Yet to phone the sheriff’s department, even anonymously, and report the crime might be a mistake. They would want an explanation for the call that had been placed from this house to Billy’s place soon after the murder; and he still had not decided what to tell them.
Other issues, things he didn’t know about, might point the finger of suspicion at him. Circumstantial evidence.
Perhaps the ultimate intention of the killer was to frame Billy for these murders and for others.
Undeniably, the freak saw this as a game. The rules, if any, were known only to him.
Likewise, the definition of victory was known only to him. Ginning the pot, capturing the king, scoring the final touchdown might mean, in this case, sending Billy to prison for life not for any rational reason, not so the freak himself could escape justice, but for the sheer fun of it. Considering that he could not even discern the shape of the playing field, Billy didn’t relish being interrogated by Sheriff John palmer. He needed time to think. A few hours at least. Until dawn. “I’m sorry,” he told Lanny.
He switched off one of the bedside lamps and then the other. If the house glowed like a centenarian’s birthday cake through the night, someone might notice. And wonder. Everyone knew Lanny Olsen was an early-to-bed guy. The house stood at the highest and loneliest point of the deadend lane. Virtually no one drove up here unless they were coming to see Lanny, and no one was likely to visit during the next eight or ten hours. Midnight had turned Tuesday to Wednesday. Wednesday and Thursday were Lanny’s days off. No one would miss him at work until Friday. Nevertheless, one by one, Billy returned to the other upstairs rooms and switched off those lights as well.
He doused the hall lights and went down the stairs, uneasy about all the darkness at his back.
In the kitchen, he closed the door to the porch and locked it. He intended to take Lanny’s spare key with him.
As he went forward once more through the first floor, he turned off all the lights, including the ceramic gas-fueled logs in the den fireplace, using the barrel of the handgun to flip the switches.
Standing on the front porch, he locked that door as well, and wiped the knob.
He felt watched as he descended the steps. He surveyed the lawn, the trees, glanced back at the house.
All the windows were black, and the night was black, and Billy walked away from that closed darkness into an open darkness under an India-ink sky in which stars seemed to float, seemed to tremble.
He walked briskly downhill along the shoulder of the lane, ready to take cover in the roadside brush if headlights appeared.
Frequently, he glanced back. As far as he could tell, no one followed him. Moonless, the night favored a stalker. It should have favored Billy, too, but he felt exposed by the stars.
At the house with the chest-high fence, the half-seen dog once more raced back and forth along the pickets, beseeching Billy with a whimper. It sounded desperate.
He sympathized with the animal and understood its condition. His plight, however, and his need to plan left him no time to stop and console the beast.
Besides, every expression of desired friendship has potential bite. Every smile reveals the teeth.
So he continued down the lane, and glanced behind, and held tight to the revolver, and then turned left into the meadow where he waded through the grass in a fear of snakes.
One question pressed upon him more urgently than others: Was the killer someone he knew or a stranger?
If the freak had been in Billy’s life well prior to the first note, a secret sociopath who could no longer keep his homicidal urges bottled up, identifying him might be difficult but possible. Analysis of relationships and a search of memory with an eye for anomaly might unearth clues. Deductive reasoning and imagination would likely paint a face, spell out a twisted motive. In the event that the freak was a stranger who selected Billy at random for torment and eventual destruction, detective work would be more difficult. Imagining a face never seen and sounding for a motive in a vacuum would not prove easy.
Not long ago in the history of the world, routine daily violence—excluding the ravages of nations at war—had been largely personal in nature. Grudges, slights to honor, adultery, disputes over money triggered the murderous impulse.
In the modern world, more in the postmodern, most of all in the postpostmodern, much violence had become impersonal. Terrorists, street gangs, lone sociopaths, sociopaths in groups and pledged to a Utopian vision killed people they did not know, against whom they had no realistic complaint, for the purpose of attracting attention, making a statement, intimidation, or even just for the thrill of it.
The freak, whether known or unknown to Billy, was a daunting adversary. Judging by all evidence, he was bold but not reckless, psychopathic but selfcontrolled, clever, ingenious, cunning, with a baroque and Machiavellian mind. By contrast, Billy Wiles made his way in the world as plainly and directly as he could. His mind was not baroque. His desires were not complex. He only hoped to live, and lived on guarded hope.
Hurrying through tall pale grass that lashed against his legs and seemed to pass conspiratorial whispers blade to blade, he felt that he had more in common with a field mouse than with a sharp-beaked owl.
The great spreading oak tree loomed. As Billy passed under it, unseen presences stirred in the boughs overhead, testing pinions, but no wings took flight.
Beyond the Ford Explorer, the church looked like an ice carving made of water with a trace of phosphorus.
Approaching, he unlocked the SUV with the remote key, and was acknowledged by two electronic chirps and a double flash of the parking lights. He got in, closed the door, and locked up again. He dropped the revolver on the passenger’s seat.
When he attempted to insert the key in the ignition, something foiled him. A folded piece of paper had been fixed to the steering column with a short length of tape.
The third note.
The killer must have been stationed along the highway, observing the turnoff to Lanny Olsen’s place, to see if Billy would take the bait. He must have noticed the Explorer pull into this parking lot.
The vehicle had been locked. The freak could have gotten into it only by breaking a window; but none was broken. The car alarm had not been triggered.
Thus far, every moment of this waking nightmare had felt keenly real, as veritable as fire to a testing hand. But the discovery of this third note seemed to thrust Billy through a membrane from the true world into one of fantasy. With a dreamlike dread, Billy peeled the note off the steering column. He unfolded it.
The interior lights, activated automatically when he boarded the SUV, were still on, for he had so recently shut and locked the door. The message—a question—was clearly visible and succinct. A re you prepared for your first wound?
Are you prepared for your first wound?
As though an Einsteinian switch had thrown time into slomo, the note slipped out of his fingers and seemed to float, float like a feather into his lap. The light went out.
In a trance of terror, reaching with his right hand for the revolver on the passenger’s seat, Billy turned slowly to the right as well, intending to look over his shoulder and into the dark backseat.
There would seem to be too little room back there for a man to have hidden; however, Billy had gotten into the Explorer hastily, heedlessly. He groped for the elusive gun, his fingertips brushed the checked grip of the weapon—and the window in the driver’s door imploded.
As safety glass collapsed in a prickly mass across his chest and thighs, the revolver slipped out of his grasping fingers and tumbled onto the floor. Even as the glass was falling, before Billy could turn to face the assault, the freak reached into the SUV and seized a handful of his hair, at the crown of his head, twisted it and palled hard.
Trapped by the steering wheel and the console, pulled ruthlessly by the hair, unable to scramble into the passenger’s seat and search for the gun, he clawed at the hand that held him, but ineffectively because a leather glove protected it.
The freak was strong, vicious, relentless.
Billy’s hair should already have come out by the roots. The pain was excruciating. His vision blurred.
The killer wanted to pull him headfirst and backward through the brokenout window. The back of Billy’s skull rapped hard against the window sill. Another solid rap snapped his teeth together and knocked a hoarse cry from him. He clutched at the steering wheel with his left hand, at the headrest on the driver’s seat with his right, resisting. The hair would come out in a great handful. The hair would come out, and he would be free.
But the hair didn’t, and he wasn’t, and he thought of the horn. If he blew the horn, pounded the horn, help would come, and the freak would run. At once he realized that only the priest in the rectory would hear, and if the priest came, the killer wouldn’t flee. No, he would shoot the priest in the face just as he had shot Lanny.
Maybe ten seconds had elapsed since the window had shattered, and the back of Billy’s head was being drawn inexorably across the window sill. The pain had quickly grown so intense that the roots of his hair seemed to extend through the flesh of his face—for his face hurt as well, stung as if flame had seared it—and seemed to extend also into his shoulders and arms, for as the tenacious roots came free, so did the strength in those muscles. The nape of his neck chilled on contact with the window sill. Crumbles of gummy safety glass jagged his skin.
His head was being bent backward now. How quickly his exposed throat could be slit, how easily his spine might be snapped.
He let go of the steering wheel. He reached behind his back, fumbling for the door handle.
If he could open the door and thrust with sufficient force, he might unbalance his assailant, knock him down, and either break his grip or lose the hair at last.
To reach the handle—slippery in his sweaty fingers—he had to twist his arm behind himself so torturously and bend his hand at such a severe angle that he didn’t have the range of movement to work the lever action. As if sensing Billy’s intent, the freak leaned all his weight against the door.
Billy’s head was largely out of the car now, and a face suddenly appeared above him, upside-down to his face. A countenance without features. A hooded phantom.
He blinked to clear his vision.
Not a hood. A dark ski mask.
Even in this poor light, Billy could see the fevered gaze that glistered from the eyeholes.
Something sprayed the lower half of his face, from the nose down. Wet, cold, pungent yet sweet, a medicinal reek.
He gasped in shock, then tried to hold his breath, but the single gasp had undone him. Astringent fumes burned in his nostrils. His mouth flooded with saliva.
The masked face seemed to lower toward his, like a dark moon coming down, the cratered eyes.
The sedative wore off. Like a winch line turning on a drum, pain gradually hoisted Billy from unconsciousness.
His mouth tasted as if he’d drunk waffle syrup and chased it with bleach. Sweet and bitter. Life itself.
For a while he didn’t know where he was. Initially he did not care. Raised from a sea of torpor, he felt saturated with unnatural sleep and yearned to return to it.
Eventually the unrelenting pain forced him to care, to keep his eyes open, to analyze sensation and to orient himself. He was lying on his back on a hard surface—the church parking lot.
He could smell the faint scents of tar, oil, gasoline. The vague nutty, musty fragrance of the oak tree spreading overhead in the darkness. His own sour perspiration.
Licking his lips, he tasted blood.
When he wiped his face, Billy found it slick with a viscous substance that was most likely a mixture of sweat and blood. In the dark, he could not see what had been transferred to his hand.
The pain was mostly in his scalp. He first assumed that it was a lingering effect of having had his hair nearly pulled out.
A slow pulsing ache, punctuated by a series of sharper pangs, radiated across his head, not from the crown, however, where his hair had been severely tested, but from his brow.
When he raised one hand and hesitantly explored the source, he found something stiff and wiry bristling from his forehead, an inch below the hairline. Although his touch was gentle, it triggered a spasm of sharper pain that made him cry out. Are you prepared for your first wound?
He left the exploration of the injury for later, until he could see the damage.
The wound would not be mortal. The freak had not intended to kill him, only to hurt him, perhaps to scar him.
Billy’s grudging respect for his adversary had grown to the point that he did not expect the man to make mistakes, at least not major ones. Billy sat up. Pain swelled across his brow, and again when he got to his feet.
He stood swaying, surveying the parking lot. His assailant was gone. High in the night, a cluster of moving stars, the running lights of a jet, growled westward. On this route, it was probably a military transport headed for a war zone. Another war zone different from the one down here. He opened the driver’s door of the Explorer.
Crumbled safety glass littered the seat. He plucked a Kleenex box from the console and used it to scrape the prickly debris off the upholstery. He searched for the note that had been taped over the ignition. Evidently the killer had taken it.
He found the dropped key under the brake pedal. From the floor in front of the passenger’s seat, he retrieved the revolver.
He had been allowed to keep the gun for the game ahead. The freak didn’t fear it.
The substance with which Billy had been sprayed—chloroform or some other anesthetic—had a lingering effect. When he bent over, he grew dizzy. Behind the wheel, with the door closed, with the engine running, he worried that he might not be fit to drive.
He turned on the air conditioner, angled two vents at his face. As he assessed his transient dizziness, the interior lights went off automatically. Billy turned them on once more.
He tilted the rearview mirror to inspect his face. He looked like a painted devil: dark red, but the teeth bright; dark red, and the whites of the eyes unnaturally white.
When he adjusted the mirror again, he saw at once the source of his pain. Seeing did not immediately mean believing. He preferred to think that the residual dizziness from the anesthetic might be accompanied by hallucination. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. He strove to clear the image in the mirror from his mind, and hoped that when he looked again he would not see the same.
Nothing had changed. Across his forehead, an inch below the hairline, three large fishhooks pierced his flesh.
The point and the barb of each hook protruded from the skin. The shank also protruded. The bend of each hook lay under the thin meat of his brow. He shuddered and looked away from the mirror.
There are days of doubt, more often lonely nights, when even the devout wonder if they are heirs to a greater kingdom than this earth and if they will know mercy—or if instead they are only animals like any other, with no inheritance except the wind and the dark.
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