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 OPEN 24 HOURS. 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.
“Hell, I’ll still be payin’ off Christmas next 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 greenness 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 knew.
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 from 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.
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