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Whispers

Whispers

Page 38


Tony had walked into a strange room, a room of the mind, which was constructed of impossibilities.


He half-remembered something from a Sherlock Holmes story. Holmes had expressed the view to Watson that, in detection, once you had eliminated all the possibilities except one, that which was left, no matter how unlikely or absurd, must be the truth.


Was the impossible possible?


Could a dead man walk?


He thought of the inexplicable tie between the threats the assailant had made and the items found in Bruno Frye's van. He thought of Sherlock Holmes, and finally he said, "All right."


"All right what?" she asked.


"All right, maybe it was Frye."


"It was."


"Somehow ... some way ... God knows how ... but maybe he did survive the stabbing. It seems utterly impossible, but I guess I've got to consider it."


"How wonderfully open-minded of you," she said. Her feathers were still ruffled. She was not going to forgive him easily.


She pulled away from him again and entered the master bedroom.


He followed her.


He felt slightly numb. Sherlock Holmes hadn't said anything about the effects of living with the disturbing thought that nothing was impossible.


She got a suitcase out of the closet, put it on the bed, and started filling it with clothes.


Tony went to the bedside phone and picked up the receiver. "Line's dead. He must have cut the wires outside. We'll have to use a neighbor's phone to report this."


"I'm not reporting it."


"Don't worry," he said. "All that's changed. I'll support your story now."


"It's too late for that," she said sharply.


"What do you mean?"


She didn't answer. She took a blouse off a hanger with such a sudden tug that the hanger clattered to the closet floor.


He said, "You're not still planning to hide out in a hotel and hire private investigators."


"Oh, yes. That's exactly what I'm planning to do," she said, folding the blouse.


"But I've said I believe you."


"And I said it's too late for that. Too late to make any difference."


"Why are you being so difficult?"


Hilary didn't respond. She placed the folded blouse in the suitcase and returned to the closet for other pieces of clothing.


"Listen," Tony said, "all I did was express a few quite reasonable doubts. The same doubts that anyone would have in a situation like this. In fact, the same doubts that you would have expressed if I'd been the one who'd said he'd seen a dead man walking. If our roles were reversed, I'd expect you to be skeptical. I wouldn't be furious with you. Why are you so damned touchy?"


She came back from the closet with two more blouses and started to fold one of them. She wouldn't look at Tony. "I trusted you ... with everything," she said.


"I haven't violated any trust."


"You're like everyone else."


"What happened at my apartment earlier--wasn't that kind of special?"


She didn't answer him.


"Are you going to tell me that what you felt tonight--not just with your body, but with your heart, your mind--are you going to tell me that was no different from what you feel with every man?"


Hilary tried to freeze him out. She kept her eyes on her work, put the second blouse in the suitcase, began to fold the third. Her hands were trembling.


"Well, it was special for me," Tony said, determined to thaw her. "It was perfect. Better than I ever thought it could he. Not just the sex. The being together. The sharing. You got inside me like no woman ever has before. You took away a piece of me when you left my place last night, a piece of my soul, a piece of my heart, a piece of something vital. For the rest of my life, I'm not going to feel like a whole man except when I'm with you. So if you think I'm going to just let you walk away, you're in for a big surprise. I'll put up one hell of a fight to hold on to you, lady."


She had stopped folding the blouse. She was just standing with it in her hands, staring down at it.


Nothing in his entire life had seemed half so important as knowing what she was thinking at that moment.


"I love you," he said.


Still looking at the blouse, she responded to him in a tremulous voice. "Are commitments ever kept? Are promises between two people ever kept? Promises like this? When someone says, 'I love you,' does he ever really mean it? If my parents could gush about love one minute, then beat me black and blue a minute later, who the hell can I trust? You? Why should I? Isn't it going to end in disappointment and pain? Doesn't it always end that way? I'm better off alone. I can take good care of myself. I'll be all right. I just don't want to be hurt any more. I'm sick of being hurt.


Sick to death of it! I'm not going to make commitments and take risks. I can't. I just can't."


Tony went to her, gripped her by the shoulders, forced her to look at him. Her lower lip quivered.


Tears gathered in the corners of her beautiful eyes, but she held them back.


"You feel the same thing for me that I feel for you," he said. "I know it. I feel it. I'm sure of it. You're not turning your back on me because I had some doubts about your story. That doesn't really have anything to do with it. You're turning your back on me because you're falling in love, and you are absolutely terrified of that. Terrified because of your parents. Because of what they did to you. Because of all the beatings you took. Because of a lot of other things you haven't even told me about yet. You're running from your feelings for me because your rotten childhood left you emotionally crippled. But you love me. You do. And you know it."


She couldn't speak. She shook her head: no, no, no.


"Don't tell me it isn't true," he said. "We need each other, Hilary. I need you because all my life I've been afraid to take risks with things--money, my career, my art. I've always been open to people, to changing relationships, but never to changing circumstances. With you, because of you, for the very first time, I'm willing to take a few tentative steps away from the security of being on the public payroll. And now, when I think seriously about painting for a living, I don't start feeling guilty and lazy, like I used to. I don't always hear Papa's lectures about money and responsibility and the cruelty of fate, like I used to. When I dream of a life as an artist, I no longer automatically start reliving all the financial crises our family endured, the times we were without enough food, the times we were almost without a roof over our heads. I'm finally able to put that behind me. I'm not yet strong enough to quit my job and take the plunge. God, no. Not yet. But because of you, I can now envision myself as a full-time painter, seriously anticipate it, which is something I couldn't do a week ago."


Tears were streaming down her face now. "You're so good," she said. "You're a wonderful, sensitive artist."


"And you need me every bit as much as I need you," he said. "Without me, you're going to build that shell a little thicker, a little harder. You're going to wind up alone and bitter. You have always been able to take risks with things--money, your career. But you haven't been able to take chances with people. You see? We're opposites in that respect. We complement each other. We can teach each other so much. We can help each other grow. It's like we were each only half a person--


and now we've found our missing halves. I'm yours. You're mine. We've been knocking around all our lives, groping in the dark, trying to find each other."


Hilary dropped the yellow blouse that she had intended to pack in the suitcase, and she threw her arms around him.


Tony hugged her, kissed her salty lips.


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For a minute or two they just held each other. Neither of them could speak.


At last he said, "Look in my eyes."


She raised her head.


"You've got such dark eyes."


"Tell me," he said.


"Tell you what?"


"What I want to hear."


She kissed the corners of his mouth.


"Tell me," he said.


"I ... love you."


"Again."


"I love you, Tony. I do. I really do."


"Was that so difficult?"


"Yeah. For me it was."


"It'll get easier the more often you say it."


"I'll make sure to practice a lot," she said.


She was smiling and weeping at the same time.


Tony was aware of a growing tightness, like a rapidly expanding bubble, in his chest, as if he quite literally were bursting with happiness. In spite of the sleepless night just passed, he was full of energy, wide awake, keenly aware of the special woman in his arms--her warmth, her sweet curves, her deceptive softness, the resiliency of her mind and flesh, the fading scent of her perfume, the pleasant animal odor of clean hair and skin.


He said, "Now that we've found each other, everything will be all right."


"Not until we know about Bruno Frye. Or whoever he is. Whatever he is. Nothing will be all right until we know he's definitely dead and buried, once and for all."


"If we stick together," Tony said, "we'll come through safe and sound. He's not going to get his hands on you so long as I'm around. I promise you that."


"And I trust you. But ... just the same ... I'm scared of him."


"Don't be scared."


"I can't help it," she said. "Besides, I think it's probably smart to be scared of him."


Tony thought of the destruction downstairs, thought of the sharp wooden stakes and the little bags of garlic that had been found in Frye's van, and he decided that Hilary was right. It was smart to be scared of Bruno Frye.


A walking dead man?


She shivered, and Tony caught it from her.


PART TWO


The Living and The Living Dead


Goodness speaks in a whisper.


Evil shouts.


--a Tibetan proverb


Goodness shouts.


Evil whispers.


--A Balinese proverb


Five


TUESDAY MORNING, for the second time in eight days, Los Angeles was rocked by a middle-register earthquake. It hit as high as 4.6 on the Richter Scale as measured at Cal Tech, and it lasted twenty-three seconds.


There was no major damage, and most Angelenos spoke of the tremor only to make jokes. There was the one about the Arabs repossessing part of the country for failure to pay oil debts. And that night, on television, Johnny Carson would say that Dolly Parton had caused the seismic disturbance by getting out of bed too suddenly. To new residents, however, those twenty-three seconds hadn't been the least bit funny, and they couldn't believe that they would ever become blasé about the earth moving under their feet. A year later, of course, they would be making their own jokes about other tremors.


Until the really big one.


A never-spoken, deeply subconscious fear of the big one, the quake to end all quakes, was what made Californians joke about the smaller jolts and shocks. If you dwelt upon the possibility of cataclysm, if you thought about the treachery of the earth for too long, you would be paralyzed with fear. Life must go on regardless of the risks. After all, the big one might not come for a hundred years. Perhaps never. More people died in those snowy, sub-zero Eastern winters than in California quakes. It was as dangerous to live in Florida's hurricane country and on the tornado-stricken plains of the Midwest as it was to build a house on the San Andreas fault. And with every nation on the planet acquiring or seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, the fury of the earth seemed less frightening than the petulant anger of men. To put the quake threat in perspective, Californians made light of it, found humor in the potential disaster, and pretended that living on unstable ground had no effect on them.


But that Tuesday, as on all other days when the earth moved noticeably, more people than usual would exceed the speed limit on the freeways, hurrying to work or to play, hurrying home to families and friends, to lovers; and none of them would be consciously aware that he was living at a somewhat faster pace than he had on Monday. More men would ask their wives for divorces than on a day without a quake. More wives would leave their husbands than had done so the previous day.


More people would decide to get married. A greater than usual number of gamblers would make plans to go to Las Vegas for the weekend. Prostitutes would enjoy substantial new business. And there most likely would be a marked increase in sexual activity between husbands and wives, between unwed lovers, and between inexperienced teenagers making their first clumsy experimental moves.


Uncontestable proof of this erotic aspect of seismic activity did not exist. But over the years, at several zoos, many sociologists and behavioral psychologists had observed primates--gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans--engaging in an abnormal amount of frenzied coupling in the hours following large- and middle-sized earthquakes; and it was reasonable to assume that, at least in the matter of primal reproductive organs, man was not a great deal different from his primitive cousins.


Most Californians smugly believed that they were perfectly adjusted to life in earthquake country; but in ways of which they were not aware, the psychological stress continued to shape and change them. Fear of the impending catastrophe was an everpresent whisper that propagandized the subconscious mind, a very influential whisper that molded people's attitudes and characters more than they would ever know.


Of course, it was just one whisper among many.


***


Hilary wasn't surprised by the police response to her story, and she tried not to let it upset her.


Less than five minutes after Tony placed the call from a neighbor's home, approximately thirty-five minutes before the morning earthquake, two uniformed officers in a black-and-white arrived at Hilary's house, lights flashing, no siren. With typical, bored, professional dispatch and courtesy, they duly recorded her version of the incident, located the point at which the house had been breached by the intruder (a study window again), made a general listing of the damage in the living room and the dining room, and gathered the other information required for the proper completion of a crime report. Because Hilary had said that the assailant had worn gloves, they decided not to bother calling for a lab man and a fingerprint search.


They were intrigued by her contention that the man who attacked her was the same man she thought she had killed last Thursday. Their interest had nothing to do with a desire to determine if she was correct in her identification of the culprit; they made up their minds about that as soon as they heard her story. So far as they were concerned, there was no chance whatsoever that the assailant could have been Bruno Frye. They asked her to repeat her account of the attack several times, and they frequently interrupted with questions; but they were only trying to determine if she was genuinely mistaken, hysterical and confused, or lying. After a while, they decided that she was slightly mixed up due to shock, and that her confusion was exacerbated by the intruder's resemblance to Bruno Frye.

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