Man Who Was Too Nice
published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery
Magazine, November 1985I suppose that as the sole survivor of this extraordinary affair I should
describe myself first, albeit briefly. Because I am a special investigator
for Metropolitan Electric, I must maintain a certain confidentiality. Energy
fraud goes on daily, to a degree that would appall most right-thinking citizens,
and I am not permitted--nor would I desire--to divulge too much about our
methods and personnel. Suffice it to say that my main responsibility is
to detect and terminate schemes to defraud my company. On the whole, my
work is rather dull: Cheats are rarely imaginative, although most of them
think they are. But this affair was different--tragically so. Perhaps a
debriefing like this is no place for personal interjections, but I would
not be forthcoming if I did not admit that there are aspects of the case
I wish had transpired differently.
Mr. S. Abel first came to my attention when our computers turned up
his name. It looked simple enough: potential energy theft. In his immediate
neighborhood, all families spent a similar amount of money on electricity,
within a few dollars. Indeed, given the near uniformity of consumption about
him, Mr. Abel's astonishingly low expenditure was suspicious. Mind you,
we had not prejudged him; we are always fair. But Mr. Abel's case deserved
a second glance, at least. Mr. S. Abel, 315 Locust Street. With the computer
printout in my briefcase, I left my office, got into my unmarked car, and
headed for Mr. Abel's neighborhood. Despite the boring sameness of most
of my cases, I always feel a thrill when I first set out. This day was no
The house in question seemed normal to all appearances. Two stories;
small lawn in front; small back yard. There seemed to be no illegal wires
connecting Abel's house to the power lines or to any other houses. It did
not appear, then, that he was "siphoning," as we call it in the business.
But my preliminary superficial investigation was not conclusive, of course;
it merely suggested that if indeed something fraudulent was occurring, it
was occurring somewhat more subtly than usual. I parked a few houses down
and examined my notes. This was a normal neighborhood, of average houses,
quiet streets, stolid trees, some red brick, a lot of grey, a touch of green,
an American neighborhood running smoothly on American energy. My company
supplied the energy, and everyone consumed heartily. Except Mr. Abel. What
was wrong? I do not maintain that one needs electricity for survival; but
in this day and age, with the present style of living, with all the products
that fill so many households, it appears abnormal when a monthly electricity
bill barely breaks five dollars. Sure, this Mr. Abel might be a weirdo,
whose religious tenets prohibited the use of appliances or something of
the sort--but I was skeptical. His house looked no different from the others
on the street.
Let me pass over the less gripping portions of my investigation and
proceed to describe the other characters in this incredible affair. The
first neighbor I contacted was not very helpful and appeared not to know
Abel very well. "Nice, quiet person," I was told. "No complaints." The second
had a similar response: "Abel? No, don't see him much. Quiet, friendly,
seems really nice." But my luck improved with the next neighbor.
Mrs. Arlene Davis, divorced, blonde, perhaps fifteen pounds overweight,
talkative (very useful for our purposes), friendly, mother of two.
"Oh, you mean our Mr. Abel? Funny you should ask! We've had our eyes
on him for months now, almost since he moved into 315."
"Oh, I'm not one to talk--except to official investigators, mind you.
But he's definitely strange. We all noticed it, right away."
Strange? How so?
"Well, at first I couldn't really say. Something was different about
him . . . and I couldn't put my finger on it. Then, after Mrs. Morgan and
I had coffee together, I realized what it was. He's too nice!"
Too nice? How so?
"Well, you know, he's just too nice! He never shouts or frowns or snaps
at you--not that I would every give him a reason. But he's too nice. Like
the time I had to borrow his toaster. Well, I was trying to wipe it clean,
and I accidentally dropped it into the dishwater. The whole thing made a
terrible noise, and such smoke! They shouldn't make such dangerous things."
So he has at least one electric appliance. Had, rather. I remarked dispassionately
to Mrs. Arlene Davis that one had to handle such appliances carefully; the
great gift of electricity was not to be used without proper caution.
"I suppose. But not one word from Mr. Abel when I returned the poor
thing. I tell you, he's too nice!"
Too nice. I underlined the adjective. Perhaps the next informant would
be more illuminating. Abel's reputation was interesting, but as yet irrelevant.
Mrs. Virginia Morgan, widow, early sixties, dyed hair, severe expression,
eyebrows plucked and penciled in, apparent misanthrope with passion for
spying (again, most helpful).
"Now, what did you say you were? . . . Oh, very well. I don't see what
right I have to withhold evidence."
Evidence? What sort?
"Conclusive, conclusive. The man's a hypocrite, maybe dangerous."
"Well, just look at him! Any fool could tell you that there's something
evil behind that smile, that simper! He can't fool me."
"Some young hoodlums stole the battery out of his new Honda a few weeks
ago. I saw the whole thing, right from my window. So what does he say about
it? >Boys will be boys, Mrs. Morgan. I can always get another battery.'
Imagine! If those punks had tried for my car, I would have plugged them
with my husband's old rifle."
"And Luvums bit him the first week he moved in. I don't know exactly
how he had provoked the little dear, but Abel never even raised his voice.
Sent me a note of apology, and invited me to dinner."
"My schnauzer, of course. He doesn't like hypocrites either. May I see
your card again, mister . . ."
Did you visit Mr. Abel?
"Are you insane? I didn't trust him as far as I could throw him! He
probably would have murdered me, or raped me. Or murdered me after raping
Has Mr. Abel indeed exhibited any violent behavior?
"Oh, not that fox, not in public. He's too shrewd. But just listen to
him. >Nice weather we're having, isn't it, Mrs. Morgan,' when the clouds
are as black as the ace of spades. >Is there anything I can get you at the
supermarket, Mrs. Morgan?' Oh, wouldn't that be something! And then no doubt
he'd be inviting himself in to put the groceries away, all the while eyeing
my things. . . . No, no, he's too sneaky. Ask Chalmers if you want some
juicy stories. He'll set your ear on fire!"
Vince Chalmers, about thirty-two, married, one child, insurance salesman,
sports enthusiast, but more of a spectator than participant. Likes his beer,
warms up during the second. (Send voucher to Expenses.)
"Yeah, Abel, he's nuts, let me tell you. Not that I'm a very judgmental
kind of guy, if you know what I mean, but this guy is too nice. Makes me
nervous, no kidding. Look, I can dig it, he's a nice guy, but he just goes
too far. You know what happened last month? Me and Jerry, that's my son,
and Abel, we take in a game at the Garden. Way back we're mugged. Mugged!
On the goddamn Flushing line! I surrender my wallet pronto, but Abel starts
giving them a line about not pursuing a life of crime. They tell him to
cut the crap and hand it over. So he does, but first he apologizes for having
only twenty bucks! You should see their faces! One socks him good, then
they run. I'm goin' crazy, lookin' for a cop on the subway, but he just
sits there and wipes the blood off and tells me it's okay. Okay, huh? Sure,
and so was Pearl Harbor. He only lost twenty, he says. Sure, sure, and that's
a nice scar for your trouble."
(Identifying scar? Check available photos.) Anything else?
"Well, like I said, I'm in the insurance business, make a decent living,
no complaints. So I figure I'll try my new neighbor, you never know. And
he says sure, make it accident, home, the whole bit. I get everything done,
but you know how it is, things get bogged down, a little slip here and there.
Anyway, old lady takes a tumble on the ice in front of his house, breaks
a leg, he's covered, right? Wrong. I goofed. But did he blow up when I told
him? No! Not a peep! And guess what? Same day, in the evening, kid throws
an iceball through the bay window that looks out on the lawn. What a mess.
Glass everywhere, and some old rug he's got from Persia or somewhere is
ruined. Again, my fault he's not covered yet, I admit it, I'm not perfect,
never said I was, but he's all smiles and understanding. Tells me not to
worry. Now if that was me, I'd kill me, and then go gunnin' for the little
son of a bitch who did it."
So you've been inside?
"Oh, sure, two, three times. But only in the living room. I think I'll
try another Coors."
Anything unusual about the interior?
"Nah . . . but he seemed a bit edgy about me staying in that one room.
I wanted to check out the basement, see if he'd been getting the same ooze
I was after the rains. Damn stuff, never did figure why the hell it was
(Basement, eh? Perhaps Mr. Chalmers has indeed been helpful.)
"I tried the door when he was out in the kitchen gettin' the beers.
Must have been five locks on the door. Five goddamn locks! Must keep the
crown jewels down there."
Indeed. And what did Mr. Abel say?
"Oh, he joked about it. Some half-assed story about safety and rat poison."
Or perhaps an illegal source of energy? Was Mr. Abel, this nicest of
men, methodically stealing electricity from my company with some contraption
hidden in his basement? Although I try to reserve judgment, I felt the possibility
was quickly becoming a probability. Toaster, probably a refrigerator for
the beer Mr. Chalmers was so fond of, probably some lamps . . . and how
many other appliances? More than five dollars worth, I would guess! And
his apparent pleasantness, his equanimity, his unwillingness to offend,
displease, or disturb--all a show to avoid suspicion, to disarm his neighbors?
But perhaps he had gone too far the other way. Too nice, indeed. I decided
after these interviews to expand my investigation and at the same time to
maintain my working relationship with these three informants. All agreed
to cooperate. Mrs. Morgan's response was most extreme: She'd "do anything
to nail the sly bastard." And Luvums would help.
The next day, when Mr. S. Abel got on the subway on his way into Manhattan,
I got on with him. As a disguise, I wore a false nose and a bushy brown
mustache. Within minutes, the scene was nearly intolerable, and I thanked
God that my work did not normally involve such a routine. I tried to keep
Abel within five feet of me, but it was difficult. What a torture! In front
of me was a burly, grim-faced, slightly malodorous construction worker,
who fought for every inch of available standing space, wielding his heavy
lunchbox when necessary. Behind me was an angular, grim-faced, overly perfumed
spinster, possibly a senior secretary; each time the train slowed, she would
thrust her hand into my back to steady herself. On either side of me were
other grim-faced passengers, trying to preserve some trace of dignity as
the car rumbled on its way. We were jostled, nudged, pushed, elbowed, trodden
upon, kicked, pinched, shoved, breathed upon, bumped, kneed, jabbed, all
the while struggling to keep our balance. Yet, despite all the groans and
curses and mutters and imprecations from the other passengers, I saw with
amazement that a smile continued to play about Abel's lips. Uncanny! Incomprehensible!
Or was he smiling as he plotted the slow deaths of each rude brute on the
subway? That would at least be understandable.
The train came to a halt in a frenzy of shrieking and shuddering, and
as the passengers swayed perilously, the doors slid open. It was the first
stop in downtown Manhattan. Mr. Abel, too close to the door, was trampled
in the stampede of hot, bothered humanity. When I saw that he was being
forced off the train, I managed to get off as well. The doors closed behind
me. Abel picked himself off the filthy floor of the station and proceeded
to pull the mottled pink wad of gum from the seat of his pants. But it would
not come off entirely.
"It's rough in there," I ventured, approaching him casually.
"It sure is. It's too bad I had to get off here. Looks like I'll miss
my appointment now."
"Try a cab. They're usually reliable."
He smiled sheepishly. "I'd like to, but it appears that someone made
off with my wallet in the crush." He bent over and plucked a smoldering
cigarette stub from the cuff of his trouser leg. It had burnt a small hole.
"That's disgraceful!" I said, studying him. "Smoking isn't allowed in
"Yes, it's too bad, isn't it."
"It's downright illegal," I said, stressing the last word, watching
for a flicker of guilt on his bland face. Nothing. His eyes remained as
calm and forthright as ever. I shook my head. Apparently I was dealing with
a master of dissimulation here. Nobody was so nice without a motive, a profitable
reason. What was he hiding? What was his masquerade about?
As he stood on the platform, hands in his pockets, he began to whistle.
What an actor! One almost had to admire him. But don't worry, Mr. S. Abel,
I'll get you. If you're defrauding Metropolitan Electric, I'll get you.
You can bank on it.
Back at my office, I studied the data provided by the computer. Previous
address on Riverside Drive. Worth a visit, I thought. Just why had he moved?
Unfortunately, rent had included gas and electric, so I would not be able
to establish what we in the business call a pattern of energy consumption.
But still worth a visit.
Hernandez, the superintendent, seemed quite willing to discuss Mr. Abel,
and indeed spoke with some enthusiasm about him. "Great guy, great guy,
that Mr. Abel. Man never broke my back about anything, not even the fire."
"Oh, yeah, man, you din' hear? Some trash caught on fire in the service
elevator on his floor and almos' wasted the whole damn building!"
How did the trash catch fire?
"Hey, man, I don' know, nobody knows."
Had it been in the service elevator long?
"Hey, who remembers that shit, man? Look, got me a whole building to
run, no time for that stuff."
But the damage was extensive?
"Jus' Mr. Abel's floor, him, two other apartments. Burned 'em out. Shoulda
seen the mess and what those fire hoses did! My God, almost knocked the
So Mr. Abel suffered severe losses?
"Oh, man, you shoulda seen it--all his furniture fried, black an' smokin'
like a freakin' barbecue, I couldn't believe it! All his threads gone, too.
Woulda killed me, man, to have to start all over. And you should have seen
Cork? This was a provocative detail.
"Yeah, cork, man, you know what cork is? Like the stuff they put in
bottles, to keep the wine in? Got it? . . . Well, he had his bedroom lined
with the stuff, pretty kinky if you ask me, but it's cool, man, it's cool
with me, different strokes. Like, he can do what he wants in there, no skin
off my nose. This is a free country, man. Like Miss Peterson, in 404. You
don' see me bitchin' about her leather trip, hey, with all those chains,
do you? Long as they don't scratch up the floor too much."
Interesting. The cork must have been protective. Sounds to be muffled?
Does cork conduct? (Check with O'Brien. And send expense voucher to Milly.
Talk not so cheap these days.) How did Mr. Abel take all this?
"Oh, that's some cool cat, man. Me, I'd a gone off the wall and done
me some serious breakin'. But he just shrugs and starts to clean up. Strange,
but I can dig it. Wish they were all that way. Those others, they were cryin'
and shoutin' and runnin' back and forth like there was no tomorrow. Shoulda
heard Mrs. Harrison, sayin' the nastiest things I ever heard about God.
But Mr. Abel, he just laid back and was pickin' up scraps."
Any other odd details? Were you in his apartment often?
"Often, not so often, it's hard to say, man. Like, he never complained
none, so I din' have no cause. Kept another lock on the bedroom door, so
I couldn't get in. . . . Odd? You mean kinky, like the cork? . . . Can't
say, can't say. He's clean with me, like I say, it's a free country."
No further details? Ever see any unusual electrical equipment?
"I think he was into the sun."
Could you clarify?
"Well, I don' know. He got some metal reflectors, like they use to get
a tan quicker."
Mr. Abel does not appear very tanned at all. In fact, he seems rather
"Hey, man, you're right! Now I think of it, you're one-hundred percent
right. But what the hell was he doin' with that stuff, then?"
An excellent question, Mr. Hernandez, an excellent question indeed.
Sun reflectors? Or some kind of device to produce solar energy? Mr. Hernandez
seemed to remember some wires when I prodded him. To where? From what? The
reflectors? But the cork--where did that come in? And what could Abel have
gotten in his apartment? He didn't even have use of the roof. Southern exposure,
but limited. Strange indeed. We were dealing with a master, that was increasingly
There was little new information from Abel's three current neighbors.
They had obviously consulted with each other and validated each other's
impressions. Mrs. Morgan again said that Abel was "too nice by half." She
would not be the least surprised, she said, to discover that he had murdered
somebody in the past. Vince Chalmers, apparently fresh from the movies,
postulated that Mr. Abel was "some sort of an alien," posing as a human.
Or was Chalmers fresh from a long business lunch, with too many martinis?
Mrs. Arlene Davis, perhaps inspired by Chalmers, confided that somebody
so nice had to have an awful past. "Do you think he could be Hitler's son?"
I replied that I did not know. By the time of our conversation, however,
I had formed a plan.
"You want me to do what?"
"Just a cocktail or two, that's all. I'm asking you to invite him over
this evening and chat for a half hour or so. Is that too much to ask?"
"Well, I don't know. . . . He's nice, that's for sure, but . . . too
nice. Creepy. What if he gets fresh?"
"Mrs. Davis, has he ever indicated that he might get fresh? Didn't you
just say he was too nice? Think of your neighborhood, the people of this
great city of ours. Think of our great nation, with its limited natural
resources for producing high-quality energy. Is this too much to ask? Thirty
minutes? It would be much appreciated."
"Oh, dear. . . . I suppose I could. Thirty minutes." She touched her
blond bouffant and looked around for a mirror. "What if he won't come?"
"As a connoisseur of female beauty, I find it hard to believe that Mr.
Abel wouldn't leap at the opportunity." She smiled. "And if he doesn't come,
you will have done your duty in any event, Mrs. Davis. Thank you."
This was definitely Condition Sizzle. I was confident the boys upstairs
would back me all the way on this one. With my track record, no doubt about
it. Condition Sizzle. Take extraordinary measures. For the greater good.
So when I spied the slim figure of Mr. S. Abel ambling across his lawn toward
the Davis home that evening, a small bouquet of daisies in his hand, I was
ready. I was dressed all in black, with a knit cap; my face was blackened
with (O irony!) burnt cork. I had my little kit slung over my shoulder.
Catlike, I approached the back door of 315 Locust, glanced at my watch,
and went to work. Almost instantly, the door gave way to me. I had my plan,
so without the least hesitation I made my way to the door to the basement.
Vince Chalmers had exaggerated, but only slightly: There were four locks
on the door, each looking solid and immovable. But I had come prepared.
Let me again pass over these trifling details and pick up my account once
I was down the stairway and in the basement.
The room was indeed lined with cork. I rapped against the nearest wall,
but the sound was muffled. A clever attempt to make the room soundproof?
My attention was quickly fixed upon the odd laboratory scene before me.
There were several unfathomable contraptions, new even to me, tubes, beakers,
pipettes, strainers, wires, serving some purpose; but what interested me
most were the two large lustrous metal screens that dominated the center
of the room. They stood at right angles to each other, and a high stool
faced them. They were curiously reminiscent of the plates that absorb the
light of the sun and begin the process necessary for solar heating. But
these seemed finer, more sensitive, almost like metal foil. I touched one
screen and--perhaps it was my imagination--watched the metal turn faintly
pink. Both screens were attached by electrical wire to a transparent tub-like
container that seemed to be filled with water. Again, similar to some of
the solar heating systems I had seen, but simultaneously much more abbreviated
and much odder. And the most perplexing question: Where was the sunlight?
Surely there was no source of light or heat in this room. Perhaps, I thought,
glancing about me, there are some papers that would help me to make sense
of the whole thing.
I darted to the small table against one of the walls, my eye caught
by a flash of white. Yes; some papers. But they told me almost nothing.
For the most part, it was sheer nonsense. "Try the Deus Amor bit?" I spotted
on one page. Latin, I knew that well enough. God Love? Love God? What in
the world? Perhaps Hernandez was correct after all, and Abel was involved
in some dubious sexual activity. The next sheet contained a drawing that
looked more promising; apparently it was a sketch for the unusual system
before me. But what was the rough drawing of a man doing in the sketch?
His mouth appeared to be open. In ecstasy? Hell, I thought, why can't these
people be better draftsmen? Aha! Some scribbled figures and formulae below
the drawing. I realized grimly that one of them involved a law of thermodynamics.
The next sheet, however, was incomprehensible. It was covered with excerpts
from something called the Dhammapada. The handwriting was nearly impossible
to read. And yet we in New York continue to shell out all that tax money
for the schools! Some example these so-called graduates offered. What in
the world was the Dhammapada? Hernandez's theory was becoming increasingly
plausible. It seemed likely that this strange book was something like the
Kama Sutra, an exhaustive description--so I've heard--of hundreds upon hundreds
of positions for sexual activity. Fortunately, my professionalism kept my
disgust in place and I was able to scan the sheet, looking for telltale
phrases. Perhaps it was all in code. But the writing was difficult enough.
I managed to distinguish one quotation with a fair degree of confidence:
"For never does hatred cease by hatred here below: hatred ceases by non-hatred;
this is an eternal law." Law, did it say? There are other laws, mister,
including laws against fraud and theft. And I was determined to see the
ingenious Abel brought to justice. There could be little doubt now. Among
the scattered papers, I found a recent electric bill, with the paltry amount
due circled twice in red. So he was enjoying himself at our expense, was
Time had passed swiftly, too swiftly. I remembered to check my watch,
and saw that 25 minutes had elapsed. I suspected that Mrs. Arlene Davis
was not sophisticated enough to keep Abel for more than the agreed-upon
time. No doubt even now she was counting the minutes and waiting to dismiss
him. In any event, I had to leave at once. It was still too early to confront
Mr. S. Abel. That could wait until I had managed to study this baffling
room in more detail. I was more and more confused about the exact nature
of the fraud. There seemed to be a case of Mason jars in one corner of the
room. Were these jars connected in some way to the mysterious screens? For
now, however, escape without a trace. I spread the sheets of paper over
the table to recreate the disorder in which I had found them.
The next morning, as I sat in my office sipping my first cup of tea,
I received an excited call from Mrs. Morgan. It took me a few minutes to
calm her down and begin to make sense of her babbling. "Murder? Who? Where?
In the back yard? What, then? . . . You saw him bury a coffin? What does
Mr. Chalmers say?" Finally, I managed to piece together the story: Mrs.
Davis, Mrs. Morgan, and Vince Chalmers were meeting at the latter's house
to discuss their proposed surveillance of the suspect. It was about ten
o'clock at night. Mrs. Morgan happened to glance out the window and saw
a shadowy figure behind Abel's house. He appeared to be digging a hole.
By majority vote, Chalmers was sent to investigate. According to his imperfect
testimony, Abel was burying a dark box, the size of a small coffin. "A midget's
coffin," Mrs. Morgan had volunteered. "A real pervert, this Mr. Abel, believe
"Mrs. Morgan, listen to me. Leave the box alone. I repeat, leave it
alone. When necessary, we'll dig it up officially, properly. Until then,
go about your own business. Got that? Have a nice day. . . . No, I don't
normally carry a gun. Yes, so you said . . . your husband's old rifle. Yes,
thank you very much. No. No, please keep Luvums away from the burial site.
Yes, I understand. . . . Have a nice day."
Something was up, apparently. Whatever was in the box--coffin or otherwise--would
probably be valuable evidence; but this was not a job for amateurs. I just
had to hope that the more temperate neighbors could persuade Mrs. Morgan
to rest quietly. In the meantime, however, I had to act. When Mr. S. Abel
returned from work that evening, I would be ready for him, there to witness
his crime. My camera and tape recorder would no doubt prove handy, not to
mention the kit I had used the evening before.
Things were happening quickly now--too quickly. I was already inside
Abel's house when I caught sight of the small posse assembling on Mrs. Morgan's
lawn. My heart fell. Chalmers carried a shovel and a pick. It was already
twilight. The pale grass of the neighborhood lawns was turning grey. A few
lights had switched on inside the uniform houses, lights that my company
had made possible. But this evening, that was little consolation. Desperately,
trying to stop the neighbors, I rapped on the window, but they did not hear,
so engrossed were they in their bold preparations. Even from across the
street, I could see Mrs. Morgan's gleaming eyes. I was about to dash out
of Abel's front door and give them a stern admonition when the man in question
turned the corner and drew near. He was apparently whistling. He swung a
tidy briefcase in one hand as he strode along. Perhaps his heavy brown wingtips
clicked on the ashen sidewalk. From my perspective, I could see the three
neighbors hurry furtively out of his sight. Abel suspected nothing. Remembering
my own position, however, I let the drapes fall into place and searched
the living room for the best refuge.
"Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do," sang Mr. S. Abel as he entered
the house. "I'm half crazy, all for the love of youuuu."
Crazy like a fox! The pretense continues, I thought grimly, peeking
around the side of the armchair. As quiet as a shadow, I watched him toss
his briefcase onto a chair in the front hall, drop his beige raincoat over
the back of same, and vanish into the kitchen. He returned moments later
with a frosted mug almost overflowing with golden beer. How much did it
cost you to chill that, Mr. Abel? How utterly selfish of you, forcing us
to pass the cost on to the less fortunate and less unscrupulous! I was tempted
to shove the mug into his insipid face and shout my accusations right then
and there. But I knew I had work to do, further evidence to collect; personal
animosity had no place here. Crouched behind the armchair, I was prepared
to wait, hours if need be, to witness the incriminating act.
Fortunately for my joints, it did not take long. Having quaffed his
brew and begun another ditty from the Gay Nineties, Abel fetched his copy
of the Times and walked in the direction of the basement door. I peered
after him cautiously. Yes, there was the clink of keys in locks, the squeak
of the door opening. He was returning, no doubt, to the scene of the crime.
My palms were damp. As soon as I heard him close the door behind him and
lock it methodically from the other side, I jumped up from my hiding place.
Now, what were those meddlers up to? I spared a few valuable seconds to
peek out the window, but I could not see them. The street appeared calm.
The sky had deepened in color. As long as Chalmers did not begin to dig
. . .
Catlike, I moved to the door of the basement. When I placed my ear against
the panel, I could barely detect a new noise beyond. It had to be remarkably
loud for me to catch it through the wood and the thick overlay of cork.
What was it? Shouts? Shrieks? Still too muffled. But who was down there
with him? Had there been somebody else the time I investigated? A chill
ran down my spine. Was I prepared to press on? Should I get reinforcements
from headquarters? As I stood there, ear still pressed to the door, I tried
to distinguish the elements of the uproar. No, it had to be voices alone,
or a single voice. But whose? It could not be Abel screaming, not that calm,
collected man of the placid demeanor, the paragon of niceness. Criminal,
perhaps--but not a raving lunatic.
Words? Was that? . . . I could not believe it. Without the cork shield,
the neighborhood would have been shocked. I was shocked. I caught--I thought
I caught--a long and rather inventive obscenity. It seemed incumbent upon
me to proceed.
After I had quietly unlocked the last lock, I hesitated, my gloved fingers
on the handle. What would I find? I opened the door a slit, and at once
the noise rushed out like a thunderclap; but this thunder did not abate.
There was a madman down there, shrieking at the top of his lungs, letting
loose a foul torrent of words, dumb sounds, and inarticulate rage.
HAAH! HHUHN! DAMNTHEWHOLEDAMNWORLDTOHELLHELLHELL!
UNHGH! AIEE! HRRR! LYINGPOLITICIANSVENALOFFICIALS!
SHRAAGK! FTHZSH! MERDE! PUCE! PUCE! PUCE!
ABOMINATION UPON ABOMINATION! SHNARGH!
HAAIEE! KILL! STRXFRLWYASTRZEMSKIKOHLRABIKILL!!!
HHUHH! SIXTH PLACE!! HAAIEE! DAGNABDADBURNDANGDURN!
Was Abel torturing him? Perhaps there was something involved beyond
mere energy fraud. Perhaps the police should handle this. What would happen
if Chalmers and crew stumbled upon this repulsive scene? Whoever it was
sounded violent. I was transfixed halfway down the stairs, still out of
sight, my own vision blocked by the exposed beams. Only later did I realize
that I had completely forgotten about my camera and tape recorder. The vile
screaming went on unchecked, horrible, revolting, nauseating, too gross
for fuller description, raw hatred, the human voice nearly unrecognizable,
lapsing momentarily into a sputter. My mind made up, I continued my descent,
making no effort to quiet my movements. I was quite prepared to make a citizen's
arrest if absolutely necessary. But I was not at all prepared for the sight
that greeted me in the middle of the room.
He was perched on the stool, newspaper in his lap, bending forward so
that his crimson, distorted face was only inches away from the two metal
screens. As he shrieked and foamed and raved, he managed somehow to keep
his balance. My gaze moved numbly to the screens themselves, now tinged
red, glowing--my God, can it be?--with the fury of his voice, capturing
the heat, transforming it through the magic of science. As my eyes followed
the wires that led to the container of water, a vague reluctant understanding
was forming in my mind. No, understanding is too strong. The water seethed,
now loathsomely dark, as if soiled by the venom he expressed. A side product?
What was the next step? He was actually converting hatred into energy, somehow,
somehow, my mind reeled. The Mason jars? To bottle it, to preserve the terrible
water--or to get rid of it? Abel continued to shriek and rant, too obsessed
to pay any attention to me. The whole peculiar system pulsed, working with
mysterious fervor. All this, damnable but marvelous, to cheat us of a few
miserable dollars each month? From beaker to beaker to cell to generator
to . . . But was the water harmful? An excess of energy? Or what we in the
business call a waste product of dangerous volatility, requiring careful
disposal? My God, was that what he buried in the back yard? What if Chalmers?
. . . Merciful Lord!
There was no time to lose. Even now, Chalmers could have unearthed the
coffin--one of who knows how many, each filled with dozens of the jars--and
be swinging his pick above his head. Downward, down, smashing . . . If the
foul liquid was even slightly disturbed, would it trigger--no! I had to
stop him. But first:
"Abel! Abel! Stop! You're in danger!"
HHUNG!! AAIIEE!! GRINDYOUREARLOBESINTOMUSH!!
HRAHRR!! DOWNTENPOINTSATCLOSING!! GRWXGRH!!
I could wait no longer. With a half-formed prayer running through my
head, I dashed up the stairs and down the corridor to the back door. It
was as I fumbled with the safety chain that the first explosion occurred
outside. The shock sent me sprawling. Before I could get to my feet, the
second explosion came, louder and more forceful. The whole house rocked.
I thought I *heard cries. Fumes, dust, my tongue coated, hard to swallow,
the floor shuddering, ringing, ringing, my ears would not stop. Where was
Abel? I tried to roll down the corridor into the living room. Two feet,
three. Dragging myself. The lights fragmenting. What if the explosions outside
triggered more in the basement? What if . . . Abruptly, the next explosion
came; closer; the ceiling cracked over my head; I seemed to be sliding somewhere
into darkness; I heard the souls of the damned. Was that blood? The lights
. . . vanishing . . .
They found me unconscious among the remains of the living room. Apparently,
the plush cushions from Abel's sofa had fallen upon me and in part protected
me from the full impact of the destruction. My clothes were in tatters;
my hair smelled from being singed. Most of the house was gone. There was
no trace of Abel, no trace of the basement and his awful invention, only
a vast hole filled with rubble. The authorities, after conscientiously sifting
the ashes on the blackened lawn, made an attempt to distinguish the three
neighbors. I had my doubts. And where was Luvums? I vaguely recall being
taken by stretcher into the ambulance and glimpsing the pale identical faces
of the local residents, come to take in the disaster. "But he was such a
My final report, needless to say, will be much more reserved than this.