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The strangeness of the place sharpened her fear, yet at the same time she was so sure she understood the purpose of the padded vestibule that her stomach rolled with faint nausea.
Directly opposite the door that Chyna held open was one more door. It was also padded and set in an upholstered frame.
Finally, here were locks. The gray upholstery plumped around two heavy-duty brass lock cylinders. She couldn't proceed without keys.
Then she noticed a small padded panel overlying the door itselfat eye level, perhaps six by ten inches with a knob attached. It was like the sliding panel over the view port in the solid door of a maximumsecurity prison cell.
Tatta-tatta-tatta ... The killer seemed to be taking an unusually long shower. On the other hand, Chyna hadn't been in the house more than three minutes; it just seemed longer. If he was having a leisurely scrub, he might not be half done.
Tatta-tatta ... She would have preferred to hold open the outer door while she stepped into the vestibule and slid aside the panel on the inner view port, but the distance was too great. She had to let the door fall shut behind her.
The moment that the upholstered door met the upholstered jamb with a whisper-squeak of softly abraded vinyl, Chyna could no longer hear the vibrating water pipe. The quiet was so profound that even her ragged breathing was barely audible. Under the padding, the walls must have been covered with layers of sound-attenuating insulation.
Or perhaps the killer had shut off the shower just as the door had fallen shut. And was now toweling dry. Or pulling on a robe without bothering to towel off. On his way downstairs.
Fearful, unable to breathe, she opened the door again. Tatta-tatta-tatta and the rush of water moving at high velocity, under pressure.
She exhaled explosively with relief. She was still safe. All right, okay, be cool, keep moving, find out if the girl is here and then do what has to be done. Reluctantly she allowed the door to fall shut. The rattling of the pipe was again sealed out.
She felt as though she was suffocating. Perhaps ventilation in the vestibule was inadequate, but it was the sound-deadening effect of the padded walls, at least as much as poor airflow, that made the atmosphere seem as thick as smoke and unbreathable.
Chyna slid aside the padded panel on the inner door. Beyond was rose-colored light. The port was fitted with a sturdy screen to protect the viewer from assault by whoever or whatever was within.
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.
"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.
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Without the engine noise for competition, the rain seemed to be falling more forcefully than before, rattling on the roof and snapping against the glass.
At the upper curve, darkness still held. She put the Honda in park, so it would not coast backward when she took her foot off the brake.
The headlights were both broken out, but the windshield wipers continued to thump back and forth, operating on battery power. She didn't switch them off.
She opened the driver's door and, feeling horribly exposed in the dome light, started to get out. She needed to be away from the car and in hiding by the time the motor home appeared-which would be in maybe twenty seconds, maybe ten, hard to say because she had lost track of how much time had passed since she herself had driven around the bend.
The gun. Before she fully escaped the car, Chyna remembered the revolver. She swung back inside, reached for the weapon-but it was no longer on the seat.
In the first or second crash, the gun must have been thrown onto the floor. Leaning across the console between the front seats, she felt frantically in the darkness, found cold steel, the barrel, her finger actually slipping into the smooth muzzle. With a wordless murmur of relief, she fished the gun from the foot space and reversed her grip on it.
With the weapon firmly in hand, she scrambled out of the Honda. She left the driver's door standing open.
Rain chilled her, and wind. In the direction from which she had come, the night brightened faintly, and the redwood trunks near the shoulder of the curve began to glow as if in the radiance of a sudden moon.
Chyna sprinted off the slippery blacktop and splashed through another shallow drainage ditch, shuddering as the icy water poured over the tops of her shoes. On this side of the pavement, the trees were set back twenty or thirty feet from the shoulder. She headed for the colossal woods at a point directly across the highway from the behemoth into which she had driven the Honda.
Long before she reached the nearest tree, she skidded on the spongy mat of wet needles, fell, and landed on a cluster of redwood cones. The cones crumbled slightly a hard crunching sound against the small of her back-although judging by the flash of pain, it almost seemed as though her spine was the source of the cracking.
She would have preferred to crawl on her hands and knees to concealment, but she had to hold on to the revolver, and she was concerned that, crawling, she would inadvertently plug the barrel with dirt or wet needles. She was up and moving at once, therefore, as the highway behind her flared with light and an engine quarreled noisily with the storm.
The motor home had turned the bend. She was only fifteen feet or so from the highway, which wasn't far enough, because there was little underbrush to provide cover beneath the giant redwoods-largely ferns, and more of them in the gloom ahead than in the area immediately around her. He must not see her. All was lost if he glimpsed her as she dashed for cover.
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