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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

"Tough Love"

The three winners of the Buffalo News's recent short story contest were printed today. Mine was not among them, which pissed me off as always, although less so this year since the three winning stories don't suck -- you can read them here, here, and here (Grand Prize, First Place, and Second Place, respectively).

Since this contest required the stories to be in the "mystery" genre, I note that all three winners present twist endings, as did my own entry; I suspect that this is because it's rather difficult to create a mood of suspense in so short a story as 1500 words (that's about four pages of a regular mass-market paperback novel), so one has to resort to surprise to compensate. I also note that each of the winning stories used the required paragraphs of the contest in the middle of the stories, whereas I led right off with the required stuff. (It's the first three paragraphs. I hate those paragraphs, but that was the lay of the land.)

I liked the Grand Prize and First Place stories pretty well; I liked the Second Place story less well. And, of course, I liked mine the best of all. Here's "Tough Love".

"The Bills make me want to SHOUT ..." Angela hunted for the source of the song, clambering up the statue of Nikolai Tesla like so many Goat Island tourists before her, the bronze of the statue polished by their passing.

The cell phone in Tesla's lap was Michael's, of course. And as she reached for it, she remembered mocking his fan boy devotion when he played her the ring tone, that song.

"I see you were smart enough to listen, and come alone," the caller hissed, in a French accent as fake as Groucho glasses. "Now we shall see whether you are smart enough to save your brother's life."

Angela looked around from her vantage point. More visibility now, in winter, with the trees bare, but nothing stood out – just tourists, mostly Asian, and park workers – certainly no one that looked like a kidnapper. For all she knew, Michael's captor might be across the river, in Canada.

"What do you want?" she asked.

"Your brother borrows a lot of money, doesn't he?"

Angela closed her eyes. Michael had had his money troubles, all right. The endless stream of unsavory characters in Michael's life had got him kicked out of many homes, including their parents'. Tough love, they'd called it: a wake-up call by refusing to rescue him from a mess of his own making. Looks like it didn't work, Angela thought.

"He borrows a lot of money," Angela said. Keep him on the phone, she thought, just because that's what they did on TV. She certainly didn't know how that could help her, right now.

"Well, he borrowed from me too," said Frenchy-on-the-phone. "And apparently your brother doesn't like to pay people back. So you're gonna help him do that." French accent, Buffalo grammar.

Damn you, Michael! "How?"

"Your brother tells me that my money is in his bank account. You're going to withdraw it for me."

Angela scanned the park again, still not seeing anyone criminal-looking. "I can't get into his accounts," she said. "How--"

"Michael told me that he wrote the passwords in your family Bible."

"So I get you the passwords?"

Frenchy laughed. "So I can leave a traceable path of transactions? Not on your life, and definitely not on your brother's if you screw this up. You're gonna get the money for me. In cash. I'll call you in twenty-four hours."

Angela sighed. "How much money is there?"

Silence for a second, as if Frenchy hadn't thought of that. Then a chuckle that didn't sound French at all. More like...South Buffalo.

"All of it. Your brother could use a lesson."

Angela sighed. Tough love from gangsters.

"Twenty-four hours, and I call with directions. And remember: no police. Don't be stupid." Beep, and the words "call ended" on the phone screen.

Angela turned off the phone and climbed down from Mr. Tesla. She had a busy twenty-four hours ahead of her. First she had to get to Cheektowaga, so she could look in the family Bible for Michael's account numbers and passwords. Secret passwords hidden in a Bible: obviously an idea Michael'd cribbed from one of those spy movies of his.

She hadn't thought to ask Frenchy where in the Bible, so it took her about half an hour of slow paging to find the numbers, written in Michael's minuscule hand at the end of Second Samuel. Angela copied them down and went home, where she went online to check things out. When she added it all up, she realized that her brother, who was always bumming a twenty for beer and frozen pizza, had over one hundred thousand dollars spread throughout six bank accounts. She shook her head. Apparently her brother had entered the world of the stupidly criminal. And now she knew just why Michael had always wanted her name on his accounts: of course it had been so that a family member could access his money in case of "an emergency", but she hadn't realized just what kind of emergency it would be. She felt herself getting angry at her stupid kid brother, all over again.

Angela was waiting in line at the fourth bank the next day when the strains of the Bills' fight song burst forth from her pocket.

"I'm here," she said into the phone.

"Ten o'clock tonight," Frenchy replied. "The parking lot behind Bethlehem Steel."

"Which one? Bethlehem Steel's a big place."

Pause. "I'll find you. Come alone." Click.

Angela stuffed the phone into her pocket. "I'll find you"? Frenchy didn't seem to have a whole lot of experience with this kind of thing. I've still got a chance, she thought.

Once she had all the money together she went home to pack it all up – it fit nicely into a single duffel – and then waited until the hour when she would drive out to the old steel mill. As Angela passed the time by folding laundry and doing her dishes and basically playing domestic, she found that she wasn't nervous. She was too angry at Michael to be nervous.

Soon enough it was after nine; time to go. Angela grabbed the duffel of cash, Michael's phone, and a handful of other little incidentals. The she headed out.

So one day this kidnapper sends me to Goat Island, Angela thought as she pulled into the darkness of the old weed-grown parking lots behind Bethlehem Steel through a broken gate. Today to the old steel mills. What next? She came to a stop and turned off her lights and waited. It was about 10:06 when another car arrived: a minivan. Angela laughed at the absurdity: Michael was in life-threatening trouble with a guy who drove a minivan.

The minivan parked about twenty feet away from her (leaving its lights on), and as she got out of her car, so did Frenchy. It had to be him. He was a big fat guy in a Bills parka and Zubaz pants. I guess Buffalo doesn't get the Armani-clad drug dealers. This time Angela stifled her laughter.

"You got the money?" Frenchy said. No fake accent now: just pure South Buffalo.

Angela held up the bag.

"Good. Toss it over here."

Angela did. Then she slid her hand into her left pocket.

Frenchy grabbed the bag, looked inside, and grinned. "Nice job, sweets. I can't believe there's this much! Your brother doesn't look this smart or this stupid. You stay here until I'm gone. I'll set him free. You can pick him up somewhere on Transit in two hours. I got him in a vacant storefront."

"Where on Transit?"

"Just drive. You'll find him." He started for the minivan.

"Just a minute," Angela said. "I have a question."

"No questions," Frenchy said. "You're just gonna have to take me at my word."

"Well, yeah," Angela said. "That's kind of my question. I mean, didn't it strike you as odd that I never asked you to put Michael on the phone? So I'd know he was still alive?"

The look on Frenchy's face as he pondered that was pretty comical. It got even more comical when Angela pulled out her gun – one of the little incidentals she'd brought – and shot Frenchy dead.

On Goat Island, Frenchy had wondered if Angela would be smart enough to save her brother's life. Evidently he'd never wondered if she'd care enough in the first place.

Half an hour later, Angela pulled away from the Canadian customs at the Peace Bridge and onto the QEW. She'd probably be in the air, already bound for London from Toronto, when they'd find Frenchy's body. They'd investigate it as a drug deal gone bad. Angela chuckled as she patted the cash-stuffed duffel beside her. A new life in Europe, just like she'd always wanted, just like that. You had to seize the opportunities, you know. Carpe diem and all that.

As for Michael, well – she'd called in an anonymous tip to the State Police. If he really was in a storefront on Transit, they'd find him eventually. Of course, he'd still be in hock to various criminals and his money would be gone. But wouldn't that be a hell of a lesson for him?

Angela shrugged. Tough love was a bitch.

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