Authors: Max Allan Collins
Tags: #Mystery & Crime
Also by Max Allan Collins in the Mallory series:
No Cure for Death
Kill Your Darlings
A Shroud for Aquarius
Nice Weekend for a Murder
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright © 1983 by Max Allan Collins
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Thomas & Mercer
P.O. Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140
This book is dedicated to my friend Jan McRoberts 1948–1981
Something was wrong. I eased out of the van, shut the door as soundlessly as I could, and jogged up toward the house, leaving behind what I’d come to deliver. Because something was definitely wrong.
From half a mile down the road, I’d spotted the lights; every damn light in the house was going, which was way out of character for its occupant, an elderly woman who had pinched pennies for so many years it was second nature now to sit in the dark and save on electricity. Yet here the house was, lit up like Christmas, beacons of light streaking out the windows of the clapboard crackerbox and cutting through the night the way a movie projector cuts through a dark theater.
The next thing I noticed was the cars. Even before I’d brought the van to a halt, I noticed them, parked right up there next to the house, on the lawn, crowding the screened-in porch like relatives at a millionaire’s deathbed. Actually, only one of the two vehicles was a car: a late-model white Pontiac GTO trimmed in sporty, tasteless red and blue—you could be arrested for desecrating the flag driving that car. The other vehicle was, like my Dodge, a van; only this one was a Ford and—unlike my relatively new, sky blue number—pale green and of indeterminate age.
The cars were just as wrong as the bright lights; the resident of the little bungalow didn’t own any sort of car, let alone a GTO or a van, both of which seemed a little unlikely for an elderly, mostly incapacitated person. Why not a Harley-Davidson, or a submarine?
I was halfway up the lawn, feeling like a one-man task force invading some beachhead, when I started having second thoughts. Thoughts like maybe I was just letting the uneasiness of the day work on my mind. Maybe I was ready to expect the worst, after trudging through the sort of unpleasant, overcast day that migraine headaches were invented for.
The whole day had seemed out of sync, as if somebody had been shuffling the leaves of the calendar and a day got stuck in July that belonged in October. A cold, sullen day, with the night coming in before it was supposed to. It was dark already at seven o’clock, an hour that would normally be daylight-savings-time light. The temperature was fifty-seven shivery degrees on a date that would normally tally eighty-five or more.
I was walking now, not jogging, and I was maybe a hundred feet away from the house when I figured out what was going on. I did this by studying the dark figures moving around in the bright frames of light that were the windows of the little house. The figures were carrying things, lifting them. Taking them.
People in the house were looting it, cleaning it out. And as if gutting a house—any house—isn’t bad enough, these lowlifes were preying on an elderly semi-invalid who happened to be a friend of mine.
Okay, I told myself, sucking in wind. Okay. Before you go looking for a tree and a vine to swing down into that house like Tarzan, maybe you better do your homework. I decided to get
the license numbers of the car and van so I’d have that to hang onto in case I got the worst of the confrontation that was about to take place. Damn it.
Walking on eggs is the way you describe how carefully I was moving, and I moved that way around the back end of the patriotic GTO and zeroed in on the license plate. I’d been hoping it wouldn’t be some deadly multi-digit that might overload my memory banks, and my wish came true: 70-3. Seventy was the county number; three was the vehicle number.
In addition to being easy to remember, the number told me something about the character of the GTO owner—or the three part did, anyway. It told me he was a lunatic. Because to get license plate number three, or any other early number, you have to be a pretty early number yourself. That is, you have to be at the Port City Courthouse bright and early the morning of the first day of license-plate sales, and that usually means camping out overnight on the lawn of the courthouse with a throng of fellow lunatics, all dedicated to the proposition that meaning in life can be achieved via the attainment of a low license-plate number.
Keeping in mind that I was dealing with at least one potential fruitcake, I moved quietly and carefully around to the back of the van, the rear doors of which were swung wide open. I had two unpleasant surprises. Let me list them in order of increasing disappointment: the van had no license plate at all; the van had someone in it.
Let me be specific.
The van had a big, hulking figure inside it, a featureless blob of darkness just one size smaller than the van itself. And I had just perceived the hulk as something not unlike a human being when it reached out skillet-size hands to fry me in. I heard my
tee-shirt tear as the paws clutched at it and I was yanked inside the van. He’d been stacking things in there—the things he and his cohorts had been stealing—and I was just another thing to be hauled in and stacked. Only I got special, preferential treatment the inanimate objects didn’t receive, though at the conclusion of that treatment I, too, might be an inanimate object.
What I’m trying to say is, he started hitting me.
They were backhands; he could’ve been fanning himself or swatting flies or something, but they sent me sailing just the same, tumbling onto one of his stacks, slamming into something—a TV I think—and when I stopped bouncing into things and felt the metallic surface of the floor, he kicked me in the side, gently, as if trying to put my ribs up my nose.
The next time the foot came down at me, I grabbed onto it and heaved up. Hulk went crashing awkwardly into the carefully stacked stuff in the van, a comical Frankenstein’s monster smashing things he didn’t mean to, and there was the appropriate noise to go with it: glass splintering, metal and wood scraping, even a bonging from an object that was apparently a grandfather clock on its side.
With Hulk helpless, I clearly had the upper hand, which I played to full advantage by scrambling the hell out of there, getting on my feet and heading back down the sloping grass.
Somebody caught me with a flying tackle, and I went down hard, the wind whooshing out of me and leaving me on the ground and rasping, gasping for air. Then I was surrounded by dark figures—four of them, maybe, or forty—and they began to beat on me. I covered my face and they hit me in the crotch. I covered up my crotch and they hit me in the face. It went on like that for a while.
When I came to, I was being dragged by the legs up the sloping lawn. My back was to the ground and I had a rather pleasant view of the sky, which had a lot of stars in it for the evening of an overcast day. My mind, however, was on other things—like feeling to see what was left of my sex life, and poking my tongue around my teeth to see if I’d be eating anything but baby food from now on. I couldn’t see any of my captors and, quite honestly, I didn’t try to. I was thinking about other things, like surviving.
As we approached the house, they dragged me like a squaw behind an Indian’s pony (but with considerably less affection). My head went skipping over a stone, and I thought, giddy with pain, ain’t that something; I’m the lake and the stone is skipping over me, and I skipped over another one and went away for a while.
I woke up inside the house. I knew that because there was a floor beneath me: a hard, varnished wood floor. It was dark in the house now. All those bright lights had been snuffed; it was so dark I could’ve been unconscious still, only my eyes were open. My first thought was: I’m alive. My second thought was: They’re gone.
Alive, on my stomach on the floor in the house, alive; the lights off, so they’ve gone away, those men. Those men were gone now.
But they weren’t.
The lights were off, and the robbing was over, but the robbers were still around. And they were talking.
About what to do with me.
“Tie him up?” A harsh whisper; gravel rattling around in a pan.
“Hell, no. Can’t you see he’s out of it?” A whine; Peter Lorre with no accent.
“I think we should off him.” This was a new voice, no more pleasant than the other two. Chalk on a blackboard.
“What do you mean, off him?”
“Look over there and you’ll know what I mean.”
“Yeah. Damn. Maybe you’re right. Damn. I see what you mean. Jesus.”
“I say let’s get the hell out of here. We ain’t no godddamn killers.”
“Is that right? Look over there and
if we ain’t. There’s an expert sitting over there who you could ask an opinion on that subject.”
The voices were getting all jumbled up now. I couldn’t tell who was who. I wondered, idly, which grating whisper belonged to license plate three; I wondered which was the big guy in the van. If he could talk at all. Maybe he was good at sign language.
“I say off the sucker—grease him and get out.”
There was silence for a long, and I mean
couple of minutes.
And then somebody came over and kicked me in the head.
The next time I came to, they
And I was alive.
I said it aloud: “I’m alive.” I swallowed. I sat up. I groaned. I was alive, all right—messed up, but alive.
The argument about offing me must’ve come out in my favor, because I was breathing.
But somebody else in the room wasn’t. I found a lamp and switched it on.
Somebody across the room from me, tied to a chair, was dead.
And suddenly there was dampness all over my face, and I felt the dampness with my fingertips to see if it was blood, and it wasn’t. It was tears. I was bawling like a baby and didn’t know it. Then I stopped, and I crawled over to the phone to get help.
It didn’t start with people hurting other people, stealing from them, killing them. That came later. It started with kindness, the kindness of four old women.
But I suppose it started even before that.
Sally wasn’t an old woman, and she wasn’t much on kindness, either. What Sally was was young and slender and pretty, her hair natural blonde (that one I can swear to under oath) and her legs—to whom cellulite was a stranger—long and slender. Overall, there wasn’t a thing wrong with Sally that a new personality wouldn’t have cured.
She was the sort of woman who uses her good looks as a form of blackmail when she’s in a good mood, and for revenge when she’s in a bad one. Which didn’t stop me from gratefully shacking up with her early that summer. Even if she did make me “share” the housework and cooking (meaning I did most of it). Sally was a liberated woman who did whatever
magazine told her to, and I put up with all the emasculation quite cheerfully. We all have our masochistic moments, and in my case, remember, those moments were a prelude to long legs and natural blonde hair.
Sally isn’t going to be in this story much longer, so I’ll get to the point, which is that she worked at the local hospital as a
dietician. She insisted the job at the hospital was “temporary,” as she wasn’t long for a little hick town of twenty thousand like Port City (she hailed from Burlington, after all)—and in fact wasn’t going to be long at all for a little state like Iowa if she could help it. Mid-summer a job application came through for her, and she kept her word and is now in New Jersey somewhere, at another, bigger hospital, putting together menus for sick people.