Velocity Page 22

“Where did you get this idea to read dead things?” he asked. “From your grandmother?”

“No. She disapproved. She was an old-fashioned devout Catholic. To her, believing in the occult is a sin. It puts the immortal soul in jeopardy.”

“But you disagree.”

“I do and I don’t,” Ivy said more softly than usual.

After the raven finished the third cherry, the na*ed pits were left side by side on the window sill, as if in acknowledgment of the household rules of neatness and order.

“I never heard my mother’s voice,” Ivy said.

Billy did not know what to make of that statement, and then he remembered that her mother had died in childbirth.

Ivy said, “Since I was very little, I’ve known my mother has something terribly important to say to me.”

For the first time he noticed a wall clock. It had no second, minute, or hour hands.

“This house has always been so quiet,” Ivy said. “So quiet. You learn to listen here.”

Billy listened.

“The dead have things to tell us,” Ivy said.

With polished-anthracite eyes, the raven regarded its mistress.

“The wall is thinner here,” she said. “The wall between the worlds. A spirit might speak through if it wanted to badly enough.”

Pushing the empty shells aside, dropping the nut meats in the bowl, she made the softest symphony of sounds, quieter even than the melting ice shifting in the tea glasses.

Ivy said, “Sometimes in the night or in a particularly still moment of an afternoon, or at twilight when the horizon swallows the sun and fully silences it, I know she’s calling me. I can almost hear the quality of her voice… but not the words. Not yet.”

Billy thought of Barbara speaking from the abyss of unnatural sleep, her words meaningless to everyone else, yet fraught with enigmatic meaning to him.

He found Ivy Elgin as troubling as she was alluring. If her innocence sometimes seemed to approach the immaculate, Billy warned himself that in her heart, as in the heart of every man and woman, must be a chamber where light didn’t reach, where a calming silence could not be achieved. Nevertheless, regardless of whatever he himself might believe about life and death, and in spite of whatever impure motives Ivy entertained, if indeed she entertained any, Billy felt that she was sincere in her belief that her mother was trying to reach her, would continue trying, and would eventually succeed. More important, she so impressed him, not by reason but by the judgment of his adaptive unconscious, that he was unable to write her off as a mere eccentric. In this house, the wall between worlds might well have been washed thin, rinsed by so many years of silence.

Her predictions based on haruspicy were seldom correct in any detail. She blamed this on her incompetence in reading signs, and would not abide suggestions that haruspicy itself was useless.

Billy now understood her obstinacy. If one could not read the future in the unique conditions of each dead thing, it might also be true that the dead have nothing to tell us and that a child waiting to hear the voice of a lost mother might never hear it no matter how well she listened or how silent and attentive she remained.

And so she studied photos of possums broken along roadsides, of dead mantises, of birds fallen from the sky.

She silently walked her house, noiselessly shelled pistachios, softly spoke to the raven or did not speak at all, and at times the quiet became a perfect hush.

Such a hush had fallen over them now, but Billy broke it.

Interested less in Ivy’s analysis than in her reaction, watching her more intently than ever the bird had done, Billy said, “Sometimes psychopathic killers keep souvenirs to remind them of their victims.”

As though Billy’s comment had been no stranger than a reference to the heat, Ivy paused for a sip of tea, then returned to shelling. He suspected that nothing anyone said to Ivy ever elicited a reaction of surprise, as if she always knew what the words would be before they were spoken.

“I heard about this case,” he continued, “where a serial killer cut off the face of a victim and kept it in a jar of formaldehyde.”

Ivy scooped nut shells from the table and put them in the waste can beside her chair. She didn’t drop them, but placed them in the can in such a way that they did not rattle.

By watching Ivy, Billy could not tell if she had previously heard of the face thief or if instead this was news to her.

“If you came upon that faceless body, what would you read from it? Not about the future, but about him, the killer.”

“Theater,” she said without hesitation.

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“He likes theater.”

“Why do you say that?”

“The drama of cutting off a face,” she said.

“I don’t make that connection.”

From the shallow dish she took a cherry.

“The theater is deception,” she said. “No actor plays himself.”

Billy could only say, “All right,” and wait.

She said, “In every role, an actor wears a false identity.”

She put the cherry in her mouth. A moment later, she spit the pit into the palm of her hand, and swallowed the fruit.

Whether she meant to imply that the pit was the ultimate reality of the cherry, that was what he inferred.

Again, Ivy met his eyes. “He didn’t want the face because it was a face. He wanted it because it was a mask.”

Her eyes were more beautiful than readable, but he did not think that her insight chilled her as it did him. Maybe when you spent your life listening for the voices of the dead, you didn’t chill easily.

He said, “Do you mean sometimes, when he’s alone and in the mood, he takes it out of the jar and wears it?”

“Maybe he does. Or maybe he just wanted it because it reminded him of an important drama in his life, a favorite performance.” Performance. That word had been impressed upon him by Ralph Cottle. Ivy might have repeated it knowingly, or in all innocence. He could not tell. She continued to meet his eyes. “Do you think every face is a mask, Billy?”

“Do you?”

“My deaf grandmother, as gentle and kind as any saint, still had her secrets. They were innocent, even charming secrets. Her mask was almost as transparent as glass—but she still wore one.”

He didn’t know what she was telling him, what she meant for him to infer from what she had said. He did not believe that asking her directly would result in a more straightforward answer.

Not that she necessarily meant to deceive. Her conversation was frequently more allusive than straightforward, not by intention but because of her nature. Everything she said sounded as limpid as a bell note to the ear—yet was sometimes Semi opaque to interpretation.

Often her silences seemed to say more than the words she spoke, as might make sense for a girl raised by the loving deaf.

If he read her half well, Ivy was not deceiving him in any way. But then why had she just suggested that every face, her own included, was a mask?

If Ivy visited Barbara only because Barbara had once been kind to her, and if she took photographs of dead things to Whispering Pines only because she took them everywhere, the photo of the mantis had no relationship to the trap in which Billy found himself, and she had no knowledge of the freak.

In which case, he could get up, go, and do what urgently needed to be done. Yet he remained at the table.

Her eyes had lowered once more to the pistachios, and her hands had returned to the quiet, useful work of shelling.

“My grandmother was deaf from birth,” Ivy said. “She’d never heard a word spoken and didn’t know how to form them.”

Watching her nimble fingers, Billy suspected that Ivy’s days were filled with useful work—tending to her garden, maintaining this fine house in its current state of spotless perfection, cooking—and that she avoided idleness at all costs.

“She’d never heard anyone laugh, either, but she knew how to do that, all right. She had a beautiful and infectious laugh. I never heard her cry until I was eight.”

Billy understood Ivy’s compulsive industry as a reflection of his own, and sympathized. Quite apart from the question of whether or not he could trust her, he liked her.

“When I was much younger,” Ivy said, “I didn’t fully understand what it meant that my mother had died in childbirth. I used to think that somehow I had killed her and was responsible.”

In the window, the raven stretched its wings again, as silently as it had done before.

“I was eight when I realized I had no guilt,” Ivy said. “When I signed my realization to my grandmother, I saw her cry for the first time. This sounds funny, but I had assumed when she cried, it would be the weeping of a perfect mute, nothing but tears and wrenching spasms of silence. But her sobs were as normal as her laugh. As far as those two sounds were concerned, she was not a woman apart from those who could hear and speak; she was one of their community.”

Billy had thought that Ivy mesmerized men with her beauty and sexuality, but the spell she cast had a deeper source.

He knew what he intended to reveal only as he heard the words come forth: “When I was fourteen, I shot my mother and father.”

Without looking up, she said, “I know.”


“I know. Have you ever thought that one of them might want to speak to you through the wall?”

“No. I never have. And, God, I hope they never do.”

She shelled, he watched, and in time she said, “You need to go.”

By her tone, she meant that he could stay but understood that he needed to leave.

“Yes,” he said, and rose from his chair.

“You’re in trouble, aren’t you, Billy?”


“That’s a lie.”


“And that’s as much as you’ll tell me.”

He said nothing.

“You came here looking for something. Did you find it?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Sometimes,” she said, “you can listen so hard for the faintest of sounds that you don’t even hear the louder ones.”

He thought about that for a moment and then said, “Will you see me to the door?”

“You know the way now.”

“You should lock up behind me.”

“The door latches when you close it.”

“That’s not good enough. Before dark, you should engage the deadbolts. And close those windows.”

“I’m not afraid of anything,” she said. “I never have been.”

“I always have been.”

“I know,” she said. “For twenty years.”

On his way out, Billy made less noise on the hardwood floors than he had done on his way in. He closed the front door, tested the latch, and followed the arbor-shaded walkway to the street, leaving Ivy Elgin with her tea and pistachios, with the watchful raven at her back, in the hush of the kitchen where the clock had no hands.

Chapter 44

Steve Zillis rented a single-story house of no distinguishing architecture on a street where the bonding philosophy among the neighbors seemed to be neglect of property.

The only well-maintained residence was immediately north of Zillis’s place. Jackie O’Hara’s friend, Celia Reynolds, lived there. She claimed to have seen Zillis in a rage chopping chairs, watermelons, and mannequins in his backyard.

The attached garage stood on the south side of his house, out of Celia Reynolds’s line of sight. Having driven with frequent glances at his mirrors and having seen no tail, Billy parked boldly in the driveway. Between Zillis and his southern neighbor rose a wall of eighty-foot, untrimmed eucalyptus trees that provided privacy.

When Billy got out of the Explorer, the extent of his disguise was a blue baseball cap. He had pulled it low on his forehead.

His toolbox gave him legitimacy. A man with a toolbox, moving with purpose, is assumed to be a repairman, and excites no suspicion. As a bartender, Billy had a well-known face in certain circles. But he didn’t expect to be in the open for long.

He walked between the fragrant eucalyptus trees and the garage. As he hoped, he found a man-size side door.

In keeping with the property neglect and the cheap rent, only a simple lockset secured that entrance. No deadbolt.

Billy used his laminated driver’s license to loid the latch bolt. He took his toolbox into the hot garage and turned on a light.

On his way from Whispering Pines to Ivy Elgin’s house, he had driven past the tavern. Steve’s car had been parked in the lot.

Zillis lived alone. The way was clear.

Billy opened the garage, drove the SUV inside, closed the door. He proceeded casually, not as if in a hurry to get out of sight. Wednesday nights were usually busy at the tavern. Steve wouldn’t be home until after two o’clock Thursday morning.

Nevertheless, Billy couldn’t afford to take seven hours to get into the house and search it. Elsewhere, two dead bodies salted with evidence against him needed to be disposed of long before dawn.

Festooned with webs and dust, the garage was free of clutter. In ten minutes, he found spiders but no spare key to the inner door. He wanted to avoid signs of forced entry; however, picking a lock isn’t as easy as it appears to be in movies. Neither is seducing a woman or killing a man, or anything else.

Having installed new locks in his house, Billy had not only learned to do the work correctly but also learned how often it is done badly. He hoped for sloppy workmanship—and found it.

Perhaps the door had been hung to swing from the wrong side. Rather than rehang it to match the lockset, they had installed the lockset in reverse, with the interior face turned to the garage.

Instead of an unremovable escutcheon, he was offered one with two spanner screws. The keyhole plug had a grip ring for extraction. In less time than he had spent searching for a spare key, he opened the door. Before proceeding, he put the lock back together. He cleaned up all evidence of what he had done and wiped all his prints off the door hardware. He returned the tools to the box—and took from it his revolver. To facilitate a hasty exit, he put the tools in the Explorer. In addition to the toolbox, he had brought a box of disposable latex gloves. He slipped his hands into a pair.

Now, with an hour of daylight remaining, he toured the house, switching on lamps and ceiling fixtures as he went.

Many of the shelves in the pantry were bare. Steve’s provisions were a cliché of bachelorhood: canned soups, canned stews, potato chips, corn chips, Cheez Doodles.

The dirty dishes and pots heaped in the sink outnumbered clean items in the cabinets, most of which were empty.

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