The whisperers, p.33
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       The Whisperers, p.33

           John Connolly

  And Louis knew him for who, and for what, he was: this was the Collector. The man might have been dressed in thrift store clothes, his appearance that of one who has been poorly served by life, and has chosen to respond in kind, but it was all a veneer. Louis had met dangerous men before, and some had died at his hand, but the man now walking toward the door to 112 exuded menace the way other people sweated from their pores. Louis could almost smell it off him as he slipped from the car and moved in; that, and something more: a hint of burnt offerings, of blood and charnel houses. Though Louis’s approach was silent, the Collector raised his hands without turning while Louis was still fifteen feet away. The cigarette had burned down as far as the yellowed skin on the Collector’s fingers, but if it hurt him then he did not show it.

  ‘You can drop that, if it’s bothering you,’ said Louis.

  The Collector let the cigarette slip from its fingers. ‘A shame. There was another pull left on it.’

  ‘They’ll kill you.’

  ‘So I’ve been told.’

  ‘Maybe I’ll kill you first.’

  ‘And we haven’t even been formally introduced, although I do feel that I know you. You might say that I’ve watched you from afar, you and your partner. I’ve admired your work, especially since you appear to have developed a conscience.’

  ‘I guess I should be flattered, huh?’

  ‘No, you should simply be grateful that I haven’t had cause to come after you. You were on the verge of damnation for a time. Now, you are making recompense for your sins. If you continue on that path, you might yet be saved.’

  ‘Are you saved? If you are, I’m not sure I want to be keeping that kind of company.’

  The Collector expelled a breath through his nose, the closest he had come to laughter in an eternity.

  ‘No, I exist between salvation and damnation. Suspended, if you will: a dangling man.’

  ‘Kneel,’ said Louis. ‘Put your hands on your head and keep them there.’

  The Collector did as he was told. Louis advanced on him quickly, placed the gun to his head, and knocked hard on the door. Up close, the smell of nicotine made his eyes water, but it served to mask the other smells.

  ‘Me,’ said Louis. ‘I got company. An old friend of yours.’

  The door opened, and the Collector looked up at me.

  He sat in a chair by the door. Louis had frisked him, but the Collector was unarmed. He examined the ‘No Smoking’ sign by the television, frowning as he knitted his fingers across his stomach. Bobby Jandreau stared at him the way one might stare, upon waking, at a spider suspended above one’s face. Mel had retreated, and was sitting in a corner behind Angel, her eyes fixed on the stranger, waiting for him to pounce.

  ‘Why are you here?’ I asked.

  ‘I came looking for you. It seems that we are working toward similar ends.’

  ‘Which would be?’

  A thin finger, the nail the color of rust, extended itself and pointed to Jandreau.

  ‘Let me guess the story so far,’ said the Collector. ‘Soldiers; treasure; a falling out among thieves.’

  Jandreau looked as though he might have been about to dispute the use of the word “thieves,” but the Collector turned his mocking gaze in the direction of his finger, and Jandreau remained silent.

  ‘Except they didn’t know what they were stealing,’ the Collector continued. ‘They were indiscriminate. They took all that they could, without wondering why it had been made so easy for them. But you paid a high price for it, didn’t you, Mr. Jandreau? You’re all paying a high price for your sins.’

  Jandreau started. ‘How do you know my name?’

  ‘Names are my business. There was a box, was there not? A gold box. They left it for you to find. It was probably in a lead receptacle, for they couldn’t be too careful, but they left it where it wouldn’t be ignored. Tell me, Mr. Jandreau. I’m right, am I not?’

  Jandreau just nodded.

  ‘I want the box,’ said the Collector. ‘That’s why I’m here.’

  ‘For your collection?’ I said. ‘I thought someone had to die before you got to claim one of their possessions.’

  ‘Oh, someone will die, if I have my way, and my collection will increase greatly as a consequence, but the box will not be part of it. It does not belong to me. It does not belong to anyone. It is dangerous. Someone is looking for it, a man named Herod, and it is essential that he not be allowed to find it. If he does, he will open it. He has the patience, and the skill. The one with him has the knowledge.’

  ‘What’s in it?’ asked Angel.

  ‘Three entities,’ said the Collector simply. ‘Old demons, if you prefer. The box is the latest in a series of attempts to contain them, but its construction was flawed by the vanity of its creator, who forgot that he was forging a prison. Gold is such soft metal. Over the years, gaps appeared. Something of what was contained inside found a way to reach out, to poison the minds of those who came into contact with it. The lead box was an effort to counteract that threat: crude, but effective. Like the dull paint used to cover the gold, it also served to conceal what was inside.’

  ‘Why didn’t they just dump it in the ocean, or bury it somewhere?’

  ‘Because the only thing worse than knowing where it might be is not knowing. The box was watched. It had always been watched, the knowledge of it transferred from one generation to the next. In the end, it was hidden away among a jumble of worthless artifacts in a museum basement in Baghdad, and then the war came, and the museum was looted. The box disappeared, along with much else that was of value, but somehow an understanding of its nature, however incomplete, reached those who had seized it. It may even have been that they knew exactly what they had from the moment it appeared, for looting is a relative term. The items stolen from the Iraq Museum were carefully chosen, for the most part. Do you know that seventeen thousand items were stolen from the museum over those April days; that four hundred and fifty of four hundred and fifty-one cases were emptied, but only twenty-eight of those cases were broken? The rest were simply opened, which means that those who stole from them had keys. Astonishing, don’t you think? One of the greatest museum thefts in history, one of the greatest sackings since the time of the Mongols, and it may have been an inside job.

  ‘But no matter. When Mr. Jandreau and his friends came looking for treasure, the box was passed on to them, perhaps in the hope that they would do exactly what they did: transport it back to this country, the country of the enemy, where it would be opened. Now you know what it is. In return, tell me where to find it.’

  His eyes scanned every face in the room, as though the knowledge that he sought might somehow be read in them, before he fixed on mine.

  ‘Why should we trust you?’ I said. ‘You manipulate truth for your own ends. You’re just a killer, nothing more, a serial slayer slaughtering under some divine flag of convenience.’

  A light flared in the Collector’s eyes, like twin flares being ignited in an abyss. ‘No, I am no mere killer: I am an instrument of the Divine. I am God’s murderer. Not all of His work is beautiful . . .’

  He looked disgusted, both at me and, I believed, at some level kept hidden even from his own conscience, at himself.

  ‘You must set aside your qualms, just as I must set aside mine,’ he said after a moment. ‘If I trouble you, then you disturb me. I dislike being near you. You are part of a plan of which I have no knowledge. You are bound for a reckoning that will be the death of you, and of all who stand alongside you. Your days are numbered, and I do not wish to be close to you when you fall.’

  He raised his palms to me, and there was a plea in his voice. ‘So let us do this one thing, for as bad as you may believe me to be, the man named Herod is worse, and he is himself being shadowed by an entity, one that he believes he understands, one that will have promised him a reward for his service. It has many names, but he will know it by only one, the one that it gave him when first it found a way to worm itself in
to his consciousness.’

  ‘And what do you call it?’ I asked.

  ‘I call it nothing but what it is,’ said the Collector. ‘It is the Darkness: evil incarnate. It is the One Who Waits Behind the Glass.’


  Herod put his hands beneath the faucet and let the flow of water wash the blood away. He watched the patterns that it made, the crimson vortex that swirled against the stainless steel like the arms of a distant nebula spiraling into collapse. A bead of sweat dripped from his nose and was lost. He closed his eyes. His fingers hurt, and his head ached, but at least it was pain of a different kind, the pain of hard labor. Torturing another human being was a wearying business. He looked up at his reflection and saw, in the glass, the man slumped in the chair, his hands bound behind his back. Herod had removed the rag from his mouth so that he could hear what he had to say. He had not bothered to replace it when the man had finished talking. There was no need. He barely had the strength to breathe, and soon even that would be gone.

  Behind the slouched man stood another figure, its hands resting lightly on the back of the chair. Once again, the Captain had taken the form of the little girl in the blue dress, her hair long and worn in braids that hung between her breasts. As before, the girl could not have been more than nine or ten, but her breasts were surprisingly well developed; obscenely so, thought Herod. Her face was startlingly pale, but unfinished. Her eyes and mouth were black ovals, blurred at the edges as though a dirty eraser had smeared the marks made by a thick pencil. She stood very still, her head almost on a level with that of the seated man.

  The Captain was waiting for Joel Tobias to die.

  It would not have been true to say that Herod was an immoral man. Neither was he amoral, for her admitted the distinction between moral and immoral behavior, and was conscious of the necessity for fairness and honesty in all of his dealings. He required it of others, and demanded it of himself. But there existed in Herod an emptiness, like the hollow at the center of certain fruits once the pit has been removed, speeding their decay, and out of that emptiness came the capacity for certain types of behavior. He had taken no pleasure in hurting the man who was now dying on the chair, and as soon as Herod had learned all that he wished to know he had ceased working on the interior of the man’s body, although the damage that had been inflicted was so great that the suffering had continued despite the cessation of violent, invasive actions. Now, as the last of the blood was washed away, Herod felt compelled to bring those sufferings to a close.

  ‘Mr. Tobias,’ he said, ‘I believe we’ve reached the end.’

  He picked up his gun from beside the sink, and prepared to turn away from the glass.

  As he was about to do so, the figure of the girl moved. She shifted position so that she was slightly to his right. One filthy hand reached out and stroked Tobias’s face. Tobias opened his eyes at the touch. He looked confused. He could feel fingers on his skin, and yet he could see nothing. The girl leaned closer. From out of the dark orb of her mouth a tongue appeared, long and thick, and lapped at the blood around the dying man’s mouth. Now he tried to turn his head away, but the girl responded to the movement, clinging to his clothing, her legs between his, her body pressing against him. Something in the way that Tobias’s position had changed allowed him to see his own reflection in the smoked glass of an oven door: his reflection, and the nature of the being that was forcing itself upon him. He whimpered in fear.

  Herod walked over to the chair, placed the gun against Tobias’s head, and pulled the trigger. The Captain disappeared, and all movement ceased.

  Herod took a step away. He was aware of the Captain’s presence somewhere nearby. He felt his rage. He risked a glance at the oven door, but could see nothing.

  ‘It was not necessary,’ he said to the listening dark. ‘He had suffered enough.’

  Enough? Enough for whom? For him, yes, but for the Captain, there could never be sufficient suffering. Herod’s shoulders sank. With no other option, he was compelled to look again at the window.

  The Captain was directly behind him, but no longer was he a little girl. Instead, he was a sexless form in a long, gray coat. His face was a blur, a constantly altering series of visages, and in them Herod saw everyone for whom he had ever cared: his mother and his sister, now gone; his grandmother, adored and long buried; friends and lovers, living and dead. Each of them was in agony, their faces contorted in torment and despair. And, finally, Herod’s face appeared among them, and he understood.

  This was how it could be. Cross the Captain again, and this was what would come to pass.

  The Captain departed, leaving Herod alone with the body. He restored the gun to the holster beneath his shoulder, and took one last look at the dead man. He wondered how long it would be before his friends discovered him, or how many of them might even be left. It hardly mattered. Herod now knew who had the box, but he had to move fast. The Captain had warned him: the Collector was coming.

  Herod had heard stories of the Collector long before the man’s pursuit of him had commenced, of the strange, tattered individual who believed himself to be a harvester of souls, and hoarded souvenirs of his victims. From the Captain, he had learned yet more. The Collector would want the box for himself. That was what the Captain said, and Herod believed him. Herod had been careful to hide himself well, operating under a variety of aliases, using shell companies, and lawyers untroubled by scruples, and shadowy transporters who cared little for paperwork and customs documents as long as the money was right. But the uniqueness of some of his purchases, and the inquiries he had made in the course of his searches, however discreet, had inevitably drawn the Collector’s interest to him. Now it was crucial that he remain at one remove from him, for it would take time to figure out the intricacies of the box’s locks. Once the box was opened, there would be nothing that the Collector, or anyone else, could do. The Captain’s triumph would be Herod’s revenge, and he could die at last and claim his reward in the next world.

  Herod left the house, walking past the bodies of Pritchard and Vernon where they lay in the yard, and got into his car. There were sirens in the distance, moving closer. As he put the key in the ignition, he heard the sound of banging from the trunk, until it was lost in the roar of the engine.


  When Karen Emory was a little girl, and had only just begun sleeping in her own room, albeit with the door open and her mother’s bedroom in clear view, a man had broken into their house shortly after midnight. Karen had woken to find the intruder standing in the corner of her bedroom, wreathed in darkness, watching her. He was completely silent – she could not even hear his breathing – yet his presence had pulled her from her rest, a primitive awareness that all was not as it should be, and a threat was near. She had been unable to scream as she looked at him, so terrified was she. Decades later, she could still recall the dryness in her mouth, the asthmatic sound that her breath had made as she tried to summon help, the sense that some great weight was holding her down on the bed, preventing her from moving. They were trapped in a stasis, these two strangers: one unmoving, one incapable of movement.

  Suddenly, the man had shifted his weight, as though preparing to leap at her, his gloved hands reaching for her, and the spell was broken. She had screamed then, so loudly that for days after her throat hurt, and the intruder had bolted for the stairs. Her mother came out of her bedroom in time to see a figure open the front door and disappear. After checking on her daughter, she called 911. Cars descended on the neighborhood, and a search began. Eventually, a drifter named Clarence Buttle was picked up as he hid in an alleyway behind a Dumpster. Karen had told the policemen that she didn’t get a good look at the man in her room, and couldn’t recall anything about him. Her mother, too, claimed only to have seen the man’s back in the darkness, and had been too tired and shocked to notice anything that might have distinguished it from any number of other backs that she had seen. The intruder had entered their home through a window, but had left
no prints. Buttle protested his innocence loudly, claiming that he had only hidden in the alley because he was frightened of the police and didn’t want to be blamed for something that he hadn’t done. He spoke like a child, and seemed reluctant to meet the eyes of the detectives who questioned him.

  They kept him for twenty-four hours. He did not ask to see a lawyer as he had not been charged with the commission of any crime. He gave them his name, and told them that he was originally from Montgomery, Alabama, but had been on the road for almost twelve years. He wasn’t sure about his age, but he thought he might have been thirty-three, ‘like Our Lord, Jesus Christ.’

  During the period of his incarceration, a piece of cloth was found on a nail by Karen’s window. It matched perfectly a hole in Clarence Buttle’s coat. He was charged with forcible entry, trespass, and possession of a deadly weapon: a shiv found tucked into the lining of his coat. He was taken to the county jail to await trial, and was still there when his fingerprints produced an AFIS match. A year earlier, a nine-year-old girl named Franny Keaton had been abducted from her parents’ home in Winnetka, Illinois. After a week-long search, her body was found in a storm drain. She had been strangled, but there was no sign of sexual assault, although the girl’s clothing had been removed. The fingerprint that matched Clarence Buttle’s had come from the left eye of the doll found alongside Franny Keaton’s body.

  When asked about Winnetka, Clarence Buttle had smiled slyly and said, ‘I’ve been a bad, bad boy. . . .’

  As the years went by, Karen Emory would still wake at least once every month, convinced that Clarence Buttle, that bad, bad boy, had come back to take her down to a storm drain and ask her to play with him.

  But now other nightmares had taken the place of those concerning Clarence Buttle. She had heard the voices whispering again in their strange tongue, but this time she believed that they were not trying to communicate with her. In fact, she sensed their complete disregard, even contempt, for her. Instead, they were anticipating the arrival of another, one who would respond to their entreaties. They had been waiting a long time, and they were growing impatient. This time, in her dream, she saw Joel entering the basement, stepping into the darkness, and the voices rose in a crescendo of welcome. . . .

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