Velocity Page 3

Chapter 3

An enchanted princess, recumbent in a castle tower, dreaming the years away until awakened by a kiss, could not have been lovelier than Barbara Mandel abed at the Whispering Pines.

In the caress of lamplight, her golden hair spilled across the pillow, as lustrous as bullion poured from a smelter’s cauldron.

Standing at her bedside, Billy Wiles had never seen a bisque doll with a complexion as pale or as flawless as Barbara’s. Her skin appeared translucent, as though the light penetrated the surface and then brightened her face from within.

If he were to lift aside the thin blanket and sheet, he would expose an indignity not visited on enchanted princesses. An enteral-nutrition tube had been inserted surgically into her stomach.

The doctor had ordered a slow continuous feeding. The drip pump purred softly as it supplied a perpetual dinner.

She had been in a coma for almost four years.

Hers was not the most severe of comas. Sometimes she yawned, sighed, moved her right hand to her face, her throat, her breast.

Occasionally she spoke, though never more than a few cryptic words, not to anyone in the room but to some phantom of the mind.

Even when she spoke or moved her hand, she remained unaware of everything around her. She was unconscious, unresponsive to external stimulation.

At the moment she lay quiet, brow as smooth as milk in a pail, eyes unmoving behind their lids, lips slightly parted. No ghost breathed with less sound.

From a jacket pocket, Billy took a small wire-bound notebook. Clipped to it was a half-size ballpoint pen. He put them on the nightstand.

The small room was simply furnished: one hospital bed, one nightstand, one chair. Long ago Billy had added a barstool that allowed him to sit high enough to watch over Barbara.

Whispering Pines Convalescent Home provided good care but an austere environment. Half the patients were convalescing; the other half were merely being warehoused.

Perched on the stool beside the bed, he told her about his day. He began with a description of the sunrise and ended with Lanny’s shooting gallery of cartoon celebrities.

Although she had never responded to anything he’d said, Billy suspected that in her deep redoubt, Barbara could hear him. He needed to believe that his presence, his voice, his affection comforted her.

When he had no more to say, he continued to gaze at her. He did not always see her as she was now. He saw her as she’d once been—vivid, vivacious—and as she might be today if fate had been kinder. After a while he extracted the folded message from his shirt pocket and read it again.

He had just finished when Barbara spoke in murmurs from which meaning melted almost faster than the ear could hear: “I want to know what it says…”

Electrified, he rose from the stool. He leaned over the bed rail to stare more closely at her.

Never before had anything she’d said, in her coma, seemed to relate to anything that he said or did while visiting. “Barbara?”

She remained still, eyes closed, lips parted, apparently no more alive than the object of mourning on a catafalque.

“Can you hear me?”

With trembling fingertips, he touched her face. She did not respond. He had already told her what the strange message said, but now he read it to her just in case her murmured words had referred to it. When he finished, she did not react. He spoke her name without effect. Sitting on the stool once more, he plucked the little notebook from the nightstand. With the small pen, he recorded her seven words and the date that she had spoken them.

He had a notebook for each year of her unnatural sleep. Although each contained only a hundred three-by-four-inch pages, none had been filled, as she did not speak on every—or even most—visits.

I want to know what it says

After dating that unusually complete statement, he flipped pages, looking back through the notebook, reading not the dates but just some of her words. LAMBS COULD NOT FORGIVE BEEF-FACED BOYS MY INFANT



In her words, Billy could find neither coherence nor a clue to any. From time to time through the weeks, the months, she smiled faintly. Twice in his experience she had laughed softly.

On other occasions, however, her whispered words disturbed him, sometimes chilled him. TORN, BRUISED, PANTING, BLEEDING GORE



These dismaying utterances were not delivered in a tone of distress. They came in the same uninflected murmur with which she spoke less troubling words.

Nevertheless, they concerned Billy. He worried that at the bottom of her coma, she occupied a dark and fearsome place, that she felt trapped and threatened, and alone.

Now her brow furrowed and she spoke again, “The sea…”

When he wrote this down, she gave him more: “What it is…”

The stillness in the room grew more profound, as if countless fathoms of thickening atmosphere pressed all currents from the air, so that her soft voice carried to Billy.

To her lips, her right hand rose as though to feel the texture of her words.

“What it is that it keeps on saying.”

This was the most coherent she had been, in coma, and seldom had she said as much in a single visit.


“I want to know what it says… the sea.”

She lowered her hand to her breast. The furrows faded from her brow. Her eyes, which as she spoke had roved beneath their lids, grew fixed once more. Pen poised over paper, Billy waited, but Barbara matched the silence of the room. And the silence deepened, and the stillness, until he felt that he must go or meet a fate similar to that of a prehistoric fly preserved in amber. She would lie in this hush for hours or for days, or forever. He kissed her but not on the mouth. That would feel like a violation. Her cheek was soft and cool against his lips.

Three years, ten months, four days, she had been in this coma, into which she had fallen only a month after accepting an engagement ring from Billy.

Chapter 4

Billy did not have the isolation that Lanny enjoyed, but he lived on an acre shrouded by alders and deodar cedars, along a lane with few residences. He didn’t know his neighbors. He might not have known them even if they had lived closer. He was grateful for their disinterest.

The original owner of the house and the architect had evidently negotiated each other into a hybrid structure, half bungalow, half upscale cabin. The lines were those of a bungalow. The cedar siding, silvered by the weather, belonged on a cabin, as did the front porch with rough-hewn posts supporting the roof. Unlike most bipolar houses, this one appeared cozy. Diamond-pane, beveled-glass windows—pure bungalow—looked bejeweled when the lights were on. In daylight the leaping-deer weather vane on the roof turned with lazy grace even in turbulent scrambles of wind.

The detached garage, which also contained his woodworking shop, stood behind the house.

After Billy parked the Explorer and closed the big door behind it, as he walked across the backyard toward the house, an owl hooted from its perch on the ridge line of the garage roof.

No other owls answered. But Billy thought he heard mice squeak, and he could almost feel them shivering in the shrubbery, yearning for the tall grass beyond the yard.

His mind felt swampy, his thoughts muddy. He paused and took a deep breath, savoring air redolent of the fragrant bark and needles of the deodars. The astringent scent cleared his head.

Clarity proved undesirable. He wasn’t much of a drinker, but now he wanted a beer and a shot.

The stars looked hard. They were bright, too, in the cloudless sky, but the feeling he got from them was hardness.

Neither the back steps nor the floorboards of the porch creaked. He had plenty of time to keep the place in good, tight condition. After gutting the kitchen, he himself had built the cabinets. They were cherry wood with a dark stain.

He had laid the tile floor: black-granite squares. The granite countertops matched the floor.

Clean and simple. He had intended to do the whole house in that style, but then he had lost his way.

He poured a cold bottle of Guinness stout into a mug, spiked it with bourbon. When he did drink, he wanted punch in both the texture and the taste. He was making a pastrami sandwich when the phone rang. “Hello?”

The caller did not respond even when Billy said hello again. Ordinarily, he would have thought the line was dead. Not this evening. Listening, he fished the typewritten message from his pocket. He unfolded it and smoothed it flat on the black-granite counter.

Hollow as a bell, but a bell without a clapper, the open line carried no fizz of static. Billy couldn’t hear the caller inhale or exhale, as if the guy were dead, and done with breathing.

Whether prankster or killer, the man’s purpose was to taunt, intimidate. Billy didn’t give him the satisfaction of a third hello.

They listened to each other’s silence, as if something could be learned from nothing.

After perhaps a minute, Billy began to wonder if he might be imagining a presence on the far end of the line.

If he was in fact ear-to-ear with the author of the note, hanging up first would be a mistake. His disconnection would be taken as a sign of fear or at least of weakness.

Life had taught him patience. Besides, his self-image included the possibility that he could be fatuous, so he didn’t worry about looking foolish. He waited.

When the caller hung up, the distinct sound of the disconnect proved that he had been there, and then the dial tone.

Before continuing to make his sandwich, Billy walked the four rooms and bath. He lowered the pleated shades over all the windows.

At the dinette table in the kitchen, he ate the sandwich and two dill pickles. He drank a second stout, this time without the added bourbon. He had no TV. The entertainment shows bored him, and he didn’t need the news.

His thoughts were his only company at dinner. He did not linger over the pastrami sandwich.

Books lined one wall of the living room from floor to ceiling. For most of his life, Billy had been a voracious reader.

He had lost interest in reading three years, ten months, and four days previously. A mutual love of books, of fiction in all genres, had brought him and Barbara together.

On one shelf stood a set of Dickens in matched bindings, which Barbara had given him for Christmas. She’d had a passion for Dickens. These days, he needed to keep busy. Just sitting in a chair with a book made him restless. He felt vulnerable somehow.

Besides, some books contained disturbing ideas. They started you thinking about things you wanted to forget, and though your thoughts became intolerable, you could not put them to rest.

The coffered ceiling of the living room was a consequence of his need to remain busy. Every coffer was trimmed with dentil molding. The center of each featured a cluster of acanthus leaves hand-carved from white oak, stained to match the surrounding mahogany.

The style of this ceiling suited neither a cabin nor a bungalow. He didn’t care. The project had kept him occupied for months.

In his study, the coffered ceiling was even more ornate than the ceiling in the living room.

He did not go to the desk, where the unused computer mocked him. Instead, he sat at a worktable arrayed with his carving tools. Here also were stacks of white-oak blocks. They had a sweet wood smell. The blocks were raw material for the ornamentation’s that would decorate the bedroom ceiling, which was currently bare plaster.

On the table stood a CD player and two small speakers. The disc deck was loaded with zydeco music. He switched it on.

He carved until his hands ached and his vision blurred. Then he turned off the music and went to bed.

Lying on his back in the dark, staring at a ceiling that he could not see, he waited for his eyes to fall shut. He waited. He heard something on the roof. Something scratching at the cedar-shake shingles. The owl, no doubt. The owl did not hoot. Perhaps it was a raccoon. Or something. He glanced at the digital clock on the nightstand. Twenty minutes past midnight. You have six hours to decide. The choice is yours. Everything would be all right in the morning. Everything always was. Well, not all right, but good enough to encourage perseverance. I want to know what it says, the sea. What it is that it keeps on saying. A few times, he closed his eyes, but that was no good. They had to fall shut on their own for sleep to follow. He looked at the clock as it changed from 12:59 to 1:00. The note had been under the windshield wiper when he had come out of the tavern at seven o’clock. Six hours had passed. Someone had been murdered. Or not. Surely not. Below the scratching talons of the owl, if it was an owl, he slept.

Chapter 5

The tavern had no name. Or, rather, its function was its name. The sign at the top of the pole, as you turned from the state highway into the elm-encircled parking lot, said only TAVERN.

Jackie O’Hara owned the place. Fat, freckled, kind, he was to everyone a friend or honorary uncle.

He had no desire to see his name on the sign.

As a boy, Jackie had wanted to be a priest. He wanted to help people. He wanted to lead them to God.

Time had taught him that he might not be able to master his appetites. While still young, he had arrived at the conclusion that he would be a bad priest, which hadn’t been the nature of his dream.

He found self-respect in running a clean and friendly taproom, but it seemed to him that simple satisfaction in his accomplishments would sour into vanity if he named the tavern after himself.

In Billy Wiles’s opinion, Jackie would have made a fine priest. Every human being has appetites difficult to control, but far fewer have humility, gentleness, and an awareness of their weaknesses.

Vineyard Hills Tavern. Shady Elm Tavern. Candlelight Tavern. Wayside Tavern.

Patrons regularly offered names for the place. Jackie found their suggestions to be either awkward or inappropriate, or twee. When Billy arrived at 10:45 Tuesday morning, fifteen minutes before the tavern opened, the only cars in the lot were Jackie’s and Ben Vernon’s. Ben was the day cook.

Standing beside his Explorer, he studied the low serried hills in the distance, on the far side of the highway. They were dark brown where scalped by earthmovers, pale brown where the wild grass had been faded from green by the arid summer heat.

Peerless Properties, an international corporation, was building a worldclass resort, to be called Vineland, on nine hundred acres. In addition to a hotel with golf course, three pools, tennis club, and other amenities, the project included 190 multimillion-dollar getaway homes for sale to those who took their leisure seriously.

Foundations had been poured in early spring. Walls were rising. Much closer than the palatial structures on the higher hills, less than a hundred feet from the highway, a dramatic mural neared completion in a meadow. Seventy feet high, 150 feet long, three-dimensional, it was of wood, painted gray with black shadowing.

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