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Whispers

Page 27


"That mural was excellent."


"There's a big difference between restaurant murals and fine art."


"That mural was fine art."


"Again, I've got to point out that you aren't an expert."


"I buy paintings for both pleasure and investment."


"With the aid of a gallery director for the investment part?" he asked.


"That's right. Wyant Stevens in Beverly Hills."


"Then he's the expert, not you."


"Why don't you show some of your work to him?"


"I can't take rejection."


"I'll bet he won't reject you."


"Can we not talk about my painting?"


"Why?"


"I'm bored."


"You're difficult."


"And bored," he said.


"What shall we talk about?"


"Well, why don't we talk about whether or not you're going to invite me in for brandy."


"Would you like to come in for brandy?"


"Cognac?"


"That's what I have."


"What label?"


"Remy Martin."


"The best." He grinned. "But, gee, I don't know. It's getting awfully late."


"If you don't come in," she said, "I'll just have to drink alone." She was enjoying the silly game.


"Can't let you drink alone," he said.


"That's one sign of alcoholism."


"It certainly is."


"If you don't come in for a brandy with me, you'll be starting me on the road to problem drinking and complete destruction."


"I'd never forgive myself."


Fifteen minutes later, they were sitting side by side on the couch, in front of the fireplace, watching the flames and sipping Remy Martin.


Hilary felt slightly light-headed, not from the cognac but from being next to him--and from wondering if they were going to go to bed together. She had never slept with a man on the first date. She was usually wary, reluctant to commit herself to an affair until she had spent a couple of weeks--sometimes a couple of months--evaluating the man. More than once she had taken so long to make up her mind that she had lost men who might have made wonderful lovers and lasting friends. But in just one evening with Tony Clemenza, she felt at ease and perfectly safe with him.


He was a damned attractive man. Tall. Dark. Rugged good looks. The inner authority and self-confidence of a cop. Yet gentle. Really surprisingly gentle. And sensitive. So much time had passed since she'd allowed herself to be touched and possessed, since she'd used and been used and shared. How could she have let so much time pass? She could easily imagine herself in his arms, na*ed beneath him, then atop him, and as those lovely images filled her mind, she realized that he was probably having the same sweet thoughts.


Then the telephone rang.


"Damn!" she said.


"Someone you don't want to hear from?"


She turned and looked at the phone, which was a walnut box model that stood on a corner desk. It rang, rang.


"Hilary?"


"I'll bet it's him," she said.


"Him who?"


"I've been getting these calls...."


The strident ringing continued.


"What calls?" Tony asked.


"The last couple of days, someone's been calling and then refusing to speak when I answer. It's happened six or eight times."


"He doesn't say anything at all?"


"He just listens," she said. "I think it's some nut who was turned on by the newspaper stories about Frye."


The insistent bell made her grit her teeth.


She stood up and hesitantly approached the phone. Tony went with her. "You have a listed number?"


"I'm getting a new one next week. It'll be unlisted."


They reached the desk and stood looking at the phone. It rang again and again and again.


"It's him," she said. "Who else would let it ring that long?"


Tony snatched up the receiver. "Hello?"


The caller didn't respond.


"Thomas residence," Tony said. "Detective Clemenza speaking."


Click.


Tony put the phone down and said, "He hung up. Maybe I scared him off for good."


"I hope so."


"It's still a good idea to get an unlisted number."


"Oh, I'm not going to change my mind about that."


"I'll call the telephone company service department first thing Monday morning and tell them the LAPD would appreciate a speedy job."


"Can you do that?"


"Sure."


"Thank you, Tony." She hugged herself. She felt cold.


"Try not to worry about it," he said. "Studies show that the kind of creep who makes threatening phone calls usually gets all his kicks that way. The call itself usually satisfies him. He usually isn't the violent type."


"Usually?"


"Almost never."


She smiled thinly. "That's still not good enough."


The call had spoiled any chance that the night might end in a shared bed. She was no longer in the mood for seduction, and Tony sensed the change.


"Would you like me to stay a while longer, just to see if he calls again?"


"That's sweet of you," she said, "But I guess you're right. He's not dangerous. If he was, he'd come around instead of just calling. Anyway, you scared him off. He probably thinks the police are here just waiting for him."


"Did you get your pistol back?"


She nodded. "I went downtown yesterday and filled out the registration form like I should have done when I moved into the city. If the guy on the phone does come around, I can plink him legally now."


"I really don't think he'll bother you again tonight."


"I'm sure you're right."


For the first time all evening, they were awkward with each other.


"Well, I guess I'd better be going."


"It is late," she agreed.


"Thank you for the cognac."


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"Thank you for a wonderful dinner."


At the door he said, "Doing anything tomorrow night?"


She was about to turn him down when she remembered how good she had felt sitting beside him on the sofa. And she thought of Wally Topelis's warning about becoming a hermit. She smiled and said,


"I'm free."


"Great. What would you like to do?"


"Whatever you want."


He thought about it for a moment, "Shall we make a whole day of it?"


"Well ... why not?"


"We'll start with lunch. I'll pick you up at noon."


"I'll be ready and waiting."


He kissed her lightly and affectionately on the lips, "Tomorrow," he said,


"Tomorrow."


She watched him leave, then closed and locked the door.


***


All day Saturday, morning and afternoon and evening, the body of Bruno Frye lay alone in the Forever View Funeral Home, unobserved and unattended.


Friday night, after Joshua Rhinehart had left, Avril Tannerton and Gary Olmstead had transferred the corpse to another coffin, an ornate brass-plated model with a plush velvet and silk interior.


They tucked the dead man into a white burial gown, put his arms straight out at his sides, and pulled a white velvet coverlet up to the middle of his chest. Because the condition of the flesh was not good, Tannerton did not want to expend any energy trying to make the corpse presentable.


Gary Olmstead thought there was something cheap and disrespectful about consigning a body to the grave without benefit of makeup and powder. But Tannerton persuaded him that cosmetology offered little hope for Bruno Frye's shrunken yellow-gray countenance.


"And anyway," Tannerton had said, "you and I will be the last people in this world to lay eyes on him. When we shut this box tonight, it'll never be opened again."


At 9:45 Friday night, they had closed and latched the lid of the casket. That done, Olmstead went home to his wan little wife and his quiet and intense young son. Avril went upstairs; he lived above the rooms of the dead.


Early Saturday morning, Tannerton left for Santa Rosa in his silver-gray Lincoln. He took an overnight bag with him, for he didn't intend to return until ten o'clock Sunday morning. Bruno Frye's funeral was the only one that he was handling at the moment. Since there was to be no viewing, he hadn't any reason to stay at Forever View; he wouldn't be needed until the service on Sunday,


He had a woman in Santa Rosa. She was the latest of a long line of women; Avril thrived on variety. Her name was Helen Virtillion. She was a good-looking woman in her early thirties, very lean, taut, with big firm br**sts which he found endlessly fascinating.


A lot of women were attracted to Avril Tannerton, not in spite of what he did for a living but because of it. Of course, some were turned off when they discovered he was a mortician. But a surprising number were intrigued and even excited by his unusual profession.


He understood what made him desirable to them. When a man worked with the dead, some of the mystery of death rubbed off on him. In spite of his freckles and his boyish good looks, in spite of his charming smile and his great sense of fun and his open-hearted manner, some women felt he was nonetheless mysterious, enigmatic. Unconsciously, they thought they could not die so long as they were in his arms, as if his services to the dead earned him (and those close to him) special dispensation. That atavistic fantasy was similar to the secret hope shared by many women who married doctors because they were subconsciously convinced that their spouses could protect them from all of the microbial dangers of this world.


Therefore, all day Saturday, while Avril Tannerton was in Santa Rosa making love to Helen Virtillion, the body of Bruno Frye lay alone in an empty house.


Sunday morning, two hours before sunrise, there was a sudden rush of movement in the funeral home, but Tannerton was not there to notice.


The overhead lights in the windowless workroom were switched on abruptly, but Tannerton was not there to see.


The lid of the sealed casket was unlatched and thrown back. The workroom was filled with screams of rage and pain, but Tannerton was not there to hear.


***


At ten o'clock Sunday morning, as Tony stood in his kitchen drinking a glass of grapefruit juice, the telephone rang. It was Janet Yamada, the woman who had been Frank Howard's blind date last night.


"How'd it go?" he asked.


"It was wonderful, a wonderful night."


"Really?"


"Sure. He's a doll."


"Frank is a doll."


"You said he might be kind of cold, difficult to get to know, but he wasn't."


"He wasn't?"


"And he's so romantic."


"Frank?"


"Who else?"


"Frank Howard is romantic?"


"These days you don't find many men who have a sense of romance," Janet said. "Sometimes it seems like romance and chivalry were thrown out the window when the sexual revolution and the women's rights movement came in. But Frank still helps you on with your coat and opens doors for you and pulls your chair out and everything. He even brought me a bouquet of roses. They're beautiful."


"I thought you might have trouble talking to him."


"Oh, no. We have a lot of the same interests."


"Like what?"


"Baseball, for one thing."


"That's right! I forgot you like baseball."


"I'm an addict."


"So you talked baseball all night."


"Oh, no," she said. "We talked about a lot of other things. Movies--"


"Movies? Are you trying to tell me Frank is a film buff?"


"He knows the old Bogart pictures almost line by line. We traded favorite bits of dialogue."


"I've been talking about film for three months, and he hasn't opened his mouth," Tony said.


"He hasn't seen a lot of recent pictures, but we're going to a show tonight."


"You're seeing him again?"


"Yeah. I wanted to call and thank you for fixing me up with him," she said.


"Am I one hell of a matchmaker, or am I one hell of a matchmaker?"


"I also wanted to let you know that even if it doesn't work out, I'll be gentle with him. He told me about Wilma. What a rotten thing! I wanted you to know that I'm aware she put a couple of cracks in him, and I won't ever hit him too hard."


Tony was amazed. "He told you about Wilma the first night he met you?"


"He said he used to be unable to talk about it, but then you showed him how to handle his hostility."


"Me?"


"He said after you helped him accept what had happened, he could talk about it without pain."


"All I did was sit and listen when he wanted to get it off his chest."


"He thinks you're a hell of a great guy."


"Frank's a damned good judge of people, isn't he?"


Later, feeling good about the excellent impression that Frank had made on Janet Yamada, optimistic about his own chances for a little romance, Tony drove to Westwood to keep his date with Hilary.


She was waiting for him; she came out of the house as he pulled into the driveway. She looked crisp and lovely in black slacks, a cool ice-blue blouse, and a lightweight blue corduroy blazer.


As he opened the door for her, she gave him a quick, almost shy kiss on the cheek, and he got a whiff of fresh lemony perfume.


It was going to be a good day.


***


Exhausted from a nearly sleepless night in Helen Virtillion's bedroom, Avril Tannerton got back from Santa Rosa shortly before ten o'clock Sunday morning.


He did not look inside the coffin.


With Gary Olmstead, Tannerton went to the cemetery and prepared the gravesite for the two o'clock ceremony. They erected the equipment that would lower the casket into the ground. Using flowers and a lot of cut greenery, they made the site as attractive as possible.


At 12:30 back at the funeral home, Tannerton used a chamois cloth to wipe the dust and smudged fingerprints from Bruno Frye's brass-plated casket. As he ran his hand over the rounded edges of the box, he thought of the magnificent contours of Helen Virtillion's breasts.


He did not look inside the coffin.


At one o'clock, Tannerton and Olmstead loaded the deceased into the hearse.


Neither of them looked inside the coffin.

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