Velocity Page 27

“They drink at some other joint.”

“Because the tavern is a family bar.”

“That’s right. And always will be.”

“Listen, Jackie—”

“I hate ‘listen, Jackie.’ It always means I’m going to be screwed.”

“I’m going to have to take off tomorrow, too.”

“I’m screwed.”

“No, you’re just melodramatic.”

“You don’t sound that sick.”

“It’s not a head cold. It’s a stomach thing.”

“Hold the phone to your gut, let me listen.”

“Suddenly you’re a hardass.”

“It doesn’t look right, the owner working the taps too much.”

“The place is so busy, Steve can’t handle a midnight crowd by himself?”

“Steve isn’t here, just me.”

Billy’s hand tightened on the cell phone. “I drove past earlier. His car was parked out front.”

“It’s a day off for Steve, remember?”

Billy had forgotten.

“When I couldn’t get a temp to fill your shift, Steve came in from three to nine to save my ass. What’re you doing out driving around when you’re sick?”

“I was going to a doctor’s appointment. Steve could only give you six hours?”

“He had stuff to do before and after.”

Like kill a redhead before, nail Billy’s hand to a floor after.

“What did the doctor say?” Jackie asked.

“It’s a virus.”

“That’s what they always say when they don’t know what the hell it really is.”

“No, I think it’s really a forty-eight-hour virus.”

“As if a virus knows from forty-eight hours,” Jackie said. “You go in with a third eye growing out of your forehead, they’ll say it’s a virus.”

“Sorry about this, Jackie.”

“I’ll survive. It’s just the tavern business, after all. It’s not war.”

Pressing END to terminate the call, Billy Wiles felt very much at war.

On a kitchen counter lay Lanny Olsen’s wallet, car keys, pocket change, cell phone, and 9-mm service pistol, where they had been since the previous night.

Billy took the wallet. When he left, he would also take the cell phone, the pistol, and the Wilson Combat holster.

From the items in the bread drawer, he selected half a loaf of whole wheat in a tie-top plastic bag.

Outside, standing at the eastern end of the porch, he threw the slices of bread onto the lawn. The morning birds would feast.

In the house once more, he lined the empty plastic bag with a dishtowel. A gun case with glass doors stood in the study. In drawers under the doors, Lanny kept boxes of ammunition, four-inch aerosol cans of chemical Mace, and a spare police utility belt.

On the belt were pouches for backup magazines, a Mace holder, a Taser sleeve, a handcuff case, a key holder, a pen holder, and a holster. It was all ready to go.

From the belt, Billy removed a loaded magazine. He also took the handcuffs, a can of Mace, and the Taser. He put those items in the bread bag.

Chapter 56

Quick winged presences, perhaps bats feeding on moths in the first hour of Thursday morning, swooped low through the yard, past Billy, and climbed. When he followed the sound of what he could not see, his gaze rose to the thinnest silver shaving of a new moon.

Although it must have been there earlier, making its way west, he had not noticed this fragile crescent until now. Not surprising. Since nightfall, he’d had little time for the sky, his attention grimly earthbound.

Ralph Cottle, limbs stiffened at inconvenient angles by rigor mortis, wrapped in a blanket because no plastic drop cloth could be found, held in a bundle by Lanny’s entire collection of neckties—three—did not drag easily across the sloped yard to the brush line.

Cottle had said that he was nobody’s hero. And certainly he had died a coward’s death.

He had wanted to live even his shabby existence because—What else is there?—he could not imagine that something better might be his to strive for, or to accept.

In the moment when the blade slipped between his ribs and stopped his heart, he would have realized that while life could be evaded, death could not. Billy felt a certain solemn sympathy for even this man, whose despair had been deeper than Billy’s and whose resources had been shallower. And so when the brush and brambles snared the soft blanket and made dragging the body too difficult, he picked it up and hauled it across his shoulder, without revulsion or complaint. Under the burden, he staggered but didn’t collapse.

He had returned minutes earlier to remove, once again, the lid from the redwood frame. The open vent waited.

Cottle had said there wasn’t one world but a billion, that his was different from Billy’s. Whether that had been true or not, here their worlds became one. The bundled body dropped. And hit. And tumbled. And dropped. Into the dark, the vacant into the vacant.

When silence endured, suggesting that the skeptic had reached his deep rest with the good son and the unknown woman, Billy shoved the cover into place, used his flashlight to be sure the holes were aligned, and screwed it down once more.

He hoped never to see this place again. He suspected, however, that he would have no choice but to return.

Driving away from the Olsen house, he did not know where to go. Eventually he must confront Steve Zillis, but not at once, not yet. First he needed to prepare himself.

In another age, men on the eve of battle had gone to churches to prepare themselves spiritually, intellectually, emotionally. To incense, to candlelight, to the humility that the shadow of the redeemer pressed upon them. In those days, every church had been open all day and night, offering unconditional sanctuary.

Times had changed. Now some churches might remain open around the clock, but many operated according to posted hours and locked their doors long before midnight.

Some withheld perpetual sanctuary because of the costs of heat and electricity. Budgets trump mission.

Others were plagued by vandals with cans of spray paint and by the faithless who, in a mocking spirit, came to copulate and leave their condoms. In previous ages of rampant hatred, such intolerance had been met with resolve, with teaching, and with the cultivation of remorse. Now the clerical consensus was that locks and alarms worked better than the former, softer remedies.

Rather than travel from church to church, trying their doors and finding only sanctuary by prior appointment, Billy went where most modern men in need of a haven for contemplation were drawn in post-midnight hours: to a truck stop.

Because no interstate highways crossed the county, the available facility, along State Highway 29, was modest by the standards of the Little America chain that operated truck stops the size of small towns. But it featured banks of fuel pumps illuminated to rival daylight, a convenience store, free showers, Internet access, and a 24/7 diner that offered fried everything and coffee that would stand your hair on end.

Billy didn’t want the coffee or cholesterol. He sought only the bustle of rational commerce to balance the irrationality with which he’d been dealing, and a place so public that he would not be at risk of attack. He parked in a space outside the diner, under a lamppost of such wattage he could read by the light that fell through the windshield.

From the glove box, he took foil packets of moist towelettes. He used them to scrub his hands.

They had been invented to mop up after a Big Mac and fries in the car, not to sterilize the hands after disposing of corpses. But Billy wasn’t in a position—or of a mind—to be fussy.

His left hand, nailed and unpaled, felt hot and slightly stiff. He flexed it slowly, gingerly.

Because of the Vicodin, he felt no pain. That might not be good. A growing problem with the hand, not sensed, might manifest in a sudden weakness of grip at the very moment in the evolving crisis when strength was needed.

With warm Pepsi, he washed down two more Anacin, which had some effect as an anti-inflammatory. Motrin would have been better, but what he had was Anacin.

The right dose of caffeine could compensate somewhat for too little sleep, but too much might fray the nerves and compel him to rash action. He took another No-Doz anyway.

Busy hours had passed since he had eaten the Hershey’s and the Planters bars. He ate another of each.

While he ate, he considered Steve Zillis, his prime suspect. His only suspect.

The evidence against Zillis seemed overwhelming. Yet it was all circumstantial.

That did not mean the case was unsound. Half or more of the convictions obtained in criminal courts were based on convincing webs of circumstantial evidence, and far less than one percent of them were miscarriages of justice. Murderers did not obligingly leave direct evidence at the scenes of their crimes. Especially in this age of DNA comparison, any felon with a TV could catch the CSI shows and educate himself in the simple steps that he must take to avoid self-incrimination.

Everything from antibiotics to zydeco had its downside, however, and Billy knew too well the dangers of circumstantial evidence. He reminded himself that the problem had not been the evidence. The problem had been John Palmer, now the sheriff, then an ambitious young lieutenant bucking for a promotion to captain.

The night that Billy had made an orphan of himself, the truth had been horrific but clear and easily determined.

Chapter 57

From a dream erotic, fourteen-year-old Billy Wiles is awakened by raised voices, angry shouting.

At first he is confused. He seems to have rolled out of a fine dream into another that is less pleasing.

He pulls one pillow over his head and buries his face in a second, trying to press himself back into the silken fantasy.

Reality intrudes. Reality insists.

The voices are those of his mother and father, rising from downstairs, so loud that the intervening floor hardly muffles them.

Our myths are rich with enchanters and enchantresses: sea nymphs that sing sailors onto rocks, Circe turning men into swine, pipers playing children to their doom. They are metaphors for the sinister secret urge to self-destruction that has been with us since the first bite of the first apple. Billy is his own piper, allowing himself to be drawn out of bed by the dissonant voices of his parents.

Arguments are not common in this house, but neither are they rare. Usually disagreements remain quiet, intense, and brief. If bitterness lingers, it is expressed in sullen silences that in time heal, or seem to. Billy does not think of his parents as unhappy in marriage. They love each other. He knows they do.

Barefoot, bare-chested, in pajama bottoms, waking as he walks, Billy Wiles follows the hallway, descends the stairs…

He does not doubt that his parents love him. In their way. His father expresses a stern affection. His mother oscillates between benign neglect and raptures of maternal love that are as genuine as they are overdone. The nature of his mother’s and father’s frustrations with each other has always remained mysterious to Billy and seemed to be of no consequence. Until now.

By the time that he reaches the dining room, within sight of the kitchen door, Billy is immersed against his will—or is he?—in the cold truths and secret selves of those whom he thought he knew best in the world. He has never imagined that his father could contain such fierce anger as this. Not just the savage volume of the voice but also the lacerating tone and the viciousness of the language reveal a long-simmering resentment boiled down to a black tar that provides the ideal fuel for anger. His father accuses his mother of sexual betrayal, of serial adultery. He calls her a whore, calls her worse, graduating from anger to rage. In the dining room, where Billy is immobilized by revelation, his mind reels at the accusations hurled at his mother. His parents have seemed to him to be asexual, attractive but indifferent to such desires.

If he had ever wondered about his conception, he would have attributed it to marital duty and to a desire for family rather than to passion. More shocking than the accusations are his mother’s admission of their truth—and her countercharges, which reveal his father to be both a man and also something less than a man. In language more withering than what is directed at her, she scorns her husband, and mocks him.

Her mockery puts the pedal to his rage and drives him into fury. The slap of flesh on flesh suggests hand to face with force.

She cries out in pain but at once says, “You don’t scare me, you can’t scare me!”

Things shatter, crack, clatter, ricochet—and then comes a more terrible sound, a brutal bludgeoning ferociousness of sound.

She screams in pain, in terror.

Without memory of leaving the dining room, Billy finds himself in the kitchen, shouting at his father to stop, but his father does not appear to hear him or even to recognize his presence.

His father is enthralled by, hypnotized by, possessed by the hideous power of the bludgeon that he wields. It is a long-handled lug wrench. On the floor, Billy’s devastated mother hitches along like a broken bug, no longer able to scream, making tortured noises.

Billy sees other weapons lying on the kitchen island. A hammer. A butcher knife. A revolver.

His father appears to have arranged these murderous instruments to intimidate his mother.

She must not have been intimidated, must have thought that he was a coward, fatuous and ineffectual. A coward he surely is, taking a lug wrench to a defenseless woman, but she has badly misjudged his capacity for evil.

Seizing the revolver, gripping it with both hands, Billy shouts at his father to stop, for God’s sake stop, and when his warning goes unheeded, he fires a shot into the ceiling.

The unexpected recoil knocks back through his shoulders, and he staggers in surprise.

His father turns to Billy but not in a spirit of submission. The lug wrench is an avatar of darkness that controls the man at least as much as he controls it.

“Whose seed are you?” his father asks. “Whose son have I been feeding all these years, whose little bastard?”

Impossibly, the terror escalates, and when he understands that he must kill or be killed, Billy squeezes the trigger once, squeezes twice, a third time, his arms jumping with the recoil.

Two misses and a chest wound.

His father is jolted, stumbles, falls backward as the bullet pins a boutonniere of blood to his breast.

Dropped, the lug wrench rings against—and cracks—the tile floor, and after it there is no more shouting, no more angry words, just Billy’s breathing and his mother’s muted expressions of misery.

And then she says, “Daddy?” Her voice is slurred, and cracked with pain.

“Daddy Tom?”

Her father, a career Marine, had been killed in action when she was ten. Daddy Tom was her stepfather.

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