Authors: Dean Koontz
Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers
“Hell, I’ll still be payin’ off Christmas
The second clerk sits on a stool farther along the counter. He’s not at a cash register but is laboring on the bookkeeping or checking inventory sheets—anyway, doing some kind of paperwork.
Vess has not previously looked directly at the second man, and now he discovers that this is the exceptional thing he felt looming.
“Storm coming,” he says to the second clerk.
The man looks up from the papers spread on the counter. He is in his twenties, at least half Asian, and strikingly handsome. No. More than handsome. Jet-black hair, golden complexion, eyes as liquid as oil and as deep as wells. There is a gentle quality to his good looks that almost gives him an effeminate aspect—but not quite.
Ariel would love him. He is just her type.
“Might be cold enough for snow in some of the mountain passes,” says the Asian, “if you’re going that way.”
He has a pleasant—almost musical—voice that would charm Ariel. He is really quite breathtaking.
To the cashier who is counting out change, Vess says, “Just hold on to that. I need a supply of munchies too. I’ll be back as soon as I fill up the tank.”
He leaves quickly, afraid that they might sense his excitement and become alarmed.
Although he’s been in the store no more than a minute, the night seems markedly colder than it was when he went inside. Invigorating. He catches the fragrance of pine trees and spruce—even fir from far to the north—inhales the sweet
of the heavily timbered hills behind him, detects the crisp scent of oncoming rain, smells the ozone of lightning bolts not yet hurled, breathes in the pungent fear of small animals that already quake in the fields and forests in anticipation of the storm.
After she was certain that he had left the motor home, Chyna crept forward through the vehicle, holding the butcher knife in front of her.
The windows in the dining area and the lounge were curtained, so she was not able to see what lay outside. At the front, however, the windshield revealed that they had stopped at a service station.
She had no idea where the killer was. He had left no more than a minute earlier. He might be outside, within a few feet of the door.
She hadn’t heard him removing the gas cap or jacking the pump nozzle into the tank. But from the way they were parked, fuel was evidently taken on board from the starboard side, so that was most likely where he would be.
Afraid to proceed without knowing his exact whereabouts, but even more afraid to remain in the motor home, she slipped into the driver’s seat. The headlights were off, and the instrument panel was dark, but there was enough backglow from the dining-nook lamp to make her supremely visible from outside.
At the next island, a Pontiac pulled away from the pumps. Its red taillights swiftly dwindled.
As far as she could see, the motor home was now the only vehicle at the station.
The keys weren’t in the ignition. She wouldn’t have tried to drive off anyway. That had been an option back in the vineyard, when there had been no help nearby. Here, there must be employees—and whoever pulled off the highway next.
She cracked the door, wincing at the hard sound, jumped out, and stumbled when she hit the ground. The butcher knife popped from her hand as if greased, clattered against the pavement, and spun away.
Certain that she had drawn the killer’s attention and that he was already bearing down on her, Chyna scrambled to her feet. She spun left, then right, with her hands out in front of her in pathetic defense. But the eater of spiders was nowhere to be seen on the brightly lighted blacktop.
She pressed the door shut, searched the surrounding pavement for the knife, couldn’t immediately spot it—and froze when a man came out of the station about fifty or sixty feet away. He was wearing a long coat, so at first Chyna was sure that he couldn’t be the killer, but then immediately she recalled the inexplicable rustling of fabric to which she had listened before he had left the motor home, and she
The only place to hide was behind one of the pumps at the next service island, but that was thirty feet away, between her and the store, with a lot of bright exposed pavement to cross. Besides, he was approaching the same island from the other side, and he would reach it first, catching her in the open.
If she tried to get around the motor home, he would spot her and wonder where she had come from. His psychosis probably included a measure of paranoia, and he would assume that she had been in his vehicle. He would pursue her. Relentlessly.
Instead, even as she saw him leaving the store, Chyna dropped flat to the pavement. Counting on the obstructing pumps at the first island to mask any movement close to the ground, she crawled on her belly under the motor home.
The killer didn’t cry out, didn’t pick up his pace. He hadn’t seen her.
From her hiding place, she watched him approach. As he drew close, the sulfurous light was so bright that she could recognize his black leather boots as the same pair that she had studied from beneath the guest-room bed a couple of hours before.
She turned her head to follow him as he went around the back of the motor home to the starboard side, where he stopped at one of the pumps.
The blacktop was cold against her thighs, belly, and breasts. It leached the body heat out of her through her jeans and cotton sweater, and she began to shiver.
She listened as the killer disengaged the hose spout from the nozzle boot, opened the fuel port on the side of the motor home, and removed the tank cap. She figured it would take a few minutes to fill the behemoth, so she began to ease out of her hiding place even as she heard the spout thunk into the tank.
Still flat at ground level, she suddenly saw the butcher knife. Out on the blacktop. Ten feet from the front bumper. The yellow light glimmered along the cutting edge.
Even as she was sliding into the open, however, before she could push to her feet, she heard boot heels on blacktop. She glanced back under the motor home and saw that the killer evidently had fixed the nozzle trigger in place with the regulator clip, because he was on the move again.
Frantically and as silently as possible, she retreated beneath the vehicle once more. She could hear gasoline sloshing into the fuel tank.
The killer walked forward along the starboard side, around the front, to the driver’s door. But he didn’t open the door. He paused. Very still. Then he walked to the butcher knife, stooped, and picked it up.
Chyna held her breath, though it seemed impossible that the killer could intuit the meaning of the knife. He’d never seen it before. He couldn’t know that it had come from the Templeton house. Although it was indisputably odd to find a butcher knife lying on a service-station approach lane, it might have fallen out of any vehicle that had passed through.
With the knife, he returned to the motor home and climbed inside, leaving the driver’s door open behind him.
Over Chyna’s head, the footsteps on the steel floor were as hollow as voodoo drums. As best she could tell, he stopped in the dining area.
Vess isn’t prone to see omens and portents everywhere he looks. A single hawk flying across the face of the full moon, glimpsed at midnight, will not fill him with expectations of either disaster or good fortune. A black cat crossing his path, a mirror shattering while his reflection is captured in it, a news story about the birth of a two-headed calf—none of these things will rattle him. He is convinced that he makes his own fate and that spiritual transcendence—if such a thing can happen—ensues merely from one’s acting boldly and living with intensity.
Nevertheless, the large butcher knife makes him wonder. It has a totemic quality, an almost magical aura. He carefully places it on the counter in the kitchen, where the light lays a wet sheen along the weapon’s cutting edge.
When he picked it off the blacktop, the blade had been cold but the handle had been vaguely warm, as if with the anticipatory heat of his grip.
Eventually he will experiment with this strangely discarded blade to determine if anything special happens when he cuts someone with it. At the moment, however, it doesn’t provide him with the advantage that he needs for the work at hand.
He has the Heckler & Koch P7 snug in the right-hand pocket of his raincoat, but he doesn’t feel that even it is adequate to the situation.
The two lads behind the cashiers’ counter are not in the war zone of a big-city 7-Eleven market, but they are smart enough to take precautions. Not even Beverly Hills and Bel Air, peopled by wealthy actors and retired football stars, are any longer safe at night either for or
their citizens. These fellows will have a firearm for self-protection and will know how to use it. Dealing with them will require an intimidating weapon with formidable stopping power.
He opens a cabinet to the left of the oven. A Mossberg short-barreled, pistol-grip, pump-action, 12-gauge shotgun is mounted in a pair of spring clamps on the shelf. He pops it loose of the clamps and lays it on the countertop.
The magazine tube of the 12-gauge is already loaded. Although he doesn’t belong to the American Automobile Association, Edgler Vess is otherwise always prepared for any eventuality when he travels.
In the cabinet is a box of shotgun shells, open for easy access. He takes a few and puts them on the counter next to the Mossberg, though he is not likely to need them.
He quickly unbuttons the raincoat but doesn’t take it off. He transfers the pistol from his right-hand exterior pocket to an interior, right-hand breast pocket in the lining. This is also where he places the spare shells.
From a kitchen drawer, he withdraws a compact Polaroid camera. He tucks it into the pocket from which he just removed the Heckler & Koch P7. From his wallet, he removes a trimmed Polaroid snapshot of his special girl, Ariel, and he slips it into the same pocket that contains the camera.
With his seven-inch switchblade, which is tacky from all the work for which it was used at the Templeton house, he slashes the lining of the left coat pocket. Then he rips away these tattered fragments of fabric. Now, if he were to drop coins into this pocket, they would fall straight to the floor.
He puts the shotgun under his open coat and holds it with his left hand, through the ruined pocket. The concealment is effective. He does not believe that he looks at all suspicious.
He quickly paces back to the bedroom, then forward, practicing his walk. He is able to move freely without banging the shotgun against his legs.
After all, he can draw upon the nimbleness and the grace of the spider from the Templeton house.
Although he doesn’t care what damage he does to the birthmarked cashier with the ashen eyes, he’ll have to be careful not to destroy the face of the young Asian gentleman. He must have good photographs for Ariel.
Overhead, the killer seemed to be occupied in the dining area. The floor creaked under him as he shifted his weight.
Unless he had drawn open the curtains, he couldn’t see outside from where he was. With luck, Chyna could make a break for freedom.
She considered remaining under the vehicle, letting him tank up and drive away, and only then going inside to call the police.
But he had found the butcher knife; he would be thinking about it. Though she could see no way that he could grasp the significance of the knife, by now she had an almost superstitious dread of him and was irrationally convinced that he would find her if she remained where she was.
She crawled out from under the motor home, rose into a crouch, glanced at the open door, and then looked back and up at the windows along the side. The curtains were closed.
Emboldened, she got to her feet, crossed to the inner service island, and stepped between the pumps. She glanced back, but the killer remained inside the vehicle.
She went out of the night into bright fluorescent light and the twang of country music. Two employees were behind the counter on the right, and she intended to say
Call the police,
but then she glanced through the glass door that had just closed behind her, and she saw the killer getting out of the motor home and coming toward the store, even though he hadn’t finished filling the fuel tank.
He was looking down. He hadn’t seen her.
She moved away from the door.
The two men stared at her expectantly.
If she told them to call the police, they would want to know why, and there was no time for a discussion, not even enough time for the telephone call. Instead, she said, “Please don’t let him know I’m here,” and before they could reply, she walked away from them, along an aisle with goods shelved six feet high on both sides, to the far end of the store.
As she stepped out of the aisle to hide at the end of a row of display cases, Chyna heard the door open and the killer enter. A growl of wind came with him, and then the door swung shut.
The redheaded cashier and the young Asian gentleman with the liquid-night eyes are staring at him strangely, as if they know something they shouldn’t, and he almost pulls the shotgun from under his coat the moment that he walks through the door, almost blows them away without preamble. But he tells himself that he is misreading them, that they are merely intrigued by him, because he is, after all, a striking figure. Often people sense his exceptional power and are aware that he lives a larger life than they do. He is a popular man at parties, and women are frequently attracted to him. These men are merely drawn to him as are so many others. Besides, if he whacks them immediately, without a word, he will be denying himself the pleasure of foreplay.
Alan Jackson is no longer singing on the radio, and cocking one ear appreciatively, Vess says, “Man, I like that Emmylou Harris, don’t you? Was there ever anyone could sing this stuff so it got to you that way?”
“She’s good,” says the redhead. Previously he was outgoing. Now he seems reserved.
The Asian says nothing, inscrutable in this Zen temple of Twinkies, Hershey bars, beer nuts, snack crackers, and Doritos.