The whisperers, p.3
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       The Whisperers, p.3

           John Connolly
 

  ‘I’m not as busy as you might think,’ I replied.

  ‘Then you’ll have time to hear me out, I guess.’

  I nodded, then said: ‘Before we go any further, I’d just like to say that I was sorry to hear about Damien.’

  I hadn’t known Damien Patchett any better than I knew his father, and I hadn’t made any effort to attend the funeral. The newspapers had been discreet about it, but everybody knew how Damien Patchett had died. It was the war, some whispered. He had taken his own life in name only. Iraq had killed him.

  Bennett’s face creased with pain. ‘Thank you. In a way, as you might have figured, it’s why we’re here. I feel kind of funny approaching you about this. You know, you doing the things that you do: compared to them fellas who killed and got hunted down by you, what I’ve got to offer might seem pretty dull.’

  I was tempted to tell him about waiting outside motel rooms while people inside engaged in illicit sexual congress, or sitting for hours in a car with a camera on the dashboard in the hope that someone might bend down suddenly.

  ‘Sometimes, the dull stuff makes a pleasant change.’

  ‘Ayuh,’ said Patchett. ‘I can believe that.’

  His eyes shifted to the newspaper before me, and he winced again. Sally Cleaver, I thought. Damn, I should have put the newspaper away before Bennett arrived.

  Sally Cleaver had been working at the Downs Diner when she died.

  He sipped his coffee, and didn’t speak again for at least three minutes. People like Bennett Patchett didn’t reach their later years in pretty much perfect health by rushing things. They worked on Maine time, and the sooner that everyone who had to deal with them learned to adjust their clocks accordingly, the better.

  ‘I got a girl waitressing for me,’ he said at last. ‘She’s a good kid. I think you might remember her mother, woman name of Katie Emory?’

  Katie Emory had been at Scarborough High School with me, although we’d moved in different circles. She was the sort of girl who liked jocks, and I wasn’t much for jocks, or the girls who hung with them. When I returned to Scarborough as a teenage boy after my father’s death, I wasn’t much in the mood for hanging with anyone, and I kept myself to myself. The local kids had all formed long-established cliques, and it was hard to break into them, even if you wanted to. I made some friends eventually, and for the most part I didn’t cross too many people. I remembered Katie, but I doubt if she would have remembered me, not in the normal course of events. But my name had made the papers over the years, and maybe she, and others like her, read it and remembered the boy who had arrived in Scarborough for the last two years of his schooling, trailing stories about a father who was a cop, a cop who had killed two kids before taking his own life.

  ‘How’s she doing?’

  ‘She lives up along the Airline somewhere.’ The Airline was the local name for Route 9, which ran between Brewer and Calais. ‘Third marriage. Shacked up with a musician.’

  ‘Really? I didn’t know her that well.’

  ‘Good for you. Could have been you shacked up with her.’

  ‘There’s a thought. She was a good-looking girl.’

  ‘Still not such a bad-looking woman now, I suppose,’ said Bennett. ‘A little thicker around the trunk than you might recall, but you can see what she was. Can see it in the daughter too.’

  ‘What’s the daughter’s name?’

  ‘Karen. Karen Emory. Only child of her mother’s first marriage, and born after the father took to his heels, so she has her mother’s name. Only child of any of her marriages, come to think on it. She’s been working for me for over a year now. Like I said, a good kid. She’s got her troubles, but I think she’ll come through them all right, long as she’s given the help that she needs, and she’s got the sense to ask for it.’

  Bennett Patchett was an unusual man. He and his wife, Hazel, who had died a couple of years ago, had always viewed those who worked for them not simply as staff, but as part of a kind of extended family. They had a particular fondness for the women who passed through the Downs, some of whom stayed for many years, others for only a matter of months. Bennett and Hazel had a special sense for girls who were in trouble, or who needed a little stability in their lives. They didn’t pry, and they didn’t preach, but they listened when they were approached, and they helped when they could. The Patchetts owned a couple of buildings around Saco and Scarborough, and these they had converted into cheap lodgings for their own staff and for the staff of a select number of other established businesses run by people of a similar outlook to themselves. The apartments weren’t mixed, so that women and men were required to stay with their own sex. Some occasional meetings of the twain did inevitably occur, but less often than one might have thought. For the most part, those who took up the Patchetts’ offer of a place to stay were happy with the space – not just physical, but psychological and emotional – that it offered them. The majority moved on eventually, some getting their lives back together and some not, but while they worked for the Patchetts they were looked out for, both by the couple themselves and by the older members of staff. Sally Cleaver’s death had been a grave blow, but, if anything, it had made them more solicitous toward their charges. While Bennett had taken his wife’s death hard, the loss of her had not changed his attitude toward his staff one iota. Anyway, they were now all that he had left, and he saw Sally Cleaver in the face of every one of those women, and perhaps he had already begun to see Damien in the young men.

  ‘Karen’s fallen in with a man, one I don’t much care for,’ said Bennett. ‘She was living in one of the staff houses, just up on Gorham Road. She and Damien, they got on well together. I thought he might have had a crush on her, but she only had eyes for this friend of his, a buddy from Iraq by the name of Joel Tobias. Used to be Damien’s squad leader. After Damien died, or it could have happened even before he died, Karen and Tobias hooked up. I hear that Tobias is troubled by some of what he saw over in Iraq. He had friends die on him, and I mean literally. They bled to death in his arms. He wakes up in the night, screaming and sweating. She thinks that she can help him.’

  ‘She told you this?’

  ‘No. I heard it from one of the other waitresses. Karen wouldn’t tell me that kind of thing. I suppose she prefers to talk to other women about these matters, that’s all, and she knows that I didn’t approve of her moving in with Tobias so soon after they’d met. Maybe I’m old-fashioned that way, but I felt that she should wait. Told her so, too. They hadn’t been together more than a couple of weeks at that point and, well, I asked her if she didn’t feel that she was rushing things a bit, but she’s a young girl, and she thinks she knows her own mind, and I wasn’t about to interfere. She wanted to keep working for me, and that was just fine. We’ve been hurting a bit lately, same as everywhere, but I don’t need to make more from the place than lets me pay my bills, and I can still do that, with money to spare. I don’t need more staff and, I guess, it might be said that I don’t need all of the ones I’ve got, but they need the work, and it does an old man good to have young people around him.’

  He finished his coffee and looked longingly at the pot on the other side of the counter. As if by telepathy, Kyle looked up from where he was cleaning the prep station and said: ‘Go get that pot, if you want some. It’ll go to waste otherwise.’

  Bennett walked around to the other side of the counter and poured us both a little more coffee. When he had done so, he remained standing, staring out of the window at the old courthouse, thinking on what he would say next.

  ‘Tobias is older than her: mid-thirties. Too old and too screwed up for a girl like her. Got himself wounded over in Iraq, lost some fingers and damaged his left leg. He drives a truck now. He’s an independent contractor, or that’s what he calls himself, but he seems to work pretty casually. He always had time to hang out with Damien, and he’s always around Karen, more than someone who’s supposed to be on the road earning a living should be, like money isn’t a
worry for him.’

  Bennett opened some creamer and added it to his coffee. There was another pause. I didn’t doubt that he’d spent a lot of time considering what he was going to say, but I could tell that he was still cautious about speaking all of it aloud.

  ‘You know, I got nothing but respect for the military. Couldn’t help but have, man my father was. My eyesight hadn’t been so bad, I’d probably have gone to Vietnam, and it might be that we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. Maybe I wouldn’t be here, but buried under a white stone somewhere. Whatever, I’d be a different man, or even a better one.

  ‘I don’t know the rights and wrongs of that war in Iraq. Seems to me to be a long way to go for no good cause that I can see, with a lot of lives lost, but it could be that wiser minds than mine know something that I don’t. Worse than that, though, they didn’t look after those men and women who came back, not the way they should have. My father, he returned from World War Two wounded, but he just didn’t know it. He was damaged inside by some of the things that he’d seen and done, but the damage didn’t have the same medical name then, or people just didn’t understand how bad it could be. When Joel Tobias came into the Downs, I could tell that he was damaged too, and not just in his hand and his leg. He was hurting inside as well, all torn up with anger. I could smell it on him, could see it in his eyes. Didn’t need anyone to tell me about it.

  ‘Don’t misunderstand me: he has as much of a right to be happy as anyone, maybe even more so because of the sacrifices that he’s made. The hurt he’s going through, mental or physical, doesn’t deny him that right, and it could be that, in the normal run of events, someone like Karen might be good for him. She’s been hurt too. I don’t know how, but it’s there, and it makes her sensitive to others like herself. A good man could be healed by that, once he doesn’t exploit it. But I don’t think Joel Tobias is a good man. That’s what it comes down to. He’s wrong for her, and he’s just plain wrong with it.’

  ‘How can you tell?’ I asked.

  ‘I can’t,’ he said, and I could hear the frustration in his voice. ‘Not for sure. It’s a gut feeling, though, and something more than that. He drives his own rig, and it looks as new as a baby in the nurse’s arms. He’s got a big Silverado, and that’s new too. He lives in a pretty nice house in Portland, and he’s got money. He throws it around some, more than he should. I don’t like it.’

  I waited. I had to be careful with what I said next. I didn’t want to sound like I was doubting Bennett, but at the same time I knew that he could be overprotective of the young people in his charge. He was still trying to make up for failing to protect Sally Cleaver, even though he could not have prevented what befell her, and it was not his fault.

  ‘You know, all of that could be on credit,’ I said. ‘Until recently, they’d let you pay a nickel down to see you drive a new truck off the lot. He may have received compensation for his injuries. You just—’

  ‘She’s changed,’ said Bennett. He said it so softly that I might almost have missed it, yet the intensity with which he spoke meant that it couldn’t be ignored. ‘He’s changed too. I can see it when he comes for her. He looks sick, like he’s not sleeping right, even worse than he was before. Lately, I’ve started to see it in her too. She burnt herself a couple of days back: tried to catch a coffeepot that was falling and ended up getting hot coffee on her hand. It was carelessness on her part, but the carelessness that comes from being tired. She’s lost some weight, and she was never carrying much to start off with. And I think he’s raised a hand to her. I saw bruising on her face. She told me that she’d walked into a door, like anyone believes that old story anymore.’

  ‘You try speaking to her about it?’

  ‘Tried, but she got real defensive. Like I said before, I don’t think she likes talking to men about personal matters. I didn’t want to pursue it further, not then, for fear that I’d drive her away entirely. But I’m worried for her.’

  ‘What do you want me to do?’

  ‘You still know them Fulci fellas? Maybe you could get them to beat on Tobias some, tell him to find someone else to share his bed.’

  He said it with a sad smile, but I could tell that there was a part of him that would really have liked to see the Fulcis, who were essentially weapons of war with appetites, unleashed on a man who could hit a woman.

  ‘Doesn’t work,’ I said. ‘Either the woman starts to feel sorry for the guy, or the guy figures the woman has been talking to someone, and it gets worse.’

  ‘Well, it was a nice thought while it lasted,’ he said. ‘If that’s not an option, I’d like you to look into Tobias, see what you can find out about him. I just need something that might convince Karen to put some distance between her and him.’

  ‘I can do it, but there’s a chance that she won’t thank you for it.’

  ‘I’ll take that chance.’

  ‘Do you want to know my rates?’

  ‘Are you going to screw me over?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Then I figure you’re worth what you ask for.’ He put an envelope on the counter. ‘There’s two thousand dollars down. How much is that good for?’

  ‘Long enough. If I need more, I’ll get back to you. If I spend less, I’ll refund you.’

  ‘You’ll tell me what you find out?’

  ‘I will. But what if I discover that he’s clean?’

  ‘He’s not,’ said Bennett firmly. ‘No man who hits a woman can call himself clean.’

  I touched the envelope with my fingertips. I felt the urge to hand it back to him. Instead, I pointed at the Jandreau story.

  ‘Old ghosts,’ I said.

  ‘Old ghosts,’ he agreed. ‘I go out there sometimes, you know? Couldn’t tell you why, unless it’s that I hope I’ll be pulled back in time so I can save her. Mostly, I just say a prayer for her as I pass by. They ought to scour that place from the earth.’

  ‘Did you know Foster Jandreau?’

  ‘He came in sometimes. They all do: state troopers, local cops. We look after them. Oh, they pay their check like anyone else, but we make sure that they don’t leave hungry. I knew Foster some, though. His cousin, Bobby Jandreau, served with Damien in Iraq. Bobby lost his legs. Hell of a thing.’

  I waited before speaking again. There was something missing here. ‘You said that this meeting was about Damien’s death, in a way. The only connection is Karen Emory?’

  Bennett looked troubled. Any mention of his son must have been painful for him, but there was more to it than that.

  ‘Tobias came back troubled from that war, but my son didn’t. I mean, he’d seen bad things, and there were days when I could tell he was remembering some of them, but he was still the son I knew. He told me over and over that he’d had a good war, if such a thing is possible. He didn’t kill anyone who wasn’t trying to kill him, and he had no hatred for the Iraqi people. He just felt sorry for what they were going through, and he tried to do his best by them. He lost some buddies over there, but he wasn’t haunted by what he’d been through, not at first. That all came later.’

  ‘I don’t know much about post-traumatic stress,’ I said, ‘but from what I’ve read, it can take some time to kick in.’

  ‘There is that,’ said Bennett. ‘I’ve read about it too. I was reading about it before Damien died, thinking that I might be able to help him if I understood better what he was going through. But, you see, Damien liked the army. I don’t think he wanted to leave. He served multiple tours, and would have gone back again. As it was, all he talked about when he got back was re-enlisting.’

  ‘Why didn’t he?’

  ‘Because Joel Tobias wanted him here.’

  ‘How do you know that?’

  ‘From what Damien said. He took a couple of trips up to Canada with Tobias, and I got the sense that they had something going on, some deal that promised good money at the end of it. Damien began to talk about setting up his own business, maybe moving into security if he didn’t re
turn to the army. That was when the trouble started. That was when Damien began to change.’

  ‘Change how?’

  ‘He stopped eating. Couldn’t sleep, and when he did manage to fall asleep I’d hear him crying out, and shouting.’

  ‘Could you hear what he was saying?’

  ‘Sometimes. He’d be asking someone to leave him alone, to stop talking. No, to stop whispering. He became anxious, and aggressive. He’d snap at me for nothing. When he wasn’t doing stuff for Tobias, he was somewhere by himself, smoking, staring into space. I suggested that he ought to talk to someone about it, but I don’t know if he did. He was back for three months when this all started, and he was dead by his own hand two weeks later.’ He patted my shoulder. ‘Look into that Tobias fella, and we’ll talk again.’

  With that, he said his good-byes to Kyle and Tara, and left the diner. I watched him walk slowly to his car, a beat-up Subaru with a Sea Dogs sticker along the rear fender. As he opened the car door, he caught me watching him. He nodded and raised a hand in farewell, and I did likewise.

  Kyle came out from the kitchen.

  ‘I’m going to lock up now,’ he said. ‘You all done?’

  ‘Thank you,’ I said. I paid the check, and left a good tip, both for the food and for Kyle’s discretion. There weren’t many diners in which two men could meet and discuss what Bennett and I had discussed without fear of eavesdropping.

  ‘He’s a good man,’ said Kyle, as Bennett’s car turned out of the lot.

  ‘Yes, he is.’

  On the way back to Scarborough, I took a detour to drive by the Blue Moon. Yellow police tape flapped in the breeze from a downpipe, bright against the blackened shell of the bar. The windows remained boarded up, the steel door secured with a heavy bolt, but there was a hole in the roof where the flames had burst through all those years ago, and if you got close enough it smelled of damp and, even now, charred wood. Kyle and Bennett were right: it should have been demolished, but still it remained, like a dark cancer cell against the red clover of the field that stretched behind it.

 
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