He goes forward again, pausing in the kitchen to pump a cup of hot coffee from the two-quart thermos on the counter by the cooktop. He also switches on a couple of lights so he will be able to see the interior clearly in the rearview mirror.
Behind the steering wheel once more, he sips the coffee. It is hot, black, and bitter, just the way he likes it. He secures the cup in a holder bracketed to the dashboard.
He tucks the pistol in the open console box between the seats, with the safeties off and the butt up. He can put his hand on it in a second, turn in his seat, shoot the woman before she can get near him, and still maintain control of the motor home.
But he doesn’t think that she will try to harm him, at least not soon. If harming him was her primary intention, she would have gone after him already.
“Why? What now?” he says aloud, enjoying the drama of his peculiar situation. “What now? What next? What ho? Surprise, surprise.”
He drinks more coffee. The aroma reminds him of the crisp texture of burned toast.
Outside, the elk are gone.
A night of mysteries.
The mounting wind lashes the long fronds of the ferns. Like evidence of violence, bright wet rhododendron blossoms spray through the night.
The forest stands untouched. The power of time is stored in those massive, dark, vertical forms.
Mr. Vess shifts the motor home out of park and releases the emergency brake. Onward.
After he cruises past the damaged Honda, he glances at the rearview mirror. The bedroom door remains closed. The woman is in hiding.
With the motor home rolling again, perhaps the stowaway will risk turning on a light and will take this opportunity to meet her roommates.
Mr. Vess smiles.
Of all the expeditions that he has conducted, this is the most interesting and exciting. And it isn’t over yet.
Chyna sat on the floor in the darkness. Her back was against the wall. The revolver lay at her side.
She was untouched and alive.
“Chyna Shepherd, untouched and alive,” she whispered, and this was both a prayer and a joke.
Throughout her childhood, she frequently prayed earnestly for that double blessing — her virtue and her life — and her prayers were often as rambling and incoherent as they were frantic. Eventually she had worried that God was growing weary of her endless desperate pleas for deliverance, that He was sick of her inability to take care of herself and stay out of trouble, and that He might decide that she had used up all of the divine mercy allotted to her. God was busy, after all, running the entire universe, watching over so many drunks and fools, with the devil working mischief everywhere, volcanoes erupting, sailors lost in storms, sparrows falling. By the time Chyna was ten or eleven, in consideration of God’s hectic schedule, she had condensed her rambling pleas, in times of terror, to this: “God, this is Chyna Shepherd, here in” — fill the blank with the name of the current place — “and I’m begging you, please, please, please, just let me get through this untouched and alive.” Soon, realizing that God, being God, would know precisely where she was, she reduced her entreaty further to: “God, this is Chyna Shepherd. Please get me through this untouched and alive.” Finally, certain that God was exasperatedly familiar with her panicky presumptions on His time and grace, she had shortened her plea to a telegraphic minimum: “Chyna Shepherd, untouched and alive.” In crises — under beds or lost in closets behind concealing clothes or in cobwebbed attics smelling of dust and raw wood or, once, flattened against the ground in a mire of rat shit in the crawl space under a moldering old house — she had whispered those five words or chanted them silently, over and over, indefatigably, Chyna-Shepherd-untouched-and-alive, ceaselessly reciting them not because she was afraid that God might be distracted by other business and fail to hear her but to remind herself that He was out there, had received her message, and would take care of her if she was patient. And when each crisis passed, when the black flood of terror receded, when her stuttering heart finally began to speak each beat clearly and calmly again, she had repeated the five words once more but with a different inflection than she had used previously, not as a plea for deliverance this time but as a dutiful report, Chyna-Shepherd-untouched-and-alive, much as a sailor in wartime might report to his captain after the ship had survived a vigorous strafing by enemy planes — “All present and accounted for, sir.” She was present; she was accounted for; and she let God know of her gratitude with the same five words, figuring that He would hear the difference in her inflection and would understand. It had become a little joke with young Chyna, and sometimes she had even accompanied the report with a salute, which seemed all right because she had figured that God, being God, must have a sense of humor.
“Chyna Shepherd, untouched and alive.”
This time, from the motor-home bedroom, it was simultaneously a report on her survival and a fervent prayer to be spared from whatever brutality might be coming next.
“Chyna Shepherd, untouched and alive.”
As a little girl, she had loathed her name — except when she had been praying to survive. It was frivolous, a stupid misspelling of a real word, and when other kids teased her about it, she wasn’t able to mount a defense. Considering that her mother was called Anne, such a simple name, the choice of Chyna seemed not merely frivolous but thoughtless and even mean. During most of the time that Anne was pregnant, she had lived in a commune of radical environmentalists — a cell of the infamous Earth Army — who believed that any degree of violence was justifiable in defense of nature. They had spiked trees with the hope that loggers would lose hands in accidents with power saws. They had burned down two meat-packing plants and the hapless night watchmen in them, sabotaged the construction equipment at new housing tracts that encroached upon the wilds, and killed a scientist at Stanford because they disapproved of his use of animals in his laboratory experiments. Influenced by these friends, Anne Shepherd had considered many names for her daughter: Hyacinth, Meadow, Ocean, Sky, Snow, Rain, Leaf, Butterfly…. By the time she had given birth, however, she had moved on from the Earth Army, and she had named Chyna after China because, as she had once explained, “Honey, I just suddenly realized one day that China is the only just society on earth, and it seemed like a beautiful name.” She had never been able to recall why she had changed the i to y, though by then she had been a working partner in a methamphetamine lab, packaging speed in affordable five-dollar hits and sampling the merchandise often enough to have been left with a few blank days in her memory. Only when praying for deliverance had young Chyna liked her name, because she had figured that God would remember her more easily for it, would not get her confused with the millions of Marys and Carolines and Lindas and Heathers and Tracys and Janes.
Now her name no longer dismayed or pleased her. It was just a name like any other.
She had learned that who she was — the true person she was — had nothing whatsoever to do with her name, and little to do with the life that she’d led with her mother for sixteen years. She couldn’t be blamed for the dreadful hates and lusts she had seen, for the obscenities heard, for the crimes witnessed, or for the things that some of her mother’s male friends had wanted from her. She was not defined either by a name or by shameful experience; instead, she was formed by dreams and hopes, by aspirations, by self-respect and perseverance. She wasn’t clay in the hands of others; she was rock, and with her own determined hands, she could sculpt the person that she wanted to be.
She hadn’t reached this realization until a year ago, when she was twenty-five. The wisdom had come to her not in a dazzling flash but slowly, in the way that a plot of bare earth is covered gradually by creeping ajuga until one day, as if miraculously, the brown dirt is gone and everywhere are emerald-green leaves and tiny blue flowers. Worthwhile knowledge always seemed hard-won while the winning was in progress — but seemed easily acquired in retrospect.
The old motor home lumbered through the night, creaking like a long-sealed door, ticking like a rusted clock too corroded to register every second faithfully, toward dawn.
Crazy. Crazy to be taking this trip.
But nowhere else to go.
This was where her entire life had been leading. Reckless courage wasn’t restricted to the battlefield — or to men.
She was wet and cold and frightened — and strangely, for the first time in her entire life, she was at peace with herself.
“Ariel,” Chyna said softly, one girl in the darkness speaking reassuringly to another.
Mr. Vess drives out of the redwoods into a drizzling dawn, first iron gray and then somewhat paler, through coastal meadows the same drear shades of metal as the sky, back onto Highway 101, into forests again, but of pine and spruce this time, out of Humboldt County into Del Norte County, ever more isolated terrain, eventually leaving 101 for a route that leads north-northeast.
For the first part of the journey, he glances frequently at the rearview mirror, but the bedroom door remains closed, and the woman seems comfortable with the cadavers or, perhaps, with her ignorance of them. In her retreat, the window is sealed off with plywood, and the light of dawn doesn’t penetrate.
Vess is a superb driver, and he makes excellent time, even in bad weather. We do best those things that we enjoy doing, which is why Mr. Vess is such a success at killing and why he combines that enthusiasm with his love of driving rather than restrict himself to prey within a reasonable radius of his home.
Being on the open road with landscapes ever changing, Edgler Vess is the recipient of a constant influx of fresh visual sensation. And of course, to one with his exquisitely refined senses and his ability to use them in a hologrammatic manner, a beautiful sight can also be a musical sound. A scent caught through the open window can be not solely an olfactory experience but tactile too, the sweet fragrance of lilac like a woman’s warm breath against his skin. Ensconced in the driver’s seat of his motor home, he travels through a rich sea of sensation that washes him the way water ceaselessly washes the hull of a deeply submerged submarine.
Now he crosses into Oregon. The mountains come to him and pull him up into their fastnesses.
The thickening stands of trees on the steep slopes are more gray than green in the stubborn rain, and the sight of them is like biting on a piece of ice, hard between his teeth, a slight but pleasant metallic taste, and a shattering coldness against his lips.
He seldom glances at the rearview mirror any more. The woman is a mystery, and mysteries of this nature can’t be resolved by the sheer desire to resolve them. Ultimately she will reveal herself, and the intensity of the experience will depend upon whatever purpose she has and what secrets she possesses.
The waiting is delicious.
Throughout the last few hours of the journey, Vess leaves the radio off, although not because he is afraid that music will mask the sounds of the woman stalking forward through the motor home. In fact, he rarely listens to the radio while driving. In his memory is a vast library of recordings of the music that he likes best: the cries and squeals, the prayerful whispers, the shrieks as thin as paper cuts, the pulsatory sobbings for mercy, and the erotic inducements of final desperations.
As he leaves the state highway for the county route, he recalls specifically Sarah Templeton in her shower stall, her screams and her frantic gagging muffled by the green dishwashing sponge that he’d stuffed into her mouth and by the two strips of strapping tape that sealed her lips. Nothing on the radio, from Elton John to Garth Brooks to Pearl Jam to Sheryl Crow — to Mozart or Beethoven, for that matter — can compare to this interior entertainment.
He follows the rain-swept, two-lane county route to his private driveway. The entrance is securely gated and flanked by thickets of pines and brambly underbrush.
The gate is made of tubular steel and barbed wire, set between stainless-steel posts in concrete footings. It features an electric motor with remote operation, and when Mr. Vess pushes a button on the hand-held control that he fishes from the console box, the barrier swings inward to the left, in a satisfying stately manner.
After driving the motor home onto his property, he brakes to a stop once more, rolls down his window, holds out the control unit, with the signal-transmission window reversed in his grip. In his sideview mirror, he watches as the gate closes.
The driveway is nearly as long as that at the Templeton family’s vineyards, as his property encompasses fifty-four acres that back up to a government-owned wilderness, which measures many miles on a side. He is not as well-to-do as the Templetons; land here is far cheaper than in the Napa Valley.
In spite of the lack of paving, there is little mud and no real danger of the motor home bogging down. The topsoil is shallow; the lane was graded down to the underlying shale. The way is a bit rough, but this is not, after all, New York City, New York.
Vess drives up a modest incline, between looming ranks of tall pines, spruces, scattered firs, and then the trees recede a little, and he crosses the bald hilltop. The road descends easily, in a graceful curve, into a small vale, with the house at the end and the hills rising behind in the sheeting rain and morning fog.
His heart swells at the sight of home. Home is where his Ariel patiently awaits.
The two-story house is small but solidly built of logs mortared with cement. The old logs are nearly black with layers of pitch; and time has darkened the cement to a tobacco brown, except for the tan and gray mottling of recent repairs.
The house was constructed in the late 1920s by the owner of a family logging business, long before small operators were regulated out of such work and before the government declared the surrounding public lands off-limits to timber harvesters. Electricity was brought in sometime during the forties.
Edgler Vess has owned the house for six years. Upon purchasing the place, he rewired it, improved the plumbing, enlarged the second-floor bathroom. And, entirely on his own, of course, he undertook extensive and secret remodeling work in the basement.
To some, the property may seem isolated, inconveniently far from a 7-Eleven or a multiplex cinema. But for Mr. Vess, whose pleasures would never be understood by most neighbors, relative isolation is the fundamental requirement when he is shopping for real estate.
On a summer afternoon or evening, however, sitting in a bentwood rocker on the front porch, gazing out at the deep yard and the acres of wildflowers in the fields cleared by the logger and his sons, or staring at the great spread of stars, even the most meek and citified man would agree that isolation has its appeal.
In good weather, Mr. Vess likes to take his dinner and a couple of beers on the porch. When the mountain silences become boring, he allows himself to hear the voices of those who are buried in the field: their groveling and lamentations, the music that he prefers to any on the radio.
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