Velocity Page 5

Billy’s fate was to live in a time that denied the existence of abominations, that gave the lesser name horror to every abomination, that redefined every horror as a crime, every crime as an offense, every offense as a mere annoyance. Nevertheless, abhorrence rose in him before he knew exactly what had brought Lanny Olsen here.

“Billy. Dear sweet Jesus, Billy.”


“I’m sweating. Look at me sweating.”


“I can’t stop sweating. It’s not that hot.”

Suddenly Billy felt greasy. He wiped one hand across his face and looked at the palm, expecting filth. To the eye, it appeared to be clean.

“I need a beer,” Lanny said. “Two beers. I need to sit down. I need to think.”

“Look at me.”

Lanny wouldn’t meet his eyes. His attention was fixed on the note in Billy’s hand.

That paper remained folded, but something unfolded in Billy’s gut, blossomed like a lubricious flower, oily and many-petaled. Nausea born of intuition.

The right question wasn’t what. The right question was who, and Billy asked it.

Lanny licked his lips. “Giselle Winslow.”

“I don’t know her.”

“Neither do I.”


“She taught English down in Napa.”



“And lovely,” Billy guessed.

“She once was. Somebody beat her nearly to death. She was messed up really bad by someone who knew how to draw it out, how to make it last.”

“Nearly to death.”

“He finished by strangling her with a pair of her pantyhose.”

Billy’s legs felt weak. He leaned against the Explorer. He could not speak.

“Her sister found her just two hours ago.”

Lanny’s gaze remained fixed on the folded sheet of paper in Billy’s hand.

“The sheriff’s department doesn’t have jurisdiction down there,” Lanny continued. “So it’s in the lap of the Napa police. That’s something, anyway. That gives me breathing space.”

Billy found his voice, but it was rough and not as he usually sounded to himself. “The note said he’d kill a schoolteacher if I didn’t go to the police, but I went to you.”

“He said he’d kill her if you didn’t go to the police and get them involved.”

“But I went to you, I tried. I mean, for God’s sake, I tried, didn’t I?”

Lanny met his eyes at last. “You came to me informally. You didn’t actually go to the police. You went to a friend who happened to be a cop.”

“But I went to you.” Billy protested, and cringed at the denial in his voice, at the self-justification.

Nausea crawled the walls of his stomach, but he clenched his teeth and strove for control.

“Nothing smelled real about it,” Lanny said.

“About what?”

“The first note. It was a joke. It was a lame joke. There isn’t a cop alive with the instinct to smell anything real in it.”

“Was she married?” Billy asked.

A Toyota drove into the lot and parked seventy or eighty feet from the Explorer.

In silence they watched the driver get out of the car and go into the tavern. At such a distance, their conversation couldn’t have been overheard. Nevertheless, they were circumspect.

Country music drifted out of the tavern while the door was open. On the jukebox, Alan Jackson was singing about heartbreak.

“Was she married?” Billy asked again.


“The woman. The schoolteacher. Giselle Winslow.”

“I don’t think so, no. At least there’s no husband in the picture at the moment. Let me see the note.”

Withholding the folded paper, Billy said, “Did she have any children?”

“What does it matter?”

“It matters,” Billy said.

He realized that his empty hand had tightened into a fist. This was a friend standing before him, such as he allowed himself friends. Yet he relaxed his fist only with effort.

“It matters to me, Lanny.”

“Kids? I don’t know. Probably not. From what I heard, she must have lived alone.”

Two bursts of traffic passed on the state highway: paradiddles of engines, the soft percussion of displaced air.

In the ensuing quiet, Lanny said plaintively, “Listen, Billy, potentially, I’m in trouble here.”

“Potentially?” He found humor in that choice of words, but not the kind to make him laugh.

“No one else in the department would have taken that damn note seriously. But they’ll say I should have.”

“Maybe I should have,” Billy said.

Agitated, Lanny disagreed: “That’s hindsight. Bullshit. Don’t talk like that. We need a mutual defense.”

“Defense against what?”

“Whatever. Billy, listen, I don’t have a perfect ten card.”

“What’s a ten card?”

“My force record card, my performance file. I’ve gotten a couple negative reports.”

“What’d you do?”

Lanny’s eyes squinted when he took offense. “Damn it, I’m not a crooked cop.”

“I didn’t say you were.”

“I’m forty-six, never taken a dime of dirty money, and I never will.”

“All right. Okay.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

Lanny’s pique might have been pretense; he couldn’t sustain it. Or perhaps some grim mind’s-eye image scared him, for his pinched eyes widened. He chewed on his lower lip as if gnawing on a disturbing thought that he wanted to bite up, spit out, and never again consider. Although he glanced at his wristwatch, Billy waited.

“What’s true enough,” Lanny said, “is I’m sometimes a lazy cop. Out of boredom, you know. And maybe because… I never really wanted this life.”

“You don’t owe me any explanations,” Billy assured him.

“I know. But the thing is… whether I wanted this life or not, it’s what I’ve got now. It’s all I have. I want a chance to keep it. I gotta read that new note, Billy. Please give me the note.”

Sympathetic but unwilling to yield the paper, which was now damp with his own perspiration, Billy unfolded and read it. If you don’t go to the police and get them involved, I will kill an unmarried man who won’t much be missed by the world. If you do go to the police, I will kill a young mother of two. You have five hours to decide. The choice is yours.

On the first reading, Billy comprehended every terrible detail of the note, yet he read it again. Then he relinquished it.

Anxiety, the rust of life, corroded Lanny Olsen’s face as he scanned the lines. “This is one sick son of a bitch.”

“I’ve got to go down to Napa.”


“To give both these notes to the police.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Lanny said. “You don’t know that the second victim’s going to be in Napa. Could be in St. Helena or Rutherford—”

“Or in Angwin,” Billy interrupted, “or Calistoga.”

Eager to press the point, Lanny said, “Or Yountville or Circle Oaks, or Oakville. You don’t know where. You don’t know anything.”

“I know some things,” Billy said. “I know what’s right.”

Blinking at the note, flicking sweat off his eyelashes, Lanny said, “Real killers don’t play these games.”

“This one does.”

Folding the note and tucking it in the breast pocket of his uniform shirt, Lanny pleaded, “Let me think a minute.”

Immediately retrieving the paper from Lanny’s pocket, Billy said, “Think all you want. I’m driving down to Napa.”

“Oh, man, this is bad. This is wrong. Don’t be stupid.”

“It’s the end of his game if I won’t play it.”

“So you’re just going to kill a young mother of two. Just like that, are you?”

“I’ll pretend you didn’t say that.”

“Then I’ll say it again. You’re going to kill a young mother of two.”

Billy shook his head. “I’m not killing anyone.”

“ ‘The choice is yours,’” Lanny quoted. “Are you going to choose to make two orphans?”

What Billy saw now in his friend’s face, in his eyes, was not anything that he had seen before across a poker table or anywhere else. He seemed to be confronted by a stranger.

“The choice is yours,” Lanny repeated.

Billy didn’t want a falling-out between them. He lived on the more companionable side of the line between recluse and hermit, and he did not want to find himself straddling that divide.

Perhaps sensing his friend’s concern, Lanny took a softer tack: “All I’m asking is throw me a line. I’m in quicksand here.”

“For God’s sake, Lanny.”

“I know. It sucks. There’s no way it doesn’t.”

“Don’t try to manipulate me like that again. Don’t hammer me.”

“I won’t. I’m sorry. It’s just, the sheriff’s a hardass. You know he is. With my ten card, this is all he needs to take my badge, and I’m still six years short of a full pension.”

As long as he met Lanny’s eyes and saw the desperation in them, and saw something worse than desperation that he didn’t want to name, he couldn’t compromise with him. He had to look away and pretend to be speaking to the Lanny he’d known before this encounter.

“What are you asking me to do?”

Reading capitulation in the question, Lanny spoke in a still more conciliatory voice. “You won’t regret this, Billy. It’s going to be all right.”

“I didn’t say I’d do whatever you want. I just need to know what it is.”

“I understand. I appreciate it. You’re a true friend. All I’m asking is an hour, one hour to think.”

Shifting his gaze from the tavern to the cracked blacktop at his feet, Billy said, “There’s not much time. With the first message, it was six hours. Now it’s five.”

“I’m only asking for one. One hour.”

“He must know I get off work at seven, so that’s probably when the clock starts ticking. Midnight. Then before dawn he kills one or the other, and by action or inaction, I’ve made a choice. He’ll do what he’ll do, but I don’t want to think I decided it for him.”

“One hour,” Lanny promised, “and then I’ll go to Sheriff Palmer. I just have to figure the approach, the angle that’ll save my ass.”

A familiar shriek, but seldom heard in this territory, raised Billy’s attention from the blacktop to the sky.

White on sapphire, three sea gulls kited against the eastern heavens. They rarely ventured this far north from San Pablo Bay.

“Billy, I need those notes for Sheriff Palmer.”

Watching the sea gulls, Billy said, “I’d rather keep them.”

“The notes are evidence,” Lanny said plaintively. “That bastard Palmer will rip me a new one if I don’t take custody of the evidence and protect it.”

As the summer evening waned toward the darkness that always drove gulls to seaside roosts, these birds were so out of place that they seemed to be anomen. Their piercing, cold cries brought a creeping chill to the nape of Billy’s neck.

He said, “I only have the note I just found.”

“Where’s the first one?” Lanny asked.

“I left it in my kitchen, by the phone.”

Billy considered going into the tavern to ask Ivy Elgin the meaning of the birds.

“All right. Okay,” Lanny said. “Just give me the one you’ve got. Palmer’s gonna want to come talk to you. We can get the first note then.”

The problem was, Ivy claimed to be able to read portents only in the details of dead things.

When Billy hesitated, Lanny grew insistent: “For God’s sake, look at me. What is it with the birds?”

“I don’t know,” Billy replied.

“You don’t know what?”

“I don’t know what it is with the birds.” Reluctantly, Billy fished the note from his pocket and gave it to Lanny. “One hour.”

“That’s all I need. I’ll call you.”

As Lanny turned away, Billy put a hand on his shoulder, halting him.

“What do you mean you’ll call? You said you’d bring Palmer.”

“I’ll call you first, as soon as I’ve figured out how to tweak the story to give myself cover.”

“ ‘Tweak,’” Billy said, loathing the word.

Falling silent, the circling sea gulls wheeled away toward the westering sun.

“When I call,” Lanny said, “I’ll tell you what I’m gonna tell Palmer, so we’ll be on the same page. Then I’ll go to him.”

Billy wished that he had never surrendered the note. But it was evidence, and logic dictated that Lanny should have it.

“Where are you going to be in an hour—at Whispering Pines?”

Billy shook his head. “I’m stopping there, but only for fifteen minutes. Then I’m going home. Call me at my place. But there’s one more thing.”

Impatiently, Lanny said, “Midnight, Billy. Remember?”

“How does this psycho know what choice I make? How did he know I went to you and not to the police? How will he know what I do in the next four and a half hours?”

No answer but a frown occurred to Lanny.

“Unless,” Billy said, “he’s watching me.”

Surveying the vehicles in the parking lot, the tavern, and the arc of embracing elms, Lanny said, “Everything was going so smooth.”

“Was it?”

“Like a river. Now this rock.”

“Always a rock.”

“That’s true enough,” Lanny said, and walked away toward his patrol car. Mother Olsen’s only child appeared defeated, slump-shouldered and baggyassed.

Billy wanted to ask if everything was all right between them, but that was too direct. He couldn’t think of another way to phrase the question. Then he heard himself say, “Something I’ve never told you and should have.”

Lanny stopped, looked back, regarding him warily.

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