Page 23


Chyna raised her voice: “Ariel.”


The girl failed to look up.


Louder still, all but shouting it through the screened port in the padded door: “Ariel!”


In the chair, knees primly together, the book in her lap, head bowed to the page, wings of hair hiding most of her face, Ariel sat as if deaf — or as if she were a girl in the back of a closet, tuning out the shouted arguments of drunk and drug-sodden adults, tuning out further and further until she was in a great deep silent place of her own, untouchable.


Chyna recalled times, as a young girl, when simply hiding from her mother and her mother’s more dangerous friends had not provided her with a sufficient sense of security. Sometimes the arguments or the celebrations became too violent or too boisterous; the chaos of noise and crazy laughter and cursing spun like a tornado around her even where she had concealed herself, and her fear spiraled out of control, until she thought that her heart would burst or her head explode. Then she went away to more welcoming places in her mind, through the back of the old wardrobe into the land of Narnia, which she had read about in the wonderful books of Mr. C. S. Lewis, or to visit Toad Hall and the Wild Wood from The Wind in the Willows, or into realms that she herself invented.


She had always been able to come back from those escapements. But on occasion, she had thought about how wonderful it would be to stay in that faraway place, where neither her mother nor her mother’s kind would ever be able to find her again, no matter how hard they looked. In those exotic kingdoms, there was often danger, but there were also true and faithful friends like none found on this side of magical wardrobes.


Now, peering through the screened port at the girl in the chair, Chyna was sure that Ariel had sought refuge in just such a far place and was detached from this sorry world in every way that counted. After a year in this dismal hole, from time to time suffering the attentions of the sociopath upstairs, perhaps she had wandered so far along the road of inner adventure that she could not easily — or ever — return.


In fact, the girl raised her gaze from the book and sat staring neither at Chyna’s face in the door port nor apparently at anything in the room, but at something in a world twice removed from this one. Even in the inadequate rose light, Chyna could see that Ariel’s eyes were out of focus and as strange as the eyes of any of the dolls that surrounded her.


The killer had told the men at the service station that he had not yet touched Ariel in “that way,” and Chyna believed him. Because once he had taken her innocence, he would need to smash her beauty; and when that was done, he would kill her. The fact that she was alive argued that she was still untouched.


Yet day after day, month after dreadful month, she had lived in exhausting suspense, waiting for the hateful son of a bitch to decide that she was “ripe,” waiting for his brutal assault, his sour breath on her face, his hot and insistent hands, the terrible irresistible weight of him, every indignity and humiliation. In her single room, there had been nowhere to hide; she could not escape to the rooftop, to the beach, to the attic, to the crawlspace, to the upper limbs of the tree in the backyard.


“Ariel.”


The refuge to which she had escaped might be in the pages of the book that she now held. She functioned in this world, grooming and feeding and bathing and dressing herself, but she lived in some other dimension.


Chyna’s heart rolled in a sea of sorrow in a storm of rage, and through the port in the upholstered door, she said, “I’m here, Ariel. I’m here. You aren’t alone any more.”


Ariel’s gaze didn’t shift out of dreams, and she was as still as any of the dolls.


“I am your guardian, Ariel. I’ll keep you safe.”


As the girl followed a long and winding road farther into her private Elsewhere, her hands relaxed, and the book slipped out of them. It slid off the edge of the chair and thumped to the floor, and all except a whisper of the sound was absorbed by the special walls and ceiling. She was not aware of having dropped the volume, and she sat unmoving.


“I’m your guardian,” Chyna repeated, and wondered vaguely at her choice of words.


She was more afraid for Ariel than for herself, and her heart was racing faster than ever before.


“Your guardian.”


Hot tears blurred Chyna’s vision, disabling tears, an indulgence she could not afford. She blinked furiously until her eyes were dry and her vision was clear.


She turned from the locked inner door and angrily pushed open the outer one.


Tatta-tatta-tatta-tatta-tatta…


As she stepped out of the heavy sound-baffling of the vestibule and into the first room in the basement, the rattling pipe seemed louder than she remembered.


Tatta-tatta-tatta…


Perhaps a minute had passed since she’d slid aside the padded panel on the view port.


The son of a bitch bastard freak was still in his shower, na*ed and defenseless. And now that Chyna knew where Ariel was, she didn’t have to worry that the cops would need him to lead them to the girl.


The gun felt good in her hand.


It felt wonderful in her hand.


If she could have freed Ariel and gotten her out of there, she would have done that rather than take the violent option. But she didn’t possess a key, and that inner door was not going to be easy to break down.


Tatta-tatta-tatta…


She had only one choice. She went to the cellar stairs.


Blue steel gleaming in her hand.


Even if he finished showering and shut off the water before Chyna was able to reach him, he’d still be na*ed and defenseless, toweling off, so she would go in there, into the bathroom, and open fire on him point-blank, shoot him down, empty the revolver into him, the first shot right through his fu**ing heart, then put at least one round in his face, to be sure that he was really done for. Take no chances. No chances at all. Use every round, squeeze the trigger until the hammer click-click-clicked on the expended cartridges in a totally empty cylinder. She could do it. Kill the crazy freak, kill him over and over again, kill him until he stayed killed. She could do it, would do it.


She climbed the steep stairs, treading on wet footprints that she’d left in her descent: Chyna Shepherd no longer hiding, up and out of that hole, untouched, alive, coming out of Narnia forever.


Tatta-tatta-tatta…


Thinking ahead as she moved, Chyna wondered if she should shoot him through the shower curtain — if it was, in fact, a curtain instead of a glass door — because if she didn’t shoot him through it, then she would have to hold the revolver in just one hand while she yanked the curtain or the door aside. That would be risky, because a strange and dismaying weakness was creeping into her fingers and into her wrists. Her arms were shaking so badly that already she had to grip the weapon with both hands to prevent herself from dropping it.


Her heart rattling like the copper pipe, scared about the coming confrontation even if the crazy geek was na*ed and defenseless, Chyna reached the upper landing and entered the laundry room.


She couldn’t shoot him through the curtain, because she wouldn’t know whether she’d hit him or not. She’d be shooting blind, unable to aim for his chest or head.


Past the dryer and the washer, through the fragrance of laundry detergent, she reached the open door to the kitchen. Crossing the threshold, she belatedly registered the important thing that she had seen on the landing at the head of the cellar stairs: wet shoeprints larger than her own, among her prints, overlapping her prints, where he had stood only a short while ago.


She was already rushing into the kitchen, with too much momentum to halt, and the killer came at her from the right, past the dinette set. He was big, strong, a juggernaut, neither na*ed nor defenseless, the shower having been a ruse all along.


He was fast, but she was marginally faster. He tried to drive her backward and slam her against the cabinets, but she slid out of the way, raising the revolver, with the muzzle three feet from his face, and she pulled the trigger, and the hammer made a dry, stick-breaking sound as it fell on an empty chamber.


She backed hard into the side of the refrigerator, dislodging the kittens-and-lilies calendar, which clattered to the floor at her feet.


The killer was still rushing at her.


She squeezed the trigger, and the revolver clicked again, which made no sense — shit — because the clerk in the service station never had a chance to fire it before he had been blown away by the shotgun. No cartridges should be missing.


This was the first time that she had seen the killer’s face. Always before, she’d glimpsed just the back of his head, the top of his skull, the side of his face but from a distance. He was not what she had expected, not moonfaced and pale-lipped and heavy-jawed. He was handsome, with blue eyes that were a beautiful contrast with his dark hair — nothing crazy in his clear eyes — broad clean features, and a nice smile.


Smiling, he continued to come straight at her as she squeezed the trigger a third time, and the hammer fell yet again on an empty chamber. Smiling, he tore the revolver out of her hand with such force that she thought her finger broke before it slipped through the trigger guard, and she squealed in pain.


The killer backed away from her, holding the weapon, his eyes sparkling with excitement. “What a kick that was.”


Chyna huddled against the side of the refrigerator, tramping on kitten faces.


“I knew it was the same gun,” he said, “but what if I’d been wrong? I’d have one big hole in my face right now, wouldn’t I, little lady?”


Weak and dizzy with terror, she looked around desperately for anything that could be used as a weapon, but there was nothing close at hand.


“One big hole in my face,” he repeated, as if he found that prospect amusing.


One of the cabinets might contain knives, but she had no way of knowing which drawer to check.


“Intense,” he said, smiling at the revolver in his hand.


A pistol lay on the counter across the kitchen, beside the sink, well out of her reach. Chyna couldn’t believe this: He had brought a gun of his own, but he hadn’t used it, had set it aside, and had gone for her bare-handed instead.


“You’re an attractive woman.”


She looked away from the pistol, hoping he hadn’t noticed that she’d seen it. But she was fooling herself, and she knew it, because he saw everything, everything.


He pointed the revolver at her. “You were back there in the service station last night.”


She was gasping for breath, but she didn’t seem to be drawing any air. She was breathing too fast and too shallowly, in danger of hyperventilating, and she was furious with herself, furious, because he was so calm.


He said, “I know you were there, somehow, somewhere, and I know you found this Chief’s Special after I left, but for the life of me, I can’t figure why you’re here.”


Maybe she would be able to get to the pistol before he could stop her. It was a million-to-one chance. Two million, three. Hell, face it, impossible.


From five feet away, aiming the revolver at the bridge of her nose, his voice bubbly with exhilaration, the killer said, “But even though it was the Asian’s piece, I was walking into the mouth of the dragon here. I was lucky just now. Are you?”


Although reaching the pistol was probably impossible, she didn’t have any alternatives. Nothing to lose.


With a note of impatience, he said, “Honey, listen to me, please, I’m talking to you. Do you feel lucky right now? As lucky as I’ve been?”


Trying not to stare at the pistol, reluctant to look into his too-normal eyes, she gazed down the bore of the revolver and managed to say, “No,” and she half believed that she heard that single word echoing back to her out of the barrel, No.


“Let’s see if you are.”


“No.”


“Oh, be adventurous, sweetheart. Let’s see if you’re lucky,” he said, and he pulled the trigger.


Although the weapon had failed to fire three times, she expected it to explode in her face, because that seemed to be the way luck was running for her, and she flinched.


Click.


“You are lucky, even more so than I am.”


Chyna didn’t know what he was talking about. She couldn’t focus her thoughts on anything but the pistol by the sink, this last miraculous chance.


“When Fuji started to pull this piece on me,” the killer said, “didn’t you hear what I promised him?”


All this talking and the bastard’s calm demeanor unnerved Chyna even further. She expected him to shoot her, cut her, beat her, and probably rape her, torture answers from her before or after, but she didn’t expect to have to chat with him, for God’s sake, as if what they had been through was only a pleasant little road trip, a shared vacation that had taken a couple of interesting twists.


Still pointing the revolver at her, he said, “What I told Fuji was, ‘Don’t, or I’ll shove the bullets up your ass.’ I always keep my promises. Don’t you?”


His patter finally captured her undivided attention.


“In such poor light, and with all that blood everywhere, not wanting to look, squeamish, you probably didn’t see that Fuji’s pants were pulled down.”


He was right. After a glance showed her that the clerks were both dead, she had averted her eyes and stepped around their bodies.


He said, “I managed to insert four rounds in him.”


Now she closed her eyes. Opened them at once. She didn’t want to see him, looming and handsome with his nice smile, dry bloodstains on his clothes and nothing disturbing in his eyes. But she didn’t dare look away.


Chyna Shepherd, untouched and alive.


“I put four bullets in,” he said, “but then they started popping back out. A little postmortem gas release. It was ridiculous, quite funny, really, but I was pressed for time, as you might understand, and finally it was just too much trouble to do the fifth.”


Maybe this was best. Maybe one more round of Russian roulette, and then peace at long last, no more trying to understand why there was so much cruelty in the world when kindness was the easier choice.


He said, “This is a five-shot weapon.”


The empty socket of the muzzle stared blindly at her, and she wondered if she would see the flash and hear the roar or whether the blackness in the barrel would become her own blackness, without any awareness of the exchange.


Then the killer turned the revolver away from her and pulled the trigger. The blast rattled windows, and the slug tore through a cabinet door along the nearest wall, spraying splinters of pine and shattering dishes inside.


Bits of wood were still flying when Chyna grabbed a drawer and yanked it out of the cabinet. It was so heavy that it almost pulled out of her hand, but she was suddenly strong with desperation, and she slung it upward at the killer’s head, the contents spilling from it as it arced high toward his brow.

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