With Laura in his arms, he was forced to turn sideways, pulling her tightly to him as he squeezed through the open door and crabbed up the two interior steps, but he was as agile as he was strong. He disappeared into the vehicle before Chyna could reach him.
She considered going inside after him. But all the windows were curtained, so she didn’t know if he had turned left or right. And if he had put Laura down immediately upon entering, he would now be better able to defend himself against an attack. That was his turf, beyond the door, and she wasn’t sufficiently reckless with vengeance to want to confront him there.
She pressed her back to the wall of the motor home, beside the open door, waiting for him. If he came outside again, she’d go at him even as his foot was reaching for the ground. The element of surprise was still working for her, maybe better than ever — because the killer was close to a clean getaway and feeling so good about himself that he might be careless.
Maybe he wouldn’t come outside again, but at least he would have to reach out to pull the door shut. Standing on the step, leaning to grab at the handle, he would not be well balanced, and she would have the knife deep into him before he had a chance to jerk back.
Movement inside. A thump.
He didn’t appear.
The scent of blood was suddenly heavy out of the northwest, as though a slaughterhouse lay upwind of her. Then it passed, and she realized that she hadn’t actually smelled blood but had flashed back on the smell of the sodden sheets in the Templetons’ master suite.
The aluminum wall of the motor home was cold against her spine, and she shivered because it seemed that some of the coldness of the man inside was seeping through to her.
Waiting, she began to lose her nerve. Resurgent fear tempered her rage, shifting the balance from vengeance to survival. But she could still do it. She could do it. She struggled to hold on to her crazy-hot anger.
Then the killer came out of the motor home, but he didn’t use the exit beside her. He stepped from the open cab door at the front of the vehicle.
Chyna’s breath caught in her throat, and the chill wind from the oncoming storm seemed bitter with the scent of failure.
He was too far away. No longer distracted by the weight of Laura in his arms and the rattling of her shackles, he would hear Chyna coming. She no longer had the element of surprise to even the odds.
He stood just outside the cab door, thirty feet from her, stretching almost lazily. He rolled his big shoulders as if to shake weariness from them, and he massaged the back of his neck.
If he turned his head to the left, he would see her at once. If she didn’t remain absolutely still, he would surely spot her slightest movement even from the corner of his eye.
He was downwind of her, and she was half afraid that he would smell her fear. He seemed more animal than human, even in the fluid grace with which he moved, and she had no trouble believing that he was gifted with wild talents and preternatural senses.
Although he wasn’t holding the silencer-fitted gun with which he had killed Paul Templeton, it might be tucked under his belt. If she tried to flee, he could draw the weapon and shoot her dead before she got far.
But he wouldn’t shoot her dead. Nothing that easy. He’d pop her in the leg, bring her down, and take her captive. Load her into the motor home with Laura. He’d want to play with her later.
Finished stretching, he moved briskly toward the house. Up the walkway. Onto the porch. Inside.
He never looked back.
Chyna’s pent-up breath stuttered from her in a tattoo of fear, and she inhaled with a shudder.
Before her courage faded further, she hurried forward to the cab door and climbed behind the steering wheel. Her best hope was to find keys in the ignition, in which case she would be able to start the engine and drive away with Laura, go into Napa to the police.
She glanced at the house, wondering how long he would be gone. Maybe he was searching for valuables now that the killing was done. Or selecting souvenirs. That could take five minutes, ten minutes, even longer. Which might be enough time to get Laura out of the motor home and hide her somewhere. Somehow.
She still had the knife. And now that she was in the killer’s domain without his knowledge, she had regained the precious element of surprise.
Nevertheless, her heart raced, and her dry mouth was filled with the slightly metallic taste of feverish anxiety.
The seat swiveled, clearing the console. She was able to step from behind the steering wheel into the lounge area, which featured built-in sofas upholstered in a hunter-plaid fabric.
The steel floor was carpeted, of course, but after long years of hard travel, it creaked softly under her feet.
She had expected the place to smell like a Grand Guignol theater where the sadistic plays involved no make-believe, but instead the air was redolent of recently brewed coffee and cinnamon rolls. How odd — and somehow profoundly disturbing — that a man like this should find any satisfaction at all in innocent pleasures.
“Laura,” she whispered, as though the killer might hear her all the way from the house. Then more fiercely than ever, yet in a whisper: “Laura!”
Beyond the lounge and open to it were a kitchenette and a cozy dining alcove with a booth upholstered in red vinyl. Running off the battery, a lamp hung aglow over the dining-nook table.
Laura was not to be seen anywhere.
Moving swiftly out of the dining area, Chyna came to the rear door standing open on the right, through which the killer had entered with the unconscious girl in his arms.
Aft of the outer door, a short cramped hall led along the driver’s side of the vehicle, illuminated by a low-voltage safety fixture. There was also a skylight, now black. On the left were two closed doors, and at the end a third stood ajar.
The first door opened into a tiny bath. The space was a marvel of efficient design: a toilet, a sink, a medicine cabinet, and a corner shower stall.
Behind the second door was a closet. A few changes of clothes hung from a chrome rod.
At the end of the hall was a small bedroom with imitation-wood paneling and a closet with an accordion-style vinyl door. The meager light from the hall didn’t brighten the place much, but Chyna could see well enough to identify Laura; the girl was lying facedown on the narrow bed, swaddled in a sheet, with only her small bare feet and her golden hair revealed.
Urgently whispering her friend’s name, Chyna stepped to the bed and dropped to her knees.
Laura didn’t respond. Still unconscious.
Chyna couldn’t lift the girl, couldn’t carry her as the killer had done, so she had to try to rouse her instead. She pulled aside a flap of sheet and was eye-to-eye with her friend.
They were sapphire-blue eyes now, not pale-sky blue, perhaps because the light in the room was so poor or perhaps because they were occluded with death. Her mouth was open, and blood moistened her lips.
The crazy fu**ing hateful bastard had taken her with him even though she was dead, for God-knew-what purposes, maybe because she was something he could touch and look at and talk to for a few days to remind him of the glory. A souvenir.
Chyna’s stomach cramped painfully, not with revulsion or disgust but with guilt, with failure and futility and sheer black despair.
“Oh, baby,” she said to the dead girl. “Oh, baby, sweetie, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”
Not that she could have done anything more than she had tried to do. What could she have done? She couldn’t have attacked the bastard bare-handed when she had stood behind him in the upstairs hall, when he had been cooing to the dangling spider. What could she have done? She couldn’t have gotten to the kitchen any sooner, found the knife any faster, climbed the back stairs any quicker.
“I’m so sorry.”
This beautiful girl, this dear heart, would never find the husband about whom she had fantasized, never have the children who would have been a betterment to the world by the simple virtue of having been her children. Twenty-three years of getting ready to make a contribution, to make a difference in the lives of others, so full of ideals and hope: But now her gift would never be given, and the world would be immeasurably poorer for it.
“I love you, Laura. We all love you.”
Any words, any sentiment, any expression of grief was horribly inadequate; worse than inadequate — meaningless. Laura was gone, all that warmth and kindness gone forever, and even the most heartfelt words were only words.
Chyna’s stomach cramped with a sense of loss, clenched tight and pulled her relentlessly into a black hole within herself.
At the same time she felt her breast swelling with a sob that, if voiced, would be explosive. A single tear would loose a flood. Even one soft sob would bring on an uncontrollable wail.
She couldn’t risk grief. Not while she was in the motor home. The killer would be returning at any minute, and she couldn’t mourn Laura until she was safely out of there and until he was gone. She no longer had any reason to stay, for Laura was indisputably dead and irretrievable.
Nearby a door slammed hard, shaking the thin metal walls around Chyna.
The killer was back.
Something rattled. Rattled.
With the butcher knife in hand, Chyna swiftly backed away from Laura to the wall next to the open door. Unexpressed grief was a high-octane fuel for rage, and in an instant she was burning with fury, afire with the need to hurt him, slash him, spill his guts, hear him scream, and bring the haunting awareness of mortality to his eyes as he had brought it to Laura’s.
He’ll come into the room. I’ll cut him. He’ll come and I’ll cut him. It was a prayer, not a plan. He’ll come. I’ll cut him. He’ll come. I’ll cut him.
The shadowy room darkened. He was at the door, blocking the meager light from the hall.
Silently, the knife in her hand jittered furiously up and down like the needle on a sewing machine, stitching the pattern of her fear in the air.
He was at the threshold. Right there. Right there. He would come in for one more look at the pretty blond dead girl, for one more feel of her cool skin, and Chyna would get him when he crossed the threshold, cut him.
Instead, he closed the door and went away.
Aghast, she listened to his retreating footsteps, the creaking as the carpeted steel floor torqued under his boots, and she wondered what to do now.
The driver’s door slammed. The engine started. The brakes released with a brief faint shriek.
They were on the move.
Dead girls lie as troubled in the dark as in the light. As the motor home sped along the runneled driveway, Laura’s shackles clinked ceaselessly, only half muffled by the sheet in which she was loosely wrapped.
Blinded, still pressed to the fiberboard wall beside the bedroom door, Chyna Shepherd could almost believe that even in death Laura struggled against the injustice of her murder. Clink-clink.
Periodic sprays of gravel spurted from beneath the tires and rattled against the undercarriage. Shortly the motor home would reach the county road, smooth blacktop.
If Chyna tried to bail out now, the killer was sure to hear the back door bang open when the wind tore it out of her grasp, or spot it in his sideview mirror. In these winter-dormant grape fields, where the nearest houses were inhabited only by the dead, he would certainly risk stopping and giving chase, and she would not get far before he brought her down.
Better to wait. Give him a few miles on the county road, even until they reached a more major route, until they were likely to be passing through a town or traveling in at least sparse traffic. He wouldn’t be as quick to come after her if people were nearby to respond to her cries for help.
She felt along the wall for a switch. The door was tightly shut; no light would spill into the hallway. She found the toggle, flicked it up, but nothing happened. The overhead bulb must have burned out.
She remembered seeing a pharmacy-style reading lamp bolted to the side of the built-in nightstand. By the time she felt her way across the small room, the motor home began to slow.
She hesitated with the lamp switch between thumb and forefinger, heart suddenly racing again because she was afraid that he was going to brake to a full stop, get out from behind the wheel, and come back to the little bedroom. Now that a confrontation could no longer save Laura, now that Chyna’s molten rage had cooled to anger, she hoped only to avoid him, escape, and give the authorities the information that they would need to find him.
The vehicle didn’t come to a full stop, after all, but hung a wide left turn onto a paved surface and picked up speed once more. The county road.
As far as Chyna could recall, the next intersection would be State Highway 29, which she and Laura had driven the previous afternoon. Between here and there, the only turnoffs were to other vineyards, small farms, and houses. He wasn’t likely to pay a visit to any of those places or slaughter any more innocently sleeping families. The night was waning.
She clicked the lamp switch, and a circle of muddy light fell on the bed.
She tried not to look at the body, even though it was mostly concealed by the enwrapping linens. If she thought too much about Laura right now, she’d be sucked into a slough of black despondency. She needed to remain energized and clearheaded if she hoped to survive.
Although she wasn’t likely to find any weapon better than the butcher knife, she had nothing to lose by searching for one. Since the killer was armed with a silencer-equipped pistol, he might keep other guns in the motor home.
The single nightstand had two drawers. The upper contained a package of gauze pads, a few green and yellow sponges of the size used to wash dishes, a small plastic squeeze bottle of some clear fluid, a roll of cloth tape, a comb, a hairbrush with a tortoiseshell handle, a half-empty tube of K-Y jelly, a full bottle of skin lotion with aloe vera, a pair of needle-nose pliers with yellow rubber-clad handles, and a pair of scissors.
She could imagine the uses to which he had put some of those items, and she didn’t want to think about the others. Sometimes, no doubt, the women he brought into this room were alive when he put them on the bed.
She considered the scissors. But the butcher knife would be more effective if she needed to use it.
In the lower, deeper drawer was a hard-plastic container rather like a fishing-tackle box. When she opened it, she found a complete sewing kit, with numerous spools of thread in a variety of colors, a pincushion, packets of needles, a needle threader, an extensive selection of buttons, and other paraphernalia. None of that was helpful to her, and she put it away.
As she got up from her knees, she noticed that the window over the bed had been covered with a sheet of plywood that had been bolted to the wall. A couple of folded swatches of blue fabric were trapped between the plywood and the window frame: the edge of an underlying drapery panel.
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