A noise woke me.

Not much of a noise, but enough of one to tell me I wasn’t alone in the house. The convincing thing was the dead silence that followed that little bump-in-the-night, an unnatural silence, and I found myself holding my breath, much as the intruder downstairs must have been.

I sat up in bed, leaned over toward the window, parted the curtains, and looked out. Looked down. It had snowed today, the season’s first snowfall; and the cold late November day had turned into a dark, even colder night. The ground was covered with a good five inches of white, and the footprints showed.

That was when I first consciously realized the .38 was in my hand. I’d been keeping the gun under the pillow on the side of the bed that hadn’t been getting much use lately. Neither had the gun, outside of my carrying it around with me all the time, like some sort of goddamn .38-caliber security blanket.

But all blankets were tossed aside now, and I was sitting up in bed, and the gun in my hand wasn’t a symbol anymore, not just something to make me feel comfortable. No.It was something to kill people with.

People like the two men who were invading my lake home at this very moment. Right now there was only one of them in the house, but another man was outside, backing the first guy up. No doubt of that. That was standard, a team of two, but that didn’t bother me. They wouldn’t be coming in together.

Which was nice, because it’s easier to kill people one at a time. Two-on-one may be okay in basketball, but not in this game.

I didn’t make any noise getting out of bed. Three and a half months of practice had made me good. The guy downstairs was good, too, I supposed, but he wasn’t that good; he hadn’t lived here like I had, he didn’t know this place other than maybe from photographs or an afternoon prowl he and his partner may have made sometime when I was away. And I’m always gone in the afternoon. So it would have been easy.

Easy to get in and look around, yes; but that wouldn’t make it easy to invade the place in the middle of an overcast, moonless, colder-than-fuck night. Not without making a noise, anyway.

And, too, I was ready for visitors. Oh, nothing elaborate. No alarm system or any of that bullshit. An alarm system isn’t going to do any good if the man who wants to come inside knows what he’s doing. Even a good amateur can get around an alarm. And a professional, a thief, say, or a hitman like the one downstairs, wouldn’t be stopped by anything but an outrageously elaborate, expensive system with triple backups and the works. I didn’t have the money or the patience for that and of course most of the more effective alarm systems are arranged to trigger a light on a panel at some police station, and I didn’t exactly want to explain to any police why it was I needed an alarm in my house.

But I did have a system. Not an alarm system; nothing more than my own built-in alarm, which comes from those rice-paddy warfare years I suffered through, where you learned to sleep light unless you didn’t care about waking up. The best warning system depends not on electronics, but on devious thinking. You have to be smarter than the guy trying to break in. That comes from Vietnam, too, I guess: the tendency to think of psychological and even guerrilla warfare rather than more conventional, unimaginative means.

The layout of my little A-frame cottage is simple: two bedrooms in the rear, one of which is clearly the master bedroom (twice as large as the adjacent spare, and with triple the closet space); a small bathroom next to the master bedroom, across from the laundry room; a big open living-room area, with a kitchenette on the left, as you come into the room from the hallway along which are the bedrooms, bath, and laundry rooms; and an open loft dominated by an oversize couch. The couch converts into a double-size bed at night.

Both bedrooms downstairs have easy-access windows, and the footprints I’d seen had led to both of those windows, so I couldn’t be sure which bedroom he’d decided to enter. If my second-guessing of the intruder’s strategy was right, he’d have come in the window of the spare bedroom, the one that seemed not to be in use; but he may have been second-guessing me, and might have figured I’d use the spare bedroom to throw him off.

Whichever way he’d used to come in, he was by now surely finding out that the lumpish shape under the covers in the master bedroom’s bed was three pillows and not a body. In fact, if I listened real close, I might be able to pinpoint the exact moment when...

And I heard the thud.

I smiled.

There are a number of sounds in the world that can be described by the word "thud," but there is only one sound like the thud that comes from a silenced automatic. And that thud had just sounded in the bedroom downstairs, right below me.

I had him. He was dead. Technically alive, yes, breathing. But dead.

The trick was, since another guy was outside, I probably should kill the one downstairs with his own gun. My .38 was not silenced (as no silencer made can truly silence a revolver, with its exposed chamber) and if I fired it at him, the noise would probably scare away his friend outside.

And I didn’t want him scared away.

I wanted him curious.

I wanted him to come in and say hello.

I wondered what the best way would be to get the silenced automatic away from the guy below. I don’t like to kill people with my hands; I’m not into that. Strangling people, breaking necks, snapping spines, you can have it.

But it looked like any way I figured it, some sort of struggle was going to be inevitable. Now, I’m not exactly a bruiser; I’m a couple inches under six foot, and at one hundred sixty pounds I was heavier than I’d been in a long time. I’m also no expert in karate or any of that; the only belt I wear holds my pants up. I know the basics of hand-to-hand, from Marine training; but from practical experience I’ve found that whenever I’m in a kill-or-be-killed situation, pulling a trigger is all the exercise I crave.

On the other hand, there are certain situations where a certain amount of physical violence can’t be avoided.

When the guy below me stepped out of the hallway and into the open, I jumped down from the loft and landed with both feet on his shoulders.

The air gushed out of him, but he didn’t have a chance to say anything before he was unconscious. He hit the floor limp, like a fat man rolling out of bed, and I came down on top of him, using him to cushion my own fall. The silenced automatic tumbled from his fingers. I picked it up.

A nine-millimeter automatic. Like the one I used to use. I had to smile. The sensation of the nine-millimeter in my hand was not an altogether unpleasant experience. It was almost like shaking hands with an old friend.

On the floor, the guy was starting to rouse.

There were no lights on, of course, so I couldn’t see much of him. He was my size, about, a little heavier maybe. He was wearing black: heavy turtleneck sweater, slacks, even the stocking cap pulled down over his ears. His cheeks were red, against otherwise pale, pale skin.

And now he was up into a sitting position, there on the floor, his eyes open, and before he could say a word I said, "Take off your clothes."

He didn’t say, "What?"

He didn’t say anything. He was a pro. He just started taking off his clothes, sweater first. The ribbing of thermal underwear was revealed as the sweater gave way. I didn’t blame him for the long johns. It was cold out there.

"Just down to your underwear," I said.

He nodded, piled the sweater and slacks and stocking cap on the nearby kitchenette counter. "Shoes and socks, too," I said.

He shrugged and started to unlace his black military-style boots.

"I don’t have to tell you not to try throwing a shoe at me or anything, do I? No, I didn’t think so."

He put the boots on the counter, and sighed, as if to say, "What now?"

"Back to the bedroom," I said.

He started walking down the hallway. When we got to the end, he veered toward the master bedroom.

"No," I said. "The other one."

I wanted him to use the spare bedroom, because I had new sheets on the other bed, and the bed in here just had some old ragged ones I wouldn’t mind messing up. Also, there was a plastic liner.

"Get in," I said, motioning to the bed.

He hesitated, showing confusion and, for the first time, worry.

"Don’t screw it up now," I said. "You been fine up to here. Very professional. I respect that. So do as I say, and maybe you’ll be around tomorrow. Get in bed."

Reluctantly, he climbed under the covers. There was more light in here, as the drapes were back and the light from the street a quarter-mile over was seeping in. I saw his face: young, rather blank, his features very ordinary but not unpleasant. His skin was extremely pale, the cold-reddened cheeks fading now.

"Pull the covers up around your neck," I said. He did.

"Now what?" he said, speaking for the first time.

And the last.

The silenced nine-millimeter made its thudding sound and I went back out into the living room to get into the dead man’s clothes.

Copyright © 1976 by Max Allan Collins.

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