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Whispers

Whispers

Page 10


Now we die?


Frank wheeled around another corner, nearly clipping a black BMW that was parked too close to the intersection. The tires squealed, and the sedan shimmied, and Frank said, "That address ought to be right around here somewhere."


Tony squinted at the shadowy houses that were only partly illuminated by the streetlamps. "There it is, I think," he said, pointing.


It was a large neo-Spanish house set well back from the street on a spacious lot. Red tile roof.


Cream-colored stucco. Leaded windows. Two big wrought-iron carriage lamps, one on each side of the front door.


Frank parked in the circular driveway.


They got out of the unmarked sedan.


Tony reached under his jacket and slipped the service revolver out of his shoulder holster.


***


After Hilary had finished crying at her desk in the study, she had decided, in a daze, to go upstairs and make herself presentable before she reported the assault to the police. Her hair had been in complete disarray, her dress torn, her pantyhose shredded and hanging from her legs in ludicrous loops and tangles. She didn't know how quickly the reporters would arrive once the word had gotten out on the police radio, but she had no doubt that they would show up sooner or later.


She was something of a public figure, having written two hit films and having received an Academy Award nomination two years ago for her Arizona Shifty Pete screenplay. She treasured her privacy and preferred to avoid the press if at all possible, but she knew that she would have little choice but to make a statement and answer a few questions about what had happened to her this night. It was the wrong kind of publicity. It was embarrassing. Being the victim in a case like this was always humiliating. Although it should make her an object of sympathy and concern, it actually would make her look like a fool, a patsy just waiting to be pushed around. She had successfully defended herself against Frye, but that would not matter to the sensation seekers. In the unfriendly glare of the television lights and in the flat gray newspaper photos, she would look weak. The merciless American public would wonder why she had let Frye into her house. They would speculate that she had been raped and that her story of fending him off was just a coverup.


Some of them would be certain that she had invited him in and had asked to be raped. Most of the sympathy she received would be shot through with morbid curiosity. The only thing she could control was her appearance when the newsmen arrived. She simply could not allow herself to be photographed in the pitiable, dissheveled state in which Bruno Frye had left her.


As she washed her face and combed her hair and changed into a silk robe that belted at the waist, she was not aware that these actions would damage her credibility with the police, later. She didn't realize that, in making herself presentable, she was actually setting herself up as a target for at least one policeman's suspicion and scorn, as well as for charges of being a liar.


Although she thought she was in command of herself, Hilary got the shakes again as she finished changing clothes. Her legs turned to jelly, and she was forced to lean against the closet door for a minute.


Nightmarish images crowded her mind, vivid flashes of unsummoned memories. At first, she saw Frye coming at her with a knife, grinning like a death's head, but then he changed, melted into another shape, another identity, and he became her father, Earl Thomas, and then it was Earl who was coming at her, drunk and angry, cursing, taking swipes at her with his big hard hands. She shook her head and drew deep breaths and, with an effort, banished the vision.


 


 


But she could not stop shaking.


She imagined that she heard strange noises in another room of the house. A part of her knew that she was merely imagining it, but another part was sure that she could hear Frye returning for her.


By the time she ran to the phone and dialed the police, she was in no condition to give the calm and reasoned report she had planned. The events of the past hour had affected her far more profoundly than she had thought at first, and recovering from the shock might take days, even weeks.


After she hung up the receiver, she felt better, just knowing help was on the way. As she went downstairs, she said aloud, "Stay calm. Just stay calm. You're Hilary Thomas. You're tough. Tough as nails. You aren't scared. Not ever. Everything will be okay." It was the same litany that she had repeated as a child so many nights in that Chicago apartment. By the time she reached the first door, she had begun to get a grip on herself.


She was standing in the foyer, staring out the narrow leaded window beside the door, when a car stopped in the driveway. Two men got out of it. Although they had not come with sirens blaring and red lights flashing, she knew they were the police, and she unlocked the door, opened it.


The first man onto the front stoop was powerfully built, blond, blue-eyed, and had the hard no-nonsense voice of a cop. He had a gun in his right hand. "Police. Who're you?"


"Thomas," she said. "Hilary Thomas. I'm the one who called."


"This your house?"


"Yes. There was a man--"


A second detective, taller and darker than the first, appeared out of the night and interrupted her before she could finish the sentence. "Is he on the premises?"


"What?"


"Is the man who assaulted you still here?"


"Oh, no. Gone. He's gone."


"Which way did he go?" the blond man asked.


"Out this door."


"Did he have a car?"


"I don't know."


"Was he armed?"


"No. I mean, yes."


"Which is it?"


"He had a knife. But not now."


"Which way did he run when he left the house?"


"I don't know. I was upstairs. I--"


"How long ago did he leave?" the tall dark one asked.


"Maybe fifteen, maybe twenty minutes ago."


They exchanged a look that she did not understand but which she knew, immediately, was not good for her.


"What took you so long to call it in?" the blond asked.


He was slightly hostile.


She felt she was losing some important advantage that she could not identify.


"At first I was ... confused," she said. "Hysterical. I needed a few minutes to get myself together."


"Twenty minutes?"


"Maybe it was only fifteen."


Both detectives put away their revolvers.


"We'll need a description," the dark one said.


"I can give you better than that," she said as she stepped aside to let them enter. "I can give you a name."


"A name?"


"His name. I know him," she said. "The man who attacked me. I know who he is."


The two detectives gave each other that look again. She thought: What have I done wrong?


***


Hilary Thomas was one of the most beautiful women Tony had ever seen. She appeared to have a few drops of Indian blood. Her hair was long and thick, darker than his own, a glossy raven-black. Her eyes were dark, too, the whites as clear as pasteurized cream. Her flawless complexion was a light milky bronze shade, probably largely the result of carefully measured time in the California sun.


If her face was a bit long, that was balanced by the size of her eyes (enormous) and by the perfect shape of her patrician nose, and by the almost obscene fullness of her lips. Hers was an erotic face, but an intelligent and kind face as well, the face of a woman capable of great tenderness and compassion. There was also pain in that countenance, especially in those fascinating eyes, the kind of pain that came from experience, knowledge; and Tony expected that it was not merely the pain she'd suffered that night; some of it went back a long, long time.


She sat on one end of the brushed corduroy sofa in the book-lined study, and Tony sat on the other end. They were alone.


Frank was in the kitchen, talking on the phone to a desk man at headquarters.


Upstairs, two uniformed patrolmen. Whitlock and Farmer, were digging bullets out of the walls.


There was not a fingerprint man in the house because, according to the complainant, the intruder had worn gloves.


"What's he doing now?" Hilary Thomas asked.


"Who?"


"Lieutenant Howard."


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"He's calling headquarters and asking someone to get in touch with the sheriff's office up there in Napa County, where Frye lives."


"Why?"


"Well, for one thing, maybe the sheriff can find out how Frye got to L.A."


"What's it matter how he got here?" she asked. "The important thing is that he's here and he's got to be found and stopped."


"If he flew down," Tony said, "it doesn't matter much at all. But if Frye drove to L.A., the sheriff up in Napa County might be able to find out what car he used. With a description of the vehicle and a license number, we've got a better chance of nailing him before he gets too far."


She considered that for a moment, then said, "Why did Lieutenant Howard go to the kitchen? Why didn't he just use the phone in here?"


"I guess he wanted you to have a few minutes of peace and quiet," Tony said uneasily.


"I think he just didn't want me to hear what he was saying."


"Oh, no. He was only--"


"You know, I have the strangest feeling," she said, interrupting him. "I feel like I'm the suspect instead of the victim."


"You're just tense," he said. "Understandably tense."


"It isn't that. It's something about the way you're acting toward me. Well ... not so much you as him."


"Frank can seem cool at times," Tony said. "But he's a good detective."


"He thinks I'm lying."


Tony was surprised by her perspicacity. He shifted uncomfortably on the sofa. "I'm sure he doesn't think any such thing."


"He does," she insisted. "And I don't understand why." Her eyes fixed on his. "Level with me. Come on. What is it? What did I say wrong?"


He sighed. "You're a perceptive lady."


"I'm a writer. It's part of my job to observe things a little more closely than most people do.


And I'm also persistent. So you might as well answer my question and get me off your back."


"One of the things that bothers Lieutenant Howard is the fact that you know the man who attacked you."


"So?"


"This is awkward," he said unhappily.


"Let me hear it anyway."


"Well..." He cleared his throat. "Conventional police wisdom says that if the complainant in a rape or an attempted rape knows the victim, there's a pretty good chance that she contributed to the crime by enticing the accused to one degree or another."


"Bullshit!"


She got up, went to the desk, and stood with her back to him for a minute. He could see that she was struggling to maintain her composure. What he had said had made her extremely angry.


When she turned to him at last, her face was flushed. She said, "This is horrible. It's outrageous. Every time a woman is raped by someone she knows, you actually believe she asked for it."


"No. Not every time."


"But most of the time, that's what you think," she said angrily.


"No."


She glared at him. "Let's stop playing semantical games. You believe it about me. You believe I enticed him."


"No," Tony said. "I merely explained what conventional police wisdom is in a case like this. I didn't say that I put much faith in conventional police wisdom. I don't. But Lieutenant Howard does. You asked me about him. You wanted to know what he was thinking, and I told you."


She frowned. "Then ... you believe me?"


"Is there any reason I shouldn't?"


"It happened exactly the way I said."


"All right."


She stared at him. "Why?"


"Why what?"


"Why do you believe me when he doesn't?"


"I can think of only two reasons for a woman to bring false rape charges against a man. And neither of them makes any sense in your case."


She leaned against the desk, folded her arms in front of her, cocked her head, and regarded him with interest. "What reasons?"


"Number one, he has money, and she doesn't. She wants to put him on the spot, hoping she can pry some sort of big settlement out of him in return for dropping the charges."


"But I've got money."


"Apparently, you've got quite a lot of it," he said, looking around admiringly at the beautifully furnished room.


"What's the other reason?"


"A man and a woman are having an affair, but he leaves her for another lady. She feels hurt, rejected, scorned. She wants to get even with him. She wants to punish him, so she accuses him of rape."


"How can you be sure that doesn't fit me?" she asked.


"I've seen both your movies, so I figure I know a little bit about the way your mind works. You're a very intelligent woman, Miss Thomas. I don't think you could be foolish or petty or spiteful enough to send a man to prison just because he hurt your feelings."


She studied him intently.


He felt himself being weighed and judged.


Obviously convinced that he was not the enemy, she returned to the couch and sat down in a swish of dark-blue silk. The robe molded to her, and he tried not to show how aware he was of her strikingly female lines.


She said, "I'm sorry I was snappish."


"You weren't," he assured her. "Conventional police wisdom makes me angry, too."


"I suppose if this gets into court, Frye's attorney will try to make the jury believe that I enticed the son of a bitch."


"You can count on it."


"Will they believe him?"


"They often do."


"But he wasn't just going to rape me. He was going to kill me."


"You'll need proof of that."


"The broken knife upstairs--"


"Can't be connected to him," Tony said. "It won't be covered with his prints. And it's just a common kitchen knife. There's no way we can trace it to the point of purchase and tie it to Bruno Frye."


"But he looked so crazy. He's ... unbalanced. The jury would see that. Hell, you'll see it when you arrest him. There probably won't even be a trial. He'll probably just be put away."


"If he'a lunatic, he knows how to pass for normal," Tony said. "After all, until tonight, he's been regarded as an especially responsible and upstanding citizen. When you visited his winery near St. Helena, you didn't realize you were in the company of a madman, did you?"

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