Authors: Dean Koontz
Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers
Through the semitransparent bands of tape, three separate bullet wounds were visible in his chest. There might have been more than three. She didn’t care to look for them and had no need to know. He appeared to have died instantly, most likely in his sleep, and to have been dead before he was brought into the bathroom.
Grief welled in her, black and cold. Survival meant repressing it at all costs, and surviving was the thing that she did best.
A collar of strapping tape around Paul’s neck became a leash that tethered him to a hand-towel rack on the wall behind the toilet. The purpose was to prevent his head from falling forward onto his chest—and to direct his dead gaze toward the shower. His eyelids were taped open, and in his right eye was a starburst hemorrhage.
Shuddering, Chyna looked away from him.
Although the intruder had needed to kill Paul in his sleep to establish control of the house quickly, here he had been fantasizing that the husband was being forced to watch the atrocities committed against the wife.
This was a classic tableau, a favorite of those sociopaths who took delight in performing for their victims. They actually seemed to believe that for a while the recently dead could still see, still hear, and were thus capable of admiring the bold antics and posing of a tormentor who feared neither man nor God. Textbooks described the delusion. In one of her aberrant-psychology classes at UCSF, a speaker from the FBI’s Behavioral Science Section had given them more graphic descriptions of such scenes than any textbooks could provide.
Firsthand, however, the impact of this brutality was worse than words could convey. Almost paralyzing. Chyna’s legs felt heavy and stiff. The tingling in her hands was incipient numbness.
Sarah Templeton was in the stall shower, which was separate from the tub. Although the glass door was closed—and frosted—Chyna was able to see a faint, vaguely pinkish shape huddled on the shower floor.
On the face of the soffit above the glass door, the killer had printed two words. The black letters appeared to have been made with multiple strokes of an eyebrow pencil:
Chyna had never wanted anything as much as she wanted to be free of the obligation to look into this shower stall. Surely Sarah could not be alive.
Yet if she turned away without being certain that the woman was beyond all help, ineradicable guilt would ensure that her own survival would become a kind of walking death.
Besides, she had committed her life to trying to understand this very aspect of human cruelty, and no published case study would ever bring her closer to comprehension than might the things that she saw here. In this house, on this night, the bleak landscape of the sociopathic mind had been externalized.
Echoing off the tile walls, the sizzle-splash of the falling water sounded like the hissing of serpents and the brittle laughter of strange children.
The water must be cold. Otherwise, steam would have been seething over the top of the shower enclosure.
Chyna held her breath, gripped the anodized aluminum handle, and opened the stall door.
Sarah Templeton had been wearing a pale-green teddy and matching panties. Her garments were in a sodden ball in one corner of the shower.
After her husband had been shot, the woman had evidently been hammered unconscious, perhaps with the butt of the gun. Then she had been gagged; her cheeks bulged with whatever rag had been forced into her mouth. Strips of strapping tape had sealed her lips, but in the relentless icy spray, the edges of the tape had begun to peel away from her skin.
With Sarah, the killer had used a knife. She was not alive.
Chyna quietly closed the stall door.
If there was such a thing as mercy, then Sarah Templeton had never regained any awareness after being knocked unconscious.
She remembered the hug that Sarah had given her on the front walk when she had first arrived with Laura. Repressing tears, she wished that she herself were dead instead of the precious woman in the shower stall. Indeed, she
half dead and less alive by the minute, because a piece of her heart died with each of these people.
Chyna returned to the bedroom. She moved away from the bed but didn’t go immediately toward the hall door. Instead, she stood in the darkest corner, shaking uncontrollably.
Her stomach rolled. An acidic burning rose in her chest, and a bitter taste filled the back of her mouth. She suppressed an urge to vomit. The killer might hear her retching, and then he would come to get her.
Although she’d met Laura’s parents only the previous afternoon, Chyna had known them also from her friend’s numerous anecdotes and colorful stories of family adventures. She should have felt even more grief than she did, but she had only a limited capacity for it right now. Later it would hit her harder. Grief thrived in a quiet heart, and right now hers thundered with terror and revulsion.
She was shocked that the killer had done so much damage while she had sat, unknowing, at the guestroom window, brooding on the stars and thinking of other nights when she had gazed at them from rooftops, backyard trees, and beaches. From what she’d seen, he had taken at least ten or fifteen minutes with Paul and Sarah before searching the rest of the large house to locate and overpower the remaining occupants.
Sometimes a man like this got a special thrill from risking interruption, even apprehension. Perhaps a half-asleep, bewildered child would be drawn into the parents’ room by some commotion and then would have to be pursued and dragged down before escaping the house. Such possibilities heightened the pleasure that the creep took from his activities in the bedroom and the bath.
a pleasure to him. A compulsion, but not one over which he despaired. Fun. His recreation. No guilt—therefore, no anguish. Savagery gladdened him.
Somewhere in the house, he was either at play or resting until he was ready to begin the game again.
As her shakes subsided to shivers, Chyna grew increasingly afraid for Laura. Those two muffled cries, minutes ago, had surely come after Sarah was already dead, so Laura must have been surprised in her sleep by a man smelling of her mother’s blood. As soon as he had overpowered and secured her, he had hurried to search the rest of the second floor, concerned that another member of the family might have been alerted by her stifled screams.
He might not have returned immediately to Laura. Having found no one in any of the other rooms, confident that the house was firmly under his reign, he most likely had gone exploring. If the textbooks were correct, he would probably wish to violate every private space. Pore through the contents of his host’s and hostess’s closets and desk drawers. Eat food from their refrigerator. Read their mail. Perhaps finger and smell the soiled clothing in the laundry-room hamper. If he could locate collections of family photographs, he might even sit in the den for an hour or longer, amusing himself with those albums.
Sooner or later, however, he would return to Laura.
Sarah Templeton had been an extremely attractive woman, but night visitors like this man were drawn toward youth; they fed on innocence. Laura was his meat of choice, as irresistible as birds’ eggs to certain tree-climbing serpents.
When at last Chyna overcame her racking nausea and was certain that she wouldn’t betray herself by being suddenly and violently sick, she crept out of the corner and silently crossed the room.
She wouldn’t have been safe in the master suite anyway. Before the visitor left, he was likely to return here for one last look at poor Sarah in the shower with her slender arms crossed in a pathetic and ineffective posture of defense.
At the half-open door, Chyna paused to listen.
Directly across the hall, the faded roses on the wallpaper seemed more mysterious than ever. The pattern had such enigmatic depth that she was almost convinced she might be able to part the thorny vines and step out of that paper arbor into a sunny realm where, when she looked back, this house would not exist.
With the light from the nightstand lamp behind her, she could not ease cautiously into the doorway and take her time peeking left and right, because when she moved onto the threshold, she would cast a shadow on those faded roses across the hall. Dawdling behind that unavoidable announcement of herself would be dangerous.
Seduced by a long silence that seemed to promise safety, she finally sidled between the half-open door and the jamb, into the hallway—and he was
. Ten feet away. Near the head of the front stairs, which lay to the right. His back was to her.
She froze. Half in the hallway. Half on the threshold to the master suite. If he turned, she would not be able to slip away before he glimpsed her from the corner of his eye—yet she was unable to move now while there was still a chance to avoid him. She was afraid that if she made any sound whatsoever, he would hear it and spin toward her. Even the microwhispers of carpet fibers compressing under her shoe, if she moved, seemed certain to draw his attention.
The visitor was doing something so bizarre that Chyna was as transfixed by his activity as by her fear. His hands were raised in front of him, stretched as high as he could reach, and his spread fingers languorously combed the air. He seemed to be in a trance, as though trying to seine psychic impressions from the ether.
He was a big man. Six feet two, maybe even taller. Muscular. Narrow waist, enormous shoulders. His denim jacket stretched tautly across his broad back.
His hair was thick and brown, neatly barbered against the nape of his bull neck, but Chyna could not see his face. She hoped never to see it.
His seining fingers, stained with blood, looked crushingly strong. He would be able to choke the life out of her with a single-hand grip.
“Come to me,” he murmured.
Even in a whisper, his rough voice had a timbre and a power that were magnetic.
“Come to me.”
He seemed to be speaking not to a vision that only he could see but to
as if his senses were so acute that he had been able to detect her merely from the movement of the air that she had displaced when she’d stepped soundlessly through the doorway.
Then she saw the spider. It dangled from the ceiling on a gossamer filament a foot above the killer’s reaching hands.
As if responding to the man’s supplications, the spider spun out its thread, descending.
The killer stopped reaching, turned his hand palm-up. “Little one,” he breathed.
Fat and black, the obedient spider reeled itself down into the big open palm.
The killer brought his hand to his mouth and tipped his head back slightly. He either crushed the spider and ate it—or ate it alive.
He stood motionless, savoring.
Finally, without looking back, he went to the head of the stairs on the right, at the midpoint of the hallway, and descended spider-quick and almost spider-silent to the first floor.
Chyna shuddered, stunned to be alive.
The house held a drowning depth of stillness as a dam held water, with tremendous pent-up power and pressure on the breast.
When Chyna found the courage to move, she cautiously approached the head of the stairs. She feared that the visitor had not fully descended to the first floor, that he was toying with her, standing just out of sight, waiting, smiling. He would reach for her, palms up, and say,
Come to me
She held her breath, risked exposure, and looked down. The stairs curved through gradients of gloom to the foyer below. She could see just well enough to be sure that he wasn’t there.
As far as Chyna could discern, no lamps were on downstairs. She wondered what he was doing in that darkness, guided only by the pale moonglow at the windows. Perhaps he was in a corner, crouched like a spider, sensitive to the faintest changes in the patterns of the air, dreaming of silent stalkings and the frenzied rending of prey.
She went quickly past the head of the stairs, into the last length of hallway, to the next open door and the second source of amber light, dreading what she might find. But she could cope with both the dread and the finding. It was always
knowing, turning away from truth, that caused night sweats and bad dreams.
This room was smaller than the master suite, with no sitting area. A corner desk. A double bed. One nightstand with a brass lamp, a dresser, a vanity with a padded bench.
On the wall above the bed was a poster-size portrait of Freud. Chyna loathed Freud. But Laura, dear of heart and idealistic, clung to a belief in many aspects of Freudian theory; she embraced the dream of a guiltless world, with everyone a victim of his troubled past and yearning for rehabilitation.
Laura was lying facedown on the bed, atop the sheets and the blankets. Her wrists were handcuffed behind her. A second pair of handcuffs secured her ankles. Linking both of those shiny steel restraints was a shackling chain.
She had been violated. The pants of her baggy blue pajamas had been cut off with a neatness worthy of a conscientious tailor; the blue panels of cloth had been smoothed across the blankets to both sides of her. The pajama shirt had been shoved up her back; now it was gathered in rumpled folds across her shoulders and the nape of her neck.
Chyna moved deeper into the room, her fear equaled now by a swelling sorrow that seemed to enlarge her heart yet leave it cold and empty. When she caught a faint odor of spilled semen, her fear and sorrow were matched by anger. As she stooped beside the bed, her hands curled into such hard fists that her fingernails pressed painfully into her palms.
Sweat-damp blond hair was pasted to the side of Laura’s face. Her delicate features were salt-pale and clenched in anxiety, and her eyes were squeezed tightly shut.
She was not dead. Not dead. It seemed impossible.
The girl—terror had reduced her to the condition of a girl—was murmuring so softly that the words couldn’t be heard even from a distance of inches, yet so urgently that the meaning was harrowingly clear. It was a prayer, one that Chyna had recited on numerous nights long ago, in far places: a prayer for mercy, a plea to be delivered from this horror untouched and alive, dear God, please, untouched and alive.
On those other nights, Chyna had been spared both violation and death. Already, half of Laura’s petition had gone unanswered.
Chyna’s throat tightened with anguish, and she could barely speak: “It’s me.”
Laura’s eyelids sprang open, and her blue eyes rolled like those of a terrified horse, wide with disbelief. “All dead.”
“Ssshhh,” Chyna whispered.
“Blood. His hands.”
“Ssshhh. I’ll get you out of here.”
“Stank like blood. Jack’s dead. Nina. Everyone.”
Jack, her brother, whom Chyna had not met. Nina, her sister-in-law. Evidently the killer had been to the vineyard manager’s bungalow before coming to the main house. Four dead. There was no help to be found anywhere on the sprawling property.
Chyna glanced worriedly at the open door, then quickly rose to test the handcuffs on Laura’s wrists. Securely locked.
With fettered hands and fettered ankles linked by a chain, Laura was thoroughly hobbled. She wouldn’t be able to stand, let alone walk.
Chyna wasn’t strong enough to carry her.
She saw her reflection in the vanity mirror across the room, and she realized with a shock how nakedly her terror was revealed in her wrenched face.
Trying to look more composed for Laura’s sake, Chyna stopped beside the bed again and murmured almost as softly as her friend had been praying: “Is there a gun?”
“A gun in the house?”
“Nowhere in the house?”
“A gun? At the bungalow?” Chyna asked.
“Jack has a gun.”
Chyna didn’t have time to get to the bungalow and back before the killer returned to Laura’s room. Anyway, more likely than not, he had already found the gun and confiscated it.
“Do you know who he is?”
“No.” Laura’s sky-blue eyes appeared to darken with despair. “Get out.”
“I’ll find a weapon.”
Laura whispered more urgently, cold sweat glistening on her brow.
“A knife,” Chyna said.
“Don’t die for me.” Then,
tremulously but fiercely, fiercely she said: “Run, Chyna. Oh, God, please
“I’ll be back.”
From outside, a sound arose. A truck engine. Approaching.
Astonished, Chyna shot to her feet. “Someone’s coming. Help’s coming.”
Laura’s bedroom was toward the front of the house. Chyna stepped to the nearer of two windows, which provided a view of the half-mile driveway leading in from the two-lane county road.
A quarter of a mile away, bright headlights pierced the night. Judging by the height of the lights from the ground, Chyna concluded that the truck was big.
How miraculous that anyone would show up at this hour, in this lonely place.
As a thrill of hope swept through Chyna, she realized that the killer would have heard the engine too. The man or men in the truck wouldn’t know what trouble they were getting into. When they stopped in front of the house, they would be dead men breathing.
“Hold on,” she said, touched Laura’s damp forehead to reassure her, and then crossed the room to the door, leaving her friend under the smug and somber gaze of Sigmund Freud.
The hallway was deserted.
Chyna hurried to the head of the curved stairs, hesitated to commit herself to the tenebrous lair below, but then realized that she had nowhere else to go. She went down as fast as she dared without the support of the handrail. Staying clear of the balustrade. Too exposed there. Close to the wall was better.
She quickly passed a series of large landscape paintings in ornate frames, which seemed almost to be windows on actual pastoral vistas. Earlier, they had been bright and cheerful scenes. Now they were ominous: goblin forests, black rivers, killing fields.
The foyer. An oval area rug on polished oak. Through a closed door to the right was Paul Templeton’s study. Through the archway on the left was the dark living room.
The killer could be anywhere.
Outside, the roar of the truck grew louder. It was almost to the house. The driver would be shot through the windshield the moment that he braked to a stop. Or gunned down when he stepped out from behind the steering wheel.
Chyna had to warn him, not solely for his sake but for her own, for Laura’s. He was their only hope.
Certain that the spider-eating intruder was nearby, she expected a savage attack and, abandoning caution,
at the front door. The oval rug rucked beneath her feet, twisted, and nearly spun out from under her. She stumbled, reached out to break her fall, and slammed both palms flat against the front door.
Such a noise, hellacious noise, booming through the house, had surely drawn the killer’s attention away from the approaching truck.
Chyna fumbled, found the knob, and twisted it. The door was unlocked. Gasping, she pulled it open.
A cool breeze out of the northwest, faintly scented by freshly turned vineyard earth and fungicide, whistled through the bare limbs of the maple trees that flanked the front walkway. Snuffling like a pack of hounds, it rushed past her into the foyer as she stepped out onto the front porch.
The truck had already passed the house and was heading away from her. It would come around for a second approach on the end-loop of the driveway, which was wide enough to accommodate produce haulers in the harvest season, and park facing out toward the county road. But it wasn’t a truck after all. A motor home. An older model with rounded lines, well kept, forty feet long, either blue or green. Its chrome glimmered like quicksilver under the late-winter moon.
Amazed that she had not yet been stabbed or shot or struck from behind, glancing back at the open front door where the killer hadn’t yet appeared, Chyna headed for the porch steps.
The motor home rounded the end of the loop, beginning to turn toward her. Its twin beams swept across the Templetons’ barn and other outbuildings.
Larch and maple and evergreen shadows fled before the arcing headlights. They flickered darkly through the trellis at the end of the porch, along the white balustrade, across the lawn and the stone walkway, stretching impossibly, swooping into the night as if trying frantically to tear free of the trees that cast them.
The deep quiet in the house, the lack of lights downstairs, the killer’s failure to attack her as she escaped, the timely arrival of the motor home—suddenly all of those things made chilling sense. The killer was driving the motor home.
Chyna swiftly retreated from the porch steps and scrambled back into the foyer.
At her heels, the headlights came all the way around the end of the driveway loop. They pierced the trellis grid, projecting geometric patterns across the porch floor and the front wall of the house.
She closed the door and fumbled for the big lock above the knob. Found the thumb-turn. Engaged the heavy deadbolt.
Then she realized her mistake. The front door had been unlocked because the killer had gone out that way. If he found it locked now, he would know that Laura wasn’t the only person alive in the house, and the hunt would begin.
Her sweaty fingers slipped on the brass thumb-turn, but the bolt snapped open with a hard
Earlier, he must have parked the vehicle near the end of the half-mile-long driveway, out toward the county road, and must have walked to the house.
Now tires crunched through gravel. Air brakes issued a soft whoosh and a softer whine, and the motor home came to a full stop in front of the house.
Remembering the oval rug that had turned under her feet and had nearly sent her sprawling, Chyna dropped to her knees. She crawled across the wool, smoothing the rumples with her hands. If the killer tripped over the disarranged rug, he would know that it hadn’t been in that condition when he’d left.
Footsteps arose outside: boot heels ringing off the flagstone walkway.
Chyna came to her feet and turned toward the study. No good. She couldn’t know for sure where he would go when he reentered the house, and if he stepped into the study, she would be trapped in there with him.
His tread echoed hollowly from the wooden porch steps.
Chyna lunged across the foyer, through the archway, into the dark living room—and immediately came to a halt, afraid of stumbling into furniture and knocking it over. She edged forward, feeling her way with both hands, vision hampered by the muddy-red ghost images of the motor-home headlights, which still floated faintly across her retinas.
The front door opened.
Less than halfway across the living room, Chyna squatted beside an armchair. If the killer entered and switched on the lights, he would see her.
Without closing the door behind him, the man appeared in the foyer, beyond the arch. He was dimly limned by the glow from the second-floor hallway. He passed the living room and went directly to the stairs.
Chyna still had no weapon.
She thought of the fireplace poker. Not good enough. Unless she caved in his skull on the first blow or broke his arm, he would wrest the poker away from her. She had the strength of terror, but maybe that wouldn’t be enough.
Rather than rise to her feet and blunder blindly across the living room, she stayed down and crawled because it was safer and quicker. She reached the dining-room archway and angled toward where she thought she’d find the kitchen door.
She thumped into a chair. It rattled against a table leg. On the table, something shifted with a clink-clink, and she remembered seeing carefully arranged ceramic fruit in a copper bowl.
She didn’t think that he could have heard these sounds all the way upstairs, so she kept going. There was nothing to do but keep going anyway, whether he had heard or not.
When she reached the swinging door sooner than she had expected, she got to her feet.