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Whispers

Whispers

Page 12


She glanced at Clemenza, then at Howard, then at her fingers, which were tightly laced, white-knuckled. She sat up straight, squared her shoulders. "I ... I guess I ... broke down." It was a difficult and shameful admission for her. She had always prided herself on her strength. "I went to that desk and sat down and began to dial the police number and ... then ... I just ... I cried.


I started to cry ... and I couldn't stop for a while."


"You cried for twenty minutes?"


"No. Of course not. I'm really not the crying type. I mean, I don't fall apart easily."


"How long did it take you to get control of yourself?"


"I don't know for sure."


"Fifteen minutes?"


"Not that long."


"Ten minutes?"


"Maybe five."


"When you regained control of yourself, why didn't you call us then? You were sitting right there by the phone."


"I went upstairs to wash my face and change my clothes," she said. "I've already told you about that."


"I know," he said. "I remember. Primping yourself for the press."


"No," she said, beginning to get angry with him. "I wasn't 'primping' myself. I just thought I should--"


"That's the fourth thing that makes me wonder about your story," Howard said, interrupting her.


"It absolutely amazes me. I mean, after you were almost raped and murdered, after you broke down and wept, while you were still afraid that Frye might come back here and try to finish the job he started, you nevertheless took time out to make yourself look presentable. Amazing."


"Excuse me," Lieutenant Clemenza said, leaning forward in the brown armchair. "Frank, I know you've got something, and I know you're leading up to it. I don't want to spoil your rhythm or anything. But I don't think we can make assumptions about Miss Thomas's honesty and integrity based on how long she took to call in the complaint. We both know that people sometimes go into a kind of shock after an experience like this. They don't always do the rational thing. Miss Thomas's behavior isn't all that peculiar."


She almost thanked Lieutenant Clemenza for what he had said, but she sensed a low-grade antagonism between the two detectives, and she did not want to fan that smoldering fire.


"Are you telling me to get on with it?" Howard asked Clemenza.


"All I'm saying is, it's getting late, and we're all very tired," Clemenza told him.


"You admit her story's riddled with holes?"


"I don't know that I'd put it quite like that," said Clemenza.


"How would you put it?" Howard asked.


"Let's just say there are some parts of it that don't make sense yet."


Howard scowled at him for a moment, then nodded. "Okay. Good enough. I was only trying to establish that there are at least four big problems with her story. If you agree, then I'll get on with the rest of it." He turned to Hilary. "Miss Thomas, I'd like to hear your description of the assailant just once more."


"Why? You've got his name."


"Indulge me."


She couldn't understand where he was going with his questioning. She knew he was trying to set a trap for her, but she hadn't the faintest idea what sort of trap or what it would do to her if she got caught in it. "All right. Just once more. Bruno Frye is tall, about six-four--"


"No names, please."


"What?"


"Describe the assailant without using any names."


"But I know his name," she said slowly, patiently.


"Humor me," he said humorlessly.


She sighed and settled back against the sofa, feigning boredom. She didn't want him to know that he was rattling her. What the hell was he after? "The man who attacked me," she said, "was about six-feet-four, and he weighed maybe two hundred and forty pounds. Very muscular."


"Race?" Howard asked.


"He was white."


"Complexion?"


"Fair."


"Any scars or moles?"


"No."


"Tattoos?"


"Are you kidding?"


"Tattoos?"


"No."


"Any other identifying marks?"


"No."


"Was he crippled or deformed in any way?"


"He's a big healthy son of a bitch," she said crossly.


"Color of hair?"


"Dirty blond."


"Long or short?"


"Medium length."


"Eyes?"


"Yes."


"What?"


"Yes, he had eyes."


"Miss Thomas--"


"Okay, okay."


"This is serious."


"He had blue eyes. An unusual shade of blue-gray."


"Age?"


"Around forty."


"Any distinguishing characteristics?"


"Like what?"


"You mentioned something about his voice."


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"That's right. He had a deep voice. It rumbled. A gravelly voice. Deep and gruff and scratchy."


"All right," Lieutenant Howard said, rocking slightly on his heels, evidently pleased with himself. "We have a good description of the assailant. Now, describe Bruno Frye for me."


"I just did."


"No, no. We're pretending that you didn't know the man who attacked you. We're playing this little game to humor me. Remember? You just described your assailant, a man without a name. Now, I want you to describe Bruno Frye for me."


She turned to Lieutenant Clemenza. "Is this really necessary?" she asked exasperatedly.


Clemenza said, "Frank, can you hurry this along?"


"Look, I've got a point I'm trying to make," Lieutenant Howard said. "I'm building up to it the best way I know how. Besides, she's the one slowing it down."


He turned to her, and again she had the creepy feeling she was on trial in another century and that Howard was some religious inquisitionist. If Clemenza would permit it, Howard would simply take hold of her and shake until she gave the answers he wanted, whether or not they were the truth.


"Miss Thomas," he said, "if you'll just answer all of my questions, I'll be finished in a few minutes. Now, will you describe Bruno Frye?"


Disgustedly, she said, "Six-four, two hundred and forty pounds, muscular, blond, blue-gray eyes, about forty years old, no scars, no deformities, no tattoos, a deep gravelly voice."


Frank Howard was smiling. It was not a friendly smile. "Your description of the assailant and Bruno Frye are exactly the same. Not a single discrepancy. Not one. And of course, you've told us that they were, in fact, one and the same man."


His line of questioning seemed ridiculous, but there was surely a purpose to it. He wasn't stupid.


She sensed that already she had stepped into the trap, even though she could not see it.


"Do you want to change your mind?" Howard asked. "Do you want to say that perhaps there's a small chance it was someone else, someone who only resembled Frye?"


"I'm not an idiot," Hilary said. "It was him."


"There wasn't even maybe some slight difference between your assailant and Frye? Some little thing?" he persisted.


"No."


"Not even the shape of his nose or the line of his jaw?" Howard asked.


"Not even that."


"You're certain that Frye and your assailant shared precisely the same hairline, exactly the same cheekbones, the same chin?"


"Yes."


"Are you positive beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was Bruno Frye who was here tonight?"


"Yes."


"Would you swear to that in court?"


"Yes, yes, yes!" she said, tired of his badgering.


"Well, then. Well, well. I'm afraid if you testified to that effect, you'd wind up in jail yourself. Perjury's a crime."


"What? What do you mean?"


He grinned at her. His grin was even more unfriendly than his smile. "Miss Thomas, what I mean is--


you're a liar."


Hilary was so stunned by the bluntness of the accusation, by the boldness of it, so disconcerted by the ugly snarl in his voice, that she could not immediately think of a response. She didn't even know what he meant.


"A liar, Miss Thomas. Plain and simple."


Lieutenant Clemenza got out of the brown armchair and said, "Frank, are we handling this right?"


"Oh, yeah," Howard said. "We're handling it exactly right. While she was out there talking to the reporters and posing so prettily for the photographers, I got a call from headquarters. They heard back from the Napa County Sheriff."


"Already?"


"Oh, yeah. His name's Peter Laurenski. Sheriff Laurenski looked into things for us up there at Frye's vineyard, just like we asked him to, and you know what he found? He found that Mr. Bruno Frye didn't come to Los Angeles. Bruno Frye never left home. Bruno Frye is up there in Napa County right now, right this minute, in his own house, harmless as a fly."


"Impossible!" Hilary said, pushing up from the sofa.


Howard shook his head. "Give up, Miss Thomas. Frye told Sheriff Laurenski that he intended to come to L.A. today for a week-long stay. Just a short vacation. But he didn't manage to clear off his desk in time, so he cancelled out and stayed home to get caught up on his work."


"The sheriff's wrong!" she said. "He couldn't have talked to Bruno Frye."


"Are you calling the sheriff a liar?" Lieutenant Howard asked.


"He ... he must have talked to someone who was covering for Frye," Hilary said, knowing how hopelessly implausible that sounded.


"No," Howard said. "Sheriff Laurenski talked to Frye himself."


"Did he see him? Did he actually see Frye?" she demanded. "Or did he only talk to someone on the phone, someone claiming to be Frye?"


"I don't know if it was a face to face chat or a phone conversation," Howard said. "But remember, Miss Thomas, you told us about Frye's unique voice. Extremely deep. Scratchy. A guttural, gravelly voice. Are you saying someone could have easily imitated it on the phone?"


"If Sheriff Laurenski doesn't know Frye well enough, he might be fooled by a bad imitation. He--"


"It's a small county up there. A man like Bruno Frye, an important man like that, is known to just about everyone. And the sheriff has known him very well for more than twenty years," Howard said triumphantly.


Lieutenant Clemenza looked pained. Although she did not care much what Howard thought of her, it was important to Hilary that Clemenza believed the story she had told. The flicker of doubt in his eyes upset her as much as Howard's bullying.


She turned her back on them, went to the mullioned window that looked out on the rose garden, tried to control her anger, couldn't suppress it, and faced them again. She spoke to Howard, furious, emphasizing every word by pounding her fist against the window table: "Bruno--Frye--was--


here!" The vase full of roses rocked, toppled off the table, bounced on the thick carpet, scattering flowers and water. She ignored it. "What about the sofa he overturned? What about the broken porcelain I threw at him and the bullets I fired at him? What about the broken knife he left behind? What about the torn dress, the pantyhose?"


"It could be just clever stage dressing," Howard said. "You could have done it all yourself, faked it up to support your story."


"That's absurd!"


Clemenza said, "Miss Thomas, maybe it really was someone else. Someone who looked a lot like Frye."


Even if she had wanted to retreat in that fashion, she could not have done it. By forcing her to repeatedly describe the man who attacked her, by drawing several assurances from her that the assailant had been none other than Bruno Frye, Lieutenant Howard had made it difficult if not impossible for her to take the way out that Clemenza was offering. Anyway, she didn't want to back up and reconsider. She knew she was right. "It was Frye," she said adamantly. "Frye and nobody else but Frye. I didn't make the whole thing up. I didn't fire bullets into the walls. I didn't overturn the sofa and tear up my own clothes. For God's sake, why would I do a crazy thing like that? What reason could I possibly have for a charade of that sort?"


"I've got some ideas," Howard said. "I figure you've known Bruno Frye for a long time, and you--"


"I told you. I only met him three weeks ago."


"You've told us other things that turned out not to be true," Howard said. "So I think you knew Frye for years, or at least for quite a while, and the two of you were having an affair--"


"No!"


"--and for some reason, he threw you over. Maybe he just got tired of you. Maybe it was another woman. Something. So I figure you didn't go up to his winery to research one of your screenplays, like you said. I think you went up there just to get together with him again. You wanted to smooth things over, kiss and make up--"


"No."


"--but he wasn't having any of it. He turned you away again. But while you were there, you found out that he was coming to L.A. for a little vacation. So you made up your mind to get even with him. You figured he probably wouldn't have anything planned his first night in town, probably just a quiet dinner alone and early to bed. You were pretty sure he wouldn't have anyone to vouch for him later on, if the cops wanted to know his every move that night. So you decided to set him up for a rape charge."


"Damn you, this is disgusting!"


"It backfired on you," Howard said. "Frye changed his plans. He didn't even come to L.A. So now you're caught in the lie."


"He was here!" She wanted to take the detective by the throat and choke him until he understood.


"Look, I have one or two friends who know me well enough to know if I'd been having an affair.


I'll give you their names. Go see them. They'll tell you I didn't have anything going with Bruno Frye. Hell, they might even tell you I haven't had anything going with anyone for a while. I've been too busy to have much of a private life. I work long hours. I haven't had a lot of time for romance. And I sure as hell haven't had time to carry on with a lover who lives at the other end of the state. Talk to my friends. They'll tell you."

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