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Whispers

Whispers

Page 29


***


At three o'clock in the morning, Joshua Rhinehart woke, grunting and tussling briefly with the tangled sheets. He'd drunk a bit too much wine with dinner, which was most unusual for him. The buzz was gone, but his bladder was killing him; however, it was not merely the call of nature that had disturbed his sleep. He'd had a horrible dream about Tannerton's workroom. In that nightmare, several dead men--all of them duplicates of Bruno Frye--had risen up from their caskets and from the porcelain and stainless steel embalming tables; he had run into the night behind Forever View, but they had come after him, had searched the shadows for him, moving jerkily, calling his name in their flat dead voices.


He lay on his back in the darkness, staring at the ceiling which he could not see. The only sound was the nearly inaudible purr of the electronic digital clock on the nightstand.


Before his wife's death three years ago, Joshua had seldom dreamed. And he'd never had a nightmare. Not once in fifty-eight years. But after Cora passed away, all of that changed. He dreamed at least once or twice a week now, and more often than not the dream was a bad one. Many of them had to do with losing something terribly important but indescribable, and there always ensued a frantic but hopeless search for that which he had lost. He didn't need a fifty-dollar-an-hour psychiatrist to tell him that those dreams were about Cora and her untimely death. He still had not adjusted to life without her. Perhaps he never would. The other nightmares were filled with walking dead men who often looked like him, symbols of his own mortality; but tonight they all bore a striking resemblance to Bruno Frye.


He got out of bed, stretched, yawned. He shuffled to the bathroom without turning on a lamp.


A couple of minutes later, on his way back to bed, he stopped at the window. The panes were cold to the touch. A stiff wind pressed against the glass and made mewling sounds like an animal that wanted to be let inside. The valley was still and dark except for the lights of the wineries. He could see the Shade Tree Vineyards to the north, farther up in the hills.


Suddenly, his eye was caught by a fuzzy white dot just south of the winery, a single smudge of light in the middle of a vineyard, approximately where the Frye house stood. Lights in the Frye house? There wasn't supposed to be anyone there. Bruno had lived alone. Joshua squinted, but without his glasses, everything at a distance tended to grow hazier the harder he tried to focus on it. He couldn't tell if the light was at the Frye place or at one of the administration buildings between the house and the main winery complex. In fact, the longer he stared the less he was sure that it was a light he was watching; it was faint, lambent; it might only be a reflection of moonlight.


He went to the nightstand and, not wanting to turn on a lamp and spoil his night vision, he felt for his glasses in the dark. Before he found them, he knocked over an empty water glass.


When he got back to the window and looked up into the hills again, the mysterious light was gone.


Nevertheless, he stood there for a long while, a vigilant guardian. He was executor of the Frye estate, and it was his duty to preserve it for final distribution in accordance with the will. If burglars and vandals were stripping the house, he wanted to know about it. For fifteen minutes, he waited and watched, but the light never returned.


At last, convinced that his weak eyes had deceived him, he went back to bed.


***


Monday morning, as Tony and Frank pursued a series of possible leads on Bobby Valdez, Frank talked animatedly about Janet Yamada. Janet was so pretty. Janet was so intelligent. Janet was so understanding. Janet was this, and Janet was that. He was a bore on the subject of Janet Yamada, but Tony allowed him to gush and ramble. It was good to see Frank talking and acting like a normal human being.


Before checking out their unmarked police sedan and getting on the road, Tony and Frank had spoken to two men on the narcotics squad, Detectives Eddie Quevedo and Carl Hammerstein. The word from those two specialists was that Bobby Valdez was most likely selling either coc**ne or PCP to support himself while he pursued his unpaid vocation as a rapist. The biggest money in the L.A.


drug market was currently in those two illegal but extremely popular substances. A dealer could still make a fortune in he**in or grass, but those were no longer the most lucrative commodities in the underground pharmacy. According to the narcs, if Bobby was involved in drug traffic, he had to be a pusher, selling directly to users, a man at the lower end of the production and marketing structure. He was virtually penniless when he got out of prison last April, and he needed substantial capital to become either a manufacturer or an importer of narcotics. "What you're looking for is a common street hustler," Quevedo had told Tony and Frank. "Talk to other hustlers." Hammerstein had said, "We'll give you a list of names and addresses. They're all guys who've taken falls for dealing drugs. Most of them are probably dealing again; we just haven't caught them at it yet. Put on a little pressure. Sooner or later, you'll find one of them who's run into Bobby on the street and knows where he's holed up." There were twenty-four names on the list that Quevedo and Hammerstein had given them.


Three of the first six men were not at home. The other three swore they didn't know Bobby Valdez or Juan Mazquezza or anyone else with the face in the mug shots.


The seventh name on the list was Eugene Tucker, and he was able to help them. They didn't even have to lean on him. Most black men were actually one shade of brown or another, but Tucker was truly black. His face was broad and smooth and as black as tar. His dark brown eyes were far lighter than his skin. He had a bushy black beard that was salted with curly white hairs, and that touch of frosting was the only thing about him, other than the whites of his eyes, that was not very, very dark. He even wore black slacks and a black shirt. He was stocky, with a big chest and bigger arms, and his neck was as thick as a wharf post. He looked as if he snapped railroad ties in two for exercise--or maybe just for fun.


Tucker lived in a high-rent townhouse in the Hollywood Hills, a roomy place that was sparsely but tastefully furnished. The living room had only four pieces in it: a couch, two chairs, a coffee table. No end tables or fancy storage units. No stereo. No television set. There weren't even any lamps; at night, the only light would come from the ceiling fixture. But the four pieces that he did have were of remarkably high quality, and each item perfectly accented the others. Tucker had a taste for fine Chinese antiques. The couch and chairs, which recently had been reupholstered in jade-green velvet, were all made of hand-carved rosewood, a hundred years old, maybe twice that, immensely heavy and well-preserved, matchless examples of their period and style. The low table was also rosewood with a narrow inlaid ivory border. Tony and Frank sat on the couch, and Eugene Tucker perched on the edge of a chair opposite them.


Tony ran one hand along the rosewood arm of the couch and said, "Mr. Tucker, this is marvelous."


Tucker raised his eyebrows. "You know what it is?"


"I don't know the precise period," Tony said. "But I'm familiar enough with Chinese art to know this is definitely not a reproduction that you picked up on sale at Sears."


Tucker laughed, pleased that Tony knew the value of the furniture. "I know what you're thinking,"


he said good-naturedly. "You're wondering how an ex-con, just two years out of the stir, can afford all this. A twelve-hundred-dollar-a-month townhouse. Chinese antiques. You're wondering if maybe I've gotten back into the he**in trade or some allied field of endeavor."


"In fact," Tony said, "that's not what I'm asking myself at all. I am wondering how the devil you've done it. But I know it's not from selling junk."


Tucker smiled. "How can you be so sure?"


"If you were a drug dealer with a passion for Chinese antiques," Tony said, "you'd simply furnish the entire house at a single crack, instead of a piece or two at a time. You are clearly into something that earns a lot of bread, but not nearly as much as you'd make distributing dope like you used to do."


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Tucker laughed again and applauded approvingly. He turned to Frank and said, "Your partner is perceptive."


Frank smiled. "A regular Sherlock Holmes."


To Tucker, Tony said, "Satisfy my curiosity. What do you do?"


Tucker leaned forward, suddenly frowning, raising one granite fist and shaking it, looking huge and mean and very dangerous. When he spoke he snarled: "I design dresses."


Tony blinked.


Collapsing back in his chair, Tucker laughed again. He was one of the happiest people Tony had ever seen. "I design women's clothes," he said. "I really do. My name's already beginning to be known in the California design community, and some day it'll be a household word. I promise you."


Intrigued, Frank said, "According to our information, you did four years of an eight-year sentence for wholesaling he**in and cocaine. How'd you go from that to making women's clothes?"


"I used to be one mean son of a bitch," Tucker said. "And those first few months in prison, I was even meaner than usual. I blamed society for everything that happened to me. I blamed the white power structure. I blamed the whole world, but I just wouldn't put any blame on myself. I thought I was a tough dude, but I hadn't really grown up yet. You aren't a man until you accept responsibility for your life. A lot of people never do."


"So what turned you around?" Frank asked.


"A little thing," Tucker said. "Man, sometimes it amazes me how such a little thing can change a person's life. With me, it was a TV show. On the six o'clock news, one of the L.A. stations did a five-part series about black success stories in the city."


"I saw it," Tony said. "More than five years ago, but I still remember it."


"It was fascinating stuff," Tucker said. "It was an image of the black man you never get to see.


But at first, before the series began, everybody in the slammer figured it would be one big laugh.


We figured the reporter would spend all his time asking the same idiot question: 'Why can't all these poor black folks work hard and become rich Las Vegas headliners like Sammy Davis, Jr.?' But they didn't talk to any entertainers or sports stars."


Tony remembered that it had been a striking piece of journalism, especially for television, where news--and especially the human interest stories on the news--had as much depth as a teacup. The reporters had interviewed black businessmen and businesswomen who had made it to the top, people who had started out with nothing and eventually had become millionaires. Some in real estate. One in the restaurant business. One with a chain of beauty shops. About a dozen people. They all agreed that it was harder to get rich if you were black, but they also agreed that it was not as hard as they thought when they started out, and that it was easier in Los Angeles than in Alabama or Mississippi or even Boston or New York. There were more black millionaires in L.A. than in the rest of California and the other forty-nine states combined. In Los Angeles, almost everyone was living in the fast lane; the typical southern Californian did not merely accommodate himself to change but actively sought it and reveled in it. This atmosphere of flux and constant experimentation drew a lot of marginally sane and even insane people into the area, but it also attracted some of the brightest and most innovative minds in the country, which was why so many new cultural and scientific and industrial developments originated in the region. Very few Southern Californians had the time or patience for outmoded attitudes, one of which was racial prejudice. Of course, there was bigotry in L.A. But whereas a landed white family in Georgia might require six or eight generations to overcome its prejudice toward blacks, that same metamorphosis of attitudes often transpired in one generation of a Southern California family. As one of the black businessmen on the TV news report had said, "The Chicanos have been the niggers of L.A. for quite some time now." But already that was changing, too. The Hispanic culture was regarded with ever-increasing respect, and the browns were creating their own success stories. Several people interviewed on that news special had offered the same explanation for the unusual fluidity of Southern California's social structures and for the eagerness with which people there accepted change; it was, they said, partly because of geology. When you were living on some of the worst fault lines in the world, when the earth could quake and move and change under your feet without warning, did that awareness of impermanence have a subconscious influence on a person's attitudes toward less cataclysmic kinds of change? Some of those black millionaires thought it did, and Tony tended to agree with them.


"There were about a dozen rich black people on that program," Eugene Tucker said. "A lot of guys in the slammer with me just hooted at the TV and called them all Uncle Toms. But I started thinking. If some people on that show could make it in a white world, why couldn't I? I was just as clever and smart as any of them, maybe even smarter than some. It was a completely new image of a black man to me, a whole new idea, like a light bulb going on in my head. Los Angeles was my home. If it really offered a better chance, why hadn't I taken advantage of it? Sure, maybe some of those people had to act like Uncle Toms on their way to the top. But when you've made it, when you've got that million in the bank, you're nobody's man but your own." He grinned. "So I decided to get rich."


"Just like that," Frank said, impressed.


"Just like that."


"The power of positive thinking."


"Realistic thinking," Tucker corrected.


"Why dress designing?" Tucker asked.


"I took aptitude tests that said I'd do well in design work or any aspect of the art business. So I tried to decide what I'd most enjoy designing. Now, I've always liked to choose the clothes my girlfriends wear. I like to go shopping with them. And when they wear an outfit I've picked, they get more compliments than when they wear something they chose themselves. So I hooked up with a university program for inmates, and I studied design. Took a lot of business courses, too. When I was finally paroled, I worked for a while at a fast food restaurant. I lived in a cheap rooming house and kept my expenses down. I drew some designs, paid seamstresses to sew up samples, and started hawking my wares. It wasn't easy at first. Hell, it was damned hard! Every time I got an order from a shop, I walked it to the bank and borrowed money against it to complete the dresses.


Man, I was clawing to hold on. But it got better and better. It's pretty good now. In a year, I'll open my own shop in a good area. And eventually you'll see a sign in Beverly Hills that says


'Eugene Tucker.' I promise you."

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