The Darkest Evening of the Year / Page 18

Page 18


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After Gunny killed Bobby Onions and Vernon Lesley, he and Billy stripped the bodies of ID and dragged them to the intersection of the two cracked blacktop roads that served the surrounding cluster of abandoned Quonset huts. They pried a manhole out of the weed-choked pavement and dumped the dead men into the long-unused septic tank.


Even the desert got some rain, and the service-road gutters fed this tank, so the darkness below still stank, if not as bad as it had when the facility had been open twenty years ago, and both bodies splashed into something best not contemplated.


Billy heard movement below, before and after the dropping of the cadavers: maybe rats, maybe lizards, maybe desert beetles as big as bread plates.


When he had been a young man, he would have lowered a flashlight or torch down there, to satisfy his curiosity. He was old enough now to know that curiosity usually got you a bullet in the face.


They worked fast, and after they wrestled the cover onto the manhole, Gunny said, “See you in Santa Barbara.”


“Pretty place. I like Santa Barbara,” Billy said. “I hope nobody ever blows it up.”


“Somebody will,” Gunny said, not because he had any proprietary knowledge of a forthcoming event, but because he was an anarchist and always hopeful.


Gunny flew out in the twin-engine Cessna, and Billy walked the scene, kicking sand over the drag marks from the dead men’s heels, picking up what shell casings he spotted in the late sun, and making sure they had gathered up all of the major pieces of Bobby Onions’s skull.


When the woman disappeared, no one would care as long as she was a nobody named Redwing, living in a modest bungalow, doing nothing with her life except rescuing dogs.


Every week, so many people disappeared or turned up dead in a grotesque fashion that even the cable-news crime shows, with their insatiable hunger for shock and gore, could not cover every case. Some deaths were more important than others. You didn’t get killer ratings and book all your ad time at the highest price if your show’s philosophy was that the death of any sparrow mattered as much as the death of any other.


Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for the pretty twenty-something pregnant woman who is clubbed to death by her husband, cut into twelve pieces, packed in a footlocker with concrete blocks, and submerged in a pond. It tolls and tolls and tolls, 24/7, until the only way you can escape hearing it is by switching to Animal Planet.


Amy Redwing’s disappearance would merit zero TV time as long as no one knew she had once been someone other than Amy Redwing. Because Vernon Lesley had done a good job of finding the mementos of her past that she had saved, he knew too much about her, and he had to die.


Maybe Lesley had not shared his knowledge with Bobby Onions, but Billy Pilgrim had not been willing to take a chance that Onions was as clueless as he looked. Besides, the moment Onions got out of the Land Rover, with his James Dean sneer and his swagger, Billy wanted to kill him on general principles.


After policing the area for evidence of the shootings, Billy dropped the dead men’s ID into the white trash bag that contained what Vernon Lesley had confiscated from the woman’s bungalow. With the bag on the passenger seat beside him, he drove out of the desert in the Land Rover and headed west.


Twilight came on like a big Hollywood production, saturated with color-gold, peach, orange, then red, with purple pending-ornamented with clouds in fantastic shapes afire against an electric-blue sky shimmering toward sapphire: the kind of twilight that could almost make you think the day had been important and had meant something.


Billy had a busy night ahead of him. They said there was no rest for the wicked. In fact, there was rest neither for the virtuous nor for the wicked, nor for guys like Billy Pilgrim, who were uncommitted regarding the whole idea of virtue versus wickedness and who were just trying to do their jobs.


Chapter 37


Something unnatural happens to you-judging by the evidence probably something supernatural-and at the same time your dead past suddenly comes alive and catches up with you, with the consequence that you have to make the most wrenching confession you’ve ever made in your life to the one person in the whole world whose opinion of you matters desperately, yet you still have to feed the dogs, walk the dogs, and pick up their last poop of the day.


When Amy had first come into his life and had brought an arkful of canines with her, she had said that dogs centered you, calmed you, taught you how to cope. He had thought she was just a little daffy for golden retrievers. Eventually he had realized that what she had said was nothing less or more than the dead-solid truth.


In his pantry, he had kibble and treats for those evenings when Amy came by with the dogs for dinner and two-hand rummy, or to watch a DVD together.


After feeding Fred, Ethel, and Nickie, they walked them through the twilight to a nearby park.


“If this works out,” he said, “and Vanessa really will give Hope to me, I’ll understand if at some point you decide it’s too much.”


“Too much what?”


“Some people with Down’s syndrome are highly functional, others not so much. There’s a range.”


“Some architects are highly functional, and some are more dense, yet here I am.”


“I’m just saying it’s going to change things, it’s a lot of responsibility.”


“Some architects are highly functional,” she repeated, “and some are more dense, yet here I am.”


“I’m serious, Amy. Besides the girl’s disability, we don’t know what Vanessa might have put her through. There may be psychological problems, too.”


“Put any three human beings together,” she said, “and three of them are going to have psychological problems. So we just cope with one another.”


“Then there’s Vanessa. Maybe she’s had enough of tormenting me, and maybe she just wants to take my money, dump the girl on me, and forget the two of us ever existed. Or maybe it won’t be that easy.”


“I’m not worried about Vanessa. I can bitch-slap with the best of them.”


“If Vanessa decides to be in our lives, one way or another, a Holly Golightly attitude won’t work with her.”


“Holly Golightly like in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?”


He said, “If there’s a Holly Golightly in Bleak House, I’m not aware of it.”


“Listen up, nameless narrator, I don’t have a Holly Golightly attitude. It’s more like Katharine Hepburn in anything with Cary Grant.”


“Nameless narrator?”


“Breakfast at Tiffany’s is told in the first person by a guy who’s in love with her, but we never know his name.”


They let the dogs lead them in silence for a few steps, and then Brian said, “I am in love with you.”


“You said so back at the apartment. I said it, too. We’ve said it before. We don’t have to keep saying it every ten minutes, do we?”


“I don’t mind hearing it.”


“Dogs know when you love them,” she said. “They don’t expect you to say it all the time. People should be more like dogs.”


“No dog has ever asked you to marry him.”


“Sweetie, you’ve been so patient. It’s just that…I have some issues. I’m working on them. I’m not just being rotten to you, though I’m sure sometimes it seems like that.”


“It never seems like you’re being rotten. You’re the best. The way you’ve handled all this with Vanessa, Amy, you’re a wonder. It’s just…nameless narrator never got Holly Golightly.”


“He got her in the movie.”


“The movie was nice, but it wasn’t real. The book was real. In the book, she goes away to Brazil.”


“I’m not going to Brazil. I don’t like to samba. Anyway, you’re not nameless narrator. You’re much cuter than he was.”


The lampposts brightened as night pressed the last red wine out of the twilight.


Along the pathway, from lamp to lamp, across the grass, from bench to bench and back again, the dogs enjoyed the park entirely as dogs will, sniffing the messages left by legions of dogs before them, alert to the scents of squirrels in trees, of birds in higher branches, and of far places from which stories are carried on the breeze.


“Earlier, when I was doing all those drawings, I sensed-I knew-that Hope and Nickie are inextricably entwined, that I can’t have Hope without Nickie. There’s something so strange happening…yet Nickie acts like any other dog.”


“Most of the time,” Amy said.


She held Fred’s and Ethel’s leashes in her right hand. With her left hand, perhaps unconsciously, she touched the cameo locket at her throat.


“You want to tell me about the bedroom-slipper thing?” he asked.


“It doesn’t mean anything. It can’t. Anyway, it wouldn’t make sense to you without the backstory.”


“So tell me the backstory.”


“Sweetie, it’s not just a backstory, it’s a big honkin’ backstory. We don’t have time to get into it right now. In that last e-mail, Vanessa said ‘Stand by.’ We should see if she’s followed up while we’ve been out.”


When they got back to his apartment, an e-mail from Vanessa was waiting.


Chapter 38


The banks and beds of many rivers in southern California have been paved with concrete, not because the natives considered this more aesthetically pleasing than nature’s weeds and silt, but to prevent the course of the waterway from changing over time and to provide flood control. In addition, hundreds of millions of gallons of precious water that might otherwise have poured into the sea were efficiently diverted underground to stabilize the area’s water table during drought years.


The rainy season usually began no earlier than December. Now, in September, the riverbed was dry.


In the moonlight, the channel did not appear to be illuminated from above but instead from within its very structure, as though the concrete were radioactive and faintly glowing.


In the Land Rover that had once belonged to Bobby Onions, the headlights extinguished, Billy Pilgrim cruised down the center of the sixty-foot-wide dry river.


Twenty feet above him, chain-link fences prevented easy access to the river. Beyond the fences, on both sides, not visible from his low position, were shopping centers, industrial parks, and housing tracts, where hundreds of thousands of folks were living out versions of the American dream much different from the one that Billy pursued.


Billy had worked in the illegal drug trade, the illegal arms trade, the illegal human-organ trade, and shoe sales.


After high school, he had sold shoes for six months, intending to live in romantic penury in a garret and write great novels. He had soon discovered that looking at feet all day didn’t inspire memorable fiction, so he started dealing marijuana, added an ecstasy line, and expanded into a nice little coc**ne franchise.


From the start, he declined to take an illegal drug. He liked his brain the way he had originally found it. Besides, he would need every gray cell he had if he was to write enduring novels.


Trading drugs had led to trading weapons, the way shoe sales can easily lead to a broader career in men’s haberdashery. Although he had a personal prohibition against the use of drugs, he had never tried a weapon he didn’t like.


He had not yet used any of the human organs in which he traded, but if he ever needed a kidney or a liver, or a heart, he knew where to get it.


Somehow he turned fifty years of age. He never saw it coming. They said time flew when you were having fun, and what Billy believed in more than anything else was fun.


His love of fun explained why he had given up trying to write important fiction. Writing was no fun.


Reading was fun. All of his life, he had been an avid reader, devouring no fewer than three novels a week, sometimes twice that many.


He had no patience for those few books on the market that sought to find order or hope in life. He liked books steeped in irony. Wry comic novels about the folly of humanity and the meaninglessness of existence were his meat. Fortunately novelists turned them out by the thousands. He didn’t care for writers full of brooding nihilism, but rather for those who sweetened their nihilism with giggles, the kind of guys who would be happy operating a weenie stand in Hell.


Books were formative. They had made him the man that he was at fifty: worldly, cheerful, wildly successful in business, confident, and content.


Six years ago, he had gone to work for a man who had taken a family fortune earned in legitimate enterprise and had used it to build a criminal empire, an ingenious reversal of the usual order of things. His current operation was not on behalf of his boss’s illegal businesses but on behalf of the boss himself, a personal matter.


As arranged, Georgie Jobbs was waiting for Billy under the bridge. The bridge was six lanes wide and offered a lot of cover for a private transaction.


Georgie stood in the dark beside his Suburban, and as Billy coasted to a stop, Georgie switched on a flashlight, holding it under his chin, directed up over his face, to distort his features and make him look spooky. He knew Billy liked to have fun, and this was his idea of wit.


Occasionally people asked Georgie if he was related to Steve Jobs, the famous software-dot.com-animation-iPhone multibillionaire, which annoyed Georgie because he didn’t want anyone to think he would be associated with people like that. Instead of simply denying any relationship, Georgie peevishly called attention to the spelling difference-“Hey, I got two Bs”-which only led to confusion.


Georgie was making faces in the flashlight beam because he liked Billy Pilgrim. Likability was Billy’s greatest asset.


People liked him in part because of his appearance. Pudgy, with a sweet dimpled face and with curly blond hair as thin now as it had been when he was a baby, he looked huggable.


And people liked Billy because Billy genuinely liked people. He didn’t look down on them because of their ignorance or foolishness, or because of their idiot pride or their pomposity, but delighted in them for what they were: characters in the greatest irony-drenched, dark-comic novel of all, life.


He got out of the Land Rover and said, “Look at you, you’re Hannibal Lecter.”


Georgie mangled the line from the movie about eating someone’s liver with fava beans and a good Chianti.


“Stop it, stop,” Billy said, “you’ll have me pissing my pants.”


He hugged Georgie Jobbs, asked how his brother Steve was doing, and Georgie said “You crazy sonofabitch,” and they threw some playful punches at each other.


The best private investigators had scruples and a regard for the law. Two steps down from them were guys like Vern Lesley and Bobby Onions.


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