I stumbled ignominiously through the trees toward the distant, glaring eyes of the car. Hopelessness had me by the throat, and an ache of self-pity. What had I done to deserve this? Why had God picked on me as a victim for these two unknown men? Now they would be really angry. They would hurt me and later almost certainly kill me. But the police would dig the bullets out of me! What evil crime were they engaged on that made them indifferent to the evidence of my dead body? Whatever the crime was, they must be quite confident that there would be no evidence. Because there would be no me! They would bury me, drop me in the lake with a stone round my neck!
I came out through the fringe of the trees. The thin man leaned out of the car and called to Sluggsy, “Okay. Take her back. Don't treat her rough. That's for me.” He put the car into reverse.
Sluggsy came up beside me, and his free hand fondled me lasciviously. I just said, “Don't.” I had no will left to resist.
He said softly, “You're in trouble, bimbo. Horror's a mean guy. He'll hurt you bad. Now you say 'Yes' to me for tonight, and promise to act sweet, and mebbe I can get the heat taken off. Howsabout it, baby?”
I summoned a last ounce of fight. “I'd rather die than have you touch me.”
“Okay, sweetheart. So you won't give, so I take for myself. I reckon you've earned yourself a rough night. Get me?” He pinched me viciously so that I cried out. Sluggsy laughed delightedly. “That's right. Sing, baby! Might as well get into the practice.”
He pushed me in through the open back door of the lobby block and shut and locked it behind him. The room looked just the same—the lights blazing, the radio hammering out some gay dance tune, everything winking and glittering and polished under the light. I thought of how happy I had been in that room only a few hours before, of the memories I had had in that armchair, some of them sweet, some of them sad. How small now my childish troubles seemed! How ridiculous to talk of broken hearts and lost youth when, just around the corner of my life, these men were coming at me out of the darkness. The cinema in Windsor? It was a small act in a play, almost a farce. Zürich? It was paradise. The true jungle of the world, with its real monsters, only rarely shows itself in the life of a man, a girl, in the street. But it is always there. You take a wrong step, play the wrong card in Fate's game, and you are in it and lost—lost in a world you had never imagined, against which you have no knowledge and no weapons. No compass.
The man called Horror stood in the middle of the room, idle, relaxed, his hands at his sides. He watched me with those incurious eyes. Then he lifted his right hand and crooked a finger. My cold, bruised feet walked toward him. When I was only a few steps away from him I came out of the trance. I suddenly remembered, and my hand came up to the soaking waistband of my pants and I felt the head of the ice-pick under the apron. It was going to be difficult to get it out, to get at the handle. I stopped in front of him. Still holding my eyes, his right hand came up like a snake striking and slapped me, biff-baff, right and left across my face. The tears started from my eyes, but I remembered, and ducked down as if to escape another blow. At the same time, concealed in the movement, I got my right hand down inside the band of my pants, and when I came up I threw myself at him, hitting wildly toward his head. The pick connected, but it was only a glancing blow, and suddenly my arms were gripped from behind and I was pulled back.
Blood was oozing from a cut above the temple of the gray face. As I watched, it trickled down toward the chin. But the face was unmoved. It showed no pain, only a terrifying intensity of purpose, and there was a fleck of red deep inside the black eyes. The thin man stepped up to me. My hand opened and the pick fell to the floor with a clang. It was a reflex action—the child dropping the weapon. I give up! I surrender! Pax!
And then slowly, almost caressingly, he began to hit me, now with his open hand, now with the fist, choosing his targets with refined, erotic cruelty. At first I twisted and bent and kicked, and then I began to scream, while the gray face with the blood-streak and the black holes for eyes watched, and the hands sprang and sprang.
I came to in the shower of my cabin. I was lying naked on the tiles, the tattered, filthy remains of my pretty clothes beside me. Sluggsy, chewing at a wooden toothpick, leaned up against the wall with his hand on the cold tap. His eyes were glistening slits. He turned off the water and I somehow got to my knees. 1 knew I was going to be sick. I didn't care. I was a tamed, whimpering animal ready to die. I retched.
Sluggsy laughed. He leaned over and patted my behind. “Go ahead, baby. First thing after a beat-up, everyone vomits. Then clean yourself up nice and put on a nice new outfit and come on over. Those eggs got spoiled with you running off like that. No tricks! Though I guess you ain't got stomach for any more. I'll be watching the cabin from the back door. Now don't take on, baby. No blood. Hardly a bruise. Horror's got a nice touch with the dames. You're sure lucky. He's a hippy guy. If he'd of been real mad, we'd be digging a hole for you right now. Count your blessings, baby. Be seein' ya.”
I heard the door of the cabin bang shut, and then my body took over.
It took me half an hour to get myself into some kind of shape, and again and again I just wanted to throw myself on my bed and let the tears go on coming until the men arrived with their guns to finish me off. But the will to live came back into me with the familiar movements of doing my hair and of getting my body, sore and aching and weak with the memory of much greater pain, to do what I wanted, and slowly into the back of my mind there crept the possibility that I might have been through the worst. If not, why was I still alive? For some reason these men wanted me there and not out of the way. Sluggsy was so good with his gun that he could surely have killed me when I made a run for it. His bullets had come close, but hadn't they been just to frighten, to make me stop?
I put on my white overalls. Heaven knew they were impersonal enough, and I put my money into one of the pockets—just in case. Just in case of what? There would be no more escapes. And then, feeling sore and weak as a kitten, I dragged myself over to the lobby.
It was eleven o'clock. The rain was still holding off and a three-quarter moon sailed through fast, scudding clouds, making the forest blink intermittently with white light. Sluggsy was framed in the yellow entrance, leaning against the door, chewing at his toothpick. As I came up, he made way for me. “That's my baby. Fresh as paint. A little sore here and there, mebbe. Have to sleep on your back later, huh? But that's just what'll suit us, won't it, honey?”
When I didn't answer, he reached out and caught my arm. “Hey, hey! Where your manners, bimbo? You like some treatment on the other side, mebbe? That also can be arranged.” He made a threatening gesture with his free hand.
“I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything.”
“Okay, okay.” He let me go. “Now just get on back there and make with the pots and pans. An' don't go getting my gauge up. Or my friend Horror's. Look what you done to that handsome kisser of his.”
The thin man was sitting at his old table. The first-aid box from the reception desk was open in front of him and he had a big square of adhesive across his right temple. I gave him a quick frightened glance and went behind the serving counter. Sluggsy went over to him and sat down, and they began talking together in low voices, occasionally glancing across at me.
Making the eggs and coffee made me feel hungry. I couldn't understand it. Ever since the two men had got in through that door, I had been so tense and frightened I couldn't have swallowed even a cup of coffee. Of course I was empty from being sick, but in a curious and, I felt, rather shameful way the beating I had been given had in some mysterious fashion relaxed me. The pain, being so much greater than the tension of waiting for it, had unraveled my nerves, and there was a curious center of warmth and peace in my body. I was frightened still, of course—terrified, but in a docile, fatalistic way. At the same time my body said it was hungry; it wanted to get back its strength, it wanted to live.
So I made scrambled eggs and coffee and hot buttered toast for myself as well, and, after I had taken theirs over, I sat down out of sight of them behind the counter and ate mine and then, almost calmly, lit a cigarette. I knew the moment I lit it that it was a foolish thing to do. It called attention to me. Worse, it showed I had recovered, that I was worth baiting again. But the food and the simple business of eating it—of putting salt and pepper on the eggs, sugar into the coffee—had been almost intoxicating. It was part of the old life, a thousand years ago, before the men came. Each mouthful—the forkful of egg, the bit of bacon, the munch of buttery toast—was an exquisite thing that occupied all my senses. Now I knew what it must be like to get some food smuggled into jail, to be a prisoner of war and get a parcel from home, to find water in the desert, to be given a hot drink after being rescued from drowning. The simple act of living, how precious it was! If I got out of this, I would know it forever. I would be grateful for every breath I breathed, every meal I ate, every night I felt the cool kiss of sheets, the peace of a bed behind a closed, locked, door. Why had I never known this before? Why had my parents, my lost religion, never taught it to me? Anyway, I knew now. I had found it out for myself. Love of life is born of the awareness of death, of the dread of it. Nothing makes one really grateful for life except the black wings of danger.
These feverish thoughts were born of the intoxication of the food and of eating it alone behind the barricade of the counter. For a few moments I was back in the old life. So, lightheadedly, and to hug the moment to me, I lit the cigarette.
Perhaps a minute later, the mumble of the voices died. Behind “Tales of the Vienna Woods” coming softly from the radio, I heard a chair being drawn back. Now I felt panic. I put out the cigarette in the dregs of my coffee and got up and began briskly turning taps and clattering the dishes in the metal sink. I didn't look, but I could see Sluggsy coming across the room. He came up to the counter and leaned on it. I looked up as if surprised. He was still chewing away at a toothpick, flicking it from side to side of his thick-lipped, oval mouth. He had a box of Kleenex that he put on the counter. He wrenched out a handful of tissues and blew his nose and dropped the tissues on the floor. He said in an amiable voice, “Ya gone an' given me a catarrh bimbo. All that chasing aroun' in the woods. This trouble of mine, this alopecia thing that kills the hair. You know what that does? That kills the hairs inside the nose too. Together with all the rest. An' you know what that does? That makes your schnozzle dribble bad when you got a cold. You given me a cold, bimbo. That means a box of wipes every twenty-four hours. More, mebbe. Ya ever think of that? Ya ever think of people have no hairs in their snouts? Aargh!” The hairless eyes were suddenly hard with anger. “You gashes are all the same. Just think of yerselves. To hell with the guys that got troubles! You just go for the good-timers.”
I said quietly, under the noise of the radio. “I'm sorry for your troubles. Why aren't you sorry for mine?” I spoke quickly, forcefully. “Why do you two come here and knock me about? What have I done to you? Why don't you let me go? If you do, I promise I won't say a word to anyone. I've got a little money. I could give you some of it. Say two hundred dollars. I can't afford any more. I've got to get all the way down to Florida on the rest. Please, won't you let me go?”