In the Art Deco tradition, the mural presented a stylized image of powerful machinery, including the drive wheels and connecting rods of a locomotive. There also were huge gears, strange armatures, and arcane mechanical forms that had nothing to do with a train.
A giant, stylized figure of a man in work clothes was featured in the section that suggested a locomotive. Body angled left to right as if leaning into a stiff wind, he appeared to be pushing one of the enormous drive wheels, as if caught up in the machine and pressing forward with as much panic as determination, as though if he rested for an instant he would slip out of sync and be torn to pieces.
None of the animated mural’s moving parts was yet operational; nevertheless, it fostered a convincing illusion of movement, speed. On commission, a famous artist with a single name—Valis—had designed the thing and had built it with a crew of sixteen.
The mural was meant to symbolize the hectic pace of modern life, the harried individual overwhelmed by the forces of society.
On the day when the resort opened for business, Valis himself would set the thing afire and burn it to the ground to symbolize the freedom from the mad pace of life that the new resort represented.
Most locals in Vineyard Hills and the surrounding territory mocked the mural, and when they called it art, they pronounced the word with quotation marks.
Billy rather liked the hulking thing, but burning it down didn’t make sense to him.
The same artist had once fixed twenty thousand helium-filled red balloons to a bridge in Australia, so it appeared to be supported by them. With a remote control, he popped all twenty thousand at once.
In that case, Billy didn’t understand either the “art” or the point of popping it.
Although not a critic, he felt this mural was either low art or high craftsmanship. Burning it made no more sense to him than would a museum tossing Rembrandt’s paintings on a bonfire.
So many things about contemporary society dismayed him that he wouldn’t lose sleep over this small issue. But on the night of burning, he wouldn’t come to watch the fire, either.
He went into the tavern.
The air carried such a rich scent that it almost seemed to have flavor. Ben Vernon was cooking a pot of chili.
Behind the bar, Jackie O’Hara conducted an inventory of the liquor supply. “Billy, did you see that special on Channel Six last night?”
“You didn’t see that special about UFO’s, alien abduction?”
“I was carving to zydeco.”
“This guy says he was taken up to a mother ship orbiting the earth.”
“What’s new about that? You hear that stuff all the time.”
“He says he was given a proctological exam by a bunch of space aliens.”
Billy pushed through the bar gate. “That’s what they all say.”
“I know. You’re right. But I don’t get it.” Jackie frowned. “Why would a superior alien race, a thousand times more intelligent than we are, come trillions of miles across the universe just to look up our butts? What are they—
“They never looked up mine,” Billy assured him. “And I doubt they looked up this guy’s, either.”
“He’s got a lot of credibility. He’s a book author. I mean, even before this book, he published a bunch of others.”
Taking an apron from a drawer, tying it on, Billy said, “Just publishing a book doesn’t give anyone credibility. Hitler published books.”
“He did?” Jackie asked.
“Well, it wasn’t Bob Hitler.”
“You’re jerking my chain.”
“Look it up.”
“What did he write—like spy stories or something?”
“Something,” Billy said.
“This guy wrote science fiction.”
“Science fiction,” Jackie emphasized. “The program was really disturbing.” Picking up a small white dish from the work bar, he made a sound of impatience and disgust. “What—am I gonna have to start docking Steve for condiments?”
In the dish were fifteen to twenty maraschino-cherry stems. Each had been tied in a knot.
“The customers find him amusing,” Billy said.
“Because they’re half blitzed. Anyway, he pretends to be a funny type of guy, but he’s not.”
“Everyone has his own idea of what’s funny.”
“No, I mean, he pretends to be lighthearted, happy-go-lucky, but he’s not.”
“That’s the only way I’ve ever seen him,” Billy said.
“Ask Celia Reynolds.”
“Lives next door to Steve.”
“Neighbors can have grudges,” Billy suggested. “Can’t always believe what they say.”
“Celia says he has rages in the backyard.”
“What’s that mean—rages?”
“He goes like nuts, she says. He chops up stuff.”
“Like a dining-room chair.”
“His. He chopped it until there wasn’t anything but splinters.”
“He’s cursing and angry when he’s at it. He seems to be working off anger.”
“On a chair.”
“Yeah. And he does watermelons with an ax.”
“Maybe he likes watermelon,” Billy said.
“He doesn’t eat them. He just chops and chops till nothing’s left but mush.”
“Cursing all the time.”
“That’s right. Cursing, grunting, snarling like an animal. Whole watermelons. A couple of times he’s done dummies.”
“You know, like those store-window women.”
“Yeah. He goes at them with an ax and a sledgehammer.”
“Where would he get mannequins?”
“This doesn’t sound right.”
“Talk to Celia. She’ll tell you.”
“Has she asked Steve why he does it?”
“No. She’s afraid to.”
“You believe her?”
“Celia isn’t a liar.”
“You think Steve’s dangerous?” Billy asked.
“Probably not, but who knows.”
“Maybe you should fire him.”
Jackie raised his eyebrows. “And then he turns out to be one of those guys you see on TV news? He comes in here with an ax?”
“Anyway,” Billy said, “it doesn’t sound right. You don’t really believe it yourself.”
“Yeah, I do. Celia goes to Mass three mornings a week.”
“Jackie, you joke around with Steve. You’re relaxed with him.”
“I’m always a little watchful.”
“I never noticed it.”
“Well, I am. But I don’t want to be unfair to him.”
“He’s a good bartender, does his job.” A shamefaced expression overcame Jackie O’Hara. His plump cheeks reddened. “I shouldn’t have been talking about him like this. It was just all those cherry stems. That ticked me off a little.”
“Twenty cherries,” Billy said. “What can they cost?”
“It’s not about the money. It’s that trick with his tongue—it’s semiobscene.”
“I never heard anyone complain about it. A lot of the women customers particularly like to watch him do it.”
“And the gays,” Jackie said. “I don’t want this being a singles bar, either g*y or straight. I want this to be a family bar.”
“Is there such a thing as a family bar?”
“Absolutely.” Jackie looked hurt. In spite of its generic name, the tavern wasn’t a dive. “We offer kid portions of French fries and onion rings, don’t we?”
Before Billy could reply, the first customer of the day came through the door. It was 11:04. The guy wanted brunch: a Bloody Mary with a celery stick. Jackie and Billy tended bar together through the lunchtime traffic, and Jackie served food to the tables as Ben plated it from the grill. They were busier than usual because Tuesday was chili day, but they still didn’t need a first-shift waitress. A third of the customers had lunch in a glass, and another third were satisfied with peanuts or with sausages from the brine jar on the bar, or with free pretzels.
Mixing drinks and pouring beers, Billy Wiles was troubled by a persistent image in his mind’s eye: Steve Zillis chopping a mannequin to pieces, chopping, chopping.
As his shift wore on, and as no one brought word of a gunshot schoolteacher or a bludgeoned elderly philanthropist, Billy’s nerves quieted. In sleepy Vineyard Hills, in peaceful Napa Valley, news of a brutal murder would travel fast. The note must have been a prank.
After a slow afternoon, Ivy Elgin arrived for work at four o’clock, and at her heels thirsty men followed in such a state that they would have wagged their tails if they’d had them.
“Anything dead today?” Billy asked her, and found himself wincing at the question.
“A praying mantis on my back porch, right at my doorstep,” Ivy said.
“What do you think that means?”
“What prays has died.”
“I don’t follow.”
“I’m still trying to figure it.”
Shirley Trueblood arrived at five o’clock, matronly in a pale-yellow uniform with white lapels and cuffs.
After her came Ramon Padillo, who sniffed the aroma of chili and grumbled, “Needs a pinch of cumin.”
When Steve Zillis breezed in at six, smelling of a verbena-scented aftershave and wintermint mouthwash, he said, “How’re they hangin’, Kemosabe?”
“Did you call me last night?” Billy asked.
“Who, me? Why would I?”
“I don’t know. I got a call, a bad connection, but I thought maybe it was you.”
“Did you call me back?”
“No. I could hardly hear the voice. I just had a hunch it might be you.”
Selecting three plump olives from the condiment tray, Steve said,
“Anyway, I was out last night with a friend.”
“You get off work at two o’clock in the morning and then you go out?”
Steve grinned and winked. “There was a moon, and I’m a dog.” He pronounced it dawg.
“If I got off at two A.M., I’d be straight to bed.”
“No offense, pilgrim, but you don’t exactly ring the bell on the zing meter.”
“What’s that mean?”
Steve shrugged, then began to juggle the slippery olives with impressive dexterity. “People wonder why a good-lookin’ guy like you lives like an old maid.”
Surveying the customers, Billy said, “What people?”
“Lots of people.” Steve caught the first olive in his mouth, the second, the third, and chewed vigorously to applause from the barstool gallery. During the last hour of his shift, Billy was markedly more observant of Steve Zillis than usual. Yet he saw nothing suspicious.
Either the guy wasn’t the prankster or he was immeasurably more cunning and deceitful than he appeared to be.
Well, it didn’t matter. No one had been murdered. The note had been a joke; and sooner or later the punch line would be delivered. As Billy was leaving the tavern at seven o’clock, Ivy Elgin came to him, restrained excitement in her brandy-colored eyes. “Somebody’s going to die in a church.”
“How do you figure?”
“The mantis. What prays has died.”
“Which church?” he asked.
“We’ll have to wait and see.”
“Maybe it won’t be in church. Maybe it’s just that a local minister or a priest is going to die.”
Her intoxicating gaze held his. “I didn’t think of that. You might be right. But how does the possum fit in?”
“I don’t have a clue. Ivy. I don’t have a talent for haruspicy, like you do.”
“I know, but you’re nice. You’re always interested, and you never make fun of me.”
Although he worked with Ivy five days a week, the impact of her extraordinary beauty and sexuality could make him forget, at times, that she
was in some ways more girl than woman, sweet and guileless, virtuous even if not pure.
Billy said, “I’ll think about the possum. Maybe there’s a little bit of a seer in me that I don’t know about.”
Her smile could knock you off balance. “Thanks, Billy. Sometimes this gift… it’s a burden. I could use a little help with it.”
Outside, the summer-evening air was lemon yellow with oblique sunshine, and the eastward-crawling shadows of the elms were one shade of purple short of black.
As he approached his Ford Explorer, he saw a note under the windshield wiper.
Although neither a dead blonde nor an elderly cadaver had been reported, Billy halted short of the Explorer, hesitant to proceed, reluctant to read this second message.
He wanted nothing more than to sit with Barbara for a while and then to go home. He didn’t see her seven times a week, but he visited more days than not. His stops at Whispering Pines were one of the blocks with which the foundation of his simple life had been built. He looked forward to them as he looked forward to quitting-time and carving.
He was not a stupid man, however, and not even merely smart. He knew that his life of seclusion might easily deteriorate into one of solitude. A fine line separates the weary recluse from the fearful hermit. Finer still is the line between hermit and bitter misanthrope.
Slipping the note from under the wiper, crumpling it in his fist, and tossing it aside unread would surely constitute the crossing of the first of those lines. And perhaps there would be no going back.
He did not have much of what he wanted in life. But by nature he was prudent enough to recognize that if he threw away the note, he would also be
throwing away everything that now sustained him. His life would be not merely different but worse.
In his trance of decision, he had not heard the patrol car enter the lot. As he plucked the note off the windshield, he was surprised by Lanny Olsen’s sudden appearance at his side, in uniform.
“Another one,” Lanny declared, as though he had been expecting the second note.
His voice had a broken edge. His face was lined with dread. His eyes were windows to a haunted place.
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