“This was Laura’s father. Oh, and here’s her brother…and the brother’s wife. They were incidental.”
Finally he brings out the three Polaroids of the young Asian gentleman and the Slim Jim with the bite missing.
“His name is Fuji. Like the mountain in Japan.”
Vess puts two of the three photos on the chair.
“I’ll keep one for myself. To eat. And then I’ll be Fuji, with the power of the East and the power of the mountain, and when the time comes for me to do you, you’ll feel both the boy and the mountain in me, and so many other people, all their power. It’ll be very exciting for you, Ariel, so exciting that when it’s over, you won’t even care that you’re dead.”
This is a long speech for Mr. Vess. He is for the most part not a garrulous man. The girl’s beauty, however, moves him now and then to speeches.
He holds up the Slim Jim.
“The missing bite was taken by Fuji just before I killed him. His saliva will have dried on the meat. You can taste a little of his quiet power, his inscrutable nature.”
He puts the wrapped sausage on the chair.
“I’ll be back after midnight,” Mr. Vess promises. “We’ll go out to the motor home, so you can see Laura, the real Laura, not just the picture of her. I brought her back so you could see what becomes of all pretty things. And there’s a young man too, a hitchhiker that I picked up along the way. I showed him a photograph of you, and I just didn’t like the way he looked at it. He wasn’t respectful. He leered. I didn’t like something he said about you, so I sewed his mouth shut, and I sewed his eyes shut because of the way he looked at your picture. You’ll be excited to see what I did to him. You can touch him…and Laura.”
Vess watches her closely for any tic, shudder, flinch, or subtle change in the eyes that will indicate that she hears him. He knows that she hears, but she is clever at maintaining a solemn face and a pretense of catatonic detachment.
If he can force one faint flinch from her, one tic, then he will soon shatter her completely and have her howling like a goggle-eyed patient in the deepest wards of Bedlam. That collapse into ranting insanity is always fascinating to watch.
But she is tough, this girl, with surprising inner resources. Good. The challenge thrills him.
“And from the motor home we’ll go out to the meadow with the dogs, Ariel, and you can watch while I bury Laura and the hitchhiker. Maybe the sky will clear by that time, and maybe there’ll be stars or even moonlight.”
Ariel huddles on the chair with her book, eyes distant, lips slightly parted, a deeply still girl.
“Hey, you know, I bought another doll for you. An interesting little shop in Napa, California, a place that sells the work of local craftsmen. It’s a clever rag doll. You’ll like it. I’ll give it to you later.”
Mr. Vess gets up from the footstool and takes a casual inventory of the contents of the refrigerator and the cabinet that serves as the girl’s pantry. She has enough supplies to carry her three more days, and he will restock her shelves tomorrow.
“You’re not eating quite as much as you should,” he admonishes. “That’s ungrateful of you. I’ve given you a refrigerator, a microwave, hot and cold running water. You’ve got everything you need to take care of yourself. You should eat.”
The dolls are no less responsive than the girl.
“You’ve lost two or three pounds. It hasn’t affected your looks yet, but you can’t lose any more.”
She gazes into thin air, as if waiting for her voice-box string to be pulled before she recites recorded messages.
“Don’t think you can starve yourself until you’re haggard and unattractive. You can’t escape me that way, Ariel. I’ll strap you down and force-feed you if I have to. I’ll make you swallow a rubber tube and pump baby food into your stomach. In fact, I’d enjoy it. Do you like pureed peas? Carrots? Applesauce? I guess it doesn’t matter, since you won’t taste them — unless you regurgitate.”
He gazes at her silken hair, which is red blond in the filtered light. This sight translates through all five of Vess’s extraordinary senses, and he is bathed in the sensory splendor of her hair, in all the sounds and smells and textures that the look of it conveys to him. One stimulus has so many associations for him that he could lose himself for hours in the contemplation of a single hair or one drop of rain, if he chose, because that item would become an entire world of sensation to him.
He moves to the armchair and stands over the girl.
She doesn’t acknowledge him, and although he has entered her line of sight, her gaze has somehow shifted above and to one side of him without his being aware of the moment when it happened.
She is magically evasive.
“Maybe I could get a word or two out of you if I set you on fire. What do you think? Hmmm? A little lighter fluid on that golden hair — and whoosh!”
She does not blink.
“Or I’ll give you to the dogs, see if that unties your tongue.”
No flinch, no tic, no shudder. What a girl.
Mr. Vess stoops, lowering his face toward Ariel’s, until they are nose-to-nose.
Her eyes are now directly aligned with his — yet she is still not looking at him. She seems to peer through him, as if he is not a man of flesh and blood but a haunting spirit that she can’t quite detect. This isn’t merely the old trick of letting her eyes swim out of focus; it’s a ruse infinitely more clever than that, which he can’t understand at all.
Nose-to-nose with her, Vess whispers, “We’ll go to the meadow after midnight. I’ll bury Laura and the hitchhiker. Maybe I’ll put you into the ground with them and cover you up, three in one grave. Them dead and you alive. Would you speak then, Ariel? Would you say please?”
Her breathing is low and even. He is so close to her that her exhalations are warm and steady against his lips, like promises of kisses to come.
She must feel his breath too.
She may be frightened of him and even repulsed by him, but she also finds him alluring. He has no doubt about this. Everyone is fascinated by bad boys.
He says, “Maybe there’ll be stars.”
Such a blueness in her eyes, such sparkling depths.
“Or even moonlight,” he whispers.
The steel cuffs on Chyna’s ankles were linked by a sturdy chain. A second and far longer chain, connected by a carabiner to the first, wound around the thick legs of the chair and around the stretcher bars between the legs, returned between her feet, encircled the big barrel that supported the round table, and connected again to the carabiner. The chains didn’t contain enough play to allow her to stand. Even if she’d been able to stand, she would have had to carry the chair on her back, and the restricting shape and the weight of it would have forced her to bend forward like a hunchbacked troll. And once standing, she could not have moved from the table to which she was tethered.
Her hands were cuffed in front of her. A chain was hooked into the shackle that encircled her right wrist. From there it led around her, wound between the back rails of the chair behind the tie-on pad, then to the shackle on her left wrist. This chain contained enough slack to allow her to rest her arms on the table if she wished.
She sat with her hands folded, leaning forward, staring at the red and swollen index finger on her right hand, waiting.
Her finger throbbed, and she had a headache, but her neck pain had subsided. She knew that it would return worse than ever in another twenty-four hours, like the delayed agony of severe whiplash.
Of course, if she was still alive in another twenty-four hours, neck pain would be the least of her worries.
The Doberman was no longer at the window. She had seen two at once on the lawn, padding back and forth, sniffing the grass and the air, pausing occasionally to prick their ears and listen intently, then padding away again, obviously on guard duty.
During the previous night, Chyna had used rage to overcome her terror before it had incapacitated her, but now she discovered that humiliation was even more effective at quelling fear. Having been unable to protect herself, having wound up in bondage — that was not the source of her humiliation; what mortified worse was her failure to fulfill her promise to the girl in the cellar.
I am your guardian. I’ll keep you safe.
She kept returning, in memory, to the upholstered vestibule and the view port on the inner door. The girl among the dolls had given no indication that she had heard the promise. But Chyna was sick with the certainty that she had raised false hopes, that the girl would feel betrayed and more abandoned than ever, and that she would withdraw even further into her private Elsewhere.
I am your guardian.
In retrospect, Chyna found her arrogance not merely astonishing but perverse, delusional. In twenty-six years of living, she’d never saved anyone, in any sense whatsoever. She was no heroine, no mystery-novel-series character with just a colorful dash of angst and a soupçon of endearing character flaws and, otherwise, the competence of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond combined. Keeping herself alive, mentally stable, and emotionally intact had been enough of a struggle for her. She was still a lost girl herself, fumbling blindly through the years for some insight or resolution that probably wasn’t even out there to be found, yet she’d stood at that view port and promised deliverance.
I am your guardian.
She opened her folded hands. She flattened her hands on the table and slid them across the wood as if smoothing away wrinkles in a tablecloth, and as she moved, her chains rattled.
She wasn’t a fighter, after all, no one’s paladin; she worked as a waitress. She was good at it, piling up tips, because sixteen years in her mother’s bent world had taught her that one way to ensure survival was to be ingratiating. With her customers, she was indefatigably charming, relentlessly agreeable, and always eager to please. The relationship between a diner and a waitress was, to her way of thinking, the ideal relationship, because it was brief, formal, generally conducted with a high degree of politeness, and required no baring of the heart.
I am your guardian.
In her obsessive determination to protect herself at all costs, she was always friendly with the other waitresses where she worked, but she never made friends with any of them. Friendships involved commitment, risks. She had learned not to make herself vulnerable to the hurt and betrayal that ensued from commitments.
Over the years, she’d had affairs with only two men. She had liked both and had loved the second, but the first relationship had lasted eleven months and the second only thirteen. Lovers, if they were worthwhile, required more than simple commitment; they needed revelation, sharing, the bond of emotional intimacy. She found it difficult to reveal much about her childhood or her mother, in part because her utter helplessness during those years embarrassed her. More to the point, she had come to the hard realization that her mother had never really loved her, perhaps had never been capable of loving her or anyone. And how could she expect to be cherished by any man who knew that she’d been unloved even by her mother?
She was aware that this attitude was irrational, but awareness didn’t free her. She understood that she was not responsible for what her mother had done to her, but regardless of what so many therapists claimed in their books and on their radio talk shows, understanding alone didn’t lead to healing. Even after a decade beyond her mother’s control, Chyna was at times convinced that all the dark events of all those troubled years could have been avoided if only she, Chyna, had been a better girl, more worthy.
I am your guardian.
She folded her hands on the table again. She leaned forward until her forehead was pressed to the backs of her thumbs, and she closed her eyes.
The only close friend she’d ever had was Laura Templeton. Their relationship was something that she had wanted badly but had never sought, desperately needed but did little to nurture; it was purely a testament to Laura’s vivaciousness, perseverance, and selflessness in the face of Chyna’s caution and reserve, a result of Laura’s dear heart and her singular capacity to love. And now Laura was dead.
I am your guardian.
In Laura’s room, under the dead gaze of Freud, Chyna had knelt beside the bed and whispered to her shackled friend, I’ll get you out of here. God, how it hurt to think of it. I’ll get you out of here. Her stomach knotted excruciatingly with self-disgust. I’ll find a weapon, she had promised. Laura, selfless to the end, had urged her to run, to get out. Don’t die for me, Laura had said. But Chyna had answered, I’ll be back.
Now here came grief again, swooping like a great dark bird into her heart, and she almost let its wings enfold her, too eager for the strange solace of those battering pinions — until she realized that she was using grief to knock humiliation from its perch. Grieving, she would have no room for self-loathing.
I am your guardian.
Although the clerk had never fired the revolver, she should have checked it. She should have known. Somehow. Some way. Though she could not possibly have known what Vess had done with the bullets, she should have known.
Laura had always told her that she was too hard on herself, that she would never heal if she kept inflicting new bruises on the old in endless self-flagellation.
But Laura was dead.
I am your guardian.
Chyna’s humiliation festered into shame.
And if humiliation was a good tool for repressing terror, shame was even better. Steeping in shame, she knew no fear at all, even though she was in shackles in the house of a sadistic murderer, with no one in the world looking for her. Justice seemed served by her being there.
Then she heard footsteps approaching.
She raised her head and opened her eyes.
The killer entered from the laundry room, evidently returning from the girl in the cellar.
Without speaking to Chyna, without glancing at her, as if she didn’t exist, he went to the refrigerator, removed a carton of eggs, and put it on the counter beside the sink. He deftly broke eight eggs into a bowl and threw the shells in the trash. He set the bowl in the refrigerator and proceeded to peel and chop a Bermuda onion.
Chyna hadn’t eaten in more than twelve hours; nonetheless, she was dismayed to discover that she was suddenly ravenous. The onion was the sweetest scent that she had ever known, and her mouth began to water. After so much blood, after losing the only close friend she’d ever had, it seemed heartless to have an appetite so soon.
The killer put the chopped onion into a Tupperware container, snapped the lid tight, and placed it in the refrigerator beside the bowl of eggs. Next he grated half a wedge of cheddar cheese into another Tupperware container.