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Whispers

Whispers

Page 25


Fortunately, there had not been a single reporter at the airport.


They drove back to St. Helena through creeping shadows and dying light, east from Santa Rosa, across the southern end of the Sonoma Valley, into the five-mile-wide Napa Valley, then north in the purple-yellow gloaming. As he followed the hearse, Joshua admired the countryside, something he had done with ever-increasing pleasure for the last thirty-five years. The looming mountain ridges were thick with pine and fir and birch, lighted only along their crests by the westering sun, already out of sight; those ridges were ramparts, Joshua thought, great walls keeping out the corrupting influences of a less civilized world than that which lay within. Below the mountains the rolling hills were studded with black-trunked oaks and covered with long dry grass that, in the daylight, looked as blond and soft as cornsilk; but now in the gathering dusk which leeched away its color, the grass shimmered in dark waves, awash in the ebb and glow of a gentle breeze.


Beyond the boundaries of the small quaint towns, endless vineyards sprang up on some of the hills and on nearly all of the rich flatland. In 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson had written of the Napa Valley: "One corner of land after another is tried with one kind of grape after another. This is a failure; that is better; a third is best. So, bit by bit, they grope about for their Clos Vougeot and Lafite ... and the wine is bottled poetry." When Stevenson had been honeymooning in the valley and writing Silverado Squatters, there had been fewer than four thousand acres in vines. By the coming of the Great Plague--Prohibition--in 1920, there had heen ten thousand acres producing viniferous grapes. Today, there were thirty thousand acres bringing forth grapes that were far sweeter and less acidic than those grown anywhere else in the world, as much productive land as in all of the Sonoma Valley, which was twice as large as the Napa. Tucked in among the vineyards were the great wineries and houses, some of them converted from abbeys and monasteries and Spanish-style missions, others built along clean modern lines. Thank God, Joshua thought, only a couple of the newer wineries had opted for the sterile factory look that was an insult to the eye and a blight upon the valley. Most of man's handiwork either complemented or at least did not intrude upon the truly dazzling natural beauty of his unique and idyllic place. As he followed the hearse toward Forever View, Joshua saw lights come on in the windows of the houses, soft yellow lights that brought a sense of warmth and civilization to the encroaching night. The wine is bottled poetry, Joshua thought, and the land from which it comes is God's greatest work of art: my land; my home; how lucky I am to be here when there are so many less charming, less pleasant places in which I might have wound up.


Like in an aluminum coffin, dead.


Forever View stood a hundred yards back from the two-lane highway, just south of St. Helena. It was a big white colonial-style house, with a circular driveway, marked by a tasteful white and green hand-painted sign. As darkness fell, a single white spotlight came on automatically, softly illuminating the sign; and a low row of electric carriage lamps marked the circular driveway with a curve of amber light.


There were no reporters waiting at Forever View either. Joshua was pleased to see that the Napa County press evidently shared his strong aversion to unnecessary bad publicity.


Tannerton drove the hearse around to the rear of the huge white house. He and Olmstead slid the coffin onto a cart and wheeled it inside.


Joshua joined them in the mortician's workroom.


An effort had been made to give the chamber an airy cheerful ambience. The ceiling was covered with prettily textured acoustical tile. The walls were painted pale blue, the blue of a robin's egg, the blue of a baby's blanket, the blue of new life. Tannerton touched a wall switch, and lilting music carne from stereo speakers, bright soaring music, nothing somber, nothing heavy.


To Joshua, at least, the place reeked of death in spite of everything that Avril Tannerton had done to make it cosy. The air bore traces of the pungent fumes from embalming fluid, and there was a sweet cover-up aerosol scent of carnations that only reminded him of funeral bouquets. The floor was glossy white ceramic tile, freshly scrubbed, a bit slippery for anyone not wearing rubber-soled shoes; Tannerton and Gary Olmstead were wearing them, but Joshua was not. At first, the tile gave an impression of openness and cleanliness, but then Joshua realized the floor was grimly utilitarian; it had to have a stainproof surface that would resist the corroding effects of spilled blood and bile and other even more noxious substances.


Tannerton's clients, the relatives of the deceased, would never be brought into this room, for the bitter truth of death was too obvious here. In the front of the house, where the viewing chambers were decorated with heavy wine-red velvet drapes and plush carpets and dark wood paneling and brass lamps, where the lighting was low and artfully arranged, the phrases "passed away" and


"called home by God" could be taken seriously; in the front rooms, the atmosphere encouraged a belief in heaven and the ascendance of the spirit. But in the tile-floored workroom with the lingering stink of embalming fluid and the shiny array of mortician's instruments lined up on enamel trays, death seemed depressingly clinical and unquestionably final.


Olmstead opened the aluminum coffin.


Avril Tannerton folded back the plastic shroud, revealing the body from the h*ps up.


Joshua looked down at the waxy yellow-gray corpse and shivered. "Ghastly."


"I know this is a trying time for you," Tannerton said in practiced mournful tones.


"Not at all," Joshua said. "I won't be a hypocrite and pretend grief. I knew very little about the man, and I didn't particularly like what I did know. Ours was strictly a business relationship."


Tannerton blinked. "Oh. Well ... then perhaps you would prefer us to handle the funeral arrangements through one of the deceased's friends."


"I don't think he had any," Joshua said.


They stared down at the body for a moment, silent.


"Ghastly," Joshua said again.


"Of course," Tannerton said, "no cosmetic work has been done. Absolutely none. If I could have gotten to him soon after death, he'd look much better."


"Can you ... do anything with him?"


"Oh, certainly. But it won't be easy. He's been dead a day and a half, and though he's been kept refrigerated--"


"Those wounds," Joshua said thickly, staring at the hideously scarred abdomen with morbid fascination. "Dear God, she really cut him."


"Most of that was done by the coroner," Tannerton said. "This small slit is a stab wound. And this one."


"The pathologist did a good job with his mouth," Olmstead said appreciatively.


"Yes, didn't he?" Tannerton said, touching the sealed lips of the corpse. "It's unusual to find a coroner with an aesthetic sense."


"Rare." Olmstead said.


Joshua shook his head. "I still find it hard to believe."


"Five years ago," Tannerton said, "I buried his mother. That's when I met him. He seemed a little


... strange. But I figured it was the stress and the grief. He was such an important man, such a leading figure in the community."


"Cold," Joshua said. "He was an extremely cold and self-contained man. Vicious in business.


Winning a battle with a competitor wasn't always enough for him; if at all possible, he preferred to utterly destroy the other fellow. I've always thought he was capable of cruelty and physical violence. But attempted rape? Attempted murder?"


Tannerton looked at Joshua and said, "Mr. Rhinehart, I've often heard it said that you don't mince words. You've got a reputation, a much admired reputation, for saying exactly what you think and to hell with the cost. But...."


"But what?"


"But when you're speaking of the dead, don't you think you ought to--"


Joshua smiled. "Son, I'm a cantankerous old bastard and not entirely admirable. Far from it! As long as truth is my weapon, I don't mind hurting the feelings of the living. Why, I've made children cry, and I've made kindly gray-haired grandmothers weep. I have little compassion for fools and sons of bitches when they're alive. So why should I show more respect than that for the dead?"


"I'm just not accustomed to--"


"Of course, you're not. Your profession requires you to speak well of the deceased, regardless of who he might have been and what heinous things he might have done. I don't hold that against you.


It's your job."


Tannerton couldn't think of anything to say. He closed the lid of the coffin.


"Let's settle on the arrangements," Joshua said. "I'd like to get home and have my dinner--if I have any appetite left when I leave here." He sat down on a high stool beside a glass-fronted cabinet that contained more tools of the mortician's trade.


Tannerton paced in front of him, a freckled, mop-haired bundle of energy. "How important is it to you to have the usual viewing?"


"Usual viewing?"


"An open casket. Would you find it offensive if we avoided that?"


"I hadn't really given it a thought," Joshua said.


"To be honest with you, I don't know how ... presentable the deceased can be made to look,"


Tannerton said. "The people at Angels' Hill didn't give him quite a full enough look when they embalmed him. His face appears to be somewhat drawn and shrunken. I am not pleased. I am definitely not pleased. I could attempt to pump him up a bit, but patchwork like that seldom looks good. As for cosmetology ... well ... again, I wonder if too much time has passed. I mean, he apparently was in the hot sun for a couple of hours after he died, before he was found. And then it was eighteen hours in cold storage before the embalming was done. I can certainly make him look a great deal better than he does now. But as for bringing the glow of life back to his face....


You see, after all that he's been through, after the extremes of temperature, and after this much time, the skin texture has changed substantially; it won't take makeup and powder at all well. I think perhaps--"


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Beginning to get queasy, Joshua interrupted. "Make it a closed casket."


"No viewing?"


"No viewing."


"You're sure?"


"Positive."


"Good. Let me see.... Will you want him buried in one of his suits?"


"Is it necessary, considering the casket won't be open?"


"It would be easier for me if I just tucked him into one of our burial gowns."


"That'll be fine."


"White or a nice dark blue?"


"Do you have something in polka dots?"


"Polka dots?"


"Or orange and yellow stripes?"


Tannerton's ever-ready grin slipped from beneath his dour funeral director expression, and he struggled to force it out of sight again. Joshua suspected that, privately, Avril was a fun-loving man, the kind of hail-fellow-well-met who would make a good drinking buddy; but he seemed to feel that his public image required him to be somber and humorless at all times. He was visibly upset when he slipped up and allowed the private Avril to appear when only the public man ought to be seen. He was, Joshua thought, a likely candidate for an eventual schizophrenic breakdown.


"Make it the white gown," Joshua said.


"What about the casket? What style would--"


"I'll leave that to you."


"Very well. Price range?"


"Might as well have the best. The estate can afford it."


"The rumor is he must have been worth two or three million."


"Probably twice that," Joshua said.


"But he really didn't live like it."


"Or die like it," Joshua said.


Tannerton thought about that for a moment, then said, "Any religious services?"


"He didn't attend church."


"Then shall I assume the minister's role?"


"If you wish."


"We'll have a short graveside service," Tannerton said. "I'll read something from the Bible, or perhaps just a simple inspirational piece, something nondenominational."


They agreed on a time for burial: Sunday at two o'clock in the afternoon. Bruno would be laid to rest beside Katherine, his adoptive mother, in the Napa County Memorial Park.


As Joshua got up to leave, Tannerton said, "I certainly hope you've found my services valuable thus far, and I assure you I'll do everything in my power to make the rest of this go smoothly."


"Well," Joshua said, "you've convinced me of one thing. I'm going to draw up a new will tomorrow.


When my times comes, I sure as hell intend to be cremated."


Tannerton nodded. "We can handle that for you."


"Don't rush me, son. Don't rush me."


Tannerton blushed. "Oh, I didn't mean to--"


"I know, I know. Relax."


Tannerton cleared his throat uncomfortably. "I'll... uh ... show you to the door."


"No need. I can find it myself."


Outside, behind the funeral home, the night was very dark and deep. There was only one light, a hundred-watt bulb above the rear door. The glow reached only a few feet into the velveteen blackness.


In the late afternoon, a breeze had sprung up, and with the coming of the night, it had grown into a gusty wind. The air was turbulent and chilly; it hissed and moaned.


Joshua walked to his car, which lay beyond the meager semicircle of frosty light, and as he opened the door he had the peculiar feeling he was being watched. He glanced back at the house, but there were no faces at the windows.


Something moved in the gloom. Thirty feet away. Near the three-car garage. Joshua sensed rather than saw it. He squinted, but his vision was not what it had once been; he couldn't discern anything unnatural in the night.


Just the wind, he thought. Just the wind stirring through the trees and bushes or pushing along a discarded newspaper, a piece of dry brush.


But then it moved again. He saw it this time. It was crouched in front of a row of shrubs leading out from the garage. He could not see any detail. It was just a shadow, a lighter purple-black smudge on the blue-black cloth of the night, as soft and lumpy and undefined as all the other shadows--except that this one moved.


Just a dog, Joshua thought. A stray dog. Or maybe a kid up to some mischief.


"Is someone there?"


No reply.


He took a few steps away from his car.


The shadow-thing scurried back ten or twelve feet, along the line of shrubbery. It stopped in an especially deep pool of darkness, still crouching, still watchful.

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