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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.”

Happy Read­ing!

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.

Class Col­li­sion

Fall From Grace

All Rights Reserved

Copy­right 2010 Annette Mackey

Pref­ace

 

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.

 

 

 

Chap­ter 1

Fam­ily Matters

 

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.

 

Chap­ter 2

Edu­ca­tion

 

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.

 

Chap­ter 3

Grand­mother

 

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.

Mother?”

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.

No buts.”

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.

Mas­ter Alexander?”

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.”

 

Chap­ter 4

Patience

 

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.

 

Chap­ter 5

Buried Trea­sure

 

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.

 

Chap­ter 6

The Crash

 

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.

 

Chap­ter 7

The Col­li­sion

 

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.

What’s this?”

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.

 

Chap­ter 8

Maniac

 

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.

Awful.”

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.”

Alex nod­ded.

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?”

Money.”

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?”

Alex …”

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.

Me too.”

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Chap­ter 9

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.

But—”

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?”

 

 

 


 [AB1]I don’t under­stand why he slit the ropes here. What is the pur­pose of this? David doesn’t seem to be free of the ropes.

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