Chapter Twenty Five
“Is he serious?” Catrina’s voice filled the room, our cage of despair, our hopeless void. “Did he actually plan this entire thing?”
“Apparently.” Greg walked to the door and checked to make sure it was really locked.
“He’s gonna keep us in here until we pay him more money?”
“Sounds like it.”
She turned to Sarah who was busy chewing her nails to the quick. “How did he even know about Laura?”
“I don’t know,” Sarah whimpered. “I don’t remember saying anything about my roommates to him. Why would I talk to a customer about my personal life?”
“You wouldn’t,” Mason sighed, leaning against the back of a couch and crossing his arms. “But you probably told the girls you work with.”
“Yeah, but...” Understanding quickly dawned across Sarah’s face.
I waited for everyone to see the bigger picture, that basically none of this would have happened if not for me. If I wasn’t heir to a billion-dollar company, if I wasn’t Sarah’s roommate, if I wasn’t so against working for Dad back home. But they didn’t. They were too distracted by the cure to see the disease.
“Your dad has the money, right?” Greg was asking me.
“That’s not the point,” I told him. Although, it was kind of the point. Dad had a few billion saved for away a rainy day. And it never rained in California, but it was pouring here in Marcus’ basement. Did I want to give in to his demands when there was a chance he would simply take the money and bury us in his backyard? “Just because we give this guy more money doesn’t mean he’s going to let us live.”
I didn’t want to end up as fertilizer either way, but it would be better if it was after holding my ground. I mean, in how many movies did the victim give into the demands of their capture and get shot in the head anyway? I tried telling Greg this very thing, but he only looked at me like I had lost my mind.
“Do you hear yourself?” He asked. “This isn’t a movie, and what is money?”
“I’m not talking about the money - I’m talking about the principle.”
“So, we all die?” He asked. “But Marcus learns a very good lesson?”
“If we pay him,” I answered, speaking to Greg like he was a three-year-old. “He has no reason to keep us around. But as long as he’s waiting for that paycheck, we have value. I’m talking about biding our time.”
Greg sighed, exasperated. “He’s gonna keep us in here until he sees that money. Either now before we’re starving, or later. And if giving him the money means maybe saving our lives, I say call daddy.”
I ground my teeth together to keep the tears at bay. Never one to cry, the sensation was foreign.
“Wait,” Cat spoke up. “Are you actually suggesting we don’t pay him at all?”
“People will be looking for us,” I told her. “If we wait this out, they’ll find us eventually. And Marcus won’t get what he wants. We win!”
And I was all about winning.
It was a long time, after many rounds of the same conversation, before I decided that Greg was probably right. We’d exhausted all three of our ideas to escape this windowless room, and none of them were logical or plausible. We’d paced and brain-stormed to no end, finally growing quiet like bees under a cloud of smoke. There was just no reason for my pride and stubbornness to be their detriment. A single phone call, a little whining, and I could probably have the money wired in an hour.
“And then what?” Cat asked.
I shrugged. “I guess I go to the bank with Marcus and give him what he wants.”
“But...” Sarah stopped chewing her nails. “Your dad won’t even give you your allowance. What makes you think he’ll give you an extra million dollars?”
“You get allowance?” Greg balked. “How old are you?”
“Not anymore,” I answered him. “And my age is none of your business.”
Cat stepped right over our bickering to mention that Sarah had a good point, and I shrugged.
“It’s fine,” I told them. “I know how to get my dad to give me the money.”
“Alright, well,” Greg fell into a sofa. “Now we just wait for Marcus to come back.”
Which took a lot longer than expected. Eventually, Greg had figured out the projector and the popcorn machine. He even dimmed the lights and handed out drinks from the bar.
“It’s his fault for leaving us in here,” he told me, handing me a warm mug.
Mason tapped my shoulder, accepted his own drink from Greg, and tilted his head in the direction of a sofa in the far corner. “Can we talk?”
I followed silently, nervous butterflies swarming inside of me at the though of talking to Smith face to face. He took up the corner of a sofa, I decided on the adjacent chair, very much the way we’d sat together at the pool hall. Side by side, but on separate furniture, the barrier giving me a sense of safety.
I was the first to speak. “When did you figure it out?”
“Well, my first clue was when you used the word ‘dynamite’ at the coffee shop, remember? But I figured that was just a coincidence.”
“Right,” I recalled. “I described my joblessness as dynamite.”
“And then told me it was your word-of-the-day.”
You’re like dynamite. Quiet until you get too close to the fire...
“It wasn’t until we went to your apartment, and I learned about the break-in,” he continued, remembering. “How those guys sawed through your locks? I mean, how many burglaries happened that same way on the same night? So, I went home and did a little research - and it turned out, only one. Only one break-in with a saw involved. Yours.”
“So, why didn’t you tell me?”
“Are you kidding?” he asked. I looked over and saw him watching me through the inky darkness, his eyes projecting a kind of vulnerability as he admitted, “You hated Smith.”
“I never hated him,” I whispered.
Softly, he disagreed with me. “You should have.”
“And you should have hated Heals. I was a total bitch to you.”
“You were a little neurotic,” he chuckled.
“I was not neurotic.”
Giving me a teasing look, Mason relayed some of the things I’d said and done, including how, “You actually tracked me down on my own server and sent me mail.”
Not my proudest moment. “I feel like I should apologize for that...”
“Don’t,” he shook his head. “It was the sexiest thing ever.”
I blushed. “Really?”
“Nobody had ever put me in my place like that.”
I paused. “You’re welcome?”
He laughed. “And after that, I couldn’t get you out of my mind.”
Did I admit to the same?
We didn’t speak for several counts, and the tension swelled until I looked away. Mason adjusted in his seat, resting his head on the back of the couch and glancing over at me.
“I can’t believe you’re him,” I muttered, talking mostly to myself. My heart was pounding fast enough to make me light-headed. I took a drink of whatever Greg had prepared for me and tasted buttery rum as I tried to map out a time-table in my head, wondering where along the line Smith became Mason. How many things had I relayed in ignorance, thinking he was just this anonymous friend and not someone from my real life? And then it dawned on me the way an avalanche crashes over a tiny village...
Mortified, I covered my face with my hand. “Oh no... I said all those things...”
“Yes, you did.”
I glanced over to see him looking quite pleased.
“I’m adorable, huh?” he asked with a grin.
“This is a nightmare...”
“And witty,” he added, absolutely reveling in my discomfort.
“And annoying,” I added to his list.
“And generous,” he trumped me. “But let’s go back to the part about me being adorable. Is it my hair? My voice?”
I’d set the cup aside, and now both hands were covering my face. There was no returning to mysterious and aloof. I’d already played my entire hand - he knew how I felt about him.
“I’m teasing,” he said at last, all jesting aside. When I peeked through my fingers, I saw that his expression had turned serious. “You were conflicted, and I was a coward. I was too afraid of losing you to admit the truth. Even if you never talked to Mason again, at least I would have you online, right? But I am sorry.”
Just then, we heard the unmistakable sound of a bolt releasing. Everyone got to standing and walked in the direction of the door. When it opened, it was to the darkened form of a man who asked, “You kids okay?”
The voice was familiar, but it wasn’t until he stepped out of the shadows and turned on the lights that we recognized his face.
“Sammy?” Catrina asked with the same shock all of us were experiencing.
“Yeah, it’s me. I couldn’t let Marcus do this to you guys,” he sighed. “Sorry it took so long. I had to wait for him to head out. We don’t got much time.”
Relief flooded the room like warm lava. But just as we were taking a step toward the door, toward our freedom, another man entered - and this one was wearing camouflage.
Was this some kind of trick? Another trap?
He caught my frightened gaze and gave a scowl. “You don’t recognize me, Laura?”
I shook my head.
Mason was standing very near. “What’s the matter?” he asked, glancing from me to the man in fatigues.
“Jimmy?” the man supplied his own name, still scowling at my lack of memory. “Been watchin’ over you since you was just a little. Still don’t remember?”
James? “Dad sent you?”
He nodded. “Just after that phone call you two had. Said it was a strange conversation. Had second thoughts about sendin’ you out to the wolves that way. He sent me here to make sure nothin’ funny was goin’ on. Guess his suspicion was on the money, eh?”
Dad had been watching out for me? Tears pricked my eyes for the second time in as many hours. Shit. No crying.
“I thought you were working for Marcus,” I admitted, then recalled a piece of the puzzle that didn’t quite fit. “And you took a shot at me!”
“No way, Miss. That shot was for the jewelry vender,” he said, turning to Sarah. “Sorry ’bout that, though.” Then he reached into his pocket. “And by the way...”
Dangling from his outstretched hand was a string of jewels.
“My mother’s necklace...” I reached for it the way someone might reach for a mirage in the dessert. The metal was warm and reassuring in my grasp. “But how…?”
Jimmy shrugged like it was no big deal. “Had a little talk with your buddy down there – he was easy to convince.”
Someone squeezed my shoulder to convey their happiness for me. Sarah was wiping at tears.
“Great,” Greg interrupted with all the tact he could spare. “So, Marcus is out of the house? For how long?”
Sammy looked around skittishly. Every little sound – the crackling of the fireplace, the faraway whine of an ambulance, even the footsteps – had him looking nervous about his betrayal.
We all paused our breathing and listened. They were definitely footsteps.
“Who’s still up there?” Jimmy asked Sammy who gave a lift of one bulky shoulder. “I got a whole crew on the way, but that ain’t them, I’ll tell you that.”
“You have a crew on their way?” I repeated, because I still wasn’t sure about ratting Marcus out to the police. What if this never ended?
“I did my research,” Jimmy whispered. “This guy’s responsible for some pretty bad shit.” He shook his head at the thought. “Gotta nab him now before someone gets hurt. ’Sides, you really think yer dad’d leave him out there to hunt you later?”
“Well, is there a door down here that leads outside?” Mason asked.
“This is the basement,” Sammy explained.
“So, that’s a no?” I clarified.
A muffled voice came down to us, following the pause of the footsteps.
Two people? I mouthed the question to Mason who looked down at me with worry in his grey-blue eyes. I didn’t want to see the premonition of blood and fear in those eyes, but it was there. He knew this wasn’t the end. Perhaps the beginning to the end that was still a great length away.
“I think the guy’s on the phone.” Sammy held his hand in the shape of a handset, placing it to his mouth and ear in demonstration.
We listened, and sure enough there was just the one voice talking. Occasional pauses mingled with the sentences we couldn’t decipher.
Sammy continued. “Marcus musta left a guard behind. Maybe he was out on the deck when we came through?” He bumped Jimmy with an elbow. “Let’s hope it’s just the one.”
“Can we get passed him?” Mason asked, pointing toward the ceiling. “To the front door? You guys know the layout, right?”
Sammy and Jimmy led the group down a hallway toward the bottom of the staircase, discussing strategy. If we slipped quietly enough up the stairs, we might have a chance at getting to the front door before being noticed. But that was dependent upon a fairly silent exit. And four out of seven of us were lumbering men.
Also, if there was any kind of physical altercation, only two of us would be helpful. Cat and Sarah and I were all little girls whose only exercise consisted of pressing the elevator button and lifting glasses of wine, Sammy had a beer-gut, and Greg was tall but far too skinny to exact any kind of damage in a fist fight. Jimmy and Mason were the only ones with any kind of experience with hand-to-hand combat - which was a revelation to me and something I made a mental note to ask about later.
“The girls go first,” Mason whispered. “Sammy behind them, Jimmy and I will follow. With any luck, we can all slip out without the guy noticing, but if necessary,” he gave me a look, “We can distract him to let the rest of you get away.”
Sammy gave us instructions on how to reach the front door and handed Mason his gun. “It ain’t exactly registered – so if you use it, don’t point the finger at me.”
“Thanks…” Mason looked caught between amusement and hesitation.
We began our assent.
The carpet covered any footsteps nicely. It wasn’t until we hit the landing, which was acid-washed cement, that I grew nervous about making noise.
My shoes had a soft rubber sole, meant for hunting. I was safe. Sarah was in tennis shoes, but Cat was wearing her famous clogs that clunked when she walked.
I nudged her and pointed at her feet, shaking my head.
She didn’t look pleased, but she slipped out of her shoes before stepping onto the landing. I pushed them out of the way to keep the guys from tripping, and we moved forward like a centipede – and just as slow.
To our right, the man was still pacing and talking on the phone. Light came through the kitchen; his shadow drifted closer and farther away as he wandered between archway and back slider, unaware of what was happening just under his nose. By his end of the conversation I gathered he was lying to his wife about his job.
Catrina took another brave step toward the entry at our left, but then the man turned suddenly, and she stepped back to the shadow of the stairwell. “What do I do?” She formed the words without making a sound.
Mason climbed the three stairs separating us. He took my chin in his hand, forcing me to meet his urgent gaze. “Quickly,” he whispered, pointing with his free hand toward the front door. We could only see a portion of the beveled wood. It was hidden behind a hall-tree. “All three of you run to the door and get outside. We’ll take the guard.”
Angry and fearful of his sacrifice, I yanked my head away. “No. There has to be a better way to do this!”
Jimmy’s hand on my shoulder was meant to calm me down before I drew the guard’s attention, but the gesture was nothing compared to what Mason did next.
Before our live audience, he pulled me in for a hug. “Please, listen to me,” he whispered near my ear.
If we backtracked down the stairs, we would be underground. Without door or window for escape, we risked ending up in that fucking room again, with James and Sammy as well. Jimmy said he had a crew coming, but what if they never made it? No, this was our only chance.
“Fine,” I grumbled.
“On my count.” Jimmy readied his handgun. “Three… Two… Go!"
In a rush of adrenaline that tasted metallic on my tongue, Cat, Sarah, and I ran for the front door, slamming into each other in a heap against its unforgiving surface. Behind us came the startled shout of the guard who’d dropped his cell phone in favor of his hand gun. Without actually aiming, he sent a bullet in our general direction.
“Shit!” I ducked.
Catrina fumbled with the dead bolt. “It’s locked! It’s locked!” she screamed.
I tried helping her, but the two of us working together was actually making the situation worse. If anything, we were tightening the lock.
All at once, my life flashed before my eyes in sepia. My walks to school, my mother’s face, my father telling me this would be good for me. It’ll give you grit. Then Sammy dove for cover between the living room sofa and a glass coffee table, Jimmy told the guard to hold his fire, and a new voice came from somewhere asking, “What the hell is going on!?”
Sammy missed his mark by a few inches and flipped the table top into the air. Almost in slow motion, the sheet of glass turned end on end before shattering into a spray of dangerous shards that rained down on him. The baffled voice asked a second time how this could have happened, and I knew at once who it was – Marcus had returned, came through the front door and locked it behind him when we were too absorbed in our planning to take note of a second set of footsteps. Still, all I could concentrate on was Mason who’d stepped from the safety of the stairwell, effectively blocking the guard’s view of us girls and taking that first bullet in the arm.
He turned and yelled for us to hurry. But the door wouldn’t budge, and Marcus was bearing down on our group. His steps were the sophisticated clip of dress shoes on granite as he traveled the stretch of hallway from garage to living room.
Jimmy still had his sights set on the guard, so Mason turned his weapon on Marcus who laughed at his situation. I couldn’t see the man, but I was certain he held a gun.
“Another step closer and I will shoot you,” Mason threatened in a nice, even tone. He risked a fleeting glance in my direction, communicating that we shouldn’t give up on the door as he caused a slight distraction, but my eyes could only focus on the blood seeping from his elbow to the floor below.
Drip, drip, drip…
His life was ebbing away, or was it? Could you die from a wound like that? Had the guard hit a major artery?
“Well, isn’t this a turn of events,” Marcus was saying. And not sounding particularly thrilled. “But you should know,” he sang. “That I have three more guys on their way who would be happy to take you apart, piece by piece.”
My stomach lurched at the thought. No throwing up.
Sarah’s tiny, freckled hands felt up the seam of the door. Her eyes followed the crease to the ceiling where another deadbolt had been attached too far up for us to reach. Oh. She slipped the bolt from it’s little sheath. Just as she was about to open the door, it slammed open.
“NYPD!” someone shouted.
And in that second, our peaceful moment exploded into a cloud of smoke and debris. Wood splintering, leather rippling, statues chiseled by the bullets that were hitting everything, including me.
Amid the chaos, I only had time to dive for cover behind a statue of a woman half draped in cloth. Her face was tilted down in sorrow at our predicament, her frame large enough to shield me – if I’d gotten behind her in time. But I wasn’t fast enough, and as I reached for the safety of the corner between wall and statue, I felt what might as well have been a brick punching my chest. The force was strong enough to knock the wind from my lungs and alter my trajectory. Instead of hitting the wall I’d been focused on, my body was sent backward, twisting impossibly, and thrown into the ground with enough force to snap my head against the marble.
Before everything went black, I struggled against the suffocation, trying to gulp in a single breath of air, but I couldn’t. My chest was completely numb, and there was a new pain. My back screamed in agony, either from being slammed into the ground or from an exit wound. I didn’t want to know… I didn’t want to see the blood or feel the hole left behind by a bullet. I didn’t want to be faced with the extent of the damage.
The scene at the opposite end of the hall took on a dream-like quality, becoming a shadow of its former reality. People I couldn’t identify were running, and shouting, and shooting, but their movements were a blur I couldn’t quite focus on as I drifted from awareness.
Sounds were all that were left behind as I felt my eyes begin to sink closed. Voices, one in particular, followed me into unconsciousness.
Mason was yelling my name. ”Laura!"
I wanted to yell back. I even imagined the words that I would say, the words I would gasp through the pain.
I’ll miss you...
But they were lost, the words, they were lost somewhere between thought and breath.
And then I was gone.