The whisperers, p.29
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       The Whisperers, p.29

           John Connolly
 

  ‘I was surprised when I heard,’ said Geagan. ‘He wasn’t the kind.’

  That phrase was starting to recur a little too often. Bennett Patchett had used it about his son, and Carrie Saunders had said much the same thing about both Damien Patchett and Brett Harlan. If they were all correct, there were a lot of dead people who had no business being dead.

  ‘Why do you say that?’

  ‘He was hard. He had no regrets about anything that he’d done over there, and he’d done some pretty hardcore stuff, or so he said. Well, I thought it was hardcore, but then I’ve never killed anyone. Never will, I hope.’

  ‘You got along with him?’

  ‘I drank with him a couple of times during the winter, and he helped me when my generator gave out. We were neighborly without being close. That’s the way of things up here. Then Harold grew different. I talked to Stunds here about it, and he said the same. Harold started keeping his own counsel more than before, and he was never what you might call a chatterbox. I’d hear his truck starting up at odd times: after dark, sometimes well after midnight. Then the rig started arriving. A big truck – red, I think – hauling a trailer.’

  A red truck, just like Joel Tobias’s.

  ‘Did you get a plate number?’

  Geagan recited it from memory. It was Tobias all right. ‘I’ve got a photographic memory,’ he said. ‘Helps with what I do.’

  ‘When did this happen?’

  ‘Four or five times that I can recall: twice last month, once this month, the last time just yesterday.’

  I leaned forward. ‘The truck came through yesterday?’

  Geagan looked flustered, as though fearful that he’d made a mistake. I could see him counting back the days. ‘Yep, yesterday morning. I saw it coming out as I was heading back to my place from town, so I don’t know what time it went in.’

  I knew from the little that Walsh had told me that Proctor had probably been dead for two or three days. It was hard to tell given the heat in the room, and the consequent speed of putrefaction. Now it seemed that Tobias had been at the motel since Proctor had died, but hadn’t taken the trouble to look for him; that, or he knew Proctor was dead, but said nothing, which sounded unlikely. Whoever Proctor had been firing at, it wasn’t Joel Tobias.

  ‘And it was definitely the same truck as before?’

  ‘Yeah, I told you: I’ve seen it a few times. Harold and the other guy, the driver – no, wait, there was one time when I thought there might have been three of them – would unload stuff from the back, and the truck would drive away again.’

  ‘Did you ever mention this to Harold?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘It wasn’t bothering me, and I didn’t think Harold would appreciate me asking. He must have known that I might hear or see them, but up here it doesn’t pay to question other people about their business.’

  ‘Didn’t you wonder what he was doing?’

  Geagan looked uneasy. ‘I thought he might be considering reopening the motel. He talked about it sometimes, but he didn’t have the money he needed to restore it.’

  Geagan’s eyes wouldn’t meet my face.

  ‘And?’ I said.

  ‘Harold liked to smoke a little pot. So do I. He knew where to get it, and I’d pay him for it. Not much, just enough to keep me going through the long winter months.’

  ‘Was Harold dealing?’

  ‘No, I don’t believe so. He just had a supplier.’

  ‘But you thought he might have been storing drugs in the motel, right?’

  ‘It would make sense, especially if he was looking to make some money to reopen the place.’

  ‘Were you tempted to take a look?’

  Geagan looked uneasy. ‘I might have been, once, when Harold wasn’t around.’

  ‘What did you see?’

  ‘The rooms were all blocked up, but I could tell that some had been opened recently. There were wood chips on the ground, and the dirt was all torn up. There were grooves in the earth, like they’d wheeled something heavy inside.’

  ‘You never saw what they were bringing in when you looked out of your window?’

  ‘The front of the truck was always facing me. If they were unloading anything, then it was easiest to keep the back of the truck to the motel. I could never quite see what they were moving.’

  Never ‘quite’ see. ‘But you think that you might have spotted something, right?’

  ‘It’s going to sound strange.’

  ‘Believe me, you don’t know from strange.’

  ‘Well, it was a statue, I guess. Like one of those Greek ones, y’know, white, and from a museum. I thought it was a body at first, but it had no arms: like the Venus de Milo, but male.’

  ‘Damn,’ I said softly. Not drugs: antiquities. Joel Tobias was just full of surprises. ‘Have you talked to the police yet?’

  ‘No. I don’t think they even know I’m up there.’

  ‘Talk to them in the morning, but leave it till late. Tell them what you told me. Last thing: the police think Harold killed himself three days ago, give or take. Did you hear any shots during that time?

  ‘No, I was down in Boston visiting my folks until the day before yesterday. I guess Harold killed himself while I was away. He did kill himself, didn’t he?’

  ‘I believe he did.’

  ‘Then why did he lock himself up in that room to do it? What was he shooting at before he died?’

  ‘I don’t know.’

  I waved at the bartender for the tab. I heard the door open behind me, but I didn’t look around. Stunden and Geagan looked up, and their faces changed, brightening after the darkness of our conversation.

  ‘Looks like somebody’s luck may be about to turn,’ said Geagan, straightening his hair, ‘and I sure hope it’s mine.’

  As casually as I could, I tried to glance over my shoulder, but the woman was already by my right hand.

  ‘Buy you a drink, Mr. Parker?’ asked Carrie Saunders.

  28

  Geagan and Stunden rose to their feet and prepared to leave.

  ‘Looks like I’m shit out of luck. Again,’ said Geagan. ‘Beg pardon, miss,’ he added.

  ‘No apology necessary,’ said Saunders. ‘And this is professional, not personal.’

  ‘Does that mean I still have a chance?’ asked Geagan.

  ‘No.’

  Geagan gave an exaggerated sigh. Stunden patted him on the back.

  ‘Come on, let’s leave them to it. I’m sure I got a bottle somewhere at home that could help you with your troubles.’

  ‘Whiskey?’ said Geagan.

  ‘No,’ said Stunden. ‘Ethyl alcohol. You might need to cut it with something, though. . . .’

  They made their excuses and left, although not before Geagan cast a final lingering glance in Saunders’s direction. The guy had clearly spent too long in the woods: if he didn’t get some action soon, even moose would be in danger from him.

  ‘Your fan club?’ asked Saunders, once the waitress had brought her a Mich Ultra.

  ‘Some of it.’

  ‘It’s bigger than I expected.’

  ‘I like to think of it as small but stable, unlike your patient base, which seems to be dwindling by the day. Maybe you should consider an alternative profession, or cut a deal with a mortuary.’

  She scowled. Score one for the guy with the chip on his shoulder.

  ‘Harold Proctor wasn’t one of my patients. It looks like a local physician was prescribing his meds. I contacted him in an effort to have him participate in my study, but he didn’t want to cooperate, and he didn’t ask for my professional help. And I don’t appreciate your flippant attitude toward what I do, or toward the former servicemen who’ve died.’

  ‘Get off your soapbox, Dr. Saunders. You were in no hurry to offer me help the last time we met, when I was under the misguided impression that we wanted the same thing.’

  ‘Which was?’

  ‘To find out why
a small group of men, all of whom knew one another, were dying by their own hands. Instead, I got the party line and some cheap analysis.’

  ‘That wasn’t what you wanted to find out.’

  ‘No? They teach you telepathy at head school too, or is that something you’ve been working on when you get tired of being supercilious?’

  She gave me the hard stare. ‘Anything else?’

  ‘Yeah, why don’t you order a real drink? You’re embarrassing me.’

  She broke. She had a nice smile, but she’d fallen out of the habit of using it.

  ‘A real drink: like a glass of red wine?’ she said. ‘This isn’t a church social. I’m surprised the bartender didn’t take you outside and beat you with a stick.’

  I sat back and raised a hand in surrender. She put the Mich aside and signaled the waitress. ‘I’ll have what he’s having.’

  ‘It’ll look like we’re on a date,’ I said.

  ‘Only to a blind man, and then he’d probably have to be deaf as well.’

  Saunders was certainly a looker, but anyone seriously considering engaging with her on an intimate level would need to wear body armor to counter the spikes. Her wine arrived. She sipped it, didn’t appear to actively disapprove, and sipped again.

  ‘How did you find me?’ I asked.

  ‘The cops told me that you were in Rangeley. One of them, Detective Walsh, even described your car for me. He told me that I should slash your tires when I found it, just to make sure you stayed put. Oh, and for the sake of it.’

  ‘The decision to stay was kind of forced upon me.’

  ‘By the cops? They must really love you.’

  ‘It’s tentative, but mutual. How did you find out about Harold Proctor?’ I asked.

  ‘The cops found my card in his cabin, and it seems that his physician is on vacation in the Bahamas.’

  ‘It’s a long way to drive for a man that you didn’t know well.’

  ‘He was a soldier, and another suicide. This is my work. The cops thought I might be able to shed some light on the circumstances of his death.’

  ‘And could you?’

  ‘Only what I could tell from my sole visit to his home before tonight. He lived alone, drank too much, smoked some pot, judging by the smell in his cabin, and he had little or no support structure.’

  ‘So he was a prime candidate for suicide?’

  ‘He was vulnerable, that’s all.’

  ‘Why now, though? He’d been out of the military for fifteen years or more. You told me that post-traumatic stress could take as long as a decade to undo, but fifteen years seems like a long time for it to begin in the first place.’

  ‘That I can’t explain.’

  ‘How did you come to find him?’

  ‘As I interviewed former soldiers, I asked them to suggest others who might be willing to participate, or those whom they felt were vulnerable and could use an informal approach. Someone suggested Harold.’

  ‘Do you remember who it was?’

  ‘No. I’d have to check my notes. It might have been Damien Patchett, but I couldn’t say for sure.’

  ‘It wouldn’t have been Joel Tobias, would it?’

  She scowled. ‘Joel Tobias doesn’t hold with psychiatrists.’

  ‘So you tried?’

  ‘He conducted the last of his physical therapy at Togus, but there was a psychological component as well. He was assigned to me, but our progress was limited.’ She examined me steadily over the lip of her glass. ‘You don’t like him, do you?’

  ‘I’ve barely met him, but I don’t like what I’ve found out about him so far. Joel Tobias drives a big rig with a bigger trailer. There’s a lot of space to hide something in a box that size.’

  Her eyes didn’t even flicker.

  ‘You seem very convinced that there is something to hide.’

  ‘The day after I began looking into Joel Tobias, I was worked over very professionally: no bones broken, no visible marks.’

  ‘It might not have been connected to Tobias,’ she interrupted.

  ‘Listen, I appreciate that there may be people out there who don’t like me, but most of them aren’t very smart, and if they arranged a beating for me they’d be sure to claim a little credit. They’re not the anonymous donor type. These guys used water, and a sack. It was made clear that I should stay out of Joel Tobias’s business and, by extension, theirs.’

  ‘From what I hear, most of the people who might have had real difficulties with you are no longer in a position to arrange beatings, not unless they can contract out from the grave.’

  I looked away. ‘You’d be surprised,’ I said, but she didn’t seem to hear. She was lost in her own thoughts.

  ‘The reason why I declined to help you when we first met was because I didn’t believe that you wanted what I wanted. My role is to help these men and women where I can. Some of them, like Harold Proctor and Joel Tobias, don’t want my help. They may need it, but they consider it a sign of weakness to confess their fears to a shrink, even an ex-army shrink who spent time in the same dustbowl that they did. There’s been a lot written in the newspapers about suicide rates among military personnel, about how physically and psychologically damaged men and women have been abandoned by their government, about how they may even be a threat to national security. They’ve been fighting an unpopular war, and, okay, it’s not quite Vietnam, either in terms of casualties over there or in the animosity toward veterans back home, but you can’t blame the military for being defensive. When you came along, I thought you might just be another jackass trying to prove a point.’

  ‘And now?’

  ‘I still think you’re a jackass, and that detective out at the Proctor place clearly concurs, but maybe our ultimate aims aren’t so different. We both want to find out why these men are dying at their own hands.’

  She took another sip of wine. It stained her teeth, tipping them with red, like an animal that had fed recently on raw meat. ‘Look, I take this seriously. That’s why I’m engaged in this research. My study is part of a joint initiative with the National Institute of Mental Health to try to come up with some answers, and some solutions. We’re looking at the role that combat, and multiple deployments, play in suicide. We know that two thirds of suicides take place during or after a deployment: that’s fifteen months in a war zone, with barely enough time to decompress afterward before exhausted men and women are sent back into the field again.

  ‘It’s clear that our soldiers need help, but they’re afraid to ask for it in case it’s recorded and the jacket follows them. But the military also needs to change its attitude toward its troops: mental health screening is poor, and commanders are reluctant to allow military personnel to gain access to civilian therapists. They’re hiring more general practitioners, which is a start, and more mental health care providers, but the focus is on troops in combat. What happens when they come home? Of the sixty soldiers who killed themselves between January and August 2008, thirty-nine of them did so after they returned to this country. We’re letting these men and women down. They’re wounded, but the wounds don’t show in some cases until it’s too late. Something has to be done for them. Someone has to take responsibility.’

  She sat back. Some of the hardness fell away from her, and she just looked tired. Tired, and somehow younger than she was, as though her distress at the deaths was both professional yet also almost childlike in its purity.

  ‘Do you understand now why I was wary when a private investigator, and one, with respect, whose reputation for violence precedes him, began asking about the deaths of veterans by their own hands?’

  It was a rhetorical question or, if it wasn’t, then I chose to consider it as such. I signaled for another round. We didn’t speak again until it arrived, and she had poured the remainder of her first glass into her second.

  ‘And you?’ I asked. ‘How does it affect you?’

  ‘I don’t understand the question,’ she said.

  ‘I mean that it
must be hard, listening to all of those stories of pain and injury and death, seeing those damaged men and women week after week. It must take its toll.’

  She pushed her glass around the table, watching the patterns that it formed: circles upon circles, like Venn diagrams.

  ‘That’s why I left the military and became a civilian consultant,’ she said. ‘I still experience guilt about it, but over there I sometimes felt like King Canute, trying to hold back the tide alone. In Iraq, I could still be overruled by a commander who needed soldiers in the field. The needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few, and for the most part all I could do was offer tips on how to cope, as if that could help soldiers who had already gone far beyond the possibility of coping. In Togus, I feel like I’m part of a strategy, an attempt to see the bigger picture, even if the bigger picture is thirty-five thousand soldiers already diagnosed with PTSD, and more to come.’

  ‘That isn’t answering the question,’ I said.

  ‘No, it isn’t, is it? The name for what you’re implying is secondary trauma, or “contact distress”: the more deeply therapists involve themselves with victims, the more likely they are to experience some of their trauma. At the moment, mental health evaluations of therapists are practically non-existent. It’s self-evaluation, and nothing more. You know you’re broken only when you break.’

  She drank half of her wine.

  ‘Now, tell me about Harold Proctor, and what you saw out there,’ she said.

  I told her most of it, leaving out only a little of what Edward Geagan had revealed, and the money that was discovered in Proctor’s cabin. When I was finished, she didn’t speak, but maintained eye contact. If it was some kind of psychiatric trick designed to wear me down and blurt out everything that I’d kept hidden since childhood, it wasn’t working. I’d already given away more than I wanted about myself to her, and I wasn’t about to do it again. I had a vision of myself closing a stable door while a horse disappeared over the horizon.

  ‘What about the money?’ she said. ‘Or did you just forget to mention it?’

  Clearly, the state cops were more susceptible to her wiles than I was. When next we met, I’d have a word with Walsh about maintaining some backbone and not coming over all giggly when a good-looking woman patted his arm and complimented him on his weapon.

 
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