Distant lightning flickered, and faraway thunder clattered like boot heels on hollow basement stairs. On the steep hills behind the building, black trees thrashed in the escalating wind.
The first car was a white Chevrolet. Ten years old. Unlocked.
When she scrambled in behind the steering wheel, the worn-out seat springs creaked, and a candy-bar wrapper or something crackled underfoot. The interior stank of stale cigarette smoke.
The keys were not in the ignition. She checked behind the sun visor. Under the driver’s seat. Nothing.
The second car was a Honda, newer than the Chevy. It smelled of a lemon-scented air freshener, and the keys were in a coin tray on the console.
She placed the revolver on the passenger seat, within easy reach, reluctant to let it out of her hand. As an adult, she had always relied on prudence and caution to stay out of harm’s way. She hadn’t held a gun since she’d walked out on her mother at the age of sixteen. Now she could not imagine living without a weapon at her side, and she doubted that she ever would do so again — which was a development that dismayed her.
The engine turned over at once. The tires shrieked, and she peeled rubber getting started. Smoke bloomed from the spinning wheels, but then she shot out from behind the building and rocketed past the service islands.
The connecting road to the freeway was deserted. The motor home was out of sight.
At this point, 101 was a four-lane divided highway, so the motor home couldn’t have gotten across the median to turn south. The killer had to have gone north, and he couldn’t have traveled far in the little lead time that he had.
Chyna went after him.
At four o’clock in the morning, oncoming traffic is sparse, but each set of headlights purls through the fine hairs in Edgler Vess’s ears. This is a pleasant sound, separate from the passing roar of engines and the Doppler-shift whine of other vehicles’ tires on the pavement.
As he drives, he eats one of the Hershey bars. The silkiness of melting chocolate on his tongue reminds him of the music of Angelo Badalamenti, and the music of Badalamenti brings to mind the waxy surface of a scarlet anthurium, and the anthurium sparks an intensely sensual recollection of the cool taste and crispness of cornichons, which for several seconds completely overwhelms the actual taste of the chocolate.
Listening to the murmur of oncoming headlights, engaged in this free association of sensory input and memory, Vess is a happy man. He experiences life far more intensely than do other people; he is a singularity. Because his mind is not cluttered with foolishness and false emotions, he is able to perceive what others cannot. He understands the nature of the world, the purpose of existence, and the truth behind the Big Lie; because of these insights, he is free, and because he is free, he is always happy.
The nature of the world is sensation. We drift in an ocean of sensory stimuli: motion, color, texture, shape, heat, cold, natural symphonies of sound, an infinite number of scents, tastes beyond the human ability to catalogue. Nothing but sensation endures. Living things all die. Great cities do not last. Metal corrodes and stone crumbles. Over eons, continents are reshaped, whole mountain ranges vanish, and seas run dry. The planet itself will be vaporized when the sun self-destructs. But even in the void of deep space, between solar systems, in that profound vacuum that will not transmit sound, there is nevertheless light and darkness, cold, motion, shape, and the awful panorama of eternity.
The sole purpose of existence is to open oneself to sensation and to satisfy all appetites as they arise. Edgler Vess knows that there is no such thing as a good or bad sensation — only raw sensation itself — and that every sensory experience is worthwhile. Negative and positive values are merely human interpretations of value-neutral stimuli and, therefore, are only as enduring — which is to say, as meaningless — as human beings themselves. He enjoys the most bitter taste as much as he relishes the sweetness of a ripe peach; in fact, he occasionally chews a few aspirin not to relieve a headache but to savor the incomparable flavor of the medication. When he accidentally cuts himself, he is never afraid, because he finds pain fascinating and welcomes it as merely another form of pleasure; even the taste of his own blood intrigues him.
Mr. Vess is not sure if there is such a thing as the immortal soul, but he is unshakably certain that if souls exist, we are not born with them in the same way that we are born with eyes and ears. He believes that the soul, if real, accretes in the same manner as a coral reef grows from the deposit of countless millions of calcareous skeletons secreted by marine polyps. We build the reef of the soul, however, not from dead polyps but from steadily accreted sensations through the course of a lifetime. In Vess’s considered opinion, if one wishes to have a formidable soul — or any soul at all — one must open oneself to every possible sensation, plunge into the bottomless ocean of sensory stimuli that is our world, and experience with no consideration of good or bad, right or wrong, with no fear but only fortitude. If his belief is correct, then he himself is building what may be the most intricate, elaborated — if not to say baroque — and important soul that has ever transcended this level of existence.
The Big Lie is that such concepts as love, guilt, and hate are real. Put Mr. Vess into a room with any priest, show them a pencil, and they will agree on its color, size, and shape. Blindfold them, hold cinnamon under their noses, and they will both identify it from the smell. But bring before them a mother cuddling her baby, and the priest will see love where Mr. Vess will see only a woman who enjoys the sensations provided by the infant — the scrubbed smell of it, the softness of its pink skin, the undeniably pleasing roundness of its simply-formed face, the musicality of its giggle; its apparent helplessness and dependence deeply satisfy her. The greatest curse of humanity’s high intelligence is that, in most members of the species, it leads to a yearning to be more than they are. All men and women, in Vess’s view, are fundamentally nothing other than animals — smart animals, indeed, but animals nonetheless; reptiles, in fact, evolved from whatever fish with legs first crawled out of the primordial sea. They are, he knows, motivated and formed solely by sensory stimuli, yet unable to admit to the primacy of physical sensation over intellect and emotion. They are even frightened of the reptile consciousness within, its needs and hungers, and they attempt to restrict its sensation seeking by using lies such as love, guilt, hate, courage, loyalty, and honor.
This is the philosophy of Mr. Edgler Vess. He embraces his reptilian nature. The glory of him is to be found in his unmatched accretion of sensations. This is a functional philosophy, requiring its adherent to endorse neither the black-and-white values that so hamper religious persons nor the embarrassing contradictions of the situational ethics that characterize both the modern atheist and those whose religion is politics.
Life is. Vess lives. That is the sum of it.
Driving north on Highway 101, finishing the second of his two Hershey bars, Vess considers, not for the first time, that there is a similarity between the texture of melting chocolate and that of thickening blood.
He recalls the restful silence of the blood pooled around Mrs. Templeton in the shower stall before he disturbed it by turning on the cold water.
The memory of the hollow drumming in that shower makes him aware of the coldness of all the rain as yet unleashed by the pending storm toward which he is driving.
He sees a quick blush of lightning along the face of the clouds, and he knows that it tastes like ozone.
Above the monotonous rumble of the motor-home engine, he hears a peal of thunder, and that sound is also a vivid image in his mind: the young Asian’s eyes opening wide, wide, wide with the first crash of the shotgun.
Even in the airless void between galaxies: the light and the darkness, color, texture, motion, shape, and pain.
The highway rose, and the forests crowded close. On a wide curve, the headlights of the Honda swept across the flanking hills, revealing that some of the looming trees were immense spruces and pines. Soon, perhaps, redwoods.
Chyna kept her foot down hard on the accelerator. To the best of her recollection, this was the first time she had ever broken a speed limit. She’d never been fined for a traffic violation; but she would be grateful now if a cop pulled her over.
Her unblemished driving record resulted from her preference for moderation in all things, including the pace at which she ordinarily drove. Judging by the catastrophes that she had seen befall others, survival was closely related to moderation, and her whole life was about survival, as any nun’s life might be defined by the word faith or any politician’s by power. She seldom drank more than one glass of wine, never used drugs, engaged in no dangerous sports, ate a diet low in fat and salt and sugar, stayed out of neighborhoods reputed to be dangerous, never expressed strong opinions, and in general was safely inconspicuous — all in the interest of getting by, hanging on, surviving.
Against the odds, she had already survived the events of the past few hours. The killer didn’t even know that she existed. She had made it. She was free. It was over. The smart thing, the wise thing, the sane thing — the Chyna thing — to do was to let him go, just let him get away, pull off to the side of the road, stop, surrender to the shakes that she was strenuously repressing, and thank God that she was untouched and alive.
As she drove, Chyna argued against her previous conviction, insisting that the teenage girl in the cellar, Ariel of the angelic face, wasn’t real. The photo might be of a girl whom he had already killed. The story of her incarceration might be only a sick fantasy, a psychotic’s version of a Brothers Grimm tale, Rapunzel underground, merely a mind game that he’d been playing with the two clerks.
“Liar,” she called herself.
The girl in the photo was alive somewhere, imprisoned. Ariel was no fantasy. Indeed, she was Chyna; they were one and the same, because all lost girls are the same girl, united by their suffering.
She kept her foot pressed firmly on the accelerator, and the Honda crested a hill, and the aged motor home was on the long gradual downslope ahead, five hundred feet away. Her breath caught in her throat, and then she exhaled with a whispered, “Oh, Jesus.”
She was approaching him at too great a speed. She eased off the accelerator.
By the time she was two hundred feet from the motor home, she had matched speeds with it. She fell back farther, hoping that he hadn’t noticed her initial haste.
He was driving between fifty and fifty-five miles per hour, a prudent pace on that highway, especially as they were now traveling on a stretch without a median strip and with somewhat narrower lanes than previously. He wouldn’t necessarily expect her to pass him, and he shouldn’t be suspicious when she remained behind; after all, at this sleepy hour, not every driver in California was in a blistering hurry or suicidally reckless.
At this more reasonable speed, she didn’t have to concentrate as intently as before on the road ahead, and she quickly searched the immediate interior of the car in hopes of finding a cellular telephone. She was pessimistic about the chances that a night clerk at a service station would have a portable phone, but on the other hand, half the world seemed to have them now, not just salesmen and Realtors and lawyers. She checked the console box. Then the glove box. Under the driver’s seat. Unfortunately, her pessimism proved well founded.
Southbound traffic passed in the oncoming lanes: a big rig with a lead-footed driver, a Mercedes close in its wake — then, following a long gap, a Ford. Chyna paid special attention to the cars, hoping that one of them would be a police cruiser.
If she spotted a cop, she intended to get his attention with the car horn and by making a weaving spectacle of herself in his rearview mirror. If she was too late with the horn and if the cop didn’t look back and catch a glimpse of her reckless slalom, she would turn and pursue him, reluctantly letting the motor home out of her sight.
She wasn’t hopeful about finding a cop anytime soon.
All the luck seemed to be with the killer. He conducted himself with a confidence that unnerved Chyna. Perhaps that confidence was the only guarantor of his good luck — although even for one as rooted in reality as Chyna, it was easy to let superstition overwhelm her, attributing to him powers dark and supernatural.
No. He was only a man.
And now she had a revolver. She was no longer helpless.
The worst was past.
Lightning traveled the northern sky again, but this time it was not pale or diffused through cloud layers. The bolts were as bright as though the na*ed sun were breaking through from the other side of the night.
In those stroboscopic flashes, the motor home seemed to vibrate, as if divine wrath would shatter it and its driver.
In this world, however, retribution was left to mortal men and women. God was content to wait for the next life to mete out punishment; in Chyna’s view, this was His only cruel aspect, but in this was cruelty enough.
Explosions of thunder followed the lightning. Although something above should have broken, nothing did, and the rain remained bottled higher in the night.
She hoped to spot a sign for a highway patrol depot, where she could seek help, but none appeared. The nearest town of appreciable size, where she might be fortunate enough to find a police station or a cruising squad car, was Eureka, which was hardly a metropolis. And even Eureka was at least an hour away.
As a child, flat under beds and curled in the backs of closets, perched on rooftops and balanced in the upper reaches of trees, in winter barns and on warm night beaches, she had hidden and waited out the passions and the rages of adults, always with dread but also with patience and with a Zen-like disconnection from the realities of time. Now impatience plagued her as never before. She wanted to see this man caught, manacled, harried to justice, hurt. Desperately she wanted this and without a single additional minute of delay, before he could kill again. Her own survival wasn’t currently at stake but that of a teenage girl whom she had never met, and she was surprised — and made uneasy — to discover that she could care so ferociously about a stranger.
Perhaps she had always possessed that capacity and simply had never been in a situation that required recognition of it. But no. That was self-deception. Ten years ago, she would never have followed the motor home. Nor five years ago. Nor last year. Perhaps not even yesterday.
Something had profoundly changed her, and it hadn’t been the brutality that she’d seen a few hours earlier at the Templeton house. Viscerally she was aware that this unsettling metamorphosis had been a long time coming, like the slow alteration in a river’s course — by imperceptible fractions of a degree, day after day. Then suddenly mere survival was not enough for her any longer; the final palisade of soil crumbled, the last stone shifted, and the destination of the river changed.
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