Diantha is finally asleep upstairs. The police and the press have all gone home. Matters have concluded, more or less. But my goodness, what a couple of days. It was only yesterday, but it feels like eons ago, that it all started to unravel or ravel, as the case may be.
The nature of Diantha's absence became terribly apparent when I answered a knock on the door yesterday morning to find one of the boys who live in the neighborhood standing there with a note in his hand. "I'm supposed to give this to you, Mister. Number sixty-eight, right."
"Right," I said, taking the plain white envelope. "Who gave it to you?"
"A guy on a motorcycle."
"What did he look like?"
"I couldn't tell. He had his visor down. He gave me ten bucks and told me to wait ten minutes before I rang your bell."
"Can you remember anything about him?"
"No, but he was driving a really cool hog."
"I see. Well thank you."
I don't know how I remained so outwardly calm as premonitory alarm made my hands shake. When the door closed, I tore open the envelope. In block print script it said:
If you want to see your precious Di again, old man, be here precisely at noon tomorrow, alone. We'll trade. Her life for the tape. Any whisper of this to the authorities and she'll be dead meat.
At first I did not know what to do other than call Lieutenant Tracy and leave the matter in his competent hands. But I knew Manfred Bannerhoff and what he was capable of. I knew I was dealing with a psychopath. I also knew that if I simply went there, he would probably kill us both. The hopelessness of the situation made me fall into a lethargy of despair. The only real recourse was to call the police and take the chance that they would find her and rescue her before this maniac could wreak his revenge on her. But I could not bring myself to do it.
I struggled for some time with these demons. Poor Diantha, I thought. What terrors she must be going through! And I helpless to help her. Half of the time I was on the verge of calling Lieutenant Tracy; half on the verge of making a big pitcher of martinis and rendering myself insensate.
Then the determination to rescue her myself fired me with resolve. Absurd, yes. But in nightmares begin responsibilities. I had my father's trusty gun. I am physically in shape thanks to my daily walking back and forth to work. It's true that I'm not particularly fearless. But love and desperation lent me courage, however phantasmal. Like one of those revelations that make you into another person, I realized I was willing to die for Diantha.
But also, I like to think I'm smart, smarter than Freddie Bain, anyway. So how to go about it? How to storm that fortress-like den of depraved absurdity? After a few moments of pacing and thinking, I drove out to an older mall located on the south side of the city. There, as I remembered, was an establishment called Things for the Wild. It's been taken over by a chain, clearly, but it still had most of the items I needed.
"Camping," I said to the young lady who approached and asked if she could help. "I'll need rugged hiking boots, thermal underwear, some climbing rope."
For rescue purposes, I suppose, much of the outerwear came in bright colors. I managed to find some that were nearly white. We spent a good hour and a half at it. I bought crampons, an ice ax, a wrist compass. By the time we finished, I could have ascended Mount Everest, especially if Diantha were up there for me to rescue. I doubted my chances at the Eigermount would be any better.
My final item was the Geological Survey map of the area. "Near Tinkerton," I told her. It took us a while, but we finally found one. It was the last copy. Fate, I thought, was on my side. I paid at the register and took my considerable bundles out to the car. Standing there in the innocent parking lot, quotidian life bustling all about me, I wondered if I was simply indulging a silly fantasy. Then I thought of Diantha, of the suffering she must be going through, and my determination returned stronger than ever.
At home I laid out the map on the kitchen table. It was relatively easy, starting in Tinkerton and following the road to where it crosses Alkins Creek, to locate the wretched place even though there was no little black square to indicate its existence. From the contour lines, I determined that the building was set against the west side of a high long hill, as much a ridge as a small mountain. The approaches from the other side of the rise were steep, forming two mounts with a dip in between, a saddleback. Below that, down a short, steep slope, I would find the back of the structure. I saw how I could drive in on another road from the east to within two and a half miles. I could arrive at dawn, make my way up the steep way in the back, come over the top, and take them by surprise.
By surprise? Wouldn't he have some kind of security system? Those awful lights that go on when they detect movement? Video cameras that see in the dark? All of the above as well as dogs? The thought of dogs daunted me the most. Dogs like me, but I have never been comfortable around them. Dogs, I thought, pacing the kitchen lengthwise. Then I remembered how, in some film I had watched with Elsbeth, the good guys had neutralized the vigilant canines with doped meat.
Why not do the same? I drove out immediately to a local grocery store and purchased two pounds of very lean hamburger. I also bought myself some of those high energy snacks. On the way home I stopped to fill the little Renault with gas, check the oil and tires. Back in the kitchen, I retrieved some of the pain medicine, a potent form of synthetic morphine, that Elsbeth had taken in her final illness. I took all but one of the pills and rendered them to a white powder in the small stone mortar and pestle my father had brought back decades ago from Central America. This I mixed with about three-quarters of the hamburger. I then wrapped the doped meat in a plastic bag and put it in the rugged little knapsack I had purchased.
I also fetched the tape of Corny's death from an old safe I have here in the house. I wrapped it twice in plastic bags and secured it in a side pocket of the parka.
For a meal I took the remainder of the meat and made myself a big hamburger, which I slathered with mustard and ketchup, put between two pieces of bread, and ate with a beer.
I moved as if in a dream. I laid out my kit -- boots and crampons, thermal underwear and socks made of something called polypropylene, the long-handled climbing ax, the wrist compass, my revolver with an extra box of steel-jacketed rounds, the high energy snacks, a headlamp of the kind miners wear, Gortex overalls and hooded jacket, insulated gloves, and an old hunting knife I received one Christmas as a teenager.
It was late afternoon when I unplugged the phones and set a couple of alarm clocks to ring at two the next morning. I went upstairs, took the morphine pill with a glass of water and got into bed. To my surprise, in retrospect, I fell asleep not long afterwards.
The two clocks brought me up from an energizing nightmare about dogs and darkness. Fully conscious within seconds, I turned off the alarms and went downstairs. I dressed quickly while the coffee brewed. It was snowing when I opened the door to load the car. It had been snowing for some time, and I wondered if the roads into the mountains would be passable. It didn't matter. I would get there one way or another.
How warm and comfortable I felt in my mountaineering clothes! How snug the revolver felt just under the jacket, under my arm in its leather holster. I pocketed Diantha's small portable phone, which she had left on a bureau upstairs. I thought it might come in handy.
I had not counted on a real nor'easter, blowing and snowing like the end of the world. The rented car, wearing snow tires, did very well in the snow. We poked our way out into the ghostly swirl, the street lights glowing through the moving veils of the storm, the chunk, chunk of plows sounding along the bypass.
Nibbling at a snack, sipping coffee from the thermos cup, I got in behind one of those rumbling monsters and let it lay down a swath of sanded-salt for me to follow on. It all seemed dreamlike and very real. I was nearly hyperconscious. I knew I could take the interstate to an exit not far from Tinkerton. I would walk from there if I had to!
Surprisingly enough, I was able to drive relatively close to my projected destination. I didn't do anything theatrical like try to hide the car. I simply found the inlet to a logging road, stopped, backed up, and gave the vehicle enough momentum to plow its way well in off the road.
In the dark, in the silent snow fall, I sat in the car, the lamp on my forehead playing a spot of light over the survey map. I estimated I was 1.8 miles on the Remsdale Road from where it crossed Biggins Brook, a tributary to Alkins Creek. The map showed the logging road as a track. If I followed it in about a mile and then turned north, it would bring me to the foot of the first hill I needed to ascend to get to the back of the house.
Wondering again if I wasn't demented, I started into the dark along the logging road. The wind blew and the snow bit into my face. The illumination from my headlamp played feebly but adequately over the terrain ahead. I realized I should have bought a pair of those small snowshoes because in places my boots broke through the crust, and I found myself struggling, floundering and almost foundering several times. I nearly lost heart, my progress seemed so slow even while on the remnant road. How could I surprise anyone if I arrived in full daylight?
I became so warm I had to open my coat. The wind picked up high in the trees, and the snow deepened the farther I penetrated into the wilderness. I stopped to rest several times. I finished the coffee and put the thermos into my backpack. The whirling snow grew so thick at times I had difficulty keeping on the road. But I kept going. I kept thinking of Diantha. Even if I were to fail, I thought it might be of some comfort to her to know I had tried.
After what I took to be a mile, I turned off the rough road and started through the woods in a northwards direction, checking the compass as I went. The going then got very difficult indeed. Beneath the newly fallen snow was an older layer, treacherous, holding firm one moment and then letting me fall through to my waist the next. Looking back, I don't know what possessed me to keep plowing on. The wireless phone in my pocket suddenly seemed like the most important thing I had brought along. It was my out, as they say. I could always call the operator and get through to the SPD and Lieutenant Tracy. Tell him what the situation was and what I was doing.
I kept going. The hill grew increasingly steep. I stopped to strap on the crampons. In places I had to hook the curved blade of the climbing ax on trees ahead of me to pull my way up. Under a rock ledge I hunkered down to eat an energy snack and drink from the canteen hanging from my belt. It was already nearly seven o'clock, and I knew that, even with the snow and overcast sky, it would be light by the time I reached the madman's lair, and that the advantage of darkness would be gone.
I kept climbing. I felt at times as though I had entered a kind of twilight zone, a realm of unreality in which I was dead and would, with the pain of hope in my heart, spend eternity climbing through snow, wind and darkness toward an ever-receding destination.
Inwardly, close to hallucinating, I ranted at Freddie Bain and heard his smirking replies. Hitler did not triumph! I shouted at him. Then why, Norman, are we still talking about him? Hitler is dead! Then why, Mr. de Ratour, do we need to keep killing him? Because, you swine, it's fun. Hitler was a failed artist! Not by 20th century standards, mon vieux. God is good! God is smiling, my friend, as you fumble towards the unknown.
But the wind eased, the snow abated, and the lilac light of dawn filtered through the trees like an ethereal mist. Its subtle splendor would have enchanted me under other circumstances, would have made me ponder the mystery of so much gratuitous beauty, had it not disheartened me as an impediment to my plans. I struggled on, the dawn brightening into day, until I noticed, up ahead, through the trees, a patch of blue sky.
I came out finally onto a clearing and my heart faltered once more. I could clearly see the twin peaks and the saddleback they formed between them. But they seemed so far away. And the sun shone in full reflected glory. Jays called. Chickadees came down to visit me. I checked to make sure I still had my revolver and continued my grim journey.
It was seven o'clock before I reached the low point between the two modest summits. I tried to keep under cover, but I'm sure anyone on the lookout could have seen me. Exhausted, but with adrenaline pumping through me painfully, I gained the actual ridge and peered down through the trees to the bastion below. It looked nigh well impregnable. Indeed, it appeared like a fortress anchored to the mountainside by the wide bridge, forming the shape of a keyhole.
I took out my birding binoculars and swept over the scene several times. The drive and the walks had been shoveled. It struck me that I could just as well have driven over, parked down the drive, and walked in. Still, it looked peaceful, the narrow mullioned windows glinting and winking, the greenhouse shedding its cover of white so that the blue dazzle of pool water showed through a clear pane. I saw no movement as I panned the scene for several minutes. Then I noticed, looking up at me, as though expecting me, a huge German shepherd. It had come out of a kennel near a door towards the back, where a deck off the lower bridge led to a path that went along the slope.
I ducked back under cover and took off my knapsack. I would drug the beast using the doctored meat. But first I took out the wireless phone. After a few attempts I got through to the switchboard at the SPD. I gave them the three-letter emergency code for Lieutenant Tracy. They put me through to his home. The connection wasn't good. I explained to him where I was and what I was doing.
"Norman, stay where you are," he kept saying. "We'll handle this from here. We know what we're doing."
"You don't know how insane he is," I said. "The first sign of a police cruiser and he'll go berserk."
"Norman, don't do it."
"I'm going in, Lieutenant," I practically shouted into the receiver as the wind, picking up again in that open space, made a racket around me. "It's her only chance."
But I had clicked it off.
I made the bag of doped hamburger handy, hoisted my knapsack back on, took a deep breath, and started, as furtively as I could, down the steep slope toward the back of the house. I stopped every once in a while to check through my binoculars. The dog clearly knew I was there, but it didn't bark. "Nice puppy," I said to it softly, "nice puppy."
The going was rough, precarious. The wind had scoured the area of fresh snow. Iced-over ledges showed through the sparse vegetation. I must have been no more than a hundred feet from where the dog waited when I lost my footing and took an awful spill. I managed, almost by instinct, to do a self-arrest using the ice ax. I bruised my arm and scraped my face. I watched helplessly as the bag of meat in its fragile covering slid down the smoothly crusted snow toward the dog.
For a moment I was utterly disheartened. Surely the animal would bark now and give the alarm. Instead, miraculously, it left the small deck and with clumsy determination, made its way up to where the meat had snagged on a bush poking through the snow. I watched with bated breath as it nosed the pack, pawed at it, and finally freed the hamburger from the plastic bag. It wolfed the meat down in a matter of seconds.
It didn't take long to have an effect. The dog looked up to where I crouched, turned and started back toward the house, its footing unsteady. Not far from the deck, it stopped, sat down, and then lay down. I reached it not long afterwards. I think it was dead. But I had no time for regrets about a dead dog, whatever its innocence. My blood pounded so fiercely I could scarcely think. As stealthily as I could, I made my way to the deck where the dog had its kennel.
A formidable oaken door, studded and barred like those of a Medieval keep, led into the house from the deck. For a handle it had a great wrought iron ring. As quietly as I could, I twisted the ring, felt it give and click. With an ominous creak, the door swung open. I found myself in a dark passage, the darker for my pupils being contracted against the sun-struck snow. I paused a moment. A kind of pantry, curved with the exterior of the building, led off to the right into what I presumed was the kitchen. A bathroom opened to the left. I could see light coming from under the door ahead of me.
I did not have the presence of mind to take out my revolver. I did not have the presence of mind to skirt around the main part of the house through the kitchen. I simply went ahead and started to push open the door in front of me.
It was opened for me with a sudden jerk. I was taken roughly by the arm from the side and propelled into the center of the vast circular space I remembered, as in a nightmare, from my previous visit. Over against the fireplace, on the raised stone area, seated like some kind of petty potentate, was Manfred Bannerhoff, aka Freddie Bain. Near him, on the couch sat Diantha, her face drawn and worried.
"Welcome, Mr. de Ratour. It seems you're just in time for breakfast. We've been expecting you, haven't we Diantha. That's okay, Fang, you can let him go. He's not going to do anything."
"Norman!" Diantha cried, rising as though from a death-bed trance.
"Diantha." I started toward her.
"Stay where you are, both of you, unless ..."
I stopped. It wasn't just that the mesmeric powers in his striking eyes, but besides Fang, whom I recognized as the delivery boy from the Garden of Delights, two well-muscled young men hovered in the background.
Bain pointed to a large television screen next to the fireplace. "We have been enjoying the show, Norman. A jolly good show." He flicked at a remote control. There was the visual screech of a tape rewinding. Then I appeared on the screen, emerging from the woods above the building. "Such a hero. Such a fool." I was looking down with my binoculars. "We've all had a great laugh, Norman. There you are. Now we can't see you. You must be behind the rock, right, getting ready for your assault." I watched, glanced over to Diantha. Are you all right? I mouthed silently. She nodded. I turned back to monitor. At least they hadn't seen me making the phone call.
"Now here's the best part," my awful host announced. On the screen I was trying to get down the steep, windblown slope of iced-over snow. Suddenly, I fall and tumble over several times before I stop myself. The view goes to wide angle, and the dog can be seen making it's way up to the doctored meat. "Poor Mitzi," Freddie Bain said. "What did you put in the meat, Norman?"
"Morphine," I said.
Bain laughed his mean laugh. "She overdosed, like so many of my good friends. Then his laugh died to a snarl. He came towards me. "Mitzi was my friend. She took good care of me. You killed her. And I'm going to kill you, old man, with my bare hands. But first, did you bring the tape?"
"I have it."
"Give it to me."
"I will leave it in the foyer as Diantha and I leave."
Madness showed in his face. "You old fool! You give it now or ... I will kill both of you ... with my bare hands." He laughed. "Or should we inject them with enough of our new potion and let them go at it in the cage, eh, Fang?"
Fang, who had moved away from me, gave a sycophantic laugh along with the other two.
As much to stall for time, I said, "Is that what you did with Ossmann and Woodley?"
"I'm afraid so. Professor Ossmann proved uncooperative in the end."
"So you're the one behind the whole deadly business?"
"Business is right." He smiled wickedly. "When I see a business opportunity, I take it."
"From whom did you take it?"
"Oh, from poor Ossmann, of course. But he, I'm sure, took it from someone else. Now, give me the tape ... "
"What do you plan to do with the ... potion?"
"Free trade, mon vieux, free trade. I will ship it by the carload to the Far East, and, of course, bring back various controlled substances by the carload ..."
"A regular businessman, I see."
His smile became a scowl. He started towards me and stopped. "No, Herr Direktor, not a regular businessman. I will be a force to be reckoned with. I will wreak my vengeance."
A thin smile shaped his lips. "On history, my friend, on history."
"I thought you said history comes and goes." Though fearful I had botched everything, that Diantha and I were both doomed, I still had this compulsion to argue with him.
"Yes. And I will make it stop."
"Make history stop? Of course, that is the essence of despotism, isn't it?"
"I am not in the mood for dialectical diversions, old man. Now, the tape. I paid good money for it. Give it here."
"No first!" he shouted. "You are not here to dictate terms. Perhaps if we started on Miss Lowe that would convince you."
As he turned towards her, I reached into my coat and took out the Smith & Wesson.
Manfred Bannerhoff stopped and threw back his head in a laugh. He turned to the others. "Oh, my goodness, fellas, look, Mr. de Ratour has a weapon."
"Listen ... damn you," I said, determined to get my points across.
Turning towards me, his face malignant, he snarled, "No, you listen, gramps. Face it, you don't have the balls to use that thing, so give it me before you hurt yourself with it."
He was right. I felt like some small beast transfixed by the eyes of a cobra. I could not move. A fatal paralysis froze my limbs, my hands, my fingers. But not my mind, not the urge to beat him with words. "You're wrong," I said, referring to something entirely different. "Hitler ..." I hissed, fierce with refutation.
He stopped and laughed, interrupting me, dismissively shaking his head.
"Listen ..." I started again.
"No! You listen! he thundered and came at me.
I felt the gun jump in my hand. The sound came like an aural shock from afar. More than anything, I think now, I was trying to get his attention. I hadn't even been aiming the thing, just pointing, but the bullet caught his upper left thigh. He went down on his knees, cursing and holding his leg. The other two started towards me and stopped when I swung the gun directly toward them. Fang uttered a cry and ran off behind the door I had come through followed by the others.
"You son of bitch," Mr. Bannerhoff cried. "You old ... " He reached under his tunic and pulled out a Luger.
I fired again, catching him in the right shoulder, making him drop the gun, which clattered to the floor in front of him. He looked at me, his rage turning to amazement. "You, you ... .," he muttered.
"I mean it," I said, still wanting him to pay heed. "Adolph Hitler was no artist."
He lunged for the Luger, screaming in German. I fired again, aiming at his heart. He went down with a thump and lay still. Blood began to pool around him on the polished wood of the floor, just like in the movies.
"And God is not a joker."
I spoke loudly, with bravado, knowing I had won the argument. But I was far more certain of my first utterance than of my second. I also felt a strange vacuity. You cannot argue with a dead man.
It turned into a blur after that. The three men had disappeared. I could hear a helicopter overhead. I took Diantha in my arms and held her. Then, the gun still in my hand, I led her out the way I had come in. We went out past the still Mitzi and up a ways along the hillside. I gave her my parka and we hid in a stand of thick hemlocks.
Presently, a helicopter from the SPD hovered a hundred feet off the deck, its loudspeaker booming orders for everyone to throw down their weapons and come out with their hands up. Not long after that, several ski-mobiles rocketed out into the woods from a basement garage. We could hear gunfire, sirens, men shouting. Then, after what seemed an age, we were both in the back of a four-wheel drive police vehicle. I was wrapped in a blanket. My teeth chattered, but not from the cold.
There's more. But I can't do it right now. I'm dead, dead tired. I'm going to bed, to sleep.