The rain came out of nowhere, considering the entire day had been fairly clear, but when it arrived, it was a torrent, accompanied by the appropriate high winds and an occasional flash of lightning.
John Biebe recognized Wendell White’s walk before the lieutenant was even close, catching sight of the white trench coat as he made his way up to Number 99. The sergeant was unsure how far the detective had come on foot, but in this weather, he’d be lucky not to catch pneumonia!
“Hello Bud,” John greeted, and Bud nodded in response.
“Hey. You been out here all day?”
“Just a few hours. Wasn’t all that bad until this rain started.”
“Yeah….So everything going okay?” Biebe nodded. “Well, why don’t you get out of here and get yourself something to eat? I’ll take over.”
“Thanks – I’m starving.”
“Take your time too. I’m going to be here pretty much all evening anyway.”
Seconds later, Bud was up the stairs and unlocking what had become a very familiar set of front doors. Turning on the lights, he began to peel off the coat and hat, and before any of it could drip onto the hardwood, he carefully placed it all on the coat rack. Bessie will appreciate that he considered, checking his watch. Yep, early yet, giving him plenty of time, but first…
Before he realized it, his eyes were on the painting as though half-expecting it to have disappeared in the short time he was gone, but no, there it remained, its’ subject frozen in a past moment. For a second, just a second, he thought her head tilted slightly as she smiled down at him.
I’m so glad you’re back. Thank you.
Blinking, White forced himself to look away as he loosened his tie, preparing for the long night ahead, and the last thing he needed was to start hallucinating.
The study was next, and after flicking the switch on the lamp, he removed his jacket, sat down, and now with no prying maids, devious aunts, erstwhile fiancés and overprotective mentors to meddle in the investigation, he began to open the desk drawers, removing the diary, several years’ worth of letters, appointment books, ledgers, check books, bank books, boxes with theater and movie programs, souvenir menus, scrapbooks with clippings, post cards, travel journals….Anything, everything that were the very personal property of the victim. He decided to begin with the most recent series of letters – correspondence dated and envelopes postmarked since April – and would work his way from there. He figured, having read some of the previous year’s, that these would delve more into her relationship with Kim Barrett, and how close to truthful Sidney Lydecker’s Sunday night account had been.
But once more he was distracted, the bundle – neatly tied with a pink ribbon – seemingly caressed his hands. Savannah once held these too: unfolded the pages, laughed or cried over the words, placed them in front of her as she pondered a reply….
He was on his feet again, tapping the bundle against one hand as he went into the master bedroom, hitting the wall switch that turned on every light in the chamber.
Had Bud turned at that very second, he likely would have jumped, for from that angle, it appeared that the portrait had left the mantle and was floating directly behind him.
Instead, he was staring at the four-poster bed…up towards the headboard…the neat row of pillows hidden beneath the paleness of the comforter…thinking of her deciding to remain at the apartment…telling everyone she was going out of town, simply hoping she might be left alone. He pushed aside the image of the bloody mass in the stained negligee…saw her as she was before the shot was fired, still full of life. Her thoughts troubled as she paced the floor…found something to read…perhaps some tea….But someone came…brought the ‘Black Pony’….She was no longer the beautiful, sweet lady but just another dame, looking for a good time, a way to hide her heartache, to get even with her lowlife fiancé….The doorbell rang….When? When did the doorbell ring? When she was again alone, possibly feeling humiliated, or while this unknown lover was still….
No. None of it seemed right. None of it felt right. White had investigated enough cases to know that. Even with the ‘Black Pony’ and Bessie’s report of glasses in the bedroom, it didn’t make sense…not when it came to Savannah.
Bud forced his sight away from the bed, and he slowly walked to a white dresser trimmed in gold and rosewood, tossing the letters onto the top. The upper drawer was opened, and the cop permitted one large hand to gently fumble through the contents, until at last, he withdrew one small, silk handkerchief, the fragrance still attached since the last day she had worn it. Had she carried it in a pocket…around her neck…in a purse? It, too, had touched her skin…known its’ softness, its’ beauty….He hurriedly dropped it back where he had found it and sighing, shut the drawer with a sense of finality. Now he caught sight of one of the numerous bottles of perfume and eau d’ toilette lined upon the dresser, and trying not to catch his reflection in the glass, Bud raised one container, lifted the top…and deeply inhaled: floral…this one was floral with something spicy in the midst. He recalled smelling it before…but where? In the linens? A hint left behind on the pages of her diary? The bottle was put back, hard, and he picked up the letters, his brain telling him that time was wasting, that he was learning nothing from wandering about her room and….
But he stopped again in the dressing room, caught himself opening one closet door…and staring…staring at business suits and evening gowns, furs and coats, shawls and scarves, simply cut but pretty dresses, skirts and blouses; carefully designed shelves for all of her shoes. And within the walk-in closet, a small, flaxen-colored console cabinet, the oval doors beckoning him, urging him to run his fingers over the scalloped edges until he dared open one…and found inside layer upon layer of her lingerie….
The console was shut before he touched anything inside and the closet door nearly slammed. Bud ran a hand through his hair, guilty, unable to even look at his full-length mirror image. The very idea that he might have touched the silken underwear…. Oh my God. Oh my God. What are you doing, Bud? What the fuck are you doing? He was becoming one of those perverts he despised, the types that preyed on helpless women and children; the kind that did unspeakable things of which most decent people had no awareness. The kind that would make him put their head through a wall, beat them shitless and then think nothing of ramming his service revolver into their mouth and pulling the trigger.
This apartment was obsessing him. No, not just the apartment, he thought, going to the liquor cabinet and pouring a drink, the first of the evening, before wandering back to stand beneath the large-scale portrait. It was everything: the apartment, the furnishings, the walls, the images trapped in the police photographs…this picture. This beautiful, haunting picture with a woman more stunning than any Mona Lisa or Venus deMilo. The problem was that she might as well have been one of those statues or paintings since they were all unattainable.
Wendell….You’re working yourself too hard, Wendell. You feel you’re turning into something you despise, and if you do, it’s because of me. Please rest. If anything happens to you, I’ll blame myself. And no one else will care. They pretend they do…they’ll investigate…but it won’t mean as much.
“Yeah,” he muttered, sipping his drink and turning away.
I’m glad they sent you.
“Yeah…Wendell White…your fucking clueless hero.” Clutching the highball, he angrily took another swig and went to the telephone, giving the button several taps.
In the basement was a police secret wiretap system for the line into the apartment, the cops taking a shift of several hours to listen to all incoming and outgoing calls, hoping that in perhaps one of them, someone might let something slip, or make some mistake when they were feeling overconfident.
Right now, Bud just needed to hear another voice – a real voice!
It was several rings before someone finally answered.
“Yes?” said the man on the other end.
“What’s the matter? Did you go to sleep?” he nearly snapped, then catching himself said, “Sorry.”
“No problem, Bud.” Cort was well aware of how much pressure they were all under. “What’s up?”
“Any calls come through?”
“Nope…not for hours.”
“Well, keep listening.”
“What about on your end? Anything?”
Bud glanced at the canvas, wondering if it would provide him with any answers, but when none came, he replied, “No, nothing new. Ring me if you hear anything.”
There was a ring the second he hung up, but it was the door, not the telephone. He doubted it was one of his men, so there was the likelihood it might be….
Bud figured it would either be the columnist or the fiancé, although at this rate, he was surprised all the men in her life – from Maximus Meridias to Skinner and Bullitt — were not arriving there to pay their respects with all the reverence of visiting a shrine. In most of their cases though, it was more likely to see what information they might acquire.
“I happened to see the lights on,” Sid told him as he entered without invitation, umbrella in hand.
“And you were just out taking an evening stroll in this weather, and found yourself in front of this apartment…again?” The walking story was beginning to sound too familiar.
Sid did not answer, but removed his rain hat and quipped, “Have you sublet the apartment? You’re here often enough to pay rent.”
For a change, Bud sneered at him. “Any objections?”
“Yes. I object to you prying into Savannah’s letters…especially those from me.”
“Why? Yours are the best in the bunch.” White walked away, putting the letters on a table near the unlit fireplace so they would be out of reach.
“Thanks…but I didn’t write them to you. Haven’t you any sense of privacy?”
Before tonight, Bud would have repeated that dames had no privacy when they were dead, but very seriously he reworded it and said, “Murder victims have no claim to privacy, Lydecker,” while taking the little pinball game out of one of his pockets. He sat on the arm of the love seat, attempting to ignore Sid as the latter approached with all the slyness of a cobra.
“Have detectives who buy portraits of murder victims a claim to privacy?”
Bud did not respond, but continued playing the game, finding that his concentration was not entirely on it, nor that it was settling his nerves.
Sid smiled knowingly. “Max Skinner told me that you’ve already put in a bid for it; that you contacted him this afternoon.”
“That’s none of your business,” Bud snapped. Why was the puzzle more difficult than usual?
Bud suddenly realized that Sid was just to his right and close…much too close…
“White…did it ever strike you that you’re acting very strangely? It’s a wonder you don’t come here like a suitor, with roses and a box of candy…drugstore candy of course.” Sid could almost see the veins tightening in the back of the lieutenant’s neck, but he continued. “Have you ever dreamed of Savannah as your wife…by your side at the policeman’s ball…or in the bleachers watching…the Dodgers I would think? They seem more to your liking. And of course…her listening to the heroic story of how you got a silver shinbone…from a gun battle with a gangster?” The second Bud White shook the game as if about to throw it, then sprang to his feet, Sid grinned. “I see you have.”
“Why don’t you go home? I’m busy,” and he moved to the fireplace, keeping his back to Sid.
“Perhaps we can come to terms now. You want the portrait – perfectly understandable. I want my possessions – my vase, my clock and my screen. Also…perfectly understandable.” He ignored Bud’s glare when the latter turned back to him. “Now, if you…”
Sid did not seem intimidated by the command, but placed his hat on his head and tightened the belt of his coat a little more securely. “You better watch out, Lieutenant White, or you’ll end up in a psychiatric ward….I don’t think they’ve ever had a patient…who fell in love with a corpse,” and before Bud could answer, Sid had strolled across the living room and out the front door, chuckling the entire time.
All Bud could do was drain the rest of his glass before rushing to lock the door.
An hour later, half the liquid in the brandy bottle was gone, a few more letters read, and the final week’s worth of diary entries analyzed, and he felt no closer to a solution than he did the day he was assigned the case. Everything was spinning out of control, giving him migraines, and fatigue was about to overcome him. There was not enough food in his belly and way too much liquor in his blood, and right now, he felt the only answer was to get outside, walk in the rain, whatever it took to return him to his senses.
But he could not leave, not when she needed him. He once swore that if possible, he would always see justice through; give the victim back their voice. Now he worried he had lost his skills, watching them evaporate with every drop of alcohol.
Bottle in hand, Bud kept steady, placing the container on a stack of books on top of a table – and well within arm’s reach as he collapsed in a comfortable fireside chair, the hearth and portrait to his right.
Have you ever dreamed of Savannah as your wife?
No, not at first, but she began to invade his subconscious after that Sunday night dinner with Sid. That was when she became more than a doll, a dame…the murder victim, and yes, he was thinking of a life with her, what could have been had they experienced a chance encounter: dating, an engagement, a wedding. She seemed so generous and caring, he had little problem seeing her as a passionate wife and loving companion, a devoted mother, someone to grow old with if he was that fortunate. He did not think he would even mind her having a career as long as she was happy, as long as they had one another. Knowing that Savannah was waiting – a man didn’t require much more incentive to want to stay alive!
He looked up at her portrait while taking a drink. The dreams, he thought, were getting him nowhere, but how pleasant they were.
Bud turned away, but almost out of habit, caught sight of the painting again.
Sleep Wendell he thought he heard and he smiled.
“I am tired,” he muttered, feeling the glass wobble within his fingers. “Not thinking right…Not enough…” Forty winks. That’ll get me going. Just shut my eyes for five or ten…fifteen…then back….
Eyes tightly closing, Bud’s chin lowered to his chest, the highball remaining in his grasp.
What are you doing here?
The voice was demanding, unafraid, and very distinct in Bud’s ears, causing him to stir ever slightly and gently smack his lips. The sleep was fading, the dream of him and Savannah sharing their golden wedding anniversary receding more and more as his mind cleared. The detective-lieutenant squinted, slowly recovering, wondering how long he had dozed.
Who are you?! What are you doing here?
Where was that…? That voice…it did not belong to one of his men. Was not Lydecker or Barrett or Chloe Treadwell or Bessie Clary….
Bud opened his eyes further, realizing he needed to come to his senses, and he glanced about, getting his bearings and attempting to clear his vision and head from the fog of alcohol and exhaustion. And he jumped, the glass nearly dropped, his heart tightening as he did a double-take and wiped his face with one hand, an unintended “What the fuck?” slipping off his tongue.
For Savannah Hunt had stepped out of her painting and was now standing before him!