The whisperers, p.4
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       The Whisperers, p.4

           John Connolly
 

  I pulled away, the ruin of the Blue Moon receding in my rearview until at last I left it behind. Yet it seemed something of it remained on the mirror, like a smudge left by a blackened finger, a reminder from the dead of what the living still owe to them.

  2

  I thought about what Bennett Patchett had said when I returned to my house in Scarborough and sat down at my desk to make notes on our conversation. If Joel Tobias was beating his girlfriend then he deserved to experience some grief of his own, but I wondered if Bennett knew what he was getting himself into. Even if I found something that he could use against Tobias, I didn’t believe it would have much impact on the relationship, not unless what I found was so terrible that any woman who wasn’t clinically insane would instantly pack her bags and head for the hills. I had also tried to warn him that Karen Emory might not thank him for getting involved in her personal affairs, even if Tobias was being violent toward her. Still, if that had been Bennett’s sole reason for becoming involved in his employee’s business, his motives would have been sound, and I could have afforded to give him a little of my time. After all, he was paying for it.

  The problem was that Karen Emory’s well-being was not the sole reason for his approach to me. In fact, it was a dupe, a means of opening a separate but linked investigation into the death of his son, Damien. It was clear that Bennett believed Joel Tobias bore some responsibility for the change in Damien Patchett’s behavior, a change that had led, finally, to his self-destruction. Ultimately, all investigations instigated by individuals and conducted outside the corporate or law enforcement spheres are personal, but some are more personal than others. Bennett wanted someone to answer for his son’s death in the absence of his son being able to answer for it himself. Some fathers, in a similar situation, might have directed their anger at the military for failing to recognize the torments of a returning soldier, or at the failings of psychiatrists, but, according to Bennett, his son had returned from the war relatively unscathed. That claim, in itself, warranted further investigation, but for now Joel Tobias was, in Bennett’s eyes, as much a suspect in Damien Patchett’s death as if he had steadied Damien’s hand as the trigger was pulled.

  Bennett was a curious man. While he might have had a soft center, the exterior was like a crocodile’s plated carapace: Bennett was solid now, but he had served time. As a young man, he had fallen in with a group of guys out of Auburn who had taken down gas stations and grocery stores before progressing to the big time, and a raid on the Farmers First Bank in Augusta, during which a weapon was waved and shots were fired, albeit blanks. It hadn’t netted them a whole lot, about two thousand dollars plus change, and soon the cops had informally identified at least one of the members of the gang. He was hauled in, sweated for a while, and finally rolled over on the rest of his accomplices in return for a reduced sentence. Bennett, who had been the wheelman, was facing ten years and served five. He was no career criminal. Five years in Thomaston, a fortress prison from the nineteenth century, still bearing the mark of its old gallows as assuredly as if it had been burnt into the earth, had convinced him of the error of his ways. He had returned to his father’s business with his tail between his legs, and he’d kept out of trouble ever since. That didn’t mean that he had any great fondness for the law, and being ratted out by someone in the past meant that Bennett wasn’t about to rat out anyone else in turn. He may not have cared much for Joel Tobias, but hiring me instead of going to the cops was a very Bennettian compromise, I thought, as was asking me to investigate one man in the hope that it might reveal the truth behind the death of another.

  Nothing is secret anymore. With a little ingenuity, and a little cash, you can find out a great deal about people that they might have believed, or have preferred to remain, confidential and protected. It’s even easier when you’re a licensed private investigator. Within an hour, I had Joel Tobias’s credit history laid out on my desk. There were no outstanding warrants against him and, from what I could see, he had never been in trouble with the police. Since he had been invalided out of the military just over a year earlier, he seemed to have worked hard, paid his bills, and led what, to all appearances, was a regular, blue collar existence.

  One of my grandfather’s favorite words was ‘hinky’. Milk that was just about to go off might taste a little hinky. A tiny, almost inaudible noise in his car engine might lead to suspicions of undiagnosed hinkiness in the carburetor. For him, something that was hinky was more troubling than something that was outright wrong, simply because the nature of the flaw was undefined. He would know that it was there, but he would not be able to tackle it because its true face had not yet revealed itself. What was wrong could either be dealt with or lived with, but what was hinky would come between him and his sleep.

  Joel Tobias’s affairs were hinky. His rig, with a sleeper, had cost him eighty-five thousand dollars when he’d bought it. Despite what Bennett had said, it wasn’t quite new when he picked it up, but it was as good as. At the same time, he’d also purchased a ‘dry van,’ or box trailer, for another ten thousand. He’d put five percent down, and was paying off the rest monthly, at a rate of interest that wasn’t excessive and might even have been considered pretty favorable, but he was still eating about twenty-five hundred dollars a month in payments. In addition, that same month he’d bought himself a new Chevy Silverado. He’d negotiated himself a pretty good deal on it: eighteen thousand dollars, which was six thousand off the regular dealer price, and he was paying that loan off at 280 dollars a month. Finally, the payments on the mortgage on his house in Portland, just off Forest and not far from the Great Lost Bear, as it happened, came to another thousand a month. The house had been his uncle’s, and had already fallen into arrears when it was left to Joel in his uncle’s will. Taken together, it all meant that Tobias needed to be taking in almost five thousand dollars each month just to keep his head above water, and that was before he paid for insurance, medical coverage, gas for his Chevy, food, heating, beer, and whatever else he needed to make his life comfortable. Add in, conservatively, another thousand dollars per month for all that, and Tobias’s annual earnings would have to be in the region of seventy thousand dollars after taxes. It wasn’t completely unattainable, given that, as an owner-operator, Tobias could expect to earn about ninety cents per mile, plus fuel, but he’d be working long hours to do it, and would need to put in the miles. In addition, he was probably receiving compensation for his injured hand, and maybe for his leg as well. At a guess, he was pulling down somewhere between five hundred and twelve hundred dollars tax free each month for his injuries, which would help some with his bills but would still leave him with a lot of cash to earn on the road. His credit rating remained steady, he hadn’t defaulted on any of his loans, and he was paying contributions into his IRA.

  But according to Bennett, or the impression he had gained, Tobias wasn’t working all the hours God had given him. In fact, Tobias didn’t seem to have many financial worries at all, which suggested that there was money coming in from somewhere other than what he earned by driving, or received in comp; that, or he had money stored away, and was subsidizing his business from his savings, which meant that he wouldn’t be in business for very long.

  So there it was. Joel Tobias was hinky. There was cash coming from elsewhere. It was just a matter of establishing the source of that additional income, and something that Bennett had told me meant that I could hazard an educated guess at that source. Bennett had said that Tobias traveled back and forth between Maine and Canada. Canada meant a border crossing, and a border meant smuggling.

  And when it came to the border between Canada and Maine, that meant drugs.

  According to an article in The New York Times, ‘To check smuggling along the Maine and Canada line would require a small army, so wild is the greater part of the territory and so great and varied the opportunities.’ The article in question was written in 1892, and it was as true now as it was then. In the late nineteenth century what wor
ried the authorities most was the loss of customs revenue from liquor, fish, cattle, and produce being smuggled over the border, but drugs were also becoming an issue, with opium being brought into New Brunswick in bond, and from there transported into the United States via Maine. The state had four hundred miles of land border with Canada, most of it wilderness, as well as three thousand miles of seacoast, and about fourteen hundred small islands. It was then, and still is, a smuggler’s paradise.

  In the 1970s, as the DEA began focusing increasingly on the southern border with Mexico, New England became an attractive option for pot smugglers, especially as there was a ready market for it among the students in its 250 colleges. It was simply a matter of buying a boat, hitting Jamaica or Colombia, and then running an established route that allowed a ton each to be dropped off in Florida, the Carolinas, Rhode Island and, finally, Maine. Since then, the Mexicans had established a presence here, along with assorted South Americans, bikers, and anyone else who figured he was hard enough to capture a share of the narcotics market, and hold on to it.

  I sat back in my chair and stared out of my window at the salt marshes and the seabirds scudding across their waters. To the south, a thin column of dark smoke raised itself to the sky before slowly dissipating in the still air, leaving a faint trace of pollution to mar the otherwise faultless blue of the gently closing day. I called Bennett Patchett, and he confirmed that Karen Emory was working. Her shift was due to finish at 7 p.m. and, as far as Bennett knew, Joel Tobias would be coming by to pick her up. He often did when he wasn’t out on the road. Karen had told Bennett, after he had asked if she could work a little late that evening, that she couldn’t because she and Joel were going out for dinner. She said that Joel had a bunch of Canadian runs lined up over the coming weeks, and they were unlikely to have much time together as a result. So, with nothing better to do, I decided to take a look at Joel Tobias and his girlfriend.

  The Downs was a pretty big place, capable of taking a hundred covers or more, assuming the kitchen was fully staffed and the waitresses were prepared to sweat hard for their tips. Large glass windows looked down on Route 1 and the parking lot of the Big 20 bowling alley on the other side of the road. A single counter ran almost the entire length of the room, taking a dogleg to the north and south to form a kind of elongated U. The walls were lined with four-seater booths, with another bank of four-seaters creating an island of vinyl and Formica in the center of the restaurant. The waitresses wore blue t-shirts with the name of the restaurant on the back, beneath which was an illustration of three horses straining for a finishing post. Each waitress had her name stitched into the fabric above her left breast.

  I didn’t go inside, but waited in the parking lot. I could see Karen Emory depositing checks on her tables in preparation for the end of her shift. Bennett had described her to me, and she was the only blonde working that evening. She was pretty and tiny, perhaps only five feet tall, and slimly built for the most part, given that, even from a distance, her t-shirt looked like it was at least a size too small for her around the bust. Guys probably came to the Downs just to dribble egg on their chin as they gazed upon the stretched material.

  At 6:55 p.m., a black Silverado with smoked glass windows pulled into the lot. Twenty minutes later, Karen Emory emerged wearing a short black dress and heels, her hair loose on her shoulders and freshly applied makeup on her face. She climbed into the Silverado, and it turned left on to Route 1, heading north. I stayed behind it all the way to South Portland, where it pulled into the Beale Street Barbecue on Broadway. Karen got out first, followed by Joel Tobias. He was at least a foot taller than his girlfriend, his dark hair, a little long and already streaked with gray, brushed back over his ears and away from his forehead. He wore jeans and a blue denim shirt. If there was any fat on him, it was well hidden. He walked with a slight limp, favoring his right foot, and kept his left hand tucked into front pocket of his jeans.

  I gave them a couple of minutes, then followed them inside. They were sitting at one of the tables near the door, so I took a seat at the bar and ordered a bottle of alcohol-free beer and some fries, positioning myself so I could watch the TV and the table occupied by Tobias and Karen. They seemed to be having a good time. They got a couple of margaritas with beer on the side, and shared a sampler plate. There was a lot of smiling and laughing, mostly on Karen Emory’s part, but it seemed kind of strained, or that might have been Bennett Patchett’s opinion coloring my own. I tried to blot out all that he had said, and just regard them as a couple of interesting strangers in a restaurant. Nope, Karen was still trying too hard, an impression confirmed when Tobias went to the men’s room and Karen’s smile gradually faded as she watched him walk away, to be replaced by a look that was equal parts thoughtful and troubled.

  I had just ordered another beer, which I didn’t plan to drink, when Joel Tobias appeared at my elbow. I didn’t react when he squeezed in at the bar and asked the bartender for the check, pointing out that the waitress appeared to be busy elsewhere. He turned to me, smiled, said ‘Beg your pardon, sir,’ and returned to his girlfriend. I caught a glimpse of his left hand as he walked away: there were two fingers missing, and the skin was scarred. A minute or two later, the waitress arrived, picked up the check at the bar on the instructions of the bartender, and brought it to their table. A couple of minutes more, and they had paid up and left.

  I didn’t follow them. It had been enough to watch them together, and Tobias’s appearance at my side had made me uneasy. I hadn’t seen him return from the men’s room, which meant that he must have gone outside through the side door and come back in by the main door. Maybe he’d smoked a cigarette while he was out there but, if so, he was strictly a two-drag guy. It was probably just a coincidence, but I wasn’t about to confirm any suspicions he might have had about my presence there by running out to the parking lot and taking after them with squealing tires. I finished most of the beer that I hadn’t wanted, and watched some more of the game on the TV, before settling up and leaving the bar. The parking lot was almost empty, the black Silverado long gone. It was not yet 10 p.m., and there was still light in the sky. I drove into Portland to take a ride by Joel Tobias’s place. It was a small, well-maintained two-story. The Silverado was parked in the drive, but there was no sign of Tobias’s big rig. A light burned in an upstairs room, visible through the partly closed drapes, but as I watched it was extinguished, and the house became entirely dark.

  I waited for a moment or two longer, regarding the house, and thinking about the look of Karen Emory’s face, and the way that Tobias had appeared at my elbow, before I drove back to Scarborough, and my own quiet home. There had been a woman and a child with me once, and a dog, but they were in Vermont now. I visited my daughter, Sam, once or twice a month, and sometimes she came to stay with me for a night if her mother, Rachel, had business in Boston. Rachel was seeing someone else, and I felt awkward intruding upon her for that reason and, sometimes, resentful of her for doing so. But I also kept my distance because I wanted no harm to come to them, and harm followed me.

  Their places had been taken by the shadows of another woman and child – no longer glimpsed, but felt nonetheless, like the lingering scent of flowers that have been discarded after the petals began to fall. They had ceased to be a source of unease, this departed wife and daughter. They had been taken from me by a killer, a man whose life I had taken in turn, and in my guilt and rage I had allowed them to become transformed for a time into hostile, vengeful presences. But that was before: now, the sense of them consoled me, for I knew that they had a part to play in whatever was to come.

  When I opened the door, the house was warm, and filled with the smell of salt from the marshes. I felt the emptiness of the shadows, the disinterest of the silence, and I slept softly, and alone.

  3

  Jeremiah Webber had just poured a glass of wine to ease himself into the act of cooking his evening meal when the doorbell rang. Webber did not like his routines being interr
upted, and Thursday evenings at his relatively modest home – modest, at least, by the wealthy standards of New Canaan, Connecticut – were sacrosanct. On Thursday evenings he switched off his cell phone, did not answer the land line (and, in truth, his few friends, aware of his quirks, knew better than to disturb him, mortality, impending or actual, being the only permissible excuse), and most certainly did not respond to the ringing of the doorbell. His kitchen was at the back of the house, and he kept the door closed while he cooked so that only a thin horizontal shaft of light might possibly be visible through the glass of the front door. A lamp burned in the living room, and another in his bedroom upstairs, but that was the sum total of the illumination in the house. Bill Evans was playing at low volume on the kitchen’s sound system. Webber would sometimes spend the preceding days of the week planning precisely what music he would play while cooking and eating, what wine would accompany his meal, what dishes he would prepare. These small indulgences helped to keep him sane.

  On Thursday evenings, therefore, those who knew that he was at home were unlikely to interrupt him, and those who did not know for certain if he was there or not would be unable to confirm his presence or absence merely on the basis of the lights in the house. Even his most valued clients, some of whom were wealthy men and women used to having their needs met at any hour of the day or night, had come to accept that, on Thursday nights, Jeremiah Webber would be unavailable. His routine had already been thrown slightly on this particular Thursday by a series of extended telephone conversations, so that it had been after eight by the time he returned home, and now it was nearly nine and he had still not eaten. More so than usual, he was in no mood for interruptions.

 

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