The King of Plagues

A Joe Ledger Novel

Joe Ledger (Volume 3)

Jonathan Maberry

St. Martin's Griffin

Prologue

Harley Street, London

Seven Weeks Ago

 

            “Unless you do exactly what you’re told,” whispered a voice, “we’ll kill your wife and daughter.”

            The words dug into Trevor Plympton’s brain like railroad spikes.  He sat on the chair, wrists bound to the arm rests with plastic pipe ties, ankles tied to the wheeled feet of the chair.  A hood over his head that let in no light.  He was lost in a world of darkness and fear.  And those words.

            He could barely remember what happened.  He’d taken the elevator to the basement parking garage, clicked open the locks on his Vauxhall Astra, felt a sharp burn against the back of his neck and then nothing.  When he finally woke up he was already lashed to the chair.  He’d cried out in alarm, tried yelling for help.

            A heavy had belted him across the face.  A savage blow, made worse by the absolute surprise of it.  He couldn’t see it coming, could not even brace against it or turn away. 

            Then the whispering voice.

            “W…what…?”  It was the best response he could muster.  Nothing made sense; the world was a confusion of disorientation, fear and pain.

            “Did you understand what I said?” asked the voice.  A male voice.  Was there an accent?  It was hard to tell with the whisper.

            “Yes,” Plympton gasped.

            “Tell me what I said.”

            “T-that you’d k-kill my family--.”

A hand clamped onto Plympton’s crotch and squeezed with sudden and terrible strength.  The pain was white hot and immense.  The grip was there and gone, as abrupt as the snap of a steel trap.

“That’s incorrect,” said the voice.  “Try again.”

Plympton whimpered and then suddenly flinched backward, imagining another grab or blow.  But there was nothing.  After a handful of seconds Plympton relaxed a little.

Which is when the hand grabbed him again.  Harder this time. 

Plympton screamed.

“Shhhh,” cautioned the whisperer. “Or next time I’ll use pliers.”

The scream died in Plympton’s throat. 

“Now,” said the whisper, “tell me what I said.”

“You…said that…” Plympton wracked his brain for the exact words.  “Unless…I did exactly what you said, you’d…kill my wife…and daughter.”  The words were a tangle of fishing hooks in his throat.  Ugly words; it was impossible that he was saying them.

When the hand touched him again it was a gentle pat on the cheek.  Even so, Plympton yelped and jumped.

“Better.”  The man smoothed the hood over Plympton’s cheek.

“W-what do you want me to do?”

“We’ll get to that.  What concerns us in this minute is whether you will agree to do whatever I ask.   It will be easy for you.  It will be just another day at work.”

 “At work?” 

A million dreadful possibilities flooded Plympton’s mind.

The whisperer said, “I’m going to remove the hood because I want to show you something.  If you turn your head, your family will die.  If you yell or try to escape, your family will die.  Do you understand me?”

“God,” Plympton said again.  Then, before the whisperer could punish him again he said, “Yes.”

“There won’t be a second warning.”

“I swear.”

The whisperer placed his hand on Plympton’s head; fingers splayed like a skullcap, and then slowly curled them into a fist around a fold of the hood.  He whipped it off so violently that it tore a handful of hairs from Plympton’s scalp.

Plympton almost screamed with the pain, but the warning was too present.

“Open your eyes,”

Plympton obeyed, blinking against the light.  As his eyes adjusted he stared in shock and confusion.

He was in his own house, tied to the chair in his own office.  The desk before him was neat and tidy, as he’d left it, but the computer monitor had been turned away.  No reflection, he thought with bizarre clarity.

Plympton could not se the man, but he could feel him.  And smell him.  An odd combination of scents--expensive cologne, cooked meat, gasoline and testosterone.  The overall effect was of something large and powerful and wrong behind him, and with a jolt Plympton realized that he’d started to think of his captor as a thing rather than a person.  A force.

“I want you to look at some pretty pictures,” the stranger whispered. 

The man’s hand came into Plympton’s peripheral vision.  Thick forearm, thick wrist, black leather glove.  The man laid a photograph down on the desk.  The hand vanished and returned with a second picture, and a third, and more until there were six four by six inch photos on the green desk blotter.  What Plympton saw in those pictures instantly separated him from the pain that still hummed in his nerve endings.

Each picture was of a different woman or teenage girl.  Three women, three girls.  All nude.  All dead.  The unrelenting clarity of the photos revealed everything which had been done to them.  Plympton’s mind rebelled against even naming the separate atrocities.  To inventory such deliberate savagery was to admit that his own mind could embrace the knowledge that his mind could understand them, and that would be like admitting kinship to the devil Himself.  It would break him, and he knew it, so he forced his eyes not to see, his mind not to record.  He prayed with every fiber of his being that these things had been done to these women after they were dead.

Though…he knew that wasn’t true.

The arm reappeared and tapped each photo until it was neat and square with the others in a neat line.

“Do you see?” he asked.  “Aren’t they beautiful?”

“God…”  It was all Plympton could force past the bile in his throat.

“See this one?” The whisperer placed a finger on the corner of the third photo.  One of the teenagers. “She was the same age as your daughter.”

“Please!” Plympton cried.  “Please don’t hurt my daughter!  For the love of God, please don’t hurt my little girl…”

Pain exploded in Plympton’s shoulder.  It was only after several gasping, inarticulate moments that he was able to understand what had just happened.  The whisperer had struck him on a cluster of nerves in the valley between the left trapezes and the side of his neck.  It had been fast and horribly precise.  The whole left side of his body seemed to catch fire and go numb at the same time.

“Shhhh,” cautioned the whisperer.  After a long moment the man patted Plympton’s shoulder.  “Good.  Now…I have two more pictures to show you.”
            “No,” sobbed Plympton.  He closed his eyes, but then the whisperer’s lips were right there by his ear.

“Open your eyes or I’ll cut off your eyelids, yes?”

Plympton mumbled something, nodded. 

The whisperer placed two more four-by-six photos on the desk, arranging them in the center and above the line of six prints.  A strangled cry gurgled from Plympton’s throat.

The photos were of his wife and daughter.

In the first photograph, his wife was wearing only a pair of sheer panties and a demi-cup bra as she leaned her hips against the sink and bent close to the mirror to apply her make-up.  Her face wore the bland expression of someone who believes they are totally alone and who is completely absorbed in the minutiae of daily routine.  The picture had been taken from behind so that she was seen from the backs of her knees to above her head, with the front of her from hips to hair in the mirror.  Plympton’s heart sank.  Laura looked as pale and beautiful now as she had when they’d first met twenty-two years ago.  And he loved her with his whole heart.

That heart threatened to tear loose from his chest as he looked at the second picture.

His daughter, Zoë.  Fifteen years old and the image of her mother, except that instead of mature elegance Zoë had a lush coltish grace.  In the photo, Zoë was naked, her young body steaming with hot water as she stepped out of the shower over the rim of the tub, on hand raised to push aside a shower curtain that had a pattern of swirling stars.  Plympton saw his daughter in her unguarded nakedness and it awoke in him a hot fury –an inferno of murderous rage that flooded his arms with power.  His whole body tensed, but then the whisperer said: “We have someone watching them both right now.  We are watching them every minute or every day.  We have their cell phones tapped.  We’re in their computers.  We know their passwords, their travel routes, all their habits.  Six times each day I have to make calls to tell my people not to kill them.”

As fast as the rage had built in him it was gone, leaving only a desolated shell of impotent anger.

The whisperer said nothing for a whole minute, letting those words tear through the chambers of his mind and overturn all the furniture and smash out every window.  Then he reached past Plympton and slid two of the photos out of the line of six.  He placed one next to the picture of Laura; the other next to the picture of Zoë.  The woman in the picture was about Laura’s age, she had the same basic coloring.  The same for the girl next to Zoë.  He did this without comment, but the juxtaposition was dreadful in its eloquence.

“Now,” said the whisperer after another quiet minute, “tell me again what I told you?”

Plympton licked his dry lips.  “Unless…I do exactly what I’m told you’ll kill my wife and daughter.”           

“You believe me, yes?”

“Yes.”  Tears broke and fell, cutting acid lines down Plympton’s cheeks.

“Will you do what I want?”

“Yes.”

“Anything?  Will you do absolutely anything that I want?”

“Yes.”  Each time Plympton said the word he lost more of himself.  All that remained now was a frayed tether of hope.

“Good.”

“If…if I do,” Plympton said, dredging up a splinter of nerve, “will you leave them alone?  Will you leave my family alone?”

“We will,” promised the whisperer.

“How do I know that you’ll keep your word?”

There was a pause, then, “Are you a man of faith, Mr. Plympton?”

It was such a strange question, its placement and timing so disjointed that Plympton was caught off guard and answered by reflex.

“Yes,” he said.

“So am I.”  The whisperer leaned close so that once more his breath was a nauseating caress on Plympton’s ear.  “I swear before the Almighty Goddess that if you do what we want –and if you never talk about this with anyone—then I will not harm your wife or daughter.”

“Don’t fuck with me,” Plympton snarled and heard the man chuckle at the sudden ferocity in his voice.  “You said ‘I’.  I want your word that none of you will ever come near them.  Or harm them in any way.”

“I so swear,” said the whisperer.  “And may the Goddess strike me down and curse my family to seven generations if I lie.”

Goddess?  The word floated in the air between them.  Even so, as weird and grotesque as the promise was, Plympton—for reasons he could not thereafter understand—believed him.  He nodded.

“When…when do you want me to do…it?”

The whisperer told him what he wanted Plympton to do.

“I…can’t!”

“You can.  You promised.”  There were no more blows, no grabs or taunts.  The photos and the value of that strange promise was enough now to have established a strange species of trust between them.

Even so, Plympton said, “If I did that…I’d be arrested.  People could die---.”

“People will die,” corrected the whisperer.  “You have to decide if they will be people you work with and patients whose names you would never know, or if they will be your lovely wife and daughter.”

“They’d never let me…that facility is too well protected.”

“Which is why we came to the one person who is positioned to bypass that security.  You weren’t picked at random, Mr. Plympton.”

The whisperer touched the photo of his daughter, drawing a slow line along the life of her thigh toward the damp curls of her pubic hair.

“All right!  God damn you!  All right.”

The whisperer withdrew his hand.

“I’m going to put the hood back on your head.  Then I’ll cut you loose.  You will sit there and say the names of your wife and daughter aloud one thousand times before you remove the hood or stir from that chair, yes?  I will know if you betray our trust.  You know that we’re watching.  You know that we can see what goes on inside this house.  If you move too soon then I will know, and I will not make the calls that I need to make in order to keep your loved ones alive.”

Plympton sat there, weeping, trembling.

“Tell me that you understand.”

“I understand.”

“You are the architect of your own future, Mr. Plympton.  Like the Goddess Almighty you can decide who lives and who dies.  It feels glorious, doesn’t it?”

“Fuck you.”

The whisperer laughed.

Then he pulled the hood over Plympton’s head. 

Keith Plympton sat in an envelope of darkness and despair and said the names.  When the knife cut through his bonds he flinched as if he’d been stabbed, but otherwise did not move.

“Laura and Zoë.”

He said their names one thousand times.  Then he said their names another hundred times.  Just to be sure.
            After that he removed the hood.  The apartment was empty.  The ugly photos were gone.  The photos of his wife and daughter were gone.  The hood and plastic cuffs were gone.  Except for the Taser burn on his neck and the aches from the torture, this might all have been a dream. 

He went into the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face.

“God help me,” he whispered.