The whisperers, p.6
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       The Whisperers, p.6

           John Connolly
 

  ‘I think you should go now,’ said Webber. ‘I’d like to get back to preparing my meal.’

  ‘I’m sure that you would. Unfortunately, I am afraid that I can’t let the matter rest there. Some form of recompense must be made.’

  ‘I don’t think so. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Yes, I’ve done some work for Graydon Thule in the past, but he has his sources too. I can’t be held responsible for every failed sale.’

  ‘You’re not being held responsible for every failed sale, just this one. The Gutelieb Foundation is very concerned with issues of responsibility. Nobody forced you to act as you did. That is the joy of free will, but also its curse. You must accept the blame for your actions. Amends must be made.’

  Webber began to speak, but Herod silenced him with a raised hand.

  ‘Don’t lie to me, Mr. Webber. It insults me, and makes a fool out of you. Be a man. Acknowledge what you did, and we can set about arranging restitution. Confession is good for the soul.’ He reached out and laid his right hand upon Webber’s. Herod’s skin felt damp and cold, painfully so, but Webber was unable to move. Herod’s grip seemed to weigh him down.

  ‘Come,’ said Herod. ‘All that I ask from you is honesty. We know the truth, and now it is simply a matter of finding a way that we can both put this behind us.’

  Those dark eyes glinted, like black spinels in snow. Webber was transfixed. He nodded once, and Herod responded with a similar gesture.

  ‘Things have been very difficult lately,’ said Webber. His eyes grew hot, and the words caught in his throat, as though he were about to cry.

  ‘I know that. These are hard times for many.’

  ‘I’ve never acted in this way before. Thule contacted me about another matter, and I just let it slip. I was desperate. It was wrong of me. I apologize: to you, and to the foundation.’

  ‘Your apology is accepted. Unfortunately, we now have to discuss the matter of restitution.’

  ‘Half of the money is already gone. I don’t know what sum you were considering but—’

  Herod appeared surprised. ‘Oh, it’s not a matter of money,’ he said. ‘We don’t require money.’

  Webber sighed with relief. ‘Then what?’ he said. ‘If you need information on items of interest, I may be able to provide it at a reduced rate. I can ask some questions, check my contacts. I’m sure that I can find something that will make up for the loss of the grimoire and—’

  He stopped talking. There was now a manila envelope on the table, the kind with a cardboard back used to protect photographs.

  ‘What is that?’ asked Webber.

  ‘Open it and see.’

  Webber picked up the envelope. There was no name or address on it, and it was unsealed. He reached inside and withdrew a single color photograph. He recognized the woman in the picture, captured when she was clearly unaware of the camera, her head turned slightly to the right as she gazed over her shoulder, smiling at someone or something out of shot.

  It was his daughter, Suzanne.

  ‘What does this mean?’ he asked. ‘Are you threatening my daughter?’

  ‘Not as such,’ said Herod. ‘As I told you before, the foundation is very interested in concepts of free will. You had a choice in the matter of the grimoire, and you made it. Now, I have been instructed to give you another choice.’

  Webber swallowed. ‘Go on.’

  ‘The foundation has authorized the rape and murder of your daughter. It may be some consolation to you to hear that the acts do not have to be committed in that order.’

  Instinctively, Webber looked to his gun, then began to reach for it.

  ‘I should warn you,’ continued Herod, ‘that if anything happens to me, then your daughter will not see out this night, and her sufferings will be greatly increased. You may yet have use for that gun, Mr. Webber, but not now. Let me finish, then consider.’

  Uncertain of what to do, Webber did nothing, and his fate was sealed.

  ‘As I said,’ Herod continued, ‘an action has been authorized, but it does not have to be carried out. There is another option.’

  ‘Which is?’

  ‘You take your own life. That is your choice: your life, ended quickly, or the life of your daughter, taken slowly and with much pain.’

  Webber stared at Herod, dumbfounded.

  ‘You’re insane.’ But even as he said it, he knew that it wasn’t true. He had looked into Herod’s eyes, and he had seen nothing there but absolute sanity. It was possible that, with enough pain, a person might be driven to madness, but this was not the case with the man who sat opposite him. Instead, his suffering had given him perfect clarity: he had no illusions about the ways of the world, only an insight into its capacity for inflicting agony.

  ‘No, I am not. You have five minutes to choose. After that, it will be too late to stop what is about to occur.’

  Herod sat back. Webber picked up the gun and pointed it at him, but Herod did not even blink.

  ‘Call. Tell them to leave her alone.’

  ‘So you’ve made your choice?’

  ‘No. There is no choice. I’m warning you that if you don’t make the call, I’ll kill you.’

  ‘And then your daughter will die.’

  ‘I could torture you. I can shoot you in the knee, the groin. I can keep hurting you until you accede to my demand.’

  ‘Your daughter will still die. You know that. At the most basic level, you acknowledge the truth of what you have been told. You must accept it, and choose. Four minutes, thirty seconds.’

  Webber thumbed back the hammer on the revolver.

  ‘I’m telling you for the last time—’

  ‘Do you think that you’re the first man to have been presented with this choice, Mr. Webber? Do you honestly believe that I haven’t done this before? Ultimately, you must choose: your life, or the life of your daughter. Which do you value more?’

  Herod waited. He glanced at his watch, counting the seconds.

  ‘I wanted to see her grow up. I wanted to see her marry, and become a mother. I wanted to be a grandfather. Do you understand?’

  ‘I understand. Her life will still be hers to live, and her children will lay flowers for you. Four minutes.’

  ‘Don’t you have anyone whom you love?’

  ‘No, I do not.’

  The gun wavered in Webber’s hand as he realized the futility of his arguments.

  ‘How do I know that you’re not lying?’

  ‘About what? About raping and killing your daughter? Oh, I think you know that I mean what I say.’

  ‘No. About – about letting her go.’

  ‘Because I don’t lie. I don’t have to. Others lie. It is for me to present them with the consequences of those lies. For every fault, there must be a reckoning. For every action, there is a reaction. The question is: who do you love more, your daughter, or yourself?’

  Herod stood. He had a cell phone in one hand, his wineglass in the other. ‘I’ll give you a private moment,’ he said. ‘Please don’t attempt to use a phone. If you do so, our deal will be off, and I’ll make sure that your daughter is raped to death. Oh, and my associates will also ensure that you don’t live to see the dawn.’

  Webber did not try to stop Herod as he stepped slowly from the room. He seemed stunned into immobility.

  In the hallway, Herod examined his reflection in a mirror. He straightened his tie, and brushed some lint from his jacket. He loved this old suit. He had worn it on many occasions like this one. He checked his watch a final time. From the kitchen, he discerned words being spoken. He wondered if Webber had been foolish enough to try to make a call, but the tone of voice was wrong. Then he thought that it might be Webber making an act of contrition, or saying some unheard good-bye to his daughter, but as he moved closer he heard Webber’s words.

  ‘Who are you?’ Webber was asking. ‘Are you the one, the one who’s going to hurt my Suzie? Are you? Are you?’

  Herod glanced into the kitchen
. Webber was staring at one of the kitchen windows. Herod saw Webber and himself reflected in the glass and, for just a moment, he thought that there might be a third figure visible, too insubstantial, Herod believed, to be someone in the garden looking in, and yet there was nobody else in the kitchen apart from the living, or the soon-to-be dead.

  Webber turned to look at Herod. He was weeping.

  ‘Damn you,’ he said. ‘Damn you to hell.’

  He put the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger. The sound of the shot made Herod’s ears ring as it echoed off the tiled walls and floor of the kitchen. Webber fell, and lay bucking by his overturned chair. It was an amateurish way to turn a gun on oneself, Herod mused, but then Webber could hardly have been expected to be a professional in the art of suicide; the nature of the act precluded it. The barrel of the gun had pulled upward with the shot, blowing a chunk out of the top of Webber’s skull, but he had not managed to kill himself. Instead, his eyes were wide and his mouth was opening and closing spasmodically, rather like the final moments of the fish he had left on the slab. In a moment of mercy, Herod took the gun from Webber’s hand and finished the job for him, then drank the last of the wine in his glass and prepared to leave. He paused at the door, and peered back at the kitchen window. Something was wrong. Quickly, he moved to the counter and looked out upon Webber’s neatly tended, and gently illuminated, garden. It was surrounded by high walls, and blocked off by gates at either side of the house. Herod could see no sign of another person, yet he remained troubled.

  He checked his watch. He had already stayed too long, especially if the shots had attracted attention. He found the main switchbox for the house in a closet beneath the stairs, and killed all of the lights, before taking a blue surgical mask from his inside pocket and placing it over the lower part of his face. In a way, the H1N1 virus had been a blessing to him. Oh, people still sometimes stared at him in passing, but for one who exhibited such signs of illness as he did, they were looks of understanding as much of curiosity. Then, concealed by shadows, Herod became part of the night, and he put Jeremiah Webber and his daughter from his mind forever. Webber had made a choice, the correct choice in Herod’s view, and his daughter would be allowed to live. Herod, who worked alone, despite his threats to Webber, would not harm her.

  For he was an honorable man, in his way.

  4

  Far to the north, as the blood from Webber’s body mixed with spilled wine and congealed upon his kitchen floor, and Herod returned to the shadows from which he had emerged, the sound of a telephone ringing echoed around a forest glade.

  The man curled on the filthy sheets was dragged back to consciousness by the noise, and he knew immediately that it was them. He knew because he had unplugged the phone before he went to sleep.

  Lying on the bed, he moved only his eyes, glancing slowly in the direction of the handset, as though they were already there with him and any significant shift in position would alert them to the fact that he was awake.

  Go away. Leave me alone.

  The television boomed into life, and for an instant he caught a snatch of some old comedy from the sixties, one at which he could remember laughing with his mother and father as he sat between them on the sofa. He felt tears spring from his eyes at the memory of his parents. He was frightened, and he wanted them to protect him, but they were long gone from this Earth and he was all alone. Then the picture faded, leaving only static, and the voices came through the screen, just as they had the night before, and the night before that, and every night since he had taken delivery of the latest consignment. He began to shiver, although the air was warm.

  Stop. Go away.

  In the kitchen at the far end of the cabin, the radio began to play. It was his favorite show, A Little Night Music, or it used to be. He liked to listen to it just before he tried to sleep, but not any more. Now, when he turned on the radio, he could hear them behind the music, and in the spaces between symphonic movements, and talking over the announcer’s voice: not quite blocking him out, but loud enough that he could not concentrate on what was being said, the names of composers and conductors lost to him as he tried to ignore the foreign tongue that spoke so mellifluously. And even though he did not understand the words, the sense of them was clear to him.

  They wanted to be set free.

  At last, he could take it no longer. He jumped from his bed and grasped the baseball bat that he kept by his bedside, swinging it with a power and purpose that his younger self would have admired. The television screen imploded with a dull whomp and a cascade of sparks. Moments later, the radio was in pieces on the floor, and then only the phone remained to be dealt with. He stood above it, the bat poised, staring at the power cord that was not even close to the outlet, and the plastic connector cable that lay tantalizingly close to the box: not connected, yet still the phone was ringing. He should have been surprised, but he was not. In recent days, he had entirely lost the capacity for surprise.

  Instead of reducing the phone to shards of plastic and circuitry, he put down the bat, and restored the power and the connection. He placed the receiver close to his ear, careful not to let it touch him for fear that the voices might somehow leap from the handset into his head and take up residence there, driving him to madness, or closer to it than he already was. He listened for a time, his mouth trembling, his tears still falling, before he dialed a number. The phone at the other end rang four times, and then a machine clicked on. It was always a machine. He tried to calm himself as best he could, then began to speak.

  ‘There’s something wrong,’ he said. ‘You need to get up here and take it all away. You tell everyone that I’m out. Just pay me what I’m owed. You can keep the rest.’

  He hung up the phone, put on an overcoat and a pair of sneakers, and grabbed a flashlight. After a moment’s hesitation, he reached beneath his bed and found the green M12 universal military holster. He removed the Browning, slipped it into his overcoat pocket, picked up the baseball bat for added peace of mind and left the trailer.

  It was a moonless night, heavy with cloud, so that the sky was black and the world seemed very dark to him. The flashlight beam scythed through the darkness as he made his way down to the row of boarded-up rooms, coming at last to number 14. His father returned to mind, and he saw himself as a boy, standing with the old man outside this very same room, asking him why there was no number 13, why the rooms went straight from 12 to 14. His father had explained to him that people were superstitious. They didn’t want to stay in room 13, or on the thirteenth floor of one of those big city hotels, and changes had to be made to set their minds at rest. So it was that 13 became 14, and everybody slept a little better as a result, even if, in truth, 14 was still 13, didn’t matter what way you chose to hide it. Big city hotels still had a thirteenth floor, and small motels like theirs still had a room 13. In fact, there were folk who wouldn’t stay in room 14 for precisely that reason but, generally, most guests didn’t notice.

  Now he was alone outside 14. There was no sound from inside, but he could sense them. They were waiting for him to act, waiting for him to do what they wanted him to do, what they had been demanding over the radio, and the television, and in late-night calls from a phone that shouldn’t have worked but did: to be released.

  The bolts on the door were still in place, the locks undamaged, but when he checked the screws that he had drilled into the frame through the wood, he found that three of them were loose, and one had fallen out entirely.

  ‘No,’ he said. ‘That’s not possible.’ He picked up the screw from the ground and examined the head. It was intact and unmarked. He supposed that it was possible someone had come along while he was away from his trailer and used a drill to unscrew it, but why stop at one, and why leave some of the others only partially removed? It made no sense.

  Unless . . .

  Unless they had done it from inside. But how?

  I should open it, he thought. I should open it and make sure. But he didn’t w
ant to open it. He was afraid of what he might see, and of what he might be forced to do, for he knew that if he only ever performed one more good act in his life, it would be to ignore those voices. He could almost hear them in there, calling him, taunting him. . . .

  He returned to his trailer, found his big tool kit, and returned to 14. As he began to fit the bit into the drill, his attention was distracted by the sound of metal on wood. He put the drill down, and directed the flashlight beam at the door.

  One of the remaining screws was turning gently, removing itself from the wood. While he watched, its length was at last fully exposed, and the screw fell to the ground.

  Screws weren’t going to do it, not anymore. He put the drill aside and took out the nail gun. Breathing heavily, he approached the door, set the muzzle of the gun against the wood, and pulled the trigger. The force of the recoil jarred him slightly, but when he stepped back he saw that the nail, all six inches of it, was buried up to the head in the wood. He moved on, until there were 20 nails in the door. Removing them all would be a pain in the ass, but the fact that they were there for now made him feel a little more comfortable.

  He sat on the damp ground. The screws were no longer moving, and there were no more voices.

  ‘Yeah,’ he whispered. ‘You didn’t like that, did you? Soon, you’ll be somebody else’s problem, and then I’ll be done. I’m gonna take my money and leave this place. I been here too long as it is. Gonna find me somewhere warm, hole up there for a time, uh-huh.’

  He looked at the tool box. It was too damn heavy to haul all the way up to the trailer and, Lord knows, he might have need of it again before too long. Number 15 was secured only by a piece of plywood. Using his screwdriver, he prised out the two nails that held it in place, and placed his kit in the dark room beyond. He could make out the shape of the old cabinet on the left, and the bare frame of the bed, all rusted springs and broken posts, like the skeleton of some long-dead creature.

 
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