This book is for Florence Koontz.
My mother. Long lost. My guardian.
Hope is the destination that we seek.
Love is the road that leads to hope.
Courage is the motor that drives us.
We travel out of darkness into faith.
—THE BOOK OF COUNTED SORROWS
The red sun balances on the highest ramparts of the mountains, and in its waning light, the foothills appear to be ablaze. A cool breeze blows down out of the sun and fans through the tall dry grass, which streams like waves of golden fire along the slopes toward the rich and shadowed valley.
In the knee-high grass, he stands with his hands in the pockets of his denim jacket, studying the vineyards below. The vines were pruned during the winter. The new growing season has just begun. The colorful wild mustard that flourished between the rows during the colder months has been chopped back and the stubble plowed under. The earth is dark and fertile.
The vineyards encircle a barn, outbuildings, and a bungalow for the caretaker. Except for the barn, the largest structure is the owners’ Victorian house with its gables, dormers, decorative millwork under the eaves, and carved pediment over the front porch steps.
Paul and Sarah Templeton live in the house year-round, and their daughter, Laura, visits occasionally from San Francisco, where she attends university. She is supposed to be in residence throughout this weekend.
He dreamily contemplates a mental image of Laura’s face, as detailed as a photograph. Curiously, the girl’s perfect features engender thoughts of succulent, sugar-laden bunches of pinot noir and grenache with translucent purple skin. He can actually taste the phantom grapes as he imagines them bursting between his teeth.
As it slowly sinks behind the mountains, the sun sprays light so warmly colored and so mordant that, where touched, the darkening land appears to be wet with it and dyed forever. The grass grows red as well, no longer like a fireless burning but, instead, a red tide washing around his knees.
He turns his back on the house and the vineyards. Savoring the steadily intensifying taste of grapes, he walks westward into the shadows cast by the high forested ridges.
He can smell the small animals of the open meadows cowering in their burrows. He hears the whisper of feathers carving the wind as a hunting hawk circles hundreds of feet overhead, and he feels the cold glimmer of stars that are not yet visible.
In the strange sea of shimmering red light, the black shadows of overhanging trees flickered shark-swift across the windshield.
On the winding two-lane blacktop, Laura Templeton handled the Mustang with an expertise that Chyna admired, but she drove too fast. “You’ve got a heavy foot,” Chyna said.
Laura grinned. “Better than a big butt.”
“You’ll get us killed.”
“Mom has rules about being late for dinner.”
“Being late is better than being dead for dinner.”
“You’ve never met my mom. She’s hell on rules.”
“So is the highway patrol.”
Laura laughed. “Sometimes you sound just like her.”
Bracing herself as Laura took a curve too fast, Chyna said, “Well, one of us has to be a responsible adult.”
“Sometimes I can’t believe you’re only three years older than me,” Laura said affectionately. “Twenty-six, huh? You sure you’re not a hundred and twenty-six?”
“I’m ancient,” Chyna said.
They had left San Francisco under a hard blue sky, taking a four-day break from classes at the University of California, where, in the spring, they would earn master’s degrees in psychology. Laura hadn’t been delayed in her education by the need to earn her tuition and living expenses, but Chyna had spent the past ten years attending classes part time while working full time as a waitress, first in a Denny’s, then in a unit of the Olive Garden chain, and most recently in an upscale restaurant with white tablecloths and cloth napkins and fresh flowers on the tables and customers—bless them—who routinely tipped fifteen or twenty percent. This visit to the Templetons’ house in the Napa Valley would be the closest thing to a vacation that she’d had in a decade.
From San Francisco, Laura had followed Interstate 80 through Berkeley and across the eastern end of San Pablo Bay. Blue heron had stalked the shallows and leaped gracefully into flight: enormous, eerily prehistoric, beautiful against the cloudless heavens.
Now, in the gold-and-crimson sunset, scattered clouds burned in the sky, and the Napa Valley unrolled like a radiant tapestry. Laura had departed the main road in favor of a scenic route; however, she drove so fast that Chyna was seldom able to take her eyes off the highway to enjoy the scenery.
“Man, I love speed,” Laura said.
“I hate it.”
“I like to move, streak, fly. Hey, maybe I was a gazelle in a previous life. You think?”
Chyna looked at the speedometer and grimaced. “Yeah, maybe a gazelle—or a madwoman locked away in Bedlam.”
“Or a cheetah. Cheetahs are really fast.”
“Yeah, a cheetah, and one day you were chasing your prey and ran straight off the edge of a cliff at full tilt. You were the Wile E. Coyote of cheetahs.”
“I’m a good driver, Chyna.”
Laura sighed with fake exasperation. “Ever?”
“When I sleep,” Chyna said, and she nearly jammed her feet through the floorboards as the Mustang took a wide curve at high speed.
Beyond the narrow graveled shoulder of the two-lane, the land sloped down through wild mustard and looping brambles to a row of tall black alders fringed with early-spring buds. Beyond the alders lay vineyards drenched with fierce red light, and Chyna was convinced that the car would slide off the blacktop, roll down the embankment, and crash into the trees, and that her blood would fertilize the nearest of the vines.
Instead, Laura effortlessly held the Mustang to the pavement. The car swept out of the curve and up a long incline.
Laura said, “I bet you even worry in your sleep.”
“Well, sooner or later, in every dream there’s a boogeyman. You’ve got to be on the lookout for him.”
“I have lots of dreams without boogeymen,” Laura said. “I have wonderful dreams.”
“Getting shot out of a cannon?”
“That would be fun. No, but sometimes I dream that I can fly. I’m always naked and just floating or swooping along fifty feet above the ground, over telephone lines, across fields of bright flowers, over treetops. So free. People look up and smile and wave. They’re so delighted to see that I can fly, so happy for me. And sometimes I’m with this beautiful guy, lean and muscular, with a mane of golden hair and lovely green eyes that look all the way through me to my soul, and we’re making love in midair, drifting up there, and I’m having spectacular orgasms, one after another, floating through sunshine with flowers below and birds swooping overhead, birds with these gorgeous iridescent-blue wings and singing the most fantastic birdsongs you ever heard, and I feel as if I’m full of dazzling light, just a creature of light, and like I’m going to explode, such an energy, explode and form a whole new universe and be the universe and live forever. You ever have a dream like that?”
Chyna had finally taken her eyes off the onrushing blacktop. She stared in blank-faced astonishment at Laura. Finally she said, “No.”
Glancing away from the two-lane, Laura said, “Really? You never had a dream like that?”
“I have lots of dreams like that.”
“Could you keep your eyes on the road, kiddo?”
Laura looked at the highway and said, “Don’t you ever dream about sex?”
Chyna shrugged. “It’s bad.”
Frowning, Laura said, “You dream about having bad sex? Listen, Chyna, you don’t have to dream about that—there are lots of guys who can provide all the bad sex you want.”
“Ho, ho. I mean these are nightmares, very threatening.”
“Sex is threatening?”
“Because I’m always a little girl in the dreams—six or seven or eight—and I’m always hiding from this man, not quite sure what he wants, why he’s looking for me, but I know he wants something from me that he shouldn’t have, something terrible, and it’s going to be like dying.”
“Who’s the man?”
“Some of the creeps your mother used to hang out with?”
Chyna had told Laura a great deal about her mother. She had never told anyone else. “Yeah. Them. I always got away from them in real life. They never touched me. And they never touch me in the dreams. But there’s always a threat, always a possibility….”
“So these aren’t just dreams. They’re memories too.”
“I wish they were just dreams.”
“What about when you’re awake?” Laura asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you just turn all warm and fuzzy and let yourself go when a man makes love to you…or is the past always there?”
“What is this—analysis at eighty miles an hour?”
“Dodging the question?”
“You’re a snoop.”
“It’s called friendship.”
“It’s called snoopery.”
“Dodging the question?”
Chyna sighed. “All right. I like being with a man. I’m not inhibited. I’ll admit that I’ve never felt as though I’m a creature of light going to explode into a new universe, but I’ve been fully satisfied, always had fun.”
Chyna had never actually been with a man until she was twenty-one; and her intimate relationships now totaled exactly two. Both had been gentle, kind, and decent men, and in each case Chyna had greatly enjoyed the lovemaking. One affair had lasted eleven months, the other thirteen, and neither lover had left her a single troubling memory. Nevertheless, neither man had helped her banish the vicious dreams, which continued to plague her periodically, and she’d been unable to achieve an emotional bond equal to the physical intimacy. To a man whom she loved, Chyna could give her body, but even for love, she could not entirely give her mind and heart. She was afraid to commit herself, to trust without reservation. No one in her life, with the possible exception of Laura Templeton—stunt driver and dream flier—had ever earned total trust.
Wind shrieked along the sides of the car. In the flickering shadows and fiery light, the long incline ahead of them seemed to be a ramp, as if they were going to be launched into space when they reached the top, vaulting across a dozen burning buses while a stadium full of thrill-seekers cheered.
“What if a tire blows?” Chyna asked.
“The tires won’t blow,” Laura said confidently.
“What if one does?”
Wrenching her face into an exaggerated, demonic grin, Laura said, “Then we’re just girl jelly in a can. They won’t even be able to separate the remains into two distinct bodies. A total amorphous mess. They won’t even need coffins for us. They’ll just pour our remains in a jug and put us in one grave, and the headstone will read: Laura Chyna Templeton Shepherd. Only a Cuisinart Would Have Been More Thorough.”
Chyna had hair so dark that it was virtually black, and Laura was a blue-eyed blonde, yet they were enough alike to be sisters. Both were five feet four and slender; they wore the same dress size. Each had high cheekbones and delicate features. Chyna had always felt that her mouth was too wide, but Laura, whose mouth was as wide as Chyna’s, said it wasn’t wide at all but merely “generous” enough to ensure an especially winning smile.
As Laura’s love of speed proved, however, they were in some ways profoundly different people. The differences, perhaps more than the similarities, were what drew them to each other.
“You think your mom and dad will like me?” Chyna asked.
“I thought you were worried about a blown tire.”
“I’m a multichannel worrier. Will they like me?”
“Of course they’ll like you. You know what I worry about?” Laura asked as they raced toward the top of the incline.
“Apparently, not death.”
“You. I worry about you,” Laura said. She glanced at Chyna, and her expression was uncharacteristically serious.
“I can take care of myself,” Chyna assured her.
“I don’t doubt that. I know you too well to doubt that. But life isn’t just about taking care of yourself, keeping your head down, getting through.”
“Laura Templeton, girl philosopher.”
“Life is about living.”
“Deep,” Chyna said sarcastically.
“Deeper than you think.”
The Mustang crested the long hill, and there were no burning buses or cheering multitudes, but ahead of them was an older-model Buick, cruising well below the posted limit. Laura cut their speed by more than half, and they pulled behind the other car. Even in the fading light, Chyna could see that the round-shouldered driver was a white-haired, elderly man.
They were in a no-passing zone. The road rose and fell, turned left and right, rose again, and they could not see far ahead.
Laura switched on the Mustang headlights, hoping to encourage the driver of the Buick either to increase his speed or to ease over where the shoulder widened to let them pass.
“Take your own advice—relax, kiddo,” Chyna said.
“Hate to be late for dinner.”
“From everything you’ve said about her, I don’t think your mom’s the type to beat us with wire coat hangers.”
“Mom’s the best.”
“So relax,” Chyna said.
“But she has this disappointed look she gives you that’s worse than wire coat hangers. Most people don’t know this, but Mom is the reason the Cold War ended. Several years ago, the Pentagon sent her off to Moscow so she could give the whole damn Politburo the Look, and all those Soviet thugs just collapsed with remorse.”
Ahead of them, the old man in the Buick checked his rearview mirror.
The white hair in the headlight beams, the angle of the man’s head, and the mere suggestion of his eyes reflected in the mirror suddenly engendered in Chyna a powerful sense of déjà vu. For a moment, she didn’t understand why a chill came over her—but then she was cast back in memory to an incident that she had long tried unsuccessfully to forget: another twilight, nineteen years ago, a lonely Florida highway.
“Oh, Jesus,” she said.
Laura glanced at her. “What’s wrong?”
Chyna closed her eyes.
“Chyna, you’re as white as a ghost. What is it?”
“A long time ago…when I was just a little girl, seven years old…Maybe we were in the Everglades, maybe not…but the land was swampy like the ’glades. There weren’t many trees, and the few you could see were hung with Spanish moss. Everything was flat as far as you could see, lots of sky and flatness, the sunlight red and fading like now, a back road somewhere, far away from anything, very rural, two narrow lanes, so damn empty and lonely….”
Chyna had been with her mother and Jim Woltz, a Key West drug dealer and gunrunner with whom they had lived now and then, for a month or two at a time, during her childhood. They had been on a business trip and had been returning to the Keys in Woltz’s vintage red Cadillac, one of those models with massive tailfins and with what seemed to be five tons of chrome grillwork. Woltz was driving fast on that straight highway, exceeding a hundred miles an hour at times. They hadn’t encountered another car for almost fifteen minutes before they roared up behind the elderly couple in the tan Mercedes. The woman was driving. Birdlike. Close-cropped silver hair. Seventy-five if she was a day. She was doing forty miles an hour. Woltz could have pulled around the Mercedes; they were in a passing zone, and no traffic was in sight for miles on that dead-flat highway.
“But he was high on something,” Chyna told Laura, eyes still closed, watching the memory with growing dread as it played like a movie on a screen behind her eyes. “He was most of the time high on something. Maybe it was cocaine that day. I don’t know. Don’t remember. He was drinking too. They were both drinking, him and my mother. They had a cooler full of ice. Bottles of grapefruit juice and vodka. The old lady in the Mercedes was driving really slow, and that incensed Woltz. He wasn’t rational. What did it matter to him? He could’ve pulled around her. But the sight of her driving so slow on the wide-open highway infuriated him. Drugs and booze, that’s all. So irrational. When he was angry…red-faced, arteries throbbing in his neck, jaw muscles bulging. No one could get angry quite as totally as Jim Woltz. His rage excited my mother. Always excited her. So she teased him, encouraged him. I was in the backseat, hanging on tight, pleading with her to stop, but she kept at him.”
For a while, Woltz had hung close behind the other car, blowing his horn at the elderly couple, trying to force them to go faster. A few times he had nudged the rear bumper of the Mercedes with the front bumper of the Cadillac, metal kissing metal with a squeal. Eventually the old woman got rattled and began to swerve erratically, afraid to go faster with Woltz so close behind her but too frightened of him to pull off the road and let him pass by.
“Of course,” Chyna said, “he wouldn’t have gone past and left her alone. By then he was too psychotic. He would have stopped when she stopped. It still would have ended badly.”
Woltz had pulled alongside the Mercedes a few times, driving in the wrong lane, shouting and shaking his fist at the white-haired couple, who first tried to ignore him and then stared back wide-eyed and fearful. Each time, rather than drive by and leave them in his dust, he had dropped behind again to play tag with their rear bumper. To Woltz, in his drug fever and alcoholic haze, this harassment was deadly serious business, with an importance and a meaning that could never be understood by anyone who was clean and sober. To Chyna’s mother, Anne, it was all a game, an adventure, and it was she, in her ceaseless search for excitement, who said, Why don’t we give her a driving test? Woltz said, Test? I don’t need to give the old bitch a test to see she can’t drive for shit. This time, as Woltz pulled beside the Mercedes, matching speeds with it, Anne said, I mean, see if she can keep it on the road. Make it a challenge for her.
To Laura, Chyna recalled, “There was a canal parallel to the road, one of those drainage channels you see along some Florida highways. Not deep but deep enough. Woltz used the Cadillac to crowd the Mercedes onto the shoulder of the road. The woman should have crowded him back, forced him the other way. She should have tramped the pedal to the floor and pegged the speedometer and gotten the hell out of there. The Mercedes would’ve outrun the Cadillac, no problem. But she was old and scared, and she’d never encountered anyone like this. I think she was just disbelieving, so unable to understand the kind of people she was up against, unable to grasp how far they’d go even though she and her husband had done nothing to them. Woltz forced her off the road. The Mercedes rolled into the canal.”
Intensity by Dean Koontz / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on35 votes