Explaining to the guards why they were needed would be risky. The whole truth would tie Billy to three murders for which he was most likely being set up to take the fall.
If he withheld too much of the truth, the guards wouldn’t know what they were up against. He would be jeopardizing their lives.
Besides, most security guards around these parts were former police officers or current cops who were moonlighting on their off hours. Many of them had worked—or still did work—for or with John Palmer. Billy didn’t want Palmer hearing about Barbara being watched over by hired bodyguards. The sheriff would wonder. He would have questions. After a few years during which he had stayed under Palmer’s radar, he was now on the scope again. He dared not draw more attention to himself. He couldn’t ask friends to help him stand watch over Barbara. They would be at great risk.
Anyway, he didn’t have close friends whom he’d be comfortable approaching. The people in his life were largely acquaintances. He had managed things that way. There is no life that is not in community. He knew this. He knew. Yet he had done no proper sowing and now had no harvest.
The wind at the broken window spoke chaos to him.
In the hours of Barbara’s greatest danger, he alone would have to protect her. If he could.
She deserved better than him. With his history, no one in need of a guardian would turn to him first, or second, or at all. My last killing: midnight Thursday.
If Billy read the freak correctly—and he was all but certain that he did—
Barbara’s murder would be the cl**ax on which the curtain of this cruel
“performance” would be rung. Your suicide: soon thereafter. Tomorrow evening, long before midnight, he would station himself at her bedside.
This evening, he could not be with her. The urgent tasks on his agenda would probably keep him busy until dawn.
If he was wrong, if her murder was to be a second-act surprise, this sunny valley, for him, would become henceforth as dark as the vacant interstellar spaces.
Driving faster, borne forward by a longing for redemption, with sunlight slanting from his left and with the valley’s great monument, Mount St. Helena, ahead and seeming never to grow nearer, Billy used his cell phone to call Whispering Pines, pressing 1 and holding to speed dial.
Because Barbara had a private room with an attached half-bath, the usual visiting-hour rules did not apply. With advance approval, a family member might even stay overnight.
He hoped to stop at Whispering Pines on his way home and arrange to stay with Barbara from Thursday evening at least through Friday morning. He had conceived a cover story that might be accepted without suspicion. The receptionist who answered his call informed him that Mrs. Norlee, the manager, would be in meetings until five-thirty but would be able to see him then. He took the appointment.
Shortly before four o’clock, he arrived home, half expecting to see patrol cars, a coroner’s van, county deputies in number, and Sergeant Napolitino on the front porch, standing over a rocking chair in which Ralph Cottle’s corpse sat, unwrapped. But all was quiet.
Instead of using the garage, Billy parked in the driveway, toward the back of the house.
He went inside and searched every room. He found no indications of an intruder having been here during his absence.
The corpse still lay cocooned behind the sofa.
Above the microwave oven, behind a pair of cabinet doors, a deep space contained baking sheets, two perforated pizza pans, and other narrow items stored vertically. Billy took the pans out—and the removable rack in which they stood—and put them in the pantry.
At the back of the now empty space was an electric outlet with two receptacles. A plug filled the bottom receptacle, and the cord disappeared through a cut-out in the rear wall of the cabinet.
The plug powered the microwave. Billy pulled it.
Standing on a stepladder, using a power drill, he bored a hole in the floor of the upper cabinet, through the ceiling of the oven. This ruined the microwave. He didn’t care.
He used the drill bit as if it were a power file, simultaneously drawing it around the perimeter of the bore and pumping it up and down, widening the hole. The noise was horrendous.
A faint smell of scorched insulation arose, but he completed the job before the frictional heat grew to be a problem.
He cleaned the debris out of the microwave. He put the video-cam inside. After inserting the output jack of a video-transmission cable into the camera, he shoved the other end through the hole that he had drilled in the ceiling of the oven. He did the same with a pronged-at-both-ends power cord. In the cabinet that previously held baking pans, Billy placed the video-disk recorder. Following printed instructions, he jacked the free end of the transmission cable into the recorder.
He plugged the camera power cord into the upper receptacle in the outlet at the back of the cabinet. The recorder took the lower receptacle into which the microwave had been plugged.
He loaded a seven-day disk. He set the system per instructions and switched it on.
When he closed the door of the microwave oven, the inner surface of the view window pressed against the rubber rim of the camera’s lens hood. The videocam was aimed across the kitchen at the back door.
With the oven light off, Billy could see the camera inside only if he put his face very close to the view window. The freak would not discover it unless he decided to make microwave popcorn.
Because the window contained a fine screen laminated between layers of glass, Billy didn’t know if the camera would have a clear view. He needed to test it.
The pleated shades were drawn over all the kitchen windows. He raised them, and he turned on the overhead lights.
He stood just inside the back door for a moment. Then he crossed the room at an unhurried pace.
The recorder featured a mini screen for quick review. When Billy climbed the stepladder and replayed the time-lapse recording, he saw a darkish figure. As it crossed the room, resolution improved, and he could recognize himself. He did not like watching himself, Ashen, sullen, and uncertain, full of determined action but with halting purpose.
In fairness to himself, the image was black-and-white, and a little grainy. His apparent lurch was merely the effect of time-lapse recording. Allowing for all of that, he still saw an unconvincing figure: shape and shading, but no more substance than an apparition. He appeared to be a stranger in his own home.
He reset the machine. He closed the cabinet doors and put away the stepladder.
In the bathroom, he changed the dressing on his brow. The hook wounds were angry red, but no worse than before.
He changed into a black T-shirt, black jeans, black Rockports. Sunset was less than four hours away, and when twilight passed, Billy would need to move as inconspicuously as possible in a hostile night.
Gretchen Norlee favored severe dark suits, wore no jewelry, combed her hair straight back from her forehead, regarded the world through steel-framed eyeglasses—and decorated her office with plush toys. A teddy bear, a toad, a duck, a Knuffle Bunny, and a midnight-blue kitten were arranged on shelves in a collection that consisted primarily of dogs that greeted visitors with a brightness of unfurled pink-and red-velvet tongues.
Gretchen managed the 102-2ed Whispering Pines Convalescent Home with military efficiency and maximum compassion. Her warm manner belied the gruffness of her hard-edged voice.
She embodied no greater contradictions than any person who found temporary balance in this most temporary world. Hers were just more immediately visible, and more endearing.
Leaving her desk to signal that she viewed this as a personal consideration rather than as a business matter, Gretchen sat in a wingback chair catercorner to the chair in which Billy sat.
She said, “Because Barbara occupies a private room, she may have company outside normal visiting hours without inconveniencing other patients. I see no problem, though family usually stay overnight only when a patient has just returned from a hospital transfer.”
Although Gretchen had too much class to express her curiosity directly, Billy felt obliged to satisfy it with an explanation, even though every word he told her was a lie.
“My Bible-study group has been discussing what scripture says about the power of prayer.”
“So you’re in a Bible-study group,” she said as if intrigued, as if he was not a man whom she could easily picture in such a pious pursuit.
“There was a major medical study that showed when friends and relatives actively pray for a sick loved one, the patient more often recovers, and recovers more quickly.”
That controversial study had provided gas to inflate barroom debates when it had hit the newspapers. Recollection of all that boozy blather, not an earnest Bible-study group, had inspired Billy to concoct this cover story.
“I think I remember reading about it,” Gretchen Norlee said.
“Of course I pray for Barbara every day.”
“But I’ve come to see that prayer is more meaningful when it involves some sacrifice.”
“Sacrifice,” she said thoughtfully.
He smiled. “I don’t mean to slaughter a lamb.”
“Ah. That will please the janitorial staff.”
“But a prayer before bed, however sincere, is no inconvenience.”
“I see your point.”
“Surely prayer will be more meaningful and effective if it comes at some personal cost—like at least the loss of a night’s sleep.”
“I’ve never thought of it that way,” she said.
“From time to time,” Billy said, “I’d like to sit with her all night in prayer. If it doesn’t help her, it’ll at least help me.”
Listening to himself, he thought that he sounded as phony as a TV
evangelist proclaiming the virtue of abstinence upon being caught na*ed with a hooker in the back of his limo.
Evidently, Gretchen Norlee heard him differently from how he heard himself. Behind her steel-rimmed spectacles, her eyes were moist with sympathy.
His newfound slickness dismayed Billy, and worried him. When a liar became too skilled at deception, he could lose the ability to discern truth, and could himself be more easily deceived.
He expected there might be a price for playing a nice woman like Gretchen Norlee for a fool, as there was a price for everything.
As Billy followed the main hall toward Barbara’s room in the west wing, Dr. Jordan Ferrier, her physician, exited the room of another patient. They almost collided.
“Hello, Dr. Ferrier.”
“Billy, Billy, Billy.”
“I sense a lecture coming on.”
“You’ve been avoiding me.”
“I’ve tried my best,” Billy admitted.
Dr. Ferrier looked younger than forty-two. He was sandy-haired, greeneyed, perpetually cheerful, and a dedicated salesman for death.
“We’re weeks overdue for our semiannual review.”
“The semiannual review is your idea. I’m very happy with a once-everydecade review.”
“Let’s go see Barbara.”
“No,” Billy said. “I won’t talk about this in front of her.”
“All right.” Taking Billy by the arm, Dr. Ferrier steered him to the lounge where the staff took their breaks.
They were alone in the room. Vending machines for snacks and soft drinks hummed, ready to dispense high-calorie, high-fat, high-caffeine treats to medical workers who knew the consequences of their cravings but had the good sense to cut themselves some slack.
Ferrier drew a white plastic chair away from an orange Formica table. When Billy didn’t follow suit, the doctor sighed, pushed the chair under the table, and remained on his feet.
“Three weeks ago I completed an evaluation of Barbara.”
“I complete one every day.”
“I’m not your enemy, Billy.”
“It’s hard to tell around this time of the year.”
Ferrier was a hard-working physician, intelligent, talented, and wellmeaning. Unfortunately, the university that turned him out had infected him with what they called “utilitarian ethics.”
“She’s gotten no better,” said Dr. Ferrier.
“She’s gotten no worse, either.”
“Any chance of her regaining high cognitive function—”
“Sometimes she talks,” Billy interrupted. “You know she does.”
“Does she ever make sense? Is she coherent?”
“Once in a while,” Billy said.
“Give me an example.”
“I can’t, offhand. I’d have to check my notebooks.”
Ferrier had soulful eyes. He knew how to use them. “She was a wonderful woman, Billy. No one but you had more respect for her than I did. But now she has no meaningful quality of life.”
“To me, it’s very meaningful.”
“You’re not the one suffering. She is.”
“She doesn’t seem to be suffering,” Billy said.
“We can’t really know for sure, can we?”
Barbara had liked Ferrier. That was one reason Billy did not replace him. On some deep level she might perceive what was happening around her. In that event, she might feel safer knowing she was being cared for by Ferrier instead of by a strange doctor whom she’d never met.
Sometimes this irony was a grinding wheel that sharpened Billy’s sense of injustice to a razor’s edge.
Had she known about Ferrier’s bioethics infection, had she known that he believed he possessed the wisdom and the right to determine whether a Down’s Syndrome baby or a handicapped child, or a comatose woman, enjoyed a quality of life worth living, she might have changed physicians. But she had not known.
“She was such a vibrant, involved person,” Ferrier said. “She wouldn’t want to just hang on like this, year after year.”
“She’s not just hanging on,” Billy said. “She’s not lost at the bottom of a sea. She’s floating near the surface. She’s right there.”
“I understand your pain, Billy. Believe me, I do. But you don’t have the medical knowledge to assess her condition. She’s not right there. She never will be.”
“I remember something she said just the other day. ‘I want to know what it says… the sea, what it is that it keeps on saying.’”
Ferrier regarded him with equal measures of tenderness and frustration.
“That’s your best example of coherence?”
“ ‘First do no harm,’” Billy said.
“Harm is done to other patients when we spend limited resources on hopeless cases.”
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