When I pulled to the corner of Main Street and Seventh, I noticed a homeless man pacing back and forth across the median between the north- and southbound lanes. His hands were shoved deep in the pockets of dirt-stained overalls, and the outsoles of his grimy black leather boots had separated from their uppers. With the window down, I could hear the double-slap of his every footfall.
Although his slender build and full head of black hair suggested he was in his late thirties or early forties, the crevices that lined his face — created by stress and sun, and years on the street — made him look twice that age.
He carried neither the cardboard sign asking for money nor the backpack filled with clothes and liquor that were staples of the homeless. In addition to stained gray pants and a denim shirt, he wore a shabby wool coat to protect himself against the fierce December wind.
Nothing about the vagrant seemed threatening. Indeed, he looked as though he had just lost a friend or a family member, or perhaps a puppy. The corners of his weathered lips were turned down and his forehead was creased as though he were in pain.
Nevertheless, I instinctively averted my eyes when he completed his pace toward the northbound lanes and turned west again. Eye contact might invite some sort of communication, which I wanted to avoid.
It was just after six o’clock on Christmas Eve. The bruised sky was swollen with pregnant clouds, inducing a premature twilight, and although there were plenty of cars on the road I felt exposed. Vulnerable.
Twinkle lights and nativity scenes — as well as far more gaudy decorations — adorned the businesses in downtown Exely, Texas. Evergreen wreaths and giant red velvet bows hung from the arched street lamps, and on a side street was parked a horse-drawn carriage prepared to take couples on romantic tours of the historic district.
I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel and willed the light to turn green. I had spent the previous ten hours working behind the counter at Carol’s Gifts, where the Christmas rush had generated unending lines of demanding and impatient customers. Nothing like a job in retail to squash the Christmas spirit.
I could still hear the rhythmic slap-slap, slap-slap of the vagrant’s boots as they pounded the pavement. They seemed to get louder with every passing second, like the beating of the tell-tale heart in Poe’s iconic story.
Pity and curiosity force us to confront the most wretched aspects of humanity. We are driven to explain the inexplicable, to seek answers when none exist. Although I dreaded making eye contact with this man, my gaze was drawn back toward him like a magnet to steel plating.
When my gaze found him, however, he was no longer pacing the concrete median, but standing fewer than six inches from the driver’s side door of my SUV. With the window open, his sour breath intermingled with the smell of exhaust from nearby cars and the scent of French fries cooking in a fast food restaurant across the street.
The homeless man paused for a second, staring at me, as though unsure about how to proceed, then his gray eyes narrowed in resolution. “Move over,” he said, and from his pocket withdrew an eight-inch Bowie knife.
Perhaps a normal woman would have screamed at the sight of such a weapon. Maybe she would have waved her arms frantically in the air, hoping to capture the attention of someone in a neighboring vehicle, or she might have honked her car horn to signal her distress.
In that moment, however, none of those more rational reactions occurred to me. My eyes zeroed in on the knife to the exclusion of all other sensory input, drawn to the glint of fading sunlight on its blade, to the worn and calloused hand in which it was gripped.
“If you’ll just let me out of the car,” I said, the breath suddenly raw in my throat, “you can have it. I won’t put up a fight.”
He shook his head. “Won’t do. Won’t do. Move over, please.”
The blade was broad and slightly curved, terminating in an upturned point. Once shiny and silver, exposure to the elements and perhaps frequent use had rendered it almost black, crusted with a patina of substances I did not want to contemplate.
Despite his worn and disheveled appearance, and even though he held a knife pointed directly at my throat, the vagrant seemed out of place in this tableau. His eyes were neither hard with calculated malevolence nor feverish with madness, and his grip on the shank of the knife seemed somehow tentative.
My husband, a homicide detective with the Exely Police Department, had dealt with murderers, thieves, rapists and other denizens of our town’s criminal element on a daily basis. I wished that he was here to instruct me, to help me diffuse the situation. I possessed no such experience.
I could either shove open the door and try to run past him, risking a knife in the gut, or I could move over as he had directed and hope a better opportunity for escape presented itself.
I chose the latter.
My SUV featured bucket seats separated by a hollow console in which I stored CDs, maps printed from the Internet, and a healthy supply of breath mints. Unfortunately, I traveled with neither a semi-automatic pistol nor a hypodermic syringe filled with deadly poison. Not that I would have known how to use either weapon.
I put the car in <font-size=”3″>PARK, unbuckled my safety harness, and rolled-scooted-tumbled over the console and into the passenger’s seat. The vagrant opened the driver’s side door and slid in behind the wheel, keeping the knife pointed in my direction.
There were dozens of other cars all around, including a yellow Mustang convertible idling to my left. The driver was a middle-aged man dressed in a business suit, his eyes focused forward and his lips mouthing the words of a song I could not hear.
I was surrounded by people, and none had bothered to ask why a knife-toting homeless man was getting in the driver’s seat of my car.
Unbidden, the ghost of a conversation I’d had with my husband a few weeks previously haunted my over-stimulated mind. He’d told me that the Christmas holidays often corresponded with a sharp increase in crime, particularly in theft and assault. People stole in order to obtain gifts to give to their families, and the stress of the holidays turned typical disputes into violent encounters. Perhaps I should have listened more closely.
As though it were synchronized ahead of time, the stoplight changed from red to green just as the vagrant put my SUV in gear. I fumbled with my seatbelt, wondering if he had ever obtained a driver license, and I was so preoccupied with the task that I did not at first realize that he was mumbling a peculiar phrase, sotto voce, over and over:
“Gotta hurry. Gotta hurry. Gotta hurry.”
Never having partaken in illegal drugs, opposed even to excessive medication prescribed by a physician, I was unfamiliar with the various stimulants, hallucinogenics and sedatives popular on the street. I did know, however, that if the vagrant was coasting on a chemical high, he would be far more difficult to deal with than if he were sober.
Of course, his disjointed ramblings could have been the product of a diseased mind rather than a drug-induced fog. In that case, I had no way of knowing whether my odds were better or worse in terms of survival.
As he accelerated through the intersection, I stole a glance in his direction. His fingers were latched firmly to the steering wheel, his cracked skin blanched white over sharp knuckles, his eyes riveted to the road ahead.
“What’s your name?” I asked. My husband had told me once that victims fared better in kidnappings when they managed to humanize themselves as well as their attackers.
The vagrant’s eyes widened and his entire upper body jerked to the left, as though he were surprised to discover I was still in the car. He cleared his throat and replied, “Timothy. Friends call me Tim.” His voice was childlike, clear as the tiny bell the young boy took from Santa’s sleigh in The Polar Express.
“I’m Margaret,” I told him. “Could you tell me where we’re going?”
Shaking his head back and forth, Tim only continued his frenzied mantra: “Gotta hurry. Gotta hurry.”
We drove for a few minutes in silence, and several times Timothy changed direction, navigating the streets of downtown with surprising skill. He obviously had a destination in mind, and I desperately wanted to know the nature of it.
“Maybe if you tell me where we’re going, I can help you. Like, maybe you’ve committed a crime and you want to get away. I can help you with that, but you don’t have to take me with you. I’ll be happy to give you my car.”
No response except the maddening two-word litany: “Gotta hurry. Gotta hurry.”
I thought of Mark, who would probably already have concluded his shift at the police department and would be making his way home. It would not take long before he started to worry about my absence.
I considered my options. The passenger door was unlocked and therefore accessible, but in order to tumble from the SUV I would have to unbuckle my safety belt without alerting the vagrant to my plan. Furthermore, we were driving at least forty miles an hour — I did not know whether my body could survive such a fall.
I could wait until Timothy stopped at a traffic light. Perhaps, if he was high on drugs, his reflexes would be sufficiently dulled that he would not have time to reach across the console with the knife.
Unfortunately, however, I was neither flexible nor particularly athletic. I did not trust my body to roll gracefully from the car, eluding the stab of the knife while avoiding oncoming traffic. I just wasn’t that nimble.
It’s helpful to recognize one’s own limitations.
We turned right, then right again, then left, winding our way from downtown Exely into the suburbs east of town. Traffic was steady but not heavy enough to cause a jam, and no stop signs or traffic lights appeared ahead of us.
The sun had abandoned me entirely, and the charcoal sky seemed to settle heavier over the SUV. Headlights brightened and dimmed as cars flew by and I found myself increasingly disoriented. Though I had lived in Exely all my life, the homes and businesses we passed could not have been more foreign to me if we had been navigating the streets of Paris or Milan.
I pictured Mark’s face at the moment when he received the call from one of his police officer friends, informing him of my death. I wondered whether he was capable of sustaining such a loss so soon after the deaths of his parents. Although a hardened street cop with enough masculinity to satisfy an entire football team, he was also compassionate and sensitive, capable of more empathy than anyone else I had ever known.
Our four-year relationship suddenly seemed pathetically short; we’d enjoyed far too little time together for it to end now.
“Listen Tim,” I said, turning in my seat to face the vagrant. “I know you’re not a bad guy. You look like a nice person, a kind person, and I know you don’t want to hurt me. If you’ll just talk about whatever is bothering you, I’m sure we can work something out.”
My pleas seemed pathetic even as they crossed my lips, woefully inadequate in light of my predicament.
Timothy did not glance in my direction, gave absolutely no indication that he had heard me.
I had chosen a career in retail not because I lacked the skills or expertise to obtain a job in another industry, but because my facility with words and my ability to connect with people made sales the obvious career path. I earned three times more commissions than any of the other sales girls. If I couldn’t use those skills to talk myself out of this mess, however, then they were nowhere near as valuable as I’d always thought them to be.
Frustration began to take the place of my fear; irritation quickly blossomed into anger. I had been less than two miles from home when the vagrant injected himself into my life, less than five minutes from the comfort of a warm fire and my husband’s embrace.
Rage clarified my thoughts where fear and insecurity had muddied them. I remembered that my cellular phone was still in the pocket of my coat. I reached into the pocket and felt the cool, metallic surface of the phone. For once I was thankful that the AT&T store had been out of flip phones the day I purchased this one.
I slid out the retractable keypad and took a moment to orient myself with the direction of the device in my pocket. Fewer than four hours ago, I had sent a text message to Mark about working late, so his was the first number on the list of recent contacts.
With trembling hands I quickly keyed in a message, hoping my fingers found the correct buttons:
CARJACKED VAGRANT EAST OF TOWN SCARED.
It was not the most coherent message I had ever sent, but I prayed Mark would understand my meaning. I was afraid that if I tried to type a more detailed missive, I would be more likely to hit the wrong keys and render it incomprehensible.
After typing the message, I hit the SEND key on the phone, then hit it again to select Mark’s number from the resulting list. The phone vibrated in my hand to let me know the text message had been sent, and I slowly withdrew my hand from my pocket.
For a moment I was afraid to look at Timothy. Perhaps, during a meeting of our eyes, he would read deception in my face, would know that I had done something to ruin whatever plan he had devised. I was terrified that my expression would give me away, and he would decide to kill me now rather than later.
When I forced my head to turn in his direction, however, I discovered that Tim of the Gentle Voice remained focused on the road. His lips moved rapidly but no words escaped him.
Our surroundings had transitioned entirely from strip centers and office buildings to single-family homes. Most of the houses were decorated for the season, creating a miasma of red, green, blue, white, orange, yellow, and purple lights that exacerbated the headache that had begun to pound in my temple. We turned left into a well-kept middle class neighborhood full of two-story brick boxes sitting on postage stamp-size lawns. Bicycles lay in heaps on sidewalks and basketball nets presided over every other driveway. Timothy maintained his speed of forty miles per hour even in this residential suburb, and I worried that a child would dart out of the shadows in his yard and fall victim to the oversize wheels of my SUV.
I considered asking Timothy to slow down. Didn’t bother.
I peeked at the dashboard. The gas gauge indicated that only a quarter tank of fuel remained. That gave me some measure of hope; the vagrant could not drive far from Exely without having to refuel. A gas station would present numerous opportunities for escape.
We followed the winding road that serviced the center of the neighborhood. Only three other vehicles has passed us since we turned onto this street; no cars lined up behind us nor appeared in front of us.
Finally, as we began to approach another intersection, Timothy slowed the SUV and flicked on the left turn signal. When I turned to look down the street he had chosen, I was surprised to discover it was a cul-de-sac.
No way out. No exit. Dead end. Was it possible he hadn’t seen the sign pitched in the corner lot of the street warning NO OUTLET? Of course, he could always turn around at the end of the cul-de-sac, then come back up to this main street and seek another artery to follow.
That knowledge was insufficient to extinguish the glimmer of hope that dared to warm my soul. Perhaps this was finally over. He would abandon my SUV at the end of the cul-de-sac — with me inside — and disappear into the darkness beyond. Maybe this was the end of our journey, in which case it would become nothing more than a strange anecdote I could share over Christmas dinner. The thought sent tingles of anticipation skittering along the surface of my skin.
I chose not to speak, terrified that words might break the spell that could lead to my survival. Instead, I focused my thoughts on a positive outcome, convinced that optimistic intentions would somehow bring them to bear.
Timothy eased down on the brake pedal, his eyes flicking back and forth across the street as though expecting a deer or bunny rabbit to run-scamper-hop from one curb to the other. I found myself mimicking his behavior, my nerves on edge and alert for danger.
The cul-de-sac terminated in a wide round circle, at the center of which was a grassy island full of crepe myrtles and monkey grass. Timothy followed the circle to the right, his eyes still dancing from side to side.
Then, to my astonishment, he pulled over to the curb and jammed the SUV into PARK. He reached down to unbuckle his safety belt, popped the latch on the driver’s side door, and slid out of his seat.
“Follow me,” he said, and in his hand, the knife glinted in the glow of the street lamps above.
Four houses lined the cul-de-sac, each a two-story brick affair with a closed garage door and one or two vehicles parked in its driveway. None of the homeowners worked in his yard or stepped outside to get the mail.
When I started to open the passenger side door to let myself out, Timothy shook his head. “No. Out this way, please.”
It was the second time he had disguised a demand as a request, and this small courtesy struck a discordant note in the orchestra of our adventure together.
For the second time in less than an hour, I tumbled over the console, bruising my ankle bone as it connected with the dashboard. I promised myself that, in the unlikely event I lived through this experience, I would sign up for every yoga and Pilates class offered within a thirty-mile radius. I would make contortionists look like lumbering Sumo wrestlers.
“Tim,” I said, with nothing to rely upon but my negotiation skills, “I really can’t go any further with you. My husband is waiting at home for me. We always celebrate Christmas Eve together. I can give you some money, then you can go off on your own. What do you think?”
The vagrant was looking back and forth across the street, his eyes darting between the two houses at the very end of the cul-de-sac.
“Tim, are you listening to me? I’ve got to go now.”
Although I doubted he suffered from hearing loss, Timothy gave no indication that he had heard me. Instead, he grabbed my arm and started walking toward the house on the right, pulling me by the elbow.
It was the only house on the street not decorated for the holidays. The yard was bathed in shadow, and there were no lights in the windows or vehicles in the driveway. Three editions of the Exely Gazette were scattered along the front walk, revealed in the glow of a sodium vapor street lamp.
Timothy’s grip on my arm was firm but not uncomfortable. Perhaps the thickness of my winter coat diminished the pressure of his fingers around my elbow, but I did not feel as though I were being manhandled.
“Where are we going?” I tried again. “Please, Tim, talk to me. I just need to understand what you want.” Not knowing was worse than the revelation of a devastating outcome.
“Boys,” Timothy replied, as though the answer to all life’s questions could be found in that single word.
“Boys,” I repeated. “You’ll have to give me more than that, Tim.” Use his name a lot. Humanize him. Get him talking. In my coat pocket, the vibration of an incoming text message pulled at my heartstrings. I knew it was Mark, trying to get ahold of me, and once again I prayed he had understood my SOS signal.
We abandoned the driveway in favor of the strip of lawn on the left side of the house. Timothy led me to the fence that surrounded the backyard, ran his hand over the wood planks until he located the gate and its latch. Opened it up. Pulled me through it.
The darkness here was heavier than it had been out front, diluted neither by the Christmas lights of neighboring homes nor by the mercurial glow of the street lamps. Timothy pulled me along the side of the house, walking with purpose and confidence despite the lack of light. I had no choice but to keep up with his formidable pace, though I felt sure I would step on a forgotten rake or into a hole made by the homeowner’s dog and break a bone. Or worse.
Behind the house was a large concrete patio accessed by the back door. A pergola draped with bougainvillea provided shade for hot Texas summer afternoons, and two sides of the portico were lined with flower beds. The space was not furnished.
When we reached the back door, Timothy twisted the knob and pushed it open.
“You live here?” I asked, astonished. Then I realized that one of the panes of glass in the mullioned windows of the door was broken.
“Gotta hurry. Boys.”
No alarm announced a breach of security, though I didn’t expect it to. Timothy had been here before — perhaps to murder the residents — which meant he knew that there were no precautions made against intruders. We stepped across the threshold and into a ceramic-tiled kitchen. It was empty save for a refrigerator, stove, and cabinets.
The house was abandoned. That was why there were no Christmas decorations in the yard, no cars in the driveway, no lights in the windows. Whoever owned it might have moved to a new residence in advance of a sale — a distinct possibility, given the current condition of the real estate market.
“We shouldn’t be here,” I said, whispering even though I knew nobody was home. Never previously had I entered a building without permission, and it suddenly dawned on me that I could be prosecuted as a co-conspirator in whatever crime Timothy was planning. Chills that had nothing to do with the forty-degree temperature outside — or the lack of heating inside — climbed the register of my spine.
“Boys,” he insisted. “Gotta hurry.”
Through the house we traipsed, our footsteps synchronized as though we had practiced the journey in preparation for a performance. Timothy still gripped the Bowie knife in his right hand, but he dropped my elbow. From his pocket, he withdrew a long-handled flashlight. Switched it on. The beam bounced over the stainless steel appliances until he found the archway into the living room.
Evidently, the owners had canceled the utility services after moving out.
Guided by the bucking orb of the flash, we made our way through the living room, dining room, and foyer to a set of carpeted stairs. The deeper we moved into the house, the more nervous I became. Although the kitchen had been nearly spotless, the other rooms showed evidence of not only neglect but abuse. Trash was clustered in the corners: paper waste, molding food products, broken glass bottles, empty fast food containers, aerosol cans, and more. Sitting on the fireplace mantle was an old car battery, and in the dining room were piled several broken stereos.
The walls were splashed with substances I could not immediately identify. Some were dark and viscous, while others seemed thinner and had left pale tear tracks in the off-white plaster.
At the base of the stairs, Timothy gestured with the flashlight. I had no choice but to precede him toward the second floor. My left palm slid along the smooth surface of the handrail for a few steps, until I remembered the stains on the walls. The flashlight was not bright enough to reveal any noxious substance that might coat the banister.
I gagged. Forced myself to focus on the situation at hand rather than the condition of the house.
Until we reached the top of the stairs, I had the advantage of the higher ground. I could turn, launch a karate-style kick in his midsection, maybe give him a shove with my hands. He would go flying down the stairs, perhaps break his neck when he reached the bottom. Then I could run to a neighbor’s house for help.
It wouldn’t require superhuman coordination. Although I would never walk the balance beam at the Olympics or ride a unicycle while juggling six varieties of fruit, surely I possessed sufficient balance to prevent myself from tumbling after him down the stairs. However, timing was an issue. If I pushed too early, the fall would not be long enough to ensure serious injury, and he would simply get up and come after me. I would have to wait until we had nearly reached the top, when the fall would be most devastating.
The flashlight did not cast a bright enough glow to reveal the top of the stairs. How many treads were used in most two-story houses? Sixteen? Eighteen? Twenty? I had no idea.
We reached the landing, which was only a slightly wider step before another set of stairs began. The staircase did not include an elbow curve that would thwart my plan.
Eight stairs. Ten. I climbed slowly as much to give myself enough time to spot any holes in my scheme as to ensure I didn’t fall down the stairs myself.
Twelve steps. Thirteen. Now or never.
I was bracing my left leg to spin around when I heard a strange sound coming from above. A muffled cry, perhaps, or maybe the whine of an injured animal. Soft. Plaintive. But not a figment of my frayed and terror-stricken imagination.
In my pocket, the faint vibration of my cell phone. Above, another cry. Behind me, Timothy breathing heavily as though he had just broken the ribbon at a marathon.
Although I wasn’t sure if I could trust my own senses, the third cry sounded distinctly human. I was sure of it.
The whole situation made me nervous. Someone — or something — was upstairs: an unknown variable. As long as it was just Tim and me in the house, I could make decisions based on those concrete facts, thereby ensuring a reasonable expectation of success. Now I knew I did not understand the situation as completely as I’d previously thought.
“Gotta hurry.” Timothy was so close behind me that I could feel his breath on the back of my neck. Rather than spinning and shoving, I forced my legs to cooperate in climbing the rest of the stairs.
The second floor of the house was nearly as large as the first, with the same scarred hardwood planks that clad the downstairs floors. The flashlight beam played over the filthy walls of a game room or living area, on either side of which were short hallways leading to what I assumed were bedrooms. I moved to the left, not for any particular reason but because I had to go somewhere, and Tim said, “No. This way. Gotta hurry.”
The walls were textured plaster painted a pale beige, and the doors stood out in deep mahogany. As we made our away across creaking floorboards, the cries I’d heard earlier grew louder. Definitely human. Perhaps a small child, moaning in pain or terror.
Timothy led me to the very end of the hall, to the last door on the right. It was open a crack, though not enough to reveal what lay beyond. I reached out and gave the door a gentle push with my left forefinger, ready to jump out of the way if some hell beast leapt over the threshold.
Timothy played the flashlight around the room, and in its beam I saw a small child huddled in the far corner. A boy, perhaps nine or ten, naked except for a pair of light-colored underwear. His tiny hands were handcuffed together, and the handcuffs were attached to a ringbolt in the floor with a thick ten-inch chain.
Scattered across the floor were candy wrappers, empty soda cans, wadded-up take-out containers, chunks of dirt and mud, plastic butane lighters, empty plastic baggies, and other detritus. In some places, the scarred wood floors were wet with some unidentifiable substance — perhaps the same liquid that coated sections of the wall.
The boy looked up at Timothy and me through muddy brown eyes. The freckles that dotted his cheeks and the bridge of his nose stood out against nearly translucent skin, and his dark brown hair was matted to his head as though it hadn’t been washed in weeks. He was skinny, his ribs visible against his pale sides, and the skin around his wrists was abraded — probably from trying to work loose of his restraints.
My first thought was that Timothy had imprisoned the boy to fulfill some sick fantasy. I wasn’t sure what part I might play in that scenario, but fear narrowed my throat and spurred my heart into a gallop. Then, after considering the tableau before me, I realized that the boy was happy to see my captor. His thin, chapped lips twisted into an expression that most closely resembled a smile.
Perhaps my assumptions were nowhere close to the truth.
I crossed the room in three long steps and fell to my knees next to the boy. He shrank from me, as though expecting me to strike him. I backed off.
“Hi there,” I said. “My name is Margaret, and I think your friend here brought me to help you. What’s your name?”
He said nothing. Turned his gaze to the filthy floor and began humming softly to himself.
“Boys,” Timothy added. “Gotta hurry.”
I stood up. Turned to Timothy. “Okay, here’s the deal. I have no idea why you keep talking about boys, or why you say we ‘gotta hurry,’ but I need you to let me think. You bring me here, at knife-point no less, and I’m inclined to call the police right now and let them throw you in jail. That is, unless you shut up for a second and let me process all this.”
Timothy seemed stunned. His eyes widened and his right hand — the one with the knife — drifted to his face and scratched his scraggly beard.
“Bullies,” the little boy said, looking up at me with haunted eyes. “He means bullies, not boys, and he’s saying we gotta hurry because they’ll be back.”
Surprised, I knelt beside the boy once more and laid a reassuring hand on his arm. “Sweetie? Are you talking about the people who did this to you?”
“Bunch of bullies,” the boy said. “They’ve got guns and knives.”
“Okay good, that’s very good sweetie, now can you tell me your name?”
His gaze lowered again and the same soft humming echoed from his throat. For a second I thought I’d lost him again, but then he said, “Adam. I’m Adam.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Adam,” I said. “We’re going to get you out of here, I promise, but you’re going to have to answer a few questions so I’ll know how to help you. Are you friends with Timothy here? Is that why he came to get me?”
Adam nodded. “He comes here a lot, stays the night because he’s got nowhere else to go. I met him a few weeks ago. I snuck in here yesterday to avoid these guys, these bullies, who are always hasslin’ me. But they found me and tied me up.” He raised one pathetically thin arm. It was covered with tiny red-brown circles. “They burned me with cigarettes and made me…” He couldn’t finish the sentence.
“Where does Tim figure in?” I asked.
Obviously relieved to talk about something other than his own pain and humiliation, Adam said, “He found me this morning, after the bullies left. I think he uses it during the day sometimes, but the bullies come here at night. I told him what happened. He was confused, but he told me he was going to get help.” Adam paused, glanced up at Timothy, then leaned in closer to me. In a whisper, he added, “I think he’s a little…slow. You know? He talks kinda like my baby brother.”
I nodded. “You’re one brave kid.” A slow glance around the room revealed no tools that I might use to break his restraints. I didn’t want to take the time to search the house. “You said you live down the street, right? Why don’t I go get your parents and…”
Adam cut me off: “They’re not home,” he said miserably. “They went to a party.”
“They left you home all alone?” Even if he was slow to mature, he could not have been older than twelve.
“Yeah, they do that.”
I thought a moment. “Listen, my husband is a police officer. I’m going to call him so he can get you out of here.”
The boy nodded. I stood up, fished my cell phone out of my pocket, and told Timothy to stay close to Adam while I made the call.
Exely is not a large city by any stretch of the imagination, but neither is it a rural wasteland. Cell phone service was usually available regardless of where I went in town, but right now AT&T was failing me. I dialed my husband’s number, put the phone to my ear, and listened to fifteen seconds of dead air until a tri-note tone indicated the call could not be completed. I tried again. No success.
Sometimes certain houses contained dead zones were cell service did not work as well as in others. I stepped out into the hall, but before I could try Mark’s number again, a noise down below halted me in my tracks.
A shuffle. Followed by the slam of a door. Then the sounds of laughter, accompanied by footsteps on hardwood floors.
Icy fingers clamped around my heart and strummed the vertebrae of my spine. I froze in the middle of the hallway, my feet buried in the hardened cement of indecision.
The footsteps drew closer, then reached the stairs and began to ascend. If I stayed where I was, the intruders would see me as soon as they reached the top. If I went back into the bedroom where Adam was chained to the floor, I could delay their discovery by only a few seconds.
Not the best choices in the world.
There was another bedroom, or perhaps a bathroom or linen closet, across the hall. I could ease open the door, slip inside, and hide there until AT&T decided my call was sufficiently important to grace me with a signal. However, if I chose that route I would have to live the rest of my life with a yellow C burned in my chest.
Wife of a cop, sales extraordinaire, total klutz. All those labels applied to me. But never coward.
The wood planks groaned under my weight as I eased back into the bedroom. Adam looked up from the floor, a questioning look in his eyes.
“Bullies,” I whispered. “They’re here.”
The term bully could apply to numerous types of people.
Somehow I doubted that these were mere schoolyard jocks who enjoyed dishing out swirlies and wedgies to the smaller, less athletic students.
A window in the back of the room looked out over the side yard. I peered through the dusty, grimy glass, and saw a ledge of roof just below the window. Might help if there was a ladder leaning up against the ledge, or perhaps a sturdy trellis.
Or if Adam had not been chained to the floor.
The footsteps reached the top of the stairs. In seconds, they would enter this room to find not only Adam, but two new victims for their amusement.
I knew enough about handcuffs to realize that I would not be able to unlock them myself. In the movies, the heroine always rips a bobby pin from her hair, sticks one end in the key hole, and jiggles it around until the cuffs pop off. Unfortunately, my hair was tied in a ponytail with an elastic band, and even if I had possessed a bobby pin I would not have been able to use it to successfully unlock the handcuffs.
Another dead end.
A howl of laughter echoed off the bare plaster walls of the hallway, and the footsteps became great, heavy stomps. I moved in front of Timothy and Adam, both of whom were crouched in the corner — one by necessity, the other at my direction — and planted my feet squarely beneath my shoulders. Why had I taken ballet lessons as a child when clearly karate would have been the more useful skill?
The door to the bedroom opened, and in walked three tattooed men, each considerably more intimidating than the red-headed Scut Farkus of A Christmas Story fame. They all carried flashlights more powerful than the one Timothy had pulled from his coat pocket.
They were probably in their late teens or early twenties. Light-skinned, dark-eyed, lean and hard. One of them — a six-foot-tall, 200-pound Lothario whose expression turned serious before the others’ — looked me up and down and whistled through chipped, yellow-stained teeth. “Hey guys, looks like Santa came early this year.”
My stomach churned in revulsion.
Hoping Timothy would understand what I wanted, I slipped my right hand behind my back and opened my palm, wiggling my fingers. Seconds passed as the so-called bullies whooped and hollered and slapped one another’s hands in celebration of their good fortune.
The ring leader approached me with the measured pace and grim expression of a born predator. In his right eyebrow were two glimmering steel studs, and an additional piercing in his left earlobe had been widened to accommodate an enormous hollow plug. He wore a hooded sweatshirt over a white wife-beater, and in the pocket of the coat I detected a heavy bulge that might have been a gun.
God help me.
When he was close enough for me to smell the ripe stench of untreated halitosis, I whipped my right hand from behind my back and shoved the blade of the Bowie knife as deep into the wannabe-Casanova’s gut as I could manage. A sickening wet sound filled my ears as sharp steel rent vulnerable flesh, and the goon uttered an explosive gasp before curling up around his wound and falling over. Somehow I managed to rip the knife loose before his momentum carried it with him to the floor.
In the glow of four flashlight beams, a red stain spread over the white cotton of the bully’s shirt, and his stilted gasps dissolved into what might have been sobs.
One of the other goons was probably not armed. He stood rooted to his spot on the floor, staring at his buddy’s agonized form. The other, however, reached into the pocket of his own sweatshirt and withdrew a switchblade that opened with the click of a tiny button.
His knife was smaller than mine, but he was no doubt far more experienced with his. If I attempted to engage him in hand-to-hand combat, I’d tap before the first round was over.
Blood pounded in my skull, and every instinct told me to run. If I bolted for the door, however, hoping to reach it before any of the goons caught me, I would be abandoning two defenseless people. The damn C-word again. I stood my ground.
Just as I had resigned myself to a painful death at the hands of someone who probably hadn’t even finished high school, the sharp crack of a gunshot assailed my ears. I dropped instantly to the ground, covering my head with both hands, wondering how Casanova had regained sufficient control of himself to use the gun in his pocket.
When I looked up, however, I saw that all three goons were lying face-down on the filthy floor, their hands behind their heads. Out of the gloom near the bedroom door, my husband rushed to my side.
He lifted me to my feet in one smooth motion and buried his face in my hair. I felt all the adrenaline-fueled tension slip out of my body and I sank against his warm chest. “Thank God,” he whispered into my ear.
When I had regained my composure I said, “How on earth did you find me?”
“Your cell phone,” he said. “You sent me a text message, then called me. I had the signal tracked.”
“Oh.” I sent a silent apology to AT&T for earlier questioning the integrity of their service.
After enjoying Mark’s embrace for a few moments, I pulled away to check on Adam. An officer had relieved him of his shackles and was helping him into the clothes that the goons had scattered on the other side of the room.
Timothy, however, was lying face-down on the floor just like our assailants. Another officer had handcuffed him and was reading him his rights.
“Wait, no!” I cried, launching myself between the cop and his arrestee. “Uncuff him now! He’s the one who saved this little boy!”
Mark put a gentle hand on my shoulder. “You said you were car jacked by a vagrant,” he reminded me. “Isn’t this the guy?”
I shook my head. “You don’t understand. I only thought I’d been carjacked. Timothy just didn’t know any other way to get my attention. He’s a little…” I whispered the word with which Adam had supplied me earlier: “Slow. He scared me, yeah, but he doesn’t deserve to go to jail. He was trying to do a good thing.”
After explaining the entire story to Mark, he instructed the other officer to release Timothy from custody. We all walked out of the bedroom, down the stairs, and into the backyard. Above, moonlight silvered the limbs of oak and pine trees, no longer diffused by storm clouds. The sky was clear.
“Sorry about your knife, Tim,” I said. “They’ll want to keep it as evidence.”
Timothy shrugged, wrapping his ragged and torn coat more tightly around his thin frame. Now that fear no longer colored my perception of him, I realized he was not nearly as ominous looking as I’d once thought. The childlike qualities I had perceived in his voice and mannerisms became more pronounced.
A uniformed officer approached us from the backyard gate. “There’s no one home at the boy’s house,” he said. “Do we have a contact number?”
“They’re out of town,” Adam explained, then gave him his parents’ cell phone numbers.
I said, “Let me call,” and withdrew my cell phone from my coat pocket. Then I turned to my husband. “Honey, you think we’ve got room at the Christmas dinner table for two more?”
Mark rolled his eyes. “I think we can manage that.”