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Whispers

Whispers

Page 42


"Okay," she said. "When do we leave?"


"The sooner the better."


"Not today," she said. "We're both too damned tired. We need sleep. Besides, I want to drop your paintings off with Wyant Stevens. I've got to make arrangements for an insurance adjuster to put a price on the damage at my place, and I want to tell my house cleaning service to straighten up the wreckage while I'm gone. And if I'm not going to talk to the people at Warner Brothers about The Hour of the Wolf this week, then I've at least got to make excuses--or tell Wally Topelis what excuses he should make for me."


"I've got to fill out a final report on the shooting," Tony said. "I was supposed to do that this morning. And they'll want me for the inquest, of course. There's always an inquest when a policeman is killed--or when he kills someone else. But they shouldn't have scheduled the inquest any sooner than next week. If they did, I can probably get them to postpone it."


"So when do we leave for St. Helena?"


"Tomorrow," he said. "Frank's funeral is at nine o'clock. I want to go to that. So let's see if there's a flight leaving around noon."


"Sounds good to me."


"We've got a lot to do. We'd better get moving."


"One other thing," Hilary said. "I don't think we should stay at your place tonight."


He reached across the table and took her hand. "I'm sure he can't get to you there. If he tries.


you've got me, and I've got my service revolver. He may be built like Mr. Universe, but a gun is a good equalizer."


She shook her head. "No. Maybe it would be all right. But I wouldn't be able to sleep there, Tony.


I'd be awake all night, listening for sounds at the door and windows."


"Where do you want to stay?"


"After we've run our errands this afternoon, let's pack for the trip, leave your apartment, make sure we're not followed, and check in to a room at a hotel near the airport."


He squeezed her hand. "Okay. If that'll make you feel better."


"It will."


"I guess it's better to be safe than sorry."


***


In St. Helena, at 4:10 Tuesday afternoon, Joshua Rhinehart put down his office phone and leaned back in his chair, pleased with himself. He had accomplished quite a lot in the past two days. Now he swiveled around to look out the window at the far mountains and the nearer vineyards.


He had spent nearly all of Monday on the telephone, dealing with Bruno Frye's bankers, stockbrokers, and financial advisers. There had been many lengthy discussions about how the assets ought to be managed until the estate was finally liquidated, and there had been more than a little debate about the most profitable ways to dispose of those assets when the time came for that. It had been a long, dull patch of work, for there had been a large number of savings accounts of various kinds, in several banks, plus bond investments, a rich portfolio of common stocks, real estate holdings, and much more.


Joshua spent Tuesday morning and the better part of the afternoon arranging, by telephone, for some of the most highly-respected art appraisers in California to journey to St. Helena for the purpose of cataloging and evaluating the varied and extensive collections that the Frye family had accumulated over six or seven decades. Leo, the patriarch, Katherine's father, now dead for forty years, had begun simply, with a fascination for elaborately hand-carved wooden spigots of the sort often used on beer and wine barrels in some European countries. Most of them were in the form of heads, the gaping or gasping or laughing or weeping or howling or snarling heads of demons, angels, clowns, wolves, elves, fairies, witches, gnomes, and other creatures. At the time of his death, Leo owned more than two thousand of those spigots. Katherine had shared her father's interest in collecting while he was alive, and after his death she had made collecting the central focus of her life. Her interest in acquiring beautiful things became a passion, and the passion eventually became a mania. (Joshua remembered how her eyes had gleamed and how she had chattered breathlessly each time that she had shown him a new purchase; he knew there had been something unhealthy about her desperate rush to fill every room and closet and drawer with lovely things, but then the rich always had been permitted their eccentricities and manias, so long as they caused no harm to anyone else.) She bought enameled boxes, turn-of-the-century landscape paintings, Lalique crystal, stained glass lamps and windows, antique cameo lockets, and many other items, not so much because they were excellent investments (which they were) but because she wanted them, needed them as a junkie always needed another fix. She stuffed her enormous house with these displays, spent countless hours just cleaning, polishing, and caring for everything.


Bruno contained that tradition of almost frantic acquisition, and now both houses--the one Leo built in 1918, and the one Bruno had built five years ago--were crammed full of treasures. On Tuesday, Joshua called art galleries and prestige auction houses in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and all of them were eager to send their appraisers, for there were many fat commissions to be earned from the disposition of the Frye collections. Two men from San Franisco and two from Los Angeles were arriving Saturday morning; and, certain that they would require several days to catalogue the Frye holdings, Joshua made reservations for them at a local inn.


By 4:10 Tuesday afternoon, he was beginning to feel that he was on top of the situation; and for the first time since he was informed of Bruno's death, he was getting a fix on how long it would take him to fulfill his obligations as executor. Initially, he had worried that the estate would be so complicated that he would be tangled up in it for years, or at least for several months. But now that he had reviewed the will (which he had drawn up five years ago), and now that he had discovered where Bruno's capable financial advisers had led the man, he was confident that the entire matter could be resolved in a few weeks. His job was made easier by three factors that were seldom present in multimillion-dollar estate settlements: First, there were no living relatives to contest the will or make other problems; second, the entire after-tax net was left to a single charity clearly named in the will; third, for a man of such wealth, Bruno Frye had kept his investments simple, presenting his executor with a reasonably neat balance sheet of easily understood debits and credits. Three weeks would see the end of it. Four at most.


Since the death of his wife, Cora, three years ago, Joshua was acutely conscious of the brevity of life, and he jealously guarded this time. He didn't want to waste one precious day, and he felt that every minute he spent bogged down in the Frye estate was definitely a minute wasted. Of course, he would receive an enormous fee for his legal services, but he already had all the money he would ever need. He owned substantial real estate in the valley, including several hundred acres of prime grape-producing land which was managed for him and which supplied grapes to two big wineries that could never get enough of them. He had thought, briefly, of asking the court to relieve him of his duties; one of Frye's banks would have taken on the job with great pleasure. He also considered turning the work over to Ken Gavins and Roy Genelli, the two sharp young attorneys who he had taken on as partners seven years ago. But his strong sense of loyalty had kept him from taking the easy way out. Because Katherine Frye had given him his start in the Napa Valley thirty-five years ago, he felt he owed her the time it would take to personally preside over the orderly and dignified dissolution of the Frye family empire.


Three weeks.


Then he could spend more time on the things he enjoyed: reading good books, swimming, flying the new airplane that he'd bought, learning to cook new dishes, and indulging in an occasional weekend in Reno. Ken and Roy handled most of the law firm's business these days, and they did a damned good job of it. Joshua hadn't plunged into full retirement yet, but he sat on the edge of it a lot, dangling his legs in a big pool of leisure time that he wished he had found and used when Cora was still alive.


At 4:20, content with his progress on the Frye estate and soothed by the magnificent view of the autumn valley beyond his window, he got up from his chair and went out to the reception area.


Karen Farr was pounding the hell out of an IBM Selectric II, which would have responded equally well to a feather touch. She was a slip of a girl, pale and blue-eyed and soft-voiced, but she attacked every chore with tremendous energy and strength.


"I am about to treat myself to an early whiskey," Joshua told her. "When people call and ask for me, please tell them I am in a disgraceful drunken condition and cannot come to the phone."


"And they'll all say, 'What? Again?'"


Joshua laughed. "You're a lovely and charming young woman, Miss Farr. Such a delightfully quick mind and tongue for such a mere wisp of a lass."


"And such a lot of malarkey you've got for a man who isn't even Irish. Go and have your whiskey.


I'll keep the bothersome hordes away."


In his office again, he opened the corner bar, put ice in a glass, added a generous measure of Jack Daniel's Black Label. He had taken only two sips of the brew when someone knocked on his office door.


"Come in."


Karen opened the door. "There's a call--"


"I thought I was permitted to have my drink in peace."


"Don't be a grouch," she said.


"It's part of my image."


"I told him you weren't in. But then when I heard what he wanted, I thought maybe you should talk to him. It's weird."


"Who is it?"


"A Mr. Preston from the First Pacific United Bank in San Francisco. It's about the Frye estate."


"What's so weird?"


"You better hear it from him," she said.


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Joshua sighed. "Very well."


"He's on line two."


Joshua went to his desk, sat down, picked up the phone, and said, "Good afternoon, Mr. Preston."


"Mr. Rhinehart?"


"Speaking. What can I do for you'?"


"The business office at Shade Tree Vineyards informs me that you're the executor of the Frye estate."


"That's correct."


"Are you aware that Mr. Bruno Frye maintained accounts at our main office here in San Francisco?"


"The First Pacific United? No. I wasn't aware of that."


"A savings account, a checking account, and a safe-deposit box," Preston said.


"He had several accounts in several banks. He kept a list of them. But yours wasn't on the list.


And I haven't run across any passbooks or canceled checks from your bank."


"I was afraid of that," Preston said.


Joshua frowned. "I don't understand. Are there problems with his accounts at Pacific United?"


Preston hesitated, then said, "Mr. Rhinehart, did Mr. Frye have a brother?"


"No. Why do you ask?"


"Did he ever employ a look-alike?"


"I beg your pardon?"


"Did he ever have need for a double, someone who could pass for him on fairly close inspection?"


"Are you pulling my leg, Mr. Preston?"


"I know it's a rather strange question. But Mr. Frye was a wealthy man. These days, what with terrorism on the rise and all sorts of crazies on the loose, wealthy people often have to hire bodyguards, and sometimes--not often; I admit it's rare; but in certain special cases--they even find it necessary to employ look-alikes for security reasons."


"With all due respect for your fair city," Joshua said, "let me point out that Mr. Frye lived here in the Napa Valley, not in San Francisco. We don't have that sort of crime here. We have a much different lifestyle from that which you ... enjoy. Mr. Frye had no need for a double, and I'm certain he did not have one. Mr. Preston, what on earth is this all about?"


"We only just discovered that Mr. Frye was killed last Thursday," Preston said.


"So?"


"It is the opinion of our attorneys that the bank can in no way be held responsible."


"For what?" Joshua asked impatiently.


"As executor of the estate, it was your duty to inform us that our depositor had died. Until we received that notice--or learned of it third-hand, as we did--we had absolutely no reason to consider the account frozen."


"I'm aware of that." Slumped in his chair, staring wistfully at the glass of whiskey on his desk, afraid that Preston was to tell him something that would disturb his rosy complacency, Joshua decided that a bit of curmudgeonly gruffness might speed the conversation along. He said, "Mr.


Preston, I know that business is conducted slowly and carefully in a bank, which is fitting for an institution handling other people's hard-earned money. But I wish you could find your way clear to get to the point quickly."


"Last Thursday, half an hour before our closing time, a few hours after Mr. Frye was killed in Los Angeles, a man who resembled Mr. Frye entered our main branch. He had Mr. Frye's personalized checks. He wrote a check to cash, reducing that account to one hundred dollars."


Joshua sat up straight. "How much did he get?"


"Six thousand from checking."


"Ouch."


"Then he presented his passbook and withdrew all but five hundred from the savings account."


"And how much was that?"


"Another twelve thousand."


"Eighteen thousand dollars altogether?"


"Yes. Plus whatever he might have taken from the safe-deposit box."


"He hit that, too?"


"Yes. But of course, we don't know what he might have gotten out of it," Preston said. Then he added hopefully: "Perhaps nothing."


Joshua was amazed. "How could your bank release such a substantial sum in cash without requiring identification?"


"We did require it," Preston said. "And you've got to understand that he looked like Mr. Frye. For the past five years, Mr. Frye has come in two or three times every month; each time he has deposited a couple of thousand dollars in his checking. That made him noticeable. People remembered him. Last Thursday, our teller recognized him and had no reason to be suspicious, especially since he had those personalized checks and his passbook and--"


"That's not identification," Joshua said.


"The teller asked for ID, even though she recognized him. That's our policy on large withdrawals, and she handled it all according to policy. The man showed her a valid California driver's license, complete with photograph, in the name of Bruno Frye. I assure you, Mr. Rhinehart, First Pacific United has not acted irresponsibly in this matter."

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