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Whispers

Whispers

Page 23


She just wanted out. I was hit hard. Real hard. Jesus, I couldn't figure out what I'd done. For a while, I nearly went crazy trying to figure out where I went wrong. I thought maybe I could change, learn to be a better person, and win her back. And then ... two days later, when I needed to write a check, I saw the account was down to three dollars. I went to the bank and then to the savings and loan company, and after that I knew why she didn't want a penny. She'd taken all the pennies already."


"You didn't let her get away with it," Tony said.


Frank slugged down some Scotch. He was sweating. His face was pasty and sheet-white. "At first, I was just kind of dumb and ... I don't know ... suicidal, I guess. I mean, I didn't try to kill myself, but I didn't care if I lived either. I was in a daze, a kind of trance."


"But eventually you snapped out of that."


"Part way. I'm still a little numb. But I came part of the way out of it," Frank said. "Then I was ashamed of myself. I was ashamed of what I'd let her do to me. I was such a sap, such a dumb son of a bitch. I didn't want anyone to know, not even my attorney."


"That's the first purely stupid thing you did," Tony said. "I can understand the rest of it, but that--"


"Somehow, it seemed to me that if I let everyone know how Wilma conned me, then everyone would think that every word I'd ever said about Barbara Ann was wrong, too. I was afraid people would get the idea that Barbara Ann had been conning me just like Wilma, and it was important to me, more important than anything else in the world, that Barbara Ann's memory be kept clean. I know it sounds a little crazy now, but that's how I looked at it then."


Tony didn't know what to say.


"So the divorce went through smooth as glass," Frank said. "There weren't any long discussions about the details of the settlement. In fact, I never got to see Wilma again except for a few minutes in court, and I haven't talked to her since the morning of the day she walked out."


"Where is she now? Do you know?"


Frank finished his Scotch. When he spoke his voice was different, soft, almost a whisper, not as if he was trying to keep the rest of the story secret from other customers in The Hole, but as if he no longer had sufficient strength to speak in a normal tone of voice. "After the divorce went through, I got curious about her. I took out a small loan against that certificate of deposit she'd left behind, and I hired a private investigator to find out where she was and what she was doing. He turned up a lot of stuff. Very interesting stuff. She got married again just nine days after our divorce was final. Some guy named Chuck Pozley down in Orange County. He owns one of those electronic game parlors in a shopping center in Costa Mesa. He's worth maybe seventy or eighty thousand bucks. The way it looks, Wilma was seriously thinking about marrying him just when I inherited all the money from my dad. So what she did, she married me, milked me dry, and then went to this Chuck Pozley with my money. They used some of her capital to open two more of those game parlors, and it looks like they'll do real well."


"Oh, Jeez," Tony said.


This morning he had known almost nothing at all about Frank Howard, and now he knew almost everything. More than he really wanted to know. He was a good listener; that was both his blessing and his curse. His previous partner, Michael Savatino, often told him that he was a superior detective largely because people liked and trusted him and were willing to talk to him about almost anything. And the reason they were willing to talk to him, Michael said, was because he was a good listener. And a good listener, Michael said, was a rare and wonderful thing in a world of self-interest, self-promotion, and self-love. Tony listened willingly and attentively to all sorts of people because, as a painter fascinated by hidden patterns, he was seeking the overall pattern of human existence and meaning. Even now, as he listened to Frank, he thought of a quote from Emerson that he had read a long time ago: The Sphinx must solve her own riddle. If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience. All men and women and children were fascinating puzzles, great mysteries, and Tony was seldom bored by their stories.


Still speaking so softly that Tony had to lean forward to hear him, Frank said, "Pozley knew what Wilma had in mind for me. It looks like they were probably seeing each other a couple of days a week while I was at work. All the time she was playing the perfect wife, she was stealing me blind and fu**ing this Pozley. The more I thought about it, the madder I got, until finally I decided to tell my attorney what I should have told him in the first place."


"But it was too late?"


"That's about what it comes down to. Oh, I could have initiated some sort of court action against her. But the fact that I hadn't accused her of theft earlier, during the divorce proceedings, would have weighed pretty heavily against me. I'd have spent most of the money I had left on lawyers' fees, and I'd probably have lost the suit anyway. So I decided to put it behind me. I figured I'd lose myself in my work, like I'd done after Barbara Ann died. But I was torn up a whole lot worse than I realized. I couldn't do my job right any more. Every woman I had to deal with ... I don't know. I guess I just.. . just saw Wilma in all women. If I had the slightest excuse, I got downright vicious with women I had to question, and then before long I was getting too rough with every witness, both men and women. I started losing perspective, overlooking clues a child would spot.... I had a hell of a falling out with my partner, and so here I am." His voice sank lower by the second, and he gave up the struggle for clarity; his words began to get mushy.


"After Barbara Ann died, at least I had my work. At least I had somethin'. But Wilma took everythin'. She took my money and my self-respec', and she even took my ambition. I juss can't seem to care 'bout nothin' any more." He slid out of the booth and stood up, swaying like a toy clown that had springs for ankles. "S'cuse me. Gotta go pee." He staggered across the tavern to the men's room door, giving an exaggerated wide berth to everyone he encountered on the way.


Tony sighed and closed his eyes. He was weary, both in body and soul.


Penny stopped by the table and said, "You'd be doing him a favor if you took him home now. He's going to feel like a half-dead goat in the morning."


"What's a half-dead goat feel like?"


"A lot worse than a healthy goat, and a whole lot worse than a dead one," she said.


Tony paid the tab and waited for his partner. After five minutes, he picked up Frank's coat and tie and went looking for him.


The men's room was small: one stall, one urinal, one sink. It smelled strongly of pine-scented disinfectant and vaguely of urine.


Frank was standing at a graffiti-covered wall, his back to the door when Tony entered. He was pounding his open palms against the wall above his head, both hands at once, making loud slapping sounds that reverberated in the narrow high-ceilinged room. BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM! The noise wasn't audible in the barroom because of the dull roar of conversation and the music, but in here it hurt Tony's ears.


"Frank?"


BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM!


Tony went to him, put a hand on his shoulder, pulled him gently away from the wall, and turned him around.


Frank was weeping. His eyes were bloodshot and filled with tears. Big tears streamed down his face. His lips were puffy and loose; his mouth quivered with grief. But he was crying soundlessly, neither sobbing nor whimpering, his voice stuck far back in his throat.


"It's okay," Tony said. "Everything will be all right. You don't need Wilma. You're better off without her. You've got friends. We'll help you get over this, Frank, if you'll just let us. I'll help. I care. I really do care, Frank."


Frank closed his eyes. His mouth sagged down, and he sobbed, but still in eerie silence, making noise only when he sucked in a wheezy breath. He reached out, seeking support, and Tony put an arm around him.


"Wanna go home," Frank said mushily. "I juss wanna go home."


"All right. I'll take you home. Just hold on."


With arms around each other, like old buddies from the war, they left The Bolt Hole. They walked two and a half blocks to the apartment complex where Tony lived and climbed into Tony's Jeep station wagon.


They were halfway to Frank's apartment when Frank took a deep breath and said, "Tony ... I'm afraid."


Tony glanced at him.


Frank was hunched down in his seat. He seemed small and weak; his clothes looked too big for him.


Tears shone on his face.


"What are you afraid of?" Tony asked.


"I don't wanna be alone," Frank said, weeping thinly, shaking from the effects of too much liquor, but shaking from something else as well, some dark fear.


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"You aren't alone," Tony said.


"I'm afraid of... dyin' alone."


"You aren't alone, and you aren't dying, Frank."


"We all get old ... so fast. And then.... I want someone to be there."


"You'll find someone."


"I want someone to remember and care."


"Don't worry," Tony said lamely.


"It scares me."


"You'll find someone."


"Never."


"Yes. You will."


"Never. Never," Frank said, closing his eyes and leaning his head against the side window.


By the time they got to Frank's apartment house, he was sleeping like a child. Tony tried to wake him. But Frank would not come fully to his senses. Stumbling, mumbling, sighing heavily, he allowed himself to be half-walked, half-carried to the door of the apartment. Tony propped him against the wall beside the front door, held him up with one hand, felt through his pockets, found the key. When they finally reached the bedroom, Frank collapsed on the mattress in a loose-limbed heap and began to snore.


Tony undressed him down to his shorts. He pulled back the covers, rolled Frank onto the bottom sheet, pulled the top sheet and the blanket over him. Frank just snuffled and snored.


In the kitchen, in a junk drawer beside the sink, Tony found a pencil, a pad of writing paper, and a roll of Scotch tape. He wrote a note to Frank and taped it to the refrigerator door.


Dear Frank,


When you wake up in the morning, you're going to remember everything you told me, and you're probably going to be a little embarrassed. Don't worry. What you told me will stay strictly between us. And tomorrow I'll tell you some outrageously embarrassing secrets of my own, so then we'll be even. After all, cleaning the soul is one thing friends are for.


Tony.


He locked the door on his way out.


Driving home, he thought about poor Frank being all alone, and then he realized that his own situation was not markedly better. His father was still alive, but Carlo was sick a lot these days and probably would not live more than five years, ten at the most. Tony's brothers and sisters were spread all over the country, and none of them was really close in spirit either. He had a great many friends, but it was not just friends that you wanted by you when you were old and dying. He knew what Frank had meant. When you were on your deathbed, there were only certain hands that you could hold and from which you could draw courage: the hands of your spouse, your children, or your parents. He realized that he was building the kind of life that, when complete, might well be a hollow temple of loneliness. He was thirty-five, still young, but he had never truly given much serious thought to marriage. Suddenly, he had the feeling that time was slipping through his fingers. The years went by so very fast. It seemed only last year that he had been twenty-five, but a decade was gone.


Maybe Hilary Thomas is the one, he thought as he pulled into the parking slot in front of his apartment. She's special. I can see that. Very special. Maybe she'll think I'm someone special, too. It could work out for us. Couldn't it?


For a while he sat in the Jeep, staring at the night sky, thinking about Hilary Thomas and about getting old and dying alone.


***


At 10:30, when Hilary was deeply involved in the James Clavell novel, just as she was finishing a snack of apples and cheese, the telephone rang.


"Hello?"


There was only silence on the other end of the line.


"Who's there?"


Nothing.


She slammed the receiver down. That's what they told you to do when you got a threatening or obscene phone call. Just hang up. Don't encourage the caller. Just hang up quickly and sharply.


She had given him a real pain in the ear, but that didn't make her feel a lot better.


She was sure it wasn't a wrong number. Not twice in one night with no apology either time.


Besides, there had been a menacing quality in that silence, an unspoken threat.


Even after she had been nominated for the Academy Award, she had never felt the need for an unlisted number. Writers were not celebrities in the same sense that actors and even directors were. The general public never remembered or cared who earned the screenplay credit on a hit picture. Most writers who got unlisted numbers did it because it seemed prestigious; unlisted meant the harried scribbler was so busy with so many important projects that he had no time for even the rare unwanted call. But she didn't have an ego problem like that, and leaving her name in the book was just as anonymous as taking it out.


Of course, maybe that was no longer true. Perhaps the media reports about her two encounters with Bruno Frye had made her an object of general interest where her two successful screenplays had not. The story of a woman fighting off a would-be rap**t and killing him the second time--that might very well fascinate a certain kind of sick mind. It might make some animal out there eager to prove he could succeed where Bruno Frye had failed.


She decided to call the telephone company business office first thing in the morning and ask for a new, unlisted number.


***


At midnight, the city morgue was, as the medical examiner himself had once described it, quiet as a tomb. The dimly lighted hallway was silent. The laboratory was dark. The room full of corpses was cold and lightless and still except for the insect hum of the blowers that pumped chill air through the wall vents.


As Thursday night changed to Friday morning, only one man was on duty in the morgue. He was in a small chamber adjacent to the M.E.'s private office. He was sitting in a spring-backed chair at an ugly metal and walnut-veneer desk. His name was Albert Wolwicz. He was twenty-nine years old, divorced, and the father of one child, a daughter named Rebecca. His wife had won custody of Becky. They both lived in San Diego now. Albert didn't mind working the (you should forgive the expression) graveyard shift. He did a little filing, then just sat and listened to the radio for a while, then did a bit more filing, then read a few chapters of a really good Stephen King novel about vampires on the loose in New England; and if the city remained cool all night, if the uniformed bulls and the meat wagon boys didn't start running in stretchers from gang fights or freeway accidents, it would be sweet duty all the way through to quitting time.

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