He unlocks the front door and enters the house. He closes but does not lock the door behind him, allowing the woman to have access if she chooses to take it.
Who knows what she will choose to do?
Already her behavior is as astonishing as it is mysterious.
She excites him.
Vess turns from the shadowy front room to the narrow enclosed stairs immediately to his left. He quickly climbs the steps two at a time, one hand on the oak banister, to the second floor. A short hallway serves two bedrooms and a bath. His room is to the left.
In his private chamber, he drops the Mossberg on the bed and crosses to the south-facing window, which is covered by a blue drape with blackout lining. He doesn’t need to draw the drape aside to see the motor home on the driveway below. The two pleated panels of fabric don’t quite meet, and when he puts his eye to the two-inch gap, he has a clear view of the entire vehicle.
Unless she slipped out of the motor home immediately behind him, which is highly doubtful, the woman is still inside. He can see down through the windshield at an angle into the pilot’s and copilot’s seats, and she has not advanced to either.
He takes the pistol from his pocket and puts it on the dresser. He shrugs out of the raincoat and tosses it atop the chenille spread on the neatly made bed.
When he checks at the window again, there is as yet no sign of the mystery woman at the motor home below.
He hurries into the hallway to the bathroom. White tile, white paint, white tub, white sink, white toilet, polished brass fixtures with white ceramic knobs. Everything gleams. Not a single smudge mars the mirror.
Mr. Vess likes a bright, clean bathroom. For a while, lifetimes ago, he lived with his grandmother in Chicago, and she was incapable of keeping a bathroom clean enough to meet his standards. Finally, exasperated beyond endurance, he had killed the old bitch. He’d been eleven when he put the knife in her.
Now he reaches behind the shower curtain and cranks the COLD faucet all the way open. He isn’t actually going to take a shower, so there’s no point in wasting hot water.
He quickly adjusts the shower head until the spray is as heavy as it gets. The water pounds down into the fiberglass tub, filling the bathroom with thunder. He knows from experience that the sound carries throughout the small house; even with rain on the roof, this is much louder than the sound of the shower in Sarah Templeton’s bedroom, and it will be heard downstairs.
On a wall shelf above the toilet is a clock radio. He switches it on and adjusts the volume.
The radio is set to a Portland station featuring twenty-four-hour-a-day news. Ordinarily, when bathing and attending to his toilet, Mr. Vess likes to listen to the news, not because he has any interest in the latest political or cultural developments but because these days the news is largely about people maiming and killing one another — war, terrorism, rape, assault, murder. And when people can’t kill one another in sufficient numbers to keep the reporters busy, nature always saves the day with a tornado, a hurricane, a big earthquake, or an outbreak of flesh-eating bacteria.
Sometimes, listening to the news and letting the various reports spark fond memories of his own homicidal exploits, he realizes that he himself is also a force of nature: a hurricane, a lightning storm, a planet-smashing asteroid hurtling through the void, the distillate of all human ferocity in a single body. Elemental power. The thought pleases him.
Now, however, news will not set the stage properly. Hastily he turns the tuning knob until he finds a station playing music. “Take the A Train” by Duke Ellington.
The big-band sound brings to his mind’s eye an image of light flaring off cut crystal and luminous bubbles rising in a champagne glass, and it reminds him of the smell of fresh-cut limes, lemons. He can feel the notes in the air, some shimmering-bursting like bubbles and others bouncing off him like hundreds of little rubber balls and some like windblown leaves crisp with autumn: a very tactile music, exuberant and exhilarating.
The woman will be subtly lulled by the swing beat. It will be difficult for her to believe, really believe, that anything bad can happen to her with such music as background.
He hurries back to his bedroom, to the window, having been away from it no more than a minute.
Rain snaps against the glass, streams.
On the driveway below, the motor home stands as before.
The woman still must be inside. She probably won’t just burst out of the vehicle and run pell-mell; she’s likely to exit warily, hesitant on both sides of the door. Although there might have been time for her to get out of the motor home while Mr. Vess was in the bathroom, she would almost certainly be huddling against it, getting her bearings, assessing the situation. From this high vantage point, he can see around most of the vehicle, with the exception of blind spots toward the rear on the port side and at the very back, and the woman is not in sight.
“Ready when you are, Miss Desmond,” he says, referring to the Gloria Swanson character in Sunset Boulevard.
That movie had had a great effect on him when he’d first seen it on television. He’d been thirteen, a year out of counseling for the murder of his grandmother. On one level, he had known that Norma Desmond was supposed to be the tragic villain of the piece, that the writer and director intended for her to fulfill that role — but he had admired her, loved her. Her selfishness was thrilling, her self-absorption heroic. She was the truest character he had ever seen in a movie. This was what people were actually like, under the pretense and hypocrisy, under all the crap about love, compassion, altruism; they were all like Norma Desmond but couldn’t admit it to themselves. Norma didn’t give a shit about the rest of the world, and she bent everyone to her iron will even when she was no longer young or beautiful or famous, and when she couldn’t bend William Holden’s character as far as she wanted, she just boldly picked up a gun and shot him, which was so powerful, so audacious, that young Edgler had been too excited to sleep that night. He had lain awake wondering what it would be like to encounter a woman as superior and genuine as Norma Desmond — and then to break her, kill her, take all the strength of her selfishness and make it his own.
Maybe this mystery woman is a little bit like Norma Desmond. She’s bold, sure enough. He can’t figure what the hell she’s doing, what she’s after; and when he understands her motivation, maybe she won’t be anything like Norma Desmond. But at least she is already something new and interesting in his experience.
The motor home.
“Take the A Train” has given way to “String of Pearls.”
Murmuring softly against the blue drapes, Mr. Vess says, “Ready when you are.”
After the killer had gotten out of the motor home and slammed the door, Chyna had waited in the dark bedroom for a long while in the one-note lullaby of rain.
She had told herself that she was being prudent. Listen. Wait. Be sure. Absolutely sure.
But then she’d been forced to admit that she had lost her nerve. Although she had mostly dried out during the ride north from Humboldt County, she was still cold, and the source of her chills was the ice of doubt in her guts.
The eater of spiders was gone, and to Chyna, even remaining in blackness with two dead bodies was far preferable to going outside where she might encounter him again. She knew that he would be back, that this bedroom was not, in fact, a safe place, but for a while, what she knew was overruled by what she felt.
When at last she broke her paralysis, she moved with reckless abandon, as though any hesitation would result in another and worse paralysis, which she would be unable to overcome. She yanked open the bedroom door, plunged into the hall, with the revolver held in front of her because maybe the murderous bastard hadn’t gotten out after all, and she went all the way forward past the bathroom and through the dining area and into the lounge, where she stopped a few feet back from the driver’s seat.
The only light was a bleak gray haze that came through the skylight in the hall behind her and through the windshield ahead, but she could see that the killer wasn’t here. She was alone.
Outside, directly ahead of the motor home, lay a sodden yard, a few dripping trees, and a rough driveway leading to a weathered barn.
Chyna moved to a starboard window, cautiously peeled back one corner of the greasy drape, and saw a log house about twenty feet away. Mottled with time and many coats of creosote, streaming with rain, the walls glistened like dark snakeskin.
Although she had no way of being certain, she assumed that it was the killer’s house. He had told the men in the service station that he was going home after his “hunting” trip, and everything he had told them had sounded to her like the truth, including — and especially — the taunts about young Ariel.
The killer must be inside.
Chyna went forward again and leaned over the driver’s seat to look at the ignition. The keys weren’t there. They weren’t in the console box either.
She slipped into the copilot’s seat, feeling frightfully exposed in spite of the blurring rain that washed down the windows. She could find nothing in the console box, in the shallow glove box, in either door pouch, or under either front seat that revealed the name of the owner or anything else about him.
He would be returning soon. For some demented reason, he had gone to a lot of trouble and taken risks to bring the cadavers, and most likely he would not leave them in the motor home for long.
The obscuring rain made it difficult for her to be sure, but she thought that the drapes were drawn at the first-floor windows on this side of the house. Consequently, the killer would not casually glance out and spot her when she stepped from the motor home. She couldn’t see the pair of second-floor windows half as well as those lower down, but they also might be draped.
She cracked open the door, and a cold knife of wind thrust at her through the gap. She got out and closed the door behind her as quietly as possible.
The sky was low and turbulent.
Forested hills rose rank after rank behind the house, vanishing into the pearly mist. Chyna sensed mountains looming above the hills in the overcast; they would still be capped with snow this early in the spring.
She hurried to the flagstone steps and went up onto the porch, out of the rain, but it was coming down so hard that already she was soaked again. She stood with her back to the rough wall.
Windows flanked the front door, and the drapes were drawn behind the nearer of the two.
She stared out at the meadows, along the lane that led from the house to the top of a low hill and thence out of sight. Perhaps, beyond the hill, other houses stood along that unpaved track, where she would find people who could help her.
But who had ever helped her before, all these long years?
She remembered the two brief stops that had awakened her, and she suspected that the motor home had passed through a gate. Nevertheless, even if this was a private driveway, it would lead sooner or later to a public road, where she would find assistance from residents or passing motorists.
The top of the hill was approximately a quarter of a mile from the house. This was a lot of open ground to cover before she would be out of sight. If he saw her, he would probably be able to chase her down before she got away.
And she still didn’t know that this was his house. Even if it was his house, she couldn’t be sure that this was where he kept Ariel. If Chyna brought back the authorities and Ariel wasn’t here, then the killer might never tell them where to find the girl.
She had to be sure that Ariel was in the basement.
But if the girl was here, then when Chyna came back with the cops, the killer might barricade himself in the house. It would take a SWAT team to pry him out of the place — and before they got to him, he might kill Ariel and commit suicide.
In fact, that was almost certainly how it would play out as soon as any cops showed up. He would know that his freedom was at an end, that his games were over, that he would have no more fun, and all he would see available to him was one last, apocalyptic celebration of madness.
Chyna couldn’t bear to lose this imperiled girl so soon after losing Laura, failing Laura. Intolerable. She couldn’t keep failing people as, all her life, others had failed her. Meaning wasn’t to be found in psychology classes and textbooks but in caring, in hard sacrifice, in faith, in action. She didn’t want to take these risks. She wanted to live — but for someone other than herself.
At least now she had a gun.
And the advantage of surprise.
Earlier, at the Templeton house and in the motor home and then at the service station, she’d also had the advantage of surprise, but she hadn’t been in possession of the revolver.
She realized that she was arguing herself into taking the most dangerous course of action open to her, making excuses for going into the house. Going into the house was obviously crazy, Jesus, a totally crazy move, Jesus, but she was striving hard to rationalize it, because she had already made up her mind that this was what she was going to do.
Coming out of the motor home, the woman has a gun in her right hand. It looks as if it might be a.38 — perhaps a Chief’s Special.
This is a popular weapon with some cops. But this woman doesn’t move like a cop, doesn’t handle the weapon as a cop would — although clearly she is somewhat comfortable with a gun.
No, she’s definitely not an officer of the law. Something else. Something weird.
Mr. Vess has never been so intrigued by anyone as he is by this spunky little lady, this mysterious adventurer. She’s a real treat.
The moment she sprints from the motor home to the house and out of sight, Vess moves from the window on the south wall of his bedroom to the window on the east wall. It is also covered by a blue drape, which he parts.
No sign of her.
He waits, holding his breath, but she doesn’t head east along the lane. After half a minute or so, he knows that she isn’t going to run.
If she had taken off, she would have sorely disappointed him. He doesn’t think of her as a person who would run. She is bold. He wants her to be bold.
Had she run, he would have sent the dogs after her, not with instructions to kill but merely to detain. Then he would have retrieved her to question her at his leisure.
But she is coming to him. For whatever unimaginable reason, she will follow him into the house. With her revolver.
He will need to be cautious. But oh, what fun he is having. Her gun only makes the game more intense.
The front porch is immediately below this window, but he isn’t able to see it because of the overhanging roof. The mystery woman is somewhere on the porch. He can feel her close, perhaps directly under him.
He retrieves his pistol from the nightstand and glides quietly across the wall-to-wall carpet into the open doorway. He steps into the hall and quickly to the head of the enclosed stairs, where he stops. He can see only the landing below, not the living room, but he listens.
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