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MARK GOT BACK TO the lodge a little after nine in the morning, and the brown Taurus was already there, tucked in next to Oss white Porsche. Putting his mothers hand-me-down Buick Regal in next to the others, he was happy to see that Taurus, because it meant the union guys had not funked.

He himself had almost funked, damn near funked. After yesterdays traumatic experience of having Monroe Hall recognize his voice, on top of the tension and disbelief connected with actually doing this thing, he had, after returning the horse and its carrier with Os, spent the rest of a mostly sleepless night in his miserable basement room under his mothers off-limits mansion thinking about what he could possibly do now, and what hed mainly thought about was funking it. Caving in. Being a quitter. Giving up the whole idea.

Of course, hed tried not to phrase it in such negative terms during those wakeful hours. Hed tried for a more positive spin in his internal debate, telling himself he could start over, he could reinvent himself, he could wipe the slate clean, he could, in the Mark Twain way, light out for the Territories.

Isnt that, after all, what it really means to be an American? All of the current resistance to a national identification card (and many years ago, for the same reason, to the Social Security number), all of the alarm about the threats to privacy, are based on the simple American conviction, from the very beginning of the immigrant experience, that it was the ultimate right of every American, if circumstances happened to call for such drastic measures, to turn himself into somebody new. The classless society was the ideal partly because, in a classless society, all identity is flexible. Mark, in his sleepless hours of not so much battling funk as welcoming funk aboard, had used every shred of schooling he could dredge out of memory to convince himself that at this point of crisis in his life, it would be not only acceptable, it would be not only guilt-free, but it would be damn near his patriotic duty, to run away and become somebody else.

And yet he hadnt done it. Along toward dawn, he had sunk into a heavy troubled slumber, and when the alarm jolted him awake no time later he knew, grimly, that he wouldnt be doing his patriotic duty as a turn-tail-and-run after all. There are no Territories to light out for, not in this century. It was no longer easy to become the new you. New or old, you were already you.

So thats what it came down to. He was Mark Sterling, of a certain background and a certain position in the community, and he always would be. He had started on this path, and the only thing to do was keep on it. And keep his mouth shut, particularly around Monroe Hall.

So it was a relief to see the Taurus, because it meant they were all in agreement: There was no way out of this. If the union men had successfully bagged it, Mark would have felt even worse than before, but they had not, so he felt marginally better.

Entering the house, he found an empty but astonishingly messy living room with faint sounds of activity far ahead. Following those sounds, he came eventually to a kitchen containing all four of his co-conspirators, plus more mess than a kindergartners birthday party. Breakfast was being made, with more enthusiasm than precision, all over the kitchen, using most of the pots, plates, cutting boards, cutlery, silverware, and electric gadgets formerly in the cupboards and on the shelves. Os was the most covered with flour, Ace the most covered with egg in varying degrees of congealment. It was as though theyd been hired by biased researchers to prove male incompetence in the kitchen.

Os noticed Mark first: Ah, there you are. Were almost ready here.

Mac waved toward him a maple-syrup-smeared hand, and said, I hope you havent had breakfast yet.

I havent, Mark agreed, looking around, but Im not sure Im hungry.

Its gonna be great, Buddy assured him.

First, of course, Os said, we have to not feed Monroe Hall, and then feed the butler. Then we can bring most of this back down herewell, not down here, I think the dining room would be more welcomingand tuck in to a hearty meal.

Mark couldnt help it: Like the condemned man?

Os frowned at him in surprise, Whats wrong with you?

Mark shook his head. Not enough sleep, he said, knowing it would be impossible to explain that what was wrong with him was that there werent any Territories any more.

Buddy said, You know about the reward?

Reward? All he could think of was receiving a gold star. But who would present it, and for what?

Mac explained, Somebody, the wife, I guess, put up fifty thousand dollars for information leading to the return of Monroe Hall.

Fifty thousand? Mark grimaced. For Monroe Hall? Thats not much.

Buddy said, Ace wants to collect it.

And why not? Ace demanded. Fifty grand for information? We got the information.

Mark said, Os?

Os shrugged. Its up to his friends in the labor movement, he said, to draw for Ace the direct line between that information and the jail cell.

Theres a way, Ace insisted. We just havent thought it through yet.

Mac said, Were ready here. Pointing, he said, Thats the breakfast we show Hall but dont let him eat, and thats the breakfast for the butler. And all the rest of it is for us.

Os said, Buddy, why dont you carry the butlers tray, while Ace carries Halls tray?

Ace said, Thats because were labor, right? And youre management.

Of course, Os said. And also why Ill be carrying the laptop.

Mac said, Masks.

So everybody put the dumb masks on, Buddy picked up a small tray of breakfast while Ace picked up a large tray of breakfast, and they all trooped upstairs. Buddy put the butlers breakfast on a side table in the corridor and Os picked up the laptop from where theyd left it leaning against the wall, while Mark went down to the circuit breaker box at the end of the corridor. He waited there until Os inserted the key into Halls door and nodded to him, then switched the lights on in Halls room as Os unlocked the door and everybody pushed in.

Mark came back, entered the room, and saw everybody milling around. He said, Wheres Hall?

Hiding or something, Os said. He sounded irritable. Damn it, Hall! he said, raising his voice. Stop playing the fool!

You two shouldnt be talking, Mac pointed out.

Oops; Mark put fingertips against his mouth.

Ace had put the tray on the bed, then looked under it. They looked into the closet and into the bathroom. Then they stood in the middle of the guest room and looked at one another, baffled and silent, until Mac said, How come that windows open?

They all clustered around the plywood-shielded window. Now that they looked at it, they could see that the plywood was pushed outward from the sill along the bottom and part of the left side, held away by the screws that had once held it down. Tentative, unbelieving, Buddy pushed on the plywood, and it moved.

Mac, in awe, said, He got out.

Then, Os said, we had better get out. Who knows how long ago he escaped?

I knew it! Mark said. If only hed funked, after all. If only there were Territories!

They hurried from Monroe Halls former prison to the corridor, leaving breakfast behind, and turned toward the staircase. Going by the other tray of breakfast, Mark said, The butler!

They all stopped. They all looked at the butlers breakfast, and then at Mark. Mac said, Maybe Hall took him along.

Os said, Hall? Look out for somebody else?

Mark said, We have to let him out.

Here. Os pulled the other key from his pocket. Do what you want; Im getting far from here.

Not far enough, Mark thought. Not all the way to the Territories. Thinking that, he hurried back down the corridor, fumbled with the key in the lock, finally got it to turn, pushed open the door, stepped into the room and, just one second too late, saw that chair swinging like a runaway satellite around the edge of the door, swiftly in his direction at, well, at head height.

| The Road to Ruin | c