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This was harder work than she had anticipated. She felt as though she were on one of those television shows devoted to stunts and stupid physical challenges, pulling a railroad car. A loaded railroad car. Nevertheless, the table moved grudgingly. In a couple of minutes, after pausing twice to get her breath, she stopped because she was concerned that she might back against the wall between the kitchen and the laundry room; she needed to leave herself some maneuvering space. Although it was difficult to estimate distance in the dark, she believed that she had dragged the table about three feet, far enough to be clear of Vess’s chair.

Trying to favor her sprained finger, she placed her cuffed hands under the table and lifted. It weighed considerably more than she did — a two-inch pine top, the thick staves in the supporting barrel, the black iron hoops around the staves, perhaps that bag of sand — and she couldn’t get much leverage while she was forced to remain seated. The bottom of the barrel tipped up an inch, then two inches. The water glass toppled, spilling its contents, rolled away from her, dropped off the table, and shattered on the floor. All the noise made it seem as if her plan was working — she hissed, “Yes!” — but then because she had underestimated the weight and the effort required to move it, she had to relent, and the barrel slammed down.

Chyna flexed her muscles, took a deep breath, and immediately returned to the task. This time she planted her feet as far apart as her shackles would allow. On the underside of the table, she flattened her upturned palms against the pine, thumbs hooked toward herself over the smooth bull-nose edge. She tensed her legs as well as her arms, and when she shoved up on the table, she pushed with her legs too, getting to her feet an inch at a time, one hard-won inch for each inch that the table tipped up and backward. She did not have enough slack in the various tethering chains to be able to get all the way — or halfway — erect, so she rose haltingly in a stiff and awkward crouch, cramped under the weight of the table. She put enormous strain on her knees and thighs, wheezing, shuddering with the effort, but she persevered because each precious inch that she was able to gain improved her leverage; she was using her entire body to lift, lift, lift.

The sandwich plate and the bag of potato chips slid off the table. China cracked and chips scattered across the floor with a sound unnervingly like scurrying rodents.

The pain in her neck was excruciating, and someone seemed to be twisting a corkscrew into her right clavicle. But pain couldn’t stop her. It motivated. The greater her pain, the more she identified with Laura and the whole Templeton family, with the young man hanging in the motor-home closet, with the service-station clerks, and with all the people who might be buried down in the meadow; and the more she identified with them, the more she wanted Edgler Vess to suffer a world of hurt. She was in an Old Testament mood, unwilling to turn the other cheek just now. She wanted Vess screaming on a rack, stretched until his joints popped apart and his tendons tore. She didn’t want to see him confined to a state hospital for the criminally insane, there to be analyzed and counseled and instructed as to how best to increase his self-esteem, treated with a panoply of antipsychotic drugs, given a private room and television, booked in card tournaments with his fellow patients, and treated to a turkey dinner on Christmas. Instead of having him consigned to the mercies of psychiatrists and social workers, Chyna wanted to condemn him to the skilled hands of an imaginative torturer, and then see how long the sonofabitch bastard freak remained faithful to his philosophy about all experiences being value neutral, all sensations equally worthwhile. This ardent desire, refined from her pain, was not noble in the least, but it was pure, a high-octane fuel that burned with an intense light, and it kept her motor running.

This side of the barrel pedestal was off the floor perhaps three inches — she could only guess — approximately as high as she had gotten it before, but she still had plenty of steam left. Bent in a backward Z, as hunched as a God-cursed troll, she muscled the table up, knees aching, thighs quivering with the strain, her butt clenched tighter than a politician’s fist around a cash bribe. She encouraged herself aloud by talking to the table as if it possessed awareness: “Come on, come on, come on, move, shit, shit, move, you sonofabitch, higher, come on, damn you, damn it, come on.”

A ludicrous mental image of herself flashed through her mind: She must resemble a character in one of those movie scenes where the deceived cowboy cottons to the truth and overturns the poker table on the dishonest itinerant cardshark, except that she was playing the drama in slow motion, as in a Western underwater.

Initially the chair remained exactly where it had been when her butt parted company with it, but as her arms lifted higher and stretched farther in front of her, the heavy chair was hoisted off the floor by the tightening chain that circled behind her from wrist to wrist and wound through the vertical spindles behind the tie-on pad. Now she was lifting the table in front and the chair at her back. The hard edge of the seat jammed against her thighs, and the curved pine headpiece of the railed back pressed cruelly below her shoulder blades, as the chair began to act like a V-clamp to prevent her from rising much further.

Nevertheless, Chyna squeezed against the table as she lifted it, separating herself from the confining chair enough to be able to rise out of her crouch just one more inch, then one more. At the extreme limits of strength and endurance, she grunted loudly, rhythmically: “Uh, uh, uh, uh!” Sweat glazed her face, stung her eyes, but there was no light in the kitchen anyway, no reason she had to see what she was doing in order to get it done. Her burning eyes didn’t bother her, this was small-time pain; but she felt as though she was about to burst a blood vessel from the straining — or throw a clot off an artery wall and recapture it deep in her brain.

Fear was with her again, for the first time in hours, because even as she strained against the table, she couldn’t help thinking about what Edgler Vess would do with her if he returned home to find her on the floor, dazed and incoherent from a stroke. With her mind reduced to hasty pudding, she would no longer be the sophisticated toy she had been; she’d be insufficiently responsive to provide him with the requisite thrills when he tortured her. Then perhaps Vess would revert to the crude turtle games of his youth. Maybe he would drag her into the backyard to set her on fire for the pleasure of watching her crawl jerkily in circles on crippled, blazing limbs.

The table crashed onto its side hard enough to jar the dishes in the kitchen cabinets and rattle a loose pane in a window.

Though she had been striving fiercely for precisely this result, she was so surprised by her abrupt success that she didn’t cry out in triumph. She leaned against the curve of the tilted table and gasped for breath.

Half a minute later, when she tried to pull away, she discovered that the chain was still wrapped tightly around the barrel pedestal and that she remained encumbered.

She attempted to tug it loose. No luck.

Dropping to her hands and knees, carrying the chair on her back, she reached under the canted table, as though she were at the seashore and seeking shade beneath a giant beach umbrella. In the darkness she felt around the bottom of the barrel that served as the pedestal, and she discovered that this part of the job was not yet finished.

The table was tipped on its side — like a mushroom with a large cap, stem meeting the floor at an angle. Given the position from which she’d had to work, she had not been able to tip it completely over, with the pedestal straight up in the air. The bottom of the barrel, recessed inside a chime hoop, was fully exposed; however, the tethering chain was trapped in the angle between the floor and the side of the barrel.

Lifting the chair with her, Chyna struggled to her feet but rose only to a crouch. She reached down with both hands, hooked her fingers around the chime hoop, paused to gather her strength, and pulled upward.

Although she tried to hold her injured trigger finger out of the way, her sweaty hands slipped on the painted iron hoop. She stubbed the fingertips of her right hand hard against the rough bottom of the barrel, and such a brilliant pain flashed through her swollen index finger that she cried out in dazzled agony.

For a while she hunched over, protectively holding her injured hand against her breast, waiting for the pain to subside. Eventually it faded somewhat.

After blotting her hands on her jeans, she hooked her fingers around the chime hoop once more, hesitated, heaved, and the barrel pedestal came off the floor half an inch, an inch. With her left foot, she pawed at the loop of chain until she thought it was free, and then she let the pedestal drop to the floor again.

She scooted backward in her chair, and this time nothing impeded her. The loop of chain rattled across the floor, no longer anchoring her to the table.

Her chair bumped into the wall that separated the kitchen from the laundry room. She hitched sideways, out from behind the table, toward the window, which was but a faint gray rectangle between the blackness of the unlighted kitchen and the slightly less dark night.

Although Chyna was far from being free, farther still from being safe, she was exhilarated, because at least she had done something. A headache like an endless incoming tide throbbed in waves across her brow and along her right temple, and the pain in her neck was savage. Her swollen index finger was a world of misery in itself. In spite of her thick socks, her ankles felt as though they had been bruised and abraded by the shackles, and her left wrist stung where she had skinned it while trying to yank the spindles out of the back of the chair. Her joints ached and her muscles burned from the demands she had put on them, and she had a stitch in her left side that was pulling like a needle threaded with hot wire — yet she was grinning and exhilarated.

When she was beside the window, she let the legs of her chair touch the floor. She sat down.

As her heartbeat slowed from its frenzied hammering, Chyna leaned back against the cushion, still breathing hard, and surprised herself by laughing. Musical, unexpectedly girlish laughter burst from her, an astonishing giggle part delight, part nervous relief.

She blotted her sweat-stung eyes on one sleeve of her cotton sweater, and then on the other sleeve. With her cuffed hands, she awkwardly smoothed her short hair back from her brow, across which it had fallen in damp licks.

As a softer, more subdued trill of laughter bubbled from her, Chyna detected movement out of the corner of her right eye. She turned to the window, happily thinking, The elk.

A Doberman was staring at her.

Few stars and, as yet, no moon shone between the torn clouds, and the dog was oil black. Yet it was clearly visible, because its pointed face was only inches from hers, with nothing between them except the glass. Its inky eyes were cold and merciless, sharklike in their steadiness and glassy concentration. Inquisitively, it pressed its wet nose against the pane.

A thin whine escaped the Doberman, audible even through the glass: neither a whimper of fear nor a plea for attention, but a needful keening that perfectly expressed the killing passion in its eyes.

Chyna was no longer laughing.

The dog dropped from the window, out of sight.

She heard its paws thumping hollowly against the boards as it paced rapidly back and forth across the porch. Between urgent whines, it made a low quarrelsome sound.

Then the dog jumped into view, planting its broad forepaws on the window stool, eye-to-eye with her once more. Agitated, it bared its long teeth threateningly, but it didn’t bark or snarl.

Perhaps the sound of the water glass shattering on the floor or the crash of the table tipping onto its side had carried into the backyard, and this Doberman had been close enough to hear. The dog might have been standing at this window for a while, listening to Chyna alternately cursing her bonds and encouraging herself as she had struggled to be free of the table; and certainly it had heard her laughter. Dogs had lousy eyesight, and this one would not be able to see more than her face, nothing of the wreckage. They had a phenomenal sense of smell, however, so maybe the beast was able to detect the scent of her sudden exuberance through the barrier of glass — and was alarmed by that.

The window was about five or six feet long and four feet high, divided into two sliding panels. Obviously not part of the original architecture, it appeared to have been installed during a relatively recent remodel. If there had been numerous smaller panes separated by wide sturdy mullions of wood, Chyna would have been a lot more confident. But either of the two sheets of glass was large enough to admit the agitated Doberman if it tried to smash through at her.

Surely that wouldn’t happen. The dogs had been trained to patrol the grounds, not to assault the house.

The bared teeth were pearly, vaguely luminous, gray-white in the gloom: a wide but humorless smile.

Rather than make any sudden provocative movements, Chyna waited until the Doberman dropped from the window again before she reached to the floor and picked up the loop of excess chain to avoid tripping over it. Listening to the dog padding back and forth on the porch, she rose into the Rumpelstiltskin crouch that the burdening chair imposed. She edged around the kitchen, staying close to the walls and cabinets, feeling her way as best she could while cuffed and holding the loop of chain in one hand. She shuffled her feet more than her shackles required, hoping to shove the broken drinking glass and the fragments of the plate aside rather than step on them.

When she reached the doorway between the kitchen and the front room, she found the light switches but was reluctant to flip them up. Glancing back and seeing the Doberman at the window again, she wished that she could leave the kitchen dark.

She needed to search the drawers, however, so she snapped on the overhead lights. At the window, the Doberman twitched, flattened its ears to its skull, immediately pricked them again, found her with its eyes, and fixed her with its gaze.

Ignoring the Doberman, Chyna bent forward as far as her fetters would allow, hoisting the chair on her back. She strove to reach the carabiner that linked the shorter chain between her leg irons with the longer chain that had encircled the table pedestal and that still wrapped the stretcher bars of the chair. But even free of the table, she was trammeled in such a way that she could not put her fingers on this coupling.

She retraced her path along the cabinets. She opened one drawer after another and studied the contents.

When she passed the telephone jack in the wall, she paused to stare at it, frustrated. If Edgler Vess had a life other than that of a “homicidal adventurer,” actually held a job and maintained any social life whatsoever as a cover for his true nature, he would have a telephone; the jack wasn’t merely a dead plug left by the previous owners of the house. He must have hidden the phone.

For a psychotic killer, raging out of control on one level, Vess was surprisingly careful and methodical when it came to covering his ass. An agent of chaos, leaving behind rubble in the lives of others, he nevertheless kept his own affairs tidy and avoided mistakes.


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