It was a bright day but the shadows of late afternoon were lengthening as Cathy Casey drove her roadster at a fair clip along the highway leading back to Diamondville. Her sister Nora sat on the passenger's side, not even complaining about Cathy's driving.
They were heading back from a friend's birthday party in West Tyler. They were heading back together because Sam Rice, Cathy's date for the party, was a beat cop and he tried to jump a trashcan while pursuing a suspect just yesterday. The result was a broken leg, and a cancelled date. Nora's date was Wilson Bing, who owned a hardware store in West Tyler. The sisters were heading back this early on a Sunday afternoon because their friend with the birthday was Lucy Ray, whose father was pastor of the Methodist church in West Tyler. The Reverend Ray was a nice man, appreciative that his daughter was socially active, but he did expect her to attend church on Sunday evenings and hear her daddy's sermon. And Lucy loved her daddy.
So there they were, heading back home before the sun had set, dressed to the nines in nice party dresses -- Nora's light blue with darker trim, and Cathy's a conspicuous bright red -- their hair all fixed up, riding in Cathy's canary yellow Paragon, looking forward to nothing more exciting than an evening of big band music on the radio. Then Nora sat up in her seat.
"Stop the car," she said.
"What?" Cathy asked.
"I said," began Nora.
"Don't repeat yourself. I heard." She was slowing the car. "What is it?"
"Back up. I thought I saw something."
Cathy put the car in reverse and backed up while Nora watched the trees alongside the road. "There," she said, pointing. "That's a car. It looks like it's skidded off the road into those trees."
"Where? I don't see any thing. Oh, wait. I see it now. It's really hidden by those bushes." She stopped the car and set the brake. "You sure it isn't just parked?"
"Funny place to park," Nora said, opening her door. "Besides, I think the back window is broken."
They left the Paragon and started toward the other car. It was necessary to jump a small ditch and walk through tall grass and weeds, but as they got closer, it was obvious the car had crashed into the bushes, and it was not on even ground.
It was also obvious as they got closer that the window wasn't just broken. There were two bullet holes in it.
"I think I should have brought my gun from the car," Cathy said, looking at the window. Nora went around to look at the front seat. It was necessary to go around the bushes and come from in front of the car. "Do you see anything?" said Cathy.
"I don't see the driver. The car's empty," Nora said. "But there is some blood. Too much blood."
She came back to where Cathy stood and looked around. There was a dirt road leading into the highway not too far back. She walked over to it and Cathy followed.
"Well?" Cathy asked.
"There's skid marks on the highway," Nora said. "It looks like that car came out of this dirt road, then swerved off the highway just a few yards up. It must have been ambushed. Let's get back to your car."
She walked briskly toward the Paragon and Cathy followed. Nora opened the door on the driver's side and reached into the door pocket, where she found a small automatic.
"That's my spare gun," Cathy pointed out.
"Thanks for lending it to me."
"Lending it to you?"
"Exactly," Nora said, checking to make sure it was loaded. She reached across the seat and found her purse and slipped the gun into it. "One of us needs to stay here. You go find a telephone and call the police."
"Do you think that's smart?"
"Of course not. The police will just stumble all over everything. But it is the law."
"I mean you staying here."
"Oh, stop worrying. What can happen?" Nora said. "I'm armed, aren't I?"
"It might not be easy finding a phone out here," Cathy pointed out.
"There's one at Hurley's filling station, about twenty miles up ahead. It's Sunday evening and the place will be closed, but Mr. Hurley won't mind if you pick the lock. It's an emergency."
"I still don't like this," Cathy said. "At least we need to look around and see if we can find the driver. He might need to be taken to a hospital."
"The driver's door was ajar. The driver's gone. There's blood by the door but no blood trail leading away from the car. And look at the way those bushes beside the car were beaten down. If he left the car he was carried and his wounds were bandaged. I think what we need is the police."
Cathy scowled. "I don't like leaving you here."
"Of course you don't," said Nora. "You're mad you didn't grab the gun and send me off to call the cops. But we might be running out of time, so get a move on."
"Oh, all right," Cathy said, almost growling the words. "But you stay right here while I'm gone. Don't leave the car."
"I won't go more than a few yards into the trees to see if I can find the driver or a trail," Nora assured her.
It was plain to see that Cathy wasn't completely happy with things, but she went back to the car and took a box of ammunition and a flashlight out of the pocket. She tossed them to Nora, then got in the car, made sure her other gun was in her purse where it belonged, and drove off.
Nora didn't start down the dirt road again until Cathy was out of sight.
The sun was well behind the trees now, starting to set if it hadn't already. Nora walked along the road. The gun and the ammunition were now in her purse, which she carried in her left hand. She carried the flashlight in her right hand but had not turned it on yet. The stars were out and a bit of moon and there was light to see by, after a fashion. And already she could see a light of some sort up ahead.
The trees fell away from the side of the road and she was looking at a house. At least two stories, very dark at this time of day, though there was light in one window on the first floor. Somewhere an owl hooted and she shivered at the sound.
She stopped at the place where the trees stopped. The house stood on a large open yard and even in this light she could tell it was overgrown with weeds and brush. She wanted to get off the road and go around behind the house where it was a lot less likely she would be seen, but as dark as it was and dressed as she was, it was likely she'd trip over something and break her neck. There was nothing to do but proceed forward to the driveway of the house.
The owl hooted again. It sounded derisive and she couldn't blame it. The smart thing would be to go back to the highway and wait for Cathy and the police. But suppose the driver was in that house and in need of help?
How many times had she snarled at Cathy for rushing in where angels fear to tread? Yet here she was doing exactly the same thing.
And knowing better.
The drive was graveled and she could hear it crunching underfoot. It was difficult to walk on gravel in these heels. She moved over to the side, daring the weeds, where it was even harder to walk, but where she made less noise. She found a walk that led toward the door.
She didn't go to the door, however. She went to the house and skirted the wall until she came to the lighted window.
The window was grimy with who knew how many years worth of dirt. There was a curtain on the left side of the window, filthy and torn, and not covering much. There was no sign of a curtain on the other side.
The room was large, possibly a dining room, maybe a library. There were shelves, but they were empty. The light was from a kerosene lamp on a table across the room from the window. It seemed to cast no light on this side of the room. There wasn't much furniture. Aside from the table there was a chair, its back toward her.
It was so dark she didn't realize someone was tied to the chair until he slumped forward.
Her first reaction was that she needed to get in the house. She tried the window, almost before she thought about it. It didn't budge. Possibly it was locked, possibly just too old and swollen to be opened. She suspected it would probably sound like a freight train if she could open it.
She moved toward the front door and tried it. To her surprise it was unlocked.
The hinges were oiled, too. That was ominous. She opened it just far enough that she could slip in, and carefully closed it again.
She could see the entrance to a hall of some sort off to the right. There was light reflected there from the room where the prisoner was tied. Nora moved cautiously across the room to the hall door and stopped. She listened for a minute. She thought she heard moaning but could not be sure.
She heard nothing else, however, so she moved into the hall where she could see the lighted doorway to the room she had looked into through the window. She bent down and slipped her shoes off and carried them in one hand as she moved toward the door.
There wasn't much light, but she could tell that the man in the chair was small, slender, like a jockey. He had graying hair, not too much of it, and a narrow face. There were bruises on the face. There was blood seeping from obvious bullet wounds in his shoulder, and despite his wounds, his arms had been pulled behind the chair and tied together. He was pretty battered, and while it was possible he had suffered those injuries in the car wreck, she thought he had probably been beaten.
He looked up at her and in a conspiratorial tone of voice said, "I didn't tell them anything. Not one damn thing."
"Good for you," she said in a low voice, examining the way he was tied. "Let's get you loose from here and out of this house."
"Not one goddamned thing. You hear me?"
His voice was becoming louder. Nora said, "I hear you. Don't say anything until we're out of here."
"They couldn't make me talk," he said, loudly.
She moved around behind the chair and tugged at the knot that held his wrists. There was no knife in her purse and the only way she had of getting him loose was to untie those knots.
"Did you hear me?" he said.
"Yes. Hold it down or the people who did this to you might hear, too." She pulled on the knot again and he yelped with pain. But she had loosened it a bit and when she pulled on it again, it slid loose some more.
It seemed to take forever but she somehow managed to get that knot undone and his hands fell apart and hung loosely at his sides. But he didn't say anything more. She moved to the knot that held his ankles.
He wore no shoes and she could see that his feet had been burned, probably with cigarettes; she could smell the burnt tobacco. And the burned flesh. She got his feet loose and then worried with the rope that held his torso against the chair.
"Never told them one damned thing," he said quietly. "They won't find it because of old Arch Moreland, that's for damned sure."
"Find what?" she asked. If she couldn't prevent him from talking, maybe by giving him someone to talk to she could keep his voice down.
He laughed. "Why, the money," he said. "All that money."
The rope came loose and she wound it from around him and dropped it to the floor.
She looked around for his shoes. She saw them over in the corner and retrieved them. But his feet were so blistered she didn't dare put them on him. She put them on the floor. She thought about her own shoes and wondered if she wanted to put them on. She could certainly move faster without them, not to mention more silently, but the ground outside was rough and there were too many small rocks. She decided she would need them.
But how to support him and carry her purse and shoes as well? She knew she'd need her purse because her gun was in it.
Arch Moreland, if that was his name, was still wearing a jacket, and that solved the problem of the shoes. She slipped them into his jacket pockets. She could put them on after they were outside, but she certainly didn't want to wear them to walk across this wooden floor. They would sound like an army.
She put her hands under Moreland's arms and helped him stand up. When he put his weight on his feet he cried out. He almost fell but she held him up and made him lean against her. "Come on," she said. "We need to get out of here."
He leaned against her. Despite his small stature, he weighed more than she expected him to. But somehow she supported him and together they staggered toward the hall.
As she reached the door to the hall someone stepped in front of her, a hulking figure almost a foot and a half taller than she was. It reached out and grabbed her, pulling her away from Moreland so he lost her support. The injured man fell to the floor, and groaned. The grip on Nora tightened and she felt herself being shaken.
"Who are you?" her attacker said, stepping into the light where he looked even bigger. That was when she noticed he seemed to be wearing a glove on his right hand.
A metallic glove.
He slapped her hard, twice across the face with his left and she fell to the floor. The slap stung sharply, causing her to moan and for a moment she thought she might lose consciousness. But she didn't pass out. She looked over to where Moreland lay on the floor. His face was no more than six inches from hers.
"They never got word one out of me. Hell, I don't even know where the money is," he said, and passed out.
She heard quick footsteps as someone else bustled into the room, but she couldn't tear her eyes away from Moreland and that half crazed look on his face. Rough hands -- one of them metal -- grabbed her under the arms and lifted her to her feet.
"Leave her alone," Moreland said. "Don't hurt her."
She found herself looking into the face of a woman about twelve or fifteen years older than she was. The woman wore a man's dark work shirt and darker pants. Her graying hair was tied back and her pale eyes were as cold and expressionless as any eyes Nora could remember seeing. "You seem a little over dressed for here and now," the woman said.
She looked at Nora a moment, then glanced down at the floor. She bent, picked up Nora's purse.
"Well," she said as she opened it. "You brought party favors, I see." She held up Cathy's automatic Nora was so fond of, though right now seeing it in someone else's hands, Nora didn't feel that fondly toward it. The woman rummaged some more and found Nora's wallet. She opened it up. "My goodness, Bernard. She has a private detective's license. Her name seems to be Nora Casey. What's a private eye doing way out here? Especially all dressed up for a party."
"My car broke down," Nora said. "I was looking for a phone so I could call for a tow."
The woman put the wallet back into the purse and tossed the purse against the wall across the room. But she kept the gun. "It's more likely you saw Arch's car and decided to investigate, I suspect. Well, too bad, for you. Bernard? You help Moreland, and I'll direct this one to our little work room downstairs."
Bernard said, "Yes, Mrs. Leavenworth," and let go of Nora. He roughly hauled Moreland to his feet, causing him to moan in pain.
Motioning with her gun, Mrs. Leavenworth indicated that Nora was to go toward the back of the house and Nora didn't argue. They went back to what was probably the kitchen and Mrs. Leavenworth opened a door. There was a staircase beyond the door, leading down.
Nora went first, followed by Mrs. Leavenworth with the gun. The men followed after. Nora didn't look back, but it sounded like Bernard was half carrying Moreland and his feet were bumping the stairs.
The basement was large, about twice the size of the living room. And it was deep, deeper than the average basement. It was unfinished but the dirt floor was hard packed and there were concrete walls. It was mostly empty, but there were some crates and boxes stacked along a portion of one wall. There were four heavy wooden chairs, as well as a rough wood table, probably intended as a work bench. And in the far wall, there was a jagged hole.
Mrs. Leavenworth indicated one of the chairs and said, "Bernard, why don't you put Arch in one of those."
Roughly, Bernard shoved the beaten man into one of the chairs. He took some rope from the table, produced a knife and cut it into useful lengths. Then he tied Moreland up again. Moreland looked at Nora and said, "I never told them nothing."
When Bernard was finished, he grabbed Nora's arm and started dragging her toward another chair.
"Oh not her, not just yet" Mrs. Leven said. "She's not audience. She's entertainment."
She was lighting a cigarette.
She looked up at Nora. "That's such a lovely blue dress you're wearing, my dear. I regret that we have to ruin it. Bernard?"
Bernard came over to Nora and before she quite understood what was happening, he grabbed the top of her dress and yanked downward.
Nora heard the tearing of cloth and could feel it pulling against her, giving away as it tore free. She swore at him but he didn't seem to notice. He yanked away the few shreds of blue fabric that still clung to her, holding her left arm with his metal hand -- she realized now it was certainly no glove -- so she could neither fall nor get away. When she was standing there in her underwear, he let go of her.
Mrs. Leavenworth looked her up and down, puffing slowly on the cigarette so the end glowed redly. "You know," she said. "I barely know where to begin."
It was difficult to say exactly how Nora felt, at that moment, because she was feeling a number of things.
For one thing, fear. Mrs. Leavenworth held the cigarette up so everyone could see the bright red coal burning at its tip, and blew on it to make it brighter -- and hotter. But there were other feelings, as well; embarrassment for one, and anger. She couldn't say which was uppermost.
Mrs. Leavenworth was looking her up and down, appraisingly, paying special attention to Nora's stomach.
"Now, wait a minute," Nora said. "I don't know where whatever you're looking for is hidden."
"I know you don't. Arch is being stubborn, however. Still, he is a coward as well as sentimental, and when he sees and smells your tender young flesh going up in smoke -- to say nothing of hearing those high-pitched screams you're going to make for us, I've a feeling he'll break like a twig. Hold her tightly, Bernard."
She felt Bernard's huge hands, including the metal-covered one, clamp on her arms from behind. Mrs. Leavenworth came close, and paused not a foot away from her. Nora felt the fingers of Mrs. Leavenworth's left hand brush her abdomen softly.
Then she was moving the cigarette, lighted end first, toward Nora's lower stomach.
Suddenly the emotions all sorted themselves out and Nora knew exactly which one was uppermost.
It was anger.
Bernard gave a small, simpering laugh, like an idiot.
Nora bent her right leg, wishing she was still wearing her shoes. A high heel straight down on Bernard's arch wouldn't feel good to him, now. But it would feel so good to her.
Still, she had to make do with what she had. She hoped he wasn't as strong as he looked.
Quickly she snapped her leg up, bending it and kicking back against Bernard's knee with her heel.
He screamed like a banshee, inches from Nora's right ear, and his hands closed tightly on her arms. She thought the metal one would snap her right arm in two. Then he let go of her with his left hand and reached for his injured knee and she took the opportunity to drive her left fist into Mrs. Leavenworth's face. With an astonished scream, the older woman fell back, sprawling on the floor, and at the same time the metal grip on Nora's right arm loosened just enough that she could pull herself free. Nora darted for the stairs that led back up to the house.
A swift glance back told her Bernard was trying to help Mrs. Leavenworth up, but the woman was yelling at him to forget about her and catch Nora. Nora ran up the stairs as quickly as she could and slammed the door behind her as she exited into the kitchen.
There was no lock or latch on the basement door, but there was a doorknob and she shoved a chair under it, hoping to slow Bernard down. The back door was locked when she tried it.
She could hear Bernard on the basement steps. She turned the wrong way and found herself in an empty room. Bernard was at the door now. As he broke it down she ran through the door to a sort of hallway with stairs leading up. She ran upstairs, hoping Bernard would think she had gone into the living room to escape through the front door.
As she reached the second floor landing, she could hear Bernard slamming into things and furiously growling downstairs. She realized she might have been smarter to try for the front door, but it was too late now. She tried a door and found it locked. She ran down the hall, making too much noise, and found another door. This one opened. She slipped into the dark room and closed the door behind her as soundlessly as she could. She felt a key in the lock and locked the door more by reflex than by thought. The room was dark and stuffy and she could hear Bernard coming up the stairs, then pounding on the landing, trying doors.
Nora tried not to breathe, so scared was she that the sound might give away her hiding place. She had to think of something.
The room was small, in need of dusting and sweeping. It was unfurnished. There was a small window across from the door and as quietly as she could, she crossed over to it and gave it a try. It didn't budge. It was covered in a layer of grime that made it impossible to see through it clearly, with night falling. She checked the latch, but it was so tight she couldn't get it to move. The only way through that window was to break it and the sound would give her away.
And there was the problem also of whether or not she could get down to the ground after she broke the window.
She heard Bernard open one of the doors down the hall, then slam it after a moment. Anger was giving way to fear now, and there was no room at all for embarrassment. If she could find a way out of this room, she intended to run all the way back to Diamondville, and she didn't give a damn who saw her.
Then the doorknob rattled as Bernard tried it from the hall. The door remained shut and he stopped rattling the doorknob.
She peered out the window. It was dark now but the moon was up, though not above the tree line yet, and she could see a bit. Not much, but a bit. It didn't look good. She saw no obvious way down, and it was a long drop. A long drop in darkness.
And possibly it was her only way out of here.
Something heavy fell somewhere and the whole room seemed to jar. The heavy sound was repeated and she realized it wasn't someone falling. It was Bernard, heaving his shoulder against the door.
The door made a cracking sound but didn't seem to be giving way until the next time Bernard hit it. Then it came open, yanking its upper hinge loose in the process. She darted away from his reach but wasn't fast enough. His iron grip closed painfully on her arm. Light poured in through the doorway as he pushed her down and threw something on the floor beside her.
He'd brought rope. Probably the same rope Arch had been tied to the chair with in the library.
Nora was lying face down. Bernard yanked her arms together behind her back and was not gentle as he tied her.
As she pulled her car off the road and got out, the main thing Cathy noticed was that she couldn't see Nora anywhere.
She was not particularly surprised. But just so she could say she had done so, she called out Nora's name, thinking there would be no answer, and receiving no surprise. She began to worry. She knew damned well, even if her sister denied it, that Nora could be just as foolish and willing to take risks as she was.
It was growing dark and if she went into the woods, Cathy knew she would only get lost. Besides she wasn't dressed for the woods, and neither was Nora. Nora wouldn't have gone into the woods if she didn't have to. And maybe not then.
So that meant the dirt road they'd passed just before finding the wrecked car. She went back to it and stood there a moment looking down it, thinking of all the reasons she should stay right where she was and wait for the cops.
They were good reasons, but she decided to ignore them.
She had a flashlight, but there was still enough light to walk down the road, so she didn't turn it on. She hadn't gone far before she saw a footprint in the soft dirt by the edge of the road, made obviously by a fashionable high heel shoe. She stayed in the middle of the road, herself, where the gravel prevented very many identifiable footprints, but was grateful that Nora hadn't.
She had her gun in her purse. The gun was her other spare, from the glove compartment in the car, and the flashlight she carried was a large one that could be used as a weapon if need arose. Her taste did not run to fashionably small purses. She liked a purse that was big enough, if necessary, to carry an anvil in. This purse wasn't quite that big, and she didn't have an anvil anyway. She was beginning to think she might need one, though.
She decided against turning the flashlight on until she was a little more certain about what she might be walking into, even if it got very dark.
When the house came into sight a few dozen yards up the road she knew where Nora had gone.
It was already too dark to make out many details. The house was old, at least three stories tall, and in need of repair. It would probably look worse in daylight.
There was light in one window on the first floor, around by the side. She ignored it and went cautiously to the front door. She stood there a moment, listening, but hearing nothing.
It was silly to let her imagination run away with her, of course. If Nora were inside, all she had to do was knock on the door and ask for her. Or call.
She carefully tried the doorknob, instead.
The door wasn't locked. She opened it with as little sound as possible. After all, if you had a runaway imagination, you might as well make the best of it. Or else run away. That was her philosophy.
She stepped inside and closed the door behind her. Inside, the old house was quiet. As quiet as a graveyard.
She could see the room with the light on and went to it to investigate.
She saw a chair that was knocked over. Two or three pieces of rope were scattered on the floor around it. And when she checked more closely, she saw that blood was splattered there also.
The silence of the old house seemed more ominous.
Then the silence was broken.
Though broken might be an exaggeration. She heard something bump -- and something else slam -- in the back part of the house. She moved back into the front room where it was dark enough that she wouldn't be seen if she stayed close to the walls.
There were more sounds, like heavy walking. Someone coming down stairs, she decided. She slipped her shoes off and opened her purse. She put the shoes in it and removed her gun.
There was a hallway leading toward the back of the house. A light was turned on somewhere back there. She peered cautiously into the corridor and could see a stairway at the far end.
A man was coming down the stairs, carrying someone.
The someone was a woman, and most of her clothes were gone. She was wearing a bra, panties, garter belt and silk stockings.
Cathy thought the woman was unconscious, then she raised her head and Cathy realized she was tied up. She also realized who that woman was.
The man who carried Nora down those stairs was almost a giant. He reminded Cathy of Karloff, in the movie "Frankenstein." He had on a worn brown suit and a gray shirt. As he shifted Nora's weight in his arms, Cathy caught a glimpse of his right hand, under her knees. It glinted brightly, like metal. For a moment she thought this shabbily dressed man was wearing a handful of silver jewelry, but then she realized it wasn't what was on his hand that was glinting. It was the hand itself.
Good lord, maybe this was the Frankenstein monster. And maybe she would need that anvil she had fantasized about.
Nora squirmed in the man's arms, as if trying to break free; though what she could do tied up like that other than fall the rest of the way down the stairs was uncertain. The man grunted but didn't drop her. Cathy heard a muffled protest from Nora.
What had Nora gotten herself into this time? Cathy had been 17 when "Frankenstein" was released, and she had loved the film. Nora, a much more sophisticated 18 had turned up her nose at the thought of seeing it. Maybe she had a point.
They reached the bottom of the stairs and the man carried Nora out of sight into a corridor across from the stairs. Cathy heard him open a door.
She moved as quietly down the hall as she knew how to. When she reached the end and peered around the corner she saw a short hall leading back, evidently, to a kitchen area.
There was an open door. With his arms filled with Nora, the big man had apparently been unable to close the door behind him -- assuming he was so inclined. Cathy could hear his ponderous weight as he moved down the steps, apparently into the basement.
She peered through the door and saw him on the stairs, his back to her. Very quietly she moved through the door onto the top step.
She moved as lightly in her stocking feet as she could. The awkwardness of the weight the man was carrying, and the noise he was making as he lumbered down the steps concealed any noise she might have made; and she was certainly making as little as possible. It might be different once he reached the floor of the basement.
She was close behind him when he reached the floor. She had her gun in one hand and the heavy flashlight in the other. Heavy metal flashlights make wonderful weapons, under the right circumstances. As the man started to carry Nora across the room toward the back, Cathy came up behind him and swung the flashlight with all her might.
It cracked hard against his head and he gave one, short yelp.
Oh my god, he's going to drop Nora on this concrete floor, Cathy thought. The man was staggering in place. Cathy moved around in front of him.
His knees were buckling. He fell to his knees, still holding Nora, who seemed not to know whether to be happy or panicky. He swayed there a moment and Cathy decided the blow hadn't been enough. Reaching as high as she could, she slammed the flashlight against the side of his head, even harder than before.
His eyes rolled up and his arms dropped. Nora slid out of his grasp.
Cathy dropped her gun and rushed to catch her sister. She got her arms on her but there was no way she could stop her from falling. In fact, all three of them fell in a pile on the floor.
She lay there for a moment, trying to catch her breath while Nora made inarticulate sounds. Cathy was on the bottom of the pile but only her leg was caught. She pulled it out from under the unconscious form of the man who had been carrying Nora.
Someone said, "Hands up!"
Still on the floor, she looked around and up in astonishment, to find herself glaring into the angry features of a very small man.
A very small man who held a very large gun.