Authors: Jeff Strand
NEW YORK, New York. The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. Spider-Man’s hometown. I assume it’s a pretty cool place to visit, when you’re not stuck in a fleabag motel for three days cramming for finals week in the psychopath exams.
“Where were you born?” I asked for about the ninety-second time.
“Cleveland, Ohio,” said Thomas, spitting out his answer like he was in basic training.
“What’s your favorite food?”
“Ham and cheese on rye.”
“When will this nightmare be over?”
“Two hours, twenty-six minutes.”
“Can we quit now?”
“No we may not.”
I set the stack of papers on the bed, which was almost completely covered with pages of personal information about Mr. Ned Markstein, alias the Headhunter. We’d been going over it non-stop. This would’ve been a pretty miserable experience regardless of the information involved, but it was made worse by the fact that we were mostly working with descriptions of grisly murders. Fourteen of them, counting the mass decapitation. How I longed for the good old days of biology finals. Except the dissections.
I did find out that whomever the Headhunter was corresponding with hated me because one of his close friends had been sent to prison because of me. He didn’t identify the jailbird, not that it would have helped.
My own proposal was that instead of Thomas
to be the Headhunter, we should use the real Headhunter and make him very much aware that Thomas was pointing a gun at him, but Thomas said it was too risky. “One wink of his eye and the whole plan could be ruined,” he explained, using a tone carefully calculated to let me know that I was a blithering idiot.
So Thomas, Roger and I sat in a motel room making sure Thomas knew everything he possibly could about the Headhunter. The actual Headhunter was back in Florida, heavily drugged while being watched over and re-drugged by Craig. Roger and I weren’t allowed to leave the room, because we didn’t know if anybody was watching us. Thomas was scared of a bug or something being put on him, so the only place he went for food was the hamburger place next door, where the ketchup burned your mouth and the mustard had hard little chunks in it that hurt your teeth. I commented that our room was filled with so many bugs that one more couldn’t hurt, but Thomas didn’t find that comment particularly humorous.
The whole memorizing-every-detail-of-the-Headhunter’s-life thing seemed like kind of a waste to me. I mean, if the kidnappers didn’t know what the Headhunter looked like, how would they know his shoe size? I pointed this out, too, but once again it was explained to me that I was a blithering idiot, which is apparently not a good type of idiot for a person to be.
“Day three,” said Roger, speaking into his miniature tape recorder. “Morale is low. Television programs have continued to be poor, but we remain ever hopeful that reception will improve. Body odor maintains its downward trajectory.”
“Put that away,” I told him.
“Andrew continues to be a substantial penis,” he narrated. “For the record, this is not new behavior, but it’s rare that I have the agony of spending three days in his company without time for recuperation.”
Roger had decided that he was going to take notes on our entire adventure. Because I got the big book deal last time, he figured it was his turn. I tried to explain that there would be no adventure, that we were going to sit in a car and do nothing, but his response was “Yeah, right,” which was a little disconcerting since I was thinking the same thing.
About an hour later, Thomas opened a black briefcase. “It’s time to go,” he announced, taking out a pair of handcuffs. He proceeded to snap the bracelets around his wrists, and then held out his arms toward us. “If matters don’t proceed as planned, here’s what you do. Twist your hands in opposite directions like this, then pull your wrists forward like this.” The handcuffs unhinged and fell to the floor. “Understand?”
“Do you have those in fur-lined?” I asked.
“Pink fur, if you’ve got it,” Roger added.
“You know,” said Thomas, “I used to be appalled at the workings of the minds of individuals like the Headhunter, but after being around you two I’m starting to understand the desire to kill.”
“Hey, Thomas, you made a funny!” I said. “Congratulations! Welcome to humanity!”
“I wasn’t joking.”
AFTER WE each did a practice run with the trick handcuffs, which wasn’t all that easy with our hands behind our backs, Roger and I were separately led out to Thomas’ rental car. He was pressed up right against me, since if the kidnappers were watching it had to look like he was trying to hide the handcuffs from the general public. To anyone else, it probably would have looked like we’d had
much fun with the handcuffs, but fortunately the parking lot was empty.
Roger and I sat in the back seat, behaving ourselves, while Thomas drove us the half hour to our destination. I hadn’t seen snow in quite a while, but it was pretty much the same as I remembered it (white) and the thrill wore off quickly. He parked outside of a large six-story brownstone with lots of chunks missing.
Thomas turned around to face us. “Okay, I would now like to apologize to you gentlemen, since I haven’t been completely honest about the situation.”
I frantically began twisting my hands in the trick cuffs.
“No, it isn’t like that. The plan is exactly the same, merely a bit more involved. Not a lot. Barely at all. It’s simply that the meeting is inside this condemned building, and you’ll have to come with me.”
“You turd!” I shouted.
Thomas frowned. “Did you seriously just call me a turd?”
“Sorry. I have a seven year-old. But yes, you’re a damn bastard turd! What do you mean we’re coming in with you?”
“Like I said, I apologize. I had no choice. Your wife wouldn’t have let you come if she’d known.”
“My wife hasn’t been around for three days! You haven’t even let me call her!”
“Right. Well, you might not have come either. I promise you, the danger is minimal. Almost non-existent. The situation has barely changed from the scenario that you both agreed to.”
“Actually, I don’t remember being given all that much choice, if we want to get picky,” said Roger.
I sighed angrily. “So what other information have you kept from us? Should I learn how to defuse a nuclear warhead?”
“Nothing else, I assure you,” Thomas insisted.
“And why should I believe that?”
“Because,” Thomas said, pointing a gun at my face, “you don’t have a choice.”
“Aw, c’mon! Why would you do that?” I asked. “All this time I’ve been feeling pretty good about myself, putting myself at risk to help some poor guy get his wife back, and now you’re forcing me to do it, which means I can’t get any personal satisfaction out of it. Thanks a hell of a lot!”
Thomas lowered the gun. “I apologize. I just needed to ensure that you didn’t walk out on me.”
“I wasn’t going to.”
“Well, I’m putting the gun away, then.”
“What good does that do?” I asked. “I still know it’s there. I still know I’m being forced into this. You can’t exactly give a Boy Scout points for helping an old lady cross the street when he’s doing it at gunpoint!”
“There’s no gun,” said Thomas, holding up his empty hands. “I won’t shoot you. You have free will. Go as you please.”
“Just shut up and take us inside,” I said.
“I for one would be happy with merely the outward
of free will,” Roger complained.
“All right, let’s go.” Thomas unlocked his door, started to open it, and then looked a bit embarrassed. “Of course, I have to take you in there at gunpoint anyway to maintain the illusion. Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
THE APARTMENT building may have been condemned, but it certainly wasn’t vacant. Homeless people were sleeping on the floor, some with blankets, some with newspapers. Several fires burned in coffee cans, providing some light and warmth, but not enough of the latter. A couple of the inhabitants rolled over and groaned as Thomas shone his flashlight around the room, which had obviously been several rooms back in the days when it had walls. A pair of youths, perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old, were sitting on the stairs, ignoring us as they shared a hypodermic needle. I won’t even discuss the smell.
“Should we double-check the address?” Roger asked.
“Quiet!” Thomas whispered, prodding us to move forward. There had to be at least forty people on the ground floor alone, sleeping or huddled together. Most of the ones who were awake watched us closely.
Thomas slid his foot along the floor, wiping away some shards of broken glass. “Kneel here,” he said.
We did so without a word, and then waited.
A grey-bearded man under an Indian blanket rolled over on his back and began sobbing in his sleep. The man next to him kneed him in the side and he went silent.
“Place looks like it’s about to collapse,” muttered Thomas, a definite hint of fear in his voice.
We waited for a good ten minutes, not saying a word. My hands were freezing. I wondered if the kidnapper was in the room right now, watching us.
At the sound of footsteps, Thomas swung his flashlight toward a man in a dirt-covered, formerly yellow raincoat. He looked about forty, with a thick beard that hadn’t been trimmed in months.
The man spoke when he was about ten feet away from us. “You’re n-not here for n-nothin’ good, are you?”
“We’re just minding our own business,” said Thomas.
“Okay, I know w-when I’m n-not wanted,” the man said, coming closer. “I’m n-not here to h-hurt you, I was j-just hoping you could h-h-help me out a bit.”
“Sorry, we don’t have any money,” Thomas told him.
The man broke out into a rotten-toothed grin. “Aw, s-sure you do. I don’t n-n-need a l-lot, just a quarter or somethin’, buddy.”
“Don’t t-tell me you’re s-sorry. You’re not fuckin’ sorry. You don’t c-c-c-care about me. C’mon, buddy, one l-little quarter.” The man walked up right beside Thomas.
“All right, let me see what I’ve got,” said Thomas, digging in his pants pocket.
“J-just one quarter, I m-m-mean it’s not that b-big of a deal. Just a quarter.”
“Look, here’s some change,” said Thomas, holding out a small handful. “Now if you’ll excuse us, we have important business to attend to.”
“Thanks, buddy, I d-didn’t wanna be a b-bother,” the man said, taking the change with his right hand. His other hand moved before I had a chance to shout out a warning.
Thomas’ mouth dropped open, a broken bottle sticking in his side. As Roger and I quickly got to our feet, the man grabbed Thomas’ gun and yelped with delight.
“Bitchin’! Awesome p-piece, man!” He took off running toward the exit.
Thomas wrenched the glass out of his side, cursed loudly, and began to stagger after him.
I did the necessary hand twists and the handcuffs dropped to the floor with a clatter. I started to run after Thomas, but my foot came down on a large piece of glass, making me lose my balance and fall to my knees with a gasp of pain.
“I can’t get these cuffs undone!” said Roger, desperately twisting his hands.
I pulled the piece of glass out of the bottom of my shoe. It stung a bit, but hadn’t punctured deep. Thomas and the man were gone. I got up and glanced around at the people in the building, all of whom were staring at us now. If one of them was the kidnapper in disguise, we might be in some pretty serious trouble. Actually, even if one of them wasn’t, our current situation wasn’t exactly joviality and high spirits.
“Give me your hands,” I told Roger. I twisted the cuffs the way we were supposed to, and then gave them a tug. They didn’t come undone. “Aw, great.”
“People are tryin’ to sleep!” a woman shouted angrily.
I twisted the handcuffs again, but they still wouldn’t open. “Okay, bit of a problem,” I said. “Let’s just get out of here.”
As we turned to go, I saw that the two junkies from the staircase were now standing in front of the door. This didn’t strike me as a good development.
We walked toward the door, hoping the junkies were just there to open it for us. Roger continued to struggle with the handcuffs while we walked. I noticed a couple more guys to our left were moving toward us, one of them holding a baseball bat, the other holding a strip of wood with thick nails in it.
“Happy thoughts,” I whispered. “Just think happy, happy thoughts.”
We were almost to the door, and it was clear that the junkies had no intention of letting us go. “Hi there, gentlemen,” I said in my most cheerful manner. “If it’s all right with you, we’d like to go help our friend. He was the one who got the broken bottle stuck in his side. If that helps.”
“You ain’t goin’ nowhere,” said one of the junkies.
“Oh, give me a break,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm. “You don’t really think you can take me, do you?”
The junkie pulled out a switchblade. He snapped the blade open and looked very pleased with himself.
“Oh, give me a break,” I said, trying to keep my pants dry. “You don’t really think you can stab me, do you?”
“I dunno,” the junkie replied, giving it a twirl. “What d’you think?”
“I think this is all ridiculous. We’re all adults here...well, not you two, but you’re close enough. There’s no reason for violence.”
“Not if you give us your wallets,” the second junkie said.
I reached for my wallet, and then my stomach took a plunge. “Okay, you know what, even though you did present an extremely valid, workable solution to our conflict, unfortunately I wasn’t really planning on making any purchases tonight, so I left my wallet in the motel room. Sorry.”
The guys with the baseball bat and nail-laden wood walked up next to us. I couldn’t see them clearly, but I was pretty sure the nails were rusty and would hurt going in.
“What ‘bout him?” asked the junkie, nodding at Roger.
“Mine’s at the motel, too. Right next to Andrew’s on the dresser. I was going to bring it but I thought, no, I’m going to be handcuffed, I won’t be able to reach it anyway.”
“Then maybe we sell your blood,” said the first junkie, waving his switchblade.