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Nevertheless, she was vulnerable in places, especially at her feet and ankles. Vess’s training togs included a pair of leather combat boots with steel toes, but they were much too big for her. As protection against attack dogs, her soft Rockports were hardly more effective than bedroom slippers. In order to get to the motor home without being severely bitten, she would have to be quick and aggressive.

She had considered carrying a club of some kind. But with her agility impaired by the layers of protective gear, she couldn’t use it effectively enough to hurt any of the Dobermans or even dissuade them from attacking.

Instead, Chyna was equipped with two lever-action spray bottles that she’d found in a laundry-room cabinet. One had been filled with a liquid glass cleaner and the other with a spot remover for use on carpets and upholstery. She had emptied both bottles into the kitchen sink, rinsed them out, considered filling them with bleach, but chose pure ammonia, of which the fastidious Vess, the keeper of a spotless house, possessed two one-quart containers. Now the plastic spray bottles stood beside the front door. The nozzle on each could be adjusted to produce a spray or a stream, and both were set at STREAM.

In the armchair, Ariel continued to hug herself and to rock back and forth in silence, gazing down at the carpet.

Although it was unlikely that the catatonic girl would get up from the chair and go anywhere on her own, Chyna said, “Now, you stay right where you are, honey. Don’t move, okay? I’ll be back for you soon.”

Ariel didn’t reply.

“Don’t move.”

Chyna’s layers of protective clothing were beginning to weigh painfully on her bruised muscles and sore joints. Minute by minute, the discomfort was going to make her slower mentally and physically. She had to act while she was still reasonably sharp.

She put on the visored helmet. She had lined the interior with a folded towel so it wouldn’t sit loosely on her head, and the chin strap helped to keep it secure. The curved shield of Plexiglas came two inches below her chin, but the underside was open to allow air to flow in freely — and there were six small holes across the center of the pane for additional ventilation.

She stepped to one front window and then to the other, looking onto the porch, which was visible in the light that spilled out from the living-room lamps. There were no Dobermans in sight.

The yard beyond the porch was dark, and the meadow beyond the yard seemed as black as the far side of the moon. The dogs might be standing out there, watching her silhouette in the lighted windows. In fact, they might be waiting just beyond the porch balustrade, crouched and ready to spring.

She glanced at the clock.

Ten thirty-eight.

“Oh, God, I don’t want to do this,” she murmured.

Curiously, she remembered a cocoon that she’d found when she and her mother had been staying with some people in Pennsylvania fourteen or fifteen years before. The chrysalis had been hanging from a twig on a birch tree, semitransparent and backlit by a beam of sunlight, so she had been able to see the insect within. It was a butterfly that had passed all the way through the pupa stage, a fully mature imago. Its metamorphosis complete, it had been quivering frantically within the cocoon, its wirelike legs twitching ceaselessly, as if it was eager to be free but frightened of the hostile world into which it would be born. Now, in her padding and hard-plastic armor, Chyna quivered like that butterfly, although she was not eager to burst free into the night world that awaited her but wanted to withdraw even deeper into her chrysalis.

She went to the front door.

She pulled on the stained leather gloves, which were heavy but surprisingly flexible. They were too large but had adjustable Velcro bands at the wrists to hold them in place.

She had sewn a brass key to the thumb of the right-hand glove, running the thread through the hole in the key bow. The entire blade, with all its tumbler-activating serrations, extended beyond the tip of the thumb, so it could be inserted easily into the keyway on the door of the motor home. She didn’t want to have to fumble the key from a pocket with the dogs attacking from all sides — and she sure as hell didn’t want to risk dropping it.

Of course, the vehicle might not be locked. But she wasn’t taking any chances.

From the floor, she picked up the spray bottles. One in each hand. Again, she checked to be sure that they were set on STREAM.

She quietly disengaged the deadbolt lock, listened for the hollow thump of paws on the board floor, and finally cracked the door.

The porch looked clear.

Chyna crossed the threshold and quickly pulled the door shut behind her, fumbling at the knob because she was hampered by the plastic bottles in her hands.

She hooked her fingers around the levers on the bottles. The effectiveness of these weapons would depend on how fast the dogs came at her and whether she could aim well in the brief window of opportunity that they would give her.

In a night as windless as it was deep, the seashell mobile hung motionless. Not even a single leaf stirred on the tree at the north end of the porch.

The night seemed to be soundless. With her ears under the padded helmet, however, she wasn’t able to hear small noises.

She had the weird feeling that the entire world was but a highly detailed diorama sealed inside a glass paperweight.

Without even the faintest breeze to carry her scent to the dogs, maybe they would not be aware that she had come outside.

Yeah, and maybe pigs can fly but just don’t want us to know.

The fieldstone steps were at the south end of the porch. The motor home stood in the driveway, twenty feet from the bottom of the steps.

Keeping her back to the wall of the house, she edged to her right. As she moved, she glanced repeatedly to her left at the railed north side of the porch, and out past the balustrade into the front yard directly ahead of her. No dogs.

The night was so chilly that her breath formed a faint fog on the inside of her visor. Each flare of condensation faded quickly — but each seemed to fan out across the Plexiglas farther than the one before it. In spite of the ventilation from under her chin and through the six penny-size holes across the center of the pane, she began to worry that her own hot exhalations were gradually going to leave her effectively blind. She was breathing hard and fast, and she was hardly more able to slow her rate of respiration than quiet the rapid pounding of her heart.

If she blew each breath out, angling it toward the open bottom of the face shield, she would be able to minimize the problem. This resulted in a faint, hollow whistling characterized by a vibrato that revealed the depth of her fear.

Two small sliding steps, three, four: She eased sideways past the living-room window. She was uncomfortably aware of the light at her back. Silhouetted again.

She should have turned all the lights out, but she hadn’t wanted Ariel to be alone in the dark. In her current condition, perhaps the girl would not have known if the lights were on or off, but it had felt wrong to leave her in blackness.

Having crossed half the distance from the door to the south end of the porch without incident, Chyna grew bolder. Instead of edging sideways, she turned directly toward the steps and shuffled forward as fast as the hampering gear would allow.

As black as the night out of which it came, as silent as the high patchy clouds sailing slowly across fields of stars, the first Doberman sprinted toward her from the front of the motor home. It didn’t bark or growl.

She almost failed to see it in time. Because she forgot to exhale with calculation, a wave of condensation spread across the inside of the visor. At once, the pale film of moisture retreated like an ebbing surf, but the dog was already there, leaping toward the steps, ears flattened against its tapered skull, lips skinned back from its teeth.

She squeezed the lever of the spray bottle that she clutched in her right hand. Ammonia shot six or seven feet in the still air.

The dog wasn’t within range when the first stream spattered onto the porch floor, but it was closing fast.

She felt stupid, like a kid with a water pistol. This wasn’t going to work. Wasn’t going to work. But oh, Jesus, it had to work or she was dog chow.

Immediately she pumped the lever again, and the dog was on the steps, where the stream fell short of it, and she wished that she had a sprayer with more pressure, one with at least a twenty-foot range, so she could stop the beast before it got near her, but she squeezed the trigger again even as the previous stream was still falling, and this one got the dog as it came up onto the porch. She was aiming for its eyes, but the ammonia splashed its muzzle, spattering its nose and its bared teeth.

The effect was instantaneous. The Doberman lost its footing and tumbled toward Chyna, squealing, and would have crashed into her if she hadn’t jumped aside.

With caustic ammonia slathering its tongue and fumes filling its lungs, unable to draw a breath of clean air, the dog rolled onto its back, pawing frantically at its snout. It wheezed and hacked and made shrill sounds of distress.

Chyna turned from it. She kept moving.

She was surprised to hear herself speaking aloud: “Shit, shit, shit…”

Onward, then, to the head of the porch steps, where she glanced back warily and saw that the big dog was on its feet, wobbling in circles, shaking its head. Between sharp squeals of pain, it was sneezing violently.

The second dog virtually flew out of the darkness, attacking as Chyna descended the bottom step. From the corner of her eye, she detected movement to her left, turned her head, and saw an airborne Doberman — oh, God — like an incoming mortar round. Though she raised her left arm and started to swing toward the dog, she wasn’t quick enough, and before she could loose a stream of ammonia, she was hit so hard that she was nearly bowled off her feet. She stumbled sideways but somehow maintained her balance.

The Doberman’s teeth were sunk into the thick sleeve on her left arm. It wasn’t merely holding her as a police dog would have done but was working at the padding as if chewing on meat, trying to rip off a chunk and severely disable her, tear open an artery so she would bleed to death, but fortunately its teeth hadn’t penetrated to her flesh.

After coming at her in disciplined silence, the dog still wasn’t snarling. But from low in its throat issued a sound halfway between a growl and a hungry keening, an eerie and needful cry that Chyna heard too clearly in spite of her padded helmet.

Point-blank, reaching across her body with her right hand, she squirted a stream of ammonia into the Doberman’s fierce black eyes.

The dog’s jaws flew open as if they were part of a mechanical device that had popped a tension spring, and it spun away from her, silvery strings of saliva trailing from its black lips, howling in agony.

She remembered the words of warning on the ammonia label: Causes substantial but temporary eye injury.

Squealing like an injured child, the dog rolled in the grass, pawing at its eyes as the first animal had pawed at its snout, but with even greater urgency.

The manufacturer recommended rinsing contaminated eyes with plenty of water for fifteen minutes. The dog had no water, unless it instinctively made its way to a stream or pond, so it would not be a problem to her for at least a quarter of an hour, most likely far longer.

The Doberman sprang to its feet and chased its tail, snapping its teeth. It stumbled and fell again, scrambled erect, and streaked away into the night, temporarily blinded, in considerable pain.

Incredibly, listening to the poor thing’s screams as she hurried toward the motor home, Chyna winced with remorse. It would have torn her apart without hesitation if it could have gotten at her, but it was a mindless killer only by training, not by nature. In a way, the dogs were just other victims of Edgler Vess, their lives bent to his purpose. She would have spared them suffering if she had been able to rely solely on the protective clothing.

How many more dogs?

Vess had implied there was a pack. Hadn’t he said four? Of course, he might be lying. There might be only two.

Move, move, move.

At the passenger-side cockpit door of the motor home, she tried the handle. Locked.

No more dogs, just five seconds without dogs, please.

She dropped the spray bottle from her right hand, so she could pinch the bow of the key between her thumb and finger. She was barely able to feel it through the thick gloves.

Her hand was shaking. The key missed the keyhole and chattered against the chrome face of the lock cylinder. She would have dropped it if it hadn’t been sewn to the glove.

From behind this time, just as she was about to slip the key into the door on her second try, a Doberman hit her, leaping onto her back, biting at the nape of her neck.

She was slammed forward against the vehicle. The face shield on her helmet smacked hard against the door.

The dog’s teeth were sunk into the thick rolled collar of the trainer’s jacket, no doubt also into the padding on the segmented plastic collar that she wore under the jacket to protect her neck. It was holding on to her by its teeth, tearing at her ineffectively with its claws, like a demon lover in a nightmare.

As the dog’s impact had pitched her forward against the motor home, now the weight of it and its furious squirming dragged her away from the vehicle. She almost toppled backward, but she knew that the advantage would go to the dog if it managed to drag her to the ground.

Stay up. Stay tall.

Lurching around a hundred eighty degrees as she struggled to keep her balance, she saw that the first Doberman was no longer on the porch. Astonishingly, the creature hanging from her neck must be the small one that she had squirted on the muzzle. Now it was able to get its breath again, back in service, undaunted by her chemical arsenal, giving its all for Edgler Vess.

On the plus side, maybe there were only two dogs.

She still had the spray bottle in her left hand. She squeezed the trigger, aiming several squirts over her shoulder. But the heavy padding in the jacket sleeves didn’t allow her to bend her arms much, and she wasn’t able to fire at an angle that could splash the ammonia in the dog’s eyes.

She threw herself backward against the side of the motor home, much as she had hurtled into the fireplace earlier. The Doberman was trapped between her and the vehicle as the chair had been between her and the river-rock wall, and it took the brunt of the impact.

Letting go of her, falling away, the dog squealed, a pitiful sound that sickened her, but also a good sound — oh, yes — a good sound as sweet as any music.

Buckles jangling, padded chaps slapping together, Chyna scuttled sideways, trying to get out of the animal’s reach, worried about her ankles, her vulnerable ankles.

But suddenly the Doberman no longer seemed to be in a fighting mood. It slunk away from her, tail tucked between its legs, rolling its eyes to keep a watch on her peripherally, shaking and wheezing as though it had damaged a lung, and favoring its hind leg on the right side.


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