|I had the entire weekend
to myself. The joyful anticipation made me drum a cathartic beat on the
steering wheel of my new BMW. It was Friday evening shortly after 6:30.
I had worked late so that I did not have to do any work on Saturday or
Sunday. I was Senior Consultant for a large consulting firm and had just
finished a lucrative and intense job straightening out the payroll system
for Eastinghouse. I was always amazed how many morons worked in the computer
and accounting departments of large corporations. Those managers made
six figure salaries, but could not do the most mundane tasks. Good for
me though, more assignments like these and I would have enough money to
start my own firm.
I was pleased that I had cut the grass on Thursday night. Now I could spend the most relaxing weekend in months without any chores. The last thing I had to do was to stop at the grocery store and buy enough food to last me the weekend. I always did that when I had a weekend all to myself. I would be able to sleep in, watch a few movies, read a good book and sleep some more. I needed the break. I had not had a vacation in two years and the payroll project had guaranteed me 80-hour weeks for the past four months. To top it all off, Amber, my wife, was visiting her sister in Baltimore for the weekend. They wanted to go to the beach, shop, and do what sisters do. She did not even fight me when I said I did not feel like going, I was too tired to drive five hours and besides, I had to work late and we would not have gotten there until way after midnight, making her practically miss out on Saturday for Friday’s sleep deprivation. Don’t get me wrong, I love my wife, but she always finds something to do for me on weekends: paint this, fix that, cut the grass, take a branch off this tree, trim the hedge here. She does not understand that after a long week a man sometimes needs a little R’n’R and home and garden maintenance for me is a necessity, not a hobby, like watching football games or exercising, or reading. Even better: she took our dog, Rex, a five year old German shepherd with her, because she is afraid of driving by herself. For me this meant no responsibility whatsoever. I did not even have to feed the dog, take him out or play with him. I was so happy I could burst.
I swerved into the parking lot of the grocery store and parked right in front of a run down rusty station wagon, which had seen better days about two decades ago. Its rear license plate was hanging by one screw, and a thick wad of duct tape at the base of the antenna defied gravity by holding the corroded aerial erect. Energized and whistling I flew through the aisles, picking up all sorts of things that would probably last me a few weeks, and definitely one long perfect weekend. I paid, packed the groceries into the trunk and drove toward my house.
We live in one of the better suburban towns in the region. It’s the Pittsburgh equivalent to Grosse Point, Michigan. Large mansions in a country setting surrounded by luscious trees and expensive landscaping. Every house on my street sits on at least five acres of land, private, but not remote. There is never any crime and the living is great.
I took a left at the intersection and noticed that I was behind the ramshackle station wagon. It was a definite eyesore in this neighborhood. The station wagon was crawling along the street. They were probably aware that they stood out like a sore thumb and most likely that thing could not go any faster. I took a deep breath; I did not want to get too annoyed by this traffic obstruction less than five minutes away from my house. Nothing to get this weekend off on the wrong foot! I rolled my eyes in a small sign of annoyance when the station wagon turned right onto my street. I had to follow them up the steep hill. I wondered where they might be going, because they clearly did not belong here. I had caught a glimpse of the driver in the parking lot; he was a middle-aged, fat white male with an ugly gray stubble beard in his face. They were smoking cigarettes and when they sucked in the nicotine I could see in the resulting glow that there were three people in the station wagon. They made it up the hill, but did not turn into the development on the left side, which I kind of had expected and hoped them to do. Oh well, less than two minutes…
They continued to move at a snail’s pace in front of me and then took a sudden and surprising turn left…into my driveway. They must be lost, attempting to turn around. I followed them and then pulled next to them in front of the garage. I could see them talking to each other. I turned the engine off, got out and approached the station wagon.
“Can I help you? Do you need directions?”
The man I had seen in the lot looked at me out of tired light blue eyes and responded, “Do you live here?”
I nodded while I thought about what a curious question that was. The guy from the back seat got out and stood right behind me. “Well, then you must have the keys to this house, pal?” When I turned to look at him I noticed the gun he held in his right hand pointing right to my face.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. I swallowed deeply and dryly and for the first time in my life I noticed my Adam’s apple. It felt heavy in my throat, almost threatening to pull me to the ground. “Let’s go,” he said. One of his buddies had climbed from the car and gave me a heavy push to my shoulder blade. They all were now holding guns in their hands. I stumbled toward the front door. If only Rex were here. “Open it.” I fumbled for the keys and was shoved into the hallway. They followed me and closed the door. “Nice place.” commented the driver. While they looked at the house, I looked at them. The second man was scrawny with bad skin, long hair in the back and an almost toothless but persistent grin. The third guy was quiet, dark-skinned like a construction worker in the summer, with a six foot athletic built, but with a rather large round beer belly. Even if they hadn’t had a gun, I would have been unable to overpower them by myself. The driver motioned me with a flick of his gun wrist to sit down in my comfortable armchair in the family room. Even though I was calming down, it didn’t feel quite so comfortable now. The other two rummaged through the house while the man with the gun kept me at bay with his company. He looked at a picture of Amber on the phone desk. He whistled. “Damn, is that your wife?”
“She got a name?”
“Figures. Hot lady like that can’t have no name like plain old Jane. She’s gotta have a name like Amber. That hot dish and a guy like you, tsk tsk.” His voice trailed off into a mumble and I couldn’t hear what else he was saying. I was glad she was far away. I wanted to smack him, the way he looked at her, but I stayed in my chair, slowly rocking. A few minutes later his buddies returned. They had collected some jewelry and two DVD players. “Not too much here,” said the construction worker.
“You got any money?” asked the scrawny fellow.
I shook my head. “No, I don’t keep any cash around.”
“Give me your wallet,” demanded the driver. I took it out of my pocket and handed it to him. He poked around my wallet, took the credit cards and my ATM card. “What’s your PIN?”
I looked at the gun in my face and answered compliantly. “7571.”
“Get up, you’re coming with us. We need to go to a bank.”
“Lucky guy, we didn’t even mess up his pretty house.” They laughed. We left the house fairly inconspicuously. My neighbor from across the street waved to us as we stepped on the front porch. The two guys without the gun waved back and smiled. “Good evening, Ma’m.” We got into the car. I sat in the back with the construction worker. It smelled of beer and cigarettes. We drove off slowly.
It started to rain as we turned out of my driveway. I was wondering if this was how it was all going to end for me. It seemed so surreal. I imagined them keeping me until they drained my bank account and then killing me in some Western Pennsylvanian cornfield or in a dirty back alley of a decrepit industrial town. What would they do with my body? Leave it there to rot? Or dump it into a river where it would stay and decompose for a while before it would be washed up somewhere downstream? As we descended the hill, I made out the Ohio River in the distance aimlessly flowing between the thick forests that surrounded the suburban settlements. Before more morbid thoughts crossed my mind, I felt an elbow jamming into my right side. “Hey, don’t even think about escape,” said the gruff voice of my seat neighbor.
“Wouldn’t dare to,” I mumbled in response, rubbing my side. They stopped in the shopping center where I had just innocently purchased my groceries less than an hour ago and went to a drive through ATM I never used, as it wasn’t my bank and I didn’t want to pay the bank fee. Even now, it made me angry how the banks were ripping off their customers. The driver handed me my card and pulled up slowly to the dispenser. “Roll down the window and get the limit.” I inserted the card, punched the PIN into the keypad and waited for the $500 to come out. I looked at the camera and wondered whether they would be able to see the look of pleading despair in my eyes when they would ultimately look at the photograph of me getting my money from a back seat of shoddy station wagon. I took the money and gave it, the card and the receipt to the driver. He laughed and shifted into drive and off we went into the twilight.
It was a quiet ride into Pittsburgh. Night was falling quickly with the dark rain clouds hovering densely over the skyscrapers. The clouds pushed darkness and fog between the buildings and chased the daylight away. The city seemed deserted although it wasn’t even nine o’clock. I looked at my captors. They didn’t address each other by name, but I would not only be able to draw them but probably be able to draw them accurately -- and I am a poor drawer. Their faces and bodies were indelibly branded into my memory. I even picked up some idiosyncrasies. The toothless skinny man was a chain smoker who alternately grinned and puffed. The construction worker coughed every time he moved as if he were allergic to himself. The driver reached over his left shoulder and pressed into his skin in regular intervals as if he had a consistent back pain that responded well to gentle force. They must have read my mind. “We killed people before,” stated the smoker between drags. He said it so matter-of-factly that his words chilled the car. I understood. They did not take kindly to witnesses. I had definitely been at the wrong place at the wrong time. The rain grew stronger. The atmosphere was like a film noir setting with only the femme fatale missing. My life wasn’t flashing in front of me, and I wasn’t even that scared. A resigned calm came over me. I wasn’t even scheming to get away. I just sat there and all I could think about was who these guys were. The last guys I was ever going to see or talk to. So bizarre!
We had traversed downtown and made our way to Oakland in the now driving rain.
“How much money is in your account?” asked the construction worker.
I shrugged my shoulders. “Maybe $5000.”
“That all?” He sounded genuinely disappointed. “Such a nice house and car and only $5000 in the bank…tsk tsk.”
“He’s probably got it all invested in stocks and bonds,” offered the driver while pressing his shoulder blade.
I nodded. “Yeah, as a matter of fact. You’re right. All invested.”
“How much?” asked my neighbor.
“Tell us,” he insisted.
“Well, I guess maybe a quarter million bucks or so.”
“Whew.” The skeletal guy whistled through the holes in his dental structure and blew some smoke my way.
“You got life insurance?” asked the construction worker.
“How much?” he wanted to know.
“I have a $500,000 policy.”
“Damned. Your wife’s gonna be a rich bitch.”
“Hell, yeah,” screamed skeletal man.
“That’s a hot babe you got there,” added the driver. “I wonder who’ll she be fucking with all that money. She’ll be a hell of a catch.”
“Damn right. And she don’t even have any brats running around. She’ll be the most eligible widow in town.” The construction worker laughed. “You ain’t got no kids, right? Didn’t see any pictures of any in the house.” He gave me an almost friendly punch in the side.
I bobbed my head in agreement. “No kids, yes.”
“Hell, maybe if we clean ourselves up, she may even be marryin’ one of us,” said the skeleton in the passenger seat. They all found that so hilarious that they were laughing hysterically with two of them adding a coughing fit to the whole scene. I didn’t find it at all funny and kept a straight face. I felt a pang of anger and regret.
Once they quieted down, they had more questions.
“Any good stock tips for us?” The driver peeked over his right shoulder straight at me.
“Yeah, give us some last words of wisdom,” squeaked the buddy to his right.
I obliged. “Coke and Microsoft will continue to do well in the future. Low risk, high return.”
“Microsoft sucks,” responded the driver sullenly.
Then silence fell over the interior of the car. Outside, rain drops hammered on the roof, windshield wipers screeched in the front, and puddles splashed against the rusty undercarriage. We drove through South and North Oakland and then turned left toward the Hill District. We drove a few blocks until we came to an abandoned area with overgrown grass and boarded up crack houses. We turned into an alley with weeds on both sides of the road as if this were Weed Boulevard. I reflected on how weeds are so resilient. The station wagon came to a stop and the driver choked the engine.
“The pleasure was all ours. Now get out,” he spoke almost apologetically.
I opened the door and stepped into the darkness. Weeds everywhere, I thought.
Numbing rain sprayed on the cobblestones and rolled off into the weed patches. I turned toward the car and I saw the fat man pulling out his gun. He shot me three times. I slowly sank to the ground, dying. Simultaneously, the driver pulled out a cell phone, speed-dialed a number, and said: “Amber? Yes, the job is done.”