Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Whisper: Chapter 2

The Last Testament of Hugo Harvey

The package contained a seven inch reel of audio tape and nothing else. I stared as if it would uncoil and bite me, then Farnsworth said, “Hand it here.”

I didn’t argue. Farnsworth slipped it into his desk and spoke quietly. “Jones, you stay here. Leslie, as soon as those goons leave, go to the equipment room and bring down a tape machine. I’m going to call Roxy.”

“What for?” I said.

“’Cause I don’t know how to work the damn thing.”

Roxy showed up forty-five minutes later. She might have been there sooner, but Farnsworth had told her not to come in until after the NSA had cleared out. It was possible they’d already tapped our phone lines, but I didn’t see any need to point that out. She arrived in the same clothes she’d worn earlier, but without any makeup. I was surprised how little difference it made.

Leslie wheeled a tape recorder on a mail cart into the editor’s office. Roxy sent him back for an empty reel to spool the tape on. Once she’d threaded the ribbon across the pickups, she told Farnsworth exactly which button not to press or else he’d erase it.

“Good work, darlin’. Now go back to the switchboard. I’ll call you when I need you.”

“Sure thing, chief.” She winked at me as she left. Knowing that what we were about to hear might be dangerous to learn, I worried about her listening in, but there wasn’t any way to stop her without betraying her spy techniques to our boss.

Farnsworth pressed PLAY, and the recording started mid-sentence.

“—telling you it’s not going to be another Guatemala. The CIA would have made a right mess if Bernays hadn’t stepped in to handle P.R.”

“Was he one of yours?” said a second voice.

“Hah. I wish. No, Janice has people in the media, but that United Fruit thing was purely home-grown. It was almost like they were using our playbook.”

“But why do it different this time? I mean, to kill a President…”

“Like I said, the CIA was sloppy. Why stage a coup—”

Farnsworth stopped the tape and we sat in silence for about ten heartbeats.

“Did I just hear what I think I heard?” he said.

“Kill a President,” said Leslie. “My god, someone’s gunning for Ike?”

“Jones,” said Farnsworth, “what do you know about this Harvey guy? Is he one of the people on this tape?”

I shook my head. “I don’t think so. He was kind of a sleazy lawyer, but he was all right. I mean, he still had a soul, if you know what I mean. Remember that whole Immigrant Brides expos√© I did for the Whisper? He’s the one who tipped me off on that.”

Farnsworth nodded. “Do we want to go on listening, or should we call Agent Tyler and hand it over?”

I thought about it. If this was my call, then I’d better call it right. “The guy on the tape mentioned the CIA like he’s someone on the inside. If we give this to Tyler, who knows what’ll happen to it? Besides, that bastard knew Hugo was dead before I even got here, I’d swear it. I don’t trust him. Let’s hear the rest.”

Farnsworth rewound the tape and started it again.

“Like I said, the CIA was sloppy. Why stage a coup on foreign soil when you can control the situation on your home turf? A thousand guerrillas are pricey. One bullet is cheap.”

“So when do we whack him?”

“Slow down there, Ace. You may be in Janice’s good graces, but you’re not all the way in. uhRonwhz is coming on the Fourteenth—”

“What was that?” said Leslie. Farnsworth rewound the player.

“—not all the way in. Ron Hez is coming on the Fourteenth to brownnose a bunch of business and congressmen until the next Friday. That’s our window. Your job is to make sure that…”

The voices faded out. Next came several scuffles and bumps as of someone digging their way out from a closet, or under a desk. There was a muffled bang that sounded like a waste bin falling over, and a voice I recognized as Hugo’s saying “shit shit shi—”

The recording cut off mid-profanity, then picked up again with the thud thud thud of someone tapping on a microphone.

“Is this thing on? Christ, I hope it is. Better not be taping over anything important.

“Smithee… Alan, I hope it’s you hearing this. You did all right by that foreign brides thing, and you kept my name out of it. I owe you for that, and I never paid you back. I don’t know if I’m paying you back now or just screwing things up, but I gotta tell you, I don’t know where else to turn. These bastards are on to me, and as long as I’m the only one who knows about all this I’ll never be safe. I hope I was able to meet up with you tonight, but I’m sending this tape separate in case I don’t.

“You know I work with some scummy pigs, that’s no secret to either of us. But this, I’d never… Murder, Alan. Assassination? That’s too far.

“So here’s the story. I was at this party for a big-time promoter who shall remain nameless, but his initials are J.S. I kept one of his leading ladies out of the slam for… That doesn’t matter. You know how these parties go. Everyone knows who I am but no one wants to admit it in front of their friends, so I hand out a bunch of business cards and act like everyone’s a stranger.

“I had a bit to drink that night, enough that I thought it was a good idea to lug around J.S.’s tape recorder and try to get some “true confessions” out of the party guests. I don’t remember passing out in his office, but I remember waking up when those two on the tape came in.

“The second guy, the one asking the questions, that’s Drew Bordani. He runs a catering business that serves a lot of B-flick producers. I hear he bankrolls pornos on the side. He’s got some family connections back east, if you know what I mean, but the rumor is that he’s in L.A. because his so-called family told him to take a hike.

“I don’t know who the other guy is and I don’t know this Janice person he keeps talking about. When he showed up, though, he came in this big, black car around the back of the house with some bodyguards who looked like goddamn Secret Service. J.S. tried to keep anyone from noticing he was there. It was all pretty hush-hush.

“Anyway, I got out of there quick with this tape but someone must have got suspicious, because the next day they ransacked my house and office while I was out. The day after that, I was being followed and… Well, it’s a long story.

“I went to your old paper to find you, but they didn’t know where you’d gone. I got a call from… well, somebody who told me you were in D.C. and when I got out here and met ‘em… Nah, you’ll think I’m nuts. But I ain’t nuts, Alan. I’m serious as a coronary. I don’t know much about what’s going on here, but even that little bit’s got me scared. This ‘Ron Hez’ fellow is arriving on the 14th – that’s Tuesday – and I hope you can piece some of this together in time to stop whatever’s going down.

“I ain’t made much of my life, Smithee. Not much to be proud of. I’ve ended marriages. I’ve put druggies back on the streets. I’ve kept some horrible people out of jail just because they were famous. There’s a lot of secrets I’ve learned to live with ‘cause that’s the guy I am. But I want to make this thing right. I hope you can help me out.

“See you around.”

The tape after that was blank. I lit another cigarette and took a drag to settle myself.

“Now I’m confused,” said Farnsworth. “Is there a story here or not? Some mysterious guy meets with a mob caterer and talks about killing the President? But who’s ‘Ron Hez’? Who’s Janice? What does this have to do with Guatemala? This Harvey guy doesn’t know squat.”

“Someone thought he did,” I said. “Someone didn’t want to take that chance. And I bet if you could identify the other person on the tape, that’d break the thing open.”

“I might have a line on Bordani,” said Leslie.

Farnsworth rubbed his eyes. “A guy who knows a guy?”

“Yeah, we can meet up with him tomorrow night.”

“If,” our editor said, “I allow it. Jones, what are you thinking?”

I needed to sleep, but I wouldn’t be able to. “I think we should chase it. I don’t trust the NSA, and we can’t give it to the cops because they’ll just turn it over to the Feds. Exposing a conspiracy like this could put the Street on the map in a big way. This is what the press is for: to drag shit like this out into the light where the rats can’t run.”

“You fuck up your analogies when you’re tired, you know that?” Farnsworth buried his head in his hands, then straightened back up. “All right. You’re both assigned to this. Leslie, see what your contact knows about Bordani. Jones, try to figure out who Ron Hez is, and what he has to do with the President. You’ve got the weekend to show me some progress or we turn the tape over to the Feds and hope they don’t slap us with obstruction. Agreed?”

I nodded. My eyes could barely stay open.

“Good, now get out of here.”

I stumbled by Roxy on the way out. She was drawing doodles in a crossword, her head propped up on her other hand. We were alone, so I said “You hear any of that?”

A slight nod was her only answer. “You know, for a bunch of reporters, you guys ought to read the paper more.”

“How’s that?”

Without looking she dragged a sheet from today’s (yesterday’s?) Washington Post.

“Diego Aranjuez.” She pronounced it a second time, slowly. “Ah Rahn Hwez. President of some little Caribbean island. He’s coming to D.C. on some diplomatic something or other. My guess is that he’s the president your bad guys are after, not Eisenhower.”

“You read the Post?”

Roxy sneered. Her eyes were bloodshot. “Go home, Smithee. You look like crap.”

***

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Leslie banged on my apartment door around nine the next evening. The noise about rattled me off the couch. I hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but my body had shifted to Chinese Standard Time after the goings-on the night before.

“You ready?” he shouted.

“Hold on.” I found one of my shoes and hopped into it while unlatching the dead bolt. Leslie peered at my rumpled shirt and unknotted tie and shook his head.

“Lucky for you, I’m psychic.” He passed me a dry-cleaning bag on a hanger.

“What’s this?” I said.

“Your outfit. No way am I letting you into Di Godere dressed like a hobo.”

“I do not dress like a—”

“Zzzt.” Leslie drew a zipper in the air. “Get dressed. Take your time. No one but Farnsworth cares how late we are.”

The suit was light gray with a crisp white shirt and blue-striped tie. How he knew my size I couldn’t guess. I had a hat that would match fairly well, but my shoes hadn’t been polished in a week. No time for that now; I’d just have to hope that wherever we were going it was dark.

“What is this, a rental?” I asked.

“Pure thrift store. Nothing but the second best for you, my friend.”

He wasn’t lying. The outfit was nice in that it was clean, but Leslie looked like he was slumming just by being near me. His silk suit was tuxedo black, his bow tie rose red, and his shoes were shined like a new Jaguar. I never knew photography paid so well.

I hadn’t been idle all day. A few calls to a nice little desk clerk at the State Department followed by a trip to the public library gave me the basics on our target: Diego Cristobal Ferdinando Aranjuez, newly elected President√© of the brand new nation of San Magin. Educated at Harvard, of all places. As soon as he got into office he’d irritated some offshore bankers with a stack of new regulations, but he’d done nothing as dramatic as nationalizing foreign assets. No one mentioned the word “socialist” yet in relation to his government, but I’d be surprised if the CIA wasn’t looking at Aranjuez real hard.

And yes, he was scheduled to fly into Washington on Tuesday the 14th on a private airplane. Whose private plane, no one could say. From what I’d learned, San Magin didn’t have an airstrip big enough to land a crop duster.

I presented myself to Leslie. He sniffed and arched an eyebrow.

“Shall we call a cab?”

I grunted assent. The goon squad had towed my Packard before I’d even had a chance to say goodbye. Not that I could have driven it tonight anyway. Leslie was being coy about where we were going, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t a drive-in. That was fine. I’d gone a whole day without relating the story of my shoot-out with the Invisible Man, so I couldn’t blame Tim for keeping his own trap shut.

We took Massachusetts round Dupont Circle, then went up Connecticut toward a part of town where I couldn’t even afford the coffee. The cabbie turned just before Rock Creek and twisted through a swank neighborhood until we pulled up in front of someone’s private estate.

“What gives? I thought we were going to some restaurant.”

“Di Godere,” said Leslie, “is no restaurant.”

He was right. We walked up the drive past immaculate hedges toward glowing windows and muffled music. A black man who was better dressed better than me guarded the door.

“Sam,” said my companion.

“Mr. Leslie. Go right on in. Who’s your friend?”

“This is Jones from the Street. He’s on my tab tonight.”

“So you say. Enjoy the club, Mr. Jones.”

He opened the door into a wall of sound. Most of the house turned out to be one huge room with a vaulted ceiling and a tiled, sunken dance floor. Tables and red velvet curtains lined the walls. Dim lights shaped like candles illuminated every alcove, while a staggering crystal chandelier brightened the whole gala. Against the far wall, a ten piece band charged the air like lightning. Men in suits sharp enough to cut steak mingled with ladies in clever dresses that cost more than I made in a month. The jewelry on display was blinding.

“Leslie, what the hell is this place?”

“Di Godere,” he said, “is a bottle club. Come on, let’s head to the bar.”

“A bottle club?” I had to shout over the band. “Don’t these people know Prohibition’s over? Like, twenty-five years ago?”

Tim shook his head. “Prohibition starts at 2:00 a.m., my friend. Places like this keep the party going ‘til dawn.”

“Places like this?” I said. “You mean there are more?”

“What in God’s name have you been doing since you moved here?” Leslie asked. “Don’t you know that we’ve got four times as many drunks per capita than anywhere else in the country? It’s not just dive bars and liquid lunches. Some of us have class.”

Tim ordered a scotch. I asked for rum and ginger ale. The bartender looked at me funny, but at a wink from Leslie he eased up.

“So you’re saying you can afford this place?” I asked.

“Don’t have to. Wait and see.”

The band finished their set, and moments later a stocky, thundering baritone appeared at the bar.

“Timmy! Come here, boy. Give Uncle Pepe a hug.” The newcomer lifted Leslie an inch off the ground and planted a kiss on each of his cheeks.

“Uncle, let me introduce somebody,” said Leslie. “This is Allan Jones. We’re working a story for the Street. Jones, this is Joseph DeFranco, proprietor of Di Godere.”

“Hey, any friend of my nephew’s. Order what you like, it’s on me. You pay next time.”

“Thanks.” I lifted my glass. “You’re really his uncle?”

Leslie shook his head, but “Pepe” slapped him on the chest. “Of course I’m his uncle. I’m everybody’s uncle!”

“Uncle Pepe,” said Leslie, “can we talk somewhere?”

“Sure thing, boy. Just let me square a few things and I’ll meet you and your friend in the kitchen.”

He patted me on the back and left. Leslie said something, but I didn’t hear.

I recognized someone standing across the room – leaning, really, in a stunning silver dress that was stylish in what it didn’t reveal. She sipped a glass-clear martini with a nonchalance that led me to imagine that her thoughts were a billion miles away, far from the now tawdry surroundings.

I don’t get starstruck. Honestly, I don’t. You don’t spend five years digging through celebrities’ dirty laundry and still glamourize the rich and popular. But we all have our idols, we all have those who inspired us and led us in some way down the path our lives eventually took. And there, not twenty feet away, was Lane Young. Her long, yellow curls hadn’t lost any of their shine. Her face barely showed the lines of care she had honestly earned after all the human tragedy she’d seen.

I gulped my rum and wished it was stronger.

“Allan?” said Leslie.

“Give me a minute.”

I set down my glass and walked toward her, flanking her from the right so she wouldn’t see me approach. What do you say to your heroes? Hell with it. I’m a reporter. I’ll think of something.

“Ms. Young?”

She turned as if she expected to recognize me and was surprised when she didn’t.

“Yes?”

“You don’t know me, I’m… I’m Allan Jones from The Washington Street.” I held out my hand. “I just wanted to say that I’m a huge fan.”

“Really?” She drew the word out for as much as it was worth, but the smile that broadened those lips looked as genuine as the tears she’d shed on those WWII newsreels.

“I just wanted to say that, well, your reporting from Italy, the interviews you did with the soldiers coming home… It really inspired me. It’s why I do what I do.”

“And what is that?” she said. “I’m sorry, that sounded rude, didn’t it? I mean, what are you working on right now? Anything interesting?”

An impulse struck me to tell some of the truth. “I’m working a tip on the president of this Caribbean island, name’s Diego Aranjuez. He’ll be in town and I’m hoping to land an interview.” Among other things. As I spoke, the thought crossed my mind that having a few people know what we were working on might offer a measure of protection. After all, we were trying to save the man’s life. I could worry about the exclusive scoops later.

“And how is that going, Mr. Jones?” The man who cut in had a deeper voice than his thin frame should have allowed. Lane’s grin flickered, possibly out of annoyance. He put his hand on her shoulder. “Flirting with the competition, darling?”

“Just talking to an admirer, sweetheart.”

“And I’m hardly competition,” I said to her beau. “Just a working stiff on the political beat.”

“That’s where all the true greats get started,” he said. “Don’t be too modest. You could be the next Edward R. Murrow.”

From anyone else, that would have sounded condescending, but from this guy I couldn’t tell. With his slicked-back hair and hawkish face, it was near to impossible to guess his age. His suit said “money” but without any sense of ostentation. However he felt about a two-bit nobody like me sidling up to his famous, award-winning “darling,” it didn’t show behind his mask of civility. Not to judge a book by its cover, but this was a guy I didn’t want to play poker with.

“Allan Jones.” I stuck out my hand.

“Marlston,” he said as he gripped it. “Canton Marlston. I saw you getting friendly with Mr. DeFranco a moment ago. With those kind of connections, I’m sure we’ll be meeting again.”

Now what the hell did that mean? Before I thought of a way to ask, Lane took Marlston’s elbow.

“Now see, darling, you’ve gone and stolen all the attention away from me. It was very kind of you to drop by, Mr. Jones. I look forward to reading your work.”

I could take a hint, especially one so politely given. Besides, Leslie was tugging on my sleeve.

“Hey, buddy,” he whispered. “Let’s go do what we came here for.”

***

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We met DeFranco in the kitchen as he suggested. The room was otherwise unoccupied except for the slab-like bodyguard at the door. There were sharp objects everywhere, and “Uncle Pepe” trimmed his nails with a paring knife. I started to wonder how much I could safely learn about DeFranco’s business without adding the word “accessory” to my credentials.

“So I look into this Bordani after you call me this morning,” he said. “Found out he’s from Jersey City. Good family. His mother used to run a trattoria. I think one of my nieces married his cousin.”

He picked something out of his fingernail with his teeth, then spat it out. “The man himself is a coward. Persona non grata now on the East Coast. He was suspected of informing, but enough people owed him favors that he didn’t take a swim in the Hudson. Sent him to Hollywood instead. There’s punishment for you.”

“Does he still have friends out here, though?” I glanced at Leslie to see if it was okay to speak. I didn’t know the protocol for questioning someone who might be high-ranking Mafia. “Does he know anybody in Washington?”

“This I asked myself. The Families don’t do much business in Washington. You can’t run a racket in D.C. without being elected, hey?” DeFranco laughed, and I forced a smile. “No one I called in D.C. even heard of the guy, so I rang someone in Los Angeles. They told me that Bordani has recently invested in a new security firm.”

That tickled the hairs on my neck. “Did you get the name?”

“Ey, don’t rush me. The firm is Kestrel Security Services. They’re based in Los Angeles, but opened an office in Washington. I wrote down the address here. It’s not in the phone book yet. No information on anyone named ‘Janice,’ but that wasn’t much to go on, eh?”

“Thank you,” I said. “It gives us a place to start.”

“Timmy didn’t say what this was about,” said DeFranco, “but I gather it’s something important, and I like to help my friends. May I consider you a friend, Mr. Jones?”

That seemed an odd thing to ask. “Uh, sure.”

“Good. I like that. I think that friends should always be square, you know? There should be no debts in friendship. Neither a borrower nor a lender be, eh?”

“Makes sense, but I don’t see…”

“I have done you a favor, finding this information, yes? I could hold it over you, say you owe me a favor in return some day. But I don’t like that. Gives me heartburn. Too much to remember. So I rather we be friends and square up now. Would you do that for me, Mr. Jones?”

I knew I should have asked the price of admission before taking a seat. Oh, well. In for a penny, in for twenty-to-life. “I’d be happy to do what I can.”

“I have another friend, name of Crawthorn. I believe you know him.”

I didn’t answer, but my shoulders sagged. So much for my game face.

“You know of him,” DeFranco went on. “I have been told you are asking around about him, and that you might be preparing a story for your magazine that my friend Mr. Crawthorn might not like to read, correct?”

I nodded. Farnsworth had killed that story for the moment, but I could always have sold it to someone else.

“Well, in return for my information regarding Mr. Bordani, I would like you to lay aside any material you might be planning to publish on this other matter. Would you do that?”

And here I’d thought I’d made all my compromises in Los Angeles. But there was no other answer. In one hand was a bribe-taking congressman, in the other was an innocent man’s life.

“Consider it buried,” I said. I could actually feel the door shut on the closet where I kept my integrity.

“See?” said DeFranco. “Easy! Everybody’s friends. You come to my club whenever you want, Mr. Jones. I must go now, but I see you around. You too, Timmy. Stay out of trouble.”

After DeFranco left the room, I glared at Leslie. He shrugged. I went to find a phone to call my own goddamn cab ride.

***

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“My Secret Life Revealed”

“Bad Boys Need To Be Spanked”

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***

My apartment was a third floor walk-up not far from Logan Circle. The nice old lady on the first floor collected rent, and the family in between us had about ten kids. They would be hitting their stride around midnight, so I had the cabbie drop me off at the end of the block. By walking the rest of the way, I’d have at least a moment’s peace before having to block out the downstairs screamfest.

A fellow sat on the bench in front of the building reading a paper. Not something you see in the middle of the night, but to each his own. I didn’t pay him any mind until he spoke.

I’m reading your stuff.”

“What?” I turned and really noticed him: white suit, white hat, black gloves. A blur where his head should be. He faded in and out while the paper remained solid and tangible, floating in mid-air. He flipped the paper shut so I could see the nameplate.

“Christ.” It was the good old L.A. Whisper.

It wasn’t easy to find this edition,” he said. “The style is so lurid it’s funny, but otherwise an important bit of reporting.”

I looked closer to see what he was talking about. This wasn’t a new Whisper, it was an old one: the one with my expose on the “Brides from Slovakia” racket, in which a cabal of scumbags (with big-studio ties, I might add) funneled young women from Europe to California and sold them as rich men’s sex toys.

“It should have been more,” I said. “I wanted to name names. Not just the ringleaders, but the customers. You wouldn’t believe who was on my list.”

You’d be surprised what I would and wouldn’t believe.” The shadowy figure stood and handed me the paper. I’d never kept a copy for myself, so I stuffed it under my arm. As soon as I took it, my benefactor disappeared completely.

“I haven’t told anyone about you, you know. For one thing, they’d have me committed. I might sign myself into the funny farm in any case.”

I’m real, Allan. I’m here to warn you. Keep at this story, but watch your back. You’re getting deeper than you know. I was there at the club tonight. I could see you’re already feeling over your head.”

“Thanks.” I glanced around to see if anyone might notice me talking to thin air. “You got anything a little more specific?”

Two things. First, instead of following Bordani, you need to ask yourself who would benefit from deposing a nobody like Aranjuez. Who stands to gain? ‘Follow the money,’ like they say where I’m from.”

“All right, that helps. And the other thing?”

Though I couldn’t see him, I could feel him step closer.

Janice isn’t a person, it’s an organization. J-A-N-U-S. Like the Roman god.”

“What, does that stand for something?”

The invisible man chuckled. “That’s a more loaded question than you know.”

“Hey, what do I call you?” The first thing a reporter should have asked. “Claude Rains?”

I guess a name would help.” His form briefly faded back into view, and he pointed at the paper under my arm. “Call me the Whisper.”

“What, after this trash rag?”

Sure, why not.” He affected a hoarse Orson Welles impression. “Who knows what reefers lurk in the homes of the rich and famous? The Whisper knows.”

I had to laugh. “That’s cute. Seriously, what should I call you?”

There was no response.

“Hello?”

I was talking to air.

Fine.

The second-floor family was quieter than normal – only one shout and two screams as I climbed past. It was bright enough from the streetlights that I didn’t even turn on a lamp when I got home; I just tossed my coat towards the couch and my hat in the direction of the coffee table. Tomorrow I’d have time to look up Kestrel Security, but not much of anything would be open on Sunday. Enough excuse to sleep in, except for:

A pinprick of red light wavered on the wall next to my fridge. I’d never seen anything like it. At first I thought it was an ember, as if someone had set the wall glowing with a cigarette, but that couldn’t be. It was the wrong color red and nothing burns like that. Besides, it wasn’t holding still. As I watched, it tracked left over the sink, and I realized it was being projected. There was no one else in the room, so what was it? First an invisible, gun-toting Whisper and now an invisible elf with a flashlight?

There was a window across from my sink. Whoever was shining that light had to be in the alley outside, but three stories up? Maybe it was coming from the roof of the next building. I went to the window to see. It was pitch black outside, but the spot of light now bounced on my chest. Slowly, it slid upward toward my face.

“Huh.”

The Whisper exploded out of the air and knocked me to the floor. Just as my breath fled out, gunfire ripped through the space where I’d been standing and tore a hole in the wall!

To Be Continued

***
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The Whisper © 2013 Jared Millet

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