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Whispers

Whispers

Page 11


"No."


"Neither will the jury."


She closed her eyes, pinched the bridge of her nose. "So he's probably going to get away clean."


"I'm sorry to say there's a good chance that he will."


"And then he'll come back for me."


"Maybe."


"Jesus."


"You wanted the unvarnished truth."


She opened her lovely eyes. "I did, yes. And thank you for giving it to me." She even managed a smile.


He smiled back at her. He wanted to take her in his arms, hold her close, comfort her, kiss her, make love to her. But all he could do was sit on his end of the couch like a good officer of the law and smile his witless smile and say, "Sometimes it's a lousy system."


"What are the other reasons?"


"Excuse me?"


"You said one reason Lieutenant Howard didn't believe me was because I knew the assailant. What are the other reasons? What else makes him think I'm lying?"


Tony was about to answer her when Frank Howard walked into the room.


"Okay," Frank said brusquely. "We've got the sheriff looking into it up there in Napa County, trying to get a line on when and how this Frye character left town. We also have an APB out, based on your description, Miss Thomas. Now, I went to the car and got my clipboard and this crime report form." He held up the rectangular piece of masonite and the single sheet of paper affixed to it, took a pen from his inside coat pocket. "I want you to walk Lieutenant Clemenza and me through your entire experience just once more, so I can write it all down precisely in your own words. Then we can get out of your way."


She led them to the foyer and began her story with a detailed recounting of Bruno Frye's surprise appearance from the coat closet. Tony and Frank followed her to the overturned sofa, then upstairs to the bedroom, asking questions as they went. During the thirty minutes they needed to complete the form, as she reenacted the events of the evening, her voice now and then became tremulous, and again Tony had the urge to hold and soothe her.


Just as the crime report was completed, a few newsmen arrived. She went downstairs to meet them.


At the same time, Frank got a call from headquarters and took it on the bedroom phone.


Tony went downstairs to wait for Frank and to see how Hilary Thomas would deal with the reporters.


She handled them expertly. Pleading weariness and a need for privacy, she did not allow them into her house. She stepped outside, onto the stone walk, and they gathered in front of her. A television news crew had arrived, complete with a minicam and the standard actor-reporter, one of those men who had gotten his job largely because of his chiseled features and penetrating eyes and deep fatherly voice. Intelligence and journalistic ability had little to do with being a performer in televsion news; indeed, too much of either quality could be seriously disadvantageous; for optimum success, the career-minded television reporter had to think much the same way that his program was structured--in three- and four- and five-minute segments, never dwelling longer than that on any one subject, and never exploring anything at great depth. A newspaperman and his photographer, not so pretty as the television man and a bit rumpled, were also present. Hilary Thomas fielded their questions with ease, answering only those that she wanted to answer, smoothly turning away all of those that were too personal or impertinent.


The thing that Tony found most interesting about her performance was the way she kept the news people out of the house and out of her most private thoughts without offending them. That was no easy trick. There were many excellent reporters who could dig for the truth and write fine stories without violating the subject's rights and dignity; but there were just as many of the other kind, the boars and the con men. With the rise of what The Washington Post glowingly referred to as


"advocacy journalism"--the despicable slanting of a story to support the reporter's and the editor's personal political and social beliefs--some members of the press, the con men and the boars, had gone on a power trip of unprecedented irresponsibility. If you bristled at a reporter's manner and methods or at his obvious bias, if you dared to offend him, he might decide to use his pen to make you look like a fool, a liar, or a criminal; and he would see himself as the champion of enlightenment in a battle against evil. Clearly, Hilary was aware of the danger, for she dealt masterfully with them. She answered more questions than not, stroked the news people, accorded them respect, charmed them, and even smiled for the cameras. She didn't say that she knew her assailant. She didn't mention the name Bruno Frye. She didn't want the media speculating about her previous relationship with the man who had attacked her.


Her awareness forced Tony to reevaluate her. He already knew that she was talented and intelligent; now he saw she was also shrewd. She was the most intriguing woman he had encountered in a long time.


She was nearly finished with the reporters, carefully extricating herself from them, when Frank Howard came down the stairs and stepped to the doorway, where Tony stood in the cool night breeze.


Frank watched Hilary Thomas as she answered a reporter's question, and he scowled fiercely. "I've got to talk to her."


"What did headquarters want?" Tony asked.


"That's what I've got to talk to her about," Frank said grimly. He had decided to be tight-lipped.


He wasn't going to reveal his information until he was damned good and ready. That was another of his irritating habits.


"She's almost through with them," Tony said.


"Strutting and preening herself."


"Not at all."


"Sure. She's loving every minute of it."


"She handles them well," Tony said, "but she really doesn't seem to enjoy it."


"Movie people," Frank said scornfully. "They need that attention and publicity like you and I need food."


The reporters were only eight feet away, and although they were noisily questioning Hilary Thomas, Tony was afraid they might hear Frank. "Not so loud," he said.


"I don't care if they know what I think," Frank said. "I'll even give them a statement about publicity hounds who make up stories to get newspaper coverage."


"Are you saying she made this all up? That's ridiculous."


"You'll see," Frank said.


Tony was suddenly uneasy. Hilary Thomas brought out the chivalrous knight in him; he wanted to protect her. He didn't want to see her hurt, but Frank apparently had something decidedly unpleasant to discuss with her.


"I've got to talk to her now," Frank said. "I'll be damned if I'll stand around cooling my heels while she sucks up to the press."


Tony put a hand on his partner's shoulder. "Wait here. I'll get her."


Frank was angry about whatever headquarters had told him, and Tony knew the reporters would recognize that anger and be irritated by it. If they thought there was progress in the investigation--especially if it looked to be a juicy bit, a scandalous twist--they would hang around all night, pestering everybody. And if Frank actually had uncovered unflattering information about Hilary Thomas, the press would make headlines out of it, trumpet it with that unholy glee they reserved for choice dirt. Later, if Frank's information proved inaccurate, the television people most likely wouldn't make any correction at all, and the newspaper retraction, if there ever was one, would be four lines on page twenty of the second section. Tony wanted her to have an opportunity to refute whatever Frank might say, a chance to clear herself before the whole thing became a tawdry media carnival.


He went to the reporters and said, "Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, but I believe Miss Thomas has already told you more than she's told us. You've squeezed her dry. Now, my partner and I were scheduled to go off duty a few hours ago, and we're awfully tired. We've put in a hard day, beating up innocent suspects and collecting bribes, so if you would let us finish with Miss Thomas, we would be most grateful."


They laughed appreciatively and began to ask questions of him. He answered a few of them, giving out nothing more than Hilary Thomas had done. Then he hustled the woman into her house and closed the door.


Frank was in the foyer. His anger had not subsided. He looked as if steam should be coming from his ears. "Miss Thomas, I have some more questions to ask you."


"Okay."


"Quite a few questions. It'll take a while."


"Well ... shall we go into the study?"


Frank Howard led the way.


To Tony, Hilary said, "What's happening?"


He shrugged. "I don't know. I wish I did."


Frank had reached the center of the living room. He stopped and looked back at her. "Miss Thomas?"


She and Tony followed him into the study.


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***


Hilary sat on the brushed corduroy couch, crossed her legs, straightened her silk robe. She was nervous, wondering why Lieutenant Howard disliked her so intensely. His manner was cold. He was filled with an icy anger that made his eyes look like cross sections of two steel rods. She thought of Bruno Frye's strange eyes, and she could not suppress a shiver. Lieutenant Howard glowered at her. She felt like the accused at a trial during the Spanish Inquisition. She would not have been terribly surprised if Howard had pointed a finger and charged her with witchcraft.


The nice one, Lieutenant Clemenza, sat in the brown armchair. The warm amber light from the yellow-shaded floor lamp fell over him and cast soft shadows around his mouth and nose and deeply set eyes, giving him an even gentler and kinder aspect than he ordinarily possessed. She wished he was the one asking questions, but at least for the moment, his role was evidently that of an observer.


Lieutenant Howard stood over her, looked down at her with unconcealed contempt. She realized that he was trying to make her look away in shame or defeat, playing some police version of a childish staring contest. She looked back at him unwaveringly until he turned from her and began to pace.


"Miss Thomas," Howard said, "there are several things about your story that trouble me."


"I know," she said. "It bothers you that I know the assailant. You figure I might have enticed him. Isn't that conventional police wisdom?"


He blinked in surprise but quickly recovered. "Yes. That's one thing. And there's also the fact that we can't find out how he got into this house. Officer Whitlock and Officer Farmer have been from one end of the place to the other, twice, three times, and they can't find any sign of forced entry. No broken windows. No smashed or jimmied locks."


"So you think I let him in," she said.


"I certainly must consider it."


"Well, consider this. When I was up there in Napa County a few weeks ago, doing research for a screenplay, I lost my keys at his winery. House keys, car keys--"


"You drove all the way up there?"


"No. I flew. But all my keys were on the same ring. Even the keys for the rental car I picked up in Santa Rosa: they were on a flimsy chain, and I was afraid I'd lose them, so I slipped them on my own key ring. I never found them. The rental car people had to send out another set. And when I got back to L.A., I had to have a locksmith let me into my house and make new keys for me."


"You didn't have the locks changed?"


"It seemed like a needless expense," she said. "The keys I lost didn't have any identification on them. Whoever found them wouldn't know where to use them."


"And it didn't occur to you they might have been stolen?" Lieutenant Howard asked.


"No."


"But now you think Bruno Frye took the keys with the intention of coming here to rape and kill you."


"Yes."


"What does he have against you?"


"I don't know."


"Is there any reason he should be angry with you?"


"No."


"Any reason he should hate you?"


"I hardly know him."


"It's an awfully long way for him to come."


"I know."


"Hundreds of miles."


"Look, he's crazy. And crazy people do crazy things."


Lieutenant Howard stopped pacing, stood in front of her, glared down like one of the faces on a totempole of angry gods. "Doesn't it seem odd to you that a crazy man would be able to conceal his madness so well at home, that he would have the iron control needed to keep it all bottled up until he was off in a strange city?"


"Of course it seems odd to me," she said. "It's weird. But it's true."


"Did Bruno Frye have an opportunity to steal those keys?"


"Yes. One of the winery foremen took me on a special tour. We had to clamber up scaffolding, between fermentation vats, between storage barrels, through a lot of tight places. I couldn't have easily taken my purse with me. It would have been in my way. So I left it in the main house."


"Frye's house."


"Yes."


He was crackling with energy, supercharged. He began to pace again, from the couch to the windows, from the windows to the bookshelves, then back to the couch again, his broad shoulders drawn up, head thrust forward.


Lieutenant Clemenza smiled at her, but she was not reassured.


"Will anyone at the winery remember you losing your keys?" Lieutenant Howard asked.


"I guess so. Sure. I spent at least half an hour looking for them. I asked around, hoping someone might have seen them."


"But no one had."


"That's right."


"Where did you think you might have left them?"


"I thought they were in my purse."


"That was the last place you remembered putting them?"


"Yes. I drove the rental car to the winery, and I was sure I'd put the keys in my purse when I'd parked."


"Yet when you couldn't find them, you never thought they might have been stolen?"


"No. Why would someone steal my keys and not my money? I had a couple hundred dollars in my wallet."


"Another thing that bothers me. After you drove Frye out of the house at gunpoint, why did you take so long to call us?"


"I didn't take long."


"Twenty minutes."


"At most."


"When you've just been attacked and nearly killed by a maniac with a knife, twenty minutes is a hell of a long time to wait. Most people want to get hold of the police right away. They want us on the scene in ten seconds, and they get furious if it takes us a few minutes to get there."

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