The Ledge
by Stephen King

Narrated by John GloverĀ 

THE LEDGE

'Go on,' Cressner said again. 'Look in the bag.'

We were in his penthouse apartment, forty-three stories up. The carpet was deep-cut pile, burnt orange. In the middle, between the Basque sling chair where Cressner sat and the genuine leather couch where no one at all sat, there was a brown shopping bag.

'If it's a payoff, forget it,' I said. 'I love her.'

'It's money, but it's not a payoff. Go on. Look.' He was smoking a Turkish cigarette in an onyx holder. The air-circulation system allowed me just a dry whiff of the tobacco and then whipped it away. He was wearing a silk dressing gown on which a dragon was embroidered. His eyes were calm and intelligent behind his glasses. He looked just like what he was: an A-number-one, 500 carat, dyed-in-the-wool son of a bitch. I loved his wife, and she loved me. I had expected him to make trouble, and I knew this was it, but I just wasn't sure what brand it was.

I went to the shopping bag and tipped it over. Banded bundles of currency tumbled out on the rug. All twenties. I picked one of the bundles up and counted. Ten bills to a bundle. There were a lot of bundles.

'Twenty thousand dollars,' he said, and puffed on his cigarette.

I stood up. 'Okay.'

'It's for you.'

'I don't want it.'

'My wife comes with it.'

I didn't say anything. Marcia had warned me how, it would be. He's like a cat, she had said. An old tom full of meanness. He'll try to make you a mouse.

'So you're a tennis pro,' he said. 'I don't believe I've ever actually seen one before.'

'You mean your detectives didn't get any pictures?'

'Oh, yes.' He waved the cigarette holder negligently. 'Even a motion picture of the two of you in that Bayside Motel. A camera was behind the mirror. But pictures are hardly the same, are they?'

'If you say so.'

He'll keep changing tacks, Marcia had said. It's the way he puts people on the defensive. Pretty soon he'll have you hitting out at where you think he's going to be, and he'll get you someplace else. Say as little as possible, Stan. And remember that I love you.

'I invited you up because I thought we should have a little man-to-man chat, Mr Norris. Just a pleasant conversation between two civilized human beings, one of whom has made off with the other's wife.'

I started to answer but decided not to.

'Did you enjoy San Quentin?' Cressner said, puffing lazily.

'Not particularly.'

'I believe you passed three years there. A charge of breaking and entering, if I'm correct.'

'Marcia knows about it,' I said, and immediately wished I hadn't. I was playing his game, just what Marcia had warned against. Hitting soft lobs for him to smash back.

'I've taken the liberty of having your car moved,' he said, glancing out the window at the far end of the room. It really wasn't a window at all: the whole wall was glass. In the middle was a sliding-glass door. Beyond it, a balcony the size of a postage stamp. Beyond that, a very long drop. There was something strange about the door. I couldn't quite put my finger on it.

'This is a very pleasant building,' Cressner said. 'Good security. Closed-circuit TV and all that. When I knew you were in the lobby, I made a telephone call. An employee then hot-wired the ignition of your car and moved it from the parking area here to a public lot several blocks away.' He glanced up at the modernistic sunburst clock above the couch. It was 8.05. 'At 8.20 the same employee will call the police from a public phone booth concerning your car. By 8.30, at the latest, the minions of the law will have discovered over six ounces of heroin hidden in the spare tyre of your trunk. You will be eagerly sought after, Mr Norris.'

He had set me up. I had tried to cover myself as well as I could, but in the end I had been child's play for him.

'These things will happen unless I call my employee and tell him to forget the phone call.'

'And all I have to do is tell you where Marcia is,' I said. 'No deal, Cressner, I don't know. We set it up this way just for you.'

'My men had her followed.'

'I don't think so I think we lost them at the airport.'

Cressner sighed, removed the smouldering cigarette holder, and dropped it into a chromium ashtray with a sliding lid. No fuss, no muss. The used cigarette and Stan Norris had been taken care of with equal ease.

'Actually,' he said, 'you're right. The old ladies-room vanishing act. My operatives were extremely vexed to have been taken in by such an ancient ruse. I think it was so old they never expected it.'

I said nothing. After Marcia had ditched Cressner's operatives at the airport, she had taken the bus shuttle back to the city and then to the bus station; that had been the plan. She had two hundred dollars, all the money that had been in ~ny savings account. Two hundred dollars and a Greyhound bus could take you anyplace in the country.

'Are you always to uncommunicative?' Cressner asked, and he sounded genuinely interested.

'Marcia advised it.'

A little more sharply, he said: 'Then I imagine you'll stand on your rights when the police take you in. And the next time you see my wife could be when she's a little old grandmother in a rocker. Have you gotten that through your head? I understand that possession of six ounces of heroin could get you forty years.'

'That won't get you Marcia back.'

He smiled thinly. 'And that's the nub of it, isn't it? Shall I review where we are? You and my wife have fallen in love. You have had an affair. . . if you want to call a series of one-nighters in cheap motels an affair. My wife has left me. However, I have you. And you are in what is called a bind. Does that summarize it adequately?'

'I can understand why she got tired of you,' I said.

To my surprise, he threw back his head and laughed. 'You know, I rather like you, Mr Norris. You're vulgar and you're a piker, but you seem to have heart. Marcia said you did. I rather doubted it. Her judgement of character is lax. But you do have a certain. . . verve. Which is why I've set things up the way I have. No doubt Marcia has told you that lam fond of wagering.'

'Yes.' Now I knew what was wrong with the door in the middle of the glass wall. It was the middle of winter, and no one was going to want to take tea on a balcony forty-three stories up. The balcony had been cleared of furniture. And the screen had been taken off the door. Now why would Cressner have done that?

'I don't like my wife very much,' Cressner said, fixing another cigarette carefully in the holder. 'That's no secret. I'm sure she's told you as much. And I'm sure a man of your experience knows that contented wives do not jump into the hay with the local tennis-club pro at the drop of a racket. In my opinion, Marcia is a prissy, whey-faced little prude, a whiner, a weeper, a bearer of tales, a -'That's about enough,' I said.

He smiled coldly. 'I beg your pardon. I keep forgetting we are discussing our beloved. It's 8.16. Are you nervous?'

I shrugged.

'Tough to the end,' he said, and lit his cigarette. 'At any rate, you may wonder why, if I dislike Marcia so much, I do not simply give her her freedom -'

'No, I don't wonder at all.'

He frowned at me.

'You're a selfish, grasping, egocentric son of a bitch. That's why. No one takes what's yours. Not even if you don't want it any more.

He went red and then laughed. 'One for you, Mr Norris. Very good.'

I shrugged again.

'I'm going to offer you a wager. If you win, you leave here with the money, the woman, and your freedom. On the other hand, if you lose, you lose your life.'

I looked at the clock. I couldn't help it. It was 8.19.

'All right,' I said. What else? It would buy time, at least. Time for me to think of some way to beat it out of here, with or without the money.

Cressner picked up the telephone beside him and dialled a number.

'Tony? Plan two. Yes.' He hung up.

'What's plan two?' I asked.

'I'll call Tony back in fifteen minutes, and he will remove the. . . offending substance from the trunk of your car and drive it back here. If I don't call, he will get in touch with the police.'

'Not very trusting, are you?'

'Be sensible, Mr Norris. There is twenty thousand dollars on the carpet between us. In this city murder has been committed for twenty cents.'

'What's the bet?'

He looked genuinely pained. 'Wager, Mr Norris, wager. Gentlemen make wagers. Vulgarians place bets.'

'Whatever you say.'

'Excellent. I've seen you looking at my balcony.'

'The screen's off the door.'

'Yes. I had it taken off this afternoon. What I propose is this: that you walk around my building on the ledge that juts out just below the penthouse level. If you circumnavigate the building successfully, the jackpot is yours.'

'You're crazy.'

'On the contrary. I have proposed this wager six times to six different people during my dozen years in this apartment. Three of the six were professional athletes, like you-one of them a notorious quarterback more famous for his TV Commercials than his passing game, one a baseball player, one a rather famous jockey who made an extraordinary yearly salary and who was also afflicted with extraordinary alimony problems. The other three were more ordinary citizens who had differing professions but two things in common: a need for money and a certain degree of body grace.' He puffed his cigarette thoughtfully and then continued. 'The wager was declined five times out of hand. On the other occasion, it was accepted. The terms were twenty thousand dollars against six months' service to me. I collected. The fellow took one look over the edge of the balcony and nearly fainted.' Cressner looked amused and contemptuous. 'He said everything down there looked so small. That was what killed his nerve.'

'What makes you think -'

He cut me off with an annoyed wave of his hand. 'Don't bore me, Mr Norris. I think you will do it because you have no choice. It's my wager on the one hand or forty years in San Quentin on the other. The money and my wife are only added fillips, indicative of my good nature.'

'What guarantee do I have that you won't double-cross me? Maybe I'd do it and find out you'd called Tony and told him to go ahead anyway.'

He sighed. 'You are a walking case of paranoia, Mr Norris. I don't love my wife. It is doing my storied ego no good at all to have her around. Twenty thousand dollars is a pittance to me. I pay four times that every week to be given to police bagmen. As for the wager, however . . .' His

I thought about it, and he left me. I suppose he knew that the real mark always convinces himself. I was a thirty-six-year-old tennis bum, and the club had been thinking of letting me go when Marcia applied a little gentle pressure. Tennis was the only profession I knew, and without it, even getting a job as a janitor would be tough - especially with a record. It was kid stuff, but employers don't care.

And the funny thing was that I really loved Maria Cressner. I had fallen for her after two nine-o'clock tennis lessons, and she had fallen for me just as hard. It was a case of Stan Norris luck, all right. After thirty-six years of happy bachelorhood, I had fallen like a sack of mail for the wife of an Organization overlord.

The old tom sitting there and puffing his imported Turkish cigarette knew all that, of course. And something else, as well. I had no guarantee that he wouldn't turn me in if I accepted his wager and won, but I knew damn well that I'd be in the cooler by ten o'clock if I didn't. And the next time I'd be free would be at the turn of the century.

'I want to know one thing,' I said.

'What might that be, Mr Norris?'

'Look me right in the face and tell me if you're a welsher or not.'

He looked at me directly. 'Mr Norris,' he said quietly, 'I never welsh.'

'All right,' I said. What other choice was there?

He stood up, beaming. 'Excellent! Really excellent! Approach the door to the balcony with me, Mr Norris.'

We walked over together. His face was that of a man who had dreamed this scene hundreds of times and was enjoying its actuality to the fullest.

'The ledge is five inches wide,' he said dreamily. 'I've measured it myself. In fact, I've stood on it, holding on to the balcony, of course. All you have to do is lower yourself over the wrought-iron railing. You'll be chest-high. But, of course, beyond the railing there are no handgrips. You'll have to inch your way along, being very careful not to overbalance.'

My eye had fastened on something else outside the window . . . something that made my blood temperature sink several degrees. It was a wind gauge. Cressner's apartment was quite close to the lake, and it was high enough so there were no higher buildings to act as a windbreak. That wind would be cold, and it would cut like a knife. The needle was standing at ten pretty steadily, but a gust would send the needle almost up to twenty-five for a few seconds before dropping off.

'Ah, I see you've noticed my wind gauge,' Cressner said jovially. 'Actually, it's the other side which gets the prevailing wind; so the breeze may be a little stronger on that side. But actually this is a fairly still night. I've seen evenings when the wind has gusted up to eighty-five . . . you can actually feel the building rock a little. A bit like being on a ship, in the crow's nest. And it's quite mild for this time of year.'

He pointed, and I saw the lighted numerals atop a bank skyscraper to the left. They said it was forty-four degrees. But with the wind, that would have made the chill factor somewhere in the mid-twenties.

'Have you got a coat?' I asked. I was wearing a light jacket.

'Alas, no.' The lighted figures on the bank switched to show the time. It was 8.32. 'And I think you had better get started, Mr Norris, so I can call Tony and put plan three into effect. A good boy but apt to be impulsive. You understand.'

I understood all right. Too damn well.

But the thought of being with Marcia, free from Cressner's tentacles and with enough money to get started at something made me push open the sliding-glass door and step out on to the balcony. It was cold and damp; the wind ruffled my hair into my eyes.

'Bon soir,' Cressner said behind me, but I didn't bother to look back. I approached the railing, but I didn't look down. Not yet. I began to do deep-breathing.

It's not really an exercise at all but a form of self-hypnosis. With every inhale-exhale, you ~row a distraction out of your mind, until there's nothing left but the match ahead of you. I got rid of the money with one breath and Cressner himself with two. Marcia took longer - her face kept rising in my mind, telling me not to be stupid, not to play his game, that maybe Cressner never welshed, but he always hedged his bets. I didn't listen. I couldn't afford to. If I lost this match, I wouldn't have to buy the beers and take the ribbing; I'd be so much scarlet sludge splattered for a block of Deakman Street in both directions.

When I thought I had it, I looked down.

The building sloped away like a smooth chalk cliff to the street far below. The cars parked there looked like those matchbox models you can buy in the five-and-dime. The ones driving by the building were just tiny pinpoints of light. If you fell that far, you would have plenty of time to realize just what was happening, to see the wind blowing your clothes as the earth pulled you back faster and faster. You'd have time to scream a long, long scream. And the sound you'made when you hit the pavement would be like the sound of an overripe watermelon.

I could understand why that other guy had chickened out. But he'd only had six months to worry about. I was staring forty long, grey, Marcia4ess years in the eye.

I looked at the ledge. It looked small, I had never, seen five inches that looked so much like two. At least the building was fairly new; it wouldn't crumble under me.

I hoped.

I swung over the railing and carefully lowered myself until I was standing on the ledge. My heels were out over the drop. The floor on the balcony was about chest-high, and I was looking into Cressner's penthouse through the wrought-iron ornamental bars. He was standing inside the door, smoking, watching me the way a scientist watches a guinea pig to see what the latest injection will do.

'Call,' I said, holding on to the railing.

'What?'

'Call Tony. I don't move until you do.'

He went back into the living room - it looked amazingly warm and safe and cosy - and picked up the phone. It was a worthless gesture, really. With the wind, I couldn't hear what he was saying. He put the phone down and returned. 'Taken care of, Mr Norris.'

'It better be.'

'Goodbye, Mr Norris. I'll see you in a bit. . . perhaps.'

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