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MARK TOLD HIMSELF THERE was no point in having the jitters, not now, not when it was all over. Or at least this part was all over. Monroe Hall had been successfully extricated from his compoundwith butler, but never mindand the two of them, freed of their blindfolds and ropes, were now snugly tucked into separate locked upstairs bedrooms with sheets of plywood over the windows. Mark and Os and the union men were gathered in the main living room, removing dustsheets from the sofas and chairs, making cozy. Os had already filled the refrigerator with beer, some of which had been brought out for a victory toast. So there was no reason any more, if there had ever been, for Mark to have the jitters. And yet, he did.

This feeling of edginess, of nerves unstrung, had started just before the kidnapping. Hed been fine on the trip to borrow the horse and its carrier; hed been fine getting into the carrier with the others to leave the driving to Mac; hed even been fine when theyd made it past the guardshack.

When it had started, the butterflies, the twitchiness, the body-out-of-control feeling, was when he put on the ski mask. That awful hot wool against his face had been a kind of shock, a reality check.

This is real! he told himself. We arent just talking about this, were doing this. Looking around at the others, clustered in the swaying carrier in the semidark, looking at the ridiculous ways theyd chosen to conceal their faces, hed suddenly thought, Were crazy. People dont do this sort of thing. Why dont we just forget Monroe Hall? Why dont we get over it, get on with our lives?

Well, that was a hell of a moment to come up with such an idea, while driving from the guardshack to Monroe Halls home. Looking around the interior of the carrier, it had seemed to Mark that everybody else was calm, assured, confident, ready, knowing exactly the dangers and their own skills, like paratroopers clustered at the open doorway of the airplane.

It was only when theyd dashed out of the carrier and laid hands on Hall himselfand the butler, but never mindand the others had all started shouting like madmen, yelling orders at one another and so on, that hed realized they were all having the jitters, too. It was not just him. And that knowledge, plus the success of the operation, had calmed him considerably, until Monroe Hall recognized his voice.

That was the moment. That was the moment his mouth opened, his throat closed, his eyes bulged, his heart contracted, and his hands began to shake like fringe on a cowgirl. He had been a wreck ever since, silent except when he had to whisper something to Buddy to say to Hall, and not even Halls current residence in a locked room nor the presence in his own hand of a full and frosty beer had done much to make him calm.

Recognized my voice!

Well, Mac said, dropping into a sofa like a relief package without quite spilling beer, then drinking beer, that was one hell of a drive.

You did it great, Buddy assured him.

We acted, I would say, Os informed them all, very nearly smiling, in the finest traditions of Mission: Impossible.

Mark had things he felt he could say at that moment, but somehow the words didnt come. Somehow, his mouth didnt open.

Recognized my voice!

Buddy said, Whats the program now?

We let Hall go without dinner, Os said. Its four-thirty now. Well have our own dinner

Ace said, What about the butler?

Everybody looked at him. Os said, What about the butler?

Does he go without dinner, too?

Oh. No, no, Os said, well feed him. Soups and things, with plastic spoons and things, so he cant get any ideas.

He didnt strike me, Buddy said, as a guy whod get a lot of ideas.

True, Os said. But one can never be too careful.

Sure, Buddy said. But after weve had our dinner and the butlers had his dinner and Hall hasnt had his dinner, then what?

At around, say, eleven tonight, Os said, well go in, all of us properly masked, and well lay out the situation to HallIm afraid youll have to go on doing the talking, Buddy.

Make me out a speech. Write it down.

Mark will do that, Os said. Wont you, Mark?

Mark nodded, a bit afraid the gesture would make his head roll off. It didnt, and he stopped nodding.

Os said to the others, My expectation is, Hall will refuse tonight. So well switch off the electricity to that room and let him think it over in pitch black darkness for tonight. Tomorrow morning, well bring up a big breakfast, full of good things to see and smell, like bacon and waffles and maple syrup and orange juice and coffee, and well ask him if hes ready to cooperate. My guess is, hell say no, so well take the breakfast away again.

Good, Ace said.

Ive got a problem here, Mac said.

They all gave him their attention. Mildly, Os said, Yes, Mac?

I got a home and a family, Mac said.

Thats right, Buddy said, as though surprised at the reminder.

In the first place, Mac said, nobody except us in this room knows were the ones doing what were doing.

As it should be, Os said, and Mark nodded.

So we gotta live normal lives, Mac pointed out. We cant be here twenty-four hours a day.

I see your point, Os said. I do think it important we make a show of strength tonight. Could you three phone your families and make excuses, why you wont be home till midnight?

Eleven, Ace said. Henrietta will go along with bowling or whatever, but the curfews eleven.

Me, too, Buddy said.

Os said, Then we merely move the schedule forward, talk to Hall at nine, then come back tomorrow. No one needs to stay here overnight, though actually I will. Mark and I will return horse and trailer, then Ill come back here. In fact, I do have a right to be here, and I can keep watch.

Buddy said, The idea was, Mark was gonna write out the demands for me to read, because Hall recognized his voice, right?

Exactly, Os said, and Mark shuddered.

Mac said, What? Hall knows its Mark?

No, Os said. He knows he knows the voice, thats all. Thats why he wont hear Mark any more, and probably shouldnt hear me, either.

Buddy said, My idea is, why dont we just hand him the piece of paper, and he doesnt hear anybodys voice? Thatd be scarier, wouldnt it?

Mac grinned. Silent masked men, he said, with a note.

They all liked that. Ill get some more beer, Ace said, getting to his feet. Then make my call.

| The Road to Ruin | c