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“I understand. Nevertheless—”


“If you and I and George Nguyen are run down by trucks,” Harry said, “in fact if each of us is run down by three trucks, willing candidates for trustees, acceptable to the court, are standing by and ready to take over. Until they could be installed, day-today trust affairs would be in the hands of a bonded trustmanagement firm.”


“You’ve thought of everything.”


His massive mustache lifting with his smile, Harry said, “Of all my accomplishments, I’m proudest of never having yet been disbarred.”


“But if anything happened to me—”


“You’re making me nuts.”


“—is there anyone besides Dardre that we should worry about?”


“Like who?”


“Anyone.”


“No.”


“You’re sure?”


“Yes.”


“No one who could take Barbara’s money?”


Leaning forward, arms on his desk, Harry said, “What’s this all about?”


Billy shrugged. “I don’t know. Lately I’ve just been… spooked.”


After a silence, Harry said, “Maybe it’s time for you to get a life again.”


“I’ve got a life,” Billy said, his voice too sharp considering that Harry was a friend and a decent guy.


“You can look after Barbara, be faithful to her memory, and still have a life.”


“She’s not just a memory. She’s alive. Harry, you’re the last person I want to have to punch in the mouth.”


Harry sighed. “You’re right. No one can tell you what your heart should feel.”


“Hell, Harry, I’d never punch you in the mouth.”


“Did I look scared?”


Laughing softly, Billy said, “You looked you. You looked like a Muppet.”


The graceful shadows of sunlit olive trees moved on the window glass, and in the room.


After a silence, Harry Avarkian said, “There are cases in which people have come out of a botulism coma with most of their faculties intact.”


“They’re rare,” Billy acknowledged.


“Rare isn’t the same as never.”


“I try to be realistic, but I don’t really want to be.”


“I used to like vichyssoise,” Harry said. “Now if I even happen to see it on a shelf in a supermarket, I get sick to my stomach.”


While Billy had been working at the tavern one Saturday, Barbara had opened a can of soup for dinner. Vichyssoise. She made a grilled-cheese sandwich as well.


When she didn’t answer her phone Sunday morning, he went to her apartment, let himself in with his key. He found her unconscious on the bathroom floor.


At the hospital she had been treated with antitoxin promptly enough to spare her from death. And now she slept. And slept.


Until she woke, if she woke, the extent of brain damage could not accurately be determined.


The manufacturer of the soup, a reputable company, instantly pulled an entire run of vichyssoise off store shelves. Out of more than three thousand cans, only six were found to be contaminated.


None of the six showed telltale signs of swelling; therefore, in a way, Barbara’s suffering had spared at least six other people from a similar fate. Billy never managed to find any comfort in that fact.


“She’s a lovely woman,” Harry said.


“She’s pale and thin, but she’s still beautiful to me,” Billy said. “And inside somewhere, she’s alive. She says things. I’ve told you. She’s alive in there, and thinking.”


He watched the olive-tree shadows projected onto the desk by the lens of the window.


He did not look at Harry. He didn’t want to see the pity in the attorney’s eyes.


After a while, Harry talked about the weather some more, and then Billy said, “Did you hear, at Princeton—or maybe it’s Harvard—scientists are trying to make a pig with a human brain?”


“They’re doing crap like that everywhere,” Harry said. “They never learn. The smarter they are, the dumber they get.”


“The horror of it.”


“They don’t see the horror. Just the glory and the money.”


“I don’t see the glory.”


“What glory could anyone have seen in Auschwitz? But some did.”


Following a mutual silence, Billy met Harry’s eyes. “Do I know how to cheer up a room, or what?”


“I haven’t laughed so hard since Abbott and Costello.”


Chapter 36


At an electronics store in Napa, Billy bought a compact video camera and recorder. The equipment could be used in the usual fashion or could be set instead to compile a continuous series of snapshots taken at intervals of a few seconds.


In its second mode, loaded with the proper custom disk, the system was able to provide week-long recorded surveillance similar to that in the average convenience store.


Considering that the Explorer’s broken window didn’t allow him to lock any valuables in the vehicle, he paid for his purchases and arranged to return for them in half an hour.


From the electronics store, he went in search of a newspaper-vending machine. He found one in front of a pharmacy.


The lead story concerned Giselle Winslow. The schoolteacher had been murdered in the early hours of Tuesday morning, but her body had not been found until late Tuesday afternoon, less than twenty-four hours previously. The picture of her in the newspaper was different from the one tucked in the book on Lanny Olsen’s lap, but they were photos of the same attractive woman.


Carrying the newspaper, Billy walked to the main branch of the county library. He had a computer at home but no longer had Internet access; the library offered both.


He was alone at the cluster of work stations. Other patrons were at reading tables and prowling the stacks. Maybe the embrace of “book alternatives”


wasn’t turning out to be the future of libraries, after all. When he’d been writing fiction, he had used the Worldwide Web for research. Later, it had provided distraction, escape. In the past two years, he hadn’t surfed the Web at all.


Meanwhile, things had changed. Access was faster. Searches were faster, too, and easier.


Billy typed in a search string. When he got no hits, he modified the string, then modified it again.


Drinking-age laws varied state by state. In many jurisdictions, Steve Zillis hadn’t been old enough to tend bar until he was twenty-one, so Billy dropped bartender from the search string.


Steve had been working at the tavern only five months. He and Billy had never swapped biographies.


Billy vaguely recalled that Steve had gone to college. He could not remember where. He added student to the string.


Perhaps the word murder was too limiting. He replaced it with foul play. He got one hit. From the Denver Post.


The story dated back five years and eight months. Although Billy warned himself not to read into this discovery more than it actually contained, the information struck him as relevant.


That November, at the University of Colorado at Denver, a coed named Judith Sarah Kesselman, eighteen, had gone missing. Initially, at least, there were no signs of foul play.


In what appeared to be the first newspaper piece about the missing young woman, another UCD student, Steven Zillis, nineteen, was quoted as saying that Judith was “a wonderful girl, compassionate and concerned, a friend to everyone.” He worried because “Judi is too responsible to just go off for a couple days without telling anyone her plans.”


Another search string related to Judith Sarah Kesselman produced scores of hits. Billy steeled himself for the discovery that her dead body had been found without a face.


He went through the articles, reading closely at first. As the material became repetitive, he scanned.


Friends, relatives, and professors of Judith Kesselman were often quoted. Steven Zillis was not mentioned again.


Judging by the wealth of material available to Billy, no trace of Judith had ever been found. She vanished as completely as if she had stepped out of this universe into another.


The frequency of newspaper coverage declined steadily through Christmas of that year. It dropped sharply with the new year.


The media favors dead bodies over missing ones, blood over mystery. There is always new and exciting violence.


The last piece was dated on the fifth anniversary of Judith’s disappearance. Her hometown was Laguna Beach, California, and the article appeared in the Orange County Register.


A columnist, sympathetic to the Kesselman family’s unresolved grief, wrote movingly about their enduring hope that Judith was still alive. Somehow. Somewhere. And one day coming home.


She had been a music major. She played piano well, and guitar. She liked gospel music. And dogs. And long walks on the beach.


The press had been provided two photos of her. In both she looked impish, amused, and gentle.


Although Billy had never known Judith Kesselman, he could not bear the promise of her fresh face. He avoided looking at her photos. He printed selected articles for review later. He folded them inside the newspaper that he’d gotten from the vending machine.


As he was leaving the library, passing the reading tables, a man said,


“Billy Wiles. Long time no see.”


In a chair at one of the tables, smiling broadly, sat Sheriff John Palmer.


Chapter 37


Although he wore his uniform, without hat, the sheriff less resembled an officer of the law than he did a politician. Because his was an elected position, he was in fact both cop and pol.


Barbered to the point of affectation, shaved as smooth as a glass peach, teeth veneered to white perfection, features suitable for a Roman coin, he looked ten years younger than he was—and ready for the cameras. Although Palmer sat at a reading table, neither a magazine nor a newspaper, nor a book, lay in front of him. He looked like he knew everything already.


Palmer did not get up. Billy remained standing.


“How’re things up in Vineyard Hills?” Palmer asked.


“Lots of vineyards and hills,” Billy said.


“You still tending bar?”


“There’s always a need. It’s the third oldest profession.”


“What’s second, after whores?” Palmer asked.


“Politicians.”


The sheriff seemed to be amused. “Are you writing these days?”


“A little,” Billy lied.


One of his published short stories had featured a character who was a thinly veiled portrait of John Palmer.


“Doing some research for your writing?” Palmer asked.


From where the sheriff sat, he had a direct view of the computer at which Billy had been working, although not of its screen.


Maybe Palmer had a way of finding out what Billy had been doing at the work station. A public computer might keep a record of a user’s keystrokes. No. Probably not. Besides, there were privacy laws.


“Yeah,” Billy said. “Some research.”


“Deputy of mine saw you parking in front of Harry Avarkian’s office.”


Billy said nothing.


“Three minutes after you left Harry’s, the time on your parking meter ran out.”


That might be true.


Palmer said, “I put two quarters in for you.”


“Thanks.”


“The window’s busted out of your driver’s door.”


“A little accident,” Billy said.


“It’s not a code violation, but you ought to get it fixed.”


“I’ve got an appointment on Friday,” Billy lied.


“This doesn’t bother you, does it?” the sheriff asked.


“What?”


“You and me talking like this.” Palmer surveyed the library. No one was close to them. “Just the two of us.”


“It doesn’t bother me,” Billy said.


He had every right and reason to walk away. Instead he stayed, determined not to give even the appearance of intimidation.


Twenty years ago, as a fourteen-year-old boy, Billy Wiles had endured interrogations conducted in such a way that they should have destroyed John Palmer’s law-enforcement career.


Instead, Palmer had been promoted from lieutenant to captain, later to chief. Eventually he had campaigned for the office of sheriff and had been elected. Twice.


Harry Avarkian had a succinct explanation for Palmer’s ascent and claimed that he had heard it from deputies in the department: Shit floats.


“How’s Miss Mandel these days?” Palmer asked.


“The same.”


He wondered if Palmer knew about the 911 call. Napolitino and Sobieski had no reason to file a report on it, especially since it had been a false alarm. Besides, the two sergeants worked out of the St. Helena substation. While Sheriff Palmer toured throughout his jurisdiction, his office was here in the county seat.


“What a sad thing that was,” Palmer said.


Billy did not reply.


“At least for the rest of her life, she’ll get the best care, with all that money.”


“She’s going to get well. She’ll come out of it.”


“Do you really think so?”


“Yes.”


“All that money—I hope you’re right.”


“I am.”


“She ought to have a chance to enjoy all that money.”


Stone-faced, Billy gave no slightest sign that he understood Palmer’s pointed implication.


Yawning, stretching, so relaxed and casual in his chair, Palmer probably saw himself as a cat toying with a mouse. “Well, people are going to be happy to hear that you’re not burnt out, that you’re writing a little.”


“What people?”


“People who like your writing, of course.”


“Do you know any of them?”


Palmer shrugged. “I don’t move in those circles. But I’m pretty sure about one thing…”


Because the sheriff wanted to be asked What?, Billy didn’t ask. Off Billy’s silence, Palmer said, “I’m pretty sure your mom and dad would be so proud.”


Billy walked away from him and out of the library.


After the air conditioning, the summer heat assaulted him. He felt as though he were suffocating when he inhaled, as if strangling when he exhaled. Or maybe it wasn’t the heat, but the past.


Chapter 38


Speeding north on Route 29, out of sun and into sun, with the famous and fertile valley narrowing imperceptibly at first and then perceptibly, Billy worried about protecting Barbara.


The trust fund could hire around-the-clock security for the duration, until Billy found the freak or until the freak finished him. Money was no issue. But this wasn’t a big city. The phone book didn’t contain page after page of ads for private-security firms.

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