Velocity Page 28

“Help me.” Her voice grows thicker, distressingly changed. “Help me, Daddy Tom.”

Daddy Tom, a juiceless man with hair the color of dust, has eyes the yellow-brown of sandstone. His lips are perpetually parched, and his atrophied laugh rasps any listener’s nerves.

Only in the most extreme circumstances would anyone ask Daddy Tom for help, and no one would expect to receive it.

“Help me, Daddy Tom.”

Besides, the old man lives in Massachusetts, a continent away from Napa County.

The urgency of the situation penetrates Billy’s immobilizing shock, and terrified compassion now moves him toward his mother.

She seems to be paralyzed, the little finger on her right hand twitching, twitching, but nothing else moving from the neck down.

Like broken pottery poorly repaired, the shape of her skull and the planes of her face are wrong, all wrong.

Her one open eye, now her only eye, focuses on Billy, and she says,

“Daddy Tom.”

She does not recognize her son, her only child, and thinks that he is the old man from Massachusetts.

“Please,” she says, her voice cracking with pain.

The broken face suggests irreparable brain damage of an extent that wrings from Billy a choking sob.

Her one-eyed gaze travels from his face to the gun in his hand. “Please, Daddy Tom. Please.”

He is only fourteen, a mere boy, so recently a child, and there are choices he should not be asked to make. “Please.”

This is a choice to humble any grown man, and he cannot choose, will not choose. But, oh, her pain. Her fear. Her anguish.

With a thickening tongue, she pleads, “Oh, Jesus, oh, Jesus, where is me?

Who’s you? Who’s in here crawling, who is that? Who is you in here, scares me? Scares me!”

Sometimes the heart makes decisions that the mind cannot, and although we know that the heart is deceitful above all things, we also know that at rare moments of stress and profound loss it can be purged pure by suffering. In the years to come, he will never know if trusting his heart at this moment is the right choice. But he does as it tells him.

“I love you,” he says, and shoots his mother dead.

Lieutenant John Palmer is the first officer on the scene.

What initially appears to be the bold entrance of dependable authority will later seem, to Billy, like the eager rush of a vulture to carrion. Waiting for the police, Billy has been unable to move out of the kitchen. He cannot bear to leave his mother alone.

He feels that she hasn’t fully departed, that her spirit lingers and takes comfort from his presence. Or perhaps he feels nothing of the sort and only wishes this to be true.

Although he cannot look at her anymore, at what she has become, he stays nearby, eyes averted.

When Lieutenant Palmer enters, when Billy is no longer alone and no longer needs to be strong, his composure slips. Tremors nearly shake the boy to his knees.

Lieutenant Palmer asks, “What happened here, son?”

With these two deaths, Billy is no one’s child, and he feels his isolation in his bones, bleakness at the core, fear of the future.

When he hears the word son, therefore, it seems to be more than a mere word, seems to be a hand extended, hope offered.

Billy moves toward John Palmer.

Because the lieutenant is calculating or only because he is human, after all, he opens his arms.

Shaking, Billy leans into those arms, and John Palmer holds him close.

“Son? What happened here?”

“He beat her. I shot him. He beat her with the wrench.”

“You shot him?”

“He beat her with the lug wrench. I shot him. I shot her.”

Another man might allow for the emotional turmoil of this young witness, but the lieutenant’s primary consideration is that he has not yet made captain. He is an ambitious man. And impatient.

Two years previous, a seventeen-year-old boy in Los Angeles County, far south of Napa, had shot his parents to death. He pleaded innocent by reason of long-term sexual abuse.

That trial, having concluded only two weeks before this pivotal night in Billy Wiles’s life, had resulted in conviction. The pundits predicted the boy would go free, but the detective in charge of the case had been diligent, accumulating a convincing mass of evidence, catching the perpetrator in lie after lie.

For the past two weeks, that indefatigable detective had been a media hero. He received lots of face time on TV. His name was better known than that of the mayor of Los Angeles.

With Billy’s admission, John Palmer does not see an opportunity to pursue the truth but instead sees an opportunity.

“Who did you shoot, son? Him or her?”

“I s-shot him. I shot her. He beat her so bad with the wrench, I had to sshoot them both.”

As other sirens swell in the distance, Lieutenant Palmer leads Billy out of the kitchen, into the living room. He directs the boy to sit on the sofa. His question no longer is What happened here, son? His question now is,

“What have you done, boy? What have you done?”

For too long, young Billy Wiles does not hear the difference. Thus begins sixty hours of hell.

At fourteen, he cannot be made to stand trial as an adult. With the death penalty and life imprisonment off the table, the pressures of interrogation should be less than with an adult offender.

John Palmer, however, is determined to break Billy, to wring from him a confession that he himself beat his mother with the lug wrench, shot his father when his father tried to protect her, then finished her, too, with a bullet. Because the punishment for juvenile offenders is so much less severe than for adults, the system sometimes guards their rights less assiduously than it should. For one thing, if the suspect does not know he should demand an attorney, he might not be informed of that right on as timely a basis as would be ideal.

If the suspect’s lack of resources requires a public defender, there is always the chance that the one assigned will be feckless. Or foolish. Or badly hung over.

Not every lawyer is as noble as those who champion the oppressed in TV

dramas, just as the oppressed themselves are seldom as noble in real life. An experienced officer like John Palmer, with the cooperation of selected superiors, guided by reckless ambition and willing to put his career at risk, has a sleeve full of tricks to keep a suspect away from legal counsel and available for unrestricted interrogation in the hours immediately after taking him into custody.

One of the most effective of these ploys is to make Billy into a “busboy.”

A public defender arrives at the holding facility in Napa only to discover that because of limited cell space or for other bogus reasons, his client has been moved to the Calistoga substation. On arriving in Calistoga, he hears that a regrettable mistake has been made: The boy has actually been taken to St. Helena. In St. Helena, they send the attorney chasing back to Napa.

Furthermore, while transporting a suspect, a vehicle sometimes has mechanical problems. An hour’s drive becomes three hours or four depending on the required repairs.

During these two and a half days, Billy passes through a blur of drab offices, interrogation rooms, and cells. Always, his emotions are raw, and his fears are as constant as his meals are irregular, but the worst moments occur in the patrol car, on the road.

Billy rides in back, behind the security barrier. His hands are cuffed, and a chain shackles his cuffs to a ring bolt in the floor.

There is a driver who never has a thing to say. In spite of regulations forbidding this arrangement, John Palmer shares the backseat with his suspect. The lieutenant is a big man, and his suspect is a fourteen-year-old boy. In these close quarters, the disparity in their sizes is of itself disturbing to Billy. In addition, Palmer is an expert at intimidation. Ceaseless talk and questions are punctuated only by accusing silences. By calculated looks, by carefully chosen words, by ominous mood shifts, he wears on the spirit as effectively as a power sander wears on wood.

The touching is the worst.

Palmer sits closer some times than others. Occasionally he sits as close as a boy might want to sit to a girl, his left side pressed to Billy’s right. He ruffles Billy’s hair with patently false affection. He rests one big hand on Billy’s shoulder, now on his knee, now on his thigh.

“Killing them isn’t a crime if you had a good reason, Billy. If your father molested you for years and your mother knew, no one could blame you.”

“My father never touched me like that. Why do you keep saying he did?”

“I’m not saying, Billy. I’m asking. You’ve nothing to be ashamed about if he’s been poking you since you were little. That makes you a victim, don’t you see? And even if you liked it—”

“I wouldn’t like it.”

“Even if you did like it, you’ve no reason to be ashamed.” The hand on the shoulder. “You’re still a victim.”

“I’m not. I wasn’t. Don’t say that.”

“Some men, they do awful things to defenseless boys, and some of the boys get to like it.” The hand on the thigh. “But that makes the boy no less innocent, Billy. The sweet boy is still innocent.”

Billy almost wishes that Palmer would hit him. The touching, the gentle touching and the insinuation are worse than a blow because it seems that the fist might come anyway when the touching fails.

On more than one occasion, Billy nearly confesses just to escape the maddening rhythms of Lieutenant John Palmer’s voice, to be free from the touching.

He begins to wonder why… After he put an end to his mother’s suffering, why had he called the police instead of jamming the muzzle of the revolver in his mouth?

Billy is saved at last by the good work of the medical examiner and the CSI technicians, and by the second thoughts of other officers who have let Palmer whip the case as he wishes. The evidence indicts the father; none points to the son.

The only print on the revolver is one of Billy’s, but one clear fingerprint and a partial palm on the long handle of the polished-steel wrench belong to Billy’s father.

The killer swung the lug wrench with his left hand. Unlike his father, Billy is right-handed.

Billy’s clothes were marked by a small amount of blood but not a liberal spattering. A back-spray of blood stippled the sleeves of his father’s shirt. Clawing, she had tried to fend off her husband. His blood and skin, not Billy’s, were under her fingernails.

In time, two members of the department are forced to resign, and another is fired. When the smoke dissipates, Lieutenant John Palmer somehow remains standing without sear or singe.

Billy considers accusing the lieutenant, but fears testifying and, most of all, fears the consequences of not prevailing in court. Prudence suggests withdrawal.

Stay low, stay quiet, keep it simple, don’t expect much, enjoy what you have. Move on.

Amazingly, moving on eventually means moving in with Pearl Olsen, the widow of one deputy and the mother of another.

She makes the offer to rescue Billy from the limbo of child-service custody, and in their first meeting, he knows instinctively that she will always be no more and no less than she appears to be. Although he is only fourteen, he has learned that harmony between reality and appearance may be more rare than any child imagines, and is a quality he may hope to foster in himself.

Chapter 58

Parked in the bright lights of the truck stop, outside the diner, Billy Wiles ate Hershey’s, ate Planters, and brooded about Steve Zillis. The evidence against Zillis, while circumstantial, seemed to support suspicion far more than anything that John Palmer had used to justify targeting Billy.

Nevertheless, he worried that he might be about to move against an innocent man. The mannequins, the bondage pornography, and the general condition of Zillis’s house proved he was a creep and perhaps even deranged, but none of it proved he had killed anyone.

Billy’s experience at the hands of Palmer left him yearning for certainty. Hoping to turn up one case-fortifying fact, even something as thin as the wisp of crescent moon above the diner, Billy picked up the paper that he had bought in Napa and had heretofore had no time to read. The front-page story about Giselle Winslow’s murder.

Crazily, he hoped that the cops had found a cherry stem tied in a knot near the corpse.

Instead, what leaped at him from the article, what flew at him as quick as a bat to a moth, was the fact that Winslow’s left hand had been cut off. The freak had taken a souvenir, not a face this time, but a hand.

Lanny had not mentioned this. But when Lanny had driven into the tavern parking lot as Billy took the second note off the Explorer’s windshield, Winslow’s body had only recently been found. Not all of the details had yet been shared on the sheriffs-department hotline.

Inevitably, Billy remembered the note that had been taped to his refrigerator seventeen hours earlier and that he had secreted in his copy of In Our Time. The message warned him that “An associate of mine will come to see you at 11:00. Wait for him on the front porch.”

In memory, he could see the last two lines of that note, which had been baffling at the time, but were less so now. You seem so angry. Have I not extended to you the hand of friendship? Yes, I have.

Even on first reading, those lines had seemed to be mocking, taunting. Now they jeered him, challenged him to accept that he was hopelessly outclassed.

Somewhere in his house, the severed hand awaited discovery by the police.

Chapter 59

A man and woman, a trucker couple in jeans and T-shirts and baseball caps—his said PETERBILT; hers said ROAD GODDESS—came out of the diner. The man probed his incisors with a toothpick, while the woman yawned, rolled her shoulders, and stretched her arms. From behind the wheel of the Explorer, Billy found himself staring at the woman’s hands, thinking how small they were, how easily one of them could be hidden. In the attic. Under a floorboard. Behind the furnace. In the back of a closet. In the crawlspace under one of the porches, front or back. Perhaps in the garage, in a workshop drawer. Preserved in formaldehyde or not. If one victim’s hand had been secreted on his property, why not a part of another victim, too? What had the freak harvested from the redhead, and where had he put it? Billy was tempted to drive home at once, to search the house thoroughly from top to bottom. He might need the rest of the night and all of the morning to find these incriminating horrors.

And if he did not find them, would he spend the coming afternoon in the search, as well? How could he not?

Once the quest had begun, he would be compelled, obsessed to continue until he discovered the grisly grail.

According to his wristwatch, it was 1:36 A.M., Thursday morning. The pertinent midnight lay little more than twenty-two hours away. My last killing: midnight Thursday.

Already Billy was functioning on caffeine and chocolate, Anacin and Vicodin. If he spent his day in a frantic search for body parts, if by twilight he had neither identified the freak nor gotten any rest, he would be physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted; in that condition, he would not be a reliable guardian for Barbara.

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