He wanted to go home, but nothing there would help him work out a solution to this puzzle.
He wanted to go home just to be home. He recognized the familiar reclusive urge. Once home, he could sit at his carving bench with the blocks of oak, and the world could go to Hell.
Except this time, he would go to Hell with it. He could not take Barbara home with him, and if he left her alone and in jeopardy, he would have trashed his only excuse for living.
Events had thrust him into action, into the rush of life, yet he felt isolated and beyond desperation.
For too long he’d done no proper sowing and now had no harvest. His friends were all acquaintances. Though life is community, he had no community.
In fact, his situation was worse than isolation. The friends who were no more than acquaintances were now not even acquaintances as much as they were suspects. He had carpentered for himself a loneliness of exquisite paranoia.
Pulling away from the curb, Billy drove with no destination in mind, as far as he was aware. Like a bird, he rode the currents of the night, intent only upon staying aloft and not falling into absolute despair before some gleam of hope appeared.
He had learned more about Ivy Elgin in one brief visit to her house than he had troubled himself to know about her during the years they had worked together. And though he liked Ivy, he found her more mysterious now than when he had known so much less about her.
He did not think that she could have any connection to the freak committing these murders. But his experience with his own mother and father reminded him that he could not be sure of anyone.
Harry Avarkian was a kind man and a fine attorney—but also one of three trustees overseeing seven million dollars, a temptation that could not be discounted. Before Barbara, Billy had been to Harry’s house only once. Barbara socialized him. They had gone to Harry’s for dinner half a dozen times in a year—but since the coma, Billy had not visited Harry anywhere but at his office.
He knew Harry Avarkian. But he didn’t know him.
Billy’s mind circled to Dr. Ferrier. Which was crazy. Prominent physicians in the community didn’t go around killing people.
Except Dr. Ferrier wanted Billy to cooperate with him in the killing of Barbara Mandel. Remove the feeding tube in her stomach. Let her die. Let her starve to death in her coma.
If you were willing to decide for another—for someone in no obvious pain—that her quality of life was insufficient to warrant the expenditure of resources on her behalf, how easy was it to make a step from pulling a plug to pulling a trigger?
Ridiculous. Yet he didn’t know Ferrier a fraction as well as he had known his father; and in violation of all Billy thought he had known, his father had swung that polished-steel lug wrench with something like vicious glee. John Palmer. He was a man whose love of power was clear for all to see, but whose internal landscape remained as enigmatic as an alien planet. The more Billy considered the people he knew, the more he brooded on the possibility that the killer might be a perfect stranger, the more he became agitated to no purpose.
He told himself to care and not to care, to be still. In order to possess what you do not possess, you must go by way of dispossession. And what you do not know is the only thing you know.
Driving and yet giving himself to that inner stillness, he came in a short while, without conscious intention, to the truck stop. He parked where he had parked before, in front of the diner.
His left hand ached. When he fisted and opened it, he could feel that it had begun to swell. The Vicodin had worn off. He didn’t know whether or not he should take another, but he should get some Motrin.
He was hungry, but the thought of another candy bar curdled his appetite. He needed a caffeine jolt, but he wanted more than pills.
After stowing the pistol and the revolver under the front seat, in spite of the broken-out window that left the vehicle unsecured, he went inside. At 3:40 in the morning, he had his choice of empty booths. Four truckers sat on stools at the counter, drinking coffee and eating pie. They were attended by a beefy waitress with the neck of an NFL fullback and the face of an angel. In her masses of hair, dyed shoe-polish black, she wore yellow butterfly bows.
Billy sat at the counter.
According to the tag on her uniform, the waitress’s name was Jasmine. She called Billy “honey,” and served the black coffee and lemon pie that he ordered.
Jasmine and the truckers were in a lively conversation when Billy settled on a stool among them. From their exchanges, he learned that one of the men was named Curly, another Arvin. No one addressed the third man as anything but “you,” and the fourth had an upper gold tooth in the front of his mouth. At first they were talking about the lost continent of Atlantis. Arvin proposed that the destruction of that fabled civilization had come to pass because the Atlanteans had gotten involved in genetic engineering and had bred monsters that destroyed them.
This quickly turned the subject from Atlantis to cloning and DNA research, soon after which Curly mentioned the fact that at Princeton or Harvard, or Yale, at one of those hellholes or another, scientists were trying to create a pig with a human brain.
“I’m not sure that’s so new,” Jasmine said. “Over the years, let me tell you, I’ve met my share of human pigs.”
“What would be the purpose of a humanized pig?” Arvin wondered.
“Just because it’s there,” said Y.
“Like a mountain is just there,” You clarified. “So some people have to climb it. Other people, they’ve got to make a humanized pig just because maybe they can.”
“What work would it do?” Gold Tooth asked.
“I don’t think they mean for it to have a job,” Curly said.
“They mean for it to do something,” Gold Tooth said.
“One thing’s for sure,” Jasmine declared, “the activists will go nuts.”
“What activists?” Arvin asked.
“One kind of activist or another,” she said. “Once you’ve got pigs with human brains, that’s the end of anyone allowed to eat ham or bacon.”
“I don’t see why,” said Curly. “The ham and bacon will still come from the pigs that haven’t been humanized.”
“It’ll be a sympathy thing,” Jasmine predicted. “How’re you going to justify eating ham and bacon when your kids go to school with smart pigs and ask them home for sleepovers?”
“That’ll never happen,” You said.
“Never,” Arvin agreed.
“What’ll happen,” Jasmine said, “is these fools playing around with human genes, they’ll do something stupid and kill us all.”
Not one of the four truckers disagreed. Neither did Billy. Gold Tooth still felt the scientists had in mind some kind of work for a humanized pig. “They don’t spend millions of dollars on something like this just for the fun of it, not those people.”
“Oh, they do,” Jasmine disagreed. “Money means nothing to them. It isn’t theirs.”
“It’s taxpayer money,” said Curly. “Yours and mine.”
Billy offered a comment or two, but he mostly listened, familiar with these conversational rhythms, and curiously warmed by them.
The coffee was rich. The pie tasted wonderfully lemony and was topped with toasted meringue.
He was surprised by how calm he felt. Just sitting at the counter, just listening.
“You want to talk about a total waste of money,” said Gold Tooth, “look at this damn fool monstrosity they’re building out by the highway.”
“What—you mean across from the tavern, the thing they’re gonna burn when they no sooner finish it?” Arvin asked.
“Oh, but it’s art,” Jasmine archly reminded them.
“I don’t see how it’s art,” You said. “Doesn’t what’s art have to last?”
“The guy’s going to make millions selling his drawings of it,” Curly told them. “He’s got a hundred merchandising angles.”
“Can anyone just call himself an artist?” Gold Tooth asked. “Don’t they have to pass a test or something?”
“He calls himself a special kind of artist,” Curly said.
“Special my ass,” said Arvin.
“Honey,” Jasmine told him, “no offense, but your dumpy backside doesn’t look so special to me.”
“What he calls himself,” Curly said, “is a performance artist.”
“What’s that mean?”
“What I take it to mean,” Curly said, “is art that doesn’t last. It’s made to do something, and when it does something, it’s over.”
“What are museums gonna be filled with in a hundred years?” You wondered. “Empty space?”
“There won’t be museums anymore,” Jasmine said. “Museums are for people. There won’t be any people. Just humanized pigs.”
Billy had grown very still. He sat with the coffee cup to his lips, his mouth open, but unable to take a drink.
“Honey, something wrong with the brew?” Jasmine asked.
“No. No, it’s fine. In fact, I’d like another cup. Do you serve it in mugs?”
“We have a triple cup in a plastic container. We call it the Big Shot.”
“Give me one of those,” Billy said.
An alcove off the diner served as an internet cafe. Six work stations offered links to the World Wide Web.
A trucker sat at one computer, working the keyboard and the mouse, fixated on the screen. Maybe he was checking out his company’s shipping schedules or playing an Internet game, or browsing a p**n site. The computer was bolted to a table that provided room for food. A cut-out in the table held Billy’s Big Shot.
He didn’t know the name of Valis’s site, so he started with sites about performance art in general and linked his way to www.valisvalisvalis.com.
The artist maintained an elaborate and inviting site. Billy streamed colorful video of the Australian bridge to which Valis had fixed twenty thousand red balloons. He watched them pop all at once.
He sampled artist statements about individual projects. They were overblown and semicoherent, slathered with the unmusical jargon of modern art.
In a windy interview, Valis said that every great artist was “a fisher of men,” because they wanted to “touch the souls, even capture the souls” of those who saw their work.
Valis helped aficionados better understand the intention of each of his projects by providing three lines of “spiritual guidance.” Each line contained three words. Billy pored over several of them.
From his wallet, he extracted the paper on which were printed the six lines that had been contained in three documents on the red diskette that he’d found in Ralph Cottle’s clasped hands. He unfolded it and smoothed it flat on the table.
The first line—Because I, too, am a fisher of men.
The fifth line—My last killing: midnight Thursday.
The sixth line—Your suicide: soon thereafter.
The second, third, and fourth lines were chillingly similar to the “spiritual guidance” that Valis provided to assist his admirers in reaching a fuller appreciation of his works.
The first line of these guides always referred to the style of the project, of the performance. In this case, the style was Cruelty, violence, death. The second line summarized the techniques by which the artist intended to execute the work of art. With Billy, the technique was Movement, velocity, impact.
The third line described the medium or media in which Valis proposed to create. In this current performance, the media were Flesh, blood, bone. Sometimes the most successful serial killers are vagabonds, footloose roamers who cover a lot of ground between their homicidal activities. The freak didn’t look at killing as a game. Only in part did he view it as a performance. For him, the essence was the art of it.
From the performance-art Web sites, Billy had learned that this artist of death had always been camera-shy. Valis claimed to believe that the art should be more important than the artist. He’d seldom been photographed. Such a philosophy allowed him celebrity and wealth—and yet a degree of anonymity.
www.valisvalisvalis.com offered an official portrait. This proved to be not a photo but a realistic and detailed pencil drawing that the artist himself had done.
Perhaps intentionally, the portrait was not entirely faithful to Valis’s actual appearance, but Billy at once recognized him. He was the Heineken drinker who, on Monday afternoon, had sat in patient amusement as Ned Pearsall had regaled him with the story of Henry Friddle’s death by garden gnome. You’re an interesting guy, Billy Barkeep.
Even then, the freak had known Billy’s last name, although he had pretended ignorance of it. He must have known almost everything about him. For reasons only Valis might ever understand, Billy Wiles had been identified, researched, and chosen for this performance.
Now, in addition to the other selections under the portrait, Billy noticed one titled Hello, Billy.
Although he no longer had much capacity for surprise, he stared at it for a minute.
At last he moved the mouse and clicked.
The portrait vanished, and on the screen appeared instructions: PRIVATE
Billy drank coffee. Then he typed Wiles and pressed ENTER. At once he received a reply: You are worthy.
Those three words remained before him for ten seconds, and then the screen went blank.
Only that and nothing more.
The pencil portrait returned. The selections under it no longer included Hello, Billy.
No lights brightened the massive dimensional mural. The wheels, flywheels, gears, crankshafts, connecting rods, pipes, and strange armatures dwindled into the darkness.
Tormented, besieged, the giant human figure was dark-shrouded in its silent struggle.
The yellow-and-purple tent stood in shadowed swags, but inviting amber light shone at the windows of the big motor home.
Billy first pulled to a stop on the shoulder of the highway and studied the vehicle from a distance.
The sixteen artists and artisans who were building the mural under Valis’s direction did not live on site. They were block-booked for six months at the Vineyard Hills Inn.
Valis, however, lived here for the duration. The motor home had electrical and water hookups.
Its waste-water holding tanks were pumped out twice a week by Glen’s Reliable Septic Service. Glen Gortner was proud of his fame by association, even though he thought the mural was “something I ought to be pumping away, too.”
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