After dinner, Chyna and Laura went for a walk in the moonlit vineyards, between the rows of low pruned vines that had not yet begun to sprout either leafy trailers or fruit. The cool air was redolent with the pleasant fecund smell of freshly plowed earth, and there was a sense of mystery in the dark fields that she found intriguing, enchanting — but at times disconcerting, as if they were among unseen presences, ancient spirits that were not all benign.
When they had strolled deep into the vines and then turned back toward the house, Chyna said, “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”
“Me too,” Laura said.
“More than that…” Chyna’s voice trailed away. She had been about to say, You’re the only friend I’ve ever had, but that made her seem so lame and, besides, was still an inadequate expression of what she felt for this girl. They were, indeed, in one sense sisters.
Laura linked arms with her and merely said, “I know.”
“When you have babies, I want them to call me Aunt Chyna.”
“Listen, Shepherd, don’t you think I should find a guy and get married before I start pumping out the babies?”
“Whoever he is, he better be the best husband in the world to you, or I promise I’ll cut his cojones off.”
“Do me a favor, okay?” Laura said. “Don’t tell him about this promise until after the wedding. Some guys might be put off by it.”
From elsewhere in the vineyards came a disquieting sound that stopped Chyna. A protracted creaking.
“It’s just the breeze working at a loose barn door, rusty hinges,” Laura said.
It sounded as if someone were opening a giant door in the wall of night itself and stepping in from another world.
Chyna Shepherd could not sleep comfortably in strange houses. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, her mother had dragged her from one end of the country to the other, staying nowhere longer than a month or two. So many terrible things had happened to them in so many places that Chyna eventually learned to view each new house not as a new beginning, not with hope for stability and happiness, but with suspicion and quiet dread.
Now she was long rid of her troubled mother and free to stay only where she wished. These days, her life was almost as stable as that of a cloistered nun, as meticulously planned as any bomb squad’s procedures for disarming an explosive device, and without any of the turmoil on which her mother had thrived.
Nevertheless, this first night in the Templetons’ house, Chyna was reluctant to undress and go to bed. She sat in the darkness in a medallion-back armchair at one of the two windows in the guest room, gazing out at the moonlit vineyards, fields, and hills of the Napa Valley.
Laura was in another room, at the far end of the second-floor hall, no doubt sound asleep, at peace because this house was not at all strange to her.
From the guest-room window, the early-spring vineyards were barely visible. Vague geometric patterns.
Beyond the cultivated rows were gentle hills mantled in long dry grass, silver in the moonlight. An inconstant breeze stirred through the valley, and sometimes the wild grass seemed to roll like ocean waves across the slopes, softly aglimmer with lambent lunar light.
Above the hills was the Coast Range, and above those peaks were cascades of stars and a full white moon. Storm clouds coming across the mountains from the northwest would soon darken the night, turning the silver hills first to pewter and then to blackest iron.
When she heard the first scream, Chyna was gazing at the stars, drawn by their cold light as she had been since childhood, fascinated by the thought of distant worlds that might be barren and clean, free of pestilence. At first the muffled cry seemed to be only a memory, a fragment of a shrill argument from another strange house in the past, echoing across time. Often, as a child, eager to hide from her mother and her mother’s friends when they were drunk or high, she climbed onto porch roofs or into backyard trees, slipped through windows onto fire escapes, away to secret places far from the fray, where she could study the stars and where voices raised in argument or sexual excitement or shrill drug-induced giddiness came to her as though from out of a radio, from faraway places and people who had no connection whatsoever with her life.
The second cry, though also brief and only slightly louder than the first, was indisputably of the moment, not a memory, and Chyna sat forward on her chair. Tense. Head cocked. Listening.
She wanted to believe that the voice had come from outside, so she continued to stare into the night, surveying the vineyards and the hills beyond. Breeze-driven waves swelled through the dry grass on the moon-washed slopes: a water mirage like the ghost tides of an ancient sea.
From elsewhere in the large house came a soft thump, as though a heavy object had fallen to a carpeted floor.
Chyna immediately rose from the chair and stood utterly still, expectant.
Trouble often followed voices raised in one kind of passion or another. Sometimes, however, the worst offenses were preceded by calculated silences and stealth.
She had difficulty reconciling the idea of domestic violence with Paul and Sarah Templeton, who had seemed kind and loving toward each other as toward their daughter. Nevertheless, appearances and realities were seldom the same, and the human talent for deception was far greater than that of the chameleon, the mockingbird, or the praying mantis, which masked its ferocious cannibalism with a serene and devout posture.
Following the stifled cries and the soft thump, silence sifted down like a snowfall. The hush was eerily deep, as unnatural as that in which the deaf lived. This was the stillness before the pounce, the quietude of the coiled snake.
In another part of the house, someone was standing as motionless as she herself was standing, as alert as she was, intently listening. Someone dangerous. She could sense the predatory presence, a subtle new pressure in the air, not dissimilar to that preceding a violent thunderstorm.
On one level, six years of psychology classes caused her to question her immediate fearful interpretation of those night sounds, which conceivably could be insignificant, after all. Any well-trained psychoanalyst would have a wealth of labels to pin on someone who leaped first to a negative conclusion, who lived in expectation of sudden violence.
But she had to trust her instinct. It had been honed by many years of hard experience.
Intuitively certain that safety lay in movement, she stepped quietly away from the chair at the window, toward the hall door. In spite of the moonglow, her eyes had adjusted to darkness during the two hours that she had sat in the lightless room, and now she eased through the gloom with no fear of blundering into furniture.
She was only halfway to the door when she heard approaching footsteps in the second-floor hall. The heavy, urgent tread was alien to this house.
Unhampered by the interminable second-guessing that accompanied an education in psychology, reverting to the intuition and defenses of childhood, Chyna quickly retreated to the bed. She dropped to her knees.
Farther along the hall, the footsteps stopped. A door opened.
She was aware of the absurdity of attributing rage to the mere opening of a door. The rattle of the knob being turned, the rasp of the unsecured latch, the spike-sharp squeak of an unoiled hinge — they were only sounds, neither meek nor furious, guilty nor innocent, and could have been made as easily by a priest as by a burglar. Yet she knew that rage was at work in the night.
Flat on her stomach, she wriggled under the bed, feet toward the headboard. It was a graceful piece of furniture with sturdy galbe legs, and fortunately it didn’t sit as close to the floor as did most beds. One inch less of clearance would have prevented her from hiding under it.
Footsteps sounded in the hall again.
Another door opened. The guest-room door. Directly opposite the foot of the bed.
Someone switched on the lights.
Chyna lay with her head turned to one side, her right ear pressed to the carpet. Staring out from under the footboard, she could see a man’s black boots and the legs of his blue jeans below mid-calf.
He stood just inside the threshold, evidently surveying the room. He would see a bed still neatly made at one o’clock in the morning, with four decorative needlepoint pillows arranged against the headboard.
She had left nothing on the nightstands. No clothes tossed on chairs. The paperback novel that she had brought with her for bedtime reading was in a bureau drawer.
She preferred spaces that were clean and uncluttered to the point of monastic sterility. Her preference might now save her life.
Again a faint doubt, the acquired propensity for self-analysis that plagued all psychology students, flickered through her. If the man in the doorway was someone with a right to be in the house — Paul Templeton or Laura’s brother, Jack, who lived with his wife in the vineyard manager’s bungalow elsewhere on the property — and if some crisis was unfolding that explained why he would burst into her room without knocking, she was going to appear to be a prime fool, if not a hysteric, when she crawled out from under the bed.
Then, directly in front of the black boots, a fat red droplet — another, and a third — fell to the wheat-gold carpet. Plop-plop-plop. Blood. The first two soaked into the thick nylon pile. The third held its surface tension, shimmering like a ruby.
Chyna knew the blood wasn’t that of the intruder. She tried not to think about the sharp instrument from which it might have fallen.
He moved off to her right, deeper into the room, and she rolled her eyes to follow him.
The bed had carved side rails into which the spread was tightly tucked. No overhanging fabric obstructed her view of his boots.
Obversely, without a spread draped to the floor, the space under the bed was more visible to him. From certain angles, he might even be able to look down and see a swatch of her blue jeans, the toe of one of her Rockports, the cranberry-red sleeve of her cotton sweater where it stretched over her bent elbow.
She was thankful that the bed was queen-size, offering more cover than a single or double.
If he was breathing hard, either with excitement or with the rage that she had sensed in his approach, Chyna couldn’t hear him. With one ear pressed tightly to the plush carpet, she was half deaf. Wood slats and box springs weighed on her back, and her chest barely had room to expand to accommodate her own shallow, cautious, open-mouth inhalations. The hammering of her compressed heart against her breastbone echoed tympanically within her, and it seemed to fill the claustrophobic confines of her hiding place to such an extent that the intruder was certain to hear.
He went to the bathroom, pushed open the door, and flicked on the lights.
She had put away all her toiletries in the medicine cabinet. Even her toothbrush. Nothing lay out that might alert him to her presence.
But was the sink dry?
On retiring to her room at eleven o’clock, she had used the toilet and then had washed her hands. That was two hours ago. Any residual water in the bowl surely would have drained away or evaporated.
Lemon-scented liquid soap in a pump dispenser was provided at the sink. Fortunately, there was no damp bar of soap to betray her.
She worried about the hand towel. She doubted that it could still be damp two hours after the little use she had made of it. Nonetheless, in spite of a propensity for neatness and order, she might have left it hanging ever so slightly askew or with one telltale wrinkle.
He seemed to stand on the bathroom threshold for an eternity. Then he switched off the fluorescent light and returned to the bedroom.
Occasionally, as a little girl — and then not so little — Chyna had taken refuge under beds. Sometimes they looked for her there; sometimes, though it was the most obvious of all hidey-holes, they never thought to look. Of those who found her, a few had checked under the bed first — but most had left it for last.
Another red droplet fell to the carpet, as though the beast might be shedding slow tears of blood.
He moved toward the closet door.
Chyna had to turn her head slightly, straining her neck, to keep track of him.
The closet was deep, a walk-in with a chain-pull light in the center. She heard the distinctive snap of the tugged switch, then the clinking of the metal beads in the chain as they rattled against the light bulb.
The Templetons stored their own luggage at the back of that closet. Stacked with the other suitcases, Chyna’s single bag and train case were not obviously those of a guest in residence.
She had brought several changes of clothes: two dresses, two skirts, another pair of jeans, a pair of chinos, a leather jacket. Because Chyna was the same size as Laura, the intruder might conclude that the few garments on the rod were just spillovers from the packed closet in Laura’s room rather than evidence of a houseguest.
If he had been in Laura’s bedroom, however, and had seen the condition of her closet — then what had happened to Laura?
She must not think about that. Not now. Not yet. For the moment, she needed to focus all her thoughts, all her wits, on staying alive.
Eighteen years ago, on the night of her eighth birthday, in a seaside cottage on Key West, Chyna had squirmed under her bed to hide from Jim Woltz, her mother’s friend. A storm had been raging from the Gulf of Mexico, and the sky-blistering lightning had made her fearful of escaping to the sanctuary of the beach where she’d retreated on other nights. After committing herself to the cramped space under that iron bed, which had been lower slung than this one, she had discovered that she was sharing it with a palmetto beetle. Palmettos were not as exotic or as pretty as their name. In fact, they were nothing more than enormous tropical cockroaches. This one had been as large as her little-girl hand. Ordinarily the hateful bug would have scurried away from her. But it had seemed less alarmed by her than by the thundering Woltz, who had crashed around her small room in a drunken fury, rebounding tirelessly from the furniture and the walls, like an enraged animal throwing itself against the bars of its cage. Chyna had been barefoot, dressed in blue shorts and a white tube top, and the palmetto beetle had raced in a frenzy over all that exposed skin, between her toes, up and down her legs and up again, across her back, along her neck, into her hair, over her shoulder, the length of her slender arm. She hadn’t dared to squeal in revulsion, afraid of drawing Woltz’s attention. He had been wild that night, like a monster from a dream, and she had been convinced that, like all monsters, he possessed supernaturally keen sight and hearing, the better to hunt children. She hadn’t even found the courage to strike out at the beetle or knock it away, for fear that Woltz would hear the smallest sound even over the shriek of the storm and the incessant crashing of thunder. She had endured the palmetto’s attentions in order to avoid those of Woltz, clenching her teeth to bite off a scream, praying desperately for God to save her, then praying harder for God to take her, praying for an end to the torment even if by a bolt of lightning, an end to the torment, an end, dear God, an end.
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