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Whispers

Whispers

Page 7


Brown hair and eyes. The girlish voice. Some of Bobby's friends called him "Angel" because of his sweet voice and because he had a cute baby face. Bobby was thirty years old, but he looked sixteen. Each of the nine victims had seen her assailant's face, and each had said he looked like a kid, but handled himself like a tough, cruel, clever, and sick man.


The chief bartender in Paradise left the business to his two subordinates and examined the three glossy mug shots of Bobby Valdez that Frank Howard had put on the bar. His name was Otto. He was a good-looking man, darkly tanned and bearded. He wore white slacks and a blue body shirt with the top three buttons undone. His brown chest was matted with crisp golden hairs. He wore a shark's tooth on a gold chain around his neck. He looked up at Frank, frowned. "I didn't know L.A. police had jurisdiction in Santa Monica."


"We're here by sufferance of the Santa Monica P.D.," Tony said.


"Huh?"


"Santa Monica police are cooperating with us in this investigation," Frank said impatiently. "Now, did you ever see the guy?"


"Yeah, sure. He's been in a couple of times," Otto said.


"When?" Frank asked.


"Oh ... a month ago. Maybe longer."


"Not recently?"


The band, just returned from a twenty-minute break, struck up a Billy Joel song.


Otto raised his voice above the music. "Haven't seen him for at least a month. The reason I remember is because he didn't look old enough to be served. I asked to see some ID, and he got mad as hell about that. Caused a scene."


"What kind of scene?" Frank asked.


"Demanded to see the manager."


"That's all?" Tony asked.


"Called me names." Otto looked grim. "Nobody calls me names like that."


Tony cupped one hand around his ear to funnel in the bartender's voice and block some of the music. He liked most Billy Joel tunes, but not when they were played by a band that thought enthusiasm and amplification could compensate for poor musicianship.


"So he called you names," Frank said. "Then what?"


"Then he apologized."


"Just like that? He demands to see the manager, calls you names, then right away apologizes?"


"Yeah."


"Why?"


"I asked him to," Otto said.


Frank leaned farther over the bar as the music swelled into a deafening chorus. "He apologized just because you asked him to?"


"Well ... first, he wanted to fight."


"Did you fight him?" Tony shouted.


"Nah. If even the biggest and meanest son of a bitch in the place gets rowdy, I don't ever have to touch him to quiet him down."


"You must have a hell of a lot of charm," Frank yelled.


The band finished the chorus, and the roar descended from a decibel level high enough to make your eyeballs bleed. The vocalist did a bad imitation of Billy Joel on a verse played no louder than a thunderstorm.


A stunning green-eyed blonde was sitting at the bar next to Tony. She had been listening to the conversation. She said, "Go on, Otto. Show them your trick."


"You're a magician?" Tony asked Otto. "What do you do--make unruly customers disappear?"


"He scares them," the blonde said. "It's neat. Go on, Otto. Show them your stuff."


Otto shrugged and reached under the bar and took a tall beer glass from a rack. He held it up so they could look at it, as if they had never seen a beer glass before. Then he bit off a piece of it. He clamped his teeth on the rim and snapped a chunk out of it, turned, spat the sharp fragment into a garbage can behind him.


The band exploded through the last chorus of the song and gifted the audience with merciful silence.


In the sudden quiet between the last note and the burst of scattered applause, Tony heard the beer glass crack as Otto took another bite out of it.


"Jesus," Frank said.


The blonde giggled.


Otto chomped on the glass and spat out a mouthful and chomped some more until he had reduced it to an inch-thick base too heavy to succumb to human teeth and jaws. He threw the remaining hunk in the can and smiled. "I chew up the glass right in front of the guy who's making trouble. Then I look mean as a snake, and I tell him to settle down. I tell him that if he doesn't settle down I'll bite his goddamned nose off."


Frank Howard gaped at him, amazed. "Have you ever done it?"


"What? Bitten off someone's nose? Nah. Just the threat's enough to make them behave."


"You get many hard cases here?" Frank asked.


"Nah. This is a class place. We have trouble maybe once a week. No more than that."


"How do you do that trick?" Tony asked.


"Biting the glass? There's a little secret to it. But it's not really hard to learn."


The band broke into Bob Seeger's Still the Same as if they were a bunch of juvenile delinquents breaking into a nice house with the intention of trashing it.


"Ever cut yourself?" Tony shouted to Otto.


"Every once in a while. Not often. And I've never cut my tongue. The sign of someone who can do the stunt well is the condition of his tongue," Otto said. "My tongue has never been cut."


"But you have injured yourself."


"Sure. My lips a few times. Not often."


"But that only makes the trick more effective," the blonde said. "You should see him when he cuts himself. Otto stands there in front of the jerk who's been causing all the trouble, and he just pretends like he doesn't know he's hurt himself. He lets the blood run." Her green eyes shone with delight and with a hard little spark of animal passion that made Tony squirm uneasily on his barstool. "He stands there with bloody teeth and with the blood oozing down into his beard, and he warns the guy to stop making a ruckus. You wouldn't believe how fast they settle down."


"I believe," Tony said. He felt queasy.


Frank Howard shook his head and said, "Well...."


"Yeah," Tony said, unable to find words of his own.


Frank said, "Okay ... let's get back to Bobby Valdez." He tapped the mug shots that were lying on the bar.


"Oh. Well, like I told you, he hasn't been in for at least a month."


"That night, after he got angry with you, after you settled him down with the glass trick, did he stick around for a drink?"


"I served him a couple."


"So you saw his ID."


"Yeah."


"What was it--driver's license?"


"Yeah. He was thirty, for God's sake. He looked like he was in maybe eleventh grade, a high school junior, maybe at most a senior, but he was thirty."


Frank said, "Do you remember what the name was on the driver's license?"


Otto fingered his shark's tooth necklace. "Name? You already know his name."


"What I'm wondering," Frank said, "is whether or not he showed you a phony driver's license."


"His picture was on it," Otto said.


"That doesn't mean it was genuine."


"But you can't change pictures on a California license. Doesn't the card self-destruct or something if you mess around with it?"


"I'm saying the whole card might be a fake."


"Forged credentials," Otto said, intrigued. "Forged credentials...." Clearly, he had watched a couple of hundred old espionage movies on television. "What is this, some sort of spy thing?"


"I think we've gotten turned around here," Frank said impatiently.


"Huh?"


"We're supposed to be the ones asking questions," Frank said. "You just answer them. Understand?"


The bartender was one of those people who reacted quickly, strongly, and negatively to a pushy cop. His dark face closed up. His eyes went blank.


Aware that they were about to lose Otto while he still might have something important to tell them, Tony put a hand on Frank's shoulder, squeezed gently. "You don't want him to start munching on a glass, do you?"


"I'd like to see it again," the blonde said, grinning.


"You'd rather do it your way?" Frank asked Tony.


"Sure."


"Go ahead."


Tony smiled at Otto. "Look, you're curious, and so are we. Doesn't hurt a thing if we satisfy your curiosity, so long as you satisfy ours."


Otto opened up again. "That's the way I see it, too."


"Okay," Tony said.


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"Okay. So what's this Bobby Valdez done that makes you want him so bad?"


"Parole violations," Tony said.


"And assault," Frank said grudgingly.


"And rape," Tony said.


"Hey," Otto said, "didn't you guys say you were with the homicide squad?"


The band finished Still the Same with a clatter-bang-boom of sound not unlike the derailment of a speeding freight train. Then there were a few minutes of peace while the lead singer made unamusing small talk with the ringside customers who sat in clouds of smoke that, Tony felt sure, had come partly from cigarettes and partly from burning eardrums. The musicians pretended to tune their instruments.


"When Bobby Valdez comes across an uncooperative woman," Tony explained to Otto, "he pistol-whips her a little to make her more eager to please. Five days ago, he went after victim number ten, and she resisted, and he hit her on the head so hard and so often that she died in the hospital twelve hours later. Which brought the homicide squad into it."


"What I don't understand," the blonde said, "is why any guy would take it by force when there's girls willing to give it away." She winked at Tony, but he didn't wink back.


"Before the woman died," Frank said, "she gave us a description that fit Bobby like a custom-made glove. So if you know anything about the slimy little bastard, we've got to hear it."


Otto hadn't spent all his time watching spy movies. He had seen his share of police shows, too. He said, "So now you want him for murder-one."


"Murder-one," Tony said. "Precisely."


"How'd you know to ask me about him?"


"He accosted seven of those ten women in singles' bar parking lots--"


"None of them in our lot," Otto interrupted defensively. "Our lot is very well lighted."


"That's true," Tony said. "But we've been going to singles' bars all over the city, talking to bartenders and regular customers, showing them those mug shots, trying to get a line on Bobby Valdez. A couple of people at a place in Century City told us they thought they'd seen him here, but they couldn't be sure."


"He was here all right," Otto said.


Now that Otto's feathers had been smoothed, Frank took over the questioning again. "So he caused a commotion, and you did your beer glass trick, and he showed you his ID."


"Yeah."


"So what was the name on the ID?"


Otto frowned. "I'm not sure."


"Was it Robert Valdez?"


"I don't think so."


"Try to remember."


"It was a Chicano name."


"Valdez is a Chicano name."


"This was more Chicano than that."


"What do you mean?"


"Well... longer... with a couple Zs in it."


"Zs?"


"And Qs. You know the kind of name I mean. Something like Velazquez."


"Was it Velazquez?"


"Nah. But like that."


"Began with a V?"


"I couldn't say for sure. I'm just talking about the sound of it."


"What about the first name?"


"I think I remember that."


"And?"


"Jaun."


"J-U-A-N?"


"Yeah. Very Chicano."


"You notice an address on his ID?"


"I wasn't looking for that."


"He mention where he lived?"


"We weren't exactly chummy."


"He say anything at all about himself?"


"He just drank quietly and left."


"And never came back?"


"That's right."


"You're positive?"


"He's never been back on my shift, anyway."


"You got a good memory."


"Only for the troublemakers and the pretty ones."


"We'd like to show those mug shots to some of your customers," Frank said.


"Sure. Go ahead."


The blonde sitting next to Tony Clemenza said, "Can I get a closer look at them? Maybe I was in here when he was. Maybe I even talked to him."


Tony picked up the photographs and swiveled on his barstool.


She swung toward him as he swung toward her, and she pressed her pretty knees against his. When she took the pictures from him, her fingers lingered for a moment on his. She was a great believer in eye contact. She seemed to be trying to stare right through his brain and out the back of his skull.


"I'm Judy. What's your name?"


"Tony Clemenza."


"I knew you were Italian. I could tell by your dark soulful eyes."


"They give me away every time."


"And that thick black hair. So curly."


"And the spaghetti sauce stains on my shirt?"


She looked at his shirt.


"There aren't really any stains," he said.


She frowned.


"Just kidding. A little joke," he said.


"Oh."


"Do you recognize Bobby Valdez?"


She finally looked at the mug shot. "Nope. I must not have been here the night he came in. But he's not all that bad, is he? Kind of cute."


"Baby face."


"It would be like going to bed with my kid brother," she said. "Kinky." She grinned.


He took the pictures from her.


"That's a very nice suit you're wearing," she said.


"Thank you."


"It's cut really nice."


"Thank you."


This was not just a liberated woman exercising her right to be the sexual aggressor. He liked liberated women. This one was something else. Something weird. The whips and chains type. Or worse. She made him feel like a tasty little morsel, a very edible canapé, the last tiny piece of toast and caviar on a silver tray.


"You sure don't see many suits in a place like this," she said.

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