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“You knew him?”

“Not really. He was in town, the county seat, on business like I said, and as he was taking something from his wallet to show me, a set of those little hinged plastic windows fell out, you know, with little wallet-size photographs, and I picked them up for him. One of the pictures was his wife. Another was Laura. She looked so…fresh, unspoiled. I said something like ‘That’s a pretty girl,’ and Paul was off and running about her, every inch the proud papa. Told me she was soon going to have her master’s degree in psychology, three-point-eight grade average and everything. He told me how he really missed her away at school, even after six years of getting used to it, and how he couldn’t wait for the end of the month, because Laura was coming home for a three-day weekend. He didn’t mention she was bringing along a friend.”

An accident. Photos dropped. A casual exchange, mere idle conversation.

The arbitrariness of it was breathtaking and almost more than Chyna could bear.

Then, as she watched Vess thoroughly wiping off the counters and rinsing the dishpan and scrubbing the sink, Chyna began to feel that what had happened to the Templeton family was worse than merely arbitrary. All this violent death began to seem fated, an inexorable spiral into lasting darkness, as if they had been born and had lived only for Edgler Vess.

It was as if she too had been born and had struggled this far only for the purpose of bringing one moment of sick satisfaction to this soulless predator.

The worst horror of his rampages was not the pain and fear that he inflicted, not the blood, not the mutilated cadavers. The pain and the fear were comparatively brief, considering all the routine pain and anxiety of life. The blood and bodies were merely aftermath. The worst horror was that he stole meaning from the unfinished lives of those people he killed, made himself the primary purpose of their existence, robbed them not of time but of fulfillment.

His base sins were envy — of beauty, of happiness — and pride, bending the whole world to his view of creation, and these were the greatest sins of all, the same transgressions over which the devil himself, once an archangel, had stumbled and fallen a long way out of Heaven.

Hand-drying the plates, pans, and flatware in the drainage rack, returning each piece to the proper shelf or drawer, Edgler Vess looked as pink-clean as a freshly bathed baby and as innocent as the stillborn. He smelled of soap, a good bracing aftershave, and lemon-scented dishwashing liquid. But in spite of all this, Chyna found herself superstitiously expecting to detect a whiff of brimstone.

Every life led to a series of quiet epiphanies — or at least to opportunities for epiphanies — and Chyna was washed by a poignant new grief when she thought about this grim aspect of the Templeton family’s interrupted journeys. The kindnesses they might have done for others. The love they might have given. The things they might have come to understand in their hearts.

Vess finished the breakfast clean-up and returned to the table. “I have a few things to do upstairs, outside — and then I’ll have to sleep four or five hours if I can. I’ve got to go to work this evening. I need my rest.”

She wondered what work he did, but she didn’t ask. He might be talking about a job — or about his dogged assault on Ariel’s sanity. If the latter, Chyna didn’t want to know what was coming.

“When you shift around in the chair, do it easy. Those chains will scrape the wood if you’re not careful.”

“I’d hate to mar the furniture,” she said.

He stared at her for perhaps half a minute and then said, “If you’re stupid enough to think you can get free, I’ll hear the chains rattling, and I’ll have to come back in here to quiet you. If that’s necessary, you won’t like what I’ll do.”

She said nothing. She was hopelessly hobbled and chained down. She couldn’t possibly escape.

“Even if you somehow get free of the table and chairs, you can’t move fast. And attack dogs patrol the grounds.”

“I’ve seen them,” she assured him.

“If you weren’t chained, they’d still drag you down and kill you before you’d gone ten steps from the door.”

She believed him — but she didn’t understand why he felt the need to press the point so hard.

“I once turned a young man loose in the yard,” Vess said. “He raced straight to the nearest tree and got up and out of harm’s way with only one bad bite in his right calf and a nip on the left ankle. He braced himself in the branches and thought he would be safe for a little while, with the dogs circling below and watching him, but I got a twenty-two rifle and went out on the back porch and shot him in the leg from there. He fell out of the tree, and then it was all over in maybe a minute.”

Chyna said nothing. There were moments when communicating with this hateful thing seemed no more possible than discussing the merits of Mozart with a shark. This was one of those moments.

“You were invisible to me last night,” he said.

She waited.

His gaze traveled over her, and he seemed to be looking for a loose link in one of the chains or a handcuff left open and unnoticed until now. “Like a spirit.”

She was not sure that it was ever possible to discern what this thing was thinking — but right now, by God, it seemed to be vaguely uneasy about leaving her alone. She couldn’t for the life of her imagine why.

“Stay?” he said.

She nodded.

“Good girl.”

He went to the door between the kitchen and the living room.

Realizing that they had one more issue to discuss, she said, “Before you go…”

He turned to look at her.

“Could you take me to a bathroom?” she asked.

“It’s too much trouble to undo the chains just now,” he said. “Piss in your pants if you have to. I’m going to clean you up later anyway. And I can buy new chair cushions.”

He pushed through the door into the living room and was gone.

Chyna was determined not to endure the humiliation of sitting in her own waste. She had a faint urge to pee, but it wasn’t insistent yet. Later she would be in trouble.

How odd — that she could still care about avoiding humiliation or think about the future.

Halfway across the living room, Mr. Vess stops to listen to the woman in the kitchen. He hears no clink of chains. He waits. And still no sound. The silence troubles him.

He’s not sure what to make of her. He knows so much about her now — yet she still contains mysteries.

Shackled and in his complete control, surely she cannot be his blown tire. She smells of despair and defeat. In the beaten tone of her voice, he sees the gray of ashes and feels the texture of a coffin blanket. She is as good as dead, and she is resigned to it. Yet…

From the kitchen comes the clink of chains. Not loud, not a vigorous assault on her bonds. Just a quiet rattle as she shifts position — perhaps to clasp her thighs tightly together to repress the urge to urinate.

Mr. Vess smiles.

He goes upstairs to his room. From the top shelf at the back of his walk-in closet, he takes down a telephone. In the bedroom, he plugs it into a wall jack and makes two calls, letting people know that he has returned from his three-day vacation and will be back in harness by this evening.

Although he is confident that the Dobermans, in his absence, will never allow anyone to get into the house, Vess keeps only two phones and secretes them in closets when he is not at home. In the extremely unlikely event that an intruder should manage to sprint through the attacking dogs and get into the house alive, he will not be able to call for help.

The danger of cellular phones has been on Mr. Vess’s mind in recent days. It’s difficult to imagine a would-be burglar carrying a portable phone or using it to call the police for help from a house in which he’s become trapped by guard dogs, but stranger things have happened. If Chyna Shepherd had found a cellular phone in the clerk’s Honda the previous night, she would not be the one now languishing in shackles.

The technological revolution here at the end of the millennium offers numerous conveniences and great opportunities, but it also has dangerous aspects. Thanks to his expertise with computers, he has cleverly altered his fingerprint files with various agencies and can go without gloves at places like the Templeton house, enjoying the full sensuality of the experience without fear. But one cellular phone in the wrong hands at the wrong time could lead suddenly to the most intense experience of his life — and the final one. He sometimes longs for the simpler age of Jack the Ripper, or the splendid Ed Gein, who inspired Psycho, or Richard Speck; he dreams wistfully of the less complicated world of earlier decades and of killing fields that were less trampled, then, by such as he.

By feverishly pursuing high ratings, by hyping every story steeped in blood, by making celebrities out of killers, and by fawning over celebrity killers, the electronic news media happily may have inspired more of his clear-thinking kind. But they have also alarmed the sheep too much. Too many in the herd are walleyed with alertness and quick to run at the first perception of danger.

Still, he manages to have his fun.

After making his calls, Mr. Vess goes out to the motor home. The license plates, the blunt-end screws and the nuts to attach them to the vehicle, and a screwdriver are in a drawer in the kitchenette.

By various means, usually two or three weeks prior to one of his expeditions, Mr. Vess carefully selects his primary targets, like the Templeton family. And though he sometimes brings back a living prize for the cellar room, he nearly always travels well beyond the borders of Oregon to minimize the chances that his two lives — good citizen and homicidal adventurer — will cross at the most inconvenient moment. (Though he didn’t employ this method to get Laura Templeton, he has found that clandestine browsing, via computer, through the huge Department of Motor Vehicles’ records in neighboring California is an excellent method of locating attractive women. Their driver’s license photographs — head shots only — are now on file with the DMV. Provided with each picture are the woman’s age, height, and weight — statistics that assist Vess in identifying unacceptable candidates, so he can avoid grandmothers who photograph well and plump women with thin faces. And though some people list post office boxes only, most use their street addresses; thereafter, Mr. Vess needs only a series of good maps.) Upon nearing the end of his drive, when he gets within fifty miles of the target residence, he removes the license plates from the motor home. Later, because he makes a point of being far away from the scene of his games by the time anyone finds the aftermath, he could be tracked down only if someone in the victim’s neighborhood happened to see the motor home and, though it looked perfectly innocent, happened to glance at the plates and — that damn blown tire again — happened to have a photographic memory. Therefore, he leaves the tags off his vehicle until he is safely back in Oregon.

If he were stopped by a police officer for speeding or for some other traffic violation, he would express surprise when asked about his missing license plates and would say that, for God knows what reason, they must have been stolen. He is a good actor; he could sell his bafflement. If the chance arose to do so without putting himself in serious jeopardy, he would kill the cop. And if no such opportunity presented itself, he would most likely be able to count on a swift resolution of the problem by calling upon professional courtesy.

Now he squats on his haunches and attaches one of the tags to the frame in the front license-plate niche.

One by one the dogs come to him, sniffing at his hands and his clothes, perhaps disappointed to find only the scents of aftershave and dishwashing soap. They are starved for attention, but they are on duty. None of them lingers long, each returning to its patrol after one pat on the head, a scratch behind the ears, and a word of affection.

“Good dog,” Mr. Vess says to each. “Good dog.”

When he finishes with the front plate, he stands, stretches, and yawns while surveying his domain.

At ground level, anyway, the wind has died. The air is still and moist. It smells of wet grass, earth, moldering dead leaves, and pine forests.

With the rain finished, the mist is lifting off the foothills and off the lower flanks of the mountains behind the house. He can’t see the peaks of the western range yet or even the blanket of snow lingering on the higher slopes. But directly overhead and to the east, where the mist doesn’t intervene, the clouds are more gray than thunderhead black, a soft moleskin gray, and they are moving rapidly southeast in front of a high-altitude wind. By midnight, as he promised Ariel, there might be stars and even a moon to light the tall grass in the meadow and to shine in the milky eyes of the dead Laura.

Mr. Vess goes to the back of the motor home to attach the second license plate — and discovers odd tracks on the driveway. As he stands staring at them, a frown pools and deepens on his face.

The driveway is shale, but during a heavy rain, mud washes out from the surrounding yard. Here and there it forms a thin skin atop the stone, not soupy but dark and dense.

In this skin of mud are hoof impressions, perhaps those of a deer. A sizable deer. It has crossed the driveway more than once.

He sees a place where it stood for a while, pawing the ground.

No tire tracks mar the mud, because they were erased by the rain that had been falling when he’d come home. Evidently the deer spoor date from after the storm.

He crouches beside the tracks and puts his fingers to the cold mud. He can feel the hardness and smoothness of the hooves that stamped the marks.

A variety of deer thrive in the nearby foothills and mountains. They rarely venture onto Mr. Vess’s property, however, because they are frightened of the Dobermans.

This is the most peculiar thing about the deer tracks: that among them are no paw prints from the dogs.

The Dobermans have been trained to focus on human intruders and, as much as possible, to ignore wildlife. Otherwise, they might be distracted at a moment crucial to their master’s safety. They will never attack rabbits or squirrels or possums — or deer — unless severe hunger eventually drives them to it. They won’t even give playful chase.

Nevertheless, the dogs will take notice of other animals that cross their path. They indulge their curiosity within the limits of their training.

They would have approached this deer and circled ever closer as it stood here, either paralyzing it with fright or spooking it off. And after it had gone, they would have padded back and forth across the driveway, sniffing its spoor.

But not one paw print is visible among the hoof impressions.

Rubbing his muddy fingertips together, Mr. Vess rises to his full height and slowly turns in a circle, studying the surrounding land. The meadows to the north and the distant piney woods beyond. The driveway leading east to the bald knoll. The yard to the south, more meadows beyond, and woods again. Finally the backyard, past the barn, to the foothills. The deer — if it was a deer — is gone.


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