She frightened herself. This reckless caring.
More lightning, more ferocious than before, revealed redwood trees so massive that they reminded her of cathedral spires. The steeple-shattering light was followed by quakes of thunder as violent as any shift in the San Andreas. The sky fissured, and rain fell.
In the first instant, the drops were fat and milky white in the headlights, as if the night were an extinguished chandelier in which were suspended an infinite number of rock-crystal pendants. They shattered into the windshield, against the hood, across the blacktop.
On the highway ahead, the motor home began to disappear into the downpour.
In seconds the drops dwindled drastically in size even as they increased in number. They became silver gray in the headlamps, and fell not straight down as before but at an angle in the punishing wind.
Chyna switched the windshield wipers to their highest setting, but the motor home continued to slip rapidly away into the storm as visibility declined. The killer was not lowering his speed in respect of the worsening weather; he was accelerating.
Afraid to let him out of her sight for as much as a second, Chyna closed the gap between them to about two hundred feet. She was worried that he would attach the correct significance to her maneuver and realize that somehow she was onto him.
Southbound traffic had been sparse to begin with, but now it declined in direct proportion to the power of the escalating storm, as though most motorists had been washed off the highway.
No headlights appeared in the rearview mirror either. The psychotic in the motor home had set a pace that no one but Chyna was likely to match.
She felt almost as alone with him here in the open as she had been inside his abattoir on wheels.
Then, as enough time passed to make the lonely lanes of blacktop and the dreary cataracts of rain less threatening than monotonous, the killer suddenly surprised her. With a quick touch of his brakes, without bothering to use a turn signal, he angled to the right onto an exit lane.
Chyna fell back somewhat, again concerned that he would become suspicious, seeing her take the same exit. Because theirs were the only two vehicles in sight, she could not be inconspicuous. But she had no choice other than to follow him.
By the time she reached the end of the ramp, the motor home had vanished into the rain and thin mist, but from the ramp entrance, she had seen it turn left. In fact, the two-lane road led only west, and a sign indicated that she was already within the boundaries of Humboldt Redwood State Park.
In addition, three communities lay ahead: Honeydew, Petrolia, and Capetown. She’d never heard of any of them, and she was sure that they were little more than wide places in the road, where she would find no police.
Leaning forward over the steering wheel, squinting through the rain-smeared windshield, she drove into the park, eager to catch up with the killer again, because he might live in or near one of those three small towns. She was wise to let him out of sight for a minute, so he wouldn’t think that she was too eager to stay on his tail. But soon she would need to reestablish visual contact before he reached the far side of the park and, perhaps thereafter, turned off the county road onto a driveway or a private lane.
The deeper the road wound among the heaven-reaching trees, the less forcefully the rain beat against the Honda. The storm was not diminishing at all, but the huge ramparts of redwoods sheltered the pavement from the worst of the deluge.
On this narrower, twisting route, it wasn’t possible to maintain the pace they had kept on Highway 101. Furthermore, the killer apparently had decided that he no longer needed to make good time, perhaps because he’d put what seemed a safe distance between himself and the dead men at the service station, and when Chyna caught up with him in hardly more than a minute, he was driving under the posted speed limit.
Now, closer than she’d been before, she noticed that the motor home didn’t have license plates. California — and some other states, for all she knew — didn’t issue temporary plates for a newly purchased vehicle, and it was legal to drive without the tags until they came in the mail from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Or perhaps before going to the Templetons’ house, the killer had removed his plates rather than risk a witness with a good memory.
Easing off the accelerator, Chyna glanced at the speedometer — and spotted a red warning light. The fuel-gauge needle was below the EMPTY mark.
She had no idea how long the warning light had been burning, because she’d been concentrating intently on the motor home and the dangers of the slick pavement. The car might have a gallon or two in the tank — or even now be running on its last pint.
Trailing the killer to his home base was no longer an option.
The meaning of redwoods is not grandeur, beauty, peace, or the timelessness of nature. The meaning of redwoods is power.
As he drives, Edgler Vess rolls down the window beside him and draws deep breaths of the cold air, which is rich with the fragrance of redwoods, which is a scent of power. This power flows into him with the fragrance, and his own power is thus enhanced.
Redwoods are power because their great size is unmatched by any other trees, because they are ancient — many of these very specimens dating back centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ — because their extraordinary bark, as thick as armor and high in tannin, makes them all but impervious to insects, disease, and fire. They are power because they endure while all around them dies; men and animals pass among them and pass forever away; birds alight in their high branches and seem freer than anything rooted in rock and soil, but eventually, in a sudden quietness of the heart, the birds swoon off the sturdy limbs and thump to the ground or plummet from the sky, and the trees still soar; on the shadowed floors of these groves, sun-shy ferns and rhododendrons flourish season after season, but their immortality is illusory, for they too die, and new generations of their species rise in the decomposing remains of the old. Christ expired on a cross of dogwood, the prince of peace and prophet of love, but in the span of His life, not one of these trees had been brought down by any storm; though they cared not about peace and knew nothing of love, they had endured. Busily engaged on his endless harvests, Death casts frenetic shadows among the indifferent redwoods, a ceaseless flickering that dances across their massive trunks with no effect, like the dark equivalent of leaping firelight on hearthstones.
Power is living while others inevitably perish. Power is cool indifference to their suffering. Power is taking nourishment from the deaths of others, just as the mighty redwoods draw sustenance from the perpetual decomposition of what once lived, but lived only briefly, around them. This is also part of the philosophy of Edgler Foreman Vess.
Through the open window, he breathes in the scent of redwoods, and the molecules of their fragrance adhere to the surface cells of his lungs, and the power of millennia is conveyed therefrom into his freshly oxygenated blood, pumps through his heart, reaches to every extremity of him, filling him with strength and energy.
Power is God, God is nature, nature is power, and the power is in him.
His power is ever increasing.
If he worshiped, he would be an ardent pantheist, committed to the belief that all things are sacred, every tree and every flower and every blade of grass, every bird and every beetle. The world is full of pantheists these days; he would be at home among them if he were to join their ranks. When everything is sacred, nothing is. For him, that is the beauty of pantheism. If the life of a child is equal to the life of a bluegill or a barn owl, then Vess may kill attractive little girls as casually as he might crush a scorpion underfoot, with no greater moral offense though with considerably more pleasure.
But he worships nothing.
As he rounds a curve into a straightaway flanked by redwoods of even greater girth than any he has previously seen, stark white bones of lightning crack through the black skin of the sky. A roar of thunder like a bellow of rage shudders the air.
Rain washes the smell of lightning down through the night. Two scents of power, lightning and redwoods — electricity and time, fierce heat and stolid endurance — are offered to him now, and he inhales deeply with pleasure.
Taking this county road through the redwoods, along the coast, and reconnecting with Highway 101 south of Eureka will add between half an hour and an hour to his travel time, depending on the pace he sets and the strength of the storm. But as eager as he is to get home to Ariel, he could not have resisted the power of the redwoods.
Headlights appear behind him, visible in the angled side mirror. A car. For nearly an hour, one followed him on the freeway, hanging at a distance. This must be a different vehicle, because this driver is more aggressive than the one on the freeway, closing the distance between them at high speed.
Recklessly, the car — a Honda — pulls around the motor home, into the lane reserved for oncoming traffic, though this is not a passing zone. There is no other traffic, and they are on a straightaway, but the Honda has insufficient distance to complete the maneuver before the next blind turn in the road, especially on the treacherous rain-slick blacktop.
Vess reduces speed.
The racing Honda pulls alongside him.
Looking down through the windshield of the car, Vess has barely a glimpse of the person behind the steering wheel, because the rain and the high-speed windshield wipers inhibit his view. Nothing more than a suggestion of a deep-red shirt or sweater. A pale hand on the wheel. The wrist is slender enough to indicate that the driver is most likely a woman. She appears to be alone. Then the car moves far enough forward so that Vess is looking down on the roof, and the windshield is out of sight.
They are rapidly approaching the curve.
Vess further reduces his speed.
Through his open window, he listens to the shriek of the Honda as the driver accelerates. All the formidable power of that engine seems pathetically weak in these majestic groves, like the angry buzz of a gnat among a herd of elephants.
With so little effort that he would not increase his heartbeat, Vess could pull the wheel to the left, slam the motor home into the Honda, and force the car off the road. It would either roll and then explode — or shatter head-on into one of the twenty-foot-diameter redwood trunks.
He is tempted.
The spectacle would be gratifying.
He spares the woman in the Honda only because he’s in a mood for subtle — rather than explosive — sensation. This gratifying expedition has brought him not merely the Napa Valley family that he originally set out to destroy, but the hitchhiker now hanging in the bedroom closet like Poe’s lover of Amontillado in the stone wall of a wine cellar, as well as the two clerks at the service station. This is already a satiating richness. The reef of the soul is built from varied experience, not from repetitive sensation. Right now he doesn’t need the somber music of blood and the spurting warmth of screams; instead, he needs to smell the wetness of the rain, feel the towering mass of the trees, and listen to the cool pendulousness of the night-hidden ferns.
He applies the brakes, cutting his speed.
The Honda streaks past him, kicking up a high spray of dirty water. It enters the curve ahead with a flash of brake lights: red in the black storm, red glimmering off the damp gray bark of the big conifers, apocalyptic tracers of red rippling across the pavement. Then gone.
Edgler Vess is alone again, behind the wheel of his ark, in a colorless world of gray rain, black shadows, and sparkling white headlight beams, at peace to commune with the redwoods and draw from them a measure of their power.
He thinks of Christ on the vertical bed of dogwood, and the idea of the meek inheriting the earth makes him smile. He doesn’t wish to inherit anything. He is a raging fire, powerful and hot; he will bum all the color out of this world, consume every scintilla of sensation that it has to offer, and he will leave behind a realm of ashes. Let the meek inherit ashes.
Passing the motor home, going too fast to prevent the Honda from straddling the double yellow line all the way around the curve, Chyna had been afraid that the parched engine would cough and choke and fail. Now that she had seen the red warning light, she was aware of it — a peripheral radiance — even when she wasn’t looking at the instrument panel. But the Honda ran confidently on dregs, on fumes, on some strange grace.
She needed to put distance between herself and the killer, and gain time to set her plan in motion. She pushed the car as hard as she dared on the storm-greased pavement.
The narrow road rounded another bend, straightened out, entered a gradual descent, took another curve, rose on a gentle slope, but descended again, and in spite of the intermittent interruptions of these extremely low inclines, the land was generally monotonous in its contours, making its way steadily down toward the Pacific, not many miles to the west. Now low ramparts of soft earth flanked the blacktop just beyond both shoulders, and this wasn’t suitable for her purposes. But then the road returned to the same level as the surrounding forest, and she entered another almost imperceptibly declining straightaway and found the ideal circumstances she required.
She figured that she had gained a full minute on him, maybe a minute and a half, depending on whether he had appreciably increased his speed after she passed him. Anyway, a minute should be long enough.
She slowed to thirty miles an hour and nonetheless seemed to be hurtling through the woods. She let the speed decrease to twenty-five, wondering again about her headlong rush to heroism but still unable to fully understand it. Then she drove off the roadway, flew across the right shoulder, thumped through a shallow drainage swale, and rammed into the fortress base of one of the biggest of the redwoods. The left headlight burst, the impact-absorbing bumper cracked and crumpled and collapsed as it had been designed to do, and metal shrieked briefly.
Because she was wearing a safety harness, she wasn’t thrown into the steering wheel or through the windshield. But the diagonal strap tightened so hard across her br**sts that she grunted with shock and pain.
The engine was still running.
With no time to get out and inspect the front of the car, Chyna was afraid that the damage wasn’t sufficiently impressive to convince the killer that someone could have been injured in the crash. When he came upon this scene a few seconds from now, he must take everything at face value without hesitation. Otherwise, if he was suspicious, nothing would work as she had planned.
Immediately she shifted the Honda into reverse and backed away from the tree, which stood inviolate. The ground was carpeted with wet redwood needles on which the tires spun before gripping, but not enough rain had fallen to churn the earth into mud. Rattling and clinking, the car bounced across the shallow drainage swale, which ran with only an inch or two of muddy water, and backed onto the pavement again.
Chyna glanced toward the top of the gently ascending slope down which she had just driven. As yet there was not even a faint glow of approaching headlights from beyond the curve.
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