The whisperers, p.31
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       The Whisperers, p.31

           John Connolly
 

  ‘He’s high,’ said Tobias. ‘Artane, probably.’

  Artane was an antipsychotic used to treat Parkinson’s disease, but was popular with the younger insurgents. In Baghdad, it was part of the pharmacopia available at places like the Babb al-Sharq, the Eastern Gate. It left the user with a feeling of euphoria and a sense of invulnerability. The haji’s voice rose in prayer, and then there was a single shot as Tobias finished him off. There would be no policing of the dead tonight, no bagging of the bodies to be dropped off at the nearest police station. They would stay where they had fallen.

  The dead haji all wore black headbands, the mark of shaheed, of martyrs. He mentioned it to Tobias, but Tobias did not appear interested.

  ‘So what?’ he said. ‘If they wanted to be martyrs, then they got their wish.’

  Tobias didn’t understand. They were waiting for us, he wanted to say, but they barely fought back. If they’d wanted to, they could have taken us in the street, where we were vulnerable, but they didn’t. They let us come to them, and then they let us kill them.

  Roddam joined them, speaking on a satellite phone. Minutes later, they heard rumbles and saw lights, and a Buffalo armored vehicle appeared outside. Lord knew how they’d managed to get it down those streets, but somehow they had. It was closely followed by a single Humvee. He didn’t recognize the four men who drove the vehicles. Later, he would learn that they were National Guardsmen, two from Calais, the other two from somewhere in the ass end of the County. More Mainers, more men who owed Tobias a favor. Three never made it home. The fourth was still trying to make his new arms work.

  They rolled two pneumatic lifters out of the Buffalo, and started moving the heavier crates out of the warehouse. Tobias formed four of the squad into a line, and they piled the smaller items in the Hummer, and the larger ones into the Buffalo. It took four hours. In all that time, nobody approached the warehouse, and they were allowed to depart Al-Adhamiya unhindered. Along the way, they picked up two teams of snipers. It wasn’t unusual: that was how the system worked. Snipers – Delta, Blackwater, Rangers, SEALS, Marines – would be attached to an infantry unit on a cordon-and-search mission. When the unit left, the snipers would stay and go to ground. Later, a unit would return and pick up the snipers. In this case, he knew that the snipers’ mission had been arranged by Roddam, and only to provide cover for the raid on the warehouse, because their squad had dropped off both teams earlier in the week.

  There should have been gunfire, he whispered to himself. They should have been challenged. It made no sense. None of it made any sense.

  But it didn’t have to, because they were rich.

  Even now, the scale of what Roddam managed to pull off astonished him, but then Roddam was smart: he knew how to exploit the chaos of war, and Iraq was chaos squared. What mattered was what was being brought into the country, not what was being shipped out: half of what they had seized at the warehouse was flown to Canada, sometimes via the US, in otherwise empty planes returning to stock up on more overpriced equipment for the war effort. Larger items were shipped through Jordan, and onward by sea. Where necessary, bribes were paid, but not in the US or Canada. Even without Roddam’s CIA contacts to smooth the way, Iraq was a gold-mine for contractors. Equipment was needed yesterday, at any price, and nobody wanted to be accused of interfering with the war effort by quibbling over paperwork.

  Over the months that followed, they all began to drift home, some more intact then others. They handed over their weapons, filled out their medical questionnaires on PalmPilots, none of them ’fessing up to any psychological issues, not then, which made the army happy. They all listened to the same speech from the battalion commander, advising them not to hit their wives and girlfriends when they got home, or words to that effect, and about how the army would welcome them back with open arms, a bunch of flowers, and forty virgins from the southern states should they choose to return.

  Or words to that effect.

  Then Kuwait, then Frankfurt, passing over Bangor, Maine, on their way to McCord AFB, then back to Bangor again, and home.

  All except him, because by then his legs were ruined. He took a different route: a Black Hawk medevac to the CASH in the Green Zone, where he was stabilized before transfer to the trauma center at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center near Frankfurt, where they performed the amputations. Landstuhl to Ramstein, Ramstein to Andrews AFB on a C-141 Starlifter, men stacked like kindling in the center of the plane, like captives on a slave ship, six inches separating each man from the man above him, the smell of blood and urine sickening, even through the fog of medication, the noise of the aircraft deafening despite the earplugs. Andrews to Walter Reed. The hell of occupational therapy; the attempts to fit prostheses, ultimately abandoned because of the pain they caused him, and he’d had enough of pain.

  Then the return to Maine, and the arguments with Tobias. He’d be looked after, Tobias told him; all he had to do was keep his mouth shut. But he wasn’t concerned solely about himself. There had been an agreement: the money would be used to help their brothers- and sisters-in-arms, the ones who were injured, the ones who had lost so much. Tobias said that had changed. He wasn’t going to police the consciences of others. They could give what they wanted. They all could. It was complicated. They had to be careful. Jandreau didn’t understand.

  And suddenly they started dying. It was Kramer who told him about the box, Kramer who discussed the nightmares he was having, Kramer who led him to delve into the dark corners of Sumerian mythology, but it wasn’t until just after Damien Patchett died that he found out the truth about Roddam. Roddam was dead. He had been found in the IRIS office in Concord one week after Tobias and Bacci returned home, the first of the men involved in the Al-Adhamiya raid to do so. It had passed the rest of them by, if any of them had even cared, because Roddam wasn’t his real name: it was Nailon, Jack Nailon. He’d fallen asleep on the couch in his office with a lit cigar in an ashtray on the couch arm, and with too much whiskey in his system and on his clothes. He had burned to death, they said.

  Except that Roddam, or Nailon, or whatever his real name was, didn’t drink. That was what he remembered from the beer night at the base, when he and Roddam had exchanged a couple of words after he had offered Roddam a beer. Roddam was a diabetic and suffered from high blood pressure. He couldn’t drink alcohol and he didn’t smoke. He didn’t know why that hadn’t come up during the investigation into Roddam’s death. Maybe, like everything else about Roddam, his medical history was uncertain, hidden. But then he recalled some of the things that Tobias had begun to say about Roddam before Tobias went home: Roddam was unreliable. Roddam wasn’t one of us. Roddam was causing trouble in Quebec. Roddam wanted a bigger cut. As though he were preparing the way for Roddam’s removal.

  He’d brought up Roddam’s death after Damien’s funeral. He’d brought up lots of stuff because he was sad, and he was drunk, and he missed Mel, and he was sure going to miss Damien. If Roddam wasn’t in charge, then who was? Tobias was classic NCO material. He didn’t originate ideas, he just put them into action, and this was a complicated operation.

  And Tobias had told him to keep quiet, to mind his own business, because a man in a wheelchair was vulnerable, and cripples had accidents all the time.

  After that, he’d started carrying the gun under his chair.

  29

  The Collector was now only steps behind Herod. He felt himself drawing closer to him, and as he did so his fears increased.

  Herod was an unusual case. The Collector might even have viewed him simply as an interesting challenge, like a hunter who finds that the animal he is pursuing has displayed unexpected depths of cunning, had he not become increasingly concerned about the man’s ultimate purpose, and the imminence of its fulfillment. Herod had concealed himself well, and the Collector had only been able to find traces of him: deals, and threats, made; lives ruined, and bodies left unburied; items purchased, or taken from the dead. It was the nature of these artifacts – oc
cult, arcane – that had first drawn the Collector’s attention. Carefully, he had tried to discern a pattern. There seemed to be no distinct historical period to which Herod was attracted, and the items themselves were baffling in their variety and relative value. The Collector had only the peculiar sense that this was the reflection of a consciousness, as though Herod were furnishing a room in preparation for the arrival of an honored guest, so that the visitor might be surrounded by treasures and curios that were familiar or of interest to him; or preparing a museum display which would only come together for the viewer when the main exhibit was finally put in place.

  The Collector had come close to confronting Herod on a number of occasions, but the man had always slipped away. It was as though he had been forewarned about the Collector’s approach, and had found ways to avoid him, even if it meant sacrificing an item that he desired, for the Collector had made certain to bait his traps well. The Collector had already decided to dispose of Herod some years before. Herod had killed a child, a young boy, whose father had reneged on a deal, and in the Collector’s mind Herod had damned himself by that action. It was one of Herod’s apparent peculiarities that he seemed to regard himself, and those with whom he dealt, as being bound by some twisted notion of honor, the rules of which appeared to be set by Herod, and Herod alone.

  But if the Collector had experienced any doubts about the legitimacy of killing Herod, they had been swept away when he began to learn of Herod’s inquiries into the treasures looted from the Iraq Museum. That had given the Collector his first real inkling of what was being sought. He had heard rumors about the box, but had disregarded them. There were so many such tales, going right back to the original legend of Pandora, yet this one was different, because Herod was interested in it, and Herod did not embark on fruitless searches. Herod had an end in sight, and everything that he did served it.

  Herod had been in contact with Rochman in Paris, anxious to establish the source of the seals that he had acquired. Rochman had proved uncooperative, for Herod did not have the funds necessary to engage in a serious bid for the items, even had Herod been interested in purchasing them, which he was not. Herod, in turn, had seemed oddly reluctant to threaten Rochman in order to force the information from him. The Collector had noted that Herod used violence only against the weak, like a playground bully. The House of Rochman was well established, and had influence. If Herod crossed it, he would risk alienating a clique of unscrupulous and wealthy dealers who would, at best, ostracize him, or, as was more likely, move against him. The Collector did not doubt that anyone getting into a conflict with Herod would suffer for it along the way, but a battle with men seeking to protect a billion dollar industry dependent on the secret movement of stolen antiquities could only end with Herod’s annihilation.

  So Herod had backed off, biding his time. Now a number of seals had appeared in a town in Maine, for as soon as Rojas began seeking ways to turn gold and jewels into hard cash, rumors had spread. It was not only the dealers, and Herod, who would be drawn by them. The federal government was already taking an interest, for Rochman had begun to talk in an effort to save himself and his business. The seals in his possession had come from Locker 5 in the basement of the Iraq Museum, as had the seals currently available for sale in Maine. Rochman’s seals were a down payment for his advice on valuations, and for his help in sourcing buyers. In time, he would give all that he knew to the investigators, and it would only be a matter of days before they would start to close in on all involved.

  The Collector knew of Dr. Al-Daini, and he believed that the Iraqi was ultimately seeking the box, even as he set about recovering the other treasures lost in 2003. The Collector had made inquiries, and had learned that Al-Daini was now on his way to the US. He would fly into Boston, and be taken straight from there to a disused motel in the town of Langdon, Maine.

  The men who were transporting the stolen artifacts from the motel had been careless. A pair of small alabaster figures had been found lying in the long grass, and had quickly been identified as part of a hoard discovered at Tell es Sawwan, on the left bank of the Tigris, in 1964, and subsequently looted from the Iraq Museum. The body of a man had also been discovered at the motel, sealed into a room from the inside, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound having first apparently fired at some unknown threat.

  The body had been discovered by the detective, Charlie Parker.

  There were no coincidences, the Collector knew, not where Parker was concerned. He was part of something that he did not understand; that, in truth, the Collector did not fully understand either. Now, once again, he and Parker were circling the same quarry, like twin moons orbiting a dark, unknown planet.

  The Collector made a telephone call to his lawyer. He wanted to know where Parker was. His lawyer, an ancient man who disdained computers and cell phones and most of the significant technical innovations of recent years, made a call in turn to a gentleman who specialized in matters of triangulation, and Parker’s cell phone was traced to a motel near Bucksport.

  Bucksport was an hour away.

  The Collector began to drive.

  30

  Herod stood by his car and gazed upon the Rojas warehouse. Lights burned on both floors, and he could see figures moving behind glass on the lower level. There were vehicles parked in the front lot: Rojas Brothers trucks, a couple of cars, and a white SUV.

  Herod needed his medication, and in serious doses. The pain had grown worse as the day proceeded, and now he wanted all of this to be over with so that he could rest for a while.

  There came a prickling at the base of his neck. At first, he barely noticed it against the shrillness of his agony; it was like trying to pick out a melody from the cacophony of an orchestra tuning its instruments. The wound on his mouth throbbed in the warm night air, and the insects were feeding on him.

  I reek of decay, he thought. Were I to lie down and wait for death to take my breath, they would plant their eggs in my flesh before I passed over. There might even be some relief in it. He imagined the maggots emerging from the eggs and feasting on his tumors, consuming the rotting tissue and leaving the rest to regenerate, except that there was no good flesh left, and so they would devour him entirely. He might have embraced such an end, once upon a time, for at least it would have been faster, and more natural, than the manner in which his body was cannibalizing itself. Instead, he had found another outlet for his pain. If this was a visitation from the Divine, a punishment for his sins – for Herod had sinned, and taken joy in his transgressions – then Herod would inflict punishment on others in turn. The Captain had given him the means, had endowed him with a purpose beyond the simple infliction of hurt in revenge for his own torments. The Captain had promised him that the world would mourn because of Herod. Before he was pulled back from the darkness – back, perhaps, from one hell of another’s making to the hell of his body’s own capacities – the Captain had flashed images in his mind: the image of a black angel hidden behind a wall, a presence trapped within it; bodies slowly fading but never dying, each with something of the Captain within itself . . .

  And the box. The Captain had shown him the box. But by then it was already missing, and so the search had commenced.

  The tingling continued. He rubbed at his neck, expecting to feel a blood-gorged creature pop beneath his fingers, but there was nothing. An open field lay between Herod and the warehouse. At its closest border was a pool of standing water, cloudy with bugs. Herod drew closer to it, until he could stare at his reflection: his own, and that of another. Behind him stood a tall scarecrow in a black suit, wearing a black top hat with a busted crown on its head. Its face was a sack in which two eyeholes had been crudely cut, and it had no mouth. The scarecrow was unsupported. There was no wooden cross upon which it might rest.

  The Captain had returned.

  Vernon and Pritchard lay on a slight rise, their position concealed by briars and low-hanging branches. They had a clear line of sight to the houses adjoining t
he Rojas warehouse. Both were entirely still; even up close, they seemed barely to be breathing. Pritchard’s right eye was close to the night sight of the M40. The rifle was accurate up to a thousand yards, and Pritchard was barely eight hundred yards distant from the targets. Beside him, Vernon tracked doors and windows through an ATN Night Spirit monocular.

  Vernon and Pritchard were elite Marine scout snipers, or HOGs in the language of their trade: hunters of gunmen. They were veterans of the sniper battles in Baghdad, a largely hidden conflict that had escalated after the loss of two Marine sniper teams, a total of ten men lost to the hajis. They had played cat and mouse games with the near mythical ‘Juba,’ an anonymous sniper variously believed to be a Chechen, or even a collective name for a cell of snipers, armed with Iraqi-produced Tabuk rifles, a Kalashnikov variant. Juba was disciplined, waiting for soldiers to stand up in, or dismount from, vehicles, looking for the gaps in the body armor, never firing more than one shot before melting away. Vernon and Pritchard differed on whether or not Juba was one man, or many. Pritchard, the better shot of the two, inclined to the former view, based on Juba’s preference for shots in the three-hundred-yard range, and his disinclination to fire more than once, even when baited. Vernon disagreed on the basis that, while the Tabuk was reliable up to about nine hundred yards, it was best at three hundred, so the Juba snipers using Tabuks were limited by their equipment. Vernon had also attributed kills using Dragunovs and an Izhmash .22 to Juba, suggesting multiple snipers, kills that Pritchard preferred to discount. In the end, both men had been targeted by Juba, whether one or many. Like their fellow soldiers, they had become adept at ‘cutting squares’: zig-zagging, ducking, moving back and forth, and bobbing their heads in order to provide a more difficult target to hit. Pritchard called it the ‘Battlefield Boogie,’ Vernon the ‘Jihad Jitterbug.’ What was odd was that neither man could dance to save his life on a regular dance floor, but threatened by an expert killer they had moved like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.

 

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