This was such a night for Billy. He had known others like it. Always the doubt had receded. He told himself that it would recede again, though this time it was colder and seemed certain to leave a higher water mark. The freak had at first seemed to be a player to whom murder was a sport. The fishhooks in the forehead, however, had not been intended as merely a game move; and this was no game.
To the freak, these killings were something more than murder, but the something more was not a form of chess or the equivalent of poker. Homicide had symbolic meaning for him, and he pursued it with a purpose more serious than amusement. He had some mysterious goal beyond the killing itself, an aim for which he sought completion. Game was the wrong word, Billy needed to find the right one. Until he knew the correct word, he would never understand the killer, and would not find him.
With Kleenex, he gently swabbed the clotted blood from his eyebrows, wiped most of it off his lids and lashes.
The sight of the fishhooks had clarified his mind. He wasn’t dizzy anymore.
His wounds needed attention. He switched on the headlights and drove out of the church parking lot.
Whatever ultimate goal the freak might have, whatever symbolism he intended with the fishhooks, he must also have hoped to send Billy to a doctor. The physician would require an explanation of the hooks, and any response Billy made would complicate his predicament.
If he told the truth, he would tie himself to the murders of Giselle Winslow and Lanny Olsen. He would be the primary suspect.
Without the three notes, he could offer no evidence that the freak existed. The authorities would not regard the hooks as credible evidence, for they would wonder if this was a case of self-mutilation. A self-inflicted wound was a ploy that murderers sometimes used to cast themselves as victims and thereby to deflect suspicion.
He knew the cynicism with which some cops would look upon his dramatic, bizarre, but superficial wounds. He knew it precisely. Furthermore, Billy was a fresh-water angler. He fished for trout and bass. These substantial hooks were the size needed to land large bass if you were using live bait instead of lures. In his tackle box at home were hooks identical to those that now drew his blood.
He dared not go to a doctor. He’d have to be his own physician. At 3:30 in the morning, he had the rural roadways to himself. The night was still, but the SUV made its own wind, which blustered at the broken-out window. In the halogen headlights, flat vineyards, hillside vineyards, and wooded heights remained familiar to his eye but, mile by mile, became as alien to his heart as any foreign barrens.
ARE YOU PREPARED FOR YOUR SECOND WOUND?
In February, after the extraction of a molar with roots fused to his jawbone, Billy had been given a prescription for a painkiller, Vicodin, by his periodontist. He had used only two of ten tablets.
The pharmacy label specified that the medication should be taken with food. He had not eaten dinner, and he still had no appetite. He needed the medication to be effective. From the refrigerator, he got a baking dish of leftover homemade lasagna.
Although the punctures in his brow were plugged with clots and the bleeding had stopped, the pain continued unrelenting and made coherent thought increasingly difficult. He chose not to delay the few minutes necessary to zap the dish in the microwave. He put it cold on the kitchen table. A pink sticker on the pill bottle counseled against consuming alcoholic beverages while taking the painkiller. Screw that. He had no intention of driving a car or operating heavy machinery in the next several hours. He popped the tablet and forked lasagna into his mouth, washing everything down with Elephant beer, a Danish brew boasting a higher alcohol content than other beers.
As he ate, he thought about the dead schoolteacher, about Lanny sitting in the bedroom armchair, about what the killer might do next. Those lines of thought were not conducive to appetite or to digestion. The teacher and Lanny were beyond rescue, and there was no way to foretell the freak’s next move.
Instead, he thought about Barbara Mandel, mostly about Barbara as she had been, not as she was now in Whispering Pines. Inevitably, these reminiscences led forward to the moment, and he began to worry about what would happen to her if he died.
He remembered the small square envelope from her physician. He fished it out of his pocket and tore it open.
The name Dr. Jordan Ferrier was blind embossed on the face of the creamcolored note card. He had precise handwriting: Dear Billy, When you start timing your visits to Barbara in order to avoid me during my regular rounds, I know the time has come for our semiannual review of her condition. Please call my office to schedule an appointment.
Sweat beaded the bottle of Elephant beer. He used Dr. Ferrier’s note card as a coaster to protect the table.
“Why don’t you call my office for an appointment,” Billy said. The baking dish was half full of lasagna. Although he had no appetite, he ate everything, shoving food into his mouth and chewing vigorously, ate as if eating could satiate anger as easily as it could hunger.
Eventually the pain in his forehead substantially subsided. He went to his fishing gear in the garage. From his angler’s kit, he retrieved needle-nose pliers with a wire-cutting edge.
In the house again, after locking the back door, he went to the bathroom, where he examined his face in the mirror. The mask of blood had dried. He looked like an aboriginal resident of Hell.
The freak had inserted the three hooks with care. Apparently, he had tried to do as little damage as possible.
To suspicious police, that tenderness would have supported the theory that these wounds were self-inflicted.
One end of the hook featured the bend and the barb. At the other end was an eye to which a snap and leader could be attached. Pulling either the barb or the eye through the puncture would further rip the flesh.
He used the pliers to snip off the eye from one hook. Between thumb and forefinger, he pinched the barbed end and extracted the cut shank. When he had removed all three hooks, he took a shower as hot as he could tolerate.
After the shower, he sterilized the punctures as best he could with rubbing alcohol and then hydrogen peroxide. He applied Neosporin and covered the wounds with gauze pads fixed with adhesive tape.
At 4:27 A.M., according to the nightstand clock, Billy went to bed. A double bed, two sets of pillows. His head on one soft pillow, the hard revolver under the other. May the judgment not be too heavy upon us…
As his eyelids fell shut of their own weight, he saw Barbara in his mind’s eye, her pale lips forming inscrutable statements.
I want to know what it says, the sea. What it is that it keeps on saying. He was asleep before the clock counted the half hour.
In his dream, he lay in a coma, unable to move or to speak, but nonetheless aware of the world around him. Doctors in white lab coats and black ski masks loomed, working on his flesh with steel scalpels, carving clusters of bloody acanthus leaves.
Resurgent pain, dull but persistent, woke him at 8:40 Wednesday morning. At first, he could not remember which of his recent nightmarish experiences had been dreamed, which real. Then he could.
He wanted another Vicodin. Instead, in the bathroom, he shook two aspirin from a bottle.
Intending to take the aspirins with orange juice, he went into the kitchen. He had neglected to put the baking pan, crusted with the residue of lasagna, in the dishwasher. The empty bottle of Elephant beer stood on Dr. Ferrier’s stationery.
Morning light flooded the room. The blinds had been raised. The windows had been covered when he’d gone to bed.
Taped to the refrigerator was a folded sheet of paper, the fourth message from the killer.
He knew beyond doubt that he had engaged the deadbolt in the back door when he had returned from the garage with the needle-nose pliers. Now it was unlocked. Stepping onto the porch, he surveyed the western woods. A few elms in the foreground, pines beyond. The morning sun bent all tree shadows in upon the grove and probed those dusky reaches without much illuminating them. As his gaze traveled the Greenwood, seeking the telltale flare of sunlight off the lenses of binoculars, he saw movement. Mysterious forms whidded among the trees, as fluid as the shadows of birds in flight, flickering palely when sunlight dappled them. A sense of the uncanny overcame Billy. Then the forms broke from the trees, and they were only deer: a buck, two does, a fawn. He thought that something must have spooked them in the woods, but they
gamboled only a few yards onto the lawn before coming to a halt. As serene as deer in Eden, they grazed upon the tender grass. Returning to the house, leaving the deer to their breakfast, Billy locked the back door even though he gained no safety from the deadbolt. If the killer didn’t possess a key, then he owned lock picks and was experienced in their use.
Leaving the note undisturbed, Billy opened the fridge. He took out a quart of orange juice.
As he drank juice from the carton, washing down the aspirins, he stared at the note taped to the refrigerator. He did not touch it.
He put two English muffins in the toaster. When they were crisp, he spread peanut butter on them and ate at the kitchen table.
If he never read the note, if he burned it in the sink and washed the ashes down the drain, he would be removing himself from the game. The first problem with that idea was the same that had pricked his conscience before: Inaction counted as a choice.
The second problem was that he himself had become a victim of assault. And he had been promised more. Are you prepared for your first wound?
The freak had not underlined or italicized first, but Billy understood where the emphasis belonged. Although he had his faults, self-delusion wasn’t one of them.
If he didn’t read the note, if he tried to opt out, he would be even less able to imagine what might be coming than he was now. When the ax fell on him, he would not even hear the blade cutting the air above his head. Besides, this was in no way a game to the killer, which Billy had realized the previous night. Denied a playmate, the freak would not simply pick up his ball and go home. He would see this through to whatever end he had in mind. Billy would have liked to carve acanthus leaves.
He wanted to work a crossword puzzle. He was good at them. Laundry, yard work, cleaning out the rain gutters, painting the mailbox: He could lose himself in the mundane chores of daily life, and take solace in them. He wanted to work at the tavern and let the hours pass in a blur of repetitive tasks and inane conversations.
All the mystery he needed—and all the drama—was to be found in his visits to Whispering Pines, in the puzzling words that Barbara sometimes spoke and in his persistent belief that there was hope for her. He needed nothing more. He had nothing more.
He had nothing more until this, which he didn’t need and didn’t want—but could not escape.
Finished with the muffins, he took the plate and knife to the sink. He washed them, dried them, and put them away.
In the bathroom, he peeled the bandage off his forehead. Each hook had torn him twice. The six punctures looked red and raw.
Gently he washed the wounds, then reapplied alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and Neosporin. He fashioned a fresh bandage.
His brow was cool to the touch. If the hook had been dirty, an infection might not be prevented by his precautions, especially if the points and barbs had scored the bone.
He was safe from tetanus. Four years previously, renovating the garage to accommodate a woodworking shop, he’d sustained a deep cut in his left hand, from a hinge that corrosion had made brittle and sharp. He’d gotten a booster shot of DPT vaccine. Tetanus didn’t worry him. He would not die of tetanus. Neither would he die of infected hook wounds. This was a false worry to give his mind a rest from real and greater threats.
In the kitchen, he peeled the note off the refrigerator. He wadded it in his fist and took it to the waste can.
Instead of throwing the note away, he smoothed it on the table and read it. Stay home this morning. An associate of mine will come to see you at 11:00. Wait for him on the front porch. If you don’t stay home, I will kill a child. If you inform the police, I will kill a child. You seem so angry. Have I not extended to you the hand of friendship? Yes, I have. Associate. The word troubled Billy. He did not like that word at all.
In rare cases, homicidal sociopaths worked in pairs. The cops called them kill buddies. The Hillside Strangler in Los Angeles had proved to be a pair of cousins. The D.C. Sniper had been two men.
The Manson Family numbered more than two.
A simple bartender might rationally hope to get the best of one ruthless psychopath. Not two.
Billy did not consider going to the police. The freak had twice proved his sincerity; if disobeyed, he would kill a child.
In this instance, at least, a choice was open to him that did not entail selecting anyone for death.
Although the first four lines of the note were straightforward, the meaning of the last two lines could not be easily interpreted. Have I not extended to you the hand of friendship?
The mockery was evident. Billy also detected a taunting quality suggesting that information had been offered here that would prove helpful to him if only he could understand it.
Rereading the message six times—eight, even ten—did not bring clarity. Only frustration.
With this note, Billy had evidence again. Although it did not amount to much and would not itself impress the police, he intended to keep it safe. In the living room, he surveyed the book collection. In recent years, it had been nothing to him except something to be dusted.
He selected In Our Time. He tucked the killer’s note between the copyright page and the dedication page, and he returned the volume to the shelf.
He thought of Lanny Olsen sitting dead in an armchair with an adventure novel in his lap.
In the bedroom, he fetched the .38 Smith and Wesson from under the pillow.
As he handled the revolver, he remembered how it felt when it discharged. The barrel wanted to rake up. The backstrap hardened against the meat of the palm, and the recoil traveled the bones of the hand and arm, seeming to churn the marrow as a school of fish churned water.
In a dresser drawer was an open box of ammunition. He put three spare cartridges in each of the front pockets of his chinos.
That seemed to be enough insurance. Whatever might be coming, it would not be a war. It would be violent and vicious, but brief.
He smoothed the night out of the bedclothes. Although he didn’t use a spread, he plumped the pillows and tucked in the sheets so they were as taut as a drum skin.
When he picked up the gun from the nightstand, he remembered not only the recoil but also what it felt like to kill a man.
Jackie O’Hara answered his cell phone with a line he sometimes used when he worked behind the bar. “What can I do ya for?”
“Boss, it’s Billy.”
“Hey, Billy, you know what they were talking about in the tavern last night?”
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