The whisperers, p.8
The Whisperers, p.8John Connolly
The Sailmaker was, not to put too fine a point on it, a dump. It was one of the last of the old wharf bars in Portland, the ones that were built to cater for the needs of lobstermen, dock workers, and all of those whose livelihood depended on the grittier aspects of Portland’s working harbor. It was there long before anyone thought that tourists might want to spend time on the waterfront, and when the tourists did eventually appear they gave the Sailmaker a wide berth. It was like the dog on the street that snoozes in the yard, its fur pitted with the scars of old battles, its mouth, even in repose, always baring yellowed teeth, its eyes rheumy beneath half-closed lids, every aspect of it exuding restrained menace and promising the loss of a finger, or more, if a passing stranger were foolish enough to attempt a pat on the head. Even the name on the sign that hung outside the bar was barely legible, its paintwork ignored for years. Those who needed it knew where to find it, which was true of locals and a certain type of new arrival, the type that was not concerned with fine dining, and lighthouses, and nostalgic thoughts about mail boats and islanders. That kind sniffed out the Sailmaker and found their place in it, once they’d snapped at the other dogs, and taken their bites in return.
The Sailmaker was the only business still open on its wharf; around it, shuttered windows and padlocked doors secured premises that had nothing inside left to steal. Even to enter them would be to risk plummeting through the floor and into the cold waters beneath, for these buildings, like the wharf itself, were slowly rotting into the sea. It seemed a miracle that the whole structure had not collapsed many years before, and while the Sailmaker appeared to be more stable than its neighbors, it sat on the same uncertain pilings as they did.
So it was that drinking in the Sailmaker brought with it a sense of danger on a great many levels, the prospect of drowning in the bay due to stepping through a busted board being a relatively minor concern when compared with the more immediate threat of physical violence, serious or minor, from one or more of its customers. For the most part, even the lobstermen no longer frequented the Sailmaker, and the ones who did were less interested in fishing than in drinking steadily until fluid came out of their ears. They were lobster-men in name only, for those who ended up in the Sailmaker had resigned themselves to the fact that their days of being contributory members of society, of working hard for an honest wage, were long behind them. The Sailmaker was where you ended up when there was nowhere else left to go, when the only ending in sight was a funeral attended by people who knew you only by your seat at the bar and the drink that you ordered, and who would be mourning their own lives as much as yours as you were lowered into the ground. Every coastal town used to have a bar like the Sailmaker; in a way, the lost were more likely to be remembered in such places than they were among the remnants of their own family. In that sense, the Sailmaker was, nominally as well as figuratively, an apt venue in which to end one’s days, for it was the sailmaker on board ship who would sew the dead man up in his hammock, passing a final stitch through the nose of the departed to ensure that he was dead. At the Sailmaker, no such precautions were necessary: its patrons were drinking themselves to death, so when they stopped ordering drinks it was a pretty sure sign that they’d succeeded.
The Sailmaker was owned by a man named Jimmy Jewel, although I had never heard him called anything other than ‘Mr. Jewel’ to his face. Jimmy Jewel owned a lot of places like the Sailmaker and the wharf upon which it stood: apartment buildings that barely came up to code; ruined structures on waterfronts and side streets in towns all the way from Kittery to Calais; and vacant lots that were used for nothing but storing filthy pools of stagnating rainwater, lots that were not for sale and bore no indication of ownership beyond a series of ‘No Trespassing’ signs, some of them reasonably official in appearance, others just scrawled boards with increasingly varied and creative spellings of the word ‘Trespassing.’
What these buildings and lots had in common was the possibility that they might, at some future date, be valuable to a developer. The wharf on which the Sailmaker sat was one of a number tipped to become part of the new Maine State Pier redevelopment, a $160 million effort to revitalize the commercial waterfront involving a new hotel, soaring offices, and a cruise ship terminal which had since been dropped and now looked to be an increasingly distant prospect. The port was struggling. The International Marine Terminal that had once been filled with cargo containers waiting to be taken out on ships and barges, or transported inland by truck and train, was quieter than it had ever been. The number of fishing boats bringing their catches to the fish exchange on the Portland Fish Pier had fallen from 350 to 70 in the space of fifteen years, and the livelihoods of the fishermen were being threatened further by a reduction in their number of permitted fishing days. The high-speed Cat service between Portland and Nova Scotia was ending, taking with it much needed jobs and income for the port. Some were suggesting that the survival of the waterfront depended on increasing the number of bars and restaurants permitted on the wharfs, but the danger was that the port would then become little more than a theme park, with a handful of lobstermen left to eke out a meager living and provide some local color for the tourists, leaving Portland just a shadow of the great deep-water harbor that had defined the city’s identity for three centuries.
And in the middle of all this uncertainty squatted Jimmy Jewel, sizing up the angles, his finger damp and raised to the wind. It wouldn’t be true to say that Jimmy didn’t care about Portland, or its piers, or its history. He just cared about money more.
But decaying buildings, although a significant part of his portfolio, did not represent the sum total of Jimmy’s business interests. He had a slice of interstate and cross-border trucking, and he knew more about the smuggling of narcotics than almost anyone on the northeastern seaboard. Jimmy’s main deal was pot, but he’d suffered a couple of serious hits in recent years, and now he was rumored to be taking a step back from the drug business in favor of more legitimate enterprises, or those enterprises that gave the appearance of legitimacy, which was not the same thing. Old habits died hard, and when it came to criminality Jimmy kept his hand in as much for the money as for the pleasure he got in breaking the law.
I didn’t have to call ahead to make an appointment with him. The heart of Jimmy’s empire was the Sailmaker. He had a small office in back, but it was used mainly for storage. Instead, Jimmy could always be found at the bar, reading newspapers, answering occasional calls on an ancient phone, and drinking endless cups of coffee. He was there when I entered that morning. There was nobody else with him, apart from a bartender in a stained white t-shirt who was hauling in crates of beer from the storeroom. The bartender’s name was Earle Hanley, the same Earle Hanley who had tended bar at the Blue Moon on the night that Sally Cleaver was beaten to death by her boyfriend, for the owner of the Sailmaker and the Blue Moon were one and the same: Jimmy Jewel.
Earle looked up as I came in. If he liked what he saw, he made a manly effort to disguise the fact. His face creased, wrinkling like a ball of paper that had just been squeezed hard, and, even in repose, Earle’s face already resembled the last walnut in the bowl a week after Thanksgiving. He doubled as one of the guys who occasionally doled out beatings to recalcitrants who crossed Jimmy and incurred his displeasure. He appeared to have been constructed from a series of balls of encrusted lipids, the topmost fringed with greasy black hair. Even his thighs were circular. I could almost hear the fats sluicing around in his body as he moved.
Jimmy, meanwhile, wore a mortician’s black suit over an open-collared blue shirt. He was thin, and his hair was varying shades of gray held in place with a pomade that smelled faintly of cloves. He was six feet tall, but slightly stooped, so that he seemed to be struggling under some burden invisible to all, but deeply oppressive to himself. The right-hand side of his mouth was permanently raised, as if life were some amusing comedy and he was merely a spectator. Jimmy wasn’t a bad guy, as smugglers and drug dealers went. He’d knocked heads a c
He looked up from his newspaper, and that semi-smile flickered, like a lightbulb that has suffered a momentary disturbance to its power supply.
‘Shouldn’t you be wearing a mask?’ he asked.
‘Why? You got anything worth stealing?’
‘No, but I thought all you avengers wore masks. That way people can say “Who was that masked avenger?” as you vanish into the night. Otherwise, you’re just a guy who dresses too young for his age, sticking his nose where he’s got no business sticking it, and looking surprised when it gets bloodied.’
I took a stool across from him. He sighed and folded his newspaper.
‘You think I dress too young for my age?’ I said.
‘You ask me, everybody dresses too young these days, when they get dressed at all. I can still remember a time when there were hookers in these bars, and even they wouldn’t have dressed like some of the young girls I see passing by, summer and winter. I want to buy them all coats, make sure they wrap up warm. But what do I know from fashion? I think any suit that isn’t black looks like something Liberace would wear.’ He stretched out a hand, and we shook. ‘How you doing, kid?’
‘You still with that woman?’ he asked. He meant Rachel, the mother of my daughter, Sam. I didn’t feel any urge to express surprise. Nobody survived for as long as Jimmy Jewel without keeping tabs on whomever crossed his path.
‘No. We broke up. She’s in Vermont.’
‘She take the kid with her?’
‘I’m sorry to hear it.’
This wasn’t a topic of conversation I wanted to pursue. I sniffed warily at the air.
‘Your bar stinks,’ I said.
‘My bar smells fine,’ said Jimmy. ‘It’s my clientele that stink, but to get rid of the stink I’d have to get rid of them, and then it would just be me and my ghosts. Oh, and Earle doesn’t smell so good either, but that may be genetic.’
Earle didn’t reply, but just added a few more wrinkles to his expression and went back to rearranging the dirt.
‘You want a drink? It’s on the house.’
‘I don’t think so. I hear you water your booze down to add taste.’
‘You got balls, coming in here and insulting my place.’
‘It’s not a “place,” it’s a tax write-off. If it ever made any real money, your empire would collapse.’
‘I have an empire? I never knew. I did, I’d have dressed better, bought more expensive black suits.’
‘You have a guy who brings you coffee without being asked, and breaks heads on the same basis. I guess that counts for something.’
‘So, you want some coffee, then?’ asked Jimmy.
‘Is it as bad as everything else in here?’
‘Worse, but I made it myself so at least you know my hands are clean. Literally, not metaphorically.’
‘Coffee would be good, thanks. It’s kind of early for me otherwise.’
‘Then you’re in the wrong place. You think the windows are small because I couldn’t afford the glass?’
The Sailmaker was always dark. Its customers didn’t care to be reminded about the passage of time.
Jimmy gestured to to Earle, who stood, retrieved a mug from somewhere, examined its insides to make sure that it wasn’t too dirty, or was just dirty enough, and poured. When he put the mug down on the bar, coffee slopped over the sides and pooled on the wood. Earle looked at me, as though daring me to complain.
‘He’s dainty for a big man,’ I said.
‘He doesn’t like you,’ said Jimmy. ‘Don’t take it personal, though: he doesn’t like anyone. Sometimes I think that he doesn’t even like me, but I pay him, so that buys me a degree of tolerance.’
Jimmy passed me a silver jug of milk, not cream, and a bowl of sugar. Jimmy didn’t like UHT milk, or cheap creamer, or sachets of sweetener. I took the milk, not the sugar.
‘So, is this a social call, or have I done a great wrong that needs to be righted? Because I got to tell you, having you in my place makes me feel like checking my insurance.’
‘You think trouble follows me?’
‘Jesus, Death himself probably sends you a fruit basket at Christmas, thanking you for the business.’
‘I have a question about trucking.’
‘Don’t get into it, that’s my advice. Long hours, no overtime. You’ll sleep in a cab, eat bad food, and die at a rest stop. On the other hand, nobody will actively try to kill you, which seems to be one of the occupational hazards of your line of work, or the version of it that you pursue.’
I ignored the career advice. ‘There’s a guy, an independent. He’s got payments to keep up on a nice rig, a mortgage, the usual stuff. I’d say, overall, his expenses come close to seventy grand a year, and that’s not leading an extravagant lifestyle.’
‘That allowing for some massage on the figures?’
‘Probably. You ever met an honest man?’
‘Not when it comes to taxes. I did, I’d take him for every penny he was worth, just like the IRS, but not as vindictive. This guy, he do long haul?’
‘Some Canadian stuff, but that’s it, I think.’
‘Canada’s a big place. How far are we talking?’
‘Quebec, as far as I know.’
‘That’s not long haul. He work a lot of hours?’
‘Not enough, or that would be my take on it.’
‘So you figure he might be doing a little work on the side?’
‘He’s crossing the border. The thought had struck me. And, with respect, I don’t think squirrels cross the border without you knowing it and taking ten percent of their nuts.’
‘Fifteen,’ said Jimmy. ‘And that’s the friends’ rate. This guy have a name?’
Jimmy looked away, and clicked his tongue.
‘He’s not one of mine.’
‘You know whose he might be?’
Jimmy didn’t answer the question. Instead, he said: ‘What’s your interest in him?’
On my way to Portland, I had debated how much I was prepared to tell Jimmy. In the end, I decided that I was going to have to tell him most of it, but I wanted to leave out Damien Patchett’s death for now.
‘He’s got a girlfriend,’ I said. ‘A concerned citizen thinks he may not be treating her right, and that she’d be better off away from him.’
‘And what? You prove he’s smuggling and she tosses him aside and dates a preacher instead? Either you’re lying, and I don’t believe you’d come in here and do that, or this concerned citizen needs a lesson in the ways of the world. Half the girls in this town will jump on a guy with a nickel in his pocket and wear him down to a stub, and they won’t care where the money came from. In fact, you tell them you got it illegally, and some of them will call their sisters to join in as well.’
‘What about the other half?’
‘They’ll just steal his wallet. Short-term goals, short-term gains.’ He rubbed his face with his hand, and I heard the crackle of his stubble. ‘I know you’re not the kind to take advice, but maybe you’ll listen to me for the sake of your grandfather,’ he continued. ‘This one isn’t worth it, not if it’s just about some domestic situation that’ll resolve itself one way or the other. Let it go. There’s easier money out there.’
I drank some coffee. It tasted like sump oil. If I hadn’t watched him pour it, I’d have said that Earle had gone in back and dipped the mug in the bay before giving it to me. Then again, maybe he just kept a couple of rea
‘It doesn’t work that way, Jimmy,’ I said.
‘Yeah, I figured I was talking to the breeze.’
‘So you know about Tobias?’
‘You first. This isn’t just about a girl dating the wrong guy.’
‘I’ve been hired by someone who figures he’s dirty, and may have a grudge against him.’
‘And you came to me because you figure Tobias is augmenting his cargo illegally to make ends meet, and I’d know about it if he was.’
‘Jimmy, you know about stuff even God doesn’t know about.’
‘That’s because God is only interested in his own cut, and we all pay that, eventually, so God can afford to wait. I, on the other hand, am always seeking to expand.’
‘So, Joel Tobias.’
Jimmy shrugged. ‘I don’t have much to tell you about this guy, but what I do have you won’t like. . . .’
Jimmy knew the ways of the border. He was familiar with every road, every inlet, every secluded cove in the state of Maine. He worked for himself largely in the sense that he was an agent for a number of criminal organizations who were often happy to remain at one remove from the illegal activities that funded them. Booze, drugs, people, money: whatever needed to be transported, Jimmy would find a way to do it. Longstanding bribes were in place, and there were men in uniform who knew when to look the other way. He used to say that he had more people on his payroll than the government, and his jobs were more secure.
The events of 9/11 changed things for Jimmy and others like him. Border security was tightened, and Jimmy was no longer able to guarantee deliveries without a hitch. The bribes grew larger, and some of his inside men quietly told Jimmy that they couldn’t take the risk of working for him anymore. A couple of shipments were seized, and the people whose goods he was transporting weren’t happy about it. Jimmy lost money, and clients. But the economic downturn had also helped some: cash was scarce, jobs were disappearing, and under those circumstances, smuggling seemed like a pretty good option to men who were struggling to weather hard times. But even though Jimmy was always in need of good help, he was careful about those whom he employed. He wanted people who could be trusted, who wouldn’t show signs of panic when the dogs began sniffing around their trucks or their cars, who wouldn’t decide to take a chance on ripping Jimmy off and making a run for it with the proceeds. Only newbies did stuff like that. The older ones knew better. Jimmy might have seemed like a genial guy, but Earle wasn’t. Earle would break a kitten’s legs for spilling its milk.
The Whisperers by John Connolly / Thrillers & Crime / Mystery & Detective / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes