Spoons, forks, butter knives dueling in the air, flashing with cold fluorescent reflections, ringing down on him and across the tile floor, startled him backward into the dinette table.
Even as the killer stumbled away in surprise, Chyna was moving toward the sink. An instant after she heard the empty drawer crash against something, she put her hand on the grip of the pistol. She saw a red dot on the steel frame, which was probably exposed when the safety was off, as on other pistols with which she was familiar, and she didn’t have to worry about empty chambers, as with the revolver, because if there was even one bullet in the magazine, just one, it would be in the breech, please, and at this close range one round might be all that she needed.
But her trigger finger was already stiffening and swelling, and when she tried to hook it through the guard, the flare of pain rocked her. She bobbled on a black tide of nausea, swayed, fumbling at the trigger guard with her middle finger.
Skating across the littered floor with an ice-brittle clatter-clink of scattering tableware, the killer reached Chyna before she could bring the gun up and turn. He slammed his arm down on hers and trapped her hand against the countertop.
Reflexively her finger pulled the trigger. A bullet smashed the backsplash. Chips of yellow ceramic tile sprayed in her face, and she might have been blinded if she hadn’t squeezed her eyes shut in time.
He slammed the heel of his hand against the side of her head, sending a spray of darkness across the backs of her eyes, like shards of exploding black glass, and then he clubbed his fist against the nape of her neck.
With no memory of having fallen, Chyna was lying on the kitchen floor, with a bug’s-eye view across the vinyl tile, gazing through a cataclysmic tumble of eating utensils. Interesting. Spoons were the size of shovels. Forks as big as pitchforks. Knives were lances.
The killer’s boots. Black boots. Moving around.
For a moment she became confused, thinking that she was back in the Templeton house in the Napa Valley, hiding under the bed in the guest room. But there hadn’t been flatware scattered across that bedroom floor, and when she focused on the stainless-steel utensils again, her thoughts cleared.
“Now I’m going to have to wash all these,” the killer said, “before I put them away.”
He was circling through the kitchen, picking up the flatware and being methodical about it, keeping spoons with spoons, knives with knives.
Chyna was surprised that she could move her arm, which was as heavy as a great tree limb, a petrified tree once wood but now stone. Nevertheless, she managed to point at the killer and even curl her throbbing trigger finger, swallowing her pain and the bitter taste that came with it.
The gun didn’t fire.
She squeezed the trigger again, and still there was no boom, and then she realized that her hand was empty. She wasn’t holding the pistol.
One of the knives was near her hand. It was a table knife with a finely serrated edge, suitable for spreading butter or for slicing well-cooked chicken or for cutting green beans into bite-size pieces, but not ideal for stabbing someone to death. A knife was a knife, however, better than no weapon at all, and she quietly closed her hand around it.
Now all she had to do was find the strength to get off the floor. Curiously, she couldn’t even lift her head. She had never before felt so tired.
She had been hit hard on the back of the neck. She wondered about spinal injury.
She refused to weep. She had the knife.
The killer came to her, stooped, and extracted the knife from her hand. She was amazed at how easily it slipped from her fingers, even though she clutched it ferociously, as if it hadn’t been a knife at all but a sliver of melting ice.
“Bad girl,” he said, and rapped the flat of the blade against the top of her skull.
He continued with the cleanup.
While trying not to think about spinal injuries, Chyna managed to get her hand around a fork.
He returned and took that away from her too. “No,” he said, as though he were training a recalcitrant puppy. “No.”
“Bastard,” she said, dismayed to hear a slur in her voice.
“Sticks and stones.”
“Oh, very pretty,” he said scornfully.
“I should wash your mouth out with soap.”
“Your mother never taught you words like that.”
“You don’t know my mother,” she said thickly.
He hit her again, a hard chop to the side of the neck this time.
Then Chyna lay in darkness, listening worriedly to her mother’s distant g*y laughter and strange men’s voices. Shattering glass. Cursing. Thunder and wind. Palm trees thrashing in the night over Key West. The quality of the laughter changed. Mocking now. Crashes that weren’t thunder. And the skittery palmetto beetle over her bare legs and across her back. Other times. Other places. In the vapory realm of dreams, the iron fist of memory.
Shortly after nine o’clock in the morning, after dealing with the woman and washing the flatware, Mr. Vess sets loose the dogs.
At the back door, at the front door, and in his bedroom, there are call buttons that, when pushed, sound a soft buzzer in the kennel behind the barn. When the Dobermans have been sent there with the word crib, as they were sent earlier, the buzzer is a command that at once returns them to active patrol.
He uses the call button by the kitchen door and then steps to the large window by the dinette to watch the backyard.
The sky is low and gray, still shrouding the Siskiyou Mountains, but rain is no longer falling. The drooping boughs of the evergreens drip steadily. The bark on the deciduous trees is a sodden black; their limbs — some with the first fragile green buds of spring, others still barren — are so coaly that they appear to have been stripped by fire.
Some people might think that the scene is passive now, with the thunder spent and the lightning extinguished, but Mr. Vess knows that a storm is as powerful in its aftermath as in its raging. He is in harmony with this new kind of power, the quiescent power of growth that water bestows on the land.
From the back of the barn come the Dobermans. They pad side by side for a distance, but then split up and proceed each in his own direction.
They are not on attack status at this time. They will chase down and detain any intruder, but they will not kill him. To prime them for blood, Mr. Vess must speak the name Nietzsche.
One of the dogs — Liederkranz — comes onto the back porch, where he stares at the window, adoring his master. His tail wags once, and then once again, but he is on duty, and this brief and measured display of affection is all that he will allow himself.
Liederkranz returns to the backyard. He stands tall, vigilant. He gazes first to the south, then west, and then east. He lowers his head, smells the wet grass, and at last he moves off across the lawn, sniffing industriously. His ears flatten against his skull as he concentrates on a scent, tracking something that he imagines might be a threat to his master.
On a few occasions, as a reward to the Dobermans and to keep them sharp, Mr. Vess has turned loose a captive and has allowed the dogs to stalk her, forgoing the pleasure of the kill himself. It is an entertaining spectacle.
Secure behind the screen of his four-legged Praetorian Guard, Mr. Vess goes upstairs to the bathroom and adjusts the water in the shower until it is luxuriously hot. He lowers the volume of the radio but leaves it tuned to the swing-music program.
As he strips off his soiled clothing, clouds of steam pour over the top of the shower curtain. This humidity enhances the fragrance of the dark stains in his garments. Naked, he stands for a couple of minutes with his face buried in the blue jeans, the T-shirt, the denim jacket, breathing deeply at first but then delicately sniffing one exquisite nuance of odor after another, wishing that his sense of smell were twenty thousand times more intense than it is, like that of a Doberman.
Nevertheless, these aromas transport him into the night just past. He hears once more the soft popping of the sound suppressor on the pistol, the muffled cries of terror and the thin pleas for mercy in the night calm of the Templeton house. He smells Mrs. Templeton’s lilac-scented body lotion, which she’d applied to her skin before retiring, the fragrance of the sachet in the daughter’s underwear drawer. He tastes, in memory, the spider.
Regretfully, he puts the clothes aside for laundering, because by this evening he must pass for the ordinary man that he is not, and this reverse lycanthropy requires time if the transformation is to be convincing.
Therefore, as Benny Goodman plays “One O’clock Jump,” Mr. Vess plunges into the stinging-hot water, being especially vigorous with the washcloth and lavish with a bar of Irish Spring, scrubbing away the too pungent scents of sex and death, which might alarm the sheep. They must never suspect the shepherd of having a snaggle-toothed snout and a bushy tail inside his herdsman’s disguise. Taking his time, bopping to song after song, he shampoos his thick hair twice and then treats it with a penetrating conditioner. He uses a small brush to scrub under his fingernails. He is a perfectly proportioned man, lean but muscular. As always, he takes great pleasure in soaping himself, enjoying the sculpted contours of his body under his slippery hands; he feels like the music sounds, like the soap smells, like the taste of sweetened whipping cream.
Life is. Vess lives.
Chyna came out of Key West darkness and tropical thunder into a fluorescent glare that stung her bleary eyes. At first she mistook the fear that drove her pounding heart for the fear of Jim Woltz, her mother’s friend; she thought that her face was pressed to the floor under the bed in his seaside cottage. But then she remembered the killer and the captive girl.
She was sitting forward in a chair, slumped over the round table in the dining area off the knotty-pine kitchen. Her head was turned to her right, and she was looking through a window at the back porch, the backyard.
The killer had removed a seat cushion from one of the other chairs and had placed it under her head, so her face wouldn’t press uncomfortably against the wood. She shuddered at his thoughtfulness.
As she tried to lift her head, pain shot up the back of her neck and throbbed in the right side of her face. She almost blacked out, and decided not to be in a rush about getting up.
When she shifted in the chair, the clink of chains indicated that getting up might not be a choice either now or later. Her hands were in her lap, and when she tried to lift one, she lifted both, for her wrists were cuffed.
She tried to pull her feet apart — and discovered that her ankles were shackled. Judging by the noisy rattling and clinking that her small movements generated, there were other encumbrances as well.
Outside, something as black as soot bounded across the green lawn, scampered up the steps, and crossed the porch. It came to the window, jumped up, put its paws on the window stool, and peered in at her. A Doberman pinscher.
Against her breasts, Ariel holds an open book as if it is a shield, hands splayed across the binding. She is in the enormous armchair, legs drawn up beneath her, the only perfect doll of all those in the room.
Mr. Vess sits on a footstool before her.
He cleans up well. Showered, shampooed, shaved, and combed, he is presentable in any company, and any mother, seeing him on the arm of her daughter, would think that he was a prize. He is wearing loafers without socks, beige cotton Dockers, a braided leather belt, and a pale-green chambray shirt.
In her schoolgirl uniform, Ariel looks good too. Vess is pleased to see that she has regularly groomed herself in his absence, as she was instructed. It is not easy for her, taking only sponge baths and shampooing her glorious hair in the sink.
He constructed this room for others, who came before her, none of whom was in residence longer than two months. Until he’d met his Ariel, and learned what an engagingly independent spirit she was, he’d never imagined that he would insist on anyone staying this long. Consequently, a shower had seemed unnecessary.
He had first seen the girl in a newspaper photograph. Though only a tenth-grader, she had been something of a prodigy and had led her Sacramento high school team to victory in a statewide California academic decathlon. She had looked so tender. The newspaper had trembled in his hands when he had seen her, and he had known at once that he must drive to Sacramento and meet her. He’d shot the father. The mother had owned an enormous collection of dolls and had made dolls of her own as a hobby. Vess had beaten her to death with a ventriloquist dummy that had a large, carved-maple head as effective as a baseball bat.
“You’re more beautiful than ever,” he tells Ariel, and his voice is muffled by the soundproofing, as if he were speaking from inside a coffin, buried alive.
She does not reply or even acknowledge his presence. She is in her silent mode, as she has been without interruption for more than six months.
“I missed you.”
These days, she never looks at him but stares at a point above his head and off to one side. If he were to stand up from the footstool and move into her line of sight, she would still be looking over his head and to one side, though he would never quite be able to see her eyes shift in avoidance.
“I brought a few things to show you.”
From a shoe box on the floor beside the footstool, he extracts two Polaroid photographs. She will not accept them or turn her eyes to them, but Vess knows that she will examine these mementos after he leaves.
She is not as lost to this world as she pretends to be. They are engaged in a complicated game with high stakes, and she is a good player.
“This first is a picture of a lady named Sarah Templeton, the way she looked before I had her. She was in her forties but very attractive. A lovely woman.”
The armchair is so deep that the seat cushion provides a ledge in front of Ariel on which Vess can place the photograph.
“Lovely,” he repeats.
Ariel doesn’t blink. She is capable of staring fixedly without blinking for surprisingly long periods. Now and then Mr. Vess worries that she will damage her striking blue eyes; corneas require frequent lubrication. Of course, if she goes too long without blinking and her eyes become dangerously dry, the irritation will cause tears to spring up involuntarily.
“This is a second photograph of Sarah, after I was finished with her,” Mr. Vess says, and he also places this picture on the chair. “As you can see if you choose to look, the word lovely doesn’t apply any more. Beauty never lasts. Things change.”
From the shoe box he takes two more photographs.
“This is Sarah’s daughter, Laura. Before. And after. You can see she was beautiful. Like a butterfly. But there’s a worm in every butterfly, you know.”
He places these snapshots on the chair and reaches into the box again.
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