beretta, hidden in a makeshift holster attached to the underside of the chair. He held it upright for a couple of seconds, the muzzle pointing to the ceiling, before he restored it to its hiding place.

  ‘Are you worried about something?’ I asked, even if it seemed like a redundant question to ask a man with a gun in his hand.

  ‘I’m worried about lots of stuff: falling over while using the john, how I’m going to manage when winter comes around. You name it, I’ve got a worry for it. But I don’t like the idea of someone finding me an easy mark. That, at least, I can do something about. Now, Mr. Parker, how about you tell me why you’re interested in me.’

  ‘Not you,’ I said. ‘Joel Tobias.’

  ‘Suppose I told you that I don’t know any Joel Tobias.’

  ‘Then I’d have to assume that you were lying, since you served together in Iraq, and he was your sergeant in Stryker C. You were both at the funeral of Damien Patchett, and later you got into a fight with Tobias in Sully’s. So you still want to tell me that you don’t know any Joel Tobias?’

 

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