Savage, p.13
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       Savage, p.13

           Richard Laymon
 

  “Shhhh,” the General said. “Let’s go.”

  “Why, I never…” she mumbled. But she didn’t waste any time. Throwing some sour looks in my direction, she scampered out of bed and shoved her feet into slippers. She wore a wool gown so long she had to hoist it a bit so the hem wouldn’t drag the floor.

  The General took the lead. I hung back and stayed behind Mable, figuring to guard the rear. She had a bit of a limp, but she moved along spritely.

  She kept glancing back like she suspected I might knock her on the head with my rock.

  Up the hallway a piece, we rushed into another bedroom.

  The gal in this one must’ve been a light sleeper, for she sat up quick before the General got a chance to call out or knee her bed.

  “Gracious sakes,” she said, “what is going on?”

  “Nothing at all, my dear,” the General told her. “Nothing at all.”

  She frowned, looking fairly perplexed. She was a fine, pretty woman, maybe ten years older than me, with sleek black hair that hung to her shoulders.

  “Nothing?” Mable asked, giving the General a sharp look. “Why, you’ve frightened me out of ten years’ growth. Something had best be going on, you old fool. Who’s this child? What’s he doing in our home?”

  “Trevor Bentley, ma’am,” I said.

  “He came to warn us of a killer in the house,” the General explained.

  “Oh, my,” the younger woman said.

  “You stay here and watch the women, Trev.” With that, he headed for the hallway.

  “Don’t you dare leave us alone with this young rascal,” Mable blurted.

  The General, he let on that he didn’t hear her. He vanished with his lamp. We were in darkness for a bit. Then a match lit up the young woman. Sitting on the edge of her bed, she touched its flame to a lamp on her night table. She turned the wick up bright, and put the chimney over it, and blew out the match.

  Mable went over to the lamp. She picked it up and held it off to her side as if she aimed to pitch it at me. “I’ve dealt with my share of ruffians, fellow,” she said. “Don’t tempt me.”

  “Settle down, Grandma,” the young one said, not at all snappish but soft and friendly. “I’m sure Trevor doesn’t mean us any harm.”

  To show she was right, I tucked away the rock into my pocket.

  “There,” she said. “You see?” She stood up and went to her grandmother, and took the lamp. She set it on the table where it belonged.

  She was a head taller than me, and slim and fine-looking. She wore a white nightdress that didn’t quite reach to her ankles.

  She gave me a smile that warmed me up considerable, then edged on past me and went for the door.

  “I shouldn’t go out there,” I warned.

  She didn’t heed that, but stepped out into the hall and looked both ways.

  “Sarah, you get back in here this moment!”

  Well, she stood out there ignoring me and her grandmother. I had to admire her pluck, but I was scared for her. So I heeled it into the hall. I had a mind to grab her and tow her back inside the room. Kept my hands to myself, though. Just stayed beside her.

  We both studied the darkness.

  I didn’t know where the General had gone to, but I sure wished he’d show up quick.

  “Come back in here and shut the door,” Mable sang out.

  Sarah didn’t answer. In a quiet voice to me, she said, “I do hope Grandpa’s all right.”

  “I doubt the killer’s in the house,” I said. I couldn’t be certain, of course. I allowed it was a safe bet, considering Mable and Sarah hadn’t gotten themselves butchered. But then again, he might’ve hidden out in another room for some reason. I figured there was no telling, when it came to Whittle. He might be creeping up on us even as we stood there.

  Far off at the end of the hall, light came glowing from a doorway. Pretty soon, the general walked out behind his lamp and revolver. He didn’t glance our way. He crossed to another door and entered a room.

  “Let’s go back inside,” I whispered.

  She didn’t answer, but just stood and folded her arms across her chest. I could hear her breathing sort of ragged. She was barefoot, and must’ve been mighty cold. Even though she had on a heavy nightdress, the chilly draft was likely chasing right up under it.

  She put me in mind of Trudy, the night Whittle’d left her hanging. I thought about how I’d nearly frozen, myself, trying to brace her up. And then the way Trudy’d looked, dead, pushed itself into my head.

  It made me just sick to think about. And it made me figure I could be a gentleman some other time. So I grabbed hold of Sarah’s arm and said, “Excuse me,” while I tugged her into the room. I dragged her clear of the door, let go, and threw it shut.

  Old Mable, her mouth dropped.

  Sarah frowned at me. “That wasn’t necessary,” she said, and rubbed her arm where I’d squeezed it.

  “I’m quite sorry,” I said. “Really, I am. But I shouldn’t want Whittle to lay his hands on you. We’re much safer, here.”

  “Whittle?” Sarah asked.

  “He’s a horrid man, so quick with his knife we wouldn’t stand a chance. He’s likely not in the house, at all, but he might be. I don’t know, really.”

  “So that’s what’s going on,” Mable said, loud and triumphant. “I knew it. I sensed it in my bones. A killer in the house. Why, he’ll rue the day he crossed trails with Matthew Forrest.”

  Well, she’d perked up in a way that was plain astonishing.

  She grinned and rubbed her hands together. “He’s met his match now, this Whistle.”

  “I certainly hope so,” I allowed.

  Sarah didn’t seem gleeful like her grandmother. She looked worried. “He’s not as young as he was in the Indian Wars,” she said. “His hearing isn’t what it used to be.”

  “Nonsense. His ears are fit as a fiddle. He hears what he wishes to hear, and that’s a fact.”

  We all stood silent, then, watching the door and listening. I hoped Mable was right about the General’s ears. As time went on, though, I got to worrying. The revolver wouldn’t do much good if Whittle crept up behind him and slit his gullet. Then Whittle’d be the one with a gun.

  I wished I hadn’t left the General on his own. I could’ve watched his back for him.

  “Perhaps I should go and help him,” I finally said.

  “I’ll go with you,” Sarah said.

  “Now quit, both of you. Matthew is perfectly capable of dealing with this Whistle character.”

  “Whittle,” I corrected her this time around. “Roderick Whittle.”

  “How is it that you know such a man?” Sarah asked me.

  Well, things had gone too far for lies to serve much purpose, so I said, “He brought me from England. We sailed together. He murdered the others on the yacht, but I escaped. He no doubt believes I drowned, or he would’ve lurked about to have another go at me. As he landed not far from here, I feared he might’ve come to your house. I crept in, myself, to search for him.”

  “You came here to save us?” Sarah asked.

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  “That was awfully noble of you.”

  Her words warmed me up considerable.

  “Noble if he’s not giving us a pack of lies,” Mable said.

  “Grandma!”

  “It sounds mighty far-fetched to me. Likely as not, he was fixing to rob or murder us till he ran afoul of Matthew, and then thought better of it and made up this ridiculous story to get himself off the hook.”

  “I believe him,” Sarah said.

  “Why, you’re just like Matthew. You’re both just as gullible as can be. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if…”

  A sharp thump on the door made us all jump. “Open up.”

  It was the General’s voice.

  And wasn’t I glad to hear it! I didn’t waste any time, but rushed on over and opened the door.

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  Forrest Hospita
lity

  “I’ve scouted all the upstairs rooms,” the General said as he came in. “There seems to be no intruder about, but the better part of wisdom says we stick together until I’m convinced he’s nowhere in the house.”

  “I don’t suspect he exists this side of Trevor’s imagination,” Mable allowed.

  “He most certainly exists,” I said. “It’s quite possible he never came into the house, though. I haven’t seen him since he rowed ashore. He may have gone in quite a different direction.”

  Old Mable gave me a scathing look as if she’d expected me to come out with just such an excuse.

  “It never hurts to err on the side of caution,” the General said. “Come along.”

  Sarah stepped into some slippers. Then she picked up her lamp. I held back, and followed the others into the hallway. We trooped downstairs to the parlor. It was a sight warmer than the rest of the house, and must’ve felt good to the women.

  Mable plonked herself into the General’s chair and covered her legs with his blanket. Sarah set the lamp on the mantel. Then she put more wood on the fire. After replacing the screen, she squatted down close to the blaze. “Oh,” she said, “it does feel wonderful.”

  My eyes had been on her, not on the General, so I’d missed whatever he’d been up to. He took me by surprise when he stepped close to my side. “Take this,” he said. He gave me a pistol. It was a tiny thing, not much bigger than my palm, with a barrel about three inches long. “If the killer shows his face while I’m gone…”

  “Matthew! Don’t you dare! Take that away from him!”

  “Hush!”

  “I never!”

  “This is a good time to start.” To me, he said, “All you need to do is draw back the hammer, point, and squeeze the trigger. Go for the chest.”

  “Yes, sir,” I said.

  “You old fool! Don’t you put a gun in his hand!”

  Well, he acted like he didn’t hear her. Taking his lamp and his big revolver, he hurried out of the parlor.

  “Matthew!” she fairly squealed. “Matthew!”

  Sarah turned her face away from the fire. “There’s no call to be throwing a conniption, Grandma.”

  I took a step toward the old woman, and she flinched up tight. She studied the pistol like it was a rattlesnake. Some drool trickled down her chin.

  “You hold onto it,” I told her, and offered it by the handle.

  She looked at me and blinked. She blinked a few times at the gun, then at me again. She wiped the spit off her chin. Then she reached out quick and snatched away the pistol.

  “I shouldn’t know how to use such a thing, anyhow,” I told her.

  After that, she sort of slumped down in her chair. She cradled the little gun on her lap as if it were a cup of tea. Maybe she didn’t know how to use it any better than I did, but I was more confident than ever that Whittle wouldn’t turn up.

  He hadn’t come to this house, after all. That was a relief, but a disappointment, too. Since he wasn’t here, the General wouldn’t get a chance to shoot him. He was on the loose, and I wondered how I’d ever manage to track him down.

  The longer I stayed, the farther away he was likely to get.

  That was heavy on my mind when the General returned.

  “The fellow must’ve bypassed us,” he said.

  He saw that Mable had the gun, but he let the matter lie and didn’t mention it.

  “The thing for us now,” he said, “is for the rest of you to turn in. I’ve taken the precaution of locking the doors. I’ll keep on my toes and patrol the house till dawn. Sarah, show Trevor to a guest room.”

  “I should be on my way, actually,” I said. “He’s out in the night, somewhere, and the sooner I find him…”

  “Nonsense,” Sarah broke in.

  “Nonsense is right,” added the General. “I won’t have you straying out in the snow.”

  “We had the Great Blizzard last winter,” Sarah told me. “Some four hundred souls perished.

  “This is no blizzard, but the snow’s coming down heavy. You don’t want to be out in it, Trevor. You’d freeze up like a statue.”

  I reckoned that was true. And I sure didn’t hanker to leave the warm house. I was loath to part from the General and Sarah, too. Mable wouldn’t be any great loss. But I liked the other two and they were the first really friendly folks I’d encountered in longer than a month.

  Besides, there was slim chance I’d be able to find Whittle tonight.

  The General, he took the little gun from Mable. She gave it up without a fight. He handed it to me. “Keep this with you.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  Sarah fetched her lamp off the mantel and said, “Come along, Trevor.”

  I bid the others goodnight. Together, we left the parlor and headed for the stairs. “Do you have a home of your own?” Sarah asked.

  “Yes, ma’am. It’s nothing like this, of course. Mother and I have a flat in London, England.”

  “Just the two of you?”

  “There’s Agnes, our servant.”

  “We’ve had servants,” Sarah said. With a soft laugh, she added, “They never stay long. Grandma makes life too unpleasant for them.”

  As we started up the stairs, she asked, “What of your father?”

  “He was a soldier. He lost his life at the Battle of Maiwand.”

  “Oh. I’m awfully sorry. Your mother is all right, however? She wasn’t among those you mentioned who were murdered on the boat?”

  “She was safe at home when last I saw her. I left her on an errand, actually. It was something of an accident that I found myself on the yacht.”

  “Then she doesn’t know what’s become of you?”

  My throat clogged up when Sarah asked that. All I could do was nod in reply.

  “Well then, we shall take care of it first thing in the morning. I’ve never been blessed with a child of my own, but I can certainly imagine how terribly worried your mother must be.”

  I managed to come out with a shaky, “Thank you.”

  We entered one of the rooms just past the top of the stairs. “I hope you’ll be comfortable here. We keep the room tidy for occasional guests—mostly Grandpa’s old friends from the Point.”

  I saw the big bed, and it looked grand.

  Sarah lit up the lamp on the table beside it, then turned around to face me. “I’m afraid we have no suitable clothing for a young man of your size. How old are you?”

  “Fifteen, ma’am. I’ll be sixteen next June.”

  “You’re so dear,” she said. Smiling kind of sad, she reached out and petted my cheek. “I do hope you’ll be in no hurry to leave us.”

  My face heated up considerable, what with her stroking it.

  “I’m quite glad to be here,” I murmured.

  “Goodnight, now. Sleep well. We’ll see you in the morning.”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  “Sarah. Please call me Sarah.”

  “Sarah.”

  Leaning forward, she gave my forehead a gentle kiss. Then she turned away and left me alone. Out in the hall, she took a turn to the left, so I figured she was going on to her own room. I hurried over to the doorway and watched her, mostly to make sure she didn’t get jumped even though I figured Whittle was far off somewhere in the night.

  She just kind of flowed along, all graceful and elegant.

  She put me in mind of my mother so much it made me feel peaceful and lonesome, both at the same time.

  Once she was safe in her room, I went back to the night table. I set down the little pistol. Then I shucked down to just my sweater, which was dry and hung low enough to keep me decent in case I had to get up quick. I pulled back the bed covers, snuffed the lamp, and climbed into bed.

  The sheets were silk. They felt slick, and mighty cold at first. After a spell, though, they warmed up.

  The bed was so soft it snuggled against me. Not a bit like my bunk on the True D. Light. It didn’t bounce and rock and pitch this way and that
, either.

  I hadn’t felt so comfortable in ages.

  Nor so safe.

  Come morning, I woke on my own. I just lay there a while, nice and warm, mighty glad to be where I was and not aboard the yacht any more. But then I got to thinking about Trudy. That took the pleasure out of lazing in bed.

  I climbed out, tugged the sweater down as far as it would go, and stepped over to a window. Well, the sight of all that snow took my breath away. We had snow at home, now and again, but I’d never seen so much of it. None was falling now. It must’ve come down all night, though, for there to be such a load. It hung all white on the branches of the trees out there, must’ve been a foot thick on the roofs of the sheds and such, and looked to be knee-deep where it was stacked against the brick wall at the edge of the property. What with the sky clear, all that snow glared so white in the sun that it stung my eyes.

  I saw some other houses away off in the distance, and wondered if maybe Whittle’d chosen one of them. It seemed likely. Before the notion could take a good hold on me, though, I quickly reminded myself how the General kept a pistol handy. Maybe that was a common practice in these parts, and Whittle’d gone into a house fixing to do murder and gotten himself killed for his troubles. I hung on to that idea. It helped some, but not much.

  I could see a sliver of the bay from my window. It was bright blue, with white-topped waves rolling toward shore. The yacht wasn’t in sight, of course. I judged it might be seen from a different corner of the house, but it wasn’t a thing I wanted to look at, anyhow.

  “Good morning, Trevor.”

  Startled, I dragged my sweater down, stretching it toward my knees. Then I turned around.

  “I hope you slept well,” Sarah said, and walked straight in.

  With the daylight, I saw she was even prettier than I’d thought. Her shiny black hair was pinned up, her face rosy, her eyes bright and happy. She wore a dress that looked like green velvet and had white lace around the collar and wrists.

 
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