Authors: Dean Koontz
Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers
“I love a song about home fires and family,” Vess says.
“You on vacation?” asks the redhead.
“Hell, friend, I’m always on vacation.”
“Too young to be retired.”
“I mean,” says Vess, “life itself is a vacation if you look at it the right way. Been doing some hunting.”
“Around these parts? What game’s in season?” the redhead asks.
The Asian remains silent but attentive. He takes a Slim Jim sausage off a display rack and skins open the plastic wrapper without letting his gaze flicker from Vess.
They don’t suspect for a second that they’re both going to be dead in a minute, and their cow-stupid lack of awareness delights Vess. It is quite funny, really. How dramatically their eyes will widen in the instant that the shotgun roars.
Instead of answering the cashier’s question, Vess says, “Are you a hunter?”
“Fishing’s my sport,” the redhead says.
“Never cared for it,” says Vess.
“Great way to get in touch with nature—little boat on the lake, peaceful water.”
Vess shakes his head. “You can’t see anything in their eyes.”
The redhead blinks, confused. “In whose eyes?”
“I mean, they’re just
. They just have these flat, glassy eyes. Jesus.”
“Well, I never said they’re pretty. But nothing tastes better than your own-caught salmon or a mess of trout.”
Edgler Vess listens to the music for a moment, letting the two men watch him. The song genuinely affects him. He feels the piercing loneliness of the road, the longing of a lover far from home. He is a sensitive man.
The Asian bites off a piece of the Slim Jim. He chews daintily, his jaw muscles hardly moving.
Vess decides that he will take the unfinished sausage back to Ariel. She can put her mouth where the Asian had his. This intimacy with the beautiful young man will be Vess’s gift to the girl.
He says, “Sure will be glad to get home to my Ariel. Isn’t that a pretty name?”
“Sure is,” says the redhead.
“Fits her too.”
“She the missus?” asks the redhead. His friendliness is not as natural as when Vess spoke with him about turning on pump number seven. He is definitely uncomfortable and trying not to show it.
Time to startle them, see how they react. Will either of them begin to realize just how much trouble is coming?
“Nope,” Vess says. “No ball and chain for me. Maybe one day. Anyway, Ariel’s only sixteen, not ready yet.”
They are not sure what to say. Sixteen is half his age. Sixteen is still a child. Jailbait.
The risk he’s taking is enormous and titillating. Another customer might pull off the highway at any moment, raising the stakes.
“Prettiest thing you’ll ever see this side of paradise,” says Vess, and he licks his lips. “Ariel, I mean.”
He takes the Polaroid snapshot from his coat pocket and drops it onto the counter. The clerks stare at it.
“She’s pure angel,” says Vess. “Porcelain skin. Breathtaking. Makes your scrotum twang like a bass fiddle.”
With barely disguised distaste, the cashier looks at the pump-monitor board to the left of the cash register and says, “Your sixty bucks just finished going in the tank.”
Vess says, “Don’t get me wrong. I never touched her—that way. She’s been locked in the basement the past year, where I can look at her anytime I want to. Waiting for my little doll to ripen, get just a little sweeter.”
As glassy-eyed as fish, they gaze at him. He relishes their expressions.
Then he smiles, laughs, and says, “Hey, had you going there, didn’t I?”
Neither man smiles back at him, and the redhead says tightly, “You still going to make some other purchases, or do you just want your change?”
Vess puts on his most sincere face. He can almost manage a blush. “Listen, sorry if I offended. I’m a joker. Can’t help puttin’ people on.”
“Well,” says the redhead, “I have a sixteen-year-old daughter, so I don’t see what’s funny.”
Speaking to the Asian, Vess says, “When I go hunting, I take trophies. You know—like a matador gets the bull’s tail and ears? Sometimes it’s just a picture. Gifts for Ariel. She’ll really like you.”
As he speaks, he raises the Mossberg, draped with the raincoat as if with black funeral bunting, seizes it in both hands, blows the redheaded cashier off his stool, and pumps another shell into the breech.
The Asian. Oh, how his eyes widen. The expression in them is like nothing ever to be seen in the eyes of fish.
Even as the redhead crashes to the floor, this young Asian gentleman with the fabulous eyes has one hand under the counter, going for a weapon.
Vess says, “Don’t, or I’ll shove the bullets up your ass.”
But the Asian brings up the revolver anyway, a Smith & Wesson .38 Chiefs Special, so Vess thrusts the shotgun across the counter and fires point-blank at his chest, loath to mess up that perfect face. The young man is airborne off the stool, the revolver spinning from his hand even before he has a chance to squeeze off one round.
The redhead is screaming.
Vess walks to the gate in the counter and passes through to the work area.
The redheaded cashier with the sixteen-year-old daughter waiting at home is curled as if imitating the fetus-like pink birthmark on his forehead, hugging himself, holding himself together. On the radio, Garth Brooks sings “Thunder Rolls.” Now the cashier is screaming and crying at the same time. The screams reverberate in the plate-glass windows, and the echo of the shotgun still roars in Vess’s ears, and a new customer could walk into the store at any second. The moment is achingly intense.
One more round finishes the cashier.
The Asian is unconscious and going fast. Happily, his face is unmarked.
Like a pilgrim genuflecting before a shrine, Vess drops onto one knee as a final gasp rattles from the dying young man. A sound like the brittle flutter of insect wings. He leans close to inhale the other’s exhalation, breathes deeply. Now small measures of the Asian’s grace and beauty are a part of him, conveyed on the scent of the Slim Jim.
The Brooks song is followed by that old Johnny Cash number “A Boy Named Sue,” which is silly enough to spoil the mood. Vess turns off the radio.
As he reloads, he surveys the area behind the counter and spots a row of wall switches. They are labeled with the locations of the lights that they control. He shuts down all the exterior lighting, including the OPEN 24 HOURS of red neon on the roof.
When he also switches off the fluorescent ceiling panels, the store is not plunged into total darkness. The display lights in the long row of coolers glow eerily behind the insulated glass doors. A lighted clock advertising Coors beer hangs on one wall, and at the counter, a gooseneck lamp illuminates the papers on which the Asian gentleman was working.
Nevertheless, the shadows are deep, and the place appears to be closed. It’s unlikely that a customer will pull in from the highway.
Of course a county sheriff’s deputy or highway patrol officer, curious about why this establishment that never closes is, in fact, suddenly closed, might investigate. Consequently, Vess doesn’t dawdle over the tasks that remain.
Huddled with her back against the end panel of the shelves, as far as she could get from the cashiers’ counter, Chyna felt exposed by the display-case light to her right and threatened by the shadows to her left. In the silence following the gunfire and the cessation of the music, she became convinced that the killer could hear her ragged, shuddery breathing. But she couldn’t quiet herself, and she couldn’t stop shaking any more than a rabbit could cease shivering in the shadow of a wolf.
Maybe the rumble of the compressors for the coolers and freezers would provide enough covering sound to save her. She wanted to lean out to one side and then the other to check the flanking aisles, but she could not summon the courage to look. She was crazily certain that, leaning out, she’d come face-to-face with the eater of spiders.
She had thought that nothing could be more devastating than finding the bodies of Paul and Sarah—and later Laura—but this had been worse. This time she had been in the same room when murder happened, close enough not merely to hear the screams but to feel them like punches in the chest.
She supposed the killer was robbing the place, but he didn’t need to kill the clerks just to get the money. Necessity, of course, was not a deciding factor with him. He had killed them simply because he enjoyed doing so. He was on a roll. He was
She seemed trapped in an endless night. A breakdown in the cosmic machinery, gears jammed. Stars locked in place. No sunrise ever rising. And coming down through the frozen sky, a terrible coldness.
A light flashed, and Chyna brought her hands up defensively in front of her face. Then she realized that the flash had come from the other end of the store. And again.
Edgler Vess is not a hunter, as he had told the redheaded cashier, but a connoisseur who collects exquisite images, recording most of them with the camera of his mind’s eye but once in a while with the Polaroid camera. Memories of great beauty enliven his thoughts every day and form the basis of his gratifying dreams.
Each camera flash seems to linger in the huge eyes of the Asian clerk, glimmering as if it were his spirit trapped behind his corneas and seeking egress from the cooling mortal coil.
Once, in Nevada, Vess had killed an incomparable twenty-year-old brunette, whose face had made Claudia Schiffer and Kate Moss look like hags. Before meticulously destroying her, he had taken six photographs. With threats, he had even managed to make her smile in three of the shots; she had a radiant smile. Once every thirty days during the three months following that memorable episode, he had cut up and eaten one of the photos in which she’d been smiling, and with the consumption of each, he had been fiercely aroused by the destruction of her beauty. He had felt her smile in his belly, a warming radiance, and knew that he himself was more beautiful because he contained it.
He can’t remember the brunette’s name. Names are never of any importance to him.
Knowing the name of the young Asian gentleman, however, will be helpful when he describes this episode to Ariel. He puts aside the Polaroid, rolls the dead man over, and takes his wallet from his hip pocket.
Holding the driver’s license in the light from the gooseneck lamp, he sees that the name is Thomas Fujimoto.
Vess decides to call him Fuji. Like the mountain.
He returns the license to the wallet and tucks the wallet in the pocket. He takes none of the dead man’s money. He won’t touch the cash in the register either—except to extract the forty dollars in change that is due him. He isn’t a thief.
With three photographs taken, he needs only to keep his promise to Fuji and prove that he is a man of his word. It is an awkward bit of business, but he finds it amusing.
Now he must deal with the security system, which has recorded everything that he’s done. A video camera is mounted over the front door and focused on the cashiers’ counter.
Edgler Foreman Vess has no desire to see himself on television news. Living with intensity is virtually impossible when one is in prison.
Chyna was in control of her breathing again, but her heart knocked so hard that her vision pulsed, and the carotid arteries thumped in her throat as though jolts of electricity were slamming through them.
Again convinced that safety lay in movement, she leaned into the light and looked around the corner into the aisle in front of the coolers. The killer was not in sight, although she could hear him moving at the other end of the store: crisp furtive rustlings like a rat in a drift of autumn leaves.
On her hands and knees, stomach clenched in terror, she crawled into the spill of cooler light far enough to look along the narrow aisle, seeking something on the shelves to the right that might serve as a weapon. Without the butcher knife, she felt helpless.
No knives were conveniently for sale. Nearest to her were hanging displays of novelty key chains, fingernail clippers, pocket combs, styptic pencils, packets of moistened towelettes, eyeglass-cleaning papers, decks of playing cards, and disposable cigarette lighters.
She reached up and took one of the lighters off the rack. She wasn’t sure how she could use it to defend herself, but in the absence of a satisfyingly sharp length of steel, fire was the only weapon available to her.
The overhead fluorescent panels blinked on. The brightness froze her.
She looked toward the far end of the store. The killer wasn’t in sight, but across one wall his slouched shadow swelled huge and then shrank and then glided away like that of a moth swooping past a floodlamp.
Vess switches the lights on only to look at the video camera mounted above the front door.
Of course the incriminating tape is not contained in the camera. If access were that easy, even some of the dimwit thugs who make a living sticking up service stations and convenience stores would be smart enough to climb on a stool and eject the cassette to take it with them or otherwise destroy the evidence. The camera is sending the image to a video recorder elsewhere in the building.
The system is an add-on, so the transmission cable isn’t buried in the wall. This is fortunate for Vess, because if the cable were hidden, the search would be more time-consuming. The line isn’t even tucked up above the suspended acoustic-tile ceiling. Bracketed to the Sheetrock, it leads openly to the back partition behind the cashiers’ counter and through a half-inch-diameter hole in that wall to another room.
There’s a door to that room as well. He finds an office with one desk, gray metal filing cabinets, a small safe with a combination lock, and wood-pattern Formica storage cabinets.
Fortunately, the recorder isn’t in the safe. The transmission cable comes through the wall from the store, continues through two more brackets for a distance of about seven feet, then drops down through the top of one of the storage cabinets. No attempt at concealment whatsoever.
He opens the upper doors to the cabinet, doesn’t find what he seeks, and checks below. Three machines are stacked atop one another.