“All those years your mom was sick and you looked after her, gave up what you wanted… that took more of the right stuff than cop work does.”
As though embarrassed, Lanny looked at the trees again and said almost as if discomfited, “Thanks, Billy.” He seemed genuinely touched to hear his sacrifice acknowledged.
Then as if a perverse sense of shame compelled him to discount, if not mock, his virtue, Lanny added, “But all of that doesn’t leave me with a pension.”
Billy watched him get in the car and drive away.
In a silence of vanished sea gulls, the breathless day waned, while the hills and the meadows and the trees gradually drew more shadows over themselves. On the farther side of the highway, the forty-foot wooden man strove to save himself from the great grinding wheels of industry or brutal ideology, or modern art.
Barbara’s face against the dimpled background of the pillow was Billy’s despair and his hope, his loss and his expectation.
She was an anchor in two senses, the first beneficial. The sight of her held Billy fast and stable whatever the currents of a day.
Less mercifully, every memory of her from the time when she had been not just in the quick of life, but also vivacious, was a link of chain enwrapping him. If she sank from coma into full oblivion, the chain would pull taut, and he would sink with her into the darkest waters.
He came here not only to keep her company in the hope that she would recognize his presence even in her internal prison, but also to be taught how to care and not to care, how to sit still, and perhaps to find elusive peace. This evening, peace was more elusive than usual.
His attention shifted often from her face to his watch, and to the window beyond which the acid-yellow day soured slowly toward a bitter twilight.
He held his little notebook. He paged through it, reading the mysterious words that she had spoken.
When he found a sequence that particularly intrigued him, he read it aloud:
“—soft black drizzle—”
“—death of the sun—”
“—the scarecrow of a suit—”
“—livers of fat geese—”
“—narrow street, high houses—”
“—a cistern to hold the fog—”
“—strange forms… ghostly motion—”
His hope was that, hearing her enigmatic coma-talk read back to her, she would be spurred to speak, perhaps to expand upon those utterances and make more sense of them…
On other nights his performance had sometimes drawn a reply from her. But never did she clarify what previously she had said. Instead she delivered a new and different sequence of equally inscrutable words.
This evening she responded with silence, and occasionally with a sigh uncolored by emotion, as if she were a machine that breathed in a shallow rhythm with louder exhalations caused by random power surges. After reading aloud two sequences, Billy returned the notebook to his pocket.
Agitated, he had read her words with too much force, too much haste. At one point he’d heard himself and thought he sounded angry, which would do Barbara no good.
He paced the room. The window drew him.
Whispering Pines stood adjacent to a gently sloping vineyard. Beyond the window lay regimented vines with emerald-green leaves that would be crimson come autumn, with small hard grapes still many weeks from maturity.
The work lanes between the vine rows were mottled black with the shadows of the day’s last hour, purple with grape pomace that had been spread as fertilizer.
Seventy or eighty feet from the window, a man alone stood in one of those lanes. He had no tools with him and did not appear to be at work. If he was a grower or a vintner out for a walk, he must not be in a hurry. He stood in one place, feet planted wide apart, hands in his trouser pockets. He seemed to be studying the convalescent home.
From this distance and in this light, no details of the man’s appearance could be discerned. He stood in the lane between vines with his back to the declining sun, which revealed him only as a silhouette.
Listening to running feet on hollow stairs, which was in fact the thunder of his heart, Billy warned himself against paranoia. Whatever trouble might come, he would need calm nerves and a clear mind to cope.
He turned away from the window. He went to the bed.
Barbara’s eyes moved under her lids. The specialists said this indicated a dream state.
Considering that any coma was a far deeper sleep than mere sleep itself, Billy wondered if hers were more intense than ordinary dreams—full of fevered action, crashing with a thunderstorm of sound, drenched in color. He worried that her dreams were nightmares, vivid and perpetual. When he kissed her forehead, she murmured, “The wind is in the east”
He waited, but she said no more, though her eyes darted and rolled from phantom to phantom under her closed lids.
Because those words contained no menace and because no sense of peril darkened her voice, he chose to believe that her current dream, at least, must be benign.
Although he didn’t want it, he took from the nightstand a square creamcolored envelope on which his name had been written in flowing script. He tucked it in a pocket, unread, for he knew that it had been left by Barbara’s doctor, Jordan Ferrier.
When medical issues of substance needed to be discussed, the physician always used the telephone. He resorted to written messages only when he had turned from medicine to the devil’s work.
At the window again, Billy discovered that the watcher in the vineyard had gone.
Moments later, when he left Whispering Pines, he half expected to find a third note on his windshield. He was spared that discovery.
Most likely the man among the vines had been an ordinary man engaged in honest business. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Billy drove directly home, parked in the detached garage, climbed the back-porch steps, and found his kitchen door unlocked, ajar.
Billy had not been threatened in either of the notes. The danger confronting him was not to life and limb. He would have preferred physical peril to the moral jeopardy that he faced.
Nevertheless, when he found the back door of the house ajar, he considered waiting in the yard until Lanny arrived with Sheriff Palmer. That option occupied his consideration only for a moment. He didn’t care if Lanny and Palmer thought he was gutless, but he didn’t want to think it of himself.
He went inside. No one waited in the kitchen.
The draining daylight drizzled down the windows more than it penetrated them. Warily, he turned on lights as he went through the house. He found no intruder in any room or closet. Curiously, he saw no signs of intrusion, either.
By the time that he returned to the kitchen, he had begun to wonder if he might have failed to close and lock the door when he had left the house earlier in the day.
That possibility had to be discounted when he found the spare key on a kitchen counter, near the phone. It should have been taped to the bottom of one of twenty cans of wood stain and varnish stored on a shelf in the garage. Billy had last used the spare key five or six months previously. He could not possibly have been under surveillance that long.
Suspecting the existence of a key, the killer must have intuited that the garage was the most likely place in which it would have been hidden. Billy’s professionally equipped woodworking shop occupied two-thirds of that space, presenting numerous drawers and cabinets and shelves where such a small item could have been hidden. The search for it might have taken hours. If the killer, after visiting the house, intended to announce his intrusion by leaving the spare key in the kitchen, logic argued that he would have saved himself the time and trouble of the search. Instead, why wouldn’t he have broken one of the four panes of glass in the back door?
As Billy puzzled over this conundrum, he suddenly realized that the key lay at the very spot on the black-granite counter where he had left the first typewritten message from the killer. It was gone.
Turning in a full circle, he saw the note neither on the floor nor on another counter. He pulled open the nearest drawers, but it was not in this one or in this one, or in this one…
Abruptly he realized that Giselle Winslow’s killer had not been here, after all. The intruder had been Lanny Olsen.
Lanny knew where the spare key was kept. When he had asked for the first note, as evidence, Billy had told him that it was here, in the kitchen. Lanny had also asked where to find him in an hour, whether he would be going directly home or to Whispering Pines.
A sense of deep misgiving overcame Billy, a general uneasiness and doubt that began to curdle his trust.
If Lanny had all along intended to come here and collect the note as essential evidence, not later with Sheriff Palmer but right away, he should have said so. His deception suggested that he was not in a mood to serve and protect the public, or even to back up a friend, but was focused first on saving his own skin.
Billy didn’t want to believe such a thing. He sought excuses for Lanny. Maybe after driving away from the tavern in his patrol car, he had decided that, after all, he must have both of the notes before he approached Sheriff Palmer. And maybe he didn’t want to make a call to Whispering Pines because he knew how important those visits were to Billy.
In that case, however, he would have written a brief explanation to leave in place of the killer’s note when he took it.
Unless… If his intention was to destroy both notes instead of going to Palmer, and later to claim that Billy had never come to him prior to the Winslow murder, such a replacement note would have been evidence to refute him.
Always, Lanny Olsen had seemed to be a good man, not free of faults, but basically good and fair and decent. He’d sacrificed his dreams to stand by his ailing mother for so many years.
Billy dropped the spare key in his pants pocket. He did not intend to tape it again to the bottom of the can in the workshop.
He wondered just how many bad reports were on Lanny’s ten card, exactly how lazy he had been.
In retrospect, Billy heard markedly greater desperation in his friend’s voice than he had heard at the time: I never really wanted this life… but the thing is… whether I wanted it or not, it’s what I’ve got now. It’s all I have. I want a chance to keep it.
Even most good men had a breaking point. Lanny might have been closer to his than Billy could have known.
The wall clock showed 8:09.
In less than four hours, regardless of the choice that Billy made, someone would die. He wanted this responsibility off his shoulders. Lanny was supposed to call him by 8:30.
Billy had no intention of waiting. He snatched the handset from the wall phone and keyed in Lanny’s personal cell-phone number.
After five rings, he was switched to voice mail. He said, “This is Billy. I’m at home. What the hell? What’ve you done? Call me now.”
Instinct told him not to attempt to reach Lanny through the sheriffsdepartment dispatcher. He would be leaving a trail that might have consequences he could not foresee.
His friend’s betrayal, if that’s what it was, had reduced Billy to the cautious calculations of a guilty man, although he had done nothing wrong. A transient sting of mingled pain and anger would have been understandable. Instead, resentment swelled in him so thick, so quick, that his chest grew tight and he had difficulty swallowing.
Destroying the notes and lying about them might spare Lanny dismissal from the force, but Billy’s situation would be made worse. Lacking evidence, he would find it more difficult to convince the authorities that his story was true and that it might shed light on the killer’s psychology. If he approached them now, he risked looking like a publicity seeker or like a bartender who sampled too much of his wares. Or like a suspect. Riveted by that thought, he stood very still for a minute, exploring it. Suspect.
His mouth had gone dry. His tongue cleaved to his palate.
He went to the kitchen sink and drew a glass of cold water from the tap. At first he could barely choke down a mouthful, but then he drained the glass in three long swallows.
Too cold, drunk too fast, the water wrung a brief sharp pain from his chest, and washed nausea through his gut. He put the glass on the drainboard. He leaned over the sink until the queasiness passed.
He splashed his greasy face with cold water, washed his hands in hot. He paced the kitchen. He sat briefly at the table, then paced some more. At 8:30, he stood by the telephone, staring at it, although he had every reason to believe that it would not ring.
At 8:40, he used his cell phone to call Lanny’s cellular number, leaving the house phone open. He got voice mail again.
The kitchen was too warm. He felt stifled.
At 8:45, Billy stepped outside, onto the back porch. He needed fresh air. With the door wide open behind him, he could hear the telephone if it rang.
Indigo in the east, the sky overhead and to the west trembled faintly with the iridescent vibrations of an orange-and-green sunset.
The encircling woods bristled dark, growing darker. If a hostile observer had taken up position in that timber, crouching in ferns and philodendrons, none but a sharp-nosed dog could have known that he was out there.
A hundred toads, all unseen, had begun to sing in the descending gloom, but in the kitchen, past the open door, all was silent.
Perhaps Lanny just needed a little more time to find a way to tweak the truth.
Surely he cared about more than himself. He could not have been reduced so totally, so quickly, to the most base self-interest.
He was still a cop, lazy or not, desperate or not. Sooner than later he would realize that he couldn’t live with himself if, by obstructing the investigation, he contributed to more deaths.
The ink-spill in the east soon saturated the sky overhead, while in the west, all was fire and blood.
At 9:00, Billy left the back porch and went inside. He closed the door and locked it.
In just three hours, a fate would be decided, a death ordained, and if the killer followed a pattern, someone would be murdered before dawn. The key to the SUV lay on the dinette table. Billy picked it up. He considered setting out in search of Lanny Olsen. What he had thought was resentment, earlier, had been mere exasperation. Now he knew real resentment, a dark and bitter brooding. He badly wanted confrontation. Preserve me from the enemy who has something to gain, and from the friend who has something to lose.
Lanny had been on day shift. He was off duty now.
Most likely he would be holed up at home. If he was not at home, there were only a handful of restaurants, bars, and friends’ houses where he might be found.
A sense of responsibility and a strange despairing kind of hope held Billy prisoner in his kitchen, by his telephone. He no longer expected Lanny to call; but the killer might.
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