He was brisk and efficient in the kitchen, and he seemed to be enjoying himself. He kept his work area neat. He also washed his hands thoroughly between each task and dried them on a hand towel, not on the dish towel.
Finally the killer came to the dinette table. He sat across from Chyna, relaxed and self-confident and college-boy casual in his Dockers, braided belt, and soft chambray shirt.
Shame, which had seemed on the verge of consuming her, instead had burned itself out for the time being. A strange combination of smoldering anger and bitter despondency had replaced it.
“Now,” he said, “I’m sure you’re hungry, and as soon as we have a little chat, I’ll make cheese omelets with stacks of toast. But to earn your breakfast, you have to tell me who you are, where you were hiding at that service station, and why you’re here.”
She glared at him.
With a smile, he said, “Don’t think you can hold out on me.”
She would be damned rather than tell him anything.
“Here’s how it is,” he said. “I’ll kill you anyway. I’m not sure how yet. Probably in front of Ariel. She’s seen bodies before, but she’s never been there at the moment itself, to hear that last scream, in the sudden wetness of it all.”
Chyna tried to keep her eyes on him, show no weakness.
He said, “However I choose to do you, I’ll make it a lot harder for you if you don’t talk to me willingly. There are things I enjoy that can be done before or after you’re dead. Cooperate, and I’ll do them after.”
Chyna tried unsuccessfully to see some sign of madness in his eyes. Such a merry shade of blue.
“You’re a sick sonofabitch.”
Smiling again, he said, “The last thing I expected you to be was tedious.”
“I know why you sewed shut his eyes and mouth,” she said.
“Ah, so you found him in the closet.”
“You raped him before you killed him or while you killed him. You sewed his eyes shut because he’d seen, sewed his mouth shut because you’re ashamed of what you did and you’re afraid that, even dead, he might tell someone.”
Unfazed, he said, “Actually, I didn’t have sex with him.”
“But if I had, I wouldn’t have been embarrassed. You think I’m that unsophisticated? We’re all bisexual, don’t you think? I have the urge for a man, sometimes, and with some of them I’ve indulged it. It’s all sensation. Just sensation.”
“I know what you’re trying to do,” he said amiably, clearly amused by her, “but it just won’t work. You’re hoping one insult or another will set me off. As if I’m some hair-trigger psychopath who’ll just explode if you call me the right name, push the right button, maybe insult my mother or say nasty things about the Lord. Then you hope I’ll kill you fast, in a wild rage, and get it over with.”
Chyna realized that he was right, although she had not been consciously aware of her own intentions. Failure, shame, and the helplessness of being shackled had reduced her to a despair that she had preferred not to consider. Now she was sickened less by him than by herself, wondering if she was a quitter and a loser, after all, just like her mother.
“But I’m not a psychopath,” he said.
“Then what are you?”
“Oh…call me a homicidal adventurer. Or perhaps the only clear-thinking person you’ve ever met.”
“‘Maggot’ works better for me.”
He leaned forward in his chair. “Here’s the thing — either you tell me all about yourself, everything I want to know, or I’ll work on your face with a knife while you sit there. For every question you refuse to answer, I’ll take off a piece — the lobe of an ear, the tip of your pretty nose. Carve you like scrimshaw.”
He said this not threateningly but matter-of-factly, and she knew that he had the stomach for it.
“I’ll take all day,” he said, “and you’ll be insane long before you’re dead.”
“All right what — conversation or scrimshaw?”
She was prepared to die if it came to that, but she saw no point in suffering needlessly.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Shepherd. Chyna Shepherd. C-h-y-n-a.”
“Ah, not a cryptic chant, after all.”
“Don’t spar with me, Chyna. Go on.”
“All right. But first, may I have something to drink? I’m dehydrated.”
At the sink, he drew a glass of water. He put three ice cubes in it. He started to bring it to her, then halted and said, “I could add a slice of lemon.”
She knew he wasn’t joking. Home from the hunt, he was working now to recast himself from the role of savage stalker into that of accountant or clerk or real estate agent or car mechanic or whatever it was that he did when he was passing for normal. Some sociopaths could put on a false persona that was more convincing than the best performances of the finest actors who had ever lived, and this man was probably one of those, although after immersion in wanton slaughter, he needed this period of adjustment to remind himself of the manners and courtesies of civilized society.
“No, thanks,” she said to the offer of lemon.
“It’s no trouble,” he graciously assured her.
“Just the water.”
When he put the glass down, he slipped a cork-lined ceramic coaster under it. Then he sat across the table from her again.
Chyna was repelled by the prospect of drinking from a glass that he had handled, but she really was dehydrated. Her mouth was dry, and her throat was vaguely sore.
Because of the cuffs, she picked up the glass in both hands.
She knew that he was watching her for signs of fear.
The water didn’t slop around in the tumbler. The rim of the glass didn’t chatter against her teeth.
She truly wasn’t afraid of him any more, at least not for the moment, although maybe later. Certainly later. Now her interior landscape was a desert under sullen skies: numbing desolation, with the angry flicker of lightning toward a far horizon.
She drank half of the water before she put the glass down.
“When I entered the room a moment ago,” the killer said, “you were sitting with your hands folded, your head bowed against your hands. Were you praying?”
She thought about it. “No.”
“There’s no point in lying to me.”
“I’m not lying. I wasn’t praying just then.”
“But you do pray?”
“God fears me.”
He said, “God fears me — those are words that can be made from the letters of my name.”
“From the letters of your name,” she said.
“Yes. And…forge of rage.”
“It’s an interesting game.”
“Names are interesting. Yours is passive. A place name for a first name. And Shepherd — bucolic, fuzzily Christian. When I think of your name, I see an Asian peasant on a hillside with sheep…or a slant-eyed Christ making converts among the heathens.” He smiled, amused by his banter. “But clearly, your name doesn’t define you well. You’re not a passive person.”
“I have been,” she said, “most of my life.”
“Really? Well, you weren’t passive last night.”
“Not last night,” she agreed. “But until then.”
“My name, on the other hand, is a power name. Edgler Foreman Vess.” He spelled it for her. “Not Edgar. Edgeler. Like ‘on the edge.’ And Vess…if you draw it out, it’s like a serpent hissing.”
“Yes, that’s right. It’s there in my name — demon.”
He seemed pleased by her willingness to play. “You’re good at this, especially considering that you don’t have pen and paper.”
“Vessel,” she said. “That’s in your name too.”
“An easy one. But also semen. Vessel and semen, female and male. Would you like to craft an insult out of that, Chyna?”
Instead of replying, she picked up the glass and drank half of the remaining water. The ice cubes were cold against her teeth.
“Now that you’ve wet your whistle,” Vess said, “I want to know all about you. Remember — scrimshaw.”
Chyna told him everything, beginning with the moment that she had heard a scream while sitting at the guest-bedroom window in the Templeton house. She delivered her account in a monotone, not by calculation but because suddenly she could speak no other way. She tried to vary her inflection, put life into her words — but failed.
The sound of her voice, droning through the events of the night, scared her as Edgler Vess no longer did. Her account came to her as if she were listening to someone else speak, and it was the voice of a lost and defeated person.
She told herself that she was not defeated, that she still had hope, that she would get the best of this murderous bastard one way or another. But her inner voice lacked all conviction.
In spite of Chyna’s spiritless recitation of events, Vess was a rapt listener. He began in a relaxed slouch, lounging back in his chair, but by the time Chyna finished, he was leaning forward with his arms on the table, hunched toward her.
He interrupted her several times to ask questions. At the end, he sat for a while in contemplative silence.
She could not bear to look at him. She folded her hands on the table, closed her eyes, and put her forehead against the backs of her church-door thumbs, as she had been when Vess had come out of the laundry room.
She wasn’t praying this time either. She lacked the hope needed for prayer.
After a few minutes, she heard Vess’s chair slide back from the table. He got up. She heard him moving around, and then the familiar clatter of any cook being busy in any kitchen.
She smelled butter heating in a pan, then browning onions.
In the telling of her story, Chyna had lost her appetite, and it didn’t return with the aroma of the onions.
Finally Vess said, “Funny that I didn’t smell you right away at the Templetons’.”
“You can do that?” she asked, without raising her head from her hands. “You can just smell people out, as if you were a damn dog?”
“Usually,” he said, taking no offense, and with what seemed to be utmost seriousness. “And you must have made a sound more than once through the night. You surely can’t be that stealthy. Even your breathing I should have heard.”
Then came the sound of a wire whisk vigorously beating eggs in a bowl.
She smelled bread toasting.
“In a still house, with everyone dead, your movement should have made currents in the air, like a cool breath on the back of my neck, shivering the fine hairs on my hands. Your every movement should have been a different texture against my eyes. And when I walked through a space where you’d just been, I should have sensed the displacement of air caused by your passage.”
He was stone crazy. So cute in his chambray shirt, with his beautiful blue eyes, his thick dark hair combed straight back from his forehead, and the dimple in his left cheek — but pustulant and canker-riddled inside.
“My senses, you see, are unusually acute.”
He ran the water in the sink. Without looking, she knew that he was rinsing the whisk. He wouldn’t put it aside dirty.
He said, “My senses are so sharp because I’ve given myself to sensation. Sensation is my religion, you might say.”
A sizzling arose, much louder than the cooking sound of onions, and a new aroma.
“But you were invisible to me,” he said. “Like a spirit. What makes you special?”
Bitter, she murmured against the tabletop, “If I was special, would I be here in chains?”
Although Chyna hadn’t actually spoken to him and wouldn’t have thought that he could hear her above the crisp sputtering of eggs and onions, Vess said, “I suppose you’re right.”
Later, when he put the plates on the table, she raised her head and moved her hands.
“Rather than make you eat with your hands, I’m going to give you a fork,” he said, “because I assume you see the pointlessness of throwing it and trying to stick me in the eye.”
On her plate was a plump four-egg omelet oozing cheddar cheese and stippled with sautéed onions. On top were three slices of a firm tomato and a sprinkling of chopped parsley. Two pieces of buttered toast, each neatly sliced on the diagonal, were arranged to bracket the omelet.
He refilled her water glass and added two more cubes of ice.
Famished only a short while ago, Chyna now could hardly tolerate the sight of food. She knew that she must eat, so she picked at the eggs and nibbled the toast. But she would never be able to finish all that he had given her.
Vess ate with gusto but not noisily or sloppily. His table manners were beyond reproach, and he used his napkin frequently to blot his lips.
Chyna was deep in her private grayness, and the more Vess appeared to enjoy his breakfast, the more her own omelet began to taste like ashes.
“You’d be quite attractive if you weren’t so rumpled and sweaty, your face smudged with dirt, your hair straggly from the rain. Very attractive, I think. A real charmer under that grime. Maybe later I’ll bathe you.”
Chyna Shepherd, untouched and alive.
Uncannily, after a further silence, Edgler Vess said, “Untouched and alive.”
She knew that she had not spoken the prayer aloud.
“Untouched and alive,” he repeated. “Is that what you said…on the stairs earlier, on your way down to Ariel?”
She stared at him, speechless.
“I’ve been wondering about it. You said your name and then those three words, though none of it made sense when I didn’t know that Chyna Shepherd was your name.”
She looked away from him, at the window. A Doberman roamed the backyard.
“Was it a prayer?” he asked.
In her desolation, Chyna hadn’t thought that he could scare her any more, but she had been wrong. His intuitiveness was frightening — and not entirely for reasons that she could understand.