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42

ARE THEY STILL BEHIND US? Mark asked. No matter how he crunched down, he couldnt get a useful image from the mirror outside his passenger door.

Of course theyre still behind us, Os said. He was not in the best of tempers. If they werent still behind us, would I still be driving?

Mark resisted the desire to say, God knows. Instead, deciding it was time to placate his partner, he said, I know youd rather we didnt have to do this.

And how right you are.

But theres just no alternative. Ive thought and thought

Ive thought and thought, Os assured him, and if there were any alternative at all, some dotty absent relation of your own, for instance, we would be hotfooting in that direction this instant.

Of course. Mark knew, from long experience of Os, it was time now to let it go, permit Os to fume in silence and gradually come to accommodate the situation. It was only when he was argued with, or even merely talked with, that Os would move on from disgruntled to ominous.

The problem was what to do with Monroe Hall once they got their hands on him. They would certainly have to hold him for a few days at least, while they pressured him to do their bidding and reassured themselves the money transfers had actually been made. The place to hold him would have to be isolated, yet Internet-linked, and anonymous enough that Hall wouldnt be able to find or identify it afterward. The three union members in the Taurus behind them were totally useless when it came to such a place, and Mark had to admit he was useless as well. The only answer, which Os was reluctantly forced to admit, was his aunt Elfredas lodge up in the mountains. Thither they were going now; to be certain it could accommodate them.

This lodge had been in Oss family since the familys income was based on coal and railroads, built by some ancestor of his as a manly midwinter retreat for hunting and poker, no wives allowed. As time moved on, and customs changed, the lodge became more of a family location, with skiing for the most part to replace the hunting. But the lodge was still only used in the depths of the winter, the family having other places to go and other things to do the rest of the year.

Aunt Elfreda, a much-married lady of innumerable offspring, had inherited the lodge years ago and used it now mostly for vast holiday get-togethers, followed by smaller more ad hoc ski weekends. The lodge had become Internet-connected some years ago, because many of Elfredas children and their spouses were in commerce and wouldnt have been able to participate in the jollity if their umbilical to the office were disconnected.

Off-season, such as now, the lodge was shut up tight, protected by alarm systems with which Os was of course familiar. The next legitimate human presence in or around the lodge would be in early December, when the caretaker family from the town twenty miles away would come to clean and tidy and stock the place with provisions for the new season.

The roads northeastward toward the lodge were increasingly narrow, winding, and hilly, as they moved up into the Allegheny mountains. Towns were few and far between, and Mark was surprised, when they approached one of them, to be greeted by a sign that read GRISSLE. As they passed among the hamlets six houses, one church, and combination post office/gas station/convenience store, he said, Grissle? The town is called Grissle?

Its where the caretakers live, Os said. Well be there very soon now.

Well, not very soon. It was another twenty miles, higher into the heavily forested mountains, with the occasional dirt road wandering off to left or right, but at last Os took one of those side roads, leftward, and now it really got steep. Theyre having a little trouble back there, Os said, smiling at the rearview mirror. But theyll be along.

Up, up, and all at once the lodge appeared. At first there were a pair of elaborate stone gateposts to the sides of the road, but without a gate. Beyond them, the forest had been thinned somewhat but not entirely cleared, and the road curved up to a stop in front of what looked like the worlds biggest log cabin, girdled all around with broad porches and featuring massive stone chimneys at both ends. All the windows were covered with sheets of plywood. Separate outbuildings, also of logs, seemed to be garages and storage sheds.

Os stopped the Porsche just before the gateposts. First line of defense, he announced, shifted into park, and got out of the car.

Twisting around, Mark saw the Taurus slowly make its way up the road. Turning instead to watch Os, he saw him open what had appeared to be just another stone in the lefthand gatepost, but which now turned out to be a fake, with a hinge. Inside was an alarm keypad, on which Os rapidly punched out a number, then closed the fake stone and came back to the car. Pausing beside it, he called down to the Taurus occupants, Courage, mes amis! then got chuckling behind the wheel and drove on up to the house.

Here, it turned out the keypad was behind a concealed panel on a support post of the porch roof, just at the top of the four-step stoop. Os played another brief etude on it, then turned to the front door as the Taurus stopped below, just behind the Porsche. The three union men got out and were clearly suitably impressed, staring around in awe. And this, Buddy said, is the house they dont use.

As they came up the stoop, it was Ace, naturally, who said, How come theres no windows? Afraid of snipers?

Theyre covered in the off-season, Mark explained.

Os, whod taken a key from a niche in the log wall and was using it to open the door, said, Rodents will eat through the wood between the windowpanes, when the house isnt occupied. They like the grout.

And the plywood makes it perfect for us, Mark said.

Os opened the door and they all trooped into a very dark room. One mo, Os said, marched into the darkness, and a minute later he switched on a table lamp beside a sofa. A very large room sprang into existence, more like the lobby of a fake-rustic hotel than somebodys living room.

Buddy said, They leave the electricity on? All year round?

Of course, Os said, and it was left to Mark to explain, For the alarms, and you have to have some heat in the place.

And, Os added, one must maintain the temperature and humidity in the wine cellar.

Oh, yeah, Buddy said. I didnt thinka that.

Mac said, Mark, what did you mean, the plywood makes it perfect for us?

Hall wont be able to see out, Mark told him. He wont be able to identify a thing.

Os said, A couple of laptops are kept here, with the phone number installed for local Internet access. When the familys here, anyone who needs to log on can take a laptop to his bedroom, plug it into the phone line there, and do whatever he wants. So that means we can put Hall in any of the bedrooms. They all have attached baths, and they all have doors that lock.

Ace said, You got a small one? With a lumpy bed?

I like your thinking, Os told him. Come along, lets choose.

As they started across the lengthy living roomwooden walls, massive stone fireplace, layers of huge wool rugsMac said, You know, this place is about the size of our houses.

Surprised, Mark said, Really? You live in a house this size?

No, our houses, Mac told him. All three of them, put together.

Ah, Mark said.

Come along, Os said, and kept switching on more lights as they moved deeper into the windowless, cavernous lodge.


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