Page 5


Chyna quietly closed the stall door.


If there was such a thing as mercy, then Sarah Templeton had never regained any awareness after being knocked unconscious.


She remembered the hug that Sarah had given her on the front walk when she had first arrived with Laura. Repressing tears, she wished that she herself were dead instead of the precious woman in the shower stall. Indeed, she was half dead and less alive by the minute, because a piece of her heart died with each of these people.


Chyna returned to the bedroom. She moved away from the bed but didn’t go immediately toward the hall door. Instead, she stood in the darkest corner, shaking uncontrollably.


Her stomach rolled. An acidic burning rose in her chest, and a bitter taste filled the back of her mouth. She suppressed an urge to vomit. The killer might hear her retching, and then he would come to get her.


Although she’d met Laura’s parents only the previous afternoon, Chyna had known them also from her friend’s numerous anecdotes and colorful stories of family adventures. She should have felt even more grief than she did, but she had only a limited capacity for it right now. Later it would hit her harder. Grief thrived in a quiet heart, and right now hers thundered with terror and revulsion.


She was shocked that the killer had done so much damage while she had sat, unknowing, at the guestroom window, brooding on the stars and thinking of other nights when she had gazed at them from rooftops, backyard trees, and beaches. From what she’d seen, he had taken at least ten or fifteen minutes with Paul and Sarah before searching the rest of the large house to locate and overpower the remaining occupants.


Sometimes a man like this got a special thrill from risking interruption, even apprehension. Perhaps a half-asleep, bewildered child would be drawn into the parents’ room by some commotion and then would have to be pursued and dragged down before escaping the house. Such possibilities heightened the pleasure that the creep took from his activities in the bedroom and the bath.


This was a pleasure to him. A compulsion, but not one over which he despaired. Fun. His recreation. No guilt — therefore, no anguish. Savagery gladdened him.


Somewhere in the house, he was either at play or resting until he was ready to begin the game again.


As her shakes subsided to shivers, Chyna grew increasingly afraid for Laura. Those two muffled cries, minutes ago, had surely come after Sarah was already dead, so Laura must have been surprised in her sleep by a man smelling of her mother’s blood. As soon as he had overpowered and secured her, he had hurried to search the rest of the second floor, concerned that another member of the family might have been alerted by her stifled screams.


He might not have returned immediately to Laura. Having found no one in any of the other rooms, confident that the house was firmly under his reign, he most likely had gone exploring. If the textbooks were correct, he would probably wish to violate every private space. Pore through the contents of his host’s and hostess’s closets and desk drawers. Eat food from their refrigerator. Read their mail. Perhaps finger and smell the soiled clothing in the laundry-room hamper. If he could locate collections of family photographs, he might even sit in the den for an hour or longer, amusing himself with those albums.


Sooner or later, however, he would return to Laura.


Sarah Templeton had been an extremely attractive woman, but night visitors like this man were drawn toward youth; they fed on innocence. Laura was his meat of choice, as irresistible as birds’ eggs to certain tree-climbing serpents.


When at last Chyna overcame her racking nausea and was certain that she wouldn’t betray herself by being suddenly and violently sick, she crept out of the corner and silently crossed the room.


She wouldn’t have been safe in the master suite anyway. Before the visitor left, he was likely to return here for one last look at poor Sarah in the shower with her slender arms crossed in a pathetic and ineffective posture of defense.


At the half-open door, Chyna paused to listen.


Directly across the hall, the faded roses on the wallpaper seemed more mysterious than ever. The pattern had such enigmatic depth that she was almost convinced she might be able to part the thorny vines and step out of that paper arbor into a sunny realm where, when she looked back, this house would not exist.


With the light from the nightstand lamp behind her, she could not ease cautiously into the doorway and take her time peeking left and right, because when she moved onto the threshold, she would cast a shadow on those faded roses across the hall. Dawdling behind that unavoidable announcement of herself would be dangerous.


Seduced by a long silence that seemed to promise safety, she finally sidled between the half-open door and the jamb, into the hallway — and he was there. Ten feet away. Near the head of the front stairs, which lay to the right. His back was to her.


She froze. Half in the hallway. Half on the threshold to the master suite. If he turned, she would not be able to slip away before he glimpsed her from the corner of his eye — yet she was unable to move now while there was still a chance to avoid him. She was afraid that if she made any sound whatsoever, he would hear it and spin toward her. Even the microwhispers of carpet fibers compressing under her shoe, if she moved, seemed certain to draw his attention.


The visitor was doing something so bizarre that Chyna was as transfixed by his activity as by her fear. His hands were raised in front of him, stretched as high as he could reach, and his spread fingers languorously combed the air. He seemed to be in a trance, as though trying to seine psychic impressions from the ether.


He was a big man. Six feet two, maybe even taller. Muscular. Narrow waist, enormous shoulders. His denim jacket stretched tautly across his broad back.


His hair was thick and brown, neatly barbered against the nape of his bull neck, but Chyna could not see his face. She hoped never to see it.


His seining fingers, stained with blood, looked crushingly strong. He would be able to choke the life out of her with a single-hand grip.


“Come to me,” he murmured.


Even in a whisper, his rough voice had a timbre and a power that were magnetic.


“Come to me.”


He seemed to be speaking not to a vision that only he could see but to Chyna, as if his senses were so acute that he had been able to detect her merely from the movement of the air that she had displaced when she’d stepped soundlessly through the doorway.


Then she saw the spider. It dangled from the ceiling on a gossamer filament a foot above the killer’s reaching hands.


“Please.”


As if responding to the man’s supplications, the spider spun out its thread, descending.


The killer stopped reaching, turned his hand palm-up. “Little one,” he breathed.


Fat and black, the obedient spider reeled itself down into the big open palm.


The killer brought his hand to his mouth and tipped his head back slightly. He either crushed the spider and ate it — or ate it alive.


He stood motionless, savoring.


Finally, without looking back, he went to the head of the stairs on the right, at the midpoint of the hallway, and descended spider-quick and almost spider-silent to the first floor.


Chyna shuddered, stunned to be alive.


2


The house held a drowning depth of stillness as a dam held water, with tremendous pent-up power and pressure on the breast.


When Chyna found the courage to move, she cautiously approached the head of the stairs. She feared that the visitor had not fully descended to the first floor, that he was toying with her, standing just out of sight, waiting, smiling. He would reach for her, palms up, and say, Come to me.


She held her breath, risked exposure, and looked down. The stairs curved through gradients of gloom to the foyer below. She could see just well enough to be sure that he wasn’t there.


As far as Chyna could discern, no lamps were on downstairs. She wondered what he was doing in that darkness, guided only by the pale moonglow at the windows. Perhaps he was in a corner, crouched like a spider, sensitive to the faintest changes in the patterns of the air, dreaming of silent stalkings and the frenzied rending of prey.


She went quickly past the head of the stairs, into the last length of hallway, to the next open door and the second source of amber light, dreading what she might find. But she could cope with both the dread and the finding. It was always not knowing, turning away from truth, that caused night sweats and bad dreams.


This room was smaller than the master suite, with no sitting area. A corner desk. A double bed. One nightstand with a brass lamp, a dresser, a vanity with a padded bench.


On the wall above the bed was a poster-size portrait of Freud. Chyna loathed Freud. But Laura, dear of heart and idealistic, clung to a belief in many aspects of Freudian theory; she embraced the dream of a guiltless world, with everyone a victim of his troubled past and yearning for rehabilitation.


Laura was lying facedown on the bed, atop the sheets and the blankets. Her wrists were handcuffed behind her. A second pair of handcuffs secured her ankles. Linking both of those shiny steel restraints was a shackling chain.


She had been violated. The pants of her baggy blue pajamas had been cut off with a neatness worthy of a conscientious tailor; the blue panels of cloth had been smoothed across the blankets to both sides of her. The pajama shirt had been shoved up her back; now it was gathered in rumpled folds across her shoulders and the nape of her neck.


Chyna moved deeper into the room, her fear equaled now by a swelling sorrow that seemed to enlarge her heart yet leave it cold and empty. When she caught a faint odor of spilled semen, her fear and sorrow were matched by anger. As she stooped beside the bed, her hands curled into such hard fists that her fingernails pressed painfully into her palms.


Sweat-damp blond hair was pasted to the side of Laura’s face. Her delicate features were salt-pale and clenched in anxiety, and her eyes were squeezed tightly shut.


She was not dead. Not dead. It seemed impossible.


The girl — terror had reduced her to the condition of a girl — was murmuring so softly that the words couldn’t be heard even from a distance of inches, yet so urgently that the meaning was harrowingly clear. It was a prayer, one that Chyna had recited on numerous nights long ago, in far places: a prayer for mercy, a plea to be delivered from this horror untouched and alive, dear God, please, untouched and alive.


On those other nights, Chyna had been spared both violation and death. Already, half of Laura’s petition had gone unanswered.


Chyna’s throat tightened with anguish, and she could barely speak: “It’s me.”


Laura’s eyelids sprang open, and her blue eyes rolled like those of a terrified horse, wide with disbelief. “All dead.”


“Ssshhh,” Chyna whispered.


“Blood. His hands.”


“Ssshhh. I’ll get you out of here.”


“Stank like blood. Jack’s dead. Nina. Everyone.”


Jack, her brother, whom Chyna had not met. Nina, her sister-in-law. Evidently the killer had been to the vineyard manager’s bungalow before coming to the main house. Four dead. There was no help to be found anywhere on the sprawling property.


Chyna glanced worriedly at the open door, then quickly rose to test the handcuffs on Laura’s wrists. Securely locked.


With fettered hands and fettered ankles linked by a chain, Laura was thoroughly hobbled. She wouldn’t be able to stand, let alone walk.


Chyna wasn’t strong enough to carry her.


She saw her reflection in the vanity mirror across the room, and she realized with a shock how nakedly her terror was revealed in her wrenched face.


Trying to look more composed for Laura’s sake, Chyna stopped beside the bed again and murmured almost as softly as her friend had been praying: “Is there a gun?”


“What?”


“A gun in the house?”


“No.”


“Nowhere in the house?”


“No, no.”


“Shit.”


“Jack.”


“What?”


“Has one.”


“A gun? At the bungalow?” Chyna asked.


“Jack has a gun.”


Chyna didn’t have time to get to the bungalow and back before the killer returned to Laura’s room. Anyway, more likely than not, he had already found the gun and confiscated it.


“Do you know who he is?”


“No.” Laura’s sky-blue eyes appeared to darken with despair. “Get out.”


“I’ll find a weapon.”


“Get out,” Laura whispered more urgently, cold sweat glistening on her brow.


“A knife,” Chyna said.


“Don’t die for me.” Then, sotto voce, tremulously but fiercely, fiercely she said: “Run, Chyna. Oh, God, please run!”


“I’ll be back.”


“Run.”


From outside, a sound arose. A truck engine. Approaching.


Astonished, Chyna shot to her feet. “Someone’s coming. Help’s coming.”


Laura’s bedroom was toward the front of the house. Chyna stepped to the nearer of two windows, which provided a view of the half-mile driveway leading in from the two-lane county road.


A quarter of a mile away, bright headlights pierced the night. Judging by the height of the lights from the ground, Chyna concluded that the truck was big.


How miraculous that anyone would show up at this hour, in this lonely place.


As a thrill of hope swept through Chyna, she realized that the killer would have heard the engine too. The man or men in the truck wouldn’t know what trouble they were getting into. When they stopped in front of the house, they would be dead men breathing.


“Hold on,” she said, touched Laura’s damp forehead to reassure her, and then crossed the room to the door, leaving her friend under the smug and somber gaze of Sigmund Freud.


The hallway was deserted.


Chyna hurried to the head of the curved stairs, hesitated to commit herself to the tenebrous lair below, but then realized that she had nowhere else to go. She went down as fast as she dared without the support of the handrail. Staying clear of the balustrade. Too exposed there. Close to the wall was better.


She quickly passed a series of large landscape paintings in ornate frames, which seemed almost to be windows on actual pastoral vistas. Earlier, they had been bright and cheerful scenes. Now they were ominous: goblin forests, black rivers, killing fields.


The foyer. An oval area rug on polished oak. Through a closed door to the right was Paul Templeton’s study. Through the archway on the left was the dark living room.


The killer could be anywhere.


Outside, the roar of the truck grew louder. It was almost to the house. The driver would be shot through the windshield the moment that he braked to a stop. Or gunned down when he stepped out from behind the steering wheel.

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