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Whispers

Whispers

Page 24


At ten minutes past midnight, the phone rang. Albert picked it up. "Morgue."


Silence.


"Hello," Albert said.


The man on the other end of the line groaned in agony and began to cry.


"Who is this?"


Weeping, the caller could not respond.


The tortured sounds were almost a parody of grief, an exaggerated and hysterical sobbing that was the strangest thing Albert had ever heard. "If you'll tell me what's wrong, maybe I can help."


The caller hung up.


Albert stared at the receiver for a moment, finally shrugged and put it down.


He tried to pick up where he'd left off in the Stephen King novel, but he kept thinking he heard something shuffling through the doorway behind him. He turned around half a dozen times, but there was never anyone (or anything) there.


Four


FRIDAY MORNING.


Nine o'clock.


Two men from Angels' Hill Mortuary of West Los Angeles arrived at the city morgue to claim the body of Bruno Gunther Frye. They were working in association with the Forever View Funeral Home in the town of St. Helena, where the deceased had lived. One man from Angels' Hill signed the necessary release, and both men transferred the corpse from cold storage to the back of a Cadillac hearse.


***


Frank Howard did not appear to have a hangover. His complexion did not have that after-the-binge sallowness; he was ruddy and healthy-looking. His blue eyes were clear. Confession apparently was every bit as good for the soul as the proverb promised.


At first in the office, then in the car. Tony sensed the awkwardness he had anticipated, and he did his best to make Frank feel comfortable. In time, Frank seemed to realize that nothing had changed for the worse between them; indeed, the partnership was working far better than it had during the past three months. By mid-morning, they had established a degree of rapport that would make it possible for them to learn to function together almost as a single organism. They still did not interact with the perfect harmony that Tony had experienced with Michael Savatino, but now there did not seem to be any obstacles to the development of precisely that sort of deep relationship. They needed some time to adjust to each other, a few more months, but eventually they would share a psychic bond that would make their job immeasurably easier than it had been in the past.


Friday morning, they worked on leads in the Bobby Valdez case. There were not many trails to follow, and the first two led nowhere.


The Department of Motor Vehicles report on Juan Mazquezza was the first disappointment.


Apparently, Bobby Valdez had used a phony birth certificate and other false ID to obtain a valid driver's license under the name Juan Mazquezza. But the last address the DMV could provide was the one from which Bobby had moved last July, the Las Palmeras Apartments on La Brea Avenue. There were two other Juan Mazquezzas in the DMV files. One was a nineteen-year-old boy who lived in Fresno. The other Juan was a sixty-seven-year-old man in Tustin. They both owned automobiles with California registrations, but neither of them had a Jaguar. The Juan Mazquezza who had lived on La Brea Avenue had never registered a car, which meant that Bobby had bought the Jaguar using yet another phony name. Evidently, he had a source for forged documents of extremely high quality.


Dead end.


Tony and Frank returned to the Vee Vee Gee Laundry and questioned the employees who had worked with Bobby when he'd been using the Mazquezza name. They hoped that someone would have kept in touch with him after he quit his job and would know where he was living now. But everyone said Juan had been a loner; no one knew where he'd gone.


Dead end.


After they left Vee Vee Gee, they went to lunch at an omelet house that Tony liked. In addition to the main dining room, the restaurant had an open-air brick terrace where a dozen tables stood under blue- and white-striped umbrellas. Tony and Frank ate salads and cheese omelets in the warm autumn breeze.


"You doing anything tomorrow night?" Tony asked.


"Me?"


"You."


"No. Nothing."


"Good. I've arranged something."


"What?"


"A blind date."


"For me?"


"You're half of it."


"Are you serious?"


"I called her this morning."


"Forget it," Frank said.


"She's perfect for you."


"I hate match-making."


"She's a gorgeous woman."


"Not interested."


"And sweet."


"I'm not a kid."


"Who said you were?"


"I don't need you to fix me up with someone."


"Sometimes a guy does that for a friend. Doesn't he?"


"I can find my own dates."


"Only a fool would turn down this lady."


"Then I'm a fool."


Tony sighed. "Suit yourself."


"Look, what I said last night at The Bolt Hole...."


"Yeah?"


"I wasn't looking for sympathy."


"Everybody needs some sympathy now and then."


"I just wanted you to understand why I've been in such a foul mood."


"And I do understand."


"I didn't mean to give you the impression that I'm a jerk, that I'm a sucker for the wrong kind of woman."


"You didn't give me that impression at all."


"I've never broken down like that before."


"I believe it."


"I've never ... cried like that."


"I know."


"I guess I was just tired."


"Sure."


"Maybe it was all that liquor."


"Maybe."


"I drank a lot last night."


"Quite a lot."


"The liquor made me sentimental."


"Maybe."


"But now I'm all right."


"Who said you weren't?"


"I can get my own dates, Tony."


"Whatever you say."


"Okay?"


"Okay."


They concentrated on their cheese omelets.


There were several large office buildings nearby, and dozens of secretaries in bright dresses paraded past on the sidewalk, going to lunch.


Flowers ringed the restaurant terrace and perfumed the sun-coppered air.


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The noise on the street was typically that of L.A. It wasn't the incessant barking of brakes and screaming of horns that you heard in New York or Chicago or most other cities. Just the hypnotic grumble of engines. And the air-cutting whoosh of passing cars. A lulling noise. Soothing. Like the tide on the beach. Made by machines but somehow natural, primal. Also subtly and inexpressibly erotic. Even the sounds of the traffic conformed to the city's subconscious subtropical personality.


After a couple of minutes of silence, Frank said, "What's her name?"


"Who?"


"Don't be a smartass."


"Janet Yamada."


"Japanese?"


"Does she sound Italian?"


"What's she like?"


"Intelligent, witty, good-looking."


"What's she do?"


"Works at city hall."


"How old is she?"


"Thirty-six, thirty-seven."


"Too young for me?"


"You're only forty-five, for God's sake."


"How'd you come to know her?"


"We dated for a while," Tony said.


"What went wrong?"


"Nothing. We just discovered we make better friends than lovers."


"You think I'll like her?"


"Positive."


"And she'll like me?"


"If you don't pick your nose or eat with your hands."


"Okay," Frank said. "I'll go out with her."


"If it's going to be an ordeal for you, maybe we should just forget it."


"No. I'll go. It'll be okay."


"You don't have to do it just to please me."


"Give me her phone number."


"I don't feel right about this," Tony said. "I feel like I've forced you into something."


"You haven't forced me."


"I think I should call her and cancel the arrangements," Tony said.


"No, listen, I--"


"I shouldn't try to be a matchmaker. I'm lousy at it."


"Dammit, I want to go out with her!" Frank said.


Tony smiled broadly. "I know."


"Have I just been manipulated?"


"You manipulated yourself."


Frank tried to scowl, but couldn't. He grinned instead. "Want to double-date Saturday night?"


"No way. You've got to stand on your own, my friend."


"And besides," Frank said knowingly. "you don't want to share Hilary Thomas with anyone else."


"Exactly."


"You really think it can work with you two?"


"You make it sound like we're planning to get married. It's just a date."


"But even for a date, won't it be ... awkward?"


"Why should it be?" Tony asked.


"Well, she's got all that money."


"That's a male chauvinist remark if I ever heard one."


"You don't think that'll make it difficult?"


"When a man has some money, does he have to limit his dating to women who have an equal amount of money?"


"That's different."


"When a king decides to marry a shopgirl, we think it's too romantic for words. But when a queen wants to marry a shopboy, we think she's letting herself be played for a fool. Classic double standard."


"Well ... good luck."


"And to you as well."


"Ready to go back to work?"


"Yeah," Tony said. "Let's find Bobby Valdez."


"Judge Crater might be easier."


"Or Amelia Earhart."


"Or Jimmy Hoffa."


***


Friday afternoon.


One o'clock.


The body lay on an embalming table at Angels' Hill Mortuary in West Los Angeles. A tag wired to the big toe on the right foot identified the deceased as Bruno Gunther Frye.


A death technician prepared the body for shipment to Napa County. He swabbed it down with a long-lasting disinfectant. The intestines and other soft abdominal organs were pulled out of the dead man through the only available natural body opening and discarded. Because of the stab wounds and the autopsy that had taken place the previous night, there was not much unclotted blood or other fluids remaining in the corpse, but those last few dollops were forced out nonetheless; embalming fluid took their place.


The technician whistled a Donny and Marie Osmond hit while he labored over the dead man.


The Angels' Hill Mortuary was not responsible for any cosmetic work on the corpse. That would be handled by the mortician in St. Helena. The Angels' Hill technician merely tucked the sightless eyes shut forever and sewed up the lips with a series of tight interior stitches which froze the wide mouth in a vague eternal smile. It was a neat job: none of the sutures would be visible to the mourners--if there were any mourners.


Next, the deceased was wrapped in a opaque white shroud and put into a cheap aluminum coffin that met minimum construction and seal standards set by the state for the conveyance of a dead body by any and all means of public transportation. In St. Helena, it would be transferred to a more impressive casket, one that would be chosen by the family or friends of the loved one.


At 4:00 Friday afternoon, the body was taken to the Los Angeles International Airport and put into the cargo hold of a California Airways propjet destined for Monterey, Santa Rosa, and Sacramento.


It would be taken off the plane at the second stop.


At 6:30 Friday evening, in Santa Rosa, there was no one from Bruno Frye's family at the small airport. He had no relatives. He was the last of his line. His grandfather had brought only one child into the world, a lovely daughter named Katherine, and she had produced no children at all.


Bruno was adopted. He never had married.


Three people waited on the Tarmac behind the small terminal, and two of them were from the Forever View Funeral Home. Mr. Avril Thomas Tannerton was the owner of Forever View, which served St.


Helena and the surrounding communities in that part of the Napa Valley. He was forty-three, good-looking, slightly pudgy but not fat, with lots of reddish-blond hair, a scattering of freckles, lively eyes, and an easy warm smile that he had difficulty suppressing. He had come to Santa Rosa with his twenty-four-year-old assistant, Gary Olmstead, a slightly-built man who seldom talked more than the dead with whom he worked. Tannerton made you think of a choirboy, a veneer of genuine piety over a core of good-natured mischievousness; but Olmstead had a long, mournful, ascetic face perfectly suited to his profession.


The third man was Joshua Rhinehart, Bruno Frye's local attorney and executor of the Frye estate.


He was sixty-one years old, and he had the looks that would have contributed to a successful career as a diplomat or politician. His hair was thick and white, swept back from brow and temples, not chalk-white, not yellow-white, but a lustrous silver-white. A broad forehead. A long proud nose. A strong jaw and chin. His coffee-brown eyes were quick and clear.


The body of Bruno Frye was transferred from the aircraft to the hearse, then driven back to St.


Helena. Joshua Rhinehart followed in his own car.


Neither business nor personal obligations had required Joshua to make this trip to Santa Rosa with Avril Tannerton. Over the years, he had done quite a lot of work for Shade Tree Vineyards, the company that had been wholly owned by the Frye family for three generations, but he had long ago ceased to need the income from that account, and in fact it had become considerably more trouble than it was worth. He continued to handle the Frye family's affairs largely because he still remembered the time, thirty-five years ago, when he had been struggling to build a practice in rural Napa County and had been helped immeasurably by Katherine Frye's decision to give him all the family's legal business. Yesterday, when he heard that Bruno was dead, he hadn't grieved at all. Neither Katherine nor her adopted son had ever inspired affection, and they most certainly had not encouraged the special emotional ties of friendship. Joshua accompanied Avril Tannerton to the Santa Rosa airport only because he wanted to be in a position to manage the arrival of the corpse in case any reporters showed up and tried to turn the event into a circus. Although Bruno had been an unstable man, a very sick man, perhaps even a profoundly evil man, Joshua was determined that the funeral would be carried out with dignity. He felt he owed the dead man that much. Besides, for most of his life, Joshua was a stalwart supporter and promoter of the Napa Valley, championing both its quality of life and its magnificent wine, and he did not want to see the fabric of the entire community stained by the criminal acts of one man.

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