Authors: Michael Lister
Tags: #crime, #USA
“You won’t have to,” I said, and we ended the call.
The moon was immense and magnificent, making the earth below look luminous.
Stepping out into my front yard to move Chris’s car, I stopped, transfixed by the translucent quality of the leaves on the trees.
Gazing up, I took in the radiant night all around me.
Three slow, deep breaths.
In . . . and . . . out.
In . . . and . . . out.
In . . . and . . . out.
Now back to the task at hand.
Chris’s keys weren’t in his car.
I considered my options as I scoured the area to see if he might have dropped them.
You could get it towed.
hat’d draw too much attention to it.
rue. How about––
I found the keys on the ground near the front door next to the wooden steps.
Since I had no neighbors and wasn’t expecting any company anytime soon, I decided to pull the car around back, parking it behind the trailer in a small stand of cypress trees that mostly concealed it.
Sorry I couldn’t do more for you. I would not have had you go out the way you did. Thanks for anything you did to try to save Anna.
Back inside, back in the dark, I returned to the chair to resume replaying my conversation with Anna’s abductor in my mind.
His voice made him sound younger than I would’ve expected. Not juvenile exactly, but quite young. And it had very little discernible accent––like someone from the area who had put in some effort to eliminate much of its regionality.
There was something about the quality of his voice that elicited trust––a veracity that made it seem as though he were earnest and honest.
He spoke in a formal manner for the most part, using very few contractions, speaking slowly and carefully. But it was inconsistent. A few times he slipped into a more informal quick response repartee.
Was he just nervous?
Was everything an affect or were the more formal exchanges the more real and revealing?
Maybe he had prepared some of what he said ahead of time––perhaps he even wrote it down––while at other times, in order to respond to what I was saying, he had to go off script, improvise.
He seemed to know a good bit about me, but I still wondered about him calling Anna my wife. Was he just not being literal? Was he doing it as a way of emphasizing what he had done, or planned to do, to Chris?
He wanted me to do something I’d be willing to do to get Anna back. But it had to be something I wasn’t just willing but able to do. Was it something I was in a unique position for or uniquely qualified to do? Or was I just random, convenient, wrong place wrong time?
I’d know soon enough. It was a waste of mental energy to try to figure it out now.
I had been able to discern no background noises. Had they been there and I just hadn’t been able to hear them, or was he more professional than his youngish voice would suggest and he ensured there were none?
Was he a professional? Just hired to do a job? Or did he have a personal stake in this? It was hard to tell from the conversation. I knew what he’d said, but wasn’t sure I bought it. He seemed somewhat dispassionate at times, but knew so much and seemed fully engaged.
Questions without answers. I was used to that.
Answers would come––or they wouldn’t. Only one really mattered. Would I be able to save Anna?
She had been so happy. Even with Chris calling to say he was coming over to talk. Even with his child inside her. Even with all the challenges, all the slings and arrows, all the issues to be faced. They were facing them together. She and John were together.
noise at the door.
he knew John would be home soon.
ot afraid of Chris. Not afraid of anything.
pening the door.
ot Chris. Small guy. Ski mask. Something in his hand.
urning. Starting to run. Someone behind her.
urning back. Toward the small guy. Shoving him.
hris pulling up. Honking his horn. Yelling at the men.
What the––” one man was saying.
Who the fuck is that?”
Not sure. Not John. Come on.”
rabbed from behind. Something at her mouth.
hris running toward them. Something in his hand. A bat?
truggling against the strong man. The small man pulling a gun on Chris. Shooting. Chris hit. Down.
an’t resist any longer. Deep inhalation. Then nothing.
umpy ride. Back of van bouncing down a dirt road.
hris whispering, “I’m gonna get you out of this. I swear.”
Are you okay? You shot?”
Yeah. So it may be the last thing I do, but I’m gonna get you out of this, away from them. What’s this about? Why’re they doing this?”
No idea. But don’t do anything yet. Wait to see what––”
Not now. When they stop to get us out.”
istening to the sounds of the road. Trying to figure out where they are, where they’re taking them.
ighway. No traffic. No stopping.
eams of a short bridge.
lowing. Turning onto a dirt road.
hris sounding bad beside her.
I’m sorry for everything,” he whispers. “I just got caught up in some stupid, selfish stuff.”
odding. Not saying anything.
I love you, Anna. Always have. Always will.”
an slowing. Squeaking breaks. Stopping.
hris lunging. Yelling.
odies hitting the ground. Rolling. Gasping. Groaning. Punches. Thwacks and thuds. Slaps. Heaving breathing.
omeone yelling for help.
ast, heavy footfalls. Running. Kicking. Moans.
oud gunshot blast.
Soft pink glow growing beyond the slash pines along the eastern horizon.
Phone. Shattered silence.
It was Dad.
“Did you shoot Chris Taunton?” he asked.
“I did not. Why do you ask?”
“He’s in Bay Medical in bad shape. Been shot.”
“Barely. That surprise you? What’s going on?”
“What did he say?”
“Says it was an accident, that he did it to himself while cleaning his gun, but it
a self-inflicted wound, and he’s asking to see you.”
My first thought was that Chris was dead.
My second was if he wasn’t, he soon would be.
Sallow skin stretched over skull-like dried-out cigar paper. Matted, tangled, oil-tinged hair. Dark stubble. Dirty, blood-stained face. Erratic, labored breathing.
When he blinked his small, inky eyes partially open, he looked worse. Bloodshot. Unfocused. Jaundiced.
When he finally recognized me, he strained to open the tiny moist marbles all the way as anger transformed his tear-streaked face, contorting his parchment-thin skin.
“What . . . the . . . hell . . . have you done?” he managed to push out in airy, harsh whispers.
“What do you know?” I asked. “What can you tell me?”
“Why . . .” he said, then trailed off, taking a moment to regroup.
“Take your time,” I said. “Use your energy for communicating rather than anger.”
“Why . . . are . . . they . . . doing this?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know yet.”
“Who . . . are . . . they?”
“What . . . did . . . you . . . do . . . to them?”
“I don’t know anything yet,” I said. “Except they want me to do something––get something to trade for Anna.”
“If . . . any . . . thing . . . happ . . . ens . . . to her,” he slowly, breathily hissed, “I . . . will . . . kill . . . you. Swear on her . . . life . . . I . . . will.
On . . . her . . . life
“What can you tell me about them? What did you see? Hear? How are they treating her?”
He shook his head slowly, dislodging more tears that snaked down his soiled face.
“Not . . . much. Seem . . . sort of . . . professional . . . Like amateurs . . . taking . . . a pro . . . fess . . . ional . . . approach. Two guys. One . . . young . . . dark hair . . . skin . . . eyes. Not . . . black, but . . . dark.” He shook his head. “Got . . . nothin’ . . . on the other. Rough . . . with me. Not . . . with her. But . . . doesn’t . . . mean . . . they won’t . . . be.”
I nodded and tried not to think about that.
“Do . . . what they . . . say . . . goddamnit. Don’t . . . try too . . . hard . . . to be . . . too smart. Get . . . her back. I’d . . . rather her . . . be alive with . . . you . . . than . . .”
I nodded again and indicated something with my eyes––appreciation, maybe. Or solidarity. Or understanding.
“Are . . . we . . . only ones . . . who know?” he asked.
“Let . . . me . . . help . . . if I . . . can.”
“Okay,” I said, nodding.
Something flickered in his eyes and they widened momentarily the way eyes do when the mind has an
“They . . . think I’m . . . dead,” he said. “Leave . . . it that . . . way. Get . . . your dad to . . . put me under . . . different name. Best . . . for Anna . . . they think . . . I’m dead. Maybe . . . I can help with . . .”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I said.
He nodded and we were quiet a moment.
“I . . .” he began, “. . . hate you . . . so . . . fuckin’ . . . much. And . . . the life of . . . only person . . . I’ve ever loved is in. . . your hands. I . . . I . . . don’t know . . . what to do . . . with that.”
“Nothin’ to do,” I said.
“Meant . . . what I . . . said. Fuck this . . . up . . . and I . . . will . . . kill . . . you.”
“Assuming you’re still alive yourself,” I said.
“I’ll . . . stay . . . alive . . . just to do . . . it.”
“I need your trust,” I said to Dad.
“You’ve got it. You know that.”
We were standing in the ICU hallway right outside Chris’s room. Activity around us. Nurses at the large station in the center of the ward, others in and out of rooms. Guests, two at a time, entering and exiting the rooms of loved ones. An occasional doctor. A two-person cleaning crew in light burgundy scrubs slowly making their way around the unit. None of it quiet. None of it particularly careful.
“I need your blind trust.”
“Okay. You’ve earned it. Thousand times at least.”
I thought about how true that statement really was. I had proven myself over and over to this man in a variety of situations and circumstances over the course of several decades. He knew I’d keep my word and do the very best I could to do the right and honorable thing.
“I’ll tell you everything when I can, but until then . . .”
“Can you put out a release saying Chris died from a gunshot wound, then put him under a different name?”
“He still in danger?”
“No questions. Not yet.”
He nodded again. “Okay. Done.”
Acting as if my entire world was not being held hostage for an as yet unknown ransom.
Stopped at the front gate. Called over to the window by the sergeant––a young guy with short, dark blond hair, bright blue eyes, and bright white teeth almost always on display in his kind, infectious smiles. Professional, friendly, and pleasant, it was little wonder Randy Wayne Davis was the first face staff, volunteers, and visitors encountered at PCI.
“Morning, Chaplain,” he said through the slot next to the document tray. “How are you?”
Both the slot and tray were built in to the control room. Made of heavy metal, they represented the only access points to the control room from the exterior of the prison. They were used for everything from law enforcement checking their weapons before entering the institution, to staff, volunteers, and visitors signing in and out, and passing paperwork.
“Good,” I said, leaning down a little to make sure he could hear me. “You?”
“All good in the hood,” he said. “Hard not to be happy on a day like this.”
I turned and considered the day. He was right. It was a brilliant, beautiful morning.
“Is Ms. Rodden coming in today?”
“She might be in later,” I said. “She’s not feeling well at the moment.”
He nodded as if he knew why and sympathized. “Hope it’s just a little morning sickness and nothing more.”
“It is. Thanks.”
“I’ve got a few messages for her,” he said. “Should I just . . .”
“I’ll take them,” I said. “Make sure she gets them.”
He dropped several pink phone message slips into the drawer and slid it toward me. “Some in there for you too.”
I took the slips but didn’t look through them.
“You okay, Chaplain?” Randy Wayne asked.
“Sure? You seem a little . . . I don’t know, distracted.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Didn’t realize. Just thinking about what I have to do today.”