Authors: B. V. Larson
Tags: #Technological Fiction
A black man in a clean-cut, but not expensive, brown sports jacket followed Sarah out of the house more slowly. He had a notepad and a pen in his hand, reminding Ray of the FBI agents back at the university. He hoped the man wasn’t FBI. He had had quite enough of them already today.
The man nodded to Ray. “Afternoon, Dr. Vance. I’m Detective Waterson.”
Ray put his chin down on Sarah’s head. He smelled her perfume. It brought back a flash of good memories. Then he looked up and faced the Detective.
“Have you turned up anything?”
“No sir, but we are searching and we are hopeful. Oftentimes these things turn out to be nothing more than a misunderstanding. Can I ask you some questions?”
Ray smiled weakly. He had been questioned to death by people in suits all day. “Shoot.”
Waterson nodded. “We’ve already talked to the teachers and staff at the school where he was last seen. Apparently, no one noticed anything out of the ordinary. You were the one to drop him off this morning, correct?”
“You haven’t seen him since?”
“Did he seem upset?”
“Only about his shoes,” said Ray. Suddenly, his voice choked up.
“What? His shoes?”
Ray shook his head, unable to answer for a moment. Sarah’s arms squeezed him around the middle, feeling his emotion.
“He never likes to put on his shoes in the morning. It’s a ritual battle we have to fight every day.”
Waterson frowned and made a note. “I see.”
Ray realized that Waterson probably didn’t have kids, and that he didn’t see at all. Why would the police have someone without kids on this case? It seemed wrong somehow. Everything seemed wrong today.
“Did you punish him this morning, or last night? Is there any reason that he might run away?”
Ray shook his head. “No special reason. Do you think he might have?”
Waterson shrugged. “It’s hard to say. It’s rare for a six-year-old to take off on his own for long, but not unheard of. Dr. Vance, you were the one who was supposed to pick him up, weren’t you?”
“Yes, but... I was detained. He’s supposed to go next door if I’m not back from the university yet. We have an arrangement.”
“With the Trumbles, yes, I understand that. Do you have any relatives or friends who might have picked him up since there was no one home to meet him?”
“No, I don’t think so. Look, I think I should be out looking for him instead of answering all these questions. If we knew anything, then we would be trying these possibilities.”
“In times of stress, Dr. Vance, we sometimes forget or overlook things. It’s my job to make sure that we cover everything.”
“But I should be out looking for him.”
Detective Waterson looked at him. “Where would you look, Dr. Vance?”
Ray opened his mouth and blinked. He realized he didn’t know where to start. He thought of the park and the school grounds, but that was no good if he had been kidnapped. He thought of all the highways and houses and orchards and quiet fields in the area. Where would he begin? Was Justin tied up and on his way to L.A.? Was he somewhere in the central valley right now? It was maddening to think that if he only knew exactly where his son was right then, he could go and get him. For the lack of that single fact, he was helpless.
He dropped his chin down again to rest atop Sarah’s fresh-smelling hair. He closed his eyes and tried not to cry himself.
. . . 74 Hours and Counting . . .
Justin reached out a shaky hand and grabbed the thin steel bars of the cage. They were almost too thin to call bars, but were definitely too thick to call wire, because they wouldn’t bend. They looked about like the bars of a shopping cart, all shiny and crisscrossed in small squares.
The Van Man had told him not to mess with the cage—well, actually, the man had used the F-word, but Justin avoided even thinking that bad word. Mom always said that bad things happened to boys with dirty mouths, and he certainly didn’t need any more bad things to happen to him now. He dared to touch the bars now because he figured there was no way that the van man could see him.
The inside of the van was gross. Dirt and grease caked everything. The torn-up parts of what looked like a motorcycle lay everywhere on the scratched metal floor. Coffee-cans overflowed with cigarette butts and the whole place stank of sweat and pee.
Justin strained to see the Van Man. He was up there, past a short dirty curtain that swayed and fluttered in the breeze that came in from the open driver side window. Occasionally, when the curtain flapped the right way, Justin could see the Van Man’s head and shoulders. He was smoking again. He seemed to smoke continuously. Through the dirty windshield, Justin could just make out that they were on the highway. From the roar of the engine and road noises, he could have figured out that much anyway.
Justin looked around his cage speculatively. It was welded to the side of the van so that only three sides were actually barred. The top opened, he knew that because that’s how the Van Man had shoved him down into it.
Looking at the cage, Justin thought of a story his father had told him about a chimpanzee in a cage. A group of pyscho-ologists (as his father had called them) had specially built the cage with sixteen ways to escape, depending on what the chimp did. There were blocks to stack, ropes to climb and pull, all sorts of things. All the psycho-ologists had watched closely with a TV camera, and the chimp had indeed escaped, but he had used the seventeenth way, the way that none of them had even thought of.
Justin grabbed the shiny bars and gave them a shake. He needed just one way out of this cage.
The van slowed. Justin lurched against the bars as it made a sweeping turn. He knew that feeling, the van was exiting the highway. Justin huddled back against the wheel well that served as a bench in the makeshift cage. His eyes grew wide with terror. Somehow, the Van Man must have seen him shake the cage. He clasped his hands together, stuck them between his knees and squeezed them tightly. He sucked at his lower lip and shivered, even though it was very hot in the sun-baked van.
. . . 73 Hours and Counting . . .
Casey Spurlock swung off I-80 and pulled the van to a stop at a Circle-K convenience store in Fairfield. After checking the kid, who looked scared enough to piss himself, he dug out one of those prepaid cell phones he had lifted and stockpiled for just this occasion. These phones had only so many minutes on them, and you had to buy more minutes on cards to use them again. This was a perfect arrangement for Spurlock, who wasn’t exactly a ‘resident’ who paid ‘bills’. As an added benefit, the phones were cheap, disposable and pretty much untraceable as long as you kept getting new ones. He bought minutes at the counter in the convenience store, the smallest denomination possible, then headed out into the parking lot to make his call.
He had picked this store because the area was noisy. If the kid tried something, it would be unlikely that anyone would hear. Soon though, he would have to tie him up and gag him. He couldn’t very well make it through a fast-food drive-thru if the kid took to screaming in the back.
Spurlock dug the cheap plastic phone out of that infernal plastic that things came wrapped up in these days. He knew they wrapped them up so tightly to make it harder to steal stuff. Didn’t anyone trust anyone anymore? He noticed that his hand shook as he cut the plastic with a jack knife. It was just a slight tremor, but he knew what it meant. He needed to find the cure for it soon, and that meant money. Lots of money. Otherwise the headaches would start, and then maybe he would get the shits. He needed his money now.
Spurlock dug a quarter out of his filthy jeans and scratched at the phone card to reveal the pin number. The phone clicked and droned obediently. He typed a stream of digits into the phone, he forgot the area code the first time, cursed, then got it right the second time.
The phone rang six times before it was picked up. He wanted to throw it into the street. He hated waiting for bullshit stuff like answering machines and lame housewives who didn’t know when their husbands would be home.
“Hello?” came the voice.
“It’s me,” Spurlock rumbled. His voice was distinctly deep and rough from cigarettes and frequent yelling.
“It’s about time. Did you do it?”
“I planted what you wanted. Give me the number of the locker.”
“There are a few details to discuss. What about the kid?”
“What about him?”
There was a hesitation. Spurlock scowled. He could tell that his evasion wasn’t going to work. This asshole who called himself Santa was sharp, he had to give him that. Santa knew he had taken the kid. He was just pretending that he didn’t to see what he could get out of it. The guys in the joint called it ‘fishing’.
There was a pained tone in the voice now. “Tell me, please, that you didn’t do anything incredibly stupid.”
“Where’s the kid?”
“Where’s my money?
“It’s with the kid,” said Santa.
“Don’t shit me. He’s in the fucking van, alright? He’s fine. Don’t shit me, man. I want my money.”
“Do you realize that you’ve blown everything? Who’s going to believe the plant now that the kid is gone at the same time it appears? You’ve given Vance the shadow of a doubt he needs.”
“The cops don’t know that it wasn’t there all along,” said Spurlock. He had to fight to control his temper. This Santa-bastard wasn’t going to rat-fuck him out of his ten grand. He swore to himself never to work with anyone again that he couldn’t meet face-to-face and lay his hands on.
“True, but I assume that the kid saw what you were doing, didn’t he?”
Spurlock didn’t answer. Instead he growled and punched the rickety gas-price sign that was in reach. It creaked in protest at the abuse.
“Why else would you have grabbed him?” Santa continued.
“He didn’t see me plant it.”
“But he saw and heard enough. The gloves, the thumping of drawers, the rattling of papers. You did wear the gloves as I suggested, didn’t you?”
“No, I’m just an asshole,” Spurlock replied.
“Good. Now, here is what I want you to do: First, you will remove your rear license plate, just in case the child reads it and remembers things well. You will drop the kid off near the highway, under an overpass in a dark and quiet spot and then get back onto the highway going east. You will then pull off the very next exit, replace the license and get back on the highway going back west. When you get to the station in San Francisco, call me and if the kid has been recovered, I’ll give you your money.”
Spurlock was silent for a second. All through the explicit directions, he had been grinding his teeth. This guy always talked to him like he was some kind of overgrown dangerous baby. He took several deep breaths and wished desperately for beer. A twelve-pack of it.
“Look, Santa-frigger, don’t sweat the kid. I’ve got a plan for him. It’s all taken care of. Just give me the locker number.”
“Let him go. I’m not going to be an accessory to any such thing.”
Spurlock shook his head violently. “Can’t you see, man? I can’t do that. He can ID me, sure as shit. I’ve got a contact down in L.A. I’ll take him there and he’ll disappear. End of story.”
“What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“I mean: no money.”
Spurlock finally lost it. He dropped the phone, grabbed the gas sign with his left hand and beat the thing with his right, growling while he did it. After several smashing blows, he picked up the trash cell again and pressed his lips to it.
“I say: FUCK YOU, MAN!” he shouted. Then his voice lowered to a growl. “I’m dumping this kid the way I want to, then I’m calling back for the locker number. If you don’t come across, I’ll hunt you down and beat your fat guts in until you shit blood.”
Spurlock closed the phone and climbed back into his van. He could hear the kid, quietly crying in his cage. Maybe he’d heard some of the conversation.
“SHUT UP!” Spurlock roared into the back, just the way his stepdaddy had always done before a beating.
The van’s engine rumbled into life and soon rolled up the onramp.
. . . 71 Hours and Counting . . .
It was almost eight o’clock when the fingerprint crew left, taking with them six copies of Justin’s school photos. Sarah went to the bathroom to wash her face. After drying off, she opened up the hamper and felt silent tears run down her cheeks. She ignored them, letting them slide down to her chin and grow cold before they fell and splattered her bare feet.
The bathroom had the classic look of any California tract home from the last century. Wallpaper depicted baskets of unlikely-looking flowers of blue and pink on a background of beige. The chromed towel rack was of the cheap-motel variety, and tended to fall off the wall at inopportune times. There were signs of Justin’s passing everywhere, plainly evident to the trained eye. Sarah noted the splattered droplets of toothpaste on the mirror. Of the four towels in the bathroom, only one of them was in its place, and that one hung oddly, as if it had been grabbed and yanked upon, but not quite firmly enough to pull it down. Two others lay in wads of blue terry cloth on the checkerboard vinyl floor. The fourth she held in her hand.