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The prolonged inactivity not only took a physical toll but soon began to depress her. Back at the house when she’d first heard the intruder, before he had even come to the guest room, Chyna had known that safety lay in movement. Now emotional safety lay in movement, distraction. But circumstances required her to be still and wait. She had too much time to think — and too many disturbing thoughts on which to dwell.


She worked herself into such a state of distress that tears welled — which was when she realized that she was not suffering unduly from butt ache or back pain or the cold throbbing in her feet. The real pain was in her heart, the anguish that she had been forced to repress since she’d found Paul and Sarah, since she’d detected the vague ammoniacal scent of se**n in Laura’s bedroom and had seen the dimly gleaming links of the shackling chain. Her physical pain was only a lame excuse for tears.


If she dared weep in self-pity, however, then a flood would come for Paul, for Sarah, for Laura, for the whole sorry damn screwed-up human race, and in useless resentment at the fact that hard-won hope so often spiraled into nightmare. She would bury her face in her hands, uselessly wailing the question that had been asked of God more often than any other: Why, why, why, why, why?


Surrendering to tears would be so easy, satisfying. These were selfish tears of defeat; they would not only purge the heart of grief but also wash out the need to care about anyone, anything. Blessed relief could be hers if she simply admitted that the long struggle to understand wasn’t worth the pain of experience. Her sobbing would bring the motor home to a sudden halt, and the driver would come back to find her huddled at the step well. He would club her, drag her into the bedroom, rape her beside the body of her friend; there would be terror beyond anything that she had ever known before, but it would be brief. And this time it would be final. He would free her forever from the need to ask why, from the torment of repeatedly falling through the fragile floor of hope into this too familiar desolation.


For a long time, maybe even since the stormy night of her eighth birthday and the frenzied palmetto beetle, she’d known that being a victim was often a choice people made. As a child, she hadn’t been able to put this insight into words, and she hadn’t known why so many people chose suffering; when older, she had recognized their self-hatred, masochism, weakness.


Not all or even most suffering is at the hands of fate; it befalls us at our invitation.


She’d always chosen not to be victimized, to resist and fight back, to hold on to hope and dignity and faith in the future. But victimhood was seductive, a release from responsibility and caring: Fear would be transmuted into weary resignation; failure would no longer generate guilt but, instead, would spawn a comforting self-pity.


Now she trembled on an emotional high wire, not sure whether she would be able to keep her balance or would allow herself to fail and fall.


The motor home slowed again. They were angling to the right. Slowing. Maybe pulling off the highway and stopping.


She tried the door. She knew that it was locked, but she quietly worked the lever-action handle anyway, because she wasn’t capable, after all, of simply giving up.


As they climbed a slight incline, their speed continued to drop.


Wincing at the pain in her calves and thighs as she moved, yet relieved to be off her butt, she rose just far enough to look across the dining nook.


The back of the killer’s head was the most hateful thing that Chyna had ever seen, and it aroused fresh anger in her. The brain beneath that curve of bone hummed with vicious fantasies. It was infuriating that he should be alive and Laura dead. That he should be sitting here so smug, so content with all his memories of blood, recalling the pleas for mercy that must be like music to him. That he should ever see a sunset again and take pleasure from it, or taste a peach, or smell a flower. To Chyna, the back of this man’s skull seemed like the smooth chitinous helmet of an insect, and she believed that if she ever touched him, he would be as cold as a squirming beetle under her hand.


Beyond the driver, beyond the windshield, at the top of the low rise toward which they were headed, a structure appeared, indistinct and unidentifiable. A few tall sodium-vapor arc lamps cast a sour, sulfurous light.


She squatted below the back of the dining nook again.


She picked up the knife.


They had reached the top of the rise. They were on level ground once more. Steadily slowing.


Turning around, facing away from the exit, she eased into the step well. Left foot on the lower step, right foot on the higher. Back pressed to the locked door, crouching in shadows beyond the reach of the nook lamp, she was ready to launch herself up and at him if he came back through the motor home and gave her a chance.


With a final sigh of air brakes, the vehicle stopped.


Wherever they were, people might be nearby. People who could help her.


But if she screamed, would those outside be near enough to hear?


Even if they heard, they would never reach her in time. The killer would get to her first, gun in hand.


Besides, maybe this was a roadside rest area: nothing more than a parking lot, some picnic tables, a poster warning about the dangers of campfires, and rest rooms. He might have taken a break to use the public facilities or the john in the trailer. At this dead hour, after three o’clock in the morning, they were likely to be the only vehicle on site, in which case she could scream until she was hoarse, and no one would come to her assistance.


The engine cut off.


Quiet. No vibrations in the floor.


Now that the motor home was still, Chyna was shaking. No longer depressed. Stomach muscles fluttering. Scared again. Because she wanted to live.


She would have preferred that he go outside and give her a chance to escape, but she expected him to use the trailer facilities instead of the public rest room. He would come right past her. If she couldn’t escape, then she was hot to finish this.


Crazily, she wondered if what came out of him when he was cut would be blood — or the stuff that oozed from a fat beetle when it was crushed.


She expected to hear the bastard moving, heavy footfalls and the hollow spong when he stepped on a weak seam in the floor, but there was silence. Maybe he was taking a moment to stretch his arms, roll his achy shoulders, massage the back of his bull neck, and shrug off the weariness of travel.


Or perhaps he had glimpsed her in the rearview mirror, her face moon-bright in the light from the dining-table lamp. He could ease out of his seat and creep toward her, avoiding all the creaks in the floor because he knew where they were. Slide into the dining nook. Lean over the back of the booth. Shoot her point-blank where she crouched in the step well. Shoot her in the face.


Chyna looked up and to her left, across the back of the booth. Too low to see the lamp hanging over the center of the table, she saw only the glow of it. She wondered if the angle of his approach would give her a warning or if he would just be a sudden silhouette popping up from the booth as he opened fire on her.


4


Intensity.


He believes in living with intensity.


Sitting at the steering wheel, he closes his eyes and massages the back of his neck.


He isn’t trying to get rid of the pain. It came on its own, and it will leave him naturally in time. He never takes Tylenol and other crap like that.


What he’s trying to do is enjoy the pain as fully as possible. With his fingertips he finds an especially sore spot just to the left of the third cervical vertebra, and he presses on it until the pain causes faint sprays of twinkly white and gray lights in the blackness behind his eyelids, like distant fireworks in a world without color.


Very nice.


Pain is merely a part of life. By embracing it, one can find surprising satisfaction in suffering. More important, getting in touch with his own pain makes it easier for him to take pleasure in the pain of others.


Two vertebrae farther down, he locates an even more sensitive point of inflamed tendon or muscle, a wonderful little button buried in the flesh which, when pressed, causes pain to shoot all the way across his shoulder and down his trapezius. At first he works the spot with a lover’s tender touch, groaning softly, then he attacks it vigorously until the sweet agony makes him suck air between his clenched teeth.


Intensity.


He does not expect to live forever. His time in this body is finite and precious — and therefore must not be wasted.


He does not believe in reincarnation or in any of the standard promises of an afterlife that are sold by the world’s great religions — although at times he senses that he is approaching a revelation of tremendous importance. He is willing to contemplate the possibility that the immortal soul exists, and that his own spirit may one day be exalted. But if he is to undergo an apotheosis, it will be brought about by his own bold actions, not by divine grace; if he, in fact, becomes a god, the transformation will occur because he has already chosen to live like a god — without fear, without remorse, without limits, with all his senses fiercely sharpened.


Anyone can smell a rose and enjoy the scent. But he has long been training himself to feel the destruction of its beauty when he crushes the flower in his fist. If he were to have a rose now, and if he were to chew the petals, he would be able to taste not merely the rose itself but the redness of it; likewise, he could taste the yellowness of buttercups, the blue of hyacinths. He could taste the bee that had crawled across the blossom on its eternal buzzing task of pollination, the soil out of which the flower had grown, and the wind that had caressed it through the summer of its growing.


He has never met anyone who can understand the intensity with which he experiences the world or the greater intensity for which he strives. With his help, perhaps Ariel will understand one day. Now, of course, she is too immature to achieve the insight.


One last squeeze of his neck. The pain. He sighs.


From the copilot’s seat, he picks up a folded raincoat. No rain is yet falling, but he needs to cover his blood-spattered clothing before going inside.


He could have changed into clean clothes prior to leaving the Templeton house, but he enjoys wearing these. The patina excites him.


He gets out of the driver’s seat, stands behind it, and pulls on the coat.


He washed his hands in the kitchen sink at the Templeton house, though he would have preferred to leave them stained too. While he can conceal his clothes under a raincoat, hiding his hands is not as easy.


He never wears gloves. To do so would be to concede that he fears apprehension, which he does not.


Although his fingerprints are on file with federal and state agencies, the prints he leaves at the scene will never match those that bear his name in the records. Like the rest of the world, police organizations are hell-bent on computerization; by now most fingerprint-image reference banks are in the form of digitized data, to facilitate high-speed scanning and processing. Even more easily than hard files, electronic files can be manipulated, because the work can be done at a great distance; there is no need to burglarize highly secure facilities, when instead he can be a ghost haunting their machines from across a continent. Because of his intelligence, talents, and connections, he has been able to meddle with the data.


Wearing gloves, even thin surgical latex gloves, would be an intolerable barrier to sensation. He likes to let his hand glide lightly over the fine golden hairs on a woman’s thigh, take time to appreciate the texture of pebbled gooseflesh against his palm, to relish the fierce heat of skin and then, after, the warmth all fading, fading. When he kills, he finds it absolutely essential to feel the wetness.


The prints under his name in the various files are, in fact, those of a young marine named Bernard Petain, who died tragically during training maneuvers at Camp Pendleton many years ago. And the prints that he leaves at the scene, often etched in blood, cannot be matched to any on file with the military, the FBI, the Department of Motor Vehicles, or anywhere else.


He finishes buttoning the raincoat, turns up the collar, and looks at his hands. Stains under three fingernails. It might be grease or soil. No one will be suspicious of it.


He himself can smell the blood on his clothes even through the black nylon raincoat and insulated liner, but others are not sufficiently sensitive to detect it.


Staring at the residue under his nails, however, he can hear the screams again, that lovely music in the night, the Templeton house as reverberant as a concert hall, and no one to hear except him and the deaf vineyards.


If he is ever caught in the act, the authorities will print him again, discover his deception with the computers, and eventually link him to a long list of unsolved murders. But he isn’t concerned about that. He’ll never be taken alive, never be put on trial. Whatever they learn about his activities after his death will only add to the glory of his name.


He is Edgler Foreman Vess. From the letters of his name, one can extract a long list of power words: GOD, FEAR, DEMON, SAVE, RAGE, ANGER, DRAGON, FORGE, SEED, SEMEN, FREE, and others. Also words with a mystical quality: DREAM, VESSEL, LORE, FOREVER, MARVEL. Sometimes the last thing that he whispers to a victim is a sentence composed from this list of words. One that he especially likes and uses often is GOD FEARS ME.


Anyway, all questions of fingerprints and other evidence are moot, because he will never be caught. He is thirty-three years old. He has been enjoying himself in this fashion for a long time, and he has never had a close call.


Now he takes the pistol out of the open console between the pilot’s and copilot’s chairs. A Heckler & Koch P7.


Earlier, he had reloaded the thirteen-round magazine. Now he unscrews the sound suppressor, because he has no plans to visit other houses this night. Besides, the baffles are probably damaged from the shots that he has fired, diminishing both the effect of the silencer and the accuracy of the weapon.


Occasionally he daydreams about what it would be like if the impossible happened, if he were interrupted at play and surrounded by a SWAT team. With his experience and knowledge, the ensuing showdown would be thrillingly intense.


If there is a single secret behind the success of Edgler Vess, it is his belief that no twist of fate is either good or bad, that no experience is qualitatively better than another. Winning twenty million dollars in the lottery is no more to be desired than being trapped by a SWAT team, and a shootout with the authorities is no more to be dreaded than winning all that money. The value of any experience isn’t in its positive or negative effect on his life but in the sheer luminous power of it, the vividness, the ferocity, the amount and degree of pure sensation that it provides. Intensity.


Vess puts the sound suppressor in the console between the seats.


He drops the pistol into the right-hand pocket of his raincoat.


He is not expecting trouble. Nevertheless, he goes nowhere unarmed. One can never be too careful. Besides, opportunities often arise unexpectedly.

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