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He was coming. No doubt about that.


Soon.


She didn’t have time to reverse even part of the way up the slope. But she needed to build a little speed.


With her left foot, she tramped the brake pedal as far toward the floorboards as it would go, and with her right foot she eased down on the accelerator. The engine whined, then shrieked. The car strained like a spurred horse pressing against the gate of a rodeo chute. She could feel it wanting to surge forward, as if it were a living thing, and she wondered how much acceleration would be too much, enough to kill her or trap her in wreckage. Then she gave it a little more juice, smelled something burning, and raised her left foot from the brake pedal.


The tires spun furiously on the glistering blacktop, and then with a shudder the Honda shot forward, rattled and splashed across the ditch, and slammed into the trunk of the redwood. The right headlight burst, metal squealed, the hood crumpled and tweaked and popped open with a sound oddly like a hard strum on a banjo, but the windshield didn’t shatter.


The engine stuttered. Either the fuel had been exhausted at last or the crash had done severe mechanical damage.


Gasping for breath after the cinching punishment of the shoulder harness, praying that the engine wouldn’t fail just yet, Chyna popped the car into reverse again.


Ideally, the Honda would be blocking the road when the killer came around the bend. She had to force him to stop — and to get out of his motor home.


The battered car wheezed, almost stalled, then unexpectedly revved, and Chyna said gratefully, “Jesus,” as it rolled backward onto the pavement.


She pulled across both lanes but swung around a little, angling the car uphill so the killer would be able to see the damaged front end as soon as he negotiated the curve.


The engine clunked twice and died, but that was all right. She was in position.


Without the engine noise for competition, the rain seemed to be falling more forcefully than before, rattling on the roof and snapping against the glass.


At the upper curve, darkness still held.


She put the Honda in park, so it would not coast backward when she took her foot off the brake.


The headlights were both broken out, but the windshield wipers continued to thump back and forth, operating on battery power. She didn’t switch them off.


She opened the driver’s door and, feeling horribly exposed in the dome light, started to get out. She needed to be away from the car and in hiding by the time the motor home appeared — which would be in maybe twenty seconds, maybe ten, hard to say because she had lost track of how much time had passed since she herself had driven around the bend.


The gun.


Before she fully escaped the car, Chyna remembered the revolver. She swung back inside, reached for the weapon — but it was no longer on the seat.


In the first or second crash, the gun must have been thrown onto the floor. Leaning across the console between the front seats, she felt frantically in the darkness, found cold steel, the barrel, her finger actually slipping into the smooth muzzle. With a wordless murmur of relief, she fished the gun from the foot space and reversed her grip on it.


With the weapon firmly in hand, she scrambled out of the Honda. She left the driver’s door standing open.


Rain chilled her, and wind.


In the direction from which she had come, the night brightened faintly, and the redwood trunks near the shoulder of the curve began to glow as if in the radiance of a sudden moon.


Chyna sprinted off the slippery blacktop and splashed through another shallow drainage ditch, shuddering as the icy water poured over the tops of her shoes. On this side of the pavement, the trees were set back twenty or thirty feet from the shoulder. She headed for the colossal woods at a point directly across the highway from the behemoth into which she had driven the Honda.


Long before she reached the nearest tree, she skidded on the spongy mat of wet needles, fell, and landed on a cluster of redwood cones. The cones crumbled slightly — a hard crunching sound against the small of her back — although judging by the flash of pain, it almost seemed as though her spine was the source of the cracking.


She would have preferred to crawl on her hands and knees to concealment, but she had to hold on to the revolver, and she was concerned that, crawling, she would inadvertently plug the barrel with dirt or wet needles. She was up and moving at once, therefore, as the highway behind her flared with light and an engine quarreled noisily with the storm.


The motor home had turned the bend.


She was only fifteen feet or so from the highway, which wasn’t far enough, because there was little underbrush to provide cover beneath the giant redwoods — largely ferns, and more of them in the gloom ahead than in the area immediately around her. He must not see her. All was lost if he glimpsed her as she dashed for cover.


Fortunately, her blue jeans were dark, not stonewashed and highly reflective, and her sweater was cranberry red, which was not as bad as if it had been white or yellow, and her hair was not blond but dark. Yet she could have felt no more visible if she had been trying to run to cover in a wedding dress.


He would be focused on the Honda, surprised to see it angled across both lanes. He wouldn’t immediately glance to either side of the highway, and when his attention did flicker away from the car, he was likely to look to the right, where the Honda had run off the road and struck the tree, not to the left, where Chyna was seeking shelter.


Telling herself that she was safe and had not been seen, but not actually believing herself, she reached the first phalanx of massive redwoods. They grew astonishingly close to one another, considering their daunting size. She slipped around the deeply corrugated trunk of a fifteen-foot-diameter giant that thrived in such intimacy with an even larger specimen that the passageway between the towering pair was less than two feet.


The lowest branches above her were a hundred fifty to a hundred eighty feet off the ground, visible only when lightning backlit them. Standing between these trunks was rather like standing between the nave columns of a cathedral too large ever to be built this side of Heaven; the bristled boughs formed majestic vaults fifteen stories overhead.


From her damp and cloistered retreat, she peered out warily at the highway.


Beyond the lacy screen of low ferns, silver plating the rain and growing brighter by the second, came the headlights of the motor home. They were accompanied by the soft pule of air brakes.


Mr. Vess stops on the pavement, as the shoulder is neither wide enough nor firm enough to accommodate his motor home. Although this scenic highway is obviously little used in these hours before dawn and in such foul weather as this, he is loath to block traffic any longer than is absolutely necessary. He well knows the California Vehicle Code.


He pushes the gearshift into park, engages the emergency brake, but leaves the engine running and the headlights on. He doesn’t bother to slip into his raincoat, and when he gets out of the motor home, he leaves the door standing open.


The rain on the pavement is a drumming, and on the metal of the vehicles a singing, and on the foliage of the trees a chorus chanting wordlessly. The rain sounds please him, as does the chill, as does the fecund smell of ferns and loamy soil.


This is the same Honda that passed him a few minutes earlier. He is not surprised to see it in this sorry condition, considering the reckless speed at which it had been traveling.


Evidently, the car had skidded off the road and into the tree. Then the driver had backed it onto the pavement again before the engine failed.


But where is the driver?


Another motorist might have come along from the west and taken any injured person to get medical treatment. But that seems too fortuitous and too timely. After all, the accident can’t have happened more than a minute or two ago.


The driver’s door is open, and when Vess leans inside, he sees that the keys are in the ignition. The windshield wipers sweep the glass. The taillights, the interior ceiling light, and the gauges in the instrument panel are all aglow.


He steps away from the car and looks at the tree toward which the tire tracks lead. The bark is scarred from the impact but only superficially.


Intrigued, he surveys the rest of the grove on that side of the highway.


Quite possibly, the driver climbed out of the wrecked car, dazed from a blow to the head, and wandered into the redwoods. Even now she might be traveling farther into the primeval grove, lost and confused — or maybe, having collapsed from injuries, she lies unconscious in a fern glade.


The closely grown trees form a maze of narrow corridors, more wood than open space. Even at high noon on a cloudless day, sunshine would penetrate to the forest floor only in a few thin bright blades, and stubborn darkness would impose itself in most of these deep reaches, as though each of the many hundreds of thousands of nights since the grove’s beginning had left its residue of shadows. Now, still on the witching side of dawn, that blackness is so pure that it seems almost like a thing alive, crouching and predatory and yet welcoming.


This special darkness stirs Mr. Vess and makes him yearn for experiences that he senses are available to him but that he cannot imagine, experiences that are mysterious and transforming, yet which he cannot even dimly envision. Far into the redwoods, down corridors of fissured bark, in some secret citadel of bestial passion, where shadows dwell that are older than human history, a mystical adventure awaits.


If the woman, in fact, is wandering in the woods, he could park the motor home and search for her. Perhaps the knife that he found at the service station is an omen, after all, and hers may be the blood that he is meant to draw with that blade.


He imagines what it would be like to take off his clothes and enter the grove na*ed with the knife, relying solely on his primitive instincts to stalk her and bring her down, the rain and mist cold on his skin, the air steaming once he has breathed it, unchilled by the rain but imparting his heat to the night, tearing ferociously at the woman’s clothes as he drags her to the forest floor. He is already erect with the dream of it, but he wonders if he would attack her first with knife or phallus — or perhaps with his teeth. That decision would be made in the moment of capture, and much would depend on how attractive she was; but he is convinced that whatever might happen between them would be unprecedented and mysterious — and inexpressibly intense.


Dawn is coming in an hour or so, however, and he would be wise to be on his way. He must put more distance between himself and the places where he took his entertainment during the night.


Being good at being Edgler Vess requires, among other qualities, the ability to repress his most ardent passions when indulgence in them is dangerous. If he instantly gratified every desire, he would be less a man than an animal — and either long dead or imprisoned. Being Edgler Vess means being free but not reckless, being quick but not impulsive. He must have a sense of proportion. And good timing. Hell, he needs the timing of a tap-dance master. And a nice smile. A truly nice smile combined with self-control can take a person a long way.


He smiles at the forest.


The motor home stood on the pavement, approximately twenty feet from the battered Honda, shrunken in appearance because the redwoods dwarfed it.


As the killer had walked down the roadway to the abandoned car through the headlight beams from the motor home, Chyna had crept upslope through the dark forest, moving parallel to him but in the opposite direction. She had circled behind the tree to the right of her, gripping the revolver in her right hand, with her left hand flat against the trunk for balance in case she stumbled over a root or other obstruction. Under her palm, she had felt the deep pattern of repetitive Gothic arches formed by the fissures in the thick bark. With each uncertain step that she had taken around this great easy curve, she had felt that the tree was less like a tree than like a building, a windowless fortress erected against all the rage of the world.


After navigating a hemisphere of the trunk to the shoulder-wide gap between this tree and the next, she peered out once more. The killer stood near the open door of the Honda, gazing into the forest on the far side of the highway.


She was worried that another motorist would come along before she could carry out her plan.


She moved on, circling the next tree. It was even larger than the previous behemoth. The bark featured the familiar Gothic patterns.


In spite of the shrill wind keening high above and collected drizzles of rain spattering down from the lofty branches, the grove impressed her as a good safe place, dark but not in spirit, cold but not forbidding. She was still alone in her troubles — but curiously, for the first time all night, she didn’t feel alone.


At the next trunk-framed gap in the forest wall, Chyna looked out again and saw the killer getting into the Honda. He would have to move the disabled car out of the way, because there wasn’t room to drive around it.


She glanced at the motor home. Perhaps because she knew what lay within it — a dead man closeted in chains, a dead woman swaddled in a white shroud — the vehicle seemed as ominous as any war machine.


She could just wait in the grove. Forget about her plan. He would leave, and life would go on.


So easy to wait. Survive.


The police would find the girl. Ariel. Somehow. In time. Without the need for heroics.


Chyna leaned against the tree, suddenly weak. Weak and shaking. Shaking and almost physically ill with despair, with fear.


The taillights and interior lights of the Honda dimmed with the grinding of the starter, as the killer tried to get the engine to turn over.


Then another noise came to Chyna. Much closer than the car. Behind her. A rustle, a snap, a soft snort like a startled horse exhaling.


Frightened, she turned.


In the backwash of light from the motor home out on the highway, Chyna saw angels in the redwood grove. Or so it seemed for a moment. Regarding her were gentle faces, pale in the darkness, eyes luminous and inquisitive and kind.


But even in that meager moonlike glow, she was unable to sustain a hope of angels. After a brief initial confusion, she realized that these creatures were a breed of coastal elk without antlers.


Six stood together in a fifteen-foot-wide space between this outer row of trees and the deeper growth, so close that Chyna could have been among them in three steps. Their noble heads were lifted, ears pricked, gazes fixed intently on her.


The elk were curious, but although timid by nature, they seemed oddly unafraid of her.


Once, for two months, she and her mother had stayed on a ranch in Mendocino County, where a group of well-armed survivalists waited for the race wars that they believed would soon destroy the nation, and in that doomsday atmosphere, Chyna had spent as much time as possible exploring the surrounding countryside, hills and vales of singular beauty, groves of pines, golden fields where scattered oaks stood — each alone and huge and black-limbed against the sky — and where small herds of coastal elk appeared from time to time, always keeping at a distance from human beings and their works. She had stalked them not as a hunter but with awkward girlish guile, as shy as the elk themselves but irresistibly attracted to the tranquillity and the peace that they radiated in a world otherwise saturated with violence.

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