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17

BRADY TRIED TO find his place in the Kama Sutra even while Nessa kept on galloping beneath him at cheetah speed, putting him in a position similar to the person who has to rub his belly and pat his forehead at the same time. Got it; that page! Brady bent to his lesson, and Nessa abruptly stopped.

Brady reared back. "Already? No!"

An urgent hand reached around behind her to grasp his hip. "A car!" she cried, her words only half muffled by the pillow.

Now he too heard it, the throaty purr of some expensive automobile rolling up toward the house. Flinging the Kama Sutra away, he leaped off the bed and ran across the large master bedroom toward the front windows, as behind him Nessa scrambled into her clothes.

A long sleek black limousine rolled to a stop at the garage door behind which Brady's battered Honda Civic sat, as Brady peeked around the curtain. The car doors opened down there and four men climbed out, one at first on hands and knees until two of the others helped him up. The one from the front seat in the chauffeur's hat would be a chauffeur, and he's the one who led the others toward the house, taking a key ring from his pocket.

The door wasn't locked! Racing back across the room, grabbing his jeans from the floor but nothing else, Brady shrilly whispered, "Hide everything!" and tore out to the hall as behind him Nessa, already hiding the Kama Sutra under a pillow, wailed, "Oh, Brady!"

No time. Out Brady went, and down the broad staircase to the living room three steps at a time, naked as he usually was when around Nessa, his jeans flapping in the air behind him. Across the living room he dashed, jeans hand behind him, free hand reaching out ahead, and got to the door and snapped the lock just as he heard the first footsteps echo across the veranda.

Pausing one millisecond, his back against the door, to pull on his jeans and study the living room, at first he saw nothing out of place, but then, there it was, a beer bottle he'd left behind on the coffee table after dinner last night.

Running again, he arced past the coffee table and grabbed the bottle on the fly, as he heard the key in the front door lock and heard the doorknob turn. The door started to open, and through the doorway he went, and hurtled down the broad corridor to the kitchen, the only other room on the ground floor that would contain evidence of their intrusion.

A voice behind him, back in the living roam: "Well, this is some rustic."

Who were those people? They come here, they have a chauffeur, they have keys, but they've never seen that incredible living room before?

It was, that living room, as Brady would agree, some rustic, and so was the rest of the house. The living room, thirty feet wide and twenty feet deep, with a huge stone fireplace on one end wall, was two stories high, with a cathedral ceiling, the whole thing done in rough wood, the beams with the bark still on, the walls rough-surfaced boards, the plank floor dotted with old Navajo rugs, the furniture large, deep, comfortable, what God would buy for His own weekend place. Suspended above it all was a huge chandelier that pretended to be a whole lot of kerosene lamps with glass chimneys but was actually electrified and on a dimmer.

Brady had run to the kitchen to try to clean it up before they came back here, but now his curiosity was aroused. He stood an instant, not knowing whether to sneak back and listen or proceed with his kitchen police, when the kitchen's side door opened and Nessa appeared, dressed, having come down the back stairs.

Good. "Clean it!" he whispered, waving at the not-clean kitchen — they tended to go to bed immediately after meals, though they knew they shouldn't — and tiptoed back down the corridor, now hearing a second voice say, with a kind of weary seen-everything sound, "I guess this is what you call your compound."

A third voice, brisk, in charge, said, "Upstairs should be the best place to stash something."

What? Brady kept even closer, just out of their sight. Meanwhile, the second voice said, "No, it isn't."

There was a little pause then, that might have been uncomfortable, and the third voice said, "Pembroke, why don't you wait in the car?"

"Sir."

Nobody spoke then until the front door opened and closed, and then the take-charge third voice said, "Upstairs. Farther from the doors and windows. More hiding places."

"Too heavy," said the weary second voice, "for one guy to lift."

"Oh."

"Don't worry, Johnny," the first voice chimed in, much the most chipper of them, "we'll find a good spot somewhere down here."

"Then I suggest," the third voice said, as though trying to recapture command here, "we might just as well sit over there by the fireplace a few minutes and think about it."

"Fine idea."

"Sure."

Oh, good, Brady thought, and, scampered back to the kitchen, where Nessa was hurriedly shoving used plates, pots, silver, cups, glasses and cereal bowls into cupboards, drawers and the broom closet. "Stop!" he whispered. "Not there."

In just as harsh a whisper, Nessa said, "Brady, we've got to hide all this."

"Upstairs."

"What?"

"They're not going upstairs. They're looking for a place down here to hide something, so they'll open everything, and they're sure to see all that stuff. Carry it all up, just out of sight up the stairs, and I'll keep an eye on them, warn you when they're coming."

"How come I get the dirty job?" she demanded, but he'd already fleet-footed away again, this time peeking around the doorway to see the trio at their ease on the armchairs at the far end of the living room, looking very much like a genre painting of the day the mob broke into the Winter Palace.

Brady, a mob of one, sat on the floor by the doorway and listened while they had a little conversation out there, saying absolutely nothing else of interest, like what it was they wanted to hide and why they wanted to hide it. But that was okay. Brady had all the time in the world.

Brady Hogan and Vanessa Arkdorp were both seventeen, both born and raised in the town of Nukumbuts, NE (known to the local high school wags as Numbnuts), each aware of the other living a mere three blocks away but not making much of it until this past June when, at the town swimming beach on the Gillespie River (from a forgotten and generally unpronouncable Plains Indian name), they truly noticed one another for the very first time and immediately knew what their future was going to be: each other.

It was all very easy during summer vacation. Brady had a part-time job at the Wal-Mart, which took up little of his attention, but which he had to have because the family had fallen on hard times since Brady's father had been laid off from the grain processor four years ago. Nobody else blamed Brady's father for what was, after all, merely the fickle finger of economic fate, the roulette wheel of capitalism rolling on past your number, but Brady's father so thoroughly and obviously blamed himself that after some time everybody else began to agree with him, which meant he was never considered for any of the few jobs that did open up, and life was less than tranquil at the Hogan house these years.

Also, neither Brady nor Nessa was the scholarly type; once you knew your numbers and your alphabet, school was, face it, a drag. They were only going back for their senior year at Central Middle Combined High (twenty-seven minutes by bus, twice a day) because all of the parents they knew had an unreasoning horror of the word "dropout," as though it meant something similar to "vampire."

The principal physical result of Brady's Wal-Mart job was this very used Honda Civic, which he operated over the summer both to go to and from work and to boff Nessa on just about every bit of empty ground in the northeast part of the state. So, when the idea first occurred to them — both simultaneously, it seemed — that they might go somewhere else in the world in September other than back to dear old Central Middle Combined, the first asset they had was Brady's little red car, and the second asset was all the cash they could find in their parents' homes, which wasn't much. And other assets?

Well, principally, Brady's deftness. He'd never been in trouble, not in real trouble, though there'd been a few close calls. But back when he was ten years old he first realized he could get through just about any lock there was in Numbnuts, and did, for years, partly for fun and partly for profit (CDs, candy, beer, condoms). With his dexterity, and the Honda; and Nessa at his side, was he a world-beater or what? Guess.

Right now, nobody in their families had any idea where they were. In fact, nobody in the whole world had any idea where they were. Starting in early September, they'd just roamed at first, south and east, and then north and east, and eventually just liked the look of the Massachusetts pine forests. Still, they might have moved on had they not stumbled upon this electric fence in the woods.

Naturally, as you would, as I would, they asked each other why anybody would put up an electric fence in the woods. They followed the fence to a gate — which was, in fact, the staff entrance — and from there found the big house with the little houses around it. The outbuildings were all shut down, but the big house had water and electricity and even useful food in a freezer, as though the owner hadn't realized he wouldn't be coming back, and maybe still didn't know it. They had made good use of the freezer food, and supplemented it by little late-night visits to towns fifteen and twenty miles away. They'd been here three weeks now, in a place that, from the dust all over everything when they arrived, had not been occupied for years and showed no signs of potential future occupancy as well. It was all theirs. Heaven, they called it, and they were probably right.

But now their heaven had been invaded by some very dubious people lounging around in the big living room by the big fireplace, talking about where to hide whatever it was. Which, he noticed, whatever it was, they didn't have it here with them. From what they said to one another, this trip was to find the hiding place, then another trip would be to bring the thing itself. Kind of roundabout, Brady thought, but that was their business.

Which they weren't in much hurry to get done and over with, so Brady and Nessa could go back to bed. They just talked along, and then the one that thought he was in charge, that the others called Johnny, finally said, "What I've been thinking, you want to hide something, why not the kitchen? Lots of places there."

The weary one said, "We don't know how big this is yet, so how do we know what size place we gotta put it?"

"Just big enough," Johnny said. "I mean, how big could it be?"

"The purloined letter," the chipper one said.

Both of the others seemed stymied by that. Johnny finally said, "Was that supposed to be something?"

"Short story by Edgar Allan Poe," the chipper one said. "Whatsamatta, Johnny, you never went to high school?"

"Yeah, that's all right," Johnny said. "What's this letter? We're not talking about a letter."

So what, Brady asked, are you talking about?

"We're talking about something where you hide it," the chipper one told him, "that nobody's gonna find it. In the story, it's a letter. And where the guy hid it, turns out, was right there on the dresser, where nobody's gonna see it because what they're looking for is something hidden."

"Crap," Johnny announced.

The weary one said, "You know, Johnny, maybe not. You got something, you can't find it, turns out, it's right in front of you. Happens all the time."

"Nobody's gonna look at that set," Johnny insisted, "and not notice it."

Set? What the hell is it? Brady was about to go out and ask, unable to stand it any more.

But then the chipper one said, "How about this? We get it. On the way up here, we get cans of spray paint, black enamel and red enamel. We paint 'em all over, this team red, this team black, nobody sees any gold, nobody sees any jewels, it just looks like any chess set. We can leave it right out, like on that big table over there with all that other stuff."

Gold. Jewels. Any chess set.

Tiptoeing as fast as the first night he ever sneaked into Nessa's house back in Numbnuts, Brady made his way to the second floor, where Nessa, tired and sweaty, was just finished bringing all their dirty used stuff up from the kitchen. "Baby!" he whispered, exulting. "We're in!"

"They still here?"

"Just for a little while. Then we can go back to bed and I'll tell you everything."

"Oh, no."

This being the first time Nessa had ever said no to the idea of going back to bed, Brady stumbled to a halt on his way to the front window to watch and wait for the interlopers' departure, turned back, and said, "What?"

She gestured. Dirty kitchen detritus was all over the upstairs hall floor. "The first thing we're gonna do," she said, "is clean up this stuff. We can't go on living like this, Brady, we gotta have it neater around us."

There were warning signs in that sentence, but Brady was too distracted by two different kinds of lust to notice them. "You're right, baby," he said, and proceeded to the window, and grinned back at her. "Comere and I'll tell you all about it. We're gonna clean that stuff up because we're gonna stay here for a while. And we're gonna stay here because our ship is comin in."

"What ship?" She came over to the window with deeply furrowed brow.

"Look, there they go," he said, and they watched out the window as the three men headed out for their limo, all talking at the same time.

Nessa said, "Will they be back?"

"Oh, yeah," Brady said, with a big wide grin. "They'll be back. Honey, we're waitin for them to come back."


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