The whisperers, p.37
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       The Whisperers, p.37

           John Connolly
 

  ‘Dürer,’ said a voice. Like the numerical code, the word confirming the security team’s identity was also changed weekly.

  ‘Dürer,’ repeated Herod. He remotely activated the front door lock, opening it and allowing the security guards access to the main house. One of them, the one who had given the code word, immediately entered. The man who had been watching the grounds moved to the door, but remained outside until the main search team had joined him, after confirming that the rest of the house was secure, at which point he too entered the house, leaving them outside. Herod tried to follow their progress from screen to screen as they deactivated the main alarm and checked the log, then proceeded to move through the house. Ten minutes after the search had commenced, the intercom buzzed in Herod’s office.

  ‘You’re clear, sir. Looks like it was something in zone two: dining room window. There’s no sign of attempted entry, though. Might be a fault. We can send out a technician in the morning.’

  ‘Thank you,’ said Herod. ‘You can leave now.’

  He watched the four-man team leave. When they were gone, and the gates had closed behind them, he deactivated the locks on the study door and hid the screens, and the Captain, from sight. Although the room was well ventilated, and he often worked with the door closed, Herod disliked keeping it locked. The thought of imprisonment, or long-term confinement of any kind, terrified him. He thought that was why he had enjoyed inflicting it on the Saunders woman. It was a kind of transference, but also a punishment. He had offered both her and Tobias a deal: their lives for the location of the trove, but they had been greedy, and had commenced a negotiation for which he had neither the time nor the inclination. The second deal was offered to Tobias alone: he could die slowly, or quickly, but he was going to die. Tobias had trouble believing that at first, but Herod had managed to convince him in the end.

  As he opened the door of his study, he was still mildly troubled by what might have caused the alarm activation, and was not concentrating fully on the room beyond, so that the Captain’s voice sounded like a siren in his ears as soon as he began to emerge, an incoherent burst of anger and warning and fear. Before he could respond, there was movement in front of him. There were two men, both armed. One of them smelled so strongly of nicotine that his presence in the room seemed immediately to pollute the air. He pushed Herod to the ground and placed a blade against his neck.

  Herod stared up at the face of the Collector. Behind him was the detective, Parker. Neither man spoke, but Herod’s head was filled with noise.

  It was the sound of the Captain, screaming.

  39

  I kept Herod under my gun as his eyes moved back and forth between the Collector and me, as though uncertain as to which of us posed the greater threat. Herod’s own gun had been tossed to the floor by the Collector, and now lay out of reach. The Collector, meanwhile, was examining Herod’s shelves, picking up items and examining them admiringly before restoring them to their place.

  ‘You possess an impressive array of treasures,’ said the Collector. ‘Books, manuscripts, artifacts. I have been following your progress for some time, but even I had not imagined that you were so assiduous, and possessed such exquisite taste.’

  ‘I am a collector, like you,’ said Herod.

  ‘No, not like me,’ came the reply. ‘My collection is very different.’

  ‘How did you find me?’

  ‘Technology. Your car was fitted with a tracking device while you were in Ms. Emory’s house. I believe it might have been cobbled together by the late Joel Tobias, which is ironic under the circumstances.’

  ‘You were outside his house all the time?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘You could have taken me then.’

  ‘Mr. Parker was anxious to ensure the safety of Ms. Emory, and I wanted to see your collection.’

  ‘And how did you get in?’

  ‘Sleight of hand. It’s hard to keep track of so many men moving through one’s house across different screens, especially once the alarm system has been deactivated.’

  ‘You intercepted the security detail.’

  ‘Yes. You may sit, but keep your hands on the desk. If they disappear from sight, Mr. Parker will shoot you.’

  Herod did as he was instructed, laying the palms of his hands flat on either side of the box.

  ‘You’re trying to open it,’ said the Collector.

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Because I’m curious to see what is inside.’

  ‘Such trouble you’ve gone to, all for the sake of idle curiosity.’

  ‘Not idle. Never idle.’

  ‘So this is purely a matter of personal interest?’

  Herod considered the question. ‘I think you already know the answer to that.’

  The Collector pulled up an armchair and settled himself into it, his hands clasped in his lap, the fingers intertwined and the thumbs crossed, as though he were about to pray.

  ‘Do you even know who it is that you serve?’ he said.

  ‘Do you?’

  One corner of the Collector’s mouth raised itself in a smile. ‘I settle accounts. I collect debts.’

  ‘But for whom?’

  ‘I will not name Him here, in the presence of this . . . thing.’

  His fingers unfolded themselves as he indicated the box. He reached into a pocket and produced a gunmetal cigarette case and a matchbook. ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘That’s a shame. It seems that I am set to impose still further on your hospitality.’

  The Collector put a cigarette between his lips, and struck the match. Soon, a foul-smelling gray smoke curled toward the ceiling. Herod’s face tightened in distaste.

  ‘I have them specially made,’ said the Collector. ‘I used to smoke generic brands, but I found their ubiquity crass. If I’m going to poison myself, I’d prefer to do so with a modicum of class.’

  ‘How admirable,’ said Herod. ‘Do you mind if I ask where you plan to put the ash?’

  ‘Oh, these are slow burning,’ said the Collector. ‘By the time it becomes an issue, you’ll already be dead.’

  The atmosphere in the room changed. Some of the oxygen seemed to be sucked from it, and I heard a high-pitched whine in my head.

  ‘By your hand, or by your friend’s?’ said Herod softly.

  ‘Neither.’

  Herod looked puzzled, but before he could pursue the matter further the Collector spoke again.

  ‘What name does he go by, the one whom you serve?’

  Herod shifted slightly in his chair.

  ‘I know him as the Captain,’ he replied, ‘but he has many names.’

  ‘I’m sure. The Captain. The One Who Waits Behind the Glass. Mr. Goodkind. It hardly matters, does it? He is so old that he has no name of his own. They are all the constructs of others.’

  The Collector’s right hand moved gently, taking in the room, smoke trailing from his fingers.

  ‘No mirrors here. No reflective surfaces. One might think you were tiring of his presence. It must be wearying, I admit. All of that anger, all of that need. To work with it in your head would be next to impossible.’ He leaned forward and tapped the box. ‘And now he wants this opened, to add a little more chaos to an already troubled world. Well, no sense in disappointing him, is there?’

  The Collector rose. He placed his cigarette carefully on the arm of the chair, then leaned over the desk and began moving his fingers along the locking mechanisms, the tips dexterously exploring the spider legs, the twisted bodies, the gaping mouths. He did not look at the box as he did so. Instead, his eyes never left Herod’s.

  ‘What are you doing?’ said Herod. ‘These are complex mechanisms. They need to be examined. Their order needs to be established . . .’

  But even as he spoke, a series of clicks and whirrs began to sound inside the box. Still the Collector’s fingers moved, and as they did so the mechanical noises were drowned out by ano
ther. It was a whispering that seemed to fill the room, rising in terrible joy, voices clambering over one another like insects in a nest. One lid opened, then another and another. A shadow appeared against one of the bookcases, hunched and horned, and quickly it was joined by two others, a prelude to what was about to be revealed.

  ‘Stop!’ I said. ‘You can’t do this!’ I moved to my right, so that the Collector could see me, and I shifted the muzzle of the gun from Herod to him. ‘Don’t open that box.’

  The Collector lifted his hands in the air, not in a gesture of surrender, but of display, like a magician at the end of a particularly fine conjuring act.

  ‘Too late,’ he said.

  And the final lid sprang open.

  For a moment, all was still in the room. The shadows on the wall ceased to move, and what had for so long been without substance assumed concrete form. The Collector remained standing, his hands still raised, a conductor waiting for the baton to be placed between his fingers so that the symphony might begin. Herod stared into the box, and his face was illuminated by a cold white light, like sunlight reflected from snow. His expression changed, altering from fear to wonder at what was revealed to him, but concealed from the Collector, and from me.

  And then Herod understood, and he was lost.

  The Collector spun away, diving toward me in the same movement, forcing me to the ground, yet I was compelled to look. I saw a black back curved like a bow, its skin distorted and torn by the eruption of sharp spinal bones. I saw a head that was too large for the torso that supported it, the neck lost in folds of flesh, the top of its skull a fantasy of twisted yellow bones like the roots of an ancient tree stripped of bark. I saw yellow eyes glitter. I saw dark nails. I saw sharp teeth. One head became two, then three. Two descended on Herod, but one turned to me—

  Then the Collector’s fingers were pressing into the back of my head, forcing my face to the floor.

  ‘Don’t look,’ he said. ‘Close your eyes. Close your eyes, and pray.’

  There was no sound from Herod. That was what struck me most. He was silent as they worked on him, and though I was tempted to look again, I did not, not even when the Collector’s grip upon me eased, and I felt him stand. I heard a series of mechanical clicks, and the Collector said, ‘It is done.’

  Only then did I open my eyes.

  Herod sat slumped in his chair, his head tilted back, his eyes and mouth open. He was dead, but appeared uninjured except for a thin trickle of blood that ran from his left ear, and the fact that every capillary in his eyes had exploded, turning his corneas red. The box on his desk was closed once more, and I heard the whispering return, now filled with rage like a hive of bees shaken by an outside force.

  The Collector picked up his cigarette from the arm of his chair. A long finger of ash hung from the tip, like a building about to fall. He tapped it into Herod’s open mouth, then returned the cigarette to his own mouth and drew lengthily upon it.

  ‘If you’re going to taunt the dogs, always check the length of the chain,’ he said. He picked up the box and tucked it under his arm.

  ‘You’re taking it?’ I said.

  ‘Temporarily. It’s not mine to keep.’

  He wandered over to one of the shelves and removed a tiny ivory statue of a female demon. It looked oriental, but I was no expert.

  ‘A souvenir,’ he said, ‘to add to my collection. Now, I have one more task to accomplish. Let me introduce you to someone. . . .’

  We stood in front of the ornate mirror outside Herod’s study. At first, there was only my reflection and that of the Collector, but in time we were joined by a third. Initially, it seemed little more than a blur, dark gray absences where eyes and a mouth should have been, but then it formed itself into recognizable features.

  It was the face of Susan, my dead wife, but with holes burnt into her skin where her eyes once were. Then, like a rattle being shaken, the face blurred again, and it was Jennifer, my murdered daughter, but also eyeless, her mouth filled with biting insects. More faces now, enemies from the past, changing faster and faster: the Traveling Man, the one who had torn Susan and Jennifer apart; the killer of women, Caleb Kyle; Pudd, his face wreathed in old spider webs; and Brightwell: the demon Brightwell, the goiter on his neck swollen like a great womb of blood.

  For he was in all of them, and they were all of him.

  Finally, there was just the figure of a man, one in his early forties, of a little more than average height. There was gray seeping into his dark hair, and his eyes were troubled and sad. Beside him was his twin, and next to him was the Collector. Then the Collector stepped away, the two reflections became one, and I stared back only at myself.

  ‘What did you feel?’ asked the Collector, and there was an uncertainty to his voice that I had not heard before. ‘What did you feel when you looked upon it?’

  ‘Rage. And fear. It was afraid.’ The answer came before I had even become aware of the thought. ‘Afraid of you.’

  ‘No,’ said the Collector, ‘not of me . . .’

  I saw thoughtfulness in his face, but there was something else.

  For the first time, I felt the Collector’s own fear of me.

  Epilogue

  I wish I lived in my house with only a third part of all

  These goods, and that the men were alive who died in those days

  In wide Troy land . . .

  Homer, The Odyssey, Book 24

  The warehouse in Queens was known as the ‘Fortress,’ an art storage facility guarded by the US government. The Fortress had already seen many antiquities from the Iraq Museum pass through its doors. It was there that the headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash had been taken after it was retrieved, and there that 669 items from the museum, seized by US Customs at Newark Airport in 2003, were brought for authentication. Now, in the Fortress’s gloomy confines, Dr. Al-Daini began the process of cataloging what had been recovered during the raids in Maine and Quebec, even as he mourned that which he had mostly fervently sought, and which had now been lost to him again.

  When he found himself tiring, he left the Fortress and wandered to a nearby coffee shop, where he ordered soup and read an Arabic newspaper that he had bought that morning. Later, he would say that he smelled the man who sat down opposite him before he saw him, for Dr. Al-Daini did not smoke, and the stink of nicotine had tainted his soup.

  Dr. Al-Daini looked up from his newspaper and his meal, and stared at the Collector.

  ‘Excuse me, but do I know you?’ he asked.

  The Collector shook his head. ‘We have moved in similar circles, that’s all. I have something for you.’

  He laid a box wrapped in string and brown paper upon the table, and Dr. Al-Daini felt his fingertips vibrate in tune with the box as he ran them over the parcel, then glanced around him before he used his knife to cut the string. He pushed aside the paper before opening the top of the long white box that was before him. Gently, he examined the locks. He frowned.

  ‘The box has been opened.’

  ‘Yes’, said the Collector. ‘The results were most interesting.’

  ‘But they are still trapped in there?’

  ‘Can’t you feel them?’

  Dr. Al-Daini nodded, and closed the top of the white box. For the first time in many years, he felt that he might sleep well.

  ‘Who are you?’ he asked.

  ‘I? I am a collector.’ He slipped two pieces of paper across the table to Dr. Al-Daini. ‘But there is a price to be paid for relinquishing such a unique item to the proper authorities.’

  Dr. Al-Daini examined the papers. On each was the image of a small cylindrical seal.

  ‘Consider them destroyed, or irretrievably lost.’

  Dr. Al-Daini was a man of the world. ‘Agreed,’ he said. ‘For your own collection?’

  ‘No,’ said the Collector, as he stood to leave. ‘In recompense.’

  The air was still. Rain had fallen earlier in the day, and the grass i
n the Maine Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery gleamed in the sunlight. Bobby Jandreau was beside me, his girlfriend waiting on the path behind us. We were alone among the dead. He had asked that I meet him in this place, and I had been happy to do so.

  ‘For a long time, I wanted to be here,’ said Bobby. ‘I wanted it all to end.’

  ‘And now?’

  ‘I’m with her.’ He looked back at Mel, and she smiled at him, and I thought: she will be buried here next to you.

  ‘They’ll save a place for you both. No need to hurry.’

  He nodded. ‘This is our reward,’ he said. ‘To lie here, with honor. There is nothing more – not money, not medals. This is enough.’

  His gaze was fixed on the nearest stone. A husband and wife were buried there, side by side, and I knew that he was seeing his name alongside Mel’s, just as I had.

  ‘Their intentions were good,’ he said. ‘At the start.’

  ‘Most of the bad situations I’ve encountered began with the best of intentions,’ I replied. ‘But they were right, in a way: the injured, the scarred, they deserve better than what they’re getting.’

  ‘I guess there was so much money that, in the end, they couldn’t bear to give any of it away.’

  ‘I guess so.’

  He reached out to me, and I shook his hand. When we were done, there were two small cylinder seals in his palm, each decorated with gold and gemstones. A fragment of paper was bound to one with a rubber band.

  ‘What are these?’

  ‘Souvenirs,’ I said. ‘A man named Dr. Al-Daini has crossed them off his list of stolen items, in return for a certain gold box. On the paper is the name of someone who’ll pay a high price for them, with no questions asked. I’m sure you can find a way to put the money to good use.’

 
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