Edgler Vess stands motionless. Listening. Watchful. Breathing deeply, seeking scents. Then for a while he inhales through his open mouth, catching what he can upon his tongue. He feels the moist air like the clammy skin of a cadaver against his face. All his senses are open wide, irised to the max, and the freshly washed world drains into them.
Finally he can detect no harm in the morning.
As Vess is putting the license plate on the back of the motor home, Tilsiter pads to him. The dog nuzzles his master’s neck.
Vess encourages the Doberman to stay. When he is finished with the plate, he points Tilsiter to the nearby deer spoor.
The dog seems not to see the tracks. Or, seeing them, he does not have any interest.
Vess leads him to the spoor, right in among the prints. Once more he points to them.
Because Tilsiter appears to be confused, Vess places his hand on the back of the dog’s head and presses his muzzle into one of the tracks.
The Doberman catches a scent at last, sniffs eagerly, whimpers with excitement — then decides that he doesn’t like what he smells. He squirms out from under his master’s hand and backs off, looking sheepish.
“What?” says Vess.
The dog licks his chops. He looks away from Vess, surveys the meadows, the lane, the yard. He glances at Vess again, but then he trots off to the south, returning to patrol.
The trees still dripping. The mists rising. The spent clouds scudding fast toward the southeast.
Mr. Vess decides to kill Chyna Shepherd immediately.
He will haul her into the yard, make her lie facedown on the grass, and put a couple of bullets in the back of her skull. He has to go to work this evening, and before that he has to get some sleep, so he won’t have time to enjoy a slow kill.
Later, when he gets home, he can bury her in the meadow with the four dogs watching, insects singing and feeding on one another in the tall grass, and Ariel forced to kiss each of the corpses before it goes forever into the ground — all this in moonlight if there is any.
Quickly now, finish her and sleep.
As he hurries toward the house, he realizes that the screwdriver is still in his hand, which might be more interesting than using the pistol, yet just as quick.
Up the flagstone steps, onto the front porch, where the finger of the Seattle attorney hangs silent among the seashells in the cool windless air.
He doesn’t bother to wipe his feet, a rare breach of compulsive procedure.
The ratcheting hinge is matched by the sound of his own ragged breathing as he opens the door and steps into the house. When he closes the door, he is startled to hear his thudding heartbeats chasing one another.
He is never afraid, never. With this woman, however, he has been unsettled more than once.
A few steps into the room, he halts, getting a grip on himself. Now that he is inside again, he doesn’t understand why killing her seemed to be such an urgent priority.
But never has his intuition delivered such a clamorous message that has left him this conflicted. The woman is special, and he so badly wants to use her in special ways. Merely pumping two shots into the back of her head or sticking the screwdriver into her a few times would be such a waste of her potential.
He is never afraid. Never.
Even being unsettled like this is a challenge to his dearest image of himself. The poet Sylvia Plath, whose work leaves Mr. Vess uncharacteristically ambivalent, once said that the world was ruled by panic, “panic with a dog-face, devil-face, hag-face, whore-face, panic in capital letters with no face at all — the same Johnny Panic, awake or asleep.” But Johnny Panic does not rule Edgler Vess and never will, because Mr. Vess has no illusions about the nature of existence, no doubts about his purpose, and no moments of his life that ever require reinterpretation when he has the time for quiet reflection.
He cannot live with intensity if he is afraid, because Johnny Panic inhibits spontaneity and experimentation. Therefore, he will not allow this woman of mysteries to spook him.
As both his breathing and his heartbeat subside to normal rates, he turns the rubberized handle of the screwdriver around and around in his hand, staring at the short blunt blade at the end of the long steel shank.
The moment Vess entered the kitchen, before he spoke, Chyna sensed he had changed from the man that she had known thus far. He was in a different mood from any that had previously possessed him, although the precise difference was so subtle that she was not able to define it.
He approached the table as if to sit down, then stopped short of his chair. Frowning and silent, he stared at her.
In his right hand was a screwdriver. Ceaselessly he rolled the handle through his fingers, as if tightening an imaginary screw.
On the floor behind him were crumbling chunks of mud. He had come inside with dirty shoes.
She knew that she must not speak first. They were at a strange juncture where words might not mean what they had meant before, where the most innocent statement might be an incitement to violence.
A short while ago, she had half preferred to be killed quickly, and she had tried to trigger one of his homicidal impulses. She had also considered ways that, although shackled, she might be able to commit suicide. Now she held her tongue to avoid inadvertently enraging him.
Evidently, even in her desolation, she continued to harbor a small but stubborn hope that was camouflaged in the grayness where she could not see it. A stupid denial. A pathetic longing for one more chance. Hope, which had always seemed ennobling to her, now seemed as dehumanizing as feverish greed, as squalid as lust, just an animal hunger for more life at any cost.
She was in a deep, bleak place.
Finally Vess said, “Last night.”
“In the redwoods.”
“Did you see anything?” he asked.
“You must have.”
She shook her head.
“The elk,” he said.
“Oh. Yes, the elk.”
“A herd of them.”
“You didn’t think they were peculiar?”
“Coastal elk. They thrive in that area.”
“These seemed almost tame.”
“Maybe because tourists drive through there all the time.”
Slowly turning and turning the screwdriver, he considered her explanation. “Maybe.”
Chyna saw that the fingers of his right hand were covered with a film of dry mud.
He said, “I can smell the musk of them now, the texture of their eyes, hear the greenness of the ferns swaying around them, and it’s a cold dark oil in my blood.”
No reply was possible, and she didn’t try to make one.
Vess lowered his gaze from Chyna’s eyes to the turning point of the screwdriver — and then to his shoes. He looked over his shoulder and saw the mud on the floor.
“This won’t do,” he said.
He put the screwdriver on a nearby counter.
He took off his shoes and carried them into the laundry room, where he left them to be cleaned later.
He returned in his bare feet and, using paper towels and a bottle of Windex, cleaned every crumb of mud from the tiles. In the living room, he used a vacuum cleaner to sweep the mud out of the carpet.
These domestic chores occupied him for almost fifteen minutes, and by the time he finished, he was no longer in the mood that had possessed him when he’d entered the kitchen. Housework seemed to scrub away his blues.
“I’m going to go upstairs and sleep now,” he said. “You’ll be quiet and not rattle your chains much.”
She said nothing.
“You’ll be quiet, or I’ll come down and shove five feet of the chain up your ass.”
He left the room.
The difference between Vess’s usual demeanor and his recent mood no longer eluded Chyna. For a few minutes, he had lacked his usual self-confidence. Now he had it back.
Mr. Vess always sleeps in the nude to facilitate his dreams.
In slumberland, all the people whom he encounters are naked, whether they are being torn asunder beneath him in glorious wetness or are running in a pack with him through high shadowed places and down into moonlight. There is a heat in his dreams that not only makes clothes superfluous but burns from him the very concept of clothes, so going na*ed is more natural in the dreamworld than in the real one.
He never suffers from nightmares. This is because, in his daily life, he confronts the sources of his tensions and deals with them. He is never dragged down by guilt. He is not judgmental of others and is never affected by what they think of him. He knows that if something he wishes to do feels right, then it is right. He always looks out for number one, because to be a successful human being, he must first like himself. Consequently, he always goes to his bed with a clear mind and an untroubled heart.
Now, within seconds of resting his head on his pillow, Mr. Vess is asleep. From time to time his legs cycle beneath the covers, as if he is chasing something.
Once, in his sleep, he says, “Father,” almost reverentially, and the word hangs like a bubble on the air — which is odd, because when Edgler Vess was nine years old, he burned his father to death.
Chains rattling, Chyna leaned down and picked up the spare cushion from the floor beside her chair. She put it on the table, slumped forward, and rested her head on it.
According to the kitchen clock, it was a quarter till twelve. She had been awake well over twenty-four hours, except when she had dozed in the motor home and when she had sat here unconscious after Vess clubbed her.
Although exhausted, and numb with despair, she did not expect to be able to sleep. But she hoped that by keeping her eyes closed and letting her thoughts drift to more pleasant times, she might be able to take her mind off her mild but gradually increasing urge to pee and off the pain in her neck and trigger finger.
She was walking in a wind full of torn red blossoms, curiously unafraid of the darkness and of the lightning that sometimes split it, when she was awakened not by thunder but by the sound of scissors clipping through paper.
She lifted her head from the pillow and sat up straight. The fluorescent light stung her eyes.
Edgler Vess was standing at the sink, cutting open a large bag of potato chips.
He said, “Ah, you’re awake, you sleepyhead.”
Chyna looked at the clock. Twenty minutes till five.
He said, “I thought it might take a brass band to bring you around.”
She had been asleep almost five hours. Her eyes were grainy. Her mouth was sour. She could smell her body odor, and she felt greasy.
She had not wet herself in her sleep, and she was briefly lifted by an absurd sense of triumph that she had not yet been reduced to that lower level of humiliation. Then she realized how pathetic she was, priding herself on her continence, and her internal grayness darkened by a degree or two.
Vess was wearing black boots, khaki slacks, a black belt, and a white T-shirt.
His arms were muscular, enormous. She would never be able to struggle successfully against those arms.
He brought a plate to the table. He had made a sandwich for her. “Ham and cheese with mustard.”
A ruffle of lettuce showed at the edges of the bread. He had placed two dill pickle spears beside the sandwich.
As Vess put the bag of potato chips on the table, Chyna said, “I don’t want it.”
“You have to eat,” he said.
She looked out the window at the deep yard in late-afternoon light.
“If you don’t eat,” he said, “I’ll eventually have to force-feed you.” He picked up the bottle of aspirin and shook it to get her attention. “Tasty?”
“I didn’t take any,” she said.
“Ah, then you’re learning to enjoy your pain.”
He seemed to win either way.
He took away the aspirin and returned with a glass of water. Smiling, he said, “You’ve got to keep those kidneys functioning or they’ll atrophy.”
As Vess cleaned the counter where he’d made the sandwich, Chyna said, “Were you abused as a child?” and hated herself for asking the question, for still trying to understand.
Vess laughed and shook his head. “This isn’t a textbook, Chyna. This is real life.”
“No. My father was a Chicago accountant. My mom sold women’s wear at a department store. They loved me. Bought me too many toys, more than I could use, especially since I preferred playing with…other things.”
“Animals,” she said.
“And before animals — insects or very little things like goldfish or turtles.”
“Is that in your textbooks?”
“It’s the earliest and worst sign. Torturing animals.”
He shrugged. “It was fun…watching the stupid thing crawl on fire inside its shell. Really, Chyna, you have to learn to get beyond these petty value judgments.”
She closed her eyes, hoping he would go to work.
“Anyway, my folks loved me, all caught up in that delusion. When I was nine, I set a fire. Lighter fluid in their bed while they were sleeping, then a cigarette.”
“There you go again.”
He mocked: “Why not?”
“Want the second-best answer?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Then look at me when I talk to you.”
She opened her eyes.
His gaze cleaved her. “I set them on fire because I thought maybe they were beginning to catch on.”
“To the fact that I was something special.”
“They caught you with the turtle,” she guessed.
“No. A neighbor’s kitten. We lived in a nice suburb. There were so many pets in the neighborhood. Anyway, when they caught me, there was talk of doctors. Even at nine, I knew I couldn’t allow that. Doctors might be harder to fool. So we had a little fire.”
“And nothing was done to you?”
Finished with his cleaning, he sat down at the table. “No one suspected. Dad was smoking in bed, the firemen said. It happens all the time. The whole house went. I barely got out alive, and Mommy was screaming, and I couldn’t get to her, couldn’t help my mommy, and I was so scared.” He winked at her. “After that, I went to live with my grandma. She was an annoying old biddy, full of rules, regulations, standards of conduct, manners, and courtesies I had to learn. But she couldn’t keep a clean house. Her bathroom was just disgusting. She led me into my second and last mistake. I killed her while she was standing in the kitchen, just like this, preparing dinner. It was an impulsive thing, a knife twice in each kidney.”
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