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“trying to ease his way sober and avoid a hangover.”


“Is that the trick?” Napolitino asked.


Billy said, “It’s one of them.”


“It’s nice and cool in there.”


“Cool helps, too,” Billy said.


“Rosalyn said you lost your air conditioning.”


Billy had forgotten that little lie, such a small filament in his enormous patchwork web of deceit.


He said, “It conks out for a few hours, then it comes on, then it conks out again. I don’t know if maybe it’s a compressor problem.”


“Tomorrow’s supposed to be a scorcher,” Napolitino said, still gazing out across the valley. “Better get a repairman if they aren’t already booked till Christmas.”


“I’m going to have a look at it myself a little later,” Billy said. “I’m pretty handy with things.”


“Don’t go poking around in machinery until you’re full sober.”


“I won’t. I’ll wait.”


“Especially not electrical equipment.”


“I’m going to make something to eat. That’ll help. Maybe it’ll even help my stomach.” Napolitino finally looked at Billy. “I’m sorry to have kept you out here in the sun, with your headache and all.” The sergeant sounded sincere, conciliatory for the first time, but his eyes were as cold and dark and humbling as the muzzles of a pair of pistols.


“The whole thing’s my fault,” Billy said. “You guys were just doing your job. I’ve already said six ways I’m an idiot. There’s no other way to say it. I’m really sorry to have wasted your time.”


“We’re here ‘to serve and protect.’” Napolitino smiled thinly. “It even says so on the door of the car.”


“I liked it better when it said ‘the best deputies money can buy,’” said Sergeant Sobieski, surprising a laugh from Billy but drawing only a vaguely annoyed look from Napolitino. “Billy, maybe it’s time to stop the tapering off and switch to food.”


Billy nodded. “You’re right.”


As he walked to the house, he felt they were watching him. He didn’t look back. His heart had been relatively calm. Now it pounded again. He couldn’t believe his luck. He feared that it wouldn’t hold. On the porch, he took his watch off the railing, put it on his wrist. He bent down to pick up the pint bottle. He didn’t see the cap. It must have rolled off the porch or under a rocker.


At the table beside his chair, he dropped the three crackers into the empty Ritz box, which for a while had held the .38 revolver. He picked up the glass of cola.


He expected to hear the engines of the patrol cars start up. They didn’t. Without glancing back, he carried the glass and the box and the bottle inside. He closed the door and leaned against it.


Outside, the day remained still, the engines silent.


Chapter 31


Sudden superstition warned Billy that as long as he waited with his back against the door, Sergeants Napolitino and Sobieski would not leave. Listening, he went into the kitchen. He dropped the Ritz box in the trash can.


Listening, he poured the last ounce of whiskey from the bottle into the sink, and then chased it with the cola in the glass. He put the bottle in the trash, the glass in the dishwasher.


When by this time Billy had still heard no engines starting up, curiosity gnawed at him with ratty persistence.


The blinded house grew increasingly claustrophobic. Perhaps because he knew that it contained a corpse, it seemed to be shrinking to the dimensions of a casket.


He went into the living room, sorely tempted to put up one of the pleated shades, all of them. But he didn’t want the sergeants to think that he raised the shades to watch them and that their continued presence worried him. Cautiously, he bent the edge of one of the shades back from the window frame. He was not at an angle to see the driveway.


Billy moved to another window, tried again, and saw the two men standing at Napolitino’s car, where he’d left them. Neither deputy directly faced the house.


They appeared to be deep in conversation. They weren’t likely to be discussing baseball.


He wondered if Napolitino had thought to search the woodworking shop for the half-cut, one-by-six walnut plank with the knothole. The sergeant would not have found that length of lumber, of course, because it did not exist. When Sobieski turned his head toward the house, Billy at once let go of the shade. He hoped that he had been quick enough.


Until they were gone, Billy could do nothing other than worry. With everything he had to fret about, however, it was odd that his all-enveloping fog of anxiety quickly condensed upon the bizarre idea that Ralph Cottle’s body no longer lay under the desk in the study, where he had left it. To have moved the cadaver, the killer would have had to return to the house while both of the deputies had been speaking with Billy in the driveway, before he himself had returned to the house. The freak had proved his boldness; but this would have been recklessness if not the worst temerity. If the corpse had been moved, however, he would have to find it. He couldn’t afford to wait until it turned up by surprise in an inconvenient and incriminating moment.


Billy withdrew the .38 revolver from under the sofa cushion. When he broke out the cylinder and checked to be certain all six rounds were whole and loaded, he assured himself that this was an act of healthy suspicion, not a sign of creeping paranoia.


He followed the hallway as the disquiet that rang softly along his nerves quickened and, by the time he crossed the threshold into the study, swelled into clamorous alarm.


He shoved the office chair out of the way.


Embraced on three sides by the knee space, in the soft folds of his baggy and rumpled suit, Ralph Cottle looked like the meat of a walnut snugged inside its shell.


Even minutes previously, Billy could not have imagined that he would ever be relieved to find a corpse in his house.


He suspected that several pieces of subtle but direct evidence tying him to Cottle had been planted on the man’s body. Even if he took the time for a meticulous inspection of the cadaver, he would surely miss one incriminating bit or another.


The body must be destroyed or buried where it would never be found. Billy had not yet decided how to dispose of it; but even as he coped with the mounting developments of the current crisis, dark corners of his mind were composing gruesome scenarios.


Finding the body as he left it, he also discovered the computer screen aglow and waiting. He had loaded the diskette that he’d found in Cottle’s dead hands, but before he had been able to review its contents, Rosalyn Chan had called to ask if he had just phoned 911.


He rolled the office chair in front of the desk once more. He sat before the computer, tucking his legs under the chair, away from the corpse. The diskette contained three documents. The first was labeled Why, without a question mark.


When he accessed the document, he found that it was short: Because I, too, am a fisher of men.


Billy read the line three times. He didn’t know what to make of it, but the hook wounds in his brow burned anew.


He recognized the religious reference. Christ had been called a fisher of men.


The easy inference was that the killer might be a religious fanatic who thought he heard divine voices urging him to kill, but easy inferences were usually wrong. Sound inductive reasoning required more than one particular from which to generalize.


Besides, the freak possessed a knack for duplicity, a faculty for obfuscation, a talent for deception, and a genius for carefully crafted enigma. He preferred the oblique to the straightforward, the circuitous to the direct. Why. Because I, too, am a fisher of men.


The true, full meaning of that statement could not be surmised let alone ascertained in a hundred readings, nor in the limited time that Billy currently could devote to its analysis.


The second document was labeled How. It proved to be no less mysterious than the first: Cruelty, violence, death. Movement, velocity, impact. Flesh, blood, bone.


Although without rhyme or meter, that triad seemed almost to be a stanza of verse. As with the most recondite poetry, the meaning was not on the surface.


Billy had the strange feeling that those three lines were three answers and that if only he knew the questions, he would also know the identity of the killer.


Whether that impression might be reliable intuition or delusion, he had no time just now to consider it. Lanny’s body still awaited final disposition, as did Cottle’s. Billy was half convinced that if he consulted his wristwatch, he would see the minute and hour hands spinning as if they were counting off mere seconds.


The third document on the diskette was labeled When, and as Billy accessed it, the dead man in the knee space seized his foot. If Billy could have breathed, he would have cried out. By the time the trapped exhalation exploded from his throat, however, he realized that the explanation was less supernatural than it had at first seemed. The dead man had not seized him; in Billy’s agitation, he had pressed his feet against the corpse. He tucked them under the chair once more. On the screen, the document labeled When offered a message that required less interpretation than Why and How. My last killing: midnight Thursday. Your suicide: soon thereafter.


Chapter 32


My last killing: midnight Thursday. Your suicide: soon thereafter. Billy Wiles consulted his wristwatch. A few minutes past noon, Wednesday.


If the freak meant what he said, this performance, or whatever it was, would conclude in thirty-six hours. Hell was eternal, but any hell on earth must be by definition finite.


The reference to a “last” killing did not necessarily mean that only one more murder lay ahead. In the past day and a half, the freak had killed three, and in the day and a half ahead, he might be no less murderous. Cruelty, violence, death. Movement, velocity, impact. Flesh, blood, bone. Of those nine words in the second document, one struck Billy as more pertinent than the others. Velocity.


The movement had begun when the first note had been left under the windshield wiper on the Explorer. The impact would come with the last killing, the one meant to make him consider suicide.


Meanwhile, at a steadily accelerating pace, new challenges were being thrown at Billy, keeping him off balance. The word velocity seemed to promise him that the longest plunges of this roller coaster were still ahead. He neither disbelieved the promise of increasing velocity nor dismissed the confident assertion that he would commit suicide.


Suicide was a mortal sin, but Billy knew himself to be a shallow man, weak in some ways, flawed. At this point, he wasn’t capable of selfdestruction; but hearts and minds can both be broken. He had little difficulty imagining what might drive him to such a brink. In fact, no difficulty at all.


Barbara Mandel’s death alone would not drive him to suicide. For almost four years, he had prepared himself for her passing. He had hardened himself to the idea of living without even the hope of her recovery. The manner of her murder, however, might cause a fatal stress crack in Billy’s mental architecture. In her coma, she might not be aware of much that the killer did to her. Nevertheless, assuming that she would be subjected to pain, to vile abuse, to gross indignities, Billy could imagine a weight of horror so great that he would break under it. This was a man who beat lovely young schoolteachers to death and peeled off women’s faces.


Furthermore, if the freak intended to engineer circumstances in which it would appear that Billy himself had killed not only Giselle Winslow, Lanny, and Ralph Cottle, but also Barbara, then Billy would not want to endure months of being a media sensation or the spotlight of the trial, or the abiding suspicion with which he’d be regarded even if found innocent in a court of law.


The freak killed for pleasure, but also with a purpose and a plan. Whatever the purpose, the plan might be to convince police that Billy committed the homicides leading to Barbara’s murder in her bed at Whispering Pines, that his intent had been to establish that a brutal serial killer was at work in the county, thereby directing suspicion from himself to the nonexistent psychopath. If the freak was clever—and he would be—the authorities would swallow that theory as if it were a spoonful of vanilla ice cream. After all, in their eyes, Billy had a strong motive to do away with Barbara.


Her medical care was covered by the investment income earned by a seven-million-dollar trust fund established with a legal settlement from the corporation responsible for her coma. Billy was the primary of three trustees who managed the fund.


If Barbara died while in a coma, Billy was the sole heir to her estate. He did not want the money, none of it, and would not keep it if it came to him. In that sad event, he had always intended to give the millions away. No one, of course, would believe that was his intention.


Especially not after the freak was finished setting him up, if in fact that’s what the freak was doing.


The call to 911 certainly seemed to signify that intention. It had drawn Billy to the attention of the sheriff’s department in a context that they would remember… and wonder about.


Now Billy combined all three documents and printed them on a single sheet of paper: Because I, too, am a fisher of men. Cruelty, violence, death. Movement, velocity, impact. Flesh, blood, bone. My last killing: midnight Thursday. Your suicide: soon thereafter.


With scissors, Billy trimmed out the block of text, intending to fold it and put it in his wallet, where he would have it for easy review. As he finished, he realized that this paper appeared identical to that on which he had received the first four messages from the killer. If the diskette in Cottle’s hands had been prepared on this computer, perhaps the first four notes had been composed here as well.


He exited Microsoft Word, and then entered the software again. He called up the directory.


The list of documents was not long. He had used this program solely for writing fiction.


He recognized the key words of the titles of his single novel and of the short stories that he had completed, as well as those of stories never finished. Only one document was unfamiliar to him: Death.


When he loaded that document, he discovered the text of the first four messages from the freak.


He hesitated, remembering procedures. Then he rattled the keys, summoning the date when the document had been first composed, which turned out to be 10:09 A.M. the previous Friday.


Billy had left for work fifteen minutes earlier than usual that day. He had swung by the post office to mail some bills.


The two notes left on his windshield, the one taped over the Explorer’s ignition, and even the one he’d found on his refrigerator this same morning had been prepared on this computer more than three days before the first had been delivered, before the nightmare had begun Monday evening.


If Lanny had not destroyed the first two notes to save his job, if Billy had offered them to the police as evidence, sooner or later the authorities would have checked this computer. They would have reached the inescapable conclusion that Billy himself had written the notes.

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