Kate. Odd how Kate was the first thing Kevin thought of after receiving one of the biggest shocks of his life. Odd how the most pressing thing in his mind wasn’t that his parents were involved in a murderous crime ring or even that his parents might be trying to kill him, but that Kate wasn’t here. He was burning to tell her this new angle. Or perhaps burning to just see her, be with her.
He was numb, he realized. Topeka used to be boring, the one place no one described as awesome. But now it had suddenly turned into a devious slaughterhouse where everyone he knew seemed to be involved. He hardly knew this place anymore, let alone himself.
“Are you sure you don’t know these people, Kevin?” Margaret asked him again.
Kevin realized his jaw was loose and he hadn’t blinked in a while. Instead of replying, he simply stuffed the pictures and papers into the notebook, tucked it under his arm, and left the room.
“Kevin – wait!” Kevin’s ears picked up the sound, but it didn’t register in his brain – he was thinking too fast. Shock wouldn’t stop him. He wasn’t the Kevin he used to be – the one who had dreams to leave Topeka but did nothing about them, the one who waited for others to prod him into action. Well, he wasn’t waiting anymore – least of all for Kate’s capturers to contact him.
Surely someone knew something about Kate’s kidnapping. Her grandparents’ – surely they were there, surely they knew something. Unless they were hiding something. Or were somehow involved. He shook his head. This must be what it felt like to be a police officer – suspecting everyone just because their lives were filled with crime.
He’d almost forgotten to knock on Kate’s door in his haste. When George opened it, Kevin was almost breathless. But what he saw inside the door took his last breath away.
It was Kate. There she was on the sofa, one leg crossed over the other; her head leaned back against the cushions. As she opened one of her eyes, Kevin could see it was focused on him. His legs lost all will to stand, and he fought to keep himself steady.
Forget the employee-relationship policy rules. Whatever he was feeling right now wasn’t in those books.
“Kate!” He said it with such fervor that it brought Kate to her feet. It was then his legs found energy to run toward her and pull her shoulders to his chest and her mouth to his.
Kevin wasn’t sure how long his eyes had been closed, how long his hands were gripping her arms, how long he was kissing her. Kate had pulled away and he realized she and both of her grandparents were staring at him.
“What got into you?” Kate’s words had a touch of sauce.
Kevin’s breath was fast as he looked her over for any signs of injury. “Are you okay? What did they do to you? How did you get away?” he asked.
“What are you talking about?” Kevin noticed she wasn’t feeling the same ecstatic glow that he had. She simply looked shocked.
“Your kidnapping!” he spurted.
“Kidnapping? Kevin, you’re crazy!” George and Emily were still looking bewildered.
Kevin’s ecstasy was turning to frustrated confusion. He fumbled for words.
“Kevin, get a grip and tell me what’s going on!” Kate said.
“That phone call yesterday – you said you’d figured everything out,” he started.
“What phone call? When? I never said that!” Kate said. “Figured everything out? I wish!” she snorted.
Kevin frowned, but continued. “And then the call just ended. I came here, and you were gone. That’s when they called me – “
“They?” Kate interrupted.
Kevin hadn’t stopped, “– and told me to give them the content of the boxes or they’d hurt you.”
Kate looked like she was about to laugh but instead narrowed her eyes in thought. “Kevin,” she began, her face dead-serious, “I was only gone a few hours yesterday. Grandma and Grandpa wanted some time to rest, and I needed some time to work. Someone – they – must have known I was gone and bluffed you to get what they wanted.”
Kevin’s hands flew in the air. “A few hours! Why haven’t you called me since then?”
“Why would I?” Kate sounded almost defensive.
“Well, I don’t know if you noticed, Kate, but we’ve been spending some time together lately,” he retorted. The way this had all played out so trivially was getting to him. “Where were you, anyway?”
“Working on the Topeka is Awesome project. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Kevin, but we still have a job.”
“Don’t we normally do that together?” Kevin asked.
“Together?” Kate flounced back down on the couch.
Kevin was taken aback. She had said the word as if it she was talking about their relationship, not their job. And she had said it like she didn’t like it.
He felt the back of his neck prickle. Before Kate, he hadn’t kissed a girl since high school. This stung.
“Kate,” he said, realizing there were more important things at hand, “I’ve got to show you something.” He couldn’t tell her about his meeting with Margaret here, not with her grandparents in the room. Overly suspicious or not, he didn’t think they needed to be in on the situation.
“Okay,” Kate said, not moving.
“It’s in the car,” he said. “In a folder. From work.”
Kate raised her eyebrows and rose from the couch.
Kevin had tried to repeat Margaret’s words to Kate perfectly. Yet even as he said them, he felt like he didn’t understand them all. When he came to the last picture, it was then the seriousness of what he saw smote him. His parents. He trusted them, loved them.
All of a sudden he was angry. Angry at them for being in this. For not caring they were hurting their own son. For deceiving him that they were good people, that they loved him. For making it so he couldn’t trust anyone. Not even his own family.
“Do you think it’s them?” Kate asked. “I mean, we’ve been wondering who they are all this time. Could your parents be the ones behind all this?”
“No! It couldn’t be,” Kevin said it before he even thought. And then he remembered the coughing in the back of the phone call, just like his dad’s cough. Still, they were in the plot, but they couldn’t be the top.
“Then who is?” Kate asked. “We’ll never figure this out.” She flopped her head against the car’s head rest and sighed.
“It’s whoever wanted me to think you were kidnapped,” Kevin said. Not that that solved anything.
“Kidnapped!” Kate suddenly sat rigid. “It was all a bluff, just like you said!”
Surely she hadn’t just now gotten it.
But Kate was still talking. “We can play the same game. What if – what if your parents were kidnapped?” She shoved her hair back in eager thought. “Obviously they’re important in this. And all you and I have to do is see who comes to pay the ransom – or rescue them – or whatever it is they do in a case like that.” Kate was actually smiling at her idea.
She sure could be dramatic. “Not to rain on your parade, but just how do we pull that off?”
“How should I know? How do criminals normally hire hit men and other people to do their dirty work?”
So at least one of her previous boyfriends wasn’t a criminal.
“Unless…” Kate put her finger in the air, “Unless we could try what this guy I dated in high school did.”
Kevin sighed. It was a boyfriend after all.
“He was friends with Serge. Remember him?”
It was getting hard to remember among all these other guys.
“Serge had lots of actor friends, and Cleo was one of them. Cleo came up with a get-rich-quick scheme. A job that paid for itself. Cleo knew plenty of underworld characters. So all Cleo and his acting buddies had to do was find a person with enemies, pull off a kidnapping, leave a ransom, collect, then put the victim back where he came from. Simple as that. No one suspected them because they never had anything to do with the people being kidnapped. No one got hurt. And they got to use their acting skills in the meantime.” Kate chuckled. “But of course, when I found all this out, I stopped dating Cleo.”
Well, that was good to hear.
“Come on, let’s give it a try. I don’t see you coming up with ideas on how to keep ourselves from getting killed in the meantime. If it doesn’t work, no harm done. But if it does,” she paused dramatically, “then we know who we’re really up against.”
Something about what Kate was saying was actually making sense. “So what do we do, just call Serge?”
Kate already had her phone out.
It had been well over a couple hours by the time the two began climbing the stairs to Kate’s apartment. Under normal circumstances, Kevin’s head would have been reeling. His own parents would be kidnapped by some hipster amateur actors he didn’t even know in exactly 24 hours in order to lead them to the people that were corrupting the city and ruining everything Kevin held dear.
But his head wasn’t reeling. Maybe it meant he couldn’t be shocked again, but he found that idea itself a little shocking.
Being so close to supper time, Kevin wasn’t sure if Kate’s grandparents would still be there. Good. That would give them more time to hash things out.
However, it was George’s face who greeted them at the door. “Oh good, I’m glad to see you guys are back. We’re just getting ready for company!”
Kevin and Kate glanced at each other.
“Hunter and Madeline called and wanted us to get together for dinner at their place.”
Hunter and Madeline? His parents? Dinner? Kevin was sweating.
George kept on talking, “However, Amy and I decided they might as well come on over here. Amy’s got the cooking bug and you know what that means.” George winked at Kate, but Kevin could see the color disappearing from Kate’s face fast. “Kate, why don’t you show me where the dishes are, and we’ll just set the table.”
“No need to set me out a plate,” Kevin tried to sound casual. His appetite was reading in the negative range anyway. “I’ve got to get back.”
“Oh nonsense,” Amy called out from across the kitchen, “You need to eat a healthy –“
There was a knock on the door even as she was speaking, and Kevin felt his stomach clench.
“I guess you’re staying now!” Amy said with a laugh as she pushed George toward the door to open it.
Kevin didn’t even attempt a weak grin.
Bitterness, confusion, discomfort, sorrow. If Kevin’s feelings were a multiple choice question, he figured his answer would be all of the above. There were his parents, sitting across from him at the table, involved in a murderous crime racket. After all these years. And he had been completely clueless. Of course he was clueless – he thought they loved him. Had they ever? Kevin kept his hands clasped to keep them from trembling. It had all been a fake. The way they got along so well, the Bible Study Fellowship, all that prayer they used to do, the way they would ask for forgiveness when they did something wrong. Well, they certainly weren’t asking for forgiveness from Kevin now. But the way they always seemed to care…
Disbelief. Add that to the list too. Maybe that picture hadn’t meant they were guilty. After all, Kevin had been with Bianca at one point, too, and he wasn’t guilty. Maybe the picture was really meant to show that his parents were in trouble with these crooks, too. But as much as Kevin wanted to believe it, it just didn’t make sense. The picture hadn’t shown his parents as Bianca’s frightened victims. Instead, they were more like cohorts, or even… friends. Now everything seemed to make sense. The way his dad had worked out the community service to keep the police chief quiet. How he so desperately wanted to know the news on Evelyn’s getting fired at the office. How, in fact, he had been nosy about the whole thing. How he and his mom didn’t seem to notice anything different had been going on in Kevin’s life – when he had been on the verge of death more times in one month than in twenty years.
“Kevin, do you want some more salad?” his mom asked. Kevin swallowed and refocused.
“No thanks, Mom,” he said, finding it hard to look her in the eye. Did she know he knew? Was that why the sudden dinner invitation tonight? Or was that just because they had become fast friends with George and Amy last night?
He looked over at Kate. She looked as if she was enjoying the irony of the moment.
“I’ll take the salad, if you don’t want it,” she said to him. “Come on, what’s the matter, Kev? Cheer up.”
Everyone turned to look at Kevin.
Kevin clenched his jaws behind a polite smile. He wasn’t sure why he liked Kate.
“Rough day, bud?” Hunter asked.
Kevin looked down. Did Dad know about Evelyn, Margaret… everything?
“I am pretty tired,” he said. Neutral enough. Kevin saw his dad narrow his eyes at him.
“Too much work?” Madeline asked. “Oh yes, how’s that Topeka is Awesome project going? I want to hear all about it,” she turned to Kate expectantly. Kevin felt sweat bead on his hairline. Kate wouldn’t be crazy enough to answer, would she?
Kevin decided to change the subject. “That has got to be the boringest car commercial ever,” he said, pointing to the TV across the room. Laird Noller. That reminded him of the name on the spar at Topeka High.
He saw his dad looking at him again. Kevin decided if he were talking, the conversation could only go the way he wanted it to. “News is on. Wonder what’s new. I bet there’ll be another story on the –“ Suddenly he stopped his rattling, as Melissa Bruner on 13 News informed the viewers that a car explosion had killed one, Evelyn Blackmon, on Burnett’s Mound.
Sweat welled up around his forehead again. “Can’t we turn that thing off?” he said. “I never saw the sense of watching TV with company here.”
“No, keep it on; I want to hear that story,” Kate said. He really wasn’t sure why he liked her.
“Hey, she’s the one that got fired from your work!” Hunter said.
“You know her?” Amy asked, eyes wide.
Kevin waved his hand to keep his tone casual. “Oh, she just used to work in the same place I did.”
“Did the city manager have anything to do with her losing her job?” his dad asked.
“Quiet or we’re going to miss the story,” Kate said, focusing on the television.
“Evelyn Blackmon, a previous city worker, was involved in a car explosion near Burnett’s Mound around 7 this morning. She died on the way to the hospital in the ambulance. Police are certain foul play was involved, and are holding Cameron Jute as a suspect.”
Kevin eyed the mug shot on the screen. Certainly no one he had ever seen before.
“I wonder how he could be connected with Evelyn’s death,” Kate mused aloud. Amy began clearing the plates off the table.
“Do you know, Kevin?” Hunter asked.
Kevin was hoping he would have given him a clue. But maybe Kevin could play his dad for information. Things were the other way around now.
“Maybe it had something to do with why Evelyn got fired,” Kevin said.
“But he didn’t have any connections with the city,” his dad said.
Kevin jerked his head toward Kate. How did his Dad know whether a Cameron Jute worked for the city or not? Kate had to have gotten it too. She was staring at his dad.
Kevin noticed sweat on his dad’s upper lip. Hunter wiped his lip with his napkin and cleared his throat.
Kevin tried to pretend like he didn’t notice his dad had said anything suspicious. He looked at his mom out of the corner of his eye.
Why was she smiling? There was certainly nothing happy or funny about the conversation. Suddenly her smile looked familiar in a strange way. And why wasn’t she moving? Her head was tilted slightly to the side, her fork raised halfway to her mouth, one hand curled under her chin. In fact, the whole scene looked familiar. It was just in the wrong spot.
Suddenly he knew. The photo. The photo from Margaret. The one with his parents eating with Bianca Devore. His mom was in the same position now as she was in the photo. And she was staring directly at him.
Before Kevin could think, his mom spoke. “Well, I’m through with murders. What about a game of Bingo, Amy? I just hope you don’t mind breaking out your piggy bank – I raise the bar pretty high when I play,” she laughed. “But, as I always say, ‘always do what you are afraid to do.’”
Bingo. Bank. Bar. And that quote. It was the one Kate had found in the novel planted on Evelyn’s computer.
Kevin was wrong about not being able to be shocked anymore. It was as if someone had just kicked him in the chest. His mom was the photo-sending informant.
Kevin still couldn’t get his breathing back to normal since he’d realized who his mom was. Clearly she had been posing as a part of the operation in order to save her own life. And sending the photos was the only way she knew how to fix the problem.
But now this kidnapping? What had he done? The ridiculousness of the situation suddenly hit him. Should he call his mom and try to warn her? Shouldn’t he at least let her know he got the message? Wasn’t she trying to tell him so he would do something? Obviously they needed to talk.
He couldn’t call her. His dad would overhear them talking. He’d just text.
Mom – got your message at dinner. When can we meet when Dad won’t know?
Kevin waited; sweat welling on the phone keys. He almost jumped when the message popped up.
Meet me at the park across from our house. Hunter took his sleeping pills. Give me an hour to make sure they’re working.
It was almost midnight and the park was closed. And very dark. A few houses surrounding the park had their yard lights on, but Kevin found it difficult to see if any of the park benches were being occupied.
As he rounded a tree, he saw his mother on one of the park benches. He felt relieved. He didn’t like the thought of his mother being here alone. But being with his father seemed just as dangerous at the moment, too.
“Mom,” he whispered as he approached her, “I’m glad we could meet. Are you in any danger?” he asked.
“Not here,” she whispered back. “We can talk.”
“Why did you wait until now to let me know?” Kevin asked.
“There wasn’t a way earlier,” Madeline said.
“I just need to know what to do, Mom. Obviously you think I am qualified to handle this. But I’m just lost.” For some reason he felt the need to continue whispering.
“You are qualified, Kevin,” she said.
“Well, okay, so now I have the photos, and I know who sent them, but what do you want me to do with them?”
She didn’t answer immediately, so Kevin continued, “And what about the Ad Astra Per Aspera thing? What am I supposed to do with that?”
Kevin looked down as he heard his mom rummaging in her purse. What was it, another piece of cardboard? One that would explain the other two?
Kevin blinked when a light snapped on from his mom’s hand. “I want to show you something, Kevin,” she said.
He leaned forward, trying to adjust his eyes. He realized he was holding his breath.
Madeline fingered a spot near her collar bone, and began rolling her hands upward. Kevin squinted as he tried to see what she was doing.
Then his eyes widened in horror as he saw the face of who he thought was his mother come off and fall to the ground. In front of him was a long, pointed nose.
“Thank you, Kevin. We had our doubts about your mother’s sincerity,” Bianca Devore said. “We have plans to eliminate her.”
Kevin’s mouth was hanging open and he made no effort to shut it. He could feel his shudder make the bench tremor beneath him. Bianca stood, suddenly tall and erect. She leaned down to grab the mask and tossed it on his lap. “Here, keep it as a souvenir.”
About the Author
Sarah Langley, life-long lover of words, grew up finding rhyming words for every object she saw. She wrote numerous short stories, all of which were silly, but her young eyes saw them as masterpieces. Now she writes both poetry and novels because she loves the feel of a pen in her hand, the way a nib sinks into handmade paper, and because words (whether rhyming or not) are always stuck in her head like a favorite song.
When not writing, Sarah works as a clown. She and her brother (who also helps her with novel plots) have been twisting balloons for three years. But whether making balloon sculptures, spending time with her brother, or just living life, Sarah is always searching for inspiration to put those words in her head onto paper.