“THERE IT IS,” Murch said. “This time I’m positive.”
“The last time you were positive,” Kelp said, “I almost got bit by a dog.”
The three men peered squinting out the windshield, through the streaming sheets of rain at the structure vaguely showing in the headlights. This was the fourth dirt road they’d taken since the simultaneous arrival of darkness and rain, and tempers in the car were generally frayed. Jimmy had gone to sleep, with his head propped against May’s arm, but everybody else was wide awake and jittery. Twice on other dirt roads they’d become stuck in the mud, and Kelp and Dortmunder had had to get out and push. Once, when they’d found a house that had looked right to Murch, they’d discovered just after Kelp got out of the car that it was the wrong house, occupied by several human beings and at least one big German shepherd.
“Right house or wrong house,” Dortmunder said, “just don’t get us stuck again.”
“I’m doing my best,” Murch said. “Besides, that’s definitely the right house.”
“I’m your mother, Stan,” Murch’s Mom said, “and I’ll tell you right now, if you’re wrong again, don’t ever stand in front of my cab.”
Murch, leaning forward over the steering wheel, scrinching his face up as he tried to see, kept the gearshift in low and his foot gently on the accelerator. They thumped and jounced slowly through the potholes, and the structure out front gradually became more and more visible. A house, weathered clapboard, with an open front porch. Boarded-up windows. No lights anywhere.
“It is the right house!” Murch cried. “By golly, it really is!”
“How come you sound surprised?” Dortmunder asked him, but Murch’s Mom was leaning forward, her head between Dortmunder and her son, and she said, “Stan, you’re right. That’s the place, it definitely is.”
“By golly,” Murch said. “By golly.”
The dirt road made a sweep around the front of the house, then petered away into the woods to the right. Murch jounced them as close to the stoop as he could, then stopped the ear and said, “We made it.”
“Leave the headlights on,” Dortmunder told him.
In the back seat, the stopping of the car had awakened Jimmy. Sitting up, trying to rub his eyes and discovering he had some sort of rubber thing over his bead, he said, “Hey!”
“Take it easy, Jimmy,” May said, patting him soothingly on the arm. “Everything’s all right.”
In darkness, his head covered by something that both felt and smelled unpleasant, surrounded by strangers whose voices he didn’t recognize, Jimmy felt a swift moment of panic. Reality and dream swam together in his mind, and he had no idea where he was or what was happening or what was real.
But after a person has been in analysis for nearly four years, it becomes second nature to automatically study and dissect all dreams and dream fragments. With his mind busily seeking the symbolic content of darkness, rubber masks, and strange voices, he couldn’t completely lose control, or remain panic-stricken for very long. “Oh,” he said, sighing with relief, “it’s just the kidnappers.”
“That’s right,” May said. “Nothing to worry about.”
“I was really scared for a second there,” he said.
“We’re going to get out of the car now,” May told him. “It’s raining, and we have some stairs to go up, so hold my hand.”
They transferred themselves from car to house, getting drenched in the process, and Murch, coming last, switched off the headlights before going up into the house.
It had apparently been several years since anybody had lived here. Except for a nonworking gas stove in the kitchen, a framed newspaper photograph of moon-walking astronauts on the wall in the living room, and a badly stained mattress in one of the bedrooms upstairs, the place had been completely empty when Murch and his Mom had found it. Since then, they’d driven out three carloads of furnishings, and Murch had discovered that the toilet upstairs would work if the tank was filled with buckets full of water from the hand-pump well in the back yard. “The only thing is,” he’d told the others earlier, “you don’t flush for everything.”
May and Murch’s Mom led Jimmy directly upstairs, lighting their way with two of the flashlights Murch had brought out on one of his earlier trips. The bedroom they’d chosen didn’t have bars over the windows, like the room in Child Heist, but it did have boards nailed over the windows, which was just as good. And it had a solid door that could be locked with a key from the outside.
May had carried her mask up with her, and Murch’s Mom had borrowed her son’s; they put them both on now, before taking Jimmy’s mask off. May said, “This is where you’re going to live for the next day or two. Until we get the money from your father.”
Jimmy looked around. Vaguely in the beams of the two flashlights he could see the cot with pajamas laid out on it, and the folding chair piled with half a dozen comic books. The two windows were both covered with boards on the outside. “It’s cold in here,” he said.
“There’s lots of blankets on the bed,” May told him. “And I’ll bring you up some hot dinner pretty soon.”
The two women started to leave, and Jimmy said, “May I keep one of the flashlights? So I can read the comic books.”
“Sure,” May said, and gave him hers. Then she and Murch’s Mom went out to the hail and took their masks off again. They locked the door, left the key in the lock, and went downstairs.
Murch had lit the three kerosene lanterns he’d stashed here, and the living room looked almost livable. Wet clothing now hung from the nails and hooks left in the walls. Kelp was sitting at the card table in his undershirt, playing solitaire, and Dortmunder was wringing out his shirt. The smell of wet cloth mixed with the odor of kerosene smoke; combined with the boarded up windows and the exaggerated shadows on the walls and the darkness beyond the interior doorways, it was more like being in a cave underground than in a house.
Dortmunder said, “The kid okay?”
Murch’s Mom said, “He’s in better shape than we are.”
“I’ll get us something to eat,” May said, and went over to the stone fireplace in the corner of the room. Murch had brought out charcoal and a hibachi, two large cans to boil water in, and some field rations nicknamed Lurps; officially Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol Rations, they were dry rations in plastic bags, which converted into casseroles like beef-and-rice or pork-and-beans when hot water was added. There were also instant coffee, cream, and plastic cups and dishes.
Dortmunder said to Murch, “You drive your mother to a phone booth now. You can find one, can’t you?”
Murch was astonished. “Go out now? In that rain?”
May, her hands full of Lurps, said, “You’ve got to let the boy’s father know he’s all right.”
“Sure,” Dortmunder said. “There’s also the little matter of the ransom.” To Murch’s Mom he said, “You know what to say?”
“Why not?” She patted her jacket pocket. “I’ll just read it to him out of the book.”
“The book,” Dortmunder said sourly. “Yeah, that’s fine.”
“And when you come back,” May said, “I’ll have some nice warm dinner for you.”
“Hah!” shouted Kelp, and slapped a card down on the table with such force that everybody jumped and stared at him. “I got it out!” he said, and gave everybody a happy smile. At their frowning expressions, he explained, “That doesn’t happen very much.”
“It better not,” Dortmunder said.