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Authors: John Connolly

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The Whisperers (48 page)

BOOK: The Whisperers
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‘If you’re going to taunt the dogs, always check the length of the chain,’ he said. He picked up the box and tucked it under his arm.
‘You’re taking it?’ I said.
‘Temporarily. It’s not mine to keep.’
He wandered over to one of the shelves and removed a tiny ivory statue of a female demon. It looked oriental, but I was no expert.
‘A souvenir,’ he said, ‘to add to my collection. Now, I have one more task to accomplish. Let me introduce you to someone. . . .’
We stood in front of the ornate mirror outside Herod’s study. At first, there was only my reflection and that of the Collector, but in time we were joined by a third. Initially, it seemed little more than a blur, dark gray absences where eyes and a mouth should have been, but then it formed itself into recognizable features.
It was the face of Susan, my dead wife, but with holes burnt into her skin where her eyes once were. Then, like a rattle being shaken, the face blurred again, and it was Jennifer, my murdered daughter, but also eyeless, her mouth filled with biting insects. More faces now, enemies from the past, changing faster and faster: the Traveling Man, the one who had torn Susan and Jennifer apart; the killer of women, Caleb Kyle; Pudd, his face wreathed in old spider webs; and Brightwell: the demon Brightwell, the goiter on his neck swollen like a great womb of blood.
For he was in all of them, and they were all of him.
Finally, there was just the figure of a man, one in his early forties, of a little more than average height. There was gray seeping into his dark hair, and his eyes were troubled and sad. Beside him was his twin, and next to him was the Collector. Then the Collector stepped away, the two reflections became one, and I stared back only at myself.
‘What did you feel?’ asked the Collector, and there was an uncertainty to his voice that I had not heard before. ‘What did you feel when you looked upon it?’
‘Rage. And fear. It was afraid.’ The answer came before I had even become aware of the thought. ‘Afraid of you.’
‘No,’ said the Collector, ‘not of me . . .’
I saw thoughtfulness in his face, but there was something else.
For the first time, I felt the Collector’s own fear of me.
Epilogue
I wish I lived in my house with only a third part of all
These goods, and that the men were alive who died in those days
In wide Troy land . . .
Homer,
The Odyssey
, Book 24
 
T
he warehouse in Queens was known as the ‘Fortress,’ an art storage facility guarded by the US government. The Fortress had already seen many antiquities from the Iraq Museum pass through its doors. It was there that the headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash had been taken after it was retrieved, and there that 669 items from the museum, seized by US Customs at Newark Airport in 2003, were brought for authentication. Now, in the Fortress’s gloomy confines, Dr. Al-Daini began the process of cataloging what had been recovered during the raids in Maine and Quebec, even as he mourned that which he had mostly fervently sought, and which had now been lost to him again.
When he found himself tiring, he left the Fortress and wandered to a nearby coffee shop, where he ordered soup and read an Arabic newspaper that he had bought that morning. Later, he would say that he smelled the man who sat down opposite him before he saw him, for Dr. Al-Daini did not smoke, and the stink of nicotine had tainted his soup.
Dr. Al-Daini looked up from his newspaper and his meal, and stared at the Collector.
‘Excuse me, but do I know you?’ he asked.
The Collector shook his head. ‘We have moved in similar circles, that’s all. I have something for you.’
He laid a box wrapped in string and brown paper upon the table, and Dr. Al-Daini felt his fingertips vibrate in tune with the box as he ran them over the parcel, then glanced around him before he used his knife to cut the string. He pushed aside the paper before opening the top of the long white box that was before him. Gently, he examined the locks. He frowned.
‘The box has been opened.’
‘Yes’, said the Collector. ‘The results were most interesting.’
‘But they are still trapped in there?’
‘Can’t you feel them?’
Dr. Al-Daini nodded, and closed the top of the white box. For the first time in many years, he felt that he might sleep well.
‘Who are you?’ he asked.
‘I? I am a collector.’ He slipped two pieces of paper across the table to Dr. Al-Daini. ‘But there is a price to be paid for relinquishing such a unique item to the proper authorities.’
Dr. Al-Daini examined the papers. On each was the image of a small cylindrical seal.
‘Consider them destroyed, or irretrievably lost.’
Dr. Al-Daini was a man of the world. ‘Agreed,’ he said. ‘For your own collection?’
‘No,’ said the Collector, as he stood to leave. ‘In recompense.’
The air was still. Rain had fallen earlier in the day, and the grass in the Maine Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery gleamed in the sunlight. Bobby Jandreau was beside me, his girlfriend waiting on the path behind us. We were alone among the dead. He had asked that I meet him in this place, and I had been happy to do so.
‘For a long time, I wanted to be here,’ said Bobby. ‘I wanted it all to end.’
‘And now?’
‘I’m with her.’ He looked back at Mel, and she smiled at him, and I thought: she will be buried here next to you.
‘They’ll save a place for you both. No need to hurry.’
He nodded. ‘This is our reward,’ he said. ‘To lie here, with honor. There is nothing more – not money, not medals. This is enough.’
His gaze was fixed on the nearest stone. A husband and wife were buried there, side by side, and I knew that he was seeing his name alongside Mel’s, just as I had.
‘Their intentions were good,’ he said. ‘At the start.’
‘Most of the bad situations I’ve encountered began with the best of intentions,’ I replied. ‘But they were right, in a way: the injured, the scarred, they deserve better than what they’re getting.’
‘I guess there was so much money that, in the end, they couldn’t bear to give any of it away.’
‘I guess so.’
He reached out to me, and I shook his hand. When we were done, there were two small cylinder seals in his palm, each decorated with gold and gemstones. A fragment of paper was bound to one with a rubber band.
‘What are these?’
‘Souvenirs,’ I said. ‘A man named Dr. Al-Daini has crossed them off his list of stolen items, in return for a certain gold box. On the paper is the name of someone who’ll pay a high price for them, with no questions asked. I’m sure you can find a way to put the money to good use.’
Bobby Jandreau closed his fist upon the seals. ‘There are men and women worse off than I am.’
‘I know that. That’s why they’ve been given to you: because you’ll do the right thing. You need any advice, talk to Ronald Straydeer, or just ask your girlfriend.’
They left before I did. I stayed for a time, among the dead, and then, as the shadows lengthened, I crossed myself, and left the fallen to their own.
Here the dead lay down their burdens, for a time. Here are names etched in stone, and bouquets on cut grass. Here husband lies next to wife, and wife next to husband. Here is the promise of peace, but only the promise.
For the dead alone can speak of what they have endured, and just as sleep may be punctuated by restless dreaming, so too the final repose is sometimes uneasy for those who have seen too much, who have suffered too much. The dead know what the dead know, and soldiers know what soldiers know, and they can share their torments only with their own kind.
At night, figures emerge from the shadows, and dark forms move in sheltered glades. One man sits beside another on a stone bench, listening quietly to his comrade as a bird sings lullabies above their heads. Three men walk softly through the first fallen leaves, disturbing none, leaving no trace of their passing. Here, soldiers gather, and speak of war and of what was lost. Here, the dead bear witness, and witness is borne in return.
And the night air carries whispers of consolation.
Acknowledgements
T
his book could not have been written without the generosity and patience of Tom Hyland, a veteran of the Vietnam war and a good man, who answered many questions over the course of its completion, and who improved the manuscript immeasurably with his knowledge.
I am grateful too to the contributors to Truckingboards, the truckers’ forum, who took the time to explain the nature of their work between the US and Canada.
I consulted a great many newspapers and journals in the course of writing
The Whisperers
, in particular the committed, sensitive reporting of
The New York Times
on the issues of PTSD and the treatment of returning veterans. Meanwhile, the following books proved invaluable in filling in the gaps in my knowledge:
My War: Killing Time in Iraq
by Colby Buzzell (Putnam, 2005), from which much of the detail of serving in a Stryker squad originated;
Trigger Men
by Hans Halberstadt (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008);
In Conflict: Iraq War Veterans Speak Out on Duty, Loss, and the Fight to Stay Alive
by Yvonne Latty (Polipoint Press, 2006);
War and the Soul
by Edward Tick, Ph.D (Quest Books, 2005);
Blood Brothers
by Michael Weisskopf (Henry Holt and Company, 2006);
The Forever War
by Dexter Filkins (Vintage Books, 2008);
The Secret Life of War
by Peter Beaumont (Harvill Secker, 2009);
Sumerian Mythology
by Samuel Noah Kramer (Forgotten Books, 2007);
Ancient Iraq
by George Roux (Penguin, 1964);
Thieves of Baghdad
by Matthew Bogdanos (Bloomsbury, 2005);
The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad
edited by Milbry Polk and Angela M.H. Schuster (Abrams, 2005); and
Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past
edited by Geoff Emberling & Kathryn Hanson (The Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago, 2008).
Many books have been written about the experience of war, but few authors have written as beautifully, and as incisively, as Richard Currey, who served as a combat medic during the Vietnam War.
Fatal Light
, his classic novel of Vietnam, was re-issued in 2009 as a special twentieth anniversary edition by Santa Fé Writers Project, and
Crossing Over: The Vietnam Stories
, from which this book quotes, has been in print for three decades. Further details are available from
www.richardcurrey.com
.
My thanks, as always, to my editor at Hodder & Stoughton, Sue Fletcher, and my editor at Atria Books, Emily Bestler, as well as to all those who at Hodder, Atria, and elsewhere who help to get my odd books into the hands of readers; to my agent, Darley Anderson, and his staff; to Madeira James and Jayne Doherty; to Clair Lamb; to Megan Beatie; and to Kate and KC O’Hearn.
Finally, love and thanks to Jennie, Cameron, and Alistair.
Oh, and Sasha.
About the Author
John Connolly was born in Dublin in 1968. His debut – EVERY DEAD THING – swiftly launched him right into the front rank of thriller writers, and all his subsequent novels have been
Sunday Times
bestsellers. He is the first non-American writer to win the US Shamus award. To find out more about his novels, visit John’s website at
www.johnconnollybooks.com
.
Also by John Connolly
Every Dead Thing
Dark Hollow
The Killing Kind
The White Road
Bad Men
Nocturnes
The Black Angel
The Book of Lost Things
The Unquiet
The Reapers
The Lovers
The Gates
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