He folded the letter, returned it to his coat pocket.
For the first time, he realized how gloomy these rooms were--overstuffed with furniture and expensive ornaments, windows covered by heavy drapes, floors carpeted in dark colors. Suddenly, the place seemed far more isolated than Leo's clifftop retreat.
A noise. In another room.
Joshua froze as he was walking around the desk. He waited, listened. "Imagination," he said, trying to reassure himself.
He walked swiftly through the house to the front door, and he found that the noise had, indeed, been imaginary. He wasn't attacked. Nevertheless, when he stepped outside, closed the door, and locked it, he sighed with relief.
In the car, on his way to his office in St. Helena, he thought of more questions. Who actually had died in Los Angeles last week--Frye or his look-alike? Which of them had been at the First Pacific United Bank on Thursday--the real man or the imitation? Until he knew the answer to that, how could he settle the estate? He had countless questions but damned few answers.
When he parked behind his office a few minutes later, he realized that he would have to give serious consideration to Mrs. Willis's advice. Bruno Frye's grave might have to be opened to determine exactly who was buried in it.
Tony and Hilary landed in Napa, rented a car, and arrived at the headquarters of the Napa County Sheriff's Department by 4:20 Wednesday afternoon. The place was not somnolent like the county sheriff's offices you saw on television. A couple of young deputies and a pair of industrious clerical workers were busy with files and paperwork.
The sheriff's secretary-receptionist sat at a large metal desk, identified by a name plaque in front of her typewriter: MARSHA PELETRINO. She was a starched-looking woman with severe features, but her voice was soft, silky, and sexy. Likewise, her smile was far more pleasant and inviting than Hilary had expected.
When Marsha Peletrino opened the door between the reception area and Peter Laurenski's private office and announced that Tony and Hilary wanted to see him, Laurenski knew immediately who they were, and he didn't attempt to avoid them, as they thought he might. He came out of his office and awkwardly shook their hands. He seemed embarrassed. Clearly, he wasn't looking forward to explaining why he had provided a phony alibi for Bruno Frye last Wednesday night, but in spite of his unconcealed discomfort, he invited Tony and Hilary in for a chat.
Laurenski was somewhat of a disappointment for Hilary. He was not the sloppy, potbellied, cigar-chewing, easy to hate, small town, good old boy type that she had expected, not the sort of countrified power monger who would lie to protect a wealthy local resident like Bruno Frye.
Laurenski was in his thirties, tall, blond, clean-cut, articulate, friendly, and apparently dedicated to his job, a good lawman. There was kindness in his eyes and a surprising gentleness in his voice; in some ways he reminded her of Tony. The Sheriff's Department's offices were clean and Spartan rooms where a lot of work got done, and the people who labored there with Laurenski, the deputies and civilians alike, were not patronage cronies but bright and busy public servants.
After only one or two minutes with the sheriff, she knew there was not going to be any simple answer to the Frye mystery, no obvious and easily-exposed conspiracy.
In the sheriff's private office, she and Tony sat on a sturdy old railback bench that had been made comfortable with corduroy-covered foam pillows. Laurenski pulled up a chair and sat on it the wrong way, with his arms crossed on the backrest.
He disarmed Hilary and Tony by getting straight to the point and by being hard on himself.
"I'm afraid I've been less than professional about this whole thing," he said. "I've been dodging your department's phone calls."
"That's the reason we're here." Tony said.
"Is this an ... official visit of some kind?" Laurenski asked, a bit puzzled.
"No," Tony said. "I'm here as a private citizen, not a policeman."
"We've had an extremely unusual and unsettling experience in the last couple of days," Hilary said. "Incredible things have happened, and we hope you'll have an explanation for them."
Laurenski raised his eyebrows. "Something more than Frye's attack on you?"
"We'll tell you about it," Tony said. "But first, we'd like to know why you haven't answered the LAPD."
Laurenski nodded. He was blushing. "I just didn't know what to say. I'd made a fool of myself by vouching for Frye. I guess I just hoped it would all blow away."
"And why did you vouch for him?" Hilary asked.
"It's just ... you see ... I really did think he was at home that night."
"You talked with him?" Hilary asked.
"No," Laurenski said. He cleared his throat. "You see, when the call came in that evening, it was taken by a night officer. Tim Larsson. He's one of my best men. Been with me seven years. A real go-getter. Well ... when the Los Angeles police called about Bruno Frye, Tim thought he'd better call me and see if I wanted to handle it, since Frye was one of the county's leading citizens. I was at home that night. It was my daughter's birthday. As far as my family was concerned, that was a pretty special occasion, and for once I was determined not to let my work intrude on my private life. I have so little time for my kids...."
"I understand," Tony said. "I have a hunch you do a good job here. And I'm familiar enough with police work to know that doing a good job requires a hell of a lot more than eight hours a day."
"More like twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week," the sheriff said. "Anyway, Tim called me that night, and I told him to handle it. You see, first of all, it sounded like such a ridiculous inquiry. I mean, Frye was an upstanding businessman, even a millionaire, for God's sake. Why would he throw it all away trying to rape someone? So I told Tim to look into it and get back to me as soon as he had something. As I said, he's a very competent officer. Besides, he knew Frye better than I did. Before he decided on a career in law enforcement, Tim worked for five years in the main office at Shade Tree Vineyards. During that time, he saw Frye just about every day."
"Then it was Officer Larsson who checked on Frye last Wednesday night," Tony said.
"Yes. He called me back at my daughter's birthday party. He said Frye was at home, not in Los Angeles. So I returned the call to the LAPD and proceeded to make a fool of myself."
Hilary frowned. "I don't understand. Are you saying that this Tim Larsson lied to you?"
Laurenski didn't want to have to answer that one. He got up and paced, staring at the floor, scowling. Finally he said, "I trust Tim Larsson. I always have trusted him. He's a good man. One of the best. But I just can't explain this."
"Did he have any reason to cover up for Frye?" Tony asked.
"You mean, were they buddies? No. Nothing like that. They weren't even friends. He'd only worked for Frye. And he didn't like the man."
"Did he claim to have seen Bruno Frye that night?" Hilary asked Laurenski.
"At the time," the sheriff said, "I just assumed he had seen him. But later, Tim said he figured he could identify Frye by phone and that there wasn't any need to run all the way out there in a patrol car to have a look-see. As you must know, Bruno Frye had a very distinct, very odd voice."
"So Larsson might have talked to someone who was covering for Frye, someone who could imitate his voice," Tony said.
Laurenski looked at him. "That's what Tim says. That's his excuse. But it doesn't fit. Who would it have been? Why would he cover for rape and murder? Where is he now? Besides, Frye's voice wasn't something that could be easily mimicked."
"So what do you think?" Hilary asked.
Laurenski shook his head. "I don't know what to think. I've been brooding about it all week. I want to believe my officer. But how can I? Something is going on here--but what? Until I can get a handle on it, I've laid Tim off without pay."
Tony glanced at Hilary, then back at the sheriff. "When you hear what we've got to tell you, I think you'll be able to believe Officer Larsson."
"However," Hilary said, "you still won't be able to make sense out of it. We're in deeper than you are, and we still don't know what's going on."
She told Laurenski about Bruno Frye being in her house Tuesday morning, five days after his death.
In his office in St. Helena, Joshua Rhinehart sat at his desk with a glass of Jack Daniel's Black Label and looked through the file that Ronald Preston had given him in San Francisco. It contained, among other things, clear photocopies of the monthly statements that had been blown up from microfilm records, plus similar copies of the front and back of every check Frye had written.
Because Frye had kept the account a secret, tucked away in a city bank where he did no other business, Joshua was convinced that an examination of those records would yield clues to the solution of the dead ringer's identity.
During the first three-and-a-half years that the account had been active, Bruno had written two checks each month, never more than that, never fewer. And the checks were always to the same people--Rita Yancy and Latham Hawthorne--names which meant nothing to Joshua.
For reasons not specified, Mrs. Yancy had received five hundred dollars a month. The only thing Joshua could deduce from the photocopies of those checks was that Rita Yancy must live in Hollister, California, for she deposited every one of them in a Hollister bank.
No two of the checks to Latham Hawthorne were for the same amount; they ranged from a couple of hundred dollars to five or six thousand. Apparently, Hawthorne lived in San Francisco, for all of his deposits were made at the same branch of the Wells Fargo Bank in that city. Hawthorne's checks were all endorsed with a rubber stamp that read:
FOR DEPOSIT ONLY
TO THE ACCOUNT OF:
Joshua stared at that last word for a while. Occultist. It was obviously derived from the word
"occult" and was intended by Hawthorne to describe his profession, or at least half of it, rare book dealing being the other half. Joshua thought he knew what the word meant, but he was not certain.
Two walls of his office were lined with law books and reference works. He had three dictionaries, and he looked up "occultist" in all of them. The first two did not contain the word, but the third gave him a definition that was pretty much what he had expected. An occultist was someone who believed in the rituals and supernatural powers of various "occult sciences"--including, but not limited to, astrology, palmistry, black magic, white magic, demonolatry, and Satanism. According to the dictionary, an occultist could also be someone who sold the paraphernalia required to engage in any of those odd pursuits--books, costumes, cards, magical instruments, sacred relics, rare herbs, pig-tallow candles, and the like.
In the five years between Katherine's death and his own demise, Bruno Frye had paid more than one hundred and thirty thousand dollars to Latham Hawthorne. There was nothing on any of the checks to indicate what he had received in return for all that money.
Joshua refilled his glass with whiskey and returned to his desk.
The file on Frye's secret bank accounts showed that he had written two checks a month for the first three-and-a-half years, but then three checks a month for the past year and a half. One to Rita Yancy, one to Latham Hawthorne, as before. And now a third check to Dr. Nicholas W. Rudge.
All of the checks to the doctor had been deposited in a San Francisco branch of the Bank of America, so Joshua assumed the physician lived in that city.
He placed a call to San Francisco Directory Assistance, then another to Directory Assistance in the 408 area code, which included the town of Hollister. In less than five minutes, he had telephone numbers for Hawthorne, Rudge, and Rita Yancy.
He called the Yancy woman first.
She answered on the second ring. "Hello?"
"That's right." She had a pleasant, gentle, melodic voice. "Who's this?"
"My name's Joshua Rhinehart. I'm calling from St. Helena. I'm the executor for the estate of the late Bruno Frye."
She didn't respond.
"You mean he's dead?" she asked.
"You didn't know?"
"How would I know?"
"It was in the newspapers."
"I never read the papers," she said. Her voice had changed. It was not pleasant any more; it was hard and cold.
"He died last Thursday," Joshua said.
She was silent.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"What do you want from me?"
"Well, as executor, one of my duties is to see that all of Mr. Frye's debts are paid before the estate is distributed to the heirs."
"I discovered that Mr. Frye was paying you five hundred dollars a month, and I thought that might be installments on a debt of some sort."
She didn't answer him.
He could hear her breathing.
"He doesn't owe me a penny," she said.
"Then he wasn't repaying a debt?"
"No," she said.
"Were you working for him in some capacity?"
She hesitated. Then: click!
There wasn't any response. Just the hissing of the long distance line, a far-off crackle of static.
Joshua dialed her number again.
"Hello," she said.
"It's me, Mrs. Yancy. Evidently, we were cut off."
He considered calling her a third time, but he decided she would only hang up again. She wasn't handling herself well. Obviously, she had a secret, a secret she had shared with Bruno, and now she was trying to hide it from Joshua. But all she had done was feed his curiosity. He was more certain than ever that each of the people who were paid through the San Francisco bank account would have something to tell him that would help to explain the existence of a Bruno Frye look-alike. If he could only get them to talk, he might settle the estate relatively quickly after all.
As he put the receiver down, he said. "You can't get away from me that easily, Rita."
Tomorrow, he would fly the Cessna down to Hollister and confront her in person.
Now he called Dr. Nicholas Rudge, got an answering service, and left a message, including both his home and office numbers.
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