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Whispers

Whispers

Page 21


"Just a drink or two," Frank said. "Unless you have something planned--"


"No. I'm free."


"You know a bar?"


"The perfect place. It's called The Bolt Hole."


"It's not around HQ, is it? Not a place where a lot of cops go?"


"So far as I know, I'm the only officer of the law who patronizes it. It's on Santa Monica Boulevard, out near Century City. Just a couple of blocks from my apartment."


"Sounds good," Frank said. "I'll meet you there."


They rode the rest of the way to the police garage in silence--somewhat more companionable silence than that in which they had worked before, but silence nonetheless.


What does he want? Tony wondered. Why has that famous Frank Howard reserve finally broken down?


***


At 4:30, the Los Angeles medical examiner ordered a limited autopsy on the body of Bruno Gunther Frye. If at all possible, the corpse was to be opened only in the area of the abdominal wounds, sufficient to determine if those two punctures had been the sole cause of death.


The medical examiner would not perform the autopsy himself, for he had to catch a 5:30 flight to San Francisco in order to keep a speaking engagement. The chore was assigned to a pathologist on his staff.


The dead man waited in a cold room with other dead men, on a cold cart, motionless beneath a white shroud.


***


Hilary Thomas was exhausted. Every bone ached dully; every joint seemed enflamed. Every muscle felt as if it had been put through a blender at high speed and then reconstituted. Emotional strain could have precisely the same physiological effect as strenuous physical labor.


She was also jumpy, much too tense to be able to refresh with a nap. Each time the big house made a normal settling noise, she wondered if the sound was actually the squeak of a floorboard under the weight of an intruder. When the softly sighing wind brushed a palm frond or a pine branch against a window, she imagined someone was stealthily cutting the glass or prying at a window lock. But when there was a long period of perfect quiet, she sensed something sinister in the silence. Her nerves were worn thinner than the knees of a compulsive penitent's trousers.


The best cure she had ever found for nervous tension was a good book. She looked through the shelves in the study and chose James Clavell's most recent novel, a massive story set in the Orient. She poured a glass of Dry Sack on the rocks, settled down in the deep brown armchair, and began to read.


Twenty minutes later, when she was just beginning to lose herself thoroughly in Clavell's story, the telephone rang. She got up and answered it. "Hello."


There was no response.


"Hello?"


The caller listened for a few seconds, then hung up.


Hilary put down the receiver and stared at it thoughtfully for a moment.


Wrong number?


Must have been.


But why didn't he say so?


Some people just don't know any better, she told herself. They're rude.


But what if it wasn't a wrong number. What if it was ... something else.


Stop looking for goblins in every shadow! she told herself angrily. Frye's dead. It was a bad thing, but it's over and done with. You deserve a rest, a couple of days to collect your nerves and wits. But then you've got to stop looking over your shoulder and get on with your life.


Otherwise, you'll end up in a padded room.


She curled up in the armchair again, but she caught a chill that brought goosebumps to her arms.


She went to the closet and got a blue and green knitted afghan, returned to the chair, and draped the blanket over her legs.


She sipped the Dry Sack.


She started reading Clavell again.


In a while, she forgot about the telephone call.


***


After signing out for the day, Tony went home and washed his face, changed from his suit into jeans and a checkered blue shirt. He put on a thin tan jacket and walked two blocks to The Bolt Hole.


Frank was already there, sitting in a back booth, still in his suit and tie, sipping Scotch.


The Bolt Hole--or simply The Hole, as regular customers referred to it--was that rare and vanishing thing: an ordinary neighborhood bar. During the past two decades, in response to a continuously fracturing and subdividing culture, the American tavern industry, at least that part of it in cities and suburbs, had indulged in a frenzy of specialization. But The Hole had successfully bucked the trend. It wasn't a g*y bar. It wasn't a singles' bar or a swingers' bar.


It wasn't a bar patronized primarily by bikers or truckers or show business types or off-duty policemen or account executives; its clientele was a mixture, representative of the community. It wasn't a topless go-go bar. It wasn't a rock and roll bar or a country and western bar. And, thank God, it wasn't a sports bar with one of those six-foot television screens and Howard Cosell's voice in quadraphonic sound. The Hole had nothing more to offer than pleasantly low lighting, cleanliness, courtesy, comfortable stools and booths, a jukebox that wasn't turned too loud, hot dogs and hamburgers served from the minuscule kitchen, and good drinks at reasonable prices.


Tony slid into the booth, facing Frank.


Penny, a sandy-haired waitress with pinchable cheeks and a dimpled chin, stopped by the table. She ruffled Tony's hair and said, "What do you want, Renoir?"


"A million in cash, a Rolls-Royce, eternal life, and the acclaim of the masses," Tony said.


"What'll you settle for?"


"A bottle of Coors."


"That we can provide," she said.


"Bring me another Scotch," Frank said. When she went to the bar to get their drinks, Frank said,


"Why'd she call you Renoir?"


"He was a famous French painter."


"So?"


"Well, I'm a painter, too. Neither French nor famous. It's just Penny's way of teasing me."


"You paint pictures?" Frank asked.


"Certainly not houses."


"How come you never mentioned it?"


"I made a few observations about fine art a time or two," Tony said. "But you greeted the subject with a marked lack of interest. In fact, you couldn't have shown less enthusiasm if I'd wanted to debate the fine points of Swahili grammar or discuss the process of decomposition in dead babies."


"Oil paintings?" Frank asked.


"Oils. Pen and ink. Watercolors. A little bit of everything, but mostly oils."


"How long you been at it?"


"Since I was a kid."


"Have you sold any?"


"I don't paint to sell."


"What do you do it for?"


"My own satisfaction."


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"I'd like to see some of your work."


"My museum has odd hours, but I'm sure a visit can be arranged."


"Museum?"


"My apartment. There's not much furniture in it, but it's chockfull of paintings."


Penny brought their drinks.


They were silent for a while, and then they talked for a few minutes about Bobby Valdez, and then they were silent again. There were about sixteen or eighteen people in the bar. Several of them had ordered sandwiches. The air was filled with the mouth-watering aroma of sizzling ground sirloin and chopped onions.


Finally, Frank said, "I suppose you're wondering why we're here like this."


"To have a couple of drinks."


"Besides that." Frank stirred his drink with a swizzle stick. Ice cubes rattled softly. "There are a few things I have to say to you."


"I thought you said them all this morning, in the car, after we left Vee Vee Gee."


"Forget what I said then."


"You had a right to say it."


"I was full of shit," Frank said.


"No, maybe you had a point."


"I tell you, I was full of shit."


"Okay," Tony said. "You were full of shit."


Frank smiled. "You could have argued with me a bit more."


"When you're right, you're right," Tony said.


"I was wrong about the Thomas woman."


"You already apologized to her, Frank."


"I feel like I should apologize to you."


"Not necessary."


"But you saw something there, saw she was telling the truth. I didn't even get a whiff of that. I was off on the wrong scent altogether. Hell, you even pushed my nose in it, and I couldn't pick up the right smell."


"Well, sticking strictly to nasal imagery, you might say you couldn't get the scent because your nose was so far out of joint."


Frank nodded glumly. His broad face seemed to sag into the melancholy mask of a bloodhound.


"Because of Wilma. My nose is out of joint because of Wilma."


"Your ex-wife?"


"Yeah. You hit it right on the head this morning when you said I've been a woman-hater."


"Must have been bad, what she did to you."


"No matter what she did," Frank said, "that's no excuse for what I've let happen to me."


"You're right."


"I mean, you can't hide from women, Tony."


"They're everywhere," Tony agreed.


"Christ, you know how long it's been since I slept with a woman?"


"No."


"Ten months. Since she left me, since four months before the divorce came through."


Tony couldn't think of anything to say. He didn't feel he knew Frank well enough to engage in an intimate discussion of his sex life, yet it was obvious that the man badly needed someone to listen and care.


"If I don't get back in the swim pretty soon," Frank said, "I might as well go away and be a priest."


Tony nodded. "Ten months sure is a long time," he said awkwardly.


Frank didn't respond. He stared into his Scotch as he might have stared into a crystal ball, trying to see his future. Clearly, he wanted to talk about Wilma and the divorce and where he should go from here, but he didn't want to feel that he was forcing Tony to listen to his trouble.


He had a lot of pride. He wanted to be coaxed, cajoled, drawn out with questions and murmured sympathy.


"Did Wilma find another man or what?" Tony asked, and knew immediately that he had gone to the heart of the matter much too quickly.


Frank was not ready to talk about that part of it, and he pretended not to hear the question.


"What bothers me is the way I'm screwing up in my work. I've always been damned good at what I do.


Just about perfect, if I say so myself. Until the divorce. Then I turned sour on women, and pretty soon I went sour on the job, too." He took a long pull on his Scotch. "And what the hell's going on with that damned crazy Napa County Sheriff? Why would he lie to protect Bruno Frye?"


"We'll find out sooner or later," Tony said.


"You want another drink?"


"Okay."


Tony could see that they were going to be sitting in The Bolt Hole for a long while. Frank wanted to talk about Wilma, wanted to get rid of all the poison that had been building up in him and eating at his heart for nearly a year, but he was only able to let it out a drop at a time.


***


It was a busy day for Death in Los Angeles. Many died of natural causes, of course, and therefore were not required by law to come under a coroner's probing scalpel. But the medical examiner's office had nine others with which to deal. There were two traffic fatalities in an accident certain to involve charges of criminal negligence. Two men were dead of gunshot wounds. One child had apparently been beaten to death by a mean-tempered drunken father. A woman had drowned in her own swimming pool, and two young men had died of what appeared to be drug overdoses. And there was Bruno Frye.


At 7:10 Thursday evening, hoping to catch up on the backlog of work, a pathologist at the city morgue completed a limited autopsy on the body of Bruno Gunther Frye, male, Caucasian, age forty.


The doctor did not find it necessary to dissect the corpse beyond the general area of the two abdominal traumata, for he was swiftly able to determine that the deceased definitely had perished from those injuries and no other. The upper wound was not critical; the knife tore muscle tissue and grazed a lung. But the lower wound was a mess; the blade ripped open the stomach, pierced the pyloric vein, and damaged the pancreas, among other things. The victim had died of massive internal bleeding.


The pathologist sewed up the incisions he had made as well as the two crusted wounds. He sponged blood and bile and specks of tissue from the repaired stomach and the huge chest.


The dead man was transferred from the autopsy table (which still bore traces of red-brown gore in the stainless-steel blood gutters) to a cart. An attendant pushed the cart to a refrigerated room where other bodies, already cut open and explored and sewn up again, now waited patiently for their ceremonies and their graves.


After the attendant left, Bruno Frye lay silent and motionless, content in the company of the dead as he had never been in the company of the living.


***


Frank Howard was getting drunk. He had taken off his suit jacket and his tie, had opened the first two buttons of his shirt. His hair was in disarray because he kept running his fingers through it.


His eyes were bloodshot, and his broad face was doughy. He slurred some of his words, and every once in a while he repeated himself, stressing a point so often that Tony had to gently nudge him on, as if bumping a phonograph needle out of a bad groove. He was downing two glasses of Scotch to one of Tony's beers.


The more he drank, the more he talked about the women in his life. The closer he got to being completely smashed, the closer he got to the central agony of his life: the loss of two wives.


During his second year as a uniformed officer with the LAPD, Frank Howard had met his first wife, Barbara Ann. She was a salesgirl working the jewelry counter in a downtown department store, and she helped him choose a gift for his mother. She was so charming, so petite, so pretty and dark-eyed, that he couldn't resist asking for a date, even though he was certain she would turn him down. She accepted. They were married seven months later. Barbara Ann was a planner; long before the wedding, she worked out a detailed agenda for their first four years together. She would continue to work at the department store, but they would not spend one penny of her earnings. All of her money would go into a savings account that would later be used to make a down payment on a house. They would try to save as much as they could from his salary by living in a safe, clean, but inexpensive studio apartment. They would sell his Pontiac because it was a gas hog, and because they would be living close enough to the store for Barbara Ann to walk to work; her Volkswagen would be sufficient to get him to and from divisional HQ, and his equity in his car would start the house fund. She had even planned a day-by-day menu for the first six months, nourishing meals prepared within a tight budget. Frank loved this stern accountant streak in her, partly because it seemed so out of character. She was a light-hearted, cheerful woman, quick to laugh, sometimes even giddy, impulsive in matters not financial, and a wonderful bedmate, always eager to make love and damned good at it. She was not an accountant in matters of the flesh; she never planned their love-making; it was usually sudden and surprising and passionate. But she planned that they would buy a house only after they'd acquired at least forty percent of the purchase price. And she knew exactly how many rooms it should have and what size each room should be; she drew up a floor plan of the ideal place, and she kept it in a dresser drawer, taking it out now and then to stare at it and dream. She wanted children a great deal, but she planned not to have them until she was secure in her own house. Barbara Ann planned for just about every eventuality--except cancer. She contracted a virulent form of lymph cancer, which was diagnosed two years and two days after she married Frank, and three months after that, she was dead.

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