The whisperers, p.36
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       The Whisperers, p.36

           John Connolly
 

  ‘Pick it up and put it in that bag,’ he told her. ‘And be careful.’

  She didn’t want to touch it again, but equally she wanted all of this to be over. He would leave when he had the box. If he was a man of his word, he would let her live. Despite her fear of him, she believed that he did not want to kill her. Had he wished to do so, she would be dead already.

  ‘What is it?’ she asked. ‘What’s in there?’

  ‘What did you see when you were down here?’ Herod replied.

  ‘I saw shapes. They were deformed. Like men except . . . not men.’

  ‘No, not men,’ said Herod. ‘Have you heard of Pandora’s box?’

  She nodded. ‘It was a box that contained evil, and it was opened and all of that evil escaped into the world.’

  ‘Very good,’ said Herod, ‘except it was a pot, a pithos, not a box. The term “Pandora’s box” derives from a mistranslation into Latin.’

  He was glad that there was someone with him, now that he had that for which he had long been searching. He wanted to explain. He wanted someone else to understand its importance.

  ‘This,’ he continued, ‘is a true Pandora’s box, a prison of gold. Seven chambers, each with seven locks symbolizing the gates to the netherworld.’ He pointed to the arachnid clasps. ‘The locks are shaped like spiders because it was a spider that protected the prophet Mohammed from assassins by weaving a web in front of the mouth of the cave in which he was hiding with Abu Bakr. The men who constructed the box hoped that the spider might protect them in turn. As for what the box contains, well, let’s call them ancient spirits, almost as old as the Captain himself. Almost.’

  ‘They’re bad,’ said Karen. She shuddered. ‘I felt it from them.’

  ‘Oh, that they are,’ said Herod. ‘They’re very bad indeed.’

  ‘But what are you going to do with it?’

  ‘I’m going to open it and set them free,’ said Herod, speaking as if to a child.

  Karen stared at him. ‘Why would you do that?’

  ‘Because that’s what the Captain wants, and what the Captain wants, the Captain gets. Now pick up the box and put it in the bag.’

  She shook her head. Herod drew his gun and placed it against her lips.

  ‘I have what I want,’ he said. ‘I can kill you, or we can both live. It’s your choice.’

  Reluctantly, she lifted the box. Once again, she felt it vibrate in her hands. There was a tapping from inside it, as though a rodent were trapped in there, scratching vainly at the lid. It very nearly caused her to drop the box. Herod hissed in vexation, but said nothing. Carefully, she placed it in the canvas bag, then pulled the zipper closed. She tried to hand it to him, but he shook his head.

  ‘I’ll let you carry it,’ he said. ‘Go on. We’re nearly done.’

  She led the way up the stairs, Herod close behind her this time, one hand resting lightly on her shoulder and the gun at her back. When she reached the living room, she stopped.

  ‘Keep—’ Herod began to say, before he saw what Karen had seen. There were three men in the room, all armed, their guns now pointing at his head.

  ‘Let her go,’ I said.

  36

  If Herod was surprised to find us waiting for him, he hid it well. He pulled Karen Emory in closer to him, using her body as a shield, his gun pressed hard against the side of her neck, pointing upward into her brain. Only the right side of his head was visible to us, and even Louis wasn’t going to take that shot. Blood was coursing from the terrible wound on Herod’s upper lip, staining his lips and his chin.

  ‘Are you okay, Karen?’ I asked.

  She tried to nod, but she was so afraid of the gun that the movement was little more than a tremor. Herod’s eyes gleamed. He paid no attention to Angel and Louis. His gaze was fixed on me.

  ‘I know you,’ said Herod. ‘I saw you at the bar.’

  ‘You should have introduced yourself. We could have saved a lot of time and energy.’

  ‘Oh, I don’t think so. The Captain wouldn’t have liked it.’

  ‘Who’s the Captain?’ But I recalled the second figure that I thought I had glimpsed in the car, a wraith with a clown’s face.

  ‘The Captain is very curious about you, and it takes a lot to pique the Captain’s interest. After all, he’s seen so much that there’s little left to rouse him from his torpor.’

  ‘He’s screwing with you,’ said Louis.

  ‘Am I?’ said Herod. He cocked his head, as though listening to a voice that only he could hear. ‘Dominus meus bonus et benignitas est. Ring any bells, Mr. Parker?’

  I shifted my grip on the weapon in my hand. I had heard that phrase before. It functioned on a number of levels: as a coded greeting; as a dark joke, a declaration of faith in an entity that was far from benign; and as a naming of sorts. ‘My master is good and kind.’ Good and kind. Goodkind, or Mr. Goodkind. That was what his followers called him, or some of them, but now here was Herod implying that Goodkind and the thing that he called the Captain were one and the same.

  ‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘I’ve no interest in your ghost stories. What’s in the bag?’

  ‘Another ghost story,’ said Herod. ‘The prison box. I intend to leave with it, and you’re going to let me.’

  ‘I don’t think so.’ It was Angel who spoke. He was resting almost languidly against the frame of the door. ‘You may not have noticed, but there are three guns pointing at you.’

  ‘And I have one pointing at Ms. Emory’s head,’ replied Herod.

  ‘You kill her, and we kill you,’ said Angel. ‘And then you don’t get to play with your box.’

  ‘You think that you have all the moves worked out, Mr. Parker, you and your friends,’ said Herod. ‘It pains me to disabuse you of that notion. Ms. Emory, reach very slowly into the outside left pocket of my coat, and take out what you find there. Do it gently, now, or you won’t get to discover how this particular story ends.’

  Karen fumbled in his pocket, then threw something on the floor between us. It was a woman’s pocketbook.

  ‘Go ahead,’ said Herod. ‘Take a look inside.’

  It had landed close to Louis’s left foot. He kicked it back to me, never taking his eyes from Herod. I opened it. It held cosmetics, some pills and a wallet. The wallet contained Carrie Saunders’s driving license.

  ‘I buried her,’ said Herod. ‘Oh, not too deep. The box is steel – military in construction, I expect; I found it in her basement – but I didn’t want it to buckle under the weight of the dirt. She has air too, courtesy of a hole and a plastic breathing tube. But it can’t be pleasant, being trapped in the darkness, and who knows what might happen if her tube became blocked? A falling leaf would be enough, or a clod of dirt dislodged by a passing animal. By now, she must be close to panic, and if she does panic, well . . . Her hands are tied. If she doesn’t keep her lips on that tube, she’ll probably only have fifteen minutes to live, at most. They will be fifteen very long minutes, though.’

  ‘Why her?’ I said.

  ‘I think you know why, and if you don’t then you’re not as clever as I thought you were. I’d love to stay here and fill you in on all of the details, but suffice it to say that Mr. Tobias and his friends were very busy earlier killing Mexicans, and when they were done they went to Ms. Saunders’s house to regroup. I learned a lot from Mr. Tobias before he expired: about a Jimmy Jewel and how he died, and someone called Foster Jandreau. It appears that Ms. Saunders could be quite the seductress when she put her mind to it. I guess you could call her the brains of the operation. She killed them all: Roddam, Jewel, Jandreau. Maybe you’ll have the opportunity to question her yourself, if you let me go. The longer you prevaricate, the lower her chances of survival become. Everything is an exchange. Everything is a negotiation. I am an honorable man, and I keep my promises. I promise you the life of Ms. Emory, and the location of Carrie Saunders’s makeshift coffin, in return for the box. We both know that you’re not going to let Ms.
Emory die. You’re not the kind of man who could easily live with that knowledge.’

  I looked again at the license, and at Karen Emory’s terrified face.

  ‘How do we know that you’ll keep your part of the bargain?’ I said.

  ‘Because I always keep my bargains.’

  I gave it a couple of seconds before nodding my assent.

  ‘You’re not serious?’ said Angel. ‘You’re going to take that deal?’

  ‘What choice do we have?’ I said. ‘Put your guns down. Let him leave.’

  Both Angel and Louis hesitated for a moment, then Louis slowly lowered his weapon, and Angel did the same.

  ‘You have a cell phone?’ asked Herod.

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Give me the number.’

  I did so, then said: ‘You want me to write it down for you?’

  ‘No, thank you. I have an exceptional memory. In ten minutes, I will drop Ms. Emory at a pay phone, and I’ll tell her where Carrie Saunders is buried. I’ll even give Ms. Emory the money to make the call. Then you can ride to her rescue, and our business will be concluded.’

  ‘If you renege, I’ll hunt you down. You, and your Captain.’

  ‘Oh, you have my word. I don’t kill unnecessarily. I already have enough stains on my soul to last a lifetime.’

  ‘And the box?’

  ‘I’m going to open it.’

  ‘You think you can control what’s in there?’

  ‘No, I don’t, but the Captain can. Good-bye, Mr. Parker. Tell your friends to step away. I’d like all three of you in the far corner, please. If I see any of you emerge from the house, or if you try to follow me, our arrangement is off. I will kill Ms. Emory, and Carrie Saunders can take her chances in her own prison box. Do we understand each other?’

  ‘Yes,’ I said.

  ‘I don’t believe that we’re going to meet again,’ said Herod. ‘But you and the Captain, that’s another matter. In time, I’m sure that you and he will have the chance to become more intimately acquainted.’

  Angel stepped away from the door, and he, Louis, and I moved into the corner of the room diagonally opposite the front door. Still keeping Karen as a shield, Herod backed out of the house, Karen closing the door behind them at his instruction. I had one last sight of her, and then they were gone. Moments later, there was the sound of a car starting up and driving away.

  Louis made a move to the door, but I stopped him.

  ‘No,’ I said.

  ‘You trust him?’

  ‘In this, yes,’ I said.

  ‘I wasn’t talking about Herod.’

  ‘Neither was I.’

  37

  I don’t know if Carrie Saunders panicked. I don’t know if the tube slipped from her mouth and, trapped as she was, she was unable to reach it again. Sometimes, I find myself imagining her final moments, and always I see Herod tossing aside his spade and staring down at the compacted dirt, then gently tugging the breathing tube from the mouth of the woman buried below. He did it because she had breached some unwritten contract with him, but also because it pleased him to do so. For all his talk of honor, and negotiations, and promises, I believed that Herod was a cruel man. He kept his word about releasing Karen Emory, and he told her where Carrie Saunders was buried before he left her, but the autopsy concluded that Carrie Saunders had been dead for hours when she was found.

  I do know this: Carrie Saunders killed Jimmy Jewel, and she killed Foster Jandreau. A gun, a Glock .22, was found in her house. The bullets matched those used to kill Jimmy and Jandreau, and her fingerprints were the only ones found on the weapon. As for Roddam, there was no way of knowing for certain if she was responsible for his death, but Herod had told the truth about her involvement in the other killings, so there was no reason to believe that he had been lying about Roddam.

  After Saunders’s body was found, there was some speculation that the man responsible for her death might have framed her for the other killings, but it was dismissed when Bobby Jandreau came forward and told of how he had spoken with his cousin Foster about his belief that the death of Damien Patchett, and those of Bernie Kramer and the Harlans, were linked to a smuggling operation being run by Joel Tobias, although he had no formal evidence to offer in support. Foster Jandreau was ambitious, but he hadn’t advanced fast enough for his liking, and had stalled. If he could find evidence of illegal dealings on the part of Joel Tobias, he might have been able to resuscitate a moribund career. But Bobby Jandreau had made the mistake of discussing the matter with Carrie Saunders during one of their therapy sessions, and then she had killed Foster to stop him delving further into the operation and sullied his reputation with drug vials. Whether or not she did so with Joel Tobias’s knowledge and consent I could not say, and those who might have been able to tell me were all dead. I remembered what others had said about Tobias: he was smart, but not that smart. He was not capable of running an operation potentially involving millions of dollars worth of stolen antiquities, but Carrie Saunders was. In Paris, Rochman revealed that his contact for the purchase of the ivories and the seals had been a woman who used the pseudonym ‘Medea’ and that the money had been wired to a bank in Bangor, Maine. Rumors emerged that Saunders and Roddam might have been lovers during their time together at Abu Ghraib, but they were an unlikely couple. War created such odd unions, but it was probable that Roddam and Saunders were using each other, and Saunders had come out on top, because Roddam had died. Saunders and Tobias had gone to the same high school in Bangor, Saunders graduating the year after Tobias. They had known each other for a long time, but if she had been the guiding intelligence behind the operation, she wouldn’t have required the permission of Joel Tobias or anyone else to do whatever she had to in order to ensure its success.

  I was there when they broke open the lock on the box, and I saw Carrie Saunders’s face. Whatever she might have done, she did not deserve to die in that way.

  Shortly after the discovery of the body, I gave my statement to the police, with two agents from ICE, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in attendance. Behind them hovered a small man with a beard and dark skin, who introduced himself as Dr. Al-Daini, late of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. The agents were part of the JIACG, the Joint Interagency Coordination Group, a grab bag of military, FBI, CIA, Treasury, ICE, and anyone else who happened to be passing and had an interest in Iraq, and how terrorists might be financing their operations. They had been drawn to the looting of the Iraq Museum by concerns that the stolen items were being sold on the black market to raise funds for the insurgency. The man who had interrogated me at the Blue Moon was lying, both to me and to himself: people were being hurt by what they were doing, but they were dying on the streets of Baghdad and Fallujah and anywhere else in Iraq that American soldiers were being targeted. I told the agents and Dr. Al-Daini everything, with only one detail concealed. I did not tell them of the Collector. Dr. Al-Daini seemed to sway slightly at the news of the loss of the box, but he said nothing.

  When we were done, I got in my car and drove south.

  38

  Herod sat in his study, surrounded by his books and his tools. There were no mirrors, no reflective surfaces. He had even placed his computer in another room so that there was no chance of a face being glimpsed. The Captain was a distraction, his desire to see the box opened so compelling that Herod had been forced to banish him from its presence by covering every reflective surface. He needed peace in which to work; to have done so in the presence of the Captain would have driven him insane. Figuring out the mechanisms of the locks would take time: days, perhaps. They had to be opened in a certain combination, for there were cells within cells. It was a puzzle box, an extraordinary construct: whatever relics had been concealed in the final chamber were bound with wire, and the wire was connected in turn to every lock. Simply to have broken the locks by force would have torn the presumably fragile relics apart, and if someone had gone to such efforts to secure them then it meant that it was importa
nt that the relics remain intact.

  The box stood on a white cloth. It no longer vibrated, and all of the voices within had ceased their whispering, as though wary of imposing on the concentration of the one who might free them. Herod was not afraid of them. The Captain had told him of what lay in the box, and the nature of the bonds that restricted them. They were beasts, but chained beasts. Once the box was opened, they would be revealed, yet still constrained. They would have to be made to understand that they were the Captain’s creatures.

  He was about to prise off the first spider, and reveal the mechanism of the lock, when the house alarm went off, shocking him with its suddenness. Herod did not even pause to assess the situation. He hit the locks on the safe room, sealing himself inside. He then picked up the phone, pressed the red button on the handset, and was immediately connected with the security company responsible for monitoring the alarm. He confirmed a possible intrusion and notified them that he had locked himself in the safe room. He walked to a closet and opened it to reveal a bank of monitor screens, each revealing one aspect of the house, both internal and external, and its grounds. He thought that he now caught the Captain’s reflection on the screens, and felt his intense curiosity as he tried to glimpse the box, but Herod ignored him. There were more pressing issues for now. He could see no evidence of intrusion, and the gates to the property remained closed. It might well have been a false alarm, but Herod was disinclined to take chances with his personal safety or with his collection, especially when such a valuable and rare addition had just been made to it.

  After four minutes, an unmarked black van appeared at the gates. A numerical security code, changed weekly as an added safeguard, was entered on the pad by the gatepost, which Herod duly confirmed. The gates opened, and the van entered the property, the gates immediately closing again behind it. Once the van reached the front of the house, its doors opened and four armed men appeared, two of them immediately moving to check the sides and rear of the building, one man training his weapon on the grounds, while the last approached the door and activated the main intercom.

 
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