Authors: Dean Koontz
Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers
She remembered seeing a large rearview mirror when she’d briefly occupied the driver’s seat earlier. The vehicle had no rear window, so the mirror was there to provide the driver with a view of the lounge and the dining area behind him. He would be able to see all the way into the end hall that served the bath and bedroom, and if the devil’s luck was with him, he would glance up just when Chyna opened the door, stepped out, and was exposed.
When the moment felt right, Chyna opened the door.
A small blessing, a good omen: The ceiling light in the hall was out.
Standing in gloom, she quietly pulled shut the bedroom door.
The lamp above the dining table was on as before. At the front of the vehicle was the green glow of the instrument panel—and beyond the windshield, the headlights were silver swords.
After moving forward past the bathroom and out of the welcome shadows, she crouched behind the paneled side of the dining nook. She peered across the crescent booth to the back of the driver’s head, about twenty feet away.
He seemed so close—and, for the first time, vulnerable.
Nevertheless, Chyna wasn’t foolish enough to creep forward and attack him while he was driving. If he heard her coming or glanced at the rearview mirror and spotted her, he could wrench the steering wheel or slam on the brakes, sending her sprawling. Then he might be able to stop the vehicle and get to her before she could reach the rear door—or he might swivel in his chair and shoot her down.
The entrance through which he had carried Laura was immediately to Chyna’s left. She sat on the floor with her feet in the step well, facing this door, concealed from the driver by the dining nook.
She put the butcher knife aside. When she leaped out, she would probably fall and roll—and she might easily stab herself with the knife if she tried to take it with her.
She didn’t intend to jump until the driver either stopped at an intersection or entered a turn sharp enough to require him to cut his speed dramatically. She couldn’t risk breaking a leg or being knocked unconscious in a fall, because then she wouldn’t be able to get away from the road and safely into hiding.
She didn’t doubt that he would be aware of her escape even as it began. He would hear the door open or the wind whistling at it, and he would see her either in his rearview or in his side-mounted mirror as she made her break for freedom. Even in the unlikely event that she was not seen, the wind would slam the door hard behind her the instant she was gone; the killer would suspect that he hadn’t been alone with his collection of corpses, and he’d pull off the highway and come back along the pavement, panicky, to have a look.
Or perhaps not panicky. Not panicky at all. More likely, he would search with grim, methodical, machine efficiency. This guy was all about control and power, and Chyna found it difficult to imagine him
succumbing to panic.
The motor home slowed, and Chyna’s heart quickened. As the driver reduced speed further, Chyna rose into a crouch in the step well and put a hand on the lever-action door handle.
They came to a full stop, and she pressed down on the handle, but the door was locked. Quietly but insistently she pressed up, down, up—to no avail.
She couldn’t find any latch button. Just a keyhole.
She remembered the rattling that she’d heard when she’d been in the bedroom and the spider eater had come back inside and closed this door.
The rattle of a key, perhaps.
Maybe this was a safety feature to prevent kids from tumbling out into traffic. Or maybe the crazy bastard had modified the door lock to enhance security, to make it more difficult for a burglar or casual intruder to stumble upon any lip-sewn or shackled cadavers that might just happen to be aboard. Can’t be too careful when you have dead bodies stacked in the bedroom. Prudence requires certain security measures.
The motor home pulled forward through the intersection and began to pick up speed again.
She should have known that escape wouldn’t be easy.
was easy. Ever.
She sat down, leaning against the breakfast-nook paneling, still facing the door, thinking furiously.
Earlier, on her way back through the vehicle from the driver’s seat, she’d seen a door on the other side, toward the front, behind the copilot’s chair. Most motor homes had two doors, but this was a rare older model with three. She was reluctant to go forward to escape, however, and for the same reason that she didn’t want to attack him: He might see her coming, rock her off her feet, and shoot her before she could get up.
All right, she had one advantage. He didn’t know that she was aboard.
If she couldn’t just open a door and jump out, if she was going to have to kill him, she could lie in wait here past the dining nook, surprise the bastard, gut him, step over him, and leave by the front. Just minutes ago she had been ready to kill him, and she could make herself be ready again.
The engine vibrations rose through the floor, half numbing her butt. Total numbing would have been welcome; the carpet soon proved to be inadequate padding, and her tailbone began to ache. She shifted her weight from cheek to cheek, leaned forward and then leaned back; nothing provided more than a few seconds of relief. The ache spread to the small of her back, and mild discomfort escalated into serious pain.
Twenty minutes, half an hour, forty minutes, an hour, longer, she endured the agony by striving to imagine all the ways that her escape might unfold once the motor home stopped and the killer got out from behind the wheel. Concentrating. Thinking it through. Planning for myriad eventualities. Finally, however, she couldn’t think about anything but the pain.
The motor home was cool, and down in the step well, there was no heat at all. The engine and road vibrations penetrated her shoes, beating relentlessly on her heels and soles. She flexed her toes, afraid that her cold, achy feet and stiffening calf muscles would develop cramps and hobble her when the time came for action.
With a strange hilarity unnervingly close to despair, she thought,
Forget about grief. Forget about justice. Right now just give me a comfortable chair to pamper my ass, just let me sit for a while until my feet are warm again, and later you can have my life if you want it.
The prolonged inactivity not only took a physical toll but soon began to depress her. Back at the house when she’d first heard the intruder, before he had even come to the guest room, Chyna had known that safety lay in movement. Now
safety lay in movement, distraction. But circumstances required her to be still and wait. She had too much time to think—and too many disturbing thoughts on which to dwell.
She worked herself into such a state of distress that tears welled—which was when she realized that she was not suffering unduly from butt ache or back pain or the cold throbbing in her feet. The real pain was in her heart, the anguish that she had been forced to repress since she’d found Paul and Sarah, since she’d detected the vague ammoniacal scent of semen in Laura’s bedroom and had seen the dimly gleaming links of the shackling chain. Her physical pain was only a lame excuse for tears.
If she dared weep in self-pity, however, then a
would come for Paul, for Sarah, for Laura, for the whole sorry damn screwed-up human race, and in useless resentment at the fact that hard-won hope so often spiraled into nightmare. She would bury her face in her hands, uselessly wailing the question that had been asked of God more often than any other:
Why, why, why, why, why?
Surrendering to tears would be so easy,
. These were selfish tears of defeat; they would not only purge the heart of grief but also wash out the need to care about anyone, anything. Blessed relief could be hers if she simply admitted that the long struggle to understand wasn’t worth the pain of experience. Her sobbing would bring the motor home to a sudden halt, and the driver would come back to find her huddled at the step well. He would club her, drag her into the bedroom, rape her beside the body of her friend; there would be terror beyond anything that she had ever known before, but it would be brief. And this time it would be final. He would free her forever from the need to ask
from the torment of repeatedly falling through the fragile floor of hope into this too familiar desolation.
For a long time, maybe even since the stormy night of her eighth birthday and the frenzied palmetto beetle, she’d known that being a victim was often a
people made. As a child, she hadn’t been able to put this insight into words, and she hadn’t known why so many people chose suffering; when older, she had recognized their self-hatred, masochism, weakness.
Not all or even most suffering is at the hands of fate; it befalls us at our invitation.
She’d always chosen not to be victimized, to resist and fight back, to hold on to hope and dignity and faith in the future. But victimhood was seductive, a release from responsibility and caring: Fear would be transmuted into weary resignation; failure would no longer generate guilt but, instead, would spawn a comforting self-pity.
Now she trembled on an emotional high wire, not sure whether she would be able to keep her balance or would allow herself to fail and fall.
The motor home slowed again. They were angling to the right. Slowing. Maybe pulling off the highway and stopping.
She tried the door. She knew that it was locked, but she quietly worked the lever-action handle anyway, because she wasn’t capable, after all, of simply giving up.
As they climbed a slight incline, their speed continued to drop.
Wincing at the pain in her calves and thighs as she moved, yet relieved to be off her butt, she rose just far enough to look across the dining nook.
The back of the killer’s head was the most hateful thing that Chyna had ever seen, and it aroused fresh anger in her. The brain beneath that curve of bone hummed with vicious fantasies. It was infuriating that he should be alive and Laura dead. That he should be sitting here so smug, so content with all his memories of blood, recalling the pleas for mercy that must be like music to him. That he should ever see a sunset again and take pleasure from it, or taste a peach, or smell a flower. To Chyna, the back of this man’s skull seemed like the smooth chitinous helmet of an insect, and she believed that if she ever touched him, he would be as cold as a squirming beetle under her hand.
Beyond the driver, beyond the windshield, at the top of the low rise toward which they were headed, a structure appeared, indistinct and unidentifiable. A few tall sodium-vapor arc lamps cast a sour, sulfurous light.
She squatted below the back of the dining nook again.
She picked up the knife.
They had reached the top of the rise. They were on level ground once more. Steadily slowing.
Turning around, facing away from the exit, she eased into the step well. Left foot on the lower step, right foot on the higher. Back pressed to the locked door, crouching in shadows beyond the reach of the nook lamp, she was ready to launch herself up and at him if he came back through the motor home and gave her a chance.
With a final sigh of air brakes, the vehicle stopped.
Wherever they were, people might be nearby. People who could help her.
But if she screamed, would those outside be near enough to hear?
Even if they heard, they would never reach her in time. The killer would get to her first, gun in hand.
Besides, maybe this was a roadside rest area: nothing more than a parking lot, some picnic tables, a poster warning about the dangers of campfires, and rest rooms. He might have taken a break to use the public facilities or the john in the trailer. At this dead hour, after three o’clock in the morning, they were likely to be the only vehicle on site, in which case she could scream until she was hoarse, and no one would come to her assistance.
The engine cut off.
Quiet. No vibrations in the floor.
Now that the motor home was still, Chyna was shaking. No longer depressed. Stomach muscles fluttering. Scared again. Because she wanted to live.
She would have preferred that he go outside and give her a chance to escape, but she expected him to use the trailer facilities instead of the public rest room. He would come right past her. If she couldn’t escape, then she was hot to finish this.
Crazily, she wondered if what came out of him when he was cut would be blood—or the stuff that oozed from a fat beetle when it was crushed.
She expected to hear the bastard moving, heavy footfalls and the hollow
when he stepped on a weak seam in the floor, but there was silence. Maybe he was taking a moment to stretch his arms, roll his achy shoulders, massage the back of his bull neck, and shrug off the weariness of travel.
Or perhaps he
glimpsed her in the rearview mirror, her face moon-bright in the light from the dining-table lamp. He could ease out of his seat and creep toward her, avoiding all the creaks in the floor because he knew where they were. Slide into the dining nook. Lean over the back of the booth. Shoot her point-blank where she crouched in the step well. Shoot her in the face.
Chyna looked up and to her left, across the back of the booth. Too low to see the lamp hanging over the center of the table, she saw only the glow of it. She wondered if the angle of his approach would give her a warning or if he would just be a sudden silhouette popping up from the booth as he opened fire on her.
He believes in living with intensity.
Sitting at the steering wheel, he closes his eyes and massages the back of his neck.
He isn’t trying to get rid of the pain. It came on its own, and it will leave him naturally in time. He never takes Tylenol and other crap like that.
What he’s trying to do is
the pain as fully as possible. With his fingertips he finds an especially sore spot just to the left of the third cervical vertebra, and he presses on it until the pain causes faint sprays of twinkly white and gray lights in the blackness behind his eyelids, like distant fireworks in a world without color.
Pain is merely a part of life. By embracing it, one can find surprising satisfaction in suffering. More important, getting in touch with his own pain makes it easier for him to take pleasure in the pain of others.
Two vertebrae farther down, he locates an even more sensitive point of inflamed tendon or muscle, a wonderful little button buried in the flesh which, when pressed, causes pain to shoot all the way across his shoulder and down his trapezius. At first he works the spot with a lover’s tender touch, groaning softly, then he attacks it vigorously until the sweet agony makes him suck air between his clenched teeth.
He does not expect to live forever. His time in this body is finite and precious—and therefore must not be wasted.
He does not believe in reincarnation or in any of the standard promises of an afterlife that are sold by the world’s great religions—although at times he senses that he is approaching a revelation of tremendous importance. He
willing to contemplate the possibility that the immortal soul exists, and that his own spirit may one day be exalted. But if he is to undergo an apotheosis, it will be brought about by his own bold actions, not by divine grace; if he, in fact, becomes a god, the transformation will occur because he has already chosen to
like a god—without fear, without remorse, without limits, with all his senses fiercely sharpened.
Anyone can smell a rose and enjoy the scent. But he has long been training himself to
the destruction of its beauty when he crushes the flower in his fist. If he were to have a rose now, and if he were to chew the petals, he would be able to
not merely the rose itself but the redness of it; likewise, he could taste the yellowness of buttercups, the blue of hyacinths. He could taste the bee that had crawled across the blossom on its eternal buzzing task of pollination, the soil out of which the flower had grown, and the wind that had caressed it through the summer of its growing.
He has never met anyone who can understand the intensity with which he experiences the world or the greater intensity for which he strives. With his help, perhaps Ariel will understand one day. Now, of course, she is too immature to achieve the insight.
One last squeeze of his neck. The pain. He sighs.
From the copilot’s seat, he picks up a folded raincoat. No rain is yet falling, but he needs to cover his blood-spattered clothing before going inside.
He could have changed into clean clothes prior to leaving the Templeton house, but he enjoys wearing these. The patina excites him.
He gets out of the driver’s seat, stands behind it, and pulls on the coat.
He washed his hands in the kitchen sink at the Templeton house, though he would have preferred to leave them stained too. While he can conceal his clothes under a raincoat, hiding his hands is not as easy.
He never wears gloves. To do so would be to concede that he fears apprehension, which he does not.
Although his fingerprints are on file with federal and state agencies, the prints he leaves at the scene will never match those that bear his name in the records. Like the rest of the world, police organizations are hell-bent on computerization; by now most fingerprint-image reference banks are in the form of digitized data, to facilitate high-speed scanning and processing. Even more easily than hard files, electronic files can be manipulated, because the work can be done at a great distance; there is no need to burglarize highly secure facilities, when instead he can be a ghost haunting their machines from across a continent. Because of his intelligence, talents, and connections, he has been able to meddle with the data.
Wearing gloves, even thin surgical latex gloves, would be an intolerable barrier to sensation. He likes to let his hand glide lightly over the fine golden hairs on a woman’s thigh, take time to appreciate the texture of pebbled gooseflesh against his palm, to relish the fierce heat of skin and then, after, the warmth all fading, fading. When he kills, he finds it absolutely essential to feel the wetness.
The prints under his name in the various files are, in fact, those of a young marine named Bernard Petain, who died tragically during training maneuvers at Camp Pendleton many years ago. And the prints that he leaves at the scene, often etched in blood, cannot be matched to any on file with the military, the FBI, the Department of Motor Vehicles, or anywhere else.
He finishes buttoning the raincoat, turns up the collar, and looks at his hands. Stains under three fingernails. It might be grease or soil. No one will be suspicious of it.
He himself can smell the blood on his clothes even through the black nylon raincoat and insulated liner, but others are not sufficiently sensitive to detect it.
Staring at the residue under his nails, however, he can hear the screams again, that lovely music in the night, the Templeton house as reverberant as a concert hall, and no one to hear except him and the deaf vineyards.
If he is ever caught in the act, the authorities will print him again, discover his deception with the computers, and eventually link him to a long list of unsolved murders. But he isn’t concerned about that. He’ll never be taken alive, never be put on trial. Whatever they learn about his activities after his death will only add to the glory of his name.
He is Edgler Foreman Vess. From the letters of his name, one can extract a long list of power words:
GOD, FEAR, DEMON, SAVE, RAGE, ANGER, DRAGON, FORGE, SEED, SEMEN, FREE,
and others. Also words with a mystical quality:
DREAM, VESSEL, LORE, FOREVER, MARVEL
. Sometimes the last thing that he whispers to a victim is a sentence composed from this list of words. One that he especially likes and uses often is
GOD FEARS ME
Anyway, all questions of fingerprints and other evidence are moot, because he will never be caught. He is thirty-three years old. He has been enjoying himself in this fashion for a long time, and he has never had a close call.
Now he takes the pistol out of the open console between the pilot’s and copilot’s chairs. A Heckler & Koch P7.
Earlier, he had reloaded the thirteen-round magazine. Now he unscrews the sound suppressor, because he has no plans to visit other houses this night. Besides, the baffles are probably damaged from the shots that he has fired, diminishing both the effect of the silencer and the accuracy of the weapon.
Occasionally he daydreams about what it would be like if the impossible happened, if he were interrupted at play and surrounded by a SWAT team. With his experience and knowledge, the ensuing showdown would be thrillingly
If there is a single secret behind the success of Edgler Vess, it is his belief that no twist of fate is either good or bad, that no experience is qualitatively better than another. Winning twenty million dollars in the lottery is no more to be desired than being trapped by a SWAT team, and a shootout with the authorities is no more to be dreaded than winning all that money. The value of any experience isn’t in its positive or negative effect on his life but in the sheer luminous power of it, the vividness, the ferocity, the amount and degree of pure sensation that it provides. Intensity.
Vess puts the sound suppressor in the console between the seats.
He drops the pistol into the right-hand pocket of his raincoat.
He is not expecting trouble. Nevertheless, he goes nowhere unarmed. One can never be too careful. Besides, opportunities often arise unexpectedly.
In the driver’s seat again, he takes the keys from the ignition and checks that the brake is firmly set. He opens the door and gets out of the motor home.
All eight gasoline pumps are self-service. He is parked at the outer of the two service islands. He needs to go to the cashier in the associated convenience store to pay in advance and to identify the pump that he’ll be using so it can be turned on.
The night breathes. At higher altitudes, a strong gale drives masses of clouds out of the northwest toward the southeast. Here at ground level, a lesser exhalation of cold wind huffs between the pumps, whistles alongside the motor home, and flaps the raincoat against Vess’s legs. The convenience store—buff brick below, white aluminum siding above, big windows full of merchandise—stands in front of rising hills that are covered with huge evergreens; the wind soughs through their branches with a hollow, ancient, lonely voice.
Out on Highway 101, there is little traffic at this hour. When a truck passes, it cleaves the wind with a cry that seems strangely Jurassic.
A Pontiac with Washington State license plates is parked at the inner service island, under the yellow sodium-vapor lamps. Other than the motor home, it is the only vehicle in sight. A bumper sticker on the back announces that
ELECTRICIANS KNOW HOW TO PLUG IT IN
On the roof of the building, positioned for maximum visibility from 101, is a red neon sign that announces
. Red is the quality of the sound each passing truck makes out there on the highway. In the glow, his hands look as if he never washed them.
As Vess approaches the entrance, the glass door swings open, and a man comes out carrying a family-size bag of potato chips and a six-pack of Coke in cans. He is a chubby guy with long sideburns and a walrus mustache.
Gesturing at the sky, he says, “Storm’s coming,” as he hurries past Vess.
“Good,” Vess says. He likes storms. He enjoys driving in them. The more torrential the rain, the better. With lightning flashing and trees cracking in the wind and pavement as slick as ice.
The guy with the walrus mustache goes to the Pontiac.
Vess enters the convenience store, wondering what an electrician from Washington is doing on the road in northern California at this ungodly hour of the night.
He’s fascinated by the way in which lives connect briefly, with a potential for drama that is sometimes fulfilled and sometimes not. A man stops for gasoline, lingers to buy potato chips and Coke, makes a comment on the weather to a stranger—and continues on his journey. The stranger could as easily follow the man to the car and blow his brains out. There would be risks for the shooter, but not serious risks; it could be managed with surprising discretion. The man’s survival is either full of mysterious meaning or utterly meaningless; Vess is unable to decide which.
If fate doesn’t actually exist, it ought to.
The small store is warm, clean, and brightly lighted. Three narrow aisles extend to the left of the door, offering the usual roadside merchandise: every imaginable snack food, the basic patent medicines, magazines, paperback books, postcards, novelty items designed to hang from rearview mirrors, and selected canned goods that sell to campers and to people, like Vess, who travel in homes on wheels. Along the back wall are tall coolers full of beer and soft drinks, as well as a couple of freezers containing ice cream treats. To the right of the door is the service counter that separates the two cashiers’ stations and the clerical area from the public part of the store.
Two employees are on duty, both men. These days, no one works alone in such places at night—and with good reason.
The guy at the cash register is a redhead in his thirties with freckles and a two-inch-diameter birthmark, as pink as uncooked salmon, on his pale forehead. The mark is uncannily like the image of a fetus curled in a womb, as if a gestating twin had died early in the mother’s pregnancy and left its fossilized image on the surviving brother’s brow.
The redheaded cashier is reading a paperback. He looks up at Vess, and his eyes are as gray as ashes but clear and piercing. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“I’m at pump seven,” Vess says.
The radio is tuned to a country station. Alan Jackson sings about midnight in Montgomery, the wind, a whippoorwill, a lonesome chill, and the ghost of Hank Williams.
“How you want to pay?” asks the cashier.
“If I put any more on the credit cards, the Bank of America’s going to send someone around to break my legs,” says Vess, and he slaps down a hundred-dollar bill. “Figure I’ll need about sixty bucks’ worth.”
The combination of the song, the birthmark, and the cashier’s haunting gray eyes generates in Vess an eerie sense of expectancy. Something exceptional is about to happen.
“Paying off Christmas like the rest of us, huh?” says the cashier as he rings up the sale.