In the bathroom, although her hands were manacled and trembling badly, she managed to unbuckle her belt, unbutton her jeans, unzip, and skin down jeans and panties. Sitting, she was hit by more waves of cramps, and these were markedly more vicious than those she had endured on the stairs. She had refused to wet herself at the kitchen table, as Vess had wanted her to do, refused to be reduced to that degree of helplessness. Now she couldn’t make water, though she desperately wanted to do that — needed to do it to stop the cramps — and she wondered if she had held out so long that a bladder spasm was pinching off the flow. Such a thing was possible, and abruptly the cramps grew more severe, as if confirming her diagnosis. She felt as if her guts were being rolled through a wringer — but then the cramps passed and relief came.
With the sudden flood, she was surprised to hear herself say, “Chyna Shepherd, untouched and alive and able to pee.” Then she was simultaneously laughing and sobbing, not with relief but with a weird sense of triumph.
Getting free of the table, shattering and shaking off the chair, and not wetting her pants seemed, together, to be an act of endurance and of courage equivalent to setting foot on the moon with the first astronauts to land there, slogging through blinding blizzards to the Pole with Admiral Peary, or storming the beaches of Normandy against the might of the German army. She laughed at herself, laughed until tears spilled down her face; nevertheless, she still felt that degree of triumph. She knew how small — even pathetic — her triumph was, but she felt that it was big.
“Rot in Hell,” she said to Edgler Vess, and she hoped that someday she would have the chance to say it to his face just before she pulled a trigger and blew him out of this world.
She had so much pain in her back from the battering that she’d endured, especially low around her kidneys, that when she was done, she checked in the toilet bowl for blood. She was relieved to see that her urine was clear.
Glancing in the mirror above the sink, however, she was shocked by her reflection. Her short hair was tangled and lank with sweat. The right side of her face along the jaw seemed to be smeared with a purple ink, but when she touched it, she discovered that this was the trailing edge of a bruise that mottled that entire side of her neck. Where it wasn’t bruised or smeared with dirt, her skin was gray and grainy, as if she had been suffering through a long and difficult illness. Her right eye was fiery, no white visible any more: just the dark iris and the darker pupil floating in an elliptical pool of blood. Both the bloodied eye and the clear left eye gazed back at her with a haunted expression so unnerving that she turned away from her own reflection in confusion and fear.
The face in the mirror was that of a woman who had already lost some battle. It wasn’t the face of a winner.
Chyna tried to press that dispiriting thought out of her mind at once. What she had seen was the face of a fighter — no longer the face of a mere survivor, but a fighter. Every fighter sustained some punishment, both physical and emotional. Without anguish and agony, there was no hope of winning.
She shuffled from the bathroom to the door on the right side of the upstairs hall, which opened onto Vess’s bedroom. Simple furniture and a minimum of it. A neatly made bed with a beige chenille spread. No paintings. No bibelots or decorative accessories. No books or magazines, or any newspapers folded open to crossword puzzles. This was nothing more than a place to sleep, not a room where he lingered or lived.
Where he truly lived was in the pain of others, in a storm of death, in the calm eye of the storm where all was orderly but where the wind howled on every side.
Chyna checked the nightstand drawers for a gun but didn’t find one. She found no phone either.
The large walk-in closet was ten feet deep and as wide as the bedroom, essentially a room of its own. At a glance, the closet held nothing useful to her. She was sure to discover something worthwhile if she searched, maybe even a well-hidden gun. But there were built-in cabinets with laden shelves and packed drawers, and boxes were stacked on boxes; she would need hours to pore through everything. More urgent tasks awaited her.
She emptied the dresser drawers on the floor, but they contained only socks, underwear, sweaters, sweatshirts, and a few rolled belts. No guns.
Across the hall from Vess’s bedroom was a Spartan study. Bare walls. Blackout blinds instead of drapes. On two long worktables stood two computers, each with its own laser printer. Of the numerous items of computer-related equipment, she could identify some but was mystified by others.
Between the long tables was an office chair. The floor was not carpeted; the bare wood was exposed, evidently to make it easier for Vess to roll between tables.
The drab, utilitarian room intrigued her. She sensed that it was an important place. Time was precious, but there was something here worth pausing to examine.
She sat in the chair and looked around, bewildered. She knew that the world was wired these days, even into the hinterlands, but it seemed odd to find all this high-tech equipment in such a remote and rustic house.
Chyna suspected that Vess was set up to enter the Internet, but there was no phone or modem in sight. She spotted two unused phone jacks in the baseboard. His meticulous security procedures had served him well again; she was stymied.
What did he do here?
On one of the tables were six or eight ring-bound notebooks with colorful covers, and she opened the nearest. The binder was divided into five sections, each with the name of an agency of the federal government. The first was the Social Security Administration. The pages were filled with what seemed to be notes from Vess to himself regarding the trial-and-error method by which he had hacked his way into the administration’s data files and had learned to manipulate them. The second divider was labeled U.S. DEPT OF STATE (PASSPORT AGENCY), and judging by the following notes, Vess was engaged in an incomplete experiment to determine if, by a byzantine route, he might be able to enter and control the Passport Agency’s computerized records without being detected.
Part of what he was doing, evidently, was preparing for the day when he slipped up in his “homicidal adventuring” and required new identities.
Chyna didn’t believe, however, that Vess’s only projects were the altering of his public records and the obtaining of fake ID. She was troubled by the feeling that this room contained information about Vess that could be of vital importance to her own survival if only she knew where to look for it.
She put down the notebook and swiveled in the chair to face the second computer. Under one end of this table stood a two-drawer file cabinet. She opened the top drawer and saw Pendaflex hanging files with blue tags; each tag featured a person’s name, with the surname first.
Each folder contained a two-sheet dossier on a different law-enforcement officer, and after a couple of minutes of investigation, Chyna decided that they were deputies with the sheriff’s department in the very county in which Vess’s house was located. These dossiers provided all vital statistics on the officers plus information about their families and their personal lives. A Xerox of each deputy’s official ID photo was also attached.
Did the freak see some advantage in collecting information on all the local cops as insurance against the day when he might find himself in a standoff with them? This effort seemed excessive even for one as meticulous as Edgler Vess; on the other hand, excess was his philosophy.
The lower drawer of the filing cabinet contained manila folders as well. The tabs of these also featured names, like those in the upper drawer, but only surnames.
In the first folder, labeled ALMES, Chyna found a full-page enlargement of the California driver’s license of an attractive young blonde named Mia Lorinda Almes. Judging by the exceptional clarity, it wasn’t a Xerox blow-up of the original license but a digitized data transmission received on a phone line, through a computer, and reproduced on a high-quality laser printer.
The only other items in the folder were six Polaroid photographs of Mia Lorinda Almes. The first two were close-ups from different angles. She was beautiful. And terrified.
This file drawer was Edgler Vess’s equivalent of a scrapbook.
Four more Polaroids of Mia Almes.
The next two were full-body shots. The young woman was na*ed in both. Manacled.
Chyna closed her eyes. But opened them. She was compelled to look, perhaps because she was determined not to hide from anything any more.
In the fifth and sixth photos, the young woman was dead, and in the last her beautiful face was gone as if it had been blown off or sheared away.
The folder and the photographs fluttered from Chyna’s hands to the floor, where they clicked against the wood and spun and were still. She hid her face in her hands.
She wasn’t trying to block from her mind the gruesome image on the snapshot. Instead, she was striving to repress a nineteen-year-old memory of a farmhouse outside New Orleans, two visitors with a Styrofoam cooler, a gun taken from the refrigerator, and the cold accuracy with which a woman named Memphis had fired two rounds.
Memory, however, always has its way.
The visitors, who’d done business with Zack and Memphis before, had been there to make a drug purchase. The cooler had been filled with packets of hundred-dollar bills. Maybe Zack didn’t have the promised shipment, or maybe he and Memphis just needed more money than they could get from a sale; whatever the reason, they had decided to rip off the two men.
After the gunfire, Chyna had hidden in the barn loft, certain that Memphis would kill them all. When Memphis and Anne found her, she fought them bitterly. But she was only seven years old and no match for them. With owls hooting in alarm and taking flight from the rafters, the women dragged Chyna out of the mice-infested hay and carried her to the house.
Zack had been gone by then, having taken the bodies elsewhere, and Memphis had cleaned up the blood in the kitchen while Anne had forced Chyna to drink a shot of whiskey. Chyna didn’t want the whiskey, sealed her lips against it, but Anne said, “You’re a wreck, for Christ’s sake, you can’t stop blubbering, and one shot isn’t going to hurt you. This is what you need, kiddo, trust Mama, this is what you need. A shot of good whiskey will break a fever, you know, and what you’ve got now is a kind of fever. Come on, you little wuss, it’s not poison. Jesus, you can be a whiny little shit sometimes. Either you drink it quick, or I’ll hold you down and pinch your nose shut, and Memphis will pour it in when you open your mouth to breathe. That how you want it?” So Chyna drank the whiskey, and then took a second shot with a few ounces of milk when her mother decided that she needed it. The booze made her dizzy and strange but did not calm her.
She had appeared calmer to them because, good little fisher that she was, she’d caught her fear and reeled it inside, where they could not see it. Even by the age of seven, she had begun to understand that a show of fear was dangerous, because others interpreted it as weakness, and there was no place in this world for the weak.
Later that night, Zack had returned with whiskey on his breath too. He was exuberant, in a raucous and celebratory mood. He came straight to Chyna and hugged her, kissed her on the cheek, took her by the hands and tried to make her dance with him. “That bastard Bobby, the last time he was here, I knew by the way he couldn’t take his eyes off Chyna that he was hot for little girls, a genuine sicko, so tonight he walks in and his tongue just about uncurls to his knees when he sees her! You could’ve shot the geek half a dozen times, Memphis, before he might’ve noticed!” Bobby had been the man sitting at the kitchen table, talking to Chyna, his beautiful gray eyes fixed intently on her, speaking directly to her in a way that few adults ever spoke to kids, asking whether she liked kittens or puppies best and did she want to grow up to be a famous movie star or a nurse or a doctor or what, when Memphis shot him in the head. “The way our Chyna girl was dressed,” Zack said excitedly, “Bobby just about totally forgot anyone else was here.” The night was hot and swamp-humid, and before the visitors arrived, Chyna’s mother made her change out of her shorts and T-shirt into a brief yellow bikini swimsuit: “But only the bottoms because, child, you’re going to get heatstroke in this weather.” Although only seven, Chyna was old enough to feel peculiar about going bare-chested, even if she didn’t quite know why she felt that way. She’d gone bare-chested when she was younger, even just the previous summer, when she was six; and it was an awfully hot, sticky night. When Zack said that the way she was dressed had something to do with Bobby’s forgetting that anyone else was in the room, Chyna didn’t understand what he meant. Years later, when she did understand, she had confronted her mother with it. Anne had laughed and said, “Oh, baby, don’t get self-righteous on me. We get along by using what we’ve got, and one sure thing we girls have is our bodies. You were the perfect distraction. Anyway, poor dumb old Bobby never touched you, did he? He just got to gawk at you a little, that’s all, while Memphis went for the gun. Don’t forget, sweetie, we were cut in for a piece of that pie and lived well on it for a while.” And Chyna had wanted to say, But you used me, you put me right there in front of him where I’d see his head come apart, and I was only seven!
All these years later, in Edgler Vess’s study, she could still hear the crash of the shot and see Bobby’s face explode; the memory was as vivid as ever it had been. She didn’t know what gun Memphis used, but the ammunition must have been high-caliber hollow-point lead wadcutters that expanded on impact, because the damage they inflicted had been tremendous.
She lowered her hands from her face and looked at the open file cabinet. Vess had used three formats of folders, with staggered tab placement, so it was easy for Chyna to see all the names along the length of the drawer. Much farther back from the Almes file was one labeled TEMPLETON.
She pushed the drawer shut with her foot.
She’d found too much in this study — yet nothing helpful.
Before leaving the second floor, she turned off all the lights. If Vess came home early, before Chyna could get away with Ariel, the lights would warn him that something was amiss. He would be lulled by darkness, however, and as he crossed the threshold, she might have one last chance to kill him.
She hoped it wouldn’t come to that. In spite of her fantasies of pulling the trigger on Vess, Chyna didn’t want to have to confront him again, even if she found a shotgun and loaded it herself and had an opportunity to test fire it before he arrived. She was a survivor, and she was a fighter, but Vess was more than either: as unreachable as stars, something come down from a high darkness. She was no match for him, and she didn’t want another chance to prove it.
One tread at a time, balanced against the handrail, as fast as she dared, Chyna went down to the living room. None of the Dobermans was at the undraped window.