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Whispers

Whispers

Page 22


Tony sat in the booth at The Bolt Hole, with a beer getting warm in front of him, and he listened to Frank Howard with the growing realization that this was the first time the man had shared his grief with anyone. Barbara Ann had died in 1958, twenty-two years ago, and in all the time since, Frank had not expressed to anyone the pain he had felt while watching her waste away and die. It was a pain that had never dwindled; it burned within him now as fiercely as it had then. He drank more Scotch and searched for words to describe his agony; and Tony was amazed at the sensitivity and depth of feeling that had been so well-concealed behind the hard Teutonic face and those usually expressionless blue eyes.


Losing Barbara Ann had left Frank weak, disconnected, miserable, but he had sternly repressed the tears and the anguish because he had been afraid that if he gave in to them he would not be able to regain control. He had sensed self-destructive impulses in himself: a terrible thirst for booze that he had never experienced prior to his wife's death; a tendency to drive much too fast and recklessly, though he had previously been a cautious driver. To improve his state of mind, to save himself from himself, he had submerged his pain in the demands of his job, had given his life to the LAPD, trying to forget Barbara Ann in long hours of police work and study. The loss of her left an aching hole in him that would never be filled, but in time he managed to plate over that hole with an obsessive interest in his work and with total dedication to the Department.


For nineteen years he survived, even thrived, on the monotonous regimen of a workaholic. As a uniformed officer, he could not extend his working hours, so he went to school five nights a week and Saturdays, until he earned a Bachelor of Science in Criminology. He used his degree and his superb service record to climb into the ranks of the plainclothes detectives, where he could labor well beyond his scheduled tour of duty each day without screwing up a dispatcher's roster. During his ten- and twelve- and fourteen-hour workdays, he thought of nothing else but the cases to which he had been assigned. Even when he wasn't on the job, he thought about current investigations to the exclusion of just about everything else, pondered them while standing in the shower and while trying to fall asleep at night, mulled over new evidence while eating his early breakfasts and his solitary late-night dinners. He read almost nothing but criminology textbooks and case studies of criminal types. For nineteen years he was a cop's cop, a detective's detective.


In all that time, he never got serious about a woman. He didn't have time for dating, and somehow it didn't seem right to him. It wasn't fair to Barbara Ann. He led a celibate's life for weeks, then indulged in a few nights of torrid release with a series of paid partners. In a way he could not fully understand, ha**ng s*x with a hooker was not a betrayal of Barbara Ann's memory, for the exchange of cash for services made it strictly a business transaction and not a matter of the heart in even the slightest regard.


And then he met Wilma Compton.


Leaning back against the booth in The Bolt Hole, Frank seemed to choke on the woman's name. He wiped one hand across his clammy face, pushed spread fingers through his hair, and said, "I need another double Scotch." He made a great effort to articulate each syllable, but that only made him sound more thoroughly drunk than if he had slurred and mangled his words.


"Sure," Tony said. "Another Scotch. But we ought to get a bite of something, too."


"Not hungry," Frank said.


"They make excellent cheeseburgers," Tony said. "Let's get a couple of those and some French fries."


"No. Just Scotch for me."


Tony insisted, and finally Frank agreed to the burger but not the fries.


Penny took the food order, but when she heard Frank wanted another Scotch, she wasn't sure that was a good idea.


"I didn't drive here," Frank assured her, again stressing each sound in each word. "I came in a taxi 'cause I intended to get stupid drunk. I'll go home in a taxi, too. So please, you dimpled little darling, bring me another of those delicious double Scotches."


Tony nodded at her. "If he can't get a cab later, I'll take him home."


She brought new drinks for both of them. A half-finished beer stood in front of Tony, but it was warm and flat, and Penny took it away.


Wilma Compton.


Wilma was twelve years younger than Frank, thirty-one when he first met her. She was charming, petite, pretty, and dark-eyed. Slender legs. Supple body. Exciting swell of hips. A tight little ass. A pinched waist and br**sts a shade too full for her size. She wasn't quite as lovely or quite as charming or quite as petite as Barbara Ann had been. She didn't have Barbara Ann's quick wit or Barbara Ann's industrious nature or Barbara Ann's compassion. But on the surface, at least, she bore enough resemblance to the long-dead woman to stir Frank's dormant interest in romance.


Wilma was a waitress at a coffee shop where policemen often ate lunch. The sixth time she waited on Frank, he asked for a date, and she said yes. On their fourth date, they went to bed. Wilma had the same hunger and energy and willingness to experiment that had made Barbara Ann a wonderful lover. If at times she seemed totally concerned with her own gratification and not at all interested in his, Frank was able to convince himself that her selfishness would pass, that it was merely the result of her not having had a satisfying relationship in a long time. Besides, he was proud that he could arouse her so easily, so completely. For the first time since he'd slept with Barbara Ann, love was a part of his love-making, and he'd thought he perceived the same emotion in Wilma's response to him. After they had been sleeping together for two months, he asked her to marry him. She said no, and thereafter she no longer wanted to date him; the only time he could see her and talk to her was when he stopped at the coffee shop.


Wilma was admirably forthright about her reasons for refusing him. She wanted to get married; she was actively looking for the right man, but the right man had to have a substantial bankroll and a damned good job. A cop, she said, would never make enough money to provide her with the lifestyle and the security she wanted. Her first marriage had failed largely because she and her husband had always been arguing about bills and budgets. She had discovered that worries about finances could burn the love out of a relationship, leaving only an ashy shell of bitterness and anger. That had been a terrible experience, and she had made up her mind never to go through it again. She didn't rule out marrying for love, but there had to be financial security as well. She was afraid she sounded hard, but she could not endure the kind of pain she had endured before. She got all shaky-voiced and teary-eyed when she spoke of it. She would not, she said, risk the unbearably sad and depressing dissolution of another love affair because of a lack of money.


Strangely, her determination to marry for money did not decrease Frank's respect for her or dampen his ardor. Because he had been lonely for so long, he was eager to continue their relationship, even if he had to wear the biggest pair of rose-colored glasses ever made in order to maintain the illusion of romance. He revealed his financial situation to her, virtually begged her to look at his savings account passbook and short-term certificates of deposit which totaled nearly thirty-two thousand dollars. He told her what his salary was and carefully explained that he would be able to retire fairly young with a fine pension, young enough to use some of their savings to start a small business and earn even more money. If security was what she wanted, he was her man.


Thirty-two thousand dollars and a police pension were not sufficient for Wilma Compton. "I mean,"


she said, "it's a good little piece of change, but then you don't own a house or anything, Frank."


She fingered the savings account passbooks for a long moment, as if receiving sexual pleasure from them, but then she handed them back and said, "Sorry, Frank. But I want to shoot for something better than this. I'm still young, and I look five years younger than I really am. I have some time yet, a little more time to look around. And I'm afraid that even thirty-two thousand isn't a big bankroll these days. I'm afraid it might not be enough to get us through some crisis. And I won't go into something with you if there's a chance it could ... get hateful ... and mean ...


like it did the last time I was married."


He was crushed.


"Christ, I was acting like such a fool!" Frank wailed, pounding one fist into the table to emphasize his foolishness. "I had made up my mind that she was exactly like Barbara Ann, something special, someone rare and precious. No matter what she did, not matter how crude she was or how coarse or how unfeeling, I made excuses for her. Lovely excuses. Dandy, elaborate, creative excuses. Stupid. I was stupid, stupid, dumb as a jackass. Jesus!"


"What you did was understandable," Tony said.


"It was stupid."


"You were alone a long, long time," Tony said. "You had such a wonderful two years with Barbara Ann that you thought you'd never have anything half as good again, and you didn't want to settle for less. So you shut out the world. You convinced yourself that you didn't need anyone. But we all need someone, Frank. We all need people to care about. A hunger for love and comradeship is as natural to our species as the requirement for food and water. So the need built up inside of you all those years, and when you saw someone who resembled Barbara Ann, when you saw Wilma, you couldn't keep that need bottled up any longer. Nineteen years of wanting and needing came bubbling out of you all at once. You were bound to act kind of crazy. It would have been nice if Wilma had turned out to be a good woman who deserved what you had to offer. But you know, actually, it's surprising someone like Wilma didn't get her claws into you years ago."


"I was a sap."


"No."


"An idiot."


"No, Frank. You were human," Tony said. "That's all. Just human like the rest of us."


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Penny brought the cheeseburgers.


Frank ordered another double Scotch.


"You want to know what made Wilma change her mind?" Frank asked. "You want to know why she finally agreed to marry me?"


"Sure," Tony said. "But why don't you eat your burger first."


Frank ignored the sandwich. "My father died and left me everything. At first it looked like maybe thirty thousand bucks, but then I discovered the old man had collected a bunch of five- and ten-thousand dollar life insurance policies over the past thirty years. After taxes, the estate amounted to ninety thousand dollars."


"I'll be damned."


"With what I had already," Frank said, "that windfall was enough for Wilma."


"Maybe you'd have been better off if your father had died poor," Tony said.


Frank's red-rimmed eyes grew watery, and for a moment he looked as if he was about to weep. But he blinked rapidly and held back the tears. In a voice laden with despair, he said, "I'm ashamed to admit it, but when I found out how much money was in the estate, I stopped caring about my old man dying. The insurance policies turned up just one week after I buried him, and the moment I found them I thought, Wilma. All of a sudden I was so damned happy I couldn't stand still. As far as I was concerned, my dad might as well have been dead twenty years. It makes me sick to my stomach to think how I behaved. I mean, my dad and I weren't really close, but I owed him a lot more grieving than I gave. Jesus, I was one selfish son of a bitch, Tony."


"It's over, Frank. It's done," Tony said. "And like I said, you were a bit crazy. You weren't exactly responsible for your actions."


Frank put both hands over his face and sat that way for a minute, shaking but not crying. Finally, he looked up and said, "So when she saw I had almost a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars, Wilma wanted to marry me. In eight months, she cleaned me out."


"This is a community property state," Tony said. "How could she get more than half of what you had?"


"Oh, she didn't take anything in the divorce."


"What?"


"Not one penny."


"Why?"


"It was all gone by then."


"Gone?"


"Poof!"


"She spent it?"


"Stole it," Frank said numbly.


Tony put down his cheeseburger, wiped his mouth with a napkin. "Stole it? How?"


Frank was still quite drunk, but suddenly he spoke with an eerie clarity and precision. It seemed important to him that this indictment of her, more than anything else in his story, should be clearly understood. She had left him nothing but his indignation, and now he wanted to share that with Tony. "As soon as we got back from our honeymoon, she announced she was taking over the bookkeeping. She was going to attend to all our banking business, watch over our investments, balance our checkbook. She signed up for a course in investment planning at a business school, and she worked out a detailed budget for us. She was very adamant about it, very businesslike, and I was really pleased because she seemed so much like Barbara Ann."


"You'd told her that Barbara Ann had done those things?"


"Yeah. Oh, Jesus, yeah. I set myself up to be picked clean. I sure did."


Suddenly, Tony wasn't hungry any more.


Frank pushed one shaky hand through his hair. "See, there wasn't any way I could have suspected her. I mean, she was so good to me. She learned to cook my favorite things. She always wanted to hear about my day when I got home, and she listened with such interest. She didn't want a lot of clothes or jewelry or anything. We went out to dinner and to the movies now and then, but she always said it was a waste of money; she said she was just as happy staying home with me and watching TV together or just talking. She wasn't in any hurry to buy a house. She was so ... easy-going. She gave me massages when I came home stiff and sore. And in bed ... she was fabulous. She was perfect. Except ... except ... all the time she was cooking and listening and massaging and fu**ing my brains out, she was...."


"Bleeding your joint bank accounts."


"Of every last dollar. All except ten thousand that was in a long-term certificate of deposit."


"And then just walked out?"


Frank shuddered. "I came home one day, and there was a note from her. It said, 'If you want to know where I am, call this number and ask for Mr. Freyborn.' Freyborn was a lawyer. She'd hired him to handle the divorce. I was stunned. I mean, there was never any indication.... Anyway, Freyborn refused to tell me where she was. He said it would be a simple case, easily settled because she didn't want alimony or anything else from me. She didn't want a penny, Freyborn said.

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