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The killer actually lowered himself onto his belly, though the roof must have scorched instantly through his thin T-shirt. He was trying to maintain as low a profile as possible, waiting for Jim to appear below.


Jim eased up one more rung. The roof now met him at mid-torso. He turned sideways on the ladder and jammed one knee behind the other upright, wedging himself in place so he would have both hands for the shotgun and so the recoil would not knock him backward to the ground If the guy on the roof didn't have a sixth sense, then he was just damned lucky. Jim had not made a sound, but the creep suddenly glanced back over his shoulder and spotted him.


Cursing, Jim swung the shotgun around.


The killer flung himself sideways, off the roof Without getting in a shot, Jim pulled his knee from behind the upright and jumped from the ladder. He hit the ground hard but kept his balance stepped around the corner of the motor home, and squeezed off one round But the creep was already bolting through the side door. At worst, he caught a few pellets in one leg. Probably not even that.


He was going after the woman and child.


Hostages.


Or maybe he just wanted to slaughter them before he was cut down himself The past couple of decades had seen the rise of the vagabond sociopath, roaming the country, looking for easy prey, racking up long lists of victims, attaining sexual release as much from brutal murder as from rape.


In his mind, Jim heard the anguished voice of the dying man in the station wagon: Lisa. . . Susie. . . My wife, daughter. . .


With no time for caution, his anger having grown greater than his fear, he raced after the killer, through the door, into the Road king, entering aft of the cockpit. His sun-dazzled eyes couldn't handle the comparative gloom of the motor home's interior, but he was able to see the psychotic sonofabitch heading toward the rear of the motor home, past the lounge area and into the galley.


A shadowy figure now, with just a dark oval for a face, the killer turned and fired. The slug tore a chunk out of a wall-hung storage cabinet to the left of Jim, showering him with splinters of Formica and smoking particle board.


He didn't know where the woman and child were. He was afraid of hitting them. A shotgun wasn't a precise weapon.


The killer fired again. The second bullet passed so close to Jim's face that it left a wake of stinging-hot wind, like a kiss of fire burning across his right cheek.


He pumped out one round, and the blast shook the tinny walls. The killer screamed and was flung hard against the kitchen sink. Jim fired again, reflexively, half deafened by the double explosion. The guy was virtually lifted off his feet, hurled backward, slammed against the rear wall, beside a closed door that separated the main living area from the bedroom. Then he dropped.


Grabbing a couple of shells from his pants pocket, reloading the shotgun magazine, Jim moved deeper into the Road king, past a tattered and sagging sofa.


He knew the man had to be dead, but he could not see well enough to be certain of anything. Though shafts of the Mojave sun shoved in like hot branding irons through the windshield and the open doors, the heavily draped side windows insured that the rear of the Road king was filled with shadows, and there was a thin acrid haze of smoke from all the gunfire.


When he reached the end of the narrow chamber and looked down, he had no doubt that the man crumpled on the floor was dead. Bloody human garbage. Garbage alive, now garbage dead.


At the sight of the torn and battered corpse, a savage elation grip him, a furious righteousness that was both thrilling and frightening. He wanted to be sickened by what he had done, even if the dead man deserved to die, but although the carnage nauseated him, he was not merely repulsed. He had encountered purest evil in human form.


Both the bastards deserved worse than he had been able to do to them, deserving long and slow deaths with great suffering, much terror. He felt like a avenging angel, come to judgment, filled with a holy rage.


He knew he was teetering on the edge of a psychosis of his own, knew that only the insane were unreservedly certain of the virtue of even their most outrageous act but he could find no doubt within him. In fact his anger swelled as if he were God's avatar into whom flowed a direct current of the Almighty apocalyptic wrath.


He turned to the closed door.


The bedroom lay beyond.


The mother and child had to be in there.


Lisa. . . Susie. . .


But who else? Sociopathic killers usually operated alone, but sometimes they paired as these two had done. Larger alliances, however, were rare.


Charles Manson and his "family," of course. There were other examples.


He couldn't rule anything out, not in a world where the trendiest professors of philosophy taught that ethics were always situational and that everyone's point of view was equally right and valuable, regardless of its logic or hate It was a world that bred monsters, and this beast might be hydra-headed He knew caution was called for, but the exhilarating righteous wrath that filled him also gave him a sense of invulnerability. He stepped to the bedroom door, kicked it open, and shouldered through, knowing he might be gut-shot, not giving a damn, shotgun in front of him, ready to kill or be killed.


The woman and child were alone. On the filthy bed. Bound at wrists and ankles with sturdy strapping tape. Tape across their mouths.


The woman, Lisa, was about thirty, slim, an unusually attractive blond But the daughter, Susie, was remarkably more beautiful than her mother ethereally beautiful: about ten years old, with luminous green eyes, delicate features, and skin as flawless as the membranous interior surface of a eggshell. The girl seemed, to Jim, to be an embodiment of innocence goodness, and purity-an angel cast down into a cesspool. New power informed his rage at the sight of her bound and gagged in the bedroom squalor.


Tears streamed down the child's face, and she choked on muffled sobs of terror behind the tape that sealed her lips.


The mother was not crying, though grief and fear haunted her eyes. Her sense of responsibility to her daughter and a visible rage not unlike Jim's-seemed to keep her from falling over the brink of hysteria.


He realized they were afraid of him. As far as they knew, he was in league with the men who had abducted them.


As he propped the shotgun against the built-in dresser, he said, "It's all right. It's over now. I killed them. I killed them both.”


The mother stared at him wide-eyed, disbelieving.


He didn't blame her for doubting him. His voice sounded strange: full of fury, cracking on every third or fourth word, tremulous, going from a whisper to a hard bark to a whisper again.


He looked around for something with which to cut them free. A roll of the strapping tape and a pair of scissors lay on the dresser.


Grabbing the scissors, he noticed X-rated videotapes also stacked on there. Suddenly he realized that the walls and ceiling of the small room were papered with obscene photographs torn from the pages of sex magazines, and with a jolt he saw it was filth with a twisted difference: child pornography. There were grown men in the photos, their faces always concealed, but there were no grown women, only young girls and boys, most of them as young as Susie, many of them younger, being brutalized in every way imaginable.


The men he had killed would have used the mother only briefly, would have raped and tortured and broken her only as an example to the child.


Then they would have cut her throat or blown her brains out on some desolate dirt road out in the desert, leaving her body for the delectation of lizards and ants and vultures. It was the child they really wanted, and for whom they would have made the next few months or years a living hell.


His anger metastasized into something beyond mere rage, far beyond wrath. A terrible darkness rose inside of him like black crude oil gushing up from a wellhead.


He was furious that the child had seen those photographs, had been forced to lie in those stained and foul-smelling bedclothes with unspeakable obscenity on every side of her. He had the crazy urge to pick up the shotgun and empty a few more rounds into each of the dead men.


They had not touched her. Thank God for that. They hadn't had time to touch her.


But the room. Oh, Jesus, she had suffered an assault just by being in that room.


He was shaking.


He saw that the mother was shaking, too.


After a moment he realized that her tremors were not of rage, like his but of fear. Fear of him. She was terrified of him, more so now than when he had come into the room.


He was glad there was no mirror. He would not have wanted to see his own face. Right now there must be some kind of madness in it.


He had to get a grip on himself "It's all right," he assured her again.


"I came to help you.”


Eager to free them, anxious to quiet their terror, he dropped to his knees beside the bed and cut the tape that was wound around the woman's ankles, tore it away. He snipped the tape around her wrists, as well, then left her to finish freeing herself When he cut the bindings from Susie's wrists, she hugged herself defensively. When he freed her ankles, she kicked at him and squirmed away across the gray and mottled sheets. He didn't reach for her, but backed instead.


Lisa peeled the tape off her lips and pulled a rag out of her mouth choking and gagging. She spoke in a raspy voice that was somehow simultaneously frantic and resigned: "My husband, back at the car, my his band!" Jim looked at her and said nothing, unable to put such bleak news in words in front of the child.


The woman saw the truth in his eyes, and for a moment her lovely face was wrenched into a mask of grief and agony. But for the sake of her daughter, she fought down the sob, swallowed it along with her anguish; She said only, "Oh, my God," and each word reverberated with her loss "Can you carry Susie?" Her mind was on her dead husband.


He said, "Can you carry Susie?" She blinked in confusion. "How do you know her name?" "Your husband told me.”


"But" "Before," he said sharply, meaning before he died, not wanting to raise false hope. "Can you carry her out of here?" "Yeah, I think so, maybe.”


He could have carried the girl himself, but he didn't believe that he should touch her. Though it was irrational and emotional, he felt that what those two men had done to her-and what they would have done her, given a chance-was somehow the responsibility of all men, and that at least a small stain of guilt was his as well.


Right now, the only man in the world who should touch that child was her father. And he was dead.


Jim rose from his knees and edged away from the bed. He backed into a narrow closet door that sprang open as he stepped aside of it.


On the bed, the weeping girl squirmed away from her mother, so traumatized that she did not at first recognize the benign intention of even those familiar loving hands. Then abruptly she shattered the chains of terror and flew into her mother's arms. Lisa spoke softly and reassuringly to her daughter, stroked her hair, held her tight.


The air-conditioning had been off ever since the killers had parked and gone to check the wrecked Camaro. The bedroom was growing hotter by the second, and it stank. He smelled stale beer, sweat, what might have been the lingering odor of dried blood rising from dark maroon stains on the carpet, and other foul odors that he dared not even try to identify.


"Come on, let's get out of here.”


Lisa did not appear to be a strong woman, but she lifted her daughter as effortlessly as she would have lifted a pillow. With the girl cradled in her arms, she moved toward the door.


"Don't let her look to the left when you go out," he said. "One of them's dead just beside the door. It isn't pretty.”


Lisa nodded once, with evident gratitude for the warning.


As he started to follow her through the doorway, he saw the contents of the narrow closet that had come open when he'd backed against it: shelves of homemade videotapes. On the spines were titles hand-printed on strips of white adhesive tape. Names. The titles were all names.


CINDY. TIFFANY.


Joey. Cissy. TOMMY. KEVIN. Two were labeled SALLY. Three were labeled WENDY. More names. Maybe thirty in all. He knew what he was looking att, but he didn't want to believe it. Memories of savagery.


Mementoes of perversion. Victims.


The bitter blackness welled higher in him.


He followed Lisa through the motor home to the door, and out into the blazing desert sun.


Lisa stood in the white-gold sunshine on the shoulder of the highway behind the motor home. Her daughter stood at her side, clung to her.


Light had an affinity for them: it slipped in scintillant currents through their flaxen hair, accented the color of their eyes much the way a jeweler display lamp enhanced the beauty of emeralds on velvet, and lent an a most mystical luminosity to their skin. Looking at them, it was difficult to believe that the light around them was not within them, too, and that darkness had entered their lives and filled them as completely as night filled the world in the wake of dusk.


Jim could barely endure their presence. Each time he glanced at then he thought of the dead man in the station wagon, and sympathetic grief twisted through him, as painful as any physical illness he had ever know Using a key that he found on a ring with the motor home ignition key he unlocked the iron rack that held the Harley-Davidson.


It was a FXRS-SP with a 1340cc. single-carburetor, two-valve, push-rod V-tw with a five-speed transmission that powered the rear wheel through a toothed belt instead of a greasy chain. He'd ridden fancier and more powerful machines. This one was standard, about as plain as a Harley could get. But all he wanted from the bike was speed and easy handling; and if it was in good repair, the SP would provide him with both.


Lisa spoke worriedly to him as he unracked the Harley and looked over.


"Three of us can't ride out of here on that.”


"No," he said. "Just me.”


"Please don't leave us alone.”


"Someone'll stop for you before I go.”


A car approached. The three occupants gawked at them. The driver put on more speed.


"None of them stop," she said miserably.


"Someone will. I'll wait until they do.”


She was silent a moment. Then: "I don't want to get into a car with strangers.”


"We'll see who stops.”


She shook her head violently.


He said, "I'll know if they're trustworthy" "I don't. . ." Her voice broke. She hesitated, regained control.


"I don't trust anyone.”


"There are good people in the world. In fact, most of them are good.


Anyway, when they stop, I'll know if they're okay.”


"How? How in God's name can you know?" "I'll know." But he could not explain the how of it any more than he could explain how he had known that she and her daughter needed him out here in this seared and blistered wasteland.

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