It was not easy coming to.

There was a dull ache in Cathy Case's head, a dull throbbing ache. She couldn't understand why it was there. What had happened? Then it came back to her. She'd been hit. Someone had struck her and --

And what?

Blackness. Yes. Blackness. She'd been knocked out.

She was somewhere cramped and stifling, with her eyes closed. A dull ache in her head. Stiffness in her arms and legs. It was daylight. Even through her closed eyelids she could tell it was still daylight. For that reason she didn't think she had been out for very long. It was hard to breathe.

She had to get out of here. She had to go after Peyton before he got away. Peyton was the one who hit her. She was lucky to still be alive, all things considered. Peyton was a murderer and a sadistic one at that who preferred that his victims suffered as he killed them.

She opened her eyes.

She was in an empty room of the old house. Daylight came through the grimy window. Not much daylight. From what she could see of it through the dirty pane the sky was overcast and gray, as it had been when she got here. It was probably the same day, probably no more than an hour since she had walked into Peyton's little trap.

She tried to struggle to her feet.

Something was wrong with her arms. She couldn't figure it out. They wouldn't move. She somehow managed to get her knees under her and pushed herself into a kneeling position. Somewhere, distant and faint, someone moaned. Was there someone else here?

Vertigo swept across her like a wave and for a moment she thought she was going to pass out again. She sat back on her heels and clamped her eyes shut until the vertigo passed. The ache in her head persisted and there was ringing in her ears. But the nausea went away and she didn't think she would faint.

It was stifling in the room and her breathing was heavy. Her mouth hurt. Her arms hurt. She tried to move them and couldn't.

The shock of that discovery helped clear her mind. Of course she couldn't move her arms. They were tied behind her back. The moaning she had heard wasn't someone else. It was her. Something was tied in her mouth. A cloth of some sort, probably a handkerchief had been pulled between her teeth. The fabric was pulling back the corners of her mouth, almost cutting into the flesh. She groaned, realizing how helpless she was now. Her ankles were tied also.

She strained against her bonds and managed only to lose her balance. She fell back to the floor and rolled helplessly, but not very far. Gagged as she was it was difficult to get enough air. She lay still for a moment and then struggled again. Peyton had done an excellent job of tying her and her efforts only seemed to tighten the bonds.

She lay back on the floor again, breathing heavily and noisily against the gag. Her body was shaking with the effort.

She looked down at herself, trying to assess the situation. Her clothes were torn. She remembered that Peyton had grabbed at her as she sprang for the door. He had gotten hold of her blouse and she had heard it rip. It was mostly gone. A bit more than half of it had been torn off and most of that lay in tatters on the floor nearby. She thought he had used strips of it to tie her with. A bit of the blouse still hung from her right shoulder. The left side of her skirt was torn, revealing her bound legs. Oddly, from what she could see, her stockings did not have so much as a run in them.

Her right shoe was still on her foot but the left one was off, lying against the wall, all the way across the room.

Bound and gagged, her body half exposed, and at the mercy of a total psychopath. Cathy felt a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach.

She glanced again at the window.

If she could break it perhaps she could cut the strips of cloth that secured her. But how could she break it? What could she break it with?

She struggled to a sitting position.

It was uncomfortable having one shoe on and the other off. If she found a way to stand up, she doubted she'd be able to move very far. With her shoeless left foot she worked the right shoe off.

She was wearing heels and she supposed the shoe could be useful in a fight. But right now she didn't need a weapon half as much as she needed some means of cutting herself loose. She was not surprised to discover that her purse, with its comforting gun and penknife, was nowhere to be seen.

Possibly she could tap the heel of the shoe against the floor. But would that make any more noise than she could make groaning and whimpering behind her gag? And who, other than Peyton, was there to hear it?

The shoe was certainly not heavy enough to break window glass if she threw it. Of course tied up as she was, she had no means of throwing it accurately, anyway.

She looked around for something else.

The room she was in was apparently intended as a bedroom, though it had no furniture in it. It was featureless except for the window; there wasn't even a closet. The house was on a farm that she knew had been abandoned about eight months ago. Cathy had searched it earlier. Everything had been moved out. It had no electricity. Heat was furnished by a fireplace in the front room and another in the master bedroom, plus a stove in the kitchen. All of them were off now. Water was provided by a well in the back.

Felix Peyton was suspected of having arranged the apparently accidental deaths of two women, both of whom he was married to at the time, and both of whom were heavily insured. There was evidence that under other names and in other parts of the country, he had married and murdered three other women.

Cathy was checking the local records in a small town not far from her home of Diamondville, collecting more information regarding the man. His background was uncertain, and even his real name was in question.

It was the most routine sort of detective work, utterly without risk -- most of the time.

The town's records were kept in the city hall and he had walked in while she was there. He didn't know her and being spotted by him should not have been a problem for her just then.

But Peyton was with a woman -- a prim looking, middle aged woman. While Cathy watched, they went straight for the license bureau. From their behavior Cathy didn't think they were applying for a permit to build a barn anywhere. The prim looking woman was obviously Peyton's next intended victim.

Cathy followed them discretely. She was well-trained in shadowing people. She and her sister Nora ran a small detective agency in Diamondville. In her time she had followed scores of people, and she seldom walked into traps.

Of course it didn't take many times.

Peyton and the woman went back to a small office building where they parted with a hug and a discreet kiss, little more than a peck on the lips. The woman went inside. Peyton walked across the street toward a black sedan.

It would be useful to find out who the woman was, Cathy knew, but it might be just as useful to find out where Peyton was staying. She knew it was likely the woman worked in this building. She decided she could easily come back and check her out later. Now it seemed more important to learn where Peyton might be staying and what else, if anything, he might be up to. She could then get in touch with her sister Nora and her other partner, Manning, who were following possible leads in other nearby small towns.

So she had followed him to this farm. She parked her car on the side of the road and walked back to the farm.

By the time she got there the farm seemed deserted. Was it possible he'd gone off again, already? There was no sign of him. She went up on the porch and knocked on the door. There was no answer. She knocked again and waited some more. When there was still no answer, she tried the door.

It opened. After only a moment's hesitation, Cathy went in.

She found herself in a large room with no furniture except for a single floor lamp which was turned off. Light poured in through grimy windows. She listened a moment, hearing nothing. She clutched her purse closely, feeling the reassuring outline of the small automatic she carried. She went into the back of the house and began checking various rooms.

The afternoon was preternaturally quiet. There were no sounds from outside, except an occasional bird. She decided she'd taken enough risk and needed to get away from here and inform the insurance people where to find their man. She turned around.

Felix Peyton was standing right there.

One look at the expression on his face and she knew talking to him would do no good. She tried to open her purse where she carried her gun. He lashed out, knocking it out of her grasp. The purse went flying away, smashing against the wall.

She tried to run past him but Peyton's hand closed on the front of her blouse. She felt the blouse tear, heard a ripping sound and then, astonishingly, was free of it. She started toward the front door but before she had gone two steps, Peyton tackled her. She fell to the floor, his weight on top of her. Panic welled up in her and she fought for self control, trying to turn around to face him and make the fight more even. But with his weight and power, no fight between them would ever be even.

He yanked her around. She was on her back, his weight pinning her to the floor. Before she could do anything, he hit her.

She saw stars. She saw blackness.

The blackness welled up from somewhere inside her and wrapped her like a blanket. She passed out.

And now, here she was, helpless in an empty room of an abandoned house, miles from where anyone might think to look for her.

She heard footsteps coming toward the door. It opened and Peyton entered. He left the door open while he stood, looking down at her.

"I see you're awake now, Cathy."

She just looked up at him, making no effort to reply. There was no point to replying, even if she could.

He bent down beside her. His gaze traveled up and down her body. He touched her stomach, bare where her blouse had been torn away. His expression was appreciative.

"I found your detective's license in your purse, but you've already guessed that, haven't you? You're a detective, after all. You're Cathy Case of the Case Detective Agency in Diamondville. You weren't looking for me, were you? From some of the papers I found in your purse, I'm afraid I think you were."

She hoped the sound she made in reply conveyed more anger than fear.

He ran the back of one hand along her leg. "You're very lovely, Cathy. You have very beautiful legs. Very smooth they are, too. I'm sure the rest of you is just as lovely. And just as smooth." He sighed.

"Too bad. This means I won't be able to carry out my current plan. But it doesn't matter. There are other places, other women to insure. I'm just sorry I don't have a policy on you."

He bent down, scooped her up in his arms.

"I'm afraid your insurance policy is about to pay off, whoever the beneficiary is."

Cathy began struggling and for a moment it looked as if Peyton would lose his balance. But he maintained it. He gripped her slender body more tightly and carried her toward the back of the house. The back door was already open.

He walked across the porch, then down the steps to the yard and stopped. "I think it might rain, my dear. It smells like a storm. Thunder and lightning. Appropriate for a murder, don't you think?"

He carried her to the well and sat her on the edge, her feet dangling over the wall and inside. She could see light glistening on the water below.

Now she realized what he had in store for her and she made a sound behind her gag and didn't worry whether or not it revealed her fear. She squirmed in his grasp but he held her firmly so that she could neither get away nor fall into the well just yet.

"It's not a far drop to the water," he said. "No more than five feet, I think. I've no way of knowing how deep the water is, but I don't think you'll break any bones falling in. Drowning or pneumonia are more likely deaths. I recommend drowning -- it's quicker."

One hand moved around her naked stomach, then up to her breasts. "I regret I don't have more time to spend with you, but if I take that time, you might figure out a way to escape me. We can't have that, can we?" He sighed. "I'm certain you'll be dead by the time I leave tomorrow morning, and that's the best way for it to be."

He placed his hands under her arms and lifted her up off the rim of the well. For a moment she dangled there, above the water.

Then he let go of her and she dropped.

2

It was like falling into night.

The darkness of the well-shaft seemed to swallow her but almost as quickly she hit the water with a great splash. She closed her eyes tightly; she closed her mouth around the gag to keep out as much water as possible. She was under the water now. Her feet touched the bottom of the well and she kicked herself to the surface.

Her wet hair streamed down her back and covered her face with loose strands. Water poured out of her mouth, which she was unable to completely close because of the gag. She strangled as some of the water went down her throat. A paroxysm of coughing wracked her body but somehow she managed to stay afloat and the coughing stopped.

She was floating. She moaned. She shook her head to get as much of her hair out of her face as she could. It was hard to keep afloat with her ankles tied together. She felt a wave of panic but she fought it down by sheer will power. This bastard is not going to win, she told herself. I won't give in, I won't!

It was easy to tell herself that. But as the wet and cold began to seep into her flesh and bones, it became harder to believe.

There was one good thing: she had not banged against the stone wall of the well as she had dropped, despite how narrow it was. But she had banged against it when she came up, and the back of her bare left shoulder smarted with an abrasion. She was panting heavily and the handkerchief in her mouth was soaked. It seemed tighter already. She clenched her teeth and felt water wrung from the gag, dribbling down her chin. She felt a sudden terror that the gag would absorb so much well water that it would eventually drown her.

Then the cold and wet and shock of it just welled up in her, and with it the fear and terror -- and above all else, the anger. That son of a bitch couldn't do this to her; not and get away with it. She was Cathy Case, and she'd faced smarter and shrewder opponents than this sadistic fool. She was damned if he was going to win in the long run. Not if she had anything to say about it.

Then her fury ran its course and she was bobbing up and down in the dark water and wondering just how much she might have to say about it.

She was getting to know the bindings that held her now. Old acquaintances, too old in fact.

She tested them again and they responded by seeming tighter than ever, despite the water that soaked them through. She was shivering now, partly from reaction to the cold, partly from the agony of her terror.

There were two things she definitely did not want to happen. She did not want to die. She did not want Felix Peyton to get away.

Only it looked to her right now that both of them were inevitable.

Alone, floating in water deep enough to cover her head, bound, nearly naked, shaking with physical reaction and overwhelming fear, unable even to call for help while she still had the strength to make sounds, she heard her heart beat loudly in her chest. Its beating was like the ticking of a clock. She heard herself give a sob, the first truly clear sound she had made since she had awakened to find that gag tied between her teeth. Her feeling of utter helplessness was overwhelming.

And then her head slipped under the surface and water filled her nose and mouth and the shock woke her out of her terror. Now her anger was released again, and fully so. She cried out as loudly as she could, not a scream for help but a muffled challenge, a war cry. She bent almost double in the water and tried to get her hands under her feet and bring them in front of her.

Her effort was clumsy and sent her to the bottom of the well. She started to swallow water. Desperately she kicked herself to the surface and held her breath long enough for the water to drain away from her mouth and nose and face. She realized now how exhausted she was. Her arms and legs were aching. So was her back, and not just from the scrape on her shoulder. She gulped as much air as she could but did not dive again, not yet.

Not yet.

Was this how she was going to die?

She kicked her feet gently to keep herself afloat a few minutes while she tried to regain as much of her courage and strength as possible. She breathed as regularly as she could, taking in as much air as possible considering the way the gag was crammed into her mouth. She fought down the inner demons that threatened to overwhelm her, and made herself calm.

There was no way she was going to let that bastard kill her like this. There was no way in hell she would let herself die like this. Not until her hands were around his throat.

She made an angry noise behind her gag and almost sank again before she caught herself.

She was still and quiet for a moment until her equilibrium was regained. Then she lifted her bound legs and pressed her bare feet against the far side of well, her back against the other side.

The wall was rough and the rocks bruised her feet and shoulders but she could brace herself like this, at least for a while. But with her ankles bound together there was no way she could climb.

Yet she could hold herself relatively still, and that gave her a chance. Her hands began feeling the rocks behind her.

They were smooth and rounded with no sharp edges to work her bindings against.

Were all the rocks that smooth? If they were, then she was certainly going to die here.

She began slowly and tediously to work her way around the inside of the well, feeling the stones that lined it. Hoping that one of them had a sharp edge or corner that wouldn't crumble away when she tried cutting her bonds.

When she found it she almost sliced her finger open.

The excitement of finding it was almost as bad as panic. She bobbed in the water and almost lost her place. She forced herself to be calm and pressed against the well's inner wall until she felt the rock again.

There it was. There it was. Hope rose up inside her.

She braced herself by pushing her feet against the far wall and tried working the strip of fabric around her wrists against the corner of the rock.

She could feel the fabric scrape as she worked her arms back and forth. Whether it was being cut or just yielding, she couldn't tell. This wasn't much of a chance, after all. Just all she had.

Already her arms were aching with fatigue. Despite the way she had herself wedged across the well, there was nothing under her but water and she bobbed in it like a fishing lure. She felt more like the worm on the hook, and in the darkness she could imagine a large fish about to swallow her up.

She began to realize how hopeless all this was. How could anyone cut through wet bindings with rocks like these?

She was panting and her efforts to breathe sounded like sobs to her own ears. She began to believe this just couldn't work.

After a while, she began to know this just couldn't work. It was just too fantastic to work.

Then something gave and the tightness around her wrists lessened.

Breathing heavily, she braced herself with her shoulders and feet against the inside wall of the well. She was shaking from the effort. Slowly, carefully, she worked the cloth off her wrists. It came away and she let it drop to the bottom of the well.

Her wrists stung from the abrasions. She lifted her arms out of the water and held them that way a moment while the water dripped off and the pain became duller.

There was probably blood dripping off them as well but she couldn't tell that in the darkness. The important thing was that her hands were free.

She tried to reach her ankles, but found that she had to let herself float in the water to do so. The binding around her ankles was tight, the knot that bound it not only tight but wet, as well.

She had broken the nail on her right index finger and had to pick at the knot with her thumb and middle finger. The knot was adamant.

But so was she.

She was free now, whether or not her feet were still bound. She was free now, whether or not she could climb out of the well. Everything now was just technicalities.

Nothing could stop her now, but her own eagerness and carelessness.

She slipped and did a somersault in the water and found herself sinking head first.

3

Panic engulfed her and she thrashed with her arms and legs. She swallowed water. She wanted to scream. Nothing would make her feel better than a good, loud scream.

A scream could also kill her, if it were heard by the wrong person.

She fought down her panic, twisted around in the water, toward the light overhead and kicked upward.

The gag was stifling her but there was no time to worry with it now. He arms reached for the light and then her head was out of the water. She looked up. It was still daylight though she knew it should be late afternoon by now -- very late afternoon.

She examined the inside of the well, the wall she would have to climb.

She could see places -- handholds and footholds. If she was careful, she thought she could climb out of here. If she hurried. She didn't think she could climb out of here in the dark, and she didn't think she could stay afloat here all night.

She needed air, precious air.

She reached behind her head and fumbled at the knot of the gag.

Like her other bindings, it was wet and pulled tight, too tight to pull out of her mouth without loosening the knot. But she fumbled with it and persisted and gradually, she soon realized, it was coming loose.

When it was loose enough, she tried to spit it out but couldn't. She shoved her tongue against it, wriggling her jaw at the same time, and managed to push it out that way. It hung like a scarf around her neck but her mouth was unobstructed now and she could suck air into her lungs. She ached all over now and was more tired than she remembered ever being before.

But this was not the place for sleep.

She floated a moment to regain what strength she could, then reached down again and fumbled at the knot that bound her ankles.

The knot was still tight, still wet, and especially stubborn, but she picked at it and fought with it. Gradually it began to loosen. Not enough to slip off her ankles, yet, but some.

Not quite so gradually, her exhaustion increased.

Then finally the strip of cloth fell away from her ankles and she could move her feet separately in the water. The pain in her legs was intense. But she was free.

Free at the bottom of a well.

She wondered if Peyton was still up there, waiting to see if she might climb up out of the well?

Waiting to kill her if she did so.

4

She worked her jaw, trying to restore feeling. How much of the numbness was from the handkerchief that had been tied there and how much from the cold, she couldn't say.

The afternoon light was fading. She remembered that she had thought the wall of the well afforded many good hand- and footholds. Now she was not so sure.

It wasn't as if she had any choice, was it?

She spotted a likely handhold just at the limit of her reach and pushed herself up out of the water as far as she could. Her fingers barely grasped the lower edge but the water rocked with her and lifted her just enough to catch a better hold. Her foot found hold between two rocks just under the surface of the water and she pulled herself up. She saw another likely handhold and caught it and hung there, almost out of the water.

She levered herself up and saw another open place between rocks and reached for it --

Her hand reached the edge of the wall almost before she realized she had climbed high enough.

She pulled herself up to the rim of the well and over it. For a moment she just hung there like a discarded rag doll. She was cold and she hurt, and she was almost naked. The bits of her blouse had slid off her arm. Her skirt was just a tattered rag around her hips. Her stockings were ripped, barely supported by her garter belt. There were bruises on her back and arms and legs.

She was a long, long way from anyone who could offer her any help. Whatever she did next, she was entirely on her own.

But she'd been on her own at the bottom of that well. She'd thought she was going to die, yet here she was -- well, not quite dead yet. All she had to do was keep it that way.

Was Peyton still here, or had he run?

There was one way to find out.

She climbed over the wall.

For the first time in what seemed days -- though it was only a couple of hours -- she felt solid ground beneath her feet. She breathed air that wasn't close and stagnant.

She had the opportunity she had prayed for.

Now all she needed was a weapon.

Weapons, she knew, were always there. In the gathering darkness she found a rock that was about the size to fill her hand. There was another rock, larger, near the back door of the house.

She had her weapons. Now what she needed was a plan.

She needed a place to hide, too.

Looking around, she rejected the well. She knew Peyton would go straight to the well if he thought she was loose.

It was her day for climbing. She'd just climbed out of the well. The back of the house was a walled-in porch. She climbed up a rainspout on the corner of the porch and moved as quietly as she could to the other corner.

She took careful aim and hurled the rock through a window.

It made a satisfyingly loud crash. She moved back to the center of the porch, just above the back door and waited. It was always possible that Peyton was gone. But if he were still here --

The door below where she waited, flew open and Peyton, gun in hand, dashed out.

She launched herself off the roof feet first, directly above him. Her feet slammed into the back of his head and they went down together.

The gun flew out of his hand.

She landed on top of him and he gave a whoosh as the air was squeezed out of his lungs. Cathy found the rock right next to them, lifted it up and slammed it into Peyton's head.

He yelled loudly and went down again. She held the rock ready to slam into him again but he lay there, not moving.

She threw the rock aside and picked up the gun. He still wasn't moving.

She watched him a moment then went inside.

There was food in the kitchen. She noted it but there was no time to eat right now. She found a laundry bag full of clothes and selected a blue shirt and tan trousers. They were large on her but she put them on. There was no belt, but there was a bathrobe and she used the sash to hold up the trousers.

She went back outside.

Peyton wasn't lying where she had left him.

She heard a noise off to her left and whirled, bringing up the gun. Peyton ran at her, screaming like a banshee. Blood streamed down his forehead but he wasn't trying to wipe it away. He held the rock in his hands and it was raised above his head, to strike her.

Without any conscious thought, she raised the gun and fired it twice.

Both slugs slammed into Peyton's chest producing widening red smears. He staggered to a stop and just stared at her, a look of total surprise on his face. She wondered if she should shoot him again.

Then his legs crumpled under him, the rock fell out of his hands and he fell face down on the ground. She watched him a few moments but he didn't move.

Cautiously, she checked him to make sure he was dead. Then she went back inside and fixed herself a meal.

It was a long walk to the nearest telephone, and she would need her strength.

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