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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
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Annie walked back to the mower, got on, started it up, and drove it around back. Paul smiled a little. She had the luck of the devil, and when she was pressed she had almost the cleverness of the devil - but almost was the key word. She had slipped in Boulder and wriggled away mostly due to luck. Now she had slipped again. He had seen it. She had washed the blood off the mower but forgotten the blade underneath - the whole blade housing, for that matter. She might remember later, but Paul didn't think so. Things had a way of dropping out of Annie's mind once the immediate moment was past. It occurred to him that the mind and the mower had a lot in common - what you could see looked all right. But if you turned the thing over to take a look at the works, you saw a blood-slimed killing machine with a very sharp blade.
She returned to the kitchen door and let herself into the house again. She went upstairs and he heard her rummaging there for awhile. Then she came down again, more slowly, dragging something that sounded soft and heavy. After a moment's consideration, Paul rolled the wheelchair across to his door and leaned his ear against the wood.
Dim, diminishing footfalls - slightly hollow. And still that soft flumping sound of something being dragged. Immediately his mind lit up with panicky floodlights and his skin flushed with his terror.
Shed! She's gone to the shed to get the axe! It's the axe again!
But this was only a momentary atavism, and he pushed it roughly away. She hadn't gone into the shed; she was going down cellar. Dragging something down cellar.
He heard her come up again and he rolled back to the window. As her boot-heels approached his door, as the key slid into the lock again, he thought: She's come to kill me. And the only emotion this thought engendered was tired relief.
The door opened and Annie stood there, looking at him contemplatively. She had changed into a fresh white tee-shirt and a pair of chinos. A small khaki bag, too big to be a purse and not quite big enough to be a knapsack, was slung over one shoulder.
As she came in, he was surprised to find himself able to say it, and say it with a certain amount of dignity: "Go ahead and kill me, Annie, if that's what you mean to do, but at least have the decency to make it quick. Don't cut anything more off me. "
"I'm not going to kill you, Paul. " She paused. "At least, not if I have just a little luck. I should kill you - I know that - but I'm crazy, right? And crazy people often don't look after their best interests, do they?" She went behind him and propelled him across the room, out the door, and down the hall. He could hear her bag slapping solidly against her side, and it occurred to him that he had never seen her carrying a bag like that before. If she went to town in a dress, she carried a big, clunky purse - the sort of purse maiden aunts tote to church jumble sales. If she went in pants, she went with a wallet stuck in her hip pocket, like a man.
The sunlight slanting into the kitchen was strong bright gold. Shadows from the legs of the kitchen table lay across the linoleum in horizontal stripes like the shadows of prison bars. It was quarter past six according to the clock over the range, and while there was no reason to believe she was any less sloppy about her clocks than her calendars (the one out here had actually made it to May), that seemed about right. He could hear the first evening crickets tuning up in Annie's field. He thought, I heard that same sound as a small, unhurt boy, and for a moment he nearly wept.
She pushed him into the pantry, where the door to the basement stood open. Yellow light staggered up the stairs and fell dead on the pantry floor. The smell of the late-winter rainstorm which had flooded it still lingered.
Spiders down there, he thought. Mice down there. Rats down there.
"Uh-uh," he told her. "Count me out. " She looked at him with a level sort of impatience, and he realized that since killing the cop, she had seemed almost sane. Her face was the purposeful if slightly harried face of a woman making ready for a big dinner party.
"You're going down there," she said. "The only question is whether you're going down piggyback or bum over teakettle. I'll give you five seconds to decide. "
"Piggy-back. " he said at once.
"Very wise. " She turned around so he could put his arms around her neck. "Don't do anything stupid like trying to choke me, Paul. I took a karate class in Harrisburg. I was good at it. I'll flip you. The floor is dirt but very hard. You'll break your back. " She hoisted him easily. His legs, now unsplinted but as crooked and ugly as something glimpsed through a rip in the canvas of a freak-show tent, hung down. The left, with the salt-dome where the knee had been, was fully four inches shorter than the right. He had tried standing on the right leg and had found he could, for short times, but doing so produced a low, primal agony that lasted for hours. The dope couldn't touch that pain, which was like a deep physical sobbing.
She carried him down and into a thickening smell of old stone and wood and flood and rotting vegetables. There were three naked light-bulbs. Old spiderwebs hung in rotting hammocks between bare beams. The walls were rock, carelessly chinked - they looked like a child's drawing of rock walls. It was cool, but not a pleasant cool.
He had never been as close to her as he was then, as she carried him piggyback down the steep stairs. He would only be as close once again. It was not a pleasant experience. He could smell the sweat of her recent exertions, and while he actually liked the smell of fresh perspiration - he associated it with work, hard effort, things he respected - this smell was secretive and nasty, like old sheets thick with dried come. And below the smell of sweat was a smell of very old dirt. Annie, he guessed, had gotten as casually catch-as-catch-can about showering as she had about changing her calendars. He could see dark-brown wax plugging one ear and wondered with faint disgust how the hell she could hear anything.
Here, by one of the rock walls, was the source of that flumping, dragging sound: a mattress. Beside it she had placed a collapsed TV tray. There were a few cans and bottles on it. She approached the mattress, turned around, and squatted.
"Get off, Paul. " He released his hold cautiously and allowed himself to fall back on the mattress. He looked up at her warily as she stood and reached into the little khaki bag.
"No," he said immediately when he saw the tired yellow cellar-light gleam on the hypodermic needle. "No. No. "
"Oh boy," she said. "You must think Annie's in a real poopie-doopie mood today. I wish you'd relax, Paul. " She put the hypo on the TV tray. "That's scopolamine, which is a morphine-based drug. You're lucky I have any morphine at all. I told you how closely they watch it in the hospital pharmacies. I'm leaving it because it's damp down here and your legs may ache quite badly before I get back.
"Just a minute. " She gave him a wink which had strangely unsettling undertones - a wink one conspirator might give another. "You throw one cockadoodie ashtray and I'm as busy as a one-armed paperhanger. I'll be right back. " She went upstairs and came back shortly with the cushions from the sofa in the parlor and the blankets from his bed. She arranged the cushions behind him so he could sit up without too much discomfort - but he could feel the sullen chill of the rocks even through the cushions, waiting to steal out and freeze him.
There were three bottles of Pepsi on the collapsed TV tray. She opened two of them, using the opener on her keyring, and handed him one. She upended her own and drank half of it without stopping; then she stifled a burp, ladylike, against her hand.
"We have to talk," she said. "Or, rather, I have to talk and you have to listen. "
"Annie, when I said you were crazy - "
"Hush! Not a word about that. Maybe we'll talk about that later. Not that I would ever try to change your mind about anything you chose to think - a Mister Smart Guy like you who thinks for a living. All I ever did was pull you out of your wrecked car before you could freeze to death and splint your poor broken legs and give you medicine to ease your pain and take care of you and talk you out of a bad book you'd written
and into the best one you ever wrote. And if that's crazy, take me to the loonybin. " Oh, Annie, if only someone would, he thought, and before he could stop himself he had snapped: "You also cut off my fucking foot!" Her hand flickered out whip-quick and rocked his head over to one side with a thin spatting sound.
"Don't you use that effword around me," Annie said. "I was raised better even if you weren't. You're lucky I didn't cut off your man-gland. I thought of it, you know. " He looked at her. His stomach felt like the inside of an ice-maker. "I know you did, Annie," he said softly. Her eyes widened and for just a moment she looked both startled and guilty - Naughty Annie instead of Nasty Annie.
"Listen to me. Listen closely, Paul. We're going to be all right if it gets dark before anyone comes to check on that fellow. It'll be full dark in an hour and a half. If someone comes sooner - " She reached into the khaki bag again and brought out the trooper's. 44. The cellar lights shone on the zigzagging lightning-bolt the Lawnboy's blade had chopped into the gun's barrel.
"If someone comes sooner there's this," she said. "For whoever comes, and then you, and then me. "
Once it was dark, she said, she was going to drive the police cruiser up to her Laughing Place. There was a lean-to beside the cabin where she could park it safely out of sight. She thought the only danger of being noticed would come on Route 9, but even there the risk would be small - she only had to drive four miles of it. Once she was off 9, the way into the hills was by little-travelled meadow-line roads, many fallen into casual disuse as grazing cattle this high up became a rarity. A few of these roads, she said, were still gated off - she and Ralph had obtained keys to them when they bought the property. They didn't have to ask; the owners of the land between the road and the cabin gave them the keys. This was called neighboring, she told Paul, managing to invest a pleasant word with unsuspected depths of nuance: suspicion, contempt, bitter amusement.
"I would take you with me just to keep an eye on you, now that you've shown how untrustworthy you can be, but it wouldn't work. I could get you up there in the back of the police-car, out getting you back down would be impossible. I'm going to have to ride Ralph's trail-bike. I'll probably fall off and break my cockadoodie neck!" She laughed merrily to show what a joke on her that would be, but Paul did not join her.
"If that did happen, Annie, what would happen to me?"
"You'll be fine, Paul," she said serenely. "Gosh, you're such a worry-wart!" She walked over to one of the cellar windows and stood there a moment, looking out, measuring the fall of the day. Paul watched her moodily. If she fell off her husband's bike or drove off one of those unpaved ridge-roads, he did not actually believe he would be fine. What he actually believed was that he would die a dog's death down here, and when it was finally over he would make a meal for the rats which were even now undoubtedly watching these two unwelcome bipeds who had intruded upon their domain. There was a Kreig lock on the pantry door now, and a bolt on the bulkhead almost as thick as his wrist. The cellar windows, as if reflecting Annie's paranoia (and there was nothing strange about that, he thought; didn't all houses come, after awhile, to reflect the personalities of their inhabitants?), were not much more than dirty gun-slits, about twenty inches long by fourteen wide. He didn't think he could have wriggled through one of those even on his fittest day, which this wasn't. He might be able to break one and yell for help if someone showed up here before he starved to death, but that wasn't much comfort.
The first twinges of pain slipped down his legs like poisoned water. And the want. His body yelling for Novril. It was the gotta, wasn't it? Sure it was.
Annie came back and took the third bottle of Pepsi. "I'll bring down another couple of these before I go," she said. "Right now I need the sugar. You don't mind, do you?"
"Absolutely not. My Pepsi is your Pepsi. " She twisted the cap off the bottle and drank deeply. Paul thought: Chug-a-lug, chug-a-lug, make ya want to holler hi-de-ho. Who was that? Roger Miller, right? Funny, the stuff your mind coughed up.
"I'm going to put him in his car and drive it up to my Laughing Place. I'm going to take all his things. I'll put the car in the shed up there and bury him and his you know, his scraps. . . in the woods up there. " He said nothing. He kept thinking about Bossie, bawling and bawling and bawling until she couldn't bawl anymore because she was dead, and another of those great axioms of Life on the Western Slope was just this: Dead cows don't bawl.
"I have a driveway chain. I'm going to use it. If the police come, it may raise suspicion, but I'd rather have them suspicious than have them drive up to the house and hear you making a big cockadoodie fuss. I thought of gagging you, but gags are dangerous, especially if you're taking drugs that affect respiration. Or you might vomit. Or your sinuses might close up because it's so damp down here. If your sinuses closed up tight and you couldn't breathe through your mouth. . . " She looked away, unplugged, as silent as one of the stones in the cellar wall, as empty as the first bottle of Pepsi she had drunk. Make ya want to holler hi-de-ho. And had Annie hollered hi-de-ho today? Bet your ass. O brethren, Annie had yelled hi-de-ho until the whole yard was oogy. He laughed. She made no sign she had heard him.
Then, slowly, she began to come back.
She looked around at him, blinking.
"I'm going to stick a note through one of the links in the fence," she said slowly, re-gathering her thoughts. "There's a town about thirty-five miles from here. It's called Steamboat Heaven, isn't that a funny name for a town? They're having what they call The World's Biggest Flea Market this week. They have it every summer. There's always lots of people there who sell ceramics. I'll write in my note that I'm there, in Steamboat Heaven, looking at ceramics. I'll say I'm staying overnight. And if anyone asks me later where I stayed, so they can check the register, I'll say there were no good ceramics so I started back. Only I got tired. That's what I'll say. I'll say I pulled over to take a nap because I was afraid I might fall asleep behind the wheel. I'll say I only meant to take a short nap but I was so tired from working around the place that I slept all night. " Paul was dismayed by the depth of this slyness. He suddenly realized that Annie was doing exactly what he could not: she was playing Can You? in real life. Maybe, he thought, that's why she doesn't write books. She doesn't have to.