Authors: Dean Koontz
Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers
Though the infiltrating moonlight was already dim, it suddenly faded away, causing the flesh on the nape of her neck to crawl with a dire expectation. She turned, pressing her back against the doorframe, certain that the killer was close behind her, silhouetted in front of a window, blocking the lunar glow, but he wasn’t there. The silver radiance no longer painted the glass. Evidently the storm clouds, rolling out of the northwest since before midnight, had finally shrouded the moon.
Pushing on the swinging door, she went into the kitchen.
She wouldn’t need to switch on the overhead fluorescent panels. The upper of the double ovens featured a digital clock with green numerals that emitted a surprising amount of light, enough to allow her to find her way around the room.
She. recalled having seen a section of butcher-block countertop to one side of the stainless-steel sinks. The sinks were in front of the wider of the two windows. She slid her hand along the cold granite counters until she located the remembered wooden surface.
The house above her seemed filled with a higher order of silence than ever before.
What’s the bastard doing up there in all that silence, up there in all that silence with Laura?
Under the butcher block was a drawer where she expected to find knives. Found them. Neatly slotted in a holder.
She withdrew one. Too short. Another. This one was a bread knife with a blunt round end. The third that she selected proved to be a butcher knife. She carefully tested the cutting edge against the ball of her thumb and found it satisfyingly sharp.
Upstairs, Laura screamed.
Chyna started toward the dining-room door but sensed intuitively that she dared not go that way. She rushed instead to the back stairs, even though they couldn’t be climbed without making noise.
She switched on the light in the stairwell. The killer could not see her here.
From the second floor, Laura cried out again—a terrible wail of despair, pain, horror, like a cry that might have been heard in the poison-gas chambers at Dachau or in the windowless interrogation rooms of Siberian prisons during the era of the gulags. It was not a scream for help or even a begging for mercy, but a plea for release at any cost, even death.
Chyna clambered up the stairs into that scream, which presented her with real resistance, as if she were a swimmer struggling toward the surface of a sea, against a great weight of water. As cold as an Arctic current, the cry chilled her, numbed her, throbbed icily in the hollows of her bones. She was overcome by a compulsion to scream
Laura as a dog wails in sympathy when it hears another dog suffering, a primal need to howl in misery at the sheer helplessness of human existence in a universe full of dead stars, and she had to fight that urge.
Laura’s scream spiraled into a bawling for her mother, though she must know that her mother was dead. “Mommy, Mommy,
” She was reduced to the dependency of an infant, too terrified of life itself to find solace anywhere but in the familiar succoring breast and in the sound of that same heartbeat remembered from the womb.
And then sudden quiet.
On the landing, halfway to the second floor, Chyna was surprised to realize that the thousand-fathom weight of the scream had brought her to a standstill. Her legs were weak; her calf and thigh muscles quivered as if she had run a marathon. She seemed on the brink of collapse.
Because it might signify the end of hope, the silence was now as oppressive as the scream. She bent her head under a hush as heavy as an iron crown, hunched her shoulders, and huddled miserably upon herself.
It would be so easy to lean against the wall, slide down to the floor, put the knife aside, and curl defensively. Just wait until he had gone away. Wait until a relative or a friend of the family arrived, discovered the bodies, went for the police, and took care of everything.
Instead, after pausing only a few seconds on the landing, Chyna forced herself to continue the climb, heart pounding so hard that it seemed as if each blow might knock her down.
Her arms shook uncontrollably. In her white-knuckle grip, the butcher knife carved wobbly patterns in the air in front of her, and she wondered if she would have the strength, in any confrontation, to thrust and slash effectively.
That was the thinking of a loser, and she hated herself for it. During the past ten years she had transformed herself into a winner, and she was determined not to backslide.
The old wooden stairs protested under her, but she moved fast, heedless of the noise. Whether Laura was alive or dead, the killer would be at play, distracted by his games, unlikely to hear anything other than the thunderous rush of his own blood in his ears and over whatever urgent inner voices spoke to him at that very moment when he held a life in his hands.
She stepped into the upstairs hall. Propelled by her fear for Laura and by a rage born from self-disgust at her moment of weakness on the landing, she hurried past the closed door of the guest room to the turn in the L-shaped corridor, around the corner, past the half-open door of the master suite and through the amber light that spilled from it. She dashed along the arbor of faded roses, rage swelling into fury as she went, shocked by her own boldness, seeming to glide along the carpet, as swift as if sliding down an icy slope, straight to the open door of Laura’s room, without hesitation, knife raised high, her arm no longer shaking, steady and sure, crazy with terror and despair and righteousness, across the threshold and into the bedroom, where Freud was unshaken by what had happened under his gaze—and where the rumpled bed was empty.
Chyna whirled around in disbelief. Laura was gone. The room was deserted.
Over the rush of her breathing and the booming of her heart, she heard the rattle-clink of a shackle chain. Not in the room. Elsewhere.
Careless of danger, she returned to the hall, to the balustrade that overlooked the foyer.
Below, barely illuminated by the pale light from the upstairs hallway, the killer went through the open front door onto the porch. He was carrying Laura in his arms. She was wrapped in a bedsheet, one pale arm trailing limply, head lolling to the side, and face concealed by her golden hair: unconscious, offering no resistance.
He must have been descending the shadowy stairs when Chyna had passed them. She had been so focused on getting to Laura’s room, so pumped for the attack, that she hadn’t been aware of him, even though the chain and the cuffs must have been rattling then as well.
Evidently, he’d been making enough noise that he hadn’t heard Chyna either.
Instinct had told her to take the back stairs, and she’d been wise to listen. If she’d been ascending the front stairs, she’d have met him as he’d been coming down. He would have thrown Laura at her, followed the two of them as they tumbled into the foyer, kicked the knife out of Chyna’s hand if she hadn’t lost it already, and savaged her where she’d fallen.
She couldn’t let him take Laura away.
Afraid that thinking about the situation would paralyze her again, Chyna recklessly descended the stairs. If she could take him by surprise and plunge the knife into his back, Laura might yet have a chance.
She could do it too. She wasn’t squeamish. She could slam the blade deep, try for his heart from the back, puncture a lung, yank the knife out of him and ram it in again, stab the son of a bitch and listen to him squealing for mercy and stab stab stab him until he was silent forever. Never had she done anything like that; never had she hurt anyone. But she could do it now, waste him, because she was terrified for Laura, because she was sick at the thought of failing her friend—and because she was a natural-born vengeance machine, a human being.
At the bottom of the stairs, the oval rug didn’t spin out from under her as it had done before, and she went straight toward the open door.
She no longer held the knife high but held it low, at her side. If he heard her coming, he would turn, and then she could swing the knife up in an arc, under the girl that he held in his arms, and into his belly. That was better than trying to plunge it into his back, where the point might be deflected by a shoulder blade or rib, or might skid off his spine. Go for the softest part of him. She’d be face-to-face with him that way. Looking straight into his eyes. Would that make her hesitate? He had it coming. The bastard. She thought of Sarah on the floor of the shower stall, huddled naked in the cold drizzle. She could do it. She could do it.
Into the doorway, across the threshold, onto the porch, she was not only ready to kill but prepared to die in the attempt to get him. Yet as swift as she had been, she hadn’t been swift enough, because he was not just that moment going down the porch steps, as she had hoped, but was
nearing the motor home. The burden of Laura hadn’t slowed him at all. He was inhumanly quick.
She landed on only one stair tread from the front porch to the walkway, and the rubber soles of her shoes slapped the flagstones loud enough to carry even over the moaning of the wind. The moon was gone, and half the stars as well, displaced by towering palisades of clouds, but if the killer heard her and turned, he would be able to see her clearly.
Evidently, he didn’t hear, for he didn’t glance back, and Chyna angled off the walkway, onto the quieter grass, determinedly going after him.
Two doors were open on the motor home: one at the driver’s side of the cockpit, the other on that same flank of the vehicle but two-thirds of the way toward the back. The killer chose the rear door.
With Laura in his arms, he was forced to turn sideways, pulling her tightly to him as he squeezed through the open door and crabbed up the two interior steps, but he was as agile as he was strong. He disappeared into the vehicle before Chyna could reach him.
She considered going inside after him. But all the windows were curtained, so she didn’t know if he had turned left or right. And if he had put Laura down immediately upon entering, he would now be better able to defend himself against an attack. That was his turf, beyond the door, and she wasn’t sufficiently reckless with vengeance to want to confront him there.
She pressed her back to the wall of the motor home, beside the open door, waiting for him. If he came outside again, she’d go at him even as his foot was reaching for the ground. The element of surprise was still working for her, maybe better than ever—because the killer was close to a clean getaway and feeling so good about himself that he might be careless.
Maybe he wouldn’t come outside again, but at least he would have to reach out to pull the door shut. Standing on the step, leaning to grab at the handle, he would not be well balanced, and she would have the knife deep into him before he had a chance to jerk back.
Movement inside. A thump.
He didn’t appear.
The scent of blood was suddenly heavy out of the northwest, as though a slaughterhouse lay upwind of her. Then it passed, and she realized that she hadn’t actually smelled blood but had flashed back on the smell of the sodden sheets in the Templetons’ master suite.
The aluminum wall of the motor home was cold against her spine, and she shivered because it seemed that some of the coldness of the man inside was seeping through to her.
Waiting, she began to lose her nerve. Resurgent fear tempered her rage, shifting the balance from vengeance to survival. But she could still do it. She could do it. She struggled to hold on to her crazy-hot anger.
Then the killer came out of the motor home, but he didn’t use the exit beside her. He stepped from the open cab door at the front of the vehicle.
Chyna’s breath caught in her throat, and the chill wind from the oncoming storm seemed bitter with the scent of failure.
He was too far away. No longer distracted by the weight of Laura in his arms and the rattling of her shackles, he would hear Chyna coming. She no longer had the element of surprise to even the odds.
He stood just outside the cab door, thirty feet from her, stretching almost lazily. He rolled his big shoulders as if to shake weariness from them, and he massaged the back of his neck.
If he turned his head to the left, he would see her at once. If she didn’t remain absolutely still, he would surely spot her slightest movement even from the corner of his eye.
He was downwind of her, and she was half afraid that he would smell her fear. He seemed more animal than human, even in the fluid grace with which he moved, and she had no trouble believing that he was gifted with wild talents and preternatural senses.
Although he wasn’t holding the silencer-fitted gun with which he had killed Paul Templeton, it might be tucked under his belt. If she tried to flee, he could draw the weapon and shoot her dead before she got far.
shoot her dead. Nothing that easy. He’d pop her in the leg, bring her down, and take her captive. Load her into the motor home with Laura. He’d want to play with her later.
Finished stretching, he moved briskly toward the house. Up the walkway. Onto the porch. Inside.
He never looked back.
Chyna’s pent-up breath stuttered from her in a tattoo of fear, and she inhaled with a shudder.
Before her courage faded further, she hurried forward to the cab door and climbed behind the steering wheel. Her best hope was to find keys in the ignition, in which case she would be able to start the engine and drive away with Laura, go into Napa to the police.
She glanced at the house, wondering how long he would be gone. Maybe he was searching for valuables now that the killing was done. Or selecting souvenirs. That could take five minutes, ten minutes, even longer. Which might be enough time to get Laura out of the motor home and hide her somewhere. Somehow.
She still had the knife. And now that she was in the killer’s domain without his knowledge, she had regained the precious element of surprise.
Nevertheless, her heart raced, and her dry mouth was filled with the slightly metallic taste of feverish anxiety.