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18

AFTER DINNER, Jimmy went back to work. The fact that the boards were nailed to the outside of the window frames rather than the inside made his task a bit more difficult, but not impossible. He had removed one board before the cooking woman had brought him his dinnerhow unearthly an adult wearing a Mickey Mouse mask could look in just the glow of a flashlightand now he was removing more. They were fairly narrow boards, and he thought it likely hed have to deal with four of them before making a space wide enough to climb out through.

His method was simple, but time-consuming. With the screwdriver, he would pry the board a bit loose, then oil the nails as he worked to keep them from squeaking. A bit at a time, prying and oiling, prying and oiling, he would loosen the board from the window frame. The final fraction was always the trickiest, since he didnt want the board to fall out onto the ground below; managing to avoid that, he would bring the board inside, then use the pliers to snap each nail off short. After oiling the nails once more, he would put the board back in place, the stubby nails slipping a short distance into their former seats in the window frame. The boards looked the same as before, but would pop out at the touch of a finger.

It was that last part that took the extra time. The job would have been much quicker and simpler if all he had to do was bash the boards out and depart. But in the first place he never knew when they might decide to come back up and double-check on him, and in the second place he wanted to leave them with a certain amount of misdirection and confusion. Therefore he took the extra time to do the job right, and considered it time well spent.

Outside, in those intervals when he had a board out of the window space, he could hear the rain continuing to pound. This room faced the back of the house, and there was no light outside at all, nothing but pitch blackness and the sound of pelting rain.

Some water did splash in from time to time, but not enough to give him away. A worse problem was the cold; a chill wet wind blew in whenever he had a board off the window, and his jacket just wasnt warm enough for weather like this. When hed put it on this morning, the worst climate hed expected to be exposed to was the air-conditioning in Dr. Schraubenziehers office.

Well, one did have to expect to rough it from time to time in this life. With which thought Jimmy snapped the last nail that needed to be snapped, picked up the oilcan, oiled the nails in this fourth board, and carefully reinserted the board into the window, thus not only restoring the original appearance of the room, but also eliminating again that whistling wind.

What next? The tools and oilcan went into the toolbox, and the toolbox went into the space beneath the floorboard he had previously loosened. Flashing the light around the room, he reassured himself he wasnt leaving any unnecessary clues in his wake, and then turned to the rope.

It was quite long, but maybe not as thick or as strong as he would have liked it. Still, it would have to do, and once it was doubled it surely would do. Fine. So now there was nothing to do but depart.

So why did he hesitate? Why did be glance ruefully toward that small cot with its inadequate blankets?

Childishness, he told himself. Babyishness and weakness. And not to be given in to.

Taking a deep breath, squaring his shoulders, he hesitated just a second longer, then abruptly began to move, and from then on continued to move steadily and smoothly, doing everything just as he had planned it.

First, all four boards were taken out, and stacked next to the window. Next, one end of the rope was slipped through between the still-attached fifth and sixth boards, in a tiny space showing down by the windowsill. That end of the rope was played through and around the outside of the fifth board and back into the room, until the center of the rope rested on the windowsill, against the bottom of the fifth board, inside the room. Dirt smudged on that length of rope made it virtually invisible.

Now. The two lengths of rope were allowed to hang down along the outer wall of the house. Jimmy, leaning out, feeling now the force of the wind and rain on his bead, grasped the two lengths, brought a part of it back into the room, and tied a loop in it that would hang about three feet below the window. Then he dropped it outside again.

The rest would have to be done in darkness. Switching off the flashlight, Jimmy put it in his jacket pocket and felt his way to the window. Climbing carefully over the sill, he grasped the rope, pulled it up till he felt the loop, and put the loop like a stirrup over his right foot. Then he lowered himself slowly out the window until he was standing on the loop of rope, his forearms resting on the windowsill.

Now for the tricky part. Reaching inside, he took the first board, which he knew belonged in position number four, and working by feel he slipped it back into place. Then three, and then two. Number one was the most difficult, since he had such a narrow space to bring the board out through, and he almost gave the whole thing up as an over-elaboration, but at last he did get the thing out and in place, and felt better for having done it.

The idea was, whenever the gang next decided to check on him the room would appear to be unchanged. They would have to believe that hed managed to turn the key in the lock from inside, and that while he was no longer in the room he must still be somewhere in the house. So they would confine their search, at least for a while, to the interior of the house, thus giving him longer to get away.

And if worse came to worst, if they did catch him again, he would say that hed turned the key with his ballpoint pen insert, had locked the door again behind himself, and had snuck downstairs, going out the front door while they were all searching elsewhere. If they swallowed that and put him back in the same roomwhich they probably would, since they didnt have any other room prepared for himhe could simply take the boards down again and escape all over.

So. Having been as clever as possible in his departure, Jimmy now rappelled down the side of the house, permitting the back of his jacket to take most of the stress and most of the friction of the rope passing through, and all at once he found himself standing in mud, on the ground, outside the house.

Escape; hed done it.

Now all that was left was to walk to the highway, hail a passing car, and inform the police. This gang would be rounded up, probably in less than an hour, and by midnight Jimmy would be safely at home and asleep in his own bed.

He almost felt sorry for the kidnappers. But they

couldnt say they hadnt asked for it.

For the first leg of the journey he wouldnt be able to use the flashlight, and it really was dark out here. Also wet. Also cold. Already drenched to the skin, Jimmy reached out in front of himself, patted the weathered boards of the house, and then moved off to his right, keeping his left hand constantly in touch with the house.

Traveling that way, he walked around the house to the front, and there at last he did see some light; flickering yellowish light showing through chinks in the boarded-up living room windows. So, if he turned his back on those lights, the farm road should lead directly away in front of him. Turning that way, looking over his shoulder to be sure he was facing exactly away from the light, he made off cautiously into the rain-drenched darkness.

The first two times he looked over his shoulder those faint lines of light were still there, but the third time they were gone. Ten more steps, he whispered to himself, and made ten slow slithering steps through the mud before hesitantly switching on the flashlight, keeping his fingers dosed over most of the glass so not too much light would come out.

He was in a field. At one time under cultivation, it had apparently come recently into a state of semi abandonment. That is, no crop was grown here, but it seemed as though someone was keeping the rougher vegetation cut back, and any case, it wasnt a road.

To the left? Jimmy flashed the light that way, and couldnt see any road.

To the right? No.

Okay. So hed have to do it differently; go back to the house and start all over, with quick on-oils of the flashlight right from the beginning, so he wouldnt get lost. Flashlight off, he turned around and headed back the way hed come.

No house. After a while he became pretty sure he should have reached the house, and there just wasnt any house. No thin lines of yellow light at all, not a one.

Oh, the hell with this darkness! Switching on the flashlight, not putting any fingers over the glass at all, he aimed the beam all around himself, and didnt see a damn thing.

Where was the house? Where was the road?

It was getting cold out here. The rain didnt help and the wind didnt help, and even without them it would have been cold. With them, it was becoming almost terrifying.

Well, he couldnt just stand here. If he didnt get to someplace pretty soon, hed be in big trouble. He could die of exposure out here, and wouldnt that be a dumb thing to do!

Apparently hed come farther from the house than hed thought. It had to be out in front of him, invisible in the pounding rain. So the thing to do was keep moving forward.

He moved forward. His shoes were becoming heavy with mud, and after a while it became easier to just drag his feet through the puddles rather than try to lift them.

Heavy. Cold. Hard to see in this light. And now the flashlight was starting to dim.

A road.

He didnt believe it. He almost walked across it and off the other side, except that his sliding foot got caught briefly in one of the ruts. He looked down to see what the problem was, saw the parallel lines going from left to right, and shone the dimming light off to his right. A definite road, a farm road, two deep ruts with a grassy lane in the center.

Which way? He had to have overshot the house somehow, so it would be off to the left there. The highway would be to the right, so thats the direction he took.

It was easier walking now, on the high grassy mound between the ruts. He made good time, all things considered, and he just didnt believe it when he saw those yellow lines of light out in the darkness ahead of himself and to the right, just outside the yellow cone from the flashlight.

The house.

He could see the way it went now. The road didnt go directly to the house, it came in from an angle and swept across in front of it. His ideas of his location and direction had been wrong at every single stage of the journey.

So the highway was back the other way. Jimmy turned and shone his feeble light down the road hed just come along. He looked back over his shoulder at the house.

He sighed.


| Jimmy the Kid | c