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THE WITCH'S HOUSE

Charlotte Armstrong

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Monday

He happened to be standing perfectly still, considering what, if anything, he ought to take home. Papers to grade? Class statistics to bring up to date? He was a young mathematics instructor named Elihu (but mercifully nicknamed Pat) O’Shea; he was accustomed to using his mind and not his fingers. Therefore, he did not paw his desk or flip his calendar, but, standing still, he marshaled and reviewed his obligations.

His cubicle, all done in gray metal and something less than cozy, looked east; it was dim, at this hour in early March. When the door of the office directly across the corridor opened, the band of late sunlight did not reach all the way to Pat’s open door. Pat could physically see his fellow faculty member, Professor Everett Adams (Biology) also preparing to leave at the end of Monday, but Everett did not notice him, and Pat did not move or speak. He was no pal of Everett’s, whom he considered a dull old bunny. Nor did he think about the other man, particularly, until sight suddenly connected with brain, and Pat came to startled attention.

Everett Adams was a pace within his own place. No one else could see him at all as he took an object out of his right-hand jacket pocket, transferred it to his left and adjusted his left arm, and the briefcase it held, so as to minimize the bulge of the object. Then Everett stepped into the corridor, pulled his door shut, and locked it.

A sound came out of Pat O’Shea, a growl of angry astonishment. Everett swiveled his thatch of gray. He had very large brown eyes, set abnormally far apart, so that his temples looked thin and flat. The eyes flashed, seeming to reveal a moment of anguished shock. Then they veiled themselves. Everett hunched his narrow shoulders and strode off.

Pat O’Shea yanked open his top desk drawer, swept papers within, shut it, locked it, snatched his brown raincoat from the gray metal clothes tree, and whirled out of his office.

He was furious! So? But was it so?

Everett, scurrying toward the intersecting corridor, was detouring now around a knot of students in front of a bulletin board. Pat went after him. When he was angry, his amiable rugged face became another face. Now, as he walked fast, just without running, one of the students detached himself from the group to stare curiously at him. Pat checked himself.

If he had seen what he thought he had seen, then he was very angry indeed. But could he be absolutely sure? No. So he would not run, shout, or make a fuss. And he had better not let this particular student suspect that anything was up.

This Parsons boy was neither an athlete nor a brain and not gifted with any particular charm. Nevertheless, he had constituted himself the college gossip and, as such, he had power. It was best not to stir him up, because he was not scrupulous about what tales he told, but relished the exercise of his imagination, in which might lie all the power Mike Parsons would ever have. So Pat slowed down, dismissed as best he could the black look that anger put on his face, murmured a hail and farewell, and strolled by, knowing that Everett Adams had made it to the next wing, down which he would go to the left where, at the end, a flight of stairs led to a lower-level exit to the faculty parking lot. This was Pat’s own natural route and he pursued it.

At the intersection of corridors, there was a glass-enclosed place where Joanne Knowles was on the department switchboard. Turning the corner, Pat waved to her, since she was supposed to know what faculty members were in or not in the Science Building. Then he drove his long legs to go faster than he appeared to be going.

Ahead of him, and moving fast, Everett Adams ducked downward. Pat reached the stairs and went bonging down their metal treads. Everett was at the door, at the bottom. Pat hit the glass while it still swung and as he came out into the shaded spot, he shouted, “Adams!”

But Everett was into his car, a 1960 Chevrolet Bel Air, and putting it into motion very quickly. Pat was just leaping down the two broad stone steps to the pavement when Everett backed out of his slot, reversed, and went sailing away. As he did so Pat saw a form, draped in flowered cotton, rise from the coping of a low stone wall that held back the plantings across this sunken court. But he was running to his own ’61 tan Rambler, and he pretended not to see the girl, although he knew, at once, who she was and why she was there. She was Vee Adams, Everett’s daughter, and she must have been waiting, over there on the sunny side, to ride home with her father.

But Everett had “forgotten” her. Oh-ho, had he, though?

Guilty, thought Pat. By golly, he is guilty and he knows I know it. So Pat felt furious all over again.

It certainly looked as if the thing in Everett’s jacket pocket was that ultraviolet-reflecting objective for a microscope, an attachment so delicate and fine as to be very expensive, indeed. Just such a small precious piece of laboratory equipment had disappeared, ten days ago, from the university’s Science Building. Presumed stolen.

What was making Pat O’Shea so furious was the fact that although there was no proof of the thief’s identity, and no open accusation, nevertheless there was suspicion. And the continuance in the university of a second-year student named Rossi was being made not only miserable, but almost impossible. He was the only student known to have been alone in the laboratory on the morning the theft had been discovered. Only that. But it was enough.

This Rossi was a boy whom Pat had wished to encourage. Pat had wanted him to believe that he was free to move from the background of his kin to the company of his kind. The boy came of uneducated people who did not fully understand his urge toward knowledge, but the boy had the qualities that lift a teacher’s tired heart. How could the poor kid keep his mind on his studies, or believe in his opportunity, in the shadow of this doubt, so cruel—if he were innocent?

Now, if this … this … this … (Pat couldn’t find a word dirty enough for Everett Adams)… this highly respected, pompous old bunny—who had even called a meeting and spoken high-minded words about basic honesty—if he himself was just now making off with the loot …!

The man must be crazy! But, crazy or not, Everett Adams wasn’t going to watch, from his cozy burrow of privilege, a valuable boy’s life-chance snuff out. Not now. Not if Pat had seen what he thought he had seen. Pat would take care of that. If. So Pat’s car jumped.

Everett had not turned upgrade, to his right, toward the Main Gate as he normally would, but to his left. OK, thought Pat, suddenly jubilant. Follow that car! Wherever the dickens Everett thought he was going, Pat O’Shea was going too. He intended to catch up with and confront the man while the thing was still in his pocket. If the thing was Everett’s property, Pat could apologize. Natural mistake. So sorry. But he would have to find out.

And he thought he would find out. After all, the driver ahead could hardly throw a thing out of the car without the driver behind detecting such a movement. And if Everett dropped it quietly overboard, Pat would see it hit the road. Oh no, no, Everett was not going to get away with a thing. Pat turned gleefully left, to follow.

Strict rules prevailed against speed on the campus so the two cars proceeded with dignified obedience past the Library and the Administration Building and bent away to go around the gymnasium, past the tennis courts, to an exit at the southwest corner of the campus. Here, where Everett might have turned left to regain the main road into town, again he chose the other way.

Pat nosed into traffic behind him. This street pertained to nothing significant that he could imagine but, about a mile farther on, it would cross another popular route into the heart of the town. Pat trundled along behind, angry, but holding to the fair doubt, knowing very well that “to see something with your own eyes” is not always reliable evidence.

At the junction Everett did not turn toward town but to his right, which way would lead him out into the country. Pat, suddenly impatient, came up to the intersection rapping his horn button, in the swift toot-toot-toot which means “Give me your attention. I want to speak to you.” Everett must have heard it, bu he did not even hesitate. On the contrary, his car picked up its heels.

Pat whipped around the corner in his wake, thinking, Guilty, all right! The guilty flee and I pursueth.

(There was a gas station on that corner. Far in upon the concrete, a lad named Dick Green was hosing off a car. He looked up, at the horn blasts, and saw Mr. O’Shea, from whom he took calculus at the university. Dick half raised a hand in greeting. But Mr. O’Shea had not seen him—just went busting around the corner. Funny.)

Now, they were going north and it was becoming country. Pat did not attempt to speed and pass and block Everett’s way. Dangerous and unnecessary. Wherever he can go, I can go, Pat thought, and when he stops, there I’ll be. His Nemesis is what I am. He grinned to himself, thinking how he would tell Anabel about this cops-and-robbers adventure. The street had become a highway which ran straight. There was home-going traffic on it, but Pat hung on the Chevy’s heels. Let the guilty suffer.

Up ahead a red light bloomed. As Everett slid up to the stop, four cars were already motionless there. Everett, with Pat behind him, was in the middle lane. To their left, the left-turn slot was being entered by the car behind them. Everett suddenly yanked his wheel, nipped around the cars that waited, flashed through the left-turn slot, and ran the light. The car entering the slot squealed and braked, and hemmed Pat in.

Well, well, well! Pat rolled to his own legal position and stopped there. Everything he does says he’s guilty, the fool! Or why does he run away from me? Which he has just successfully done, by the way. OK. Even so. All I have to do is turn the suspicion on him, which I can do with many hedges, from a position of noble doubt and humility before the truth, and so on … and he will have had it. And Rossi will be all right. So … why don’t I just go on home?

But Pat didn’t want to go on home. He was not only furious about the theft, the injustice, but miffed on his own account. He had been tricked, caught napping, and he didn’t like it. Furthermore, the position of noble doubt and humble inquiry did not fall in anything like as well with his mood as to catch Everett personally and tell him a thing or two. Right now.

But Everett’s car had slipped over a small rise, and Pat was stuck here.

When the light changed, Pat came up over the rise, surveyed the scene and saw, a mile away, perhaps, the right-turn blinker of some car flashing. But it was only a glimpse. The road was streaming. The moving ribbons were multicolored. He could not spot the blue Chevy. He began to work his way into the right lane and look for a place to stop a moment. Think a moment. Have some sense, maybe.

By the time he had switched lanes he was nearly upon a side road. On the near corner there was a little grocery store which displayed the sign of the bell. Then he must stop here, use the public phone, and call Anabel. Pat would normally have been home five or ten minutes ago. It would take a good while to get back to town, and then on home, from where he was now. He would be very late. Better call. Confess this chase and his defeat. Well? Pat turned into the side road, whose sign read OLEANDER STREET. A delivery boy was busily backing his panel truck into a slot behind the grocery store.

Pat called out on impulse, “Hey, did a car turn in here just now?”

“What’s that?” The boy had a red head, a long, thin freckled nose, and a stupefied expression.

Pat repeated his question and the boy said, “Sure did. And left rubber.” He began to look interested. “Can I do anything—?”

“Was it a Chevy? Blue?”

“It was blue. I’ll tell you that much. But see, I was watching my left rear—”

“Where does this road lead?”

“No place.”

“Dead end, you mean?”

“That’s right.”

“Any crossroads?”

“Nope. Not one.”

“Oh,” said Pat. “Thanks a lot.”

“You bet,” said the grocery boy.

Pat stepped on the gas joyfully. If a car, a blue car, had squealed around this corner, it might very well have been Everett, who was in a hurry all right. Pat had seen a signal blinking. By golly, from habit—and law-abiding habit, at that—had the fox signaled the hound? If so, if so, then Everett was trapped on a dead-end street with no crossroads. Get him yet, Pat thought.

Oleander Street was paved, but narrow and meandering. Far ahead rose some of Southern California’s sudden hills, barren and dry, uninhabited. Oleander Street would not lead up into them. It twisted along the level, no thoroughfare, simply an access road for the small truck farms that were hardly more than garden patches, and the small chicken “ranches” that were staggered along on either side, each with its small house, erratically placed.

What was Everett Adams doing here? If here.

Proceeding slowly, now, and watching on all sides for any glimpse of the car he hunted, Pat came drifting around a curve and stopped, because there was a knot of chattering people in the road. He was directly opposite a picket gate, beside which there stood a wooden platform about four feet high on which there had been bolted a wooden armchair. Pat looked at this structure and saw a boy, about nine years old, sitting in the elevated chair with his thin unevenly developed legs stretched before him in their metal braces. Pat felt a quick pang for whatever father had built this contraption.

But the little boy was not having anybody’s pity. His big brown eyes were blazing. “Mister? Mister?”

“What happened, old-timer?” Pat leaned out.

“A hit and run! A killer!” shouted the little boy. “Killed my mother’s chicken. Didn’t stop!”

“What kind of car?”

“Blue, 1960, Bel Air,” shouted the boy with the sure knowledge of little boys. “Four-door, two-tone, didn’t get the license. Sticker on the rear window, yellow and blue—”

“Right you are,” Pat said. (The university’s parking stickers were yellow and blue.) “Where did he go?”

The boy pointed on along Oleander.

“This street goes where?”

“Nowhere,” cried the boy. “Just to the witch’s. Catch him, mister. Please catch him?” He leaned out of the chair almost to the point of falling. “Take me.”

“I’ll catch him,” said Pat cheerfully. “You sit tight.”

He saluted and let the car move gently. The half dozen women and children did not speak to him. Now he could see the mangled bird, a patch of blood and feathers, and he was careful to avoid it. In his rearview mirror he saw the people beginning to disperse.

Jamie Montero’s mother lifted her son down from his perch. Jamie cried, “No, Mama. No, Mama. Wait, Mama. He is going to catch the killer. The nice man! Mama, the bad man killed your chicken and he didn’t stop. But the nice man will catch him.”

“Hush-hush-hush,” his mother said. “Suppertime. Hush, we are rich. It don’t bother us that much.”

Pat went, warily, farther along the meandering road. He had not caught the word the boy had used. Just to theWHAT? No matter. The houses were thinning. Not far ahead, the terrain was beginning to roughen. On this flat land there were a few live oaks, a stand of lemon eucalyptus ahead, and one square of darker trees over there, which usually meant that someone had planted them. Was there one more house within that square?

Ah, now—the final curve to the right and suddenly, on a fan-shaped flat of dust, the end of the road.

Within the trees directly ahead of him there was, indeed, a dilapidated old California bungalow, gray from the weather—a slightly crooked house within a crooked fence. There was no garage, no driveway. But to his left, where the eucalyptus grove stood, Pat could see in the waning light far in among the barkless trunks a glimpse of blue. A car.

He cut his motor, set his brake, and stepped out.

Got him! Pat thought.

Everett Adams leaned over the brink, staring down at the heap of trash. This arroyo was, or had been, an unauthorized dump, used by those who wanted to be rid of garden clippings without paying the fee at the legal place. Everett had gardened for fun in other days, long ago, when Lillian was alive. Since then, the city fathers had posted the place. The heaps below were moldering. Everett was running his straining gaze over the humps and surfaces to be sure the bright metal that he had just cast over had gone deep enough into the confusion.

He was thinking, Damn O’Shea, never closes his door! Didn’t occur to me … What did he see? Foolish to panic. Could have simply stared him down. Or could have said “I did it for money.” They’d boot me out. Twenty years of teaching. Ah, but the risk.… No. Let it alone now. Shaken him off. Rid of it. No one will ever know.…

He felt sick. He was a sick man. His brain flipped and flopped and flubbed. He looked behind him and saw O’Shea’s figure coming, in the greenish gloom, between the slim and pale and naked trunks of the trees. The short twilight seemed upon them. The sky was strange. The light was yellow-green and O’Shea’s figure, a bright gray, came on, not fast but steadily. It was like doom.

Everett took four steps to his car. O’Shea didn’t understand. Didn’t know. Even if he knew, would he understand? No, no, the risk.… Stare him down.

“Are you following me, O’Shea?” he cried out angrily. “May I ask what the idea is?”

O’Shea kept coming. “May I ask what you’ve got in your pocket?” He was cold, hard. He was doom.

“I beg your pardon?” Everett pulled in his chin, tried to look haughtily outraged, but he had to keep his hand on the sill of the open door of his car to steady his knees.

O’Shea seemed to study the hang of his jacket. Then O’Shea walked to the brink and glanced over. “I see,” he said contemptuously. “Got rid of it, did you?”

Everett stood and strove to hide his trembling. Even the car trembled. He hadn’t cut his motor, that was it. He licked his mouth and tried for words appropriate to outraged innocence. He couldn’t think. Flip, flop, flub.… Rage took him and its strength shook him and he shouted, “No, you don’t see! I’m trying to save a human soul. You wouldn’t understand that. You don’t know and you don’t see.…”

O’Shea wasn’t even listening. He began to shout. “Look out, you idiot!”

Everett was forced to stagger because his car was moving. It crept. It was too close to the brink. What was happening must not happen. He threw his weight against the door, grasping the metal with both hands. The car was gaining momentum. He should have tried to get around and at the brakes. His feet were slipping.

Then O’Shea’s hard hands grabbed him and pulled at him and Everett was torn away to fall on the ground, all tangled with O’Shea, and from there to see his car go down with a crunch as its front wheels slid over the edge. It slid another foot or two. Then it lifted its hindquarters slowly up, it tottered, it slid again. It described a stately, fated, heels-over-head, down into the arroyo.

O’Shea was making a moaning sound. Everett himself was crying, in high-pitched squeals, from far up in the middle of his skull. Neither could rise nor run nor see over. They caught breath, with a single impulse to listen. Nothing came to their ears. No explosion. Not even engine sound. Nor to their eyes any gush of black smoke and hot flame out of the gulch. Everett’s car had simply disappeared.

Everett squirmed and ground one knee into the slippery leaf-strewn soil. He turned his furious face downward. “Now you did it! Now everything is going to happen. You wouldn’t wait! You wouldn’t listen! You wouldn’t even try to understand!”

O’Shea lay on his back with his face white. He said quietly, “I think my ankle or my leg is busted.”

“Good!” cried Everett, frothing. “Good! Because by what right do you judge? By what self-righteous ignorance do you destroy!”

It didn’t occur to him that he might have gone over the brink and been crushed himself, or that O’Shea had been trying to save his life. He thought he had been attacked. Into his mind were sifting patchy visions of the consequences. Never get the car out without a crane. Without people, who would find out. Couldn’t lose a car and say nothing. It would be found. And prove to be his. Ought to have burned. No, fire would have brought people. But there were no people here … not yet.

Suppose the car were never found? Or, he could say it had been stolen. Ah, no, stupid! Here was O’Shea, to tell the whole story. And the stolen object would be found, too, because O’Shea knew it was there.

Damn O’Shea!

“Oh, damn you!” croaked Everett. “You know absolutely nothing about the real problem. You think it matters to me anymore? You think it weighs in the scale against a human soul?” A final outrage. O’Shea wasn’t even listening now. In O’Shea’s eyes Everett read himself dismissed as incomprehensible. As probably quite mad. So Everett’s right hand found a stone. His right hand went high, of itself. O’Shea jerked his head but the stone came crashing down. The head turned bloody at the side. Very bloody. Everett raised the stone again. Had to finish it now. A point of no return. No other way. He brought the stone down a second time.

His arm went weak. All his limbs turned soft. He began to pant-great gasps for air that were like sobs. O’Shea was out of it. Bloody, limp, and silent upon the ground. O’Shea was dead.

Well, then, at least he couldn’t tell.

Everett’s breath sawed. He got to his feet and staggered to the brink. The drop-over was twenty-five or thirty feet. There lay his car, upside down, on a slant, helpless as a turtle, its wheels still turning. But no sound. The motor had stalled? Or what? No matter. Nothing could be done about the car.

What could be done at all? At all? Now he had sacrificed, indeed. Must this, too, be for nothing? Tried to think.

Could he switch the story around, say it was O’Shea who had the stolen thing and Everett who had pursued him and here, at the end of the road, fought with a criminal at bay? In self-defense? Did Everett have the cold nerve to tell that story and keep to it? No, no, impossible. The cars in themselves told the order of their going. Or someone must have seen them, along the way. The pursuer doesn’t go first. No, think.

Hide the body? He had an instinct to hide the body, put it over the brink into the dump and simply leave it. And go home. Say that his car had been stolen. Know nothing.

But how to go home or even back into town? Why, in O’Shea’s car, of course. Get away from here. Keys? Everett went down on one knee and began to pry into O’Shea’s pockets. Eyes shut. Fingers would do. Couldn’t look. No keys?

Everett turned his back and bent to weep. He couldn’t. He was finished. It was all over, all up with her, and with him too. He’d never meant to come to this. All so stupid, so incredibly stupid. And so inevitable.

Kneeling in the grove, with the dark thickening, Everett could feel a cool trickle of truth seeping into his understanding. He had been dominated for a long time by something that had simply wiped out his intelligence. Now, he was destroyed.

But as he knelt there, the oldest instinct stirred and it was cool, like truth. Run, then.

Maybe the keys were in the car. Money? He walked on his knees, he pushed at the limpness, got O’Shea’s wallet. Take it. Too late for scruples. A long time too late. He had sacrificed them. Now, should he hide the body? Yes, of course, hide it. Smooth out the tracks, the gashes in the ground. Bury the blood. Confuse the signs. Run. Hide.

And give her up—which was the one thing demanded of him from the beginning. Now he could see clearly that it was accomplished.

He rose. His breath was coming more slowly. There was something of comfort, something almost delicious, about having it all over. So to simplicity. To eat, to drink, to sleep, and rise again to eat, to drink.… A dog was barking.

Everett tingled with the shock. No, no, he had to think this out. Had to have more time. Could not be caught now and taken, irrevocably, to the drama of cops and courts and fame and shame. Not before he had thought!

His trouser knees were stained with dirt. He had O’Shea’s wallet in his hand. He put his head down and went stumbling and sometimes sliding to O’Shea’s Rambler. He had the terror of the hunted on him already. But the keys were in the car. An omen, surely! Everett got in and started the motor.

He didn’t have to reverse, he could circle here. He circled, holding the wheel as far as he could to the left with a suspicion that he could never move it again, that he would just go around and around and around until the gasoline was gone. It had become very dark. The sky rumbled. Storm? Well, yes, the weather report.… That yellowish light had been warning. The car had come around half circle. His mind was going around again. Everett bit his teeth together and wrenched at the wheel. The car bounced upon Oleander Street’s worn pavement.

Headlights? Fumbling for the switch, his icy fingers found it. He was really quite clever. But what was behind?

He looked into the rearview mirror. All he could see, against what light there was left in the sky, were the moving trunks of the trees as they swished their tall tops in a sudden wind. Then lightning flashed and in the flash Everett saw behind him the figure of a woman, all in black, and he saw beside her a huge black dog.

The fiend: It was the fiend!

He shuddered, head to toe. His toe shook on the accelerator. He made the curve. His scalp crept. The sky cracked.

When the sky cracked, it was as if the film had been jolted back upon the sprockets; the pictures of consciousness began to run in Pat’s mind. His lids lifted to a darkish world. He could hear, he could sense, the beast coming. He could smell, he could feel, the breath upon his skin, the snuffling; the muttering threat in the throat was loud to him.

“Nice doggie?” Pat murmured. His head shifted; the pain cracked. Light flashed and went out.

The sound of thunder roused Anabel O’Shea from her book. Ah, the predicted storm. Listening, she could hear no tinny drumming sound where the house gutter ought to have been fixed. Not raining yet, then. Pat had his raincoat. She had reminded him.

But, sitting in her favorite corner of the living room, she felt uneasy. Why? All her duties had been done, little Sue abed, dinner ready—“held back” in the oven—table set, house and herself neatened, the whole ménage ready for Pat to come home. She must feel guilty for having been reading so long, going with the novel, absorbed by the characters. Was it so long?

She looked at the time. Pat was a little late, but half an hour was nothing. He would come in a minute.

Anabel chewed her lip. Had she apologized? Yes, as she remembered, they had both apologized—well enough. Pat for making the date with the Provost and his wife for some stupid party on Saturday night when Anabel had wanted to go to the concert. And Anabel for blowing off almost all of her disappointment and disapproval. She had a temper; this was understood by both of them. Yes, they had given each other the pecks and the pats that signified “I’ll get over it.” And Anabel had sputtered around the house for twenty minutes more and then had been over it. Hadn’t given it another thought, until now.

It wasn’t worth another thought. She got up and went around to all the windows. It was going to rain and she might as well batten down the hatches. When she had made the complete round of their neat modern house, all on one floor and on its way to being furnished, although still on the bare side, Anabel worried briefly for the seeds she had put in hopefully along the garden wall. Rain would be wonderful—if it didn’t wash them out. Anabel liked her house and garden very much and was in the midst of many projects. Why didn’t Pat come?

She sighed and loosened her shoulders, took a couple of dance steps, considered music. But she did not turn on the FM. She went back to her chair and her book, wishing, for some reason, to keep her ear on the state of the universe.

The book was losing her or she was losing the book. She kept listening for the car, for the phone, for the rain.

At a quarter of seven, she leaped up, ran to the kitchen, and turned everything all the way off. Dinner wasn’t going to be very good, she thought ruefully.

Then, moving slowly on her long, handsome legs, holding her honey-colored head to one side, pushing her lower lip out in the expression of the stubborn child who “doesn’t care,” Anabel went to the phone and dialed the university’s number. No answer. She dialed the night number, asked to be connected with Pat’s extension. No answer. Anabel hung up and scolded herself for such female carryings-on as this. But it was seven o’clock, so she found and dialed another number.

“Joanne? This is Anabel O’Shea.”

“Oh, hi.”

“Say, did Pat leave late, or something, do you know?”

“He left about his usual time,” said Joanne Knowles. “Why, Anabel?”

“Well, he hasn’t gotten here and I’m wondering what to do with some pretty sad-looking lamb chops.”

“But it’s after seven!”

“That’s what I mean. Well, he’s been detained someplace, that’s all. I didn’t know but what the Provost had everybody locked up in a meeting, and Pat was stuck.”

“No, no. He left … it must have been just a bit after five thirty. I’m sorry I can’t tell you anything more. I’m sorry if you’re worried,” worried Joanne.

“Oh, I’m not, really. Just wondering.” Anabel chatted a few minutes more. When she hung up she heard the rain beginning.

The storm had been a long time breaking, but when it broke it was a deluge. The drumming of the drops lasted only a moment. Then the rain fell in a solid, relentlessly total rush. “Wow!” said Anabel aloud.

She moved the draperies in the living room. Even the streetlights were nothing but a yellow shimmer behind silver. Nobody could drive in this. Wherever Pat was, he would have to stay, now, and wait this out. No use expecting him. He could not come in this rain. The house felt like a locked box, shut up to only its own supply of air. It was hard to breathe. Anabel hoped that Sue, who was only four, wouldn’t wake up and be frightened. There was nothing to be afraid of, was there?

The rain fell on the plain and on the mountains.

Partway up the mountain, within the pass, there was a diner, a place called Hamburger Haven. Ten minutes after the storm began, the place was packed. For one thing, a transcontinental bus driver had come early, thankfully shepherding his flock. Then one motorist after another had crept gratefully off the road into the parking space and he, and whatever passengers he carried, had come running through the wall of water. Now the place steamed with damp people, and the help scurried desperately to serve everyone, for people were stimulated to great hunger and thirst by the adventure of it. But they were genial and patient with each other, safe here from the weather and all of them, in a manner of speaking, in the same boat. They were noisy. Hamburger Haven was doing a business that literally roared.

When the rain had been coming down some twenty-five minutes, the door opened once more. “Mule” Mueller, behind the counter, saw a plump man, dashing water from his hat brim, zigzagging between groups of people, talking to himself.

He reached the counter and a customer moved obligingly to give the newcomer room. “Great night for ducks, eh?” said the customer. “I dunno how we ever made it,” said the plump man earnestly, fearfully, triumphantly. “I tell you, it’s a miracle. Got a cup of coffee there, Mac? What’ll you have?”

The plump man’s head turned far to his left and slowly his whole torso began to twist left. Then he turned back and said to Mule, “Where’s the fellow that came in with me?”

Mule shook his head slightly.

“Wait a minute,” said the plump one. “You saw us come in.”

“Saw you, mister.”

“Huh?” The plump one pulled away from the counter and went weaving his way back to the door. Mule had a few floodlights out there, but they were helpless. The plump man opened the door and peered out. There was just this silver brightness. He stood there in the open door, a fine mist blowing in past him, until somebody shouted, “Hey, shut the door. Do you mind?”

Whereupon the plump man shut the door. He came back to the counter and leaned upon it heavily. Damp and pale.

“Coffee, you said?” Mule inquired.

“Right. Yeah. Thanks.”

The plump man’s excitement had leaked out of him entirely. He was silent and subdued. He rubbed his chin, his cheeks. He took off his glasses suddenly and rubbed his eyes with stiff fingers.

The rain roared upon the old roof and it rushed down all around. Within the room dust seemed to be shaken out of the walls and ceiling. The place was dry and dusty. Pat O’Shea blamed his own sense at first. He thought the roaring was in his own head and the acrid air a dryness in his own nostrils.

He knew that he was hurt. When he tried to open his eyes his head ached violently. There was light from some source, here where he was, and the light hit his pupils like a knife cut. So he held his lids against pain and tried to guess where he was. He was lying on something soft and he was covered. He could listen.…

“Ah, now. Ah, now. They couldn’t and I knew they couldn’t. Never, never keep him. Not Johnny Pryde. Eh, Rex? Eh? Eh?”

A woman’s voice, was it? A dog barked. Not loudly. It was just as if the dog had understood her words and was answering them. The dog was saying, “That’s right.”

The woman said, “That’s right. Johnny’s home. Eh, Rex? Ah, now. Johnny Pryde. Them cops, never going to get you. Not you. No more. No fear,” she said.