The whisperers, p.32
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       The Whisperers, p.32

           John Connolly
 

  Vernon and Pritchard had known the four men from Echo Company who had died in Ramadi in 2004. Three of them had been shot in the head, a fourth virtually torn apart by bullets. In addition, one Marine’s throat had been slit. The attack had happened in broad daylight, within eight hundred yards of the command post. Later they learned that a four-man ‘hit’ team had probably been responsible, and that the Marines had been targeted for some time, but the killings had marked the beginning of Vernon and Pritchard’s disillusionment with the nature of the conflict in Iraq. Only one of the dead men had been a trained sniper. The others had been grunts, and that wasn’t the way the system was supposed to work. No fewer than two trained snipers on any team, that was the golden rule. When the six-man sniper team of the Reserve 3rd Battalion died in Hadithah a year later, and the remaining snipers were forced to operate according to ever more restrictive rules of engagement, Vernon and Pritchard decided that the Marines could go screw themselves, subsequently aided by an explosion that had detached the retina in Vernon’s right eye, leading to permanent vision loss and a ticket home.

  But by then they had already met Tobias, and they had been present on the night that the warehouse was raided. They were Team 1, covering the southern approaches. Twizell and Greenham were Team 2, covering the north. Nobody had questioned the purpose of the mission: it was in the nature of sniper units that they planned and executed their own operations, and they had announced their insertion into the area days earlier so that units on patrol could work around them. Only Tobias and Roddam knew exactly where they would be. In the end, they had not been required to fire a single shot on the night of the raid, which had disappointed them.

  Pritchard had left the military shortly after Vernon was shipped home, which was how he and Vernon now came to be lying in the undergrowth, ready to kill Mexicans instead of hajis. Both men were quiet, patient, reclusive, as individuals of their calling needed to be. They were without remorse. When asked if he experienced regret at the lives that he took, Pritchard would reply that all he ever felt was the recoil. This was not entirely true: killing gave him a rush that was better than sex, yet he was also a moral and courageous man who believed that his vocation was noble, and he was intelligent enough to recognize the tension implicit in the desire to take lives in a moral fashion while simultaneously experiencing pleasure in the performance of the act.

  He and Vernon wore homemade ghillie suits, with holes in the back for ventilation. They had doused themselves with mud and water from a nearby creek and, as it was a moonlit night, their hats bore netting to break up the shape of the human face. They were not using laser range finders. Instead, both men automatically performed all of the necessary calculations in their heads: range, angle to the targets, air density, wind speed and direction, humidity, even adding in the temperature of the propellant in the cartridge, for a cartridge that is twenty degrees warmer than another will strike a target twenty inches higher at a thousand meters. In the past, they had used data books, calculators loaded with ballistics software, and data tables glued to rifle stocks. Now, they knew such details by heart.

  The slant angle was slightly downhill. Pritchard figured that he’d be aiming fifteen feet above the target, and to the left, to allow for bullet drop. All was set. The only problem was Twizell and Greenham. They weren’t in position. Pritchard had no idea where they were. Both he and Vernon continued to be troubled by the fact that Tobias had sent the others somewhere in advance, but hadn’t bothered to run it by them first. Vernon had been a staff sergeant, an E-6, the highest ranking of the four snipers, and he and Tobias still butted heads when it came to operational matters. He and Pritchard should have been consulted. Now they were down a team, and that wasn’t good.

  The van was parked in a copse some four hundred feet from the back of the Rojas warehouse. The driver’s door was open. Tobias, concealed by a black ski mask and black fatigues, was scanning the warehouse and surrounding buildings through a pair of night vision lenses. He started as a noise came from nearby, and then there was a low whistle and a figure emerged from the bushes before him.

  ‘Four, plus Rojas,’ said Mallak. ‘Three with MP5s, one with a big-ass pump action. Mossberg Roadblocker, most likely. Two Glock nines in shoulder rigs, one with the shotgun, the other with the MP5 nearest the door. No alcohol that I can see. TV is on, but not too loud. Remains of food on the table.’

  Tobias nodded. That was good. Men were more sluggish after food.

  ‘What about Rojas?’

  ‘There’s a stairway against the western wall, enclosed, no turns. Ends at a steel door, slightly open. My guess is that it can be sealed at the first sign of trouble. Windows are thickened glass on the first floor, so no reason to think Rojas’s level is any different. There’s no outside stairwell, but there is a weight-activated ladder on the southern exterior wall, accessible from the window above.’

  ‘Surrounding houses?’

  ‘Two families at A and B,’ said Mallak, using his fingers to indicate the buildings in question. ‘Two female juveniles, one adult female, two adult males in A; one Glock, belt. Two adult females, one male juvenile, one adult male in B; one Glock, belt. Three males in C; two AK47s, one Glock, shoulder. Vernon and Pritchard have the intel, but we’re still a team down.’

  Tobias took one more look at the target through the lenses, then tossed them on the driver’s seat. They could wait for Greenham and Twizell, or proceed. The longer they stayed in position, though, the more likely it was that they would be discovered. He leaned over the seat and looked into the interior of the van. Bacci gazed back at him, his mask rolled up to his forehead in the heat of the van, his face damp with sweat.

  ‘All right,’ said Tobias, as Mallak slouched against the side of the van, ‘listen up . . .’

  Herod was unarmed. His gun was in the car. He carried only a pair of manila envelopes. The first contained a piece of paper on which a figure was typed. This represented the sum of money that Herod was prepared to transfer to any account nominated by Rojas in return for information on how, and from whom, he had obtained the seals. If Rojas refused to provide such information, then Herod knew where Rojas’s American mistress lived, along with Rojas’s illegitimate five-year-old son. Herod would take them both. If necessary, he would kill the woman first, to indicate his seriousness to Rojas, but he did not believe that such action would be required, especially not after Rojas looked in the second envelope containing photographs of those who had crossed Herod in the past, for Herod had a particular way with women. His understanding of their bodies might even have made him a gifted lover, but Herod was a sexless being. Neither was he cruel. Pain and suffering were, for him, a means to an end, and he gained no particular pleasure from their infliction. Herod was not without empathy, and his own sufferings had made him reluctant to prolong the pain of others. For this reason, he hoped that Rojas would take the money.

  He looked again at the Captain’s reflection. He felt no unease. He liked being in the Captain’s presence. He wondered if the Captain would come with him to the Rojas warehouse. He was preparing to find out when, on the surface of the pond, the Captain moved. His fingers were made from twigs, and they rustled slightly as he raised his hand and placed it on the shoulder of Herod’s reflection. Herod himself shivered involuntarily at the pressure, and the chill, of the Captain’s touch, feeling it as surely as he felt the warmth of the night air, and the biting of the insects, but he stayed as he was, and together they kept watch on the building before them.

  One side of the first floor of the Rojas warehouse was lined from floor to ceiling with crates of Rojas Brothers Fuego Sagrado hot sauce. If anyone took the trouble to inquire, the importation and distribution of the sauce was the reason for the warehouse’s existence, and one of the means whereby Antonio Rojas made his living. Rojas had lost count of the number of times the trucks transporting the sauce had been searched by local and federal law enforcement, but he didn’t mind. It distracted them from all of the other t
rucks and cars transporting far more valuable cargo, although, if Rojas were to be honest, he made a very respectable living from the sauce too, even if there were those on the other side of the border who regarded the name, and the packaging, as almost blasphemous. It had a distinctive label, a red fiery cross on a jet black background, and it was marketed as a premium product to gourmet food stores, and the better Mexican restaurants, across New England. The mark-up was nearly as high as on pot or cocaine, and Rojas was careful to declare all income derived from it to the IRS. With the help of a creative accountant, it appeared as though Antonio Rojas was making a reasonable, if not excessive, profit as a purveyor of quality hot sauce.

  It was the sound of one of those hot sauce bottles breaking that alerted Rojas. He looked up from the papers on his desk, and his hand drifted to the gun that was never far away. The door to his living quarters was slightly ajar, otherwise the insulation on the floor would have masked all the noises from below: glass shattering, a chair scraping, something heavy yet soft falling to the floor.

  Rojas stood and made a lunge for the door, but he was seconds too late. The muzzle of a weapon was thrust through the opening, and there was a burst of muffled gunfire that took him across the thighs, almost cutting his legs from his torso. He collapsed as the door opened fully, but even as he fell he had time to squeeze off two shots that hit the dark-garbed figure in the chest. The Kevlar vest absorbed the impact, rocking the man on his heels. Rojas’s third shot was higher, and a messy splash of blood burst forth from the back of the man’s head, the aftermath of a pebble dropped in a red pool. Rojas barely had time to register it before there was more gunfire, and he felt the hot punches as the shots tore through his back. He lay unmoving, and yet he did not die. His eyes took in the shiny black boots that surrounded him, and registered some of the words that he heard: ‘shoot’; ‘question’; ‘no choice’; and, ‘dead, he’s dead.’ Rojas chuckled wetly.

  More footsteps, receding then drawing nearer once again. Black knees by his face. Fingers in his hair, raising his head. The bag of seals, held in gloved hands, the display stand that he had been making for them tossed aside, splintering on the tiled floor. Pink lips moving in the gap of the mask. White teeth, clean and even.

  ‘Where are the rest of them?’

  ‘No comprendo.’

  A knife appeared. ‘I can still hurt you.’

  ‘No, you can’t,’ said Rojas, and he smiled as he died, revealing twin rows of ancient gold and precious stones newly embedded in his teeth.

  A burst of gunfire was carried from the Rojas warehouse to the hide site, but it was not followed by a second.

  ‘Shit,’ said Vernon. He’d known that they were unlikely to get in and out of the warehouse entirely without trouble, but he had been hoping for the best. ‘Okay, ready up.’

  Slowly, he moved the monocular across the three houses, designated Curly, Larry, and Moe. ‘Moe. Doorway, bearing right,’ he said, picking out the figure of a man carrying an AK47.

  ‘I see him.’

  Breathe. Exhale. Take up trigger slack. Exhale.

  Pressure.

  Fire.

  Vernon watched as the target threw his hands in the air, the final wave, then fell.

  ‘Hit,’ he said. ‘Curly. Door. Range seven hundred fifty yards. Zero wind. No correction. Come up seven and two.’ This time, the gunman was staying inside, using the frame of the door for cover as he tried to figure out where the shot had come from.

  ‘Shooter up.’

  ‘Spotter up. Send it.’

  Pritchard fired again. There was a spray of wood chips from the door, and the target ducked back inside.

  ‘Uh, miss, I think,’ said Vernon. ‘It should keep him pinned, though.’

  Momentarily, he shifted his sight to the Rojas warehouse, from which two of their men were emerging, carrying a third between them.

  ‘Okay, they’re on the move, but they’ve got a casualty. Let’s—’

  There was a burst of white flame from the nearest right side window of Curly. ‘Curly. Door.’

  Pritchard fired, and Vernon saw the shooter leap into the air as the shot took him in the head, causing his legs to spasm. ‘Hit,’ said Vernon.

  There was more firing from Moe. Vernon shifted the monocular just in time to see a second man of the assault team fall to the ground.

  ‘Ah, hell,’ said Vernon. ‘Second man down.’

  Pritchard adjusted himself as quickly as possible and began pumping shots through the window of the house in a ‘spray and pray,’ concerned only with providing cover while the injured were taken to safety, but now there were shouts, and lights were going on in the other houses. Vernon could see the last man on his feet – he thought it might be Tobias – carry one of his fallen team back to the van in a fireman’s lift and lay him as gently as possible on the floor. He then went back for the second man.

  ‘Let’s go,’ said Pritchard.

  They ran to where a pair of Harleys were parked by the side of a rutted track. On the ground behind him, they left a muddied denim jacket taken from a biker in Canada, a drug mule targeted by Vernon and Pritchard and left for dead at Lac-Baker. It was a crude piece of framing, but they didn’t think the Mexicans would be concerned with the niceties of a formal investigation. They would want vengeance, and the jacket, combined with the roar of the departing bikes, might be enough to throw them off the scent for a couple of days.

  Tobias got behind the wheel of the van and pulled out. In his side mirrors, the Rojas warehouse was a dark mass against the night sky, the dancing shadows of approaching men visible at either side. He was the only one left alive. Mallak had died at the warehouse, and Bacci had taken a bullet to the base of his neck as they carried Mallak’s body away. It was a mess that could have been avoided if Greenham and Twizell had been there, but he’d made the call, and he’d have to live with it. Maybe if fucking Pritchard had been faster off the mark. . . .

  The explosion wasn’t loud, the noise dampened by the thick brick walls of the old building, but the purpose of the thermite device, twenty-five percent aluminum to seventy-five percent iron oxide, was not to blow apart the warehouse itself but to burn everything within, leaving the minimum of evidence. It would also serve to distract his pursuers: with Mallak and Bacci dead, there was no one left to provide covering fire, so it would be a matter of hitting the highway and keeping his foot down all the way. Vernon and Pritchard would take their own route to the rendezvous, but Tobias would have words with them when next they met, if only to preempt the snipers’ inevitable anger.

  There was a message on his phone. He listened as he drove, and learned that something had gone wrong in Bangor. Greenham and Twizell had not reported back, and it had to be presumed that the Jandreau situation was unresolved. The GPS tracking device in the detective’s car was no longer responding, and the detective was still alive. It was a mess, but at least he now had the missing seals. He also had, in his pocket, as many of Rojas’s teeth as he could knock from his mouth in the time available. It was time to get rid of what they had, make as much money as they could as quickly as possible, and then disappear.

  He did not notice Herod’s car, its lights extinguished, idling on a side road. Moments later, Herod was following the van.

  31

  It was quiet in the motel room. Mel and Bobby sat together on one bed, she holding him and stroking his face, as though rewarding him for the fact that he had unburdened himself at last of all that he knew. Angel was by the window, watching the lot. I sat on the second bed, and tried to take in all that I had learned. Tobias and his crew were smuggling antiquities, but if Bobby was to be believed, they’d brought something else over with them, something that was never meant to be discovered, and never meant to be opened. It had been part of the bait, like a dose of poison contained in meat. I wanted to believe that Jandreau was wrong, that it was guilt and stress that was leading these men to take their lives and the lives of others, including Brett Harlan’s wife, a
nd Foster Jandreau, for Bobby confirmed that he had approached his cousin about his concerns, and that he believed Foster’s unofficial inquiries had led to his murder. It was just a question of who had pulled the trigger. My money was on Tobias initially, but Bobby was less sure: he had warned his cousin about Joel Tobias, and he couldn’t see Foster agreeing to meet up with him in the darkened lot of a ruined bar with no witnesses. It was then that he told me of his sessions with Carrie Saunders, and of how he had discussed some of his concerns with her.

  Carrie Saunders. It wasn’t Tobias alone who connected all of these men to one another, it was Saunders. She had been at Abu Ghraib, as had the mysterious Roddam, or Nailon. She’d been in contact with all of the dead men at one point or another, and had a reason to move between them. Jandreau wouldn’t have agreed to meet a potentially dangerous ex-military man like Tobias in a deserted lot, but he might have agreed to meet a woman. I called Gordon Walsh, and I told him everything that I knew, leaving out only Tobias. Tobias was mine. He said that he’d pick up Saunders himself and see what came of it.

  It was Louis, slouched low in the Lexus so that he could watch the approaches to the room, who spotted him. The raggedy figure strolled across the parking lot, a cigarette dangling from his right hand, his left empty. He wore a black coat over a black suit, his shirt wrinkled and open at the neck, the jacket and pants bearing the marks of cheap cloth, ill used. His hair was slicked back from his skull, and too long at the back, hanging in greasy strands over his collar. He seemed simply to have materialized, as though atoms had been pulled from the air, their constituent parts altered as he reconstructed himself in this place. Louis had been watching the mirrors as well as the expanse of motel visible through the windshield. He should have seen him coming, but he had not.

 
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