Drops of rain fell upon a faded grey sedan, labeled Charlie’s Cab Company, which sat in an otherwise bare parking lot. Charlie, the sole owner, stood next to the car holding an envelope. He allowed the rain to fall upon him until tiny creeks flowed between the wrinkles around his eyes and trickled down his cheeks. An endless sea of grey rain 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, a passing thought urged him to leave the young couple at the restaurant on Main Street. In his brief moment of hesitation, he recalled tales told in his childhood of married couples on dark winding roads. Charlie shook the thought away and smiled at the husband and wife, both of whom teetered on the curb, drunk. Charlie invited them into the cab. The husband helped his giggling wife into her seat before he stumbled his way around the car and got in the back. The wife snuggled next to her husband, closed her eyes, and sighed.
The couple was 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 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, primarily since Charlie fought to keep sleep from weighing his eyes down. Eventually, 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 okay, pal?” Phil asked.
Charlie nodded, pinched the bridge of his nose and continued to drive. The winding back roads eventually led to a brightly lit mansion upon a hill. 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… buddy… it’s 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 thought 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? Alice had a little too much to drink.”
After locking the door and grabbing from the trunk a 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 two men dragged a nearly unconscious young bride into the house. After three flights of steps, 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 until they stood in a sparsely though comfortably furnished little bedroom.
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 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 flashlight was in his face. Charlie could barely make out the movement of a person just beyond the light.
“Charlie,” a distorted voice spoke. “You’ve been selected.”
“Phil? Alice?” Charlie questioned. Charlie couldn’t tell whether the voice came from 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 only 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. 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 placed on his chest caused Charlie to pull away suddenly. The hands held him fast. With deliberate care, another set of hands secured the metal object 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 pushed up the stairs and through a door.
Though blindfolded, Charlie sensed he was now outside. His captors allowed a brief pause as Charlie pointed his blindfolded eyes toward the sky. Sunlight penetrated through the fabric of the blindfold, yet he was unable to sense the time of day.
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 his captors led him down a set of steps. He knew he was still at the mansion.
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 distorted voice from before whispered in his ear. “Open your hand.”
Charlie complied. A moment later, he held a small square object.
“Not until you hear this phone ring,” the voice said. “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.
An undistorted 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.”
“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. 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 the mansion. It seemed eerily abandoned. The driveway was empty, and 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.
“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. He pushed on the gas pedal, and the engine roared. The car squealed as Charlie sped out of the driveway.
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 slowly chewed the paper 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. Circling the small parking lot so that his car would face the exit, he parked the car and cranked the brake.
A quick lift of his shirt showed ten minutes remained on the LCD screen. His watch showed 9:55 am. He had 5 minutes before the bank would open. He looked up, and large drops of rain began to 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 a difference?” He smiled, then wiped the tiny creeks of rain from 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 grew loader as police cars 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,” the woman’s voice spoke.
“What do you…” Charlie began until he heard a click. “Hello!” He yelled.
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, the local newspaper published Charlie’s story 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. The mansion, once owned by Phil and Alice Johnson, was condemned. No one knows what happened to the Johnsons.