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She squeezed the trigger on the spray bottle. The creature was out of range, and the stream of ammonia arced into the grass.


Two dogs down.


Move, move.


Chyna turned to the motor home again — and cried out as a third dog, weighing more than she did, leaped at her throat, bit through the jacket, and staggered her backward.


Going down. Shit. And as she went, the dog was on top of her, chewing frenziedly at the collar of the jacket.


When Chyna hit the ground, her breath was knocked from her in spite of all the padding, and the spray bottle popped out of her left hand, spun into the air. She grabbed at it as it tumbled away, but she missed.


The dog ripped loose a strip of padding from around the jacket collar and shook its head, casting the scrap aside, spraying her face shield with gobs of foamy saliva. It bore in at her again, tearing more fiercely at the same spot, burrowing deeper, seeking meat, blood, triumph.


She pounded its sleek head with both fists, trying to smash its ears, hoping that they would be sensitive, vulnerable. “Get off, damn it, off! Off!”


The Doberman snapped at her right hand, missed, teeth clashing audibly, snapped again, and connected. Its incisors didn’t instantly penetrate the tough leather glove, but it shook her hand viciously, as though it had hold of a rat and meant to snap its spine. Though her skin hadn’t been broken, the grinding pressure of the bite was so painful that Chyna screamed.


In an instant, the dog released her hand and was at her throat again. Past the torn jacket. Teeth slashing at the Kevlar vest.


Howling in pain, Chyna stretched her throbbing right hand toward the spray bottle lying in the grass. The weapon was a foot beyond her reach.


When turning her head to look at the bottle, she inadvertently caused the bottom of her face shield to lift, giving the Doberman better access to her throat, and it thrust its muzzle under the curve of Plexiglas, above the Kevlar vest, biting into the thick padding on the exterior of the segmented hard-plastic collar, which was her last defense. Intent on tearing this band of body armor away, the dog jerked back so hard that Chyna’s head was lifted off the ground, and pain flared across the nape of her neck.


She tried to heave the Doberman off her. It was heavy, bearing down stubbornly, paws digging frantically at her.


As the dog wrenched at Chyna’s protective collar, she could feel its hot breath against the underside of her chin. If it could get its snout under the shield at a slightly better angle, it might be able to bite her chin, would be able to bite her chin, and at any moment it was going to realize this.


She heaved with all her strength, and the dog clung, but she was able to hitch a few inches closer to the spray bottle. She heaved again, and now the bottle was just six inches beyond her grasping fingertips.


She saw the other Doberman limping toward her, ready to rejoin the fray. She hadn’t damaged its lungs, after all, when she slammed it between her and the motor home.


Two of them. She couldn’t handle two of them at once, both on top of her.


She heaved, desperately hitching sideways on her back, dragging the clinging Doberman with her.


Its hot tongue licked the underside of her chin, licked, tasting her sweat. It was making that horrible, needful sound deep in its throat.


Heave.


Spotting her point of greatest vulnerability, the limping dog scuttled toward her right foot. She kicked at it, and the dog dodged back, but then it darted in again. She kicked, and the Doberman bit the heel of her Rockport.


Her frantic breathing fogged the inside of the visor. In fact, the breath of the clinging Doberman fogged it too, because its muzzle was under the Plexiglas. She was effectively blind.


Kicking with both feet to ward off the limping dog. Kicking, heaving sideways.


The other’s hot tongue slathered her chin. Its sour breath. Teeth gnashing an inch short of her flesh. The tongue again.


Chyna touched the spray bottle. Closed her fingers around it.


Though the bite hadn’t penetrated the glove, her hand was still throbbing with such crippling pain that she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to hold on to the bottle or find the right grip, wouldn’t be able to work the lever-action trigger, but then she blindly squeezed off a stream of ammonia. Unthinking, she had used her swollen trigger finger, and the flash of pain made her dizzy. She shifted her middle finger onto the lever and squeezed off another blast.


In spite of her kicking, the injured dog bit through her shoe. Teeth pierced her right foot.


Chyna triggered another thick stream of ammonia toward her feet, yet another, and abruptly that Doberman let go of her. Both she and the dog were shrieking, blind and shaking and living now in the same commonwealth of pain.


Snapping teeth. The remaining dog. Pressing toward her chin, under the visor. Snap-snap-snap. And the eager hungry whine.


She jammed the bottle in its face, pulled the trigger, pulled, and the dog scrambled off her, screaming.


A few drops of ammonia penetrated the visor through the series of small holes across the center of the pane. She wasn’t able to see through the fogged Plexiglas, and the acrid fumes made breathing difficult.


Gasping, eyes watering, she dropped the spray bottle and crawled on her hands and knees toward where she thought the motor home stood. She bumped into the side of it and pulled herself to her feet. Her bitten foot felt hot, perhaps because it was soaking in the bath of blood contained in her shoe, but she could put her weight on it.


Three dogs so far.


If three, then surely four.


The fourth would be coming.


As the ammonia evaporated from the face shield and less rapidly from the front of her torn jacket, the quantity of fumes decreased but not quickly enough. She was eager to remove the helmet and draw an unobstructed breath. She didn’t dare take it off, however, not until she was inside the motor home.


Choking on ammonia fumes, trying to remember to exhale downward under the Plexiglas visor but half blinded because her eyes wouldn’t stop watering, Chyna felt along the side of the motor home until she found the cockpit door again. She was surprised that she could walk on her bitten foot with only tolerable twinges of pain.


The key was still sewn securely to her right glove. She pinched it between her thumb and forefinger.


A dog was wailing in the distance, probably the first one that she had squirted in the eyes. Nearby, another was crying pitifully and howling. A third whimpered, sneezed, gagged on fumes.


But where was the fourth?


Fumbling at the lock cylinder, she found the keyhole by trial and error. She opened the door. She hauled herself up into the copilot’s seat.


As she pulled the door shut, something slammed into the outside of it. The fourth dog.


She took off the helmet, the gloves. She stripped out of the padded jacket.


Teeth bared, the fourth Doberman leaped at the side window. Its claws rattled briefly against the glass, and then it dropped back to the lawn, glaring at her.


Revealed by the light from the narrow hallway, Laura Templeton’s body still lay on the bed in a tangle of manacles and chains, wrapped in a sheet.


Chyna’s chest tightened with emotion, and her throat swelled so that she had trouble swallowing. She told herself that the corpse on the bed was not really Laura. The essence of Laura was gone, and this was only the husk, merely flesh and bone on a long journey to dust. Laura’s spirit had traveled in the night to a brighter and warmer home, and there was no point shedding tears for her, because she had transcended.


The closet door was closed. Chyna was sure that the dead man still hung in there.


In the fourteen hours or longer since she had been in the motor-home bedroom, the stuffy air had acquired a faint but repulsive scent of corruption. She had expected worse. Nevertheless, she breathed through her mouth, trying to avoid the smell.


She switched on the reading lamp and opened the top drawer of the nightstand. The items that she had discovered the previous night were still there, rattling softly against one another as the engine vibrations translated through the floor.


She was nervous about leaving the engine running, because the sound of it would mask the approach of another vehicle in case Vess came home earlier. But she needed lights, and she didn’t want to risk depleting the battery.


From the drawer, she withdrew the package of gauze pads, the roll of cloth tape, and the scissors.


In the lounge area behind the cockpit, she sat in one of the armchairs. Earlier, she had stripped out of all the protective gear. Now she removed her right shoe. Her sock was sodden with blood, and she peeled it off.


From two punctures in the top of her foot, blood welled dark and thick. It was seeping, however, not spurting, and she wasn’t going to die from the wound itself anytime soon.


She quickly pressed a double thickness of gauze pads over the seeping holes and fixed them in place with a length of cloth tape. By tightening the tape to apply a little pressure, she might be able to make the bleeding slow or stop.


She would have preferred to saturate the punctures with Bactine or iodine, but she didn’t have anything like that. Anyway, infection wouldn’t set in for a few hours, and by then she would have gotten away from here and obtained medical attention. Or she’d be dead of other causes.


The chance of rabies seemed small to nil. Edgler Vess would be solicitous of the health of his dogs. They would have received all their vaccinations.


Her sock was cold and slimy with blood, and she didn’t even try to pull it on again. She slipped her bandaged foot into her shoe and tied the lace slightly looser than usual.


A folding metal stepstool was stored in a narrow slot between the kitchen cabinetry and the refrigerator. She carried it into the short hallway at the end of the vehicle and opened it under the skylight, which was a flat panel of frosted plastic about three feet long and perhaps twenty inches wide.


She climbed onto the stool to inspect the skylight, hoping that it either tilted open to admit fresh air or was attached to the roof from the interior. Unfortunately, the panel was fixed, with no louver function, and the mounting flange was on the exterior, so she could not get at any screws or rivets from the inside.


Under her padded clothing, she had worn a tool belt that she’d found in one of the drawers of Vess’s workbench. She had taken it off with the rest of the gear. Now it was on the table in the dining nook.


Unable to be certain what tools she would need, she’d brought a pair of standard pliers, a pair of needle-nose pliers, both flat and rat-tail files, and several sizes of screwdrivers with standard blades and Phillips heads. There was also a hammer, which was the only thing that she could use.


When she stood on the first step of the two-step stool, the top of her head was only ten inches from the skylight. Averting her face, she swung the hammer with her left hand, and the flat steel head met the plastic with a horrendous bang and clatter.


The skylight was undamaged.


Chyna swung the hammer relentlessly. Each blow reverberated in the plastic overhead but also through all of her strained and weary muscles, through her aching bones.


The motor home was at least fifteen years old, and this appeared to be the original factory-installed skylight. It wasn’t Plexiglas but some less formidable material; over many years of sunshine and bad weather, the plastic had grown brittle. Finally the rectangular panel cracked along one edge of the frame. Chyna hammered at the leading point of the fissure, making it grow all the way to the corner, then along the narrow end, and then along the other three-foot length.


She had to pause several times to catch her breath and to change the hammer from hand to hand. At last the panel rattled loosely in its frame; it now seemed to be secured only by splinters of material along the fissures and by the uncracked fourth edge.


Chyna dropped the hammer, slowly flexed her hands a few times to work some of the stiffness out of them, and then put both palms flat against the plastic. Grunting with the effort, she pushed upward as she climbed onto the second step of the stool.


With a brittle splintering of plastic, the panel lifted an inch, jagged edges squeaking against each other. Then it bent backward at its fourth side, creaking, resisting her…resisting…until she cried out wordlessly in frustration and, finding new strength, pushed even harder. Abruptly the fourth side cracked all the way through, with a bang! as loud as a gunshot.


She pushed the panel out through the ceiling. It rattled across the roof and dropped to the driveway.


Through the hole above her head, Chyna saw clouds suddenly slide away from the moon. Cold light bathed her upturned face, and in the bottomless sky was the clean white fire of stars.


Chyna backed the motor home off the driveway and alongside the front of the house, parallel to the porch and as close to it as she could get. She let the big vehicle roll slowly, anxious not to tear up the thick grass, because under it the ground might be muddy even half a day after the rain had stopped. She didn’t dare bog down.


When she was in position, she put the vehicle in park and set the emergency brake. She left the engine running.


In the short hall at the back of the motor home, the stepstool had fallen over. She put it upright, climbed the two steps, and stood with her head in the night air, above the open frame of the broken-out skylight.


She wished the stool had a third step. She needed to muscle herself out of the hallway, and she was at a less advantageous angle than she would have liked.


She placed her hands flat on the roof on opposite sides of the twenty-inch-wide rectangular opening and struggled to lever her body out of the motor home. She strained so hard that she could feel the tendons flaring between her neck and shoulders, her pulse pounding like doomsday drums in her temples and carotid arteries, every muscle in her arms and across her back quivering with the effort.


Pain and exhaustion seemed certain to thwart her. But then she thought of Ariel in the living-room armchair: rocking back and forth, hugging herself, a faraway look in her eyes, her lips parted in what might have been a silent scream. That image of the girl empowered Chyna, put her in touch with hitherto unknown resources. Her shaking arms slowly straightened, pulling her body out of the hallway, and inch by inch she kicked her feet as if she were a swimmer ascending from the depths. At last her elbows locked with her arms at full extension, and she heaved forward, out through the skylight, onto the roof.


On the way, her sweater caught on small fragments of plastic that bristled from the skylight frame. A few jagged points pierced the knit material and stung her belly, but she broke loose of them.


She crawled forward, rolled onto her back, hiked her sweater, and felt her stomach to see how badly she had been cut. Blood wept from a couple of shallow punctures, but she wasn’t hurt seriously.


From far off in the night came the howls of at least two injured dogs. Their pathetic cries were so filled with fear, vulnerability, misery, and loneliness that Chyna could hardly bear to listen.

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