Page 24


He’d eaten two English muffins for breakfast and later a ham sandwich. He was in a calorie deficit, and shaky.


The store offered vacuum-packaged sandwiches and a microwave in which to heat them. For some reason, just the thought of meat stirred a billowing sensation in his stomach.


He bought six Hershey’s bars for sugar, six Planters Peanut Bars for protein, and a bottle of Pepsi to wash down the No-Doz.


Referring to all the candy, the cashier said, “Is it Valentine’s Day in July or something?”


“Halloween,” Billy said.


Sitting in the SUV, he took the Anacin and the No-Doz.


On the passenger’s seat lay the newspaper he’d bought in Napa. He’d not yet found time to read the story about the Winslow murder. With the newspaper were a few Denver Post articles downloaded from the library computer. Judith Kesselman, gone missing forever.


As he ate a Hershey’s bar, a Planters, he read the printouts. University, public, and police officials were quoted. Everyone except the police expressed confidence that Judith would be found safe.


The cops were guarded in their statements. Unlike the academics, bureaucrats, and politicians, they avoided bullshit. They were the only ones who sounded as if they truly cared about the young woman.


The officer in charge of the investigation was Detective Ramsey Ozgard. Some of his colleagues called him Oz.


Ozgard had been forty-four at the time of the disappearance. At that point in his career, he’d received three citations for bravery.


At fifty, he was probably still on the force, a likelihood supported by the only other personal information about him in the articles. When he was thirtyeight, Ramsey Ozgard had been shot in the left leg. He had been approved for permanent disability. He had turned it down. He did not limp. Billy wanted to talk to Ozgard. To do so, however, he could not use his real name or his phone.


As the candy, Pepsi, and No-Doz began to lubricate the flywheels of his mind, Billy drove to Lanny Olsen’s place.


He did not park at the church and walk from there, as he’d done before. When he arrived at the isolated house at the end of the lane, he drove across the ascending backyard, past the pistol range with the hay-bale-and-hillside backstop.


Lawn gave way to wild grass, to brambles and sparse brush. The terrain grew stony and furrowed.


He stopped two-thirds of the way up the slope, put the Explorer in park, and engaged the emergency brake.


He could have benefited from the headlights. This high on the hillside, however, they could be seen from the residences down near the county road. Worried about attracting attention and inspiring curiosity, he switched off the lights. He killed the engine.


On foot, using a flashlight, he quickly found the vent hole, twenty feet from the SUV.


Before vineyards, before the arrival of Europeans, before the ancestors of American Indians had crossed a land or ice bridge from Asia, volcanoes shaped this valley. They had defined its future.


The old Rossi winery, now the aging cellars for Heitz, and other buildings in the valley were built of rhyolite, the volcanic form of granite, quarried locally. The knoll on which the Olsen house stood was largely basalt, another volcanic stone, dark and dense.


When an eruption is exhausted, it sometimes leaves lava pipes, long tunnels through surrounding stone. Billy didn’t know enough volcanology to conclude whether the dormant vent on this knoll was such a pipe or was a fumarole that had expelled fiery gases.


He knew, however, that the vent was four feet wide at the mouth—and immeasurably deep.


This property was intimately familiar to Billy, because when he had been fourteen and alone, Pearl Olsen had given him a home. She never feared him, as some had. She knew the truth when she heard it. Her good heart opened to him, and in spite of her recurring cancer, she raised him as if he were her son. The twelve-year difference in Billy’s age and Lanny’s meant they were never like brothers, although they lived in the same house. Besides, Lanny had always been self-contained and when not on duty with the sheriff’s department had lost himself in his cartooning.


The two of them had been friendly enough. And occasionally Lanny could be an engaging honorary uncle.


On one such day, Lanny had involved Billy in an attempt to determine the depth of the vent.


Although no young children played on the brambly knoll, Pearl worried for the safety of even imaginary tykes. Years earlier, she’d had a redwood frame bolted to the stone rim of the vent. A redwood lid was screwed to the frame.


After removing the lid, Lanny and Billy began their research with a handheld police spotlight powered off a pickup-truck engine. The beam illuminated the walls to about three hundred feet but could not find the bottom. Past the mouth, the shaft widened to between eight and ten feet. The walls were undulant, whorled, and strange.


They tied one pound of brass washers to the end of a length of binder twine and lowered them into the center of the hole, listening for the distinctive ring of the discs meeting the vent floor. They only had a thousand feet of twine, which proved inadequate.


Finally they dropped steel ball bearings into the abyss, timing their fall to a first impact, using textbook formulae to calculate distance. No bearing ever hit short of fourteen hundred feet.


The bottom did not lie at fourteen hundred feet.


After that long vertical drop, the vent apparently descended further at an angle, perhaps more than once changing direction, too.


After the hard clack of the initial strike, each bearing ricocheted from wall to wall, rattling on, the noise never suddenly coming to a stop but always fading, fading until it dwindled into silence.


Billy guessed that the lava pipe was miles long and descended at least a few thousand feet under the floor of the valley.


Now, by the glow of the flashlight, he used a battery-powered screwdriver to extract the twelve Phillips-head steel screws that held the redwood lid—a more recent one than they had removed almost twenty years ago. He slid the lid aside.


No draft rose out of the hole. Billy could smell nothing but a faint cindery scent, and under that the vaguest hint of salt, a whiff of lime. Grunting with the effort, he hauled the dead man out of the SUV and dragged him to the vent.


He wasn’t concerned about the trail he left through the brush or about the trail the Explorer had left. Nature was resilient. In a few days, the disturbance would not be obvious.


Although the dead man might not have approved, given his status as a former member of the Society of Skeptics, Billy murmured a brief prayer for him before shoving his body into the hole.


Ralph Cottle made a lot more noise going down than had any of the ball bearings. The first few impacts sounded bone-shattering.


Then the slippery tarp produced an eerie whistling sound as the tunnel angled from the vertical and the plastic-wrapped mummy slid at increasing velocity into the depths, perhaps spiraling around the walls of the lava tube as a bullet spirals along the grooved barrel of a gun.


Chapter 48


Billy parked the explorer on the lawn behind the garage, where it could not be seen by any motorist who might use the dead end of the lane as a turnaround. He worked his hands into latex gloves.


With the spare key that he had taken from the hole in the oak stump little more than nineteen hours earlier, he let himself into the house through the back door.


He had with him the tarp, the strapping tape, the rope. And of course the


.38 revolver.


As Billy moved forward through the ground floor, he turned on lights. Wednesday and Thursday were Lanny’s days off, so he might not be thought missing for another thirty-six hours. If a friend dropped by unannounced for a visit, however, saw lights in the house, but could not get an answer to the doorbell, trouble would follow.


Billy intended to do what needed to be done as quickly as possible and get out, turning the lights off after himself.


The cartoon hands, pointing the way to the corpse, were still taped to the walls. He would remove them later, as part of the cleanup. If Lanny’s body had been salted with evidence pointing to Billy, as Cottle said that Giselle Winslow’s had been, none of it could be used in a court of law if Lanny lay forever at rest a mile or more under the earth. Billy realized, as he eliminated planted evidence incriminating himself, he also would be destroying any evidence of the killer’s guilt that the freak might unintentionally have left. He was doing cleanup for both of them. The cunning with which this trap had been designed and the early choices that Billy had made as the performance unfolded had virtually ensured that he would come to this juncture and would have to proceed as he was proceeding now.


He didn’t care. Nothing mattered but Barbara. He had to stay free to protect her, because no one else would.


If Billy came under suspicion in a homicide, John Palmer would lock him down fast and tight. The sheriff would seek vindication in the conviction of Billy for murder, and if he got that conviction, he would use it to try to rewrite history, as well.


They could hold him on suspicion alone. He wasn’t sure how long. Certainly for forty-eight hours.


By then Barbara would be dead. Or missing, gone, like Judith Kesselman, music student, dog fancier, walker on beaches.


The performance would be concluded. Maybe the freak would have another face in another jar.


Past, present, future, all time eternally present in the here and now, and racing—he swore he could hear the hands on his watch whirring—and so he hurried to the stairs and climbed.


Even before arriving at this house, he’d feared that he would not find Lanny’s body in the bedroom armchair where he had last seen it. Another move in the game, one more twist in the performance.


When he reached the top of the stairs, he hesitated, stopped by that same dread. He hesitated again at the doorway to the master bedroom. Then he crossed the threshold and switched on the light.


Lanny sat in the chair with the book in his lap, the photograph of Giselle Winslow tucked in the book.


The corpse didn’t look good. Perhaps delayed somewhat by the air conditioning, visible decomposition had not yet occurred, but blood vessels in his face had begun to be revealed as a faint green marbling. Lanny’s eyes shifted to follow Billy across the room, but that was just a trick of the light.


Chapter 49


After spreading the polyurethane tarp on the floor but before proceeding further, Billy sat on the edge of the bed and picked up the phone. Careful not to make the error that he had claimed to have made earlier in the day, he keyed in 411. From directory assistance he obtained the area code for Denver. Even if Ramsey Ozgard continued to serve as a detective with the Denver Police Department, he might not live within the city. He might be in one of several suburbs, in which case locating him would be too difficult. His home number might also be unlisted.


When Billy called directory assistance in Denver, he got lucky. He was overdue for some luck. They had a listing for Ozgard, Ramsey G., in the city. It was 10:54 in Colorado, but the hour might make the call seem more urgent and therefore more credible.


A man answered on the second ring, and Billy said, “Detective Ozgard?”


“Speaking.”


“Sir, this is Deputy Lanny Olsen of the Napa County Sheriff’s Department, here in California. First, I want to apologize for disturbing you at this hour.”


“I’m a lifelong insomniac, Deputy, and now I have like six hundred channels on the TV, so I’ll be watching reruns of Gilligan’ Island or some damn thing until three in the morning. What’s up?”


“Sir, I’m calling you from my home about a case you handled some years back. You might want to ring the watch commander in our north-county substation to confirm that I’m with the department, and get my home number from them for callback.”


“I’ve got caller ID,” Ozgard said. “I can see who you are good enough for now. If what you want from me seems at all sticky, then I’ll do what you say. But right now let’s go for it.”


“Thank you, sir. There’s a missing-person’s case of yours that might have some pertinence to a situation here. About five and a half years ago—”


“Judith Kesselman,” said Ozgard.


“You jumped right to it.”


“Deputy, don’t tell me you found her. At least don’t tell me you found her dead.”


“No, sir. Neither dead or alive.”


“God help her, I don’t expect alive,” Ramsey said. “But it’s going to be a miserable day when I know for sure she’s dead. I love that girl.”


Surprised, Billy said, “Sir?”


“I never met her, but I love her. Like a daughter. I’ve learned so much about Judi Kesselman that I know her better than a lot of people who’ve actually in my life.”


“I see.”


“She was a wonderful young woman.”


“That’s what I hear.”


“I talked to so many of her friends and family. Not a bad word about her from anyone. The stories of things she did for others, her kindnesses… y know how sometimes a vie haunts you, how you can’t be entirely objective?”


“Sure,” Billy said.


“I’m haunted by this one,” Ozgard said. “She was a great letter writer. Once someone entered her life, she held on to them, she didn’t forget them, she stayed in touch. I read hundreds of Judi’s letters, Deputy Olsen, hundreds.”


“So you let her in.”


“You can’t help it with her, she walks right in. They were the letters of a woman who embraced people, who just gave her heart to everyone. Luminous letters.”


Billy found himself staring at the bullet hole in Lanny Olsen’s forehead. He looked toward the open door to the upstairs hall.


“We’ve got a situation here,” he said. “I can’t spell it out in detail at this time, because we’re still working the evidence and we aren’t ready to bring charges.”


“I understand,” Ozgard assured him.


“But there’s a name I want to run by you, see if it rings three cherries with you.”


“The hairs are up on the back of my neck,” Ozgard said. “That’s how bad I want this to be something.”


“I Googled our guy, and the only thing I got was this one hit regarding the Kesselman disappearance, and even that was less than nothing.”


“So Google me,” said Ozgard.


“Steven Zillis.”


In Denver, Ramsey Ozgard let out his pent-up breath with a hiss.


“You remember him,” Billy said.


“Oh yeah.”


“He was a suspect?”


“Not officially.”


“But you personally felt…”


“He made me uneasy.”


“Why?”


Ozgard was silent. Then: “Even a man you wouldn’t want to share a beer with, wouldn’t want to shake hands with—his reputation isn’t to be taken lightly.”

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