The whisperers, p.26
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       The Whisperers, p.26

           John Connolly
 

  ‘And did he?’

  ‘I don’t know. That was the last time he came into the bar. But I was concerned about him, so a week after that I took a ride out to his place to see how he was. There was a car parked outside his cabin, so I figured that he had visitors and decided not to disturb him. As I was reversing back down the hill, the cabin door opened, and four men came out. Harold was one of them. I didn’t recognize the other three. They just watched me go. But later, the three visitors came here, and stood where you’re standing now. They asked me what I was doing out at Harold’s place. The colored one who did most of the talking was real polite about it, but I could tell that he didn’t like the fact I’d driven out there. I told them the truth: that I was a friend of Harold’s, and I was worried about him, that he hadn’t seemed himself of late. That seemed to satisfy him. He told me they were old army buddies of Harold’s, and that Harold was doing just fine.’

  ‘You had no cause to disbelieve them?’

  ‘They were military men for sure. They had that bearing about them. The other one limped some, and was missing fingers from here.’ Stunden held up his left hand. ‘I took it for a war wound.’

  Joel Tobias.

  ‘And the third?’

  ‘He didn’t say much. Big guy, bald head. I didn’t care for him.’

  That was Bacci, I thought, remembering Ronald Straydeer’s annotated photograph. Karen Emory didn’t like him either. I wondered if he was the one who had first suggested raping me at the Blue Moon.

  ‘Anyway, the bald guy asked if I’d be able to preserve a person, and made some joke about trophies for his wall,’ said Stunden. ‘“Haji,” that’s the word that he used: haji trophies for his wall. I guess he meant terrorists. The other guy, his friend with the damaged hand, told him to shut his mouth.’

  ‘And you haven’t spoken to Harold since that night at the bar?’

  ‘No. Seen him once or twice in passing, but he hasn’t been back at the Dame.’

  Stunden had nothing more to add. I thanked him for his time. He asked me not to tell Harold Proctor that we’d spoken, and I gave him that promise. As we walked to the door, Stunden said: ‘This boy, the one who killed himself, you say his father thought that he’d changed before he died?’

  ‘That’s right.’

  ‘Changed how, you mind me asking?’

  ‘Cut himself off from his friends. Became paranoid. Had trouble sleeping.’

  ‘Like Harold.’

  ‘Yes, like Harold.’

  ‘Maybe, after you’ve talked to him, I’ll go out there and see how he’s doing. Could be I can convince him to see someone before—’

  He trailed off. I shook his hand.

  ‘I think that would be a good thing to do, Mr. Stunden. I’ll try to call by before I leave, let you know how it all went.’

  ‘I’d appreciate that,’ he said.

  He gave me directions to Proctor’s place, then raised a hand in farewell as I drove away. I did the same, and the fragrance from the soap that Stunden had used to clean himself, and which had passed to me from his hand, wafted through the car. It was strong, but not strong enough, for underlying it was an animal smell of flesh and burnt hair. I opened the window, despite the heat and the bugs, but it would not disperse. It was on my skin, and it stayed with me all the way to the Proctor motel.

  24

  Despite Stunden’s directions, I still managed to miss the turn for the motel on my first pass. He had told me that the remains of a big sign were just about visible across from the entrance road, but the forest had grown thickly around it and it was only by chance on the return run that I caught a glimpse of it through the foliage. Some faded red letters were barely discernible on the rotting wood, along with what might have been deer antlers, but a green arrow that would once have stood out against the white of the sign was now merely another shade in summer’s paintbox.

  Its origins as a camp were clear, as it lay at the top of a curving trail that ran west through thick woods. The trail was pitted, and the undergrowth had not been cut back for so long that it scraped at the side of my car, but I spotted broken branches and crushed vegetation in places, and the tracks of a heavy vehicle were clear in the dirt like the slowly fossilizing footprints of a dinosaur.

  Eventually, I emerged into a clearing. To my right was a small cabin, its doors and windows firmly closed despite the heat. It was probably a relic of the original camp. It certainly looked old enough. I could see part of what appeared to be a more modern extension at the back, where the cabin’s living area had been expanded for long-term habitation. Between the cabin and where I was parked stood a red Dodge truck.

  Another dirt track led from the cabin to the motel. It was a standard L-shaped structure, with the office at the angle where the two arms met and a vertical neon ‘MOTEL’ sign, long out of use, pointing up at the sky. I wondered if it had even been visible from the road, since the motel was located in a kind of natural hollow. Maybe the cabins had proved too difficult to maintain, and the Proctors believed that their customers would remain loyal to them even after they went with the times and changed to a motel, but it was clear that Stunden had been right: nothing about the Proctor motel suggested that it had ever been a good idea to build it. Now the doors and windows of every unit were boarded up, the grass had grown through the cracked stone of the parking lot, and ivy was creeping up the walls and along the flat roof. If it stayed standing for long enough, it would join the ranks of the other phantom towns and abandoned dwellings that were so much a part of this state.

  I sounded the horn and waited. Nobody emerged from the cabin or the surrounding woods. I recalled what Stunden had said about Proctor. A veteran living out here in the wild was likely to have a gun, and if Proctor was as disturbed as Stunden had intimated then I didn’t want him taking me for a threat. His truck was still there, so he couldn’t have gone far. I hit the horn again, then left the car and began to walk to the cabin. As I did so, I glanced into the cab of the truck. An open pack of doughnuts lay on the passenger seat. It was crawling with ants.

  I knocked on the cabin door and called Proctor’s name, but there was no reply. I peered through a window. The television lay busted on the floor, and I could see pieces of a phone scattered beside it. The bed was unmade, a yellowed sheet coiled upon the floor like melted ice cream.

  I returned to the door, half-expecting to see an irate Proctor emerge from the woods, waving a gun and muttering about ghosts, then tried the handle. It opened easily. Flies buzzed, and there were more ants moving in columns across the linoleum floor. The whole place stank of cigarette smoke. I checked the refrigerator. The milk was still in date, but it was as close as Proctor was likely to come to a healthy diet, because otherwise the refrigerator was filled with the kind of food that would sap a dietician’s will to live: cheap ready meals, microwaveable burgers, processed meats. There was no sign of fruit or vegetables, and at least half of the storage space was devoted to bottles of regular cola. The trash bag in the corner was packed with discarded French fry cartons, chicken buckets, burger wrappers from fast food joints, crushed Red Bull cans, and empty bottles of Vicks Nyquil. Apart from canned soups and beans, Proctor’s kitchen shelves showed mainly candy and cookies. I also found a couple of big jars of coffee, and half a dozen bottles of cheap gin and vodka. The sleeping area contained more bottles of Nyquil, a bunch of antihistamines, and some Sominex. Proctor was living on stimulants – sugar, energy drinks, caffeine, nicotine – and then using mostly over-the-counter medicines to help him sleep. There was also an empty package of clozapine, recently prescribed by a local physician, which meant that Proctor had been desperate enough to seek professional help. Clozapine was an anti-psychotic used as a sedative, and also as a means of treating schizophrenia. I thought back to my conversation with Bernie Kramer’s sister, and the fact that Kramer had been hearing voices before he took his own life. I wondered what voices Harold Proctor was hearing.

  On the bed lay the keys to the
truck, and an empty holster.

  I continued searching the place, which was how I found the envelope of cash. It had been placed beneath the mattress, unsealed, and contained 2,500 dollars in twenties and fifties, all neatly arranged face-up. Even out here, it didn’t make much sense for a man to leave money like that under his mattress, but then none of this made any sense. Proctor clearly hadn’t been in his trailer, or his truck, for some time. If he’d intended to leave, he’d have taken the money, and the truck. If there was a problem with his truck, he’d still have taken the money. I looked at the envelope again. It was clean and new. It hadn’t been under the mattress for very long.

  I put the money back where I found it and walked down to the motel. Only the office was not boarded up. The door was unlocked, so I took a look inside. Proctor had clearly been using it for storage: there were cans of food stacked in one corner – beans, chili, and stews, mostly – along with big packs of toilet paper and some old window screens. A faint whirring sound was coming from somewhere. Behind the reception desk was a closed door, presumably leading into an office. I lifted the hatch on the counter and stepped inside. The sound was louder now. I pushed the door open with my foot.

  Before me was a wooden console, with sixteen small bulbs arrayed in lines of four, each marked with a number. The sound was coming from a speaker beside the console. I guessed that it was an old intercom system, enabling guests to communicate with the front desk without using a phone. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it might be that the Proctors hadn’t bothered with phones in all the rooms when the motel opened, or they had first opted for a quainter system and then retained it as a conversation piece. The console didn’t have a maker’s name on it, and I thought that it might have been hand built by the Proctors. Clearly, though, there was still power running in the motel.

  The sound was making me uneasy. It might simply have been a malfunction, but why now? Anyway, power or no power, the system shouldn’t even have been working after all these years. Then again, they used to build things to last, and it was depressing how easily we were surprised by good workmanship these days. I checked the console, tapping the bulbs as I went.

  When I tapped the bulb for room fifteen, it began to blink redly.

  I drew my gun and went back outside, following the doors along the right. When I came to fourteen, I saw that the screws had been removed from the board on its door, and the board itself now simply lay against the frame. When I reached room fifteen, though, its board was still firmly in place. Nevertheless, I could hear an echo of the intercom buzzer from inside.

  I leaned against the wall between the two rooms and called out.

  ‘Mr. Proctor? You in there?’

  There was no reply. Quickly, I pushed away the board from in front of room fourteen. The door behind it was closed. I tried the handle, and it opened easily. Daylight shone on the frame of a bare bed that had been pushed upright against the wall, leaving the floor space largely clear. Two bedside lockers had been stacked in a corner. Otherwise, the room was unfurnished. There were white strands on the carpet, which smelled of mold. I picked up one of the strands and held it to the light: it was a wood shaving. Beside the lockers lay a couple of foam chips. I ran my hand across the carpet, and felt the marks left by boxes of some kind. Carefully, I approached the small bathroom at the back, but it was empty. There was no connecting door between rooms fourteen and fifteen.

  I was about to leave when I noticed marks on the wall. I had to use my flashlight to see them properly. They looked like handprints, but they seemed to have been burnt into the paint work. Ash and blistered paint fell away when I touched my fingers to them. I had an uncomfortable sense of contamination, and although the bed was bare, and the room was damp, I felt that it had been occupied recently, so recently that I could almost hear the fading echo of a conversation.

  I went outside again, and examined the boarded-up entrance to room fifteen. It should have been held in place by screws, just like the other doors that I had passed, but no heads were visible. With no great expectation of success, I managed to slip my fingers into the gap between the board and the door frame, and tugged.

  The board came away easily, almost knocking me backward as it did. I saw that it had been held loosely in place by a single long screw drilled through the frame into the board. The screw had been driven in from inside, not out. This time, when I tried the door handle, it did not open. I kicked at it, but it was sealed tight. I went back to my car and retrieved a crowbar from the trunk, but even with it I had no luck. The door had been firmly secured from within. Instead, I began to work on the board covering the window. That was easier, as it had been nailed, not screwed, into the frame. When it came away it revealed filthy, thick glass, cracked, but not shattered, by a pair of bullet holes. The drapes were drawn inside the room.

  It took a little effort, but I managed to smash the thick glass with the crowbar, shielding myself with the wall just in case whoever was in there was still together enough to take a shot at me, but no sound came. As soon as I smelled the odor coming from inside, I knew why. I pushed the drapes aside and climbed into the room.

  The bed had been broken up, and its boards nailed to the door frame, sealing it shut. More long nails had been driven through the door and into the frame at an angle, although some of them had come away, either partially or entirely, as though whoever had put them in place had then reconsidered and begun removing them again; that, or they were so long that they’d penetrated right through, and someone from outside had started hammering them back, although I could see no damage to the ends.

  There was more furniture in this room than in its neighbor: a long chest and a TV stand in addition to twin beds and two bedside lockers. It had all been stacked in one corner, the way a child might have constructed a fortress at home. I moved closer. A man lay slumped in the corner behind the furniture, his head resting against the intercom button on the wall. There was a cloud of blood and bone behind his head, and a Browning hung loosely from his right hand. The man’s body was swollen, and so colonized by maggots and insects that they gave it the impression of movement and life. They had quarried in his eyes, leaving them hollow. I covered my mouth with my hand, but the smell was too strong. I leaned out of the window, gasping, and tried not to throw up. Once I’d recovered, I took off my jacket and pressed it against my face, then made a cursory examination of the room. There was a tool kit beside the body, along with a nail gun. There was no sign of food or water. I ran my fingers over the metal backing of the door and felt the marks of more bullet holes. I turned the flashlight on them and picked out more in the walls. I counted twelve in all. The Browning’s magazine held thirteen. He had saved the last one for himself.

  There was a bottle of water in the Lexus. I used it to wash the taste of decay from my mouth, but I could still smell it on my clothes. I now stank of soap, and dead deer, and dead men.

  I called 911 and waited for the police to come.

  The names still haunted him. There was Gazaliya, just about the most dangerous neighborhood in Baghdad, where it had all come to an end, and Dora, and Sadiya, places where they killed the trash collectors so that the streets piled up with filth and it became impossible to live there. There was the Um al-Qura mosque in western Baghdad, headquarters of the Sunni insurgency, which, in an ideal world, they would simply have wiped off the face of the earth. There was the Amiriya racetrack, where kidnap victims were bought and sold. From the racetrack, a road led straight to Garma, controlled by the insurgents. Once you were taken to Garma, you were gone.

  In Al-Adhamiya, the Sunni stronghold in Baghdad, close to the Tigris river, the Shia death squads dressed as policemen and set up false checkpoints to catch their Sunni neighbors. The Shias were supposed to be on our side, but nobody was really on our side. As far as he could tell, the only difference between the Sunnis and the Shias lay in the way that they killed. The Sunnis beheaded: one evening, he and a couple of the others had watched a beheading
on a DVD given to them by their interpreter. They’d all wanted to see it, but he’d regretted asking as soon as it started. There was the man, cowering: not an American, because they didn’t want to watch one of their own die, but some poor bastard Shia who’d chosen the wrong turn, or stopped when he should have put the foot down and taken his chances with the bullets. What struck him was how matter-of-fact the executioner had been, how seemingly removed from the task at hand: the cutting had been methodical, grim, practical, like the ritualistic killing of an animal; an appalling death, but one without sadism beyond the actual act of killing itself. Afterward, they had all said the same thing: don’t let them take me. If there’s a chance of it, and you see it happening, kill me. Kill us all.

  The Shias, meanwhile, tortured. They had a particular fondness for the electric drill: knees, elbows, groin, eyes. That was it: Sunnis behead, Shias torment, and they all worship the same god, except there was some dispute about who should have taken over the religion after the prophet Mohammed died, and that was why they were now hacking heads and drilling bones. It was all about qisas: revenge. It didn’t surprise him the first time the interpreter told him that, according to the Islamic calendar, it was still only the fifteenth century: 1424, or something like it, when he arrived in Iraq. That made a kind of sense to him, because these people were still behaving like it was the Middle Ages.

  But now they were part of a modern war, a war fought with night-vision lenses and heavy weapons. They responded with RPGs, and mortars, and bombs hidden inside dead dogs. When they didn’t have those, they used stones and blades. They answered the new with the old; old weapons and old names: Nergal, and Ninazu, and the one whose name was lost. They set the trap, and waited for them to come.

 

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