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Kate Fansler's arrival on Leslie Stewart's doorstep was
Leslie Stewart was, at the moment the doorbell rang, trying to
persuade one grandson not to pull out the cat's hair in handfuls
and the other grandson, happily ensconced in a high chair, to put
his applesauce to internal rather than external uses.
"Will you see to the door, Jane?" she called in what she hoped
were plaintive rather than irritable tones. "I'm rather tied up
And indeed, Leslie thought, I would far rather be literally tied
up or in almost any other situation but this. Grandchildren she
cherished, but only, it came to her with sudden clarity, at their
more adorable moments and in anticipation of departure, either
theirs or hers as the case might be. Today, unfortunately, the
case was neither.
"Jane," she called again. She could hear, then, a growl of
acquiescence and Jane's footsteps as she crossed the loft to the
front door, whose bell had again sounded, this time with urgency.
Jane Berlin had long liked to point out that she had remained
childless for good reason and had fallen in love with Leslie when
she too seemed well past the possibility of childbearing. It was
the likelihood of grandchildren that she had failed to take into
account. Apparently, having passed one's genes on to one
generation, one felt impelled to encourage, even to assist, in
the flowering of those genes into yet another generation. Jane
felt, in a word, betrayed. Outraged was another word that might,
without exaggeration, be employed. The strength of her feelings
was in no way mitigated by Leslie's assurance that she agreed
with her, and that this particular occasion was unavoidable and
not likely to be repeated.
Jane's far-from-rapid progress was, toward the end, and at the
bell's second ring, hastened by the happy thought that perhaps
this was the boys' parents returning. She was almost smiling when
she threw open the door.
Kate Fansler stood on the doorstep, looking so harassed that Jane
did not even think to mention her disappointment in Kate's
failure to be the retriever of the children.
"Are you all right?" Jane asked, somewhat rhetorically, since
Kate looked far from all right. "Leslie's in the kitchen
preventing cruelty to animals and swathed in baby food."
Concerned, Jane followed Kate to the kitchen.
Leslie looked up in surprise. "What is it?" she said, clearly
expecting the worst. And with reason. For Leslie, Kate's closest
friend, knew that, in the first place, Kate never dropped in,
never appeared unannounced, considering such behavior
uncivilized; and, in the second place, would certainly not have
chosen this afternoon to change in this respect since Leslie had
told Kate of her, Leslie's, obligation to babysit for her
grandsons. Kate was notorious for her lack of delight in the very
These thoughts were the matter of a few seconds. Abandoning the
children, she went to Kate and pushed her into a chair. "I'll
make some tea," she said. "Strong and sweet, for shock." And she
did move toward the kettle.
"I'll do it," Jane said. "Unless you two would rather be alone."
"Reed's gone," Kate said.
"Left you?" Jane asked. Leslie glared at her.
"Not left me. Gone, vanished -- kidnapped if you insist on an
Even the boys were quiet, as though sensing the tension. Then the
baby began to cry, his mouth turned down in the image of tragedy,
his eyes scrunched up. The eyes of the older boy, as though in
sympathy, welled up; a tear rolled slowly down his cheek. The cat
departed, not caring for the atmosphere.
Jane put up the kettle and waited for the water to boil.
Personally, she would have recommended brandy, but perhaps Leslie
was right. Leslie, being older and subject to more frequent
familial perils, had dealt with crises more often than had Jane.
"Start at the beginning," Leslie said. She and Kate had seen each
other through many trials, though it seemed to Leslie that
laughter more often marked their conversations. They would begin
in despair and end in laughter -- that was about the size of it
-- but nothing, not even Leslie's losing her husband and taking
up with a woman, had seemed as daunting as this. Pray heaven that
Reed, the most unlikely man for it, had not had one of those male
life crises and run off with a younger woman or, she suddenly
thought, a man. Good God.
"We were to meet at a restaurant at six-thirty; we were going on
to a concert at Lincoln Center. Reed is never late, or never
really late, so after a time I called the lobby of our building
to ask the doorman if perhaps Reed had forgotten and was planning
to meet me there. The doorman said he hadn't seen Mr. Amhearst
By this time the tea was ready, but Kate could barely be
persuaded to take even a sip. "It's hot," she said.
"That's the point," Leslie said. "Do sip it at least." Kate,
By this time the boys had become more vocal in their sorrows.
Jane gathered them up; holding the baby on one arm, the older boy
by the hand, she left the room with them.
Grateful, and terribly worried about Kate, Leslie nonetheless had
the horrible thought that she would have to pay for this. I am
becoming a monster, she told herself. "Go on," she said to Kate.
"Then I called the law school. His assistant Nick, a pleasant
young man whom I've met, seemed surprised to hear from me.
'Actually,' he said, 'I watched Reed go, from the window; he had
said he was going to a concert with you, and I thought how nice,
when I would have to spend the evening studying. Then he got into
the limousine and drove off.'
"'What limousine?' I naturally asked. Reed calls limousines only
for rides to the airport. Nick said he thought the men in the car had been waiting for Reed and were giving him an arranged-for lift. He
didn't recognize the men, and when I told him that Reed was
supposed to have met me at the restaurant, he became silent.
'Don't make too much of this, Kate,' he said, 'but now that you
mention it, I did notice that the men got on either side of him
and seemed to be, well, helping him into the limousine. It wasn't
obvious, or I would have done something. I just think, looking
back, that it was, well, funny. Can I do something, Kate?' I told
him to hold off for a while and say nothing at all to anybody. He
very nicely said he would be home all night if I needed him, he
would go home instead of to the library."
Kate almost automatically sipped again at the tea. "After that
call I went home. It was now perhaps seven-thirty. I didn't know
what to do; every idea I had seemed less practical than the last.
By nine o'clock I had about decided on some more telephone calls,
when a message was delivered. That was a whole twelve hours ago;
I still haven't thought what to do. The letter told me to be at
home tonight at seven. Meanwhile," Kate concluded, "I'm here. I
didn't know where else to go. I was afraid if I stayed home I
would call the police or feel compelled to do something,
anything, and I thought I'd better talk it through first. But
maybe I should get back."
Leslie had never seen Kate so worried, so indecisive, so
panicked. "I'd better go," Kate said. "I ought to be where
someone can reach me. It was silly of me to come, but if I had to
do something sudden and idiotic, this seemed the best choice."
"It was," Leslie said. "We'll go back together. I'll just have to
get my daughter and her husband to come for the kids."
"It's all right," Jane said, appearing at the kitchen door.
"They're changed and dressed now and can hang out with the less
experienced of their two grannies, as Leslie's daughter calls
us." Here she smirked. "It occurred to me while changing and
dressing them that if Leslie's daughter were homophobic, she
wouldn't have dreamed of leaving her little ones with us. Enough
to make a cat laugh, isn't it? You two go ahead to Kate's house,
after Leslie calls the parents. I'll stay here till they come,
trying to prevent serious injury to animals and children."
"Jane," Leslie began.
"Never mind Janeing me," Jane said. "Just call the parents and
tell them to get on their bicycles and pedal over here."
"Wait a minute," Kate said. "You must have taken the kids for a
good reason. Don't let --"
"And I'm giving them back for a good reason," Leslie said.
"Nobility has its limits, and they've just been reached. Listen,"
she added, as Kate looked dubious and worried, "after a certain
time in life, friends come first. Perhaps they should always come
first. I was just trying to give the harried parents some
much-needed time off, remembering my own years of child raising.
But Jane hasn't taken my offer well, to put it mildly, so Tony
and Sarah might as well find out how the land lies now as later.
Actually, you're doing me a favor, giving me a good reason to
back out now. Jane comes before grandchildren too, any day. Just
let me have a word with her. Try to drink a bit more of the tea."
Dutifully Kate dropped back into her chair and tried to sip the
tea, now cooler but still overpoweringly sweet. She too
remembered from somewhere, English novels perhaps, that sweet
strong tea was good for shock.
"Was that all the letter said?" Leslie asked when they were in a
cab on their way to Kate's apartment. "Just to be home at seven?"
"For another message, I supposed," Kate said. "Letter or
telephone. The other letter was hand-delivered. I asked the
doorman, who said it was given him by a boy -- obviously hired
for the job, no connection to the kidnappers likely."
Leslie paid the cab and hurried after Kate into her apartment
house. Kate was interrogating the doorman, who said that nothing
had been delivered for her except the usual mail. Hurrying
upstairs, they found the "usual mail" on the doorstep. Kate
flipped through it; there was nothing unexpected or pertinent.
"Let's sit down," Leslie said. "I think you'd better start at the
beginning. Have you the slightest idea why anyone would kidnap
Reed? Some disgruntled criminal from Reed's D.A. days, out of
prison and bent on revenge? An angry student; a disappointed
client from one of his law school clinics; what?"
"It's me," Kate said. "It's because of me."
Leslie looked dubious.
"I've been warned," Kate said. "I guess you could say I've been
picked as the feminist who's being taught that feminism doesn't
pay. I've had warnings from some right-wing group, with one of
those names -- you know, the Institute for Family Values or
something, the League for the Protection of Men. I forget what
they were called. Anyway, they sounded crazy; I didn't take them
"These people shoot doctors who perform abortions," Leslie said.
"They say God told them to do it."
"I know. I thought the warning was about me, they were going to
do something to me. And I couldn't think what they could do
except murder me, and I could hardly prevent that. As to
whispering campaigns and false information to the media -- that
sort of thing -- well, I wasn't going to stop living my life on
that account. I never dreamed...."
"Of course you didn't. How many warnings were there?"
"Several. I didn't pay that much attention. Something called the
League of Right-Wing Women wrote diatribes against everything
I've worked for. They seemed to be in favor of sexual harassment,
battering women, date rape, and child abuse. Perhaps that's a bit
strong. But they certainly don't believe any of these things
happen on a large scale, and saying they do is all a plot to
harry men. Leslie, I just thought they were crackers. In
addition, I thought they were probably sending those warnings to
many women. I didn't take it all that personally. The letter last
night made it very personal."
"Let me see it," Leslie said.
Kate, who had held on to her purse, now took the letter from it
and handed it to Leslie, who read it aloud:
We have taken your husband. If you do not publicly
recant your insane feminist position, he may come to harm. Be at
home tonight at seven when further more detailed instructions
will reach you. Do not contact the police or anyone else if you
hope to see your husband alive again.
Leslie let the letter drop into her lap. "Kate, don't hit me, but
is there any chance this is a joke? A stupid joke, in frightfully
bad taste, but a joke. Some of those academic types you work with
might think this was sort of funny; you know, the types who go
off in the woods, pee against trees, and pretend to shoot each
"There's nothing I haven't thought of during the night," Kate
said. "I don't think it's a joke, and the reason I don't is the
two men Nick saw putting Reed into the limousine. Some of the
guys I work with might try to frighten me, but they would find a
time when Reed was away, or they'd think up some other prank. I
can't believe they would actually force him into a car, that they
would go that far, and then send this letter."
"It does seem to be the kind of letter they might write though.
It's like kid stuff."
"Leslie, the right wing in this country, Christians though they
may call themselves, are besotted with their message. They are
like fundamentalists everywhere, certain of their correctness and
of being ordered by God to destroy those who disagree with that
certainty. I think perhaps we should stop fooling ourselves about
"I'm not fooling myself about them. I'm just saying that it's not
that easy to distinguish that letter from a joke letter, the kind
of anonymous note sent by nuts."
"I might agree with you if Reed were here. If I had heard from
him, or had the slightest idea where he was. Now that I think of
it, it was my certainty that I wouldn't hear from him that
allowed me to go to you. I'm so frightened. And I feel so
"Which," Leslie said, "is why we have to get help. The question
is who and how. Let's come up with several possible plans while
we're waiting for seven o'clock -- and their next message."
By the time they had reached this point, Kate was somewhat
calmer, a bit more collected, though still capable, Leslie was
certain, of collapsing into despair at the slightest provocation.
Most ominously of all, she refused a drink, as though, Leslie
surmised, Reed was doomed if Kate had a drink without him. By the
time seven o'clock came around, and the doorbell rang announcing
the delivery of the next message, Leslie had decided that coping
with this kind of suspense required a wholly new, and for her
unpracticed, support. Thinking of her grandchildren -- by now,
she hoped, claimed by their parents -- she decided that life was
never empty of new challenges, but with age one might have the
fortitude to resist or meet them. Having, when push came to
shove, resisted the grandchildren, she now sat with Kate hoping
for the necessary fortitude.
The seven o'clock message demanded that Kate announce, through
paid advertisements or articles or op-ed pieces in specific
newspapers and journals by the time of their next publication,
why she was abandoning feminism and joining the right wing in its
efforts to restore true family values. A list of the publications
and a concise but terrifying definition of "family values" was
appended. If Kate failed to comply with these demands, Reed would
be killed. The message concluded: Neither the police nor any
government agency must be contacted.
"I hate people who use contact as a verb," Kate said. It was,
Leslie considered, the first sign that her mind had clicked back
"I thought these people believed in the police," Leslie said,
hoping to encourage this rational bent. "Or is that only for
inner cities and against black men and boys?"
"We have to do something," Kate said.
"You don't think they'll kill Reed, not really?" Leslie asked. It
struck her that this conversation horribly resembled one of those
prime-time programs she occasionally watched when overcome with
"They've killed doctors who do abortions; they're fanatics. But
it's not a very sensible demand. What's to stop me from denying
the whole thing once Reed is back?"
"That's easy. In the first place, you'll be tarred with what you
said, no matter what explanation you offer. That's how the media
work. You can't ever correct reporters' misstatements, they just
go on making them anyway. In the second place, fear for Reed will
restrain you. And if it doesn't restrain you, it will be because
Reed insists it shouldn't, and that will lead to further
complications of a marital sort. No, they're clever all right.
It's always easy to be clever if compassion is not part of your
aim. Just think about the way Pat Buchanan's mind works, or Rush
Limbaugh's, and you'll have a good sense of what you're dealing
with, even though neither of them has anything to do with this
particular caper. Kate, are you listening?"
"Listening and thinking, along the same lines. Thank you for
coming home with me, Les. I've just had a thought."
"Thank God for that. Do you plan to share it?"
"I think I know where to go for help, or at least for an initial
conference. There's a woman I met last year named Harriet. I'll
"Don't phone. Give me a message and I'll deliver it. In these
days of cyberspace, I don't trust any phone. If I'm being
paranoid, better safe than sorry, as my mother used to say."
Kate wrote out the note.