Velocity Page 14

In the hallway, he could draw breath again. He could begin to think. For the first time, he noticed the handle of the knife, which pinned Cottle’s rumpled suit coat to him. A bright-yellow handle.

The blade had been thrust at an upward angle between the ribs on the left side, buried to the hilt. The heart had been pierced, and stopped. Billy knew that the embedded blade measured six inches. The yellow knife belonged to him. He kept it in his angler’s kit in the garage. It was a fishing knife, honed sharp to gut bass and fillet trout.

The killer had not been in the woods or in a meadow swale, or in a neighbor’s house watching them through a telescopic rifle sight. That was a lie, and the drunkard had believed it.

As Cottle had approached the front porch, the freak must have entered by the back door. While Billy and his visitor had sat in the rockers, their adversary had been in the house, a few feet from them.

Billy had refused to choose someone in his life to be the next victim. As promised, the killer then made the choice with startling swiftness. Although Cottle had been the next thing to a stranger, he was undeniably in Billy’s life. And now in his house. Dead.

In less than a day and a half, in just forty-one hours, three people had been murdered. Yet this still felt to Billy like act one; perhaps it was the end of act one, but his gut instinct told him that significant developments lay ahead. At every turn of events, he had done what seemed to be the most sensible and cautious thing, especially given his personal history. His common sense and caution, however, played into the killer’s hands. Hour by hour, Billy Wiles was drifting farther from any safe shore. Down in Napa, evidence that might incriminate him had been planted in the house where Giselle Winslow had been murdered. Hairs from his shower drain. He didn’t know what else.

No doubt evidence had been salted in Lanny Olsen’s house, as well. For one thing, the place marker in the book under Lanny’s dead hand was all but certainly a photo of Winslow, linking the crimes.

Now in his bathroom slumped a corpse from which bristled a knife that belonged to him.

Here in summer, Billy felt as if he were on an icy slope, the bottom invisible beyond a cold mist, still on his feet in a wild glissade, but gaining speed that, second by second, threatened his balance.

Initially the discovery of Cottle’s corpse had shocked Billy into mental and physical immobility. Now several courses of action occurred to him, and he stood hobbled by indecision.

The worst thing he could do was act precipitately. He needed to think this through, attempt to foresee the consequences of each of his options. He could afford no more mistakes. His freedom depended on his wits and courage. So did his survival.

Stepping into the bathroom again, he noticed no gore. Maybe this meant Cottle hadn’t been killed in the bath.

Billy hadn’t seen evidence of violence elsewhere in the house, either. This realization focused him on the handle of the knife. Around the point of penetration, dark blood soaked the lightweight summer suit jacket, but the stain wasn’t as large as he would have expected.

The killer had finished Cottle with a single thrust. He’d known precisely where and how to slip the thin blade between the ribs. The heart had stopped within a beat or two of being punctured, which minimized the bleeding. Cottle’s hands lay in his lap, one upturned and the other cupped against it, as if he’d died while applauding his killer. Mostly concealed, something was captured between the hands. When Billy pinched a corner of the object and pulled it free of the dead man’s grasp, he discovered a computer diskette: red, high density, the same brand that he had used in the days when he had worked at his computer. He studied the body from different angles. He turned slowly in a full circle, surveying the bathroom for any clues the killer might have left either intentionally or inadvertently. Sooner than later, he should probably go through Cottle’s coat and pants pockets. The diskette gave him an excuse to postpone that unpleasant task. In the study, after putting the revolver and the diskette on the desk, he removed the vinyl cover from his shrouded computer. He had not used the machine in almost four years. Curiously, he had never unplugged it. He supposed this might be an unconscious expression of his stubborn—if fragile—hope that Barbara Mandel might one day recover. In his second year of college, when he realized that not much of what he learned there would help him become the writer he wanted to be, he had dropped out. He had done manual labor of various kinds, writing diligently in his spare time. At twenty-one, he had taken his first bartending job. The work had seemed ideal for a writer. He saw story material in every barfly. Patiently developing his talent, he sold more than a score of well-received short stories to a variety of magazines. When he was twenty-five, a major publisher had wanted to collect them in a book. The book sold modestly but earned critical praise, suggesting that bartending would not forever be his primary occupation. When Barbara came into Billy’s life, she provided not merely encouragement but also inspiration. Just by knowing her, by loving her, he found a truer and clearer voice in his prose.

He wrote his first novel, and his publisher responded to it with excitement. The revisions suggested by the editor were minor, a month’s work. Then he lost Barbara to the coma.

The truer and clearer voice in his prose had not been lost with her. He could still write.

The desire to write, however, slipped away from him, and the will to write, and all interest in storytelling. He no longer wanted to explore the human condition in fiction, for he had too much hard experience of it in reality. For two years, his publisher and editor were patient. But the month’s work on his manuscript had become to him more than a lifetime of labor. He could not do it. He repaid the advance and canceled the contract. Switching on this computer, even just to review what the killer had left in Ralph Cottle’s hands, felt like a betrayal of Barbara, although she would have disapproved of—even mocked—such thinking.

He was a little surprised when the machine, so long unused, at once came to life. The screen brightened, and the operating-system logo appeared as the simulated harp strings of the signature music issued from the speakers. The computer might have been used more recently than he thought. The fact that the diskette was the same brand as the unused diskettes in one of his desk drawers suggested that it was in fact one of his and that the freak had composed his latest message at this keyboard.

Oddly enough, he was creeped out by this realization even more than he had been when he’d found the corpse in his bathroom.

Long unseen yet familiar, the software menu appeared. Because he had written his fiction in Microsoft Word, he tried it first.

That choice proved correct. The killer had written his message in Word, as well; and it loaded at once.

The diskette contained three documents. Before Billy could review the text, the telephone rang.

He figured it must be the freak.

Chapter 26

Billy picked up the phone. “Hello?”

Not the freak. A woman said, “To whom am I speaking?”

“To whom am I speaking? You called me.”

“Billy, that sounds like you. This is Rosalyn Chan.”

Rosalyn was a friend of Lanny Olsen. She worked for the Napa County Sheriff’s Department. She came into the tavern now and then. Before Billy had been able to decide what to do about Lanny’s body, it must have been found.

The instant that he realized he hadn’t responded to her, Rosalyn said probingly, “Are you all right?”

“Me? I’m fine. Doin’ okay. This heat’s making me crazy, though.”

“Is something wrong there?”

He flashed on a mental image of Cottle’s corpse in the bathroom, and guilt rolled his mind into angles of disorientation. “Wrong? No. Why would there be?”

“Did you just call here and hang up without saying anything?” Clouds of mystification thickened for a moment, then abruptly evaporated. For a moment he had forgotten what Rosalyn did in the sheriff’s department. She was a 911


The name and address of every 911 caller appeared on her monitor as soon as she picked up the phone at her end.

“That was just—what?—was that even a minute ago?” he asked, thinking fast, or trying to.

“A minute ten now,” Rosalyn said. “Did you—”

“What I did,” he said, “is I keyed in 911 when I meant to call information.”

“You meant to call 411?”

“I meant to call 411, but I pressed 911. I realized right away what I’d done, so I hung up.”

The freak was still in the house. The freak had called 911. Why he had done this, what he hoped to achieve, Billy couldn’t figure, at least not under this pressure.

“Why didn’t you stay on the line,” Rosalyn Chan asked, “and tell me the call was made in error?”

“I realized my mistake right away, I hung up so fast, I didn’t think a connection had been made yet. That was stupid. I’m sorry, Rosalyn. I was calling 411.”

“So you’re all right?”

“I’m all right. It’s just this crazy heat.”

“Don’t you have air conditioning?”

“I have it, but it conked out.”

“That sucks.”


The revolver lay on the desk. Billy picked it up. The freak was in the house.

“Hey, maybe I’ll stop in the tavern around five,” she said.

“Well, I won’t be there. I’m feeling sort of punky, so I called in sick.”

“I thought you said you were fine.”

So easy to trip himself up. He needed to look for the intruder, but he needed to sound right to Rosalyn.

“I am fine. I’m okay. Nothing serious. Just a little stomach thing. Maybe it’s a summer cold. I’m taking that nasal gel stuff.”

“What stuff?”

“You know, that zinc gel, you squeeze it up your nose, it knocks the cold right out of you.”

She said, “I think I heard about that.”

“It’s good. It works. Jackie O’Hara put me on to it. You should keep some on hand.”

“So everything’s okay there?” she asked.

“Except for the heat and me feeling punky, but you can’t do much about that. Nine-one-one can’t fix a cold or an air conditioner. I’m sorry, Rosalyn. I feel like an idiot.”

“It’s no big deal. Half the calls we get aren’t emergencies.”

“They aren’t?”

“People call, their cat’s in a tree, the neighbors are having a noisy party, things like that.”

“That makes me feel better. At least I’m not the biggest idiot on the block.”

“Just take care of yourself, Billy.”

“I will. You too. You take care of yourself.”

“Bye,” she said.

He put down the phone and rose from his chair.

While Billy had been in the bathroom with the corpse, the freak had come back into the house. Or maybe he had already been inside, hiding in a closet or somewhere that Billy hadn’t checked.

The guy had balls. Big brass ones. He knew about the .38, but he came back into the house and he called 911 while Billy was taking the vinyl cover off the computer.

The freak might still be here. Doing what? Doing something. Billy crossed the study to the door, which he had left open. He went through fast, two hands on the revolver, sweeping it left, then right. The freak wasn’t in the hall. He was somewhere.

Chapter 27

Although Billy Wiles wasn’t wearing his wristwatch, he knew that time was running out as fast as water through a sieve.

In the bedroom, he slid aside one of the closet doors. No one. The space under the bed was too tight. No one would choose to hide under there because squirming out quickly wasn’t possible; that hiding place would be a trap. Besides, no overhanging spread curtained that low space.

Looking under the bed would be a waste of time. Billy started toward the door. He returned to the bed, dropped to one knee. A waste. The freak was gone. He was crazy, but he wasn’t crazy enough to stay here after calling 911 and hanging up on them.

In the hallway again, Billy hurried to the threshold of the bathroom. Cottle sat alone in there.

The shower curtain was drawn open. If it had been drawn shut, it would have been a prime place to look.

A large hall closet housed the oil-fired furnace. It offered no options. The living room. An open space, easy to search with a sweep of the eyes. The kitchen cabinetry featured a tall, narrow broom closet. No good. He tore open the door to the walk-in pantry. Canned goods, boxes of pasta, bottles of hot sauce, household supplies. Nowhere to hide a grown man. In the living room again, he shoved the revolver deep under a sofa cushion. It didn’t leave a visible lump, but anyone who sat on the gun would feel it.

He had left the front door standing open. An invitation. Before hastening once more to the bathroom, he closed the door.

Cottle with his head tipped back and his mouth open, with his hands together in his lap as if clapping, might have been singing Western swing and keeping time.

The knife sawed against bone as Billy pulled it out of the wound. Blood smeared the blade.

With a few Kleenex plucked from a box beside the sink, he wiped the knife clean. He balled up the tissues and put them on top of the toilet tank. He folded the blade into the yellow handle and put the knife beside the sink.

When Billy shifted the corpse sideways on the toilet, the head fell forward, and a gaseous sputter escaped the lips, as if Cottle had died on an inhalation, as if his last breath, until now, had been trapped in his throat. He hooked his arms under the dead man’s arms. Trying to avoid the bloodsoaked part of the suit coat, Billy hauled him off the toilet. Worn thin by a diet of spirits, Cottle weighed hardly more than an adolescent. Carrying him would be too difficult, however, because he was gangly, spindle-legged.

Fortunately, rigor mortis had not begun to set in. Cottle was limp, flexible. Shuffling backward, Billy dragged the body out of the bathroom. The heels of the dead man’s sneakers squeaked and stuttered along the ceramic-tile floor.

They protested against the polished Santos-mahogany floors of the hall and study, too, all the way around behind the desk, where he lowered the corpse to the hardwood.

Billy heard himself breathing hard, not so much from exertion as from high anxiety.

Time rushed away, rushed like a river over a falls.

After rolling the office chair aside, he shoved the corpse into the knee space. He had to bend the legs to make the dead man fit.

He swung the chair in front of the computer again. He pushed it as far into the knee space as possible.

The desk was deep and had a privacy panel on the front. Anyone who came into the room would have to walk all the way behind the work station and peer purposefully into the kneehole to see the cadaver.

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