Authors: Dean Koontz
Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers
The seat swiveled, clearing the console. She was able to step from behind the steering wheel into the lounge area, which featured built-in sofas upholstered in a hunter-plaid fabric.
The steel floor was carpeted, of course, but after long years of hard travel, it creaked softly under her feet.
She had expected the place to smell like a Grand Guignol theater where the sadistic plays involved no make-believe, but instead the air was redolent of recently brewed coffee and cinnamon rolls. How odd—and somehow profoundly disturbing—that a man like this should find any satisfaction at all in innocent pleasures.
“Laura,” she whispered, as though the killer might hear her all the way from the house. Then more fiercely than ever, yet in a whisper:
Beyond the lounge and open to it were a kitchenette and a cozy dining alcove with a booth upholstered in red vinyl. Running off the battery, a lamp hung aglow over the dining-nook table.
Laura was not to be seen anywhere.
Moving swiftly out of the dining area, Chyna came to the rear door standing open on the right, through which the killer had entered with the unconscious girl in his arms.
Aft of the outer door, a short cramped hall led along the driver’s side of the vehicle, illuminated by a low-voltage safety fixture. There was also a skylight, now black. On the left were two closed doors, and at the end a third stood ajar.
The first door opened into a tiny bath. The space was a marvel of efficient design: a toilet, a sink, a medicine cabinet, and a corner shower stall.
Behind the second door was a closet. A few changes of clothes hung from a chrome rod.
At the end of the hall was a small bedroom with imitation-wood paneling and a closet with an accordion-style vinyl door. The meager light from the hall didn’t brighten the place much, but Chyna could see well enough to identify Laura; the girl was lying facedown on the narrow bed, swaddled in a sheet, with only her small bare feet and her golden hair revealed.
Urgently whispering her friend’s name, Chyna stepped to the bed and dropped to her knees.
Laura didn’t respond. Still unconscious.
Chyna couldn’t lift the girl, couldn’t carry her as the killer had done, so she had to try to rouse her instead. She pulled aside a flap of sheet and was eye-to-eye with her friend.
They were sapphire-blue eyes now, not pale-sky blue, perhaps because the light in the room was so poor or perhaps because they were occluded with death. Her mouth was open, and blood moistened her lips.
The crazy fucking hateful bastard had taken her with him even though she was dead, for God-knew-what purposes, maybe because she was something he could touch and look at and talk to for a few days to remind him of the glory. A souvenir.
Chyna’s stomach cramped painfully, not with revulsion or disgust but with guilt, with failure and futility and sheer black despair.
“Oh, baby,” she said to the dead girl. “Oh, baby, sweetie, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”
Not that she could have done anything more than she had tried to do. What could she have done? She couldn’t have attacked the bastard bare-handed when she had stood behind him in the upstairs hall, when he had been cooing to the dangling spider. What could she have done? She couldn’t have gotten to the kitchen any sooner, found the knife any faster, climbed the back stairs any quicker.
“I’m so sorry.”
This beautiful girl, this dear heart, would never find the husband about whom she had fantasized, never have the children who would have been a betterment to the world by the simple virtue of having been
children. Twenty-three years of getting ready to make a contribution, to make a difference in the lives of others, so full of ideals and hope: But now her gift would never be given, and the world would be immeasurably poorer for it.
“I love you, Laura. We all love you.”
Any words, any sentiment, any expression of grief was horribly inadequate; worse than inadequate—meaningless. Laura was gone, all that warmth and kindness gone forever, and even the most heartfelt words were only words.
Chyna’s stomach cramped with a sense of loss, clenched tight and pulled her relentlessly into a black hole within herself.
At the same time she felt her breast swelling with a sob that, if voiced, would be explosive. A single tear would loose a flood. Even one soft sob would bring on an uncontrollable wail.
She couldn’t risk grief. Not while she was in the motor home. The killer would be returning at any minute, and she couldn’t mourn Laura until she was safely out of there and until he was gone. She no longer had any reason to stay, for Laura was indisputably dead and irretrievable.
Nearby a door slammed hard, shaking the thin metal walls around Chyna.
The killer was back.
Something rattled. Rattled.
With the butcher knife in hand, Chyna swiftly backed away from Laura to the wall next to the open door. Unexpressed grief was a high-octane fuel for rage, and in an instant she was burning with fury, afire with the need to hurt him, slash him, spill his guts, hear him scream, and bring the haunting awareness of mortality to his eyes as he had brought it to Laura’s.
He’ll come into the room. I’ll cut him. He’ll come and I’ll cut him.
It was a prayer, not a plan.
He’ll come. I’ll cut him. He’ll come. I’ll cut him.
The shadowy room darkened. He was at the door, blocking the meager light from the hall.
Silently, the knife in her hand jittered furiously up and down like the needle on a sewing machine, stitching the pattern of her fear in the air.
He was at the threshold. Right there. Right
. He would come in for one more look at the pretty blond dead girl, for one more feel of her cool skin, and Chyna would get him when he crossed the threshold, cut him.
Instead, he closed the door and went away.
Aghast, she listened to his retreating footsteps, the creaking as the carpeted steel floor torqued under his boots, and she wondered what to do now.
The driver’s door slammed. The engine started. The brakes released with a brief faint shriek.
They were on the move.
Dead girls lie as troubled in the dark as in the light. As the motor home sped along the runneled driveway, Laura’s shackles clinked ceaselessly, only half muffled by the sheet in which she was loosely wrapped.
Blinded, still pressed to the fiberboard wall beside the bedroom door, Chyna Shepherd could almost believe that even in death Laura struggled against the injustice of her murder.
Periodic sprays of gravel spurted from beneath the tires and rattled against the undercarriage. Shortly the motor home would reach the county road, smooth blacktop.
If Chyna tried to bail out now, the killer was sure to hear the back door bang open when the wind tore it out of her grasp, or spot it in his sideview mirror. In these winter-dormant grape fields, where the nearest houses were inhabited only by the dead, he would certainly risk stopping and giving chase, and she would not get far before he brought her down.
Better to wait. Give him a few miles on the county road, even until they reached a more major route, until they were likely to be passing through a town or traveling in at least sparse traffic. He wouldn’t be as quick to come after her if people were nearby to respond to her cries for help.
She felt along the wall for a switch. The door was tightly shut; no light would spill into the hallway. She found the toggle, flicked it up, but nothing happened. The overhead bulb must have burned out.
She remembered seeing a pharmacy-style reading lamp bolted to the side of the built-in nightstand. By the time she felt her way across the small room, the motor home began to slow.
She hesitated with the lamp switch between thumb and forefinger, heart suddenly racing again because she was afraid that he was going to brake to a full stop, get out from behind the wheel, and come back to the little bedroom. Now that a confrontation could no longer save Laura, now that Chyna’s molten rage had cooled to anger, she hoped only to avoid him, escape, and give the authorities the information that they would need to find him.
The vehicle didn’t come to a full stop, after all, but hung a wide left turn onto a paved surface and picked up speed once more. The county road.
As far as Chyna could recall, the next intersection would be State Highway 29, which she and Laura had driven the previous afternoon. Between here and there, the only turnoffs were to other vineyards, small farms, and houses. He wasn’t likely to pay a visit to any of those places or slaughter any more innocently sleeping families. The night was waning.
She clicked the lamp switch, and a circle of muddy light fell on the bed.
She tried not to look at the body, even though it was mostly concealed by the enwrapping linens. If she thought too much about Laura right now, she’d be sucked into a slough of black despondency. She needed to remain energized and clearheaded if she hoped to survive.
Although she wasn’t likely to find any weapon better than the butcher knife, she had nothing to lose by searching for one. Since the killer was armed with a silencer-equipped pistol, he might keep other guns in the motor home.
The single nightstand had two drawers. The upper contained a package of gauze pads, a few green and yellow sponges of the size used to wash dishes, a small plastic squeeze bottle of some clear fluid, a roll of cloth tape, a comb, a hairbrush with a tortoiseshell handle, a half-empty tube of K-Y jelly, a full bottle of skin lotion with aloe vera, a pair of needle-nose pliers with yellow rubber-clad handles, and a pair of scissors.
She could imagine the uses to which he had put some of those items, and she didn’t want to think about the others. Sometimes, no doubt, the women he brought into this room were alive when he put them on the bed.
She considered the scissors. But the butcher knife would be more effective if she needed to use it.
In the lower, deeper drawer was a hard-plastic container rather like a fishing-tackle box. When she opened it, she found a complete sewing kit, with numerous spools of thread in a variety of colors, a pincushion, packets of needles, a needle threader, an extensive selection of buttons, and other paraphernalia. None of that was helpful to her, and she put it away.
As she got up from her knees, she noticed that the window over the bed had been covered with a sheet of plywood that had been bolted to the wall. A couple of folded swatches of blue fabric were trapped between the plywood and the window frame: the edge of an underlying drapery panel.
From outside, the window would appear to be merely curtained. Anyone inside, even if clever and fortunate enough to struggle free of her bonds, would never be able to open the window and signal to passing motorists for help.
As there was no other furniture in the cramped bedroom, the closet was the only remaining place where Chyna could hope to find a gun or anything that might be used as a weapon. She circled the bed to the accordion-style vinyl door, which hung from an overhead track.
When she pulled the folding door aside, it compressed into pleats that stacked to the left, and in the closet was a dead man.
Shock threw Chyna back against the bed. The mattress caught her behind the knees. She almost fell backward atop Laura, kept her balance, but dropped the knife.
The rear of the closet appeared to have been retrofitted with welded steel plates fixed to the vehicle frame for added strength. Two ringbolts, widely separated and high-set, were welded to the steel. Wrists manacled to the ringbolts, the dead man hung with his arms spread in cruciform. His feet were together like the feet of Christ on the cross—not nailed, however, but shackled to another ringbolt in the closet floor.
He was young—seventeen, eighteen, surely not twenty. Clad in only a pair of white cotton briefs, his lean pale body was badly battered. His head didn’t hang forward on his chest but was tipped to one side, and his left temple rested against the biceps of his raised left arm. He had thick curly black hair. His eyelids had been sewn tightly shut with green thread. With yellow thread, two buttons above his upper lip were secured to a pair of matching buttons just under his lower lip.
Chyna heard herself talking to God. An incoherent, beseeching babble. She clenched her teeth and choked on the words, though it was unlikely that her voice could have carried to the front of the motor home over the rumble of the engine and the droning of the big tires.
She pulled shut the pleated-vinyl panel. Though flimsy, it moved as ponderously as a vault door. The magnetic latch clicked into place with a sound like snapping bone.
In all the textbooks she had ever read, no case study of sociopathic violence had ever contained a description of a crime sufficiently vivid to make her want to retreat to a corner and sit on the floor and pull her knees against her chest and hug herself. That was precisely what she did now—choosing the corner farthest from the closet.
She had to get control of herself, quickly, starting with her manic breathing. She was gasping, sucking in great lungfuls, yet she couldn’t seem to get enough air. The deeper and faster she inhaled, the dizzier she became. Her peripheral vision surrendered to an encroaching darkness until she seemed to be peering down a long black tunnel toward the dingy motor-home bedroom at the far end.
She told herself that the young man in the closet had been dead when the killer had gone to work with the sewing kit. And if he’d not been dead, at least he’d been mercifully unconscious. Then she told herself not to think about it at all, because thinking about it only made the tunnel longer and narrower, made the bedroom more distant and the lights dimmer than ever.
She put her face in her hands, and her hands were cold but her face seemed colder. For no reason that Chyna could understand, she thought of her mother’s face, as clear as a photograph in her mind’s eye. And then she
To Chyna’s mother, the prospect of violence had been romantic, even glamorous. For a while they had lived in a commune in Oakland, where everyone talked of making a better world and where, more nights than not, the adults gathered around the kitchen table, drinking wine and smoking pot, discussing how best to tear down the hated system, sometimes also playing pinochle or Trivial Pursuit as they discussed the strategies that might bring utopia at last, sometimes far too enraptured by revolution to be interested in any lesser games. There were bridges and tunnels that could all be blown up with absurd ease, disrupting transportation; telephone-company installations could be targeted to throw communications into chaos; meat-packing plants must be burned to put an end to the brutal exploitation of animals. They planned intricate bank robberies and bold assaults on armored cars to finance their operations. The route they would have taken to peace, freedom, and justice was always cratered by explosions, littered with uncountable bodies. After Oakland, Chyna and her mother had hit the road for a few weeks and had wound up again in Key West with their old friend Jim Woltz, the enthusiastic nihilist who was deep in the drug trade, with a sideline in illegal weapons. Under his oceanfront cottage, he had carved out a bunker in which he stored a personal collection of two hundred firearms. Chyna’s mother was a beautiful woman, even on bad days when depression plagued her, when her green eyes were gray and sad with miseries that she could not explain. But at that kitchen table in Oakland and in that cool bunker beneath the cottage in Key West—in fact, whenever she was at the side of a man like Woltz—her porcelain skin was even clearer than usual, almost translucent; excitement enlivened her exquisite features; she became magically more graceful, appeared more lithe and supple, was quicker to smile. The prospect of violence, playing at being Bonnie to any man’s Clyde, filled her stunning face with a light as glorious as a Florida sunset, and her jewel-green eyes were, at those times, as compelling and mysterious as the Gulf of Mexico darkening toward twilight.
Although the prospect of violence might be romantic, the reality was blood, bone, decomposition, dust. The reality was Laura on the bed and the unknown young man sewn into silence behind the pleated vinyl door.
Chyna sat with her cold hands covering her colder face, aware that she would never be as strangely beautiful as her mother.
Eventually she regained control of her breathing.
The motor home rolled on, and she was reminded of nights when, as a child, she had dozed on trains, on buses, in the backseats of cars, lulled by the motion and the hum of wheels, unsure where her mother was taking her, dreaming of being part of a family like one of those on television—with befuddled but loving parents, an amusing next-door neighbor who might be frustrating but never malicious, and a dog that knew a few tricks. But good dreams never lasted, and she woke repeatedly from nightmares, gazing out windows at strange landscapes, wishing that she could travel forever without stopping. The road was a promise of peace, but destinations were always hell.
This time would be no different from all those others. Wherever they were bound, Chyna didn’t want to go there. She intended to get off between destinations and hoped to find her way back to the better life that she had struggled so hard to build these past ten years.
She left the corner of the bedroom to retrieve the butcher knife, which she had dropped when she’d been rocked backward by the sight of the dead man in the closet. Then she went around the bed to the nightstand and switched off the pharmacy lamp.
Being in the dark with dead people didn’t frighten her. Only the living were a danger.
The motor home slowed again and then turned left. Chyna leaned against the tilt of the vehicle to keep her balance.
They must be on State Highway 29. A right turn would have taken them down the Napa Valley, south into the town of Napa. She wasn’t sure what communities lay to the north, other than St. Helena and Calistoga.
Even between the towns, however, there would be vineyards, farms, houses, and rural businesses. Wherever she got out of the motor home, she should be able to find help within a reasonable distance.
She sidled blindly to the door and stood with one hand on the knob, waiting for instinct to guide her once more. Much of her life had been lived like a balancing act on a spearpoint fence, and on a particularly difficult night when she was twelve, she had decided that instinct was, in fact, the quiet voice of God. Prayers
receive replies, but you had to listen closely and believe in the answer. At twelve, she wrote in her diary: “God doesn’t shout; He whispers, and in the whisper is the way.”
Waiting for the whisper, she thought about the battered body in the closet, which appeared to have been dead for less than a day, and about Laura, still warm on the sagging bed. Sarah, Paul, Laura’s brother Jack, Jack’s wife, Nina: six people murdered in twenty-four hours. The eater of spiders was not an ordinary homicidal sociopath. In the language of the cops and the criminologists who specialized in searching for and stopping men like this, he was
going through a
burning up with desire, need. But Chyna, who intended to follow her master’s in psychology with a doctorate in criminology, even if she had to work six years waiting tables to get there, sensed that this guy was not just hot. He was a singularity, conforming only in part to standard profiles in aberrant psychology, as purely alien as something from the stars, a runaway killing machine, merciless and irresistible. She had no hope of eluding him if she didn’t wait for the murmuring voice of instinct.