Silent Witness - Collin Wilcox - ebook
Opis

To unlock the secrets of a homicide, Bernhardt must connect with a terrified child. Dennis tells the police he was sleeping when his wife was killed. Connie stumbled upon a prowler, he says, and paid for the mistake with her life. The police believe his story, but this cold man's crocodile tears cannot convince Connie's sister, Janice. She suspects her brother-in-law of a heinous crime, and it will take an unusual investigator to prove her right. Alan Bernhardt is a theater director in San Francisco who pays his rent with the odd bit of private detective work. Searching for the man who strangled Connie, his biggest obstacle isn't Dennis, but John - the dead woman's seven-year-old son. He may have witnessed something crucial on the night of the murder, but this sensitive child is too frightened to speak. Coaxing words out of John will be the toughest assignment of Alan's directing career, but not half as hard as keeping the boy alive.

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Contents

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Friday June 16

11:45 P.M.

Thursday June 22

4:15 P.M.

Friday June 23

2:15 P.M.

2:25 P.M.

2:50 P.M.

Monday August 14

5:15 P.M.

Wednesday August 16

1 P.M.

Thursday August 17

2:30 P.M.

Friday August 18

2 P.M.

3:30 P.M.

5:30 P.M.

11:30 P.M.

Saturday August 19

10 A.M.

12:30 P.M.

10:30 P.M.

12:30 A.M.

Saturday August 26

11 A.M.

Sunday August 27

3 P.M.

3:15 P.M.

3:25 P.M.

3:40 P.M.

5:15 P.M.

6:10 P.M.

6:30 P.M.

8:20 P.M.

8:30 P.M.

9:10 P.M.

10:05 P.M.

Monday August 28

10:10 A.M.

10:35 A.M.

5:40 P.M.

11:50 P.M.

Tuesday August 29

8:30 A.M.

10:15 A.M.

11:15 P.M.

12:10 P.M.

5:40 P.M.

6:30 P.M.

10:15 P.M.

11:15 P.M.

Wednesday August 30

9:40 A.M.

10 A.M.

3:40 P.M.

4:15 P.M.

4:20 P.M.

4:25 P.M.

4:35 P.M.

4:40 P.M.

4:50 P.M.

5 P.M.

5:10 P.M.

5:20 P.M.

5:30 P.M.

5:35 P.M.

5:40 P.M.

5:45 P.M.

5:47 P.M.

5:55 P.M.

6 P.M.

6:05 P.M.

6:06 P.M.

6:07 P.M.

6:10 P.M.

6:12 P.M.

6:13 P.M.

6:13:02 P.M.

11 P.M.

11:50 P.M.

Thursday August 31

3:15 A.M.

Looking for more suspense?

Cover

Begin Reading

About the Book

To unlock the secrets of a homicide, Bernhardt must connect with a terrified child.

Dennis tells the police he was sleeping when his wife was killed. Connie stumbled upon a prowler, he says, and paid for the mistake with her life. The police believe his story, but this cold man’s crocodile tears cannot convince Connie’s sister, Janice. She suspects her brother-in-law of a heinous crime, and it will take an unusual investigator to prove her right.

Alan Bernhardt is a theater director in San Francisco who pays his rent with the odd bit of private detective work. Searching for the man who strangled Connie, his biggest obstacle isn’t Dennis, but John - the dead woman’s seven-year-old son. He may have witnessed something crucial on the night of the murder, but this sensitive child is too frightened to speak. Coaxing words out of John will be the toughest assignment of Alan’s directing career, but not half as hard as keeping the boy alive.

About the Author

Collin Wilcox (1924–1996) was an American author of mystery fiction. Born in Detroit, he set most of his work in San Francisco, beginning with 1967’s The Black Door - a noir thriller starring a crime reporter with extrasensory perception. Under the pen name Carter Wick, he published several standalone mysteries including The Faceless Man (1975) and Dark House, Dark Road (1982), but he found his greatest success under his own name, with the celebrated Frank Hastings series.

Silent Witness

An Alan Bernhardt Novel

Collin Wilcox

 

BASTEI ENTERTAINMENT

 

Bastei Entertainment is an imprint of Bastei Lübbe AG

 

Copyright © 2015 by Bastei Lübbe AG, Schanzenstraße 6-20, 51063 Cologne, Germany

 

For the original edition:

Copyright © 2013 by The Mysterious Press, LLC, 58 Warren Street, New York, NY. U.S.A.

 

Copyright © 1990 by Collin Wilcox

 

Project management: Lori Herber

Cover adaptation: Christin Wilhelm, www.grafic4u.de

Cover design by Michel Vrana

 

E-book production: Jouve Germany GmbH & Co. KG

 

ISBN 978-3-95859-568-2

 

www.bastei-entertainment.com

 

All rights reserved, including without limitation the right to reproduce this e-book or any portion thereof in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the publisher.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

With Love from Us All, This

Book Is Dedicated to Marie

FRIDAY

June 16

11:45 P.M.

THE SOUNDS WERE ANIMAL: wild sounds in the savage darkness, sounds of ragged, tortured panting. Fingers had crooked into claws, flesh tearing at flesh, fists flailing. She saw the clenched flash of teeth, lips drawn back, human no longer. And their eyes: predators’ eyes, killers’ eyes. Human killers, more dangerous than animal. She heard a scream: her voice, her scream. But the sound was lost, only a whimper, stifled in her throat. Strangler’s fingers, his flesh on hers: murderer’s flesh, no longer a lover’s. She must break free. Legs thrashing, arms lashing, she must—

The first crash, metal on bone, ignited the kaleidoscope, an incandescent shower cascading through the darkness behind her eyes. She’d seen these lights cascading through this same darkness only once, when she’d fallen from her horse. She’d—

With the second crash, perspectives were changed. She felt sensation leaving, felt herself falling away—slowly at first, then faster, a sickening spiral, accelerating.

With the third crash, the incandescence flickered, faded, finally failed. Her last moment of consciousness registered the particular smell of the rich, loamy earth—and the sound of her horse’s hooves as he trotted away, riderless.

THURSDAY

June 22

4:15 P.M.

ON HIS SHOULDER, JOHN felt his father’s hand tighten. Was it a signal? Was he meant to move, say something, do something special? Slowly turning, he looked up at his father. But his father stood as before, chin lowered, staring down at the coffin. In the corner of his father’s eye, John could see a tear, one single tear, glistening. But in his father’s face, in the well-remembered pattern of the lines and the creases and the angle of the mouth, something had changed. It was the eyes that were different. Even with the single tear, the eyes were a mystery.

The cemetery was on a hill that overlooked the ocean. When they’d driven up the curving road to the cemetery, following the huge black car with the coffin and the flowers inside, he’d looked out the window of the limousine to see the crescent of the Santa Barbara yacht harbor, below. When he and his mother had visited Disneyland, about a week and a half ago, they’d stopped in Santa Barbara, to see Aunt Janice.

Aunt Janice lived in the same house where his mother had grown up, the house where his grandparents had lived before they died. It was a large white stucco house with a red tile roof and a big, heavy front door. When his Aunt Janice had opened the door for them she’d given him a big hug, and asked how it felt to be a second grader, no longer a first grader. “The graduate,” his aunt had said. Then she’d laughed. And then she’d hugged him again, harder.

Every day, for three days, they’d gone sailing in Aunt Janice’s sailboat, just the three of them. While he’d fished, anchored in the shallows, his mother and his aunt had taken sandwiches and potato salad and cans of 7-Up and beer from the cooler. Aunt Janice’s face was tanned a deep brown, and when she laughed at something his mother said, he’d seen white foam on her upper lip, from the beer. He’d always liked to hear Aunt Janice laugh.

His mother hadn’t laughed that day. Not once, had he heard her laugh.

Had she laughed when they’d gone to Disneyland? Could he remember?

Why did he remember his aunt laughing, and even remember the white foam of beer on her upper lip, when he couldn’t clearly remember his mother’s face?

His aunt was standing beside him, as close as his father was standing, on the other side. He realized that, now, he was turning toward his aunt as, yes, she lowered her gaze to meet his.

Even dressed all in black, with a black hat he’d never seen before, his aunt’s face looked the same. Someday, he knew, someday soon, she would laugh again, the same laugh.

But his father’s face had changed.

Forever.

FRIDAY

June 23

2:15 P.M.

JANICE LIFTED HER FOOT from the accelerator, waited for the pickup truck beside her to draw ahead, then eased the Toyota into the right lane as they passed beneath the airport turnoff sign.

It had been less than a day—twenty-two hours—since the undertaker had touched the button that began lowering Connie’s coffin into the ground. As the coffin had been covered over by the earth, so the psyche would begin to scab over.

But beneath scabs, wounds could fester.

At the cemetery, they’d stood together: she and Dennis, with John between them. Once—only once—she’d torn her eyes away from the coffin to look at them: Dennis, the perfect personification of grief bravely borne, holding John’s hand as if the flesh felt nothing. John, only seven, numbed, his eyes so large, fixed on the coffin.

Aware that stress had dulled her driving acumen, she guided the Celica with particular care around the semicircular driveway that led to the airport terminal.

In less than an hour, Dennis and John would be airborne, bound for San Francisco. It was a short flight, a little more than an hour. For Connie’s last birthday, her thirtieth, the big three-oh, Janice had flown up to San Francisco for the party. “It’s a semisurprise,” Dennis had said. “She’s expecting a few people for dinner. But there’ll be fifty people, minimum.” On the phone, Dennis had sounded excited, pleased with himself. Dennis had always enjoyed a party.

He sat beside her now. In her peripheral vision she could see his profile: eyes front, patrician nose in perfect alignment, impressive chin lifted, hair impeccably styled. Connie had always appreciated men with handsome profiles.

And now Connie was dead. For six days, dead. Leaving behind a husband, a son—and a sister.

It had happened late Friday night, early Saturday morning, actually. Janice had been at Gordon’s house, Friday night. They’d done what they’d done every weekend for more than two years, she and Gordon. They’d gone out together. That was the operative word—out. Sometimes it was a movie, followed by a snack—out. Followed by the drive to Gordon’s house, usually driving slowly along the shoreline, comfortably aware of the surf’s eternal presence.

Followed, after the preliminaries, by their weekly night of love. Followed, next morning, by breakfast, probably at Jessica’s, sometimes at the Neptune.

Last Saturday—only six days ago—they’d walked to the wharf, and had breakfast at the Neptune. Then, even though the fog was still in, they’d walked along the beach for a mile or two before returning to Gordon’s house. She’d gone inside, used the bathroom, kissed him goodbye. As she’d driven the three miles to her house, she’d planned the day. First she would shower, and get into fresh clothes. Then she would shop. Once Gordon had suggested that she leave some clothes at his place, so she could shower and change there. She’d responded that then she’d have to take her discarded clothing home to wash, a non sequitur. Gordon hadn’t mentioned it again.

It had been almost noon, when she’d arrived home. The mail had come, and she’d spent a minute or two sorting through the envelopes, to be opened and read later. She kept the answering machine in her studio, in the back of the house, on the first floor. Since she didn’t paint on weekends, and was therefore half-reluctant to enter the studio, her work space, she’d been tempted to first go upstairs, and shower, and change, and do something with her hair before she checked the machine. But, thank God, curiosity had been stronger than work place reluctance.

The first two messages had been good news. Don MacLean, in Phoenix, had sold the “roof tops” painting. And the Tolls had invited her for cocktails the following Wednesday, to meet a “darkly handsome capitalist,” Lillian Toll had said, her voice burbling with casual good humor.

Dennis’s voice had been the third one on the tape. “Call me, Janice,” he’d said. “It’s Connie. Something terrible’s happened.”

Fumbling at the machine, she’d played the message again. Then she’d—

“… can just drop us off, if you like,” Dennis was saying.

She’d expected him to say it, and had decided what she would say in return: “I’ll drop you off, then I’ll park, and come in.”

“But that’s not—”

“I want to do it,” she answered. “I want to see you off. The two of you.”

She knew he wouldn’t protest further, and he didn’t. She looked in the mirror. John was staring pensively out the window, his chin cupped in his hand. As they passed a bicyclist, a young man, pedaling hard, John followed the rider with his eyes. Had it only been a week since she’d last seen him? They’d gone to Disneyland only last week, John and Connie. They’d come to Santa Barbara Thursday, and stayed overnight. They’d left bright and early Friday, for San Francisco—for Saint Stephen, actually, fifty miles beyond San Francisco.

Friday night, Connie had been killed. Murdered.

Murdered …

The word had a leaden resonance, like a muffled bell tolling in the dark of night. There was a name for words that sounded like the things they described. Lessons from freshman English, long forgotten.

Ahead, the road forked: right for the terminal, left for the parking lot. She signaled for the right turn, took her foot from the accelerator. “Let the engine slow you down,” her father had said. “Save the brakes.” He’d only given her two driving lessons, before he died. But she still remembered the advice.

Murdered …

If she repeated it often enough, would the word lose its dreadful finality, its terrifying aura of infinite doom?

No. Never.

Only time could help. She was thirty-six years old; she was just beginning to realize that, yes, time was the only balm that eased the pain.

Ahead, two cars were stopped in front of the terminal, unloading passengers and baggage. One car was the standard Santa Barbara Mercedes. The terminal, too, was standard Santa Barbara: a cluster of low, mission-style white stucco buildings with vine-shaded patios and low, red-tiled roofs. She’d lived here all her life. Sometimes, seen through a certain unpredictable prism, Santa Barbara seemed too good to be true: too picturesque, too affluent, too removed from pain and poverty.

As they rolled to a stop, Dennis unbuckled his safety belt, swung the door open, put out his hand, for the keys. “I’ll get the bags. Sit tight.” Typically, his voice was clipped, flattened with bogus authority. Many men who lived off their wives acted like that, she’d discovered. Santa Barbara was loaded with men like Dennis Price. “Fortune hunters” was the archaic phrase.

She took the keys from the ignition, dropped them in his palm. Let him figure out which key opened the trunk. It was a small, petty barb, but gratifying. She knew he wouldn’t ask her which key fitted the trunk. Not Dennis. He’d try them all, before he’d ask.

She twisted in the driver’s seat to face John. In all the world, this was the only mortal left with whom she shared a blood kinship. John Hale Price, seven years old. He’d been in the house the night of the murder. He could have heard his mother screaming.

One week ago tonight, he could have heard her screaming.

He was looking at her with round, solemn eyes. What secrets lay locked in violent memory behind those soft brown eyes?

“John—” She reached out her hand, to touch his shoulder. Through the rear window she saw the trunk lid come up. Dennis had found the right key. “I want to see you soon, John. Later in the summer, before you start school, I want to see you. I’ll come up and get you. We can go to Disneyland again. Would you like that?”

The solemn eyes did not change. Had it been a mistake to mention Disneyland, where he’d just gone with his mother?

“Or we could—” The trunk lid slammed down. Only seconds remained. Life, she’d learned, was measured in seconds—seconds for a young mother to die, seconds for connections to be made, for love to find fragmented words: “We could go fishing, out in the ocean. We could—”

“Okay, John—” Through the open door on the passenger’s side, Price handed her the keys, then folded the front seat forward, for John to get out of the car. At the sound of his father’s voice, the boy’s eyes changed. Had he flinched?

“He can come with me,” she said quickly. “We can park the car while you check in.”

Decisively, Price shook his head. “No. He’s got a bag, he can carry it. Come on, John. Bring your bag. We don’t have much time.”

“You’ve got a half hour,” she said. “At least.” Price looked at her: a quick, hard glance. Then he turned to his son. “Come on, John. Please.” To Janice, the last word sounded like an exasperated afterthought. Plainly reluctant, the boy took hold of his bright red nylon satchel, lifted it, and climbed out of the car.

“We’ll see you inside, Janice,” Price said. “Thanks.” Abruptly, he closed the door, lifted his two suitcases and walked up the flagstone sidewalk to the terminal’s arbored entrance. Shoulders rounded, head bowed, John followed.

2:25 P.M.

THE CHECK-IN LINE was abnormally long, even for a Friday. With twenty minutes remaining before departure time, there were eight San Francisco-bound passengers standing in line ahead of Dennis and John. While she was still several paces from him, John turned toward her. He’d obviously been watching the entrance to the terminal, waiting for her.

Smiling, she spontaneously held out her hand to him. “Come on, John. I’ll buy you an ice-cream bar while your dad’s checking the suitcases.”

The boy stepped quickly toward her, his satchel on the floor, forgotten. But, just as quickly, Price frowned, dropped a hand to his son’s shoulder. “Let him stay here, Janice. He doesn’t need anything to eat after that lunch. Especially ice cream.”

2:50 P.M.

STANDING ON THE LAWN in front of the low adobe wall that bordered the tarmac, she watched the airplane’s door close, watched the motorized ramp move back. Should she wave? She always felt faintly foolish, waving at faces she could never recognize behind the airplane’s small windows. So she simply stood in the bright June sunshine as the 737’s engines started, rose to an ear-piercing whine as the airplane began to move slowly across the tarmac. Automatically, she glanced at her watch. Ten minutes until three, exactly the scheduled departure time.

In half an hour, she would be home—the home of her childhood.

She’d been six years old when Constance was born. Old enough to realize that the tiny baby lying beside her mother in the hospital bed had come from inside her mother’s body.

She’d been sixteen that Sunday afternoon when the sheriff’s car had pulled into their circular driveway. She’d been in her room upstairs, watching tennis on TV. She’d heard the car’s engine, and gone to the window and looked down. When she’d seen the light bar on the car’s roof, and the number, she’d experienced a momentary titillation, the involuntary response to the presence of the police. But the next moment she’d experienced the first small, sharp stab of fear. Had something happened to her parents? To Connie?

As she’d watched, the car’s rear door had swung open, and Connie had emerged. It was all right, then—it would be all right.

But then she realized that Connie was wrapped in a blanket. And, in that moment, she’d known. Her parents were dead. Connie was alive. But their parents were dead.

The 737 was at the far end of the airport. Soon, she knew, the airplane would turn onto the runway. Moments later it would begin its takeoff roll, blasting into the bright blue sky, bound for San Francisco.

Dennis and John had arrived yesterday, on the ten o’clock United flight from San Francisco. She’d debated hiring a car and driver to take the three of them from the airport to her home. But unless the car was a limo, the driver would have been party to their bereavement. And a limo would have been too ostentatious. So she’d picked them up in her bright red Toyota Celica, the best car she’d ever owned.

From the very first, as she and Dennis exchanged their ritual phrases of hushed condolence that instantly lost all meaning, she’d been aware of the underlying tension that inexplicably centered on John. Whenever she sought to draw John aside, even for a moment, Dennis intervened. At first she’d thought her brother-in-law was being overly protective, compensating, belatedly playing the role of father. But when she’d drawn Dennis aside, and suggested that perhaps John should stay at home with her rather than attend the funeral, Dennis’s reaction had been almost hostile. “Of course John’ll go to the funeral,” he’d said, loud enough for John to hear. “That’s why he’s here.” And last night, after the funeral, while John was preparing for bed, Dennis had been careful not to give her a chance to talk with John alone, even for a moment.

Why?

Was Dennis afraid?

Of what?

What could John tell her that Dennis was so determined she should not hear?

As she watched the 737 begin to move, gathering momentum as it hurtled down the runway, she was aware that, whatever the cost, these were questions that must be answered.

MONDAY

August 14

5:15 P.M.

AWARE THAT FATE COULD hang on the moment, yet wryly amused by the melodramatic thought, Janice lifted the phone and punched out the number. After four rings, Paula’s recorded voice came on the line: “You’ve reached the residence of Paula Brett. I’m not able to answer the phone now, but if you’ll leave your name and number at the beep, I’ll get back to you. Thanks. And remember, wait for the beep.”

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