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“It wasn’t the wind, Amabel. It was a woman.”
“No, no, come along now and let me help you back to bed. Look at your bare feet. You’ll catch your death of something. Come on now, baby, back to bed with you.”
There was another scream, this one short and high-pitched, then suddenly muffled. It was a woman’s scream, like the first one.
Amabel dropped her arm.
“Now do you believe me, Amabel?”
“I suppose I’ll just have to call one of the men to come and check it out. The problem is, they’re all so old that if they go out in this weather, they’ll probably catch pneumonia. Maybe it was the wind. What woman would be screaming outside? Yes, it’s this bloody wind. It’s impossible, Sally. Let’s just forget it.”
“No, I can’t. It’s a woman, Amabel, and someone is hurting her. I can’t just go back to bed and forget it.”
Sally just stared at her.
“You mean when your papa hit your mama you tried to protect her?”
Amabel sighed. “I’m sorry, baby. You did hear the wind this time, not your mama being punched by your papa.”
“Can I borrow your raincoat, Amabel?”
Amabel sighed, hugged Sally close, and said, “All right. I’ll call Reverend Vorhees. He’s not as rickety as the others, and he’s strong. He’ll check it out.”
When Reverend Hal Vorhees arrived at Amabel’s house, he had three other men with him. “This is Gus Eisner, Susan, a fellow who can fix anything with wheels and a motor.”
“Mr. Eisner,” Sally said. “I heard a woman scream, twice. It was an awful scream. Someone was hurting her.”
Gus Eisner looked as if he would have spat if there’d been a cuspidor in the corner. “The wind, ma’am,” he said, nodding, “it was just the wind. I’ve heard it all my life, all seventy-four years, and it makes noises that sometimes have made my teeth ache. Just the wind.”
“But we’ll look around anyway,” Hal Vorhees said. “This here is Purn Davies, who owns the general store, and Hunker Dawson, who’s a World War II vet and our flower expert.” Sally nodded, and the reverend patted her shoulder, nodded to Amabel, and followed the other men out the front door. “You ladies stay safe inside now. Don’t let anyone in unless it’s us.”
“The little females,” Sally said. “I feel like I should be barefoot and pregnant, making coffee in the kitchen.”
“They’re old, baby, they’re just old. That generation gave their wives an allowance. Gus’s wife, Velma, wouldn’t know a bank statement if it bit her ankle. But things balance out, you know. Old Gus is night-blind. Without Velma, he’d be helpless after dark. Don’t mind their words. They care, and that’s a good feeling, isn’t it?”
Just as she opened her mouth to reply, there was a third scream, this one fast and loud, and then it ended, cut off abruptly. It was distant, hidden, and now it was over.
Sally knew deep down that there wouldn’t be another scream. Ever again. She also knew it wasn’t the damned wind.
She looked at her aunt, who was straightening a modern painting over the sofa, a small picture painted in patternless swirls of ocher, orange, and purple. It was an unsettling painting, dark and violent.
“The wind,” Sally said slowly. “Yes, no more than the wind.” She wanted to ask Amabel if Gus were night-blind, what good would he be out searching for a victim in the dark?
The next morning dawned cool and clear, the sky as blue in March as it would be in August. Sally walked to Thelma’s Bed and Breakfast. Mr. Quinlan, Martha told her, was having his breakfast.
He was seated in isolated splendor amid the heavy Victorian furnishings in Miss Thelma’s front room. On the linen-covered table was a breakfast more suited to three kings than just one man.
She walked straight to him, waited until he looked up from his newspaper, and said, “Who are you?”
IT HAD NEVER occurred to him that she would confront him, not after he’d seen her huddled on the floor when he burst into her aunt’s living room. But she had tried to knee him and she’d also punched him just below the ribs. She had fought back. And here she was today, looking ready to spit on him. For some obscure reason, that pleased him. Perhaps it was because he didn’t want his prey to be stupid or cowardly. He wanted a chase that would challenge him.