I had gone only a few steps when she softly called my name. She hurried to me and said, “The vest won’t puncture, so let me pin this to the sleeve of your sweater.”
“My little diamond-and-ruby exclamation point. For good luck. It doesn’t mean what I told the waitress it meant.”
“It doesn’t really mean ‘Sister, what a hoot it is to be me’?”
“No, and it doesn’t mean ‘Seize the day’ or ‘Live life to the fullest,’ either.”
“What does it mean, then?”
“Never you mind what it means.”
I said, “Maybe it means ‘We might as well eat.’ ”
“Sometimes you make no sense, child. This brooch will bring you through alive. Now scoot before I start crying.”
I scooted out to the state route, crossed the pavement, and walked south along the farther shoulder of the road, toward the private lane that I believed would lead me to the cowboy and the children, ready to take cover in the brush and trees at the first sound of an approaching engine.
As a man of action, I leave something to be desired. This had been a long and eventful day, but I hadn’t yet blown up anything or busted anyone in the chops. If I had been James Bond, I would have killed at least two by now and blown up at least one thing, and if I had been Jack Reacher, I would have left a trail of blood and mayhem more than three hundred miles long. At least I was alive, so there remained a chance that I could find something to blow up before the night was done.
BECAUSE THE RANCH-STYLE GATE DIDN’T CONNECT TO a fence, its only purpose was to prevent unauthorized vehicles from entering the lane. A call box atop a steel post provided communication with the house, but it was strictly an audio link, with no camera attached.
The simple nature of the barrier and the lack of a posted guard might mean that whoever lived here didn’t feel the need for more than minimal security. That would seem to argue that this wasn’t a place where seventeen kidnapped children were being held to be killed for sport or art, or whatever.
On the other hand, the lack of security might be only apparent, not real. At this entry point, these people could have chosen not to draw attention to themselves with more security than their neighbors thought necessary, but could have prepared some unpleasant surprises for any intruder who dared to venture deeper into the property on foot.
As I stepped around the gate and entered the lane, I plucked a small canister from one of the Mace holders on my utility belt. Mrs. Fischer had specified not chemical Mace but instead a pressure-stream sedative, which was a highly classified military item supposedly not available to civilians—but which in fact was evidently as available as a can of Coca-Cola. In the limo, she had told me that the stream had a range of fifteen to twenty feet. If the stream splattered the mouth and nose and eyes of the target, he would drop before reaching me. Generally, he would remain unconscious for between one and two hours, depending on the amount of the drug absorbed, which was even a more effective sedative than watching a congressional debate on C-SPAN. Each of my two canisters contained ten shots of a two-second duration, but Mrs. Fischer suggested that I not trust it to provide more than eight.
Every once in a while, not often enough, you see a story on the TV news about some young mugger or home invader having drawn down on an eighty-year-old lady only to discover that she was trained in martial arts and armed with a concealed pistol, whereupon she whupped his butt and taught him something about Jesus, in the tradition of Tyler Perry in drag as Madea. I figured that it would be a mistake for an entire crew of young muggers to draw down on Mrs. Fischer, and I felt comfortable leaving her alone in the limousine.
Tall pines crowded along both sides of the lane. Their boughs, which began about twelve feet up their trunks, overhung the pavement. This tunnel, green in daylight but black now, could have harbored a score of assassins crouched and watchful, but animal instinct told me Not here, not yet.
As the sole alternative to a direct approach, I could have made my way through the woods, parallel to the lane. Under that canopy of branches, during the day, too little sunlight penetrated to grow much brush, and at this altitude the air was at the moment too cold for even the most motivated, fry-cook-hating snakes to be licking their fangs in anticipation of a bite. But a little brush could make a lot of noise if I blundered blindly through it, and in the dark a low-hanging branch might knock me flat or put out an eye.
After about fifty yards, the driveway arced gradually to the left, and as I fully rounded the bend, I saw light ahead, maybe a hundred yards farther. This section of the pine passageway reminded me of the tunnel reported by people who go through a near-death experience, the long dark tunnel with the welcoming light at the end, except that the radiance ahead of me looked about as welcoming as the glow of a crematorium.
There seemed to be a big house out there, a football field away, with lights in a number of its windows. But there were also points of flame, like great torches, that for some reason gave me the peculiar feeling that what lay ahead of me was less a modern residence than a medieval village.
Nearing the end of the driveway, I finally eased into the woods on the right. I cautiously proceeded the final twenty feet to the point at which the trees gave way to mown grass. Sheltering under an immense pine, I surveyed all that lay before me.
The most surprising element of the scene was the lake. On this moonless and starless night, I might not have recognized it for what it was if the dancing flames of the torches had not been reflected in the water near the shore. Otherwise the placid surface lay ink-black, not even vaguely mirroring the faint blush of distant Vegas neon that colored the low cloud cover. The painted sky provided barely enough contrast to silhouette the rising land and trees that embraced the water, but I could see enough to estimate that the lake must have been between seven and twelve acres, not vast but larger than a pond. Not a single point of light glimmered along the farther reaches of its shoreline, which I took to mean that the lake and all the land immediately surrounding it were part of this property.
The torches spaced evenly along the nearer shore seemed to have been adapted from those heaters many restaurants use to warm their patios. A propane tank formed the base of each, supporting an eight- or nine-foot pole that, in the original configuration, rose to a large mushroom-shaped cap that distributed heat down and to all sides. The cap had been removed, and the heating element at the top of the pole had been reworked in such a fashion as to encourage the stream of burning gas to separate into lapping tongues of blue-and-orange flame.
Between the lake and the central building of the property, on a broad stone terrace, stood four more propane torches. The house seemed too large to be a single-family residence and might once have been a corporate retreat accommodating a double score of executives for one of those long weekends when they learned to trust one another and bond before they returned to their offices and to the paranoid and cutthroat behavior that they had pretended to put behind them here at the lake. The architecture, a not entirely successful combination of Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style with classic log construction, featured a deep cantilevered deck on the second floor, overhanging part of the terrace, but no deck on the third floor.
Beyond some of the first- and second-floor windows, people were in conversations, while others bustled through those rooms with evident purpose, engaged in one task or another. At this distance, I couldn’t see them well enough to identify anyone, but the gathering included women as well as men. My simmering anxiety might have heated my imagination, but judging by their energy and body language, I had the impression that they were in a state of pleasant expectation, which troubled me. I didn’t think they were delightedly anticipating anything as innocent as the next round of hors d’oeuvres.
To the left of the driveway, about thirty vehicles were parked in two rows, and beyond them stood the rhinestone cowboy’s fancy ProStar+ that I’d last seen in the garage of the industrial building in a Los Angeles suburb but also in that creepy other place that I called Elsewhere.
Acutely aware of how close I had come to being neutered and left to bleed to death in the supermarket parking lot, I crossed the end of the driveway and, staying close to the tree line, slunk past the cars and SUVs. I gave an especially wide berth to the eighteen-wheeler, moving toward the back of the property.
Every window and door in the sprawling house must have been closed, because in spite of the number of people, no noise escaped those walls. Although the air wasn’t cold enough to crystallize my exhalations, the chill kept dormant the insects and toads that usually sang in the night. I heard the distant shrill cry of a bird that I didn’t recognize and the closer communications of two owls no doubt complaining that the weather kept too many tasty rodents in nests and burrows.
At the back of the property, fifty or sixty yards from the house, were two buildings. A rectangular single-story structure, painted white, with barn doors, looked like a stable. The other was a stone-and-timber structure approximately sixty by forty feet, with a steeply sloped roof that beetled over deep eaves, and a forbidding quality. Staying close to the tree line, I cautiously approached the stable.
The night bird shrieking out of the depths of the forest, like a disembodied soul in torment, and the soft hooting of the nearby owls did not mask the sudden rush of some beast sprinting across the yard, panting with exertion and eagerness. I halted, turned, saw a swift low shape, blacker than the night. I thrust out my right arm and pressed the button on the top of the little pressurized can. A stream of sedative, which I couldn’t see, must have hit the target exactly as Mrs. Fischer had advised. I heard a stifled squeal, canine in character, followed by a snarl that quickly diminished to a tired grumble, the sound of four legs stumbling, a heavy body slumping to the grass, and a sigh almost of contentment.
Even as the sigh withered away, a second beast came fast, paws thumping the ground louder than those of the first, suggesting it was a larger specimen. I fired the canister, and the attacker abruptly changed course. But maybe I didn’t score a perfect hit, because the dog, if dog it was, seemed to lumber away, didn’t collapse, but instead sneezed, sneezed, and sneezed again.
I was about to follow the creature and try to administer a more direct dose, but the third beast, close behind the second, launched itself even as I became aware of it. Flashing teeth went for my throat, missed by a few inches, chomped instead on my Kevlar vest, and were foiled more entirely than a bullet would have been. Seventy pounds of coal-black Doberman bowled me over and tumbled past me, snarling in frustration.
Certain that I didn’t have time to get to my feet, I rolled off my back, onto my side, and triggered the canister as the fallen dog whipped cat-quick onto its feet. I missed, the Doberman issued a short guttural sound that probably meant Die, fry cook, die, and it came at me, so close that I saw the drug stream enter its open mouth, as if I were dispensing a breath freshener. Although none of the sedative appeared to splatter the nostrils, the taste alone proved effective, because this trained attack dog halted just short of its prey, which was canine-loving me. It gagged in disgust, shook its head violently, gagged again, and collapsed, face-to-face with me, inches away. Eclipsing its shining gaze, its eyelids lowered like stage curtains.
Before I might breathe any of the fumes issuing from the dog’s mouth and spend the next couple of hours sleeping the stuff off with my sharp-toothed fellow druggies, I scrambled to my feet and turned in a circle, expecting a fourth attacker. Apparently the security detail consisted of just three.
Although I was breathing loud enough to silence the two owls in the neighborhood, I could hear the second dog still sneezing, and I went after the poor pup. He was sitting with his head hung, his front legs splayed wide for balance. He raised his head to look at me, and between sneezes and jaw-cracking yawns, he made a miserable little sound that, to my ear, seemed to be in part accusatory. I told him that it hadn’t been me who wanted to tear out someone’s throat, that I understood he had once been a good dog, as all dogs are good, that he had the misfortune to fall in with a crowd of bad people who had taught him to behave in ways that would have disappointed his mother, that I sympathized with him, I really did, but nevertheless, I would have to squirt him directly on the snout. He collapsed when the stuff touched him. I was happy to be alive and unbitten, but I didn’t feel particularly good about myself.
I moved a few steps away and studied the house and the surrounding territory. No one inside could have been aware of my encounter with the pack, but if anyone had been outside, he might have heard something. Guard dogs bark to warn off intruders, but attack dogs give no warning and are trained to conduct the entire assault with a minimum of noise. The discretion shown by these three Dobermans worked to my advantage, because judging by the continued stillness of the night, no one knew that I was here.
Evidently, the dogs had been given the opportunity to sniff all of those people on arrival, and therefore knew not to target any of them. Or maybe you could turn off their aggression with a memorable command word—like frankfurter.
A snarl caused me to jump so far off the ground that if I’d had a flaming sword, I could have passed it under my feet with ease, like they do in those athletic Cossack dances. I figured that I had at least three shots in the canister, maybe five, but as it turned out, I didn’t need them. The snarl that I had heard was in fact a snore. Then came another. A moment later, all three dogs were vigorously sawing wood in counterpoint.
I was concerned that if anyone came out of the house to any of the vehicles in the parking area, they might hear this doggy symphony and might investigate. I grabbed the nearest Doberman by his four feet, two in each hand, and dragged him about twelve yards farther toward the stable and to the very edge of the tree line. In the short grass damp with evening dew, because of his tight smooth coat, he could be pulled almost as easily as a sled on ice. By the time that I had moved all of them, however, I was sweating and short of breath, and utterly disenchanted with dog-dragging as a hobby.
The Dobies were at rest one beside the other, facing the same direction, back legs crossed at the ankles, forelegs crossed at the wrists, their positions synchronized but their snoring contrapuntal. I have always been a neatness freak, which is a good trait in a fry cook who wants to poison as few people as possible, but I probably have the potential to succumb to obsessive-compulsive disorder. All the scene needed to make a perfect illustration for a children’s book were three blankets, three red-and-white-striped nightcaps, and a night-light shaped like a running cat.
If someone came out from the house to the car park—nervously chanting “Frankfurter, frankfurter, frankfurter”—he probably would not hear the snoring. But if he did hear it, he would take it for the grumbling and gnarling of a single wild beast lurking at the edge of the forest and in the mood for a snack. His imagination would conjure up everything from a bear to Bigfoot, and he wouldn’t be inclined to get a closer look to satisfy his curiosity.
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