Velocity Page 26

Billy rolled his head, searching the hallway. With his free hand, he felt the floor along his right side.

The freak threw something in Billy’s face.

He flinched, expecting more pain. Just a photograph.

He couldn’t see the image. He shook his head to cast the photo off his face. The picture flipped onto his chest, where suddenly he thought the freak would spike it.

No. Carrying the nail gun, the killer walked away along the hall, toward the kitchen. One nail well placed. His work here was done. Get an image of him. Freeze it in memory. Approximate height, weight. Big in the shoulders or not? Wide or narrow in the hips?

Anything distinctive in the walk, graceful or not?

Pain, fear, swimming vision, but most of all the extreme angle of view—

Billy flat on his back; the killer on his feet—defeated an attempt to build a physical profile of the man in the few seconds that he was in sight. The freak disappeared into the kitchen. He moved around out there, making noise. Looking for something. Doing something.

Billy spotted the crisp shine of machined steel on the dark hardwood floor of the foyer—the revolver. The weapon lay behind him and beyond his reach. Having been to the place of the skull, having consigned Lanny to the lava pipe, Billy had exhausted his capacity for dread, or thought that he had until he realized that he must test the nail to see how securely it fixed him to the floor. He was loath to move his hand.

The pain was constant but tolerable, bad but not as terrible as he might have imagined. Trying to move the hand, however, trying to pry loose the spike, would be like chewing taffy with an abscessed tooth. He wasn’t only loath to move his hand, but also to look at it. Although he knew the image conjured in his mind had to be worse than the reality, his stomach clenched as he turned his head and focused on his wound. Except for an excess of fingers, the white latex surgical glove made his hand look like Mickey Mouse’s hand, like the cartoon hands taped to the walls and pointing the way to the chair where Lanny had been posed with one of his mother’s books. The cuff of the glove even had a little roll to it. A spidery crawling at his wrist proved to be a trickling thread of blood, which robbed the moment of even dark comedy.

He expected the bleeding to be much worse than this. The nail obstructed flow. When he extracted it…

Holding his breath, Billy listened. No noise in the kitchen. Apparently the killer had gone.

He didn’t want the freak to hear him scream again, didn’t want to give him that satisfaction.

The nail. The head had not been driven flat to the flesh. About threequarters of an inch of shank separated the nailhead from his palm. He could see the gripper marks in the steel.

He had no way of knowing the length of the nail. Judging by its diameter, he estimated that it measured at least three inches from head to point. Subtracting both the portion that stood above his palm and the portion that passed through it, as much as an inch and a half might be embedded in the floor. After it penetrated the surface hardwood and the subflooring, little of the nail would remain to grip a joist.

If it was four inches long, however, it might be securely wedged in a joist. Getting loose would be one inch nastier.

Houses were well put together in the days when this one had been built. Either two-by-fours or two-by-sixes, most likely set twelve inches center-tocenter, supported the subfloor. Nevertheless, his odds were good. In every fourteen inches of floor width, only four inches were underlaid by joists.

Hammer ten nails into the floor at random, and three would find joists. The other seven would penetrate the empty spaces between timbers. When he tried to cup his left hand to test its flexibility, he throttled an involuntary howl of pain into a snarl. He couldn’t choke it off entirely. No laughter came from the kitchen, supporting his suspicion that the freak had gone.

Suddenly Billy wondered if, before leaving, the killer had dialed 911.

Chapter 53

As still and attentive as only a corpse can be, Ralph Cottle sat sentinel on the sofa.

The killer had crossed the dead man’s right leg over his left and had arranged his hands in his lap to give him a casual posture. He seemed to be waiting patiently for his host to appear with a tray of cocktails—or for Sergeants Napolitino and Sobieski.

Although Cottle had not been mutilated or tricked up with props, Billy thought of the macabre mannequins arranged with such care in Steve Zillis’s house.

Zillis was tending bar. Billy had seen his car there earlier, when he had stopped across the highway from the tavern to watch the setting sun blaze in the giant mural.

Cottle later. Zillis later. Now the nail.

Carefully, Billy turned on his left side to face the pierced hand. With the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, he gripped the head of the nail. He tried gently to wiggle it back and forth, hoping to detect some play in it, but the nail felt rigid, deeply seated.

If the head had been small, he might have tried to slide his hand up the shank and pull it loose, leaving the nail in the floor.

The head was broad. Even if he could have tolerated the pain of twisting it backward through his hand, he would have done unthinkable damage in the process.

When he worked the nail more forcefully, pain tried to make a child of him. He ground the pain between his teeth, ground it so hard that his molars creaked in his jaws.

The nail did not creak in the wood, however, and it seemed that he would lose his teeth before extracting that spike. Then it moved. Between his pinched thumb and finger, the nail loosened, not much but perceptibly. As it moved in the wood of the floor, it moved also in the flesh of his hand.

Pain was a light. Like chain lightning, it flared within him, flashed and flared.

He felt the shank grinding against bone. If the nail had cracked or chipped a bone, he would need medical attention sooner than later. Although air-conditioned, the house had not previously seemed cold. Now sweat seemed to turn to ice on his skin.

Billy worked the nail, and the light of pain inside him grew brighter, brighter, until he thought that he must be translucent now, that the light would be visible, shining forth from him, if anyone but Cottle were there to see. Although the odds were against a random nail finding a joist, this one had pierced not merely the flooring and the subflooring but also hard timber. The first grim truth of desperation roulette: You play the red, and the black comes up.

The nail came loose, and in a rush of triumph and rage, Billy almost threw it away from him, into the living room. Had he done so, he would have had to go find it because his blood was on the shank.

He put it on the floor beside the hole that it had made.

The blaze of pain darkened to throbbing embers, and he found that he could get to his feet.

His left hand bled from the entry and exit points, but not in a gush. He had been pierced, after all, not drilled, and the wound was not wide. Cupping his right hand under his left to avoid dripping blood on the hallway runner and the flanking wood floor, he hurried into the kitchen. The killer had left the back door open. He wasn’t on the porch, probably not in the yard, either.

At the sink, Billy cranked a faucet and held his left hand under the spout until it grew half numb from the cold water.

Soon the stream of blood diminished to an ooze. Pulling paper towels off a dispenser, he wound several layers around his hand.

He stepped onto the back porch. He held his breath, listening not for the killer but for approaching sirens.

After a minute, he decided there had not been a 911 call this time. The freak, the performer, prided himself on his cleverness; he would not repeat a trick.

Billy returned to the front of the house. He saw the photograph, which the killer had thrown in his face and which he had forgotten, and he plucked it off the hallway floor.

She was a pretty redhead. Facing the camera. Terrified.

She would have had a nice smile.

He had never seen her before. That didn’t matter. She was somebody’s daughter. Somewhere people loved her. Waste the bitch.

Those words, echoing in memory, nearly dropped Billy to his knees. For twenty years, his emotions had not merely been restrained. Some of them had been denied. He had allowed himself to feel only what seemed safe to feel.

He had permitted himself anger only in moderation, and he had not indulged hatred whatsoever. He had been afraid that by admitting to one drop of hatred, he might unleash furious torrents that would destroy him. Restraint in the face of evil, however, was no virtue, and to hate this homicidal freak was no sin. This was a righteous passion, more vehement than abhorrence, brighter even than the pain that had seemed to make of him an incandescent lamp.

He picked up the revolver. Leaving Cottle to his own devices in the living room, Billy climbed the stairs, wondering if when he returned he would find the dead man still on the sofa.

Chapter 54

In Lanny’s bathroom medicine cabinet, Billy found alcohol, an unopened package of liquid bandage, and an array of pharmacy bottles with caps that all warned CAUTION! NOT CHILD RESISTANT.

The nail, having been clean, had not itself been an agent of infection. But it might have carried bacteria from the surface of the skin into the wound. Billy poured alcohol in his cupped left hand, hoping it would seep into the puncture wound. After a moment, the stinging began.

Because he had been careful not to flex his hand more than necessary, the bleeding had already nearly stopped. The alcohol did not restart it. This was imperfect sterilization. He had neither the time nor the resources to do a better job.

He painted liquid bandage on both the entrance and exit wounds. This would help prevent filth from working into the puncture.

More important, the liquid bandage—which dried into a flexible rubbery seal—should inhibit further bleeding.

The plethora of pharmacy bottles each contained a few tablets or capsules. Evidently Lanny had been a bad patient who never quite finished a course of medication, but always reserved a portion with which to treat himself in the future.

Billy found two prescriptions for an antibiotic—Cipro, 500 mg. One bottle contained three tablets, the other five.

He combined all eight into one bottle. He peeled the label off and threw it in the waste can.

More than infection, he worried about inflammation. If his hand swelled and stiffened, he would be at a disadvantage in whatever confrontation might be coming.

Among the medications, he discovered Vicodin. It would not prevent inflammation but would relieve pain if that grew worse. Four tablets remained, and he added those to the Cipro.

Keeping time with his pulse, an ache throbbed in his wounded hand. And when he looked again at the photograph of the redhead, pain of a different character, emotional rather than physical, swelled too.

Pain is a gift. Humanity, without pain, would know neither fear nor pity. Without fear, there could be no humility, and every man would be a monster. The recognition of pain and fear in others gives rise in us to pity, and in our pity is our humanity, our redemption.

In the redhead’s eyes, pure terror. In her face, the wretched recognition of her fate.

He had not been able to save her. But if the freak had played the game according to his rules, she had not been tortured.

As Billy’s attention shifted from her face to the room behind her, he recognized his bedroom. She had been held captive in Billy’s house. She had been killed there.

Chapter 55

Sitting on the edge of the tub in Lanny’s bathroom, holding the photo of the redhead, Billy worked out the chronology of the murder. The psychopath had called—when?—perhaps around twelve-thirty in the afternoon, earlier this same day, after the sergeants had left and after Cottle had been wrapped for disposal. For Billy, he had played the recording that offered two choices: the redhead tortured to death; the redhead murdered with a single shot or thrust.

Even at that time, the killer already held her captive. Almost surely he let her listen to the tape as he played it over the phone.

At one o’clock, Billy had left for Napa. Thereafter, the killer brought the woman into the house, took this snapshot, and killed her cleanly. When the freak found Ralph Cottle wrapped in the tarp and stowed behind the sofa, his spirit of fun had been engaged. He swapped them, the young woman for the stewbum.

Billy had unknowingly dropped the redhead down the lava pipe, thereby denying her family the little solace that might come from having a body to bury.

This switch of cadavers felt like Zillis: this adolescent humor, the casualness with which he could sometimes deliver a mean joke. Steve had not gone to work until six o’clock. He would have been free to play.

But now the creep was at the tavern. He could not have propped Cottle on the sofa and fired the nail gun.

Billy glanced at his wristwatch. Eleven-forty-one.

He made himself look at the redhead again because he thought he was going to bundle the photo with other evidence and drop it down the volcanic vent. He wanted to remember her, felt obliged to fix her face in memory forever.

When the freak had played the recorded message over the phone, if this woman had been there, bound and gagged and listening, perhaps she had also heard Billy’s reply: Waste the bitch.

Those words had spared her torture, but now they tortured Billy. He could not throw away her photo. Keeping the snapshot was not a prudent act; it was dangerous. Yet he folded it, being careful not to crease her face, and tucked it in his wallet.

Warily, he went out to the Explorer. He thought he would know if the freak was still nearby, watching. The night felt safe, and clean. He put the punctured latex glove in the trash bag, and pulled on a fresh one. He unplugged his cell phone and took it with him.

In the house again, he went through all the rooms from top to bottom, gathering all evidence into a plastic garbage bag, including the photo of Giselle Winslow (which he would not keep), the cartoon hands, the nail…

Finished, he put the bag by the back door.

He got a clean glass. From the jug on the table, he poured a few ounces of warm Coke.

With exercise, the ache in his hand had grown worse. He took one tablet of Cipro, one of Vicodin.

He decided to eradicate all evidence of his friend’s drinking binge. The house should offer nothing unusual for the police to contemplate. When Lanny went missing long enough, they would come here to knock, to look through the windows. They would come inside. If they saw that he’d been pouring down rum, they might infer depression and the possibility of suicide.

The sooner they leaped to dire conclusions, the sooner they would search the farther reaches of the property. The longer that the trampled brush had to recover, the less likely they would ever focus on the securely covered lava pipe.

When all was neat and when the garbage bag of evidence was tied shut, when only Ralph Cottle remained to be attended, Billy used his cell phone to call the back bar number at the tavern.

Jackie O’Hara answered. “Tavern.”

“How’re the pigs with human brains?” Billy asked.

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