The whisperers, p.7
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       The Whisperers, p.7

           John Connolly
 

  He turned and stared at the wall separating this room from 14. The paint was peeling, and it had bubbled in places. He placed his hand against one of the bubbles of paint, feeling it give way against his skin. He expected it to be moist to the touch, but it was not. Instead, it was warm, warmer than it should have been, not unless there was a fire blazing in the room on the other side. He moved his hand sideways, letting it trail along the wall until he came to a cooler patch, one on which the paint remained undamaged.

  ‘What the—?’ He spoke the words aloud, and the sound of his own voice in the gloom startled him, as though it were not he who had spoken but a version of himself that stood somehow apart, watching him with curiosity, a man aged beyond his years, damaged by war and loss, haunted by phones that rang in the dead of night and voices that spoke in unfamiliar tongues.

  For as his palm rested against the paintwork, he felt the cool spot on the wall begin to grow warm. No, not just warm: hot. He closed his eyes briefly and an image flashed in his mind: a presence in the next room, a figure that was crooked and distorted, burning from within as it placed a hand against the paintwork on its own side and followed the progress of the man on the other, like a piece of metal drawn by a magnet.

  He pulled his hand away and rubbed it against the leg of his sweat pants. His mouth and throat were dry. He felt the urge to cough, but he suppressed it. It was absurd, he knew: after all, he’d just drilled, and then nailed, a door closed, so it wasn’t as if he’d been quiet so far, but there was a difference between those mechanical noises and the simple human intimacy – and, say it, frailty – of a cough. So he covered his mouth with his hand and backed out of the room, leaving his tool box behind. He replaced the plywood, but didn’t bother trying to find a way of securing it again. The night was still, so there was no wind that might cause it to fall. He didn’t turn his back on the motel until he was at his cabin. Once inside, he locked the door, then drank some water, followed by a glass of vodka and some Nyquil to help him sleep. He called again the number he had dialed earlier, and left a second message.

  ‘One more night,’ he reiterated. ‘I want my money, and I want this stuff gone. I can’t do it no more. I’m sorry.’

  Then he stamped the telephone to pieces before removing his shoes and overcoat and curling up in bed. He listened to the silence, and the silence listened back.

  They were nickel and dimed, that was what he thought: right from the start, they were nickel and dimed. They’d even managed to spell his name wrong on his new identification tags: Bobby Jandrau instead of ‘Jandreau’. Damned if he was going to war with his name messed up: that was bad karma right there. Way they’d kicked up when he pointed it out, you’d have thought he wanted to be carried to Iraq in a sedan chair.

  But then the rich always screw the poor, and this was a rich man’s war being fought by poor people. There was nobody wealthy waiting to fight alongside him, and had there been he would have asked them why, because there was no sense in being here if you had a better option. No, there were just men like himself, and some who were poorer yet, although he knew what it was to live short; still, by the standards of some of the guys he knew, who were on first name terms with poverty before they joined up, he was comfortable.

  The brass told them that they were ready to deploy, ready to fight, but they didn’t even have body armor.

  ‘That’s ’cause the Iraqis ain’t going to fire at you,’ said Lattner. ‘They’ll just use sarcasm, and say mean things about your moms.’

  Lattner, who was a long drink, maybe the tallest man he’d ever met, always called them his ‘moms’ and his ‘pops’. When he was dying, he asked for his moms, but she was thousands of miles away, probably praying for him, which might have helped. He was dosed up to take away some of the pain, and he didn’t know where he was. He thought that he was back in Laredo. They told him that his moms was on her way, and he died believing it.

  They scavenged scraps of metal and flattened cans to make their own sappy plates. Later, they took body armor from dead Iraqis. The men and women who came later would be better equipped: pads, eye pro, Wiley-X sunglasses, even pieces of green card with answers to possible media questions, because by then it was all going to hell, jizzicked to fuck and back, as his old man used to say, and they didn’t want anybody speaking out of school.

  There were no showers at the start: they bathed out of hard hats. They lived in ruined buildings and, later, five to a room without A/C in 130-degree heat. No sleep, no showers, weeks in the same clothes. In time there would be air-conditioning, and containerized housing units, and proper shitters, and a MWR center with Playstations and big-screen TVs, and a PX selling lame ‘Who’s Your Bagh-Daddy?’ t-shirts, and a Burger King. There would be Internet terminals, and phone centers open 24/7, except when a soldier was killed, when they would be closed until the family was informed. There would be a concrete mortar bunker by the door of the conex, so that you didn’t have to face them out in the open.

  But he didn’t care about the difficulties, not at first. You didn’t sign up because you wanted to stay home and see out your time stateside. You signed up because you wanted to go to war, and what was it Secretary Rumsfeld said? You go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had. Then again, Secretary Rumsfeld still had all of his limbs, last time he looked, so it was kind of easy for him to say.

  He had some tattoos on his arms: stupid childish shit, but not gang-related. He wasn’t even sure that there were any gangs in Maine worth getting tattooed over, and even if there were, the tattoos wouldn’t have meant much to real hardasses like the Bloods and the Crips. The army would eventually add another tat of its own: his dog-tag information was etched on his side, his ‘meat tag,’ so even if he was blown to pieces and his dog tags lost or destroyed, his body would still bear his identity. A staff sergeant promised a waiver for the old tats when he enlisted, even offered to clear up any minor criminal stuff that might have been on his sheet, but he didn’t have so much as a DUI to his name. He was guaranteed the good life: a signing bonus, paid leave, and a college education, if he wanted it, once he’d completed his time. He scored over 80 percent on the Vocational Aptitude Battery, the Army’s SATs, which made him eligible for a two-year enlistment, but he signed up for four. He didn’t have a whole lot else going on anyway, and a four-year enlistment meant that he would be guaranteed a slot with a particular division, and he wanted to serve with other men from Maine, if that was possible. He’d enjoyed being a soldier. He was good at it. It was why he reenlisted. If he hadn’t, then things would have been very different. The second time was the doozy. The second time was the killer.

  But that was years away. First off, he was sent to Fort Benning for fourteen weeks of training, and he thought he was going to die on the second day. After basic, they gave him two weeks to kick around, then put him on the Hometown Recruiting Assistance Program where he was supposed to recruit his buddies in a Class A uniform, the army’s equivalent of a pyramid selling scheme, but his buddies weren’t buying. That was when he met Tobias. Even then, Tobias was an operator. He had a way of forming alliances, of cutting deals, of doing small favors that he could call in at a later date. Tobias took him under his wing.

  ‘You don’t know beans,’ Tobias told him. ‘You stick with me, and I’ll educate you.’

  And he did. Tobias looked out for him, just as, in time, he himself had looked out for Damien Patchett, until the roles were reversed, and the bullets came, and he thought:

  I am bait. I am a stalking goat.

  I am going to die.

  5

  I was back at Joel Tobias’s place early the next morning. Instead of the Saturn, which, as on the night before, I sometimes used for surveillance, I’d been forced to drive the Mustang, just in case Tobias had any suspicions that he was being followed after our encounter the previous night. The Mustang wasn’t exactly inconspicuous, but I’d parked behind a truck in the lot of the Big Sky Bread Company on the corner
of Deering Avenue, and had angled myself so that I could just about see Tobias’s house on Revere from where I was, but he would have trouble spotting me unless he came looking. His Silverado was still in the drive when I parked, and the drapes remained drawn at the upstairs window. Shortly after eight, Tobias appeared at the front door wearing a black t-shirt and black jeans. There was a tattoo on his left arm, but I couldn’t tell what it was from a distance. He got in his truck and hung a right. Once he was out of sight, I went after him.

  There was plenty of traffic on the streets, and I was able to stay well back from Tobias while still keeping him in sight. I nearly lost him at Bedford when the lights changed, but I caught up a couple of blocks later. Eventually, he pulled into a warehouse complex off the Franklin arterial. I drove by, then slipped into the lot next door, where I watched Tobias park by one of three big rigs parked close to a chain link fence. He spent the next hour performing routine maintenance checks on his rig, then got back in the Silverado and returned to his house.

  I filled up the Mustang’s tank, bought a cup of coffee at Big Sky, and tried to figure out what I was supposed to be doing. All that I knew so far was that Tobias’s finances didn’t add up, and he might be having troubles with his girlfriend, as Bennett had suggested, but I couldn’t help feeling that, in the end, little of this was any of my business. In theory, I could have stayed with him until he embarked on his planned run to Canada, followed him across the border, and then waited to see what transpired, but the chances of his not making me if I did follow him all the way up there were pretty slim. After all, if he was engaged in illegal activity, he was likely to be alert for any kind of surveillance, and a proper pursuit would require two, maybe three vehicles. I could have brought in Jackie Garner as the second driver, but Jackie didn’t work for free, not unless he was guaranteed a little fun and the possibility of being able to hit someone without legal consequences, and following a truck up to Quebec hardly sounded like Jackie’s idea of a good time. And if Tobias was smuggling, so what? I wasn’t an arm of US Customs.

  The issue of whether or not he was hitting his girlfriend was another matter, but I couldn’t see how my involvement was going to improve that situation. Bennett Patchett was in a better position to make a discreet approach to Karen Emory than I was, perhaps through one of her female colleagues at the diner, since a complete stranger coming up to her and asking if her boyfriend had beaten her up lately was unlikely to endear himself to her.

  I called Bennett’s cell phone. It went to voice mail, so I left a message. I tried the Downs, but he wasn’t there, and the woman who answered the phone told me that she didn’t expect him today. I hung up. My coffee was going cold. I opened my window and poured it out, then tossed the paper cup in the back of the car. I was bored and frustrated. I took a James Lee Burke novel from the glove compartment, sat back in my seat, and started to read.

  Three hours later, my ass was aching and I had finished the book. The coffee had also made its way through my system. Like every good PI, I kept a plastic bottle in the car for just such an eventuality, but it hadn’t reached that stage as yet. I tried Bennett’s cell phone again, and once more it went to voice mail. Twenty minutes later, Karen Emory’s green Subaru appeared at the intersection, with Karen at the wheel. She was already wearing her blue Downs t-shirt. There appeared to be nobody else in the car with her. I let her go.

  Half an hour later, Tobias’s Silverado appeared and headed for the highway. I followed him to the Nickelodeon Theater in Portland, where he bought a ticket for a comedy. I waited for twenty minutes, but he didn’t come out. For now, it seemed that Joel Tobias wasn’t heading to Canada, at least not today. Even if he was preparing for a night run, there was little that I could do to follow him. I was also due at the Bear that night, and the next, and I couldn’t let Dave Evans down. I felt that I had wasted a day, and Bennett wasn’t going to get his money’s worth out of me, not like this. It was now 5 p.m. I was due at the Bear by eight. I wanted to shower first, and I wanted to use the bathroom.

  I drove back to Scarborough. It was a warm, close evening, with no breeze. By the time I had showered and changed, I had made a decision: I would charge Bennett for the hours I had put in so far, then give him back the rest of his money unless he could come up with a pressing reason why I should not. If he wanted me to, and he acted as an intermediary, I’d sit down with Karen Emory for free and advise her on her options if she was experiencing domestic abuse. As for Joel Tobias, assuming that he wasn’t making up the shortfall in his finances through entirely legal means of which I had no knowledge, he could continue doing whatever it was he was doing until the cops, or customs, caught up with him. It wasn’t an ideal compromise, but then compromises rarely were.

  The Bear was buzzing that night. There were some state cops drinking at the far end of the bar, away from the door. I considered it politic to avoid them, and Dave agreed. They had no love for me, and one of their number, a detective named Hansen, was still on medical leave having involved himself in my affairs earlier in the year. It was no fault of mine, but I knew that his colleagues didn’t see it that way. I spent the evening taking care of orders from the waitstaff, and left the two regular bartenders to look after those seated at the bar. The night passed quickly, and by midnight I was done. For the sake of it, I took another ride past Joel Tobias’s place. The Silverado was still there, along with Karen Emory’s car. When I went to the warehouse complex off Federal, Tobias’s rig hadn’t moved.

  My phone rang as I was halfway home. The caller ID showed Bennett Patchett’s number, so I pulled in at a Dunkin’ Donuts and answered.

  ‘Calling a little late, Mr. Patchett,’ I said.

  ‘Figured you for a night owl, like myself,’ he replied. ‘Sorry for taking so long to return your call. I was tied up with legal business all day and, to tell you the truth, when I was done with it I didn’t much feel like checking my messages. But I’ve had a nightcap, and I feel a bit more relaxed now. You find out anything worth mentioning?’

  I told him that I hadn’t, apart from the possibility that Joel Tobias’s finances didn’t quite add up, and Bennett had suspected as much already. I went over my concerns with him: how I believed that following Tobias would be difficult without additional manpower, and that perhaps there were better ways of dealing with the possibility that Karen Emory was a victim of domestic abuse.

  ‘And my boy?’ said Bennett. His voice cracked when he said it, and I wondered if he’d had more than a single nightcap. ‘What about my boy?’

  I didn’t know what to tell him. Your boy is gone, and this won’t bring him back. Post-traumatic stress took him, not his involvement with whatever Joel Tobias might be doing under the guise of a legitimate trucking business.

  ‘Look,’ said Bennett. ‘It may be that you think I’m a foolish old man who can’t accept the circumstances of his son’s death, and, you know, that’s probably true. But I have a good sense for people, and Joel Tobias is crooked. I didn’t like him when I first met him, and I wasn’t happy about Damien getting involved in his affairs. I’m asking you to keep on this. It’s not a question of money. Money I got. If you need to hire some help, then do it and I’ll pay for that as well. What do you say?’

  What was there to say? I said that I’d give it a few more days, even though I believed it was pointless. He thanked me, then hung up. I stared at the phone for a time before tossing it on the seat beside me.

  That night, I dreamed of Joel Tobias’s rig. It stood in a deserted lot, its container unlocked, and when I opened it there was only blackness, blackness that extended farther than the rear of the container, as though I were staring into a void. I felt a presence approaching fast from out of the darkness, rushing toward me from the abyss, and I woke to the first light of dawn and the sense that I was no longer quite alone.

  The room smelled of my dead wife’s perfume, and I knew that it was a warning.

  6

  The mail boat was departing for its mor
ning run as I parked at the Casco Bay terminal, a handful of passengers on board, most of them tourists, watching as the wharf receded, taking in the bustle of the fishing boats and the ferries. The mail boat was an integral part of life on the bay, a twice-daily link between the mainland and the folk on Little Diamond and Great Diamond and Diamond Cove, on Long Island and Cliff Island and Peaks Island, on Great Chebeague, the largest of the islands on Casco Bay, and on Dutch Island, or Sanctuary as it was sometimes called, the most remote of the ‘Calendar Islands.’ The boat was a point of connection not only between those who lived by the sea and those who lived on the sea, but also between the inhabitants of the various outposts on Casco Bay.

  The sight of the mail boat always brought with it a hint of nostalgia. It seemed to belong to another time, and it was impossible not to look upon it and imagine its earlier incarnations, the importance of that link when travel between the islands and the mainland was not so easy. The mail boat brought letters and packages and freight, but it also brought, and disseminated, news. My grandfather, my mother’s father, took me on one of the mail boat’s runs shortly after my mother and I returned to Maine in the aftermath of my father’s death, as we fled north to escape the spreading stain of it. I wondered then if it might be possible for us to live on one of those islands, to leave the mainland behind forever, so that when the blood reached the limits of the coast it would drip slowly into the sea and be dispersed by the waves. Looking back, I realize that I was always running: from my father’s legacy; from the deaths of Susan and Jennifer, my wife and child; and, ultimately, from my own nature.

  But now I had stopped running.

 

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