The Kidnapping of Lillian Palace by Charline Poirier
The Kidnapping of Lillian Palace by Charline Poirier
We parked on the patch of gravel next to the stairs to the cabin. Inside, I switched on the light in the windowless bedroom, then returned to Dave and Frank who had opened the trunk. Curled on top of a blanket was Lillian Palace, wife of the owner of Palace Aeronautics, the richest man we knew. Her body was like Jell-O. Facial muscles so slack, her tongue lay sideways in her half-opened mouth. A couple of buttons on her silk blouse had come undone and we could see the outline of a black bra with a pink bow between her breasts.
Dave held her ankles and pulled. Frank slipped a pillowcase over her head in the event she woke up, and gripped her by the shoulders. I couldn’t help because of my injury.
They lugged her up the stairs, Dave first, breathing hard. Frank whispered to me over his shoulder, “Rob, don’t forget the food.” He was talking about the grocery bags that she’d been carrying when we snatched her. “I’m getting hungry.”
Before we’d agreed to this, Frank had told us, “It’s four easy steps. One, we wait for her in the parking garage, grab her, put the chloroform rag over her mouth. She’ll be out in a minute. Throw her in the back of the van, transfer to a car we’ll park near the warehouses, take off the plates and abandon it, then drive to the cabin.” He flashed two fingers. “We contact the husband and demand the ransom. Three, we get the money, I know how that’ll work, I have a place for the drop, foolproof. Four, we skip with the cash, each in different directions. We’re not pigs, we won’t ask for millions and millions. The guy’ll see we’re reasonable and pay. No problem. I’ve considered everything.” He wiped his bottom lip with the heel of his hand.
I carried the groceries inside. The cabin was basically a square partitioned into four sections. As you walked in, a couple of beams that held up the roof separated the living room from the kitchen. In the back, the door of the only bedroom was smack in the middle of the living room wall, a bathroom next to it, its door giving onto the kitchen beside the counter and cupboards.
I put the bags on the kitchen table. Out the window, dusk was coming down on the forest of old pines, firs, and maples. A few birds were chirping. I retrieved candles and matches from the top drawer. Frank had told us not to turn on lights so we wouldn’t attract attention. The area was peppered with cottages rich people used during weekends and in summer months because of the lake. Some of them could have been around.
I sat. I didn’t need to check where they were putting her. I had helped Frank move things in the day before: a single bed, a thin mattress, a threadbare comforter, puffy synthetic filling sticking out, the shell printed with flying skyrockets, and a bare pillow. A bulb hung in the middle of the ceiling. The dirty wallpaper peeled at the top or was stripped right off the wall in large swatches. The room stank of moths and rat droppings.
Frank threw the light bulb he’d unscrewed from the bedroom into the trash. He opened a bottle of scotch. He was tall and skinny, muscular, and the flame of the candle on the table threw an enormous shadow behind him on the unfinished wall. Dave’s projection behind Frank was just an undefined heap. We sat around the table.
“Tomorrow’s the big day,” Frank said, filling our paper cups. He rummaged through the grocery bag, took out a brick of cheese, tore up the wrapping, and broke a small piece off. Stuffed it into his mouth.
“Good,” he said, and pushed the block toward me. He pulled a scrap of paper from his shirt pocket while he chewed. “I’ve got everything written down.” His irises shone. He didn’t bother showing us the details. He was just saying he was in control, and we were expected to do what he told us.
“Time for bed.” He blew out the candle and stepped into the living room. That was where we slept.
Frank flopped on an orange sofa against the wall of the bedroom, a brick under a broken leg, and fell asleep the moment his eyes closed. Dave curled up against the adjacent wall on a couple of beanbags and cushions. I settled into the beaten up lazy-boy with the footrest stuck out halfway. My hip was bothering me after all I had done in the last few days; the move, running in and out of cars, walking up and down stairs. I massaged it to relax the muscles, but they had tightened up into a hard knot, and kept me awake. I took a pill.
My mind was racing. Over the sound of crickets and frogs, a branch scratched a windowpane, a small mammal scurried away, bestial screams, Frank’s breathing, a cracking floorboard–my eyes kept popping open whenever my brain suggested something had come close to me.
Frank had set the alarm for 5:30AM to make the ransom call.
“Kidnapping is psychological warfare,” he’d said. “It’s for clever people, like chess players, army generals. We have to keep the pressure on.”
Dave had worried the husband would contact the police as soon as his wife didn’t show up. Frank had nodded in the shadow of the booth at the Gamer’s Place, like he’d thought about that too. “Not before morning. For a couple of reasons.” He’d raised his eyebrows like it was so obvious. “One, the police won’t bother before the person has disappeared for at least twenty-four hours, rich or not. Two, think about it. He isn’t going to conclude right away she’s been kidnapped. No. He’s going to think she’s late, and then, something’s happened to her, he’ll call hospitals. Then, he’ll probably think she’s having an affair and get pissed off. He’ll forgive her next and beg for her to just come home. We’ll let him stew.
“By 5:30, he’ll be exhausted, confused, out of his mind. That’s when we call. Get it?” He’d tapped his temple.
How did I get sucked into this? The money, of course. Life hadn’t been working out for me. For a while, I was putting in the effort. I worked, saved, enrolled in college four years ago. But the slip at the factory had compromised my hip. They’d let me go after it was clear I couldn’t keep up my end. What I’d saved went to doctor bills, food, and rent. I was in pain, broke, on the brink of homelessness. That’s when Frank called. He’d had a knack since childhood for showing up at those desperate times. He told me it was an easy job, I’d have practically nothing to do.
The alarm went off. Dave jumped and threw his blanket off in one electric spasm. A few growls from Frank confirmed he was groggy. We blindly made our way to the kitchen table. Frank told Dave to fetch us coffee. Dave relit the candle on the table, moved cautiously to the back counter, got the flashlight. He made coffee, bitching he was no one’s servant, but he brought us cups anyway, and the coffee was the way we liked it, black for Frank, two sugars for me.
Frank smiled. “Let the games begin.” He retrieved the piece of paper. The number was on it. He touch-typed the digits on one of the burner phones we’d bought, placed the handset on the table. A big green icon of an old fashioned receiver filled the screen and we listened to the ringing. Frank cleared his throat.
Once. Twice. Three times.
Frank said, “He must’ve fallen asleep, like I told you. That’s good. Very good. Psychological warfare.” The ringing continued until a female voice invited the caller to leave a message. Voicemail. Frank hung up.
“He’s not answering?” Dave said incredulously. “Didn’t you say he’d be up all night worrying?”
Frank pursed his lips and shrugged, pretending it had occurred to him – but I could tell it hadn’t. “Must be in the shower. Let’s try later.” Some reassurance would have been helpful, but I figured it was a bad time to push him.
I heard something from the bedroom. We’d bought masks to wear for when we kidnapped her and had to speak with her. I put on the Stormtrooper–Frank liked the Trump one, and Dave, Ghostface–got the flashlight, and poured the leftover coffee into a cup.
Frank said,“What are you doing?”
“It’s her food, man.” He didn’t like it, but he wasn’t going to stop me, not after he had missed the mark with reaching the husband.
I don’t know why, but I knocked softly on the door, and heard Frank sniggering. It infuriated me.
The unanswered call had put us all on edge.
The room smelled of urine and shit. The chloroform must have been too strong. I searched with the flashlight beam and found her at the head of the bed, hugging the pillow to her chest. Her makeup had run to the middle of her cheeks. Strands of black hair escaped from her ponytail. They were soaked in sweat curling around her face and onto the nape of her neck. The green of her eyes was cloudy. She emitted a frightened chirp when I approached. I put the cup on the floor and backed away.
She said between soft sobs, “What do you want from me?” She pulled the duvet over her shoulder, straightened herself flat against the back wall.
Frank had anticipated she’d speak to us, plead, perhaps even use charm. But we’d agreed we wouldn’t respond. Psychological warfare. We wore black turtlenecks, black pants, black shoes, and black socks. This way, in the darkness of the room she would only make out our masks, floating anonymously.
In the kitchen, I found Frank and Dave bent over a map discussing the exit plan.
“The lady’s fine?” Frank asked ironically.
“Scared.” I went to the kitchen window and pushed it up to let some air in. The fresh smell of conifers and earth covered with morning dew seeped in.
“Let’s call again,” Dave suggested.
Frank looked at his watch and shook his head. “No. We got to wait a bit longer. If he didn’t answer on purpose, we don’t want to give him the impression we’re eager.” He tapped his temple.
The escape plan was as simple as the kidnapping. We get the money, we split. I had my stuff ready on the back seat of my Toyota parked two blocks from my house.
After we reviewed the plan, there was not much to do. Dave tipped his chair and browsed on his phone, played games. I went for a cold shower. But by the time I’d got soaped up, there was a rap at the door and Frank yelled through, “Let’s call.”
He dialed, waited. Seven rings. The damned answering machine came on again and he disconnected.
We stared at each other.
That the husband would be asleep and not hear the ring earlier was one thing, but that he wouldn’t be sitting by the phone by now was another. Frank checked his watch. 6:45.
Dave panicked, “What if we can’t reach him?”
Frank shook his head. “Look, she bought food for at least two. He’s there alright. He’s playing clever by not answering. We’ll get him.” He banged his fist on the table, stood, stomped across to the bathroom and slammed the door.
Dave spoke louder so Frank could hear him, “He might think it’s her who’s calling and he won’t answer because he’s angry. Or maybe he hates his wife and he’s happy she’s gone. Or he expected her to leave him any day …” his voice trailed off and he put his hand over his mouth.
The door of the bathroom opened. Frank’s face was scarlet. Dave’s picture of the husband sitting pathetically hopeless by the phone made us think of what Frank had been through two months ago, and Frank knew it. He’d told us he was fighting with Sue and she’d gone ballistic. He hated the bitch. Still, when she didn’t show up one day, he waited up through the night, through the next day, and the next, until Daisy, her best friend, came to tell him Sue wasn’t coming back. “It just isn’t working out for her and the kid, Frank,” she’d said. And we saw him fall apart.
He gave Dave an evil look. “I need to take a shit,” he said and slammed the bathroom door again.
But Dave wouldn’t shut up. “How are we going to get the money if we can’t talk to him? You’re sure you got the right number?”
“Shut up, stupid fuck” – the words rattled through the door. We mulled this over in silence until Frank came out, zipping up his pants.
“The longer we wait, the more likely he’s going to call the police,” I said, with Dave on this one, and my stomach began to burn.
“Let’s go ask her.” Frank put on Trump and stalked over to the bedroom, unlocked it and swung the door open. I felt a sharp pain in my hip when I stood but I followed gingerly, slipping Stormtrooper over my head, and so did Dave with Ghostface.
By then, it was nearly eight o’clock and light outside. We turned on the ceiling light in the living room. She was lying on the bed and recoiled when we entered. I could hear her breathing. Her cheeks shone under the thin coat of smeared mascara.
“Don’t hurt me,” she pled, her body shivering.
“Sit up,” Frank commanded, and he stepped closer to the bed. She pulled her legs up to her chest. “We’re not going to do anything to you. We want money, that’s all. We’re not perverts. We get the money, you’re back home,” he said.
At the word ‘money’, the fear on her face transformed into terror.
“Do you understand me? Nod your head if you understand me, for chrissake.”
“Money?” Her hands gripped the fabric of her shirt at chest level as if she was about to rip it apart. “How will you get it?” She looked so frightened I thought she was about to burst, but she only let out a moan.
“Your husband, that’s how. Where is he?”
Her hands went to her mouth. “My husband?” She stuttered through her fingers. “You don’t know?” She pulled on her hair and the elastic band that held it together snapped. “Oh, my god.” She placed her palms flat on the mattress and supported herself, in an animal squat. “My husband’s a recluse. He won’t answer the phone or the door, he won’t speak to anyone but me. You can’t get to him.”
We didn’t move. Dave and I waited to see what Frank was going to do. He did nothing.
“He’ll die without me. He can’t eat, won’t even think of turning on the lights. He’ll be petrified. Let me go back home. Please. I’ll get you money, I promise. But first, …”
Frank coughed. “Here’s the way this works: we get the money, then you go home.” The words were threatening but I could hear the voice faltering. Not being able to reach the husband was something he had definitely not planned for.
She panned the room frenetically as if she had just woken up. “He can’t cope with a break in routine. If it lasts too long even I may not be able to calm him down. I can’t imagine what state he’s in now.”
But I could. My mother’s crazy brother had lived with us for a while. He was like that, unable to look after himself. He did the same things precisely the same way over and over, oblivious to anything else. I’d seen a photo of her husband in a newspaper once, expensive suit, bowtie, proud as a peacock. But I was going to tell Frank that these states can overtake a man, because right then, I didn’t think he believed her.
“Okay, who can we call?” Frank demanded. I could hear his anger mounting.
She took in a breath, hesitated. “No… no one.”
Ghostface and I looked at Trump. He tapped his foot, swung around, left. We followed.
“What the fuck are we going to do, Frank?” Dave shouted once we were back in the kitchen.
Frank didn’t look at him, as if he hadn’t heard. He got out his jack-knife and played with it, clicking out the blade, scratching the table top, and pushing the blade back into its cradle. We listened to the sound of the clip and the noise of the tip breaking through the hardwood.
Frank wasn’t going to admit that any of this was unexpected. Me, I was thinking maybe a bit more research would have uncovered how crazy the husband was, and I figured he was probably thinking that too. He planted the knife deeper and twisted the blade.
“I’ll talk to Boris,” he said and patted his back pocket for his phone. “If the husband won’t pay, maybe Boris’ll throw in a few grand. He’s always on the look for new girls. I’m not getting totally screwed over this.”
“What are you thinking?” I sputtered. “He’s a pimp. No way he’ll go for her.” Ignoring Frank’s glare, I said, “Let me speak with her,” because I couldn’t let Boris have her. I would never forgive myself.
I put Stormtrooper on. She was on the bed, her arms clasped around her knees. She stared toward the door, head hanging.
I stood in the middle of the room. We hadn’t thought of carrying in a chair or anything else to sit on. I told her she had to help us get the money. My partner was determined and vicious. As I said all this, she rocked from side to side, took in shallow breaths, and whimpered.
“Maybe you can call your husband?” I suggested.
“Are you crazy?” Frank had snuck up behind me. “Am I working with a bunch of retards?”
Frank was gripping the rim of the kitchen sink, his back to me. “No more of your brilliant ideas, you hear? You do what I say.” He turned round, snatched Stormtrooper from my hand. Wearing each other’s disguises was also part of the plan, so she couldn’t associate a mask with a person. Keep her mixed up, Frank had said as he’d tapped his temple.
“I’ll get her to cooperate alright,” he sneered, and then he stomped across the room.
Frank had only two strategies to deal with women. When charm didn’t work, force was his fallback choice. Sue could testify to this, especially in the last few years when his charm had definitely worn off.
I needed to get away and walked out onto the porch, shut the door. Sitting on the top stair, I covered my ears with my hands, shut my eyes. I focused on the sound of my breathing and on the noise of blood moving through my palms –the feeling of being underwater at the public pool on a sunny day.
Frank came out after a while.
“The room’s a pigsty,” he said, wiping the spittle caught in the downturned corners of his mouth. He leaned against a porch column, brushed blood off his knuckles. He gazed blankly into the woods. “We’ll leave her for a while. I guarantee she’s going to come around.” He slapped the column.
“Do you think we should get Dave to drive to their house? Maybe as you said, the man’s panicked already and is trying to reach out to somebody.” He hadn’t said that, but it was always a good approach to make him think it had been his idea all along.
Frank’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah,” he said. “Dave can go and pick up pizzas.”
He took out his phone from a back pocket. “Boris, it’s Frank. I have a deal for you.”
I couldn’t listen, so I went back inside. Behind me, I heard Frank laugh and kid around with the pimp. I told Dave what Frank had decided and he got his keys. I filled a pot with water, took a towel, put on Ghostface, and went into the bedroom. I trained the light on her. I could barely recognize her swollen face, black and blue, bleeding around the mouth.
“Hide this stuff when you’re done,” I told her.
Frank hadn’t budged from the pillar and was poking through his teeth with a toothpick when I stepped back out. He had good news. Boris was interested. He wanted to see the merchandise.
“He can’t see her like this. He’ll never go for it. Give her a couple of days to heal, you’ll get a better deal.”
“I don’t think a few bruises’ will stop him. Have you seen his girls? They’re not always top shape, but they know to bring in business.”
Ignoring this, I said, “The ransom’s not off yet. You have a brilliant plan. This’s just a hiccup. What’s important is that the money’s there. Think, Frank, she can help us. She has access to the man, and to the banks. We sell her to Boris for a few bucks, and he might end up with the ransom. He’ll get her to tell him why we had her. He’s not stupid. If he’s interested like you say, he smells money.”
Frank crossed his arms, had a think. He flipped his phone on, and called Boris off.
An hour later, Dave was on the line. We were sitting in the kitchen and Frank put his phone on speaker. Dave had circled the Palace’s house and looked into every window. All was dark, he told us. No sign of life. The sprinklers had turned on, the bushes were trimmed, and the grass had recently been cut. Signs of a security system front and back. And, what kind of pizza did we want?
Frank snapped his fingers. “The gardener, let’s get his number. He’ll pass on a message to the husband. We’ll reach him that way.” He spun around, became Trump. I got Ghostface, and we re-entered the bedroom. I spotted the pot of water to the side of the bed and I quickly moved in front to keep Frank from seeing it. He would kill me.
“What’s your gardener’s number?” Frank said.
“My gardener?” She lowered her head, touched her ear, her hand moved to her bleeding lip. After she angled her fingers to the light to see the blood, she wiped it off on the blanket. She looked bewildered. “Why?”
“Never mind why. Number?”
She took in a few breaths before she mumbled, “He’s in my contacts.” She knew we had her phone. She whispered, “His name’s Tokko.”
Frank sniggered at the name, and the mask turned to me.
Speaking to Tokko was a risk. But Frank was careful. He wrapped a couple of towels around the microphone and called the number.
“Hello, I’m looking for Tokko? What? Tokko. T-O-K-K-O.”
A second later, his eyes had gone blank, as if all thought had abandoned him. He let the phone drop by his side.
“Blah, blah, blah,” he said, his eyes wild. “He don’t speak fucking English.”
“Shit.” I said, “She must speak, … whatever. Let her make the call.”
Frank hit me on the side of the head. Hard. “Stupid asshole. I can’t let her do that. How will we know what she’s telling him? Comprendo?” His eyes bulged.
I wasn’t a match for Frank in a fistfight. I didn’t go to the boxing gym, or do pull-ups on a rod hung across the living room doorway. I was soft everywhere. A brisk walk put me out of breath, especially since my injury. A perfect punching bag for him. So I bit my tongue and limped out and up the driveway to the dirt road for a breather. The sun had come out and was filtering down between the branches onto a soft coat of rust needles. A light breeze swirled the smells of fall around. Dave drove past me and I waved.
My father always said I was a good for nothing, and I’d end up in jail. I didn’t want to believe him because I had drive and I was prepared to put in the sacrifices. But somehow I ended up with Frank. And now I was too deep into this to get out. Even if I walked away, if Frank killed her, or just hurt her, and got caught, I’d be on the hook too.
The only thing for me to do was to try to keep things from spinning out of control. So I did what I had to: turn back.
Dave and Frank sat in the shade of the porch roof, eating pizza and drinking beer. Frank’s hunched back was turned to Dave. Obviously, he wasn’t interested in what Dave was saying. Dave pointed to the last piece of pizza, but, seeing me approach, Frank took it. I wasn’t hungry anyway.
“Dave had an idea,” Frank said. “Smoke the motherfucker out.” He bit off the point of the slice and grinned.
Dave looked at me, nodded.
“Go ask her for a layout of the house.” Frank swiped his hands on his pants. “We’ll set the fire where he hangs out.” I couldn’t picture that, but I had nothing better, and it was clear Frank was not to be displeased at this point.
I got Ghostface, something to write on from one of the drawers, and hobbled to the bedroom. The stench had intensified and I left the door wide open. I tossed the paper and pen toward her.
“Draw every room in your house,” I said, trying to sound gentle but firm.
She’d wrapped herself in the duvet. Her hand shook when she held the pen. The lines were squiggly, her handwriting almost unreadable. I felt for the woman, none of it was her fault.
“You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?”
I wanted to say, “No.” But Frank said we were playing a game of psychological warfare. I couldn’t let myself get drawn to her side. She put the paper at the end of the bed. I picked it up and read the floor plan. I thought the husband would have an office or something, so I said, “Where is your husband most of the time?”
“In the bedroom at the back of the house. You’re not going to hurt him, are you?”
I shook the paper impatiently and watched her. Her face to the wall, she said, “I told you he’s nuts. He won’t leave that room, won’t open the blinds. Everything’s set up so he won’t have to. He’s so vulnerable.”
I remembered Dave mentioning the alarm system.
“There’s a panic button in the room?”
She took in a deep breath of despair and tightened the duvet around her shoulders. She murmured, “You know about the alarm system, too?”
“Where’s the button?”
I approached her. A trembling finger touched the page. I picked up the pot of water.
Back on the porch, I showed Frank and Dave the drawing.
“If he gets to the panic button, we’re cooked,” Frank said, “I’m going to have to kill the bitch.” He put his hand in the pocket where he kept the jack-knife.
Dave blanched and stared at me like he was expecting me to stop Frank. He said, “Nobody said anything about killing anybody. I’m not doing that.” He blinked hard. “The fire’s going to work.”
The sound of crunching gravel made us look to the driveway. Boris was coming up with three huge men behind.
He called out to Frank from a distance, “I’m here to collect the woman.”
“I told you I was not ready to deal.”
Frank was a street fighter, but Boris was a psychopath. He didn’t need to spend time working out because his men did the physical work for him. Boris laughed, and, as if it was contagious, the thugs did too. “No.” He shook his head like a lazy elephant. “But we can agree, now,” he said, as the four of them reached the bottom of the stairs.
Frank looked at the men in turn and I backed up to block the door.
Boris scratched the back of his thick neck. “So?”
“She’s not here. Dave, why don’t you get beers for these guys?” Frank said.
“I got it,” I said and rushed in, my heart beating quickly and my guts all tied up. Boris was going to come inside to check. How was I going to save us all?
When we’d moved the sofa in, I had tripped on some loose floorboards on the edge of the living room and cut my shin. Through the gap between them, I could see the dirt of the ground a couple of feet below. I’d shoved them back together and they’d been holding up okay.
They were talking outside. The silences between the words were getting longer though. I pulled the boards up. Put Trump on. Got her. When she glanced in the direction of the voices, I shushed her with a warning finger. I shoved her into the crawl space, and placed the sofa over the boards. Then I got the beers.
My plan was ill-conceived, I realized as I handed Boris his bottle. She might start shouting the minute she heard us walk into the house. If she did, we’d all be doomed.
“You call me and she’s not here?” Boris was saying. He took a long sip and checked the label on the bottle. “I’m a businessman. Time’s money.” He scratched the back of his neck again. “I came a long way, Frank. You wouldn’t want to see the last schmuck who made me waste my time. He’s not walking too good.” He picked at a nail and one of his men nodded to the others. They stepped up onto the porch, peeking inside the windows. Acid churned in my stomach.
One of them pushed me out of the way and went inside. We all followed.
“I was against the idea of selling her to you, Boris,” I said loudly, hoping that hearing me, she’d work out the danger for her. “I told Frank that she wouldn’t bring you much.”
“So what’s the goddamn deal?” Boris said, clearly about to lose his temper.
“No good to anyone, now,” I said, I stuck my shaking hands deep into my pants pockets. “She’s at the bottom of the lake. We figured we could make a few bucks getting a ransom. Turned out she had no money. Big lifestyle but only debts.”
Boris chuckled, put down his beer on the kitchen table next to where I’d left Trump. He picked the mask up and eyed Frank through the eyeholes. Then, he looked at his fitness watch, too tight around his pudgy wrist, checked on his vitals and waving at the watch, he said, “Look at that, Frank, my stress level’s up.” Staring at me next to Frank, he stuck his finger into Frank’s sternum. “I better not find out that you lied.”
They left slowly, in single file.
I gestured to the floor of the living room. Frank got it. We put on masks and I took up the boards. I helped her up. When she saw Frank and Dave in the kitchen, she said to them, “If I help you get the money, will you promise to let me go?”
Frank leapt toward her, grabbed her arm, dragged her into the kitchen, pushed her down onto a chair. I knew he was smiling under old Trump. He saddled onto a chair, rested his elbows on the back. “I’m listening.”
“I have your word that you’ll let me go?” she said in the space of a few nervous breaths. “I haven’t seen any of your faces and I don’t know where I am. You’re safe with me.”
“Sure.” Frank’s eyes swiveled toward us.
“I don’t see how I can get the money if I can’t speak to my husband face to face, and alone.”
Frank tensed. He cracked his knuckles. His eyes had turned icy. I figured he was thinking that she was taking us for a bunch of clowns.
But then his hand fell to his side. “Wait a minute,” he said. “If you have an accident or something, what happens? What would he do?” He reached into his pocket for the jack-knife and tested the sharpness of the blade with his thumb. “That’s what I want to know. The backup.”
“I check in with Eileen, my sister-in-law, every few days.” Her lips and chin quivered and she blinked. “And the drugstore. If I don’t show up by Tuesday, the pharmacist will know something’s wrong.”
She blanched, as though something she had never thought about had suddenly hit her, and her mouth stiffened. A lid on a spawning anger, she rumbled, “Eileen put you up to this, didn’t she? Yes, she would go that far to get her hands on her brother’s money.”
I was shocked. I had never considered that someone else could be in on this, someone hidden who had connived with Frank behind the scenes, told him what to do, someone Dave and I didn’t know about. From the corner of my eye, I could see Dave staring at Frank. I kept fixing on her because now that she had said it, it made sense of a lot of things: the written notes, the times Frank needed to be alone to think and plan, when we couldn’t come to the cabin. The son-of-a-bitch must have known the husband was a mental case. She might’ve even instructed him to involve Boris to make us run scared. That’s why he brought me and Dave in on it, two losers he’d no compunction about double crossing.
I couldn’t make eye contact with him for fear he’d see my wheels turning.
“Get her back into the room,” Frank said, “she’s useless.”
I led her back. If the sister-in-law was working with Frank, our destinies, Dave’s and mine, were pretty much in the toilet.
She paced in front of the bed. “My sister-in-law, she’s very clever. If she’s behind this, I’m dead.” She slumped onto the bed exhausted. “I’m the only one standing between her and the Palace fortune. And she’s decided it’s time to get it.”
“She’s not the backup?” I said, humiliated that I’d been taken in so easily by Frank. I had big hopes for my life, sure, but I was too stupid to pull them off.
She studied me. “You didn’t know, did you? This is not good for you either.”
“Are you working with the sister-in-law?” I demanded.
“That’s stupid,” Frank sneered, showing me his ugly front teeth and making a fist. He was far too proud to deny anything or to fall so low as to defend himself. “You don’t trust me, asshole?”
His eyes hardened and the side of his face spasmed angrily. He took one long step toward me. He was going to hit me again. I skipped back outside, walked up and down the porch.
A twig snapped and I caught a glimpse of a shadow amongst the trees. Boris had left one of his thugs behind to keep an eye on us.
Back inside I told Frank.
We were trapped.
Dave threw his arms up. “Let’s leave her here. I’ve had enough of this.”
Frank exploded. He started pummeling Dave, in the face, in the stomach. Dave crumpled, and Frank hit him in the chest, on the back. Then, one more kick, a mighty one in the ribs.
He stopped, straightened himself up. “I’ll kill you all,” he spat.
I had to make sure Dave and the woman would be safe from this lunacy. I had to find some way to get the ransom so we could get away.
Never mind Frank and the sister-in-law. I was taking over.
“I’ll get the money,” I said. “We can dress her in Dave’s clothes and the goon in the woods won’t know the difference.” Frank was facing the wall, handling his knife, and didn’t say anything.
I took Ghostface. I got her into Dave’s things. Slipped the pillowcase over her head, and pulled the hood up over it, so the lookout guy wouldn’t see her head. I started toward the front door, pushing her before me.
“Wait,” Frank yelled when he realized what I was doing. “You can’t leave with her.”
“I’m going to get us a bunch of cash.”
“From the Tooth fairy?”
He tightened his grip on the knife, leaned forward threateningly as though he would approach me. The mask in my hands trembled, but I didn’t back down and he stopped. It occurred to me as I was getting her into the car that Frank wasn’t resisting much. “Jesus,” I thought, “is this part of their plan, his and Eileen’s?” I looked at him behind the screen door and kept moving.
Boris’s thug appeared in my rear-view mirror as I drove off.
I had until we got to the freeway to convince her to work with me, because I couldn’t drive with a mask on, and anyway, she could have signaled other drivers that she was captive.
I was thinking of my crazy uncle and how he’d taken the whole family hostage at the end. My mom wanted to help but it was nothing like we could’ve ever expected. We didn’t know what it was like living with this kind of warped mind. We couldn’t reason with him. The voices in his head were louder. He was driving us to insanity. After a while, we couldn’t tell what was real and reasonable and what wasn’t any more.
She must have been going through something similar.
I thought about the sister-in-law. She probably was a whole lot smarter than Frank and she understood the situation. Why had she chosen Frank anyway?
“Please let me check on him. One quick peek in a window.” Her breathing was making the pillowcase tremble.
She clearly underestimated me. No way could we go to the house. At the intersection of the freeway, I turned in the opposite direction, down a country road.
“Listen, if you want to live, I’d better come back with some serious money. You don’t know my partner. He can make it very unpleasant. You give me money and I won’t take you back to the cabin.”
“Can’t I take this thing off my head?”
I stopped and was about to put the mask back on, but I changed my mind. It was inevitable that she would see my face. I lifted the pillowcase.
“What do you expect me to do?”
I looked at her. There was nothing she could do, with her face black and blue and her bleeding lips.
The road ended at the lake about half a mile ahead. It had access for swimmers. The water would be cold and clouds had gradually covered the sky. No one would be there. She could clean up, get rid of the blood on her face and that awful smell.
I turned into a lane covered by overhanging branches that scratched the top of the car. I looked around before turning off the engine.
I told her to undress and get in the water. Wash off. She needed to look presentable. I’d keep my distance and hold on to her shoes. She wouldn’t get very far in bare feet on the thorny paths around the lake.
She kept her underwear on until she was in the water, waded in up to her belly, her hands covering her breasts, splashed her face and rinsed her hair with her back to me. While she washed off, I looked into the trunk for something she could dry herself with. A discarded sleeping bag crumpled behind the spare blocking a hole would do. I put it next to Dave’s clothes on the sand.
“Time to go,” I shouted.
She came out. When she’d gotten engaged to Patrick Palace, the tabloids had published a story that she’d made a porn movie or two. There were also nude pictures. She’d wanted to be a stage actress and she needed to pay the bills like all of us, I guess. But that had changed and she’d made it. I was reminded of this gossip and was thinking I had seen better bodies in magazines.
I got in the car and turned the heat on.
Her hair was wet, water dripping from her strands onto the car seat. The cold water had revived her complexion. Her face didn’t look so bad.
The heat blowing, she put her hands in front of the vent, and bent over to get her face closer to it. I was hot. I loosened the collar of my jacket.
“My partners, they’re ready to set your house on fire.”
“You stop them.” Her eyes were wild. “Patrick won’t save himself. He’ll burn to death. And we won’t have access to the money. It will be tied up in the estate, and they’ll kill me.”
She sat sideways to face me. “I’m afraid for my life, but you should be afraid for yours. It makes sense that my sister-in-law is behind all this.” She rubbed her eyes. “She’s not doing this for the ransom money, believe me. She’s going after the control of the entire fortune. By keeping me away, she knows Patrick’ll lose it completely and he’ll have to be institutionalized. She’s got power of attorney, and when he dies, I’m out anyway. I signed a pre-nup. She’ll make sure you can’t get the ransom and you’ll kill me. But you should be worried too. Once the money’s hers, she’ll get you arrested for murder. It’s a perfect plan.”
My head was about to split.
“Can you get me money?”
“Let me see my husband.”
That again. Out of the question.
As I drove, I thought about the devotion she had for the man. Maybe she was a saint, but I hadn’t met one yet. So, I said, “There could be something in this for you. Your life’s hell, right? Wouldn’t you want to be rid of him? Really? You’re making huge sacrifices. My buddies want a couple of million, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask for more and keep the rest for yourself. Who would know? You can have your life back, you’re still young. You could start over.”
She didn’t protest. So I continued, “Think about it. He’s burying you alive. It’s not human to ask a woman to live like that. With money, you wouldn’t have to and you’d get out from under your sister-in-law.”
She was silent.
“Nothing good’s going to happen to him. I’m sure you know that, and you won’t be able to care for him forever. And then he leaves you nothing? Sounds like a sucker deal to me.”
She stared at her lap. She must have known I was right. If she didn’t do what I suggested, she’d never get another chance. I looked at my watch. By now, according to the plan, I should have been long gone, with a bag full of money on the backseat of my car.
“But, I can’t get money without his permission. Millions, that’s out of the question.”
“Think, is he sane enough to even realize you betrayed him? Or even to care?”
She rocked back and forth. “I can’t.” Her voice broke, her eyes filled with tears.
And then I gave the killer punch. “Wouldn’t you like to be able to go back to acting? I bet you were very talented, weren’t you?”
She eyed me. I guess she hadn’t thought about that for a very long time.
“There’s a Swiss account …” she finally whispered. “Nobody would find out for a while. The numbers are in a safe in the bank. I could convince the manager to let me … look at it.”
Relief washed over me. We were going to get the money. She was going to be safe, and her husband might be too. I was going to escape murder and kidnapping charges, cut ties with Frank, let her go and Frank would have to sort it out with the sister-in-law and good luck to him. Meanwhile, I could do what I wanted, go to college somewhere, maybe in Europe. Why not?
“Thank you,” I said.
We stopped at a charity shop to buy something decent for her to wear, a bit of makeup, and we headed for the bank. Obviously, people knew her. They smiled, if with slight curiosity about her appearance, and about how unsteady she was. The manager made himself available. We sat in his office.
“Mr. Palace’s well?” he said glancing at me.
“Yes. Thanks for asking. This is my cousin, Martin.”
“What can I do for you today?”
She took a piece of paper from the leather dispenser on the desk. I hadn’t anticipated that and I almost reached for her hand to stop her but I couldn’t do anything with the manager watching. He handed her a pen. She wrote a few lines. I leaned over but couldn’t make out the words.
“I need to get something from our safety deposit box. These are the instructions.” The paper travelled across the desk. My heart skipped, and sweat soaked my armpits and beaded on my forehead.
The manager read the note, as though everything was in slow motion, and I held my breath. He said, “Of course. I’ll ask Terry to bring the keys. Coffee?”
We declined. He stepped out. Through the glass partition, we saw him speak to his secretary. Returning, he went over to a wooden sideboard along the back wall opposite the door. “A glass of water, perhaps?” He poured one for himself from a pitcher with lemon and orange slices floating in it.
“It will only take a few minutes,” he declared with a smile.
Indeed, a minute later, a security guard stormed into the office, his weapon pointed at my head.
Once home, Lillian Palace took a long hot shower to cleanse and relieve her wounds. She put on a pastel silk bathrobe, poured a stiff shot of gin and a little tonic into a crystal tumbler. The evening sun poured in from the panoramic windows of the living room onto the garden. Tokko was pruning the magnificent red maple, heavy tools hanging from his leather belt.
She started when the lock of the front door clicked. Her husband, Patrick, walked in with a suitcase in one hand and a duty free bag in the other.
“How was Shanghai?” she asked.
“Boring.” He screwed up his face. ‘My god, Lil, what happened to you?” He joined her on the sofa, wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pressed her against him, and kissed her hairline. He touched her cheek. “Were you in an accident? You should have called …”
“You cannot imagine the week I’ve had,” she said.
Copyright Charline Poirier 2019