Excerpt from

Woman Vanishes

Jarvis has disappeared, leaving his wife with exactly $100. Pauline has a young child and no income of her own. How long can a hundred dollars last? She's still in a state of shock when the doorbell rings.

Two strange men waited on the doorstep.

He's dead, she thought. They've come to tell me he's dead.

She opened the main door but kept the screen door locked. They were somber. Funereal, in dark suits. One man was heavyset, the other slender and bald, but with a smooth, young face.

"Mrs. Kingsley?" asked the heavy one. "We'd like to talk to you. How about letting us in?"

"Could you tell me what this is about?"

"It's about your husband. It's important. We can't talk out here."

As soon as they were inside, the heavyset man closed and locked the door. "Tell me, Mrs. Kingsley, is your husband at home?"

"No, he's not." At least they hadn't come to tell her he was dead.

"When do you expect him?"

"I don't. I don't know if he's ever coming back."

"What do you mean by that?"

She stared at the man, not liking his tone and wishing she hadn't let him in.

"It means—" She tried to swallow. "It means he's gone. He was gone when I got up this morning. He took his clothes. Look, I don't even know who you are. Would you please explain what you want with my husband?"

"Don't you know that your husband borrowed some money?"

"I know he tried. From a bank. He was out of work."

The picture began to take shape. She could not put it into words. It wasn't true. This couldn't be happening.

The fat man took her elbow and led her toward the living room. "We can make ourselves comfortable while we talk this over." To the lanky one, he said, "You go take a look around. See if he's anywhere in the house."

"You can't search my house!" Pauline cried. "He's not here, I told you he's not! I have a child sleeping upstairs. You can't do this!"

"You might as well relax, Mrs. Kingsley," said the fat one. "We have a lot to talk about. It looks as if your husband didn't tell you very much. I'm going to have to explain it myself. It's like this, Mrs. Kingsley. Your husband borrowed some money from a friend of mine. Forty thousand dollars, to be exact."

Her mouth opened.

"It was a deal," he said. "An agreement. Your husband was a willing party to it. He gets the loan, he agrees to pay a certain amount every week. Now my friend tells me he defaulted on the last couple of payments. We don't do business that way, Mrs. Kingsley. We expect all parties to stick to the agreement."

"But he's not here. I told you that." She had an odd sense of unreality. In a little while they would go away and it would be as though they had never come.

"The fact remains," said the man, "we expect those payments to be made. We're not a charity, Mrs. Kingsley, we're a business like any other business. Your husband understood the terms. He knew he was borrowing forty thousand dollars at five percent a week."

"Five percent?" It seemed very reasonable, considering the usual rate on a loan. Maybe it was a good thing that the bank had turned him down.

"Five percent a week," the man repeated. "Those are the terms your husband agreed to. Five percent interest a week comes to two hundred sixty a year, if you remember your arithmetic."

She couldn't remember her arithmetic, at least not in her head, but two hundred sixty percent a year was staggering. "Is that legal? That kind of interest?"

The man folded his arms. "It's fairly standard in our business. Some go a lot higher. Your husband made the first three payments. Two thousand a week. That was the interest. Two grand a week. You pay the interest as long as the principal remains. If you get a little extra now and then, you pay back some of the principal."

"But that's slavery!" she cried as his face blurred. "Two thousand a week! He couldn't have known that. Are you serious? Is he crazy?"

"I'm afraid insanity is no defense, Mrs. Kingsley. Those were the terms. The agreement was made and the money is going to be paid back, one way or another."

She tried to speak, but her throat was dry and she couldn't think what to say.

"Yes, Mrs. Kingsley, I mean you. It's up to you now, dear."

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