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Whispers

Whispers

Page 13


"Friends are notoriously unreliable witnesses," Howard said. "Besides, it might have been that one affair you kept all to yourself, the secret little fling. Face it, Miss Thomas, you painted yourself into a corner. The facts are these. You say Frye was in this house tonight. But the sheriff says he was up there, in his own house, as of thirty minutes ago. Now, St. Helena is over four hundred miles by air, over five hundred by car. He simply could not have gotten home that fast. And he could not have been in two places at once because, in case you haven't heard, that's a serious violation of the laws of physics."


Lieutenant Clemenza said, "Frank, maybe you should let me finish up with Miss Thomas."


"What's to finish? It's over, done, kaput." Howard pointed an accusing finger at her. "You're damned lucky, Miss Thomas. If Frye had come to L.A. and this had gotten into court, you'd have committed perjury. You might have wound up in jail. You're also lucky that there's no sure way for us to punish someone like you for wasting our time like this."


"I don't know that we've wasted our time," Clemenza said softly.


"Like hell we haven't." Howard glared at her. "I'll tell you one thing: If Bruno Frye wants to pursue a libel suit, I sure to God will testify for him." Then he turned and walked away from her, toward the study door.


Lieutenant Clemenza didn't make any move to leave and obviously had something more to say to her, but she didn't like having the other one walk out before some important questions were answered.


"Wait a minute," she said.


Howard stopped and looked back at her. "Yeah?"


"What now? What are you going to do about my complaint?" she said.


"Are you serious?"


"Yes."


"I'm going to the car, cancel that APB on Bruno Frye, then call it a day. I'm going home and drink a couple cold bottles of Coors."


"You aren't going to leave me here alone? What if he comes back?"


"Oh, Christ." Howard said. "Will you please drop the act?"


She took a few steps toward him. "No matter what you think, no matter what the Napa County Sheriff says, I'm not putting on an act. Will you at least leave one of those uniformed men for an hour or so, until I can get a locksmith to replace the locks on my doors?"


Howard shook his head. "No. I'll be damned if I'll waste more police time and taxpayers' money to provide you with protection you don't need. Give up. It's all over. You lost. Face it, Miss Thomas." He walked out of the room.


Hilary went to the brown armchair and sat down. She was exhausted, confused, and scared.


Clemenza said, "I'll make sure Officers Whitlock and Farmer stay with you until the locks have been changed."


She looked up at him. "Thank you."


He shrugged. He was noticeably uncomfortable. "I'm sorry there's not much more I can do."


"I didn't make up the whole thing," she said.


"I believe you."


"Frye really was here tonight," she said.


"I don't doubt that someone was here, but--"


"Not just someone. Frye."


"If you'd reconsider your identification, we could keep working on the case and--"


"It was Frye," she said, not angrily now, just wearily. "It was him and no one else but him."


For a long moment, Clemenza regarded her with interest, and his clear brown eyes were sympathetic.


He was a handsome man, but it was not his good looks that most pleased the eye; there was an indescribably warm and gentle quality in his Italian features, a special concern and understanding so visible in his face that she felt he truly cared what happened to her.


He said, "You've had a very rough experience. It's shaken you. That's perfectly understandable.


And sometimes, when you go through a shock like this, it distorts your perceptions. Maybe when you've had a chance to calm down, you'll remember things a little... differently. I'll stop by sometime tomorrow. Maybe by then you'll have something new to tell me."


"I won't," Hilary said without hesitation. "But thanks for ... being kind."


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She thought he seemed reluctant to leave. But then he was gone, and she was alone in the study.


For a minute or two, she could not find the energy to get out of the armchair. She felt as if she had stepped into a vast pool of quicksand and had expended every bit of her strength in a frantic and futile attempt to escape.


At last she got up, went to the desk, picked up the telephone. She thought of ringing the winery in Napa County, but she realized that would accomplish nothing. She knew only the business office number. She didn't have Frye's home phone listing. Even if his private number was available through Information--and that was highly unlikely--she would not gain any satisfaction by dialing it. If she tried calling him at home, only one of two things could happen. One, he wouldn't answer, which would neither prove her story nor disprove what Sheriff Laurenski had said. Two, Frye would answer, surprising her. And then what? She would have to reevaluate the events of the night, face the fact that the man with whom she had fought was someone who only resembled Bruno Frye. Or perhaps he didn't look like Frye at all. Maybe her perceptions were so askew that she had perceived a resemblance where there was none. How could you tell when you were losing your grip on reality? How did madness begin? Did it creep up on you, or did it seize you in an instant, without warning? She had to consider the possibility that she was losing her mind because, after all, there was a history of insanity in her family. For more than a decade, one of her fears had been that she would die as her father had died; wild-eyed, raving, incoherent, waving a gun and trying to hold off monsters that were not really there. Like father, like daughter?


"I saw him," she said aloud. "Bruno Frye. In my house. Here. Tonight. I didn't imagine or hallucinate it. I saw him, dammit."


She opened the telephone book to the yellow pages and called a twenty-four-hour-a-day locksmith service.


***


After he fled Hilary Thomas's house, Bruno Frye drove his smoke-gray Dodge van out of Westwood. He went west and south to Marina Del Rey, a small-craft harbor on the edge of the city, a place of expensive garden apartments, even more expensive condominiums, shops, and unexceptional but lushly decorated restaurants, most with unobstructed views of the sea and the thousands of pleasure boats docked along the man-made channels.


Fog was rolling in along the coast, as if a great cold fire burned upon the ocean. It was thick in some places and thin in others, getting denser all the time.


He tucked the van into an empty corner of a parking lot near one of the docks, and for a minute he just sat there, contemplating his failure. The police would be looking for him, but only for a short while, only until they found out that he had been at his place in Napa County all evening.


And even while they were looking for him in the L.A. area, he would not be in much danger, for they wouldn't know what sort of vehicle he was driving. He was sure Hilary Thomas had not seen the van when he left because it was parked three blocks from her house.


Hilary Thomas.


Not her real name, of course.


Katherine. That's who she really was. Katherine.


"Stinking bitch," he said aloud.


She scared him. In the past five years, he had killed her more than twenty times, but she had refused to stay dead. She kept coming back to life, in a new body, with a new name, a new identity, a cleverly constructed new background, but he never failed to recognize Katherine hiding in each new persona. He had encountered her and killed her again and again, but she would not stay dead. She knew how to come back from the grave, and her knowledge terrified him more than he dared let her know. He was frightened of her, but he couldn't let her see that fear, for if she became aware of it, she'd overwhelm and destroy him.


But she can he killed, Frye told himself. I've done it. I've killed her many times and buried many of her bodies in secret graves. I'll kill her again, too. And maybe this time she won't be able to come back.


As soon as it was safe for him to return to her house in Westwood, he would try to kill her again.


And this time he planned to perform a number of rituals that he hoped would cancel out her supernatural power of regeneration. He had been reading books about the living dead--vampires and other creatures. Although she was not really any of those things, although she was horrifyingly unique, he believed that some of the methods of extermination that were effective against vampires might work on her as well. Cut out her heart while it was still beating. Drive a wooden stake through it. Cut off her head. Stuff her mouth full of garlic. It would work. Oh, God, it had to work.


He left the van and went to a public phone close by. The damp air smelled vaguely of salt, seaweed, and machine oil. Water slapped against the pilings and the hulls of the small yachts, a curiously forlorn sound. Beyond the plexiglas walls of the booth, rank upon rank of masts rose from the tethered boats, like a defoliated forest looming out of the night mist. About the same time that Hilary was calling the police, Frye phoned his own house in Napa County and gave an account of his failed attack on the woman.


The man on the other end of the line listened without interruption, then said, "I'll handle the police."


They spoke for a few minutes, then Frye hung up. Stepping out of the booth, he looked around suspiciously at the darkness and swirling fog. Katherine could not possibly have followed him, but nevertheless, he was afraid she was out there in the gloom, watching, waiting. He was a big man.


He should not have been afraid of a woman. But he was. He was afraid of the one who would not die, the one who now called herself Hilary Thomas.


He returned to the van and sat behind the wheel for a few minutes, until he realized that he was hungry. Starving. His stomach rumbled. He hadn't eaten since lunch. He was familiar enough with Marina Del Rey to know there was not a suitable restaurant in the neighborhood. He drove south on the Pacific Coast Highway to Culver Boulevard, then west, then south again on Vista Del Mar. He had to proceed slowly, for the fog was heavy along that route; it threw the van's headlight beams back at him and reduced visibility to thirty feet, so that he felt as if he was driving underwater in a murky phosphorescent sea. Almost twenty minutes after he completed the telephone call to Napa County (and about the same time that Sheriff Laurenski was looking into the case up there in behalf of the L.A. police), Frye found an interesting restaurant on the northern edge of El Segundo. The red and yellow neon sign cut through the fog: GARRIDO'S. It was a Mexican place, but not one of those norte-americano chrome and glass outlets serving imitation comida; it appeared to be authentically Mexican. He pulled off the road and parked between two hotrods that were equipped with the hydraulic lifts so popular with young Chicano drivers. As he walked around to the entrance, he passed a car bearing a bumper sticker that proclaimed CHICANO POWER. Another one advised everyone to SUPPORT THE FARM WORKERS' UNION. Frye could already taste the enchiladas.


Inside, Garrido's looked more like a bar than a restaurant, but the close warm air was redolent with the odors of a good Mexican kitchen. On the left, a stained and scarred wooden bar ran the length of the big rectangular room. Approximately a dozen dark men and two lovely young señoritas sat on stools or leaned against the bar, most of them chattering in rapid Spanish. The center of the room was taken up by a single row of twelve tables running parallel to the bar, each covered with a red tablecloth. All of the tables were occupied by men and women who laughed and drank a lot as they ate. On the right, against the wall, there were booths with red leatherette upholstery and high backs; Frye sat down in one of them.


The waitress who hustled up to his table was a short woman, almost as wide as she was tall, with a very round and surprisingly pretty face. Raising her voice above Freddie Fender's sweet and plaintive singing, which came from the jukebox, she asked Frye what he wanted and took his order: a double platter of chili verde and two cold bottles of Dos Equis.


He was still wearing leather gloves. He took them off and flexed his hands.


Except for a blonde in a low-cut sweater, who was with a mustachioed Chicano stud, Frye was the only one in Garrido's who didn't have Mexican blood in his veins. He knew some of them were staring at him, but he didn't care.


The waitress brought the beer right away. Frye didn't bother with the glass. He put the bottle to his lips, closed his eyes, tilted his head back, and chugged it down. In less than a minute, he had drained it. He drank the second beer with less haste than he had consumed the first, but it was also gone by the time she brought his dinner. He ordered two more bottles of Dos Equis.


Bruno Frye ate with voracity and total concentration, unwilling or unable to look away from his plate, oblivious of everyone around him, head lowered to receive the food in the fevered manner of a graceless glutton. Making soft animal murmurs of delight, he forked the chili verde into his mouth, gobbled up huge dripping bites of the stuff, one after the other, chewed hard and fast, his cheeks bulging. A plate of warm tortillas was served on the side, and he used those to mop up the delicious sauce. He washed everything down with big gulps of icy beer.


He was already two-thirds finished when the waitress stopped by to ask if the meal was all right, and she quickly realized the question was unnecessary. He looked up at her with eyes that were slightly out of focus. In a thick voice that seemed to come from a distance, he asked for two beef tacos, a couple of cheese enchiladas, rice, refried beans, and two more bottles of beer. Her eyes went wide, but she was too polite to comment on his appetite.


He ate the last of the chili verde before she brought his second order, but he did not rise out of his trance when the plate was clean. Every table had a bowl of taco chips, and he pulled his in front of him. He dipped the chips into the cup of hot sauce that came with them, popped them into his mouth whole, crunched them up with enormous pleasure and a lot of noise. When the waitress arrived with more food and beer, he mumbled a thank you and immediately began shoveling cheese enchiladas into his mouth. He worked his way through the tacos and the side dishes. A pulse thumped visibly in his bull neck. Veins stood out boldly across his forehead. A film of sweat sheathed his face, and beads of sweat began to trickle down from his hairline. At last he swallowed the final mouthful of refried beans and chased it with beer and pushed the empty plates away. He sat for a while with one hand on his thigh, one hand wrapped around a bottle, staring across the booth at nothing in particular. Gradually, the sweat dried on his face, and he became aware of the jukebox music again; another Freddie Fender tune was playing.

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