If she opens the front door, he will know, because one of the hinges makes a dry ratcheting sound. It’s not a loud noise, but it is distinctive. Because he’s listening specifically for that corroded hinge, not even the drumming of the rain on the roof, the pounding of the shower into the bathtub, and “In the Mood” on the radio can entirely mask the sound.
Crazy. But she was going to do it. For Ariel. For Laura. But also for herself. Maybe most of all for herself.
After all these years under beds, in closets, in attic shadows — no more hiding. After all these years of getting by, keeping her head down, drawing no attention to herself — suddenly she had to do something or explode. She’d been living in a prison since the day she’d been born, even after leaving her mother, a prison of fear and shame and lowered expectations, and she’d been so accustomed to her circumscribed life that she had not recognized the bars. Now righteous rage released her, and she was crazy with freedom.
The chilly wind kicked up, and shatters of rain blasted under the porch roof.
Seashell wind chimes clattered, an irritation of flat notes.
Chyna eased past the window, trying to avoid several snails on the porch floor. The drapes remained tightly shut.
The front door was closed but unlocked. She slowly pushed it inward. One hinge rasped.
The big-band tune finished with a flourish, and at once two voices arose from deeper in the house. Chyna froze on the threshold, but then she realized that she was listening to an advertisement. The music had been coming from a radio.
It was possible that the killer shared the house with someone other than Ariel, and other than the procession of victims or dead bodies brought back from his road trips. Chyna couldn’t conceive of his having a family, a wife and children, a psychotic Brady Bunch waiting for him; but there were rare cases on record of homicidal sociopaths working together, like the two men who proved to be the Hillside Strangler in Los Angeles a couple of decades ago.
Voices on a radio, however, were no threat.
With the revolver held in front of her, she went inside. The incoming wind whistled into the house, rattling a wobbly lampshade and threatening to betray her, so she closed the door.
The radio voices came down an enclosed stairwell to her left. She kept one eye on the doorless opening at the foot of those steps, in case more than voices descended.
The front room on the ground floor ran the entire width of the small house, and although it was illuminated only by the gray light from the windows, it was nothing like what she had expected to find. There were hunter-green leather armchairs with footstools, a tartan-plaid sofa on large ball feet, rustic oak end tables, and a section of bookshelves that held perhaps three hundred volumes. On the hearth of the big river-rock fireplace were gleaming brass andirons, and on the mantel was an old clock with two bronze stags rearing up on their hind legs. The decor was thoroughly but not aggressively masculine — no glassily staring deer or bear heads on the walls, no hunting prints, no rifles on display, just cozy and comfortable. Where she had been expecting pervasive clutter as evidence of his seriously disordered mind, there was neatness. Instead of filth, cleanliness; even in the shadows, Chyna could see that the room was well dusted and swept. Rather than being burdened with the stench of death, the house was redolent of lemon-oil furniture polish and a subtle pine-scented air freshener, as well as the faint and pleasant smell of char from the fireplace.
Selling H & R Block tax services and then doughnuts, the radio voices bounced with enthusiasm down the stairs. The killer had it cranked up too loud; the volume level seemed wrong to Chyna, as if he was trying to mask other sounds.
There was another sound, similar to but different from the rain, and after a moment she recognized it. A shower.
That was why he had set the radio so loud. He was listening to the music while taking a shower.
She was in luck. As long as the killer was in the shower, she could search for Ariel without the risk of being discovered.
Chyna hurriedly crossed the front room to a half-open door, went through, and found a kitchen. Canary-yellow ceramic tile with knotty-pine cabinets. On the floor, gray vinyl tile speckled with yellow and green and red. Well scrubbed. Everything in its place.
She was soaked, rain dripping off her hair and still seeping from her jeans onto the clean floor.
Taped to the side of the refrigerator was a calendar already turned forward to April, with a color photograph that showed one white and one black kitten — both with dazzling green eyes — peering out from a huge spray of lilies.
The normality of the house terrified her: the gleaming surfaces, the tidiness, the homey touches, the sense that a person lived here who might walk in daylight on any street and pass for human in spite of the atrocities that he had committed.
Don’t think about it.
Keep moving. Safety in movement.
She went past the rear door. Through the four glass panes in the upper half, she saw a back porch, a green yard, a couple of big trees, and the barn.
Without any architectural division, the kitchen opened into the dining area, and the combined space was probably two-thirds the width of the house. The round dinette table was dark pine, supported by a thick central drum rather than legs; the four heavy pine captain’s chairs featured tie-on back and seat cushions.
Upstairs, the music started again, but it was softer in the kitchen than in the front room. If she had been an aficionado of big-band music, however, she would have been able to recognize the tune from here.
The noise of the running shower was more apparent in the kitchen than in the living room, because the pipes were channeled through the rear wall of the old house. Water being drawn upward to the bathroom made an urgent, hollow rushing sound through copper. Furthermore, the pipe wasn’t tied down and insulated as well as it ought to have been, and at some point along its course, it vibrated against a wall stud: rapid knocking behind plasterboard, tatta-tatta-tatta-tatta-tatta.
If that noise abruptly stopped, she would know that her safe time in the house was limited. In the subsequent silence, she could count on no more than a minute or two of grace while he toweled off. Thereafter he might show up anywhere.
Chyna looked around for a telephone but saw only a wall jack into which one could be plugged. If there had been a phone, she might have paused to call 911, supposing there was 911 service out here in…well, wherever the hell they were — these boondocks. Knowing that help was on the way would have made the remainder of the search less nerve-racking.
At the north end of the dining area was another door. Although the killer was in the shower upstairs, she turned the knob as quietly as she could and crossed the threshold with caution.
Beyond lay a combination laundry and storage room. A washer. An electric dryer. Boxes and bottles of laundry supplies were stored in an orderly fashion on two open shelves, and the air smelled like detergent and bleach.
The rush of water and the knocking pipe were even louder here than they had been in the kitchen.
To the left, past the washer and dryer, was another door — rough pine, painted lime green. She opened it and saw stairs leading down to a black cellar, and her heart began to beat faster.
“Ariel,” she said softly, but there was no answer, because she had spoken more to herself than to the girl.
No windows at all below. Not even a turbid leak of gray storm light seeping through narrow casements or screened ventilation cutouts. Dungeon dark.
But if the bastard was keeping a girl down there, how odd that he wouldn’t have added a lock to this upper door. It offered only the spring latch that retracted with a twist of the knob, not a real lock of any kind.
The captive might be sealed in a windowless room deep below, of course, or even manacled. Ariel might have no hope of reaching these stairs and this upper door, even if left alone for days to worry at her restraints, which would explain why the killer was confident that one more barrier to her flight wasn’t necessary even when he was away from home.
Nevertheless, it seemed peculiar that he wouldn’t be concerned about a thief breaking into the house when he was gone, descending to the cellar, and inadvertently discovering the imprisoned girl. Considering the obvious age of the structure, its rusticity, and the lack of any apparent alarm keypads, Chyna doubted that the house had a security system. The killer, with all his secrets, ought to have installed a steel door to the cellar, with locks as impregnable as those on a bank vault.
The lack of special security might mean that the girl, Ariel, was not here.
Chyna didn’t want to dwell on that possibility. She had to find Ariel.
Leaning through the doorway, she felt along the stairwell wall for the switch, and snapped it up. Lights came on both at the upper landing and in the basement.
The bare concrete steps — a single flight — were steep. They appeared to be much newer than the house itself, perhaps even a relatively recent addition.
The high-velocity surge of water through plumbing and the hard rapping of the loose pipe in the wall told her that the killer was still busy in the bathroom above, scrubbing away all traces of his crimes. Tatta-tatta-tatta…
Louder than before but still in a whisper, she said: “Ariel.”
Out of the still air below, no response.
Chyna didn’t want to go down into this windowless pit, with no way out except the stairs, even with a lockless door above. But she couldn’t think of any way to avoid the descent, not if she was to learn for sure whether Ariel was here.
It always came to this, even with childhood long past and being grown up and everything supposedly in control, everything supposedly all right; even then it still came to this: alone, dizzy with fear, alone, down into a bleak-dark-cramped place, no exits, sustained only by mad hope, with the world indifferent, no one to wonder about her or care where she might have gone.
Listening intently for the slightest change in the sound of the rushing water and the vibrating pipe, Chyna went down one step at a time, her left hand on the iron railing. The gun was extended in her right hand; she was clenching it so fiercely that her knuckles ached.
“Chyna Shepherd, untouched and alive,” she said shakily. “Chyna Shepherd, untouched and alive.”
Halfway down the stairs, she glanced back and up. At the end of a trail of her wet shoeprints, the landing seemed a quarter of a mile above her, as far away as the top of the knoll had seemed from the front porch of the house.
Alice down the rabbit hole into a madness without tea parties.
At the open doorway between the in-kitchen dining area and the laundry room, Mr. Edgler Vess hears the mystery woman call to Ariel. She is only a few feet away from him, around the corner, past the washer and the dryer, so there can be no mistake about what name she speaks.
Stupefied, he stands blinking and open-mouthed in the fragrance of laundry detergent and in the wall-muffled rattle of copper pipes, with her voice echoing in memory.
There is no way for her to know about Ariel.
Yet she calls to the girl again, louder than before.
Mr. Vess suddenly feels terribly violated, oppressed, observed. He glances back at the windows in the dining area and the kitchen, expecting to discover the radiant faces of accusing strangers pressed to those panes. He sees only the rain and the drowned gray light, but he is still anguished.
This is not fun any longer. Not fun at all.
The mystery is too deep. And alarming.
It is as if this woman didn’t come to him out of that Honda but came through an invisible barrier between dimensions, out of some world beyond this one, from which she has been secretly watching him. The flavor is distinctly supernatural, the texture otherworldly, and now the laundry detergent smells like burning incense, and the cloying air seems thick with unseen presences.
Fearful and plagued by doubt, unaccustomed to both of those emotions, Mr. Vess steps into the laundry room, raising the Heckler & Koch P7. His finger wraps the trigger, already beginning to squeeze off a shot.
The cellar door stands open. The stairwell light is on.
The woman is not in sight.
He eases off the trigger without firing.
On those infrequent occasions when he has guests to the house to dinner or for a business meeting, he always leaves a Doberman in the laundry room. The dog lies in here, silent and dozing. But if anyone other than Vess were to enter, the dog would bark and snarl and drive him backward.
When the master is away, Dobermans vigilantly patrol the entire property, and no one has a hope of getting into the house itself, let alone into the cellar.
Mr. Vess has never put a lock on the door to the cellar steps because he is concerned that it might accidentally trip, imprisoning him down there when he is at play and unawares. With a key-operated deadbolt, of course, this catastrophe could never happen. He himself is incapable of imagining how any such mechanism could malfunction and trap him; nevertheless, he’s too concerned about the prospect to take the risk.
Over the years, he has seen coincidence at work in the world, and people perishing because of it. One late-June afternoon near dusk, as Mr. Vess was driving to Reno, Nevada, on Interstate 80, a young blonde in a Mustang convertible had passed his motor home. She was wearing white shorts and a white blouse, and her long hair streamed red-gold in the twilight wind. Filled with an instant and powerful need to smash her beautiful face, he had pressed the motor home to its limits to keep her swifter Mustang in sight, but his quest had seemed doomed. As the highway rose into the Sierras, the speed of the motor home had fallen, and the Mustang had pulled away. Even if he had been able to draw close to the woman, the traffic had been too heavy — too many witnesses — for him to try anything as bold as forcing her off the highway. Then one of the tires on the Mustang had blown. Traveling at such high speed, she nearly spun out, nearly rolled, swerved from lane to lane, blue smoke pouring off the tires, but then she got control and pulled the car off the road onto the shoulder. Mr. Vess had stopped to assist her. She had been grateful for his offer of help, smiling and pleasantly shy, a nice girl with a one-inch gold cross on a chain around her neck, and later she had wept so bitterly and struggled so excitingly to resist surrendering her beauty, to turn her face away from his various sharp instruments, just a high-spirited young woman full of life and on the way to Reno until coincidence gave her to him.
And if a blown tire, why not a malfunctioning lock?
If coincidence can give, it can take.
Mr. Vess lives with intensity but not without caution.
Now this woman, calling for Ariel, has come into his life, like a blown tire, and suddenly he’s not sure if she is a gift to him or he to her.
Remembering her revolver and wishing for Dobermans, he glides across the laundry room to the cellar door.