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DORTMUNDER FOLLOWED THE CHAIR out of the room as though it had yanked him out, stumbling over the suddenly fallen foe, trying to redirect the chair at the still-vertical masked men all around him, but finding it was a chair with a mind of its own and an intention to do nothing but continue in the same long arc until it embedded a couple of its legs into the corridor wall some way to the left of the room hed just quit.

The chairs sudden stop sent Dortmunder whirling into an orbit of his own, basically another curve leading farther down the corridor. He lashed his fists out in all directions, trying to connect on this crowd of jumping shouting masked people, but nobody laid a glove on nobody, and there ahead of him was a broad staircase leading down, at which he flung himself as though it were a swimming pool on a hot day.

Three and four steps at a time, he hurtled down the staircase, and there ahead was a big messy lodge room in semidarkness because all its windows were covered, but over there was a half-open door with daylight behind it, and through that door he went, like a light-seeking missile.

Porch. Launch across the porch, bom bom down the wide echoing wooden steps, and off he went down the gravel drive, past the three cars parked there, and on. Away. Away from that place, whatever it was, and those people, whoever they were, and away.

The gravel drive went steeply downhill, which was good, since they had arrived here by traveling steeply uphill. So this must be the way to civilization, or at least to somewhere without those idiots back there. He chanced a quick look over his shoulder, and the very large lodgegee, it was big, and he was seeing it for the first timelooked deserted back there, despite the three cars parked in front of it. He was at least a football field away from the place already, and the strange thing was, nobody was chasing him.

What was going on here? He stopped, breathing very hard, and looked up at the lodge, and for a long minute nothing happened. Then, in a rush, three guys carrying boxes and bags came running out onto the porch and down to the drive, where they stuffed all their goods into the trunk of the Taurus. Then they jumped into the Taurus themselves.

No, no, not good. Theyd get down here in no time. And of course, they must have seen him already. Nevertheless, he turned off the long gravel drive into the neatened woods to his right, and hid himself behind the widest tree he could find, which wasnt actually that wide.

Up the hill, the Taurus coughed into life with a lot of unnecessary revving of engine and grinding of gears. It backed and filled, then came rushing down the drive and on past the semihidden Dortmunder, and away. They never even looked in his direction. They were all without their masks, and all three stared straight ahead, willing themselves to be somewhere else.

What was going on here? All of a sudden, theyre leaving the place, but not because they want to chase the butler, but for some other reason. What other reason? Whats happening?

Dortmunder had started to trudge back out toward the drive from the woods when suddenly here came the white Porsche. The driver, who was also not wearing a mask, had a grim skull-like quality as he glowered at the road ahead. He looked mostly like the officer in charge of Special Punishments at a federal penitentiary. Beside him, a guy lay back as far as the seat would let him. White towels, some of them with red polka dots, covered most of his head and face. One hand held the towels, the other hand lay out of sight beside him. Again, like the first three, they just tore on by, not even bothering to look at him, where he stood completely in the open, just to the side of the road.

What was happening? What were they up to now? And, come to think of it, where was Monroe Hall? They didnt kill him, did they, those clowns?

It was true Dortmunder and his crew meant to do their automobile dealing with the insurance company, but the insurance company, in turn, would have to work with Hall. If Hall was dead, and there was some sort of estate in charge of the cars and everything else, they could just forget it.

But why would he be dead? Why would these people go through all this stuff of the masks and hiding their voices if they just meant to kill him?

Dortmunder looked up at the lodge. Now it really seemed empty, even though one car was still parked out front, a kind of goldy-green Buick. But the front door had been left open and there was just that aura up there of a house with nobody inside.

What had they done with Hall? Dortmunder needed Hall; hed spent a lot of time and effort on this job; he needed the son of a bitch so he could rob him.

There was nothing for it. Sighing, shaking his head, reflecting yet again on the unfairness of life, Dortmunder slogged back up to the lodge, entered it, switched on lightswell, at least the electricity was still onand proceeded to search the place.

It didnt take long to find the room where Hall had been kept, just down the corridor from his own. Nor did it take long to figure out how Hall had managed his escape. But what had he used to pry with? Talk about unfair; in Dortmunders room there had been absolutely nothing to pry with, but in this rich guys room, whos got more than he needs already, what has he got? A prybar.

Dortmunder turned away from the breached window, looked around the room, and saw the big tray of breakfast on the bed. Come to think of it, he was goddamn hungry.

There was a kind of vanity in the room, with a chair in front of it, so Dortmunder put the tray there, sat in front of it, and set to.

The tray hadnt been on the bed for long, so the cold things on it were still cold and the hot things were still hot. Orange juice, excellent. Homemade pancakes, with butter and maple syrupwhat could be wrong? Scrambled eggs and bacon, both done just exactly the way he liked it. Four pieces of white toast, just enough, with a choice of orange marmalade or strawberry jam. Very good coffee. Whoo, you could feel somewhat better about life after a meal like that.

You could also feel like going to the bathroom, which would have been all right except, when he flushed, it wouldnt do it. The thing was broken somehow. Dortmunder lifted the water closet lid, looked in at it, and grew suspicious. Walking down the hall past the chair embedded in the wall and back into his previous room, he entered the bathroom, lifted the water closet lid, and found what Monroe Hall had used as a prybar.

Oh. Hmm. Pretty good, damn it.

| The Road to Ruin | c