“Before you could dial 411 for information, she called back.”
“After your conversation with the 911 operator—”
“Yes. After your conversation with her, did you then call 411?”
The telephone company imposed a 411 service charge for each call. If he had placed one, they would have a record of it.
“No,” Billy said. “I felt like such a bonehead. I needed a drink.”
The reference to a drink had come naturally, not as if he were trying to sell them on his supposed inebriation. He thought he had sounded smooth, convincing.
Napolitino said, “What number would you have asked for if you had called 411?”
Billy realized that these inquiries were no longer related to his welfare and safety. A veiled antagonism colored Napolitino’s questions, subtle but unmistakable.
Billy wondered if he should openly acknowledge this development and question their intent. He didn’t want to appear guilty.
“Steve,” he said. “I needed Steve Zillis’s number.”
“He is… ?”
“He’s a bartender at the tavern.”
“He covers your shift when you’re sick?” Napolitino asked.
“No. He works the shift after mine. Why’s it matter?”
“Why did you need to call him?”
“I just wanted to warn him that I was out, and when he came on he’d have a mess to clean up because Jackie would have been tending bar alone.”
“Jackie?” Napolitino asked.
“Jackie O’Hara. He’s the owner. He’s covering my shift. Jackie doesn’t continually tidy the work bar, the lower bar, like he should. The clutter and spills just build up till the guy following him needs like a frantic fifteen minutes to get the set-up workable again.”
Every time Billy had to give a longer, more explanatory answer, he heard a shakiness arise in his voice. He didn’t think that he was imagining it; he believed that the sergeants could hear it, too.
Maybe everyone sounded this way when talking to on-duty cops for any substantial length of time. Maybe uneasiness was natural.
A lot of gesturing was not natural, however, especially not for Billy. During his longer answers, he found himself using his hands too much, and he couldn’t control them. Defensively, but trying to appear casual, he slipped his hands into the pockets of his chinos. In each pocket, his fingers found three .38 cartridges, spare ammunition. Napolitino said, “So you wanted to warn Steve Zillis he’d have a mess.”
“You don’t know Mr. Zillis’s phone number?”
“I don’t call him often.”
They were not engaged in an innocent Q and A anymore. They had not descended to the level of an interrogation yet, but they were on the down escalator. Billy did not quite understand why this should be the case—except that perhaps his answers and his demeanor had not been as exculpatory as he had thought. “Isn’t Mr. Zillis’s number in the directory?”
“I guess so. But sometimes it’s just easier to call 411.”
“Unless you mistakenly dial 911,” Napolitino said.
Billy decided that making no reply would be better than berating himself for idiocy, as he had done earlier. If the situation deteriorated to the point where they decided to search him, even just to pat him down, they would find the cartridges in his pockets. He wondered if he’d be able to explain the bullets with another facile and convincing lie. At the moment, he couldn’t think of one. But he couldn’t believe it would ever come to that. The deputies were here because they had been concerned that he might be in danger. He had only to convince them that he was safe, and they would leave. Something that he had said—or had not said—left them with lingering doubts. If he could only find the right words, the magic words, the sergeants would go away. Now, here, he chafed again at the limitations of language. As real as the change in Napolitino’s attitude seemed, a part of Billy argued that he was imagining it. The strain of disguising his anxiety had bent his perceptions, had made him a little paranoid.
He counseled himself to be still, to have patience.
“Mr. Wiles,” said Napolitino, “are you absolutely sure that you yourself dialed 911?”
Although Billy could parse that sentence, he couldn’t quite make sense out of it. He couldn’t grasp the intention behind the question, and considering everything that he had told them thus far, he didn’t know what answer they expected from him.
“Is there any possibility whatsoever that someone else in your house placed that call to 911?” Napolitino pressed.
For an instant Billy thought somehow they knew about the freak, but then he understood. He understood.
Sergeant Napolitino’s question was phrased with an eye toward eventual legal challenges to police procedure. What he wanted to ask Billy was more direct: Mr. Wiles, are you holding someone in your house under duress, and did she get free long enough to dial 911, and did you tear the phone out of her hand and hang up, hoping a connection had not been made?
To ask the question more bluntly than he had done, Napolitino would first have had to inform Billy of his constitutional right to remain silent and to have an attorney present during questioning.
Billy Wiles had become a suspect.
They were on the brink. A precipice.
Never had Billy’s mind calculated options and consequences so feverishly, aware that every second of hesitation made him appear guiltier. Fortunately, he did not have to counterfeit a flabbergasted expression. His jaw must have looked unhinged.
Not trusting his ability to fake anger or even indignation with any conviction whatsoever, Billy instead played his genuine surprise: “Good Lord, you don’t think… You do think I… Good Lord. I’m the last guy I’d expect to be mistaken for Hannibal Lecter.”
Napolitino said nothing.
Neither did Sobieski.
Their eyes were as steady as the axis of a spinning gyroscope.
“Of course you’d have to consider the possibility,” Billy said. “I understand. I do. It’s all right. Go inside if you want. Have a look around.”
“Mr. Wiles, are you inviting us to search your house for an intruder or others?”
His fingertips resting on the cartridges in his pockets, his mind’s eye resting on the shadowy form of Cottle in the knee space of the desk…
“Search it for anything,” he said affably, as if relieved to understand at last what was wanted of him. “Go ahead.”
“Mr. Wiles, I am not asking to search your residence. You do see the situation?”
“Sure. I know. It’s okay. Go to it.”
If they were invited to enter, any evidence they found could be used in court. If instead they entered uninvited, without a warrant or without adequate reason to believe that someone inside might be in jeopardy, the court would throw out the same evidence.
The sergeants would regard Billy’s cooperation, happily given, as highly suggestive of innocence.
He felt relaxed enough to take his hands out of his pockets. If he was open, relaxed, sufficiently encouraging, they might decide that he had nothing to hide. They might go away without bothering to search the place.
Napolitino glanced at Sobieski, and Sobieski nodded.
“Mr. Wiles, since you would feel better if I did so, I’ll take a quick look through the house.”
Sergeant Napolitino rounded the front of the patrol car and headed toward the porch steps, leaving Billy with Sobieski.
Guilt spills itself in fear of being spilt, someone had said, perhaps Shakespeare, perhaps O.I. Simpson. Billy couldn’t remember who had nailed that thought so well in words, but he realized the truth in the aphorism and felt it keenly now.
At the house, Sergeant Napolitino climbed the front steps and crossed the porch, stepping over the pint bottle and whatever spilled whiskey had not yet evaporated.
“Too Joe Friday,” Sobieski said.
“Vince. He’s too deadpan. He gives you those flat eyes, that cast-concrete face, but he’s not really the hardass you think.”
By sharing Napolitino’s first name, Sobieski seemed to be taking Billy into his confidence.
Astutely alert for deception and manipulation, Billy suspected that the sergeant was no more taking him into his confidence than a trapdoor spider would greet an in-falling beetle with gentleness and brotherhood. At the house, Vince Napolitino disappeared through the open front door.
“Vince has still got too much of the academy in him,” Sobieski continued.
“When he’s seasoned a little more, he won’t come on so strong.”
“He’s just doing his job,” Billy said. “I understand that. No big deal.”
Sobieski remained in the driveway because he still at least half suspected Billy of some crime. Otherwise the two deputies would have searched the house together. Sergeant Sobieski was here to grab Billy if he tried to run.
“How’re you feeling?”
“I’m all right,” Billy said. “I just feel stupid putting you to all this trouble.”
“I meant your stomach,” Sobieski said.
“I don’t know. Maybe I ate something that was off.”
“Couldn’t have been Ben Vernon’s chili,” Sobieski said. “That stuff is so hot it cures just about any sickness known to science.”
Realizing that an innocent man, with nothing to fear, would not stare anxiously at the house, waiting for Napolitino to finish the search, Billy turned away from it and gazed out across the valley, at vineyards dwindling in a golden glare, toward mountains rising in blue haze.
“Crab will do it,” Sobieski said.
“Crab, shrimp, lobster—if it’s a little off, it’ll cause true mayhem.”
“I had lasagna last night.”
“That sounds pretty safe.”
“Maybe not my lasagna,” Billy said, trying to match Sobieski’s apparent nonchalance.
“Come on, Vince,” the sergeant said with a trace of impatience. “I know you’re thorough, copadre. You don’t have to prove anything to me.” Then of Billy he asked, “You have an attic?”
The sergeant sighed. “He’ll want to check the attic.”
Out of the west came a flock of small birds, swooping low and then soaring, swooping low again. They were flickers, unusually active for this heat.
“Are you hunting for one of these?” Sobieski asked.
The deputy offered the open end of a roll of breath mints. For an instant Billy was bewildered, until he realized that his hands were in his pockets again, fingering the bullets.
He took his hands out of his chinos. “I’m afraid it’s a little late for this,” he said, but accepted the mint.
“Occupational hazard, I guess,” said Sobieski. “A bartender, you’re around the stuff all day.”
Sucking on the mint, Billy said, “Actually, I don’t drink that much. I woke up at three in the morning, couldn’t turn my mind off, worrying about things I can’t control anyway, thought a shot or two would knock me out.”
“We all have nights like that. I call it the blue willies. You can’t drink them away, though. A mug of hot chocolate will cure just about any insomnia, but not even that works with the blue willies.”
“When the hooch didn’t do the job, it still seemed like a way to pass the night. Then the morning.”
“You hold it well.”
“You don’t seem blotto.”
“I’m not. I’ve been tapering off the last few hours, trying to ease out of it to avoid a hangover.”
“Is that the trick?”
“It’s one of them.”
Sergeant Sobieski was easy to talk to: far too easy.
The flickers swooped low in their direction again, abruptly banked and soared and banked again, thirty or forty individuals flying as if with a single mind.
“They’re a real nuisance,” Sobieski said of the birds.
With pointed bills, flickers sought preferred houses and stables and churches of Napa County to drill elaborate lacelike patterns in wooden cornices, architraves, eaves, bargeboards, and corner boards.
“They never bother my place,” Billy said. “It’s cedar.”
Many people found the flickers’ destructive work so beautiful that damaged wood trim was not always replaced until time and weather brought it down.
“They don’t like cedar?” Sobieski asked.
“I don’t know. But they don’t like mine.”
Having drilled its lacework, the flicker plants acorns in many of the holes, high on the building where the sun can warm them. After a few days, the bird returns to listen to the acorns. Hearing noise in some, not in others, it pecks open the noisy acorns to eat the larvae that are living inside. So much for the sanctity of the home.
Flickers and sergeants will do their work.
Slowly, relentlessly, they will do it.
“It’s not such a big place,” Billy said, allowing himself to sound slightly impatient, as he imagined that an innocent man would.
When Sergeant Napolitino returned, he did not come out of the front door. He appeared along the south side of the house, from the direction of the detached garage.
He did not approach with one hand resting casually on his gun. Maybe that was a good sign.
As if by the sight of Napolitino, the birds were chased to a far corner of the sky.
“That’s a nice wood shop you’ve got,” he told Billy. “You could do just about anything in there.”
Somehow the young sergeant made it sound as if Billy might have used the power tools to dismember a body.
Looking out across the valley, Napolitino said, “You’ve got a pretty terrific view here.”
“It’s nice,” Billy said.
“It is,” Billy agreed.
“I’m surprised you keep all your window shades down.”
Billy had relaxed too soon. He said only half coherently, “When it’s this hot, I do, the sun.”
“Even on the sides of the house where the sun doesn’t hit.”
“On a day this bright,” Billy said, “dodging a whiskey headache, you want soothing gloom.”
“He’s been tapering off the booze all morning,” Sobieski told Napolitino,
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