“What do you think I might do to you, Stevie?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to think.”
“You’re so imaginative, so talented when it comes to dreaming up ways to hurt women, but suddenly you don’t want to think?”
Shivering continuously now, Zillis said, “What do you want from me, what can I do?”
“I want to talk about what happened to Judith Kesselman.”
When Zillis began to sob like a young boy, Billy got up from the chair. He sensed that a breakthrough was coming.
“You know I’m not going to. Let’s talk about Judi Kesselman.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I think you do.” Billy didn’t go closer to Zillis, but he squatted in front of him, coming down almost to his level. “I think you want very much to talk about it.”
Zillis shook his head violently. “I don’t. I don’t. If we talk about it, you’ll kill me for sure.”
“Why do you say that, Stevie?”
“Why do you say I’ll kill you?”
“Because then I’ll know too much, won’t I?”
Billy stared at his prisoner, trying to read him.
“You did her,” Zillis said with a groan.
“You killed her, and I don’t know why, I don’t understand, but now you’re going to kill me.”
Billy took a deep breath and grimaced. “What’ve you done?”
For an answer, Zillis only sobbed.
“Stevie, what’ve you done to yourself?”
Zillis had drawn his knees to his chest. Now he stretched out his legs again.
The crotch of the man’s pajamas was dark with urine. He had wet himself.
Some monsters are pathetic rather than murderous. Their lairs are not lairs in the fullest sense because they do not lie in wait. They take to ill-kept burrows, with minimal furniture and the objects of their misshapen sense of beauty. They hope only to indulge their mutant fantasies and live their monstrous lives in as much peace as they can find, which is precious little, for they torment themselves even when the rest of the world leaves them unmolested.
Billy resisted the conclusion that Steve Zillis was one of this pathetic breed.
To admit that Zillis was not a homicidal sociopath, Billy must accept that much precious time had been wasted in the pursuit of a wolf, presumed fierce, that was in fact a meek dog.
Worse, if Zillis was not the freak, Billy had no idea where to go from here. All the evidence had seemed to funnel him to a single conclusion. The circumstantial evidence.
Worst of all, if the killer was not before him now, then he had stooped to this brutality without profit.
Consequently, for a while he continued to question and harass his captive, but by the minute, the contest between them seemed to be less a contest than an act of oppression. A matador can find no glory when the bull, bristling with banderillas and lanced by the picador, loses all spirit and will pass not even listlessly at the red muleta.
Sooner than later, concealing his growing despair, Billy sat on the chair once more and raised his final issue, hoping that a trap might spring when he least expected.
“Where were you earlier tonight, Steve?”
“You know. Don’t you know? I was at the bar, working your shift.”
“Only until nine o’clock. Jackie says you worked between three and nine because you had stuff to do before and after.”
“I did. I had stuff.”
“Where were you between nine o’clock and midnight?”
“What does it matter?”
“It matters,” Billy assured him. “Where were you?”
“You’re gonna hurt… you’re gonna kill me anyway.”
“I’m not going to kill you, and I didn’t kill Judith Kesselman. I’m pretty sure you killed her.”
“Me?” His amazement rang as true as any reaction he’d had since this had started.
“You’re really good at this,” Billy told him.
“Good at what? Killing people? You’re bugshit crazy! I never killed anyone.”
“Steve, if you can convince me you have a solid alibi for nine to midnight, then this is over. I’m out of here, and you’re free.”
Zillis looked dubious. “That easy?”
“After all this—it’s over that easy?”
“It could be. Depending on the alibi.”
Zillis worried over his answer.
Billy began to think he was concocting it from scratch.
Then Zillis said, “What if I tell you where I was, and it turns out that’s why you’re here, because you already know where I was, and you want to hear me say it so you can beat the shit out of me.”
“I’m not following you,” Billy told him.
“All right. Okay. I was with someone. I never heard her mention you, but if you have a thing for her, what’re you going to do to me?”
Billy regarded him with disbelief. “You were with a woman?”
“I wasn’t with her, not like in bed. It was just a date. A late dinner, which had to be later ‘cause I covered for you. This was our second date.”
Steeling himself against Billy’s jealous outrage, Zillis said, “Amanda Pollard.”
“Mandy Pollard? I know her. She’s a nice girl.”
Warily, Zillis said, “That’s it—‘She’s a nice girl’?”
The Pollards owned a successful vineyard. They grew grapes on contract for one of the valley’s finest vintners. Mandy was about twenty, pretty, friendly. She worked in the family business. Judging by all evidence, she was wholesome enough to have come from an era better than this one. Billy let his gaze travel the sleazy bedroom, from the porno-tape package lying on the floor beside the TV to the pile of dirty laundry in one corner.
“She’s never been here,” Zillis said. “We’ve only had two dates. I’m looking for a better place, a nice apartment. I want to get rid of all this stuff. Make a clean start.”
“She’s a decent girl.”
“She is,” Zillis eagerly agreed. “I think with her in my corner, I could clean up my act, start over, do the right thing for once.”
“She ought to see this place.”
“No, no. Billy, no, for God’s sake. This isn’t the me I want to be. I want to be better for her.”
“Where did you go to dinner?”
Zillis named a restaurant. Then: “We got there about twenty past nine. We left at about a quarter past eleven because we were the only people in the place by then.”
“We went for a drive. A nice drive. I don’t mean we parked. She isn’t like that. We just drove around, talking, listening to music.”
“I took her home a little after one o’clock.”
“And came back here.”
“And put on a porno flick of a guy whipping a woman.”
“All right. I know what I am, but I also know what I can be.”
Billy went to the nightstand and picked up the phone. It had a long cord. He brought it to Zillis. “Call her.”
“What, now? Billy, it’s after three in the morning.”
“Call her. Tell her how much you enjoyed the evening, how very special she is. She won’t mind if you wake her up for that.”
“We don’t have that kind of relationship yet,” Zillis worried. “She’s gonna think this is weird.”
“You call her and let me listen in,” Billy said, “or I jam this pistol in your ear and blow your brains out. What do you think?”
Zillis’s hands shook so badly that he misdialed twice. He got it right the third time.
Hunkering beside his captive, the muzzle of the pistol pressed against Zillis’s side so he wouldn’t get a half-wise idea, Billy listened to Mandy Pollard answer the phone and express surprise at hearing from her new beau at that hour.
“Don’t worry about it,” Mandy told Zillis. “You didn’t wake me. I was just lying here staring at the ceiling.”
Zillis’s voice had a tremor, but Mandy might easily have assumed he was nervous about calling at this late hour and about expressing his affection more directly than perhaps he had done previously.
For a few minutes, Billy listened to them recap the night—their dinner, the drive—and then he gestured at Zillis to wrap it up.
Mandy Pollard had spent the evening with this man, and she was not some half-cracked thrill seeker who knowingly hung out with bad boys. Having dinner with Mandy, Steve Zillis could not have been the freak who propped Ralph Cottle’s corpse on Lanny’s living room sofa and nailed Billy’s hand to the hallway floor.
Slipping the pistol into the holster at his hip, Billy said, “I’m going to leave you handcuffed to the bed.”
Steve Zillis looked relieved at the holstering of the weapon, but remained wary.
Billy tore the phone cord out of the wall and out of the phone, knotted it, and put it in his bread bag. “I don’t want you calling anyone until you’ve had plenty of time to cool down and to think about what I’m going to say.”
“You’re really not gonna kill me?”
“I’m really not. I’ll leave the handcuff key on a counter in the kitchen.”
“All right. The kitchen. But how’s that gonna help me?”
“After I’m gone, you can work the mattress and the box springs off the frame. It’s held together by nuts and bolts, isn’t it?”
“You can work the nuts with your fingers.”
“Maybe they’re rusted—”
“You only moved in six months ago. They haven’t rusted in six months. If they’re tight, torque the sections of the frame, try to wrench a little play into the connections. You’ll figure it out.”
“I can figure that out, sure, but I still can’t figure why the hell you did this. You can’t believe I killed Judith Kesselman, like you said. I know you can’t believe that. What was this?”
Putting the can of Mace in the bread bag, Billy said, “I’m not going to explain, and you don’t want to know. Believe me, you don’t.”
“Look at me here,” Zillis whined. “My eyes still sting. I’m sitting in a puddle, for God’s sake. This is humiliating. You hit me with that gun, you cut my scalp, you hurt me, Billy.”
“It could have been worse,” Billy assured him. “It could have been a whole lot worse.”
Choosing to interpret those words as a threat, Zillis became placating. “All right. Okay. I hear you. I’m cool.”
“Depending on how tight the bolts are, you’ll need at least an hour, probably two, to get loose of the bed. The cuff key will be in the kitchen. After you use it, start packing.”
Zillis blinked. “What?”
“Call Jackie, tell him you’re quitting.”
“I don’t want to quit.”
“Get real, Steve. We aren’t going to see each other every day. Not with what I know about you and not with what you know about me. You’re going to move on.”
“I don’t care where. Just not in Napa County.”
“I like it here. Besides, I can’t afford to move right now.”
“Go to the tavern Friday night to get your last paycheck,” Billy said. “I’ll leave an envelope for you with Jackie. It’ll contain ten thousand in cash. That’ll get you started somewhere.”
“I did nothing, but my whole life gets turned upside down? This isn’t fair.”
“You’re right. It isn’t fair. But it’s the way it is. Your furniture isn’t worth crap. You can junk it. Pack the personal stuff and be out of town by Friday night.”
“I could call the cops, I could press charges.”
“Really? You’d want the cops to see the scene of the crime, have them tramping through here, with the bondage pornos, those mannequins in the next room?”
Although still scared, Zillis found sufficient self-pity to pout. “Who died and made you God?”
Billy shook his head. “Steve, you’re pathetic. You’ll take the ten thousand, be glad you’re alive, and get out. Plus one more thing—don’t ever call Mandy Pollard again.”
“Wait a minute. You can’t—”
“Don’t call her, don’t see her. Not ever.”
“Billy, she could make all the difference for me.”
“She’s a nice girl. She’s a decent girl.”
“That’s what I mean. I know I could clean up my act if she—”
“A good woman can turn a man around,” Billy said. “But not a man who’s as far down the rathole as you are. If you call her or see her, even just once, I’ll know. And I’ll find you. You believe that?”
Zillis said nothing.
“And if you touch her,” Billy said, “so help me God, I’ll kill you, Steve.”
“This is 50 not right,” Zillis said.
“Do you believe me? You better believe me, Steve.”
When Billy put his hand on the grip of the holstered pistol, Zillis said,
“Hey. All right. I hear you.”
“Good. I’m leaving now.”
“This place sucks anyway,” Zillis said. “Wine country is just another word for farm. I’m not a farm boy.”
“No, you’re not,” Billy said from the doorway.
“There’s no action around here.”
“There’s no zing,” Billy agreed.
Billy said, “Happy trails, Kemosabe.”
By the time that he’d driven only half a mile from Zillis’s place, Billy had the shakes so bad that he had to pull to the curb, put the Explorer in park, and get control of himself.
Under pressure, he had become the thing he most despised. For a while, he had become John Palmer.
Paying Zillis ten thousand bucks didn’t make Billy any less like Palmer, either.
When the shakes subsided, he didn’t put the SUV in gear because he didn’t know where to go from here. He felt that he was at a brink. You don’t drive over a brink.
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