Authors: Dean Koontz
Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers
Tape whispers through the bottom machine, and the indicator light shines above the word
. He presses the
and he drops the cassette into his raincoat pocket.
He might play it for Ariel. The quality will not be first-rate, because this is an old system, outdated technology. But the precious girl will be impressed by his bold performance even in too brightly lit scenes on black-and-white tape that has been re-recorded too often.
A telephone stands on the desk. He uncouples it from the cord that leads to the wall jack and uses the butt of the shotgun to smash the keypad.
A new shift of clerks will come on duty, probably at eight or nine o’clock, in four or five hours. By then Vess will be long gone. But there’s no point in making it easy for them to call the police. Something might go wrong with his plans, delaying him here or on the highway, and then he will be glad that he bought himself an extra half hour by destroying the telephones.
Beside the door is a pegboard on which hang eight keys, each with its own tag. With the exception of the current regrettable interruption in service, this establishment is open twenty-four hours a day—yet there’s a key to lock the front door. He slips it off its peg.
In the work area behind the cashiers’ counter once more, after closing the office door behind him, Vess snaps down a switch, and the overhead fluorescents wink out.
He stands in the dim light that remains, breathing through his mouth, licking his lips, rolling his tongue over his gums, tasting the lingering acrid scent of gunfire. The gloom feels good against his face and the backs of his hands; the shadows are as erotic as slender, trembling hands.
Stepping around the bodies, he goes to the counter and takes only his forty dollars from the cash register drawer.
The young Asian’s Smith & Wesson .38 Chief’s Special lies on the counter, in the cone of light from the gooseneck lamp, where Vess carefully placed it minutes ago. He is no more capable of stealing the gun than he is of taking money that doesn’t belong to him.
The Slim Jim, from which the Asian took a large bite, is also on the counter. Unfortunately, the wrapper was
off; therefore, it is useless.
Vess plucks another sausage from the display rack, neatly chews off the end of the plastic wrapper, and slides the tube of meat out of the package. He inserts the shorter sausage (missing the Asian’s bite) into the wrapper and twists the end shut. He puts this in his pocket with the videotape—for Ariel.
He pays for the sausage that he threw away, making change from the open register drawer.
On the counter is a telephone. He unplugs it from the jack and smashes the keypad with the butt of the shotgun.
Now he goes shopping.
Chyna was relieved when the lights went off, frightened by the hammering, and then alert in the subsequent silence.
She had crept out of the cooler-lighted aisle and returned to her shelter at the end of the shelf row, where she had quietly peeled open the cardboard-and-plastic package that contained the disposable cigarette lighter. While the overhead fluorescents had been on and the flickering flame couldn’t betray her, she had tested the lighter, and it had worked.
Now she clutched this pathetic weapon and prayed that the killer would finish whatever he was doing—maybe looting the cash register—and just, for God’s sake, get out of here. She didn’t want to have to go up against him with a Bic butane. If he stumbled onto her, she might be able to take advantage of his surprise, thrust the lighter in his face, and give him a nasty little burn—or even set his hair on fire—before he recoiled. More likely, his reflexes would be uncannily quick; he’d knock the lighter out of her hand before she could do any damage.
Even if she burned him, she would gain only precious seconds to turn and flee. Hurting, he would come after her, and with his long legs, he would be swift. Then the outcome of the race would depend on whether her terror or his insane rage was the greater motivating force.
She heard movement, the creak of the counter gate, footsteps. Half nauseated from protracted fear, she was gloriously heartened when it seemed that he was leaving.
Then she realized that the footsteps were not crossing toward the door at the front of the store. They were approaching her.
She was squatting on her haunches, back pressed to the end panel of the shelf row, not immediately sure where he was. In the first of the three aisles, toward the front of the store? In the center aisle immediately to her left?
The third aisle.
To her right.
He was coming past the coolers. Not fast. Not as if he knew that she was here and intended to whack her.
Rising into a crouch but staying low, Chyna eased to the left, into the middle of the three passages. Here the glow from the coolers, one row removed, bounced off the acoustic-tile ceiling but provided little illumination. All the merchandise was shelved with shadows.
She started forward toward the cashiers’ counter, thankful for her soft-soled shoes—and then she remembered the packaging from which she had extracted the Bic lighter. She’d left it on the floor where she’d been squatting at the end of the shelf row.
He would see it, probably even step on it. Maybe he would think that earlier in the night some shoplifter had slipped the lighter out of the packaging to conceal it more easily in a pocket. Or maybe he would
Intuition might serve him as well as it sometimes served Chyna. If intuition was the whisper of God, then perhaps another and less benevolent god spoke with equal subtleness to a man like this.
She turned back, leaned around the corner, and snatched up the empty package. The stiff plastic crinkled in her shaky grip, but the sound was faint and, luckily, masked by his footsteps.
He was at least halfway down the third aisle by the time she started forward along the second. But he was taking his time while she was scuttling as fast as she could, and she reached the head of her aisle before he arrived at the end of his.
At the terminus of the shelf row, instead of a flat panel like the one at the far end, there was a freestanding wire carousel rack holding paperback books, and Chyna nearly collided with it when she turned the corner. She caught herself just in time, slipped around the rack, and sheltered against it, between aisles once more.
On the floor lay a Polaroid photograph: a close-up of a strikingly beautiful girl of about sixteen, with long platinum-blond hair. The teenager’s features were composed but not relaxed, frozen in a studied blandness, as though her true feelings were so explosive that she would self-destruct if she acknowledged them. Her eyes subtly belied her calm demeanor; they were slightly wide, watchful, achingly expressive, windows on a soul in torment, full of anger and fear and desperation.
This must be the photograph that he had shown to the clerks. Ariel. The girl in the cellar.
Although she and Ariel bore no resemblance to each other, Chyna felt as though she were staring into a mirror rather than looking at a picture. In Ariel, she recognized a terror akin to the fear that had suffused her own childhood, a familiar desperation, loneliness as deep as a cold polar ocean.
The killer’s footsteps brought her back to the moment. Judging by the sound of them, he was no longer in the third aisle. He had turned the corner at the back of the store and was now in the middle passage.
He was coming forward, leisurely covering the same territory over which Chyna had just scuttled.
What the hell is he doing?
She wanted to take the photograph but didn’t dare. She put it on the floor where she had found it.
She went around the paperback carousel into the third aisle, which the killer had just left, and she headed toward the end of the shelf row again. She stayed close to the merchandise on the left, away from the glass doors of the lighted coolers on the right, to avoid throwing a shadow on the ceiling tiles, which he might see.
When she was moving, she could still hear his heavy footsteps, but unless she stopped to listen, she couldn’t tell in which direction he was headed. Yet she didn’t dare stop to take a bearing on him, lest he circle again into this aisle and catch her in the open. When she reached the end of the row and turned the corner, she half expected to discover that he had changed directions, to collide with him, and to be caught.
But he wasn’t there.
Sitting on her haunches, Chyna leaned back against the end panel of the shelf row, the very spot from which she’d started. Gingerly she put the empty Bic lighter package on the floor between her feet, in the same place from which she had retrieved it less than a minute before.
She listened. No footsteps. Other than the noise made by the coolers, only silence.
Thumb poised, she clutched the lighter in her fist, prepared to strike the flame.
Vess stuffs two snack packages of cheese-and-peanut-butter crackers, one Planters peanut bar, and two Hershey bars with almonds into his raincoat pockets, in which he’s already carrying the pistol, the Polaroid, and the videotape.
He totals the cost in his head. Because he doesn’t want to waste time going behind the register to make change, he rounds the figure to the nearest dollar and leaves the payment on the counter.
After picking up the fallen photograph of Ariel, he hesitates, soaking up the atmosphere of aftermath. There is a special quality to a room in which people have recently perished: like the hush in a theater during that instant between when the final curtain falls on a perfect performance and when the wild applause begins; a sense of triumph but also a solemn awareness of eternity suspended like a cold droplet at the point of a melting icicle. With the screaming done and the blood pooled in stillness, Edgler Vess is better able to appreciate the effects of his bold actions and to relish the quiet intensity of death.
Finally he leaves the store. Using the tagged key that he took from the pegboard, he locks the door.
At the corner of the building is one public telephone. With its armored cord, the handset isn’t easily torn loose, so he hammers it against the phone box five, ten, twenty times, until the plastic cracks, revealing the microphone. He tears the mike out of the broken mouthpiece, drops it on the pavement, and methodically crushes it under his boot heel. Then he hangs the useless handset on the switch hook again.
His work here is done. Although satisfying, this interlude was unexpected; it has put him behind schedule.
He has much driving to do. He is not tired. He had slept all the previous afternoon and well into the evening, before visiting the Templetons. Nevertheless, he is loath to waste more time. He longs to be home.
Far to the north, sheets of lightning flutter softly between dense layers of clouds, pulses rather than bolts. Vess is pleased by the prospect of a big storm. Here at ground level, where life is lived, tumult and turmoil are fundamental elements of the human climate, and for reasons that he cannot understand, he is unfailingly reassured by the sight of violence in higher realms as well. Though he fears nothing, he is sometimes inexplicably disturbed by the sight of
skies—whether blue or overcast—and often on a clear night when the sky is deep with stars, he prefers not to gaze into that immensity.
Now no stars are visible. Above lie only sullen masses of clouds harried by a cold wind, briefly veined with lightning, pregnant with a deluge.
Vess hurries across the blacktop toward the motor home, eager to resume his journey northward, to meet the promised storm, to find that best place in the night where the lightning will come in great shattering bolts, where a harder wind will crack trees, where rain will fall in destructive floods.
Crouching at the end of the shelf row, Chyna had listened to the door open and close, not daring to believe that the killer had left at last and that her ordeal might be over. Breath held, she’d waited for the sound of the door opening again and for his footsteps as he reentered.
When she had heard, instead, the key scraping-clicking in the lock and the deadbolt snapping into place, she had gone forward along the middle of the three aisles, staying low, cat-quiet because she expected, superstitiously, that he might hear the slightest sound even from outside.
A violent hammering, reverberating through the building walls, had brought her to a sudden halt at the head of the aisle. He was pounding furiously on something, but she couldn’t imagine what it might be.
When the hammering stopped, Chyna hesitated, then rose from her crouch and leaned around the end of the shelves. She looked to the right, past the first aisle, toward the glass door and the windows at the front of the store.
With the outside lights off, the service islands lay in murk as deep as that on any river bottom.
She could not at first see the killer, who was at one with the night in his black raincoat. But then he moved, wading through the darkness toward the motor home.
Even if he glanced back, he wouldn’t be able to see her in the dimly lighted store. Her heart thundered anyway as she stepped into the open area between the heads of the three aisles and the cashiers’ counter.
The photograph of Ariel was no longer on the floor. She wished that she could believe it had never existed.
At the moment, the two employees who had kept the secret of her presence were more important than Ariel or the killer. The roar of the shotgun and the sudden cessation of the soul-shriveling screams had convinced her that they were dead. But she must be sure. If one of them clung miraculously to life, and if she could get help for him—police and paramedics—she would partially redeem herself.
She had been unable to do anything to stop the blood-loving bastard; she had only cowered out of his sight, praying frantically for invisibility. Now nausea rolled like a slop of chilled oysters in her stomach—and at the same time she was lifted by a sickening exhilaration that she had lived when so many others had died. Understandable though it was, the exhilaration shamed her, and for herself as well as for the two clerks, she hoped that she could still save them.