In those two months, she had never managed to get closer than eighty or ninety feet to the elk herds before they had reacted to her nonchalant approach, whidding to farther fields and ridges.
Now they had approached her, vigilant but not frightened, as if they were the same elk of her childhood, at long last willing to believe in her peaceable intentions.
Coastal elk should have been somewhat closer to the sea, in the open meadows beyond the redwoods, where the grass was lush and green from the winter rains, where the grazing was good. Although they were not strangers to the forest, their presence here, in the rainy predawn darkness, was remarkable.
Then she saw others in addition to the herd of six — one here, one there, and there a third, and still more — between trees, at a greater distance than the initial group. Some were barely visible in the bosky grove, at the extreme reach of the backwash from the motor-home headlights, but she thought that there were as many as a dozen altogether, all standing at attention, as though transfixed by woodland music beyond human hearing.
Lightning spread branches across the sky, put down jagged roots toward the earth, and briefly brightened the grove sufficiently for Chyna to see all the elk more clearly than before. More of them than she had thought. In mist and ferns, among flowering red rhododendron, revealed by fluttering leaves of light. Heads lifted, their breath steaming from black nostrils. Their eyes fixed on her.
She looked out at the highway.
The killer had given up trying to start the engine. He put the Honda in gear, and it began to roll backward on the slightly sloped pavement.
After one last glance at the elk, Chyna stepped out from between the two redwoods.
The killer pulled the steering wheel hard to the right, letting the momentum of the car carry it backward in an arc until it was facing downhill.
Through sparse ferns and scattered clumps of bunch grass, Chyna approached the highway. The weakness in her legs was gone, and her spasm of irresolution had passed.
Under the killer’s guidance, the Honda coasted downhill and onto the right shoulder.
She could go after him, shoot him in the car or as he got out of the car. But he was fifty yards away now, sixty, and he would surely see her coming. She would have no hope of keeping the advantage of surprise, so she would have to shoot to kill, which would do Ariel no good at all, because with this bastard dead they would still have to search for the girl wherever she was hidden. And they might never find her. Besides, the creep probably had a gun on him, and if this turned into a shooting match, he would win, because he was far more practiced than she was — and bolder.
She had no one to whom she could turn. As in childhood.
So now get out of sight quickly. Don’t be rash. Wait for the ideal situation. Pick the moment of the confrontation and control the showdown when it comes.
Fierce lightning again, and a long hard crash of thunder like vast structures collapsing high in the night.
She reached the motor home.
The driver’s door stood open.
Oh, Jesus. Oh, God.
She couldn’t do it.
She had to do it.
Downhill, on the shoulder, with a rattle of twisted steel, the Honda was coasting to a stop.
She had the revolver. That made all the difference. She was safe with the gun.
Who will save this girl hidden in a cellar, this girl ripening for this sonofabitch bastard freak, this girl like me? Who is ever there for frightened girls hiding in the backs of closets or under beds, who is ever there but twitching palmetto beetles? Who will be there if not me, where will I be if not there, why is this the only choice — and when the answer is so obvious, why even ask why?
Downslope, the Honda came to a full stop.
With the revolver heavy in her hand, Chyna climbed into the cockpit and behind the steering wheel. She swung around in the driver’s seat, got up, and hurried back through the motor home, murmuring, “Jesus, Jesus,” telling herself that it was all right, this crazy thing she was doing, all right because this time she had the revolver.
But she wondered if even the gun would give her enough of an edge when the time arrived to go face-to-face with this man.
Of course a direct confrontation might never have to take place. Chyna intended to hide until they arrived at his house and then find out where the girl was being held. With that information, she would be able to go to the police, and they could nail this creep and free Ariel and —
And in saving the girl, she would save herself. From what, she was not sure. From a life of merely surviving? From the endless and fruitless struggle to understand?
Crazy, crazy, but there was no turning back now. And in her heart she knew that risking all was less crazy than living a life that had no higher goal than survival.
As if thrown forward by the hard knocking of her heart, Chyna reached the rear of the motor home. The closed door to the only bedroom.
She didn’t want to go in there. With Laura dead. The man in the closet. The sewing kit waiting to be used again.
But it was the best place to hide, so she opened the door and went in and closed the door behind her and eased to the left through the palpable darkness and put her back against the wall.
Maybe he wouldn’t drive straight home. He might stop at some point between here and there to come to the back of the motor home and have a look at his trophies.
Then she would kill him the instant that he stepped through the door. Empty the revolver into him. Take no chances.
With him dead, they might never find Ariel. Or they might find her only after she had perished of starvation, an excruciatingly painful way to die.
Nevertheless, if the killer entered this bedroom, Chyna wouldn’t rely on half measures. She would not attempt to wound him and keep him alive for police interrogation, not in this tight space with him looming over her and with so many ways that things could go wrong.
Lights off, windshield wipers off, Edgler Vess sits in the dead car by the side of the road. Thinking.
There are numerous ways that he can proceed from here. Life is always a laden buffet of treats, a vast smorgasbord groaning with infinite choices of sensations and experiences to thrill the heart — but never more so than now. He wishes to exploit the opportunity to the fullest possible extent, to extract from it the greatest possible excitement and the most poignant sensations, and he must, therefore, not act precipitously.
Luck had given him a glimpse of her in the rearview mirror: as fleet as a deer across the blacktop, hesitating at the open door of the motor home, and then up and inside and out of sight.
She must be the woman from the Honda. When she passed him earlier, he had looked down through the windshield of her car and had seen her red sweater.
In the accident, she might have received a hard blow to the head. Now perhaps she is dazed, confused, frightened. This would explain why she doesn’t approach him directly and ask for help or for a ride to the nearest service station. If her thoughts are addled, the irrational decision to become a stowaway aboard the motor home might seem perfectly reasonable to her.
She did not appear to be suffering from a head injury, however, or any injury at all. She hadn’t staggered or stumbled across the highway but had been swift and surefooted. At this distance and in the rearview mirror, Vess wouldn’t have been able to see blood even if she had been bleeding; but he knows intuitively that there was no blood.
The longer he considers the situation, the more it seems to him that the accident was staged.
If the motive had been robbery, she would have accosted him the moment that he stepped onto the highway.
Besides, he isn’t driving one of those elaborate three-hundred-thousand-dollar land yachts that, by their very flashiness, advertise their contents to thieves. His vehicle is seventeen years old and, though well maintained, worth considerably less than fifty thousand bucks. It seems pointless to wreck a relatively new Honda for the purpose of looting the contents of an aging vehicle that promises no treasures.
He has left his keys in the ignition, the engine running. She already could have driven away in the motor home if that had been her intention.
And a woman alone on a lonely highway at night is not likely to be planning a robbery. Such behavior doesn’t fit any criminal profile.
He is baffled.
Mr. Vess’s simple life is not often touched by mystery. There are things that can be killed and things that can’t. Some things are harder to kill than others, and some are more fun to kill than others. Some scream, some weep, some do both, some only tremble silently and wait for the end as if having spent their whole lives in anticipation of this awful pain. Thus the days go by — pleasantly straightforward, a river of raw sensation upon which enigma seldom sets sail.
But this woman in a red sweater is an enigma, all right, as mysterious and intriguing as anyone Mr. Vess has ever known. What experiences he will have with her are difficult to imagine, and he is excited by the prospect of such novelty.
He gets out of the Honda and closes the door.
For a moment he stands staring at the forest in the cold rain, hoping to appear unsuspecting if the woman should be watching him from inside the motor home. Maybe he is wondering what happened to the driver of the Honda. Maybe he is a good citizen, concerned about her and considering a search of the woods.
Multiple bolts of lightning chase across the sky, as white and jagged as running skeletons. The subsequent blasts of thunder are so powerful that they rattle through Mr. Vess’s bones, a vibration that he finds most agreeable.
Unfazed by the storm, several elk suddenly appear from out of the forest, drifting between the trees and into the bordering sward of ferns. They move with stately grace, in a silence that is ethereal behind the fading echo of thunder, eyes shining in the backwash of the headlight beams. They seem almost to be apparitions rather than real animals.
Two, five, seven, and yet more of them appear. Some stop as though posing, and others move farther but then stop as well, until now a dozen or more are revealed and standing still, and every one of them is staring at Mr. Vess.
Their beauty is unearthly, and killing them would be enormously satisfying. If he had one of his guns at hand, he would shoot as many of them as he could manage before they bolted beyond range.
As a young boy, he began his work with animals. Actually, he’d begun with insects, but soon he had moved on to turtles and lizards, and then to cats and larger species. As a teenager, as soon as he had gotten a driver’s license, he had roamed back roads some nights and in the early mornings before school, shooting deer if he spotted any, stray dogs, cows in fields, and horses in corrals if he was certain that he could get away with it.
He is flushed with nostalgia at the thought of killing these elk. The sight of their blood would intensify the redness of his own and make his arteries sing.
Though usually reticent and easily spooked, the elk stare boldly at him. They do not seem to be watching with alarm, are not in the least skittish or poised to flee. Indeed, their directness strikes him as strange; uncharacteristically, he feels uneasy.
Anyway, the woman in the red sweater awaits him, and she is more interesting than any number of elk. He is a grown man now, no longer a boy, and his quest for intense experiences cannot be satisfactorily conducted along the byways of the past. Edgler Vess has long ago put aside childish things.
He returns to the motor home.
At the door, he sees that the woman is in neither the pilot’s nor the copilot’s position.
Swinging in behind the steering wheel, he glances back but can see no sign of her in the lounge or the dining area. The short and shadowy hall at the end appears deserted as well.
Facing forward but keeping his eyes on the rearview mirror, he opens the tambour-top console between the seats. His pistol is still there, where he left it, sans silencer.
Pistol in hand, he swivels in his chair, gets up, and moves back through the motor home to the kitchen and dining area. The butcher knife, found on the service-station blacktop, lies on the counter as before. He opens the cabinet to the left of the oven and discovers that the 12-gauge Mossberg is securely in its spring clamps, to which he returned it after killing the two clerks.
He doesn’t know if she is armed with a weapon of her own. From the distance at which he’d seen her, he hadn’t been able to discern whether she was empty-handed or, equally important, whether she was attractive enough to be a fun kill.
Farther back, then, through his narrow domain, with special caution at the end of the dining nook, behind which lies the step well. She’s not crouched here either.
Into the hall.
The sound of the rain. The idling engine.
He opens the bathroom door, quickly and noisily, aware that stealth isn’t possible in this reverberant tin can on wheels. The cramped bathroom is as it should be, no stowaway on the pot or in the shower stall.
Next the shallow wardrobe with its sliding door. But she isn’t in there either.
The only place remaining to be searched is the bedroom.
Vess stands before this last closed door, positively enchanted by the thought of the woman huddled in there, unaware of those with whom she shares her hiding place.
No thread of light is visible along the threshold or the jamb, so she no doubt entered in darkness. Evidently she has not yet sat upon the bed and found the sleeping beauty.
Perhaps she has edged warily around the small room and, by blind exploration, has discovered the folding door to the closet. Perhaps if Vess opens this bedroom door, she will simultaneously pull aside those vinyl panels and attempt to slip swiftly and quietly into the closet, only to feel a strange cold form hanging there instead of sport shirts.
Mr. Vess is amused.
The temptation to throw open the door is almost irresistible, to see her carom off the body in the closet, then to the bed, then away from the dead girl, screaming first at the sewn-shut face of the boy and then at the manacled girl and then at Vess himself, in a comic pinball spin of terror.
Following that spectacle, however, they will have to get down to issues at once. He will quickly learn who she is and what she thinks she is doing here.
Mr. Vess realizes that he doesn’t want this rare experience with mystery to end. He finds it more pleasing to prolong the suspense and chew on the puzzle for a while.
He was beginning to feel weary from his recent activities. Now he is energized by these unexpected developments.
Certain risks are involved, of course, in playing it this way. But it is impossible to live with intensity and avoid risk. Risk is at the heart of an intense existence.
He backs quietly away from the bedroom door.
Noisily, he steps into the bathroom, takes a piss, and flushes the toilet, so the woman will think that he came to the back of the motor home not in search of her but to answer the call of nature. If she continues to believe that her presence is unknown, she will proceed on whatever course of action brought her here in the first place, and it will be interesting to see what she does.