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WHEN HE HEARD THE clink of his pen as it hit the floor, Monroe Hall immediately dropped the metal rod onto the windowsill against the plywood, slid the window shut, and was halfway across the room, glaring, when the door opened and the five buffoons in their varied masks marched in.

What now? he demanded, hoping one of them would talk. He needed to hear that voice again, the one he knew damn well hed heard somewhere in the past. Some unpleasant association, but that didnt help much; most of his conversations the last few years had involved unpleasant associations.

But they didnt speak, none of them. The one wearing a Frankenstein head carried a laptop, and the one in the green ski mask with the elks carried a folded sheet of paper, which he extended toward Hall.

Hall backed away, not taking the paper. You people are in a great deal of trouble, he said. You can make it easier for yourselves if you release me now. The longer this goes on

Ski Mask moved forward, waving the piece of paper in his face, insisting he take it. Hall folded his arms. If you want to talk to me, he said, talk to me.

In the background, Frankenstein had started a whispered conversation with Bandits Bandanna, who nodded. So did Paper Bag and the Lone Ranger. Hall, trying to keep an eye on everybody at once while ignoring the sheet of paper, watched Frankenstein and Bandit come this way, passing to either side of Ski Mask. Abruptly, they grabbed Halls arms, ran him backward, and forced him to sit down hard on the bed.

What are youWhat are you doing?

Frankenstein and Bandit stood to each side of him, to hold him in place. Ski Mask stepped forward, opened the piece of paper, and held it in front of Halls face.

Hall knew when to quit. All right, he said. All right, Ill read it. You can let me go, Ill read it by myself.

So they let him go. Ski Mask handed him the paper, and he read:

You will access your offshore accounts. You will transfer cash to other accounts we will describe to you. When the transactions are complete, we will release you.

Not a chance.

He glared at them, and they stood in a semicircle, observing him, waiting to see what he would do. He said, I will not, now or ever, while you people hold on to me, access anything except nine-one-one. You people must have a very low opinion of me, I must say.

They looked at one another. A couple of them shrugged, and then they all turned away and moved toward the door.

Hall popped to his feet. Make your own money! he shouted at their backs. Dont come sniveling to me!

Out the door they went, carrying the laptop, shut the door, and the key turned in the lock.

Immediately Hall went looking for his pen, which he found against the baseboard, where the door had pushed it when they came in. It was his warning system. Once again, the same as last time, he inserted the end of the pen into the keyhole, balancing it there just far enough inside not to fall back out again, and also far enough inside to be nudged by a key as it was inserted from the other side. The idea had served him well already, and he was sure it would serve him well again.

Alarm system in place, he turned back to the window hed been working at, and all at once the lights went out.

Oh, yes? In the dark, he made his way around the bed and found the bathroom doorway, and tried the light switch there, and that was also out.

It was really pitch black in here, and of course it would go on being pitch black, night and day. He could see their idea. They had no intention of feeding him, of course, and they would leave him alone here in the dark, making their demands until hunger and sense deprivation should force him to go along.

Well, it wasnt going to happen. Hall had triumphed over tougher adversaries than these amateurs. He didnt need light, not for what he had to do.

In the dark, he moved along the wall until he found the window he wanted. He opened it, reached in, and found the rod where hed dropped it. This was a strong piece of metal about eight inches long, one inch wide, and a quarter inch thick. It had been part of the flushing system in his toilet. Hed have to flush by hand now, but that wouldnt be a problem. Not for as long as he intended to be in this place.

Hed be happier with a larger tougher prybar, but this one would do. Slowly, patiently, relentlesly, he prodded the space between the window frame and the plywood sheeting. Infinitesimally, he could feel it give way. He had no idea how much longer he worked on it, but then all at once he became aware of a difference in the air, a hint of smell, a sense of movement.

Outside air. It was a start.

| The Road to Ruin | c