An Empty Grave...
Chapter 3: Mrs. Freeze
I told him the whole thing, or at least as much of it as I remembered. I was still a little hazy about the end, the part where I ran over his gatepost. Les listened very carefully, occasionally asking me to clarify a point or pulling me back when I jumped ahead of myself. When I told him about the "no" symbols with "Fag David" painted on the walls of the house he nodded. "That's where the cult thing comes in I guess. That and the jeweled knife. Jesus!" When I finished he sat for a few moments, staring off into space, putting it all together in his head.
"Well," he said, getting up from the table and lighting the fire under the pasta water. "You think you can handle a glass of wine? I'd say you need it." I nodded. A glass of wine sounded wonderful. Les took a couple of glasses down from a shelf and then got a bottle of white wine from the refrigerator. "I know it's too cold, but it'll have to do." He opened the bottle and poured for both of us.
The wine was smooth on my tongue and I didn't think it was too cold at all. "Now it's your turn, Les. How did I end up here?"
It wasn't nearly as long a story as mine. It seems that Les has a rather elaborate security system and when I hit his gatepost it set off an alarm in the house. Les came to investigate and found me unconscious and bleeding all over Rick's truck. He called 911 and had the paramedics haul me off to the hospital, about a mile and a half down the road. While he was pushing the truck back so it wouldn't block his driveway he found Rick's wallet. Thinking it was mine and that I'd probably need it and being the kind of guy that he is, he drove over to the hospital with it.
I was being sewn up in the emergency room when he got there and he decided to wait and find out how I was doing. He and a nurse went through the wallet but didn't find any insurance card. They did find Rick's Visa card (did you know hospitals take Visa cards?) which the Visa people said was paid up but still wouldn't cover everything they were doing to me in the emergency room. Figuring it was better than nothing, the hospital charged it up to its limit.
When she was through, Dr. Langford told Les that she hated to do it but they were going to have to put me in the indigent ward for the time being, until they could find out if I had insurance or anything. Les didn't much like the sound of that so he took me back to his place. And there I was.
By the time he finished the pasta was ready, linguine with a savory sauce of vegetables and herbs. There was a salad to go with it and some LaBrea Bakery sourdough bread with a hard crust. "Be careful with that bread Richar... I mean David. Susan said that you could have loosened some teeth when your head hit that post."
We ate in silence until Les suddenly looked up. "Oh, I almost forgot. I found your dog."
"Crash? Is she okay? How'd you find her?"
"I started to tell you before. While you were sleeping I made a few phone calls. Your neighbor, Mrs. Freeze, has her and I gather that she's doing just fine."
Good old Mrs. Freeze. She always did like that dog, especially once Crash learned that Mrs. Freeze's sidewalk has the same status as the living room floor: walk, run and play but do not squat. "But how'd you get on to Mrs. Freeze?"
It turned out that Les is something of a computer expert--he programs them for a living and plays with them for a hobby. He knows how you can find people's names and numbers just by knowing their address. Les had the address from Rick's driver's license so he just looked up the names and numbers of all the people who live on the same block. Then he began calling, asking if they had seen the dog. Mrs. Freeze was his third call.
"Oh, Les, thank you!" I repressed my impulse to kiss him.
"Hey, I know how I'd feel if Tux was lost."
"Yeah, my cat. You probably haven't seen him yet but he's been keeping track of you ever since you arrived day before yesterday. He hasn't decided about you yet but when he does you probably won't be able to keep him out of your lap. If he likes you, that is. If he doesn't your life will be hell."
"Les, did Mrs. Freeze say anything about me? I mean..."
"I guess she thinks you're him. At least she didn't seem at all flustered when I told her you--Rick--were here. It's odd though, now that I think about it."
"Well she's the one who talked to the paper. She told me so. So how come she told them Rick had been out of town for several days if he wasn't? You'd think, living next door..."
"She knew he was home, Les. Thursday evening, the night before he was... Well, Thursday evening he took her a loaf of bread he'd baked. So she had to know he was there. Not only that, his truck was parked in front of her house that afternoon. Was it just a couple of days ago? Oh, God, it seems like so long ago." I was starting to loose control again but caught my self in time. I took another sip of my wine.
"Look, why don't you go back to bed now. It's time for your pain pills anyway and I think the only thing you can do now is just rest. Okay?"
I didn't want the pills but he insisted. He said that Susan--Dr. Langford--had been adamant that I take them. I finally did and Les wheeled me back into the bedroom and got me into bed. I was more tired than I'd realized and by the time he finished lecturing me about yelling for him if I had to get up I was sound asleep.
When I woke in the morning I wasn't nearly as groggy as I'd been the day before. I still hurt everywhere but now the pain had lost its edge and kind of receded into the background. I had to go to the bathroom, but the need wasn't urgent. I didn't hear Les stirring around so I settled back against the pillows and did some real thinking for the first time since I'd seen those fire engines parked outside my front door.
Question number one of course was the big one: Who had tried to kill me? There was no doubt in my mind that I was the intended victim--those slashed circles with "Fag David" scrawled in them clinched that. But why? And what would happen when whoever it was found out they'd gotten the wrong guy?
The answer to that was obvious and my mouth filled with the bitter taste of fear. They'd do it again, that's what they'd do. I mean, if someone goes to all the trouble of killing and burning someone they aren't likely to be amused when they find out their man is still in the land of the living. Not at all.
So. Now what? I thought about going to the police and asking them to... To what? Protect me? Mrs. Freeze might think of me as a "high ranking official" but to the cops I'd be just another faggot who pushed some guy too far. Or worse, they'd figure Rick and I got into a fight or some weird scene and I killed him and then set the fire and painted that stuff on the walls just to cover it up. No, it seemed clear to me that my immediate survival depended on staying dead.
But who was out to get me? I didn't have a clue. I didn't have a real enemy in the world that I could think of. I mean, even my Co-Director C. Weston Hollingsworth didn't dislike me enough to kill me. And even if he did, he wasn't bright enough to carry it off--even with the wrong guy. A jealous ex-lover? Nah. Except for Rick I hadn't had a serious love affair since1991 and even then I wasn't the one who broke it up. Who else? I couldn't think of a soul.
"You awake?" It was Les, yawning and scratching at the thick fir on his belly. "I thought you might need, you know," he nodded towards the bathroom.
"I do. Thanks." Les got me out of bed and helped me hobble across the room into the bathroom. "You know," I said when I was through, "I think I'd kill for a shower."
"Yeah. You need one," Les said, helping me back to the bed. "But not today. I don't think Susan would approve of wet bandages." He sat me on the edge of the bed. "Tell you what though. My ex-wife used to say that I gave a great sponge bath. Let's see if I can still do it."
He disappeared down the hall and shortly reappeared with cloths, towels, and a basin of hot water. "Don't worry, I'll be gentle on those bruises," he said setting to work. For the next twenty minutes or so he soaped, washed, rinsed and generally cleaned me up. It felt wonderful.
"There now," he said, standing back to admire his handiwork, "that's better." He helped me into a clean sweat suit and managed to get my right foot into one of his sneakers which fit surprising well considering it was a full size larger than I normally wear. The left foot went into a heavy sweat sock since it was still badly swollen and wasn't going to touch the floor anyway.
"I'll make breakfast soon as I get out of the shower, Dave. Then we'll try out those crutches Susan left you."
Over breakfast I told Les that I couldn't go on imposing on him and his hospitality but he would have none of that. "Look," he said, "it's no big deal. I've got lots of space and I kind of like having someone to talk to at meals. Besides, where do you think you're going to go? All you've got just now is a smashed up truck, a maxed out Visa card and a face that would stop a clock. Just who do you think is going to take you in?"
I hadn't thought of that.
"And if that isn't enough, someone is out there, David. Someone who thinks he's killed you and will probably kill you again should you reappear, risen from the grave as it were. No, I think you'd better stay here. At least until we can figure out some reasonable course of action."
Just like that. He extended his home, his resources and his friendship--just like that. I didn't think people like that existed in the world anymore.
"Now finish your breakfast so we can tackle those crutches. I promised Mrs. Freeze we'd be there around ."
I ate the last of my sausage. "Mrs. Freeze?"
"Yeah. I thought it'd be a good idea to go up and get the dog. Porterhouse steak, very rare, baked potato and ice cream every night doesn't seem to me a particularly healthy diet for anyone, much less a dog." He laughed. "Wanna bet the potato had sour cream and bacon bits on it? Besides, I think we ought to take a quick look around your house, see just how much damage there actually was and make sure the place is secure. Okay? Now come on, let's see if you can manage those crutches."
The crutches weren't as bad as I'd thought they'd be. I had to be pretty careful of the left one since my left armpit was still bruised pretty badly but otherwise I took to them with a minimum of trauma. I couldn't carry anything and that drove me nuts but at least I could get around under my own steam.
After a turn or two around the kitchen it was time to
On the way to the bank we stopped at a Spanish looking building. "I'll just be a minute, David," he said, getting out of the car. "I have to get some hairball medicine for Tux. Spring is here and he's beginning to shed."
When he came back to the car he said, "This is a pretty good place to know when you have an animal. Open seven days a week and all the Vets are really good. Tux has his favorite, of course, but actually seems to like them all."
At the bank I dug Rick's bank card out of his wallet and handed it to Les. "They only let you have three hundred dollars a day so you might as well get it all. Oh, the code is 84887." Les gave me a quizzical look as he took the card and got out of the car.
It occurred to me that Les might not be completely clear about my relationship with Rick -- which of course meant that he might not be completely clear about me. That would never do so, once we were on the highway and heading out of town, I turned to him and said, "You do realize that Rick and I were, uh..."
"Lovers? Sure. I mean, you didn't exactly say so but it seemed pretty clear. Why? Oh, because I was surprised that you knew the PIN for his cash card. No, I'm always surprised when someone knows someone else's code. I'd never tell anyone my code, just as I'd never tell anyone my password on a computer system. Not even my closest friend. It's just me."
I laughed. "Well, it's not like it was his very own personal secret code. We both used the same code. Besides, it's a joint account so it's not like either of us couldn't get money out of it anyway."
Les nodded. "Still not a good idea."
When we pulled up in front of Mrs. Freeze's I was a little shaken by how normal my house looked. Except for the boarded up bedroom window, a few smoky smudges and the trampled bushes by the front door, you wouldn't know there had been a murder and an arson fire there just a couple of days before.
Before we could ring Mrs. Freeze's bell the door was opened and we were met by Crash, tail in full wag. I guess somehow she could tell that I was hurt because she didn't go into her wild greeting routine. She stayed firmly on all fours and gently licked my hand. Then she vacuumed me from floor to waist, checking to see if I'd been unfaithful to her. Finally satisfied that I hadn't been near any other dog, she sat and looked up at me with those adoring brown eyes of hers. It was enough to make a man cry. I think maybe it did, just for a minute.
"Well, ain't you a sorry sight now. But I guess it's a wonder you're alive at all. Well, come in, come in." Mrs. Freeze waived us into the hall and then indicated that we should go into the living room. Les had to help me and, after some small difficulties, he managed to get me into the big overstuffed chair that was once the personal domain of Mr. Freeze. When I was settled in Crash, though she certainly knows better than to get on the furniture at Mrs. Freeze's, pulled herself up on the upholstered arm and leaned into me so I could hug her. We'd missed each other.
Les stood by the chair and slowly took in the room: dark wallpaper, patterned with burgundy roses; worn but very good oriental carpets; heavy upholstered furniture from several miscellaneous periods, all of it well used but of obvious quality; drapes that matched the roses on the wallpaper; things everywhere. There wasn't a flat surface in the room that didn't carry its weight of porcelain figurines, crystal boxes, framed pictures, souvenirs and bric-a-brac. The centerpiece of the room was a white, 1920's baby grand piano, a fringed Spanish shawl thrown over the top and crowded with silver framed photographs. Gloria Swanson had one just like it in Sunset Boulevard.
Although it was bright and sunny outside the room was dim with the heavy lined drapes pulled tightly across the tall windows that looked out on the street and the beaded and Tiffany glass shaded lamps were lit against the gloom. The lamp light glinted off several silver buckets filled with huge bouquets of fresh flowers. "My God," Les said quietly, "the place is a museum."
He didn't say more because at that moment Mrs. Freeze came bustling in carrying a silver tray which held a flower patterned English porcelain tea service. "Oh, here Mr... Hayfield is it? Yes, Hayfield. Please sit here." She indicated one of a pair of mahogany Hepplewhite chairs covered with a deep blue brocade. "I think you'll find that comfortable. And if you'll just move a thing or two on that table..."
Les cleared a space on the table between the two chairs and Mrs. Freeze put the tray down and proceeded to serve tea. Along with the tea she passed a plate of baklava--deftly slipping a small piece to Crash--and then settled herself on the carved settee across from me. She looked up with guarded eyes.
"Well, Richard, how are..."
"It's okay, Mrs. Freeze. He knows who I am."
"David. I am so sorry about Richard. You too were so close, it must be a great loss to you." She dropped her eyes and was silent for a moment, marking Rick's passing. When she looked up again she was all bustling practicality.
"Do you think, David, that it was wise to reveal yourself to Mr. Hayfield?" She glanced at Les, as though to measure his reliability. "It would seem to me that the fewer people who know that you are alive, the better."
"Probably. But I think Les is okay. After all, he did take me in and he did find you and Crash." Crash glanced up at the sound of her name and wagged her tail. Then she went back to staring at the plate of baklava, trying to levitate a piece over to her.
"Do you have any idea why this has all happened? Who might have done this terrible thing? All that ugly scrawling on your walls. And what they've done to you! Surely you saw the attacker before..."
"No, no. I wasn't attacked. This," I touched my face very gently, "is my own stupid fault. I... Well, I had an accident with the truck, kind of smashed it up, too."
"Well, that sets my mind more at ease. You looked perfectly fine when you were standing out there talking to that fireman and that other man, the newspaper reporter. I was afraid that the person who did that," she waived her hand indicating my house next door, "may have waited nearby and tried again to... Well to finish what he had started."
I briefly wondered how she knew about the reporter and fireman but then it occurred to me that she must have been stationed in this very room, on one of those Roman looking benches, peering out through the drapes.
Les cleared his throat. "Tell me, ma'am, why did you tell the police that Richard had been away for several days if you knew he was the one in the house?"
Mrs. Freeze offered him more tea which he waived away. "Well, young man, it seemed to me obvious that David was the intended victim and I could think of no good reason to put him in further danger by letting the assassin know he had failed. So I told the police just what I told that ill-mannered reporter. Unfortunately I may not have done David very much of a service."
"Why is that ma'am?"
"The police, of course." She looked at him as if he were just a little simple. "They have become most anxious to interview Richard and have charged me with the responsibility of alerting them should he appear. They feel sure he will do so quite soon and even went so far as to imply that if he doesn't, they might actually suspect him of... well, of doing what was done. As if Richard could ever..."
Les looked over at me, rubbing his belly the way he does when he's thinking. "I wonder... David, let me see Richard's wallet, will you?"
"What for?" I asked, handing it over.
He pulled Rick's driver's license out and held it up, looking back and forth from it to me. "Could be. It could just be." Mrs. Freeze came and looked over his shoulder at the license and then at me. She nodded, completely in tune with his thoughts. "You think you're up to some Academy Award acting?"
His idea was to have Mrs. Freeze go ahead and call the cops, invite them over to interview "Rick" on the theory that I was so badly swollen and bandaged that they wouldn't know who I was. According to Rick's driver's license I was about the right height and weight, had the right color eyes and hair and, if you beat up the man in the picture pretty good, he'd come out looking very much the way I did just then.
After giving it some thought Mrs. Freeze became enthusiastic about the idea too. She was sure I could carry it off and she agreed with Les that it would give me some time to try and figure out who was out to get me. She also understood, although of course she didn't say anything, that the police were unlikely to give me much in the way of protection or assistance if I told them what had really happened.
That left me and I wasn't nearly as enthusiastic about the idea as the two of them were. In the first place, I wasn't all that sure that I could do it. Oh, I knew him well enough, that was not a problem. It was the idea of it, of pretending to be him that made me squeamish. It also occurred to me that if I didn't manage to carry it off, I would be in extremely hot water--not to mention jail. Probably on a murder charge.
On the other hand, it would buy some time. After a lot of argument with myself, that's what finally convinced me.
Mrs. Freeze made the call.
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