The Secret Thief

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Chapter 40

Violet

Locks. Everywhere locks. The windows, the doors…why hadn’t I noticed before? I checked the bathroom thoroughly, turned on the fan, shook the window and even used a toothbrush to try and pry the security bar out. No use. I was trapped.

Crabtree was waiting for me when I came out.

“Good morning. Sleep well?” He asked.

“Yes.” I replied. “like a rock.”

A comatosed rock. A dead to the world rock that fails to hear little noises like bolts on doors locking them in.

Crabtree had drugged me. I rubbed sleep out of my eyes still groggy, still feeling the effects. Not in the sandwiches. It must have been later. The chili. I wanted to scream

“Great.” Crabtree beamed. So proud of himself for tricking me no doubt. So pleased he could catch me. Who was he? Who did he work for? Another agency or was he an extension of Simon, brought in when (as it had) plan A failed? I was an idiot. I knew nothing about what was out there. Marco was right. I was too quick to trust.

“What’s going on?” I asked lightly, hoping my thoughts weren’t all over my face. Crabtree had a large cardboard box in his hands. He set it on the coffee table and pulled open the top.

“For you,” he said. “Bob dropped it off this morning. A birthday present.”

“It’s not my birthday.” I told him, remembering the post office box with numbers matching my actual date of birth. Did the letter come from Crabtree? How long had he been watching me?

“Your new birthday.” He explained. “The start of your new life.” Out of the box he pulled a neatly folded pile of clothes and set them on the table. In his hand went again, this time returning with a box of hair dye. Blond, about three thousand times lighter than my real hair color.

“What do you think? You’ll want to cut it too, of course.”

“I think it’s ugly.” I told him. Anger boiled inside me. Luckily Marco’s lessons brought me down enough to keep my cool. “But I’ll get used to it.” I added. It was imperative that Crabtree not know I was on to him.

“That’s the spirit.” He took a pair of scissors out of his back pocket and added them to the pile. “Want help?”

“No, I got this.”

“That’s my girl.” He said and I ground my teeth at his cozy words. “Towels are in the bathroom. Bob’s coming by later to take photos.”
“Photos?”

“New ID. Drivers license, passport. A complete paper trail legitimizing who you are now while erasing who you were. You can’t move on without those.”

“Super.” He handed over the stack of new me and my stomach turned

“Stay strong. It will all be over soon.” he said. I had to turn before he noticed the tears welling up in my eyes.

At least I had an excuse to lock myself in the bathroom for two hours. I needed to pull myself together and think. The scissors Crabtree gave me had a rounded tip and dull edges. They hardly cut my hair. They were worthless on the window lock and, I knew, would be zero help as a weapon.

My captor did not trust me with sharp objects. He wasn’t sure of me yet, not completely, which meant the locks would stay in place. If I wanted out of the fortress, I would have to convince him I was on his side 100%.

After I showered and dressed I folded my old things into an organized pile to return to Crabtree. Just as he had, I set the scissors on top. I wanted him to see how willing I was to give up that one advantage.

I needed him to trust me and planned on spending the rest of the day making that a reality.

I laughed when he joked, I ate the food he set before me without hesitating (which wasn’t easy) and together we actively discussed my “future”. When Bob came over I even pretended keeping a straight face for the passport photo’s was nearly impossible, given the degree of excitement inside me. Then, that night I ate his sleeping pill laced dinner with a smile and let him lock me in his room.

Sleep, wake repeat. For two full days and nights I did everything he said. It was my only option and though it made me sick, I did my best. I was “his girl”. At least my ankle was healing.

Finally something changed.

The locks remained, but I didn’t really expect them to disappear. That would make it obvious that they had been put there to keep me in the first place. No, it wasn’t an open door that came, but an opportunity.

Crabtree began leaving his cell phone unattended.

The first time he left it was brief. We were playing cards. The tea kettle in the kitchen whistled and Crabtree left to turn it off. His phone stayed, on the table right in front of me. Crabtree was out of sight for exactly two and a half minutes and I didn’t touch the phone once. It was too soon. What if it wasn’t unintentional? What if it was a test?

He did it three more times that day alone. His time away was shorter, no more than a minute, and each time I ignored his phone. A minute wasn’t enough for me to get a message out unnoticed anyway and each time I failed to bite, there was a chance his trust grew. He might change. When, if, that happened, the second I had a real opportunity I was running with it. Until then I needed to be patient. My time would come.

And it did. Just after lunch the next day we had a visitor.

An old woman appeared on Crabtree’s front porch. Neither of us noticed her little car driving silently up the road and her foot steps on the creaky porch took us by surprise. In a way though, that was good because it made it easy for me to fake fear. I pretended her presence worried me.

“Who is she?” I whispered, letting panic bleed through. “What’s she doing here?”

“I’m not entirely sure.” Crabtree replied. “She could be one of my neighbors. I do have them.”

“What if she talks?” I barked. “You have to get rid of her!”

Crabtree looked me in the face tenderly and covered my hand with his. It was all I could do to not yank mine back in disgust.

“Take it easy.” He said. “This is nothing. I’ll take care of it. Just smile and wave and this will all go away.” We turned, in unison, and waved to the woman through the window. She waved back with a smile. Then Crabtree got up and I watched him walk out the door to see what she wanted.

He didn’t take his phone.

He left the door open. wide and friendly. It was a glaring contradiction to the prison he’d forced me to live in. Then Crabtree, smiling at her and adopting a harmless old man limp, hobbled to meet her at the edge of the porch.

“Hello! What can I do for you?” he inquired sweetly.

“Hi, I’m so sorry to bother you and your…” she glanced at me chewing on her bottom lip. “Granddaughter?” she proposed. Crabtree followed her gaze.

“Granddaughter, that’s right,” he assured her and with an eye to me suggested I confirm the lie. Under the strain of a thundering heart I smiled as big and as innocently as I could.

“Hi!”

Believe the old guy lady. There is nothing wrong here.

Yes the door was open and a stranger had caught us, but being as far away from everything as we were, neither was much promise of real help. The phone was my best chance. The best thing this little woman could do for me would be keep Crabtree busy for a while.

She smiled back, satisfied with our story and Crabtree turned again to face her.

“Yes, like I said I’m so sorry.” She said. “Such a nice thing, a family spending time together, just like when you and I were young, yes?”

She got off topic before her first sentence was out which was exactly what I was counting on. As Crabtree steered her back, I inched my hand toward his phone.

“Yes, and you were saying, about dropping by because…?”

“Oh dear me, yes I thought you would like to know, well last night my husband Charles was out…”

She droned on. I was barely listening. The phone was in my palm, sliding back to me.

“…Heard a noise in the woods that didn’t sound like the usual critters…”

Watching the back of Crabtree’s head I slid it off the table and into my lap.

“…bigger, you know like a mountain lion or a bear and…”

The phone was mine. I flipped it over and typed a message to Margaret as fast as my thumbs would move. Pressing send made me feel light, hopeful. The boat was still sinking but my SOS was in the air.

After it cleared the dread of being caught came back. I deleted the message. Outside Crabtree was talking.

“Yes, well thank you for coming all the way over to warn us. Life in the woods, you never can be too careful with the wildlife.” He was saying, clearly wanting to wrap things up. I watched as she touched his arm to keep him with her a little longer and giving me more time. Good woman.

Next up was a text to Marco. I couldn’t know if either of them had been allowed to keep their cell phones so had to play all the bases. Honestly, if I had Simons number I might have tried it too. For all I knew Margaret and Marco’s communications were being monitored anyway and he’d see what I sent.

None of what he’d done mattered at that moment. Without help I was stuck and Crabtree would make me disappear. The way he had so far kept me locked and medicated even though I was cooperating convinced me the new life he promised wouldn’t be one I had much freedom in.

When I looked up again the old woman was stepping off the porch and saying goodbye. It was time to put the phone back in place. I sent Marco’s message and hit delete. Outside Crabtree was waving. I looked down. The phone was spooling, chewing on the message and doing whatever phones do before carrying out your request. All the while the text sat in plain sight.

“Come on…” I growled. Crabtree hadn’t turned around yet. He kept his eyes trained on the neighbor, making sure she left. When her car door closed and the engine started I knew there was no time left. I cupped the phone in my hand and placed it back on the table, telling myself the message would disappear before Crabtree had reason to look. Then I slid his phone across the table, returning it to the exact spot he’d left it. I was free.

And then, I wasn’t.

Before my hand was back in my lap the phone went off. The room filled with loud, desperate, the world is ending, alert bells. All of it coming from Crabtree’s cell.

He turned on a dime, the deliberate old man show over. I yanked my hand back but there was no way to tell if he had seen it hovering over his phone. He glanced at the phone, no more than a micro second, then turned to me. I poured every ounce of courage I had into masking the feeling of culpability.

“That was close.” I said then kicked myself for choosing those words. “You think she believed we’re legit?” Crabtree grunted. His phone went off again. Message! Read me! Hurry! It cried. I wanted to crush it under my foot.

Distracted, Crabtree took his eyes off of me to silence the phone and find out the urgent news it carried.

Word of my documents being ready? Something from Bob about where they would ship me off to?

Crabtree’s eye brows drew into a tight irritated knot.

“Everything OK?” I asked but he only grumbled. “News from Bob? Documents in? We’re ready to move. Is that it?”

I was talking too much, I knew, but I was scared. Crabtree was a dark cloud of silence. He held the phone close as obvious anger spread across his face. I began to feel sick.

“You’re making me nervous.” I said, speaking the truth for the first time in days. Crabtree said nothing but he looked up at me. “What is it?” I asked. “Who was that from?”

“Bob. It was a message from Bob.” By the expression on his face, whatever Bob had to say was not what Crabtree wanted to hear.

“Is something wrong?” I pried while cramming the hope growing inside me to the bottom of my stomach.

“There…he is having a bit of trouble…He won’t be able to come here for a while.”

My heart leapt at his words, I couldn’t help it. Anything Crabtree considered trouble had to be good for me. Had he been found out?

“Why?” I squeaked, optimism was taking over, my voice would betray me if I wasn’t careful. But I wanted too much to know what was happening. “Have they found me?” I cried.

Crabtree flinched.

Us. I should have said have they found us, not me. I clamped my lips together. The look on Crabtree’s face told me it was too late. He held me with his stare for a long moment then turned back to his phone.

He furiously pecked at the screen, paused then read. His eyes darted back and forth. Then he typed again, read again. Finished at last he looked up and stared into space. Something was happening inside his head. The ire that I had witnessed in his face before slipped away. In the next moment he turned. His glare was ice cold.

“Have they found you.” He repeated. “No, they haven’t found you.”

“Good, I mean, that’s great…” I laughed, forcing out relief. Crabtree set the phone on the table, his fingers gingerly clasping its edges.

“Really?” He looked at me sideways.

“Of course really.” I replied. Crabtree did not appear convinced.

“It must be hard,” He said, eyeing me in such a way that I felt almost naked. “It must be very hard to be away from your family, your friends. Weren’t you seeing a young man just before you ran away? And your mother, you must miss her terribly.”

“I’m…I’m OK.” I stammered. “I have to do this. It’s the only way.”

“Yes but are you sure? Are you convinced leaving is what you want? Are you absolutely positive Violet that there isn’t a part of you that would rather give up? A part that wishes you were found? A part that just wants to go home?”

“NO.” I barked. “That’s crazy.”

“I wish I could believe you. You have no idea how much I want to believe you.”

“Then do. I’m telling you the truth. Why are you talking like this?” Crabtree stared at his hand and gave his phone a shove. It slid across the table, stopping just short of the edge and falling into my lap. I did not move.

“Pick up the phone.”

“What? What do you want me to do with it?”

“I want you to pick it up.” He said again.

“I don’t understand…”

“Violet,” he cut me short. There was an unpleasant edge in his voice, “Pick up the phone.”

My eyes burned, tears rushing in to cool them. “Please Mr. Crabtree.” I wanted so much not to cry just then. “I changed my hair, my clothes. I’ve been here waiting so patiently for Bob. I just want to be safe. I don’t want to do anything but get away from everyone and be safe.” I sat on my hands, my eyes focused on Crabtree, ignoring the phone in front of me, willing it to just dissapear. He stepped in, moving closer to where I sat.

“Everyone?” He asked, standing next to me.

“Yes…” I answered.

“Oh Violet.” He said, shaking his head. He grabbed the phone off the table and held it up before me. On the screen eight inches from the tip of my nose was the text I had sent Marco. Crabtree tapped the screen and the other text I had written, one packed with as many damning words as I could fit into the moments available and sent to my mother, appeared.

How had he retrieved them? Why were they still on his phone?

A tear rolled down my cheek.

“Oh Violet,” He said again. “It doesn’t look like you want to get away at all. In fact, it looks like you have been lying about quite a few things lately.”

“No…”

“Enough.” He set the phone down. “It’s pointless anyway. They will never find you. Mr. Crabtree does not exist. This house belongs to no one. Even the phone is untraceable. All that work to cry for help, wasted.”

My heart plummeted, crushing the hope I’d stashed deep inside me until it was no more and another tear fell. Crabtree reached forward to wipe it away but my body reacted before my brain. Years of protective dodging surfaced and I retreated as far as I could, my back against the chair. Crabtree’s hand and my head never touched. He stood there with his hand in mid air contemplating what I had done.

“You don’t remember me do you?” He said. “From the early days. You don’t remember me at all.”

“What do you mean?”

“It was a very long time ago I suppose. But still, I should think you would remember. Unless…”

“Unless what?”

“Unless they wiped those memories. It’s not unheard of.” His tipped his head from side to side, considering it. “What about her? Do you remember her, I wonder?”

“Who…?” my voice came out barely above a whisper. The desire and fear to know and not know what he meant competed over my exhaled words. “Remember who?”

“You look like her, you know. Not so much now with the blond hair and the teary eyes, she was a brunette you see. A fierce and brilliant brunette. Strong. Not in the least emotional. But you do look like her, in some respects.”

He was talking about my mother, my real mother. The woman I knew nothing of. The person I avoided in my dreams for fear of the pain it would cause me. Crabtree knew her.

“Please, don’t.” I begged.

“Yes, brilliant. And driven. I don’t believe I’ve ever met a woman so focused. Your mother was willing to give up all she held dear if it got her closer to the goal.”

His fat brain was littered with details of her that were entirely foreign to me, her daughter. It was agony to comprehend and nothing short of torture to listen to.

“Stop. I can’t…”

“But you truly don’t know about her.” He moved even closer to me. “I don’t know whether to be amazed or sad. They took all knowledge of that marvelous creature away from you. Didn’t they? I bet you don’t even know what happened to her. They didn’t even leave you that.”

“Please Mr. Crabtree. I’m so alone. Please don’t do this.”

“I can tell you.” He leaned in, hands reaching out.

“No.” I squeezed against my chair. Crabtree hung over me like the angel of death.

“Ask me.” He beckoned. “Ask me what happened to her.”

His hands were on me, rising up. Then they were around my head, squeezing my skull between them. I couldn’t pull away.

“Ask me what happened to your mother.” He demanded.

His arms went rigid and his eye opened, the shock of whatever people feel when I do this to them running through him. But he did not speak. No secrets came flying out of his mouth and I knew then that, just like with Marco, he had had training. He struggled, holding something in, something I couldn’t make him tell me, while freeing up all the secrets I could.

“I don’t want to hear.”

“Yes you do!” He growled. Staying with me wasn’t easy, he would break away soon but not until I asked. Not until I did what he wanted. “Ask!” he locked eyes with me and I felt my strength drain.

“Do you know my mother? My real mother?” I asked feeling sick. Mr. Crabtree laughed.

“Yes.”

“Where is she?” I whispered. His eyes flared, the sensation of what was happening to him thrilled him. It was almost too much. He laughed, maniacally, happy to be where we were.

“She’s dead!” He shouted and the tears fell.

“Are you going to help me?” I sobbed, knowing the truth before he spoke it.

“No Violet.” He said. “You are going to help me.”

With that he released me and tumbled backwards. He was dazed, his eyes fuzzy. For a moment I was free of him.

And in that moment I realized the front door was still open.

I leaped for the open, racing through the door. Crabtree was up fast. For an old man he was agile. I hoped not enough to take me, but I was wrong. I was off the porch when he tackled me. He must have jumped. He slammed against me plowing us both into the ground. Dust rose and clung to my tear stained face seeping painfully into the corners of my eyes.

Crabtree straddled me pinning me to the ground. “You aren’t going anywhere.” He said. “We have work to do.”

I clawed and cried for my freedom. Crabtree leaned over, collecting a fist sized rock and held it against my head.

“Let it go Violet. You can’t escape me now.” He tapped the rock against my head. “I don’t want to hurt you but I will. If you do not cooperate I will crush your skull. I will kill you before I ever let you go. Do you want that?”

I shook my head and lay still under him.

“Good girl.” He cooed. “Now. Shall we go back inside?”

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