AUTHOR: Darren Stephenson
GENRE: Action/Thriller (novel, partial)
SYNOPSIS: What if you received a phone call from someone saying they had your family and if you didn’t turn yourself into the police for a murder you didn’t commit, they would be killed? Would you play along, hire a lawyer, and hope for their release? Or would you risk their lives and tell the truth?
COMMENT/ISSUES: I’m not sure… I guess, moving into the novel, my main concern is characterization. I’m not sure if that’s so much of an issue in this, the first few chapters. But, I may be wrong. This, being, the intro, I’m more interested in know if people want to keep reading. Or whether they’re bored by what they’ve read. If I get people wanting to continue reading, then I’m been successful. If not, then it’s back to the drawing board. Or, time to take up a new hobby like taxidermy, or something.
a novel by
When the phone rang, I thought Amy was calling to say she’d be late home from College and her parents had picked up Emma from Daycare.
“Hi, honey!” I said, expecting to hear her laugh.
“I’m not your wife, Christopher,” a man’s voice echoed down the line.
I drew in a deep breath as a cold chill passed through my spine.
“Um, who is this?” I asked.
“You don’t need to know who I am. In fact it’s best you don’t. What you do need to know, however, is that I have your wife and child, and if you don’t listen very carefully, they will die.”
“Is that you, Rob?” I asked, faking a smile, hoping my old friend, and constant practical joker, would begin to snigger on the other end of the line. But I knew it wasn’t Rob.
“Shut up and pay attention, Christopher; the fate of your family depends on it.”
His voice was deep, grating, and infused with hatred. A blanket of despair smothered me and I wondered whether my family was still alive. I had watched enough documentaries to know kidnappers seeking a ransom could murder whatever bargaining tools they had even before negotiations had taken place.
“I want to speak to them,” I blurted.
“Please,” I begged.
“Christopher,” he replied, “there are certain rules you’re going to have to follow; certain things I’m going to ask you to do which will affect that wonderful moral compass of yours, and the first thing I’m going to ask you to do is … not interrupt me!” He screamed the last three words.
My heart sank at the thought that my wife and little girl may already be gone.
“Please, I want to speak to them. I need to know if they’re safe…” I believed my question was reasonable under the circumstances.
“You’re not listening to me, Christopher, I tol…”
“They could already be dead! I need to know they’re alive!” I shouted.
“Goodbye, Christopher.” He said.
The phone went dead.
The house, often warm and inviting, became a tomb. The ticking clock on the wall seemed to stop, and I stood staring at the flashing red light on the answering machine with the phone still pressed to my ear. Seven messages were waiting to be checked. I felt numb. Was Amy dead? And baby Emma not even two years old yet? Would a hostage negotiator have acted so stupidly, asking for proof of his family’s well being? Would they have raised their voice to their abductor?
I had to call the police, but my hands were shaking and I felt like I was going to throw up. I raised my finger to dial 911, and flinched when the phone rang again.
“H-hello?” I asked.
“Chris? Honey, it’s me! It’s me! Can you hear me? Chris?”
“There you go,” the man’s voice returned, “now you know, Christopher. They’re both alive. For now.”
“Daddeee!” I heard my little girl cry in the background.
A sob escaped me, “Emma,” I whispered.
“You have a very nice family, Christopher. Your little girl is very beautiful.”
“You leave her alone! You hear me? Don’t you touch her!” I shouted.
“Are you done?” the voice asked calmly. He had found my weakness; my little girl, my darling angel.
“I know you love them very much, Christopher, especially the little one. I’ve been watching you for weeks playing with her, taking her to the park and pushing her on the swing. You are a truly dotting father. But, I will kill her, Christopher, and your pretty wife, if you don’t shut up and listen to me.”
I remained quiet. Waiting.
“Good. Now, pay attention. At 3:45pm this afternoon, a man was murdered as he sat in his car waiting for the lights to turn green on the corner of Lake and Pine,” he paused for a moment, “Do you know where that is? Answer yes or no only.”
“Um, yes,” I answered.
“Good,” he continued. “You don’t need to know who this person is, Christopher, just that he was murdered in an act of road rage.
“Are you still with me?” the man asked.
“Yes, I am.” I answered.
“Good. Repeat to me what I’ve told you.”
“A guy got shot in a car on Lake and Pine,” I said.
“Excellent. Yes. The person who shot him bore a striking resemblance to you, and carried a .38 Smith and Wesson.
Now, can you please open your safe, Christopher?”
“What? My safe?” I asked.
“Yes, and don’t make me repeat myself again.”
The phone felt heavy in my hand as I walked from the living room to the hallway, towards my study.
Lining the walls were pictures of Amy and Emma. My girls.
In one photograph, Emma stood on Amy’s lap smiling as I took the shot.
“Cheese!” she would say, as I raised the camera to take a photo.
How the hell did this happen? Why me? Why my family?
He said he had been watching me. He must have been planning this for some time. And how the hell did he know I had a safe, or where it was?
My cramped study held a pine desk, a number of bookcases, and a recently installed TV and DVD player. As I worked at my desk, Emma liked to sit with me, watching The Wiggles, or Dora the Explorer.
In front of the television I’d placed a stool and a small desk for her to color in pictures. At times I’d raised my head to see her copying the look of my furrowed brow as I struggled with whatever I was working on. She would bring a smile to my face, and laugh before jumping up from her desk and running into my arms.
I missed my girls, and I didn’t know if I would get them back. At least I had their abductor on the phone again; I needed to pay attention to the little things, speech patterns, background sounds, whatever information I could use to provide to the police.
“Okay,” I said, “I’m here.”
“Good, now open the safe.”
Beneath my desk, I pulled a hidden cable attached to the carpeted floor that lifted a hinged panel no more than twelve inches square. I pressed the four numbers to unlock the safe and pulled the handle.
In the safe, we kept Amy’s grandmother’s jewelry, some cash for a rainy day, and the gun we had bought for protection.
After 9/11, my wife and I had been lured in by the paranoia and fear thrust upon us by the Bush Administration, and went out of our way to insulate ourselves from those who may attempt to destroy our country.
Although the money and jewellery remained, the gun was gone.
I shook my head before lifting the handset to my ear.
“You took my gun.” I said, unable to hide my anger.
“Yes, the person in the car, Christopher, was killed using your gun.”
“You killed him … and want me to take the blame for it?”
“You’re very quick, Christopher. I knew I’d chosen well. And yes, that’s exactly what I want you to do. But, first I need you to go to the police station and turn yourself in.”
“And if I don’t?” I asked.
“Well, if you don’t, then I’ll cut your pretty little girls head off and send it to you in a box.”
Could I do this? Could I admit murdering someone?
“You have no choice,” the voice said, as if reading my mind.
“If I do this, you’ll return my wife and daughter?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I’ll do.”
“And, I’ll go to jail, you’ll get away with murder, and I’ll never get to see them again anyway?”
“Well, now, Christopher,” he chuckled, “that depends on your lawyer, doesn’t it? If he’s good, he can get you off for temporary insanity; at worse you’ll go to jail for 10 years – and still get to see your wife and little girl throughout that time.”
“What if Amy tells the truth after you’ve released them?” I asked.
“Well, in the same way you and I are having this conversation, I’ve had the same one with your wife. If I release them and she were to tell the police what had happened, they will find you lying in a ditch on route 47 … in pieces.”
This guy had thought it all through; his scheme had been well planned. I knew I had no choice. I couldn’t tell the police the truth; besides, my gun was undoubtedly covered with my fingerprints and had been found at or near the scene of the crime; and I’m sure other evidence had been planted.
“Why me?” I asked.
“Why not, Christopher? Why not?”
“Christopher, listen to me‚” he said, exasperated with all the questions. You have fifteen minutes to go to Bangor police station and confess to this murder. To recap, you murdered this man in his car – a red Lexus – on the corner of Lake and Pine. You used your own gun, and did this because he cut you off moments earlier.
Am I understood?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
“Good, you now have fourteen minutes to confess to the murder. If you don’t make it there in time, I will kill your family. Now go!”
The man hung up the phone.
I closed the safe, and lowered the hinge until it clicked in place. The nylon strip attached to it blended into the cream colored carpet.
I stood, banging the back of my head on my desk.
“Fuck!” I cursed, as I raced down the hall into the living room rubbing my aching head.
I grabbed my keys and iPhone from the dining table and flicked the dead lock before closing the front door behind me.
Though I was tempted to throw my ringing cellphone out of the car window, I knew I couldn’t avoid the caller any longer. It was time, as they say, to face the music.
“Christensen?” I barked, as if I didn’t recognize the number.
“Detective. Bob Cartwright. You’ve been ignoring my calls.”
Bob’s voice grated on my nerves like nails on a blackboard. All whiny and pitched too high for a man. I gnashed my teeth, wondering how quickly my life and career would really turn to shit if I told him to suck my dick, before hanging up.
“Yeah, sorry Bob, still got a job to do. Can’t be at your beck and call whenever you want to chit-chat.”
Bob liked the word chit-chat. He’d used it on numerous occasions when we’d spoken previously as if to imply our conversation would be nothing more than a polite catch-up call, rather than a verbal thrashing.
“Really? I’m surprised you don’t have a lot more time on your hands since your wife left.” Bob said, “She took the kids too, didn’t she? Bet your house is damned quiet now.”
“What the fuck business is it of yours?” I said, after a pause that had probably gone too long.
“You know, Christensen, I’m sick of your bullshit, so listen up buddy boy…”
“Buddy boy?” I laughed, but Cartwright ignored me, ploughing on with another one of his rants. This is why I ignored the prick. And the fact that he could make my life even more difficult than it already was. But, hey, when it rains it fucking pours, right?
“Dodd and me have had enough of your bullshit, Christensen. Talk is cheap, and yours has now been re-assessed as being worth fuck all. I’ve got a blow by blow assessment here that we’re delivering to the head of division which explains to him in no uncertain terms your lack of assistance, with a recommendation that all past refractions be reconsidered and you are arrested and tried as you should be.”
I snorted, attempting derision, but that just spurred him on further.
“We had a deal, Christensen! You’d do what you’re good at and we’d erase all charges against you. If you didn’t succeed, well, then we’d reach the point were at right now. So, here we are Detective, what would you like to do?”
For months I had been expecting this call, trying to ignore the inevitability of it. Concentrating on the job, my family, living, even as death, or more specifically, the Bartolini’s awaited the most opportune moment to put a bullet in the back of my skull. It had been a tough winter. My wife had left me no more than a month ago, but she had been cold and distant for so long I had failed to notice. I think she stuck around just to keep an eye on me after my mother passed away. But, in time, fear eats its way through every heart, even the wife of a cop. She had always been supporting of my career, but when body parts began arriving in the mail, the choice between fight or flight was made significantly clearer to her. And so, she’d taken the kids to her parents and now the house felt empty, like the beer cans littering the living room floor. There was no coming to grips with their loss, not after my mother. Acceptance was as unfamiliar to me as a warm bed. I was only thankful the kids were safe being away from me, even if I missed the hell out of them.
My work life had been both impeded and affected by the treatment I’d received at the hands of my colleagues and superiors. I was neither wanted, nor liked. I was a pariah. I couldn’t blame them though. In their position I’d feel the same. Only the job itself kept me going and ignorance of the impending call from Cartwright.
“Look,” I said, “I gave you information. It’s not my problem what happens to it once you and Dodd get your hands on it.”
“Information? Really? At best I’d call it circumstantial. At worst, complete bullshit and lies, Christensen-.”
I took a deep breath, enough to mold all the anger, fear and sadness I felt, and made ready to release a barrage of threats against him, his family, and everyone he worked with. Let him feel some of my fear, I thought.
When I was a kid, my mom had often pointed out that my temper would get the better of me. I think this was one of those times, but as the nanoseconds passed in my brain, Cartwright had continued onto his next sentence.
“-But you must be in luck, because I have some information that can help you.”
Amy and I had moved to the town of Bangor, Pennsylvania, two years ago, just before our daughter’s birth. Emma arrived, with jet-black hair, and bright blue eyes, the day before Christmas, the most wondrous and greatest present we had ever, and will ever receive.
We had moved from upstate New York to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life. The cabs and buses, and train journeys replete with annoying passengers, loudmouths and insane drivers had taken its toll. Adding the stress of our high paid corporate jobs, our minds and hearts had become distracted from what really mattered.
After over a year of trying for a baby, Amy and I had all but given up, resigned to our fates as corporate monsters stuck in the frenzied life we’d chosen, until either the jobs killed us, or the cab drivers did.
Until the day arrived when the doctor told us we’d be parents, and for the remaining nine months we followed the standard ritual of confused emotions ranging from elation, to fear, and wonder, before heading back to fear again.
And so, the path we treaded became lined with roses, while at the same time we watched the confusion of our daily lives open cracks in the earth as we walked; we knew that our lives in the rat race could not coexist with our child, and we didn’t want it to. We wanted to live in a small town, with stone walls, rectangular gardens, and lovely flowers and greenery.
Bangor provided what we needed to begin our new family; our new life.
Pennsylvania lay seventy-five miles west of New York City, in the Lehigh Valley region. Amy had been drawn to the name Lehigh, and said it like, “Yee haar!” whenever we talked about moving there.
Perhaps this simple word play of enthusiasm had been enough to disregard any other prospective destinations, because as far as we were concerned, The Valley was the only place for us, and Bangor would be where we’d settle.
The Valley lay on the western side of New Jersey between snow-covered mountains to the north and south, where the Lehigh River ran through. Small towns with names like New Hope and Bethlehem pointed us to a bright future where our child would have the future we wanted to provide.
The old railroad and mining towns in the area provided an air of authenticity and character that we had missed for so long living in New York. Amy and I had always enjoyed perusing antique bookshops, and collectibles. Perhaps we were old before our time, but Amy loved searching for Native American artifacts, books, and paintings. It connected her to her own ancestry that she now wanted to pass down to her daughter.
Amy and I settled in the small town of Bangor in Northampton County, which boasted little other than some used slate quarries and around 6,000 people. The town suited our desire to live somewhere picturesque. Bangor had an old world charm, where the old colonial style architecture made us feel we were members of a small town with huge character; a place to be proud of due to its grand beauty from Founders Park to the newly restored Colonial Hotel with its white picket balcony and saloon style pub. We often dined at the Colonial when we first arrived; me drinking Bud, whilst Amy, still pregnant, drank orange juice.
I had taken a job as a Sales Manager at a small telecommunications company. The salary and commission was a lot less than I had made in New York, but at the same time the cost of our home was almost half what we paid for our city apartment.
Throughout nine months of pregnancy, Amy had begun to ask questions about her heritage. Her great grandparents had once belonged to the Susquehanna tribe, but throughout the generations that followed and the death of her mother and father at the age of two, any connection to her past had vanished.
Her foster parents, as loving as they were to their adopted daughter, had not felt the need to encourage Amy to find her blood relatives.
But, with a child on the way, Amy felt the need to learn more about where she had come from, so she could pass those stories to her own daughter, and in time, and after much searching, she managed to reconnect with her Native American family – an Aunt Anna, her mother’s sister, who had inspired her to attend Lehigh University and take a Native American studies undergraduate course.
On her way to and from University, Amy would drop Emma off at a daycare centre in Bethlehem, picking her up on her return journey home.
Now, the possibility of losing them both ate into my heart like sulphuric acid.
The drive into town, took me through the peak traffic of people returning home from work. From the top of Arbor Road, running parallel to Newland Road, the going was slow. I honked on my car horn more than once, suffering the evil stares of drivers as I banged my fists on the steering wheel.
“C’mon!” I shouted, but the cars did not move any faster, and the fourteen minutes I had been given had soon become ten.
Thankfully, the traffic eased as I entered the town centre, but the pedestrian crossings slowed me down even further.
Ten minutes became eight, then seven, but with five minutes to spare I arrived at my destination – Bangor Police Station.
Situated between the county hall, and Jameson’s Hardware, the newly renovated police station stood out among the older buildings, as all tax-funded institutions should.
The silvery grey building looked out of place against the red brick buildings surrounding it, and I wondered for a moment whether the architect designing it had known in which town it would be built.
Parking the car took longer than usual. My concentration dimmed as I attempted to reverse into a space between two police cars. I imagined standing before the judge, wearing a crisp suit, sweat running down my back, awaiting the verdict for a driving offence alongside my murder wrap. As I twisted the keys in the ignition, and turned off the car, my phone began to ring.
The phone vibrated a melody in my jacket pocket. An unrecognised number showed on the screen.
“Hello?” I asked.
“Hello, Christopher,” the voice said, “You have exactly 4 minutes and 27 seconds to confess to the murder. If I were you, I’d get going.” He hung up.
My hands shook as I removed the keys from the ignition, opened the door, and stepped onto the front lawn that led to the terrace.
The setting sun threw a golden light across the roof and again I found myself wondering why a police station had been given protection from the sun’s rays. Perhaps the architect had assumed the police station was to be built in Florida.
With each step away from the car, I realized that my life, as I knew it, would soon be at an end.
Without my family, trapped in a jail cell, I knew I would lose my mind. Furthermore, like everyone, I had heard stories from people who had been incarcerated with the worst scum, and I knew I would be nothing more than a toy for them to play with.
As I climbed the steps to the police station, I twisted towards my car and clicked the lock button on the remote.
The car beeped its goodbye.
What would they do with my car? Put it in storage until my release, or have it crushed? Of course, they’d first search it for evidence, I’m sure.
I stopped as my foot touched the top step.
The gun. Could he have planted the weapon in my car? After all, if I had killed someone while they were parked and waiting for the traffic lights to change, I would have had the gun with me at the time.
With less than four minutes left, I turned and ran to the car, unlocking it before I arrived, and opened the driver’s side door.
Kneeling on the seat, I bent over to search beneath. Nothing but a chocolate bar wrapper and a quarter. Leaning in further I lifted the lid of the storage compartment between the two seats.
Shifting seats to the passenger side, I opened the glove compartment. Nothing but recent repair receipts, Amy’s lipstick and a small cuddly teddy my folks had given Emma.
But, no gun.
Before hopping back over to the driver’s side, I checked the inside compartments of each door. Nothing more than driving maps, receipts, and some half chewed candy.
Outside the car again, I slammed the door behind me, and popped the boot.
The previous weekend, I had cleaned it out and vacuumed, removing all of Emma’s transient toys, and various junk left from our travels. Only Emma’s stroller remained, folded neatly.
As I closed the lid of the boot, I considered if I’d missed any hidden alcove the car may have.
Enough, I thought. Accept your fate.
Ignoring the final farewell of the car’s beep, I headed back to the police station.
For a moment, I thought about skipping town and disappearing, but the memory of my daughter gave me strength. I would rather end up in jail, or even dead, so long as I knew my baby girl lived.
The smell of bleach and detergent hit me as I opened the front doors of the station. The air conditioning blasted on high, forcing the hairs on the back of my neck to prickle.
The reception area housed six seats and a desk with brochures on anti-drug use, and the Fairness Adolescent campaigns made popular by the ever increasing number of youngsters breaking the law.
A young female officer stood at the front desk, ignoring me as I entered.
How does a person tell an officer of the law that they have committed a crime? The closest I’d ever come to the police was whilst they were breath testing on route 12, heading out of town. And I didn’t even drink.
The police officer raised her head. Her lips twisted into a frown. She must have seen the fear in my eyes and could sense something was wrong.
“Sir,” she said, as she shuffled some papers behind the desk, “How can I help you?”
“I would like to confess to a murder,” I whispered, as I reached the desk.
The female officer, blinked twice. I wondered what would happen next. Would she pull her gun out of her holster and shout at me to remain still? To raise my hands above my head? Would she laugh? Perhaps she’d think I was crazy?
She slowly raised her right hand, and I’m sure I looked at her pleadingly, hoping she’d realize I had come here under my own terms, and she pointed at the nearest chair.
“Please,” she said in a drawl, “take a seat, sir.”
“Thank-you,” I whispered as I moved to sit in the seat furthest from the desk, sitting so close to the door, if I lost my courage, the run would be short to the car.
The female officer turned and walked through a side door, likely leading to the main office.
I imagined her laughing as she told the officers of the crazy man sitting in the reception area, and who would cut the straws to varied lengths before drawing lots on who would speak with me.
Beside me, a book of anti-drug brochures lay on a small white table. The cover of one showed a little girl, no older than fourteen, with scabs on her face; the effects of using a drug known as ice.
Never having done drugs – beside the sickening first puff of my Uncle Ralph’s cigarette – I couldn’t relate to the picture before me, and wondered if other parents could. Or was I yet to reach a point where my child’s behavior would lead me to think the worst was possible? Perhaps, in my absence, in ten years or so Emma would go off-the-rails as some teenagers do.
Before I could turn the page, the female officer walked back to her desk without even glancing my way.
Behind her, a constable walked past, flicked the latch on the gate breaking up the two areas and walked towards me.
“Evening sir,” he said, “would you like to come with me, please?”
He stepped back as I stood, inclined perhaps to seek a distance in case I was crazy, and guided me into an adjacent room with a large white desk, and a mirror taking up one wall.
“Please, sir,” he said, “take a seat.”
“Thanks,” I said, conscious of the oddness of using such niceties.
The officer sat down before me and removed a small writing pad and a silver ballpoint pen from his shirt pocket. He seemed too young to be an officer of the law; a recent university graduate, no doubt. I suddenly felt old, and like CS Lewis’ antithesis to Screwtape, the Angel told me to tell the truth as any adult would. But, I knew I couldn’t.
In the centre of the desk, between us, two microphones connected to a CD recording device lay unused.
“Aren’t you going to tape this?” I asked, unaware of police questioning protocol’s.
“No, sir,” the officer looked into my eyes, and then at my hands. They were shaking.
“Could you please start from the beginning, sir?” the officer asked.
“Yes, well, I was driving down Pine, this afternoon, at around, um, 3:30pm, and a car side-swiped me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry sir,” the officer smiled, “I’ve been informed that you had come in to confess to a murder, not a car accident…”
“No, it is,” I said, “I mean, I did… It was.”
The officer looked me up and down, coming to rest again on my shaking hands and asked me to continue.
“It was a red Lexus.” I said, “And, I’d been having a bad day at work. We were driving down Pine Road, and before we reached the corner of Lake he cut me off. I swerved and nearly drove into oncoming traffic, but I managed to avoid hitting anyone.”
“A Red Lexus, you say?” The officer nodded and took note, “Go on,” the officer probed.
“As you can imagine I was quite angry,” I said. But, the stoney-faced officer didn’t seem to have an imagination like my own.
The police officer continued to write in his notebook as I spoke, “So,” he asked, “you’re angry that the driver had cut you off. Then what happened?”
“I followed him until we reached the intersection of Lake and Pine, and when we stopped I got out of the car, grabbed my gun…”
“And what type of gun is that sir?” the officer asked.
“A .38 Smith and Wesson.” I replied.
“Do you own and have a license for that gun, sir?”
“Yes, I do.”
“And, do you currently have the gun with you?”
“No, I, um, lost it.”
The office looked up from his scribbling.
“You say you ‘lost it’ sir? How did you do that?”
“I, I, don’t know,” I stuttered, “After I shot the guy, I lost consciousness.”