Authors: Dean Koontz
Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers
She had brought several changes of clothes: two dresses, two skirts, another pair of jeans, a pair of chinos, a leather jacket. Because Chyna was the same size as Laura, the intruder might conclude that the few garments on the rod were just spillovers from the packed closet in Laura’s room rather than evidence of a houseguest.
If he had been in Laura’s bedroom, however, and had seen the condition of her closet—then what had happened to Laura?
She must not think about that. Not now. Not yet. For the moment, she needed to focus all her thoughts, all her wits, on staying alive.
Eighteen years ago, on the night of her eighth birthday, in a seaside cottage on Key West, Chyna had squirmed under her bed to hide from Jim Woltz, her mother’s friend. A storm had been raging from the Gulf of Mexico, and the sky-blistering lightning had made her fearful of escaping to the sanctuary of the beach where she’d retreated on other nights. After committing herself to the cramped space under that iron bed, which had been lower slung than this one, she had discovered that she was sharing it with a palmetto beetle. Palmettos were not as exotic or as pretty as their name. In fact, they were nothing more than enormous tropical cockroaches. This one had been as large as her little-girl hand. Ordinarily the hateful bug would have scurried away from her. But it had seemed less alarmed by her than by the thundering Woltz, who had crashed around her small room in a drunken fury, rebounding tirelessly from the furniture and the walls, like an enraged animal throwing itself against the bars of its cage. Chyna had been barefoot, dressed in blue shorts and a white tube top, and the palmetto beetle had raced in a frenzy over all that exposed skin, between her toes, up and down her legs and up again, across her back, along her neck, into her hair, over her shoulder, the length of her slender arm. She hadn’t dared to squeal in revulsion, afraid of drawing Woltz’s attention. He had been wild that night, like a monster from a dream, and she had been convinced that, like all monsters, he possessed supernaturally keen sight and hearing, the better to hunt children. She hadn’t even found the courage to strike out at the beetle or knock it away, for fear that Woltz would hear the smallest sound even over the shriek of the storm and the incessant crashing of thunder. She had endured the palmetto’s attentions in order to avoid those of Woltz, clenching her teeth to bite off a scream, praying desperately for God to save her, then praying harder for God to take her, praying for an end to the torment even if by a bolt of lightning, an end to the torment, an end, dear God, an end.
Now, although she wasn’t sharing the space under this galbe-leg bed with any cockroach, Chyna could feel one crawling over her toes as if she were that barefoot girl again, scurrying up her legs as if she were wearing not jeans but cotton shorts. She had never again worn her hair long since the night of her eighth birthday, when the bug had burrowed through her tresses, but now she felt the ghost of that palmetto in her closely cropped hair.
The man in the closet, perhaps capable of atrocities infinitely worse than the wickedest dreams of Woltz, tugged on the chain-pull. The light went out with a click followed by a tinkle of metal beads.
The booted feet reappeared and approached the bed. A fresh tear of blood glistened on the curve of black leather.
He was going to drop to one knee beside the bed.
Dear God, he’ll find me cowering like a child, choking on my own stifled scream, in a cold sweat, all dignity lost in the desperate struggle to stay alive, untouched and alive, untouched and alive.
She had the crazy feeling that when he peered under the side rail, face-to-face with her, he would be not a man but an enormous palmetto with multifaceted black eyes.
She had been reduced to the helplessness of childhood, to the primal fear that she had hoped never to know again. He had stolen from her the self-respect that she had earned from years of endurance—that she had
God damn him—and the injustice of it filled her eyes with bitter tears.
But then his blurred boots turned away from her and kept moving. He walked past the bed to the open door.
Whatever he’d thought about the clothes hanging in the closet, apparently he had not inferred from them that the guest room was occupied.
She blinked furiously, clearing her tear-blurred vision.
He stopped and turned, evidently studying the bedroom one last time.
Lest he hear her child-shallow exhalations, Chyna held her breath.
She was glad that she wore no perfume. She was certain that he would have smelled her.
He switched off the light, stepped into the hall, and pulled the door shut as he went.
His footsteps moved off the way he had come, for her room was the last on the second floor. His tread swiftly faded, cloaked by the fierce pounding of her heart.
Her first inclination was to remain in that narrow haven between the carpet and the box springs, wait until daybreak or even longer, wait until there came a long silence that ceased to seem like the stillness of a crouched predator.
But she didn’t know what had happened to Laura, Paul, or Sarah. Any of them—all of them—might be alive, grievously wounded but drawing breath. The intruder might even be keeping them alive to torture them at his leisure. Any newspaper regularly reported stories of cruelty no worse than the possible scenarios that now unreeled vividly in her mind. And if any of the Templetons still lived, Chyna might be their only hope of survival.
She had crawled out of all the many hideaways of her childhood with less fear than she felt when she hesitantly slid out from under this bed. Of course she had more to lose now than before she had walked out on her mother, ten years ago: a decent life built on a decade of ceaseless struggle and hard-won self-respect. It seemed madness to take this risk when safety was assured simply by her staying put. But personal safety at the expense of others was cowardice, and cowardice was a right only of small children who lacked the strength and experience to defend themselves.
She couldn’t simply retreat into the defensive detachment of her childhood. Doing so would mean the end of all self-respect. Slow-motion suicide. It’s not possible to retreat into a bottomless pit—one can only plunge.
In the open once more, she rose into a crouch beside the bed. For a while that was as far as she got. She was frozen by the expectation that the door would crash open and that the intruder would burst in again.
The house was as echo-free as any airless moon.
Chyna rose to her feet and silently crossed the dark guest room. Unable to see the trio of blood drops, she tried to step around the place where they had fallen earlier.
She pressed her left ear to the crack between the door and the jamb, listening for movement or breathing in the hall. She heard nothing, yet she remained suspicious.
He could be on the other side of the door. Smiling. Deeply amused to think that she was listening. Biding his time. Patient because he knew that eventually she would open the door and step into his arms.
She put her hand on the knob, turned it cautiously, and winced as the spring latch scraped softly out of its notch. At least the hinges were lubricated and silent.
Even in the inkiness to which her vision had not totally readapted, she could see that no one was waiting for her. She stepped out of her room and soundlessly pulled the door shut.
The guest quarters were off the shorter arm of the L-shaped upstairs hall. To her right were the back stairs, which led down to the kitchen. To her left lay the turn into the longer arm of the L.
She ruled out the back stairs. She had descended them earlier in the evening, when she and Laura went out to walk the vineyards. They were wooden and worn. They creaked and popped. The stairwell acted as an amplifier, as hollow and efficient as a steel drum. With the house so preternaturally silent, it would be impossible to creep down the back stairs undetected.
The second-floor hall and the front stairs, on the other hand, were plushly carpeted.
From around the corner, somewhere along the main hallway, came a soft amber glow. In the wallpaper, the delicate pattern of faded roses appeared to absorb the light rather than reflect it, acquiring an enigmatic depth that it had not previously possessed.
If the intruder had been standing anywhere between the junction of the hallways and the source of the light, he would have cast a distorted shadow across that luminous paper garden or on the wheat-gold carpet. There was no shadow.
Keeping her back close to the wall, Chyna edged to the corner, hesitated, and leaned out to scout the way ahead. The main hallway was deserted.
Two sources of faint amber light relieved the gloom. The first came from a half-open door on the right: Paul and Sarah’s suite. The second was much farther down the hallway, past the front stairs, on the left: Laura’s room.
The other doors all seemed to be closed. She didn’t know what lay beyond them. Perhaps other bedrooms, a bath, an upstairs study, closets. Although Chyna was most drawn to—and most afraid of—the lighted rooms, every closed door was also a danger.
The unplumbable silence tempted her to believe that the intruder had gone. This was a temptation best resisted.
Forward, then, through the paper arbor of printed roses to the half-open door of the master suite. Hesitating there. On the brink.
When she found whatever waited to be found, all her illusions of order and stability might dissolve. The truth of life might then reassert itself, after ten years during which she had diligently denied it: chaos, like the flow of a stream of mercury, its course unpredictable.
The man in the blue jeans and black boots might have returned to the master suite after leaving the guest room, but more likely not. Other amusements in the house would no doubt be more appealing to him.
Fearful of lingering too long in the hall, she sidled across the threshold, without pushing the door open wider.
Paul and Sarah’s room was spacious. A sitting area included a pair of armchairs and footstools facing a fireplace. Bookshelves crammed with hardcovers flanked the mantel, their titles lost in shadows.
The nightstand lamps were colorfully patterned ginger jars with pleated shades. One of them was aglow; crimson streaks and blots stained its shade.
Chyna stopped well short of the foot of the bed, already close enough to see too much. Neither Paul nor Sarah was there, but the sheets and blankets were in tangled disarray, trailing onto the floor on the right side of the bed. On the left, the linens were soaked with blood, and a wet spray glistened on the headboard and in an arc across the wall.
She closed her eyes. Heard something. Spun around, crouching in expectation of an assault. She was alone.
The noise had always been there, a background hiss-patter-splash of falling water. She hadn’t heard it on entering the room, because she had been deafened by bloodstains as loud as the angry shouting of a maddened mob.
The word had stuck with her from a psychology text, more because she thought it was a beautiful arrangement of syllables than because she expected ever to experience it herself. Synesthesia: a confusion of the senses in which a scent might register as a flash of color, a sound actually might be perceived as a scent, and the texture of a surface under the hand might seem to be a trilling laugh or a scream.
Closing her eyes had blocked out the roar of the bloodstains, whereupon she had heard the falling water. Now she recognized it as the sound of the shower in the adjoining bathroom.
That door was ajar half an inch. For the first time since she had entered from the hallway, Chyna noticed the thin band of fluorescent light along the bathroom jamb.
When she looked away from that door, reluctant to confront what might wait beyond it, she spotted the telephone on the right-hand nightstand. That was the side of the bed without blood, which made it more approachable for her.
She lifted the handset from the cradle. No dial tone. She had not expected to hear one. Nothing was ever that easy.
She opened the single drawer on the nightstand, hoping to find a handgun. No luck.
Still certain that her only hope of safety lay in movement, that crawling into a hole and hiding should always be the strategy of last resort, Chyna had gone around to the other side of the king-size bed before she quite realized that she had taken a first step. In front of the bathroom door, the carpet was badly stained.
Grimacing, she went to the second nightstand and eased open the drawer. In the mortal fall of light, she discovered a pair of reading glasses with yellow reflections in the half-moon lenses, a paperback men’s adventure novel, a box of Kleenex, a tube of lip balm, but no weapon.
As she closed the drawer, she smelled burned gunpowder underlying the hot-copper stench of fresh blood.
She was familiar with that odor. Over the years, more than a few of her mother’s friends either had used guns to get what they wanted or had been at least fascinated by them.
Chyna had heard no shots. The intruder evidently had a weapon with a sound suppressor.
Water continued to cascade into the shower beyond the door. That susurrous splash, though soft and soothing under other circumstances, now abraded her nerves as effectively as the whine of a dentist’s drill.
She was sure that the intruder wasn’t in the bathroom. His work here was done. He was busy elsewhere in the house.
Right this minute she was not as frightened of the man himself as she was of discovering exactly what he had done. But the choice before her was the essence of the entire human agony: not knowing was ultimately worse than knowing.
At last she pushed open the door. Squinting, she entered the fluorescent glare.
The roomy bath featured yellow and white ceramic tile. On the walls at chair-rail height and around the edges of the vanity and lavatory counters ran a decorative tile band of daffodils and green leaves. She had expected more blood.
Paul Templeton was propped on the toilet in his blue pajamas. Lengths of wide strapping tape across his lap fixed him to the bowl. More tape encircled both his chest and the toilet tank, holding him upright.