The Kidnappers Chapter One
It’s a mistake to earn the reputation of being a liar. It seems harmless enough to make up stories to entertain yourself, but it can backfire. The way it did with me.
On Thursday, Mr. Epperson told us to write a brief personal essay. On the spur of the moment, no time to think about it.
As it happened, I was scared. Too scared to think about anything except meeting Willie after school. So that’s what I wrote about.
I was the last one to hand in my paper. Mr. Epperson ran a cursory glance down the page, reading aloud the final sentence. “?‘He’s going to kill me. Dot, dot, dot.’ Well, Bishop, if pulp fiction ever makes a comeback, you’ll have your niche, all right. In thirty years of teaching I’ve never had a student who had more imagination than you have.”
“I didn’t make it up,” I said, my voice squeaking a little. “It’s true.”
He smiled. “Sure it is. See you tomorrow, Bishop.”
I don’t know how I got through the rest of the afternoon. Everywhere I looked, there was Willie glaring at me. Willie was really William John Edward Groves, III, who stood a head taller than I did and outweighed me by maybe fifteen pounds. Who had taken my elbow in his nose and spouted blood all over the gym during third period, making everyone laugh uproariously.
I’d tried to apologize. I mean, I didn’t mean to do it. It was an accident. Not that I’d have cared much, if he hadn’t gotten so mad. I didn’t especially like Willie.
Willie was picked up from school by limousine, like practically everyone else who attends St. Bart’s. I saw him standing just inside the gates, as the rules say we have to do, waiting for his car. He was watching the main front door, but I stayed inside, out of sight. No way was I going to walk out there and let him pound on me. There were even a couple of other kids standing around, probably waiting to see the massacre.
My own car showed up, with Ernie driving. I could see him, waiting in line with other cars, drumming his fingers on the wheel. He wore a uniform cap, and he was distinctive because he always looked as if he needed a shave, even if he’d just had one. He said he’d been that way since he was about fifteen, and he shaved twice a day except on his days off.
Would he rescue me if Willie jumped me on the way to the car? Maybe, but not before Willie got in some good licks. I didn’t think he’d be satisfied with anything less than blood—mine—preferably in great quantity in front of as many other kids as possible.
I hesitated, and then I saw that the Groveses’ chauffeur had arrived, pulling up and double-parking beyond Ernie. Willie was obviously reluctant to go before I came out, but after the chauffeur leaned out the window and yelled something, Willie gave up and got in the car.
Only after they’d driven away did I emerge, sliding in beside Ernie with a breath of relief.
“What held you up, sport?” Ernie asked, putting the car in gear and easing out into traffic. “You gonna make me late for my date with Alice.”
I could tell by the overpowering odor of aftershave that he was going to see Alice. She gave it to him, so I guess she liked it. It made me want to open a window.
“I was waiting for Willie Groves to leave. He was going to kill me.”
“Oh, right, well, that’s okay, then,” Ernie said. He was a big, burly guy, about thirty, I think. He had a thick head of black hair, and he was usually chewing on a toothpick. He said it helped keep him from smoking.
“He said he was going to kill me,” I persisted, knowing he didn’t believe me. “Because I accidentally gave him a nosebleed in front of everybody else.”
Ernie grinned. “Good for you, Joey. Way to go.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” I said. “Even if he is a jerk. I don’t have any suicide wish.”
“How come you riding with me in this traffic, then?” Ernie cut in front of a yellow cab, lifted a finger in response to the honking horn, and eased around the corner in front of a bus.
“I’m close enough to walk home,” I said, giving up. “I don’t really need to ride fourteen blocks.”
“Oh, you think you’re safer out there?” He gestured with a thumb at cars and pedestrians. “Walking these streets, now there’s a death wish.”
I didn’t really want to walk home, even if my parents would have allowed it. My brother, Mark, got mugged once and wound up in the emergency room for six stitches in his head.
Ernie slammed on the brakes when a guy stepped off the curb in front of him, and that reminded me to fasten my seat belt before I went through the windshield.
“You and that Willie ain’t very good friends, I guess,” Ernie said.
“That’s an understatement,” I muttered. As a matter of fact, I didn’t really have very many friends at St. Bart’s, except for Pink Murphy. We were the two nerds, the ones who always aced the tests and spoiled everybody else’s marks on the curve by coming out higher than the rest of them. My guess was that any guy in school, other than Pink, would have stood around enjoying it if Willie caught me and pounded me silly.
There was no place to pull in at the curb in front of our apartment building, so I got out while Ernie let traffic pile up behind him. Before I got to the front door, Sherman had it open for me. He wore a dark blue uniform, trimmed in gold, and Mother said he gave an air of class to the Upton Towers. Father said he gave it security, which was more to the point.
“Afternoon, Joey,” Sherman said. He was a big, bulky man, but fast on his feet, and very strong. Twice I’d seen him pitch someone out of the building, and once I saw him tackle a purse snatcher. “How’s it going?”
“Well, I escaped being slaughtered today. Who knows about tomorrow?”
Sherman nodded. “We never know, do we? Your mother’s out, your sister’s home. Don’t know about the rest of the family.”
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks, Sherman.” Sometimes it helped to be forewarned about what I’d be walking into.
If it was only Sophie at home, there was no problem. She was twelve and a half, a year and a half older than I was, and we got along pretty well. It was Mark and my father I had to watch out for.
I took the elevator to the top of the building. I could hear the piano before I unlocked our door. Always, always, Sophie is playing the piano.
Our parents are very proud of my sister’s ability on the piano. She’s had lessons since she was three, and they have hopes that someday she’ll be a renowned concert pianist. Nobody ever has to make her practice; she just loves to play.
I walked into the living room, past the baby grand, pausing until she finished a measure.
“Ho,” I said when she stopped.
“Ho,” Sophie responded, smiling.
She’s the beauty of the family. Dark curls that look better on her than they do on either Mark or me, dark eyes with long lashes. Everybody always knows we’re siblings, but nobody ever says Mark and I are good looking, the way they do about Sophie.
“What’s to eat?” I asked.
“Fruit or junk? I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some chips.”
She followed me into the kitchen and perched on a stool while I made a sandwich and opened a new bag of potato chips.
“I escaped being murdered today,” I told her.
“Good. I don’t want you to be murdered.”
“It may happen tomorrow. Willie carries grudges. He’ll be lying in wait for me again.”
Her dark eyebrows rose gracefully. “William John Edward Groves, III? What’s the matter with him this time?”
I told her.
“Maybe he’ll forget it.”
“Maybe not.” I got a Coke out of the refrigerator and took an adjoining stool. “I wish I could change schools. I hate St. Bart’s.”
“Mother and Daddy don’t want us in public schools,” Sophie said.
“It couldn’t be any worse, could it? If the kids don’t like you, it’s no fun.”
Sophie is someone other kids like, but she spends so much time playing the piano she doesn’t have time to do things with them. It never seems to bother her.
“At least you have good teachers,” Sophie pointed out.
“They expect a lot of me.”
“That’s because you’re a genius, Joey. It’s why Daddy wants you at St. Bart’s. He wants you to live up to your potential.”
I snorted. “He wants me to be a banker, like he is. I would hate being a banker.”
“When you’re grown up, you can be anything you like.”
“That’s a long time away,” I said, taking a swig of Coke. “In the meantime I have to dodge Willie, probably for the rest of my life.”
“Why are you dodging Willie?”
We turned toward Mark, who had just come into the kitchen. He’s fifteen and thinks he knows everything.
I told the story again.
“And you chickened out and hid?” He was incredulous. “What good did that do you, Joe? He’ll still be around tomorrow. Why didn’t you just face off with him and give him as good as he gives you?”
“I can’t outfight him,” I pointed out. “He’s taller, heavier, and a better fighter than I am.”
“So do the best you can, bloody his nose again if you can, and take whatever he dishes out. At least once he’s done it, he shouldn’t bother you any further. It would be over and done with.”
“And I’d be bloodied and humiliated,” I said.
“But if he’s going to get you anyway, why prolong the agony? Besides, if you stand up for yourself, people won’t be so quick to jump you.”
“The only one wanting to jump me is Willie. And I’ll lose. Maybe if I stall him for a day or two, he’ll give up,” I said, knowing that wasn’t likely.
“You’re such a birdbrain,” Mark said in disgust, “but I guess that’s appropriate for a chicken, right?”
The evening didn’t get any better.
Some nights Father isn’t home for dinner, and those are easier. Tonight he was there, and, of course, blabbermouth Mark had to tell him I’d hidden out to keep from having a confrontation with Willie.
Father sighed. He looked at me in the way that makes it clear he is—again—disappointed. “Would you like to take a class in martial arts, Joel?”
“No,” I said. I figured I’d really get pulverized in a class of kids learning to kick each other to death.
“Your brother’s probably right,” Father said after a moment. “The sooner you face this other boy, the sooner you’ll put the entire matter behind you.”
Easy for him to say, but nobody argued with Father.
“You are growing up. You have to prepare for life as an adult male.”
“I intend to write stories. Why do I have to learn to fight to do that?” I demanded.
Father sighed again, more deeply. “Joel, you will have to live in the real world. We’ve discussed this many times. Writing may be fine as a hobby, but it’s unlikely to support you. A good steady job in a bank, working with all kinds of people, is going to be a necessity.”
“There are people who earn a living writing,” I said, knowing I’d be better off to keep still, because we’d had this discussion before and I’d yet to win any points.
“Not enough of them so you’d notice it,” Father said, helping himself to another slice of roast beef. “You don’t think it’s necessary to earn a steady paycheck, but if you don’t have one, you’ll soon miss the comforts you have now.”
I wanted to yell that I didn’t give a darn about the comforts I had now; most of them were things I didn’t care about at all, except for the basics of food and shelter. I didn’t need to live in a penthouse or be driven around in a Cadillac.
But, of course, nobody yells at my father.
“Writing is a childish dream, Joel,” he said.
There are hundreds of publishing companies that must pay something to the thousands of authors whose works they buy. Some books make the best-selling lists, and those writers do all right. Why didn’t he think it was possible for me to do it?
The sensible thing for anyone to do when speaking to my father is to shut up, but I was stubborn.
“I want to write,” I said, in a low voice but one that Father could hear.
“Preparing for a lifetime job and writing for the pleasure of it are not mutually exclusive, you know,” he said.
Mark put down his fork. “That means you should prepare for the job, and write for a hobby,” he explained, as if I didn’t understand English.
At this point my mother intervened. “That’s enough about this at the table. I dislike mealtimes to be unpleasant. Sophie, we need to decide what you’re going to wear to the recital next week. The pale yellow is very pretty, I think.”
Sophie groaned. “Mom, it’s so babyish! When am I going to have something new, something without ruffles and ribbons?”
I was glad to have the subject turned away from me, but resentful of how insignificant my problem seemed to everyone else.
After dinner, when Mark had gone to visit a friend down on the sixth floor and everybody else was reading or listening to classical music in the living room, I called Pink from the kitchen phone.
“Does everybody think I’m a coward because I didn’t come out and fight Willie this afternoon?” I demanded.
Pink got his name from his complexion and the pinkish gold color of his hair. I could trust him to be honest.
“Well, I didn’t hear anybody say anything about that, but a few of them were disappointed. You know, like Willie’s buddies, Gene and Paul.”
“It just seems silly and pointless to get beat up for nothing,” I said helplessly.
“I don’t suppose your dad would let you change schools,” Pink offered.
“Hah!” I gave a bark of bitter laughter. “Fat chance. Pink, I’m dead meat.”
“Maybe not. Maybe something will happen, like he’ll break a leg or something before tomorrow.”
And maybe it wouldn’t, I thought gloomily as I got ready for bed. Maybe by this time tomorrow I’d be dead.