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He must not waste time searching for the hand.


Besides, as he read about it in the newspaper for the second time, he was reminded of something other than the note taped to his refrigerator. The mannequin with six hands.


With the fists at the ends of its arms, it had held steak knives that were rammed into its throat.


Its feet had been replaced with hands, the better to grip the spear-point iron stave with which it abused itself.


A third pair of hands had been severed from a donor mannequin. They sprouted from the br**sts of the six-handed specimen as if it were an obscene depiction of the Hindu goddess Kali.


Although the three other mannequins in that room had featured the usual number of hands, the one with six suggested Zillis might have a hand fetish. In the photos on the covers of those pornographic videos, the women’s hands had often been restrained. With handcuffs. With rope. With tightly cinched leather straps.


The fact that a hand had been harvested from Giselle Winslow seemed meaningful if not damning.


Billy was reaching. Stretching. He didn’t have enough rope to fashion a legitimate noose for Steve Zillis. Have I not extended to you the hand of friendship? Yes, I have.


Gross, juvenile humor. Billy could see Zillis smirking, could hear him saying those very words. He could hear them said in that cocky, jokey, performing-bartender voice.


Suddenly it seemed that so much of Zillis’s act at the tavern involved his hands. He was unusually dexterous. He juggled the olives and other items. He knew card tricks, all sleight-of-hand. He could “walk” a coin across his knuckles, make it disappear.


None of this helped Billy tie a better noose.


Soon it would be two o’clock. If he was going after Zillis, he preferred to do it under the cover of darkness.


The liquid bandage on the puncture wounds in his hand had been put to a thorough test. It had cracked at the edges, frayed.


He opened the bottle and painted another layer over the first, wondering if it was significant that the promised second wound had been a nail through his hand.


If he went after Zillis, he would first have a conversation with him. Nothing more. Nothing worse. Just a serious talk.


In case Zillis was the freak, the questions would have to be asked at the point of a gun.


Of course, if Zillis proved to be just a sick creep but not a killer, he would not be understanding; he would be pissed. He might want to press charges for forced entry, whatever.


The only way to keep him quiet might be to intimidate him. He wouldn’t likely be intimidated unless Billy hurt him seriously enough to get his attention and unless he believed that he would be hurt even worse if he called the police. Before he went after Zillis, Billy had to be sure that he had the capacity to assault an innocent man and brutalize him to keep him silent. He flexed and opened his slightly stiff left hand. Flexed and opened. Here was a choice not entirely forced upon him: He could put himself in a position where he might have to hurt and intimidate an innocent man—or delay, think, wait for events to unfold, and thereby possibly place Barbara in greater danger. The choice is yours.


It always had been. It always would be. To act or not to act. To wait or to go. To close a door or open one. To retreat from life or to enter it. He did not have hours or days to analyze the quandary. Anyway, given time, he would only get lost in the analysis.


He sought wisdom learned from hard experience and applicable to this situation, but he found none. The only wisdom is the wisdom of humility. In the end, he could make his decision based on nothing more than the purity of his motive. And even the full truth of motive might not be known. He started the engine. He drove away from the truck stop.


He couldn’t find the moon, that thinnest palest sliver of a moon. It must have been at his back.


Chapter 60


At 2:09 A.M., Billy parked on a quiet residential street, two and a half blocks from Steve Zillis’s house.


The lower limbs of Indian laurels hung under the streetlights, and across the lamp-yellowed sidewalks, leaf shadows spilled like a treasure of black coins.


He walked unhurriedly, as if he were a lifelong insomniac who regularly went strolling in these dead hours.


The windows of the houses were dark, the porch lights off. No traffic passed him.


By now the earth had given back a lot of the stored heat from the day. The night was neither hot nor cool.


The twisted neck of the bread bag was looped around his belt, and the bag, lined with a dishtowel, hung at his left side. In it were the handcuffs, the small can of Mace, and the Taser.


Depending from his belt at his right hip: the Wilson Combat holster. The loaded pistol filled it.


He had pulled his T-shirt out of his jeans, to wear it loose. The T-shirt somewhat concealed the pistol. From a distance of more than a few feet, at night, no one would recognize the telltale outline of the weapon. When he reached Zillis’s place, he left the sidewalk for the driveway and then followed the wall of eucalyptus trees past the garage. At the front, the house had been dark behind the drawn blinds; but lights shone softly at some rear windows. Zillis’s bedroom, his bathroom. Billy stood in the backyard, studying the property, alert to every nuance of the night. He let his eyes forget the Street lamps and adapt more completely to the darkness.


He tucked his T-shirt into his jeans once more, to make the holstered pistol accessible.


From a pocket he took a pair of latex gloves, slipped his hands into them.


The neighborhood was quiet. The houses were not far apart. He would need to be careful about noise when he got inside. Screams would be heard, as would gunfire not well muffled by a pillow.


He left the yard for the covered patio, on which stood a single aluminum chair. No table, no barbecue, no potted plants.


Through the panes in the back door, he could see the kitchen lighted only by two digital clocks, one on the oven and one on the microwave. He pulled the bread bag loose from his belt and withdrew from it the can of Mace. The dishtowel liner softened the sound of the shifting handcuffs. He twisted the neck of the bag and looped it securely around his belt again. On his first visit, he had stolen a spare key from a kitchen drawer. He inserted the key cautiously, turned it slowly, concerned that the lock might be noisy and that sound might carry too well in the small house. The door eased open. The hinges whispered with corrosion but did not squeak.


He stepped inside and shut the door behind him.


For a minute he did not move. His eyes were well accustomed to the dark, but he still needed to orient himself.


His heart raced. Maybe that was partly the caffeine tablets at work. As he crossed the kitchen, the rubber soles of his Rockports squeaked slightly on the vinyl flooring. He winced but kept going.


The living room was carpeted. He took two silent steps into it before stopping again to orient himself.


Zillis’s scorn for furniture was a blessing. There weren’t many obstructions to worry about in the dark.


Billy heard faint voices. Alarmed, he listened. He couldn’t make out what they were saying.


Having expected to find Zillis alone, he considered retreating. But he had to know more.


A dim glow marked the entrance to the hallway that led off the living room to the two bedrooms and bath. The hall fixture was off, but soft light entered the far end from the open doors of the last two rooms.


Those rooms faced each other across the hall. As Billy recalled, the one on the left was the bathroom, Zillis’s bedroom on the right.


Judging by pitch and timbre, not by content, he thought there were two voices, one male and one female.


He held the Mace in his right hand, thumb under the safeguard, squarely on the button trigger.


Instinct whispered that he should trade the Mace for the pistol. Not every instinct was more reliable than reason.


If he started by shooting Zillis, he had nowhere to go. He must first disable him, not wound him.


Moving along the hall, he passed the make-believe abattoir where the mannequins sat in bloodless mutilation.


The better he could hear them, the more the voices had a make-believe quality, too. They were actors sharing a bad performance. A vaguely tinny quality suggested they issued from the speakers of a cheap TV. The woman suddenly cried out in pain, but sensuously, as if her pain were also her pleasure.


Billy had nearly reached the end of the hall when Steve Zillis exited the bathroom, to the left.


Barefoot, bare-chested, wearing pajama bottoms, he was scrubbing his teeth with a brush, hurrying to see what was on the television in the bedroom. His eyes widened when he spotted Billy. He spoke around the toothbrush:


“What the fuh—”


Billy Maced him.


Police Mace is highly effective up to a distance of twenty feet, although fifteen is ideal. Steve Zillis stood seven feet from Billy. Mace in the mouth and in the nose will somewhat inhibit an attacker. You can stop him hard and fast only if you squirt him liberally in the eyes. The stream doused both eyes, point-blank, and also hosed his nostrils. Zillis dropped the toothbrush, covered his eyes with his hands, too late, and turned blindly away from Billy. He collided at once with the end wall of the hallway. Making a desperate wheezing sound, he bent over, retching, and spewed gobs of toothpaste foam as if he were a rabid dog.


The burning in his eyes was hellacious, his pupils open so wide that he could see only a fierce blurred brightness, not even the form of his assailant, not even a shadow. His throat also burned with the chemical that had gone down by way of his nose, and his lungs tried to reject every tainted breath that he drew.


Billy went in low, grabbed the cuff of a pajama leg, and jerked the man’s left foot out from under him.


Clawing the air in search of a wall, a doorway, something that would offer support, finding nothing, Zillis dropped hard enough to make the floorboards vibrate.


Between gasps and wheezes, between fits of choking, he shrieked about his eyes, the pain, the stinging brightness.


Billy drew the 9-mm pistol and rapped him along the side of the head with the barrel, just hard enough to hurt.


Zillis howled, and Billy warned, “Quiet down, or I’ll hit you again, harder.”


When Zillis cursed him, Billy rapped him with the gun once more, not as hard as promised, but that got the idea across.


“All right,” Billy said. “Okay. You’re not going to see well for twenty minutes, half an hour—”


Still inhaling in rapid shallow pants, exhaling in shudders, Zillis interrupted Billy: “Jesus, I’m blind, I’m—”


“It was just Mace.”


“What’re you nuts?”


“Mace. No permanent damage.”


“I’m blind,” Zillis insisted.


“You stay there.”


“I’m blind.”


“You’re not blind. Don’t move.”


“Shit…”


A thread of blood unraveled from Zillis’s scalp. Billy hadn’t hit him hard, but the skin had broken.


“Don’t move, listen to me,” Billy said, “cooperate, and we’ll get through this, it’ll be all right.”


He realized that he was already comforting Zillis as if the man’s innocence were a foregone conclusion.


Until now, there had seemed to be a way to do this. A way to do it even if Steve Zillis turned out not to be the freak, and to walk away with minimal consequences.


In his imagination, however, the opening encounter had not been this violent. A spritz of Mace. Zillis at once disabled, obedient. So easy in the planning.


They had hardly begun, and the situation seemed out of control. Striving to sound confident, Billy said, “You don’t want to be hurt, then just lie there till I tell you what to do next.”


Zillis wheezed.


“You hear me?” Billy asked.


“Shit, yeah, how could I not hear you?”


“You understand me?”


“I’m blind here, I’m not deaf.”


Billy stepped into the bathroom, switched off the water running in the sink, and looked around.


He did not see what he needed, but he saw something that he did not want to see: his reflection in the mirror. He might have expected to look frantic, even dangerous, and he did. He might have expected to look scared, and he did. He would not have expected to see the potential for evil, but he did.


Chapter 61


On the bedroom TV, a na*ed man in a black mask lashed a woman’s br**sts with a cluster of leather straps.


Billy switched off the TV. “I’m thinking about you handling the lemons and limes you slice for drinks, and I want to puke.”


Lying disabled in the hall past the open door, Zillis either didn’t hear him or pretended that he didn’t.


The bed did not have a headboard or a footboard. The mattress and box springs sat on a wheeled metal frame.


Because Zillis didn’t bother with such niceties as bedspreads and dust ruffles, the frame of the bed was exposed.


Billy took the handcuffs from the bread bag. He locked one of the bracelets to the bottom rail of the bed frame.


“Get up on your hands and knees,” he said. “Crawl toward my voice.”


Remaining on the hall floor, breathing easier but still noisily, Zillis spat vigorously on the carpet. His flooding tears had carried the Mace to his lips, and the bitter taste had gotten in his mouth.


Billy went to him and pressed the muzzle of the pistol to the nape of his neck. I.


Zillis became very still, wheezing softly.


Billy said, “You know what this is?”


“Man.”


“I want you to crawl into the bedroom.”


“Shit.”


“I mean it.”


“All right.”


“To the bottom of the bed.”


Although the only light in the room issued from a dim bedside lamp, Zillis squinted against a stinging, blinding brightness as he crawled to the bed.


Billy had to redirect him twice. Then: “Sit on the floor with your back against the foot of the bed. That’s good. With your left hand, feel beside you. A set of handcuffs is hanging from the bed rail. There you go.”


“Don’t do this to me, man.” Zillis’s eyes watered copiously. Fluid bubbled in his nostrils. “Why? What is this?”


“Put your left wrist in the empty bracelet.”


“I don’t like this,” Zillis said.


“You don’t have to.”


“What’re you going to do to me?”


“That depends. Put it on now.”


After Zillis fumbled with the cuff, Billy leaned in to test the double lock, which was secure. Zillis still couldn’t see well enough to strike out or to make a play for the gun.


Steve could drag the bed around the room if he wanted. He could overturn it with effort, dump the mattress and the box springs, and patiently dismantle the bolted frame until he could slide the cuff free. But he couldn’t move fast. The carpet looked filthy. Billy wouldn’t sit or kneel on it. He went to the dinette alcove off the kitchen and returned with the only straight-backed chair in the house. He stood it in front of Zillis, out of his reach, and sat down.

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