The whisperers, p.5
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       The Whisperers, p.5

           John Connolly

  Webber was an urbane, dark-haired man in his early fifties, good looking in what might have been considered a slightly effeminate way, an impression enhanced by his fondness for spotted bow ties, bright vests, and a range of cultural interests including, but not limited to, ballet, opera, and modern interpretive dance. It led casual acquaintances to assume that he might be homosexual, but Webber was not gay; far from it, in fact. His hair had not yet begun to turn even slightly gray, a genetic quirk that took ten years off his age, and had enabled him to date women who were, by any standards, too young for him without attracting the form of disapproving, if envious, attention that such May-December assignations frequently aroused. His relative attractiveness to the opposite sex, combined with a degree of personal generosity to those who found his favor, had proved to be a mixed blessing. It had brought two marriages to fraught ends, only the first of which he actually regretted, for he had loved his first wife, if not quite enough. The child of that marriage, his daughter and only offspring, had ensured that the lines of communication remained open between the estranged partners, with the result that he believed his first wife now viewed him, for the most part, with a certain bemused affection. The second marriage, meanwhile, was a mistake, and one that he did not intend to make again, now preferring casual to committed when it came to sex. So he rarely wanted for female company, even if he had paid a price for his appetites in broken marriages, and the financial penalties that come hand in hand with such matters. As a consequence, Webber had recently found himself with serious cash flow problems, and had been forced to take steps to rectify the situation.

  He was about to commence deboning the trout that lay upon a small granite slab when he heard the bell. He wiped his fingers on his apron, picked up the remote control unit, and turned the volume down still further, listening carefully. He walked to the kitchen door and stared at the small video screen by the intercom.

  There was a man standing on his doorstep. He was wearing a dark fedora, and his face was turned away from the camera lens. But, as Webber watched, the man’s head moved, as though he were somehow aware that he was under examination. He kept his head lowered, so that his eyes were hidden in shadow, but from the brief glimpse of his face that he caught, Webber could tell that the man on the doorstep was a stranger to him. There appeared to be a mark on the man’s upper lip, but perhaps that was simply a trick of the light.

  The doorbell rang a second time, and the man kept his finger on the button, so that the two-note sequence repeated itself over and over.

  ‘What the hell?’ said Webber aloud. His finger hit the intercom button. ‘Yes? Who are you? What do you want?’

  ‘I want to talk,’ said the man. ‘Who I am doesn’t matter, but for whom I work should concern you.’ His speech was slightly unclear, as though he were holding something in his mouth.

  ‘And who is that?’

  ‘I represent the Gutelieb Foundation.’

  Webber released the intercom button. His right index finger went to his mouth. He chewed at the nail, a habit of his since childhood, an indication of distress. The Gutelieb Foundation: he had only engaged in a handful of transactions with it. Everything had been conducted through a third party, a firm of lawyers in Boston. Attempts to discover precisely what the Gutelieb Foundation might be, and who might be responsible for deciding on its acquisitions, had proved fruitless, and he had begun to suspect that it did not exist as anything more than a piece of convenient nomenclature. When he had persisted in his efforts, he had received a letter from the lawyers advising him that the organization in question was very particular about its privacy, and any further inquiries on Webber’s behalf would result in an immediate cessation of all business from the foundation, as well as some appropriately placed whispers indicating that perhaps Mr. Webber was not as discreet as some of his customers might wish him to be. After that, Webber had backed off. The Gutelieb Foundation, real or a front, had sourced some unusual, and expensive, items from him. The tastes of those behind it appeared to be very particular, and when Webber had been able to satisfy those tastes he had been paid promptly, and without question or negotiation.

  But that last item . . . He should have been more careful in his dealings, more attentive about its provenance, he told himself, even as he understood that he was simply preparing the lies he might offer in exculpation to the man on his doorstep if it became necessary to do so.

  He reached for his wine with his left hand, but misjudged the movement. The glass crashed to the floor, splashing his slippers and the bottoms of his trousers. Swearing, Webber returned to the intercom. The man was still there.

  ‘I’m rather busy at the moment,’ he said. ‘Surely this is something that can be discussed during normal hours.’

  ‘One would have thought so,’ came the reply, ‘but we seem to be having trouble getting your attention. A number of messages have been left with your service, and at your place of business. If we did not know better, we might have begun to believe that you are deliberately avoiding us.’

  ‘But what is this about?’

  ‘Mr. Webber, you’re trying my patience, just as you have tried the patience of the foundation.’

  Webber gave in. ‘All right, I’m coming.’

  He looked at the wine pooling on the black-and-white tiled floor, carefully avoiding the broken glass. Such a shame, he thought, as he discarded his apron. He made his way to the front door, pausing only to remove the gun from the hall stand and slip it into the back of his trousers beneath his cardigan. The weapon was small and easily concealed. He checked his reflection in the mirror, just to be sure, and opened the door.

  The man on the doorstep was smaller than he expected, and dressed in a dark blue suit that might, at one point, have been an expensive purchase, but now looked dated, although it had survived the intervening years with a degree of grace. There was a blue and white spotted handkerchief in the breast pocket that matched the man’s tie. His head was still lowered, but now it was part of the gesture of removing his hat. For a moment, Webber had a strange vision of the hat coming off and taking the top of the visitor’s head with it, like an egg that has been neatly broken, permitting him to peer into the cavity of the skull. Instead, there were only loose strands of white hair like tendrils of cotton candy, and a domed head that came to a discernible point. Then the man looked up at him, and, instinctively, Webber took a small step back.

  The face was quite pale, the nostrils slim dark holes cut into the base of the narrow, perfectly straight nose. The skin around the eyes was wrinkled and bruised. It spoke of illness and decay. The eyes themselves were barely visible, obscured as they were by folds of skin that had descended on them from the forehead like wax melting from an impure candle. Below the eyeballs, red flesh was visible, and Webber thought that this individual must have been constantly irritated by grit and dust.

  But then the man clearly had other distractions when it came to pain. His upper lip was distorted, reminding Webber of those photographs in Sunday newspapers of children with cleft palates that were used to elicit charitable donations, except this was no cleft palate: it was a wound, an arrowhead incision into the skin exposing white teeth and discolored gums. It was also grossly infected, red raw and speckled in places with purple dots darkening to black. Webber thought that he could almost see the bacteria eating away at the flesh, and wondered at how this man could bear the torment, and what kind of drugs he would have to take just to allow him to sleep. In fact, how could he even bear to look at himself in a mirror and be reminded of his body’s betrayal and his own clearly imminent mortality? His age was impossible to surmise because of his illness, but Webber put him at between fifty and sixty, even allowing for the depredations he was suffering.

  ‘Mr. Webber,’ he said and, despite his wound, his voice was soft and pleasant. ‘Let me introduce myself. My name is Herod.’ He smiled, and Webber had to force his face to remain still and not register his disgust, for he feared that the movement of the visitor
’s facial muscles would tear the wound on his lip still further, opening it to the septum. ‘I am often asked if I am fond of children. I take the question in good spirit.’

  Webber wasn’t sure how to respond, so he simply opened the door a little wider to admit the stranger, his right hand moving almost casually to his waist and resting there within a hand’s reach of his gun. As Herod stepped into the house he nodded politely and glanced at Webber’s waist, and Webber felt sure that he knew of the gun, and that it didn’t bother him in the slightest. Herod looked toward the open kitchen, and Webber indicated that he should enter. He saw that Herod walked slowly, but it was not a function of his illness. Herod was just a man who moved with deliberation. Once in the kitchen, he laid his hat on the table and looked around, smiling in benign approval of all that he saw. Only the music seemed to disturb him, his forehead creasing slightly as he stared at the music system.

  ‘It sounds like . . . no, it is: it’s Fauré’s “Pavane,”’ he said. ‘I can’t say that I approve of what is being done to it, though.’

  Webber gave an almost imperceptible shrug. ‘It’s Bill Evans,’ he said. Who didn’t like Bill Evans?

  Herod contrived a little moue of disgust. ‘I’ve never cared for such experimentation,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid that I am a purist in most matters.’

  ‘To each his own, I guess,’ said Webber.

  ‘Indeed, indeed. It would be a dull world if we all shared the same tastes. Still, it is hard not to feel that some are better resisted than indulged. Do you mind if I sit down?’

  ‘Be my guest,’ said Webber, with only a hint of unhappiness.

  Herod sat, noting the wine and broken glass on the floor as he did so. ‘I hope I wasn’t the cause of that,’ he remarked.

  ‘My own carelessness. I’ll clean it up later.’ Webber didn’t want his hands full with a brush and pan while this man was in his kitchen.

  ‘I appear to have disturbed you in the act of preparing your meal. Please, by all means continue. I have no desire to keep you from it.’

  ‘It’s okay.’ Equally, Webber decided that he would rather not turn his back on Herod. ‘I’ll continue after you’ve gone.’

  Herod considered this for a moment, as though resisting an impulse to comment upon it, then let it pass, like a cat that decides not to chase down and crush a butterfly. Instead, he examined the bottle of white Burgundy on the table, turning it gently with one finger so that he could read the label.

  ‘Oh, very good,’ he said. He turned to Webber. ‘Would you mind pouring a glass for me, please?’

  He waited patiently as Webber, unused to guests making such demands of him, retrieved two glasses from the kitchen cabinet and poured a measure for Herod that, under the circumstances, was more than generous, then one for himself. Herod raised the glass and sniffed it. He removed a handkerchief from his trouser pocket, folded it neatly, then placed it against his chin as he took a sip from the glass with the corner of his mouth, avoiding the wound on his lip. A little of the wine trickled down and soaked into the handkerchief.

  ‘Wonderful, thank you,’ he said. He waved the hand kerchief apologetically. ‘One gets used to the necessity of sacrificing a little of one’s dignity in order to continue living as one might wish.’ He smiled again. ‘As you may have surmised, I am not a well man.’

  ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ said Webber. He struggled to put any emotion into the words.

  ‘I appreciate the sentiment,’ said Herod dryly. He raised a finger and pointed at his upper lip. ‘My body is riddled with cancers, but this is recent: a necrotizing illness that failed to respond to penicillin and vancomycin. The subsequent debridement did not remove all of the necrotic tissue, and now it seems that further explorations may be required. Curiously, it is said that my namesake, the slayer of infants, suffered from necrotizing fasciitis of the groin and genitalia. A punishment from God, one might say.’

  Are you referring to the king, or yourself, Webber wondered, and it was as if the thought were somehow audible to Herod, for his expression changed, and what little benignity he had about him seemed to vanish.

  ‘Please, Mr. Webber, sit down. Also, you may want to remove your weapon from your belt. It can hardly be comfortable where it is, and I’m not armed. I came here to talk.’

  Slightly embarrassed, Webber retrieved the weapon and placed it on the table as he took a seat across from Herod. The gun was still close if he needed it. He held his wineglass in his left hand, just to be safe.

  ‘To business, then,’ said Herod. ‘As I told you, I represent the interests of the Gutelieb Foundation. Until recently, it was felt that we had a mutually beneficial relationship with you: you sourced material for us, and we paid without complaint or delay. Occasionally, we required you to act on our behalf, purchasing at auction when we preferred to keep our interests hidden. Again, I believe that you were more than adequately compensated for your time in such cases. In effect, you were permitted to buy such items with our money, and sell them back to us at a mark-up that was considerably more than an agent’s commission. Am I correct? I am not overstating the nature of our understanding?’

  Webber shook his head, but didn’t speak.

  ‘Then, some months ago, we asked you to acquire a grimoire for us: seventeenth century, French. Described as being bound in calfskin, but we know that was merely a ruse to avoid unwanted attention. Human skin and calfskin have, as we are both aware, very different textures. A unique item, then, to put it mildly. We gave you all of the information required for a successful, pre-emptive sale. We did not want the book to go to auction, even one as discreet and specialized as this one promised to be. But, for the first time, you failed to produce the goods. Instead, it appeared that another buyer got there before you. You handed back our money, and informed us that you would do better on the next occasion. Unfortunately, it is in the nature of the unique that “next time” never applies.’

  Herod smiled again, this time regretfully: a disappointed teacher faced with a pupil who has failed to grasp a simple concept. The atmosphere in the kitchen had changed since Herod entered, palpably so. It was not merely the creeping unease that Webber felt at the direction that the conversation was taking. No, it felt to him that the force of gravity was slowly becoming greater, the air heavier. When he tried to raise his glass to his lips, the weight of it surprised him. Webber felt that, if he were to stand and try to walk, it would be like wading through mud or silt. It was Herod who was altering the very essence of the room, releasing elements from within himself that were changing the composition of every atom. There was a feeling of density about the dying man, for dying he most assuredly was, as though he were not flesh and blood but some unknown material, a thing of polluted compounds, an alien mass.

  Webber managed to get the glass to his lips. Wine dribbled down his chin in an unpleasant imitation of Herod’s own previous indignity. He wiped it away with the palm of his hand.

  ‘There was nothing that I could do,’ said Webber. ‘There will always be competition for esoteric and rare finds. It’s hard to keep their existence a secret.’

  ‘Yet, in the case of the La Rochelle Grimoire, its existence was a secret,’ said Herod. ‘The foundation spends a great deal of time and effort tracking down items of interest that may have been forgotten, or lost, and it is very careful in its inquiries. The grimoire was traced after years of investigation. It had been incorrectly listed in the eighteenth century, and by an arduous process of cross-checking on our part, that error was confirmed. Only the foundation was aware of the grimoire’s significance. Even its owner regarded it merely as a curiosity; a valuable one, possibly, but with no awareness of how important it might be to the right collector. The foundation, in turn, nominated you to act on its behalf. You were required only to ensure that payment was made, and then arrange for safe transportation of the item. All of the hard work had been done for you.’

  ‘I’m not sure what you’re implying,’ said Webber.

  ‘I’m not implying anything. I’m telling you what occurred. You became greedy. You had dealt in the past with the collector Graydon Thule, and you knew that Thule had a particular passion for grimoires. You made him aware of the existence of the La Rochelle Grimoire. In return, he agreed to pay you a finder’s fee, and offered one hundred thousand dollars more for the grimoire than the foundation had earmarked in order to ensure that it would go to him. You did not pass on that full amount to the seller, but kept half of it for yourself, in addition to the finder’s fee. You then paid a subagent in Brussels to act on your behalf, and the grimoire went to Thule. I don’t think I’ve missed out on any details, have I?’

  Webber was tempted to argue, to deny the truth of what Herod had said, but he could not. It had been foolish to think that he might be able to get away with the deception, but only in retrospect. At the time, it had seemed perfectly possible, even reasonable. He needed the money: his cash flow had slowed in recent months, for his business was not immune to the economic downturn. In addition, his daughter was a second year med student, and her fees were crucifying him. While the Gutelieb Foundation, like most of his clients, paid well, it did not pay well often enough, and Webber had been struggling for some time. He had made 120,000 dollars in total from acquiring the grimoire for Thule, once he had paid off the subagent in Brussels. That was a lot of money for him: enough to ease his debts, cover his share of Suzanne’s fees for the next year, and leave himself with a little in the bank. He began to feel a sense of indignation at Herod and his manner. Webber did not work for the Gutelieb Foundation. His obligations to it were minimal. True, his actions in the sale of the grimoire were not strictly honorable, but such deals happened all the time. Screw Herod. Webber had enough money to get by on for now, and he was in Thule’s good books. If the Gutelieb Foundation cut him off, then so be it. Herod couldn’t prove anything of what he had just said. If inquiries were made about the money, Webber had enough false bills of sale to explain away a small fortune.

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