On The Line
By S. J. Rozan
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 S. J. Rozan
All rights reserved.
Crashing dark chords smothered the cell phone's impertinent chirp, but the ringtone was "Ride of the Valkyries," so it penetrated, and I stopped. I was learning a Brahms sonata. After weeks it had started to come together into something I could feel good about. So good that I was up working on it at what is, for me, early morning: half-past eight, with a mug of powerful black coffee, and a big, bright, late fall morning beyond the windows.
I hate interruptions when I'm at the piano; hate them so much, I used to turn the phone off. Now, though, I just ignore it if it rings. Except for this one number, the reason I leave it on. I leaned from the piano bench, grinning, and reached for the phone, which was still squeaking out those opening Valkyrie notes. In my world, Wagner only trumps Brahms when Wagner means Lydia Chin.
"Hey," I said. "What's up?"
Silence, unlike Lydia; and an odd tone to it. Then she said, "Nothing good."
Those two words contained darkness: anger, fear, and something else. Warning? My skin went cold. "What does that mean?"
The answer didn't come from Lydia. It came from a different voice, relaxed and mocking in rhythm, but inhuman in tone: thin, robotic. Deliberately, electronically altered. "It means, asshole, your girlfriend got jacked."
I was on my feet, heart pounding. "What the — Who are you?"
"Come on, you don't know me?"
"What's going on?"
"Jesus Christ! You fucked up so many guys you can't keep track!"
"Who are you? What do you want?"
"No." In a flash, joviality gone, the metallic voice dropped. "It's what you want. You want your girlfriend to live. Or am I wrong?"
"You're right, and —"
"Then find her. It's a game, get it? You find her, she lives. You don't, she dies. You following that?"
"Whoever the hell you are, leave her alone. You have business with me, bring it on."
"It's on, buddy boy. And if I were you I'd get down to it."
"Get down to what?"
"What did I just say?"
"How am I supposed to find her?"
"Well, lucky for you, I'm going to help. Clues, evidence, all that shit. I know you like that shit. So we'll have fun. Now get going."
"No. This is bullshit."
"Then your girlfriend dies."
"How do I know she's not dead already?"
"You just talked to her!"
"I heard two words from a woman, and you have Lydia's phone. That's all I know."
"Jesus, look! The son of a bitch is in the game already! Instant offense, whoa, I like that. Okay, good, I'll go along. Here, sweetie. Talk to him."
"Bill?" It was Lydia, which I'd known, rock solid, from those first two words.
"Are you okay?"
"So far. I don't know what's going on, though."
"Stay cool. I'll find you."
"I know you will. But Bill? I don't want my mother to worry. Looks like Tony, his birthday party, looks like I'll miss it." She stumbled over her words. "If I don't show up he'll call the apartment. Could you make some excuse? He already thinks I'm a ditz. Tell him he'll have to get a little older without me."
"Aw." The robot voice sliced back in, dripping acid. "How sweet is that? Doesn't want her mama to worry. Well, her mama's gonna have lots to worry about, you don't get your ass in gear."
I spun, stared wildly around the room, as though he might materialize and I could lunge for him. Forcing myself still, I said, "I want to talk to her."
"Sorry, you just did. One to a customer."
"As this bullshit unfolds, whatever it is."
"And by 'bullshit,' you mean ...?"
"This insanity! Your so-called game!"
"'Insanity'? 'So-called'? Oh, man, where's your sportsmanship? Respect for the opponent, all that. You know, maybe I don't want to play with you after all. Nah, on second thought, forget it. Of course, that means I pop your girlfriend. But I guess you don't care. So long, sucker."
The line went dead.
My heart had been speeding. Now it stopped. My breathing, my power to move, it all stopped. What the hell had I done? Played chicken with a madman, and lost. Lost Lydia. I stood rooted, for a second, an hour, a lifetime.
No! The words I couldn't get out crashed around inside my skull. Not like this! This can't be how it ends. Do something. There's got to be —
The phone, Lydia's music, rang again.
"Lydia? Are you —"
The robot voice: "Not her. Me. You in or out?"
"Goddamn you —"
"Screw you, you bastard, I'm in." I realized I was soaked in sweat. "You think this is a goddamn game, I'll play." I took a breath, and did it again: "But only if I can talk to Lydia. So I know she's all right. You touch her, you motherfucker, I'll kill you."
"Oh, oh, listen to him! Big man! Know what, I really should forget the game and kill her right now. What could you do about it? What, asshole? But I'll give you a chance. I'll play fair."
"I talk to her. And you don't touch her." I dug in, praying my instincts were right. "Or I don't play."
"Are you listening? Who's in charge here? You don't find her, she dies. And you know what? You don't play, I hurt her a lot and then she dies."
"That's your rules. My rules, as long as I'm playing, you don't touch her, and I talk to her."
A hell of a gamble, going head-to-head with him like this. I didn't know who he was or what was going on. But if what he wanted was to kill Lydia he could have done that already, and he hadn't. This "game" mattered to him.
"Hmm," he finally said. "Okay, why not? But my rules: not whenever you want. You don't get what you want in life, do you? Fuck knows I didn't. Which would be your fault, motherfucker, if you remember."
"I don't remember. Tell me."
"No way! This is awesome! Oh, hey, did I mention you have twelve hours? A game's no fun without a clock. But we don't need no stinkin' refs. Cops come, cops even think about coming, she's toast. I mean it, motherfucker. First badge I see, pow pow pow! You got the rules?"
"And I talk to her."
"When you do something right. Like a reward. Oh, I love that! Yeah, good. I'll call you. But if you're thinking she can coach, fuggedabahdit. She has no idea where she is. And her phone, now that we got your attention, it's trashed. I mean, you don't think I'm that stupid?"
"I don't know who you are, so maybe you are that stupid."
The slashing laugh again. "Taunting! You could get called for that!" Then the instant hard freeze. "Okay, that's it. This is crap. Let's get down to it."
"What am I supposed do?"
"You're so smart. Figure it out."
And he was gone.
I hit call back, but got Lydia's voicemail. I cut off and waited. He'd have heard it ring; he'd know I wanted to talk. But my phone stayed silent.
My roar rattled the window frames. Or I thought it did. Or I wanted it to. I had to pull my arm back, stop myself from hurling the silent phone through the glass. You'll need that, you stupid bastard. That, and any brain cells you might have. This isn't about you and it's not about this son of a bitch. It's about Lydia.
All right. All right, stop, light a cigarette, think.
Who was he, this son of a bitch? What had I done to him — or what did he think I'd done? Obviously he knew me well enough to know he could get at me through Lydia, but that wasn't hard to figure. Anyone could see she was way more to me than a partner. She was less than he seemed to think — she was not my girlfriend — but that was her choice, not mine, a choice I lived with because I had to.
Though maybe her choice was right. Maybe getting too close to me was a bad idea. Any number of people over the years would tell you that. And look at the trouble she was in now, trouble that wasn't hers but would come down on her if I failed.
Except I'd already failed. She was somewhere locked up with a lunatic, I had twelve hours to find her, and I didn't have any idea how to begin.
I stabbed my cigarette out. Focus! Christ, Smith, focus. I closed my eyes, opened them. All right, yes, I had one idea, one thin thread. Lydia's phone. I knew fuck-all about cell phones, but I knew hers had a GPS. Even if this bastard trashed the phone, if he didn't pulverize the chip, could it still be traced?
I had no idea. But I knew someone who did.
I loaded my .38 and strapped on my shoulder rig. I checked the GPS on my own phone, made sure it was off. I didn't know how hard or easy it would be to follow me that way, but if it was possible, I didn't want it done.
I clattered down the two flights from my place to the street. At the bottom I took a breath, stepped outside. Nothing. Which is what I'd expected. Chances were he wasn't waiting to take a shot at me. What would have been the point of calling, of grabbing Lydia, then? But when your nerves run high you can plow into some bad mistakes. I'd done it before. I wasn't going to do it now.
It was morning, late fall, bright, cold, quiet. Braced for trouble, I looked around. Was he here, was he watching? That would mean Lydia was close, too. Across the street a guy rolled kegs into a truck. Two hipsters rounded the corner and a stocky woman trotted past the other way. No one seemed interested in me and I didn't find trouble. But I found an orange plastic bag dangling from the doorknob of my street door.
It could just be garbage someone was too lazy to carry to the corner. So they chose my shadowed doorway from all the places on the block, to leave it? Maybe. But "get down to it," the voice had told me twice. A peculiar phrase. And when I got down — downstairs — nothing was out of place, but this.
I unhooked the bag and went through the contents, only touching things on their edges. Maybe it was just garbage: a crumpled Starbucks cup, a punched Amtrak ticket stub, an empty American Spirit pack, a grocery store receipt. You drink your coffee, clean out your pockets, shove your trash in a bag.
And hang it on my door?
I took the bag and headed along the block.
Carefully. Even if he wasn't here, he might have someone working with him. At the corner I crossed against the light, watched to see if anyone else was in a big hurry, too. No one was. I jogged to the subway, got on an uptown train, rode two stops and at the third jumped off as the doors closed. No one fought through after me, so I climbed to the street, satisfied I was alone.
I came out on Sixth Avenue in the Village. While I searched for what I needed — a working pay phone — I tried to focus, to calm down. My skin, blood, the air I breathed were crackling. If I didn't get a hold of myself I'd be no good to anyone. No good to Lydia.
On the courts behind the Fourth Street fence a basketball snapped from passer to cutter, who kicked it out for the shot and score. Like that, I told myself. This bastard says it's a game. Narrow the heat, concentrate it, the way you do in a game. The way you do at the piano. Nothing matters, nothing exists, but this.
I lit a cigarette and drew in smoke.
Lydia had been telling me something.
It was like her to want her mother not to worry, not to know she was in trouble. But there was no point in heading off a call from Tony, her brother Andrew's boyfriend, asking where she'd been. He knew. She'd been at his party. That party was two weeks ago.
Looks like I'm going to miss Tony's party, she'd said. No, not exactly. She'd stammered: Looks like Tony, his party, looks like I'll miss it.
Looks like Tony.
The son of a bitch looked like Tony.
I almost let out a whoop right there on the sidewalk. Go, Lydia, go! What else? He'll have to get a little older without me.
A little older.
So. This bastard was big. Short hair. Ripped bodybuilder muscles. In his late thirties — a little older than Tony.
And, He already thinks I'm a ditz. Not Tony; Tony knew better. The lunatic. She'd set him up to underestimate her.
I felt my breathing even out, my shoulders loosen.
In this nightmare, Lydia someone's prisoner, my job to find her by doing I didn't know what, the person I'd most want working with me was Lydia.
And it seemed she was.
Here was a phone. I pushed my quarters in and punched the silver buttons.
"Wong Security." I was surprised to hear a woman's voice, but I didn't have time to care.
"Let me speak to Linus. It's Bill Smith."
"Mr. Wong is busy at the moment —"
"Tell him now. His cousin Lydia's in trouble."
A moment later: "Dude! Hey, what's goin' on?"
"It's bad, Linus. It's Lydia." I gave him a brief rundown: robot voice, Lydia's phone, orange plastic bag.
"Oh, shit! Dude, that's wack! Lydia, man? I'll kill that freak!"
"I need your help."
"Anything, dude. But first, where you calling from? A phone he could know?"
"No, a pay phone. Outside my neighborhood."
Any other time, that would have made me laugh: praise from a tech head barely old enough to vote.
I asked, "Can you trace her phone? He said he was trashing it. But the GPS —"
"Gotcha. If he doesn't smash it, yeah. If I can't, at least maybe I can find the cell tower. You know, closest to where the call came from. What service does she use?"
A truck's air brakes blasted and I jumped. "Jesus, Linus, I don't know! How the hell am I supposed to know that?"
"Hey, dude, chill out! I'm trying to help here."
I rubbed my eyes. "Yeah. Sorry. I don't know what she uses, but I use Verizon. She gave me the phone, so probably —"
"'K. I have a dude at Verizon, I'll get on it."
"And no cops, Linus."
"Dude! This is me you're talking to! Cops. Where are you?"
"In the Village."
"Where, dude? I'm coming there."
"No, you're not. This guy's dangerous, whoever he is, and if he got over on Lydia, he's smart, too."
"Whatever. You're not doing this alone. You know that's what Cousin Lydia would say."
"She wouldn't say, Get my kid cousin involved."
"Yeah, but you did that already, so too late."
"Dude! The shit in that plastic bag: you got any idea what it means?"
"No," I admitted.
"See? You need fresh eyes. I got 'em."
"It could just be garbage."
"He said he'd leave clues."
"Tracing that phone is the most important thing right now."
"What, and you think I have to be here to do it? Seriously? Why do you think they call it a mobile phone?"
I looked up and down the street. People walking, talking, going about their business. On the court, a basketball went up, a sweet arc, but it rimmed out. I asked Linus, "You have a car?"
"What's that, the price of admission? Yeah, I do."
"Okay, you're in." I looked around. "There's a coffee shop on West Third by the basketball courts. I'll meet you there."
In the twenty minutes before Linus blew through the diner's door I had three cups of coffee punctuated by a trip outside for a smoke. I tried Lydia's phone twice but it got me nothing. If anyone had come near me I'd have punched him; if I'd had any idea what to do or where to go I wouldn't have stayed. But I was as lost as could be.
I worked Lydia's description over and over in my mind, and the robot voice, and the words. I couldn't get close.
The bag, then. I could send it and the junk in it to a private lab to test for prints, but that would take time and anything they found I'd have to get a cop somewhere to run for me. Likely there wasn't much. Who wouldn't know not to leave prints? Or even more likely: even if this crap was clues, none of it was his. He'd dug it out of the garbage and it had prints all over it, a dozen different strangers' prints. That's how I'd do it, if it were me.
When had the bag been left? Anytime last night, this morning. I hadn't been out since around midnight; it's a shadowed doorway. How long had this bastard had Lydia? No way to know. Unless she could tell me.
The diner's door opened. Linus Wong glanced around, spotted me, slid into my booth. He was dressed skateboard-ready, baggy cargo pants and a short-sleeved tee over a long-sleeved one. His hair was buzzed short sides, long top, and he had a gold earring in his left ear. When I first met Linus, four years ago, he was a high-IQ high-schooler, always in trouble because hacking was more fun than history class, video games better than gym. After a fistful of suspensions, two expulsions, and a larceny charge — eventually dropped — for changing the entire junior class's grades to As, he fought the school system to a draw, got a GED, and last year set up an e-security firm in his parents' Flushing home. (Continues...)
Excerpted from On The Line by S. J. Rozan. Copyright © 2010 S. J. Rozan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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