Velocity Page 25

“This is background, off the record,” Billy assured him. “You tell me as much as makes you comfortable and just how big a spoonful of salt I should take with it.”

“The thing is, for the entire day when Judi had to have been snatched—if she was snatched, and I believe she was—for that entire day, for the whole twenty-four-hour window and then some, Zillis had an alibi you couldn’t crack with a nuke.”

“You tried.”

“Believe it. But even if he hadn’t had an alibi, there wasn’t any evidence pointing his way.”

“Then why did he make you uneasy?”

“He was too forthcoming.”

Billy didn’t say anything, but he was disappointed. He was in the market for certainty, and Ozgard didn’t have any to sell.

Sensing that disappointment, the detective expanded on what he had said.

“He came to me before he was even on my scope. Fact is, he might never have been on my scope if he hadn’t come to me. He wanted so much to help. He talked and talked. He cared about her too much, like she was a beloved sister, but he had only known her a month.”

“You said she was exceptional at relationships, she embraced people, they bonded with her.”

“According to her best friends, she didn’t even know Zillis that well. Only casually.”

Reluctantly playing the devil’s advocate, Billy said, “He could have felt closer to her than she did to him. I mean, if she had that kind of magnetism, that appeal…”

“You would have had to see him, the way he was with me,” Ozgard said.

“It’s like he wanted me to wonder about him, to check him out and find the airtight alibi. And after I did, there was this smugness about him.”

Remarking on the quiet revulsion in Ozgard’s voice, Billy said, “You’re still hot.”

“I am hot. Zillis—he’s coming back to me, the way he was. For a while, before he finally faded away, he kept trying to help, calling up, dropping by, offering ideas, and you had this feeling it was all mockery, he was just performing.”

“Performing. I have a feeling like that, too,” Billy said, “but I really need more.”

“He’s a prick. That doesn’t mean he’s anything worse, but he is a selfsatisfied prick. The little prick even started acting like we were pals, him and me. Potential suspects, they just never do that. It’s not natural. Hell, you know. But he had this easy, jokey way about him.”

“ ‘How’re they hangin’, Kemosabe.’”

“Shit, does he still say that?” Ozgard asked.

“He still does.”

“He’s a prick. He covered it with this goofy charm, but he’s a prick, all right.”

“So he was all over you, and then he just faded away.”

“The whole investigation faded away. Judi was gone like she’d never existed. Zillis dropped out of school at the end of that year, his sophomore year. I never saw him again.”

“Well, he’s here now,” Billy said.

“I wonder where he’s been in between.”

“Maybe we’ll find out.”

“I hope you find out.”

“I’ll be back to you,” Billy said.

“Any hour on this one, anytime. You have tin in your blood, Deputy?”

Billy didn’t get it for a moment, and then he almost forgot who he was supposed to be, but he came back with the right answer: “Yeah. My dad was a cop. He was buried in his uniform.”

“My dad and my grandfather,” Ozgard said. “I’ve got so much tin in my blood it rattles in my veins, I don’t even need the badge for people to know what I am. But Judith Kesselman, she’s in my blood as bad as the tin. I want her to be at rest with some respect, not just… not just dumped somewhere. Christ knows, there’s not much justice, but there has to be some in this case.”

After hanging up, Billy could not for a moment move from the edge of the bed. He sat staring at Lanny, and Lanny seemed to stare at him. Ramsey Ozgard was in life, all the way in the tides, swimming, not treading carefully along the shore. Immersed in the life of his community, committed to it.

Billy had heard the detective’s commitment coming down the line from Denver, as fresh to the senses as if the two of them had been in the same room. Hearing it, Billy had been stung by the realization of how complete his own withdrawal had been. And how dangerous.

Barbara had begun to reach him; then vichyssoise. Life packed a clever one-two punch: cruelty and absurdity.

He was in the tides now, but not by choice. Events had thrown him in deep, swift water.

The weight of twenty years of guarded emotions, of studied avoidance, of defensive reclusiveness, encumbered him. Now he was trying to learn to swim again, but a riptide seemed to be sweeping him farther from any community, toward greater isolation.

Chapter 50

As though he knew where he would be going, down the lava tube without benefit of mourners or memorial, Lanny didn’t want to be wrapped. The shooting had not taken place in this room, so no blood or brains stained the walls or furniture. Because he wanted Lanny to vanish in such a way that would engender the most uncertainty and therefore would not instigate an immediate and intense homicide investigation, Billy hoped to keep everything clean.

From the linen closet, he fetched an armload of fluffy towels. Lanny still used the same detergent and fabric softener that Pearl had used. Billy recognized the distinctive, clean fragrance.

He draped the towels over the arms and the back of the chair in which the cadaver sat. If anything remained to be spilled from the exit wound in the back of the skull, the carefully layered towels would catch it. He had brought from home a plastic bag used as a liner for small bathroom waste cans. Avoiding the filmy protuberant eyes, he pulled the bag over the dead man’s head and with adhesive tape sealed it as best he could around the neck—further insurance against a spill.

Although he knew that no one could be driven mad by grisly work, knew that the horror came after the madness, not before, he wondered how much more he could traffic with the dead before his every dream, if not his waking hours, would be a howling bedlam.

Lanny came out of the chair onto the tarp readily enough, but then he became uncooperative. He lay on the floor in the position of a man sitting in a chair; and his legs couldn’t be pulled straight.

Rigor mortis. The corpse was stiff and would largely remain so until decomposition advanced far enough to soften the tissues that rigor mortis made rigid.

Billy had no idea how long that would be. Six hours, twelve? He couldn’t wait around to see.

He struggled to wrap Lanny in the tarp. At times the dead man’s resistance seemed conscious and stubborn.

The final package was awkward but adequately sealed. He hoped the rope handle would hold.

The towels were spotless. He folded them and returned them to the linen closet.

They didn’t seem to smell as good as they had earlier.

Lanny to the head of the stairs proved easy, but Lanny down the first flight was a hard thing to hear. In its half-fetal position, the body rapped and knocked step by step, managing to sound bony and gelatinous at the same time. At the landing, Billy reminded himself that Lanny had betrayed him in an attempt to save a job and pension, and that they were both here because of that. This truth, while inescapable, didn’t make the descent of the final flight of steps any less disturbing.

Getting the body along the lower hall, through the kitchen, and across the back porch was easy enough. Then more steps, just a short flight, and they were in the yard.

He considered loading the body in the Explorer and driving it as close to the ancient vent as possible. The distance was not great, however, and dragging Lanny all the way to his final resting place seemed to require no more exertion than to heave him into the SUV and wrestle him out again.

Like a banked furnace, the land now returned the stored heat of the day, but at last a faint breeze came down out of the stars.

En route, the sloping yard and the swath of tall grass and knee-high brush beyond proved longer than he had imagined it would be from the foot of the porch steps. His arms began to ache, his shoulders, his neck. The hook wounds, which had not recently bothered him, began to throb with new heat.

Somewhere along the way, he realized that he was crying. This scared him. He needed to remain tough.

He understood the source of the tears. The nearer that he drew to the lava pipe, the less Billy was able to regard his burden as an incriminating cadaver. Neither anointed nor eulogized, this was Lanny Olsen, the son of the good woman who had opened her heart and her home to an emotionally devastated fourteen-year-old boy.

Now in the starlight, to Billy’s dark-adapted eyes, the knob of rock embracing the lava pipe looked increasingly like a skull.

No matter what lay ahead, whether a mountain of skulls or a vast plain of them, he could not go back, and he certainly could not bring Lanny to life again, for he was only Billy Wiles, a good bartender and a failed writer. There
were no miracles in him, only a stubborn hope, and a capacity for blind perseverance.

So in the starlight and the hot breeze, he came to the place of the skull. There, he didn’t delay, not even to catch his breath, but pushed the wrapped cadaver into the hole.

He lay against the redwood frame, peering into the bottomless blackness, listening to the long descent of the body, the only way he could bear witness. When silence came, he closed his eyes against the dark below and said, “It is finished.”

Of course only this task was finished, and others lay ahead of him, perhaps some as bad, though surely none worse.

He had left the flashlight and the power screwdriver on the ground beside the lava pipe. He slid the redwood lid into place, fished the steel screws out of his pockets, and secured the cover.

Sweat had washed the last tears from his face by the time that he returned to the house.

Behind the garage, he left the screwdriver and the flashlight in the Explorer. The latex gloves were torn. He stripped them off, stuffed them into the SUV’s litter bag, and drew on a fresh pair.

He returned to the house to inspect it from top to bottom. He dared leave nothing behind to indicate that either he or a dead body had been there. In the kitchen, he could not decide what to do about the rum, cola, sliced lime, and other items on the table. He gave himself time to think about them. Intending to start upstairs, in the master bedroom, he followed the roseflowered runner along the hallway to the front of the house. As he approached the foyer, he grew aware of an unexpected brightness to his right, beyond the living-room archway.

The revolver in his hand suddenly became less a burdensome weight than an essential tool.

On his first pass through the house, on his way upstairs to see if Lanny’s body remained in the bedroom armchair, Billy had switched on the overhead fixture in the living room, but only that. Now every lamp was aglow. Sitting on a sofa, facing the archway, a testament to unreason and the durability of thrift-shop clothes, sat Ralph Cottle.

Chapter 51

Ralph Cottle had incredibly shed his plastic shroud, improbably ascended from thousands of feet beneath the valley floor, impossibly let himself into the Olsen house, just forty minutes after whistling down the lava pipe, and all while remaining dead and a registered skeptic.

So disorienting was the sight of Cottle that for an instant Billy believed the man had to be alive, that somehow he had never been dead, but in the next instant he realized that the first body he had dropped into the volcanic vent had not been Cottle, that the filling of the corpse burrito had been replaced. Billy heard himself say “Who?” by which he meant to ask who could have been in the tarp, and he began to turn toward the hallway behind him, intending to shoot anyone there, no questions asked.

A lead-shot sap, or something rather like it, expertly rapped him at precisely the right point above the back of the neck, at the base of the skull, inducing less pain than color. Brilliant but brief electric-blue and magma-red coruscations fanned through his head and dazzled on the backs of his descending eyelids.

He never felt the floor come up to meet him. For what seemed like hours, he dropped in free fall through a lightless lava pipe, wondering how the dead amused themselves in the cold heart of an extinguished volcano. The darkness seemed to want him more than the light, for he woke in fits and starts, repeatedly plucked back into the depths just as he floated to the surface of consciousness.

Twice, a demanding voice spoke to him, or twice that he heard. Both times he understood it, but only the second time was he able to respond. Even dazed and confused, Billy warned himself to listen to the voice, to remember the pitch and the timbre, so he could identify it later. Identification would be difficult because it didn’t sound much like a human voice; rough, strange, distorted, it insistently posed a question. “Are you prepared for your second wound?”

Following the repetition, Billy discovered that he was able to answer:


Finding his voice, worried that it sounded so wheezy, he also found the power to open his eyes.

Although his vision was blurred and clearing too slowly, he could see the man in the ski mask and dark clothes standing over him. The freak’s hands were clad in supple black leather, and he needed both to hold a futuristic handgun.

“No,” Billy said again.

He lay on his back, half on the rose-flowered runner, half on the dark wood floor, his right arm across his chest, his left flung out to his side, the revolver in neither hand.

As the last of the blur washed out of his vision, Billy saw that the handgun did not, after all, provide proof of a time traveler or of an extraterrestrial visitor. It was just one of those portable nail guns not limited to the length of a compressor hose.

His left hand lay palm-up on the floor, and the man in the mask nailed it to the hardwood.



Chapter 52

Pain and fear muddle reason, fog the mind.

Punctured flesh punched a scream from Billy. A paralytic haze of terror slowed his thoughts as he realized he was pinned to the floor, immobilized in the presence of the freak.

Pain can be endured and defeated only if it is embraced. Denied or feared, it grows in perception if not in reality.

The best response to terror is righteous anger, confidence in ultimate justice, a refusal to be intimidated.

Those thoughts didn’t march now in orderly fashion through his mind. They were truths held in his adapted unconscious, based on hard experience, and he acted on them as if they were instincts born in blood and bone. When he’d fallen, he dropped the revolver. The freak didn’t appear to have it. The weapon might be within reach.

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