“WHAT DO YOU MEAN, ‘THEY TOOK THEM’? WHO TOOK THEM?”
Lover was all over Partner, not caring if he already looked like hell. He grabbed him by the collar and got right in his face, screaming, his face turning shades of red and purple.
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN?”
“Them,” Partner whimpered. “The two men.”
“WHAT?” said the Rock Star, again clenching his teeth and fists. “I swear to God, if anything happens to those children, I will …”
“Please, please,” Partner whispered. “I’m so sorry. It was those men, those two men … “
“Look, you piece of shit, WHAT HAPPENED?”
They’d gone to the ice cream place and, yes, Partner had let them get the slushes. He’d said he’d bring them over to the table if the kids got the long plastic spoons, straws and napkins for everybody, so off they went to get them.
(Here’s the part nobody knew. While sitting there supposedly waiting for the kids, Partner looked like he was fiddling with the lids while he slipped a tablet of something slow-acting into each drink. Reporter had told him about that drugging incident with the Rock Star all those years ago. Everybody seemed to have forgotten it by now. Everybody but Reporter—and Producer. And the Rock Star.)
The kids were having a great time, laughing loudly and watching as Partner made stupid funny-faces about the other customers. After they’d finished their slushes, the hyper kids began to ask for that ride up to the trails. Partner said he wasn’t sure that would be OK and suggested that they might want to use the bathroom before they left.
So the kids went to the restrooms. (Partner sat there and waited.)
“THEN WHAT HAPPENED?” Lover was almost out of control.
“I don’t know,” yowled Partner. “We got up to the trails and got out of the car, like usual. We were on the trail and … and…” He broke down, the blood from the broken nose, sweat and tears mixing now and dripping down his already-bloodied shirt.
“AND WHAT?” screamed the Rock Star. “WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?”
Partner was in pain, real pain, but that had been part of the plan. He’d known it would hurt to be beat up like that by Do-Good but Pimp Dealer, watching, had said, “Keep thinking about the money, asshole. Think about the money.” But Do-Good hadn’t been “gentle” with him. The broken nose had come as a surprise and there’d been more punches than he’d thought he’d get. It had almost felt personal.
Partner told them that they’d been about halfway up the trail when he felt someone behind him. He was getting ready to turn around to see who it was when he felt this cloth being held over his face.
“It must have been chloroform or something,” he said. “I held my breath so I wouldn’t breathe it in. l told the children to run.”
Lover, as always, was two steps ahead. “Then what happened?” he asked, quietly, putting together something in his mind. Just because he was quieter didn’t mean he was calming down any. In fact, it usually meant he was getting angrier.
“I don’t know. They started beating on me and I think the kids were screaming and one of the men went after them. By then they’d got the chloroform around my face and … and all …
Lover looked at the Rock Star, signaling that there was something fishy about the story, something missing. Something just didn’t add up. What was it? The Rock Star got it first.
“Why didn’t you call us? You were supposed to call us.” He’d been looking at the ceiling but now he trained his eyes directly on Partner. He was waiting, for what he wasn’t sure, but there had to be some explanation. And there was.
(Partner was ready for this. Reporter really had coached him well.)
“We didn’t decide to go up to the trails until after we left the ice cream place. Since I was driving I didn’t want to be on the cell phone, not with the kids in the car. I had to be safe with them …” He broke down, in pain and sobbing. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”
The Rock Star wasn’t having it. “Why…didn’t … you … call … when you … got … to … the trail?”
“I left the phone in the car. I wasn’t thinking. They, the men, must have found it and taken it or tossed it or something, I don’t know.”
Just when Lover and the Rock Star were ready to seriously get into him again, they heard the doorbell. Partner immediately cringed as if expecting the men who’d beaten him to be waiting on the doorstep. Instead there stood Exec, looking like his world had ended.
“This came for you at the office. I read it to see what it was and … ” Emotionally he looked in as bad shape as Partner, who was overjoyed to see him. Exec, obviously shocked to see Partner in such a condition, extracted himself from the crying man’s arms and looked around at the faces in the room. He could tell what had happened. How could he know?, thought Lover. What the fuck is going on here?
Exec handed the envelope to him. It was addressed to Lover in regular computer print and had the office’s address on it. It hadn’t been sealed. Lover took out the letter and read:
If you want to see the children alive again, you and Twin bring $25 million in cash, small bills, to this address at this time. Do not notify the police. Do not involve anyone else in dropping off the money. If you do not follow these instructions the children will be dead by noon tomorrow. We are watching.
Lover collapsed on the sofa before handing the letter to the Rock Star. They looked at each other, both thinking the same thing. It was just like before, when Reporter had tried to extort them out of $20 million to keep the stories of Lover killing Snake and the Rock Star’s violence out of the tabloids. When they’d refused, Reporter had planted the story about the Rock Star throwing the chair at Lover, just to show that he wasn’t playing. But Twin had helped them set up the “sting” that had taken him down.
They knew the man behind this. Who else could it be? And why would he want Lover and Twin to deliver the money rather than the Rock Star?
(Partner just sat there and watched.)
Tomorrow in “Promises of Starlight”: Twin is called and Starlight answers