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Whispers

Whispers

Page 33


"I was hoping you'd say that."


Hilary freshened up and changed clothes. She was ready to leave fifteen minutes before the repairman had finished with the phones, and she never endured a longer quarter-hour.


In the car, on the way to Tony's place, she recalled how she had felt in that dark moment when she'd thought Tony was seriously hurt, perhaps dead. She nearly had been sick to her stomach. An intolerable sense of loss had filled her.


Last night, in bed, awaiting sleep, she had argued with herself about whether or not she loved Tony. Could she possibly love anyone after the physical and psychological torture she had suffered as a child, after what she had learned about the ugly duplicitous nature of most other human beings? And could she love a man she'd known for only a few days? The argument still wasn't settled. But now she knew that she dreaded losing Tony Clemenza in a way and to a degree that she had never feared losing anyone else in her life.


At his apartment complex, she parked beside the blue Jeep.


He lived upstairs in a two-story building. Glass wind chimes were hung from the balcony near one of the other apartments; they sounded melancholy in the late-afternoon breeze.


When he answered the door, he wasn't surprised to see her. "I guess Michael called you."


"Yes. Why didn't you?" she asked.


"He probably told you I'm a total wreck. As you can see, he exaggerates."


"He's concerned about you."


"I can handle it," he said, forcing a smile. "I'm okay."


In spite of his attempt to play down his reaction to Frank Howard's death, she saw the haunted look in his face and the bleak expression in his eyes.


She wanted to hug him and console him, but she was not very good with people in ordinary circumstances, let alone in a situation like this. Besides, she sensed that he had to be ready for consolation before she dared offer it, and he was not.


"I'm coping," he insisted.


"Can I come in anyway?"


"Oh. Sure. Sorry."


He lived in a one-bedroom bachelor apartment, but the living room, at least, was large and airy.


It had a high ceiling and a row of big windows in the north wall.


"Good northern light for a painter," Hilary said.


"That's why I rented the place."


It looked more like a studio than like a living room. A dozen of his eye-catching paintings hung on the walls. Other canvases were standing on the floor, leaning against the walls, stacks of them in some places, sixty or seventy in all. Two easels held works in progress. There were also a large drawing table, stool, and artist's supply cabinet. Tall shelves were jammed full of oversized art books. The only concessions to ordinary living room decor were two short sofas, two end tables, two lamps, a coffee table--all of which were arranged to form a cozy conversation corner. Although its arrangement was peculiar, the room had great warmth and livability.


"I've decided to get drunk," Tony said as he closed the door. "Very drunk. Totally smashed. I was just pouring my first drink when you rang. Would you like something?"


"What are you drinking?" she asked.


"Bourbon on the rocks."


"Make it the same for me."


While he was in the kitchen preparing drinks, she took a closer look at his paintings. Some of them were ultra-realistic; in these the detail was so fine, so brilliantly observed, so flawlessly rendered that, in terms of realism, the paintings actually transcended mere photography. Several of the canvases were surrealistic, but in a fresh and commanding style that was not at all reminiscent of Dali, Ernst, Miro, or Tanguy. They were closer to the work of René Magritte than to anything else, especially the Magritte of The Domain of Arnheim and Ready-Made Bouquet. But Magritte had never used such meticulous detail in his paintings, and it was this realer than real quality in Tony's visions that made the surrealistic elements especially striking and unique.


He returned from the kitchen with two glasses of bourbon, and as she accepted her drink she said,


"Your work is so fresh and exciting."


"Is it?"


"Michael is right. Your paintings will sell as fast as you can create them."


"It's nice to think so. Nice to dream about."


"If you'd only give them a chance--"


"As I said before, you're very kind, but you're not an expert."


He was not at all himself. His voice was drab, wooden. He was dull, washed out, depressed.


She needled him a bit, hoping to bring him to life. "You think you're so smart," she said. "But you're dumb. When it comes to your own work, you're dumb. You're blind to the possibilities."


"I'm just an amateur."


"Bullshit."


"A fairly good amateur."


"Sometimes you can be so damned infuriating," she said.


"I don't want to talk about art," he said.


He switched on the stereo: Beethoven interpreted by Ormandy. Then he went to one of the sofas in the far corner of the room.


She followed him, sat beside him. "What do you want to talk about?"


"Movies," he said.


"Do you really?"


"Maybe books."


"Really?"


"Or theater."


"What you really want to talk about is what happened to you today."


"No. That's the last thing."


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"You need to talk about it, even if you don't want to."


"What I need to do is forget all about it, wipe it out of my mind."


"So you're playing turtle," she said. "You think you can pull your head under your shell and close up tight."


 


 


"Exactly," he said.


"Last week, when I wanted to hide from the whole world, when you wanted me to go out with you instead, you said it wasn't healthy for a person to withdraw into himself after an upsetting experience. You said it was best to share your feelings with other people."


"I was wrong," he said.


"You were right."


He closed his eyes, said nothing.


"Do you want me to leave?" she asked.


"No."


"I will if you want me to. No hard feelings."


"Please stay," he said.


"All right. What shall we talk about?"


"Beethoven and bourbon."


"I can take a hint," she said.


They sat silently side by side on the sofa, eyes closed, heads back, listening to the music, sipping the bourbon, as the sunlight turned amber and then muddy orange beyond the large windows.


Slowly, the room filled up with shadows.


***


Early Monday evening, Avril Tannerton discovered someone had broken into Forever View. He made that discovery when he went down to the cellar, where he had a lavishly equipped woodworking shop; he saw that one of the panes in a basement window had been carefully covered with masking tape and then broken to allow the intruder to reach the latch. It was a much smaller-than-average window, hinged at the top, but even a fairly large man could wriggle through it if he was determined.


Avril was certain there was no stranger in the house at the moment. Furthermore, he knew the window hadn't been broken Friday night, for he would have noticed it when he spent an hour in his workshop, doing fine sanding on his latest project--a cabinet for his three hunting rifles and two shotguns. He didn't believe anyone would have the nerve to smash the window in broad daylight or when he, Tannerton, was at home, as he had been the previous night, Sunday; therefore, he concluded that the break-in must have occurred Saturday night, while he was at Helen Virtillion's place in Santa Rosa. Except for the body of Bruno Frye, Forever View had been deserted on Saturday. Evidently, the burglar had known the house was unguarded and had taken advantage of the opportunity.


Burglar.


Did that make sense?


A burglar?


He didn't think anything had been stolen from the public rooms on the first floor or from his private quarters on the second level. He was positive he would have noticed evidence of a theft almost immediately upon his return Sunday morning.


Besides, his guns were still in the den, and so was his extensive coin collection; certainly, those things would be prime targets for a thief.


In his woodworking shop, to the right of the broken cellar window, there were a couple of thousand dollars' worth of high-quality hand and power tools. Some of them were hanging neatly from a pegboard wall, and others were nestled in custom racks he had designed and built for them. He could tell at a glance that nothing was missing.


Nothing stolen.


Nothing vandalized.


What sort of burglar broke into a house just to have a look at things?


Avril stared at the pieces of glass and masking tape on the floor, then up at the violated window, then around the cellar, pondering the situation, until suddenly he realized that, indeed, something had been taken. Three fifty-pound bags of dry mortar mix were gone. Last spring, he and Gary Olmstead had torn out the old wooden porch in front of the funeral home; they'd built up the ground with a couple truckloads of topsoil, had terraced it quite professionally, and had put down a new brick veranda. They had also torn up the cracked and canted concrete sidewalks and had replaced them with brick. At the end of the five-week-long chore, they found themselves with three extra bags of mortar mix, but they didn't return them for a refund because Avril intended to construct a large patio behind the house next summer. Now those three bags of mix were gone.


That discovery, far from answering his questions, only contributed to the mystery. Amazed and perplexed, he stared at the spot where the bags had been stacked.


Why would a burglar ignore expensive rifles, valuable coins, and other worthwhile loot in favor of three relatively inexpensive bags of dry mortar mix?


Tannerton scratched his head. "Strange," he said.


***


After sitting quietly beside Hilary in the gathering darkness for fifteen minutes, after listening to Beethoven, after sipping two or three ounces of bourbon, and after Hilary replenished their drinks, Tony found himself talking about Frank Howard. He didn't realize he was going to open up to her until he had already begun speaking; he seemed to hear himself suddenly in mid-sentence, and then the words poured out. For half an hour, he spoke continuously, pausing only for an occasional sip of bourbon, recalling his first impression of Frank, the initial friction between them, the tense and the humorous incidents on the job, that boozy evening at The Bolt Hole, the blind date with Janet Yamada, and the recent understanding and affection that he and Frank had found for each other. Finally, when he began to recount the events in Bobby Valdez's apartment, he spoke hesitantly, softly. When he closed his eyes he could see that garbage- and blood-spattered kitchen as vividly as he could see his own living room when his eyes were open. As he tried to tell Hilary what it had been like to hold a dying friend in his arms, he began to tremble. He was terribly cold, frigid in his flesh and bones, icy in his heart. His teeth chattered. Slouched on the sofa, deep in purple shadow, he shed his first tears for Frank Howard, and they felt scalding hot on his chilled skin.


As he wept, Hilary took his hand; then she held him in much the same way that he had held Frank.


She used her small cocktail napkin to dry his face. She kissed his cheeks, his eyes.


At first, she offered only consolation, and that was all he sought; but without either of them consciously striving to alter the embrace, the quality of it began to change. He put his arms around her, and it was no longer entirely clear who was holding and comforting whom. His hands moved up and down her sleek back, up and down, and he marveled at the exquisite contours; he was excited by the firmness and strength and suppleness of her body beneath the blouse. Her hands roamed over him, too, stroking and squeezing and admiring his hard muscles. She kissed the corners of his mouth, and he eagerly returned those kisses full on her lips. Their quick tongues met, and the kiss became hot, fiercely hot and liquid; it left them breathing harder than they had been when their lips first touched.


Simultaneously, they realized what was happening, and they froze, uncomfortably reminded of the dead friend for whom mourning had just begun. If they gave each other what they so badly needed and wanted, it might be like giggling at a funeral. For a moment, they felt that they were on the verge of committing a thoughtless and thoroughly blasphemous act.


But their desire was so strong that it overcame their doubts about the propriety of making love on this night of all nights. They kissed tentatively, then hungrily, and it was as sweet as ever. Her hands moved demandingly over him, and he responded to her touch, then she to his. He realized it was good and right for them to seek joy together. Making love now was not an act of disrespect toward the dead; it was a reaction to the unfairness of death itself. Their unquenchable desire was the result of many things, one of which was a profound animal need to prove that they were alive, fully and unquestionably and exuberantly alive.


By unspoken agreement, they got up from the couch and went to the bedroom.


Tony switched on a lamp in the living room as they walked out; that light spilled through the open doorway and was the only thing that illuminated the bed. Soft penumbral light. Warm and golden light. The light seemed to love Hilary, for it didn't merely fall dispassionately upon her as it did upon the bed and upon Tony; it caressed her, lovingly accented the milky bronze shade of her flawless skin, added luster to her raven-black hair, and sparkled in her big eyes.


They stood beside the bed, embracing, kissing, and then he began to undress her. He unbuttoned her blouse, slipped it off. He unhooked her bra; she shrugged out of it and let it fall to the floor.


Her br**sts were beautiful--round and full and upswept. The ni**les were large and erect; he bent to them, kissed them. She took his head in her hands, lifted his face to hers, found his mouth with hers. She sighed. His hands trembled with excitement as he unbuckled her belt, unsnapped and unzipped her jeans. They slid down her long legs, and she stepped out of them, already having stepped out of her shoes.


Tony went to his knees before her, intending to pull off her panties, and he saw a four-inch-long welt of scar tissue along her left side. It began at the edge of her flat belly and curved around to her back. It was not the result of surgery; it wasn't the thin line that even a moderately neat doctor would leave. Tony had seen old, well healed bullet and knife wounds before, and even though the light was not bright, he was sure that this mark had been caused by either a gun or a blade. A long time ago, she had been hurt badly. The thought of her enduring so much pain stirred in him a desire to protect and shelter her. He had a hundred questions about the scar, but this wasn't the right time to ask them. He tenderly kissed the welt of puckered skin, and he felt her stiffen. He sensed that the scar embarrassed her. He wanted to tell her it didn't detract from her beauty or desirability, and that, in fact, this single minor flaw only emphasized her otherwise incredible physical perfection.

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