Not sure if he would stop or just cruise past, Billy drove the Explorer off the shoulder of the road, down a gentle embankment, into the meadow. He swung around to the far side of the motor home.
The door to the driver’s compartment stood open. Light angled down the steps and painted a welcome mat on the ground.
He stopped. For a while he sat with the engine running, one foot on the brake, one poised above the accelerator.
Most of the windows were not covered. He couldn’t see anyone in the spaces beyond.
Only the windows toward the rear, which were probably in the bedroom, featured curtains. Lamps glowed there, too, filtered by a golden material. Inescapably, Billy concluded that he was expected.
He was loath to accept this invitation. He wanted to drive away. He had nowhere to go.
Less than twenty hours remained until midnight, when as foretold the “last killing” would occur. Barbara, still in jeopardy.
Because of evidence that Valis might have planted in addition to what had been on the cadavers, Billy remained a potential suspect in the disappearances that would soon become known to the police: Lanny, Ralph Cottle, the redheaded young woman.
Somewhere in his house or garage, or buried in his yard, was the hand of Giselle Winslow. Surely other souvenirs, as well.
He put the Explorer in park, doused the headlights, but did not switch off the engine.
Near the dark tent stood a Lincoln Navigator. Evidently it was what Valis used for local travel. You are worthy.
Billy pulled on a fresh pair of latex gloves.
Some stiffness but no pain troubled his left hand.
He wished he had not taken a Vicodin at Lanny’s. Unlike most painkillers, Vicodin left the mind clear, but he worried that if his perceptions and reflexes were dulled even half a percent, that lost edge might be the death of him. Maybe the caffeine tablets and the coffee would compensate. And the lemon pie.
He switched off the engine. In the first instant thereafter, the night seemed as silent as any house of the deaf.
In consideration of the unpredictability of this adversary, he prepared for action both lethal and otherwise.
As to the choice of a deadlier weapon, he preferred the .38 revolver because of its familiarity. He had killed with it before.
He got out of the Explorer.
Songs of crickets rose to dispel the silence, and the throat-clearing of toads. Pennants on the tent whispered in the barest breath of a breeze. Billy walked to the open door of the motor home. He stood in the light but hesitated to ascend the steps.
From inside, all edges smoothed off by the high-quality speakers of the motor-home sound system, which apparently doubled as intercom, a voice said,
“Barbara could be allowed to live.”
Billy climbed the steps.
The cockpit featured two stylish swiveling armchairs for the driver and copilot. They were upholstered in what might have been ostrich skin. Remotely operated, the door closed behind Billy. He assumed that it locked, as well.
In this highly customized vehicle, a bulkhead separated the cockpit from the living quarters. Another open door awaited him.
Billy stepped into a dazzling kitchen. Everything in shades of cream and honey. Marble floor, bird’s-eye maple cabinets with the sinuous rounded contours of ship’s cabinetry. The exceptions were black-granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances.
From the in-ceiling speakers, Valis’s mellow and compelling voice made a proposal: “I could whip up an early breakfast if you’d like.”
The marble floor continued into a built-in dining area that could comfortably seat six, eight in a pinch.
The top of the maple table had been inlaid with ebonized wenge, carnelian, and holly wood as white as bone, in an intertwining ribbon motif-spectacular and expensive craftsmanship.
Through an archway in another bulkhead, Billy entered a large living room.
None of the fabrics cost less than five hundred a square yard, the carpet twice as much. The custom furniture was contemporary, but the numerous Japanese bronzes were priceless examples of the finest Meiji-period work. According to some of the tavern regulars, who’d read about this motor home on the Internet, it had cost over a million and a half. That would not include the bronzes.
Sometimes vehicles like this were called “land yachts.” The term wasn’t hyperbole.
The closed door at the farther end of the living room no doubt led to a bedroom and bath. It would be locked.
Valis must be in that final redoubt. Listening, watching, and well armed. Billy swiveled toward a soft noise behind him.
On the living-room side, the dining-area bulkhead had been finished with beautiful narrow-reed bamboo tambour. These panels slowly rolled up and out of sight, revealing secret display cases.
And now blinds of brushed stainless steel descended to cover all the windows, but with a sudden pneumatic snap that startled.
Billy didn’t think those blinds were solely decorative. Getting through them and out a window would be difficult if not impossible. During the design and installation phase, they had most likely been called
As the ascending tambour panels continued to reveal more display cases, the voice of Valis came from the speakers again: “You may see my collection, as few ever have. Uniquely, you will be given the chance to leave here alive after seeing it. Enjoy.”
The padded interiors of the cabinets behind the tambour panels were upholstered in black silk. Clear glass jars of two sizes held the collection. The base of each jar nestled in a niche in its shelf. A black-enameled clamp held the lidded top, fixing it to the underside of the shelf above. These containers would not move whatsoever when the motor home was in motion. They wouldn’t make one clink.
Each jar was lighted by fiber-optic filaments under it, so the contents glowed against the backdrop of black silk. As the lamplight in the living room now dimmed to enhance the effect of the display, Billy thought of aquariums. Each of these small glass worlds contained not fish but a memory of murder. In a preservative fluid floated faces and hands.
Every face was ghostly, each like a pale mantis perpetually swimming, the features of one hardly distinguishable from those of the others. The hands were different from one another, said more about each victim than did the faces, and were less grisly than he would have assumed, ethereal and strange.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” Valis said, and sounded somewhat like HAL 9000
in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“They’re sad,” Billy said.
“What an odd word to choose,” Valis said. “They delight me.”
“They fill me with despair.”
“Despair,” Valis said, “is good. Despair can be the nadir of one life and the starting point of an ascent into another, better one.”
Billy didn’t turn away from the collection in fear or revulsion. He assumed that he was being watched by closed-circuit cameras. His reaction seemed to be important to Valis.
Besides, as despair-inspiring as this display might be, it had a hideous elegance, and exerted a certain fascination.
The collector had not been so coarse as to include genitalia or breasts. Billy suspected that Valis did not kill for any kind of sexual gratification, did not rape his female victims, perhaps because to do so would be to acknowledge at least that single aspect of shared humanity. He seemed to want to think of himself as a creature apart.
Neither did the artist deform his collection with the gaudy and grotesque. No eyeballs, no internal organs.
Faces and hands, faces and hands.
Staring at the illuminated jars, Billy thought of mimes dressed all in black with white-powdered faces and white-gloved hands.
Although perverse, here was an aesthetic mind at work.
“A sense of balance,” Billy said, describing the vivid display, “a harmony of line, a sensitivity to form. Perhaps most important, a restraint that is chaste but not fastidious.”
Valis said nothing.
Curiously, by standing face to face with Death and not letting fear control, Billy was at last no longer evading life to any degree, but embracing it.
“I have read your book of short stories,” Valis said.
“In critiquing your work,” Billy told him, “I wasn’t inviting criticism of my own.”
A short surprised laugh escaped Valis, a warm laugh as the speakers translated it. “Actually, I found your fiction to be fascinating, and strong.”
Billy did not reply.
“They are the stories of a seeker,” Valis said. “You know the truth of life, but you circle around that fruit, circle and circle, reluctant to admit it, to taste it.”
Turning from the collection, Billy moved to the nearest Meiji bronzes, a pair of fish, sinuous, simply but exquisitely detailed, the bronze meticulously finished to mimic the tone and texture of rusted iron.
“Power,” Billy said. “Power is part of the truth of life.”
Behind the locked door, Valis waited.
“And emptiness,” Billy said. “The void. The abyss.”
He moved to another bronze: a robed scholar and a deer sitting side by side, the scholar bearded and smiling, his robe embroidered with gold inlay.
“The choice,” Billy said, “is chaos or control. With power, we can create. With power and chaste intent, we create art. And art is the only answer to chaos and the void.”
After a silence, Valis said, “Only one thing holds you to the past. I can release you from it.”
“By one more murder?” Billy asked.
“No. She can live, and you can move on to a new life… when you know.”
“And what is it you know that I don’t?”
“Barbara,” Valis said, “lives in Dickens.”
Billy heard a sharp intake of breath, his own, an expression of surprise and recognition.
“While in your house, Billy, I reviewed the pocket notebooks you’ve filled with things she said in coma.”
“Certain phrases, certain constructions resonated with me. On your livingroom shelves, the complete set of Dickens—that belonged to her.”
“She had a passion for Dickens.”
“She’d read all the novels, several times each.”
“But not you.”
“Two or three,” Billy said. “Dickens never clicked with me.”
“Too full of life, I suspect,” Valis said. “Too full of faith and exuberance for you.”
“She knows those stories so well, she’s living them in dreams. The words she speaks in coma come sequentially in certain chapters.”
“Mrs. Joe,” Billy said, recalling his most recent visit to Barbara. “I’ve read that one. Joe Gargery’s wife, Pip’s sister, the bullying shrew. Pip calls her
“Great Expectations,” Valis confirmed. “Barbara lives all the books, but more often the lighter adventures, seldom the horrors of A Tale of Two Cities.”
“I didn’t realize…”
“She’s more likely to dream A Christmas Carol than the bloodiest moments of the French Revolution,” Valis assured him.
“I didn’t realize, but you did.”
“In any case, she knows no fear or pain because each adventure is a wellknown road, a pleasure and a comfort.”
Billy moved through the living room, to another bronze, then past it.
“She needs nothing you can give her,” Valis said, “and nothing more than what she has. She lives in Dickens, and she knows no fear.”
Intuiting what was wanted to bring the artist forth, Billy put down the revolver on an antique Shinto altar table to the left of the bedroom door. Then he retraced his steps to the middle of the living room and sat in an armchair.
Handsomer than the self-portrait in pencil that could be viewed on his Web site, Valis entered.
Smiling, he picked up the revolver from the altar table and examined it. Beside the armchair in which Billy sat, on a small table, stood another Japanese bronze from the Meiji period: a plump smiling dog held a turtle on a leash.
Valis approached with the handgun. Not unlike Ivy Elgin, he walked with a dancer’s grace and as if gravity were not quite able to force the soles of his shoes flat to the floor.
His thick, soot-black hair, dusted with ashes at the temples. His smile so engaging. His gray eyes luminous, pellucid, and direct.
He had the presence of a movie star. The self-assurance of a king. The serenity of a monk.
Standing in front of the armchair, he aimed the revolver at Billy’s face.
“This is the gun.”
“Yes,” Billy said.
“You shot your father with it.”
“How did that feel?”
Staring into the muzzle, Billy said, “Terrifying.”
“And your mother, Billy?”
“It felt right to shoot her?”
“At the time, in the instant,” Billy said.
“I wasn’t sure.”
“Wrong is right. Right is wrong. It’s all perspective, Billy.”
Billy said nothing. In order to arrive at what you are not, you must go through the way in which you are not.
Peering at him along the barrel of the gun, Valis said, “Who do you hate, Billy?”
“I don’t think anyone.”
“That’s good. That’s healthy. Hate and love exhaust the mind, inhibit clear thinking.”
“I like these bronzes very much,” Billy said.
“Aren’t they wonderful? You can enjoy the form, the texture, the immense skill of the artist, and yet not care a damn thing about the philosophy behind them.”
“Especially the fish,” Billy said.
“Why the fish in particular?”
“The illusion of movement. The appearance of speed. They look so free.”
“You’ve led a slow life, Billy. Maybe you’re ready for some movement. Are you ready for speed?”
“I don’t know.”
“I suspect you do.”
“I’m ready for something.”
“You came here intending violence,” Valis said.
Billy raised his hands from the arms of the chair and stared at the latex gloves. He stripped them off.
“Does this feel strange to you, Billy?”
“Can you imagine what might happen next?”
“Do you care, Billy?”
“Not as much as I thought I would.”
Valis squeezed off a shot. The bullet punched into the broad back of the armchair, two inches from Billy’s shoulder.
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