Drops of rain fell upon a faded grey sedan, labeled Charlie’s Cab Company, which sat in an otherwise bare parking lot. Next to the car, Charlie stood. He allowed the rain to fall upon him until tiny creeks flowed between the wrinkles around his eyes and trickled down his cheeks. He squinted at the sky. An endless sea of grey raining clouds told him that driving today would be dreadful, but he had to do it.
Last night’s final fare occurred because of a choice Charlie made. This choice proved to be dangerous, but not because of his passengers, a young couple recently married.
When the young husband gave out directions, Charlie cringed. He knew the route through the mountains would be treacherous. For a moment, he thought to leave the young couple at the restaurant on Main Street. In his brief moment of hesitation, he recalled memories long stashed away of scary tales of married couples on dark winding roads. But he shook his head, smiled, and told them to get in. They were clearly in love and Charlie, though distant was his memory of young love, could still relate.
He drove through the fog as Phil, the name he overheard the wife call her husband, gave out directions over the drunken giggles and slurred speech of his wife. Her name, he would later discover, was Alice. As Charlie drove, Phil and Alice sat in the back seat and spoke in whispers occasionally broken by a joke, or some circumstantial story only understood by those riding the buzz of a late night party. Charlie was glad that Phil was sober enough to guide him around one dark, foggy bend in the back road, then another.
Though short in miles, the trip seemed like an eternity, especially since Charlie fought to keep sleep from weighing his eyes down, but he lost the battle as his head bobbed and his eyes closed. Somewhere between awake and dreaming, he swerved to the left, then to the right until a horn from an oncoming truck blared.
“You OK, pal?” Phil asked.
Charlie nodded, rubbed his eyes and continued to drive.
The eternally brief trip through back roads eventually lead to a brightly lit house. As Phil and his wife got out and paid their fare, he placed his hands on the door of the car, leaned into the open window and whispered.
“Say. Uh. It’s really late,” Phil paused and looked over his shoulder at his wife, who had stumbled over the first step up to the house. He looked back at Charlie, then began again. “We were thinking you might want to come in and sleep in our guest bedroom.”
Charlie looked at his watch. 4:05 am. In all his years as a cab driver, no one had ever invited him in. Odd as it was, he was tired and agreed to stay the night.
“Great,” Phil smiled. “Can you help me with my wife? She’s had a little too much to drink.”
After locking the door and grabbing from the trunk the small duffle bag, which he kept packed for emergencies, Charlie hoisted Alice from one side while her husband did the same on the other. Together, the trio marched, or rather two men dragged a nearly unconscious young bride, into the house and up three flights of steps where they laid her in bed and turned off the lights. The two men then headed down four flights of steps, the fourth of which led down to a basement where a room was already prepared should the host ever have a guest like Charlie.
After Phil left the room, Charlie locked the door, shut off the lights, and collapsed on the bed. Sleep overtook his tired body until a bang and the splintering of wood caused him to stir. As though a part of a bad dream, a blinding light illuminated the hallway and seemingly seared through Charlie’s closed eyelids. He groaned and attempted to roll over but found himself unable to do so. Upon opening his eyes, Charlie squinted. A light, perhaps a lamp or a flashlight, was held close to his face. Just beyond the light, Charlie could barely make out the movement of a person.
“Charlie. You’ve been… selected.”
“Phil? Alice?” Charlie questioned. The pitch and voice quality was such that he could not tell whether it belonged to a man or a woman.
“Then where am-”
“Oh, you’re still where you’ve always been,” the voice continued. “Only, you’ve forced us to change the game.”
Charlie cleared his throat. He thought back to his most recent fare. Was it just a few hours ago? The only thing he had done differently was to accept the hospitality of two strangers for the night.
“Oh, no,” the voice seemed to chuckle. “It wasn’t anything you did last night, or even the night before. You’ve just forced our hands.”
From somewhere in the darkness another set of footsteps approached. He heard the ripping of duct tape being peeled from adhesive. Charlie squirmed, but as he did, he found himself held fast by several hands. One set held his wrists, while another set removed blankets, then his t-shirt. A cold metal object was placed on his chest. Then, with deliberate care, the metal object was secured to his chest with one layer after another layer of tape. As this occurred, the thought running through Charlie’s mind was singular, “I hope that I’m around to feel the pain of removing that tape later.”
After his head and arms were shoved back into his t-shirt, Charlie was hoisted to his feet, blindfolded, and shoved up the stairs, then led outside. He paused briefly just outside of the door. Charlie pointed his blindfolded eyes toward the sky but was unable to sense the time of day by the position of the sun.
How much time passed between last night and this moment? Charlie thought as a heavy hand prodded him forward.
His feet shuffled upon the concrete, then blacktop as he was led down a familiar set of steps. He knew he was still at Phil and Alice’s house.
Breathing a little easier because he had gained his bearings, Charlie was not at all surprised to hear the latch of the driver’s side door of his taxi cab click open. He was shoved toward the open door and told to sit. He reached for his blindfold.
“Not yet,” the voice from before whispered in his ear. A hand belonging to the voice placed a small square object in his hand. “Not until you hear this phone ring. When it rings, answer it.”
The door slammed. Moments passed in silence as Charlie listened. Sensing he was alone, he reached for the blindfold.
The phone rang and Charlie tore the blindfold from his eyes and tossed it into the backseat. As the phone rang again, he lifted his t-shirt. A black object secured tightly to his chest by duct tape flashed a series of numbers on a small LCD console. Time ticked. The phone rang again. Charlie was sure it had rung several times, so he answered it and hoped he had not pissed off the person on the other end.
A woman’s voice on the other end of the phone spoke first.
“Say a word to the police and you die. Do you understand?”
“Why?” She interrupted. “Simple. You asked for it.”
“You don’t need to. Do you understand our demands so far?”
He lifted his shirt once again. A small red light next to the LCD screen of the box attached to his chest blinked twice.
“No need to check,” the woman’s voice continued. “We’re monitoring your every move. The box you are looking at is set to a timer. You have 45 minutes to meet our demands. Reach beneath your seat and open the envelope.”
Charlie did as he was told and found a white printout paper within the envelope. He unfolded it and read.
Keep the phone on you at all times. You are to go to First National Bank on Main Street and hand the teller, Anna, this yellow envelope. You now have 44 minutes. Destroy this note and be on your way.
Charlie glanced at the box beneath his shirt. Sure enough, 44 minutes remained. He glanced in his rearview mirror, then up toward Phil and Alice’s house. The house seemed abandoned. Not a single car was in the driveway. Even the porch lights were off. No one was in sight.
Perhaps, Charlie thought, the car Phil and Alice took to the party still sat in a parking garage on Main Street. I wonder where their other –
“Charlie,” the woman’s voice on the phone screamed. “Get moving.”
He set the phone down, then buckled his seatbelt and turned the key. The taxi’s engine hesitated and conked out. He swore, then turned the key again. The engine came to life as he pushed on the gas pedal and sped off.
Back on the winding road, which he had been down the night before, Charlie realized the note, now crumpled and damp with sweat, was still clenched in his hand.
Destroy the letter.
He crumpled it in a ball, stuffed it in his mouth, and chewed slowly as he rounded another bend in the road.
Arriving in town, Charlie turned down Main Street, a two lane one way road which led north toward several farms owned mostly by Amish families. The next turn he made brought him into the parking lot of First National Bank. He drove in a circle around the small parking lot so that his car would face the exit, allowing him easy access to Main Street should he need it.
He turned off the car and lifted his shirt. Ten minutes remained on the LCD screen. He checked his watch. 9:55 am. He had 5 minutes before the bank would open. He looked up and large drops of rain began to steadily land on his windshield.
“Great,” he muttered. He got out of the car, grabbed the envelope, shoved it beneath his shirt, then closed the door.
For a few moments, Charlie stood in the rain until it began to trickle down his cheeks. He checked his watch, then looked up at the bank.
“Pleasure. Adventure. Is there really a difference?” He smiled, then wiped the tiny creeks of rain from the around his eyes. He headed toward the bank as a blonde-haired woman unlocked the front door and held it open for him as he entered.
“Welcome to First National,”she said with a smile. “What can we do for you?”
Charlie glanced at her name tag, which read Anna. He handed her the envelope.
As Anna opened the enveloped, her smile faded. She locked the door of the bank, then signaled to another woman who sat behind a desk in a windowed office. She stood. Charlie turned in her direction and raised his shirt revealing the counter.
The woman inconspicuously hit a button beneath her desk, then stood and smiled.
Sirens blaring in the distance rapidly approached the bank. Uniformed officers and a swat team then surrounded the bank.
The telephone held in Charlie’s hand rang. He answered it.
“Well done, Charlie.”
“What do you,” Charlie began. Then continued, “Hello!”
The deathly silence of the other end gave him the dreaded answer. He was alone with no recourse upon which to fall. No proof of his coercion.
Later, Charlie’s story would be published on the fifth page of the first section of the Sunday paper with the following headline and corresponding story:
Cab Driver Holds Up Bank with False Bomb. Claims He ‘was forced’.
A 57 year old man was arrested on Tuesday morning as he attempted to rob a bank with a fake bomb strapped to his chest. The retired steelworker turned independent taxi driver maintained that he was abducted early Tuesday morning from the home of his last fare. Upon further investigation, police detectives did determine that he stayed in the basement of a condemned mansion located in the mountains just south of town. Detectives did find DNA and forensic evidence which indicated that the 57 year old man had been living in the basement of the home for several years. At this time, they have made no connections between the man’s most recent activities and the thirty year old mansion fire. However, the home, once owned by Phil and Alice Johnson was condemned some thirty years ago after undergoing a severe fire.