Saturday, March 5, 2011

Not Just for Breakfast

Sheryl was neither Sioux nor Klingon, and she did not think this was a good day to die. It seemed all too likely it would happen anyway. She lay in the backseat, her hands and feet tied with video cable. A duct tape blindfold pulled annoyingly at her hair roots. The tape over her mouth made it difficult to breathe, especially as her nose was alarmingly stuffy from allergies.
Sheryl felt and heard the hum of the highway through the seat. She also heard the click in the rear wheel about which she had meant to talk to her mechanic. It was probably nothing. The Dodge Intrepid had 90,000 miles on it and had earned a few creaks and rattles. She couldn’t believe she was going to die for a jar of olives.
Her life was just beginning to get back together after a series of disasters. Years of intermittent drug dependency had destroyed her marriage and her finances. There had been little to divide in the divorce other than debt. She had long since burned all bridges with her family, so for a while things were desperate. If her girlfriend Nancy hadn’t reluctantly taken her in for a few months, she would have been on the street. However, her crash to the bottom saved her life – ironical as that seemed to her at the moment. By necessity she went clean and sober, except for a little weed, which she didn’t think hurt anyone.
Sheryl had gone on a job hunt. She hit pay dirt after only four months of living with Nancy. Among her few skills was horseback riding – she had a box full of ribbons from her early teen years. When she spotted an ad from a local equestrian facility seeking instructors, she applied for the job and got it. The other instructors at the barn were an off-beat and gossipy bunch, but she minded her own business and got along with them OK. She found she enjoyed teaching kids even though she had never wanted any of her own.
As her finances stabilized, her urges to party remained under rein, and Sheryl gave Nancy back her privacy. She rented a cottage fronting Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey. She wasn’t saving any money, but for the first time in years she kept up with the bills and built reasonably good credit. At 35 and by her own estimation cute (despite some dissatisfaction with her breast size), she revived thoughts of dating and finding the right man… which certainly wasn’t whoever was in the front seat.
To some degree she had replaced drugs with snack foods. In order to keep her figure, she at least tried to make the snacks healthy. Her special favorite was Monterey olives. This predilection struck her friends as odd, though whenever she offered them some they helped her finish the jar.
A snack food craving had come to her at 11:30 on a Sunday night, so she drove the short distance to the nearest Pathmark. She usually alternated shopping between the Pathmark and Shoprite because it embarrassed her to buy olives more than once at the same store on the same day. In less than ten minutes, she returned to her car with a bag of six jars. She had grown so accustomed to her safe suburban neighborhood that she had not locked the car. Sheryl slid into the driver’s seat. Before her keys were out of her purse, a cord was around her throat.
“Stop fighting or die,” ordered a voice from the rear seat. She stopped fighting.
“Don’t kill me…” she managed to rasp.
“Face down on the front seat. Hands behind your back.”
It was an awkward position but she complied. The attacker, leaning over the top of the seat, tied her hands first. Then duct tape went around her eyes. He pulled her head back roughly and slapped a patch of tape over her mouth. He released her briefly as he worked his way out of the back. He pulled her out of the car on the driver’s side by her tied hands and pushed her into the back seat.
She wondered if anyone else in the parking lot could see this happening. Were they calling the police at this moment? The lot wasn’t completely empty of cars, but perhaps most of them belonged to store workers. Was she the only one who bought snacks at night? He tied her legs. A few moments later the car started and began to roll.
She didn’t know how long she rode in the back. Convinced she would die soon, she tried to enjoy every sensation from the hum of the tires to the smell of the vinyl seat.
Eventually, she heard the sound of tires on gravel. The car stopped. The door opened. The man untied her legs and then pulled her out, banging her head on the door frame.
She was pushed forward until her right foot encountered a wooden step. In two steps she was on a narrow porch. The man reached around her and opened the front door. She noted it wasn’t locked. She thought he of all people should know better. He pushed her inside. The place had the smell of a summer cabin. She tried to talk. He snatched the tape and yanked it roughly. She wouldn’t need to wax that fuzz at the edge of her lip she had noticed in the mirror the day before.
“I said I need to pee.”
“All right. Do not remove your blindfold. You understand what I’ll do to you if you see me.”
“I think so.”
“Don’t bother screaming. No one can hear you and it’s annoying.”
He guided her several steps into a small bathroom, and untied her hands. She steadied herself on the seat with a hand against a sink. The sink felt like steel. The floor bent under her feet but wasn’t wood. Possibly it was vinyl tile over wood floorboards.
“Change into these.” She felt tossed clothes brush against her legs. She reached down. They felt like blue jeans and a tee shirt. She flushed, sighed, and changed into the clothes while keeping her back turned toward the bathroom door. The jeans were too long but the waist was about right. The shirt was big. She held up a cloth, possibly a tie.
“What’s this?”
“Use it as a belt.”
He pulled her back into the main room and pushed her onto a wooden chair. He tied her arms to wooden armrests. Experimentally, she pushed on the floor with her feet. The chair didn’t move. It was probably nailed to the floor. The abductor walked away from her. Time passed. She waited for the rape. She waited some more. She waited for anything to happen. At last there was a new sound. Pans clacked in the kitchen. Then there was a sizzle. She smelled bacon.
“Do I get some?”
“No. Not yet anyway.”
“Can I have some water?”
“Shut up.”
There was something familiar about his voice, but she couldn’t quite place it. After having dined, the man, stinking of bacon, leaned over her. He bent down and tied her legs to the chair legs. He walked away. She heard the squeak of one of those old steel spring beds. Apparently he was taking a nap. It was soon more than apparent; he was snoring. His nap seemed interminable. Somehow she fell asleep, too. When she woke up her gluteus maximus didn’t.
The cabin was oddly quiet. She listened closely but heard no sound other than wind.
“Hey. Hey!”
There was no answer. Sheryl struggled with her bonds. Sometimes her hands seemed on the verge of slipping out of them but the cords and knots held. She kicked at the chair with what little freedom of movement she had. The kicks succeeded only in inflicting pain on her heels through her paddock boots.
She heard a car pull up to the house. She recognized engine sounds as belonging to her own car. Her abductor reentered the cabin. He was whistling.
“Can I please have some water?”
Once again he puttered around the house, seemingly oblivious to her.
Sheryl lost all sense of time. The man came and went, ate and slept, and released her only to pee. He was fastidious about this one thing. She grew steadily weaker. On each trip she had to walk to the bathroom more bent over because of the hours (or was it days? or weeks?) in the chair. His purpose was still a mystery. Perhaps he was demanding ransom from someone. Fat chance there. She asked again for food. Her throat was dry. It hurt.
“I’m going to starve.”
“It takes weeks to starve. Maybe months.”
“I need water.”
He didn’t answer. Sheryl concluded her abductor planned to let her slowly die. There was little strength left in her, but before long there would be none. If she had any intention of breaking away, it had to be soon. She had the feeling the man was not exceptionally large. Maybe she could fight him off. She flexed her muscles, trying to improve circulation and ready them for a final effort.
“I need to pee.”
The man untied her arms and then her legs. Sheryl put all the force she could into a drive forward out of the chair. She collided with him. As he staggered backward, she seized his head, gouged at his eyes, and toppled him to the ground. He felt short and pudgy as she landed on him. He connected a swinging fist with her head. Sheryl stood up and kicked. Her foot found his face. One of his hands grabbed her jeans leg but she pulled herself free. Tearing the duct tape from her eyes, she ran to the door. Her eyes were unfocused after so much time blindfolded and the house was dark. It was night, and only a dim light shone from the kitchen. She flung open the door and ran out. Sheryl stumbled on the steps of the porch and fell to the ground. She scrambled back to her feet and ran to the car. The keys were in the ignition. The man’s lack of security measures amazed her. Obviously he was accustomed to being the predator, never the victim.
She slid in, locked the doors, and turned the key. The car started. The man was pulling at the driver side door. She could see only his chest. She threw the car into reverse and dragged him to the ground. She put the car in drive and tried to run him over, but he rolled out of the way. Not pausing for further combat, she accelerated backwards out of the driveway. Having found a place to turn around, she sped down a dirt driveway until reaching a two-lane road. She was in a rural area with no other house immediately in sight.
Perhaps a logical mind would have found the nearest house or stopped the first car to ask for help, but her mind was not operating logically. She drove straight ahead until intersecting with a county road. Purely as a random choice she turned right. A road sign listed the names of several unfamiliar towns and the Tappan Zee Bridge. She knew the bridge over the Hudson was part of both I-287 and I-87, and that it would take her back to New Jersey. Though she was now in an area of lit homes and moderate traffic, she did not stop. She looked for another sign to the bridge or highway.
She saw an access ramp to 287/87. She didn’t read which direction the ramp went, but she knew she could find her way home either way. It turned out she had chosen North I-87 which had a true direction of west away from the bridge. At the point where the overlapping highways separated she stayed with 28, which turned south into NJ. Upon reaching Interstate 80 she went west. Several times she nearly fell asleep at the wheel. Near Dover, she caught herself unintentionally changing lanes. She pulled to the side of the road and closed her eyes. She resisted the urge to sleep. She was almost home. Shaking herself awake she pulled back into traffic. At Exit 29 for Hopatcong, she turned onto
Lakeside Boulevard
. Within minutes, she pulled into her driveway.
Flashing lights appeared in back of her. Two policemen appeared at her door.
“Ma’am, could you please step out of the car?”
“I’m OK.”
“Please step out of the car.”
Shakily she complied.
“Are you Sheryl Miller?”
“There is a missing persons report filed on you.”
“Glad to hear it. Look, I need to sleep. Get something to drink. I’ll talk to you in the morning.”
“How much have you had to drink already? You can barely stand.”
“I need water! Please, let me go inside.”
“We are here to help you, ma’am. As I said, you’ve been reported missing.”
“Well, you found me. Good job. Please. Leave me alone.”
The effort of standing on her feet was too much. Her vision faded and she felt herself falling.
Sheryl opened her eyes. It was daylight and there was a ceiling. There was a characteristic hospital smell in the air. She looked to her right. An old lady lay snoring in a bed in the same room. An IV was in Sheryl’s arm. She saw the NaCl on the bottle and recognized it as saline solution.
A middle-aged female doctor with a curt manner entered the room.
“We are going to release you today. The bump on your head isn’t serious. You were badly dehydrated. You need to stay off alcohol and street drugs.”
“Street drugs?”
The doctor held out toward Sheryl a printout of her blood work. “There opiates in your system. Heroin will kill you.”
“I don’t do heroin. I have a hydrocodone prescription. Would that account for it?”
“Yes, but abusing prescription pain killers is every bit as bad for you.”
“It’s not abuse. I hurt my back on a horse a couple weeks back. I’m a trainer and instructor. I finished the bottle days ago.”
“Don’t fill it again.”
“What day is it?”
“Thursday. The police want to speak to you.”
“I want to speak to them. Are they here?”
“No. Go to the police station.”
A nurse arrived to release her from the IV and hand her paperwork.
“This can’t be right,” said Sheryl, looking at the numbers.
“It’s not,” the nurse answered. “Some of the doctors will bill you separately.”
“You mean there’s more? This is already $10,000!”
“I don’t have anything to do with billing.”
Sheryl opened her closet and found the clothes the creep had given her to wear. The thought of putting them back on made her wear made her skin crawl, but she couldn’t very well wear the open backed hospital garb out the front door. She didn’t want to wait for a friend to bring her fresh clothes either. She grimaced and put on the tee shirt and jeans. She even tied the tie belt. The smell of bacon lingered on the shirt.
Sheryl signed her paperwork at the nurses’ station and called a cab. She had no clue how she would pay the bill. Her job didn’t offer insurance. The hospital would just have to wait. She took the elevator to the main level, exited the front entrance, and waited for the cab. It arrived in less than ten minutes and deposited her in her driveway in another 15. Her purse was still on the passenger-side floor of her car which was parked unlocked in her driveway. This was no surprise in this generally safe neighborhood. She fished out enough money to pay the driver.
As Sheryl entered the door of her home, her diminutive cat Minnie screamed at her. There was cat poop in the middle of the living room carpet, obviously a statement of protest. The water and food bowls in the kitchen were empty. She fed and watered the cat, which, rubbing against her hand, purred as she emptied a can into the bowl. Sheryl then changed the litter in the much-used box.
Sheryl stripped and took a long shower. Afterward, she donned fresh clothes, which felt good against her body. Only reluctantly touching the abductor’s fashions, she stuffed them in a Pathmark bag and carried the bag to her car. She drove to the police station out on the highway.
Sheryl identified herself to a non-uniformed woman sitting behind a thick pane of glass. In a few minutes, a patrolman opened a door to the right of the glass and waved her inside. The officer was cute, but it bothered Sheryl he was considerably younger than she was. They sat down at a table like one in the cafeteria of her old high school.
“Thanks for coming in. Your ex-husband filed the missing persons report on you.”
“How sweet of him.”
“He said several of your friends and co-workers called him asking about your whereabouts.”
“I think he filed because he didn’t want to be blamed for my disappearance.”
“I think you are right.”
“But he didn’t kidnap me.”
“Don’t you want to know who did?”
“Well, I don’t know. I didn’t even get a good look at him. I was blindfolded.”
“I see. But you got away somehow.”
“What exactly happened?”
“It started in the Shoprite parking lot. I was abducted.”
“What time?”
“Time? I don’t know. Sometime between 11:30 and midnight on Sunday it would have had to have been. I stopped for a jar of olives. When I got back to my car there was a man in the back seat.”
“Did you get the olives?”
“What? Yes. What’s the difference?”
“Ma’am, before you say anything more I should tell you that you are not wanted for a crime. You are an adult woman free to come and go as you wish. It is not illegal to be irresponsible about your job or to go away without explanation to your friends. You don’t have to make up a story about where you were. On the other hand, it is illegal to falsely report a crime. If you want simply to go now, you may.”
“You don’t believe me.”
“No ma’am. You are lying.”
“Excuse me?”
“The Shoprite closes at six on Sunday.”
“All right! Maybe it was the Pathmark! I’ve been through a lot! I’m confused!”
“So you are changing your story.”
“Do you have a receipt for the olives?”
“What? No, of course not!”
“Are you sure you didn’t meet a friend, get high, and then just forget about the world for a few days?”
“Why would I lie?”
“We’ve already established that you did. Perhaps you don’t want your employers – or possibly parents who let you teach their kids – to think you are a drug user, and so you made up a story. I see from your record you have drug convictions.”
“That was a long time ago. I tell you I was kidnapped! Look, the kidnapper made me wear these.” Sheryl held the bag with the clothes.
“You sure your party girlfriend didn’t lend them to you?”
“You were arrested with a Wanda, address unknown.”
“That was seven years ago.”
“She was a known drug dealer.”
“And I was a young idiot buying a bag of pot. So what?”
“Twenty-eight isn’t so young. Do you have any objection to me checking the contents of your purse?”
“You understand that looks suspicious.”
“Why are you doing this to me?”
“Ma’am, you are reporting a serious crime – a heinous crime that is uncharacteristic of our town. A false report will alarm residents without reason and it will waste our time.”
“Fine. Forget it! Don’t look into it! You want these clothes?”
“For what?”
“Of what?”
“Never mind! Am I under arrest? Do I need a lawyer?”
“A lawyer is not the professional who comes to mind.”
“Thank you for your advice!”
“Ma’am, I urge you not spread your story around. I’m tempted to lock you up right now.”
“I understand!”
Sheryl grabbed the bag and stormed out of the station. She stuffed the bag in the trash can outside the police station door.
Back at her house, she locked the doors and found a carpet knife she had bought when she was first decorating the place. It was sharp and had mean-looking hooked tip. She slipped it in her pocket. The phone rang.
“Hello, Sheryl?”
“This is Adrienne at the barn.” Adrienne was her boss. She was the next person Sheryl had meant to call. “Where have you been?”
“Oh hi. I was going to call you. I just got out of the hospital this morning.”
“Are you alright?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“What happened?”
“Long story. You may not believe it anyway. The police didn’t.”
“The police? Look Sheryl, come in tomorrow morning. I need to talk to you. When you didn’t show up for work and wouldn’t answer your phone, we re-assigned your students to other instructors.”
“Thanks for covering me. I’m OK to start work again.”
There was a disturbing silence on the phone. “Well, come in tomorrow,” her boss said at last. “We’ll talk about that.” Adrienne hung up.
Sheryl suddenly realized how hungry she was. She put two frozen dinners in the microwave and grabbed a bag of tortilla chips. She was half-way through the bag before the microwave beeped. She polished off both meals. Still hungry, she found two packets remaining in a box of Pop Tarts. She didn’t bother toasting the contents before eating them. Feeling better, she turned on the TV and lay on the couch. She still hadn’t cleaned up the carpet after the cat, but she planned to do so later. She fell asleep in ten minutes.
Sheryl dreamed of a cord around her neck. She awoke and realized it was more than a dream.
“Hello, remember me?”
Sheryl started to scream but the cord tightened and choked her voice off. She stopped struggling and the cord loosened. Looking up, she recognized the face. It belonged to Dan, one of the other instructors at the barn. He was on vacation this week. She never had paid him much attention. He was short and somewhat overweight. Besides, he was supposed to be gay.
“How did you get in?” she rasped.
“I made copies of your keys. Not while you were at my vacation cabin. Before. You just left them in the tack room for anyone to pick up.”
“You’ve been stalking me.”
“Yes. Turns out I didn’t need them until now. You didn’t lock your car when you went in the Pathmark. Funny, June left her keys any old place, too.”
“June is the instructor you replaced at the barn. She just took off one day without a word. Her clothes weren’t a good fit for you. The tie was mine. I just liked the look.”
“The girls at the barn said you weren’t, um, into women.”
Dan laughed. “Did I sexually molest you? But actually, I do have a taste for women in my own way. I have to thank you for the olives. They added a nice touch.”
Sheryl now knew for certain what she dimly had suspected: the smell in the cabin wasn’t bacon.
“I know you already talked to the police, so they are looking for me. They’ll find it hard to convict me without a witness though. It’s nice to have a lake so handy.”
“You don’t have to do this,” she pleaded. “They don’t know it’s you. I didn’t know it was you. I never saw your face.”
“Really? Marvelous. Of course, you’ve seen it now.”
The cord tightened again. While she had kept him talking with his eyes focused on her face, she had worked the carpet knife out of her pocket. She opened it underneath her back with one hand. She lashed out with the knife. The curved point dug through his throat. Dan fell backward making gurgling sounds. Sheryl leaped off the couch and pinned him to the floor with her knees. She slashed again and caught the carotid artery. She would have preferred to let him bleed to death over three days tied to a chair, but watching his quick expiration was acceptable.
The police arrived quickly after she called. The patrolman who had interviewed her was among them.
“Your boyfriend? Have a little spat?”
“You know him?”
“Yes, he’s Dan from the stable where I work.”
“Is he the guy you went away with?”
“No! I mean yes! He’s the one who kidnapped me!”
“You said you didn’t know who kidnapped you. Are you sure he’s not your boyfriend? How did he get in? Leave your door open again?”
“No, he had a key.”
“Ma’am, I’m placing you under arrest. You have the right to remain silent…”

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