Sooner or later, of course, it would realize that she no longer had the spray bottle, that she was holding nothing that might be used as a weapon. Then it would regain its courage.
What to do?
She wished that she hadn’t thrown the sponge mop into the yard. She could have jabbed at the Doberman with the wooden handle when it attacked. She might even have been able to hurt it if she poked hard enough. But the mop was beyond reach.
Instead of approaching her across the porch roof, the Doberman slunk along the front wall of the house, its shoulders hunched and its head low, away from her but glancing back. It reached the open window of Vess’s bedroom, and then it slowly returned, alternately looking down at the shards of moonlight-silvered glass among which it carefully placed its feet and glaring at her from under its brow.
Chyna tried to think of something in the motor home that could be used as a weapon. The girl could pass it up to her.
She said softly, “Ariel.”
The dog halted at the sound of her voice.
But the girl didn’t reply.
Hopeless. Ariel could not be coaxed into action fast enough to be of any help.
When finally the Doberman attacked, Chyna wouldn’t be lucky again, either. This one would not hurtle across the porch roof and slide off the motor home without getting its teeth in her. When it leaped at her, she would have nothing to fight with except her bare hands.
The dog stopped pacing. It raised its tapered black head and stared at her, ears pricked, panting.
Chyna’s mind raced. She had never before been able to think quite this clearly and quickly.
Although loath to take her eyes off the Doberman, she glanced down through the skylight.
Ariel was not in the short hallway below. She’d gone forward as she’d been instructed. Good girl.
The dog was no longer panting. It stood rigid and vigilant. As Chyna watched, its ears twitched and then flattened against its skull.
Chyna said, “Screw it,” and she jumped through the broken-out skylight into the motor home. Pain exploded through her bitten foot.
The stepstool, which she had pushed aside with the sponge mop, was against the closed bedroom door. She grabbed it and dragged it forward, out from under the skylight.
Paws thumped on the metal roof.
Chyna snatched the hammer from the floor and slipped the handle under the waistband of her blue jeans. Even through her red cotton sweater, the steel head was cold against her belly.
The dog appeared in the opening above, a predatory silhouette in the moonlight.
Chyna picked up the stepstool, which had a tubular metal handle that served as a backrail when the top step was used as a chair. She eased backward to the bathroom door, realizing just how narrow the hall was. She didn’t have enough room to swing the stool like a club, but it was still useful. She held it in front of her in the manner of a lion tamer with a chair.
“Come on, you bastard,” she said to the looming dog, dismayed to hear how shaky her voice was. “Come on.”
The animal hesitated warily at the brink of the opening above.
She didn’t dare turn away. The moment she turned, it would come in after her.
She raised her voice, shouting angrily at the Doberman, taunting it: “Come on! What’re you waiting for? What the hell are you scared of, you chickenshit?”
The dog growled.
“Come on, come on, damn you, come down here and get it! Come and get it!”
Snarling, the Doberman jumped. The instant that it landed in the hallway, it seemed to ricochet off the floor and straight toward Chyna without any hesitation.
She didn’t take a defensive position. That would be death. She had one chance. One slim chance. Aggressive action. Go for it. She immediately rushed the dog, meeting its attack head-on, jamming the legs of the stool at it as though they were four swords.
The impact of the dog rocked her, almost knocked her down, but then the animal rebounded from her, yelping in pain, perhaps having taken one of the stool legs in an eye or hard against the tip of its snout. It tumbled toward the back of the short hall.
As the Doberman sprang to its feet, it seemed a little wobbly. Chyna was on top of it, jabbing mercilessly with the metal legs of the stool, pressing the dog backward, keeping it off balance so it couldn’t get around the stool and at her side, or under the stool and at her ankles, or over the stool and at her face. In spite of its injuries, the dog was quick, strong, dear God, hugely strong, and as lithe as a cat. The muscles in her arms burned with the effort, and her heart hammered so hard that her vision brightened then dimmed with each hard pulse, but she dared not relent even for a second. When the stool began to fold shut, pinching two of her fingers, she popped it open at once, jabbed the legs into the dog, jabbed, jabbed, until she drove the animal against the bedroom door, where she caged it between that panel of Masonite and the legs of the stool. The Doberman squirmed, snarled, snapped at the stool, clawed at the floor, clawed at the door, kicked, frantic to escape its trap. It was Chyna’s weight and all muscle, not containable for long. She leaned her body against the stool, pressing it into the dog, then let go of the stool with one hand so she could extract the hammer from her waistband. She couldn’t control the stool as well with one hand as with two, and the dog eeled up the bedroom door and came over the top of its cage, straining its head forward, snapping savagely at her, its teeth huge, slobber flying from its chops, eyes black and bloody and protuberant with rage. Still leaning against the stool, Chyna swung the big hammer. It struck with a pock on bone, and the dog screamed. Chyna swung the hammer again, landing a second blow on the skull, and the dog stopped screaming, slumped.
She stepped back.
The stool clattered to the floor.
The dog was still breathing. It made a pitiful sound. Then it tried to get up.
She swung the hammer a third time. That was the end of it.
Breathing raggedly, dripping cold sweat, Chyna dropped the hammer and stumbled into the bathroom. She threw up in the toilet, purging herself of Vess’s coffeecake.
She did not feel triumphant.
In her entire life, she had never killed anything larger than a palmetto beetle — until now. Self-defense justified the killing but didn’t make it easier.
Acutely aware of how little time they had left, she nevertheless paused at the sink to splash handfuls of cold water in her face and to rinse out her mouth.
Her reflection in the mirror scared her. Such a face. Bruised and bloodied. Eyes sunken, encircled by dark rings. Hair dirty and tangled. She looked crazed.
In a way, she was crazy. Crazy with a love of freedom, with an urgent thirst for it. Finally, finally. Freedom from Vess and from her mother. From the past. From the need to understand. She was crazy with the hope that she could save Ariel and at last do more than merely survive.
The girl was on a sofa in the lounge, hugging herself, rocking back and forth. She was making her first sound since Chyna had seen her through the view port in the padded door the previous morning: a wretched, rhythmic moaning.
“It’s okay, honey. Hush now. Everything’s going to be all right. You’ll see.”
The girl continued moaning and would not be soothed.
Chyna led her forward, settled her into the copilot’s seat, and engaged her safety harness. “We’re getting out of here, baby. It’s all over now.”
She swung into the driver’s seat. The engine was running and not overheated. According to the fuel gauge, they had plenty of gasoline. Good oil pressure. No warning lights were aglow.
The instrument panel included a clock. Maybe it didn’t keep time well. The motor home was old, after all. The clock read ten minutes till midnight.
Chyna switched on the headlights, disengaged the emergency brake, and put the motor home in gear.
She remembered that she must not risk spinning the wheels and digging tire-clutching holes in the lawn. Instead of accelerating, she allowed the vehicle to drift slowly forward, off the grass, and then she turned left onto the driveway, heading east.
She wasn’t accustomed to driving anything as large as the motor home, but she handled it well enough. After what she’d been through in the past twenty-four hours, there wasn’t a vehicle in the world that would be too much for her to handle. If the only thing available had been an army tank, she would have figured out how to work the controls and how to wrestle with the steering, and she would have driven it out of here.
Glancing at the side mirror, she watched the log house dwindling into the moonlit night behind them. The place was full of light and appeared as welcoming as any home that she had ever seen.
Ariel had fallen silent. She was bent forward in her harness. Her hands were buried in her hair, and she was clutching her head as if she felt it would explode.
“We’re on our way,” Chyna assured her. “Not far now, not far.”
The girl’s face was no longer placid, as it had been since Chyna first glimpsed her in the lamplight in the doll-crowded room, and it was not lovely either. Her features were contorted in an expression of wrenching anguish, and she appeared to be sobbing, although she produced no sound and no tears.
It was impossible to know what torments the girl was suffering. Perhaps she was terrified that they would encounter Edgler Vess and be stopped only a few feet short of escape. Or perhaps she wasn’t reacting to anything here, now, but was lost in a terrible moment of the past, or was responding to imaginary events in the fantasy Elsewhere into which Vess had driven her.
They topped the bald rise and started down a long gradual slope where trees crowded close to the driveway. Chyna was sure that Vess had paused on both sides of a gate the previous morning, when he had driven onto the property, and she figured it couldn’t be much farther ahead.
Vess hadn’t gotten out of the motor home to deal with the gate. It must be electrically operated.
Gripping the steering wheel with one hand, Chyna slid open the tambour top on the console box between the seats. She fumbled through the contents and found a remote-control device just as the gate appeared in the headlights.
The barrier was formidable. Steel posts. Tubular steel rails and crossbars. Barbed wire. She hoped to God that she wouldn’t have to ram it, because even the big motor home might not be able to break it down.
She pointed the remote control at the windshield, pressed the button, and jubilantly said, “Yes,” when the gate began to swing inward.
She let up on the accelerator and tapped the brake pedal, giving the heavy barrier time to come all the way open before she got close enough to obstruct it. The gate moved ponderously.
Fear beat through her, like the frantic wings of a dark bird, and she was suddenly sure that Vess was going to pull his car into the end of the driveway, blocking them, just as the gate finished opening.
But she drove between the posts to a two-lane blacktop highway that led left and right. No car was visible in either direction.
To the north, left, the highway climbed into a forested night, toward ragged moon-frosted clouds and stars, as if it were a ramp that would carry them right off the planet and up into deepest space.
To the south, the lanes descended, curving out of sight through fields and woods. In the distance, perhaps five or six miles away, a faint golden radiance lay against the night, like a Japanese fan on black velvet, as if a small town waited in that direction.
Chyna turned south, leaving Edgler Vess’s gate wide open. She accelerated. Twenty miles an hour. Thirty. She held the motor home at forty miles an hour, but she found it easy to imagine that she was going faster than any jet plane. Flying, free.
Although she was suffering uncounted pains and was plagued by a degree of bone-deep exhaustion that she’d never before experienced, her spirit soared.
“Chyna Shepherd, untouched and alive,” she said, not as a prayer but as a report to God.
They were in a rural stretch of countryside, with no houses or businesses to either the east or the west of the road, no lights except the glow in the distance, but Chyna felt bathed in light.
Ariel continued to clutch her head, and her sweet face remained tormented.
“Ariel, untouched and alive,” Chyna told her. “Untouched and alive. Alive. It’s okay, honey. Everything’s going to be okay.” She checked the odometer. “It’s three miles behind us and getting farther behind every minute, every second.”
They crested a low hill, and Chyna squinted in the sudden flare of oncoming headlights. A single car was approaching uphill in the northbound lane.
She tensed, because it might be Vess.
The clock showed three minutes to midnight.
Even if it was Vess, and though he would be certain to recognize his own vehicle, Chyna felt secure. The motor home was a lot bigger than his car, so he wouldn’t be able to run her off the highway. In fact, she’d be able to smash the hell out of him, if it came to that, and she wouldn’t hesitate to use the motor home as a battering ram if she couldn’t outrun him.
But it wasn’t Vess. As the car drew nearer, she saw something on the roof, first thought that it was a ski rack, but then realized that it was an array of unlit emergency beacons and a siren-bullhorn. Last night, as she had followed Vess north on Highway 101 toward redwood country, she had hoped to encounter a police car — and now she had found one.
She pounded the horn, flashed the headlights, and braked the motor home.
“Cops!” she told Ariel. “Honey, see, everything’s going to be all right. We found ourselves some cops!”
The girl huddled forward, snared in her harness.
In response to her horn and the flashing lights, the police officer switched on his emergency beacons, although he didn’t use his siren.
Chyna pulled to the side of the road and stopped. “They can get Vess before he discovers we’re gone and tries to run.”
The cruiser had already passed her. She had glimpsed the words SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT in the crest on the driver’s door, and they were the two most glorious words in the English language.
In the sideview mirror, she watched the car as it hung a wide U-turn in the middle of the road. It came past her in the southbound lane now, and it coasted to a stop thirty feet ahead, on the graveled shoulder.
Relieved and exhilarated, Chyna opened her door and jumped down from the driver’s seat. She headed toward the cruiser.
She could see that only one officer was in the car. He was wearing a trooper’s hat with a wide brim. He didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get out.
The revolving emergency beacons cast off gouts of red light that streamed across the moonlit pavement, and splashes of blue light as in a turbulent dream, while the tall trees by the side of the road appeared to leap close and then away, close and then away. A wind came out of nowhere to harry dead leaves and clouds of grit across the blacktop as though the strobing beacons themselves had disturbed the stillness.