Velocity Page 23

In a drawer, he found a collection of spare keys for a car, for padlocks, perhaps for the house. He tried a few in the back door and found one that worked. He pocketed that spare before returning the other keys to the drawer. Steve Zillis scorned furniture. In the dinette off the kitchen, the single chair did not match the scarred Formica table.

The living room contained only a lumpy sofa, a cracked-leather ottoman, and a TV with DVD player on a wheeled stand. Magazines were stacked on the floor, and near them were a discarded pair of dirty socks. Except for the lack of posters, the decor was that of a dorm room. Enduring adolescence was pathetic but not criminal.

If a woman ever visited, she wouldn’t return—or sleep over. Being able to tie knots in a cherry stem with your tongue was not enough to ensure a life of torrid romance.

The spare bedroom contained no furniture, but four mannequins. They were all female, naked, wigless, bald. Three had been altered. One lay on its back, on the floor, in the center of the room. It gripped two steak knives. Each knife had been driven into its throat, as if it had twice stabbed itself.

A hole had been drilled between its legs. Also between its legs was a spear-point stave from a wrought-iron fence. The sharp end of the stave had been inserted in the crudely formed vagina.

Instead of feet, the mannequin had another pair of hands at the ends of its legs. Both legs were bent to allow the additional hands to grip the iron stave. A third pair of hands grew by the wrists from the breasts. They grasped at the air, seeking and eager, as though the mannequin were insatiable.

Chapter 45

In more than a few houses, if you could prowl at leisure, you might discover evidence of perversity, kinky secrets.

Because such care had been taken in their alteration, so much time expended, these mannequins seemed to represent more than that. This was an expression not of desire but of a ravenous craving, of a rapacious need that could never be fully satisfied.

A second mannequin sat with its back to a wall, legs splayed. Its eyes had been cut out. Teeth had been inserted in their place.

These appeared to be animal teeth, perhaps those of reptiles and perhaps real. Hooked fangs and snaggled incisors.

Each tooth had been meticulously glued in the rim of the socket. Each cluster appeared to have been designed with much thought as to the most fearsome, bristling arrangement.

The mouth had been cut open, carved wide. Wicked, inhuman teeth filled the mannequin’s maw.

Like the petals of a Venus flytrap, the ears were rimmed with poised teeth. Teeth sprouted from the ni**les and from the navel. A crafted vagina featured more fangs than the other orifices.

Whether this macabre figure represented a fear of all-devouring womanhood, whether instead it was being devoured by its own hunger, Billy didn’t know, didn’t care.

He just wanted to get out of here. He had seen enough. Yet he continued to look.

The third mannequin also sat with its back to a wall. Its hands rested in its lap, holding a bowl. The bowl was actually the top of its skull, which had been sawn off.

Photographs of male genitalia overflowed the bowl. Billy did not touch them, but he could see enough to suspect that every picture featured the same genitalia.

A bouquet of similar photos, scores of them, bloomed from the top of the open skull. Still more blossomed from the mannequin’s mouth. Evidently Steve Zillis had spent a lot of time taking snapshots of himself from various angles, in various states of arousal.

Billy’s latex gloves served a purpose besides guarding against leaving fingerprints. Without them, he would have been sickened by the need to touch doorknobs, light switches, anything in the house.

The fourth mannequin had not yet been mutilated. Zillis probably hungered to get at her.

During his shift at the tavern, drawing beers from the tap, telling jokes, doing his tricks, these were the thoughts behind the radiant smile. Steve’s bedroom proved to be as sparsely furnished as the rest of the house. The bed, a nightstand, a lamp, a clock. No art on the walls, no knickknacks, no memorabilia.

The bedclothes were in disarray. One pillow lay on the floor. A corner of the room evidently served in place of a laundry hamper. Rumpled shirts, khakis, jeans, and dirty underwear were heaped as Steve had tossed them.

A search of the bedroom and closet turned up another disturbing discovery. Under the bed were a dozen pornographic videos, the covers of which depicted na*ed women in handcuffs, in chains, some gagged, some blindfolded, cowering women threatened by sadistic men.

These weren’t homemade videos. They were professionally packaged and probably available in any adult-video shop, whether brick-and-mortar or online.

Billy put them back where he had found them, and he considered whether he had discovered enough to warrant calling the police.

No. Neither the mannequins nor the pornography proved that Steve Zillis had ever harmed a real human being, only that he nurtured a sick and vivid fantasy life.

Meanwhile, a dead man was wrapped for disposal and stowed behind the sofa in Billy’s house.

If he became a suspect in the murder of Giselle Winslow in Napa or if Lanny Olsen’s body was found and Billy became a suspect in that murder, he would at the very least be put under surveillance. He would lose his freedom of action.

If they found Cottle’s body, he would be arrested.

No one would understand or believe the threat against Barbara. They would not take his warnings seriously. When you were a prime suspect, what the police wanted to hear from you was what they expected to hear from you, which was a confession.

He knew how it worked. He knew exactly how it worked.

During the twenty-four hours or the forty-eight hours—or the week, the month, the year—that it took to establish his innocence, if he ever could establish it, Barbara would be vulnerable, without a guardian. He had been drawn in too deep. Nobody could save him except he himself. If he found the face in a jar of formaldehyde and other grisly souvenirs, he might be able to nail Zillis for the authorities. But nothing less would convince them.

Like most California houses, this one didn’t have a basement, but it did have an attic. The hall ceiling featured a trapdoor with a dangling rope handle. When he pulled the trap down, an accordion ladder unfolded from the back of it.

He heard something behind him. In his mind, he saw a mannequin with teeth in its eye sockets, reaching toward him.

He pivoted, clawing for the gun under his belt. He was alone. He had probably heard just a settling noise, an old house easing itself at the insistence of gravity.

At the top of the ladder, he found a light switch set in the frame of the trap. Two bare bulbs, dimmed by dust, illuminated a raftered space empty of everything except the smell of wood rot.

Evidently the freak was canny enough to keep his incriminating souvenirs elsewhere.

Billy suspected that Zillis stayed in this rental house but did not in the truest sense live here. With its minimum of furniture and utter lack of decorative items, the place had the feeling of a way station. Steve Zillis had no roots here. He was just passing through.

He had worked at the tavern for five months. Where had he been between the University of Colorado at Denver, five and a half years ago, when Judith Kesselman had disappeared, and this place?

Across the World Wide Web, his name had been linked to only one disappearance, and to no murders at all. Googled, Billy himself would not appear that clean.

But if you had a list of the towns in which Steve Zillis had settled for a while, if you researched murders and disappearances that occurred in those communities, the truth might be clearer.

The most successful serial killers were the vagabonds, roamers who covered a lot of ground between their homicidal frenzies. When clusters of killings were separated by hundreds of miles and scores of jurisdictions, they were less likely to be connected; patterns in landscape, visible from an airplane, are seldom discernible to a man on foot.

An itinerant bartender who’s a good mixologist, who’s outgoing and able to charm the customers, can get work anywhere. If he applies to the right places, he won’t often be asked for a formal employment history, only for a social-security card, a driver’s license, and an all-clean report from the state liquor-control board. Jackie O’Hara, typical of his breed, didn’t phone an applicant’s former employers; he made hiring decisions based on gut instinct. Billy turned out the lights as he left the house. He used the spare key to lock up after himself, and he pocketed it again because he expected to return.

Chapter 46

The dying sun spilled fierce bloody light on the dimensional mural under construction across the highway from the tavern.

As Billy drove past on his way home to collect Cottle’s body, this scintillant display seized his attention. It captured him so completely that he pulled to the shoulder of the road and stopped.

Outside the large yellow-and-purple tent in which the artists and artisans of the project regularly met for lunch, for progress meetings, and for receptions in honor of various art-and academic-world dignitaries, they assembled now to assess this fleeting work of nature.

Parked near the tent, the giant yellow-and-purple motor home, built on a bus chassis and emblazoned with the name Valis, offered much chrome and steel in which the sun could reveal a latent fire. The tinted windows glowed a crimson bronze, sullen and smoky, yet incandescent.

Neither the festive tent nor the rock-star motor home, nor the glamorous artists and artisans enjoying the effects of sunset were what brought Billy to a stop.

At first he would have said that the scarlet-and-gold brightness of the spectacle was the primary thing that arrested him. This self-conscious analysis, however, missed the truth.

The construction was pale gray, but reflections of the sun’s fury blazed in the glossy enamel. This glistering glaze and the heat shimmering the air as it rose off the hot painted surfaces combined to create the illusion of the mural afire.

And briefly this seemed to be what pulled Billy to the side of the highway: this clairvoyant vision of the blazing construct, which would indeed be razed after it had been completed.

Here was an eerie foretelling by a fluke of seasonal light and atmospheric conditions. The fire to come. And even the ultimate ashes could be glimpsed as a grayness underlying the phantom flames.

As the intensity of these pyrotechnics increased simultaneously with the distillation of the sun’s last light, a truer reason for the hypnotic power of the scene grew clear to Billy. What riveted him was the great figure caught in the stylized machinery, the man struggling to survive among the giant grinding wheels, the tearing gears, the hammering pistons.

During the weeks of construction, as the mural had been crafted and refined, the man in the machine had always appeared to be trapped by it, just as the artist intended. He had been a victim of forces larger than himself. Now by the peculiar grace of the setting sun, the man didn’t appear to be burning as did the machine shapes around him. He was luminous, yes, but uniquely so, luminous and solid and strong, not being consumed by the flames but impervious to them.

Nothing about the phantasmagoric machine made engineering sense. A mere assemblage of symbols of machines, it had no functional purpose. A machine without productive function is without meaning. It can not serve even as a prison.

The man could step out of the machine whenever he wished. He was not trapped. He only believed himself to be imprisoned, a belief born of selfindulgent despair and herewith revealed as fallacious. The man must walk away from meaninglessness, find meaning, and from meaning at last take upon himself a worthwhile purpose.

Billy Wiles was not a man given to epiphanies. He had spent his life fleeing them. Insight and pain were all but synonymous to him. He recognized this as an epiphany, however, and he did not flee from it. Instead, as he drove back onto the highway and continued homeward into the darkling twilight, he climbed a mental stairway of ascending implications, came to a turning in the stair, and climbed, and came to another turning. He could not foresee what he would make of this sudden intuitive perception. He might not be man enough to make anything worthwhile of it, but he knew that he would make something.

When he arrived home under an indigo sky with one thin smear of evidence remaining in the west, Billy drove off the driveway, onto the back lawn. He parked with the tailgate near the porch steps, to facilitate the loading of Ralph Cottle.

He could not be seen from the county road or from the property of the nearest neighbor. Getting out of the SUV, he heard the first hoot of a night owl. Only the owl would see him, and the stars.

Inside, he took the stepladder out of the pantry and checked the video-disk recorder in the cabinet above the microwave. Replayed at high speed in the review screen, the security recording revealed that no one had entered the house in Billy’s absence, at least not through the kitchen. He hadn’t expected to see anyone. Steve Zillis was working at the tavern.

After putting away the stepladder, he dragged Cottle through the house, onto the back porch and down the steps, using the rope handle that he had fashioned around the tarp-wrapped corpse. Loading Cottle into the back of the Explorer required more patience and muscle than Billy had expected. He gazed across the dark yard at the black woods, the regimented ranks of sentinel trees. He did not have a sense of being watched. He felt deeply alone. Although locking the house seemed pointless, he locked it and then drove the Explorer to the garage.

At the sight of his table saw and drill press and tools, Billy irrationally wanted to turn from the crisis at hand. He wanted to smell fresh-cut wood, experience the satisfaction of a well-made dovetail joint. In recent years, he had built so much for the house, for himself, all for himself. If now he were to build for others, with what would he begin except with what was needed: coffins. He had built for himself a career in coffins. Grimly, he stowed another plastic tarp, a coil of sturdy rope, strapping tape, a flashlight, and other needed items in the Explorer. He added a few folded moving blankets and a couple of empty cardboard boxes atop and around the wrapped corpse to disguise its telltale shape.

Before Billy lay a long night of death and graveyard work, and he was afraid not solely of the homicidal freak but of many things in the darkness ahead. Darkness conjures infinite terrors in the mind, but it is true—and he took hope from this—it is true that darkness also reminds us of light. The light. Regardless of what waited in the hours immediately ahead, he did believe that he would live in the light again.

Chapter 47

Four hours of sleep facilitated by Vicodin and Elephant beer had not been sufficient rest.

More than twelve active hours had passed since Billy had rolled out of bed. He still had physical resources, but the wheels of his mind, so long racing, were not spinning as fast as they had been, as fast as he needed them to spin. Confident that the Explorer did not look like the death wagon that it was, he stopped at a convenience store. He bought Anacin for a swelling headache and a package of No-Doz caffeine tablets.

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