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A Dismal Thing To Do
A Madoc and Janet Rhys Mystery
By Charlotte MacLeod
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Charlotte MacLeod
All rights reserved.
Janet Wadman Rhys was not much given to cussing, as a rule. She was doing some now, partly at the neighbor who'd given her the directions, but mostly at herself for having been fool enough to follow them. This was one hell of a time to be out on a strange road with the snow piled six or eight feet high on either side and just about room enough for a weasel to squeak past her.
Thus far, she'd been lucky enough not to meet an oncoming vehicle. Her luck, however, was about to run out. Here she was, almost to the top of a fairly steep hill and a truck coming at her over the crest. Now what was a person to do? That truck wasn't wasting any time, either; spiked tires, most likely. Janet wished to heaven she had them, too. Driving this little car over hard-packed snow that had been glazed by the thaw and freeze of early March was like riding a puck over a hockey rink.
There was a turnoff plowed out in front of the one lone house perched atop the hill. If she could only make that before the truck bore down on her—but she wouldn't. The truck was there already, not slackening speed at all. It would roar down this icy channel and she'd be—great God Almighty!
Janet couldn't imagine what caused it. She couldn't believe it had happened. The truck didn't brake, didn't skid. It simply flopped over and lay there with its wheels spinning. Its left-hand side—the driver's left—was down into the snow-bank. The rest of it was clear across the road, looking to be high as a meeting house steeple, showing underparts chunked up with greasy, filthy ice.
"How am I ever going to get him out?"
That was all Janet could think of. Somebody was inside that cab. Somebody had to get the door open and help him out. Or her, or them. Janet hadn't had time to notice before the crash. She couldn't see anybody now, but she could see clearly enough there'd be no escape for anybody through that down-side door. She had a shovel in her trunk. She could tunnel through to the door, maybe, but what if the whole rig came crashing down on top of her? She'd have to work from the high side.
Maybe the driver wasn't much hurt, only dazed from the shock. The truck had gone over so softly, so easily. No matter; a person couldn't sit here waiting to find out if they were alive or dead. She must climb up there and get that cab open and—and what? And how?
Janet Rhys was a small woman, young and slender, wearing a lovely new coat of handspun Welsh wool in a gentle tapestry of blues and grays, with touches of gold and a bronzy brown that matched her hair. The coat had been a present from Sir Emlyn and Lady Rhys, who still couldn't understand how their tone deaf younger son had managed to snare himself a charming, sensible, well-brought-up wife like Janet. They'd settled for shameless pampering and increasingly unsubtle hints about a first grandchild.
Janet hated the thought of ruining their handsome gift on those scarily exposed internal workings, but that wouldn't have stopped her. What in fact was going to stop her, Janet realized once she'd got out of her own car and gone to look the situation over, was that the cab door was so high up and she was so low down.
At the angle the truck was tilted, she could see no way to climb up. She thought of driving her own car closer and standing on the roof, but there was no room to maneuver. She thought of going to the house for help, but with that flopped-over body blocking the way, she couldn't even see whether there'd been a path dug, much less get at one. It wasn't going to help the trapped driver if she tried to cut across the field, foundered in snow far over her head, and smothered herself to death. Anyway, if there was a path, and people in me house, why hadn't they come out by now?
Twenty meters or so behind her was a tumbledown barn, built smack up against the road. Maybe there'd be a ladder inside, or at least a board she could use for a ramp. She yelled as loudly as she could, "I'm going to look for something to climb over," in case the driver was conscious and worried. Then she returned to her car and backed down.
There was a pretty high drift between her and the barn, but Janet thought it must surely be packed hard enough to climb over. She picked up her pocketbook, then tossed it back under the seat. She'd want both hands free for the ladder if, God willing, she found one. She did take along the emergency blanket Madoc wouldn't let her travel without, though. This was a space-age oblong of some silvery synthetic material that weighed nothing to speak of but was tough enough to serve as a carrier or a sled.
The drift was frozen solid, and boards were off the barn. Janet had no trouble getting inside. It was a rickety old place and the hay in the loft stank of mold, but there was a ladder of sorts leading up. She was shaking the sides, trying to free it from the puddle of ice that was sticking it to the floor, when the truck blew up.
Janet didn't know it was the truck, not then. She only knew she was flat on her face with spoiled hay in her mouth and half the barn on top of her. She assumed she'd been knocked senseless; she had no idea for how long. She didn't think she was seriously hurt. Her thick wool hat, heavy winter clothing, and the mounds of hay must have saved her skull and bones. By dint of some painful squirming, she managed to get out from under.
Probably she was in shock. She spent a fair while straightening her hat, picking straws out of her coat, kicking away splintered boards to clear a path to the drift. Then she realized she was smelling oily smoke and burning metal, and thought to look up the road. The hilltop was one mass of flame.
"Oh God," she murmured, not swearing this time. She might as well forget about the ladder. Nothing was going to help that driver now. And what about the people in the house? Why hadn't they come out to help? Or had they, and met the blast head-on?
She must get back to her car. She must somehow turn around and go for help. Janet picked up her survival blanket, perhaps because it was the only thing left whole and familiar in this direful place, and climbed back out to the road.
Her car was not there.
Janet decided after a while that she hadn't been knocked silly. She knew perfectly well she'd left the car right beside the barn. She could see her own footprints on the road where she'd stepped out and walked around to clamber up over the packed snow. Her first thought was that the car must have been blown up along with the truck, but there was no debris of the right sort. Her car had been a shiny bright blue, with blue plastic seats. Nothing she could see was bright enough or blue enough to have belonged to it, not that Janet was any expert, but neither was she blind or stupid.
What had happened was clear enough. The driver had managed to get out of the cab, probably through the window on the high side, and jump down, which would have been a darn sight easier than climbing up. He'd hopped into her car while she was inside the barn, coasted backward down that slippery hill, and been able to drive away because she'd been fool enough to leave the keys in the ignition. He'd panicked, she supposed. He must have known the truck was going to explode. But damn and blast him, he might have had the decency to blow the horn rather than leave her stranded.
He'd meant to leave her stranded. That was why he'd coasted, so she wouldn't hear her engine starting. He'd been a hijacker, most likely. Now what was she to do?
There really was only one thing she could do under the circumstances, which was to stand there watching the fire, hoping somebody would see the flames and smoke and come along. She hadn't passed a house in ages, and it wouldn't make much sense to go prowling around unknown roads by herself on foot with the sun going down. Maybe there was something up ahead she could get to when the road became passable.
As to expecting the person who took her car to have an attack of conscience and come back to get her, she might as well forget it. He'd find her registration and plenty of gas money in that handbag she'd so kindly tossed back before she went into the barn. He'd even find a box of gingersnaps to munch on if he got hungry. She'd meant to drop them off with old Briard Dupree, one of her sister-in-law's many uncles, having been under the mistaken assumption that Muriel's directions would take her close to where he lived. She hadn't the remotest idea where she was now, but it surely wasn't anywhere near Uncle Briard's.
Oh well, somebody was bound to come along soon. So Janet kept telling herself, but nobody did. Why not? A blaze like this must be visible from a considerable distance. At least she wasn't cold. The heat was intense enough to warm the air even down here where she was standing, away from the smoke. It was also melting the snow, sending a running stream down to soak her boot soles. She climbed up on some of the shattered barn boards to get out of the wet, and kept on standing.
All that water had to affect the fire at last. The flames were dying down, the twists of metal turning from red to black. Pretty soon she'd be able to pick her way around the mess and find the path to the house. There had to be a path. It was going to be pitch dark in a little while. Janet took yet another look at her watch, a charming whimsy Madoc had given her for Valentine's Day so she could count the shining hours they spent together. She'd meant to be home early so she could fix him a special supper tonight.
Why in the name of all that was good and holy didn't anybody come? She still could see no sign of life over at the house. Maybe they were off doing their shopping, or gone to Florida till the spring thaw. Well, she had to get a move on regardless. The fire was really down now, just a mess of junk, cinders, and slop. The cold was getting into her bones. Janet flung the insulated blanket around her like a shawl and began to circle the wreckage. It was impossible to keep out of the puddles and these new boots of hers, she found, were less waterproof than they'd been cracked up to be.
At least there was a path, though not much of one. It looked to her as if somebody with big feet had tramped it out during the first storm of the year, then depended on added footpower to keep it barely passable. Janet floundered along over the bumps and holes as best she could, with a sinking feeling that she'd find nothing at the end but an empty house and a locked door.
The house did appear to be deserted, but the door was unlatched. Janet knocked and called out a few hellos, got no answer, and decided this was no time to stand on ceremony. They'd be back from wherever they'd gone; whoever they were. It hardly seemed likely they'd have left the place wide open if they were going to be gone for any great length of time.
Not that there looked to be anything here worth stealing. The small vestibule in which Janet found herself held nothing but a scrap of old carpet and a lot of dirty footprints. To her right was the front room, or the remains of one, with a broken-down chesterfield and a couple of armchairs that had wads of gray stuffing hanging out of them. There was a rusted airtight stove with a galvanized coal hood beside it that held only a few sticks of kindling. No furnace, she supposed. No electric lights that she could make out. No running water, like as not. And no telephone, darn it.
At least she might be able to keep from freezing to death. Whoever had left that kindling wouldn't begrudge a traveler in distress. Janet only hoped to the Lord they'd left matches, too.
They had, not wooden matches but a couple of little cardboard folders with advertising on them from some bar and grill in a foreign country. Bangor, Maine. Funny, Janet wasn't used to thinking of the States as a foreign country. Maybe it was because she felt like a foreigner herself, here in a strange house on an unknown road with not a soul around to tell her where she was, much less get her away.
She wadded up a piece of newspaper—just an advertising circular, unfortunately, with no address on it that might help her orient herself—and put it in the stove with some of the kindling. Nobody had bothered to rake out the ashes for ages, she noticed. Whoever lived here certainly didn't go in for housework. Or else nobody really lived here at all.
Madoc had told her about what he called "squats," derelict houses that people with no place else to go simply moved into, making out as best they could with none of the facilities people nowadays had got accustomed to. Maybe this was a squat. All right, she'd be a squatter. Janet touched one of the cardboard matches to the newspaper, waited till she saw the kindling start to catch, and shut the stove. She'd have to go easy on the firewood unless there was a cache somewhere. Too bad she hadn't brought some of those barn boards. If, God forbid, she got stuck here for the night, she supposed she might go back there and drag in a load, using her trusty plastic blanket for a skid.
Think positive, she adjured herself. Somebody absolutely had to come along pretty soon. The road had been plowed, so it must lead from somewhere to somewhere. Any car that tried to get through would be held up by that mass of wreckage in the road. She could rush out and yell to its driver for help. In the meantime, she'd better hunt around for something else to burn. She might even find a kettle and the odd tea bag. She could melt snow for hot water on the stove if she had to.
And, please God, let there be a bathroom, or at least a privy she could get at without wallowing through any more snow. Janet didn't relish leaving the meager warmth of the stove to poke around this dark old place by herself, but she had no choice, so she went.
The next room had nothing in it at all except more dirty footprints, but there was a kitchen of sorts beyond it, and a woodshed behind that. There she did find some stove wood. She'd also, judging from the reek, found out where the squatters did their personal squatting.
This was perhaps the most distasteful act Janet had ever performed, but by now she was in no condition to cavil at local custom. At least she had a few tissues in her coat pocket. She used one as daintily as possible under the circumstances and took it back with the logs to burn in the stove. A detective inspector's wife knew better than to leave any clue that she'd actually peed on somebody else's woodshed floor. Then she opened the front door to wash her hands in snow and take a long look up and down the road. Then she sighed and went back to see about that tea bag.
There wasn't one, but she did find a bottle of brandy about two-thirds empty and a few smeary tumblers on the counter. She ignored the glasses, took a dusty teacup down from a shelf, wiped it out on her petticoat, poured herself a modest slug after having sniffed with care to make sure the stuff in the bottle really was brandy, went and got another dollop of snow to tone it down a little, and carried the cup back to the front room.
She also took along an oil lamp she'd found while she was looking for the tea bag. The chimney was smoked up and the wick in need of trimming, but there was still oil in the bottom, so she lit the lamp and set it in the window, for whatever good that might do.
The stove was sending out some warmth now, not enough to encourage taking off one's hat and coat, but enough to suggest setting one's wet boots underneath and hoping for the best. Janet dragged the less ratty of the armchairs as close as she dared, wrapped herself in the emergency blanket, and took a sip of the brandy. It landed in her empty stomach with an agreeable wallop.
Now that darkness had made it impossible to see the shambles around her, the yellowish glow from the lamp and the bit of red showing through the stove's open damper made the room seem almost cozy. Janet was tired, she realized, more tired than she ought to be. Now that she had nothing to do but sit and count her aches and pains, she discovered quite a few. Lots of bruises, no doubt, from getting the barn dumped on her. Madoc would have a fit.
Whatever had been in the truck to create such a blast? Could an exploding gas tank knock down a building a fair distance away? That had been no great tractor trailer, just a truck. A top-heavy truck. Janet could see it well enough even now, lying there across the road with its roof in the snowbank. Like a horse box, she thought. High in proportion to its length. Bigger, of course. A giraffe box? Silly! A moving van. A van for moving giraffes. This must be terrible brandy.
Excerpted from A Dismal Thing To Do by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1986 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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