In addition to the house, there is a small barn, not because the original owner of the property farmed any of the land that he cleared of trees but because he kept horses. This second building is of traditional wood-frame construction on a concrete footing and fieldstone stem wall; wind, rain, and sun long ago laid down a silver patina on the durable cedar siding, which Vess finds lovely.
Since he owns no horses, he uses the barn as a garage.
Now, however, he pulls to a stop beside the house, rather than continuing to the barn. The woman is in the motor home, and he will soon need to deal with her. He prefers to park here, where he can watch her from the house and wait for developments.
He glances at the rearview mirror.
Still no sign of her.
Switching off the engine but not the windshield wipers, Vess waits for his guards to appear. The late-March morning is animate with slanting rain and wind-shaken things, but nothing moves of its own deliberation.
They have been trained not to charge willy-nilly at approaching vehicles and even to bide their time with intruders who are on foot, the better to lure them into a zone from which escape is impossible. These guards know that stealth is as important as savage fury, that the most successful assaults are preceded by calculated stillnesses to lull the quarry into a false confidence.
Finally the first black head appears, bullet sleek but for its pricked ears, low to the ground at the rear corner of the house. The dog hesitates to reveal more of himself, surveying the scene to make sure that he understands what is happening.
“Good fella,” Vess whispers.
At the nearest corner of the barn, between the cedar siding and the trunk of a winter-bare maple, another dog appears. It is little more than a shadow of a shadow in the rain.
Vess wouldn’t have noticed these sentries if he hadn’t known to look for them. Their self-control is remarkable, a testament to his abilities as a trainer.
Two more dogs lurk somewhere, perhaps behind the motor home or belly crawling through shrubbery where he can’t see them. They are all Dobermans, five and six years old, in their prime.
Vess has not cropped their ears or bobbed their tails, as is usually done with Dobermans, for he has an affinity for nature’s predators. He is able to perceive the world to a degree as he believes that animals perceive it — the elemental nature of their view, their needs, the importance of raw sensation. They have a kinship.
The dog by the corner of the house slinks into the open, and the dog at the barn emerges from beneath the black-limbed maple. A third Doberman rises from behind the massive and half-petrified stump of a long-vanquished cedar in the side yard, around which has grown a tangled mass of holly.
The motor home is familiar to them. Their vision, while not their strongest suit, is probably sufficient to allow them to recognize him through the windshield. With a sense of smell twenty thousand times more acute than that of the average human being, they no doubt detect his scent even through the rain and even though he is inside the motor home. Yet they don’t wag their tails or in any way exhibit pleasure, because they are still on duty.
The fourth dog remains hidden, but these three drift warily toward him through the rain and the mist. Their heads are lifted, pointy ears flicked up and forward.
In their disciplined silence and indifference to the storm, they remind him of the herd of elk in the redwood grove the previous night, eerily intent. The big difference, of course, is that these creatures, if confronted by anyone other than their beloved master, would not respond with the timidity of elk but would tear the throat out of that luckless person.
Although she would not have believed it possible, Chyna had been lulled into sleep by the hum of the tires and the motion of the motor home. Her dreams were of strange houses in which the geometry of the rooms was ever changing and bizarre; something eager and hungry lived within the walls, and at night it spoke to her through vent grilles and electrical outlets, whispering its needs.
The brakes woke her. Immediately she realized that the motor home had come to a full halt once before and then had started up again, only moments ago; she had dozed through that first stop, disturbed in her sleep but not fully awakened. Now, although they were on the move again and the killer was obviously still behind the steering wheel, Chyna grabbed the revolver from the floor beside her, scrambled to her feet, and stood with her back to the wall, tense and alert.
From the tilt of the floor and the laboring sound of the engine, she knew that they were climbing a hill. Then they reached the top and headed downward. Soon they stopped again, and at last the engine cut out.
The rain was the only sound.
She waited for footsteps.
Although she knew that she was awake, she seemed to be in a dream, rigid in darkness, with the susurrant rain like whispering in the walls.
Mr. Vess takes the time to put on his raincoat and to slip his Heckler & Koch P7 into one pocket. He removes the Mossberg shotgun from the cabinet in the kitchenette, in case the woman searches the place after he leaves. He switches off the lights.
When he descends from the motor home, heedless of the cold rain, the three big dogs come to him, and then the fourth from behind the vehicle. All are quivering with excitement at his return but still holding themselves in check, not wanting to be thought derelict in their duty.
Just before departing on this expedition, Mr. Vess had placed the Dobermans on attack status by speaking the name Nietzsche. They will remain primed to kill anyone who walks onto the property until he speaks the name Seuss, whereupon they will be as affable as any other group of sociable mutts — except, of course, if anyone unwisely threatens their master.
After propping his shotgun against the side of the motor home, he holds his hands out to the dogs. They eagerly crowd around to sniff his fingers. Sniffing, panting, licking, licking, yes, yes, they have missed him so very much.
He squats on his haunches, coming down to their level, and now their delight is uncontainable. Their ears twitch, and shivers of pure pleasure pass visibly along their lean flanks, and they whine softly with sheer happiness, jealously pressing all at once at him, to be touched, patted, scratched.
They live in an enormous kennel against the back of the barn, which they can enter and leave at will. It is electrically heated during cold weather to ensure their comfort and their continued good health.
“Hi there, Muenster. How you doing, Liederkranz? Tilsiter, boy, you look like one mean sonofabitch. Hey, Limburger, are you a good boy, are you my good boy?”
Each, at the mention of his name, is filled with such joy that he would roll on his back and bare his belly and paw the air and grin at death — if he weren’t still on duty. Part of the fun for Vess is watching the struggle between training and nature in each animal, a sweet agony that makes two of them pee in nervous frustration.
Mr. Vess has rigged electrically operated dispensers inside the kennel, which in his absence automatically pay out measured portions of food for each Doberman. The system clock has a backup battery to continue timing meals even during a power failure of short duration. In the event of a long-term loss of power, the dogs can always resort to hunting for their sustenance; the surrounding meadows are full of field mice and rabbits and squirrels, and the Dobermans are fierce predators. Their communal water trough is fed by a drip line, but if it should ever cease to function, they can find their way to a nearby spring that runs through the property.
Most of Mr. Vess’s expeditions are three-day weekends, rarely as long as five days, and the dogs have a ten-day food supply without counting rabbits, mice, and squirrels. They constitute an efficient and reliable security system: never a short in any circuit, never a failed motion detector, never a corroded magnetic contact — and never a false alarm.
Oh, and how these dogs love him, how unreservedly and loyally, as no memory chips and wires and cameras and infrared heat sensors ever could. They smell the bloodstains on his jeans and denim jacket, and they push their sleek heads under his open raincoat, ears laid back, sniffing eagerly now, detecting not merely the blood but the lingering stench of terror that his victims exuded when in his hands, their pain, their helplessness, the sex that he had with the one named Laura. This mélange of pungent odors not only excites the dogs but increases their respect for Vess. They have been taught to kill not merely in self-defense, not just for food; with a degree of iron self-control, they have been taught to kill for the sheer savage pleasure of it, to please their master. They are acutely aware that their master can match their savagery. And unlike them, he has never needed to be taught. Their high regard for Edgler Vess soars higher, and they mewl softly and quiver and roll their soulful eyes at him in worshipful awe.
Mr. Vess gets to his feet. He picks up the shotgun and slams the door of the motor home.
The dogs spring to his side, jostling one another to be close to him, alertly surveying the rain-shrouded day for any threat to their master.
Quietly, so the woman inside cannot possibly hear the word, he says, “Seuss.”
The dogs freeze, looking up at him, heads cocked.
“Seuss,” he repeats.
The four Dobermans are no longer on attack status and will not automatically tear to pieces anyone who enters the property. They shake themselves, as if casting off tension, then pad around in a vaguely bewildered fashion, sniffing at the grass and at the front tires of the motor home.
They are like Mafia hit men who, following their own executions, have now regained a baffled self-awareness after being reincarnated, only to discover that they are accountants in this new life.
If any visitor were to attempt to harm their master, of course, they would leap to his defense, whether or not he had time to shout the word Nietzsche. The result wouldn’t be pretty.
They are trained first to tear out the throat. Then they will bite the face to effect maximum terror and pain — go for the eyes, the nose, the lips. Then the crotch. Then the belly. They won’t kill and turn at once away; they will be busy for a while with their quarry, after they have brought it down, until no doubt exists that they have done their job.
Even a man with a shotgun could not take out all of them before at least one managed to sink its teeth into his throat. Gunfire will not drive them away or even make them flinch. Nothing can frighten them. Most likely, the hypothetical man with the shotgun would be able to wipe out only two before the remaining pair overwhelmed him.
“Crib,” says Mr. Vess.
This single word instructs the dogs to go to their kennel, and they take off as one, sprinting toward the barn. Still, they do not bark, for he has schooled them in silence.
Ordinarily he would allow them to stay with him and enjoy his company and spend the day in his house with him and even pile up like a black and tan quilt with him as he sleeps away the afternoon. He would cuddle them and coo to them; for they have been, after all, such good dogs. They deserve their reward.
The woman in the red sweater, however, prevents Mr. Vess from dealing with the dogs as he usually would. If they are a visible presence, they will inhibit her, and she may cower inside the motor home, afraid to exit.
The woman must be given enough freedom to act. Or at least the illusion of freedom.
He is curious to see what she will do.
She must have a purpose, some motivation for the strange things that she has done thus far. Everyone has a purpose.
Mr. Vess’s purpose is to satisfy all appetites as they arise, to seek ever more outrageous experience, to immerse himself deeply in sensation.
Whatever the woman believes her purpose to be, Vess knows that in the end, her true purpose will be to serve his. She is a glorious variety of powerful and exquisite sensations in human skin, packaged solely for his enjoyment — rather like a Hershey bar in its brown and silver wrapper or a Slim Jim sausage snug in its plastic tube.
The last of the racing Dobermans vanishes behind the barn, to the kennel.
Mr. Vess walks through the soggy grass to the old log house and climbs a set of fieldstone steps to the front porch. Although he carries the pistol-grip 12-gauge Mossberg, he makes an effort to appear otherwise nonchalant, in case the woman has come forward from the bedroom at the rear of the motor home to watch him through a window.
The bentwood rocker has been stored away until spring.
Trailing silvery slime across the wet floorboards of the porch, several early-spring snails test the air with their semitransparent, gelatinous feelers, hauling their spiral shells on strange quests. Mr. Vess is careful to step around them.
A mobile hangs at one corner of the porch, from the fascia board at the edge of the shake-shingle roof. It is made of twenty-eight white seashells, all quite small, some with lovely pink interiors; most are spiral in form, and all are relatively exotic.
The mobile does not make a good wind chime, because most of the notes that it strikes are flat. It greets him with a flurry of atonal clinking, but he smiles because it has…well, not sentimental but at least nostalgic value to him.
This fine piece of folk craft once belonged to a young woman who lived in a suburb of Seattle, Washington. She had been an attorney, about thirty-two, sufficiently successful to live alone in her own house in an upscale neighborhood. For a person tough enough to thrive in the combative legal profession, this woman had kept a surprisingly frilly — in fact, downright girlish — bedroom: a four-poster bed with a pink canopy trimmed with lace and fringe, rose-patterned bedspread, and starched dust ruffles; a big collection of teddy bears; paintings of English cottages hung with morning-glory vines and surrounded by lush primrose gardens; and several seashell mobiles.
He had done exciting things to her in that bedroom. Then he had taken her away in the motor home to places remote enough to allow him to perform other acts even more exciting. She had asked why? — and he had answered, Because this is what I do. That was all the truth and all the reason of him.
Mr. Vess can’t recall her name, though he fondly remembers many things about her. Parts of her were as pink and smooth and lovely as the insides of some of these dangling seashells. He has an especially vivid mental image of her small hands, almost as slender and delicate as those of a child.
He had been fascinated by her hands. Enchanted. He had never sensed anyone’s vulnerability so intensely as he’d sensed hers when he held her small, trembling, but strong hands in his. Oh, he had been like a swooning schoolboy with her hands.
When he had hung the mobile on the porch, as a memento of the attorney, he had added one item. It dangles, now, on a piece of green string: her slender index finger, reduced to bare bones but still undeniably elegant, the three phalanges from tip to the base knuckle, clinking against the little conch shells and miniature bivalve fans and trumpet shells and tiny spirals similar to the whorled homes of snails.
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