Velocity Page 21

“She’s not hopeless. She laughs sometimes. She’s right there, and she’s got plenty of resources.”

“Which could do so much good if properly applied.”

“I don’t want the money.”

“I know. You’re not the kind of guy who could ever spend a dime of it on yourself. But you could direct those resources to people who have a greater potential for an acceptable quality of life than she does, people who would be more likely to be helped.”

Billy tolerated Ferrier also because the physician had been so effective in pre-trial depositions that the maker of the vichyssoise had chosen to settle long before getting near a courtroom.

“I’m only thinking of Barbara,” Ferrier continued. “If I were in her condition, I wouldn’t want to lie there like that, year after year.”

“And I would respect your wishes,” Billy said. “But we don’t know what her wishes are.”

“Letting her go doesn’t require active steps,” Ferrier reminded him. “We need only be passive. Remove the feeding tube.”

In her coma, Barbara had no reliable gag reflex and could not properly swallow. Food would end up in her lungs.

“Remove the feeding tube and let nature take its course.”


“Just nature.”

Billy kept her in Ferrier’s care also because the physician was straightforward about his belief in utilitarian bioethics. Another doctor might believe the same but conceal it… and fancy himself an angel—or agent—of mercy.

Twice a year, Ferrier would make this argument, but he would not act without Billy’s approval.

“No,” Billy said. “No. We won’t do that. We’ll go on just the way we have been going.”

“Four years is such a long time.”

Billy said, “Death is longer.”

Chapter 42

Six o’clock sun on the vineyards filled the window with summer, life, and bounty.

Beneath her pale lids, Barbara Mandel’s eyes followed the action of vivid dreams.

Sitting on the barstool by her bedside, Billy said, “I saw Harry today. He still smiles when he remembers you called him a Muppet. He says his greatest achievement is never having been disbarred.”

He didn’t tell her anything else about his day. The rest of it would not have lifted her spirits.

From the standpoint of defense, the two weak points of the room were the door to the hallway and the window. The adjoining bathroom was windowless. The window featured a blind and a latch. The door could not be locked. Like every hospital bed, Barbara’s had wheels. Thursday evening, as midnight approached, Billy could roll her out of here, where the killer expected to find her, and put her in another room, somewhere safer. She wasn’t tethered to life-support systems or to monitors. Her food supply and pump hung from a rack fixed to the bed frame.

From the nurses’ station at midpoint of the long main corridor, no one could see around the corner to this west-wing room. With luck, he might be able to move Barbara at the penultimate moment without being seen, then return here to wait for the freak.

Assuming it came to that crisis point. Which was a safe if not happy assumption.

He left Barbara alone and walked the west wing, glancing in the rooms of other patients, checking a supply closet, a bathing chamber, reviewing possibilities.

When he returned to her room, she was talking: “… soaked in water…

smothered in mud… lamed by stones…”

Her words suggested a bad dream, but her tone of voice did not. She spoke softly and as if enchanted.

“… cut by flints… stung by nettles… torn by briars…”

Billy had forgotten his pocket notebook and his pen. Even if he had remembered them, he could not take the time to settle down and record these utterances.

“Quick!” she said.

Standing at her bedside, he put a comforting hand on Barbara’s shoulder.

“Give it mouth!” she whispered urgently.

He half expected her eyes to open and to fix on him, but they did not. When Barbara fell silent, Billy squatted to look for the cord that powered the bed’s adjustable-mattress mechanism. If he needed to move her the following night, he would have to pull that plug.

On the floor, just under the high bed, lay a snapshot taken by a digital camera. Billy picked up the photo and stood to examine it in better light. “…

creep and creep…” Barbara whispered. He turned the snapshot three ways before he realized that it depicted a praying mantis, apparently dead, pale upon pale painted boards. “… creep and creep… and tear him open…” Suddenly her whispering voice twitched like a dying mantis down through the spiraling chambers of Billy’s ears, inspiring a shudder and a chill. During normal visiting hours, family and friends of patients came through the front doors and went where they wished, without any requirement to sign a register. “… hands of the dead…” she whispered. Because Barbara required less attention than conscious patients with their myriad complaints and demands, nurses did not attend her as frequently as they did others. “… great stones… angry red…” A quiet visitor might stay here half an hour and never be seen at this bedside—or entering, or leaving. He did not want to leave Barbara alone, talking to an empty room, though she must have done so on countless previous occasions. Billy’s evening, already fully scheduled, had been complicated by the addition of one more urgent task. “… chains hanging… terrible…” Billy pocketed the snapshot. He bent to Barbara and kissed her forehead. Her brow was cool, as always it was cool. At the window, he drew down the blind. Reluctant to leave, he stood in the open doorway, looking back at her. She said something then that resonated with him, though he had no clue why.

“Mrs. Joe,” she said. “Mrs. Joe.”

He did not know a Mrs. Joe or Mrs. Joseph, or Mrs. Johanson, or Mrs. Jonas, or anyone by any name similar to the one that Barbara had spoken. And yet somehow… he thought he did.

The phantom mantis twitched in his ears again. Along his spine. With a prayer as real as any that he had lied about to Gretchen Norlee, he left Barbara alone on this last night in which she might be safe. Less than three hours of daylight remained in a sky too dry to support a wisp of a cloud, the sun a thermonuclear brilliance, the air gathered to a stillness as if in anticipation of a cataclysmic blast.

Chapter 43

The picketed front yard contained no grass in need of mowing, but instead a lush carpet of baby’s tears and, under the graceful boughs of pepper trees, lace flower.

Shading the front walk, an arbor tunnel was draped with trumpet vines. Orchestras of silent scarlet horns raised their flared bells to the sun. The arched-lattice tunnel, a preview of twilight, led to a sunny front patio where pots were filled with red garnet, red valerian.

The house was a Spanish bungalow. Modest but graceful, it had been tenderly maintained.

The black silhouette of a bird had been painted on the red front door. The wings were on the upstroke, the bird in an angle of ascent. Halfway through Billy’s brief knock, the door opened, as though he had been expected and had been awaited with keen anticipation. Ivy Elgin said, “Hi, Billy,” without surprise, as if she had seen him through a window in the door. It had no window.

Barefoot, she wore khaki shorts cut for comfort and a roomy red T-shirt that sold nothing. Hooded and cloaked, Ivy would still have been a lamp to every moth that flew.

“I wasn’t sure you’d be here,” he said.

“I’m off Wednesdays.” She stepped back from the door.

Hesitating on the sun side of the threshold, Billy said, “Yeah. But you have a life.”

“I’m shelling pistachios in the kitchen.”

She turned and walked away into the house, leaving him to follow as if he had been here a thousand times. This was his first visit.

Heavily curtained sunlight and a floor lamp with a tasseled sapphire-silk shade accommodated shadows in the living room.

Billy glimpsed dark fir floors, midnight-blue mohair furniture, a Persianstyle rug. The artwork seemed to be from the 1930’s.

He made some noise on the hardwood floor, but Ivy did not. She crossed the room as if a slip of air always separated the soles of her feet from the fir planks, the way a sylph fly may choose to step across a pond without dimpling the surface tension of the water.

At the back of the house, the kitchen matched the size of the living room and contained a dining area.

Beadboard paneling, French-pane cabinet doors, a white tile floor with black-diamond inlays, and an ineffable quality made him think of the bayou and New Orleans charm.

Two windows between the kitchen and the back porch were open for ventilation. In one window sat a large black bird.

The creature’s perfect stillness suggested taxidermy. Then it cocked its head.

Although Ivy said nothing, Billy felt invited to the table, and even as he sat, she put a glass of ice in front of him. She picked up a pitcher from the table and poured tea.

Also on the red-and-white-checkered oilcloth were another glass of tea, a dish of fresh cherries, a sheet-cake pan piled high with unshelled nuts, and a bowl half full of liberated pistachios.

“You’ve got a nice place,” Billy said.

“It was my grandmother’s house.” She took three cherries from the dish.

“She raised me.”

Ivy spoke softly, as always. Even at the tavern, she never raised her voice, yet she never failed to make herself heard.

Not one to pry, Billy was surprised to hear himself ask, in a voice softened to match hers, “What happened to your mother?”

“She died in childbirth,” Ivy said as she lined up the cherries on the window sill beside the bird. “My father just moved on.”

The tea had been sweetened with peach nectar, a hint of mint. As Ivy returned to the table, sat, and continued shelling the nuts, the bird watched Billy and ignored the cherries.

“Is he a pet?” Billy asked.

“We own each other. He seldom comes farther than the window, and when he does, he respects my rules of cleanliness.”

“What’s his name?”

“He hasn’t told me yet. Eventually he will.”

Never in Billy’s life, until now, had he felt entirely at ease and vaguely disoriented at the same time. Otherwise, he might not have found himself asking such an odd question: “Which came first, the real bird or the one on the front door?”

“They arrived together,” she said, giving him an answer no less odd than his question.

“What is he—a crow?”

“He’s more lordly than that,” she said. “He’s a raven, and wants us to believe he’s nothing more.”

Billy did not know what to say to that, so he said nothing. He felt comfortable with silence, and apparently so did she.

He realized that he had lost the sense of urgency with which he had left Whispering Pines. Time no longer seemed to be running out; in fact time seemed not to matter here.

Finally the bird turned to the cherries, using its bill to strip the meat from the pits with swift efficiency.

Ivy’s long nimble fingers appeared to work slowly, yet she quickly added shelled pistachios to the bowl.

“This house is so quiet,” Billy said.

“Because the walls haven’t soaked up years of useless talk.”

“They haven’t?”

“My grandmother was deaf. We communicated by sign language and the written word.”

Beyond the back porch lay a flower garden in which all blooms were red or deep blue, or royal purple. If one leaf stirred, if a cricket busied itself, if a bee circled a rose, no sound found its way through the open windows.

“You might like some music,” Ivy said, “but I’d prefer none.”

“You don’t like music?”

“I get enough of it at the tavern.”

“I like zydeco. And Western swing. The Texas Top Hands. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.”

“Anyway, there’s already music,” she said, “if you’re still enough to hear it.”

He must not have been still enough.

Taking the photo of the dead mantis from his pocket and placing it on the table, Billy said, “I found this on the floor in Barbara’s room at Whispering Pines.”

“You can keep it if you want.”

He didn’t know what to make of that. “Were you visiting her?”

“I sit with her sometimes.”

“I didn’t know.”

“She was kind to me.”

“You didn’t start to work at the tavern until a year after she was in a coma.”

“I knew her before.”


“She was kind to me when Grandmother was dying in the hospital.”

Barbara had been a nurse, a good one.

“How often do you visit her?” Billy asked.

“Once a month.”

“Why have you never told me, Ivy?”

“Then we’d have to talk about her, wouldn’t we?”

“Talk about her?”

“Talking about how she is, what she’s suffered—does that give you peace?” Ivy asked.

“Peace? No. How could it?”

“Does remembering how she was, before the coma, give you peace?”

He considered. “Sometimes.”

Her gaze rose from the pistachios, and her extraordinary brandy eyes met his eyes. “Then don’t talk about now. Just remember when.”

Finished with two cherries, the raven paused to stretch its wings. Silently they opened and silently closed.

When Billy looked at Ivy again, her attention had returned to her shelling hands.

He asked, “Why did you take this snapshot with you when you visited her?”

“I take them all with me everywhere, the most recent photos of dead things.”

“But why?”

“Haruspicy,” she reminded him. “I read them. They foretell.”

He sipped his tea.

The raven watched him, beak open, as if it were shrieking. It made no sound.

“What do they foretell about Barbara?” Billy asked.

Ivy’s serenity and fey quality concealed whether she calculated her answer or whether instead she hesitated only because her thoughts were divided between here and elsewhere. “Nothing.”

“Nothing at all?”

She had given her answer. She didn’t have another.

On the table, in the photo, the mantis said nothing to Billy.

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