FREE Sample Chapters: “Class Collision: Fall From Grace” by Annette Mackey
The following are a few sample chapters from my book, “Class Collision: Fall From Grace.”
This is a work of fiction. The events and characters described herein are imaginary and are not intended to refer to specific places or living persons. The opinions expressed in this manuscript are solely the opinions of the author. The author has represented and warranted full ownership and/or legal right to publish all the materials in this book.
Fall From Grace
All Rights Reserved
Copyright 2010 Annette Mackey
David enjoyed the humiliation of the poor little French maid who had arrived at the estate only days before and spoke little to no English, none of it proper.
She nodded and threw about all the “Monsieur’s” she could muster mingled with “pardon,” and, “merci” as her head bobbed to and fro with all the training of a tree squirrel. Even with the little maid bonnet, strands of hair puffed out of her bun with droplets of sweat clinging alongside and a smear of kitchen charcoal on her now-scarlet cheek.
David saw the stress. He saw the effort. He saw it all, even more. After all, he was David. He had looks, brains, breeding, charisma; that is, charisma to anyone that mattered, and poor little maids did not.
As with every servant, she had been warned. Most of them had given up any hope of pleasing him, although they all tired trying. They knew their station and more importantly, they knew his. He may be only a child, but he was still the boss, and more importantly, he was important. Really important. He was the rich, the famous, the incredibly talented David Treigh Bastien, and like it or not, in this world he may as well be a god.
30 miles from Philadelphia, May 1931 …
David Bastien placed his chin over his folded arms and rested upon the mahogany desk, his shiny blond hair darkened by the amber lighting of the dimly lit room. He knew Mother would not approve. Still, with no one in sight, proper posture didn’t seem quite so all-important. His crystal blue eyes peered through his thick brown lashes as Alex prepared his next move. There it was. The wince. He knew instantly what his older brother was thinking.
Alex’s chair screeched softly as he leaned forward to move the marble chess piece. In anticipation, and already aware of his tactics, David shifted the position of his rook. Alex’s nose tweaked in response, as if David had just desecrated a piece of art.
Just then, their mother, Elizabeth, peered into the parlor, standing straight in her heels and shimmering dress. “Good morning, dears,” she glistened.
Both boys stood to greet their mother properly with backs straight. “Good morning, Mother,” they answered in unison. Instantly the game was placed on hold. It was time to escort their mother to the breakfast room.
As they entered, freshly pressed linens, folded lace, and fragrant flowers greeted them. Their father, Alexander, was already settled at the table, deep into his paper. He stood appropriately as Mother entered. Without a word, she lent him her cheek and the family sat down together. Katrina, their two-year-old sister, was already in her high chair tossing cut strawberries on the floor.
Bowls of fresh cream, oatmeal, and strawberries were served as the remaining staff entered and lined up to receive their morning orders from Clifford, the house overseer. This was all very ordinary.
But, where was the cat? David’s nerves began to tingle. Where was he?
Sebastien was David’s longhaired Persian who performed his duties… dutifully. Alex was well aware of the plan, and as usual, was amazed at how smoothly David executed it. Seeing their parents struck with emotion when David asked for the furry pet made him sick, though it was mixed with a fair amount of admiration. It was an odd situation, the older brother feeling hero worship for the younger.
David usually made certain that Sebastien was snug in his basket each night, thus, avoiding an ugly episode in the morning. After all, oatmeal was the most effective torture known to man, or as the case may be, child.
Though his parents allowed other breakfast foods to be ordered, oatmeal had to be eaten first. The problem was, oatmeal made David’s stomach to do internal leapfrogs, and without fail, his stomach would threaten to expel the nasty goo.
His plan took a few tweaks here and there, but at last he knew what he had to do. Over the course of the experiment, his parents purchased several very expensive cats whose untimely demise remain a mystery to this day, although there are theories abounding. Clifford suspected foul play from the start when the dear little creatures were found on their backs with their feet straight up in the air, dead on the spot after their evening meal.
And oh, the pain! The suffering! The emotional turmoil that David experienced with the loss of each dear little furry pet only furthered his parents’ determination to get him the perfect object for his affection. They never suspected the truth—that he’d done the poor things in as a means of firing them from the job. After all, if the cat wanted rich, expensive cat food, rather than oatmeal, it wasn’t his fault that it was tainted. His conscience was clear.
After several unfortunate failures, David began to have doubts as to the practicality of the plan. Perhaps cats just don’t eat oatmeal. He was about to reconsider the whole idea when along came this princely Persian who just so happened to love the stuff. David was delighted, which meant that his parents were delighted, which meant that the whole household was required to be delighted. From the doorman to the gardener, everyone was obligated to love the cat. David named him appropriately Sebastien, and the little cat flourished under the breakfast table cleaning spoonfuls of splattered oatmeal and strawberries from the floor.
David’s worries were largely over, except for this morning. Where was that cat? It was his solemn duty to be here. Now. Right now. Oatmeal was looming! Never mind the crystal bowls. This was ritualistic torture. A forced feeding of disgustingly gigantic proportions.
He slumped irritably in his chair and even went so far as to lift his left elbow on the table and rest his face upon his hand, pressing a crease into the intricately stitched fabric as he stirred the sticky goo into a thick blob.
Clifford came and stood next to him, tall and erect with his hands clasped behind his back and cleared his throat. “Ahem.”
David leaned further on his hand and tipped his head to look up, pulling the skin at his eye tight.
Clifford raised an eyebrow.
David took his elbow off the table and straightened a bit, but not too much. After all, he had a right to rebel.
Mother noticed Clifford’s presence and almost smiled. There was no task too small to escape his conscientious attention. He was a splendid overseer for a splendid household. “Sit straight, dear, and eat before your oatmeal gets any colder. I’m sure that’s why you dislike it so.” She patted her lips with the intricately stitched napkin then proceeded to give instructions to the gathered staff; gathered, of course, by Clifford.
David straightened and braced himself. The grimace was involuntary as was the gag. His eyes began to water as he pressed the formula down, hoping it wouldn’t result in an eruption from his belly. He was supposed to be free of this humiliation. Where was that cat? He forced his stomach to be still. He simply could not allow it in front of the minions. They were supposed to be listening to Mother. Instead, several of them pretended to contain the smiles they so obviously displayed in his direction. How he hated them.
Every now and then, Mother would notice that he was just pushing his food around and gave him a gentle look of warning. “David, dear, eat your oatmeal,” she finally said.
With piqued interest, the lined group leaned forward in unison. Just then, a familiar purr nestled around David’s leg. He was saved. He whipped out his infamous smile and answered with a culpable glint, relieved and cocky. “Of course, Mother.”
Completely satisfied, she returned her attention to the staff whose moment of merriment diminished into nothing.
David almost smirked. An actual smirk would have been bad manners and, thus, would provoke the attention of both Mother and Clifford, but an almost smirk created no disturbance whatsoever. Carefully, he scooped a large spoonful of oatmeal and lifted it to his mouth, pretending to take it in, and then slipped it under the tablecloth. Drowned out by Mother’s instructions, it fell to the floor with a splat. Of course, he savored his empty mouthful. “Mmm,” he vocalized, accentuating his features for the sake of the gathered staff. Sebastien purred in appreciation as he cleaned up the mess, strawberries and all, and continued to wrap his tail around David’s leg.
It wasn’t any surprise that the spot on the floor needed a little extra attention every morning. Of course, Clifford knew everything, but in his way of understanding the inner workings of the home, he allowed the implied ignorance to continue.
Father read the paper, Mother fussed to the servants, Katrina slapped strawberries at the legs of the servants, Alex sat in wide-eyed awe, and David asked for some eggs on toast. It was going to be a beautiful day.
After breakfast, the boys’ standard curriculum began. English, literature, math, the sciences, music, history, art, humanities, and foreign languages were scheduled in rigorous format throughout the day as instructors came to Mandolin. The estate had been in the family for generations, and as their progenitors, Alex and David took their lessons in the Great Hall. Desks were brought in each morning as were blackboards and lab equipment.
By two o’clock, both boys were exhausted. It was then that Elizabeth dropped by to check on their progress and to customarily interrogate their professors. Mr. Kling was just about to begin their biology lesson when Alex saw her enter through the archway.
“Mother,” Alex chimed, relieved that her presence would bring a much-needed break. They had gone straight from algebra class to biology without so much as a chance to stretch their legs.
David turned toward his mother and straightened. He tried to look lively, not wanting her to see him worn from studies. They understood each other that way. Though David’s natural intelligence was his greatest strength, his desire to please his mother outweighed everything. Knowing this, Elizabeth adored him all the more. He was more than just her pride and joy. He was everything.
She smiled and turned to their instructor. “Mr. Kling, what have you prepared today?” she asked arching one eyebrow. Her tall heels and silk dress accentuated her femininity as her voice flowed like a song. Even so, Mr. Kling knew from bitter experience that her lily façade was but a front. She was not to be trifled with.
As he briefed Elizabeth on the concepts of meiosis and mitosis, he seemed to puff up a bit. Surely even the great Mrs. Bastien would be pleased. His small circular glasses accented his narrow eyes and slicked-back hair. An extremely thin fellow, his long limbs and gangly suits gave him the aura of an overgrown string bean.
Mother listened to his dialog with apparent interest, but when he had finished, her reply surprised him to such an extent that David thought the man was going to fall over backwards and he could scarcely keep from laughing.
“Mitosis is indeed a fascinating subject,” Elizabeth stated, “but today, the lesson you will teach my sons will be on insects.”
Mr. Kling’s slim chest popped as he stumbled for footing.
“You will take them outside to the woods.” Mother motioned and walked toward the massive windows that viewed the grounds. Without request, Mr. Kling knew that she demanded he follow. “Along the path, you will name the plants you encounter and review the life cycle of the grass, shrubs, trees, and any other vegetation you might pass. Then upon reaching the trees, my sons will climb several, searching along the way for different varieties of insects. They will determine which ones live in the trees and those that are only passing through.”
Mother continued to speak, but Mr. Kling was in such a state of shock that he could hardly comprehend a thing as his face turned the color of a dark red beet.
David loved it! He loved the way Mother controlled him, humiliated him, and forced his will to hers. It was thrilling, and he drew in close so as not to miss a single detail.
“—Obviously they will have to climb several.” Mother finished her lengthy oration.
The display invigorated David. The fatigue now gone, his posture soared; his mind was crisp as the world fell into perfect order.
Alex, on the other hand, was just relieved to go outside. His brain had turned to spaghetti hours ago. And seeing Mr. Kling’s humiliation pricked a nerve somehow. He wasn’t sure why. He’d seen this sort of thing a million times before. Quietly, he gathered his suit jacket off the back of his chair and readied himself as David stood firmly, still wearing his jacket, ready to follow Mother’s orders at a second’s notice.
The wind ruffled David’s blond hair as they stepped out of the towering doors. At ten years old, he had his mother’s crystal blue eyes and was without a single blemish on his polished face. Despite his natural good looks, his intelligence and arrogance stood out in demanding contrast to every other person Alex had ever known.
At twelve years old, Alex was no less handsome. Their facial characteristics were actually quite similar, but Alex had their father’s rich chocolate hair and brown eyes. Thankfully, he had an edge in height over David, which seemed to be the only edge he would ever have since David’s intellect was forever out of reach, as was their mother’s favoritism. Even so, it was hard to care. David was his best friend. His only friend.
After climbing trees and looking for insects, Alex and David washed and changed into fresh suits to begin their late afternoon and evening studies.
David practiced on his violin in the Great Hall as Alex worked in a lonely practice room on his violin and then piano. When he finally achieved the reluctant approval of his tutor, he was allowed to leave. As he opened the door, the roar of a Chopin scherzo beat rigorously upon his already-exhausted nerves. David obviously had moved on to the piano and was preparing for Dr. Rousen’s return.
Dr. Rousen was the only teacher who had refused to come to the mansion to teach the young men as he, too, had a reputation to protect. He heard David play for the first time when he was four. Immediately, he recognized the child’s unique ability and offered to take him as a student. Elizabeth and Alexander were delighted, but when Dr. Rousen told them that he would not teach David in their home, they backed away from the proposal. They didn’t want their children gallivanting about the city like average citizens. It wasn’t right, not to mention a waste of time.
To their dismay, Dr. Rousen seemed insulted and quickly revoked the offer. The matter was closed for two years until he heard David play again. Stunned with his progress, he determined that he must have an opportunity to teach that kind of talent. And so it was that both boys began lessons. Each week, Dr. Rousen came to the mansion for an individual lesson with David and Alex. He was part of the deal, and in return, the boys were driven into the city for a weekly master class at the conservatory.
It was a situation that had grown comfortable for everyone, except Alex. He didn’t like being only tolerated. To ease his pain, he would interrupt David’s practice whenever possible, making jokes, trying to get him to play something ridiculous. Usually, it was a piece that David had constructed from various Vaudeville showstoppers. Eventually, Elizabeth would enter the Great Hall with a serious frown, always incredibly shocked at their impropriety. Even from yards away, her expression would instantly silence their play.
“David!” she would say in a hushed voice. “Play something of substance.”
That meant Brahms or Beethoven. To Alex, Brahms and Beethoven weren’t any fun at all. They had way too much substance. He was swallowing substance every second of his life. He was ready to vomit substance. He wanted fun. Was that really so much to ask?
Dr. Rousen arrived from London earlier that day and as promised, came by for his welcome home concert. He, his pompous students, and their guests arrived at Mandolin shortly before seven. Each student had worked particularly hard, hoping that their performance would be praised above the others, all the while knowing that it would be David who would occupy most of the attention. They entered the castle with a combination of jealous dislike and fawning gratitude. It was a great honor to enter these walls as a guest rather than a tourist; something they couldn’t help but appreciate despite their disdainful irritation.
Clifford greeted the guests upon arrival and sent them to the Great Hall where another tuxedo-clad servant announced their names as they entered through the grand archway.
An enormous portrait of David and his loyal feline demanded the attention of all as they entered. Its massive frame was situated directly above the nine-foot Steinway piano in such a way as to signify it as the most important piece in the entire room. Recently painted, it was David’s favorite, and so naturally, it hung on the greatest wall of the great estate. He even asked his mother for a miniature which he kept in his suit pocket with her inscription across the back, “Sweet David.” To David, it symbolized that even oatmeal could be conquered. To Alex, it was just annoying.
Upon arrival, a few guests took a little extra time examining the new portrait, bringing an arch to more than one eyebrow. Where was Alex’s portrait? Where indeed? Wasn’t he of more importance than the cat? Alex tried not to notice. His mother certainly had not. She was too busy looking gorgeous in her dark velvet and sequined dress with his father standing magnificently at her side.
At the appropriate time, Clifford made the announcement and the recital began. The first students on the program were supposedly the least accomplished. Alex knew the only reason he was not placed first was out of courtesy. Although he appreciated the gesture, hearing the accomplished musicians who played before him only fueled his already-rattled nerves.
By the time his turn had come, nothing could have tamed his nervous rush of adrenaline that poisoned his memory. For several minutes, he sat dwarfed at the colossal instrument trying in vain to calm his racing heart as he realized that he had forgotten how to find middle C. After a few awkward minutes, his brain rebooted enough to breathe, and he started to play. The pressure of each eye stuck like needles in the back of his neck, bringing beads of sweat to his forehead.
Within seconds, Alex’s right leg, which rested upon the damper pedal, began to shake. At first it was indistinguishable, but as the song progressed, the shudder became violent. His fingertips grew slippery, and tension pulled at his wrist and knuckles, adding a thick slur to the fast passages. His mind ran blank as his fingers tumbled almost out of control. He hated the idea that he might have to start again, knowing that he ran only on muscle memory now. He hoped beyond hope that his fingers remembered the song because his brain certainly did not.
Amazingly, he survived the ordeal and stood from the bench. Looking out at the audience, everyone seemed pleased. His face contorted slightly as he realized that it must be out of courtesy. There was no other explanation. He bowed with obvious discomfort and returned to his seat, grateful to still be alive.
The final performance was David’s. He tuned his violin without the piano since his perfect pitch was more reliable than the noisy beats of the bombastic instrument. Carefully, he voided the beats of interference until he reached satisfaction. Then, with complete confidence, he broke the silence with a perfect attack of his bow. Incredible.
Following his flawless violin performance, he adjusted himself on the artist bench and expertly attacked the piano. With hammers flying, he roared through the bars of the Scherzo, outshining everyone in the room, even those twenty years his superior.
Elizabeth’s mouth turned at the corner with satisfaction. This was her son. His legacy would outshine them all. The evening was a splendid success, and she couldn’t be happier.
Later that night, after his nanny and Clifford had tucked him in, Alex waited for his parents to come and kiss him goodnight. He secretly appreciated their nightly visits although he sometimes insisted that he was getting too old for this sort of thing. Still, after such trauma, it was nice to feel Mother’s soft lips on his forehead and see Father’s mammoth form. He had seen him on the field playing polo many times. Somehow his powerful athletic skill brought comfort in knowing he had such an ally.
After allowing enough time for his parents to visit David and Katrina, he quietly got out of bed and pulled the corner of the heavy dresser out to expose the paneled entrance to the secret passageway that led to David’s room.
David was lying on the bed with his feet propped up, reading as he waited for his brother. In preparation, David had already pulled out the corner of the dresser that hid the secret passageway. In moments, Alex emerged from behind the wooden panel laughing with a little extra dust and a wave of spider web drifting from his hair, happy with mischief and excitement for their impending sea voyage, 20,000 leagues below. But, before the reading could begin, David started in on an imitation of Mr. Kling. Frequently, David’s theatrics could get Alex rolling, but not tonight. Instead, it brought a twinge of pain and a serious expression spread over his face. At first, David didn’t seem to notice and continued his insulting imitation.
Suddenly, Alex interrupted. “Do you ever get scared? Like tonight, when you were in front of all of those people?”
David laughed and continued in mock imitation. “Oh yes,” he squeaked. “The fear nearly struck me dead!” He fell back stiff as a board into the mountainous satin covers that shivered with appropriate applause as the crocheted trim on his pillows swished.
“I’m being serious, David. Don’t you get a little nervous?”
Suddenly, David realized that Alex wasn’t joking and a taste of disgust oozed in his throat. He had always tolerated Alex’s idiosyncrasies, but he couldn’t stomach a coward. “Nervous? I knew what I was doing, and I did it.”
A burning sensation grew in Alex’s stomach. “Nobody’s perfect,” he grumbled.
“That’s what people say who don’t know me.” It wasn’t a joke. They both knew it. It was true. David had been and always would be perfect.
Alex rolled off the bed and went over to where Sebastien was sleeping peacefully in his basket. Somehow picking up the fluffy cat brought him a measure of peace. Sebastien purred in return of the much-desired affection.
“Come on, David, admit it. You’ve been scared before.” He nudged the cat with his nose, wanting to bury his feelings from sight.
“I’m not scared of anything.”
Alex looked back at him. There was venom in David’s eyes. For a moment, Alex was angry. Then, as quickly as the emotion had come, it passed, and he turned to the cat again, nuzzled him once more, then replaced him in the basket. Sebastien seemed sorry to be let go, but with his uncanny smarts, he didn’t protest and settled back into the basket for the night.
“What chapter are we on?” Alex asked in reference to the book.
David’s eyes glimmered, not sure if he was ready to forgive Alex just yet. “Chapter seven.”
Alex hopped back on the bed. “Okay,” he said fingering the pages and began to read.
Were someone unfamiliar with the boys to chance upon the scene, they might think it a scene worthy of Norman Rockwell. But nothing could be further from the truth.
The morning sun shone through the upper part of David’s window. He rolled slightly as the light splashed upon his face. Softly he let out a groan and covered his head with the satin sheet. Then suddenly, he threw the covers off and leapt from the bed. It was Wednesday!
“Hideout, look out. Here I come,” he voiced cheerfully to himself.
He skipped the usual shower and threw on his clothes. Temporarily, he was free from the tie and jacket. He would never admit it, but a day without constricting clothes was … a relief.
Each Wednesday, Alex and David had the entire morning off. They usually rode their horses out to the butte almost a mile from the mansion. There, they would secure the horses that would then munch on willow branches along a creek as the boys climbed up the wooded hill. In their young boy imaginations, an occasional boulder became the back of a sleeping dragon. A crooked branch was a wizard’s scepter. Even the rustling wind played a part, signaling the enemy’s army on the move behind them.
Of course, their parents had no idea that the hideout was such a dangerous adventure. They simply thought it was one of their many imaginative games, and the boys loved that it remained a secret despite the fact that they had been forthcoming with information.
With a bound, David got dressed and went to find Alex. He must be in the parlor, he thought to himself when he found his room empty. Undoubtedly, he was fretting over the chessboard. But David would have none of that today. He didn’t want to waste a single minute.
Oddly again, Alex was not there. This was puzzling indeed. As he contemplated his options, he heard voices coming from the Great Hall. Not wanting to meet whatever tour group had come today, he peered quietly from behind a familiar suit of armor to see his mother crying. Surprised, he drifted from his hiding place. Father’s arm was around her, and yes, he had seen correctly, she was crying.
Instead of turning toward her son, Elizabeth turned further away. In several gigantic steps, Alexander crossed the room and enveloped him in a firm hug.
“Grandmother McCrea had a stroke last night. She is very ill.” Alexander paused to look at David as he took him by the shoulders. “We’re going over to see her in a little while. You don’t have to come. In fact, I think it would be best for you and Alex to stay here and … play with Katrina today.”
David pulled away interrupting. “No,” he almost shouted as he broke away from his grip. It wasn’t very often that David found himself without words, but he was grasping. “I … I want to see her. And Alex,” David pointed toward his brother who sat with his hands clasped in his lap, eyes swollen. “He wants to go too.”
Alex sat solemn eyed and nodded his head as Alexander considered the situation. “All right,” he agreed with a sigh. “Go and eat some breakfast first.”
In light of the crisis, oatmeal was abandoned and their orders were taken. Every pleasantry was provided in the hopes of comforting them. Along with the standard fresh flowers, they were offered succulent fruit, pastries, and hot chocolate. But how could they eat? Grandmother was very sick, and even worse, Mother was crying.
The ride to Grandmother’s house was silent. Katrina had been left at home in the arms of her nanny, and David suddenly wished that she were there. She could lighten any moment, and this one seemed very heavy indeed.
David looked across the limousine at his mother, seeing how she kept her eyes lowered and held a handkerchief in her gloved hands. Alexander’s arm was around her shoulders, and every now and then an uncontrolled sniffle escaped with a shudder.
Upon reaching Grandmother’s house, Elizabeth dashed from the vehicle, nearly running over the doorman who had never seen such a thing in all his life. Alexander hastily muttered something to Alex before following after her.
David climbed from the car and began ascending the stairs to the front door when Alex grabbed his arm.
“Father said to stay out here. Mother is much too upset for us to be present.”
“But …” David protested.
It may have been the first time that Alex had ever taken the stronger role. David was about to throw a defiant remark his way, but Father certainly had given some sort of instructions to Alex. He would respect that.
After lollygagging around the flowerbeds for what seemed like hours, someone approached from the house, and both boys stood in greeting.
“Master David?” the man asked.
“Yes,” David responded and stepped forward.
“Your Grandmother wishes to see you now.”
Alex looked as though someone had taken a bat and beaten him with it.
With a lump in his throat, Alex raised his eyes, hoping he hadn’t been forgotten.
“You have been called for as well.”
He exhaled in relief, and both boys followed the man into the house where they were led to their grandmother’s room. As the door opened, they saw Mother sitting on the bed next to her. Their father sat in a large ornate armchair. When Grandmother saw them, she reached out with one shaking hand.
As they came around the bed, Grandmother took Alex’s hand in hers and held it tightly. Elizabeth shifted so as to ease the reach. Then Grandmother let go and used the same hand to grasp David’s. Neither of them asked why she hadn’t raised her other hand. They had learned about strokes in their lessons. Obviously, there were some extenuating problems.
“How handsome you both look,” Grandmother twinkled despite the difficulty. She always had a spark. “I’m glad you came. My, how you’ve grown. Why, I remember changing your diapers.” Alex and David both winced. It was just what Grandmother wanted. “And now, look at you. My, I m so proud of you both.”
After talking for a while, Grandmother asked Mother and Father if she could have a few minutes alone with each of her grandsons. She wanted to talk with Alex first.
Alexander suggested some fresh air to Elizabeth, who looked relieved at the very mention of it, while David remained just outside Grandmother’s bedroom door. He sat in a patterned maroon cushioned chair with his elbows resting upon his knees, the palms of his hands holding his face. It certainly wasn’t good posture, but he was sure the horsemen in the wallpaper wouldn’t mind. Besides, he was angry. Why should Alex get to go first?
Grandmother patted a spot beside her on the bed with her one good hand. “Come, Alexander.” She always called him by his father’s name. Sometimes it got confusing, but she didn’t seem to care. “Sit here beside me.”
Carefully, Alex seated himself, fearing a sudden movement might cause her a jolt of pain. So frail and white, her skin was almost translucent and molded in wispy folds at her hands and wrists. Along her eyes the skin drooped. Alex could see that just the effort to talk was exhausting, and being so accustomed to her lively character, it scared him.
Grandmother reached out with her one good arm to pull him toward her. Carefully, he came down and rested alongside her pillow as she hummed the melody of a familiar tune. It was a moment that Alex hoped would last forever.
After a while Grandmother spoke. “Alexander?”
He turned his head a to look up at her.
“You are my oldest grandchild. When I am gone, I expect you to look after your mother for me.”
Alex wanted to protest. How could she talk about being gone? It was almost more than he could stand. But something in her eye warmed him through. There within that look he found the courage he needed. “Don’t worry, Grandmother. I will. I promise.”
Grandmother managed a lopsided grin then motioned toward a large mirrored dresser against the wall. “I have something for you.” Her voice was gritty despite the smile.
Alex went to the dresser. There on top, side-by-side, were three dark wooden boxes, uniquely hand carved, ten by eighteen inches and eight inches deep.
“I had these made for you after Grandfather’s passing. Go ahead and open it.”
Alex lifted the lid and saw a number of articles nestled amidst the puffy velvet lining. Eyes wide, he lifted out an old leather bound book. “Grandfather’s book?” Guilt rushed as Alex fingered the pages carefully. “Mother ought to have this,” he choked as he returned to the bed and sat again beside her.
Grandmother covered his hand with hers. “I want you to have it,” she pressed. “Don’t worry about your mother. I’ve saved plenty of special things for her.”
Preferring to change the subject, Alex turned his attention back to the contents of the box and saw Grandfather’s gold watch and chain.
“Now that,” Grandmother smiled, “I want you to save in this box until your twentieth birthday. It belonged to your great-grandfather. It was given to him on his twentieth birthday by his father, who gave it to Grandfather, who intended to give it to you. As you know, your Uncle Taylor was already given another watch,” she winked.
Alex’s eyes sparkled in delight of it all. Being the oldest, he was next in line to receive the watch. The idea somehow made him feel needed, wanted.
The last article in the box was a simple gold band. It had been Grandfather’s wedding band. Grandmother’s eyes filled with tears as Alex lifted it.
“And this ring is for you. When the time is right, you will meet that special young lady. Make her your bride and wear this ring as a reminder that we are all tied together; one in heart, a family that cannot be broken.” She sniffed and brushed back a tear.
Alex understood. She would not be there for that most important day. She had never missed an event in his life, except perhaps the agonizing recital the previous evening. At the time, he was glad that she called to say that she wasn’t feeling well. There would be one less witness to his misery. He had chalked it up to a headache or something, not this. Losing her was more than he could stand. She was the only person who actually understood him. She was the one who told Mother that he didn’t have to be a musician. She was the one who noticed his flair for poetry. She was the one who listened, always. This just couldn’t be happening.
“I will never let you down, Grandmother,” he whispered as a tear escaped. “Never.”
Once again, hours seemed to pass as David sat in the chair outside Grandmother’s room. He looked down the hall at the clock. He had waited patiently. He’d been a perfect gentleman, but this was ridiculous. All day? It was outrageous.
Finally he heard the door creak, and his posture went perfectly rigid.
“She’s ready to see you now,” Alex said as he exited the room. David thought he saw tears in Alex’s eyes. Given the circumstances, he decided not to mention it. He had always understood that Alex was not a strong person.
David straightened further and adjusted his suit. As he went through the door, much to his surprise, the sight of Grandmother nearly overwhelmed him, and he had to fight the urge to slouch. Managing the reflex, he entered. The display of his trained arrogance pleased Grandmother. He was truly a Bastien.
“Are you feeling any improved?” David asked with genuine concern, looking years older than was natural.
Grandmother laughed, and then began to cough.
David drew near in concern.
“My dear, dear, David,” she tried to speak, though she could barely muster a whisper. “I’m afraid I won’t be improving.”
Although she smiled at him, there was sadness in her eyes. The lines on her face seemed to accentuate the truth. Grandmother had always told things the way they were. It was one of the things David liked best about her. But right now, he wished she could lie, just a little.
“You’ll get better in no time, Grandmother,” David assured her. “Nothing keeps you down for long.” He meant every word of it. Mind over matter, that’s all it took.
Too tired to deal with his rigid perspective, she shifted the conversation. “There are two boxes on the dresser over there. The one on the left is for you.”
David nodded and retrieved the box, holding it out to her with both hands as if she had asked for it.
“Open it,” she said sinking into the pillow. She closed her eyes and seemed to gasp for air as the muscles in her neck pulled tight. Resisting the urge to rush to her side, David remained straight and tall, though he obeyed and opened the box. Inside lay twenty-four solid gold Spanish coins. David recognized them instantly. They had been in the McCrea family for five generations.
Grandmother opened her eyes and saw the dumbfound look on David’s face. She wanted to laugh outright, but her body was too weak, and the instinct left her for the effort. It was the first time she had seen David without words. Even as a toddler, he could out maneuver most people in a conversation.
“These are for you, David. I know you will take good care of them. They should be with someone of your character. They suit your strong will.” She tried to reach out to him, and as she did, her strength failed, and she fell back against the pillows.
David almost threw the box onto the bed as he rushed to her side. “Grandmother! Grandmother!” he cried. “Are you all right? Grandmother!”
Nurses, servants, and doctors came running at his shouts. In seconds, the room was buzzing with commotion.
“I’m fine, I’m fine. Oh my, what a fuss,” she complained as the doctors intervened.
David reached through the many arms and hugged her as tightly as he dared. He had been there when Grandfather McCrea died and never wanted to witness death again.
“I love you, Grandmother. I love you now, and I’ll love you forever,” he breathed into her shoulder.
Fearing his weight, the doctor tried to pull him off of her. “Help me,” he complained to the butler as the two of them fought against the boy.
In the ruckus, David’s hair was tousled as he burst free of their interference. Grandmother thought he looked more handsome than ever. His desperate attempt to preserve her health meant more than he would ever know.
“Remove your hands,” David ordered. “Let go. Let go of me, I say.” The men ignored his complaints, and when ordered by the doctor, they dragged him from the room as his voice reverberated off the windows. “Grandmother! Grandmother! Let go, you great buffoons! Grandmother!”
“She must rest!” the doctor stated firmly after David had been deposited with his box of gold coins at the end of the hall.
Full of rage, he stormed to the car and slumped down with his box upon the cushioned seat. He had waited all day for a mere thirty-second visit.
He flipped the lid of his box open and stared at the coins as the sun’s reflection burned his eyes. Angry, he slammed the lid shut. He didn’t want them. And why would she give him money? Did she really think he was that shallow? Tears threatened, but he would not let them fall. He was no weakling, and they had treated him abominably. How dare they! How dare they all!
As the day continued, more and more concerned guests showed up at the house. In anticipation, the servants from Mandolin had been called so that everyone’s needs could be met.
David wasn’t the least bit hungry and found it easy to abstain from the banquet that seemed to have gathered every remote relative and friend in the region. It may as well have been the Fourth of July, for the setting seemed more festive than solemn. How he wished they would all have the good sense to go home. They didn’t care about Grandmother. They just wanted to take part in the Bastien social life. They were no better than the people who toured his house.
“Mongrels,” he growled, stuffing his hands in his suit pockets as he walked toward Alex who sat at one of the many tables set up special for the occasion.
Out of the corner of his eye he spied the same flustered maid he so enjoyed tormenting on frequent occasions. Her name was Collette. He watched her with scrutiny as she stacked a high rise of wine glasses. She paused thoughtfully and wiped a spot clean on one of the glasses before adding it to the tower. As she did so her face contorted with concentration.
What an moron, David thought. How much concentration does it take? “She is truly one of the most profound idiots I have ever witnessed,” he spoke aloud to Alex who was lost in a blank daze and didn’t respond. Alex’s eyes were like glass, lost and emotionless. David couldn’t believe his weakness. Irritated, he walked away from him toward Collette and the shimmering tower.
Collette looked up and jittered at his coming. With a single flinch, she tipped a glass and started a domino effect. It knocked another glass, which, in turn, tapped the next until the tumbling row reached the bottom of the four-foot tower. With a musical crash, fifty or more crystalline wine glasses smashed to the marble floor with a shatter. The sound echoed as the mass shimmered across the floor and under the feet of the ever-so-important guests. Shards pierced the ladies in open-toe shoes and stuck like tiny knives into the bottoms of the men’s leather wingtips. All at once, the room turned into panic as people ran from the sting of the tiny needles.
The poor little maid stood speechless, staring shock-eyed at the scene of her most recent disaster, all brought on by that boy.
It was almost enough to make David laugh were he not so angry. How he loved to cause her distress. But she was such a fool; she didn’t really need very much help. She managed just fine on her own. And with Grandmother’s illness, David was full of anger. He wanted to hurt something or someone, and it may as well be her. He wanted to thrust it on her in such a way that she would be able to taste it, smell it, live, breath, and die of it.
“Look at what you’ve done! This crystal was worth more than you will make in an entire lifetime, and you have reduced it to a pile of rubble,” he berated. “You stupid, blubbering idiot.”
As he publicly humiliated her, he realized that he had discovered the true purpose for society’s imbeciles. Their humiliation eased his pain. It was true, and he was feeling much, much better now. He would remember this remedy for future occasions.
After a lengthy venting session he was quite satisfied and crunched away, leaving her to clean up the pile just as Clifford entered the room. Clifford’s mouth nearly struck the floor as Collette’s eyes filled to overflowing.
“Monsieur, pardon,” she whispered as Clifford neared, plotting carefully through the glass obstacle course. “Desole, Monsieur …” Her voice cut off in a tremor.
Clifford gave instructions to several servers to start sweeping up the crystal as he took Collette gently by the elbow into the next room. His job was to make the Bastiens’ life run as smoothly as possible. The McCrea crystal was broken, the marble floor was severely scratched, the guests were bleeding, pulling glass from their feet, not to mention, worst of all, Grandmother was ill and perhaps dying. It wasn’t one of his better days.
As night approached, David and Alex were sent home along with most of the lingering guests. David felt it was wrong that a few choice relatives were allowed to stay when he was not. No one was closer to Grandmother than he. No one. His only consolation was that Alex was sent home too.
Over the next few days, thankfully, all the onlookers had gone home. With the continuing crisis, the boys’ lessons were suspended, and instead they took shifts sitting next to Grandmother.
When it was David’s turn, he talked of happy memories, especially the times when they rode their horses together. He prattled on about the time she bought him a pony. By now, Grandmother was too weak to respond, but every now and then her eyes opened and David got the sense that she understood. He especially thought she enjoyed hearing about their long walks to the nearby vista where they overlooked the hills to the sea.
As usual, Sundays were spent in church services. David looked at his mother, so beautiful with her silken blonde hair and thick lashes. He studied her carefully. The outside was all there, but something was missing, and it had been that way since Grandmother’s illness began.
Feeling more than a little concerned, he turned his attention elsewhere. With scrutiny, he began a serious study of the priest’s competency. After all, this was the man his parents trusted to handle Grandmother’s … situation. For a moment, the man’s balance seemed to teeter, and a tiny drop of wax spilled to the floor from the candle in his hands. In triumph, David huffed. How could he possibly know the certain facts of death when he couldn’t even maneuver a candle properly?
The priest returned to his place, and the bishop came forward. David noted the well-pressed robe. Clearly a point in his favor. But it was the competency of his work that really mattered. Sure enough, thirty minutes into the ceremony, the bishop sneezed. Being the forgiving critic that he was, on any other occasion, David might have overlooked it, but it was right in the middle of his Latin chant! Surely the man should have been in better control of his faculties. The charade was up. These men were not capable of providing the required insight into the deep doctrines of the universe.
At last, the services ended and David exited the church, anxious to be away from them all.
Alex remained in the cathedral for some time as acquaintances and friends offered their consolation and support. It was nice to know that people cared for his family, and for him. When he finally made his way outside, he walked along the path that ran lazily through the grass, enjoying the puffy clouds that rested against the deep blue sky. Between the spots of shade the sun rested warm on his neck.
As Alex rounded the building, he saw David sitting on a large rock that marked the edge of the path. A smile curved around the edge of his mouth. “Hey,” he said in greeting.
David made no response. Instead, he cocked his head to the side and looked away in irritation.
They hadn’t been speaking much lately, but they weren’t fighting. It was just … well, Alex wasn’t sure. But he wasn’t angry. “What is it?” he asked, wishing they could be friends again.
David again made no reply.
Alex leaned forward and grasped the edge of the rock with his hands as he joined him upon the boulder. He looked down into the rich grass. Each blade was smooth in the middle, yet sharp enough to cut on the outer edges. In the center the two sides met at a perfect angle. It was strange how much nature reflected the aspects of life. David was just like the grass. He was smooth, even soft, at least with Mother. He was the best friend and brother that Alex could ever hope for, but he was sharp. If he wanted, he could draw blood. And like the grass, the two sides of him met in the center at a perfect angle.
“What do you think will happen to Grandmother if she dies?” David blurted, disrupting Alex’s thoughts. It was his normal way of communication. He never stopped to think how someone might perceive him. “The priest and bishop don’t really know.” David spoke with authority.
“Priests study this sort of thing for a living. It’s their entire life’s work. I think they know a little more than you give them credit.”
“Have you ever noticed how sloppy they are?” It was more of a challenge than a question.
“What are you talking about?” Alex almost laughed, bringing David’s temper to the surface.
“The candles, the spilled wax, the sneezes during Mass.”
“People can’t control sneezes.”
“Well, they ought to if they’re performing a somber ceremony. It’s unprofessional!”
Alex looked with disbelief. “And that’s why they don’t know anything about death? Boy, David, that’s an impressive argument.”
“The point is, if they can’t get one simple Mass right, how can they be trusted with the secrets of the universe? Besides, how many times have they died and come back? Never. That’s the point. Neeeever.”
“You don’t have to die to know what’s going to happen. Haven’t you ever heard of faith?”
“Faith is for people with insufficient intelligence to—”
Alex interrupted with shock. “Don’t ever let Mother and Father hear you say that.”
Just then, their parents came outside, and they all went home anyway, silent, tired, and grumpy.
Alex couldn’t stop thinking about it. The conversation didn’t really mean anything, but somehow it did. They were growing apart, and Alex wasn’t sure he wanted to stop it.
Two days later, Grandmother died.
David sat in the parlor chair, thinking of the night that Grandmother died. He had been forced to wait at home. When Elizabeth and Alexander returned, his father had held his mother firmly by the shoulders as if she were about to fall. They only made it as far as the foyer when she began to sob and her legs gave way. Had Alexander not been there, she would have fallen to the floor. It was then that David realized the strength of his father as he scooped her up into his arms and carried her up the marble staircase. He could still hear her sobs as they rounded the top of the stairs. Gradually they dimmed as Alexander carried her down the hallway to their wing of the house. David knew when they had shut the door because the silence rang out as loud as any cry.
Over and over David relived these events, slumped in the overstuffed leather chair in the Great Hall. Tears didn’t form. He was too angry for that. He still had not decided what death was, but he knew one thing for sure: he didn’t like it.
He rose from the chair and stuffed his hands into his pockets as he walked up the marble staircase and double landing. Once inside his room, he shut the door. His beloved grandmother had given him money in exchange for her life. How could she do that? In an instant, his face flashed with color. The numbness was gone as he allowed his emotions to surge.
Consumed, he opened the bottom drawer of his dresser that concealed the dark wooden box. He wanted to shout, throw things, hit it, anything; but to both his credit and detriment, he was unable, being held back by his long-term training.
Strapped by the demands of etiquette, he was forced to devise a more suitable plan. Quickly, he rushed to the adjoining bathroom and yanked a monogrammed towel from the rack, and then took the painting down from above his desk. He had never considered its museum quality, nor did he have the time now. Using the bed as a workstation, he turned it over to reveal the heavy brown paper on the back. Carefully, he removed the paper and rehung the picture. His chin muscles pulled as he wrapped the paper around the hated wooden box. Using the fantastic new invention in his desk drawer, Scotch tape, he pinned the seams tight. Next, he wrapped the bundle in the towel, positioning his monogrammed initials, DTB, across the top.
He stood back to survey his work as he huffed. It was oddly satisfying. With a nod, he tucked the large package awkwardly under his arm and headed to the main kitchen where he found several servants sitting around a table discussing the gloom of the day. Instantly, his blue eyes narrowed.
“What is this!” he accused. “Mother and Father are out of sight for one minute, and you are all poking about? Surely, you have something to do!”
Immediately, the kitchen burst into a shuffle as each idle body scampered to find some duty to fulfill. David’s glare continued as he stormed up to one poor fellow who was now earnestly chopping carrots.
“Where is Clifford?” David demanded.
“Umm, I ¼ I ¼uh,” the young man who was no more than fifteen stammered.
“Quit babbling!” David nearly shouted. Silently, he thought of Mother’s words. “One’s tone reflects one’s station.” He blinked hard, knowing it was true. But this hardly seemed the time.
Andy, the head chef, stepped forward wearing a grimy apron. His greasy dark hair matched his sweaty forehead. He was generally a good sort of man, but he had little tolerance for the likes of David, no matter what the circumstances.
“Clifford,” Andy emphasized carefully, “is attending to the needs of your parents.” His voice was smug as he plopped his hands on his greasy hips.
Suddenly, David realized that he was quite in the minority. Then, even more firmly, he butted his chin. He was still master in this house, and he would be treated as such. When he spoke again, his voice was clear and controlled. “I need to box up something,” he worded carefully.
Without a word, Andy walked to a drawer and pulled out a roll of butcher paper.
“Not like that.” David felt a surge of insecurity. Household things were completely foreign to him. Quickly, he eyed his surroundings.
“This,” Andy shook the paper, “is what I use for everything.”
David forced his posture to remain stiff. He couldn’t show weakness as he looked carefully about the room. Andy seemed to sense David’s growing confusion and silently delighted in it, which was even more irritating as David had never come across a servant who actually stood up to him.
“I mean the kind that is more like a tarp.” … Or something, his flustered thoughts added.
“That would be out in one of the sheds.” A smile crept across Andy’s face. He was certain now that this little know-it-all was stumbling.
David wanted to put him in his place. He was a greaseball, nothing more than a meat handler, and David was an heir. Just as he was about to lash out, he stopped, knowing that he lacked the information needed to prove his point, a fact that made him even more furious. Instead, he blurted out, “Like a cardboard type, suitcase thing!” As soon as he had shouted, he took a step back as the room went still. He didn’t mean to speak so loudly, and the perplexity in his own voice caught him off guard.
Andy set the paper aside and walked calmly around the stove to a pile of wooden boxes. “Oh, you mean a crate?” he responded in triumph.
Color grew on the back of David’s neck. “What else could I have meant? And don’t expect me to misunderstand your deliberate concealment.” With a relief, his mind was clicking once again. “I won’t forget this,” he said as he stormed from the room, too busy at the moment to put Andy in his place. But he would handle him soon enough.
Straightaway, David went to the stables for a tarp. Even though Andy had made the suggestion, it was a good idea. Then he ordered his horse to be saddled. In no time he was galloping across the field with the bundle strapped tightly to the back of the saddle.
When he finally reached the base of the hill, he removed the package and pulled the shovel from the strap. Then, carrying the awkward bundle, he climbed the steep terrain to the hideout. Once inside, he began to dig a hole. Dirt stuck to his face, hands, and clothes as he frantically worked, putting all of his frustrations into each scoop until he finally fell back in a heap. It was too much, and he sprang to his feet, kicking and screaming at the walls of the cave. On and on he continued, beating the solid slabs of earth with his fists and shoes, slicing the skin from his hands with each pounding effort on the rock. Then he picked up the spade and smashed it into the sides of the wall. It wasn’t fair. She couldn’t be gone. She just couldn’t.
Finally, in exhaustion, he fell into the very walls that he had just beaten and slumped. Hours passed as he sat still and silent. Grandmother was dead, and she had given him money.
With the passing time the light faded and with the darkness, David’s senses gradually returned. Slowly he pushed forward and resumed digging. The emotions that had so violently overwhelmed him lay quiet now as he finished digging, then placed the package into the ground and covered it over with fresh dirt. He pushed one of many large rocks over the softened mound to mark the spot as its weight sank into the earth. Satisfied, he wiped his forehead and mouth, smearing his already dirty face, and shook a plume of dust from his hair. His white shirt was a dismal brown, his tie was snagged, and his suit was beyond repair. He was ready to go home.
As he neared the stables, the last bit of sun sank past the horizon. His horse neighed, and in minutes, he was surrounded by a tumult of commotion, everyone demanding to know where he had been as they had all been out all day looking for him. It wasn’t until they saw his disheveled appearance that their accusations turned to concern.
David was still on his horse surrounded by the masses when Clifford appeared, pulling him instantly from the horse by his collar and the seat of his pants. Though David protested, Clifford dragged him to the house without saying a single word.
“Let go of me! Blasted fool, Clifford! What in heaven’s name do you think you are doing? Let go I say!”
No matter how he grappled and kicked, Clifford was quick and strong.
“If you wish to live another day …” his legs swung widely, “let me down!”
Once inside the house, the exhibition continued as Clifford dragged David by the collar and belt through the entry, up the marble stairs, across the landing, up more stairs, and down the hall with ornate carpeting, to his room, tramping dirt all the way as every eye of the estate stood gawking and blinking in amazement.
It wasn’t until he was halfway up the stairs that David even noticed that he was covered in muck. Surprised as he was, he was even more surprised when he noticed the wide drawn eyes. The group that had met him at the stables must have followed him in procession as the remainder of the staff lined the walls, all gathered to watch the spectacle with mouths wide as the head overseer dragged the sassy prince, covered in mud, to his room.
When they finally arrived, David expected to be released, but to his surprise, the journey continued on until they reached his bathroom, where Clifford literally threw him into the shower, clothes and all. Then Clifford actually turned on the cold water full blast and shoved David’s head under it as he hollered and gasped for air from being forced under the spray. David spit and gurgled, but it was no use. Clifford, out of sheer mass, had won.
Sensing David’s defeat, Clifford released his grip, and David flipped around to face him, still standing in the cold spray, water splattering from his mouth as he breathed in the heavy flow. He wasn’t sure what had possessed Clifford to behave so badly, but he wasn’t ready to risk an encore.
Clifford heaved as he stared back at the boy, both of them uncertain of what to do next. The striking Victorian bathroom had never witnessed such a scene and likely never would again. The fanciful shower and intricately adorned chamber potlike toilet almost seemed to gasp at the incredible vulgarity playing out in its pious presence.
Finally Clifford spoke in a gruff, heavy voice. “Where have you been?” His carefully worded English had been temporarily abandoned.
David didn’t respond. Clifford had gone too far this time.
“I asked you a question.”
“How dare you!” David sputtered through the water spray. “How …”
“No, how dare you, young Master David!” Clifford said angrily, his entire frame shaking.
David was shocked. He had never been treated in such a manner in all his life, and by a servant, no less! A servant who now was accusing him of … well … of something.
“How dare you treat your parents in such a manner!”
As the water swiveled a snakelike figure down his nose, David stood dumbstruck. For the first time he considered his parents. Ashamed, he lowered his chin and looked at the river of mud that trailed down the drain.
Clifford took advantage of the silence. At length, he informed David that his parents had not been notified of his disappearance—yet—and that thankfully, they had remained in solitude all day, grieving for Grandmother.
David felt a surge of relief and raised his eyes, grateful that his mother had not been through more trauma on account of him.
“I was just about to inform them of your disappearance when you came plodding through the pasture. I can hardly believe that you would do such a thing. Such arrogance!”
Arrogance? What was wrong with that? David wondered. It was normal and natural; even obligatory.
“Your disrespect toward staff members … Your disrespect toward tutors and almost everyone with whom you come in contact … I never thought you would go this far. I never thought you would disrespect your parents too. These are flaws,” Clifford emphasized. “And they are rapidly becoming major defects in your character.”
It actually surprised Clifford that David was listening, so as the water swiveled through David’s hair he continued the lesson.
David knew the part about Mother was true, but not the rest. Clifford simply did not understand how the world was run. Still, out of respect, the very thing Clifford claimed he did not have, he listened. The fact that he disagreed with pretty much everything that Clifford said was beside the point. He was, after all, standing in the shower, dressed in a muddy suit with freezing cold water running all over him. And yes, Clifford had always had his respect.
Finally, the lecture concluded as Clifford moved toward the bathroom door. “I urge you, young master, to consider the things that I have said.” Clifford’s voice had softened. “I only ask you to change because I know you can be better. If anyone is capable of greatness, it is you. But you must not lose yourself to your own blindness. Please … consider the arguments I have made against you. It brings me no happiness to say such things. You must believe that I only have your welfare in mind.” With that, he turned and quietly shut the ornate door.
Alone at last, David turned the water to warm, peeled off his suit and sloughed it to the floor. The chill from the cave, combined with the nearly fifteen-minute lecture in cold water, had bitten him to the bone and rattled his teeth. No matter how high he turned up the water temperature, he couldn’t get warm. Finally, he gave up and climbed out of the shower, only to find that there was only one towel to dry himself with. He had buried the other with the coins. Whichever servant forgot to restock his room would get an earful tomorrow!
Once out of the shower, his nanny brought him a warmed set of pajamas. Clifford saw her efforts and sent her away and ordered David to bed. He would have to do without dinner. Perhaps it would make his oatmeal in the morning more desirable. David put his hand to his stomach as Clifford shut his bedroom door and then opened it again reaching for the cat. A startled Sebastien let out a yowl.
“I’m afraid Sebastien won’t be joining you for breakfast,” Clifford added, his voice stern. “He is going to visit the graves of his predecessors, and I am afraid in his grief, he won’t be able to return until next week.”
Clifford shut the door as David sank miserably down into the covers. A whole week of oatmeal. It was downright cruel.
Mid-October 1931 …
The leaves had begun to turn shades of red and yellow, and there was a brisk chill to the air. Although months had passed, the pain of Grandmother’s death was still poignant. Each day before literature class, David sought out his mother, only to find her lost in thought. Many times she sat on the terrace, just outside the marble ballroom, to enjoy the grounds. The stone terrace and patio were ideal for summer gatherings while the spacious room afforded many winter dances. David had practiced for hours here. Polished finesse oozed from his cuff links as he led many a young girl to the happy clapping of her mother.
In his search, David rounded the corner to hear his mother’s sugarcoated, albeit irritated, voice. She was in the process of chiding Grandmother’s former overseer, Monsieur De Lamont. The task of going through all of Grandmother’s belongings had enormous consequences for all of her former staff, but no one had endured more punishment than Monsieur De Lamont. Elizabeth demanded that every item be numbered and cataloged. When the set of antique Spanish gold coins went missing, she was irate. That is, irate in her own refined way.
David knew she had been looking for them. They were the very coins he had buried. Well aware of Monsieur De Lamont innocence, he stood silent, peering around the corner as Elizabeth berated the man.
“Of all the ridiculous excuses. Gold coins worth a half million dollars don’t just go missing. I’m sure even you realize that!” Even in anger her tone was melodious, contrasting the ruthless words that she spoke.
“Madam, if you are implying that one of my staff—”
“Your staff?” Elizabeth interrupted his French accent.
“Madam McCrea trusted me implicitly. The staff I employed may have served her, but I can assure you, they answered to me.”
“Which means that you are either wildly incompetent or … something worse.” She spoke as if the words tainted her perfectly white teeth.
Monsieur De Lamont stiffened at the implication. “I realize, madam, that you are in the depths of grief, but that does not give you cause to insult me. I have been your mother’s faithful servant these forty years.”
“Insult you? How could I possibly insult you? I am simply stating facts.”
“You did not dare speak to me in this manner when you were in your mother’s house. Madam McCrea would not stand for it!”
“Yes, well, as you can see, I am no longer a child, and you were always given far more authority than you both deserve and require. Now, I demand that you produce those coins, or I shall strip you of the small fortune that my mother so generously bestowed upon you. You certainly do not merit such liberality. I give you but one volition, sir. Defy me, and the alternative will not be to your liking.”
“You would not dare attack the contents of your mother’s will!”
“Larcenists are subject to the law, and I assure you, I will not rest until those coins are found.”
David turned away. As much as he enjoyed hearing Mother manage the help, he felt a twinge of guilt for having taken part in her pain. Although he had come to hate the coins, he considered what they meant to her. They would make the perfect Christmas present. It was the right thing to do. In the meantime, Mother would have to wait. It would just make Christmas all the more wonderful.
Now, where was that Collette? He chuckled to himself. Oh, the stupidity of the French! If Monsieur De Lamont had any kind of a brain, he would know where the coins had gone, and the fact that Collette was French, too, only accentuated the idea. “Foolish girl,” he mumbled aloud ignoring the lesson in his American history class that day. So what if they intervened during the Revolution? If they couldn’t pinpoint a few coins and keep from toppling over wine glasses, they were nincompoops.
The drive into Philadelphia for their music lessons had become more and more tiresome each week. With Alex lost in thought, dreaming of the boarding school he would attend in two years, David had nothing to do but look out the window. And since the stock market crash, there seemed to be more desolation every week. David was tired of looking at the long-wasting faces that sometimes lined the roads. He wondered why someone didn’t take all of these nasty-looking characters down to the police station and get them out of public sight.
Just then, he saw a mother with a clinging baby. She put her hand out, begging as the car went by. The spectacle made him sick. He could understand an adult being too lazy to work, but this woman had a child! What a despicable, loathsome, good-for-nothing human being.
“Stop the car,” he ordered the chauffeur.
“I’m sorry, sir, but your parents would not allow that. You know very well that I have my instructions to take you directly to—”
“Stop this car, I say!” David had to get out, if not for the woman’s sake, for the child’s.
The car slowed but did not stop as the driver tried to appease David’s desire without actually giving in to him. To the chauffeur’s surprise, David opened the door.
“Master David!” the chauffeur called, squealing the brakes, but it was too late. David jumped from the car and tromped to where the poor woman stood.
“What do you mean stalking around the city in this manner? If you had any sense at all you would get that child home.”
“We have no home. Please, sir, a penny?” she begged despite his age.
David spat at her feet. “That’s the best you’ll get from me,” he hissed as he came in closer for intimidation’s sake. The sheer filth of her being filled his senses as he took in her ragged garments and pasted dirt. Even more shocked than before, his nose shriveled. “You vile, stagnant creature. What do you mean by living in such squalor? You have a child’s needs at hand!”
“We have nothing. I beg of you, please,” she cringed, her features threatening tears.
The driver was out of the car by now and grabbed at David’s waist, trying desperately to drag him back to the vehicle as shady characters began to emerge from the darkened alley.
“Sir, we must return to the car!”
But David couldn’t be stopped and continued to vent his mind, oblivious to the meaning of her words as he ignored the driver’s warnings. In his arrogance, he stood completely unaware of the danger that moved in silently around them.
“You’ve got no business treating your baby like this!” he hollered, trying to pry the driver’s fingers from his body as he kicked the poor man in the shin.
Alex stared in disbelief from the safety of the car, his muscles frozen.
“Young master,” the driver pleaded as he rubbed at his leg, then pulled again at David’s arm. “We must get you back to the car, now!”
David continued to ignore him as he shot insults at the poor woman, insults that stung the gathering crowd. “You should be ashamed! No, incarcerated! What kind of sorry, worthless mother are you? You stink! Literally!”
The driver began to drag him by his arm as David continued his onslaught. “It’s criminal!” he let out as they crossed the gutter. In a wave, the scent of raw sewage wafted putrid to his nose. “Ugh …” he gasped, and his stomach lurched. “Disgusting!”
Finally the driver got him to the car and shoved him to his seat. “Please, sir, you must be quiet.” He slammed the door.
All at once, Alex’s muscles were freed from their rigid spasm, and he held David tightly, not letting him jump from the car again when he threatened. “Oh no, you don’t,” he complained as the driver revved the engine. In an instant, the car spun back along its path.
“You make me sick!” David hollered through the window between the fine draperies.
As the gathered crowd dispersed, no one noticed the large-bellied man that remained. Long after the others had gone, he stood pondering over the boy who wore impeccably polished Italian leather dress shoes and a perfectly tailored suit, attended by a chauffeur driving a Rolls Royce limousine. He was no expert on the upper class, but he knew enough to know that this was exactly what he had been looking for. Without a word, he puffed on the fat cigar that he held between his fingers and retreated into the shadows.
“What the heck were you doing?” Alex demanded.
“Let go!” David shoved him, rumpling both of their suits.
Alex stared in disbelief. Surely he sat opposite a madman. This could not be his younger brother. David stared back just as indignantly and adjusted his jacket that had risen high at his shoulders from the scuffle.
“Somebody has got to tell them,” he said in defense, though he, too, had begun to question his actions.
“Yeah, and evidently it has to be you.”
The second week of November 1931: Thursday …
The weeks following the incident in the alley, the two boys barely spoke to each other. For Alex, it had been the last straw. He had never felt malcontent before, though no one would have denied him that, but now as he neared his first teenage birthday, he came face to face with the green-eyed monster and its ugliness surprised him. If only he could go to prep school now rather than wait until he was fourteen. He wanted to get away from his parents, away from the constant reminder that he wasn’t as good as David, to a place where competition wasn’t a blood relative.
As he sat in their piano master class at the conservatory listening while David performed yet another flawless sonata, he couldn’t help but notice the depth of hatred oozing out of the student audience. Though Dr. Rousen was quite overcome, the students were not.
Alex rolled his eyes. Would it never end? Somewhere in the core of his stomach he literally felt a lurch. Hoping to tame the nausea, he looked out the window. He didn’t hate David the way they did. Unlike the other students, he was more accustomed to his greatness. But what he felt now was more than just a simple irritation. David was the never-ending, perfect, masterful, unequaled, flawless competitor. With him around, no one looked good.
In the class, resentment ran wild, though both David and Dr. Rousen seemed completely oblivious. Alex almost laughed outright. For being such a smart guy, David sure was an idiot.
When the class ended, the other students gradually filtered from the room. David and Alex remained waiting for their ride. After a few minutes, Alex’s pent-up frustrations swept him from his chair and he went to the window to watch for the familiar Rolls Royce.
Dr. Rousen had already begun his next lesson with a six-year-old girl. Like all of his students, she was uncommonly gifted. She sped up and down the keys in four octave scales with immaculate accuracy, her tiny fingers flying at an impossible speed. Had someone unaccustomed to the scene been present, they certainly would have raved at the rolling thunder. To the rest of the class, it wasn’t even worth mentioning.
David remained seated. It had been a strange morning. All day he felt uneasy. His stomach had been in knots ever since he climbed out of bed. Even Sebastien’s salvation at the breakfast table didn’t help. He hadn’t been able to swallow a thing, not even his special order of warmed banana and chocolate chip crepes. He was beginning to wonder if he was coming down with something.
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes as his squeamish stomach pulsed, bringing tiny beads of sweat to his forehead. Why was the driver taking so long? Something must be wrong. He knew it. Something was wrong.
He glanced at Alex pacing back and forth at the window. Ever since Grandmother’s death, he had begun to resemble a cat. To and fro he shifted with nervous tension. To and fro, to and fro, to and fro … David looked away from the seesaw motion with a green gulp and gasped at his belly. It wasn’t helping.
“Where is that driver?” David wanted to shout. And what was this prickly feeling that electrified every nerve in the back of his neck? Alex finally motioned that their ride had come.
Once in the hall David spoke. “Alex, I feel strange. I … something seems wrong. I feel really wrong.”
Alex was caught off guard. “What?” he said over his shoulder as he half turned in his steps. He was thinking of prep school and his future freedom. If only he had been born in August. Then he would only have one year left instead of two.
“Alex, I don’t … I …” David wasn’t sure how to verbalize this. Even he didn’t understand. “I really don’t want to go down the stairs right now. Maybe we could just sit over there for a while.” David pointed to a bench alongside the atrium that overlooked the massive foyer below.
Alex stopped dead in his tracks and slowly turned to face his brother. He had never heard David sound even remotely flaky, and this was bordering on bizarre. As he turned, he realized David’s mouth was slightly open, quite out of character. Alex tipped his head forward and spoke carefully. “What’s going on, David? Are you playing some kind of joke here?” His eyes narrowed as he waited for a response.
Alex’s voice was low and annoyingly calm to David, who felt like he was drowning in a pool of foreign emotions. Trying to get some control, he stuffed his hands into an arm fold. “No … no. I just, I …”
“You’re saying things twice!” Alex complained. This game was irritating, and he had better things to occupy his time, like dreaming of Georgetown … Two years. It was so long to wait.
David looked down at the floor with his arms still crossed and remained silent as Alex turned again for the stairs, dreaming of his prep-school uniform, classmates, and friends. He had never had any friends before. What must that be like? He hoped he would do well on his exams. It would be humiliating if Father had to bribe his way into the school. Tonight. He would study some more tonight.
David did not follow at first as Alex walked away. Then in a surge of panic, he leapt forward. “Alex! Wait!” he pled over the railing though Alex paid him no mind and continued to walk. He was getting further and further ahead. David puttered in place before realizing that he couldn’t let Alex out of his sight. They descended the five flights of stairs at an amazingly rapid pace, or so it seemed to David. Concentrating hard, he pushed the nausea down. They were racing toward danger. He knew it now. He knew it, and he had to stop Alex.
The last flight of stairs were centered in the atrium and cut down into the open foyer. Plush red carpet and darkly stained wood ordained the rich room that looked more like an opera house than a conservatory. A surge of panic engulfed David, and he could go no farther. With white knuckles, he stood at the far side of the stairway, hanging tightly to the railing.
“Alex, please,” he whimpered without thought, perhaps for the first time in his life.
Alex stopped and turned. “David,” he said in chastisement. Then he saw his brother’s haggard appearance. It was quite shocking and caught him completely off guard.
“I’m really scared,” David whispered desperately as he clung to the railing half a flight from the bottom floor. His voice was airy and weak.
If the admittance had come during a recital or examination, Alex could have understood. But this? This was amazing. It was unreal. It must be a ploy. Surely, David had some ulterior motive. He always had an ulterior motive.
Then in quiet conquest, Alex understood. It was real all right, and he saw it in all its glory. The boy who had never known fear had now been given a good dose, and Alex couldn’t help but revel in its manifestation. With a sneering grin on his face, he chuckled. “David, you’re being ridiculous.” Though he didn’t say it, there was a lot of pleasure in seeing the boy wonder fall flat on his face.
David knew that if Alex walked out that door he would have to follow. He watched closely, hoping that he would not move. Then, to his horror, Alex bounded down the remaining steps and walked with confidence across the velvet room, laughing outright as he went.
David shrank. There was nothing else he could do. With resolve, he climbed down the remaining steps, straightened his shoulders, and walked to the door. The feelings of dread had to be managed now. There was no other course to follow.
Not surprisingly, the doorman was not there as he pushed through the glass himself. The chill in the autumn air hit him square in the face and offered some relief to his sickened stomach.
Alex entered the car on the street side. That was odd. Mother disapproved of entering a vehicle on the street side. But Alex was feeling particularly confident and took his own advice for the moment. David shook his head. Alex, you fool!
David stepped toward the car and placed his hand on the handle. The chauffeur was missing. No one was there to open his door. Obviously something was wrong. He knew by now what he was feeling. It must be a premonition. He would have dismissed the idea instantly had he not felt it for himself. What a surprise to find out that such things exist. If only he had time to ponder on the thought. Right now, he had to worry about the imminent danger he was about to face. He knew it. He absolutely knew it.
Alex was in there now, face to face with their fate, whatever that might be. The curtained glass should have been a clue. Foolish Alex. Foolish! And now, David would have to join him.
Though he was ready, he wished it wasn’t so. With one last hope of escape, he looked around. No driver in sight. No people at all.
With little surprise, he opened the car door only to be jerked inside. Before he could make a sound, a foul-smelling handkerchief smothered his face. He tried to fight against the pressure that sealed his nose and mouth to the pungent cloth. The last thing he saw as he struggled for life was Alex’s unconscious form lying across the seat.
He felt cold. Blackness pressed in, and his ears rushed with the sound of water. “Alex?” he muffled through the cloth.
There came no reply.
It was dark and cold. David’s head rolled as he emerged from the blackness. For a minute he thought it had been a dream. Then, with a start, he realized that he was not home in his bed. He had been attacked! With every ounce of effort, he forced his eyes open and tried to focus. Odd. What were his shirt and tie doing there? He was not lying down, but rather his head was hanging as he sat in a chair. Ah, he thought, now it made sense.
Incrementally, he began to hear through muffled ears. Someone was crying, no … sobbing. Groggily, David raised his head, and it swayed in response. Alex was a few feet away, tied with a rope across his chest and his arms behind his back in a small wooden chair. Puzzled, he looked down at his own chest again. Strange, he had not seen the rope there before. Then he realized pain in his arms and wrists, a burning sensation that increased dramatically as he became more aware. He, too, was strapped from behind, but with what, barbed wire? Irritated, he wondered why his antagonists had stretched his arms so tightly. Didn’t they realize the job could have been done without causing so much pain? And what was this rope drawn down across his legs for? Were they going on a Ferris wheel? Really!
Nearly fully awake, he looked at Alex who was sniffling. David felt a surge of anger. Crying at a time like this was not going to help matters. Irritated, he looked away.
“I’m sorry,” Alex said with a quiver.
David swung his head back around, and it flopped in response from the lingering drugs.
“I’m sorry I didn’t listen when you said you were scared.” Alex started to cry harder, despite his obvious effort to control his voice.
Although he was embarrassed for Alex, David was suddenly more embarrassed for himself as he recollected the way he had acted. Hearing Alex verbalize it was even worse. Wanting to change the subject he spoke. “Do you know what’s going on, Alex? Who were those men, and what do they want?”
“I don’t know,” Alex trembled. “I only woke up just a few minutes before you. I don’t know anything.” Alex sniffled as a few more tears dribbled.
If he hadn’t acted so peculiar himself, David might have word-lashed Alex right out of his hysteria, but seeing as he had just met those unwelcome emotions, he decided to let it go. Instead, he looked around the room hoping for a clue. Just then, Alex burst out.
“What’s going on here, David? Obviously you know something. You’re the one that said we shouldn’t go down to the car!”
“Shhh!” David shot back. “They’ll hear you.”
“Who? Who’s going to hear? David, you had better let me in on this or so help me—”
David cut him off in a loud whisper, “I have no idea, Alex! But I’ll tell you one thing, it’s pretty dumb to sit here crying about it.”
“Oh sure, now you’re the tough guy. You little wimp. I saw you! You were shivering like a chicken liver.”
“Fine, Alex, I was scared ¼ as a chicken liver,” David emphasized. “Are you happy now?”
Sheer raw emotion had taken over. “Act like it was nothing. I’ve never seen anyone so terrified in my entire life.”
David glared at his words. “Will you just stop so I can think?” He tried to keep his voice down, but like Alex, he, too, was tense. The combination of the situation and the lingering drugs blurred his mind in a most unsettling manner.
“You’re just a big phony,” Alex snarled. “I heard you whimpering at the conservatory, and I’ll never let you forget it. You treat everybody as if they were nothing. But you’re no better.”
Alex continued to rant, but David didn’t care. They were in trouble, and somebody had to take the lead. He noted how dark it was outside and wondered how much time had passed. He thought of Clifford’s reaction when he had buried the Spanish coins and wondered if his parents had been informed yet. Poor Mother. She had been through enough to last a lifetime.
Alex’s ranting continued. “… You think you’re so special, so much better than the rest of us. Well, let me tell you something, mister, you’re just the same as everybody else. The only differences is that you’ve never had to deal with anyone so spectacularly and magnificently irritating. That’s why you can’t understand how other people feel. And what’s more, you’ve got no social skills! None whatsoever. You think you’re so superior, but you’re not! Oh, except that, of course, you’re really good at playing the puppet and, well, I hate to be the one to break it to you because it’s going to come as a total shock, but you’re totally stuck-up and irritating and downright rude with your I’m better than you attitude …”
“Oh, brother,” David spat. Alex had to take this opportune time to fall to pieces. Great. Just great. It looked like David was going to have to figure things out on his own. He turned his attention back to the inside of the room. The floor was tile, and there were several desks shoved against the far wall. As his senses awakened, he became painfully aware of a miserable rotting stench, like molding socks. Err … At least it smelled the way he imagined dirty socks would smell. Having never smelled such a thing, he was left to his imagination.
Frustrated, he pulled at his arms. This hurt! How was he supposed to concentrate when his arms were slowly being pulled from their sockets?
“Can you see anyone out that door?” David whispered, interrupting Alex who was still in the process of venting every real and imagined oppression that he had ever endured in his life.
Surprised, Alex stopped. “Uh … ” he sputtered, startled back to reality.
“Well?” David pressed.
Alex stretched his neck as far as he could. “No,” he whispered still craning. He had been so busy ranting that he had totally lost track of the current situation.
“They must not be here, or they would have come when they heard us talking,” David reasoned aloud as he tried to scoot his chair toward Alex’s. His unknown adversary had tied each foot very tightly to a different leg of the chair. Only his toes reached the floor, making each inch gained with a wince of pain. His unaccustomed body immediately set his brain to work on the abuses he would inflict on his abductors once they were brought to justice. Chinese water torture for one. He had heard it was quite effective.
“Why do you think they took us? I mean, brought us here like this?” Alex asked. “We haven’t done anything. Have … have you … done anything?”
Sometimes David wondered at Alex. How could he be the oldest? He was so stupidly naїve. “They probably kidnapped us for ransom.”
“Kidnapped? They kidnapped us?”
David stopped his efforts momentarily to give Alex an even bigger look of dismay. “What would you call it?”
“Well … I don’t know. I guess … I … didn’t think,” he admitted.
“I’ll say.” Then in irritation he shot out, “Do I have to do all the work here? Maybe you could work toward me too.”
Understanding smacked across Alex’s face, and he immediately sprang into action, if you could call scooting inch-by-inch springing.
After a few minutes of agonizingly slow progress, they were in position, back to back. “Okay,” David whispered, “hold still while I try to untie you.”
“Are you sure this is such a good idea?” Alex began to doubt the intelligence of the plan. “What if they come back? I don’t think they’ll be too happy to catch us like this.”
“Be quiet and concentrate,” David ordered.
“I’m holding still, how much concentration does it take?”
“Then pipe down so that I can concentrate!”
“You know, David, Mother would never believe what a pain you really are. Have you ever noticed that you never listen to anybody? Oh no. You’ve always got to be in charge. You are two years my junior, and it gets annoying! Even now, when we are both tied up, who gives the orders? David, always David. I have about had it.”
“Could you pleeeease?”
“You see? Still giving orders!”
“For Pete’s sake. I think you’re trying to be difficult.”
“Don’t turn this around on me!”
“How much effort does it take? You press your lips together and voilà, closed mouth, hence silence.”
David continued to work on the ropes as they argued. Despite the quarrel, he did make some considerable progress. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to them, an exterior door had opened and shut during the course of their argument, giving an advantage to the unforgiving stranger that was now upon them.
Alex and David both looked up to see a tall, unkempt man with sandy hair standing in the doorway wearing tattered brown pants and suspenders that rolled over a once-muslin shirt. David recognized him immediately as the man who had pulled him inside the car.
“Why you lit’le weasels,” the man whom they would come to know as Willy spoke with a broken English accent. “Eh, Beez, we got ourselves some ’neakers here, we do.”
A shorter, heavier man with dark hair came into the room. The very man who stood watching that day when David insulted the beggar woman and her child.
Beez wore a white shirt with several buttons undone at the top and sleeves rolled to the elbows. A cigarette hung from his mouth as he leaned one hand on the doorframe. Rolling the cigarette with his lips, he summed up the situation, then spoke, his voice soft and gritty. “So here you are, back to back. That’s not the way I left ya,” he said as he paced circles around the boys. “What’s a matter? Ya sick o’ lookin’ at each other?” He spoke with a thick Brooklyn accent.
David looked directly into the man’s dark eyes and protruded his chin in challenge. Alex preferred to look at the floor, hoping beyond hope that his lack of eye contact would dismiss him from the conversation.
“Huuhhh?!!” Beez shouted.
By raising his voice, David surmised that they were in the country, away from eager ears. But Alex couldn’t think about that. All he could see was the man’s volatile temper on the verge of exploding.
“Just what do you think you was doing?”
“That’s just what I was about to ask you.” David spoke with authority. “I demand you release us. Now!”
Beez inhaled deeply then flicked the smoldering cigarette across the floor, the butt still glowing as it came to a spinning stop. He crouched and breathed the soot into David’s face causing his eyes to water as he coughed.
Beez remained inches from his face, studying, until without warning, he threw David’s chair across the room in a single heaving motion. The chair landed at an angle on two legs as it screeched and teetered to the floor with a crash on its side. Unable to compensate, David’s head clunked down with a sickening thud on the tile.
“That’s where I left ya,” Beez proclaimed and pulled a fresh cigarette from his pocket. “Rich brat,” he muttered as he turned for the door. He snapped his fingers at Willy. “Take care o’ the other one,” he said as he left.
Willy’s eyes had glazed over as if watching a scene at the theater. Instantly, he snapped and tightened Alex’s ropes as Alex let out a soft grunt of pain. Then Willy unleashed a painful smack across Alex’s face with the back of his hand. Alex’s head jerked to one side from the impact. Satisfied, he went to David and cinched his ropes tighter before turning to leave. With obvious satisfaction, he left David lying motionless on the cold tile floor.
Alex stared at the closed door then back at David, then at the door again. Finally, he whispered. “Are you all right?” His voice was breathy and hoarse with fear. “David?” Alex pressed. He couldn’t call any louder for fear that the men would return and with that thought he started to hyperventilate. “David,” he continued to whisper as he breathed in heaps.
David’s head was spinning, leaving him unable to answer. Halfway between two worlds, the conscious and the unconscious, and still swimming in a sea of lingering drugs, he couldn’t manage a word. He felt the warmth of acid threatening in his mouth as it spilled in his throat. The smoldering cigarette that lay near his face only made matters worse.
“David …” Alex continued to huff in hyperventilation. “David … are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” David finally managed to muster. No matter how bad the pain, he couldn’t stand the idea that Alex might learn of it. He was tied to a tipped chair with ropes tearing at his flesh, his head reeling from the combined assault of trauma and drugs and the fear of imminent vomit. This was bad, and Alex wanted to know if he was okay? No. He was not okay, but he wasn’t going to say it.
He closed his eyes and imagined the Virginia coastline with a cool ocean breeze. Mind over matter, mind over matter, that’s all it takes. Mind over matter. A few minutes later, his mind lost the matter as he puked it from his guts in heave after heave. Thankfully, there wasn’t much to expel. They hadn’t eaten since breakfast so the putrid regurgitation was mostly water and acid with an occasional lump here and there.
Alex looked on in horror through the darkness. “I don’t think you’re okay,” he commented dryly, turning his head so that he wouldn’t join in vomiting as David heaved again and again. “Nope ¼ nope,” he said shaking his head against the malodorous smell. “Definitely not okay.”
When it was over, David tried to rest his head, only to realize that doing so would settle him right in the middle of the puddle of vomit. “Fresh mountain snow, big puffy clouds, cool autumn breezes,” he mumbled to himself. It was a difficult process. The acidic soup lay only inches from his face. To his grave misfortune, the idea that he would be sleeping in it combined with the smell made him heave again … And again … One more time.
The muscles in his abdomen ached from the pressure as the violent process wreaked havoc. What he wouldn’t give for the use of his hands. It would be worth every single last Spanish coin. At this point, for a damp, soothing washcloth, he would even throw in his loyal feline. This drip-dry business was no fun at all. Where was Clifford when he needed him? And Mother … she would wipe his sweaty forehead with a cloth and talk in soft, soothing tones. He thought of how she would rub his arms down as he lay on the bed and pictured her silken hair shining in the glow of a dim lamp. Reluctantly, he released the tension in his neck and let the upper half of his head rest in the pool. With a grimace, he closed his eyes against the odor. The room was still turning. Wishing it to be still, he opened his eyes. No such luck. Halfway around, then back again. Too tired. Too tired … He rested back as the smell drifted. Sleep … was all … he … wanted.
Alex couldn’t understand why David had thrown up. And sleep? It was unbelievable and totally unfair. What a brother! Bossy, pretentious, proud, and able to sleep in any position.
“There I go again,” he chastised. “I’ve got to stop.” His penny-ante side was taking over, but it was hard to believe that some part of this wasn’t David’s fault. Nobody liked him. He must have done something to someone. He must be to blame. He must.
But then… he was Alex’s best friend.
Friday before Thanksgiving, 1931 …
Dawn approached and with it, the revelation of the grungy state of their new residence. The building was noticeably run-down with piles of junk heaped everywhere. There was a puddle of water near where David lay, remnants of the last rain, and what looked to be a bunch of desks the night before was really three desks piled amidst rubble and demolition waste shoved along the opposite wall.
Between the boarded windows, thick grime, and soot, Alex could see a field of sorts, one which looked long-since abandoned, with an old tractor rusting under a nearby dead tree.
Just then, David moaned. Since he had been doing that all night, Alex wasn’t sure if it meant anything. He moaned again, and then spoke.
“Is it morning?”
“Yes. How are you feeling?” Alex tried to sound concerned. Through the course of the night, his sympathy for David had grown, partly out of guilt and partly out of duty.
David raised his head a few inches. The vomit had dried in crusty clumps that stuck to his hair like bad gel from the dime-store sales rack. The area of his head that had been resting in the pool was still damp and dripped slightly.
“Yeah, well, you don’t look so good either.” Alex’s wrists were throbbing. He couldn’t imagine how David’s must feel.
David set his head back down. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”
“I think it’s about eight o’clock.”
“I wonder what everyone is doing at home.”
“Probably eating breakfast. Boy, what you won’t do to get out of oatmeal,” he teased, hoping to lighten the moment.
David tried to force a laugh. Even that hurt.
A few minutes later the door creaked open and Willy stepped in. He smelled the vomit right away. “Aghh! What the? Uuugh … uuuyee oiy,” he pinched at his nose as he fled the room.
It wasn’t long before the shouting started as the men argued over the situation. The need for the remote location was becoming more apparent all the time.
Alex stared at the door in disbelief. He had never heard two grown men behave in such a manner. After several shouts and multiple threats, Willy returned with his nostrils flaring. Beez was obviously the one in charge. Either that or he was the bigger bully.
“I ain’t cleanin’ it up, I’ll tell you at right now,” Willy complained. “No sir. I ain’t doin’ it. No matter how much money.”
He tipped David’s chair up right, and David shuddered from the pain, especially when the legs of the chair clunked down, distributing a shock to every nerve in his body. Willy continued to rant as he untied David’s ropes, none too gentle. One would assume that being released after such a long ordeal would be a welcome experience. It wasn’t. The pain was unbelievable. The bristly cords yanked and pulled, sending twine micro slivers into David’s open wounds with each merciless jerk.
“You sir, you’re the one ’at gets the job. Stupid bloke.”
With each tug David braced. He had to keep up the front. These men were nothing to him. Nothing! And he wanted to be sure that they knew, that he knew, that he was better than them. Even if it killed him.
Once untied, Willy shoved David from the chair to the floor. He fell, nearly landing on his face with his knee in the puddle of muck. As he tried to get up, the realization of what his body had been through became more evident.
“Hurry up, you little brat ’for I rub your whole face in it!”
His aching ankles couldn’t manage his weight as he tried to get up, sending him to the floor. For the first time he saw his hands and wrists. The injuries were infuriating, which gratefully did the trick. New strength poured into every facet of his body, and he rose to his feet, settling into a stance of perfect posture. The skin around his wrists was raw, thick, and swollen with deep purple bruises. Blood stained his shirt cuffs. His suit coat was rumpled with splats of vomit here and there, and blood had run thick into the creases of his hands where it dried in crusts. All of this added steam to his anger, and he stood with more pride and determination than he had in his entire life. Even though David was a child with his hair askew, Willy stepped back, completely intimidated. Unfortunately, the effect didn’t last long. In an instant, Willy regained his senses and pulled at David’s ear.
“Come on, you.”
Willy kept a hold of David’s ear and dragged him down the dilapidated hallway to a double door where he shoved it open and tossed David down the exterior steps. Unable to compensate, David lost his footing and fell most of the way to the ground. Despite the tumble, he was elated to be free. The fresh air instantly dispersed the haunting nausea.
“There. You see that bucket?” Willy ordered. “You get that bucket and scoop that crud o’ yours in there and dump it out here. Then wash it all up.”
David continued to breathe in the clean air, deliberately ignoring the man.
“You listenin’, boy?”
David still made no response. He didn’t speak to such people. But seeing as how he had no desire to wear or smell like vomit, he decided to pick up the empty bucket.
The weight of it surprised him. It couldn’t be more than a couple of pounds. Still, his arms and wrists screamed in protest as he lifted the pail and carried it back inside. As disgusting as it was, this was preferable to being tied upside down with his head hanging in expelled body fluids. And moving was beginning to ease the pain and stiffness of his injured joints.
Willy followed closely on David’s heels, jittering, watching his every move. David thought about throwing some freshly scooped vomit in his face but decided against it. The consequences of the previous night were painful enough.
He kept his work slow, having no desire to return to the chair, as he scooped the vomit with his hands into the bucket. While he was outside hosing out the bucket, he saw that the building was indeed an abandoned old school. It had lettering across the top, some of which had fallen off, reading H_LTW_OD S_H_OL. Obviously it used to read HOLTWOOD SCHOOL. There was a cornfield across the street. In the few minutes he’d been outside, he had seen a couple of cars pass on the street that was about one hundred yards out. It was no wonder Willy was nervous. In the hopes of a witness or two, David worked a little slower.
Once he finished with the bucket he ducked his head under the flow to rinse out his hair. The downward angle accentuated the pounding in his head, and the cold water caused his scalp to contract. But he was grateful to release the chunks of yesterday’s breakfast that clung to his silken locks. And the cold felt good on the feverish lump.
“That’s enough,” Willy yanked at the hose. “Turn it off and get back in ’ere.”
Exhausted, David complied without defiance. He was just too tired. He still felt dizzy and couldn’t seem to keep his eyes in focus. Every time he looked at Willy, he thought he saw four sets of eyes. But that couldn’t be right.
As the ropes were cinched once more, his muscles tensed in protest. After having seen the damage to his wrists, his imagination worked rampant, creating a bloody vision of what was taking place behind his back. The thought increased his headache, and the room started to spin again, this time from the screaming pain.
Willy checked Alex’s ropes next. Poor Alex whimpered in misery. Then they were left alone.
David looked over at Alex. “It’s a lot better this way,” he said with a weak grin. “Upright, I mean.”
“While I was outside I got a good look around,” David continued.
Alex wondered how he could sound so cheerful.
“I think we’re in Holtwood. That’s really not very far from home. Anyway, there’s a road just a ways off. If we could get untied tonight, we could sneak out, wave down a car, and be home by dinner.”
Alex’s eyes brightened until Willy reentered the room again. “We got a job for you boys,” he sneered as he came around to push Alex’s chair out the door.
Alex looked back over his shoulder in hopes of one last glance at his brother, but Willy’s rotting teeth overcame him and he quickly turned forward. He was maneuvered about into another room and shoved mercilessly into a table, forcing the air out of him.
The room was smaller, apparently an old office with a single table in the center. Beez was there, too, studying a pile of papers and maps that were settled on the top of an old filing cabinet.
A moment later, Willy shoved David through the door where he, too, was pushed into the table.
Delighted with his accomplishment, Willy plopped his elbows on the table where he sat and clasped his hands, intertwining the fingers with a big grin, obviously proud of himself. David couldn’t figure out why. What could he possibly have to be proud of? Pushing chairs? Please.
Beez continued to study his papers before he folded them ever so gently and turned to sit at the table. With his eye on David, he reached behind and set the papers carefully on the counter, out of sight.
“Okay, boys,” he began with a suffocating calm tone. “Here’s the way it is. Your parents got something we want. We got something they want. At least, for your sakes, you better hope they want.” He moved his hands in gentle sweeping circles as he spoke.
Alex hated his slow, artificial manner.
“Now … I got a clean line to dear old Ma and Pa’s house,” he mocked.
David wondered which operator at the switchboard was in on the deal. No doubt she would get a portion of the money.
“We’re gonna call ’em on this here phone, and you’re gonna tell ’em how much you hate being here.”
He paused for emphasis and David glared.
“You do hate being here, don’t ya?”
Alex couldn’t help but respond. He had been up most of the night with the smell of vomit stifling every ounce of common sense he had left. He wanted to shout, hit something, preferably somebody—one of these idiots. His whole body ached from the ropes and being forced into this most excruciating position where he could hardly breathe. He couldn’t take one more second of this insanity. Despite knowing that it was the wrong thing to do, he opened his mouth that had already disconnected from his brain.
“Of course, we hate it here you big fat—”
Alex barely got his first words out when Beez grabbed him by the jaw forcing his mouth to remain wide open mid-sentence, glaring threats into his pupils. Then with a rush he let go of his face and hit Alex backhand across the face, nearly knocking him and the chair over. Alex was in shock at the force. Beez’s strike had far more strength to it than Willy’s.
“Save it for Mom and Dad. Got it?” he hollered.
Alex gasped in silence unable to get a clean breath. Blood trickled from his lip down his chin.
Beez was instantly calm. Alex stared at him in disbelief, hoping that he wouldn’t start hyperventilating again.
Controlled and smooth, Beez took the phone from the counter and set it on the table where he dialed. It rang once. He set the receiver down again, raised it, and dialed again. This time he allowed it to ring twice. David’s brows knit as he studied his behavior. Once again, Beez hung up and dialed a third time. After 15 rings, it was received on the other end.
Beez talked of a business arrangement with drop-offs, times, and places. After a few minutes, he held out the receiver, dangling the wire across his finger. “Anybody want to talk?” he asked making fun of their tied arms.
Willy grinned stupidly enjoying the joke, adding a few dumb grunts of his own. Then he took the phone from Beez and held it to David’s ear. “Talk,” he ordered, believing that his threats were as good as Beez’s.
“Alex? David?” came Father’s voice. David didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to tell Father anything that had happened. He didn’t want to worry him, and he didn’t want to give these men the satisfaction.
“Talk!” Willy shouted and smacked the side of David’s head.
“Aahhhh,” David let out involuntarily, cringing as he bent low. His head was reeling again, spinning sickeningly out of control. Blackness threatened as the sound of water became as loud as thunder.
Beez stood up and snatched the phone from Willy and thrust it at Alex. Then in a low warning voice he said, “Talk, now.”
Alex’s eyes were glued to David’s trembling form. Gripped with fear, he forced a sound from his throat. “Hello.”
“Alex! Alex, are you all right?” his father pleaded. “Alex, please, answer me.”
Alex wasn’t sure what the men wanted him to say. He looked over at David who was still crouched low, unable to prompt him. He wanted to do the right thing and knew that David had. His decisions were always right. He glared straight ahead with determination. He would not coöperate with these bullies either.
“Yes, Father, I’m all right.”
“Is David? Is he all right?” came his father’s urgent query.
Alex looked at David, knowing he couldn’t lie. David was a mess. His eyes were actually rolling. Still, he didn’t want to worry his parents any more than necessary. “He’s worse off than me.”
“What does that mean?” Father sounded almost desperate. It was strange to hear his voice like that. “Is he, or is he not all right?”
David’s head lifted with a sentiment of coherence, begging Alex not to say more.
Alex didn’t know what to do. Was he a coward if he explained the situation? What did Beez really want him to say, and shouldn’t Father know what was happening? If Father understood the situation, surely it would help. Wouldn’t it?
David gave the slightest headshake and mouthed the word, “No.” It was only a small movement but one which took considerable effort.
Alex understood perfectly. They were brothers, loyal and true to the end. No matter what had happened between them in the past few months, that would never change. “They’ve roughed us up a bit, but we are all right.”
Beez was furious with this performance and let out a yell as he yanked the phone back and began hollering threats into the end of it, depicting the ways in which he intended to cause the boys bodily harm unless he got what he wanted, on the day he wanted, and in the place that he wanted.
Both boys stared at him in disbelief as he worked a tirade around the room, one hand griping the phone, the other flailing as he went. Without warning, he slammed a fist into the side of the metallic filing cabinet for emphasis, explaining how he would crush their heads together. The cabinet let out a screech and crumpled from the impact.
Alex was sure the sound was having ample effect on the other end of the line. This man was obviously nuts.
With sweat dripping, Beez slammed the phone into itself. In frustration, he centered it between his palms, gripping it as though he wanted to crush it with his bare hands. When that didn’t work, he smashed it into the table, and in response, the phone let out a pained ring of protest.
“You’re all right?” he shouted at the boys as he threw his arms over his head and gripped his scalp. “You’re all right?”
Alex didn’t think things could get much worse, but he was wrong. Beez flew totally out of control. He took a propped baseball bat from the corner and slammed it around arbitrarily, smashing the room to bits, sucking his carefully folded papers into the current that swirled amid his tantrum as he demolished the surroundings.
Willy knew that it was time to get out. With a jolt, his long, lanky elbows lead the way and David and Alex were left alone, stranded with the most insane maniac either of them had ever seen. Both of them were stuffed into place at the table, flinching and blinking to protect their eyes from the flying debris as Beez continued to assault the room around them.
“You most certainly will not be all right if you keep this up!” he screamed, turning to the boys.
Alex understood in an instant why a deer stops in the headlights of a car. As hard as he tried, his eyes remained fixed on this raving, demented man who was coming closer in slow motion, holding a bat that appeared to be at his head.
Beez’s face was riddled with deep lines. David hoped that he and Alex were worth more as hostages than pulverized meat, but he couldn’t help wondering. Would this loon really blow it all based upon a temper tantrum? The thought that Beez didn’t have a normal compunction left raced through David’s brain. Perhaps a mind like his only functioned rationally part of the time, and this certainly was not the time.
Sweating, puffing, and pulsing with anger, Beez took the bat and with a smash, he sent it splintering across the table. In a single motion the table disbanded and shards of wood fragments went flying. The bat was demolished as the table shivered into a new position, propped partially by the broken legs, some of it in the boys’ laps, while the remaining pieces spun to their new places of residence on the floor. The bat was nowhere to be found. Its broken shards were now integrated with the table waste. Both boys closed their eyes hard as the splinters flew. Alex got one near the eye, and it began to bleed, completing a river of red that ran from his eye to his chin.
Both boys kept their eyes shut tightly despite the settling calm. Eerily they waited, not sure if they were in the eye of the hurricane or at the storm’s edge, especially since Beez was still breathing hard in chaotic patterns as papers continued to flutter to the floor.
Finally, Alex opened his eyes. Beez stood there oblivious to the violent piles around him. He had entered that state of ridiculous calm again.
Beez walked slowly around to an upturned chair, set it upright, and sat down. He took both hands and smoothed his unkempt, wild hair, gliding it between his fingers as he leaned his weight into the back of the chair. His raised arms revealed huge circles of sopping cloth. His face had turned from purplish red to a look of cool serenity against his flushed cheeks.
“Now then …” he paused to catch his breath, “the next time I give you instructions, you’re going to follow them. Do … you … understand?” He emphasized each word very carefully as he once again worked his arms in smooth circles. “You see, unlike you, when I speak … people listen. Why do you suppose that woman on the street left while you were still giving orders?”
Both Alex and David looked at him, certain that he wasn’t speaking of that incident on the way to music class.
“I’ll tell you why. You don’t have the authority. Money doesn’t buy it. You either have it, or you don’t. Now let me explain this clearly so that you don’t misunderstand. I have authority.” Beez grabbed a puff of Alex’s hair, stretching his neck. “My authority says that I’ll break your brother’s neck if you don’t do what I say.” He pulled Alex’s hair harder. Alex stretched as tall as he could. “Do you understand?” He looked directly at David, and in that instant, David understood Beez’s psychotic mind. He was being told to coöperate or Alex wouldn’t survive.
Alex wasn’t sure if Beez expected a verbal answer. But then, he wasn’t sure that he could offer one either, what with his stomach in his mouth and all.
Beez thrust Alex’s head down. “You will do as I say, exactly as I say.” After an appropriate pause to make sure that David got the message, he turned to Alex in a horrendous shout. “DO YOU UNDERSTAND??” His voice shook the very windows and walls of the old dilapidated building.
The hair on Alex’s arms stood on end as the rumble of Beez’s voice tore through the last of his composure. Tears ran as he tucked his chin deep into his chest.
David looked at his brother with a terrible ache. Beez understood all too well. His point had been made.
David turned away. His options had just melted into one.
Willy peeked his head into the room realizing that Beez was through, and Beez acknowledged him slightly with a gesture toward the boys. In obedience, Willy came around behind David and gripped his chair. Their room may be filthy, but right now, it seemed like prime real estate.
After David was deposited, Willy left to collect Alex.
When they were both settled, Alex whispered, “We have got to get out of here.”
“That’s for sure,” David said as quietly as possible.
“What was he talking about? That woman, the one on the street? He didn’t mean …” Alex fumbled for words.
“I think he did.” David realized what a foolish thing it had been that day to jump out of the car. He knew the depression was making people desperate, and what’s more, he hadn’t really cared one way or the other about the woman. He was just mad and wanted someone to shout at. This whole mess was entirely his fault. What a fool he’d been. What a terrible, terrible fool. And he wasn’t the only one to pay. There was Alex to worry about now.
“It’s impossible. He … how could he have found us? He would have had to follow us, and for what?”
Alex was dumbfounded. He had a million questions but could barely form a single coherent sentence.
“I’m sorry, Alex. I’m afraid this is all my fault,” David admitted.
Despite the magnanimous confession, Alex couldn’t appreciate it at the moment. He couldn’t even respond. It was too surreal to be true.
Silence enveloped the room for a long while until Alex asked, “Are you okay, David? I mean … really?”
It was the first genuine thing Alex had said to him since their arrival. All the violence had brought his feelings back to home and family. In shame, he realized the trivial emotions that had taken hold of him in the past few months. All he wanted now was for them both to get out of this alive.
David shrugged. “My head hurts, but I’m okay.” It was an understatement. His head was throbbing in a way that he never knew possible. The injury from the previous night had been severe and the added strike was more than just a rude reminder. The room was still spinning, even now, and he was afraid it would mean more vomit.
“Why did you throw up?” Alex asked with sincerity. The wretched look on David’s face frightened him. He was so pale. So drawn. It was abnormal.
“I just feel a little sick, that’s all,” David answered and looked at the floor. He didn’t want a conversation on the topic. To control the spasms, he needed to think about other things. “Please, let’s not talk about it.”
“Do you think you have a concussion?”
“I’m worried about you.”
“If you really want to worry, think of a way to get us out of here. My wrists are so sore, I’m not sure that I can untie you.”
“Yeah, mine are pretty bad too.” Then Alex added, “I’m so hungry I could eat anything.”
“Not me,” David responded. “I still wouldn’t eat oatmeal.”
Alex rolled his eyes and made a flat face.
David looked out the window. Fresh air … it was so close. He had to focus on that.
“I’m so tired,” Alex complained.
After a while, Alex drifted off to sleep. As he slept, fits of pain shuddered his limbs from time to time, jerking him awake.
David drifted off too, relieved to sink into the darkness.
Insult to Injury
Later that evening they were finally given some nourishment. Willy had come promising the most exquisite cuisine, which turned out to be a dry piece of bread. He stuffed one into David’s mouth and laughed outrageously.
“Ha, ha, ha, now that’s funny, that is. A rich brat with a dinner fit for a rat. Ha … ha … ha, ha, ha. Now just you be careful, you, ’cause if you drop it,” he paused then waved his finger back and forth only inches from David’s nose. “Tisk, tisk, tisk.” His rotting teeth gave off an incredible stench. “No dinner,” he whispered slowly and then broke out into loud laughter again.
Alex was amazed. This man actually believed himself clever. He was still marveling when Willy smacked a dry piece of bread into his mouth.
David, too, was amazed at the pleasure Willy derived from this ridiculous activity, but even more shocking was the extent to which this man could open his mouth and the fact that he was not ashamed to do it. With teeth like that, you would think he would want to tape his mouth shut forever.
David and Alex both held their dinner dangling from their mouths. David’s stomach had stopped lurching, and he was hungry so he put all his effort into inching the bread with his lips. Unfortunately, the dried crusts started to crumble. He tried to adjust the bread, but it broke off and fell into his lap. He had only succeeded in obtaining a few bites.
Alex progressed much farther, and was able to get most of his bread down. Only small pieces fell.
David looked down at the bread in his lap. With his luck it would probably attract a mouse.
Willy’s face was suddenly there. “Ahhww,” he made fun. “Lost your dinner, eh? Poor lit’le rat.”
David shot daggers at the man. If only they could penetrate.
Willy stepped back, surprised at the spunk still left in the boy. Then with a half grin he relaxed. “You ain’t used to this, are ya, boy?” he sneered. “Bet they got people dancing all around you … huh?” He took a long pause for emphasis, and David kept his stare.
Willy came right up to his face again, his putrid breath stifling. “I ain’t doing no dance, kid.”
Although he was sorely tempted to spit in his face, David made no outward sign, but neither did he cease his gaze. He wouldn’t be the one to break.
Finally, Willy backed away snickering. His eyes glimmered with triumph. Completely pleased with himself, he left the room still clamoring. Then his voice came to an abrupt end somewhere out in the hall. At least Beez was good for something.
A minute later Willy returned with a jug of water.
Beez stuck his head in. “Hurry up.”
“I don’t think this one should get water. He’s too high and mighty.”
“Give it to him,” Beez ordered.
“Give it to him! And get back out here. We got work to do.”
“Just you count yourself as lucky,” Willy glared as he poured water down both of their throats, spilling most of it, wetting their clothing.
“Please, just a little more,” Alex begged. His throat was so hot and swollen. Willy was surprised by his pleading and agreed as Alex drank in the welcome coolness.
David had gotten a drink that morning from the hose. Even so, he tried not to miss any of the water as Willy streamed it at his face. It wasn’t nearly enough, but he wasn’t about to beg.
After that, Beez and Willy went out somewhere for a business meeting. Before they left, Willy cinched the ropes tighter than ever, then warned them of the consequences if they attempted an escape. He tied each boy’s chair securely across the room from each other, just in case they did have the nerve to try something.
Less than an hour later the two men returned with fury. Beez was shouting about the police and blaming everyone but himself for the new complications. Neither David nor Alex had heard much profanity in their sheltered lives and were shocked at the new vocabulary that spewed freely from both men’s mouths. Beez cursed every conceivable thing, starting with the pampered lives of the boys and their parents, and then continuing on to Willy and his incredible ineptitudes. Willy, in return, defended his position ferociously. It seemed for a minute that the two would tear each other apart, and David sincerely hoped they might.
Tears began to form in Alex’s eyes despite his best efforts. He had led such a sheltered life and had no idea how to deal with this kind of thing. He had never even heard his parents argue, let alone scream. He blinked his eyes hard to disperse the fluid, sending streams of water spilling down his face in dirty streaks. But David refused to be impressed. Even when Beez began smashing things again, he kept a cool look of arrogance and superiority. That was his policy. If these two had proved anything, it was their ability to mismanage everything. They made him sick, and he wasn’t about to be party to their thievery.
David’s composure hit a sore spot with Beez, and it shifted his focus. With every screaming nerve in his body frenzied, fried, and frayed, the one thing he knew more than ever was that he hated that kid.
Immediately, Alex saw Beez’s anger redirect to David. Unfortunately, he had been gripped to the point of paralysis, and his tongue was rendered useless.
“You ain’t so smart. Just a bunch of high and mighties. I tell ‘em not to contact no police, so what do they do? You ain’t got no idea who you’re messing with. No idea!”
David remained calm as the man hollered, causing Beez’s blood pressure to escalate. Alex was sure that at any minute actual steam would begin to rise from his head. And yet, David’s composure could not have sent a worse message. It represented everything Beez hated: the upper class, its education, money, and above all else, ease. Down to the very core of his being, anger and hatred seethed as he reached out in a rage that would not be settled. He started shaking David’s chair harder and harder, rattling the boy’s teeth. “You ain’t nothing but dog meat to me, kid. If it weren’t for the money, you’d be dead right now. You got that? Yoooouu goooot thaaaat??”
David glared directly back into the man’s eyes through every vibration, making Beez all the more deranged. His control was gone, and he let out a bloodcurdling cry, his arms waving all around in a fit of mania. He grasped for a knife from his back pocket and slit the ropes[AB1] that bound David to the rubble. In continued motion, he sent his chair sliding and spinning across the room. David held his breath, desperately hoping that his chair would not fall again. The thought of hitting his head was currently the worst outcome imaginable, and he shivered as his chair slammed into the wall, teetering as it settled upright.
“You bring that one!” Beez ordered as he slammed David’s chair through the hall to the room with the phone.
Beez grabbed the phone and dialed without a code, shouting all the previously made threats into the end of it as sweat poured from his brow. Then he ordered Willy to hold the receiver to Alex’s ear as he spun around and took the gun from the top of the cabinet. In one swift motion, he pressed the end of the barrel to David’s head.
“Now,” he said breathing heavily. His lips flinched as sweat pulsed and his body trembled in anger, eyes twitching. “You tell your daddy this one dies if I don’t get the money.”
Beez had the gun pressed hard into David’s skull, and David felt the cold metal imprint in his scalp. All thoughts of superiority had vanished now. He knew the man was crazy enough to pull the trigger. In fact, he probably would.
Alex’s eyes were wide with terror. “Father?” he asked into the phone.
“Yes, Alex,” came the frantic but familiar voice, “what’s happening there?”
“He has a gun to David’s head. He says they’re going to kill him if they don’t get the money.” Alex’s voice sounded surprisingly calm.
“Tell him they can have the money. I’ve been telling him. Tell him they can have all the money they want, just not to hurt either of you.”
Alex had never heard his father’s voice in such a panic. “Father says that you can have the money,” he relayed to Beez, knowing David’s life depended on the information.
In a rage, Beez screamed back, “Tell him I want it tomorrow where it’s suppose to be or I’ll blow his brains out right here and now!!!”
Tears formed in Alex’s eyes as Beez hollered. He feared in his madness Beez would inadvertently squeeze the trigger.
Even over the phone, Alexander heard every word. “Tell him he will have it.”
But Alex couldn’t speak. His voice had frozen, and tears were streaming down his face. Always tears. Why couldn’t he be more like his brother? Why couldn’t he be a man?
“Alex! Tell him now!” Alexander pleaded.
With his father’s orders in his ear, his voice returned. “He says you’ll have it.”
Beez grabbed the phone again and hollered some more into the end of it as he waved the gun wildly. Even Willy ducked from the barrel’s end as it swished around the room.
Alex closed his eyes, imagining both of their impending deaths, wishing he could have one last chance to make amends with David before they died.
When Beez finally finished his tirade, he slammed the phone down. Alex thought it should have broken into a million pieces as it shuddered in a ringing ping.
Then in an instant, Beez was swept over by that same strange calmness. Alex gasped at the meaning, afraid that things could go either way. Beez spread his arms with his palms face down to the floor and slowly turned away. He placed the gun on top of the cabinet very gently. When he turned back around, he angled his head to one side to keep his ruffled hair from falling into his eyes. His look was ferocious from throwing his head about. Sweat not only dripped from his face, but under his arms and down his chest and back. Large dark splotches sopped where wetness soaked through the cloth.
“Now,” his breath was still, “see how easy that was?” His voice was controlled, too controlled, though the wild look in his eye had not yet passed.
David stared in wonder, realizing that the smallest thing could set him off into hysteria again. Silence was definitely the best option.
“Let me explain something to you boys,” he began. “I don’t have any special feelings for ya. Your parents cross me and you’re dead. That’s all … dead,” he raised his hands and shrugged his shoulders pausing only long enough to let the point sink in. “And here’s something else. One of you crosses me again, untie them ropes or some other dumb thing,” Beez slowly leaned down with his hands spread out in front of him, “You’re dead,” he whispered, his lip curling.
This creepy calm was worse than when he’d been shouting out of control. Alex wanted to look away, wishing he would vanish even as his eyes were glued to Beez. He knew he’d be seeing this man and his hysteria for the rest of his life. This moment would last forever, lingering unwelcome… surfacing in his dreams.
Willy stood frozen to the side, always out of harm’s way, but even he had a look of shocked new appreciation.
Then in a burst, Beez broke the silence. “Get ‘em out of here!” he yelled with a turn of his face.
Willy grabbed hold of Alex’s chair. He considered that since he was the better behaved of the boys, he ought to be taken to safety first, leaving David alone with the still-heaving Beez.
Strangely enough, Beez had entered a subliminal state and didn’t even notice David’s lingering presence, already engrossed in the map that he so carefully studied. David was grateful for the invisibility. The man was a maniac.
Willy returned and took hold of David’s chair. As he shoved him along he decided to offer the kid some friendly advice. “You so stupid, you know that?”
David was taken by surprise though Willy continued, his putrid breath on David’s shoulder.
“I mean, look at that brother o’ yours. Now he’s understanding what you is suppose to do in situations like these. It ain’t no hair off my nose, but if you wants to stay livin’, doofus, you sure as willa beans better start acting like it. Don’t you understand that we is only in need o’ one. Two o’ you is far more o’ a mess than we planned on. It’s just a bit a friendly advice.”
David couldn’t believe his gall. He was the villain, and he was giving David advice on proper etiquette? Never mind the fact that David had just come to the same conclusion.
“Ain’t you noticed yet that if Beez knocks you out a the picture, that we is still getting paid for the other one? See? ’Nfact, t’might be easier for us all if you are done and gone. So you better shape up. Dumb nitwitted idiot.” He muttered the last bit to himself.
By now they were in the darkened room with Alex. Willy came around in front of David to see if his message had sunk in. He shook his head in disbelief at David’s stubbornness.
“Stupid kid,” he muttered shaking his head to leave. “Stupid, stupid, doofus of a nitwit stubborn idiot kid.”
With Willy’s exit, David softened. He knew it was true. His life was quickly losing value. Willy made a special note to express the obvious, that only one hostage was needed. His life might well be extinguished as a means of expediting the transaction. But if he were gone, Alex would take all the punishment, and he was by no means capable.
Although Alex was older, he was innocent about everything. He trusted people. Willy thought that Beez directed his anger at David because of his arrogance, but David wasn’t totally convinced. The truth was, Beez was angry, plain and simple, and if David weren’t there, that anger would vent in Alex’s direction. David couldn’t take that chance. He thought of everything he and Alex had been through. Grandmother’s passing may have altered the structure of their lives, but their feelings were still the same, or at least he thought so. His brother needed him. Without David, Alex couldn’t even go to the hideout. How was he supposed to manage a raving lunatic when the wind in the willows frightened him? No. He had to stay alive if for no other reason than to get Alex through this.
The boys listened in the dark as the hollow echo of footsteps walked away. David waited until all was quiet. When he was sure it was safe to speak he began. His voice was filled with determination and a fair amount of shock over what had nearly happened just moments ago.
“We have to get out of here, now.”
Alex stared into the darkness, too terrified to answer, too terrified not to. “Are you crazy? That guy’s insane,” he whispered and nodded his head in the direction of the door.
“Exactly!” David whispered back. “If we don’t get out of here—”
“We need to do whatever Beez tells us. Period. Or we’re dead, remember? Do you even realize what just happened in there? He nearly killed you!”
“Look,” David reasoned.
Something in David’s tone pulled at Alex’s cognitive processes. He didn’t want to be swayed, but somehow, David still had the upper hand when it came to things like this. It was exasperating.
David continued, “I’m getting out of here tonight, and I’m not leaving without you.”
Alex closed his eyes hard. The words rang through his mind. He knew what he would do. He would follow whatever kook-a-lock-us plan David had cooked up in that ever-inventive brain of his. How strange that with so little effort, David could bend his desires and even his opinions. It was infuriating. But they were brothers, best friends, and they were in this together—albeit it Alex was fuming … but brothers just the same.
“I know it’s dangerous,” David continued, “but it’s not like we have a choice. He’s totally out of control. I’ll end up dead no matter what if we stay here, and if I’m gone, what happens to you? You hardly know how to manage as it is.”
“Thanks a lot,” Alex grumbled, knowing that it was true.
“I can’t let that happen. I can’t leave you here alone, even if it’s because he’s killed me. I won’t.” David didn’t want to hurt Alex, yet this was no time to spare his feelings. “It is the plain and awful truth, Alex. You are soft, but if we’ve learned anything in the past few months, it is that family matters. Grandmother taught us that. Think back to the funeral when she was lying cold and still in the casket. She looked so peaceful then, but it wasn’t real. She was not resting, Alex. She was dead, and there is nothing even remotely peaceful about that. It is violent and painful. And now it is my life, but more importantly, it is your life, Alex. Your life is hanging in the balance. I won’t let it happen again. Not this time. Not this way. I’m getting you out of here. Now! Before it is too late.
Alex sighed in defeat. “Okay. What do we do?”