The survivor’s feet vanished as he wriggled under the Roadking.
To avoid being shot in the foot and ankle, Jim grabbed the open door and jumped onto the step beside the driver’s seat. Even as his feet left the ground, two shots boomed from under the motor home, and one of them punctured the tire beside which he’d been standing.
Instead of retreating into the Roadking, he dropped back to the ground, fell flat, and shoved the shotgun under the vehicle, figuring to take his adversary by surprise. But the guy was already out from under on the other side. Jim could see only the black cowboy boots hurrying toward the rear of the motor home. The guy turned the corner—and vanished.
The ladder. At the right rear corner. Next to the racked motorcycle.
The bastard was going onto the roof.
Jim hustled all the way under the Roadking before the killer could look over the edge of the roof, spot him, and fire down. It was no cooler beneath the vehicle, because the sun-scorched earthen shoulder radiated the heat it had been storing up since dawn.
Two cars roared by on the highway, one close after the other. He hadn’t heard them coming, maybe because his heart was beating so hard that he felt as if he were inside a kettle drum. He cursed the motorists under his breath, then realized they couldn’t be expected to stop when they saw a guy like Dork Knob prowling the top of the motor home with a handgun.
He had a better chance of winning if he continued to do the unexpected, so he immediately crawled on his belly, fast as a marine under fire, to the rear of the Roadking. He twisted onto his back, eased his head out past the rear bumper, and peered up across the Harley, at the ascending rungs that appeared to dwindle into blazing white sun.
The ladder was empty. The killer was already on the roof. He might think that he had temporarily mystified his pursuer with his vanishing act, and in any case he wouldn’t expect to be followed with utter recklessness.
Jim slid all the way into the open and went up the ladder. He gripped the hot siderail with one hand, holding the compact shotgun with the other, trying to ascend as soundlessly as possible. His adversary was surprisingly quiet on the aluminum surface above, making barely enough noises of his own to cover an occasional pop and squeak from the aged rungs under Jim’s feet.
At the top, Jim cautiously raised his head and squinted across the roof. The killer was two-thirds of the way toward the front of the Roadking, at the right side, looking down. He was moving along on hands and knees, which must have hurt; although the time-stained white paint reflected a lot of the sun, it had stored sufficient heat to sting even well-callused hands and to penetrate blue denim. But if the guy was in pain, he didn’t show it; he was evidently as suicidally macho as his dead buddy had been.
Jim eased up another rung.
The killer actually lowered himself onto his belly, though the roof must have scorched instantly through his thin T-shirt. He was trying to maintain as low a profile as possible, waiting for Jim to appear below.
Jim eased up one more rung. The roof now met him at mid-torso. He turned sideways on the ladder and jammed one knee behind the outer upright, wedging himself in place so he would have both hands for the shotgun and so the recoil would not knock him backward to the ground.
If the guy on the roof didn’t have a sixth sense, then he was just damned lucky. Jim had not made a sound, but the creep suddenly glanced back over his shoulder and spotted him.
Cursing, Jim swung the shotgun around.
The killer flung himself sideways, off the roof.
Without getting in a shot, Jim pulled his knee from behind the upright and jumped from the ladder. He hit the ground hard but kept his balance, stepped around the corner of the motor home, and squeezed off one round.
But the creep was already bolting through the side door. At worst, he caught a few pellets in one leg. Probably not even that.
He was going after the woman and child.
Or maybe he just wanted to slaughter them before he was cut down himself. The past couple of decades had seen the rise of the vagabond sociopath, roaming the country, looking for easy prey, racking up long lists of victims, attaining sexual release as much from brutal murder as from rape.
In his mind, Jim heard the anguished voice of the dying man in the station wagon:
Lisa ... Susie ... My wife, daughter
With no time for caution, his anger having grown greater than his fear, he raced after the killer, through the door, into the Roadking, entering aft of the cockpit. His sun-dazzled eyes couldn’t handle the comparative gloom of the motor home’s interior, but he was able to see the psychotic sonofabitch heading toward the rear of the motor home, past the lounge area and into the galley.
A shadowy figure now, with just a dark oval for a face, the killer turned and fired. The slug tore a chunk out of a wall-hung storage cabinet to the left of Jim, showering him with splinters of Formica and smoking particle board.
He didn’t know where the woman and child were. He was afraid of hitting them. A shotgun wasn’t a precise weapon.
The killer fired again. The second bullet passed so close to Jim’s face that it left a wake of stinging-hot wind, like a kiss of fire burning across his right cheek.
He pumped out one round, and the blast shook the tinny walls. The killer screamed and was flung hard against the kitchen sink. Jim fired again, reflexively, half-deafened by the double explosion. The guy was virtually lifted off his feet, hurled backward, slammed against the rear wall, beside a closed door that separated the main living area from the bedroom. Then he dropped.
Grabbing a couple of shells from his pants pocket, reloading the shotgun magazine, Jim moved deeper into the Roadking, past a tattered and sagging sofa.
He knew the man had to be dead, but he could not see well enough to be certain of anything. Though shafts of the Mojave sun shoved in like hot branding irons through the windshield and the open doors, the heavily draped side windows insured that the rear of the Roadking was filled with shadows, and there was a thin acrid haze of smoke from all the gunfire.
When he reached the end of the narrow chamber and looked down, he had no doubt that the man crumpled on the floor was dead. Bloody human garbage. Garbage alive, now garbage dead.
At the sight of the torn and battered corpse, a savage elation gripped him, a furious righteousness that was both thrilling and frightening. He wanted to be sickened by what he had done, even if the dead man had deserved to die, but although the carnage nauseated him, he was not morally repulsed. He had encountered purest evil in human form: Both these bastards deserved worse than he had been able to do to them, deserved long and slow deaths with great suffering, much terror. He felt like an avenging angel, come to judgment, filled with a holy rage. He knew he was teetering on the edge of a psychosis of his own, knew that only the insane were unreservedly certain of the virtue of even their most outrageous acts, but he could find no doubt within him. In fact his anger swelled as if he were God’s avatar into whom flowed a direct current of the Almighty’s apocalyptic wrath.
He turned to the closed door.
The bedroom lay beyond.
The mother and child had to be in there.
Lisa ... Susie
But who else?
Sociopathic killers usually operated alone, but sometimes they paired up as these two had done. Larger alliances, however, were rare. Charles Manson and his “family,” of course. There were other examples. He couldn’t rule anything out, not in a world where the trendiest professors of philosophy taught that ethics were always situational and that everyone’s point of view was equally right and valuable, regardless of its logic or hate quotient. It was a world that bred monsters, and this beast might be hydra-headed.
He knew caution was called for, but the exhilarating righteous wrath that filled him also gave him a sense of invulnerability. He stepped to the bedroom door, kicked it open, and shouldered through, knowing he might be gut-shot, not giving a damn, shotgun in front of him, ready to kill and be killed.
The woman and child were alone. On the filthy bed. Bound at wrists and ankles with sturdy strapping tape. Tape across their mouths.
The woman, Lisa, was about thirty, slim, an unusually attractive blonde. But the daughter, Susie, was remarkably more beautiful than her mother, ethereally beautiful: about ten years old, with luminous green eyes, delicate features, and skin as flawless as the membranous interior surface of an eggshell. The girl seemed, to Jim, to be an embodiment of innocence, goodness, and purity—an angel cast down into a cesspool. New power informed his rage at the sight of her bound and gagged in the bedroom’s squalor.
Tears streamed down the child’s face, and she choked on muffled sobs of terror behind the tape that sealed her lips. The mother was not crying, though grief and fear haunted her eyes. Her sense of responsibility to her daughter—and a visible rage not unlike Jim’s—seemed to keep her from falling over the brink of hysteria.
He realized they were afraid of him. As far as they knew, he was in league with the men who had abducted them.
As he propped the shotgun against the built-in dresser, he said, “It’s all right. It’s over now. I killed them. I killed them both.”
The mother stared at him wide-eyed, disbelieving.
He didn’t blame her for doubting him. His voice sounded strange: full of fury, cracking on every third or fourth word, tremulous, going from a whisper to a hard bark to a whisper again.
He looked around for something with which to cut them free. A roll of the strapping tape and a pair of scissors lay on the dresser.
Grabbing the scissors, he noticed X-rated videotapes also stacked on the dresser. Suddenly he realized that the walls and ceiling of the small room were papered with obscene photographs torn from the pages of sex magazines, and with a jolt he saw it was filth with a twisted difference: child pornography. There were grown men in the photos, their faces always concealed, but there were no grown women, only young girls and boys, most of them as young as Susie, many of them younger, being brutalized in every way imaginable.
The men he had killed would have used the mother only briefly, would have raped and tortured and broken her only as an example to the child. Then they would have cut her throat or blown her brains out on some desolate dirt road out in the desert, leaving her body for the delectation of lizards and ants and vultures. It was the child they really wanted, and for whom they would have made the next few months or years a living hell.
His anger metastasized into something beyond mere rage, far beyond wrath. A terrible darkness rose inside of him like black crude oil gushing up from a wellhead.
He was furious that the child had seen those photographs, had been forced to lie in those stained and foul-smelling bedclothes with unspeakable obscenity on every side of her. He had the crazy urge to pick up the shotgun and empty a few more rounds into each of the dead men.
They had not touched her. Thank God for that. They hadn’t had time to touch her.
But the room. Oh, Jesus, she had suffered an assault just by being in that room.
He was shaking.
He saw that the mother was shaking, too.
After a moment he realized that her tremors were not of rage, like his, but of fear. Fear of
She was terrified of him, more so now than when he had come into the room.
He was glad there was no mirror. He would not have wanted to see his own face. Right now there must be some kind of madness in it.
He had to get a grip on himself.
“It’s all right,” he assured her again. “I came to help you.”
Eager to free them, anxious to quiet their terror, he dropped to his knees beside the bed and cut the tape that was wound around the woman’s ankles, tore it away. He snipped the tape around her wrists, as well, then left her to finish freeing herself.
When he cut the bindings from Susie’s wrists, she hugged herself defensively. When he freed her ankles, she kicked at him and squirmed away across the gray and mottled sheets. He didn’t reach for her, but backed off instead.
Lisa peeled the tape off her lips and pulled a rag out of her mouth, choking and gagging. She spoke in a raspy voice that was somehow simultaneously frantic and resigned: “My husband, back at the car, my husband!”
Jim looked at her and said nothing, unable to put such bleak news into words in front of the child.
The woman saw the truth in his eyes, and for a moment her lovely face was wrenched into a mask of grief and agony. But for the sake of her daughter, she fought down the sob, swallowed it along with her anguish.
She said only, “Oh, my God,” and each word reverberated with her loss.
“Can you carry Susie?”
Her mind was on her dead husband.
He said, “Can you carry Susie?”
She blinked in confusion. “How do you know her name?”
“Your husband told me.”
“Before,” he said sharply, meaning
before he died,
not wanting to give false hope. “Can you carry her out of here?”
“Yeah, I think so, maybe.”
He could have carried the girl himself, but he didn’t believe that he should touch her. Though it was irrational and emotional, he felt that what those two men had done to her—and what they
have done to her, given a chance—was somehow the responsibility of all men, and that at least a small stain of guilt was his as well.
Right now, the only man in the world who should touch that child was her father. And he was dead.
Jim rose from his knees and edged away from the bed. He backed into a narrow closet door that sprang open as he stepped aside of it.
On the bed, the weeping girl squirmed away from her mother, so traumatized that she did not at first recognize the benign intention of even those familiar loving hands. Then abruptly she shattered the chains of terror and flew into her mother’s arms. Lisa spoke softly and reassuringly to her daughter, stroked her hair, held her tight.