Velocity Page 7

The mute listener on the line the previous night had been Giselle Winslow’s murderer. Billy had no proof, but no doubt, either. Maybe he would call this evening, too. If Billy could speak to him, something might be accomplished, something learned.

Billy was under no illusion that such a monster could be charmed into chattiness. Neither could a homicidal sociopath be debated, nor persuaded by reason to spare a life.

Hearing the man speak a few words, however, might prove valuable. Ethnicity, region of origin, education, approximate age, and more could be inferred from a voice.

With luck, the killer might also unwittingly reveal some salient fact about himself. One clue, one small bud of information that blossomed under determined analysis, could provide Billy with something credible to take to the police.

Confronting Lanny Olsen might be emotionally satisfying, but it would not get Billy out of the box in which the killer had put him.

He hung the key to the SUV on a pegboard.

The previous evening, in a nervous moment, he had lowered the shades at all the windows. This morning, before breakfast, he had raised those in the kitchen. Now he lowered them again.

He stood in the center of the kitchen.

He glanced at the phone.

Intending to sit at the table, he put his right hand on the back of a chair, but he didn’t move it.

He just stood there, studying the polished black-granite floor at his feet. He kept an immaculate house. The granite was glossy, spotless. The blackness under his feet appeared to have no substance, as if he were standing on air, high in the night itself, with five miles of atmosphere yawning below, wingless.

He pulled the chair out from the table. He sat. Less than a minute passed before he got to his feet.

Under these circumstances, Billy Wiles had no idea how to act, what to do. The simple task of passing time defeated him, although he had not been doing much else for years.

Because he hadn’t eaten dinner, he went to the refrigerator. He had no appetite. Nothing on those cold shelves appealed to him.

He glanced at the SUV key dangling on the pegboard.

He went to the phone and stood staring at it.

He sat at the table. Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still. After a while, he went to the study, where he spent so many evenings carving architectural ornaments at a corner worktable.

He collected several tools and a chunk of white oak from which he had only half finished carving a cluster of acanthus leaves. He returned with them to the kitchen.

The study had a telephone, but Billy preferred the kitchen this evening. The study also had a comfortable couch, and he worried that he would be tempted to lie down, that he would fall asleep and not be awakened by the killer’s call, or by anything, ever.

Whether or not this concern was realistic, he settled at the dinette table with the wood and the tools.

Without a carver’s vise, he could work only on the finer details of the leaves, which was engraving work akin to scrimshaw. The blade scraped a hollow sound from the oak, as if this were bone, not wood. At ten minutes past ten o’clock, less than two hours before the deadline, he abruptly decided that he would go to the sheriff.

His house was not in any township; the sheriff had jurisdiction here. The tavern lay in Vineyard Hills, but the town was too small to have its own police force; Sheriff Palmer was the law there, too.

Billy snared the key from the pegboard, opened the door, stepped onto the back porch—and halted. If you do go to the police, I will kill a young mother of two.

He didn’t want to choose. He didn’t want anyone to die.

In all of Napa County, there might be dozens of young mothers with two children. Maybe a hundred, two hundred, maybe more.

Even with five hours, they couldn’t have identified and alerted all the possible targets. They would have to use the media to warn the public. That might take days.

Now, with less than two hours, nothing substantive would be done. They might spend longer than that just questioning Billy.

The young mother, obviously preselected by the killer, would be murdered.

What if the children awakened? As witnesses, they might be eliminated. The madman had not promised to kill only the mother.

On damp night air, a musky smell wafted from the rich layers of mast on the woodland floor and drifted from the trees to the porch. Billy returned to the kitchen and closed the door.

Later, whittling leaf details, he pricked a thumb. He didn’t get a Band-Aid. The puncture was small; it should close quickly.

When he nicked a knuckle, he remained too intensely involved with the carving to bother attending to it. He worked faster, and didn’t notice when he sustained a third tiny cut.

To an observer, had there been one, it might have seemed as though Billy wanted to bleed.

Because his hands remained busy, the wounds kept weeping. The wood soaked up the blood.

In time, he realized that the oak had completely discolored. He dropped the carving and put aside the blade.

He sat for a while, staring at his hands, breathing hard for no reason. In time, the bleeding stopped, and it didn’t start up again when he washed his hands at the sink.

At 11:45, after patting his hands dry on a dishtowel, he got a cold Guinness and drank it from the bottle. He finished it too fast. Five minutes after the first beer, he opened a second. He poured it in a glass to encourage himself to sip it and make it last.

He stood with the Guinness in front of the wall clock.

Eleven-fifty. Countdown.

As much as Billy wanted to lie to himself, he couldn’t be fooled. He had made a choice, all right. The choice is yours. Even inaction is a choice. The mother who had two children—she wouldn’t die tonight. If the homicidal freak kept his end of the bargain, the mother would sleep the night and see the dawn.

Billy was part of it now. He could deny, he could run, he could leave his window shades down for the rest of his life and cross the line from recluse to hermit, but he could not escape the fundamental fact that he was part of it.

The killer had offered him a partnership. He had wanted no part of it. But now it turned out to be like one of those business deals, one of those aggressive stock offers, that writers in the financial pages called a hostile takeover. He finished the second Guinness as midnight arrived. He wanted a third. And a fourth.

He told himself he needed to keep a clear head. He asked himself why, and he had no credible answer.

His part of the business was done for the night. He had made the choice. The freak would do the deed.

Nothing more would happen tonight, except that without the beer, Billy wouldn’t be able to sleep. He might find himself carving again. His hands ached. Not from his three insignificant wounds. From having clutched the tools too tightly. From having held the chunk of oak in a death grip.

Without sleep, he wouldn’t be ready for the day ahead. With morning would come news of another corpse. He would learn whom he had chosen for death.

Billy put his glass in the sink. He didn’t need a glass anymore because he didn’t care about making the beer last. Each bottle was a punch, and he wanted nothing more than to knock himself out.

He took a third beer to the living room and sat in his recliner. He drank in the dark.

Emotional fatigue can be as debilitating as physical exhaustion. All strength had fled him.

At 1:44, the telephone woke him. He flew up from the chair as if from a catapult. The empty beer bottle rolled across the floor.

Hoping to hear Lanny, he snared the handset from the kitchen phone on the fourth ring. “Hello” earned no reply.

The listener. The freak.

Billy knew from experience that a strategy of silence would get him nowhere. “What do you want from me? Why me?”

The caller did not respond.

“I’m not going to play your game,” Billy said, but that was lame because they both knew that he had already been co-opted.

He would have been pleased if the killer had replied with even a soft laugh of derision, but he got nothing.

“You’re sick, you’re twisted.” When that didn’t inspire a response, Billy added, “You’re human debris.”

He thought he sounded weak and ineffective, and for the times in which he lived, the insults were far from inflammatory. Some heavy-metal rock band probably called itself Sick and Twisted, and surely another was named Human Debris.

The freak would not be baited. He disconnected.

Billy hung up and realized that his hands were trembling. His palms were damp, too, and he blotted them on his shirt.

He was struck by a thought that should have but hadn’t occurred to him when the killer had called the previous night. He returned to the phone, picked up the handset, listened to the dial tone for a moment, and then keyed in * 69, instigating an automatic callback.

At the farther end of the line, the phone rang, rang, rang, but nobody answered it.

The number in the digital display on Billy’s phone, however, was familiar to him. It was Lanny’s.

Chapter 10

Graceful in starlight with oaks, the church stood along the main highway, a quarter of a mile from the turnoff to Lanny Olsen’s house. Billy drove to the southwest corner of the parking lot. Under the cloaking gloom of a massive California live oak, he doused the headlights and switched off the engine.

Picturesque chalk-white stucco walls with decorative buttresses rose to burnt-orange tile roofs. In a belfry niche stood a statue of the Holy Mother with her arms open to welcome suffering humanity.

Here, every baptized baby would seem to be a potential saint. Here, every marriage would appear to have the promise of lifelong happiness regardless of the natures of the bride and groom.

Billy had a gun, of course.

Although it was an old weapon, not one of recent purchase, it remained in working order. He had cleaned and stored it properly.

Packed away with the revolver had been a box of .38 cartridges. They showed no signs of corrosion.

When he had taken the weapon from its storage case, it felt heavier than he remembered. Now as he picked it off the passenger’s seat, it still felt heavy.

This particular Smith and Wesson tipped the scale at only thirty-six ounces, but maybe the extra weight that he felt was its history. He got out of the Explorer and locked the doors.

A lone car passed on the highway. The sidewash of the headlights reached no closer than thirty yards from Billy.

The rectory lay on the farther side of the church. Even if the priest was an insomniac, he would not have heard the SUV.

Billy walked farther under the oak, out from its canopy, into a meadow. Wild grass rose to his knees.

In the spring, cascades of poppies had spilled down this sloped field, as orange-red as a lava flow. They were dead now, and gone.

He halted to let his eyes grow accustomed to the moonless dark. Motionless, he listened. The air was still. No traffic moved on the distant highway. His presence had silenced the cicadas and the toads. He could almost hear the stars.

Confident of his dark-adapted vision though of nothing else, he set out across the gently rising meadow, angling toward the fissured and potholed blacktop lane that led to Lanny Olsen’s place.

He worried about rattlesnakes. On summer nights as warm as this, they hunted field mice and younger rabbits. Unbitten, he reached the lane and turned uphill, passing two houses, both dark and silent.

At the second house, a dog ran loose in the fenced yard. It did not bark, but raced back and forth along the high pickets, whimpering for Billy’s attention. Lanny’s place lay a third of a mile past the house with the dog. At every window, light of one quality or another fired the glass or gilded the curtains. In the yard, Billy crouched beside a plum tree. He could see the west face of the house, which was the front, and the north flank.

The possibility existed that this entire thing had in fact been a hoax and that Lanny was the hoaxer.

Billy did not know for a fact that a blond schoolteacher had been murdered in the city of Napa. He had taken Lanny’s word for it.

He had not seen a report of the homicide in the newspaper. The killing supposedly had been discovered too late in the day to make the most recent edition. Besides, he rarely read a newspaper.

Likewise, he never watched TV. Occasionally he listened for weather reports on the radio, while driving, but mostly he relied on a CD player loaded with zydeco or Western swing.

A cartoonist might be expected also to be a prankster. The funny streak in Lanny had been repressed for so long, however, that it was less of a streak than a thread. He made reasonably good company, but he wasn’t a load of laughs. Billy didn’t intend to wager his life—or a nickel—that Lanny Olsen had hoaxed him.

He remembered how sweaty and anxious and distressed his friend had been in the tavern parking lot, the previous evening. In Lanny, what you saw was what he was. If he’d wanted to be an actor instead of a cartoonist, and if his mother had never gotten cancer, he would still have wound up as a cop with a problematic ten card.

After studying the place, certain that no one was watching from a window, Billy crossed the lawn, passed the front porch, and had a look at the south flank of the house. There, too, every window glowed softly.

He circled to the rear, staying at a distance, and saw that the back door stood open. A wedge of light lay like a carpet on the dark porch floor, welcoming visitors across the kitchen threshold.

An invitation this bold seemed to suggest a trap.

Billy expected to find Lanny Olsen dead inside. 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.

Lanny’s funeral would not be attended by thousands of mourners, perhaps not even by as many as a hundred, though some would miss him. Not the world, but some.

When Billy had made his choice to spare the mother of two, he had not realized that he had doomed Lanny.

If he had known, perhaps he would have made a different choice. Choosing the death of a friend would be harder than dropping the dime on a nameless stranger. Even if the stranger was a mother of two. He didn’t want to think about that.

Toward the end of the backyard stood the stump of a diseased oak that had been cut down long ago. Four feet across, two feet high.

On the east side of the stump was a hole worn by weather and rot. In the hole had been tucked a One Zip plastic bag. The bag contained a spare house key.

After retrieving the key, Billy circled cautiously to the front of the house. He returned to the concealment of the plum tree.

No one had turned off any lights. No face could be seen at any window; and none of the curtains moved suspiciously.

A part of him wanted to phone 911, get help here fast, and spill the story. He suspected that would be a reckless move.

He didn’t understand the rules of this bizarre game and could not know how the killer denned winning. Perhaps the freak would find it amusing to frame an innocent bartender for both murders.

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