Sluggsy let out a hoot of laughter. He turned and called across to the thin man, “Hey, get out the crying towel, Horror. The slot says she'll hand over two Cs if we let her scram.” The thin man gave a slight shrug of the shoulders but made no comment. Sluggsy turned back to me. His eyes were hard and without mercy. He said, “Wise up, bimbo. You're in the act, and you've been given a star part to play. You ought to be tickled to be of so much interest to busy, important guys like Horror and me, and to a big wheel like Mr. Sanguinetti.”
“What is the act? What do you want me for?”
Sluggsy said indifferently, “You'll be wised up come morning. Meanwhiles, howsabout shuttin' that dumb little hash-trap of yours? All this yak is bending my ear. I want some action. That's sweet stuff they're playing. Howsabout you an' me stepping it together? Put on a little show for Horror. Then we'll be off to the hay and make with the bodies. C'mon, chick.” He held out his arms, clicking his fingers to the music and doing some fast steps.
“I'm sorry. I'm tired.”
Sluggsy came back to the counter. He said angrily, “You've got a big keister giving me that crap. Cheap little hustler! I'll give you something to make you tired.” Suddenly there was an obscene little black leather cosh in his hand. He brought it down with a dull whack on the counter. It left a deep dent in the formica. He began to move stealthily round the edge of the counter, humming to himself, his eyes holding mine. I backed up into the far corner. This was going to be my last gesture. Somehow I must hurt him back before I went under. My hand felt for the open cutlery drawer and suddenly I dipped in and flung, all in one motion. His duck wasn't quick enough, and the silver spray of knives and forks burst round his head. He put a hand up to his face and backed away, cursing. I hurled some more and then some more, but they only clattered inoffensively round his hunched head. Now the thin man was moving fast across the room. I grabbed the carving knife and made a dash for Sluggsy, but he saw me coming and dodged behind a table. Unhurriedly, Horror took off his coat and wrapped it round his left arm; then they both picked up chairs and, holding the legs out like bulls' horns, they charged me from both sides. I made one ineffectual slash at an arm, and then the knife was knocked out of my hand and all I could do was to get back behind the counter.
Still holding the chair, Sluggsy came in after me and, while I stood facing him, with a plate in each hand, the thin man leaned swiftly across the counter and got hold of my hair. I hurled the plates sideways, but they only clattered away across the floor. And then my head was being bent down onto the counter top and Sluggsy was on me.
“Okay, Horror. Let her go. This is for me.” I felt his powerful arms round me, crushing me, and his face was against mine, kissing me brutally, while his hand went up to the zip at my neck and tore it right down to my waist.
And then came the sharp sound of the buzzer at the front door, and everyone froze.
Part Three: Him
“KERIST, whassat?” Sluggsy had backed away, and his hand was inside his leather jacket.
Horror recovered himself first. There was a cold snarl on his face. “Git over behind the door, Sluggsy. Hold your fire until I tell you. You,”—he spat the words at me—“get yourself into shape. You've got to front for us. If you don't do it good, you're dead. Understand? You'll be shot. Now get over to that door and find out who it is. Tell 'em the same story you told us. Get me? And take that silly expression off your face. No one's going to hurt you if you do what I say. Pull that zipper up, dammit!” I was struggling with the thing. It was stuck. “Well, hold the damn thing together across your chest and get moving. I'll be right behind you. And don't forget, one wrong word and you get blasted through the back. And the guy, too. Now scram over there.”
My heart was beating wildly. Somehow, whatever happened, I was going to save myself!
There was now a loud knocking at the door. I went slowly over, holding the top half of my overalls together. I knew the first thing I had to do!
When I got to the door, Sluggsy leaned sideways and unlocked it. Now everything depended on the speed of my hands. I took hold of the door handle with my left hand and, as I turned it, my right hand let go of the overalls and dived down to the chain and unhooked it. Somebody cursed softly behind me and I felt the prod of a gun in my back, but then I had swung the door wide open, crashing Sluggsy against the wall behind it. I had gambled that, without knowing if it was perhaps the police or a road patrol, they wouldn't shoot. They hadn't. Now all depended on the solitary man who stood on the threshold.
At first glance I inwardly groaned—God it's another of them! He stood there so quiet and controlled and somehow with the same quality of deadliness as the others. And he wore that uniform that the films make one associate with gangsters—a dark-blue belted raincoat and a soft black hat pulled rather far down. He was good-looking in a dark, rather cruel way, and a scar showed whitely down his left cheek. I quickly put my hand up to hide my nakedness. Then he smiled and suddenly I thought I might be all right.
When he spoke, my heart leaped. He was English! “I'm sorry. I've got a puncture.” (An American would have said “a flat.”) “And I saw the VACANCY sign. Can I have a room for the night?” Now he looked at me with curiosity, seeing that something was wrong.
This was going to be tricky! I might easily get us both killed. I said, “I'm sorry, but the motel's closed. The VACANCY sign was on by mistake.” While I said this, I crooked the index finger of the hand at my chest, inviting him in. He looked puzzled. I had to give him a lead. “Is the puncture so bad that you can't get as far as Lake George?”
“Couldn't possibly. I've already come a mile on the run. The cover'll be gone by now.”
I imperceptibly jerked my head backward, bidding him to come in. “Well, the insurance men are here from the owner. I'll have to ask them. You wait there.” Again I beckoned with my finger. Then I turned and took two steps inside, keeping close to the door so that neither of them could bang it shut. But they were standing back, hands in their pockets, looking different kinds of hell at me. The man in the raincoat had taken my hint, and he was now well inside. When he saw the two men, his face somehow sharpened, but he said casually, “I expect you heard all that. Any objection to my spending the night here?”
Sluggsy said contemptuously, “Kerist! A limey! What is this, the United Nations?”
The thin man said curtly, “No dice, friend. You heard the lady. The motel's closed. We'll give you a hand changing the wheel and you can be on your way.”
The Englishman said easily, “It's a bit late at night for that. I'm heading south and I doubt if there's anything on this road this side of Glens Falls. I think I'd prefer to stay here. After all, the VACANCY sign's on.”