Velocity Page 15

Even then, because of the chair and depending on the angle of view, a casual look might not reveal this grisly secret.

Shadows would be helpful. Billy switched off the overhead light. He left only the desk lamp aglow.

In the bathroom once more, he saw a smear of blood on the floor. None had been there before he’d moved Cottle.

His heart was a kicking horse battering the board walls of his chest. One mistake. If he made one mistake here, it would finish him. His time perception was whacked. He knew that only a few minutes had passed since he’d set out to search the house, but he felt as if ten minutes had fled, fifteen.

He wished that he had his wristwatch. He didn’t dare take the time to retrieve it from the front-porch railing.

With a wad of toilet paper, he wiped the blood off the floor. The tiles came clean, but a faint discoloration remained in a section of grout. It looked like rust, not like blood. That’s what he wanted to believe.

Into the toilet he dropped the wad of paper as well as the Kleenex with which he had swabbed the blade of the knife. He flushed them away.

The murder weapon lay on the counter beside the sink. He buried it at the back of a vanity drawer, behind bottles of shaving lotion and suntan oil. When he slammed the drawer shut so hastily, so hard, that it banged like a gunshot, he knew he needed to get a tighter grip on himself. Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still.

He would remain calmer if he remembered his true purpose. His true purpose was not the endless cycle of idea and action, was not the preservation of his freedom or even his life. He must live that she could live, helpless but safe, helpless and sleeping and dreaming but subjected to no indignity, no evil. He was a shallow man. He had often proved that truth to himself. In the face of suffering, he had not possessed the strength of will to pursue his gift for the written word. He rejected the gift not just once but a damning number of times, for gifts conferred by the power that had conferred this one are perpetually offered and can come to nothing only if they are perpetually rejected.

In his suffering, he had been humbled by the limitations of language, which he should have been. He had also been defeated by the limitations of language, which he should not have been.

He was a shallow man. He did not have within him the capacity to care deeply about multitudes, to accept every neighbor into his heart without qualification. The power of compassion was in him merely an ability, and its potentiality seemed to be fulfilled by caring for one woman. Because of this shallowness, he believed himself to be a weak man, perhaps not as weak as Ralph Cottle, but not strong. He had been chilled but never surprised when the stewbum had said I see the way you’re a little like me.

The sleeper, safe and dreaming, was his true purpose and also his only hope of redemption. For that, he must care and not care; he must be still. Calmer than when he had slammed the drawer, Billy reviewed the bathroom one more time. He saw no evidence of the crime.

Time was still a river rushing, a spinning wheel.

Hurriedly but thoroughly, he retraced the route along which he had dragged the dead man, searching for additional smears of blood like the one in the bathroom. He discovered none.

Doubting himself, he quickly toured the bedroom, living room, and kitchen once more. He tried to see everything through the eyes of suspicious authority.

Only the situation on the front porch remained to be set right. He had left that task for last because it was less urgent than the need to conceal the corpse. In case he didn’t have time to address the porch, he took from a kitchen cabinet the bottle of bourbon with which he had spiked his Guinness stout on Monday night. He swigged directly from the bottle.

Instead of swallowing, he swished the whiskey between his teeth, around his mouth, as if it were mouthwash. The longer he held the alcohol, the more it burned his gums, tongue, cheeks.

He spat it in the sink before he remembered to gargle.

He rinsed his mouth with another swig but also let it churn in his throat for several seconds.

With a wheeze but not a choke, he spat this second mouthful in the sink just as the expected knock came at the front door, loud and protracted. Perhaps four minutes had passed since he’d hung up the phone after his conversation with Rosalyn Chan. Maybe five. It felt like an hour; it felt like ten seconds.

As the knock sounded, Billy turned on the cold water to wash the reek of booze out of the sink. He left it streaming.

In the quiet after the knock, he capped the bourbon and returned it to the cabinet.

At the sink once more, he cranked off the water as the knocking came again.

Answering at once on the first knock might have made him seem anxious. Waiting for a third might make it appear as though he had considered not answering at all.

Crossing the living room, he thought to examine his hands. He did not see any blood.

Chapter 28

When Billy Wiles opened the front door, he found a sheriff’s deputy standing three cautious steps from the threshold and to one side. The cop’s right hand rested on the pistol in the swivel holster at his hip, rested there not as if he were prepared to draw it, but as casually as anyone might stand with a hand on his hip.

Billy had hoped that he would know him. He didn’t.

The officer’s badge featured a nameplate: Sgt. V. Napolitino. At forty-six, Lanny Olsen had held the same rank—deputy—at which he had entered service as a younger man.

In his early twenties, V. Napolitino had already been promoted to sergeant. He had the well-scrubbed, clear-eyed, intelligent, and diligent look of a man who would make lieutenant by twenty-five, captain by thirty, commander by thirty-five, and chief before forty.

Billy’s preference would have been a fat, rumpled, weary, and cynical specimen. Maybe this was one of those days when you should stay away from roulette because every bet on black would ensure a red number.

“Mr. Wiles?”

“Yeah. That’s me.”

“William Wiles?”

“Billy, yes.”

Sergeant Napolitino shifted his attention back and forth between Billy and the living room behind him.

The sergeant’s face remained expressionless. His eyes revealed neither apprehension nor even disquiet, nor as much as wariness, but were only watchful.

“Mr. Wiles, would you mind stepping out to my car with me?”

The sheriffs-department cruiser stood in the driveway.

“You want to come in?” Billy asked.

“Not necessarily, sir. Just to the car for a minute or two, if you don’t mind.”

This almost sounded like a request, but it wasn’t.

“Sure,” Billy said. “All right.”

A second patrol car pulled off the county blacktop, into the driveway, and halted ten feet behind the first.

As Billy reached for the knob to pull the front door shut after him, Sergeant Napolitino said, “Why don’t you leave it open, sir.”

The deputy’s tone of voice did not signify either a question or a suggestion. Billy left the door open.

Napolitino clearly expected him to lead the way.

Billy stepped over the pint bottle, past the spilled Seagram’s.

Although the puddle was at least fifteen minutes old, less than half of it had evaporated in the heat. In the still air, the porch stank of whiskey. Billy went down the steps and onto the lawn. He didn’t pretend to be unsteady. He wasn’t a good enough actor to play drunk, and any attempt to do so would call his sincerity into doubt.

He intended to rely on his potent breath to suggest functional inebriation and to give credence to the story that he intended to tell. As a deputy got out of the second patrol car, Billy recognized him. Sam Sobieski. He also was a sergeant, and perhaps five years older than Sergeant Napolitino.

Sobieski visited the tavern once in a while, usually with a date. He came for the bar food more than to drink, and two beers were his limit. Billy didn’t know him well. They weren’t friends, but knowing him at all was better than dealing with two strangers.

On the front lawn, Billy turned to look back at the house. Napolitino was still on the porch. He managed to cross to the steps and begin to descend without fully turning his back on either the open door or the windows, yet appearing unconcerned all the while.

Now he took the lead and brought Billy around the patrol car, putting it between them and the house.

Sergeant Sobieski joined them. “Hi, Billy.”

“Sergeant Sobieski. How’re you doin’?”

Everybody called a bartender by his first name. In some cases, you knew familiarity was expected in return; in this case not.

“Yesterday was chili day, and I forgot,” said Sobieski.

Billy said, “Ben makes the best chili.”

“Ben is a chili god,” Sobieski said.

The car was a lodestone to the sun, scorching the air around it and no doubt blistering to the touch.

First on the scene, Napolitino took charge: “Mr. Wiles, are you all right?”

“Sure. I’m okay. This is about my screw-up, I guess.”

“You called 911,” Napolitino said.

“I meant to call 411.1 told Rosalyn Chan.”

“You didn’t tell her until she called you back.”

“I hung up so fast I didn’t realize a connection had been made.”

“Mr. Wiles, are you to any degree under duress?”

“Duress? Hey, no. You mean was somebody holding a gun to my head when I was on the phone with Rosalyn? Wow. That’s a pretty wild idea. No offense, I know that sort of thing happens, but not to me.”

Billy cautioned himself to give short answers. Longer ones could sound like nervous babbling.

“You called in sick to work?” Napolitino asked.

“Yeah.” Grimacing but not too dramatically, he put one hand on his abdomen. “I’ve got this stomach thing.”

He hoped they could smell his breath. He himself could smell it. If they could smell his breath, they would think his claim of illness was a lame attempt to conceal the fact that he was on a little bit of a bender.

“Mr. Wiles, who else lives here?”

“No one. Just me. I live alone.”

“Is anyone in the house right now?”

“No. No one.”

“No friend or member of the family?”

“No. Not even a dog. Sometimes I think about getting a dog, but I never do.”

Scalpels were not sharper than Sergeant Napolitino’s dark eyes. “Sir, if there’s a bad guy in there—”

“No bad guy,” Billy assured him.

“If someone you care about is being held in there under duress, the best thing you could do is tell me.”

“Of course. I know that. Who wouldn’t know that?”

The intense heat coming off the sun-hammered car made Billy half sick. His face felt seared. Neither of the sergeants appeared to be bothered by the broiling air.

“Under stress, intimidated,” Sobieski said, “people make bad decisions, Billy.”

“Sweet Jesus,” Billy said, “I really made an ass of myself this time, hanging up on 911, then what I said to Rosalyn.”

“What did you say to her?” Napolitino asked.

Billy was certain they knew the essentials of what he had said, and he himself remembered every word with piercing clarity, but he hoped to convince them that he was too booze-confused to recall quite how he had gotten himself in this predicament.

“Whatever I said, it must have been stupid if I gave her the idea somebody might be giving me trouble. Duress. Man. This is way embarrassing.”

He shook his head at his foolishness, found a dry laugh, and shook his head again.

The sergeants just watched him.

“No one’s here but me. No one’s come around here in days. No one’s ever here but me. I pretty much keep to myself, it’s the way I am.”

That was enough. He was perilously close to babbling again. If they knew about Barbara, they knew how he was. If they didn’t know about her, Rosalyn would tell them.

He had taken a risk by saying that nobody had visited in days. Rightly or wrongly, he’d felt that he should make a point of his reclusive life. If someone in the nearest houses down-slope had seen Ralph Cottle walking up this driveway or had noticed him sitting on the porch, and if the sergeants decided to have a word with the neighbors, Billy would be caught in a lie.

“What happened to your forehead?” Napolitino asked.

Until that moment, Billy had forgotten about the hook wounds in his brow, but a low throbbing pain arose in them when the sergeant asked the question.

Chapter 29

“Isn’t that a bandage?” Sergeant Napolitino persisted.

Although Billy’s thick hair fell over his forehead, it did not entirely conceal the gauze pads and adhesive tape.

“I had a little table—saw accident,” Billy said, pleasantly surprised by the swiftness with which a suitable lie occurred to him.

“Sounds serious,” Sergeant Sobieski said.

“It’s not. It’s nothing. I have a woodworking shop in the garage. I built all the cabinetry in the house. Last night, I was working on something, cutting a walnut one-by-six, and there was a knot in it. The blade cracked the knot, and a few splinters shot into my forehead.”

“You could lose an eye like that,” Sobieski said.

“I wear safety goggles. I always wear goggles.”

Napolitino said, “Did you go to a doctor?”

“Nah. No need. Just some splinters. I dug ‘em out with tweezers. Hell, the only reason I need a bandage is I did more damage with the tweezers, getting the splinters out, than they did going in.”

“Be careful about infection.”

“I soaked it with alcohol, hydrogen peroxide. Smeared Neosporin on it. I’ll be all right. This kind of thing, it happens.”

Billy felt that he had satisfied their concerns. To his ear, he didn’t sound like a man under duress, with a life-or-death problem.

The sun was a furnace, a forge, and the heat coming off the car cooked him more effectively than a microwave oven might have done, but he was cool. When the questioning took a negative and more aggressive turn, he didn’t at once recognize the change.

“Mr. Wiles,” said Napolitino, “did you then call information?”

“Did I what?”

“After you mistakenly dialed 911 and hung up, did you dial 411 as you had intended?”

“No, I just sat there for a minute thinking about what I’d done.”

“You sat there for a minute thinking how you had mistakenly dialed 911?”

“Well, not a whole minute. However long it was. I didn’t want to screw up again. I was feeling a little woozy. Like I said, my stomach. Then Rosalyn called me back.”

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