From outside, the window would appear to be merely curtained. Anyone inside, even if clever and fortunate enough to struggle free of her bonds, would never be able to open the window and signal to passing motorists for help.
As there was no other furniture in the cramped bedroom, the closet was the only remaining place where Chyna could hope to find a gun or anything that might be used as a weapon. She circled the bed to the accordion-style vinyl door, which hung from an overhead track.
When she pulled the folding door aside, it compressed into pleats that stacked to the left, and in the closet was a dead man.
Shock threw Chyna back against the bed. The mattress caught her behind the knees. She almost fell backward atop Laura, kept her balance, but dropped the knife.
The rear of the closet appeared to have been retrofitted with welded steel plates fixed to the vehicle frame for added strength. Two ringbolts, widely separated and high-set, were welded to the steel. Wrists manacled to the ringbolts, the dead man hung with his arms spread in cruciform. His feet were together like the feet of Christ on the cross — not nailed, however, but shackled to another ringbolt in the closet floor.
He was young — seventeen, eighteen, surely not twenty. Clad in only a pair of white cotton briefs, his lean pale body was badly battered. His head didn’t hang forward on his chest but was tipped to one side, and his left temple rested against the biceps of his raised left arm. He had thick curly black hair. His eyelids had been sewn tightly shut with green thread. With yellow thread, two buttons above his upper lip were secured to a pair of matching buttons just under his lower lip.
Chyna heard herself talking to God. An incoherent, beseeching babble. She clenched her teeth and choked on the words, though it was unlikely that her voice could have carried to the front of the motor home over the rumble of the engine and the droning of the big tires.
She pulled shut the pleated-vinyl panel. Though flimsy, it moved as ponderously as a vault door. The magnetic latch clicked into place with a sound like snapping bone.
In all the textbooks she had ever read, no case study of sociopathic violence had ever contained a description of a crime sufficiently vivid to make her want to retreat to a corner and sit on the floor and pull her knees against her chest and hug herself. That was precisely what she did now — choosing the corner farthest from the closet.
She had to get control of herself, quickly, starting with her manic breathing. She was gasping, sucking in great lungfuls, yet she couldn’t seem to get enough air. The deeper and faster she inhaled, the dizzier she became. Her peripheral vision surrendered to an encroaching darkness until she seemed to be peering down a long black tunnel toward the dingy motor-home bedroom at the far end.
She told herself that the young man in the closet had been dead when the killer had gone to work with the sewing kit. And if he’d not been dead, at least he’d been mercifully unconscious. Then she told herself not to think about it at all, because thinking about it only made the tunnel longer and narrower, made the bedroom more distant and the lights dimmer than ever.
She put her face in her hands, and her hands were cold but her face seemed colder. For no reason that Chyna could understand, she thought of her mother’s face, as clear as a photograph in her mind’s eye. And then she did understand.
To Chyna’s mother, the prospect of violence had been romantic, even glamorous. For a while they had lived in a commune in Oakland, where everyone talked of making a better world and where, more nights than not, the adults gathered around the kitchen table, drinking wine and smoking pot, discussing how best to tear down the hated system, sometimes also playing pinochle or Trivial Pursuit as they discussed the strategies that might bring utopia at last, sometimes far too enraptured by revolution to be interested in any lesser games. There were bridges and tunnels that could all be blown up with absurd ease, disrupting transportation; telephone-company installations could be targeted to throw communications into chaos; meat-packing plants must be burned to put an end to the brutal exploitation of animals. They planned intricate bank robberies and bold assaults on armored cars to finance their operations. The route they would have taken to peace, freedom, and justice was always cratered by explosions, littered with uncountable bodies. After Oakland, Chyna and her mother had hit the road for a few weeks and had wound up again in Key West with their old friend Jim Woltz, the enthusiastic nihilist who was deep in the drug trade, with a sideline in illegal weapons. Under his oceanfront cottage, he had carved out a bunker in which he stored a personal collection of two hundred firearms. Chyna’s mother was a beautiful woman, even on bad days when depression plagued her, when her green eyes were gray and sad with miseries that she could not explain. But at that kitchen table in Oakland and in that cool bunker beneath the cottage in Key West — in fact, whenever she was at the side of a man like Woltz — her porcelain skin was even clearer than usual, almost translucent; excitement enlivened her exquisite features; she became magically more graceful, appeared more lithe and supple, was quicker to smile. The prospect of violence, playing at being Bonnie to any man’s Clyde, filled her stunning face with a light as glorious as a Florida sunset, and her jewel-green eyes were, at those times, as compelling and mysterious as the Gulf of Mexico darkening toward twilight.
Although the prospect of violence might be romantic, the reality was blood, bone, decomposition, dust. The reality was Laura on the bed and the unknown young man sewn into silence behind the pleated vinyl door.
Chyna sat with her cold hands covering her colder face, aware that she would never be as strangely beautiful as her mother.
Eventually she regained control of her breathing.
The motor home rolled on, and she was reminded of nights when, as a child, she had dozed on trains, on buses, in the backseats of cars, lulled by the motion and the hum of wheels, unsure where her mother was taking her, dreaming of being part of a family like one of those on television — with befuddled but loving parents, an amusing next-door neighbor who might be frustrating but never malicious, and a dog that knew a few tricks. But good dreams never lasted, and she woke repeatedly from nightmares, gazing out windows at strange landscapes, wishing that she could travel forever without stopping. The road was a promise of peace, but destinations were always hell.
This time would be no different from all those others. Wherever they were bound, Chyna didn’t want to go there. She intended to get off between destinations and hoped to find her way back to the better life that she had struggled so hard to build these past ten years.
She left the corner of the bedroom to retrieve the butcher knife, which she had dropped when she’d been rocked backward by the sight of the dead man in the closet. Then she went around the bed to the nightstand and switched off the pharmacy lamp.
Being in the dark with dead people didn’t frighten her. Only the living were a danger.
The motor home slowed again and then turned left. Chyna leaned against the tilt of the vehicle to keep her balance.
They must be on State Highway 29. A right turn would have taken them down the Napa Valley, south into the town of Napa. She wasn’t sure what communities lay to the north, other than St. Helena and Calistoga.
Even between the towns, however, there would be vineyards, farms, houses, and rural businesses. Wherever she got out of the motor home, she should be able to find help within a reasonable distance.
She sidled blindly to the door and stood with one hand on the knob, waiting for instinct to guide her once more. Much of her life had been lived like a balancing act on a spearpoint fence, and on a particularly difficult night when she was twelve, she had decided that instinct was, in fact, the quiet voice of God. Prayers did receive replies, but you had to listen closely and believe in the answer. At twelve, she wrote in her diary: “God doesn’t shout; He whispers, and in the whisper is the way.”
Waiting for the whisper, she thought about the battered body in the closet, which appeared to have been dead for less than a day, and about Laura, still warm on the sagging bed. Sarah, Paul, Laura’s brother Jack, Jack’s wife, Nina: six people murdered in twenty-four hours. The eater of spiders was not an ordinary homicidal sociopath. In the language of the cops and the criminologists who specialized in searching for and stopping men like this, he was hot, going through a hot phase, burning up with desire, need. But Chyna, who intended to follow her master’s in psychology with a doctorate in criminology, even if she had to work six years waiting tables to get there, sensed that this guy was not just hot. He was a singularity, conforming only in part to standard profiles in aberrant psychology, as purely alien as something from the stars, a runaway killing machine, merciless and irresistible. She had no hope of eluding him if she didn’t wait for the murmuring voice of instinct.
She remembered seeing a large rearview mirror when she’d briefly occupied the driver’s seat earlier. The vehicle had no rear window, so the mirror was there to provide the driver with a view of the lounge and the dining area behind him. He would be able to see all the way into the end hall that served the bath and bedroom, and if the devil’s luck was with him, he would glance up just when Chyna opened the door, stepped out, and was exposed.
When the moment felt right, Chyna opened the door.
A small blessing, a good omen: The ceiling light in the hall was out.
Standing in gloom, she quietly pulled shut the bedroom door.
The lamp above the dining table was on as before. At the front of the vehicle was the green glow of the instrument panel — and beyond the windshield, the headlights were silver swords.
After moving forward past the bathroom and out of the welcome shadows, she crouched behind the paneled side of the dining nook. She peered across the crescent booth to the back of the driver’s head, about twenty feet away.
He seemed so close — and, for the first time, vulnerable.
Nevertheless, Chyna wasn’t foolish enough to creep forward and attack him while he was driving. If he heard her coming or glanced at the rearview mirror and spotted her, he could wrench the steering wheel or slam on the brakes, sending her sprawling. Then he might be able to stop the vehicle and get to her before she could reach the rear door — or he might swivel in his chair and shoot her down.
The entrance through which he had carried Laura was immediately to Chyna’s left. She sat on the floor with her feet in the step well, facing this door, concealed from the driver by the dining nook.
She put the butcher knife aside. When she leaped out, she would probably fall and roll — and she might easily stab herself with the knife if she tried to take it with her.
She didn’t intend to jump until the driver either stopped at an intersection or entered a turn sharp enough to require him to cut his speed dramatically. She couldn’t risk breaking a leg or being knocked unconscious in a fall, because then she wouldn’t be able to get away from the road and safely into hiding.
She didn’t doubt that he would be aware of her escape even as it began. He would hear the door open or the wind whistling at it, and he would see her either in his rearview or in his side-mounted mirror as she made her break for freedom. Even in the unlikely event that she was not seen, the wind would slam the door hard behind her the instant she was gone; the killer would suspect that he hadn’t been alone with his collection of corpses, and he’d pull off the highway and come back along the pavement, panicky, to have a look.
Or perhaps not panicky. Not panicky at all. More likely, he would search with grim, methodical, machine efficiency. This guy was all about control and power, and Chyna found it difficult to imagine him ever succumbing to panic.
The motor home slowed, and Chyna’s heart quickened. As the driver reduced speed further, Chyna rose into a crouch in the step well and put a hand on the lever-action door handle.
They came to a full stop, and she pressed down on the handle, but the door was locked. Quietly but insistently she pressed up, down, up — to no avail.
She couldn’t find any latch button. Just a keyhole.
She remembered the rattling that she’d heard when she’d been in the bedroom and the spider eater had come back inside and closed this door. Rattle, rattle. The rattle of a key, perhaps.
Maybe this was a safety feature to prevent kids from tumbling out into traffic. Or maybe the crazy bastard had modified the door lock to enhance security, to make it more difficult for a burglar or casual intruder to stumble upon any lip-sewn or shackled cadavers that might just happen to be aboard. Can’t be too careful when you have dead bodies stacked in the bedroom. Prudence requires certain security measures.
The motor home pulled forward through the intersection and began to pick up speed again.
She should have known that escape wouldn’t be easy. Nothing was easy. Ever.
She sat down, leaning against the breakfast-nook paneling, still facing the door, thinking furiously.
Earlier, on her way back through the vehicle from the driver’s seat, she’d seen a door on the other side, toward the front, behind the copilot’s chair. Most motor homes had two doors, but this was a rare older model with three. She was reluctant to go forward to escape, however, and for the same reason that she didn’t want to attack him: He might see her coming, rock her off her feet, and shoot her before she could get up.
All right, she had one advantage. He didn’t know that she was aboard.
If she couldn’t just open a door and jump out, if she was going to have to kill him, she could lie in wait here past the dining nook, surprise the bastard, gut him, step over him, and leave by the front. Just minutes ago she had been ready to kill him, and she could make herself be ready again.
The engine vibrations rose through the floor, half numbing her butt. Total numbing would have been welcome; the carpet soon proved to be inadequate padding, and her tailbone began to ache. She shifted her weight from cheek to cheek, leaned forward and then leaned back; nothing provided more than a few seconds of relief. The ache spread to the small of her back, and mild discomfort escalated into serious pain.
Twenty minutes, half an hour, forty minutes, an hour, longer, she endured the agony by striving to imagine all the ways that her escape might unfold once the motor home stopped and the killer got out from behind the wheel. Concentrating. Thinking it through. Planning for myriad eventualities. Finally, however, she couldn’t think about anything but the pain.
The motor home was cool, and down in the step well, there was no heat at all. The engine and road vibrations penetrated her shoes, beating relentlessly on her heels and soles. She flexed her toes, afraid that her cold, achy feet and stiffening calf muscles would develop cramps and hobble her when the time came for action.
With a strange hilarity unnervingly close to despair, she thought, Forget about grief. Forget about justice. Right now just give me a comfortable chair to pamper my ass, just let me sit for a while until my feet are warm again, and later you can have my life if you want it.
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