Ivy believed that she was a haruspex. Haruspices, a class of priests in ancient Rome, divined the future from the entrails of animals killed in sacrifices.
They had been respected, even revered, by other Romans, but most likely they had not received a lot of party invitations.
Ivy wasn’t morbid. Haruspicy did not occupy the center of her life. She seldom talked to customers about it.
Neither did she have the stomach to stir through entrails. For a haruspex, she was squeamish.
Instead, she found meaning in the species of the cadaver, in the circumstances of its discovery, in its position related to the points of the compass, and in other arcane aspects of its condition.
Her predictions seldom if ever came true, but Ivy persisted.
“Whatever it turns out to mean,” she told Billy as she picked up her order pad and a pencil, “it’s a bad sign. A dead possum never indicates good fortune.”
“I’ve noticed that myself.”
“Especially not when its nose is pointing north and its tail is pointing east.”
Thirsty men trailed through the door soon after Ivy, as if she were a mirage of an oasis that they had been pursuing all day. Only a few sat at the bar; the others kept her bustling table to table.
Although the tavern’s middle-class clientele were not high rollers, Ivy’s income from tips exceeded what she might have earned had she attained a doctoral degree in economics.
An hour later, at five o’clock, Shirley Trueblood, the second evening waitress, came on duty. Fifty-six, stout, wearing jasmine perfume, Shirley had her own following. Certain men in barrooms always wanted mothering. Some women, too.
The day-shift short-order cook, Ben Vernon, went home. The evening cook, Ramon Padillo, came aboard. The tavern offered only bar food: cheeseburgers, fries, Buffalo wings, quesadillas, nachos…
Ramon had noticed that on the nights Ivy Elgin worked, the spicy dishes sold in greater numbers than when she wasn’t waitressing. Guys ordered more things in tomatillo sauce, went through a lot of little bottles of Tabasco, and asked for sliced jalapenos on their burgers.
“I think,” Ramon once told Billy, “they’re unconsciously packing heat into their gonads to be ready if she comes on to them.”
“No one in this joint has a chance at Ivy,” Billy assured him.
“You never know,” Ramon had said coyly.
“Don’t tell me you’re packing in the peppers, too.”
“So many I have killer heartburn some nights,” Ramon had said. “But I’m ready.”
With Ramon came the evening bartender, Steve Zillis, whose shift overlapped Billy’s by an hour. At twenty-four, he was ten years younger than Billy but twenty years less mature.
For Steve, the height of sophisticated humor was any limerick sufficiently obscene to cause grown men to blush.
He could tie knots in a cherry stem with just his tongue, load his right nostril with peanuts and fire them accurately into a target glass, and blow cigarette smoke out of his right ear.
As usual, Steve vaulted over the end gate in the bar instead of pushing through it. “How’re they hangin’, Kemosabe?”
“One hour to go,” Billy said, “and I get my life back.”
“This is life,” Steve protested. “The center of the action.”
The tragedy of Steve Zillis was that he meant what he said. To him, this common tavern was a glamorous cabaret.
After tying on an apron, he snatched three olives from a bowl, juggled them with dazzling speed, and then caught them one at a time in his mouth.
When two drunks at the bar clapped loudly, Steve basked in their applause as if he were the star tenor at the Metropolitan Opera and had earned the adulation of a refined and knowledgeable audience.
In spite of the affliction of Steve Zillis’s company, this final hour of Billy’s shift passed quickly. The tavern was busy enough to keep two bartenders occupied as the late-afternoon tipplers delayed going home and the evening drinkers arrived.
As much as he ever could, Billy liked the place during this transitional time. The customers were at peak coherency and happier than they would be later, when alcohol washed them toward melancholy.
Because the windows faced east and the sun lay west, softest daylight painted the panes. The ceiling fixtures layered a coppery glow over the burntred mahogany paneling and booths. The fragrant air was savory with the scents of wood flooring pickled in stale beer, candle wax, cheeseburgers, fried onion rings.
Billy didn’t like the place enough, however, to linger past the end of his shift. He left promptly at seven.
If he’d been Steve Zillis, he would have made a production of his exit. Instead, he departed as quietly as a ghost dematerializing from its haunt. Outside, less than two hours of summer daylight remained. The sky was an electric Maxfield Parrish blue in the east, a paler blue in the west, where the sun still bleached it.
As he approached his Ford Explorer, he noticed a rectangle of white paper under the driver’s-side windshield wiper.
Behind the steering wheel, with his door still open, he unfolded the paper, expecting to find a handbill of some kind, advertising a car wash or a maid service. He discovered a neatly typed message:
If you don’t take this note to the police and get them involved, I will kill a lovely blond schoolteacher somewhere in Napa County.
If you do take this note to the police, I will instead kill an elderly woman active in charity work.
You have six hours to decide. The choice is yours.
Billy didn’t at that instant feel the world tilt under him, but it did. The plunge had not yet begun, but it would. Soon.
Mickey Mouse took a bullet in the throat.
The 9-mm pistol cracked three more times in rapid succession, shredding Donald Duck’s face.
Lanny Olsen, the shooter, lived at the end of a fissured blacktop lane, against a stony hillside where grapes would never grow. He had no view of the fabled Napa Valley.
As compensation for his unfashionable address, the property was shaded by beautiful plum trees and towering elms, brightened by wild azaleas. And it was private.
The nearest neighbor lived at such a distance that Lanny could have partied 24/7 without disturbing anyone. This offered no benefit to Lanny because he usually went to bed at nine-thirty; his idea of a party was a case of beer, a bag of chips, and a poker game.
The location of his property, however, was conducive to target shooting. He was the most practiced shot in the sheriff’s department. As a boy, he’d wanted to be a cartoonist. He had talent. The Disneyperfect portraits of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, fixed to the hay-bale backstop, were Lanny’s work.
Ejecting the spent magazine from his pistol, Lanny said, “You should have been here yesterday. I head-shot twelve Road Runners in a row, not a wasted round.”
Billy said, “Wile E. Coyote would’ve been thrilled. You ever shoot at ordinary targets?”
“What would be the fun in that?”
“You ever shoot the Simpsons?”
“Homer, Bart—all of them but Marge,” Lanny said. “Never Marge.”
Lanny might have gone to art school if his domineering father, Ansel, had not been determined that his son would follow him into law enforcement as Ansel himself had followed his father.
Pearl, Lanny’s mother, had been as supportive as her illness allowed. When Lanny was sixteen, Pearl had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Radiation therapy and drugs sapped her. Even in periods when the lymphoma was controlled, she did not fully regain her strength. Concerned that his father would be a useless nurse, Lanny never went away to art school. He remained at home, took up a career in law enforcement, and looked after his mother.
Unexpectedly, Ansel was first to die. He stopped a motorist for speeding, and the motorist stopped him with a .38 fired pointblank.
Having contracted lymphoma at an atypically young age, Pearl lived with it for a surprisingly long time. She had died ten years previously, when Lanny was thirty-six.
He’d still been young enough for a career switch and art school. Inertia, however, proved stronger than the desire for a new life.
He inherited the house, a handsome Victorian with elaborate millwork and an encircling veranda, which he maintained in pristine condition. With a career that was a job but not a passion, and with no family of his own, he had plenty of spare time for the house.
As Lanny shoved a fresh magazine in the pistol, Billy took the typewritten message from a pocket. “What do you make of this?”
Lanny read the two paragraphs while, in the lull of gunfire, blackbirds returned to the high bowers of nearby elms.
The message evoked neither a frown nor a smile from Lanny, though Billy had expected one or the other. “Where’d you get this?”
“Somebody left it under my windshield wiper.”
“Where were you parked?”
“At the tavern.”
“You see anyone watching you? I mean, when you took it out from under the wiper and read it.”
“What do you make of it?”
“That was my question to you,” Billy reminded him.
“A prank. A sick joke.”
Staring at the ominous lines of type, Billy said, “That was my first reaction, but then…”
Lanny stepped sideways, aligning himself with new hay bales faced with full-figure drawings of Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny. “But then you ask yourself What if… ?”
“Sure. Every cop does, all the time, otherwise he ends up dead sooner than he should. Or shoots when he shouldn’t.”
Not long ago, Lanny had wounded a belligerent drunk who he thought had been armed. Instead of a gun, the guy had a cell phone.
“But you can’t keep what-ifing yourself forever,” he continued.
“You’ve got to go with instinct. And your instinct is the same as mine. It’s a prank. Besides, you’ve got a hunch who did it.”
“Steve Zillis,” said Billy.
Lanny assumed an isosceles shooting stance, right leg quartered back for balance, left knee flexed, two hands on the pistol. He took a deep breath and popped Elmer five times as a shrapnel of blackbirds exploded from the elms and tore into the sky.
Counting four mortal hits and one wound, Billy said, “The thing is… this doesn’t seem like something Steve would do—or could.”
“He’s a guy who carries a small rubber bladder in his pocket so he can make a loud farting sound when he thinks that might be funny.”
Billy folded the typewritten message and tucked it in his shirt pocket.
“This seems too complex for Steve, too… subtle.”
“Young Steve is about as subtle as the green-apple nasties,” Lanny agreed. Resuming his stance, he spent the second half of the magazine on Bugs, scoring five mortal hits.
“What if it’s real?” Billy asked.
“But what if it is?”
“Homicidal lunatics only play games like that in movies. In real life, killers just kill. Power is what it’s about for them, the power and sometimes violent sex—not teasing you with puzzles and riddles.”
Ejected shell casings littered the grass. The westering sun polished the tubes of brass to a bloody gold.
Aware that he hadn’t quelled Billy’s doubt, Lanny continued: “Even if it were real—and it’s not—what is there to act upon in that note?”
“Blond schoolteachers, elderly women.”
“Somewhere in Napa County.”
“Napa County isn’t San Francisco,” Lanny said, “but it’s not unpopulated barrens, either. Lots of people in lots of towns. The sheriff’s department plus every police force in the county together don’t have enough men to cover all those bases.”
“You don’t need to cover them all. He qualifies his targets—a lovely blond schoolteacher.”
“That’s a judgment,” Lanny objected. “Some blond schoolteacher you find lovely might be a hag to me.”
“I didn’t realize you had such high standards in women.”
Lanny smiled. “I’m picky.”
“Anyway there’s also the elderly woman active in charity work.”
Jamming a third magazine in the pistol, Lanny said, “A lot of elderly women are active in charities. They come from a generation that cared about their neighbors.”
“So you aren’t going to do anything?”
“What do you want me to do?”
Billy had no suggestion, only an observation: “It seems like we ought to do something.”
“By nature, police are reactive, not proactive.”
“So he has to murder somebody first?”
“He isn’t going to murder anyone.”
“He says he will,” Billy protested.
“It’s a prank. Steve Zillis has finally graduated from the squirting-flowersand-plastic-vomit school of humor.”
Billy nodded. “You’re probably right.”
“I’m for sure right.” Indicating the remaining colorful figures fixed to the triple-thick wall of hay bales, Lanny said, “Now before twilight spoils my aim, I want to kill the cast of Shrek.”
“I thought they were good movies.”
“I’m not a critic,” Lanny said impatiently, “just a guy having some fun and sharpening his work skills.”
“Okay, all right, I’m out of here. See you Friday for poker.”
“Bring something,” Lanny said.
“Jose’s bringing his pork-and-rice casserole. Leroy’s bringing five kinds of salsa and lots of corn chips. Why don’t you make your tamale pie?”
As Lanny spoke, Billy winced. “We sound like a group of old maids planning a quilting party.”
“We’re pathetic,” Lanny said, “but we’re not dead yet.”
“How would we know?”
“If I were dead and in Hell,” Lanny said, “they wouldn’t let me have the pleasure of drawing cartoons. And this sure isn’t Heaven.”
By the time Billy reached his Explorer in the driveway, Lanny Olsen had begun to blast away at Shrek, Princess Fiona, Donkey, and their friends. The eastern sky was sapphire. In the western vault, the blue had begun to wear off, revealing gold beneath, and the hint of red gesso under the gilt. Standing by his SUV in the lengthening shadows, Billy watched for a moment as Lanny honed his marksmanship and, for the thousandth time, tried to kill off his unfulfilled dream of being a cartoonist.
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