Page 22


The woman’s voice rises from the stairs below: “China Shepherd untouched and alive.”


The words are so strange — the meaning so mysterious — that they seem to be an incantation, encoded and cryptic.


Confirming that perception, the woman repeats herself, as though she is chanting: “China Shepherd untouched and alive.”


Though Vess is not usually superstitious, he experiences a heightened sense of the supernatural, beyond anything he’s felt thus far. His scalp prickles, and the flesh on the nape of his neck crawls, and his hand tightens on the pistol.


After a hesitation, he leans through the open door and looks down the cellar stairs.


The woman is only a few steps from the bottom. She’s got one hand on the railing, the revolver held out in front of her in the other hand.


Not a cop. An amateur.


Nonetheless, she might be Mr. Vess’s blown tire, and he’s jumpy, twitchy, still extremely curious about her but prepared to put his safety ahead of his curiosity.


He eases through the doorway onto the upper landing.


As close as she is, she does not hear him because all is concrete, nothing to creak.


He aims his pistol at the center of her back. The first shot will catapult her off her feet, send her flying with her arms spread toward the basement below, and the second shot will take her as she is in flight. Then he’ll race down the stairs behind her, firing the third and fourth rounds, hitting her in the legs if possible. He’ll drop on top of her, press the muzzle into the back of her head, and then, then, then when he’s totally in control of her, dominant, he can decide whether she’s still a threat or not, whether he can risk questioning her or whether she’s so dangerous that nothing will do but to put a couple of rounds in her brain.


As the woman passes under the light near the foot of the stairs, Mr. Vess gets a better look at her revolver. It is indeed a Smith & Wesson.38 Chief’s Special, as he had thought earlier, when he had seen it from the second-floor bedroom window, but suddenly the make and model of the weapon have electrifying meaning for him.


He smells a Slim Jim sausage. He remembers liquid-night eyes widening in shock, terror, and despair.


He has seen two of these guns in the past several hours. The first belonged to the young Asian gentleman at the service station, who drew it from under the counter in self-defense but never had the opportunity to fire.


Although the Chief’s Special is a popular revolver, it is not so universally admired that one sees it everywhere in use. Edgler Vess knows, with the certainty of a fox on the scent of a rabbit in the weeds, that this is the same gun.


Although there are still many mysteries about the woman on the stairs below him, though her presence here is no less astonishing to him than it was before, there is nothing supernatural about her. She knows the name Ariel not because she has been watching from some world beyond this one, not because she is in the dutiful service of some higher force, but simply because she must have been there, in the service station, when Vess was chatting up the two clerks and when, moments later, he killed them.


Where she could have been hiding, how he could have overlooked her, why she would feel the need to pursue him, where she got all the courage for this reckless adventure — these are things he can’t discern through intuition alone. But now he will have the opportunity to put these questions to her.


Lowering his pistol, he steps back into the laundry room, lest she glance up the stairs and see him.


His uncharacteristic fear, his eerie perception of oppressive supernatural forces, lifts like a fog from him, and he is amazed by his own brief spasm of gullibility. He, who has no illusions about the nature of existence. He, who is so clear-seeing. He, who knows the primacy of pure sensation. Even he, the most rational of all men, has spooked.


He almost laughs at his foolishness — and at once puts it out of his mind.


The woman must be to the bottom of the stairs by now.


He will allow her to explore. After all, for whatever bizarre reasons, this is what she has come here to do, and Vess is curious about her reactions to the things that she discovers.


He is having fun again.


Once more, the game is on.


Chyna reached the bottom of the stairs.


The outer wall of mortared stone was to her right. There was nowhere to go in that direction.


To her left was a chamber about ten feet from front to back, and as wide as the house. She moved away from the foot of the stairs, into this new space.


At one end stood an oil-fired furnace and a large electric water heater. At the other end were tall metal storage cabinets with vent slits in the doors, a workbench, and a tool chest on wheels.


Directly ahead, in a concrete-block wall, a strange door waited.


Click-whoosh.


Chyna swung to the right and almost squeezed off a shot before she realized that the sound had come from the furnace: the electric pilot light clicking on, fuel taking flame.


Over the sound of the furnace, she was still able to hear the vibrating pipe. Tatta-tatta-tatta. It was fainter here than on the stairs, but still audible.


She could barely make out the music from the second-floor bathroom, an inconstant thread of melody, primarily the passages in brass or wailing clarinet.


Evidently for soundproofing, the door in the back wall was padded like a theater door, in leather-grain maroon vinyl divided into quiltlike squares by eight upholstery nails with large round heads covered in matching vinyl. The frame was upholstered in the same material.


No lock, not even a spring latch, prevented her from proceeding.


Putting her hand on the vinyl, Chyna discovered that the padding was even more plush than it appeared to be. As much as two inches of foam covered the underlying wood.


She gripped the long stainless-steel, U-shaped handle. When she pulled, the vinyl-encased door softly scraped and squeaked across the upholstery on the jamb. The fit was snug: When the door swung all the way free of the jamb and the seal was broken, there was a faint sound similar to that made when one opened a jar of vacuum-packed peanuts.


The door was upholstered on the inside as well. The overall thickness was in excess of five inches.


Beyond this new threshold lay a six-foot-square chamber with a low ceiling, which reminded her of an elevator, except that every surface other than the floor was upholstered. The floor was covered with a rubber mat of the kind used in many restaurant kitchens for the comfort of cooks who worked on their feet for hours at a time. In the dim light from the recessed overhead bulb, she saw that the fabric here wasn’t vinyl but gray cotton with a nubbly texture.


The strangeness of the place sharpened her fear, yet at the same time she was so sure she understood the purpose of the padded vestibule that her stomach rolled with faint nausea.


Directly opposite the door that Chyna held open was one more door. It was also padded and set in an upholstered frame.


Finally, here were locks. The gray upholstery plumped around two heavy-duty brass lock cylinders. She couldn’t proceed without keys.


Then she noticed a small padded panel overlying the door itself — at eye level, perhaps six by ten inches with a knob attached. It was like the sliding panel over the view port in the solid door of a maximum-security prison cell.


Tatta-tatta-tatta…


The killer seemed to be taking an unusually long shower. On the other hand, Chyna hadn’t been in the house more than three minutes; it just seemed longer. If he was having a leisurely scrub, he might not be half done.


Tatta-tatta…


She would have preferred to hold open the outer door while she stepped into the vestibule and slid aside the panel on the inner view port, but the distance was too great. She had to let the door fall shut behind her.


The moment that the upholstered door met the upholstered jamb with a whisper-squeak of softly abraded vinyl, Chyna could no longer hear the vibrating water pipe. The quiet was so profound that even her ragged breathing was barely audible. Under the padding, the walls must have been covered with layers of sound-attenuating insulation.


Or perhaps the killer had shut off the shower just as the door had fallen shut. And was now toweling dry. Or pulling on a robe without bothering to towel off. On his way downstairs.


Fearful, unable to breathe, she opened the door again.


Tatta-tatta-tatta and the rush of water moving at high velocity, under pressure.


She exhaled explosively with relief.


She was still safe.


All right, okay, be cool, keep moving, find out if the girl is here and then do what has to be done.


Reluctantly she allowed the door to fall shut. The rattling of the pipe was again sealed out.


She felt as though she was suffocating. Perhaps ventilation in the vestibule was inadequate, but it was the sound-deadening effect of the padded walls, at least as much as poor airflow, that made the atmosphere seem as thick as smoke and unbreathable.


Chyna slid aside the padded panel on the inner door.


Beyond was rose-colored light.


The port was fitted with a sturdy screen to protect the viewer from assault by whoever or whatever was within.


Chyna put her face to the port and saw a large chamber nearly the size of the living room under which it was situated. In portions of the space, shadows were pooled deep, and the only light came from three lamps with fringed fabric shades and pink bulbs that were each putting out about forty watts.


At two places along the back wall were panels of red and gold brocade that hung from brass rods as if covering windows, but there could be no windows underground; the brocade was just set dressing to make the room more comfortable. On the wall to the left, barely touched by light, was a large tattered tapestry: a scene of women in long dresses and cloche hats riding horses sidesaddle through spring grass and flowers, past a verdant forest.


The furnishings included a plump armchair with antimacassars, a double bed with a white headboard painted with a scene not quite discernible in the rose light, bookcases with acanthus-leaf molding, cabinets with mullioned doors, a small dining table with a heavily carved apron, two Directoire chairs with flower-pattern upholstery flanking the table, and a refrigerator. An immense dark-stained armoire, featuring crackle-glazed flower appliqués on all the door panels, was old but probably not a genuine antique, battered but handsome. A padded vanity bench sat before a makeup table with a triptych mirror in a gilded, fluted frame. In a far corner was a toilet and a sink.


As weird as this subterranean room was, like a storage vault for the stage furniture from a production of Arsenic and Old Lace, the collection of dolls was by far the strangest thing about it. Kewpie dolls, Cabbage Patch Kids, Raggedy Ann, and numerous other varieties, both old and new, some more than three feet tall, some smaller than a milk carton, were dressed in diapers, snowsuits, elaborate bridal dresses, checkered rompers, cowboy outfits, tennis togs, pajamas, hula skirts, kimonos, clown suits, overalls, nighties, and sailor suits. They filled the bookshelves, peered out through the glass doors of some of the cabinets, perched on the armoire, sat atop the refrigerator, stood and sat on the floor along the walls. Others were piled atop one another in a corner and at the foot of the bed, legs and arms jutting at odd stiff angles, heads cocked as on broken necks, like stacks of gaily attired corpses awaiting transport to a crematorium. Two hundred, or three hundred, or more small faces either glowed in the gentle light or were ghost-pale in the shadows, some of bisque and some of china and some of cloth, some wood and some plastic. Their glass, tin, button, cloth, and painted-ceramic eyes reflected the light, shone brightly where the dolls were placed near any of the three lamps, glowed as moodily as banked coals where they were consigned to the darker corners.


For a moment, Chyna was half convinced that these dolls could actually see, except for a few individuals who appeared to be blind behind cataracts of rose light, and that awareness glimmered in their terrible eyes. Although none of them moved — or even shifted their gaze — they had an aura of life about them. Their power was uncanny, as though the killer were also a warlock who stole the souls of those he murdered and imprisoned them in these figures.


Then quiet movement in the room, a shadow coming out of gloom, proved to be the captive, and when she stepped into sight, the dolls lost their eerie magic. She was the most beautiful child that Chyna had ever seen, more beautiful even than in the Polaroid snapshot, with straight lustrous hair that was an enchanting shade of auburn in the peculiar light though platinum blond in reality. Fine-boned, slender, graceful, she possessed a beauty that was ethereal, angelic, and she seemed to be not a real girl but an apparition bearing a message about redemption, a manger, hope, and a guiding star.


She was dressed in black penny loafers, white knee socks, a blue or black skirt, and a short-sleeved white blouse with dark piping on the collar and across the pocket flap, as though she was in the uniform of a parochial school.


No doubt the killer provided the girl with the clothes that he wished her to wear, and Chyna saw at once why he would favor outfits like this. Though physically she was undoubtedly sixteen, she seemed younger when dressed in this fashion; with her slender arms, with her delicate wrists and hands, in this blushing light, the demure uniform made her seem like a child of eleven, shy of her confirmation Sunday, naive and innocent.


Sociopaths like this man were drawn to beauty and to innocence, because they were compelled to defile it. When innocence was stripped away, when beauty was cut and crushed, the malformed beast could at last feel superior to this person he had coveted. After the innocent and the beautiful were left dead and rotting, the world was to some degree made to more closely resemble the killer’s interior landscape.


The girl sat in the armchair.


She was holding a book. She opened it, turned a few pages, and appeared to read.


Although she had surely heard the panel sliding back from the view port in the door, she did not look up. Apparently she assumed that her visitor was, as always, the eater of spiders.


With a rush of emotion that pinched her heart and surprised her with its intensity, Chyna said, “Ariel.”


The name fell through the port as into an airless void, having carried no distance whatsoever, creating no echo.


The girl’s cell obviously had been lined with numerous layers of soundproofing, perhaps with even more layers than the vestibule, and all this attention to the containment of her shouts and screams seemed to indicate that from time to time the killer invited people into his home. Perhaps to dinner. Or to have a few beers and watch a football game. That he would dare such a thing was only one more proof of his outrageous boldness.


But that he would have friends at all chilled Chyna, friends not demented like him, who would be horrified to discover the girl in his cellar and to know that their host slaughtered whole families for his entertainment. He passed for human in the workaday world. People laughed at his jokes. Sought his advice. Shared their joys and sorrows with him. Perhaps he attended church. On some Saturday nights, did he go dancing, smoothly two-stepping around the floor with a smiling woman in his arms, keeping time to the same music everyone else heard?

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