Velocity Page 12

Cottle closed his eyes and grimaced, as if he could see what he now described. “It’s a two-quart jar, maybe bigger, with a wide-mouth lid. He changes the formaldehyde regularly to keep it from clouding.”

Beyond the porch, the sky was crystalline. High in the clear light, a lone hawk circled, as clean as a shadow.

“The face tends to fold into itself,” Cottle continued, “so you don’t at first see a face. It’s like something from the sea, clenched yet billowy. So he gently shakes the jar, gently swirls the contents, and the face… it blossoms.”

The grass is sweet and green across the lawn, then taller and golden where nature alone tends to it. The two grasses produce distinct fragrances, each crisp and pleasant in its own way.

“You recognize an ear first,” said Ralph Cottle. “The ears are attached, and the cartilage gives them shape. There’s cartilage in the nose, too, but it hasn’t held its shape very well. The nose is just a lump.”

From the shining heights, the hawk descended in a narrowing gyre, describing silent and harmonious curves.

“The lips are full, but the mouth is just a hole, and the eyes are holes. There’s no hair, ‘cause he cut only from one ear to the other, from the top of the brow to the bottom of the chin. You can’t tell it’s a woman’s face, and not a man’s. He says she was beautiful, but there’s no beauty in the jar.”

Billy said, “It’s just a mask, latex, a trick.”

“Oh, it’s real. It’s as real as terminal cancer. He says it was the second act in one of his best performances.”


“He has four photos of her face. In the first, she’s alive. Then dead. In the third, the face is partly peeled back. In the fourth, her head is there, her hair, but the soft tissue of her face is gone, nothing but bone, the grinning skull.”

From graceful gyre to sudden plunge, the hawk knifed toward the tall grass.

The pint told Ralph Cottle that he needed fortification, and he drank a new foundation for his crumbling courage.

Following a fumy exhalation, he said, “The first photo, when she was alive, maybe she was pretty like he says. You can’t tell because… she’s all terror. She’s ugly with terror.”

The tall grass, previously motionless in the fixative heat, stirred briefly in a single place, where feathers thrashed the stalks.

“The face in that first picture,” Cottle said, “is worse than the one in the jar. It’s a lot worse.”

The hawk burst from the grass and soared. Its talons clutched something small, perhaps a field mouse, which struggled in terror, or didn’t. At this distance, you couldn’t be sure.

Cottle’s voice was a file rasping on ancient wood. “If I don’t do exactly what he wants me to, he promises to put my face in a jar. And while he harvests it, he’ll keep me alive, and conscious.”

In the bright pellucid sky, the rising hawk was as black and clean as a shadow once more. Its wings cleaved the shining air, and the high thermals were the pristine currents of a river through which it swam, and dwindled, and vanished, having killed only what it needed to survive.

Chapter 21

Rockless in the rocking chair, Ralph Cottle said that he lived in a ramshackle cottage by the river. Two rooms and a porch with a view, the place had been hammered together in the 1930’s and had been falling apart ever since.

Long ago, unknown rugged individuals had used the cottage for fishing vacations. It had no electric service. An outhouse served as the toilet. The only running water was what passed in the river.

“I think mainly it was a place for them to get away from their wives,”

Cottle said. “A place to drink and get drunk. It still is.”

A fireplace provided heat and allowed simple cooking. What meals Cottle ate were spooned from hot cans.

Once the property had been privately owned. Now it belonged to the county, perhaps seized for back taxes. Like much government land, it was poorly managed. No bureaucrats or game wardens had bothered Ralph Cottle since the day, eleven years ago, when he had cleaned out the cottage, put down his bedroll, and settled in as a squatter.

No neighbors lived within sight or within shouting distance. The cottage was a secluded outpost, which suited Cottle just fine.

Until 3:45 the previous morning, when he had been prodded awake by a visitor in a ski mask: Then what had seemed like cozy privacy had become a terrifying isolation.

Cottle had fallen asleep without extinguishing the oil lamp by which he read Western novels and drank himself to sleep. In spite of that light, he hadn’t absorbed any useful details about the killer’s appearance. He couldn’t estimate the man’s height or weight.

He claimed the madman’s voice had no memorable characteristics. Billy figured Cottle knew more but feared to tell. The anxiety that now simmered in his faded blue eyes was as pure and intense, if not as immediate, as the terror he described in the photograph of the unknown woman from whom the freak had “harvested” a face.

Judging by the length of his skeletal fingers and the formidable bones in his knobby wrists, Cottle had once been equipped to fight back. Now, by his own admission, he was weak, not just emotionally and morally, but physically. Nevertheless, Billy leaned forward in his chair and tried again to enlist him: “Back me up with the police. Help me—”

“I can’t even help myself, Mr. Wiles.”

“You must’ve once known how.”

“I don’t want to remember.”

“Remember what?”

“Anything. I told you—I’m weak.”

“Sounds like you want to be.”

Raising the pint to his lips, Cottle smiled thinly and, before taking a drink, said, “Haven’t you heard—the meek shall inherit the earth.”

“If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for me.”

Licking his lips, which were badly chapped by the heat and by the dehydrating effect of the whiskey, Cottle said, “Why would I?”

“The meek don’t stand by and watch another man destroyed. The meek aren’t the same as cowards. They’re two different breeds.”

“You can’t insult me into cooperation. I don’t insult. I don’t care. I know I’m nothing, and that’s all right with me.”

“Just because you’ve come here to do what he wants, you won’t be safe out there in your cottage.”

Screwing the cap on the bottle, Cottle said, “Safer than you.”

“Not at all. You’re a loose end. Listen, the police will give you protection.”

A dry laugh escaped the stewbum. “Is that why you’ve been so quick to run to them—for their protection?”

Billy said nothing.

Emboldened by Billy’s silence, Cottle found a sharper voice that was less mean than smug: “Just like me, you’re nothing, but you don’t know it yet. You’re nothing, I’m nothing, we’re all nothing, and as far as I care, if he leaves me alone, that psycho shithead can do what he wants to anybody because he’s nothing, too.”

Watching Cottle screw open the pint-bottle cap that he had just screwed shut, Billy said, “What if I throw your ass down those stairs and kick you off my land? He calls me sometimes just to wear on my nerves. What if when he calls I tell him you were drunk, incoherent, I couldn’t understand a thing you said?”

Cottle’s sunburned and blood-fused face could not turn pale, but his small purse of a mouth, snugged tight with self-satisfaction after his rant, now loosened and poured forth the dull coins of a counterfeit apology. “Mr. Wiles, sir, please don’t take offense at my bad mouth. I can’t control what comes out of it any more than I can control what I pour into it.”

“He wanted to be sure you told me about the face in the jar, didn’t he?”

“Yes, sir.”


“I don’t know. He didn’t consult with me, sir. He just put words in my mouth to bring to you, and here I am because I want to live.”



“Look at me, Ralph.”

Cottle met his eyes.

Billy said, “Why do you want to live?”

As though Cottle had never considered it before, the question seemed to pin down some fluttering thing in his mind, like a rare moth to a specimen board, some ever-restless and ever-contentious and ever-bitter aspect of himself that for a moment he seemed at last disposed to consider. Then his eyes became evasive, and he clasped both hands, not just one, around the pint of whiskey.

“Why do you want to live?” Billy persisted.

“What else is there?” Avoiding Billy’s eyes, Cottle raised the bottle in both hands, as if it were a chalice. “I could use just a taste,” he said, as though asking for permission.

“Go ahead.”

He took a small sip, but then at once took another.

“The freak made you tell me about the face in the jar because he wants that image in my head.”

“If you say so.”

“It’s about intimidation, about keeping me off balance.”

“Are you?”

Instead of answering the question, Billy said, “What else did he send you here to tell me?”

As if getting down to business, Cottle screwed the cap on the bottle again and this time returned the pint to his coat pocket. “You’ll have five minutes to make a decision.”

“What decision?”

“Take off your wristwatch and prop it on the porch railing.”


“To count off the five minutes.”

“I can count them with the watch on my wrist.”

“Putting it on the railing is a signal to him that the countdown has started.”

Woods to the north, shadowy and cool in the hot day. Green lawn, then tall golden grass, then a few well-crowned oaks, then a couple of houses downslope and to the east. To the west lay the county road, trees and fields beyond it.

“He’s watching now?” Billy asked.

“He promised he would be, Mr. Wiles.”

“From where?”

“I don’t know, sir. Just please, please take off your watch and prop it on the railing.”

“And if I won’t?”

“Mr. Wiles, don’t talk that way.”

“But if I won’t?” Billy pressed.

His baritone rasp thinned to a higher register as Cottle said, “I told you, he’ll take my face, and me awake when he does. I told you.”

Billy got up, removed his Timex, and propped it on the railing so that the watch face could be seen from both of the rocking chairs.

As the sun approached the zenith of its arc, it penetrated the landscape and melted shadows everywhere but in the woods. The green-cloaked conspiratorial trees revealed no secrets.

“Mr. Wiles, you’ve got to sit down.”

Brightness fell from the air, and a chrome-yellow glare hazed the fields and furrows, forcing Billy to squint at numberless places where a man could lie in the open, effectively camouflaged by nothing more than spangled sunlight.

“You won’t spot him,” Cottle said, “and he won’t like it that you’re trying. Come back, sit down.”

Billy remained on his feet at the railing.

“You’ve wasted half a minute, Mr. Wiles, forty seconds.”

Billy didn’t move.

“You don’t know what a box you’re in,” Cottle said anxiously. “You’re gonna need every minute he’s given you to think.”

“So tell me about the box.”

“You have to be sitting down. For God’s sake, Mr. Wiles.” Cottle wrung his voice as a worried old woman might wring her hands. “He wants you sitting in the chair.”

Billy returned to the rocking chair.

“I just want to be done with this,” Cottle said. “I just want to do what he told me and get out of here.”

“Now you’re the one wasting time.”

One of the five minutes had passed.

“All right, okay,” Cottle said. “This is him talking now. You understand?

This is him.”

“Get on with it.”

Cottle nervously licked his lips. He slipped the pint from his coat, not seeking a taste at the moment, instead clutching it with both hands, as if it were a talisman with the occult power to lift the fog of whiskey that blurred his memory, ensuring that he would deliver the message clearly enough to save his face from being pickled in a jar.

“ ‘I will kill someone you know. You will select the target for me from people in your life,’” Cottle quoted. “ ‘This is your chance to rid the world of some hopeless as**ole.’”

“The twisted sonofabitch,” Billy said, and discovered that both of his hands were fisted, with nothing to punch.

“ ‘If you don’t select the target for me,’” Cottle continued quoting, “ ‘I will choose someone in your life to kill. You have five minutes to decide. The choice is yours, if you have the balls to make it.’”

Chapter 22

The effort to recall the precise wording of the message reduced Ralph Cottle to a hive of buzzing nerves. Countless anxieties swarmed through him and were glimpsed in his darting eyes, in his twitching face, in his trembling hands; Billy could almost hear the thrumming wings of dread. While Cottle had recited the freak’s challenge and conditions, with the penalty of death hanging over him if he got them wrong, the pint bottle had been a talisman with the power to inspire, but now he needed the contents. Staring at the wristwatch on the porch railing, Billy said, “I don’t need five minutes. Hell, I don’t even need the three that’re left.”

Without intention, by not going to the police and getting them involved, he had already contributed to the death of one person in his life: Lanny Olsen. By his inaction, he had spared the mother of two, but he had doomed his friend. Lanny himself had been partly if not largely responsible for his own death. He had taken the killer’s notes and had destroyed them to save his job and his pension, at the cost of his life.

Nevertheless, some of the blame lay with Billy. He could feel the weight; and always would.

What the freak demanded of him now was something new and more terrible than anything heretofore. Not by inaction this time, not by inadvertence, but by conscious intent, Billy was expected to mark someone he knew for death.

“I won’t do it,” he said.

Having guzzled a dram or two, Cottle was sliding the wet mouth of the bottle back and forth across his lips, as if he might French kiss it instead of drinking any more. Through his nose, he noisily inhaled the rising fumes.

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