Kate stood in the shower and sobbed. She knew her grandparents wouldn’t be able to hear her crying–only the water running. With her back to the spray, she could feel hot tears down her face and her eyes burned. Pretty soon my nose will be running. It’s a good thing nobody can see me blubbering like this.
What was the matter with Kevin, anyway? Running in and grabbing her. Kissing her, for crying out loud! Saying right in front of her grandparents that she’d been kidnapped…as if it wasn’t taking all her self control to act like nothing had happened. Kate’s hands shook as she tried to open the shampoo bottle. It slipped from her fingers and thunked down on her foot. She yelped.
“Had to buy the economy size,” she wailed, trying to balance so she could rub her smashed toes.
“Honey, are you all right in there?” Grandma called through the door.
“Yes, I dropped the biggest jug of shampoo they had at Walmart, that’s all.”
Get a grip, Kate thought furiously. She felt chills despite the steamy shower spray. She could practically hear that silky voice in her own mind, the woman saying, ‘Get him to finish this project and accompany him to L.A. You want your lovely grandparents to stay safe, don’t you?’
Even though the two goons hadn’t let her see the woman’s face, she was never going to forget that voice. Never. Whatever Kevin thought about his parents’ involvement, his mother’s voice wasn’t the one haunting her now.
She gingerly felt along her ribs where the one creep had kicked her. Not broken, but definitely a deep bruise. Kevin’s embrace had made her grit her teeth to keep from crying out.
She got out of the shower and wrapped her hair in a towel, began drying off as carefully as possible around the rib area. She asked herself why she hadn’t told Kevin the truth when they were alone in his truck to look at the notebook. She decided it was because she had no way to be certain she could trust him. That, and because he was an idiot. You’re lucky you’re good looking, she thought spitefully, then tears welled up again.
Her phone chimed on the vanity countertop. Cleo, at last–no, Serge. Tracked Cleo down in Chicago doing improv. He’ll get back to you.
Thanks, she texted back. Have him do it ASAP, OK?
Babe, you in trouble?
Looks that way. Details to follow later. Bye.
So, how fast could her panic-plan of kidnapping Kevin’s parents be pulled together…was Cleo going to fly in from Chicago for her after all this time? Was he still hanging out with the same pals/erstwhile kidnappers?
Lame. The whole thing was lame. Evelyn had set them up with an impossible mess to sort out, and who had what to gain by ‘Topeka Is Awesome’ being finished and presented? Was that really what her kidnappers wanted, or was there something else about getting Kevin to L.A. with the notebook that was the real goal?
Next step. Kate stared at her red-eyed reflection in the vanity mirror. Get dressed. Look at flights to LA, book after getting authorization from the grant administrator. Try to forget Kevin’s expression as he looked at his parents over dinner. What kind of lung condition did his dad have, with all that coughing? TB?
Your mind is going south on you, honey. Focus. She took a deep breath and started pulling on clothes.
Kevin drove, sparing only enough of his mind to the task as he absolutely had to in order to avoid running a light or into a another car. The rest of his mind he devoted to kicking himself. His mother was going to be killed for sending messages to Evelyn. He had confirmed that for Bianca Devore in a colossal blunder. He smacked his palm on the steering wheel, then swore at the shock of pain that shot up his arm.
If he could get his mom away from his dad and Bianca, just get her somewhere safe until all this was sorted out…where might that be, though. Not in awesome Topeka. He thought of the detective he had met with at the Police Department. Would some sort of protective custody work, or was his dad too tied in with them at headquarters, as evidenced by the ‘public service’ diversion he had arranged?
He swung the pickup onto I-470 and headed back toward his parents’ home. If his dad really had taken a sleeping pill, maybe tonight, right now, was his only chance to get his mom and flee. Unless Mom wasn’t at the house, and Bianca Devore had been the one using his mom’s phone to text him to set up the meeting in the park. He couldn’t see any other way but to try and find out if she was there.
He parked a block away on a side street and rummaged in the glove box for a flashlight. He felt a twist of heart when he remembered it was his dad who taught him to always have a working flashlight in any vehicle he drove. In case of emergencies. I’m calling this an emergency, he thought, pulling on the dark hoodie he kept behind the seat. He turned the dome light off, so he wouldn’t be illuminated when he opened the door to get out of the truck. He had seen that on a crime show on TV.
He cut through all the familiar neighborhood backyards, places he’d played cops and robbers, soccer, pickup football. Most people living here now were his folks’ age , before it had been young families with a herd of kids. All the houses seemed to have small dogs inside, who yapped hysterically as he made his way past.
He arrived at the back of his home. All dark, even the back porch light was turned off. Good, he could get up to the door by slinking along the holly bushes, and use the flashlight to get his key in the lock.
He hung up his foot on the sprinkler nestled in the bushes, and went down hard in the mulch. He lay there a moment to see if anyone stirred. No sounds except leaves rustling in the night wind.
He let himself in, and clicked the door shut. He quickly punched in the disarm code on the alarm keypad. A nightlight by the basement steps gave him enough light to make his way down the hall. The only sound was the heat pump cycling.
Until the text chime sounded on the phone in his pocket. He dropped the flashlight fumbling the phone out. Special ops, you ain’t, jack. He had just looked at the screen to see Kate’s text, Cleo can’t be here 4 two days, when the door to the hall bath opened, spilling light across him standing there.
His mother gaped at him. His father’s cough came from behind the closed bedroom door, followed by a snore.
He put a finger to his lips and motioned her forward. She was dressed for bed, barefoot. He took a close look at her face, even turning the flashlight on her. She seemed to be the real deal this time.
She started to say something, but he put his hand over her mouth. He took it away only after she seemed to relax, to understand he wanted her to be quiet. He took her hand and led her to the hall closet. He pointed at her feet, and she wordlessly pulled out a pair of garden clogs and slipped them on. He held out a raincoat and helped her into it, then led her out the back door, pausing only to rearm the security system.
Neither spoke until he let her into the truck and got in behind the wheel. As he pulled away from the curb, he said,” Mom, Bianca Devore is going to have you killed for the messages to Evelyn. Where can I take you that’s safe?”
“I don’t know that anywhere is safe…How much money have you got on you?”
“Maybe forty bucks. I mostly use my debit card.”
“You know anything electronic can be traced.”
“Really? It seems I’m a little newer to this cloak and dagger stuff than you are. Want to tell me what’s going on?”
“Oh, honey, it would take too long. It’s gotten so complicated.” She stared out the windshield, and as they passed under a streetlight, Kevin saw the tear tracks on her cheeks.
“All right, look. It’s not too far off from getting light and I have a full tank of gas. We’ll just drive around until Goodwill opens and we can get you some clothes. Keep thinking in the meantime how we can generate some cash, like payday loans or pawn something. I don’t know. Then we’ll figure out where to stash you. Okay?”
No answer. He flicked another glance her way.
“You’re a good boy, Kevin.”
“Yeah.” He turned onto Gage Boulevard and headed north.
Kate was squinting at the flight information on her phone screen and copying it onto a yellow legal pad. “This is no way to live,” she grumbled. Her laptop was slag from the explosion, and she had no money for another one. Maybe she could print out the info at a Kinko’s or the public library in the morning. She rubbed her eyes.
Her grandpa was snoring and her grandma had taken refuge on the futon. She snored also, but with much less reverb. Kate had decided to try and persuade them to return to California, by claiming her project was heating up and she had to devote so much time to working on it that she couldn’t show them around any longer.
Would they be any safer back home? That’s where Bianca Devore wanted Kate and Kevin to end up, after all. There had to be some connection with California, with the appointments in California that Evelyn had noted. Who had set them up?
Kate flipped a page on the pad and started writing questions. She had filled the page when she threw down her pen and turned the page over. This side she divided into ‘What we know’ and ‘What we don’t know.’ That didn’t work any better; ‘What we know’ was dismally short.
She was roaming the kitchen trying to heat water for a cup of instant coffee without waking her grandma when she got a text from Kevin.
Need to meet you. What public place can you walk to after it gets light?
There’s a Quik Trip a block away on 21st.
Text when you walk out the door.
Suddenly, she did want to see him. Kevin might lack a certain amount of insight, but he was earnest. Or he seemed to be, she reminded herself. He could be lying to her as easily as not. Better to meet him but keep her mind on high alert. No more passion-laden kisses, for sure not in the Quik Trip.
As soon as the sky brightened, Kate put on her shoes and picked up her apartment key. Just as she had her hand on the doorknob, she heard a yawn behind her.
“Where are you off to, Katie-bug?” Her grandpa was standing in the hall by the bedroom door.
“Just a quick jog to get more coffee. You can sleep in.”
“Don’t be silly, we walk every morning at home. Get up, lazy bones.” He jostled grandma’s foot under the sheet. “We need to make a coffee run with Kate.”
At least they didn’t take long to dress. Kate tried telling them she could be there and back in the time it would take for them all to get there, but the old folks bounced around like a walk to the quickie mart was one of the things that made Topeka so awesome. Maybe I should include that in the project, Kate thought sourly.
She texted Kevin as they walked down the sidewalk, On my way, g-ma and g-pa along, sorry.
NO! My mom is with me. Trying to get mom safe.
“You shouldn’t walk and text, honey. I read about it being dangerous in the AARP magazine.”
“I know, Grandma. I’ll wrap it up.” To Kevin, she sent: Cancel then?
A long pause, then, Come on. But not everyone will fit in the truck.
So where had he thought he was taking her? And anyway, this way she could keep an eye on her grandparents instead of wondering if terrorists were breaking into her apartment while she was away meeting Kevin.
Kate looked at every car that passed by, and found something suspicious in every occupant. At least not that many people were stirring yet, it would be a couple of hours before work traffic really picked up. She kept a brisk pace. Her grandma wanted to dawdle and look at flower gardens but she herded them both along.
She spotted Kevin’s truck parked off to the side of the Quik Trip entrance, empty. When she pushed the entrance door open, she saw him standing at the drinks fountain holding a cup like he was deciding what soda to get.. His mom was wearing clogs and a raincoat next to him, trying on dark glasses.
Kate pointed to the jars of instant coffee and shooed her grandparents in that direction before she stepped closer to Kevin. This time he didn’t make a fuss.
“We need to get my mom out. When is Cleo flying in? Can he take her back to where he came from? If I can scare up money for a plane ticket?”
“Tomorrow at six. I guess he would. Maybe I can get him to take my grandparents, too, I hadn’t thought of that. That’s a really good idea, Kevin.”
“More born of aggravation than inspiration,” he said with a lopsided smile. He kept looking at the rack of fountain buttons.
Madeline cleared her throat behind them. “Amy and George are coming over, kids.”
Kate’s grandmother was holding out a jar of instant coffee, her face a picture of indignation. “Katie, look at the price of this! Don’t you want to go to the grocery–oh! Hello, Kevin, Madeline. This is really such a small town after all, isn’t it?”
Kevin turned to face them, with a forced smile that faded as he looked past them. He reached out and snatched the jar from Amy, pulling her toward the coffee machines at the same time, George followed. “Here, it will be much cheaper to just get several cups hot to go. It’s pretty good coffee, plus they have a lot of flavor options.”
He pushed his mom toward the other couple, and snapped at Kate, who was trying to see what he had seen that spooked him, “Don’t look. Bianca and a couple of goons just got out of an SUV at the gas pumps.”
“What now? We’ll never get out of here. Take them all to the restroom?”
“Bianca can follow you there. I’m thinking…”
“Do it faster.”
“Try to stay out of sight. Try on ball caps or something. Wait, one of the guys is filling up. Ask grandma and grandpa to come look at Kansas souvenirs with you, that’s kind of in the corner. I’ll send mom, too.”
Bianca and the other man came into the store and headed right for the drinks. Kevin watched Kate disappear around the end cap of the aisle shepherding the others to souvenirs. He turned toward the coolers, and pulled out a long-neck bottle of beer from a six pack.
They can’t have noticed my truck, or they’d be looking around for me. He tucked the bottle of beer up the sleeve of his sweatshirt while he squatted to look at the magazine rack. He saw Bianca’s shoes head toward the restrooms.
The man with her was looking in the salty snack aisle. Kevin slipped to the back of the cooler service area where the utility sink was. He twisted off the lid of the beer bottle and let the beer run down the drain. He pocketed the cap and held the top of the bottle cupped in his hand with the rest of the bottle up his sleeve as before.
The man outside was still pumping gas. Kevin swung around the perimeter of the store, avoiding the inside man and Bianca, who had emerged from the ladies room talking on her cell. He came up just behind Kate, and said, “I’m going to boost their SUV. I’m heading outside now, you follow me with all the folks and hustle them into it. Give me the count of twenty to pull this off.”
Kate gulped. “Carjacking, now? I gotta say, you’re a lot more decisive this morning than you’ve been up until now.”
“I’ve been pushed far enough. Besides, are they going to report it to the police?”
Kate watched him thread his way out the door and around the gas pumps so he could come up behind the guy at the SUV. “Hey,” she said brightly to her grandparents and Kevin’s mom, “I think we get to participate in an impromptu scavenger hunt for the Topeka is Awesome project. Talk about the right place at the right time!”
Kevin stepped close to the man topping off the SUV. He jammed the top of the beer bottle in the man’s flank and hoped it felt like a gun barrel. With his other hand he gripped the back of his shirt. “Put the pump away, slowly.” He felt the guy shift his weight and pressed the bottle deeper. “I don’t have much left to lose, pal.”
The man shoved the nozzle back in its slot, and Kate erupted from the store dragging her grandparents by their arms. Kevin’s mom was first to the vehicle and yanked open the doors on the passenger side. Kevin spotted the keys in the ignition, shoved the man forward into the trash can by the pump, and leaped into the driver’s seat.
They were squealing away from the pump when Bianca and the other man came racing out of the store–steps too late to get between the SUV and the exit.
Grandpa George broke the silence. “I don’t know why that waitress last night told us nothing ever happens in Topeka. Something’s happening all the time!”
About the Author
Aimee L. Gross started writing as a child, and at age nine, mailed an application to the Famous Writer’s School without telling her parents. She still has the response, a letter advising her to wait to enroll until she became a grown up, ‘but keep writing.’
Despite a thirty-some year career in health care, she has continued to write, and has completed three novels so far.