Velocity Page 18

The freak had prepared for all contingencies. He was nothing if not thorough. And he had been confident his script would play out as he had intended.

Billy deleted the document titled Death, which might still be used as evidence against him, depending on how events unfolded from here on. He suspected that deleting it from the directory did not remove it from the hard disk. He would have to find a way to ask someone who was a computer maven.

When he shut down the computer, he realized that he had still not heard the patrol-car engines start up.

Chapter 33

Peeling the shade aside at a study window, Billy discovered the driveway empty in the streaming sunshine. He had become so absorbed with the diskette that he had not heard the car engines start. The sergeants had gone. He had expected to discover another challenge on the diskette: a choice between two innocent victims, a short deadline for making a decision. No doubt another one would come soon, but for now he was free to deal with other urgent business. He had plenty of it.

He went to the garage and returned with a length of rope and one of the polyurethane drop cloths with which he covered furniture when he had repainted the interior of the house in the spring. He unfolded this tarp on the study floor in front of the desk.

After wrestling Cottle’s body out of the knee space and dragging it around the desk, he rolled it onto the drop cloth.

The prospect of turning out the dead man’s pockets disgusted him. He got on with it, anyway.

Billy wasn’t looking for planted evidence that would incriminate him. If the freak had salted the corpse, he had been subtle about it; Billy would not find everything.

Besides, he intended to dispose of the body in a place where it would never be found. For that reason, he was unconcerned about leaving fingerprints on the plastic sheeting.

The suit coat had two inner pockets. In the first, Cottle had kept the pint of whiskey that he had spilled. From the second, Billy extracted a pint of rum, and returned it.

In the two outer pockets of the coat were cigarettes, a cheap butane lighter, and a roll of butterscotch Life Savers. In the front pants pockets, he found sixty-seven cents in coins, a deck of playing cards, and a whistle in the form of a plastic canary.

Cottle’s wallet contained six one-dollar bills, a five, and fourteen tendollar bills. These last must have come from the freak. Ten dollars for each year of your innocence, Mr. Wiles.

Basically frugal, Billy didn’t want to bury the money with the body. He considered dropping it in the poor box at the church where he had parked—and been assaulted—the previous night.

Squeamishness trumped frugality. Billy left the money in the wallet. As dead pharaohs had been sent to the Other Side with salt, grain, wine, gold, and euthanized servants, so Ralph Cottle would travel across the Styx with spending money.

Among the few other items in the wallet were two of interest, the first a worn and creased snapshot of Cottle as a young man. He looked handsome, virile, radically different from the beaten man of his later years but recognizable. With him was a lovely young woman. They were smiling. They looked happy.

The second item was a 1983 membership card in the American Society of Skeptics. Ralph Thurman Cottle, member since 1978.

Billy kept the snapshot and the membership card and returned everything else to Cottle’s hip pocket.

He rolled the cadaver tightly in the tarp. He folded the ends down and secured the bundle with yards of strapping tape.

His expectation had been that, inside multiple layers of opaque polyurethane, the body might pass for a rug wrapped in protective plastic. It looked like a corpse in a tarp.

Using the rope, he fashioned a tightly knotted handle to one end of the packaged cadaver, by which it could be dragged.

He did not intend to dispose of Cottle until after dark. The cargo space in his Explorer was encircled by windows. SUV’s were useful vehicles, but if you were going to be transporting corpses in broad daylight, you better have a car with a roomy trunk.

Because he’d begun to feel that his house was being as freely traveled as a public bus terminal, Billy hauled the body out of the study, to the living room, where he left it behind the sofa. It could not be seen from the front door or from the doorway to the kitchen.

At the kitchen sink, he vigorously scrubbed his hands with multiple applications of liquid soap, in near-scalding water.

Then he made a ham sandwich. Ravenous, he wondered how he could have an appetite after the gruesome business he had just concluded. He would not have thought that his will to survive had remained this strong during his years of retreat. He wondered what other qualities, good and bad, he would rediscover or discover in himself during the thirty-six hours ahead. There is one who remembers the way to your door: Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.

Chapter 34

As Billy finished the ham sandwich, the telephone rang.

He didn’t want to answer it. He didn’t receive a lot of calls from friends, and Lanny was dead. He knew who this must be. Enough was enough. On the twelfth ring, he pushed his chair back from the table. The freak had never said anything on the phone. He didn’t want to reveal his voice. He would do nothing but listen to Billy in mocking silence. On the sixteenth ring, Billy got up from the table.

These calls had no purpose but to intimidate. Taking them made no sense. Billy stood by the phone, staring at it. On the twenty-sixth ring, he lifted the handset.

The digital readout revealed ho caller ID.

Billy didn’t say hello. He listened.

After a few seconds of silence on the other end, a mechanical click was followed by a hiss. Pops and scratches punctuated the hiss: the sound of blank audio tape passing over a playback head.

When the words came, they were in a series of voices, some men, some women. No individual spoke more than three words, often just one. Judging by the inconstant volume levels and other tells, the freak had constructed the message by sampling existing audio, perhaps books on tape by different readers. “I will… kill a… pretty redhead. If you… say… waste the bitch… I will… kill… her… quickly. Otherwise… she will… suffer… much… torture. You… have… one minute… to… say… waste the bitch. The choice… is… yours.”

Again, the hiss and pop and scratch of blank tape…

The conundrum had been perfectly constructed. It allowed an evasive man no room for further evasion.

Previously, Billy had been morally co-opted only to the extent that the choice of the victims had been made because of his inaction, and in Cottle’s case because of the refusal to act.

In the choice between a lovely schoolteacher and a charitable old woman, the deaths seemed equally tragic unless you were biased toward the beautiful and against the aged. Making an active decision resulted in neither less nor greater tragedy than did inaction.

When the possible victims had been an unmarried man “who won’t much be missed by the world” or a young mother of two, the greater tragedy had seemed to be the death of the mother. In that case, the choice had been constructed so that Billy’s failure to go to the police ensured the mother’s survival, rewarding inaction and playing to his weakness.

Once again, he was being asked to choose between two evils, and thereby become the freak’s collaborator. But this time, inaction was not a viable option. By saying nothing, he would be sentencing the redhead to torture, to a protracted and hideous death. By responding, he would be granting her a degree of mercy.

He could not save her.

In either case, death.

But one death would be cleaner than the other.

The running audio tape produced two more words: “dis… thirty seconds…”

Billy felt as though he couldn’t breathe, but he could. He felt as though he would choke if he tried to swallow, but he didn’t choke. “… fifteen seconds…”

His mouth was dry. His tongue grew thick. He didn’t believe that he could speak, but he did: “Waste the bitch.”

The freak hung up. So did Billy.


The masticated ham and the bread and the mayonnaise turned in his stomach.

If he had suspected that the freak might actually communicate by telephone, he could have been prepared to record the message. Too late. Such a recording of a recording wouldn’t be persuasive to the cops, anyway, unless the body of a redhead turned up. And if such a corpse was found, planted evidence would most likely tie it to Billy. The air conditioner worked well, yet the kitchen air seemed to be sweltering, stifling, and it cloyed in his throat, and lay heavy in his lungs. Waste the bitch.

Without any memory of having left the house, Billy found himself descending the back-porch steps. He didn’t know where he was going.

He sat on the steps.

He stared at the sky, at the trees, at the backyard.

He looked at his hands. He didn’t recognize them.

Chapter 35

He left town by a circuitous route and saw no one following. With no corpse burrito in the Explorer, Billy risked exceeding the speed limit most of the way to the southern end of the county. A hot wind quarreled at the brokenout window in the driver’s door as he crossed the Napa city limits at 1:52 P.M. Napa is a quaint, rather picturesque town, for the most part naturally so, not by dint of politicians and corporations conspiring to reconceive it as a theme park on the model of Disneyland, a fate of many places in California. Harry Avarkian, Billy’s attorney, had offices downtown, not far from the courthouse, on a street lined with ancient olive trees. He was expecting Billy and greeted him with a bear hug. Fiftyish, tall and solid, avuncular, with a rubbery face and quick smile, Harry looked like the spokesman for a miracle hair restorer. He had a head of wiry black hair so thick that it looked as though a barber might have to tend to it daily, a walrus mustache, and such a thatch of crisp black hairs on the backs of his big hands that he looked as if he might be prone to hibernate in winter.

He worked at an antique partner’s desk, so that when Billy sat opposite him, the relationship didn’t seem like that of attorney and client but like that of friends engaged in a business enterprise.

After the usual how-ya-beens and talk of the heat, Harry said, “So what’s so important that we couldn’t do it by phone?”

“It’s not that I didn’t want to talk on the phone,” Billy lied. The rest was true enough: “I had to come down here for a couple other things, so I figured I might as well sit down with you in person and ask about what’s troubling me.”

“So hit me with your questions, and let’s see if I know any damn thing about the law.”

“It’s about the trust fund that takes care of Barbara.” Harry Avarkian and Gi Minh “George” Nguyen, Billy’s accountant, were the other two trustees on the three-member board.

“Just two days ago, I reviewed the second quarter’s financial statement,”

Harry said. “Return was fourteen percent. Excellent in this market. Even after Barbara’s expenses, the principal is growing steadily.”

“We’re smartly invested,” Billy agreed. “But I’m lying awake at night worrying is there a way anyone could get at the pot?”

“The pot? You mean Barbara’s money? If you’ve got to worry about something, worry about an asteroid hitting the earth.”

“I worry. I can’t help it.”

“Billy, I drew up those trust documents, and they’re tighter than a gnat’s ass. Besides, with you guarding the vault for her, nobody’s going to pinch a nickel.”

“I mean if something happens to me.”

“You’re only thirty-four. From my perspective, you’re barely past puberty.”

“Mozart died younger than thirty-four.”

“This isn’t the eighteenth century, and you don’t even play the piano,”

Harry said, “so the comparison makes no sense.” He frowned. “Are you sick or something?”

“I’ve felt better,” Billy admitted.

“What’s that patch on your forehead?”

Billy gave him the story about a knothole in a walnut plank. “It’s nothing serious.”

“You’re pale for summer.”

“I haven’t been fishing much. Look, Harry, I don’t have cancer or anything, but a truck could always hit me.”

“Have they been after you lately, these trucks? Have you had to dodge a few? Since when were you baptized a pessimist?”

“What about Dardre?”

Dardre was Barbara’s sister. They were twins, but fraternal, not identical. They looked nothing alike, and were radically different people, as well.

“The court not only pulled her plug,” Harry said, “they cut it off and took out her batteries.”

“I know, but—”

“She’s an Energizer Bunny of Evil, all right, but she’s as much history as the Lebne and string cheese I ate for lunch a week ago.”

Barbara and Dardre’s mother, Cicily, had been a drug addict. She had never identified their father, and on their birth certificates, the twins had their mother’s maiden name.

Cicily wound up in a psychiatric ward when the girls were two, and they were removed from their mother’s custody and placed in a foster home. Cicily died eleven months later.

Until they were five, the sisters had been shuffled through the same series of foster homes. Thereafter they were separated.

Barbara had never seen Dardre again. In fact when, at the age of twentyone, she tracked down and tried to reestablish a relationship with her sister, she had been rebuffed.

While not as self-destructive as Cicily, Dardre had acquired her mother’s taste for illegal chemical compounds and the party life. She found her cleanand-sober sibling to be boring and uncool. Eight years later, after extensive media attention to the case, when the insurance company settled millions on Barbara to pay for her long-term care, Dardre developed a deep emotional attachment to her sister. As Barbara’s only known blood relative, she had brought legal action to be declared sole trustee. Fortunately, at good Harry’s urging, immediately following their engagement, Billy and Barbara had drawn and signed, in this office, simple wills naming each other as heirs and executors.

Dardre’s history, tactics, and unconcealed avarice had earned her the judge’s scorn. Her action had been dismissed with prejudice. She had tried to get another court to reinstate her case. She had not been successful. They hadn’t heard from her in two years.

Now Billy said, “But if I died—”

“You’ve selected contingent trustees to replace you. If you’re run down by a truck, one of them will.”

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