Authors: Dean Koontz
Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers
She pushed through the gate in the counter, and the piercing creak of a hinge scraped the hollows of her bones.
A gooseneck lamp provided some light.
The two men were on the floor.
“Ah,” she said. And then: “God.”
They were beyond her help, and immediately she turned away from them, her vision blurring.
On the counter, directly under the lamp, lay a revolver. She stared at it in disbelief, blinking back tears.
Evidently it had belonged to one of the clerks. She’d overheard the conversation between the killer and the two men; and she vaguely recalled a harsh admonition that might have been a warning to drop a gun. This gun.
She grabbed it, held it in both hands—a weight that buoyed her.
If the killer returned, she was ready, no longer helpless, for she knew how to use guns. Some of her mother’s craziest friends had been expert with weaponry, hate-filled people with a queer brightness in the eyes that was a sign of drug use in some cases but that was visible in others only when they spoke passionately about their deep commitment to truth and justice. On an isolated farm in Montana, when Chyna was only twelve, a woman named Doreen and a man named Kirk had instructed her in the use of a pistol, although her slender arms had jumped wildly with the recoil. Patiently teaching her control, they had said that someday she would be a true soldier and a credit to the movement.
Chyna had wanted to learn about firearms not to use them in one noble cause or another but to protect herself from those people in her mother’s strange circles who succumbed to drug-enhanced rages—or who stared at her with a sick desire. She had been too young to want their attention, too self-respecting to encourage them—but thanks to her mother, she had not been too innocent to understand what some of them wanted to do with her.
Now, with the dead clerk’s revolver in hand, she turned and saw the shattered telephone.
She hurried back through the gate, into the public part of the store, directly to the front door.
The motor home was still parked on this side of the farther of the two service islands. The headlights were off.
The killer was not in sight at first—but then he walked into view around the back of the motor home, his unbuttoned coat flaring like a cape in the wind.
Although the man was about sixty feet away, surely he couldn’t see her at the door. He wasn’t even looking in her direction, but Chyna took a step backward.
Apparently he had been racking the hose at the gasoline pump and capping the fuel tank. He walked alongside the vehicle toward the driver’s door.
She had planned to telephone the police and tell them that the killer was headed north on Highway 101. Now, by the time she got to a phone, called the cops, and made them understand the situation, he might have as much as an hour’s lead. Within an hour, he would have several choices of other routes that branched off 101. He might continue north toward Oregon, turn east toward Nevada—or even angle west to the coast, thereafter turning south again along the Pacific and into San Francisco, vanishing in the urban maze. The more miles he traveled before an all-points bulletin went out for him, the harder he would be to find. He would soon be in another police agency’s jurisdiction, first a different county and perhaps eventually a different state, complicating the search for him.
And now that she thought about it, Chyna realized that she had precious little information that would be helpful to the cops. The motor home might be blue or green; she wasn’t sure which—or even if it was either—because she’d seen it only in the darkness and then in the color-distorting yellow glow of the service station’s sodium-vapor lights. She didn’t know the make of it either, and she hadn’t seen the license plate.
He was getting away.
Unhurried, clearly confident that he was in no imminent danger of discovery, he climbed into the motor home and pulled shut the driver’s door.
He’s going to get away. Jesus. No, intolerable, unthinkable. He can’t be allowed to get away, never pay for what he did to Laura, to all of them—even worse, have a chance to do it again. No, God, please, let me drop the hateful rotten fucking bastard with a shot in the head.
She stepped close to the door again. It could be unlocked only with a key. She didn’t have a key.
She heard the motor-home engine turn over.
If she shot out the glass, he would hear. Even over the roar of the engine and from a distance, he would hear.
Once through the door, she would be too far away to shoot him. Fifty or sixty feet, at night, with a handgun, the gasoline pumps intervening. No way. She had to get close, right up against the motor home, put the muzzle to the window.
But if he heard her shoot her way through the locked door and saw her coming out of the store, she wouldn’t have a chance to get close to him, not in a million years, and then
would be stalking
again, across the service-station property, wherever she went, and his shotgun was better armament than her revolver.
Out at the motor home, he switched on the headlights.
She ran to the gate in the counter, shoved through it, stepped around the dead men, and went to the door in the back wall.
There had to be a rear entrance. Both practical function and fire codes would require it.
The door opened onto blackness. As far as she could tell, there were no windows ahead of her. Maybe it was only a supply closet or a bathroom. She stepped across the threshold, closed the door behind her to prevent light from leaking into the store, felt along the wall to her left, found a switch, and risked turning on the lights.
She was in a cramped office. On the desk was another shattered telephone.
Directly across the room from the door that she had just used was another door. No obvious lock. That
be a bathroom.
To her left, in the back wall of the building, a metal door featured a pair of over-and-under deadbolts with thumb-turns. She disengaged the locks and opened the door, and a flood tide of cold wind washed into the office.
Behind the store spread a twenty-foot-wide paved area, and then a steep hillside rose with serried trees that were black in the night and restless in the wind. A security light in a wire cage revealed two parked cars, which probably belonged to the clerks.
Cursing the killer, Chyna turned to the right and sprinted along the shorter length of the building, around the corner, past public rest rooms. She had never caused anyone physical harm, not once in her life, but she was ready to kill now, and she knew that she could do it without hesitation, with no thought of mercy, with a vengeance, because
had empowered her to do it. This was what he had reduced her to—this blind, animal fury—and the worst thing was that it felt
this rage, so good in comparison to the fear and helplessness she had endured, a sweet singing of rushing blood in the veins and an exhilarating sense of savage strength. She should have been appalled at the lust for blood that seized her, but she
it, and she knew that she would like it even more when she caught up with the motor home and shot him through the driver’s-side window, pulled open the door and shot him again where he sat bleeding, dragged him out and let him sprawl on the pavement and emptied the revolver into him until he could never again go hunting.
She rounded the second corner and reached the front of the building.
The motor home was pulling away from the pumps.
She raced after it, faster than she had ever run in her life, cleaving a resistant wind that stung new tears from her eyes, shoes pounding noisily on the blacktop.
Now it was
Dear Lord, let me catch him
Dear Lord, let me get away from him,
and now it was
Dear Lord, let me kill him
Dear Lord, don’t let him kill me
The motor home picked up speed. It was already out of the service area, entering the eighth-of-a-mile lane that would take it back onto the highway.
She would never be able to catch it.
He was getting away.
She halted and planted her feet wide apart. The revolver was in her right hand. She raised it, gripped it with both hands, arms extended, elbows locked. Shooter’s stance. Every good girl should know it, come the revolution.
Her heart didn’t merely beat, it crashed, and every explosive pump shook her arms, so she couldn’t hold the revolver on target. The motor home was too distant anyway. She’d miss it by yards. And even if she got lucky and put one round in the back wall, it would be nowhere near the driver. He was out of her reach, beyond harm, cruising away.
It was over. She could go for help, find the nearest working phone, call the local police, and try to cut his lead time as short as possible—but for now and here, it was over.
Except that it wasn’t over, and she knew it wasn’t, no matter how much she wanted to be finished with it, because she said aloud, “Ariel.”
Sixteen. Prettiest thing this side of paradise. Pure angel. Porcelain skin. Breathtaking. Locked in the basement for a year. Never touched her—that way. Waiting for her to ripen, get just a little sweeter.
In Chyna’s mind’s eye, the Polaroid photograph of Ariel was as clear and detailed as it had been when she’d held it in her hand. That bland expression, maintained with obvious effort. Those eyes, brimming with anguish.
Earlier, listening to the conversation between the killer and the two clerks, Chyna had
that he was not merely playing games with them, that he was telling the truth. The creep was letting them in on his secrets, admitting his perverse crimes, getting a kick out of revealing his guilt because he knew that they were going to die and that they would never have a chance to repeat his admissions to anyone. Even if she’d never seen the photograph, she would have
Ariel. Those eyes. The anguish.
While she had been concentrating on her own survival, Chyna had blocked all thoughts of the captive girl from her mind. And when she had found the revolver, she had at once convinced herself that all she wanted was to kill this son of a bitch, blow his brains out, because the truth was something that she hadn’t quite been able to face.
The truth had been that she didn’t dare kill him, because when he was dead, they might never find Ariel—or find her days too late, after she had died of starvation or thirst in her basement cell. He might have the girl locked under his house, which they would probably be able to locate from whatever identification he was carrying, but he might have stashed her elsewhere, in a place remote, to which he and only he could lead them. Chyna had pursued the killer to disable him, so the cops would be able to wrench from him the location at which Ariel was being held. If she could have caught up with the motor home, she would have tried to yank open the driver’s door, shoot the vicious bastard in the leg as she ran alongside, wound him badly enough that he would have to stop the vehicle. But she’d had to hide that truth from herself because trying to wound him was a lot riskier than going for a head shot through the window, and she might not have had the courage to run so fast and try so hard if she had admitted to herself what, in fact, had needed to be done.
With its burden of corpses, with its driver whose name might well be Legion, the big motor home dwindled down the service road toward Highway 101, quite literally Hell on wheels.
Somewhere he had a house, and under the house was a basement, and in the basement was a sixteen-year-old girl named Ariel, held prisoner for a year, untouched but soon to be violated, alive but not for long.
“She’s real,” Chyna whispered to the wind.
The taillights receded into the night.
She frantically surveyed the lonely stretch of countryside. She was unable to see help in any direction. No house lights in the immediate vicinity. Just trees and darkness. Something glowed faintly to the north, beyond a hill or two, but she didn’t know the source, and anyway she couldn’t get that far quickly on foot.
On the highway, a truck appeared from the south behind a blaze of headlights, but it didn’t pull off to tank up at the shuttered service station. It shrieked past, the driver oblivious of Chyna.
The lumbering motor home was almost to the far end of the connecting road.
Sobbing with frustration, with anger, with fear for the girl whom she had never met, and with despair for her own culpability if that girl died, Chyna turned away from the motor home. Hurried past the gasoline pumps. Around the building, back the way she had come.
Throughout her own childhood, no one had ever held out a hand to her. No one had ever cared that she was trapped, frightened, and helpless.
Now, when she thought of the Polaroid snapshot, the image was like one of those holograms that changed depending on the angle at which it was viewed. Sometimes it was Ariel’s face, but sometimes it was Chyna’s own.
As she ran, she prayed that she wouldn’t have to go inside again. And search the bodies.
Distant lightning flickered, and faraway thunder clattered like boot heels on hollow basement stairs. On the steep hills behind the building, black trees thrashed in the escalating wind.
The first car was a white Chevrolet. Ten years old. Unlocked.
When she scrambled in behind the steering wheel, the worn-out seat springs creaked, and a candy-bar wrapper or something crackled underfoot. The interior stank of stale cigarette smoke.
The keys were not in the ignition. She checked behind the sun visor. Under the driver’s seat. Nothing.
The second car was a Honda, newer than the Chevy. It smelled of a lemon-scented air freshener, and the keys were in a coin tray on the console.
She placed the revolver on the passenger seat, within easy reach, reluctant to let it out of her hand. As an adult, she had always relied on prudence and caution to stay out of harm’s way. She hadn’t held a gun since she’d walked out on her mother at the age of sixteen. Now she could not imagine living without a weapon at her side, and she doubted that she ever would do so again—which was a development that dismayed her.