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I took a deep breath and walked toward the door, fighting the urge to run. “I’m here,” I called, once I was close enough that I was sure they’d be able to hear me. I stole a glance at Beverly. She was still standing on the couch, legs locked into rigid lines. Mr. Carson wasn’t outside the window anymore. Instead, three men in SymboGen security uniforms were standing there, each of them holding a shock baton. The head of a fourth man was just barely visible above the window frame.

Beverly turned toward the sound of my voice, and her growling stopped, for a moment. Then she started growling again as she jumped off the couch and ran to stand guard over the back door. The couch cushions were irreparably stained with mud and grass. Somehow, I didn’t think Mom was going to be all that upset, considering what Beverly had been defending me from. Even if I still wasn’t sure exactly what that was.

“Miss Mitchell, is it safe for you to open the door? If, for some reason, it is not safe, we will make our own way inside.”

Translation: they would knock down the door. “Just a second,” I said, and began undoing the locks.

I opened the door to find a man in full SymboGen security gear standing on the porch, with two more guards behind him. There were three large black vans parked in front of the house, their rear doors standing open.

“Miss Mitchell,” said the man. He nodded his head respectfully, his eyes skittering away from my face as he began to scan the house behind me. Beverly’s barking caught his attention. “Is your dog agitated by the intruders?”

“There’s a woman on the back porch,” I said. “Beverly’s barking at her. There were two more—”

“We have already restrained them,” said the man. He looked over his shoulder, making a series of complex gestures with his right hand. The two men nodded and went trotting away, heading for the side of the house. “The third intruder will be removed shortly. May I enter?”

Feeling a little foolish standing there in my bathrobe and bare feet, I nodded and stepped to the side. “Please. I don’t think they managed to get inside at all, but I’ll feel a lot more secure once I’m sure.”

“That’s why we’re here, Miss Mitchell,” said the man, and stepped past me, into the house. “May my men enter? I will remain with you while they secure the property.”

“Okay.” I stepped farther to the side, making sure there was a clear path into the house. Beverly was still barking. I slipped my hands into the pockets of my robe and just stood there, feeling awkward and exposed.

A second man in SymboGen security gear appeared, nodded to me, and walked past me into the house. I stayed where I was, swaying slightly on my feet.

The sound of the glass door sliding open was barely audible under the sound of Beverly’s maddened barking. The sound of the electric prod hitting the woman on the other side was much easier to hear. I closed my eyes, trying to ignore the way the sound made my stomach turn over. I couldn’t help remembering Chave, and how quickly she’d gone from a person to a target. I didn’t know the woman in my backyard nearly that well.

Beverly stopped barking. For a moment, there was only silence. The sound of footsteps alerted me to the return of the second man to have entered the house. I opened my eyes, turning to face him.

“The intruder from your yard is being removed now,” he said calmly. His baton was back at his belt. That made me feel a little better.

“Hold this position,” said the first man. To me, he said, “Please wait here while I check your doors and windows.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” I murmured. I might as well not have said anything. He was already gone, walking deeper into the house with his shoulders locked in an almost military line. Beverly trotted over to sit down beside me, pressing her shoulders against my leg. I bent enough to stroke her ears. “Good dog, Beverly. You’re a good dog.”

She looked up at me with worshipful brown eyes, her tail thumping once against the floor. In her world, everything was right. She had protected her human from the bad things outside, and now she was being called a good dog and having her ears petted. I wished it could be that simple for me.

Two more men from SymboGen appeared on the porch, flanking the second man. One of them saluted me. “Miss Mitchell,” he said.

I blinked at him, not sure how I was supposed to respond to the salute. I settled on a weak wave. “Hello,” I said. “Can I get you anything? Um. And also thank you for coming. I didn’t want to call the police, I was afraid someone would get hurt.” Someone had gotten hurt because I called SymboGen. Those electric batons didn’t just tickle. But if I’d called the police, I might have been spreading an infection I still didn’t understand. I couldn’t do that.

“We’re just doing our jobs, ma’am,” said one of the two men.

“I know. I still appreciate it.” Beverly was looking curiously at the two, her ears pricked forward, but she wasn’t growling. I took that as a good sign that they weren’t getting ready to freak out and try to strangle me. “I really didn’t want to spend the whole day locked inside my house, panicking.”

“Speaking of which, your house is clear,” said the man I took as the leader, walking back down the hall to the front room. “They don’t appear to have penetrated the security.”

A dizzying wave of relief washed over me. “Oh, good. Thank you for checking.”

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