The whisperers, p.9
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       The Whisperers, p.9

           John Connolly

  And if Earle couldn’t handle the situation, which was rare, Jimmy had friends everywhere, the kind of friends who owed him and knew where to look for anyone dumb enough to cross Jimmy Jewel. And since newbies only got consignments to transport worth a low-five-figure sum at most, there was a limit to how far any of them could run, assuming they could access the ‘traps’, the hidden storage compartments, to begin with. Even those who did run inevitably ended up back where they came from, because Jimmy also made sure that he employed people who had friends and family within easy reach. Either the offending parties would return of their own volition, largely because they missed the company, or they would be encouraged to return in order to avoid trouble for those close to them. Then a beating would follow, and a sequestration of assets or, in the absence of any such assets, a couple of risky, dirty jobs done for little or no payment as a gesture of atonement. Jimmy resisted punishments that were terminal as they drew unwanted attention to his operations, but that wasn’t to say that people had not died for crossing Jimmy Jewel. There were bodies buried in the Great North Woods, but Jimmy hadn’t put them there. It was just that, sometimes, clients emerged who resented the disruption caused to their affairs by someone running off with their cash or their drugs, and who insisted upon an example being made pour décourager autres, as some of his Quebeçois contacts liked to put it. In such cases, Jimmy did his best to plead for leniency, but if his pleas fell on deaf ears, Jimmy had always made it clear that he wasn’t about to cap anyone, because that wasn’t the way he worked, and the finger on the trigger wouldn’t belong to any of his people. Nobody ever complained about Jimmy’s position on this matter, mainly because there were always men who were happy to dim some unfortunate’s lights, if only to keep themselves fresh and in the game.

  Jimmy never put pressure on anyone to work for him. He was content to make a delicate approach, sometimes through a third party, and, if that approach was rebuffed, to move on elsewhere. He was patient. Often, it was enough to sow the seed and wait for a change in financial circumstances to occur, at which point his offer might be reconsidered. But he kept tabs on the local truckers, and he was always listening up for rumors of excessive cash being thrown around, or someone picking up a new rig when common sense would suggest that he should barely have been able to maintain the old one. If there was one thing Jimmy didn’t care for, it was competition, or smart guys trying to run independent operations, however small in scale. There were some exceptions to that rule: he was rumored to have a sweet deal with the Mexicans, but he wasn’t about to try to reason with the Dominicans, or the Colombians, or the bikers, or even the Mohawks. If they wanted to avail themselves of his services, as they sometimes did, that was fine, but if Jimmy Jewel started questioning their right to move product, he and Earle would end up tied to chairs in the Sailmaker with pieces of themselves scattered by their feet, assuming their feet weren’t among the scattered pieces, while the bar burned down around their ears, assuming they still had ears.

  That was how Joel Tobias had come to Jimmy’s attention. He had a rig, a truck, a house, but he wasn’t making the kind of runs that would enable him to keep them all for long. The figures didn’t add up, and Jimmy had begun to make some gentle inquiries, because if Tobias was smuggling drugs then those drugs had both to come from somewhere and to go somewhere, once they’d crossed the border, and there were only a limited number of possible options in either case. Booze was unwieldy, and didn’t bring in enough dough for the risk, and as far as Jimmy could tell Tobias was using the monitored crossings, which meant that he’d be subject to regular searches, and unless he was being provided with some very high-class documentation his career as a booze smuggler would be short. That left cash, but, again, large dollar amounts had to come from somewhere, and Jimmy had cornered the market in that particular specialty. Anyway, the actual physical movement of cash was also a very minor part of his operation, as there were easier ways to transport money from place to place than in the trunk of a car or the cab of a truck. So Jimmy was very curious indeed about Joel Tobias, which is why he decided to approach him directly one day when Tobias was drinking alone over at Three Dollar Dewey’s after making a legitimate delivery to a warehouse on Commercial. It was four in the afternoon, so the evening rush hadn’t yet hit Dewey’s. Jimmy and Earle joined Tobias at the bar, one on either side of him, and asked if they could buy him a drink.

  ‘I’m good,’ said Tobias, and went back to reading his magazine.

  ‘Just trying to be friendly,’ said Jimmy.

  Tobias had glanced at Earle in response. ‘Yeah? Your buddy has friendly written all over him.’ Earle had friendly written all over him the way that a plague rat had ‘Hug Me’ emblazoned on its fur.

  Tobias didn’t appear disturbed or frightened. He was a big guy; not as big as Earle, but better toned. Jimmy knew, from asking around, that Tobias was ex-military. He’d served in Iraq, and his left hand looked chewed up, missing the little finger and its nearest neighbor, but he was in good condition, so it appeared that he’d maintained the habits that he’d learned in the army. He’d also kept up with his old buddies, from what Jimmy could ascertain, which concerned him slightly. Whatever scam Tobias was running, he wasn’t running it alone. Soldiers, former or otherwise, meant guns, and Jimmy didn’t like guns.

  ‘He’s a pussycat,’ said Jimmy. ‘I’m the one you should be worried about.’

  ‘Look, I’m having a beer and reading. Why don’t you take Igor here and go scare some kids? I’ve got nothing to talk to you about.’

  ‘You know who I am?’ asked Jimmy.

  Tobias took a sip of his beer, but didn’t look at him. ‘Yeah, I know who you are.’

  ‘Then you know why I’m here.’

  ‘I don’t need the work. I’m doing okay.’

  ‘Better than okay, from what I hear. You drive a sharp rig. You’re making your payments, and you got enough left over to buy a beer at the end of a hard day’s work. You ask me, you’re rocking and rolling.’

  ‘Like you said, I work hard.’

  ‘Seems to me that you’d need thirty hours in the day to make the kind of money that you’re pulling down in these difficult times. Independent operator, competing with the big guys. Hell, you mustn’t ever sleep.’ Tobias said nothing. He finished his beer, folded the magazine, and took most of his change from the bar, leaving a dollar tip.

  ‘You need to let this go,’ he said.

  ‘You need to show some respect,’ said Jimmy.

  Tobias looked at him with a degree of amusement.

  ‘Nice talking to you,’ he said as he got up. Earle reached for him to force him back down, but Tobias was too fast for him. He spun away from Earle, then kicked him hard in the side of the left knee. Earle’s leg buckled, and Tobias grabbed Earle’s hair as he went down and banged Earle’s head hard against the bar. Earle slumped to the floor, stunned.

  ‘You don’t want to do this,’ said Tobias. ‘You mind your own business, and I’ll mind mine.’

  Jimmy nodded, but it wasn’t a conciliatory gesture, merely an indication that a suspicion had now been confirmed for him.

  ‘Drive safely,’ he said.

  Tobias backed out. Earle, who was nursing his knee but had recovered his composure, seemed inclined to take matters further when Jimmy put a hand on his shoulder to quieten him.

  ‘Let him go,’ he said, as he watched Tobias depart. ‘This is just the beginning.’

  Back in the Sailmaker, Earle was doing a good job of pretending not to listen to our conversation.

  ‘Tobias hurt his professional pride,’ said Jimmy.

  ‘Yeah, well, I’m all torn up about that.’

  ‘You should be. Earle doesn’t forget a hurt.’

  I watched the big man cleaning the bar, even though there were no customers, and the Sailmaker wasn’t about to get any cleaner without dousing its surfaces with acid. In that way, it had a lot in common with the Blue Moon.

  ‘He didn’t do a da
y’s time for what happened to Sally Cleaver,’ I said. ‘Maybe a couple of years in the can might have made him a little less sensitive.’

  ‘He was younger then,’ said Jimmy. ‘He’d handle it differently now.’

  ‘Won’t bring her back.’

  ‘No, it won’t. You’re a harsh judge, Charlie. People got the right to change, to learn from their mistakes.’

  He was right, and I wasn’t in a position to point the finger, although I didn’t like admitting it.

  ‘Why do you let that place stand?’ I said.

  ‘The Moon? Sentimentality, maybe. It was my first bar. A shithole, but they’re all shitholes. I know my place, and I know my customers.’


  ‘It’s a reminder. For me, for Earle. We take it away, and we start to forget.’

  ‘You know anything about Jandreau, the state trooper who died there?’

  ‘No, and I already answered all the questions the cops had to throw at me about that. Last time I looked, you weren’t wearing a badge, not unless it read “Inquisitive Asshole.”’

  ‘And Tobias?’

  ‘It looks like he decided to keep a low profile after I spoke to him. He didn’t make any runs outside the state for a month. Now he’s started again.’

  ‘Any idea of destinations on the Canadian side?’

  ‘All standard runs: some animal feed; paper products; machine parts. I could probably get you a list, but it wouldn’t help. They’re straight operations. Either I started asking questions too late, or these people are cleverer than they seem.’

  ‘People? We’re talking associates?’

  ‘Some army buddies. They’ve gone on runs with him. Shouldn’t be hard for a man of your talents to find them.’ He picked up his newspaper and began reading. Our conversation had come to an end. ‘It was good talking to you again, Charlie. I’m sure you don’t need Earle to show you out.’

  I stood up and put on my jacket.

  ‘What’s he moving, Jimmy?’

  Jimmy’s mouth creased, and the right side raised itself to mirror the left, forming a crocodile smile.

  ‘That matter is in hand. Maybe I’ll let you know how it works out. . . .’


  Did I trust Jimmy Jewel? I wasn’t sure. My grandfather once described him as the kind of man who would lie through omission, but who preferred not to lie at all. Naturally, Jimmy made an exception for US customs and the forces of law and order in general, but even where they were concerned he tended to avoid confrontations wherever possible, thereby obviating the necessity for untruths.

  But it was now clear, from what I had been told, that Joel Tobias was on Jimmy Jewel’s radar, which was a little like being tracked by a military drone aircraft: it might just soar above you for the most part, but you never knew when it would call down vengeance upon your head.

  After checking that Tobias’s rig remained at the warehouse, and that his Silverado was still parked at his house, I stopped for a bowl of gumbo at the Bayou Kitchen on Deering. Jimmy had said that Joel Tobias was being helped by former soldiers, which brought with it a whole new set of problems. Maine was a veterans’ state: there were more than 150,000 veterans living here, and that wasn’t counting the ones who had been called up again to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of them lived away from the cities, holed up in rural areas like the County. In my experience, a lot of them didn’t care much for talking to outsiders about their activities, legal or otherwise.

  I made a call to Jackie Garner from my table, and told him that I had some work for him. Despite being well into his forties, Jackie still lived with his mom, who evinced a benign tolerance for her son’s love of homemade explosives and other improvised munitions, although he was under strict instructions not to bring them into the house. Lately, a degree of tension had crept into this cozily Oedipal relationship, precipitated by the fact that Jackie had begun to date a woman named Lisa, who seemed very fond of her new beau, and was pressing him to move in with her, even if it wasn’t yet clear how much she knew about the whole munitions business. Jackie’s mother regarded the new arrival as unwanted competition for her son’s affections, and had recently begun to play the frail, ageing, ‘Who-will-look-after-me-when-you’re-gone?’ role, one into which she did not easily fit as there were great white sharks less well equipped for the solitary life than Mrs. Garner.

  Thus it was that Jackie, caught between these twin poles of affection, like a condemned man whose arms have been attached to a pair of draft horses with a whip braced over their withers, seemed grateful for my call, and was more than willing to take on some otherwise dull surveillance work that did not involve dealing with the women in his life. I told him to stay with Joel Tobias, but if Tobias met up with anyone, then he was to follow the second party. In the meantime, I planned to talk with Ronald Straydeer, a Penobscot Indian who had his finger on veterans’ affairs, and might be able to tell me a little more about Tobias.

  But for now I had other obligations: Dave Evans had asked me to come in and cover for him for the weekly beer delivery at the Bear, and then act as bar manager for the rest of the day. It would be a long shift, but Dave was in a hole, so I put Ronald Straydeer off until the next day, then headed down to the Bear in time to meet the Nappi truck. And because the Bear was busy, afternoon slipped quickly into evening, and then into night, with barely a change to the bar’s dimly lit interior, until at last it was after midnight, and I heard my bed calling.

  They were waiting for me in the parking lot. There were three of them, all wearing black ski masks and dark jackets. I caught a glimpse of one of them as I was opening my car door, but by then they were on top of me. I lashed out with my right hand, catching someone a glancing blow to the face with my elbow. I followed through with the car key, and felt it cut through the mask and tear the skin beneath. I heard swearing, and then I took a hard blow to the back of the head that sent me sprawling. A gun was placed against my temple, and a male voice said: ‘Enough.’ A car pulled up. Hands were placed beneath my armpits, dragging me to my feet. A sack was forced over my head, and I was pushed into the back of the car and made to lie flat on the floor. One booted foot was placed against the back of my neck. My hands were pulled behind my back, and seconds later I felt the plastic restraints tighten painfully against my skin. Gunmetal tapped me lightly on the same spot where I had earlier been struck, and sparks went off behind my eyes.

  ‘Stay down, and stay quiet.’

  And with no further choice in the matter, I did as I was told.

  We headed south on I-95. I could tell from the distance we traveled on Forest, and the turn we made on to the interstate. We drove for no more than fifteen minutes before pulling off to the left. I heard gravel crunch beneath the tires as we came to a halt, and then I was pulled from the car. My arms were forced high behind my back, almost to the point of dislocation, and I was made to walk bent over. Nobody spoke. A door opened. Through the sack I could smell old smoke and urine. I was pushed inside, helped by a boot in the ass that sent me to the floor. Someone laughed. There were rough tiles beneath me, and the smell of human waste was nauseatingly strong. My captors took up positions around me. Their footsteps echoed. I was indoors, but the sound was wrong, and I had a sense of space above my head. In fact, I now had a pretty good idea of where I was. Even after all these years, the place still smelled of burning. I was at the Blue Moon, and I understood that a connection had been made between Jimmy Jewel and me. Those who had brought me to this place knew about our meeting, and they had decided, wrongly, that I was in Jimmy’s employ. A message was about to be sent to Jimmy through me, and even before they began communicating it I was certain that I would have preferred it to be delivered to Jimmy in person.

  Someone knelt beside me, and the sack was pulled up as far as my nose.

  ‘We don’t want to hurt you.’ It was the same male voice that had spoken earlier. It was calm and measured, the voice of a younger man, and without animosity.

‘Maybe you should have thought that one through before you knocked me down in the parking lot,’ I said.

  ‘You were pretty fast with that key. Seemed like a good idea to quieten you down some. Anyway, enough with the pleasantries. Answer my questions, and you’ll be back at your muscle car before the headache really starts to bite. You know what this is about.’

  ‘Do I?’

  ‘Yes, you do. Why are you following Joel Tobias?’

  ‘Who’s Joel Tobias?’

  There was silence for a time before the voice came again, closer now. I could smell mint on the man’s breath.

  ‘We know all about you. You’re a big shot, running around with a gun, putting bad guys in the ground. Don’t get me wrong: I admire you and what you’ve done. You’re on the right side, and that counts for something. It’s why you’re still breathing instead of sinking into the marshes with a new hole in your head to let the water in. I’ll ask you one more time: why are you following Joel Tobias? Who hired you? Is Jimmy Jewel picking up the tab? Speak now, or you’ll be forever holding your tongue.’

  My head ached, and my arms hurt. Something sharp was biting into my palm. I could just have told them that Bennett Patchett had hired me because he believed that Joel Tobias was abusing his girlfriend. I could have, but I didn’t. It wasn’t simply out of concern for Bennett’s own safety; there was an element of stubbornness to it too. Then again, sometimes stubbornness and principle are almost indistinguishable from each other.

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