“Pyotr!” one of the men calls from the car.
They exchange a few words. The conversation gets heated, Jack can’t make out what they’re saying, but can tell now they’re speaking Russian. He sees that the man in the car is in charge, and wants the big one, Pyotr, to get in.
Pyotr shuffles on his feet for a moment, and then walks back to the car and gets in the back seat. Clearly, he’s following orders. They back up hastily, halfway into a yard and halfway into a driveway, and then speed off into the night.
It takes Jack a moment to muster the courage to move his legs. His hands are clammy and his mouth is too dry to swallow.
The dog stops barking.
He forces himself forward across the street. He gingerly approaches the house from the side, and then moves along the front, peering inside before tiptoeing through the railroaded doorway. The door hangs off one hinge. The smell of gunpowder is still in the air. It’s dark, but he can see enough to know it’s been trashed, like a tsunami went through it. Nothing is where it should be. Upturned furniture and other random objects are strewn in his path. He feels his way forward.
He gets past the kitchen and toward Grandpa’s room. He’s afraid to turn on the lights.
He gets to the small back hall and a porch light from next door casts an angular shadow on the floor. He sees Grandpa’s bare feet, protruding outside the door to his room.
He wants to walk over to him. He wants to see if he’s all right or if he’s dead. But he feels a cold shiver knowing Grandpa might be dead right there in the same house with him.
He fights the feeling and pushes himself closer. The rest of Grandpa’s body disappears into shadow inside his room. It’s pitch black from his habit of keeping the shades drawn all day, but Jack can see he’s on his back. He kneels over him.
There’s no response. He puts his hand on Grandpa’s arm, and then on his chest. He feels no movement.
He’s fooling himself expecting any outcome other than the obvious. He thinks to call an ambulance just in case. He reaches reflexively for his right pocket, forgetting his phone isn’t there. There’s no other phone in the house.
He sees something glistening on the carpet next to Grandpa. A lot of it. On his chest, too. Jack is standing in it. It’s sticky. It’s on his hands. It’s all over.
He stands up and looks away, overtaken by a sudden nausea. He can’t stop the tears. How could he just stand by and let this happen while he watched? He should have stormed them, fought them with every ounce of his strength. But he didn’t. The thoughts rush into his mind like a geyser. He was too scared. He couldn’t do what needed to be done. He’s just a stupid, worthless kid, despite the image he cultivates as a tough guy and a troublemaker. When it really mattered, he fell short.
He tries to pull himself back from a descent into self-pity. They would have beaten him senseless, of course, he tells himself. They probably would have killed him, too, or at least kidnapped him again, for who knows what purpose.
He hears a distant siren.
Stumbling down the hall toward his bedroom, he spies the doorway and peers in, as if expecting somebody to jump out at him or be in there waiting to shoot him. His mind is in overdrive. His legs are shaking. He tries to calm his breath, tell himself there’s nothing he can do, that there’s nobody else in the house. The police are coming. He’s got to get out of here.
He tentatively sneaks into his bedroom, feeling his way. He gropes around for his backpack on the floor and unzips it. He finds his notebook and a backup drive on his desk, and stuffs them in, closes it, and slings it around is shoulder. He lifts his window and hops out into the backyard.
He’s about halfway across the small patch of grass when the cop car pulls up in front. He figures he can make it across the alley and out of sight before they’re even out of the car.
As soon as he puts one leg up on the fence, he hears the voices.
“Stay right where you are, Jack.”
It sounds to him like at least five guys. He can’t imagine how they got back there so fast.
A flashlight beam lands on him.
Jack pauses. He looks slowly behind him. They’re moving toward him. He can tell by their shapes and the urgency in their voices that they have guns drawn. He slowly takes his hands off the fence and lifts them up.
“Please don’t shoot. I’m sorry. I didn’t do anything. I swear.” He drops to his knees.
The men cuff him.
They bring him to the front of the house, holding him roughly by the arms. There are several law enforcement vehicles on the street now, with lights flashing. Neighbors stand outside, watching.
Jewel walks toward him, flanked by some of the other men who originally nabbed him.
“Got him,” Jewel says to his radio. More loudly, to Jack, he says, “That wasn’t the smartest thing you’ve ever done.”
“What do you care?” Jack snaps back.
Jewel pretends to look hurt. “You think I don’t care?” he says. “That hurts my feelings, Jack. I’m trying to protect you.”
“Protect me? You guys killed my grandpa. He was just a stupid, crazy old man, but he was the only family I had left, and now he’s gone. You people are monsters!” Jack can’t hold back his sobs.
Jewel remains calm. “I’m sorry about your grandfather. There was nothing we could do. But Jack, I’m surprised to hear you say I killed him. Why would I do something like that?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know who the hell you are. I only know that you did. I saw it. You killed him. You’re probably going to kill me. You’re murderers.” Jack tries to wipe his shoulder across his nose and mouth, but can’t reach it for the cuffs. His feet collapse under his weight. Then men hold him up.
Out of the muddle of his eyes, Jack lifts his head to sees a police officer confer quietly with Jewel and his men.
It occurs to Jack that if agents are working with the police, maybe Jewel is telling the truth, and the Russians aren’t working for him, which means Jack’s got his bad guys all jumbled together.
A black car pulls up through the cluster of vehicles. Jewel waves it closer. He motions to the men holding Jack, who then place him in the back seat.
“Your grandpa didn’t deserve that, Jack. And it’s not your fault. I wish you hadn’t seen it.”
Jack shakes his head. People always say that whenever something bad happens, he says to himself, about it not being anyone’s fault. Jewel knows all the right things to say. He sits next to Jack and unlocks his cuffs. Jack can smell his aftershave.
“You’re lucky you didn’t come home a few minutes earlier. They were after you. Your grandfather was just in the way.”
Jack sniffles. Jewel hands the cuffs to one of his men.
“Why is this happening to me?” Jack whimpers.
Jewel looks him in the eye. “There’s a lot of bad people in the world, Jack. If we’re going to find them and put them in jail, we’re going to need your help.”
Jack huffs, dismissing Jewel’s platitudes.
Jewel puts his arm out the window and slaps the top of the car. The driver speeds away.
“Rest, Jack. You’ve been through a lot.”
Jack can’t process what’s happening. All he can make sense of at the moment is that his only relative is dead, some foreigners want to kill him, the clothes on his back and the stuff in his backpack are all he has to his name, and this big guy with the shiny earring who tried to kidnap him a few hours earlier may be the only person in the world he can trust.