The whisperers, p.24
The Whisperers, p.24John Connolly
Jandreau looked away. I could see him sizing up his options, debating whether to talk to me or simply send me on my way. I could almost feel the suppressed anger rolling off him, waves of it breaking on me, on the furniture, on the stained walls, the spume of it splashing back on his own maimed body. Anger, grief, loss. His fingers created intricate patterns from themselves, interweaving and then coming apart, forming constructions that only he could understand.
‘So I know Joel Tobias,’ he said at last. ‘But we’re not close. Never were.’
‘Why is that?’
‘Joel’s old man was a soldier, so Joel had it in his blood. He liked the discipline, liked being the alpha dog. The army was just an extension of his nature.’
He squinted at me. ‘How old are you?’
‘They ever try to recruit you?’
‘No more than they tried to recruit anyone else. They came to my high school, but I didn’t bite. But it wasn’t the same then. We weren’t at war.’
‘Yeah, well we are now, and I bit. They promised me cash, money for college. Promised me the sun, the moon, and the stars.’ He smiled sadly. ‘The sun part was true. Saw a lot of that. Sun, and dust. I’ve started working for Veterans for Peace now. I’m a counter-recruiter.’
I didn’t know what that was, so I asked him.
‘Army recruiters are trained only to answer the right question,’ he said. ‘You don’t ask the right question, then you don’t get the right answer. And if you’re a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old kid with poor prospects, faced with a guy in uniform who’s so slick you could skate on him, then you’re going to believe what you’re told, and you’re not going to examine the small print. We point out the small print.’
‘Such as that your college fees aren’t guaranteed, that the army owes you nothing, that less than ten percent of recruits get the full amount of bonuses or fees that they were promised. Look, don’t get me wrong here: it’s honorable to serve your country, and a lot of these kids wouldn’t have any kind of career at all if it wasn’t for the army. I was one of them. My family was poor, and I’m still poor, but I’m proud that I served. I’d have preferred not to end up in a wheelchair, but I knew the risks. I just think the recruiters should be more upfront with the kids about what they’re getting themselves into. It’s the draft in all but name: you target the poor, the ones who got no job, no prospects, the ones who don’t know any better. You think Rumsfeld didn’t know that when he inserted a recruiter provision into the No Child Left Behind Act? You think he made it compulsory for public schools to provide the military with all of their student details because it would help the kids read better? There are quotas to be filled. You gotta plug the gaps in the ranks somehow.’
‘But if the recruiters were completely honest, then who’d join up?’
‘Shit, I’d still have signed on the dotted line. I’d have done anything to get away from my family, and this place. All that was here for me was a minimum wage job and beers after work on Friday. And Mel.’ That gave him pause. ‘I guess I still got the minimum wage job: four hundred dollars a month, but at least they threw in health care, and I saw most of my bonus.’ He grimaced. ‘Lot of contradictions, huh?’
‘Was that why you fought with Joel Tobias, because of your work with Veterans for Peace?’
Jandreau looked away. ‘No, it wasn’t. He tried to buy me a beer to quiet me down, but I didn’t want to drink on his dime.’
But Jandreau skirted the question. As he himself had said, he was a man of contradictions. He wanted to talk, but only about what interested him. He appeared polite, but there was ferocity beneath the veneer. I knew now what Ronald Straydeer meant when he said that Jandreau was a man who looked like he was on the way down. If he didn’t use that gun on someone else, there was a chance that he might use it on himself, just like his buddies.
‘What’s your interest in Joel Tobias anyway?’ he asked.
‘I was hired to find out why Damien Patchett killed himself. I heard about the altercation at the funeral. I wanted to know if there was any connection.’
‘Between a bar fight and a suicide? You’re full of shit.’
‘That, or a really bad detective.’
There was a pause and then, for the first time, Jandreau laughed.
‘At least you’re honest.’ The laughter ceased, and the smile that followed was sad. ‘Damien shouldn’t have killed himself. I don’t mean that in a religious way, or a moral way, or because it was a waste of a life. I mean that he wasn’t the kind. He left his grief in Iraq, or most of it. He wasn’t traumatized, or suffering.’
‘I spoke to a shrink in Togus who said the same thing.’
‘Yeah? Who was that?’
‘Saunders? Give me a break. She’s got more questions than Alex Trebek, but none of the answers.’
‘You’ve met her?’
‘She interviewed me as part of her study. Didn’t impress me at all. As for Damien, I served with him. I loved him. He was a good kid. I always thought of him like that, as a kid. He was intelligent, but he had no smarts. I tried to look out for him, but he ended up taking care of me in the end. Saved my life.’ His fist tightened on the arm of his chair. ‘Fuckin’ Joel Tobias,’ he whispered, and it sounded like a shout.
‘Tell me,’ I said.
‘I’m angry with Tobias. Doesn’t mean I’m going to rat him out, him or anyone else.’
‘I know that he’s running an operation. He’s smuggling, and I think he might have promised some of the proceeds to you. You, and men and women like you.’
Jandreau turned away and wheeled himself to the window.
‘Who are the guys outside?’ he asked.
‘Your friends don’t look like the friendly type.’
‘I felt like I needed some protection. If they looked too inviting, it would defeat the purpose.’
‘Protection? Who from?’
‘Maybe from the same people who’ve given you cause to carry that gun: your old buddies, led by Joel Tobias.’ He still hadn’t turned back to me, but I could see his reflection in the glass.
‘Why would I be frightened of Joel Tobias?’
Frightened: it was an interesting choice of words. Its very use was an admission of sorts.
‘Because you’re worried that they think you’re a weak link.’
‘Me? I’m a regular stand-up guy.’ He laughed again, and it was a terrible sound.
‘I think you were worried about Damien Patchett. You owed him, and you didn’t want anything to happen to him. Maybe he was in too deep, or he didn’t listen, but when he died, you decided to take action. Or perhaps you had to wait for what happened with Brett Harlan and his wife before you began to discern a pattern.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘I think you spoke to your cousin. You called Foster Jandreau, because he was a cop, but a cop that you could trust, because he was family. You probably fed him a little, and hoped that he’d find out the rest for himself. When he started making inquiries, they killed him, and now you believe that’s it’s just a matter of time before they come for you. Does that sound about right?’
He spun the chair quickly, and the gun was back in his hand.
‘You don’t know that. You don’t know anything.’
‘This has to be stopped, Bobby. Whatever’s happening, people have begun to die, and no amount of money can be worth that, unless your conscience is up for bids.’
‘Get out of my house!’ he shouted. ‘Get out!’
Behind him, I could see Angel and Louis starting to run as they heard the noise from the house. If I didn’t defuse the situation, Bobby Jandreau’s door would be lying in his hallway, and he might have cause to use that gun, if he was fast enough.
I made my way to the door, opened
‘Take it easy! Everyone! Easy!’ Slowly, I dipped two fingers into my jacket pocket and removed one of my cards. I placed it on the table next to the door.
‘You owed Damien Patchett, Bobby,’ I said. ‘He’s gone, but your debt’s still in play. Now his father’s holding it. You think about that.’
‘Get lost,’ he said, but the anger was already disappearing, and he just managed to sound tired. His voice quavered on the word ‘lost,’ a recognition that he was the one who was drifting on dark, unknown seas.
‘And one more thing,’ I said, following up my advantage on a crippled veteran. ‘Go make up with your girlfriend. I think you forced her away because you’re scared of what’s coming, and you didn’t want her to be hurt if they did come after you. She still loves you, and you need someone like her in your life. You know it, and she knows it. You have my card, you need any more counseling.’
I walked away, Angel and Louis still watching my back. I heard the door close, and then they were beside me.
‘Let me get this straight,’ said Louis as we reached the cars. ‘Man pulls a gun on you, and you give him relationship advice?’
‘Somebody had to.’
‘Yeah, but you? Dodo eggs got laid more recently than you.’
I ignored him. As I got in my car, I saw Bobby Jandreau at his window, watching me.
‘You think he’ll come around?’ asked Angel.
‘About his girlfriend, or Tobias?’
‘He has to, on both. If he doesn’t, he’s dead. Without her, he’s dying already. He just hasn’t admitted it yet. Tobias and the others will just finish what he’s started himself.’
‘Wow,’ said Angel. ‘You think there’s a Hallmark card for that: “Shape Up or Die”?’
We drove away, Angel and Louis behind me, but only as far as the next street. They looked puzzled when I pulled over and then walked back to them.
‘I want you to stay here,’ I said.
‘Why?’ asked Angel.
‘Because they’re going to come for Bobby Jandreau.’
‘You seem pretty sure of that.’
I walked to the Mustang, and pointed out the GPS tracker on the rear fender.
‘This will bring them. That’s why it’s staying here with you while I take your car.’
‘Your car stays here,’ said Louis, ‘and they’ll think Jandreau is giving you chapter and verse, so they’ll try to take you both out.’
‘Except they won’t,’ I said, ‘because you’re going to kill them when they move on Jandreau.’
‘And then Jandreau will talk.’
‘That’s the plan.’
‘And where are you going to be?’ asked Angel.
‘Over by Rangeley.’
‘What’s in Rangeley?’
‘So we skulk in the bushes while you stay in a motel?’
‘Something like that.’
‘Yeah, good deal.’
We switched cars, but not before Louis and Angel emptied the rest of their toys from the compartment in the trunk. As it turned out, they’d traveled light, for them: two Glocks, a couple of knives, a pair of semiautomatic machine pistols, and some spare clips. Louis found a position in the woods with a clear view of Jandreau’s house, and they settled in to wait.
‘You got any questions you want us to ask before we kill them?’ asked Louis. ‘Assuming we got to kill them.’
I thought of the barrel of water in the Blue Moon, and the feel of the sack pressed hard against my nose and mouth. ‘If you don’t have to, then don’t, but I don’t much care either way. As for questions, you can ask them what you want.’
‘What would we have to ask them?’ asked Angel.
Louis thought about the question.
‘Eyes open, or eyes closed?’ he said.
All was movement. The pieces were on the board, and that night the game would reach its conclusion.
From her bedroom window, Karen Emory watched Joel Tobias leave. He had said a cursory good-bye to her, and kissed her with dry lips upon the cheek. She had held him tightly, even as she felt him pull away from her, and before she let him go, her fingertips touched against the gun at his back.
Tobias took the Silverado and drove north, but only as far as Falmouth, where the others were waiting with the van and two motorcycles. Vernon and Pritchard, the ex-Marines, constituted the main sniper team. Beside them stood Mallak and Bacci. Vernon and Pritchard were both big men, and even though the former was black, and the latter white, they were brothers beneath the skin. Tobias didn’t care for either of them, but that was at least as much about the mutual antipathy that existed between soldiers and Marines as it was about Vernon’s seeming inability to open his mouth without asking a question, and loading it with attitude.
‘Where are Twizell and Greenham?’ asked Vernon, referring to the second sniper team.
‘They’ll join us later,’ said Tobias. ‘They have something else to do first.’
‘Shit,’ said Vernon in reply. ‘Don’t suppose you feel like sharing the details with the troops?’
‘No,’ said Tobias, and held Vernon’s gaze until the other looked away.
Mallak and Bacci, who had served in Tobias’s squad in Iraq, exchanged a glance, but didn’t intervene. They knew better than to take sides in the ongoing pissing competition between Vernon and the sarge. Mallak had come home a corporal, and never questioned orders, even though he recognized that there was now a growing distance between Tobias and him. Tobias had grown strange in recent weeks, and pragmatic to the point of cruelty. It was Tobias who had suggested that the detective, Parker, should be disposed of entirely, and not simply questioned to find out what he knew. Mallak had argued for discretion, and had subsequently taken responsibility for the detective’s interrogation. He wasn’t in the business of killing Americans on home soil, or anywhere else. The climbdown over Parker was a small victory, and nothing more: Mallak had decided to pretend that he knew nothing about the death of Foster Jandreau, or any other actions.
Bacci, meanwhile, was a bald thug who just wanted his money, and was lucky that Tobias had not yet punched his lights out for the way he looked at Karen Emory.
We’re just one big happy family, thought Mallak, and the sooner all this is over, the better.
‘All right,’ said Tobias. ‘Let’s move out.’
Meanwhile, two men headed north in an anonymous brown sedan, passing Lewiston and Augusta and Waterville, Bangor slowly drawing nearer. One of them, the passenger, had a computer on his lap. Occasionally, he would refresh the map screen, but the blinking dot never moved.
‘That thing still working?’ asked Twizell.
‘Looks like it,’ said Greenham. He kept his eye on the blinking dot. It stayed close to the intersection of Palm and Stillwater, not far from the home of Bobby Jandreau. ‘We’ve got a sitting target,’ he confirmed, and Twizell grunted in satisfaction.
As Greenham and Twizell passed Lewiston, Rojas, still a little fuzzy from some recently administered dental anesthetic, and his teeth now aching, was sitting at a table working on the slab of red oak that would serve as a platform for the ornate seals. They lay beside him on a piece of black cloth as he worked, their presence a source of comfort to him, a reminder of the potential for beauty in this world.
And Herod drove north, drawing closer and closer to Rojas, grateful for the Captain’s absence, grateful that his pain was tolerable, for now. And as he went, another closed in on him.
For the Collector, too, was on the move.
Q: What were you firing at?
A: At the enemy, sir.
Q: At people?
A: At the enemy, sir.
Q: They weren’t even human beings?
A: Yes, sir.
A: I don’t know, sir . . .
Testimony of Lieutenant William Calley,the My Lai Courts-Martial, 1970
The Rangeley Lakes region of the state, north-west of Portland, east of the New Hampshire state line and just south of the Canadian border, was not one with which I was very familiar. It was best known as a sportsman’s paradise, and had been since the nineteenth century. I had never had much cause to go there, although I had a vague recollection of passing through it as a boy, my parents in the front seats of my father’s beloved LeSabre, on our way to somewhere else: Canada, perhaps, because I can’t imagine my father going all that way to visit eastern New Hampshire. He always regarded New Hampshire as suspect, for some reason that I never fully grasped, but it is so long ago now, and my parents are no longer around to ask.
I did have one other memory of Rangeley, and that came from a man named Phineas Arbogast, who was a friend of my grandfather and sometimes hunted in the woods around Rangeley, where his family had a cabin and, it seems, had always had a cabin, for Phineas Arbogast was ‘Old Maine’ and could probably have traced his ancestry back to the nomads who crossed from Asia into North America eleven thousand years before over the spit of land that is now the Bering Islands, or at least to some pigheaded pilgrim who had headed north to escape the worst rigors of Puritanism. As a boy, I had found his speech almost unintelligible, for Phineas could have drawled for his country. He could even find ways to lengthen a word that didn’t have any vowels to lengthen. He could have drawled in Polish.
My grandfather was fond of Phineas who, if he could be pinned down, and understood, was a mine of historical and geographical knowledge. As he grew older, some of that knowledge inevitably began to leach from his brain, and he tried to put it down in a book before it all trickled away, but he didn’t have the patience for the task. He was part of an older, oral tradition: he told his stories aloud so that others might remember them and pass them on in turn, but eventually the only ones who would listen to him were people nearly as old as he was. Young people didn’t want to hear Phineas’s stories, not then, and by the time some people from one of the universities came looking for people like him to record their tales, Phineas was telling his stories late at night to his neighbors in the churchyard.
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