The whisperers, p.30
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       The Whisperers, p.30

           John Connolly
 

  ‘I haven’t figured that part out yet,’ I said.

  ‘You’re not dumb, Mr. Parker, so don’t assume that I am. Let me suggest what conclusions I think you may have come to, and you can disagree with me when I’m done. You believe that Proctor was storing items in his motel, possibly, even probably, drugs. You believe that the cash in his cabin was a payment for his services. You believe that some, or all, of the men who have died might also have been involved in this same operation. Joel Tobias makes runs in his truck back and forth across the Canadian border, so you believe that he’s the likeliest transport link. Am I wrong?’

  I didn’t respond, so she continued talking.

  ‘And yet I don’t think you’ve told the police all of this. I wonder why. Is it because you feel some loyalty to Bennett Patchett, and you don’t want to besmirch his son’s reputation unless you absolutely have to do so? I think that may be part of it. You’re a romantic, Mr. Parker, but sometimes, like all romantics, you confuse it with sentimentality. That explains why you’re cynical about the motives of others.

  ‘But you’re also a crusader, and that fits in with your romantic streak. That crusading impulse is essentially selfish: you’re a crusader because it gives you a sense of purpose, not because it serves the larger requirements of justice or society. In fact, when your own needs and the greater collective need have come into conflict, I suspect that you’ve usually chosen the former over the latter. That doesn’t make you a bad person, just an unreliable one. So, how’d I do?’

  ‘Close on Proctor and Tobias. I can’t comment on the second bout of free analysis.’

  ‘It’s not free. You’re going to pay for my drinks. What have I missed about Proctor and Tobias?’

  ‘I don’t think it’s drugs.’

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘I talked to someone who’d know if there was an attempt to increase the local supply, or to use the state as a staging post. It would involve squaring things with the Dominicans, and probably the Mexicans too. The gentleman to whom I spoke would also look for his cut.’

  ‘And if the new players just decided to dispense with the niceties?’

  ‘Then some men with guns might be tempted to dispense with them. There’s also the question of supply. Unless they’re growing bud themselves across the border, or are importing heroin straight from the source in Asia, they’d have to deal with the current suppliers somewhere along the line. It’s hard to keep those kinds of negotiations quiet, especially when they might threaten the status quo.’

  ‘If not drugs, then what?’

  ‘There might be something in their military records,’ I said, avoiding the question.

  ‘I’ve looked into the records of the deceased. There’s nothing.’

  ‘Look closer.’

  ‘I’ll ask you again: what are they smuggling? I think you know.’

  ‘I’ll tell you when I’m sure. Go back to the records. There must be something. If you’re concerned about the reputation of the military, then having the cops uncover a smuggling operation involving veterans isn’t going to help. It would be better if the military could be the instigators of any action against them.’

  ‘And in the meantime, what are you going to do?’

  ‘There’s always a weak link. I’m going to find it.’

  I paid the tab, on the assumption that I could run it past the IRS as a justifiable expense if I claimed not to have enjoyed myself, which was largely true.

  ‘Are you driving back to Augusta tonight?’ I asked Saunders.

  ‘No, I’m staying in the same place that you are,’ she said.

  I walked with her across the road to the motel.

  ‘Where’d you park?’

  ‘On the street,’ she said. ‘I’d ask you in for a nightcap, but I have no booze. Oh, and I don’t want to. There’s that too.’

  ‘I won’t take it personally.’

  ‘I really wish that you would,’ she said, and then she was gone.

  Back in my room, I checked my cell phone. There was one message: it was from Louis, giving me the number of a motel, and the room in which he was staying. I used the room phone to call him. The main building was locked up for the night, and I wasn’t worried about anyone listening in. Nevertheless, we kept the conversation as circumspect as possible, just in case.

  ‘We had company,’ he said after Angel passed him the phone. ‘Two for dinner.’

  ‘They make it to the main course?’

  ‘Didn’t even last until the appetizers.’

  ‘And after?’

  ‘They went swimming.’

  ‘Well, at least they did it on an empty stomach.’

  ‘Yeah, can’t be too careful. Now it’s just the four of us.’

  ‘Four?’

  ‘Seems like you have a new career in relationship counseling.’

  ‘I’m not sure my skills are up to helping you with yours.’

  ‘We find ourselves in that much trouble, we’ll make a suicide pact first. In the meantime, you need to get over here. Our friend has turned out to be quite the conversationalist.’

  ‘I promised the state cops I’d hang around until morning.’

  ‘Well, they’ll miss you, but I think you need to hear this more.’

  I told him it would take me a few hours to get there, and he said that they weren’t planning on going anywhere. As I drove out of the lot, a light still burned in Carrie Saunders’s room, but I didn’t think that it burned for me.

  IV

  Menelaus: We were swindled by the gods. We had our hands upon an idol of the clouds.

  Messenger: You mean it was for a cloud, for nothing, we did all that work?

  Euripides, Helen, ll 704–707

  He’d spent too long in just about every vehicle the army had to offer, and knew their strengths and shortcomings, but he was eventually brought in to fill a vacant spot on Tobias’s Stryker squad.

  There had been a lot of crap tossed at the Stryker, usually by the kind of shitheads who subscribed to gun magazines and wrote letters to them about the ‘warrior class,’ but soldiers liked the Stryker. The seat cushions sucked, the a/c was like the beating of fly wings, and there weren’t enough outlets to run DVD players or iPods for an entire squad, but it was superior to the Humvees, even the up-armored ones. The Stryker offered integral 14.5mm protection from anything the haji could throw at it, with additional cover from RPGs provided by a cage of armor eighteen inches from the main body. It had the M240 at the rear, and a .50 cal that rocked. By comparison, the Humvee was like wrapping yourself in tissue and waving a .22.

  And that kind of stuff mattered, because against every rule that he had ever been taught about urban warfare, the army had them marking the same patrol routes at the same times every day, so the haji could set their clocks and, by extension, their IEDs, by them. By this point, it wasn’t a matter of if they were going to be hit on a given day, but when. The upside was that, following a hit, the vehicle was automatically returned to base for repairs, so the squad could rest up for the remainder of the day.

  The transfer to the Stryker squad had been Tobias’s doing; Tobias, and the man named Roddam. Tobias had earned his sergeant’s stripes and was squad leader. He wasn’t a jerk, though: he even scored them some beers, and getting busted for drinking was a serious offense. You might pull an Article 15 for a fistfight, or borrowing a vehicle without permission, but alcohol and drugs merited judicial punishment. Tobias’s own neck was on the line over the beer, but he trusted them. By then, though, he had become familiar with the way Tobias operated, and he knew that the beers were a way of softening them up. Tobias had his own unique spin on Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there was an equal or greater reaction expected. They would pay for those beers, one way or another, and Roddam was the one who was going to extract the payment.

  Roddam was a spook of some kind. Baghdad was overrun with them, both genuine and charlatans, and Roddam was a little of both. He was private, not CIA
, and he didn’t talk much about what he did, like any good spook. He said that he worked for a small outfit called Information Retrieval & Interpretation Services, or IRIS, but Tobias let it slip that it was basically a one-man operation. IRIS’s logo, not unexpectedly, was an eye, with the world as its pupil. Roddam’s cards boasted offices in Concord, New Hampshire, and Pont-Rouge, Canada, but the Pont-Rouge office turned out to be little more than a tax scam with proximity to an airfield, and the Concord office was a telephone and an answering machine.

  Roddam was ex-Agency, though: he had contacts, and he had influence. Part of his role in Baghdad was to act as the middleman between the army and the smaller contractors, the ones who didn’t have their own transport networks and were trying to keep their costs down so that they could bank a bigger share of whatever they were overcharging Uncle Sam to begin with. Roddam arranged for the transportation of anything on which the big boys like Halliburton didn’t already have first dibs, from a box of obscure screws to weapons that were required, for whatever reason, to bypass the regular transport channels.

  That paid his bills, and more, but it wasn’t his main area of expertise: Roddam, as it turned out, was an expert in interrogation and information analysis, which explained the origins of the name IRIS. There were too many Iraqis in custody for the regular intelligence guys to process, so the little fish were thrown to Roddam. If you got enough little fish, and cross-referenced whatever information could be gleaned from them, it was possible that a bigger picture might be constructed from the individual pieces. Roddam was some kind of genius at analyzing the information coaxed from prisoners, sometimes without them even knowing that they’d revealed anything crucial. Roddam would occasionally deal with prisoners himself, usually in an effort to clarify a point, or in an effort to make a solid connection between two apparently random pieces of information. He wasn’t a thumbscrew and waterboarding kind of guy. He was patient, and soft-spoken, and careful. Everything he learned went into a computer program that he had created, and for which Iraq was to be the testing ground: it collated key phrases, minor operational details, even turns of phrase, and cross-referenced them in the hope of establishing patterns. Army intelligence and the agency would feed him their scraps too so that, over time, Roddam came to know more about the day-to-day operation of the insurgency than just about anyone else on the ground. He was the go-to guy, trusted as a virtual oracle. In return, what Roddam wanted, Roddam got.

  He never learned how Roddam and Tobias managed to hook up. He supposed that men like them just inevitably found each other. So, when Tobias brought the beer, Roddam came with him. In fact, it was probably Roddam who had sourced the beer in the first place.

  By that time, the squad had taken some hits: Lattner was dead, and Cole. Edwards and Martinez were injured, and had been replaced by Harlan and Kramer, and it looked like Hale, who’d been hit by a sniper, wasn’t going to pull through. He’d taken one in the head, and it would be a mercy if he died. The squad had been marked for force protection duties until it could be restored to full strength: no patrols, just guard shifts in the tower, which meant hour after hour of radio checks with Front Line Yankee, and replies of ‘Lima Charlie – Loud and Clear,’ and maybe ducking occasionally when someone in the darkness decided to lob a mortar, or send in an RPG, or just fire off a couple of rounds to keep you from getting bored.

  That night, Tobias – or Roddam – had swung it so that they were relieved of FP, so there were eight of them in Tobias’s CHEW: him, Tobias, Roddam, Kramer, Harlan, Mallak, Patchett, and Bacci. After a couple of beers to soften them up, Tobias began to speak. He told them of Hale, and how the rest of his life was going to be a struggle at best. He spoke of other guys that they knew. He told of how men were struggling to get money under Section 8, welfare, the VA, anything; of how the VA had denied Keys, the assistant gunner that Patchett had replaced, a claim for his leg, informing him that he rated only sixty percent disabled. Keys had gone to the press, and his rating got bumped up, but only to keep him quiet. He’d been lucky, but there were a lot of other injured men out there who weren’t so lucky, or who didn’t have a sympathetic newspaper to take up their cause. Tobias said that Roddam had a proposition for them, and if they went along with it they’d be able to help some of their injured brothers and sisters, and make life more comfortable for themselves once they got back home. He told them to listen up, and they did.

  Roddam was fifty, balding, overweight. He always wore short-sleeved shirts and a tie. His glasses had black frames. He looked like a science teacher. Roddam said that he’d come by some information. He told them about the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in 2003, and Patchett interrupted and said that he’d been there in the aftermath, and Roddam seemed interested. Later, he would take Patchett aside to talk with him, but for now Roddam simply filed this fact away and continued with his story. He spoke of gold, and statues, and ancient seals. Kramer scoffed some. Joe Radio, the army rumor mill, occasionally threw up tales of Saddam’s hidden treasures, or of gold bars buried in gardens, tales usually originating with shadowy Iraqis who were looking for dollars to grease palms but who would disappear into the night, never to be seen again, if someone were dumb enough to pay them anything. Tobias told Kramer to shut his mouth and listen, and Kramer did.

  By the time Roddam had finished speaking, they were convinced, all of them, even Kramer, because Roddam had a quiet, serious way about him. They told him they were in, and Roddam left to arrange the details. They were his creatures now.

  He had forgotten what it was like to be drunk. Back home, a six-pack would barely have helped him to get a buzz on but here, cut off from alcohol for months, his mouth always dry, his body always warm, it was as if he had knocked back a week’s worth of production from the Coors brewery. His head hurt the next day, but he was still aware of the promise that they’d made. He was just glad that they were going out in the Stryker and not in some makeweight meat wagon, even as he began to have doubts about what it was they were doing. The night before, with a couple of beers under his belt, and not enough food in his belly, he’d been all gung ho like the others, but now the reality of their situation was impacting upon him. On a regular ‘movement to contact’ mission, the new, kinder name for ‘search and destroy,’ the little FBCB2 screen behind the TC’s hatch would start displaying red triangles once the enemy was located, and that bitch’s voice, both lovely and appalling, would kick in to announce that there was an enemy in the area, but they’d be flying blind and alone on this one.

  Tobias treated it like a regular patrol: he patted each of them down to make sure that they all had a CamelBak of water; gloves; pads; a clean, oiled weapon; and fresh batteries in the NODs, the night vision goggles. They’d all carried out their own precombat inspection, and they had the OP order in their heads, but, whatever his flaws, Tobias was a stickler for ensuring that everybody knew his appointed task, and had the proper equipment to carry it out. Roddam watched without speaking, uncomfortable in his Kevlar. He was nervous, and kept looking at his watch. Tobias checked the extra ammo for the .50 cal strapped to the right side of the Stryker. It was hard to get to in a firefight, but there was nowhere else to put it, and better to have it out there than not to have it at all. After the check, they performed their own intimate motions, touching medals, crosses, pictures of their families. Whatever routines had kept them alive in the past, they made sure to maintain. All soldiers were superstitious. It came with the territory.

  It was Sunday evening, and the sun was going down, when they rolled out. They all had good food in their bellies, because the best food was always served on Sundays, but they’d skipped the coffee. There was enough adrenaline coursing before a raid. He remembered the sound his boots made on the dust, the grains of sand compacting beneath the sole, the solidity of the ground and the power of his legs, and then the hollow echo from the floor of the Stryker as he stepped to his seat. Such a simple act, the placing of one foot before the other. Gone now. All gone.
r />   The warehouse was in Al-Adhamiya, the old quarter of Baghdad, a Sunni stronghold. They rolled down narrow alleyways custom built for ambushes, kerosene lamps burning in the windows of the houses as they passed, but not a single figure to be seen on the streets. Two blocks from the target, all lights disappeared, and there was only a half moon above them to gild the buildings with silver and differentiate their lineaments from the blackness above and below.

  They advanced the last one hundred feet on foot. There were two entrances to the warehouse, which looked more modern than the buildings that surrounded it and was entirely dark inside: one door to the south, at the rear, and the other on the western wall. There were two small windows at ground level, protected by bars, and so thick with dust and grime that it was impossible to see through the glass. The doors were reinforced steel, but they blew the locks with C4 and came in hard and fast. Through the NODs, he saw figures moving, weapons being raised, and even as he fired he thought: something about this is not right. How can we have taken them by surprise? If a fly lands in Al-Adhamiya, someone runs to tell a spider.

  One down. Two. He heard a cry of ‘Get some!’ to his left, a voice that he both recognized and did not recognize, a voice transformed by the fury and confusion of combat. A television blared, its screen almost blindingly bright through the goggles, and then the screen exploded and went dark. He heard Tobias shouting ‘Cease fire!’ and it was over. Over almost as soon as it had begun.

  They searched the building, and found no other haji. Three were dead, and one was dying. Tobias stood over him while the perimeter was secured, and he thought that he heard words exchanged between them. The squad flipped their goggles as flashlights bounced around the walls, revealing crates and cardboard boxes and odd shapes wrapped in linen. The dying haji’s pupils were dilated, and he was smiling and singing softly to himself.

 

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