AT QUARTER to two in the morning Jimmy used the tweezers to unlock his door again, and went downstairs. A few embers glowed in the fireplace, and one of the kerosene lamps was still lit, standing on the card table like a beacon calling ships in from sea. They’d watched The Thing tonight (direction credited to Christian Nyby but more probably the work of producer Howard Hawks, with a screenplay by Charles Lederer, based on Who Goes There? a short story by John W. Campbell, Jr.) and after. ward the lady called Mom had insisted that a light be left on. “Otherwise,” she’d said, “I won’t sleep.”
She was asleep, and so was the lady called May, both floating peacefully on their air mattresses under mounds of blankets. The three men, called John and Andy and Stan, were presumably asleep in the next room, from which no light at all shone. (They’d been careful, he’d noticed, not to use their last names around him, but they’d been free about using first names, so they were probably all aliases. That’s the way professional criminals like these operated; he’d been impressed by their constant references to some previously worked-out master plan, or “book,” that they were following through this crime.)
It took less than ten minutes to do what he had to do in the living room, and then he moved swiftly and silently back upstairs, pausing at the top for one last glance down at the sleeping figures in the soft light; they weren’t such
bad people, really. Probably given psychological scars in their childhoods, and not born into an economic level where treatment could be given at an early age. Understanding, as Dr. Schraubenzieher was fond of pointing out, is the key to nothing except further understanding, but in the last analysis what else is there? All of life is either ignorance or knowledge, there’s no third possibility.
Back in the room, he dressed himself as warmly as possible and then once more removed the boards from the window. With his Air France bag over his shoulder, out the window he went, replaced the boards as before, and made his way down the rope.
He had no flashlight with him this time, but on the other hand there was neither wind nor rain to struggle against, and a flashlight could lead to his being discovered before he was ready. The clouded sky made the night almost as dark as last time, but now he had traveled the dirt road un. masked and in daylight, when he’d been taken out to call his father, and he was sure he could find the road in the dark and, once having found it, stay on it by the sense of touch.
This time he went around the house the opposite way, passing the new car Stan and Andy had stolen to replace the Caprice, this one being a Ford Country Squire station wagon. Jimmy squeezed by it, got to the front of the house, found the dirt road by scuffing his feet, and turned right. Though he couldn’t see a thing he strode confidently forward, knowing exactly where the road went.
And stopped dead when he heard the cough. John? Stan? Andy? The women? Had there been any bodies under those mounds of blankets?
No, wait, that’s just irrational fear. There’s no reason for any member of the gang to come out here and hide in the middle of the night, no reason at all.
Therefore, this must be somebody else.
Even as he was thinking that, someone yawned, very near, on the right. A scratching sound followed, as of someone scratching himself through clothing, and then a voice Jimmy had never heard before said, “God damn, this is boring.” The volume level was lower than normal, but it was by no means a whisper.
A second voice, speaking more softly than the first, said, “We’ll move in soon. As soon as those lights go out.”
Turning, Jimmy could see the lines of light at the boarded-up windows. The kerosene lamp seemed much brighter when seen this way.
The first voice, idly complaining, said, “I don’t see why we don’t go in now and get it over with.”
“We don’t want anything to happen to the boy,” the second voice told him. “We’ll wait till they’re asleep.”
“What if they stay up all night?”
“We’ll have to go in before dawn, no matter what.”
“I still say,” the first voice said, “the easiest thing is let them go tomorrow, follow them with the radio trucks, and pick them up after they let off the kid.”
“Too much could go wrong,” the second voice said. “They could split up. They could get spooked and kill the kid. And they could still get rid of that suitcase, maybe split the money here and leave it behind. No, Bradford knows what he’s doing.”
“And I know what I’m doing,” the first voice said. “I’m getting goddam bored, that’s what I’m doing. Why don’t I go peek through the boards again, see if they’re still watching television?”
“Just wait here like we were told,” the second voice said. “It won’t be long now.”
At that point, Jimmy turned and headed back for the house, moving as carefully and as silently as he knew how. The two men continued to talk behind him, but he didn’t listen any more; he already knew enough. Bradford was the’ name of the FBI man Mom had talked to on the phone. And there must be some sort of radio transmitter in the suitcase containing the ransom. And now the house was surrounded.
Or was it? These people had apparently done a very solid surveillance on the house, including creeping up on the porch and looking through the window at them watching television. So they must know that the house was completely boarded up, all windows and doors, except the main entrance in front. Isn’t that where they would concentrate their forces? In back, where pastureland led to woods, they would have few people or no people at all.
So that’s the way they’d have to get out. Thinking it over, Jimmy hurried silently toward the house. He didn’t want the gang to get caught, so he’d better warn them pretty fast. Mostly his concern had an ulterior motive—if they were caught it would louse up his own plans—but he also had a kind of reluctant liking for the different members of the gang and didn’t want them to get in any trouble. So he hurried.
This time, when he scaled up the rope, he left the boards out of the window. Unlocking the door, hurrying downstairs, he went straight to the suitcase. A transmitter; hmmmmm.
Found it. It looked like a tadpole, a round piece of metal shaped like a nickel, with a tail of wire trailing away from it…A part of the suitcase lining had been pulled out, the transmitter placed behind it, and the lining glued down over it again. An unsuspicious person wouldn’t notice it, but a lump like that would never have gotten through Customs. Jimmy was surprised nobody in the gang had noticed it.
Holding the transmitter in his hand, he considered his next move. Destroy it? No, they might still have their receivers on, and if the transmitter stopped sending they’d surely attack the house at once. There were still a few shards of shelf stacked up next to the fireplace; he stuffed the thing in among them. Go ahead and transmit now.
How much time did he have9 No telling; he hurried across the room to the nearest mound and shook it, whispering, “Wake up! Wake up!”
It was May. She partly sat up, blinking, bewildered, then astonished at seeing Jimmy. “What are you doing down here?”
Still whispering, Jimmy said, “There’s police outside!”
“What!” May sat upright, shedding blankets, showing she’d gone to sleep in her clothing.
“They’re waiting for this light to go out, then they’ll move in.”
May was waking up fast. Grasping Jimmy’s arm she said, “Are you sure?”
“I went outside. I heard them talking.”
“You went outside?”
“I was going to escape,” Jimmy said. “Just to prove a point, I guess. But I heard them, and I came back.”
Mom was now sitting up, nearby, and she said, “What’s going on?”
May told her, “Jimmy says there’s police outside.”
“I have a way out,” Jimmy told them. “But we have to hurry.”
“Yes,” May said, suddenly in motion, pulling her shoes on. “Yes yes.”
The next five minutes were a frantic scramble. Jimmy had to explain over and over that he’d started to escape, that he’d heard the voices, and that he’d come back to warn the gang. He told them about the kerosene lamp delaying the onslaught, but he didn’t mention anything about the transmitter.
May and Mom and Stan and Andy all believed him at once. John was skeptical, for no good reason. “Why’d he come back?” he kept asking everybody. “Why’d he come back and tell us? Makes no sense.”
“You’ve been fair to me,” Jimmy said. “I wanted to be fair to you.” He didn’t say anything about his own plans for later.
They all wanted to know what his escape route was, but all he’d say was, “Upstairs. And we’d better hurry.”
Finally they were all ready to go. The kerosene lamp was left burning, and they all trooped after Jimmy up the stairs. Andy carried the suitcase, Stan carried the portable TV, Mom carried the hibachi, and John carried the flashlight. When Jimmy led the way into his room, John said, “Some day I got to find out how he does that.”
Jimmy picked up the Air France bag. “I packed when I was going to escape,” he said. “Can I keep it all?”
“Sure,” May told him.
“Thanks.” To John he said, “We’ll have to turn the flashlight off now.”
John switched off the flashlight. “I just want to know what we’re doing,” he said.
Jimmy briefly explained what he had done here, and was greeted with a kind of awed silence. Then he said, “We’ll have to go out one at a time. I don’t think the rope would be strong enough for more than that.”
Andy went first, with the suitcase. Then Stan’s Mom went, having trouble squeezing through the space, with her son shoving and holding and helping the best he can. “I can’t bring the hibachi,” she whispered. “I need both hands on the rope.”
“I’ll bring the damn hibachi,” John told her.
Stan helped his mother for the first part down the rope and Andy down below helped her for the last part. Then May went down, and after her, Stan. John said, “You next.”
“No, I’ll go last,” Jimmy said. “I’ll fix the boards over the window again, the way I did last time. I already locked the door, while everybody else was going down.”
“From the inside?”
“Sure,” Jimmy said.
John made some sort of guttural noise in his throat. “All right,” he said. “I’ll go next.”
John went down one-handed, carrying the hibachi. Then Jimmy, the Air France bag over his shoulder again, went out the window for the third and final time. He was very adept by now at replacing the boards, and then he skimmed down the rope and joined the others. “All set,” he whispered.
“You want to lead the way?” John asked him. It didn’t sound sarcastic, it sounded mostly heavy and fatalistic.
“Not me,” Jimmy said. “I don’t know what’s over there.”
“More trouble,” John said, and led off.
The six of them marched away from the house in the darkness, off across the scrubby pastureland, following one another mainly by the sound of their footsteps as they tramped through the dry autumn grass. John went first, carrying the flashlight, which he didn’t dare switch on. May followed, not carrying anything. Then Jimmy, carrying his Air France bag, Stan’s Mom, carrying her hibachi, Stan, carrying his portable TV set, and Andy, carrying the suitcase.