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“If you won’t do it, he will,” said Cottle.


“Why would I choose? I’m screwed either way, aren’t I?”


“I don’t know. I don’t want to know. It’s not my business.”


“The hell it’s not.”


“It’s not my business,” Cottle insisted. “I’ve got to sit here till you give me your decision, then I give it to him, and I’m not a part of it anymore. You’ve got just more than two minutes left.”


“I’m going to the cops.”


“It’s too late for that.”


“I’m in shit to my hips,” Billy admitted, “but I’ll only be deeper later.”


When Billy rose from his rocking chair, Cottle said sharply, “Sit down! If you try to leave this porch before I do, you’ll be shot in the head.”


The stewbum stowed bottles in his pockets, not weapons. Even if Cottle had a gun, Billy was confident about taking it from him.


“Not me,” Cottle said. “Him. How he’s watching us right now is through the scope of a high-powered rifle.”


The gloom of the woods to the north, the dazzle of sun on the slope to the east, the rock formations and swales of the fields on the south side of the county road…


“He can just about read our lips,” Cottle said. “It’s the finest marksman’s gun, and he’s qualified for it. He can nail you at a thousand yards.”


“Maybe that’s what I want.”


“He’s willing to oblige. But he doesn’t think you’re ready. He says you will be eventually. In the end, he says, you’ll ask him to kill you. But not yet.”


Even with his weight of guilt, Billy Wiles suddenly felt like a feather, and he feared a sudden wind. He settled into the rocking chair.


“Why it’s too late to go to the cops,” Cottle said, “is because he planted evidence in her place, on her body.”


The day remained still, but here came the wind. “What evidence?”


“For one thing, some of your hairs in her fist and under her fingernails.”


Billy’s mouth felt numb. “How would he get my hairs?”


“From your shower drain.”


Before the nightmare had begun, when Giselle Winslow had still been alive, the freak had already been in this house.


The shade on the porch no longer held the summer heat at bay. Billy might as well have been standing on blacktop in the sun. “What else besides hairs?”


“He didn’t say. But it’s nothing the police will tie to you… unless for some reason you come under suspicion.”


“Which he can make happen.”


“If the cops start thinking maybe they should ask you for a DNA sample, you’re finished.”


Cottle glanced at the wristwatch.


So did Billy.


“One minute left,” Cottle advised.


Chapter 23


One minute. Billy Wiles stared at his wristwatch as if it were a bomb clock counting down to detonation.


He wasn’t thinking about the fleeting seconds or the evidence planted at the scene of Giselle Winslow’s murder, or about being in the sights of a highpowered rifle. Instead, he was composing a mental directory of people in his life. Faces flickered rapidly through his mind. Those he liked. Those toward whom he was indifferent. Those he disliked.


These were dark shoals. He could founder on them. Yet turning his mind away from such thoughts proved as difficult as ignoring a knife held to his throat.


A knife of another kind, a knife of guilt cut him loose from these considerations at last. Realizing how seriously he had been calculating the comparative value of the people in his life, assessing which of them had a lesser right to life than others, he could not repress a shudder of disgust.


“No,” he said, seconds before his time ran out. “No, I’ll never choose. He can go to Hell.”


“Then he’ll choose for you,” Cottle reminded Billy.


“He can go to Hell.”


“All right. It’s your call. It’s on your shoulders, Mr. Wiles. It’s none of my business.”


“Now what?”


“You stay in the chair, sir, right where you are. I’m supposed to go inside to the kitchen phone, wait for his call, and tell him your decision.”


“I’ll go inside,” Billy said. “I’ll take the call.”


“You’re making me crazy,” Cottle said, “you’re gonna get us both killed.”


“It’s my house.”


When he raised the bottle to his mouth, Cottle’s hands shook so badly that the glass rattled against his teeth. Whiskey dribbled down his chin. Without wiping the spill off his face, he said, “He wants you in that chair. You try to go inside, he’ll blow your brains out before you reach the door.”


“What sense does that make?”


“Then he’ll blow my brains out, too, because I couldn’t make you listen to me.”


“He won’t,” Billy disagreed, beginning to intuit something of the freak’s perspective. “He’s not ready to end it, not this way.”


“What do you know? You don’t know. You don’t know squat.”


“He’s got a plan, a purpose, something that might not make sense to you or me, but it makes sense to him.”


“I’m just a useless damn drunk, but even I know you’re full of crap.”


“He wants to work it all out the way he conceived it,” Billy said more to himself than to Cottle, “not just end it in the middle with two head shots.”


Anxiously surveying the sun-dazzled day beyond the front porch, spraying spittle as he spoke, Ralph Cottle said, “You bullheaded sonofabitch, will you listen to me! You don’t listen!”


“I’m listening.”


“More than anything, he wants things done his way. He doesn’t want to talk to you. Get it? Maybe he doesn’t want you to hear his voice.”


That made sense if the freak was someone whom Billy knew.


Cottle said, “Or maybe he just doesn’t want to listen to your bullshit any more than I do. I don’t know. If you want to answer the phone to show him who’s boss, just to piss him off, and he blows your brains out, I don’t give a rat’s ass. But then he’ll kill me, too, and you can’t choose for me. You can’t choose for me!”


Billy knew that his instincts were right: The freak wouldn’t shoot them.


“Your five minutes are up,” Cottle said worriedly, gesturing toward the watch on the railing. “Six minutes. You’re past six minutes. He won’t like this.”


In truth, Billy didn’t know the freak would hold his fire. He suspected that would be the case, intuited it, but he didn’t know.


“Your time is up. Going on seven minutes. Seven minutes. He expects me to leave the porch, go inside.”


Cottle’s faded blue eyes were boiled in fear. He had so little to live for, yet he was desperate to live. What else is there? he had said.


“Go,” Billy told him.


“What?”


“Go inside. Go to the phone.”


Bolting up from his rocking chair, Cottle dropped the open pint. Several ounces of whiskey spilled from the uncapped mouth.


Cottle didn’t stoop to retrieve his treasure. In fact, in his haste to get to the front door, he kicked the bottle and sent it spinning across the porch floor. At the threshold to the house, he looked back and said, “I’m not sure how quick he’ll call.”


“You just remember every word he says,” Billy instructed. “You remember every word exactly.”


“All right, sir. I will.”


“And every inflection. You remember every word and how he says it, and you come tell me.”


“I will, Mr. Wiles. Every word,” Cottle promised, and he went into the house.


Billy remained alone on the porch. Perhaps still in the crosshairs of a telescopic sight.


Chapter 24


Three butterflies, aerial geishas, danced out of the sunshine, into the porch shadows. Their silken kimonos flaring and folding and flaring in graceful swirls of color, as bashful as faces hidden behind the pleats of hand-painted fans, they fled, quick, into the brightness from which they had come. Performance.


Perhaps this was the word that defined the killer, that would lead to an explanation of his actions, and that if understood would reveal his Achilles’


heel.


According to Ralph Cottle, the freak had referred to the murder of a woman and to the peeling away of her face as “the second act” in one of his


“best performances.”


In assuming that the psychopath considered murder to be largely a thrilling game, Billy had been wrong. Sport might be part of it, but this man wasn’t entirely or even primarily motivated by a perverse sense of fun. Billy didn’t quite know what to make of the word performance. Maybe to his nemesis, the world was a stage, reality was a fraud, and all was artifice. How that view could explain this homicidal behavior—or predict it—Billy didn’t know, couldn’t guess. Nemesis represented wrong thinking. A nemesis was an enemy who could not be defeated. The better word was adversary. Billy had not given up hope.


With the front door standing open, the ring of the telephone would carry to the front porch. He had not heard it yet.


Lazily rocking the chair, not to make a harder target of himself, but to disguise his anxiety and thus rob the killer of the chance to take any satisfaction from it, Billy studied the nearest California live oak and then the next to the nearest.


They were huge old trees with broad canopies. Their trunks and branches looked black in the bright sun.


In those shadowy arbors, a sniper might find a crook of branches to serve as a platform to accommodate him and a tripod for his rifle. The two nearest houses down-slope, one on this side of the road, one on the farther side, were well within the thousand-yard range. If nobody had been home, the freak could have broken into one of those places; he might now be at an upstairs window. Performance.


Billy was not able to think of any person in his life to whom that word had greater relevance than it did to Steve Zillis. The tavern was a stage to Steve. Was it logical, however, that the freak, a vicious serial killer with a taste for mutilation, would have a sense of humor so simple and a concept of theater so puerile that he got a kick out of nose-shot peanuts, tongue-tied cherry stems, and jokes about dumb blondes?


Repeatedly Billy glanced at the wristwatch on the porch railing. Three minutes was a reasonable wait, even four. But when five passed, that seemed to be too many.


He started to get up from the chair, but he heard Cottle’s voice in memory—You can’t choose for me!—and a weight of responsibility pressed him back into the rocker.


Because Billy had kept Cottle on the porch past the five-minute deadline, the freak might be playing payback, making them wait so their nerves would fray a little, to teach them not to screw with the big dog. That thought comforted Billy for a minute. Then a more ominous possibility occurred to him.


When Cottle hadn’t gone into the house promptly at the five-minute mark, when Billy had delayed two or three minutes, maybe the killer had taken the lack of punctuality to mean that Billy refused to choose a victim, which was indeed the case.


Having made that assumption, the freak might have decided that he had no reason to call Ralph Cottle. At that moment he could have picked up his rifle and walked out of the woods or away from one of the houses down-slope. If he’d selected a victim in advance of hearing Billy’s answer, which surely he had done, he might be eager to get on with his plans. One of the people in Billy’s life, the most important person, was of course Barbara, helpless in Whispering Pines.


Independent of any experience or knowledge that would justify his confidence, Billy sensed that this bizarre drama was still in the first act of three. His wretched antagonist was far from ready to conclude this performance; therefore, Barbara was not in imminent jeopardy. If the freak knew anything about the subject of his torment—and he seemed to know a lot—he would realize that Barbara’s death would instantly take all the fight out of Billy. Resistance was essential to drama. Conflict. Without Billy, there would be no act two.


He must take steps to protect Barbara. But he needed to think hard about how, and he had time to do so.


If he was wrong about that, if Barbara was next, then this world was about to become a brief and bitter purgatory before he quickly moved on to a room in Hell.


Seven minutes had passed since Cottle had gone inside, seven and counting.


Billy got up from the rocker. His legs felt weak. He pulled the revolver from the box of Ritz crackers. He didn’t care if the drunkard saw it.


At the threshold of the open door, he called out, “Cottle?” and received no reply, and said, “Cottle, damn it.”


He went into the house, crossed the living room, and stepped into the kitchen.


Ralph Cottle wasn’t there. The back door stood open, and Billy knew that he had left it closed, locked.


He went out onto the back porch. Cottle wasn’t there, either, nor was he in the yard. He had gone.


The phone hadn’t rung, yet Cottle had gone. Maybe when the call hadn’t come in, Cottle had taken the silence to be a sign that the killer judged him a failure. He could have panicked and fled.


Returning to the house, closing the door behind himself, Billy swept the kitchen with his gaze, looking for something amiss. He had no idea what that might be.


Everything seemed to be as it had been, as it should be. Uncertainty gave way to misgiving, however, and misgiving became suspicion. Cottle must have taken something, brought something, done something.


From the kitchen to the living room, to the study, Billy found nothing out of the ordinary, but in the bathroom he discovered Ralph Cottle. Dead.


Chapter 25


Hard fluorescent light painted a film of faux frost on Cottle’s open eyes. Having passed on rather than out, the drunk sat on the lidded seat of the toilet, leaning against the tank, head tipped back, mouth slack. Yellow rotten teeth framed a tongue that appeared milky pink and vaguely fissured from the dehydration of perpetual inebriation.


Billy stood breathless, stunned stupid, then backed out of the bathroom into the hall, staring at the corpse through the doorway.


He didn’t retreat because of any stench. Cottle had not voided bowels or bladder in his death throes. He remained unkempt but not filthy—the only thing about which he had seemed to have any pride.


Billy just couldn’t breathe in the bathroom, as though all the air had been sucked out of that space, as though the dead man had been killed by a sudden vacuum that now threatened to suffocate Billy himself.

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