Velocity Page 11


“The hell they were. We’re not a damn sports bar.”

Looking out a kitchen window toward the lawn from which the deer had vanished, Billy said, “Sorry.”

“The guys in sports bars—the drinking doesn’t mean anything to them.”

“It’s just a way to get high.”

“That’s right. They’d as soon smoke a little pot or even get a Starbucks buzz. We’re not a damn sports bar.”

Having heard this before, Billy tried to move the discussion along: “To our customers, the drinking is a kind of ceremony.”

“Beyond ceremony. It’s an observance, a solemnity, almost a kind of sacrament. Not to all of them, but to most. It’s communion.”

“All right. So were they talking about Big Foot?”

“I wish. The best, the really intense barroom talk used to be about Big Foot, flying saucers, the lost continent of Atlantis, what happened to the dinosaurs—”

“—what’s on the dark side of the moon,” Billy interjected, “the Loch Ness monster, the Shroud of Turin—”

“—ghosts, the Bermuda Triangle, all that classic stuff,” Jackie continued.

“But it’s not like that so much anymore.”

“I know,” Billy acknowledged.

“They were talking about these professors at Harvard and Yale and Princeton, these scientists who say they’re going to use cloning and stem cells and genetic engineering to create a superior race.”

“Smarter and faster and better than we are,” Billy said.

“So much better than we are,” Jackie said, “they won’t be human at all. It’s in Time or maybe Newsweek, these scientists smiling and proud of themselves right in a magazine.”

“They call it the posthuman future,” Billy said.

“What happens to us when we’re post?” Jackie wondered. “Post is toast. A master race? Haven’t these guys heard of Hitler?”

“They think they’re different,” Billy said.

“Don’t they have mirrors? Some idiots are crossing human and animal genes to create new… new things. One of them wants to create a pig that’s got a human brain.”

“How about that.”

“The magazine doesn’t say why a pig, like it should be obvious why a pig instead of a cat or a cow or a chipmunk. For God’s sake, Billy, isn’t it hard enough being a human brain in a human body? What kind of hell would it be a human brain in a pig body?”

“Maybe we won’t live to see it,” Billy said. “Unless you’re planning to die tomorrow, you will. I liked Big Foot better. I liked the Bermuda Triangle and ghosts a lot better. Now all the crazy shit is real.”

“Why I called,” Billy said, “is to let you know I can’t make it to work today.”

With genuine concern, Jackie said, “Hey, what, are you sick?”

“I’m kind of queasy.”

“You don’t sound like you have a cold.”

“I don’t think it’s a cold. It’s like a stomach thing.”

“Sometimes a summer cold starts that way. Better take zinc. They’ve got this zinc gel you squeeze up your nose. It really works. It stops a cold dead.”

“I’ll get some.”

“Too late for vitamin C. You gotta be taking that all along.”

“I’ll get some zinc. Did I call too early, did you close up the tavern last night?”

“No. I went home at ten o’clock. All that talk about pigs with human brains, I just wanted to go home.”

“So Steve Zillis closed up?”

“Yeah. He’s a reliable boy. That stuff I told you, I wish now I hadn’t. If he wants to chop up mannequins and watermelons in his backyard, that’s his business, as long as he does his job.”

Tuesday night was often slow in the bar business. If the traffic grew light, Jackie preferred to lock the tavern before the usual 2:00 A.M. closing time. An open bar with few or no customers in the wee hours is a temptation to a stickup artist, putting employees at risk.

“Busy night?” Billy asked. “Steve said after eleven it was like the world ended. He had to open the front door and look outside to be sure the tavern hadn’t been teleported to the moon or somewhere. He turned off the lights before midnight. Thank God there aren’t two Tuesdays in a week.”

Billy said, “People like to spend some time with their families. That’s the curse of a family bar.”

“You’re a funny guy, aren’t you?”

“Not usually.”

“If you put that zinc gel up your nose and you don’t feel any better,”

Jackie said, “call me back, and I’ll tell you somewhere else you can stuff it.”

“I think you’d have made a fine priest. I really do.”

“Get well, okay? The customers miss you when you’re off.”

“Do they?”

“Not really. But at least they don’t say they’re glad you’re gone.”

Under the circumstances, perhaps only Jackie O’Hara could have made Billy Wiles crack a smile.

He hung up. He looked at his watch. Ten-thirty-one.

The “associate” would be here in less than half an hour.

If Steve Zillis had left the tavern shortly before midnight, he would have had plenty of time to go to Lanny’s place, kill him, and move the body to the armchair in the master bedroom.

If Billy had been handicapping suspects, he would have given long odds on Steve. But once in a while, a long shot won the race.

Chapter 20

On the front porch were two teak rocking chairs with dark-green cushions, Billy seldom needed the second chair.

This morning, wearing a white T-shirt and chinos, he occupied the one farthest from the porch steps. He didn’t rock. He sat quite still. Beside him stood a teak cocktail table. On the table, on a cork coaster, was a glass of cola.

He hadn’t drunk any of the cola. He had prepared it as a prop, to distract the eye from consideration of the box of Ritz crackers.

The box contained nothing but the snub-nosed revolver. The only crackers were a stack of three on the table, beside the box.

Bright and clear and hot, the day was too dry to please the grape growers, but it was all right with Billy.

From the porch, between deodar cedars, he could see a long way down the rural road that sloped up toward his house and far beyond. Not much traffic passed. He recognized some of the vehicles, but he didn’t know to whom they belonged.

Rising off the sun-scorched blacktop, shimmering heat ghosts haunted the morning.

At 10:53, a figure appeared in the distance, on foot. Billy did not expect the associate to hike in for the meeting. He assumed this was not the man. At first the figure might have been a mirage. The furnace heat distorted him, made him ripple as if he were a reflection on water. Once he seemed to evaporate, then reappeared.

In the hard light, he looked tall and thin, unnaturally thin, as if he had recently hung on a cross in a cornfield, glaring the birds away with his button eyes.

He turned off the county road and followed the driveway. He left the driveway for the grass and, at 10:58, arrived at the bottom of the porch steps.

“Mr. Wiles?” he asked.


“I believe you’re expecting me.”

He had the raw, rough voice of one who had marinated his larynx in whiskey and slow-cooked it in years of cigarette smoke.

“What’s your name?” Billy asked.

“I’m Ralph Cottle, sir.”

Billy had thought the question would be ignored. If the man were hiding behind a false name, John Smith would have been good enough. Ralph Cottle sounded real.

Cottle was as thin as the distorting heat had made him appear to be from a distance, but not as tall. His scrawny neck looked as if it might snap with the weight of his head.

He wore white tennis shoes dark with age and filth. Shiny in spots and frayed at the cuffs, the cocoa-brown, summer-weight suit hung on him with no more grace than it would have hung from a coat rack. His polyester shirt was limp, stained, and missing a button.

These were thrift-shop clothes from the cheapest bin; and he had gotten long wear out of them.

“Mr. Wiles, may I come in the shade?”

Standing at the bottom of the steps, Cottle looked as if the weight of the sunlight might collapse him. He seemed too frail to be a threat, but you never could tell.

“There’s a chair for you,” Billy said.

“Thank you, sir. I appreciate the kindness.”

Billy tensed as Cottle ascended the stairs but relaxed a little when the man had settled into the other rocker.

Cottle didn’t rock, either, as if getting the chair moving was a more strenuous task than he cared to contemplate.

“Sir, do you mind if I smoke?” he asked.

“Yes. I do mind.”

“I understand. It’s a filthy habit.”

From an inner coat pocket, Cottle produced a pint of Seagram’s and unscrewed the cap. His bony hands trembled. He didn’t ask if it was all right to drink. He just took a swig.

Apparently, he had sufficient control of his nicotine jones to be polite about it. The hooch, on the other hand, told him when he needed it, and he could not disobey its liquid voice.

Billy suspected that other pints were tucked in other pockets, plus cigarettes and matches, and possibly a couple of hand-rolled joints. This explained why a suit in summer heat: It was not only clothing but also a portmanteau for his various vices.

The booze didn’t heighten the color of his face. His skin was already dark from much sun and red from an intricate web of burst capillaries.

“How far did you walk?” Billy asked.

“Only from the junction. I hitched a ride that far.” Billy must have looked skeptical, for Cottle added, “A lot of people know me around these parts. They know I’m harmless, unkempt but not dirty.”

Indeed, his blond hair looked clean, though uncombed. He had shaved, too, his leathery face tough enough to resist nicking even with the razor wielded by such an unsteady hand.

His age was difficult to determine. He might have been forty or sixty, but not thirty or seventy.

“He’s a very bad man, Mr. Wiles.”


“The one who sent me.”

“You’re his associate.”

“No more than I’m a monkey.”

“Associate—that’s what he called you.”

“Do I look like a monkey, either?”

“What’s his name?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to know.”

“What’s he look like?”

“I haven’t seen his face. I hope I never do.”

“A ski mask?” Billy guessed.

“Yes, sir. And eyes looking out of it cold as snake eyes.” His voice quavered in sympathy with his hands, and he tipped the bottle to his mouth again.

“What color were his eyes?” Billy asked.

“They looked yellow as egg yolks to me, but that was just the lamplight in them.”

Remembering the encounter in the church parking lot, Billy said, “There was too little light for me to see color… just a hot shine.”

“I’m not such a bad man, Mr. Wiles. Not like him. What I am is weak.”

“Why’ve you come here?”

“Money, for one thing. He paid me one hundred forty dollars, all in tendollar bills.”

“One-forty? What—did you bargain him up from a hundred?”

“No, sir. That’s the precise sum he offered. He said it’s ten dollars for each year of your innocence, Mr. Wiles.”

In silence, Billy stared at him.

Ralph Cottle’s eyes might once have been a vibrant blue. Maybe all the alcohol had faded them, for they were the palest blue eyes that Billy had ever seen, the faint blue of the sky at high altitude where there is too little atmosphere to provide rich color and where the void beyond is barely concealed.

After a moment, Cottle broke eye contact, looked out at the yard, the trees, the road.

“Do you know what that means?” Billy asked. “My fourteen years of innocence?”

“No, sir. And it’s none of my business. He just wanted me to make a point of telling you that.”

“You said money was one thing. What was the other?”

“He’d kill me if I didn’t come see you.”

“That’s what he threatened to do?”

“He doesn’t make threats, Mr. Wiles.”

“Sounds like one.”

“He just says what is, and you know it’s true. I come see you or I’m dead. And not dead easy, either, but very hard.”

“Do you know what he’s done?” Billy asked.

“No, sir. And don’t you tell me.”

“There’s two of us now who know he’s real. We can corroborate each other’s story.”

“Don’t even talk that way.”

“Don’t you see, he’s made a mistake.”

“I wish I could be his mistake,” Cottle said, “but I’m not. You think too much of me, and shouldn’t.”

“But he’s got to be stopped,” Billy said.

“Not by me. I’m nobody’s hero. Don’t you tell me what he’s done. Don’t you dare.”

“Why shouldn’t I tell you?”

“That’s your world. It isn’t mine.”

“There’s just one world.”

“No, sir. There’s a billion of them. Mine’s different from yours, and that’s the way it’s gonna stay.”

“We’re sitting here on the same porch.”

“No, sir. It looks like one porch, but it’s two, all right. You know that’s true. I see it in you.”

“See what?”

“I see the way you’re a little like me.”

Chilled, Billy said, “You can’t see anything. You won’t even look at me.”

Ralph Cottle met Billy’s eyes again. “Have you seen the woman’s face in the jar like a jellyfish?”

The conversation had suddenly switched from the main track to a strange spur line.

“What woman?” Billy asked.

Cottle knocked back another slug from the pint. “He says he’s had her in the jar three years.”

“Jar? Better stop pouring down that nose paint, Ralph. You’re not making much sense.”

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