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COUPLINGS BANGED TOGETHER UP ahead. We were slowing. I stood up in the swaying gondola and looked forward along the right side of the train. Pinpoints of light showed wetly in the distance. We continued to lose speed.
Then just before we reached the station, the block changed from red to green, the drawbars jerked, and the beat of the wheels began to climb. I cursed. I had to get off and it had to be now; daybreak couldn't be far away. I went over the right side, groping for the ladder. When I had a foot on the last rung I leaned out and jumped, pumping my legs. I landed awkwardly, fell, and rolled.
When I stopped I was lying face down in the mud. I raised my head and turned a little so I could breathe, and rested, wondering if I had broken anything. Wheels and trucks roared past, and then the train was gone. I sat up. My legs and arms seemed to be all right. Less than a hundred yards away, on the other side of the track, was the station, a darker shadow in the night with a single cone of light at this end illuminating the sign. CARLISLE. EL. 8 FT. SANPORT 51 MI. I hadn't got very far. But nowhere would have been far enough. Not this side of the moon.
I was drowned, chilled to the marrow of my bones, and plastered with mud. Cold rain drummed on my head. I swore bitterly and put up a hand. My hat was gone. I began sweeping my hands around in the darkness, slapping at mud and water. It was useless. It had blown off when I jumped and could be two hundred yards away. I'd never find it, and I was wasting precious time. I had to find some place to get out of sight.
I stood up quickly, trying to orient myself. The beach should be across the tracks and beyond the town. I could see the highway paralleling the tracks and two principal streets at right angles to it. I was almost in line with the near one and could see down three or four blocks of it, shiny, deserted, and rainswept in the pools of light under street lamps and in front of store windows. If the beach weren't any further than I remembered, I should be able to reach it before daybreak and find a summer cottage, but I'd have to circle to avoid those lights.
I turned and started along the tracks, going as fast as I could in the darkness. Then, without warning, a car came out of the street at my back, swinging the corner. I dived and hit the mud just before its headlights swept over me. It was a police cruiser, shooting its spotlight into doorways facing the highway. It turned at the next corner, going back toward the beach.
Two hundred yards ahead I crossed the tracks and the highway and plunged into a dark side street overhung with trees. My teeth chattered with cold. Water sloshed in my shoes. The rain was slowly washing mud out of my hair down across my face. Beyond darkened windows men and women slept in warm beds, touching each other.
The trees and houses began to thin out. Sidewalks gave way to mud, and I was in an area of vacant lots grown up with scrub palmetto. I could hear the fronds clashing and scraping in the cold north wind. In a few minutes I came out on the beach. There was no surf because the wind was blowing offshore. Off to my left were some darker masses of shadow that appeared to be sheds and piers, probably for shrimp boats. It seemed to be growing lighter.
I was past the pier and down on the beach again, on sand. There was no doubt now that time was running out on me; pitch blackness was giving way to a murky and rainswept gray. Then in another few minutes I saw the dark silhouettes of houses on the higher ground above the beach. There were two about fifty yards apart, and then three more farther ahead. There were no lights showing.
I left the water's edge and came up behind the first one. There was a window, but no door, except in the shed that was attached to it on the right. That would be the garage, I thought. The window was dark, but not boarded up. I put my ear against it and listened. There was no sound except the drumming of rain on the roof. Well, what the hell did I expect to hear? If there were people inside they'd be asleep. I circled it warily. In front there was a road surfaced with crushed oyster shells, faintly luminous in the predawn gloom, and two or three anemic transplanted palms clashing in the storm. But there was no car. I stepped softly onto the front porch. There were two windows and a door. The door was locked.
I slipped over and felt the doors of the attached garage. They were secured with a hasp and padlock. But that still wasn't proof there was no car inside. I slipped around in back again, sticking close to the wall to stay married to the dark bulk of the house. In addition to the door, there was a small window in the rear of the garage. It was latched on the inside.
I bumped into something. It was a bamboo pole, leaning against the roof. Using the butt of it, I knocked out one of the small panes of the window. Shards of glass tinkled, not too loudly, on the concrete floor inside. Reversing the pole, I shoved it full length in through the opening and swung it from side to side. It encountered nothing. I groped around inside for the latch, released it, and slid the window open. It took only a moment to wiggle through and fall on the floor inside. I could have cut myself on the glass under me, but I was too numb with exposure to tell—or care.
It was growing lighter. After a while I could see the outline of a door going into the house. I stood up and tried it. It was locked. I looked around the garage for something with which to jimmy it open. It was going to turn colder, with this north wind blowing, and another twelve to twenty-four hours in wet clothing might be more exposure than I could stand. There could be blankets inside, or I might even be lucky enough to find dry clothes.
The only tool I could see was an old claw-hammer hanging from two nails on the rear wall beside the window. Maybe I could use it to beat in one of the panels of the door, but it would make enough noise to rouse everybody in this end of the county. Then I noticed it was hinged to swing outward. I pulled one of the nails on which the hammer had been hanging, straightened it, and drove the pins out of the hinges. It took only a minute to pry the door out and set it aside. I released the locking plunger on the inside knob, and rehung the door, driving the pins back in place.
It opened into the kitchen. In the growing light I could make out a small gas stove and refrigerator, then the counter and sink at the rear wall to the left. On the right there was a small dining area with a table and two chairs, and a heavily curtained window. I went through the connecting doorway, trailing water on the floor. It was a large living room. Curtains were drawn over the windows at front and rear, permitting very little light to seep through, but I could see the stone fireplace against the opposite wall and just to the left of it another doorway. I stepped across and peered in. It was the bedroom. The curtains here were of lighter material, and I could see fairly well. At the right there was a bed with a wine-colored corduroy spread, and a dresser and chest. An open doorway at the left led into the bathroom. This was all of it. The whole place was cold and damp.
Water was still oozing from the ruin of my clothing. I stepped inside the bathroom and stripped, throwing suit, shirt, tie, shoes, underwear, and socks into the tub in one soggy mass. I caught sight of my face in the mirror. One eye was swollen almost shut, and there was a big puffy area on my jaw. I felt the back of my head and winced. As far as I could tell, however, the skin wasn't broken. My right hand was swollen and stiff. Rubbing myself harshly with a towel, I located a blanket in a linen closet in the bedroom, gathered it around me, and lay down on the bed. It was a long time before I began to feel warm. I thought about the hat. It had my initials in it.
I rolled off the bed, feeling lightheaded with the craving for a cigarette. There was a clothes closet beside the dresser; maybe I could find something to put on. There were several things on padded hangers in an atmosphere of sachet, but they were all feminine—two or three cotton dresses, a pair of shorts, some blouses, and a nylon slip. That seemed strange. I located a safety pin on the dresser. Fastening the blanket about my shoulders, I went back to the kitchen.
There was a row of cupboards above the sink. I started yanking them open and hit the jackpot within ten seconds—an unopened carton of cigarettes and a bottle of bourbon more than three-quarters full. I ripped open a pack of cigarettes, found some matches on another shelf, and lighted up. The first drag was sheer ecstasy. I grabbed the whisky and took it straight out of the bottle. Warmth and colored lights exploded inside me, and for a moment I was limp. I put the bottle away and quickly ransacked the rest of the shelves. I found an unopened pound of coffee, several cans of corned beef, a box of crackers, and some jam. I stared at it. I could hide out here for days.
In a few minutes I was drinking scalding black coffee and eating cold corned beef out of the can. I felt a lot better. Pouring another cup of coffee, I dropped a slug of bourbon in it, lighted a cigarette, and carried it out into the living room to explore the place.
Before the fireplace, on a shaggy white rug, was a long coffee table covered with glass. In back of it was a studio couch, and at one end a chaise longue, both covered with that same wine-red corduroy I'd seen on the bed in the other room. There was a bridge lamp and a small magazine stand at one end of the couch. The floor was rubber-tiled, and in the center of the room was an oval braided rug some eight feet long. Because of the heavy drapes there was still very little light, and it was intensely silent except for the soft and almost soothing sound of the rain.
Near the front window was a large oak desk and a swivel chair. At one end of it was a typewriter stand on which was a covered typewriter. A shaded lamp was suspended from the ceiling above it. There were several books on the desk and a stack of papers held down by an onyx paperweight. In the corner was a small gas heater. The whole wall beside the desk was lined with bookshelves, and near the door going out into the kitchen and dining area was a small table on which was a telephone and a radio in a white plastic case. I went over and turned on the radio, just clicking the switch but leaving the gain all the way down. The pilot light glowed. Maybe I could get some news. I looked at my watch. It had stopped; I'd forgotten to wind it.
Then I was struck by an odd thought. If this were a summer cottage closed for the season, why were the gas, water, and electricity still turned on? Suddenly I heard a car going past outside. I stepped quickly to the front window and pulled the edge of the curtain back just enough to peer out. It was a yellow school bus.
I could see nothing of the cottage next to this one, or in fact any of those on this side, but some hundred yards on down the puddled and rainswept road there was one on the other side. Apparently there were people living in it now. The school bus turned around there and stopped. Two small children in yellow raincoats and hats came out and got in. The bus came back. I let the curtain drop back in place and heard it go on by and fade away. I was just about to turn away from the window when I heard something else. It was another one, passing slowly in the opposite direction. I parted the curtain again and froze.
It was a police cruiser and it was stopping. Two men in black raincoats and uniform caps with plastic rain covers got out, one of them going out of sight in the direction of the cottage next door. The other was turning this way. I dropped the curtain back in place just in time. A heavy step sounded on the porch, and then the door moved slightly beside my hand as he tried the knob. He rattled it once, and checked the window. I held my breath.
He tested the window at the front of the kitchen. I heard the padlock on the garage doors rap against the wood as he went by and slapped it with a hand to be sure it was fastened. He was going around the side of the garage. The hat, I thought. Somebody had found the damned thing, and now they knew they had me pinned down in this jerkwater town. No, maybe it was just a routine check-up of unoccupied summer cottages—
Then fear hit me in the back like icy water. I'd forgotten that broken pane of glass. And the kitchen door was unlocked!
Somehow I put the coffee cup on the desk without dropping or rattling it and sped toward the kitchen. My bare feet made no sound on the tile. Just as I reached the door I heard him call out to the other one.
"Hey, Roy. Come here!"
He'd discovered the broken window.
I shoved a finger against the button in the center of the knob and pressed. There was only a faint click as it locked, but it seemed to hang there in the silence forever. I breathed again, afraid to move or even take my hand away from the knob.
"Look at this," I heard him say then. "I think he's been here."
Somebody had found the hat. And even with the rain, there'd still be tracks and my long skid marks in the mud, so they'd know I had unloaded from the freight. They probably had the town surrounded by now.
"Knocked it out so he could reach the latch," said a purring and very Southern voice. Roy had come over. "You look inside?"
"You think I'm nuts? He may have a gun."
I wondered where they thought I'd got one. My muscles ached from the tense and rigid position I was in. The cigarette in my left hand was beginning to burn my fingers. I was afraid even to let it fall to the floor; it might sound as if somebody had dropped a piano.
"Come out of there, Foley!" Roy ordered. There was a moment of complete silence, and then he said, "Let me have your flashlight."
"Take it easy, will you?" the other replied. "He's already killed one cop; one more ain't going to bother him."
"We got to see in there."
"Stand clear." There was another instant of tense silence, and then Roy's voice said, "He's gone. But he's been here. See all that water on the floor?"
The voices dropped to whispers. "He went on into the house through that door. Run around and cover the front. I'm goin' in."
"Hadn't we better call in for help?"
"Help, hell. I'll get the cop-murderin' bastard."
Footsteps sounded on the wet sand outside, and I heard Roy's body slide through the window and fall onto the floor of the garage. Shoes scraped on concrete, and then he was testing the kitchen door. My hand was still on the knob, and I could feel it move slightly as he rattled it. I tried not to breathe. He tried it again.
The other came back. "What is it?"
"Door's locked. And ain't no sign it's been forced. Ain't a scratch on it."
"Don't make sense, though, he'd go back out in the rain when he had a dry place to hide."
"Wait! He's in there, all right. Look. The garage door was locked, and so was the window, because he had to break it. So this one probably wasn't. He just went inside and locked it himself."
I sighed. I didn't have a chance now.
"No," one of the voices said quickly, "wait a minute. This door was locked. Remember? We checked it the other day when we made the round. Somebody'd left the garage door open and kids had been playin' in here, so we tried this one before we locked up."
"Yeah. That's right."
I wondered how much more of it I could take.
"Sure funny he'd leave without even tryin' to get in the house. He'd need dry clothes and something to eat."
"Probably wasn't anything he could use."
Oh, sweet Jesus—the hammer! Then I realized I was looking right at it. There on the counter by the sink. I'd carried it inside without realizing it.
"Well, we're wasting time here. We know he's around somewhere, so he's probably broken into one of the others. And we got to search all them shrimp boats."
Roy climbed out the window, and I heard them drive away. I felt limp as I walked slowly into the living room and collapsed on the couch. When I crushed out what was left of the cigarette I saw it had burned blisters on my fingers.
Excerpted from Man on the Run by Charles Williams. Copyright © 1958 Fawcett Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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