Attention to Detail

by Jack Peacock

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© Copyright 2020 - Jack Peacock - Used by permission

Storycodes: M/f; outdoors; bond; cuffs; roleplay; rom; cons; X

Writer’s Block

“Here’s my problem,” she started to explain to Jim Preston, her literary agent and business manager. “In the new book I have a chapter where the female protagonist manages to escape from the prison van. She hides out in a farmhouse, contacts her friends, finally goes on to clear her name, et cetera, et cetera. The catch: she has her ankles shackled together along with the handcuffs. How far can she go in half a day of walking? And how well does she make out in the farmhouse? Can she find some way to get the chains off? It can’t be that easy or the cops wouldn’t use them.”

Jim shrugged. “You and your obsession with realism. I have no idea how far your character can walk, maybe a mile or two? What difference does it make anyway? It’s fiction, make something up.”

Alice Keller shook her head. “No, and that’s why I’m the bestseller author and you’re the agent. If something isn’t believable it ruins the whole story. There are only so many plots available. It’s the attention to the detail that puts the Keller Mystery series onto the bookshelves. Look Jim, I need to know. It’s a crucial point in the book that’s bugging me. I have to get this right or I can’t finish it. I have to capture how she feels and put it on paper: the adrenalin rush of her escape, the fear of being discovered as she hides out, the edge of panic that sharpens her wits as she hides out trying to clear her name, all that has to grab the reader at a visceral level. I’ve tried to imagine it but I can’t get it right.

“I need your help. You’ve come to the rescue before when I’ve had writer’s block. I’ve hit a wall with the new story and like so many times before I decided to turn to you for help. Find me a way to get the realism I need. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same scene, just some way for me to get into the character’s head.”

Jim leaned back in his chair and looked across the desk at Alice. She was his premier author, the biggest moneymaker he had ever represented. A steady producer too, and that was something rare in the publishing business. Whenever he had a new Alice Keller manuscript in hand the big publishing houses came to him, called him for lunch, asked when he was free for dinner at one of the way, way upscale restaurants, even invited him to the company stadium box for the next game. Quite a turnaround from the days when he would come begging at their door. If she needed something his job was to ensure she got it, even if he had to skirt laws a time or two to keep her satisfied. He still had nightmares over the time she wanted to get the feel of shooting a 1920’s submachine gun from a speeding Model T car in the middle of the night…with real bullets on a real city street.

Yet for all her quirks he was forced to admit she had found a winning formula. Seven major books in the last nine years, and she was still going strong. He would be the last one to tell her to change her style. “Alright, I assume you have the relevant pages for me? Let me make some calls and I’ll see what I can arrange. You come up with some wild requests Alice, but you’re the one with the talent for getting it right. Have you worked in one of your famous filter themes yet?”

What gave Alice’s books their special character was the way she provided the clues to solve the mystery. Not only would she tell the reader everything to solve the crime, but she would throw in far more misleading but seemingly consistent clues. Only when the overwhelming numbers of hints were “filtered”, as she put it, with a special theme did they come together and point out not only the perpetrator but the secret motive as well.

She slid a USB stick across the desk toward him. “This is what I’ve outlined so far. I don’t have a filter theme yet, and that’s part of the problem. Help me become her, Jimbo, so I can come up with something clever to make us both another pile of money.” She put her hand on the stick when he reached for it. “The usual too, no one knows it’s me, no one sees this, no one has a clue as to what I’m doing. It’s our secret. I trust you but no one else. Tell me the date and time, and where I have to be but nothing else except the essentials. I can’t go into this with preconceptions. Surprise me. We’ll do the usual press release, in seclusion to concentrate on the book et cetera, et cetera. No one knows where I am or when I’ll be back.”

“A done deal,” Jim replied, “I’m sure I have the usual boilerplate somewhere on the computer. No comment from this office, no appointments or appearances until you finish. I’m sure your friends are used to this by now.”

Alice snorted. “My friends, yeah, like I care about them. They just want to be seen in the company of the famous. Any of them show up, tell them to take a flying…”

“Now, now, try to be civil,” Jim interrupted her. “I’m sure there’s one or two who sincerely enjoy your acerbic company.”

Alice sneered at his comment. “Acerbic, moi? Why Jim, I try to be just the sweetest thing. I’m devastated.”

“Yeah, right. Okay, I’ll need a few days for this. Why don’t you plan to start on Saturday morning? Leave all next week open. I’ll get back to you with details when I know more.” Jim picked up the stick and put it in his shirt pocket. She was right about the secrecy. Her manuscripts were easily worth their weight in gold. An excerpt in some magazine would be a real coup for some unscrupulous editor. The USB drive would stay with him or in his safe until it was erased, with a hammer.

Halfway to the door she stopped and turned to face him again. Her expression and tone of voice switched from bantering to serious. “I’m counting on you Jim. Writing is my life. You are the one person that makes it possible. You’ve never let me down when I needed help.” She turned back to the door and left his office.

Jim spun his chair around to the office window. In the distance he could see the Coast Range, the mountains that separated Los Angeles from the deserts. An office on the top floor with picture perfect scenery came with a premium rent. If he wanted to keep that view he’d have to get to work. Opening up his laptop computer from the desk he inserted Alice’s drive and brought up her outline on his display. Even as he began reading he already had some idea of how he would approach her problem. Isolation, panic, desperation, the emotions of being trapped and hunted combined with rage at being unjustly put in a position of danger, her character needed all of that and more. The complicated part would be keeping his prize talent out of real danger without her knowing about it.

The Setup

The following morning Jim told his receptionist to hold all but the most important calls, and not to make any appointments for the next two days. He needed time to work on Alice’s project without interruptions. Inside his private office he went to the safe in the closet and took out his address book of special contacts. These were the people who could, for a relatively expensive fee, provide products and services not normally advertised to the general public. One advantage of being a freelance literary agent was the unique people who came to him to help shop their books around the publishing houses. Not all of them sold their story but in a few cases Jim did help to sell their dubiously legal but unique skills. Considering the size of the last contract he negotiated for an Alice Keller book the high costs to employ those contacts would not be an issue.

At his desk he brought up on his computer the working list he had prepared after going over Alice’s notes. These were the items he needed to make her request become reality. At the top of his list was location. That was also the easiest to cover. He knew just who to contact.

Dialing the number in his book he prayed it was still good. Fortune smiled on him as a voice with a familiar accent answered on the third ring. “Tonio? It’s Jim, Jim Preston. Are you available for some consulting?”

“Sure thing Jimbo. Your money’s always good with me. Whatcha looking for?” Antonio Vanzetti was an exclusive travel agent who specialized in finding hideaway places for the rich and famous to vacation in privacy. Jim had arranged several trips for his clients with Antonio, without a single complaint about his ability to deliver. Unproven rumors also circulated that he had a side business providing the same service for people who were not too popular with law enforcement agencies.

“I need a place that’s isolated, and I mean really isolated. No one in or out except by air. It has to have a small house with all the basics, power, water, that sort of thing. But I don’t require any luxuries. I want it starting this Friday, for a week.” He would need a day to set up what he had in mind at the site before she arrived. “I’ll take care of stocking it with food and anything else it might need. No weather extremes either, shirtsleeve temperature during the day. What’s critical is a guarantee no one can possibly show up uninvited, and no one is around. What can you do for me?” If anyone could find such a place Tonio could. If he could deliver it then the rest of Jim’s scheme would fall neatly into place.

“One second Jim, let me check something.” The phone went to music on hold. Italian opera, something by Verdi, a nice touch to feed those rumors, Jim thought, I bet real mafia dons listen to the Beatles. Antonio came back on the line. “Okay Jim, here’s what I have. It’s a privately owned valley in central Nevada. No roads, and mountains on all sides. Only way in or out is by helicopter or a grueling 50 mile hike over rough terrain. There’s an A-frame cabin with solar panels for power and LP gas for heating or cooking. It has well water and a septic tank. It sleeps four, two in the bedroom loft and two in the fold out sofa in the main room. Complete kitchen, though you have to watch the batteries at night. You’ll have to stock it with food and LP gas, and put in a satellite phone if you want communications. No TV, telephone or radio. No cellular service either. This time of year it’s warm during the day but not hot. It is desert so it cools off at night, jacket at least. It’s open for the next month.”

It was exactly what he was looking for. “Perfect Tonio, I knew I could count on you. Sign me up for a week starting Friday morning. This deal is discrete, no names, no middlemen and no paper, any problem with that?”

“No problemo, Jimbo. I’ll send over the details by courier, my cousin. Most days he can’t even remember his name, much less where he’s been making deliveries. Let me give you the numbers,” he paused before reading off the rate and total amount. “Any problem with the bottom line?”

It was steep but within what Jim expected. “Not an issue. Tell your cousin there will be a return envelope. You made my day Tonio, go have a nice big spaghetti dinner on me tonight.”

“Thanks Jim, but I hate the stuff. Olive oil and oregano keeps me up all night. You can owe me lunch. Look for my cuz by 3pm. Later Jim, always a pleasure to hear from you.”

Jim hung up the phone and ticked off the first item on the list. Now that he had a location, he could arrange the transportation. Pilot, Alice, and the supporting cast, make it four passengers total, he added up mentally. A medium sized helicopter with some range would work best given the proximity to the Nevada border. He turned to his book of special contacts once again, looking for a particular name.

The phone rang about six times before someone picked it up. Better than average, Jim thought, it usually takes a dozen or more. “Here And There Aviation, this is Doug.” Just the man Jim was looking for. Douglas Lumumba could fly just about any type of aircraft anywhere in the world. He didn’t care where he was going or what was in the back of the plane either. No drug smuggling, but otherwise he didn’t ask for names or demand to see inside the shipping crates. He only did business by reference, with people he knew. The story was he occasionally did some favors for unnamed government agencies, usually in his native central Africa, and in return they looked the other way as long as he didn’t get involved with the drug cartels. If he had the right kind of copter then he would be perfect for the trip.

“Hey Doug, this is Jim Preston. I have a job coming up, thought you might be interested in it. Someone well known wants to get away from it all for a few days. The place isn’t too far away, central Nevada. You interested?”

“Hi Jim, haven’t heard from you in a while. Nevada? I don’t see a problem. Any info on conditions at the landing site, and what can I expect for weight?”

Jim read off the coordinates of the valley from Antonio’s information sheet. “There’s no landing strip or road so it’ll take a helicopter to get in there. I’ll need for you to make multiple round trips, to different parts of the valley. Cargo will be three passengers who will not wish to be disturbed.” That was a tactful way of saying no conversation and no questions. “It will be necessary for one passenger to not have a view outside. I’ll need a preliminary trip for supplies and an inspection, then the main trip on Saturday, and a pickup sometime later on the following week. The first two trips there might be a stop in San Francisco on the way back. And Doug, the client specified a cash deal.” That was the code word for an under-the table transaction.

“I don’t think there will be any difficulties with that. One minute while I check the charts.” Jim heard a rustle of paper over the phone. “Flying in Nevada is complicated with all the military zones. Is radar or following the flight plan a consideration? Will you need a package?”

Jim almost laughed before he realized Doug was serious. Apackage” referred to electronic countermeasures equipment, designed to avoid tracking and evade interception. “No, it’s just a simple charter job. You can fly at altitude. The destination is confidential but you don’t have to conceal the landing.”

“That makes it simple. Okay, a few detours to get there but nothing major. Figure three round trips, is it gonna be day or night?”

“All flights will be during the day. There are no lights at the destination for night landings. It may be dark by the time you get back to L.A.”

“Good, landings with night vision goggles can be dangerous. I can get you there, assuming there’s a flat spot to land and no high winds. You want a number now or just the total at the end?” Doug was casual about his rates but Jim knew he was fair. Business was just a way for him to afford his flying. For Doug the profit was being in the air.

“Let me know what you need and I’ll bring it with me. I’d like to make the preliminary this Friday morning, just myself and a few crates. There’ll be some time on the ground while I get things ready. And there’s one more detail about the trip on Saturday.” He went on to describe the rest of his travel plans.

The phone was silent for a moment before Doug answered. “I know someone who can handle that, Jim.” From the tone Jim could tell he wanted to ask the reason behind his odd addition on Saturday, but Doug had a reputation for discretion to protect. Jim didn’t volunteer any more details, a signal for Doug to move on. “Weather permitting, and it looks good so far, we can go at dawn on Friday. I’ll bring a book to read so you can take all day if you need it. Unless you hear from me I’ll look for you at the hangar early Friday morning. I’ll have everything ready. See you then.” Doug hung up.

Now he had both location and transportation. There were only two more items on his list: special equipment and some assistants. One last time Jim flipped through his contact book, looking for the name of someone he had met who might be able to handle both requirements. He dialed the number in San Francisco, hoping she was still at the same place.

“Villarosa Enterprises, can I help you?” A soft feminine voice answered the phone, deceptive given Olivia Villarosa’s “enterprise”. They had first met when he shopped around her tell-all book to moderate success, earning Olivia’s friendship in the process though he had never taken her up on the offer to visit her facilities.

“Hello Olivia, this is Jim Preston, the literary agent. I hope you remember me.” And not mistake me for a customer, he added silently.

“Jim! It’s been quite a while since we last had lunch. Are you in San Francisco? The invitation to come by is still open you know.” Jim shook his head silently. Mistress Olivia’s Dungeon was legendary for the variety and effectiveness of her furnishings, and in the way she used them to service the thriving bondage and sadomasochism community in her hometown. Jim had read the book and seen the pictures. He had no intention of acquiring any first hand experience as one of her willing victims.

“No, I’m still in L.A. Listen, I have a small project in the works and I’m hoping I can hire your assistance. It’s pretty tame by your standards but I’m sure you can help me out. I remember in your book you mentioned that fantasy role playing was a big part of your profession. Let me explain what I have in mind.” He went on in detail about what he would need. “And it all happens this Saturday morning.”

“So you would need two of us, and the necessary accessories. I can get the uniforms and the rest of the equipment. I also know someone who would be perfect for the big muscle character. You wouldn’t want to meet her in a dark alley. Let’s see, two of us for a day, travel and expenses, a full setup for one person that you get to keep…” Jim heard the beep of a calculator and a pause before she gave him the total. Not cheap but in line with what he expected.

“You have a deal Olivia. By the way, I have a private aircraft chartered for this. The pilot can pick you up Friday afternoon and drop you off in San Francisco on the way back Saturday afternoon. I’ll set you up in a hotel here in Los Angeles for the night. Consider it a perk. I hope you don’t mind a helicopter instead of a plane.” 

“Sure Jim, I’ve never been in a helicopter before. I’ll expect to hear from you on Friday. Get the dress size to me and I’ll have everything ready.”

Hanging up the phone, Jim marked off the last two lines on his list. Alice’s adventure was ready; now all he had to do was ensure she was in the right frame of mind to appreciate it.

The Time Limit

Alice showed up at Jim’s office early Saturday morning. She had no idea what he had planned, but she trusted him. “Don’t bring anything but yourself” was all she got in his email, along with the time. When she opened the door to go in she expected him to be there. What she didn’t expect was to see Beth Tanaka, her lawyer, and Jerry Goldberg, her stock broker. Both were in Jim’s conference room. Jim motioned for her to join them.

“Before you ask, Alice, let me explain what’s going on,” Jim began. “You set up a real challenge for me. How in the world could I give you a realistic sense of desperation if you knew in advance I’d see to it you weren’t in any real danger? Then I got this idea. Maybe you wouldn’t be risking life and limb, but there is a way to raise the stakes.

“Before I tell you the details, don’t worry that I’m spoiling your surprise. I think I have everything you asked for, and I’m not going to tell you about that. What we’re going to do first is establish the risk. You are going to be working against the clock, with real consequences if you don’t overcome certain obstacles in time. Jerry?”

Alice sat down at the table, puzzled as to what Jim was doing. All three of these people had been friends of hers for many years, though they rarely saw each other outside of business. They comprised the small trusted circle in her life. She turned to Jerry as he began.

“Jim came to me a few days ago with a rather complicated task. He didn’t go into too much detail except to tell me that you needed to make a large risky bet.” Jerry held up a sheet of paper. “This is a buy order instructing me as your broker to purchase twelve million shares of PetroGuateMex for your portfolio. PGM is a very high risk stock that’s considered a poor buy recommendation at the moment. There are no visible assets and on top of that there’s an ongoing investigation in three countries regarding charges of money laundering. The purchase will involve leveraging about 85 percent of your assets, Alice. If the company shuts down, as it surely will, you will lose every penny. It would bankrupt you. Before I go any further I have to tell you it would be an extremely foolish investment on your part.” He paused.

Alice took the buy order from him and read it over. “Why in the world would I do this? Jim?”

Jim smiled and pointed to the bottom of the sheet of paper. “You won’t, as long as you tell Jerry to cancel the order any time before the execute date. That’s on Tuesday morning. You will have until close of business on Monday to stop it. Three days, including today. If for any reason you don’t cancel it, Jerry will put up your entire portfolio as security on a loan to buy the stock first thing Tuesday morning when the markets open. Beth?”

Alice turned to her attorney. Beth had rescued Alice from her first and ruinous book contract, before she hired Jim as her literary agent. Since then Beth had reviewed all subsequent agreements and advised Alice on any other legal matters. “As your lawyer I want to join in with Jerry and urge you not to sign this document. It is legally binding so if you do sign and not cancel, chances are excellent you will be ruined financially. It’s a ticking bomb Alice. No one in her right mind would do something like this. But if you do go ahead, I’m here to witness it. I’m also here to ensure you sign a document stating you are issuing this buy order against the express recommendation of your securities broker. That’s why Jerry asked me to come.”

Alice realized Jim had not filled either of them in on the reasons behind such a foolhardy risk. She understood though. It was exactly as Beth had described, the ticking bomb, the sword dangling over her head that would force her into that same sharp edge of panic as the character in her book. Without a word she picked up a pen on the table and signed the buy order. “You’re good Jim. I never would have thought of this.” She nodded her head in admiration as she handed the sheet of paper to Beth to witness. “I might even use this in a book someday. Okay, you got your clock started. Five seconds and I’m already anxious.”

Beth passed the buy order across the table to Jerry. Both of them looked at Alice as if they were unsure of her sanity. “Don’t worry you two. I’ll explain in a few days. As bizarre as that order may seem, there is a good reason for it. At least I hope there is.” Alice pointed to Jim. “He’s done this at my request, so don’t blame him. I know what I’m doing, even if the evidence indicates I should be committed.” They all laughed at her joke.

Jerry stood up, signaling the end of the meeting. “Okay, if this is what you want. Please, please call me and cancel this thing as soon as possible. You have my home and cell numbers, so call any time day or night. I don’t want to see you papering the walls of your shanty with all the worthless stock certificates this deal would bring you.” Both Beth and Jerry said their goodbyes as they left.

After the door closed behind the two, Alice sat back down at the conference table and looked long and hard at Jim. “I sincerely hope you know what you are doing. Do you have any idea how much money I just put on the table?”

Jim smiled as he sat down, facing her. “As a matter of fact I do, almost to the penny. I’m your agent, I get a statement too. I can tell you I’d never sign off on a dumb stunt like you just did. I like eating three meals a day.”

She leaned back and folded her arms, staring at him. “Oh that’s so reassuring. At least I know you read my outline. Clever, substituting financial ruin for a lifetime in prison. So far you’re earning your pay for the day, but I assume there’s more to your scheme than a piece of paper?”

Jim checked the time on his wristwatch. “Indeed there is. In fact, it’s about to begin. Care to ride out to the airport with me? You will be taking a trip.” She saw the corner of his mouth twitch, normally an indicator he was about to tell a sarcastic story or pull some practical joke. Today she knew the humor would be at her expense. “We better get started. After all, you don’t have much time to waste.”

Riding down the elevator to the parking garage, Alice had time to think about what she was doing. All the wealth she had accumulated in nine years of hard work was in jeopardy. If she lost it she could recover, in time, if her next book sold, and if she could keep her audience. A lot of ifs, she realized, and no idea of what was going to happen next, other than by the end of the day I’m going to be miserable and close to a breakdown because of my dear friend Jim.

As Jim drove his car out of the office garage her next surprise was the direction he took. Though he had told her they were going to the airport he was headed in almost the opposite direction. “Okay Jimbo, what’s with the airport? I know where L.A. International is, and you just went by every turnoff in that direction. Where are we going? Or am I not supposed to know?”

Jim glanced at her before turning back to the road. “I told you the truth. We’re headed toward an airport; general aviation at the Ontario airport, not the commercial carrier airport at LAX. You are traveling first class this time, your own private charter.” He started laughing.

“If you are laughing like that there has to be a catch. What kind of plane is this, and where exactly am I going? What are you up to?” There had to be a catch somewhere. She was puzzled because none of this seemed to be following her outline.

“Don’t worry. It can fly, a nice executive model too. As for the destination you will have to be patient. It wouldn’t do to reveal the ending before you’ve read the whole story. No more questions. Remember, you said you wanted a surprise.

“Alice, I really am doing what you asked, even if it doesn’t appear that way right now. I’m going to put you inside that character’s frame of mind, as best I can. For it to work you are going to have to be patient and trust me from this point on. How about it, can you do that?”

She looked out the side window. Rows of small planes appeared, parked against the highway fence. They must be at the airport. She turned back to Jim and put a hand on his arm. “Alright Jim. No more questions. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it. You’ve never failed me before.” She had handed him some tough assignments in the past and he had always delivered. She had learned from past requests that in some cases it was better she didn’t know the details of how he accomplished his miracles.

At the airport gate he took the road toward the executive hangars, where the corporate planes were parked. These were all large prefab steel buildings with huge hangar doors, big enough to accommodate a small jet or multi-engine prop plane. Slowing as he checked the numbers, he finally stopped in front of one. Unlike many of the others it had no company logo on the entrance.

“This is it. Before we go in, you need to know something. The people inside do not know who you are. Remember that. They don’t know the purpose behind all this. I know this sounds puzzling but you’ll understand in a moment. I want to emphasize to you that once you walk in that hangar door it begins. At that point you can’t back out. It will be confusing because you won’t have all the facts immediately, but that’s part of the process. You are in character from this moment on, surviving on your wits. Ready?”

Alice took a deep breath before nodding. She had no idea of what was about to happen. All she knew was she was taking a plane someplace, and she had to accomplish something within a time limit after that. She started to open the car door. Jim put a hand on her arm to stop her. “Leave your purse and all your personal effects in the car. No jewelry, no wristwatch, and make sure your pockets are empty. I’ll keep it safe for you.” Alice took off her earrings, a bracelet and her watch, placing them in her purse before putting it on the floor in front of her car seat.

“That’s everything I have. Anything else I should do?” Jim shook his head, so she opened the door and got out. He came around the car, took hold of her arm and led her to the small regular sized door. He held it open as she went in first.

Inside was a medium sized military type helicopter. She could see two jet engine intakes below the main rotor. Instead of the skids familiar from pictures on TV it had wheels. From the open side door it looked like it could hold as many as six people. Alice had never been in a helicopter before, so this would be a new experience for her. Two women in uniform were sitting at a table in the rear of the hangar. A man was walking around the copter, performing some kind of preflight inspection. Alice figured he must be the pilot. There was a wooden platform of steps at the side door of the aircraft.

Taking hold of her arm again Jim led her toward the women at the table. Both stood up as he approached. Jim whispered to her, “Remember, do exactly as they tell you. They’re the real thing, and they don’t know who you are.” Alice saw both women appeared to be police officers. They had badges and were armed with pistols. Jim spoke first. “Hello, I’m Jim Preston. This is my client, Alicia Kravitz, who is voluntarily surrendering as a detainee. I’m her attorney.”

Alice almost laughed when she heard her alias, but it made sense. While few people would recognize her face, her name was plastered across quite a few books. No one ever looked at the photographs on the back cover, and even if they did the studio print was extremely flattering after they airbrushed it. No one would connect her to the famous author on looks alone. So she was to be a “detainee”, whatever that was. What had he gotten her into?

“I’m Sergeant Villarosa, and this is Officer Kerenskova. Per our agreement I’ll take your client into custody at this time. Valentina?” Olivia Villarosa, outfitted as a corrections officer, pointed toward Alice. The large woman, a Russian immigrant who worked for Olivia, moved around behind Alice and took hold of her upper arm. “The aircraft is being preflighted now. We have to get her ready for the trip. When we are finished you can talk to your client until the pilot is ready.”

Olivia took Alice’s other arm. They led her toward an office in the rear corner. “You will have to excuse us while she changes clothes. Mr. Preston, you are welcome to stay until takeoff but could you stand over by the pilot for a few minutes? We will need some privacy.”

“Of course” Jim answered as he went to say hello to Doug. Alice turned her head to look at him one last time before they took her into the office. He saw the barest trace of a frightened little girl's expression cross her face. So far it was going as planned. Once Olivia finished with her he wouldn’t have to worry about cooperation any longer. Alice could be unpredictable at times, but he had counted on her to play along to this point out of curiosity if nothing else. From now on it would go smoothly. She would have an experience for her book beyond anything she expected.

For Alice it didn’t seem like the start of a grand adventure. The moment the office door closed the woman in charge, Villarosa, shoved her against the wall. “Let’s get something straight right now. I don’t take any lip from prisoners. Understand? You follow orders and we’ll get along fine. Act up, give me any kind of trouble, and I’ll see to it you have the worst ride of your life. I don’t have to be nice to you.

“Valentina,” she nodded to the other officer, “is an expert at not being friendly. In Russia she was an interrogator for the police in St. Petersburg. She had to leave the country because she showed too much enthusiasm for her job. Now you understand our only job is to see you get where you are supposed to go, more or less in one piece. We transport over fifty women just like you every year, so don’t try to be clever and pull some kind of stupid trick.” She picked up a plastic bag and unwrapped it.

“Get out of those clothes. After a search you get a regulation uniform and shoes, just like the rules say. You aren’t going to sneak anything on board, so don’t even try.”

Now Jim’s plan was beginning to make sense to Alice. Somehow he had gotten her onto one of those planes, or in this case a helicopter, that moved prisoners around the country. In her story the protagonist is supposed to escape while being taken to prison in a van. Not an exact parallel but close enough. She began to unbutton her blouse, following the sergeant’s orders. Both of the guards looked tough but the Russian woman, who had yet to say a word, was easily twice Alice’s size. It was obvious her presence was intended to intimidate any would be troublemakers. For Alice it worked.

When the back office door opened Jim saw Alice emerge dressed to match the description from her novel. The sleeveless prison dress came down to just above her knees. Neatly stenciled across the front were the words Federal Prisoner, which explained the handcuffs and leg chains. Alice held her hands in front, wrists cuffed together, joined by a connecting chain to the shackles on her ankles. She could walk, slow and halting, as she demonstrated when the guards practically dragged her across the hangar floor to the open door of the helicopter. He could see she was scared, but when he caught her eye he saw the imperceptible shake of her head. She was going through with it.

Alice’s escorts paused at the door so she could say goodbye to Jim. As he approached Olivia stepped in between him and Alice, holding out a hand. “Sorry sir, but no physical contact is allowed for security reasons. Please keep back.” Jim admired the performance by Olivia and her assistant. If he hadn’t known better he would have believed they were genuine too. And she had been right about Valentina. The Russian woman looked like she could break him in half without much effort at all. He backed up.

“Jim? What’s going to happen to me? Where are they taking me?” There was an uncharacteristic quiver in Alice’s voice, an unspoken plea in her face for answers to her questions.

“You’ll know in a few more hours. I can’t tell you anything else right now. Just remember the time limit. You can get through this if you stay calm, think before you act, and use your head. I hope to see you soon.”

Doug the pilot came up behind Jim. “We’re ready to take off. The tow is here to move us out onto the field. I’ll need you to move your car. If the ladies would care to take their seats?”

The larger woman, Valentina, literally picked Alice up off the steps and sat her in one of the rear facing seats in the back. “You sit here,” she said in heavily accented English as she sat down in the door seat next to Alice. The officer in charge, Olivia, got in the front seats, behind Alice, and reached around to buckle the seat belt and shoulder harness for their prisoner. At the same time Valentina bent down and pulled on the connecting chain between Alice’s handcuffs and leg irons, using a padlock to fasten it to a cargo tie down ring in the bed of the helicopter.

“I’m sure you’ll behave but we don’t want you wandering around during the flight.” Olivia said from her seat in the front, where Alice couldn’t see her. The pilot got in last, pulled the door shut and latched it before sitting down in the cockpit. Looking around Alice realized she didn’t have a window to see outside. She started to twist around to see through the front windshield. “No, eyes front! There’s nothing out there you need to see,” Olivia said as she grabbed Alice’s hair and painfully forced her to turn back. “Valentina, make sure she stays that way.”

A frown from the huge woman next to her was enough to convince Alice not to try looking over her shoulder again. There was a rumble as the hangar door opened, followed by a bump as the tow bar was connected to the front of the aircraft. Then they were moving slowly forward as the tow pulled them out to the helipad. Alice could hear the pilot on the radio but his voice was too low to understand. She jumped as the overhead engine suddenly roared into life. The vibration from the rotor made her teeth chatter as the blades spun faster and faster, until the floor dropped out from under her as the helicopter jumped straight up into the air. They were on their way, but to where she still had no idea.

A Bleak Outlook

From the open door Alice could see the barren desert valley and mountain ranges beyond. After hours in the air, she wasn’t sure how many, they had finally landed. She watched as the sergeant, Villarosa, got out first. The woman walked off, out of sight of the door, and then returned a few seconds later. “This is the place. Valentina, you help our guest out.” The Russian took a set of keys out of her pocket and opened the padlock holding Alice to the deck of the helicopter. Alice hoped she would continue and release the shackles but instead she stopped at unlatching the seat belt and shoulder harness.

Valentina got out of the copter and reached in to help Alice. Alice wasn’t sure how she was going to climb out with the restraints on but that was answered for her as Valentina once again simply picked Alice up and planted her firmly on the desert floor outside. Alice looked at her wide-eyed; she knew a lot of men who weren’t strong enough to do that. “You stay here,” the guard said in her barely understandable Russian accent. Alice had no intention of arguing with the woman.

From the outside Alice could see more of the present locale but it didn’t tell her much. Empty desert lay in every direction, nothing but sand, rocks, sagebrush and mesquite. They were in a valley surrounded by mountains. From what Alice could tell the helicopter had landed at the upper end of the valley floor. There were no buildings or roads visible. She couldn’t even see a telephone pole or fence post. Why had they landed here? Knowing Jim was following her outline in some twisted way, she had expected to step out into the courtyard of a prison or similar type of institution. This didn’t fit her story at all.

The sergeant had been talking to the pilot. Alice couldn’t hear what they said but the woman, Villarosa, pointed off to someplace on the other side of the aircraft, said something more, and then walked back toward Alice and her watchdog Valentina. Alice spoke up as the officer came closer. “What’s going on? Is there an engine problem? Why did we stop here?”

Instead of an answer Villarosa simply stood silent, glaring at Alice, hands on her hips. Finally she spoke. “You like to ask questions, don’t you? You’ll find out what’s happening soon enough. Till then I don’t want to hear it. Valentina, cover her eyes. And you shut up or you can have a gag too.”

Alice was about to respond when Valentina’s hand fell on her shoulder and pushed her face first into the side of the copter. “You quiet!” the guard shouted in her ear as she used some kind of scarf to cover Alice’s eyes. Instinctively Alice tried to reach up to the blindfold but the handcuffs and chain connected to her leg irons held down her hands. Alice couldn’t raise her bound wrists above her waist while standing.

“You come now.” Alice was nearly dragged off her feet as the big Russian yanked on her arm. Stumbling, blinded, she tried to comply as best she could. They walked around the helicopter and out toward the desert, but Alice couldn’t see where or in what direction. Maybe there’s something on the other side that I missed, Alice thought.

They went some distance before stopping. Alice figured it was about 50 feet by counting her hobbled steps. “Stay here. No move.” Valentina let go of Alice’s arm. Waiting, Alice wondered if that woman knew more than ten words of English. How had she gotten a job escorting prisoners?

The breeze smelled of sage. The quiet was unsettling, nothing but the wind and the idling engine of the copter. Nervous and puzzled as to why they had here standing in this spot, she risked a question. “Okay, what next? Am I supposed to be doing something? And why the blindfold? There’s nothing but desert here. What’s so secret?” She half expected to feel a gag being jammed into her mouth, but instead all she got was silence. What were they doing?

Then she heard the engine suddenly rev up loudly behind her. Leaning forward and down she was able to grab the scarf covering her eyes and pull it off. Turning around she saw the aircraft, the pilot and the two guards lift off into the sky, abandoning her. Alice tried to dash toward the copter but she was too far away, and the chains on her ankles quickly reminded her not to even attempt running. She had to turn away and close her eyes as the backwash from the rotor threw stinging dust at her. She stood alone in the desert, paralyzed by the shock of being abandoned. The aircraft dwindled to a dot in the sky before finally disappearing from sight beyond the mountains.

Alice clasped her hands tightly together when she realized they were trembling. I’ve got to stay calm and figure this out, she told herself. Slowly she turned in a full circle, surveying her surroundings. She was at one end of the valley, close to the mountains that marked the end of the relatively flat valley floor. Steep mountains, with cliffs she could never hope to scale. Use your head, Jim had told her. She was sure he wouldn’t have simply dumped her out in the desert with no hope of survival. 

I’m stranded, chained hand and foot, no food or water, no way to contact the outside world, so what do I have going for me? To that question she had no good answer. She was ready to sit down and start crying in despair when she noticed the bright orange painted cinder block with a canteen sitting on top. She had been so intent on distance she hadn’t noticed it only a few feet from where she was standing. Quickly she walked over to the marker and picked up the canteen. Opening the cap she saw it was full of water. Underneath the canteen an envelope was taped to the cinder block. Her name was printed on it in large block letters. Bending her knees and leaning over she was able to put the sling on the canteen around her neck before she picked up the envelope.

Since there was nothing else to do she sat down on the cinder block and opened the envelope. Inside was a single sheet of paper addressed to her. It read:

Alice, I picked up on your outline at the point where your character escapes from the police van. Now you have to find shelter just like she did. You don’t have to worry about a police search, but just the same you don’t have time to waste. There is a cabin in this valley, though you can’t see it from where you were dropped off. It is within walking distance, just like your farmhouse. You have more than enough water, but you are going to be tired and hungry by the time you arrive. I hope you had a good breakfast this morning. You will find plenty to eat when you get there, but nothing till then.

Aside from food you have another incentive to find and get to the cabin as soon as possible. As you might have noticed, the guards neglected to remove your restraints. In the cabin there is a safe with an electronic time lock, using a combination plus time of day. Here is the combination: 7-9-1-3-5, but you have to use it before a certain expiration time today. If you don’t get there by the preset time you won’t be able to open the safe tonight. You will find more information in the cabin.

If you pay attention to the details, don’t panic, and use your head, you will get there before the deadline. If you act rashly or make mistakes you will fail. Recall the words to that Joni Mitchell song, Both Sides Now? Consider all the angles.

Remember Alice, you asked for this. Focus on the moment, but plan your moves carefully. Ask yourself, what would your character do?

Jim

He had certainly given her all she had wanted. Alice was scared and near panic. Just like the book, she realized, good job, Jim. She folded up the note and wedged it in the cloth carrier for the canteen. Standing up she looked out over the valley again. From what she could see it was U-shaped, with a protruding ridge blocking off her view of the rest of the basin. The barrier was rocky, impossible to climb over with the chains on. The cabin must be on the other side. Her best route would be to head for the point where it ended even though it would be more distance to cover.

Following Jim’s advice she stood up and scrutinized the path she would take to get to her first stop. The ground had a gentle downward slope from her present position. She couldn’t see any dry riverbeds or gullies that would pose a problem. All she had to do was get there as soon as possible. At least the guards had given her decent shoes to go with the skimpy uniform. Humming the Joni Mitchell melody, one of her favorites, she started walking across the desert.

Never having worn handcuffs and leg chains before Alice had no idea of the problems they would cause. It didn’t take long for her to realize the hike wasn’t going to be an afternoon stroll through a nature preserve. The length of chain between her ankles was just short enough to interfere with her normal walking stride. She kept jerking against the leg irons, bruising her ankles. In order to keep to the best pace possible, she had to concentrate on a shorter stride while holding up the chain to keep it from dragging in the dirt and occasionally catching on the weathered roots sticking out of the ground.

It wasn’t easy but Alice could see she was making progress. She had asked Jim how far a shackled prisoner could go. Now she would find out. Invaluable first hand experience, Alice thought with a rueful grin, and I did ask for it. Jim had taken her request too literally but she couldn’t criticize him for his diligence.

She had to stop several times, twice for a drink of water and other times to rest, before she rounded the point of the ridge. Once past the ridge she could see the cabin further up the other side of the valley. It didn’t look that far away but Alice knew distance in the desert could be deceptive. Looking back to where she had started the landing spot didn’t seem that far away either but she could tell from the sun that she had been walking, or stumbling, for hours. She would be walking uphill too. Without a watch she couldn’t tell the time but she knew it was already afternoon. If she didn’t move faster she would be walking in the dark.

He took my watch deliberately, Alice realized, back in the car. His request for her jewelry and watch had seemed odd but not suspicious, since she knew Jim had some kind of special trip prepared for her. She needed that watch now. But even if she were caught in the dark she would be close enough to make the cabin out in moonlight. Alice stopped suddenly and looked up into the clear blue sky as a stray thought struck. Is there a moon tonight?

She tried to walk as fast as possible but the leg chains wouldn’t cooperate. If anything she was moving slower as she tired. When the sun dropped behind the mountaintops she tried to pick up the pace. In the fading twilight she could still make out the path to her shelter. It would be a race against darkness for her to reach the cabin.

Jim had already solved part of her writer’s block; the section she had sketched out where the main character escapes and finds her way to the farmhouse would have to be rewritten. He had granted her wish to get inside her character’s head, complete with all the panic and fear she had left out. No one was hunting for her but she still felt as if she were being pursued. She didn’t want to contemplate being out in the open desert on a dark night. The cabin was her sanctuary. Every step took her closer to it; she couldn’t afford even a few seconds to stop and rest.

The First Night

Just inside the cabin door was a light switch. Flipping it on flooded the kitchen and main room of the cabin with light. Alice had made it, but the last few yards had been lit by nothing more than starlight. As Jim’s note had told her, the safe was on the cabin floor in a corner of the kitchen. It wasn’t large but looked heavy. Instead of the usual combination dial the door had a display and keypad. Alice dropped the canteen on the table, pulled out Jim’s note with the combination on it and knelt down in front of the safe. Not knowing the expiration time she wanted to get it open as soon as possible.

Unfolding the note she carefully punched in the numbers. The display lit up, showing each number as she entered it on the keypad. Her hopes fell as the display switched to “EXPIRE” as soon as she typed in the last number. In frustration she tried to open the door handle but it wouldn’t budge. She was too late.

On the kitchen table was another envelope with her name on it, similar to the one Jim had left at the landing site. Straining against her handcuffs she was barely able to reach it. Sitting down in one of the chairs around the table she opened the envelope and pulled out the single printed page.

Alice, if you are reading this message instead of the one in the safe then you didn’t reach the cabin before sundown.

Although you may not agree at the moment it was possible for you to reach the cabin in time, but not if your ankles were still locked together. You missed a detail, Alice. Underneath the cinder block marker was a key to unlock your chains. Just as your character could have searched the unconscious guard in the van (did you plan to explain that little omission?) so you could have found the keys. Instead your first thought was to get away and find a hiding place, just like your character. With your ankles free you would have been able to walk faster and arrive well before the safe time lock expired.

Now you have a tough decision to make. You can walk all the way back to the block marker and retrieve the key, or wait for the time delay on the safe to run out. You have some idea of how long it will take to get back to the cinder block marker, but you don’t know when the safe will accept the combination again. Can you afford to wait in the cabin, or should you go back? And by the way, it gets cold at night in the desert. Dark too, there won’t be a moon.

The cabin has everything you need, plenty of food and water plus all the creature comforts. If you feel the urge you can even bake a cake instead of wandering around outside in the desert. You can stay there until sometime Wednesday when the helicopter will return for you, but if you do not act you will have nothing waiting for you when you get back to the city. There is a way for you to contact Jerry before the deadline and stop that buy order. You will have to figure out how.

It is Saturday night. You have two days left. Plan carefully and quickly. You have no margin for error. Details Alice, details.

Jim

P.S. I left pen and paper if you need to make some notes for your book.

Alice read the letter several times, looking for any clues in his words. She hadn’t thought about examining the marker. There had been no reason to tip it over and look underneath for clues. Jim hadn’t told her what to expect. Precisely what I told him to do, she realized while mentally kicking herself. Take nothing for granted from this moment on, she reminded herself, and do not assume anything.

Alice decided to take stock of her situation before planning her next move. She went into the living room of the cabin and sat down on the couch. Picking up the pen on the coffee table she started making notes on the top piece of paper. The handcuffs made it awkward to write. She finally settled on holding her right wrist with her left hand while writing.

On the plus side, she had made it to the cabin. There was food and water, shelter and a warm place to sleep. Assuming Jim’s note was accurate she also knew where a key to her chains was located, though that gem of knowledge didn’t help her current circumstances. She had a combination to the safe, but again its value was diminished by not knowing when she could use the combination, nor did she know what was in the safe.

On the minus side of her sheet of paper the list was longer. She had no immediate way to free herself from the chains. She had no way to communicate with the outside world, though the contents of the safe should solve that problem. It was big enough to hold a radio or satellite phone. Alice knew enough about cell phones to realize she was too isolated for one of those to work, but a radio or a direct to satellite mobile phone would work virtually anywhere in the world. Her third problem was time, or lack of it. She had lost an entire day hiking across the valley, which left her only two more full days.

She didn’t bother to complete her minus list. Alice was exhausted physically, stressed mentally, and emotionally depressed. Now that she had time to relax she would have to add hungry, thirsty, dirty and cold. Carefully placing her pen on the list she stood up and headed back to the kitchen.

A little exploration revealed that the cabinets within her restricted reach were filled with packaged food suitable for the stove or microwave. There was a small refrigerator, also stocked with beverages and some food items. At least she wouldn’t starve, though she would have to find some way around the handcuffs in order to reach the upper cabinets. There was a small energy efficient microwave on the kitchen counter, and on the other side of the sink was a stove with two gas burners.

Standing in front of the sink she looked up at the cupboards beyond her reach. If she strained she could reach as far as the middle of the counter, but she couldn’t even touch the water tap behind the sink. This is ridiculous, she shook the metal bracelets, I have to find some way to get these things off. She settled for taking a small bottle of cold water out of the refrigerator along with some lunchmeat and sliced cheese. There was a loaf of bread on the counter within her reach, and that was enough to make a sandwich. She took it over to the kitchen table and sat down to eat.

Between bites she examined the handcuffs closely. While she had seen fleeting pictures of such things on the TV she had never used them in her stories other than at the end when the police took away the guilty party. Her new project was the first time handcuffs would be significant to the plot. The basic design of the ring around her wrist was simple, a hinged bracelet of steel with a locking ratchet that wouldn’t open unless one had the key. The cuffs on her ankles were virtually identical except for the larger diameter, and a longer connecting chain. Alice knew both were standard police equipment, though she had never seen the last item her guards had added back at the hanger office. The handcuffs and leg irons were linked together by one more length of chain, just long enough for her to walk without bending over. Overall it made for a very effective form of restraint, allowing her movement but limited to slow and clumsy efforts.

She could tell from the outline of the keyhole it must open with some kind of small skeleton key, but otherwise she had no idea what a handcuff key actually looked like. Those guards hadn’t used any kind of key when they put her in the shackles. Once more she pulled on the hinged part of the left handcuff, as she had done so many times during the day, but it wouldn’t budge. In two of her books there was a minor criminal character that could pick locks. Unfortunately she hadn’t learned the art herself, other than a quick check with a real locksmith to make sure the descriptions in her stories were realistic. She had no clue as to how to open the cuffs without a key. It was a gap in her knowledge she would have to fill at the first opportunity. In hindsight she should have researched it before starting the new book.

Alice knew she would have to go through the cabin after she finished eating, but she was sure it would be a wasted effort. There would be no convenient ring of keys in the closet, carefully labeled to indicate they would unlock the handcuffs. She would settle for a hacksaw, even if it took all night to cut off the chains. Jim wouldn’t make it so easy. No, she had to figure out how to get that safe open. The keys, and a radio, had to be in there.

Finished with her sandwich she leaned back in the chair to plan how she would proceed. The cabin layout was a simple A-frame, kitchen, living room and bathroom on the ground floor, with a bedroom in the loft. She could make a cursory pass through everything first, followed by a thorough search afterward.

Was she missing some detail? She hadn’t thought to examine that marker out in the desert, much to her regret now. What was an obvious move she was ignoring? She looked at the sandwich plate sitting in front of her on the table.

The table! There had been nothing on the table top except the note from Jim, but the table had two sides. She jumped up out of the chair and kneeled down on the floor, peering up at the underside of the table. Sure enough, there was another envelope taped to the bottom of the table. This time I’m one step ahead of you Jim, she thought. She had to crawl under the table in order to reach the prize. Once it was in her hands she slid out from under the table and sat on the floor, eager to examine the clue. If she was lucky she’d be out of the restraints in a few minutes. Alice opened the envelope and unfolded the single page.

Now Alice, did you really think it was going to be that easy? I may not be a bestselling author but give me some credit. How long did it take you to think to look under the table? Less than ten minutes after you arrived? If not then you better sharpen up those famous wits.

I will give you a clue, but you will have to judge its usefulness. Everything you need is inside the cabin. It’s all within your reach.

The safe will not open between sunset and sunrise, so you don’t have to stay up all night hoping the time lock will release. During the day there may be various times when it can be opened using the numbers I gave you. You will know when the display shows the word READY. You will have to watch carefully though; it only shows for five seconds, and you must enter the combination I gave you within 90 seconds after the display clears. If you try the combination when the time lock isn’t ready you will be penalized an extra thirty minutes waiting time beyond the next programmed interval.

Staring at the display all day long is not your only option. There are other combinations that will open the safe at any time day or night. If you look you might find one. Then again you might not. Of course, you can wait all day by the safe. I should point out that it may not give you an opening interval at all, in which case you will have wasted your time, hours you desperately need. Do you have the time to reflect on your options and ponder the details?

Tick, tick, tick Alice. The fact you are reading this letter means you aren’t doing too well. Have you managed to get out of the handcuffs? You won’t be able to accomplish much while wearing those things. I suggest you get rid of them.

Jim

Alice read the letter over and over, looking for some hidden meaning. Yes, I did think it was going to be that easy, she told herself. So far Jim had predicted her every move, along with a good idea of what her mental state would be. Alice had to admire him for his perceptive ability, even if it was working against her at the moment. In frustration she jerked against the steel bracelets imprisoning her wrists. He suggests I get rid of them, she read from the typed page in her lap, but just how am I supposed to do that, Jim?

She stood up and headed for the bathroom, intending to try to clean herself up as best she could. The hike across the desert had left her covered in dust. The bathroom was small but fully equipped. Her heart leaped at the sight of a real bathtub. There was a toilet, sink and a large mirror. Jim had thoughtfully left her a basket of toiletries, among the items a toothbrush, toothpaste, comb and shampoo, and soap.

Her reflection in the mirror shocked Alice. Bedraggled would be a charitable description. Somehow she had gotten a smudge of dirt on one cheek, and she was visibly having a bad hair day. Stepping back to the doorway she got the full picture.

Her prison uniform was filthy, but still in one piece. Her eyes were drawn to the logo stenciled across her left breast. Prisoner it read, simple and direct. Not thinking she tried to reach up and touch the lettering. The handcuffs jerked her arms to a sudden stop with a rattle of chain.

On the wall rack were big fluffy towels and a hair dryer. A test of the water tap revealed there was a water heater in good working order. Alice looked longingly at the small but apparently functioning bathtub. A hot bath right now would go a long way to lifting her spirits. The problem would be figuring out how she was going to actually take a bath.

Sitting down on the toilet seat gave her enough slack to reach up and unbutton the top of the uniform. She pulled it over her head but the handcuffs left it tangled in her arms. The guards hadn’t allowed her to keep her bra, which was just as well since she couldn’t reach behind her back. The panties slid down her legs but were caught by the chain between her ankles. Standing up she went to the bathtub and sat down on the edge before lifting her legs over and into the tub. Then she was able to sit down in the tub and start the water running.

Alice would get her bath, even if she had to do the laundry at the same time. She could use the hair dryer on the clothes afterward. The hot water did wonders to ease her sore muscles. She did try to be careful about scratching the tub finish with the metal cuffs and chain. The wet dress tangled around her wrists was difficult to handle, but she managed to straighten it out and rub soap into the fabric.

Once the uniform had been cleaned she ran some more hot water into the tub and sat back, eyes closed, soaking in the warmth. As the warmth worked on her sore leg muscles, washing away the strains of the day, her mind cleared to where she could focus objectively on her situation.

There has to be an answer somewhere, some solution to the puzzle in a detail I’m missing, Alice told herself. Jim would not have put me here if there wasn’t a way out. There has to be something I can do in order to get that call in to Jerry by Monday night, something other than bake a cake. Only two days were left, Sunday and Monday. Should she try to go back to the marker? It would take a full day, and she wasn’t sure she could walk that far and get back if anything went wrong. There must be something in or around the cabin that would help her.

The hair dryer worked on her uniform. It still felt damp when she slipped the garment back over her head, but at least it was clean. She had to sit on the edge of the tub in order to brush and comb her hair. The chains were a constant frustration, forcing her into awkward positions in order to accomplish even the simplest of tasks. She had to find some way to get them off or she’d never figure out how to make that crucial telephone call to Jerry.

Alice managed the slow climb up the stairway to the bedroom in the loft. Exhausted by the day’s events she fell asleep almost immediately.

Sunday

Sunday morning Alice woke up to sore leg muscles and a chilly cabin. Making her way downstairs she found the thermostat for the heater and turned it on. Hunger drove her to the kitchen. She put a frozen breakfast entrée in the microwave and sat at the table while it cooked.

While eating she planned her course of action. She would search the interior first, followed by a walk around the outside of the cabin to see if she could spot anything. It would be difficult and time consuming but she couldn’t come up with any other options. Just like my book, she thought, what happens after she gets away from the police and hides out in the farmhouse? Have I painted myself into a literary corner by making it too difficult for her to overcome the obstacles?

The kitchen revealed no essential clues. Food, dishes, and cooking utensils were all she found. Even standing on a chair she couldn’t reach the upper shelves but she was able to look. There were bags of salt and sugar, larger cans of fruits and vegetables, all pantry items for real cooks. She almost laughed at the picture of the pineapple upside down cake on the large flour canister. She could bake a cake after all.

The kitchen closet yielded a broom, bucket and mop plus a few tools hanging on a pegboard. No hacksaw or chisel though, just a few common tools that included a hammer, adjustable wrench, and a set of screwdrivers. There were gauges inset in the wall showing the status of the solar cells and battery level. From what Alice could determine the power had dropped in the night but the batteries were now charging from sunlight.

Walking into the living room Alice was struck by the lack of clocks. The microwave display flashed 12:00 when she pressed the clock button, indicating the time of day had never been set. Since Jim had thoughtfully confiscated her wristwatch the only way she had to tell time was the position of the sun. She sat down at the kitchen table and looked out the window. Just what time of day was it?

The heroine in the book will have to figure it out too, Alice told herself, so I better solve this first. Yesterday during her hike the sun had set over the mountains behind the landing spot, so that had to be to the west. She had been asleep when the sun rose, so where was east? Grabbing the connecting chain she stood up and shuffled to the front door. Outside she stood on the porch, looking to the ridge that bisected the valley, and the mountains beyond. That was her first reference point. She stepped off the porch into the sun.

Facing what she knew to be the western mountains she looked down her shadow on the ground. It pointed west, meaning it was still morning, but the shadow was short, indicating it was near local noon. That means I overslept, she realized, not surprising considering how tired I was. She sat down on the porch to plan what she would do next.

To one side of the cabin someone had put in a set of poles for a clothesline. Idly she watched the shadow of one of the poles on the ground. Good idea, she thought, in the summer wet clothes would dry in about 5 minutes in the desert sun. Suddenly Alice jumped up and walked over to the clothesline pole as fast as she could manage. Shadows are shortest at noon. If I mark the progress of the sun I can find a time to put in the microwave! Excited she picked up a stick and marked where the pole’s shadow ended. She stood nearby, marking the shadow’s progress across the dirt. After a few minutes she could see it getting shorter, confirming her assumption it was still morning.

The moment she could tell the length was increasing she headed back into the cabin. At the microwave she hit the timer button and set the clock to noon. With a smile she sat down at the table and looked at the display. It probably wasn’t exact but it wouldn’t be more than half an hour off. Now she knew how much sunlight was left in the day.

She got a bottle of cold juice out of the refrigerator and sipped at it. A clock was a small victory but it gave her a feeling of accomplishment. It also told her she didn’t have enough time today to hike back to the landing marker to search for the keys to the handcuffs. She might have made it there in daylight but it would be pitch dark on the return trip. And there might not be enough light left to look for the marker. Without a flashlight it would be a waste of time.

Alice spent the afternoon walking around outside the cabin. The array of solar panels was impressive, covering most of an acre of land next to the cabin. The collectors were fixed, not as efficient as the kind that tracked the sun but far more reliable. There was a small shed for batteries and a well pump. Alice looked inside but didn’t see anything useful.

The silence in the desert valley was eerie. Alice didn’t realize how many sounds were in the city background until they were all gone. No sirens, no airplanes or traffic helicopters overhead, no sounds of machinery, no blaring radio or television interrupted her concentration. Other than the wind rustling the sage and the occasional sound of some bird the only sounds were ones she made. It reminded her of how alone she was.

Best Laid Plans

Alice went to bed early Sunday evening. Her exhaustive search of the cabin had been fruitless. She was out of ideas. The safe in the kitchen remained stubbornly closed, unresponsive to her desperate attempts to get it to open. She was down to her last option, an attempt to find the marker where the helicopter had landed. Her plan was to get up before sunrise on Monday morning and start as early as possible on the hike across the desert. The canteen of water was chilling in the refrigerator and she had a small cache of food set out to take with her.

Jim had removed all the clocks, except for the microwave, and that included the table radio which doubled as an alarm clock. Alice would have to trust that she would wake up early if she could get to sleep. If the pre-dawn light was bright enough she could start that much earlier. Now that she had the approximate time programmed into the microwave oven clock she would have some idea of when the sun would come up.

She had decided to sleep on the couch instead of the loft. By moving the couch a little she could see the microwave display. As she dozed off her thoughts turned to Jim. He always seemed to have an answer no matter what the problem. If he were here now all she would have to do is ask him and he’d handle it. Reliability, that’s what made him so invaluable as a friend. Attractive too, Alice smiled, it would be interesting to spend a week out here with him. Even those cursed handcuffs wouldn’t be so bad if he had the key.

When she woke up the display revealed the time as 4:53 AM. A glance out the windows showed it was still dark outside. Reluctantly Alice threw aside the blanket and got up. She began with a quick trip to the bathroom to clean up as best she could and then she headed for the front door. If there was enough light she could start immediately.

As soon as she opened the door she knew something had gone wrong with her plans. A gust of wind, cold wind, hit her full in the face. She shut the door and went to pick up her blanket. Wrapping it around her as best she could she opened the door again and stepped out on the porch.

The eastern sky showed an orange streak of pre-dawn light, light that cut off as it hit the overcast covering the valley. Dense clouds hugged the tops of the mountains to the west. A sudden flash of lightning followed by a distant rumble confirmed what she could see. A thunderstorm had moved into the valley. Rare in the desert but even in the Mojave it rains once in a while.

Rays from the sun as it crept over the mountains to the east illuminated the streaks of a downpour at the other end of the valley. Dejected, Alice sat on the porch watching. The storm might not reach the cabin but there was no point in trying to find the marker now. A heavy rain would cause flash floods from the mountains, or at least a heavy runoff. The marker would likely be knocked over and washed down into the valley somewhere. Whatever was under it would be buried in mud.

She didn’t much care for the idea of being caught out in the open if the storm did take a sudden turn and head her way. Among the barrel cactus and mesquite she would be the tallest object on the ground, literally a lightning rod.

An hour later the storm had passed. Alice went inside to look at her makeshift clock. She might still be able to make the hike in daylight, but would it be worthwhile? And what would she do if she stayed in the cabin? Bake Jim his cake, she thought ruefully, I don’t have much of a plan otherwise. Problem was she wasn’t much of a cook, and hadn’t made a cake since her Home Economics class in high school.

Alice went back out to the porch to try to plan out the day. She stopped in the doorway, watching new clouds pour over the mountain tops. More to come, she realized, I can’t go out there today. She sat on the porch wrapped in her blanket, savoring the cool bite of the rain tinged morning breeze. “One more day Alice, what is your brilliant plot device to escape your seemingly hopeless predicament?” Spoken out loud the words seemed to help her focus, but when she listened no answer came back, only the distant growl of thunder.

A Visitor In The Night

Holding the juice bottle in both hands she raised it up to drink in the last few drops. The chain rattled against the glass. She put the empty down. Lost in thought Alice stared at her hands resting on the table top. I’m getting used to having my hands bound together. Not that I have a choice. She looked down at the safe on the floor. The solution was inside, so close yet so far, just beyond her reach. Jim must have left her a way to open it.

One more search of the cabin was the only plan she could devise. Alice was convinced the combination in his note must be a false lead, something designed to distract her and waste time. There had to be another way to get it open.

When she stood up to resume the search she bumped the table. The bottle fell over and began to roll across the table. Instinctively Alice lunged for it but the chains pulled her hands down. She watched in helpless frustration as it rolled off the other side of the table and shattered on the linoleum. Shards of glass scattered all over the kitchen floor.

That was the last straw for Alice. She sat down in the kitchen chair, buried her head in her hands and began to cry uncontrollably. She had failed in virtually every respect. The safe remained closed, she hadn’t been able to call Jerry before the Monday night deadline, and she still had the handcuffs on. In her book the heroine was supposed to solve all those problems in a day. After three days she had made no progress at all.

In one respect she had succeeded. Alice now knew first hand all the despair and hopelessness in her character’s head. Jim had wiped away her writer’s block. The only problem was the cost had been too high. Oddly the one item that most depressed Alice, even more than the impending loss of her fortune, was that she had not been able to figure out Jim’s clues. When he came to pick her up she had hoped to present him with an open safe, the handcuffs and leg shackles piled up on top of it, and the radio or telephone in her hand. She wanted to see his expression of approval. Now it wasn’t going to happen.

Alice was so absorbed in her own plight she didn’t hear the door open behind her, but the gust of cold air made her turn in her chair. She froze in fright at the outline of a large man filled the dimly lit doorway. Not until the stranger closed the door and stepped into the kitchen light did she recognize the newcomer.

“Jim!” She leaped out of her chair and tried to run to him but her chains slowed her to a hobbled walk. With tears still brimming in her eyes she threw herself into his open arms, burying her face in his chest. His arms closed around her, holding her tight. Still shackled, she could only place her bound hands against his waist as she sobbed uncontrollably. “I don’t know what to do! It’s too late to call Jerry and stop the buy order. I’m wiped out, and I couldn’t even figure out how to get these handcuffs off. Oh Jim, I failed at everything. What’s going to happen now?”

All the stress and built up anxiety from the last three days seemed to come out at once. Alice couldn’t stop crying. She could feel her body trembling from reaction but couldn’t control it.

At some point she realized he was talking to her, whispering soothing words in her ear as he stroked her hair. Drawing on his strength she managed to stop crying and leaned back her head to look up at him. In his face she saw concern and worry, a side of Jim that had been hidden from her before now. He took out a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and wiped away the tears in her eyes.

“Take a deep breath, sit down, count to ten, and then tell me everything.” He let go of her and turned the kitchen table chair so she could sit down. He leaned back against the sink, folded his arms, and stared down at her.

Alice did exactly what he said; slowly counting down as she consciously slowed her breathing and tried to calm down. It worked. Suddenly she realized she hadn’t heard the sounds of an aircraft. Where had Jim come from?

Those were the first words out. “I didn’t hear the helicopter. How did you get out here?”

Jim smiled as he unfolded his arms and put his hands on the counter edge. “I’ve been here since Saturday, Alice. The helicopter took you on a long slow trip. Meanwhile I had a small plane waiting for me. We took off about fifteen minutes behind you, but we took a direct and faster route to the valley here. The plane couldn’t land so I simply jumped out. I arrived more than an hour before you did.”

Alice remembered that Jim had once mentioned he had been in Airborne while serving in the Army. He was no stranger to parachutes. “Wasn’t that dangerous? You might have been hurt!”

“Good weather, no wind, it wasn’t a high risk jump. I had the pilot circle to make sure I was okay once I was on the ground. If anything had happened he would have called Doug to pick me up when the helicopter got here.

“But nothing went wrong. I hid the chute and made it to an observation point I’d prepared on that ridge you walked around. I saw you land and everything after that. While you hiked around the ridge to get to the cabin I was watching you every minute. I’ve been close by all the time you were here.”

Alice stared up at him, eyes wide. I never was in any danger, she realized, he’s been here protecting me from the start. “Why didn’t you show yourself sooner? Do you know how scared I was?” As soon as she asked the question she knew the answer too.

Jim didn’t answer at first. He stood in front of her, a wry expression on his face. Alice had to look down in embarrassment. She knew the question had been stupid. If she knew he was nearby she wouldn’t have been so desperate. The whole trip would have been pointless. But in any case the trip had been a failure. She hadn’t called Jerry, she hadn’t solved the mystery of the safe, and she hadn’t even managed to free herself of the prison shackles. She said as much to Jim.

“It’s true you don’t seem to have accomplished much. Here it is Monday night, the deadline, and you stand to lose your bet.”

That wasn’t what she wanted to hear. But with Jim here there was one nagging problem she could resolve immediately. She held out her hands to him, rattling the chain on her handcuffs. “There’s no point in wearing these things now. Can you take them off?” She was sure he’d have a spare set of keys with him.

“No.” Alice waited but he didn’t elaborate. Slowly she lowered her hands back into her lap, puzzled at his refusal.

“I don’t understand, don’t you have the keys?” If he had spent the last three days watching over her he surely wouldn’t have overlooked something as obvious as her restraints.

“No Alice, I don’t have the keys. And you don’t require my help either. I told you, everything you need is in this cabin, within your reach. If you want to free yourself just take them off.”

Alice dropped her head and began to sob. “I can’t! I don’t know how.”

Jim paused for a moment, then stood up and walked over to Alice. He reached down and held up her chin in one hand, forcing her to look directly at him.

“In your books the reader has to analyze the details, your clues, and find the ones that have a common theme. All that is complicated by the false leads and deceptive revelations you plant in the story. These”, he grabbed the chain linking her handcuffs, “were your distraction. Granted they are difficult to ignore, but you can solve the puzzle if you ignore the distractions and find the filter theme for your little adventure here.”

Understanding dawned on Alice. Jim had used her unique writing style as his blueprint. And she hadn’t seen it. His “distraction” had absorbed nearly all her time and effort. She sat back in the chair, lost in thought. Back up, look at it all again, pay attention to the real details, she told herself.

The first item had to be that cinder block marker. The note and canteen above, the keys she missed below. Then there was the kitchen table, one note on top, another taped to the bottom. Opposite sides! She turned to look at the safe, sudden comprehension showing in her expression.

Jim went back to leaning on the counter, watching Alice as she stood up and slowly walked over to the safe on the floor. She crouched down, staring at the front display. The combination in that note was a false lead. There has to be another sequence. She stood up and went around to the back of the safe. No secret envelopes, but she had already checked once when she first searched the cabin. The back was featureless grey steel, with the manufacturer’s metal label plate glued in one corner. She had looked at the label before too, nothing but the company name, model and the serial number. Filter it, opposite sides, what am I missing? She concentrated on the label, reading it over and over. The model code was a simple “Mark IV”, and the serial number’s five digits, “00291”. Obviously the safe wasn’t a big selling item if the total run was less than a thousand. Yet something nagged at Alice in the back of her mind about that label.

She stood and looked at Jim. “The number…” she started to say but stopped. She went around to the front of the safe and sat down on the floor. The chains rattled on the floor but she ignored her restraints. Quickly she started to punch in the serial number, but stopped before hitting the last number. She turned and looked up at Jim. “This is too easy and much too obvious. No one would use the number on the safe to open it.” She hit the cancel button to clear her combination.

The earlier warning about a wrong combination causing a delay made her worry. She had to get it right the first time. The brute force approach, trying variations on the serial number till one worked, might take all night if she had to wait after each one. Alice could feel Jim watching her but she had to solve this herself, without his help. Opposites, she thought, two sides of the same object. What was the opposite side of that serial number? Carefully she punched in the five digits, “1-9-2-0-0”, as it would read from the back of the label, and hit the enter key.

The display went blank, and Alice’s heart fell. She was so sure that had been the answer. Then a loud mechanical click broke the silence in the room, and the display read “OPEN”. She took hold of the door handle in both hands and tried to turn it.

The handle slid smoothly to one side and the door swung open. Inside was a device that looked like a large bulky cellular phone. Alice picked it up. She had never seen one before but she knew what it had to be, a satellite telephone. Instead of a cellular tower it communicated directly with overhead satellites. She could call anywhere in the world.

Holding the phone tightly she got up off the floor and went back to the table. Jim was smiling now, a sight that warmed Alice. She had never realized before how important it was to win his approval.

Placing the sat phone on the table she studied it carefully. The keyboard layout was similar to a regular cell phone but there were a few differences. Taped across the top was a handwritten note that “*23” was the preset to call Jerry. She looked over her shoulder at Jim, still at the counter, unmoving. She got the message. I have to do this on my own, she thought.

The “ON” button was obvious, so she touched it first. The display lit up. It was Monday night; if she could reach Jerry at home she could still save herself from financial disaster in the morning. Taking a deep breath, with a silent prayer she pushed the three keys to dial the preset.

Jim walked over and sat down beside her, to see the call’s progress. The word “CONNECT” came up first, she assumed it meant a connection to the satellite. Then the word “DIAL” followed soon after by a familiar ringing sound. Alice jumped as Jerry’s voice said “Hello?”

“Jerry, it’s Alice! I finally got to a phone. STOP THAT BUY ORDER!” The last she literally screamed into the telephone.

“Alice, good to hear from you.” Jerry’s voice lowered as he turned away to talk to someone else. “Barbara is here with me, she says hello too. How are you doing?”

Had he heard her? Alice answered, “I’m fine Jerry. Tear up that buy order. Don’t submit it tomorrow morning. Did you get that? I’ll be back on…” she interrupted to look at Jim.

“Doug will pick us up Wednesday morning,” he whispered.

“…on Wednesday afternoon. I’ll explain it all then. But Jerry, cancel that order!”

Alice jerked back as a series of loud tones sounded from the phone. “What was that?” she asked.

“Those are remote control tones for the phone. I heard you Alice, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop that buy order.”

Alice looked at Jim, puzzled by Jerry’s comment. Jim frowned but put a finger to his lips. She understood; don’t mention he was sitting next to her.

“Jerry, what do you mean? I’m telling you, as my broker, not to buy that stock.”

“Well Alice, it’s like this. Once you trace through the intermediates, it seems that Barbara and I now own all that stock. If we don’t sell it to you we’ll lose a lot of money. If I go ahead we both stand to make enough to retire on, starting tomorrow night. I’m sure you understand.”

“Are you robbing me?” Alice shouted in to the phone. “The two of you won’t get away with this. The next call is going right to the police.”

“No Alice,” Jerry laughed. “There won’t be any next call from that phone. Those tones you heard? They shut it down. When I hang up the phone will go dead. Try pushing any of the keyboard buttons.”

Alice hit the “OFF” key to hang up. Nothing happened.

“See? Computers are a wonderful thing. They do precisely what a programmer tells them. You should meet this guy I know; he can reprogram anything from electronic safes to telephones.

“In the morning your order goes in. At noon Barbara will stop by for lunch, we’ll get the confirmation from the bank, and we’ll head for the airport. When you finally do get back Alice, Barbara and I will be leaving the Cayman Islands on our way to…well, you understand if I don’t continue. You’ll recover in time. Crank out some more of your brilliant ego-stroking books while ignoring your friends. That’s something you’re good at. Bye Alice.” The phone went dead.

“Jerry! Don’t do this. Jerry!” Alice shook the phone, frantically pushing the buttons, but it didn’t respond. 

Jim put a hand on her arm. “Alice, put it down.”

She jerked away, throwing the now inoperative phone on the table. “He just stole everything I’ve earned for the past nine years!” She struggled in vain to slip the handcuffs over her hands. “And I can’t even get these things off.” She buried her face in her hands, crying in frustration.

“Stop it! Stop it right now!”

Alice looked up, surprised by the gruff tone in Jim’s voice. Surprise turned to shock as he grabbed the chain between her wrists and dragged her to her feet. She started to ask what he was doing but he cut her off at the first word.

“Quiet! Follow me and do precisely what I tell you. Watch and learn Alice.”

First he took her into the living room, stopping in front of the coffee table. Jim turned back to face Alice while pointing at the table. “What do you see?”

It wasn’t a complex question. “There’s a pad of paper and a pen. I don’t…” She stopped when he held up a hand.

“Pick up the pen and take it with you.”

Next he led her to the bathroom. “In that basket, see the razor?” There was a package of disposable plastic shavers along with comb, soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste. “Take one with you.”

Alice picked it up, still at a loss as to what he was doing. The pen was a cheap ballpoint type in a plastic shell. The shaver was nothing more than a razor blade in a plastic holder.

Jim brought her back to the kitchen. “Put the items on the table, then get the cutting board from the counter and put it on the table too.”

She had seen the wooden cutting board the first evening but hadn’t used it. It was wooden, used judging by the scratches in the surface, but clean. It was next to the sink and easily within her reach. Alice placed it on the edge of the table and looked back at Jim.

“You need one last item. Did you happen to look in the kitchen closet?” He gestured to a door behind the table.

Alice had looked in there, but found little more than cleaning supplies and a few tools, hammer, pliers, a screwdriver, hung on the wall. She had hoped for a file or hacksaw when she first searched the cabin. She went to the closet door and opened it.

“Take out the hammer. That’s all you need.” She took the hammer off the pegs on the wall and went back to the table.

There had to be a purpose to Jim’s orders, but she couldn’t figure it out. The obvious conclusion was to put the pen and razor on the cutting board and break them with the hammer, but Alice didn’t see the purpose to it. She looked back at Jim and shrugged.

“Okay, this is how your character in the book is going to free herself. This is all you need to make a key. Take the hammer and break the shell on the end of the pen, the opposite end from the point. But be careful not to crack or break the tube of ink inside.”

Awkwardly Alice held the hammer in one hand and steadied the pen on the cutting board with the other. Because of the cuffs she had to hold the hammer right behind the head, which helped to give her better control over it. Carefully she struck the end of the pen, trying to crack the plastic. The first few blows weren’t enough, but the third time she was rewarded with a definite breaking sound.

“Roll it over and work on the other side. Remember, you need to keep the insides intact.”

Concentrating on the pattern of fractures she turned the pen, striking it again and again. She put the hammer down and tried to break off the end. She had to use the hammer one more time before she finished.

“That looks good. Now you need to cut a small slit in the inner plastic ink tube. For that you need a razor blade.” His plan was beginning to make sense to Alice. The ink tube was just the right diameter to fit inside the keyhole of her handcuffs.

She set the pen aside and placed the shaver on the cutting board. Extracting the razor blade didn’t take long as she didn’t have to be so careful. A few whacks with the hammer and the blade was free of the handle. She picked up the blade in one hand and the pen in the other.

“You need to make a small vertical cut from the top, but just on one side. Use the edge of the blade. Cut down about one eighth of an inch. Cut in just one direction, that will give you finer control, instead of using a back and forth movement.”

Alice did as Jim directed, making a small incision in the end of the tube.

“Now comes the difficult part. You need to bend out a flange from the tube, to make a key bit. For that you have to cut horizontally at the base so it will bend cleanly. It has to be about one sixteenth of an inch.”

Alice thought about it a moment, and then simply sliced across the tube, making sure the cut lined up with the vertical one. Wedging the razor blade into the tube she slowly bent out a section of the tube. She held it out to Jim to examine.

He took it from her hand and peered at it, testing the flange to make sure it would work. “Hold out your hands,” he told her.

Alice pushed back her chair and held up her bound hands to him. Holding her breath, she watched anxiously as he inserted the makeshift key into the handcuff on her left wrist. He started to turn it, stopped, and pulled it back out.

“Not quite. It needs a little more on the bit.” He picked up the razor from the table and used it to bend out more of the side of the tube. “This should do it.”

Once more he inserted it into the keyway. Slowly he turned it counterclockwise until Alice heard a definite click. But the cuff didn’t open.

Jim smiled as he saw the disappointment on her face. “Don’t panic. That’s the double lock. It stops the cuff from tightening further. You have to release it first. Let’s do the rest before we make the second key.” He used the pen key to open the double lock on her other handcuff and both the shackles on her ankles.

“Are you ready to take those chains off? All you have to do is turn the key the other way.” He handed the pen to Alice. Eagerly she inserted it into the left side handcuff and turned clockwise. And kept turning. The handcuff didn’t open.

“You have to make a second key, with the bend going the other direction. Your bit is soft plastic, when it hits the lever it is pushed down and doesn’t open the lock. Cut off the flange and make one that opens in the other direction.”

Alice did as he directed. This time it was easier because she already had a gap to start the cut. She inserted her new key in the cuff and turned.

The hinged part of the handcuff fell open, freeing her left hand. Alice stared at the open cuff, hanging below her wrist. Quickly she used her free hand to open the right hand side, followed by the cuffs around her ankles. She let the restraints drop to the floor.

“I could have done this days ago!” Alice stood up, stretching her arms up and far apart. On impulse she threw her arms around Jim’s neck and kissed him. When his arms went around her and he returned that kiss she didn’t pull away.

When they finally stopped it was Jim who spoke first. “You had everything you needed. Details, Alice. The small detail of knowing how and what to do with the tools you have.”

She laid her head against his chest, loathe to leave his embrace. “The detail is what I didn’t know. That, and a sort of writer’s block. I was so obsessed with opening the safe to get the keys I didn’t think about finding another way to get the handcuffs off. But there never were any keys in the safe. You tricked me with a distraction just like I try to mislead my readers with false clues!”

Jim laughed out loud. “Yes I did. One more small detail you neglected. Think about it. I never actually told you the handcuff keys were in the safe. Now there was a set under that marker out in the desert, but I knew you wouldn’t look the first time, and it was too far to go back for them. If you could have even found the marker.”

“Ahh! But I could have followed my footprints. Did you think of that?”

Jim shook his head. “Wouldn’t have worked. As soon as you went around the ridge I used a bush to erase them. And I moved the marker. You were right not to have gone back.”

She hit him lightly on one arm. “You moved it? That’s cheating! What if I had gone looking anyway?”

“Sure it’s cheating. Alice, this is a rigged game, my rules.”

“Jim, what about Jerry? We don’t have any way to call for help.”

Jim shook his head. “Jerry is a real fanatic with electronic toys so I asked him about the safe. Jerry told me he knew a techie guy who could set it up and supply a phone. I didn’t expect Jerry and Beth would pull a stunt like this. But it’s still my game and my rules. Let me show you something…”

Two for Lunch

Tuesday morning Jerry Goldberg submitted Alice’s buy order. By lunchtime he and Beth would be very rich, with a nice pile of hard cash waiting for them when they got off the plane in the Caymans. He was tempted to laugh out loud, gloating like some stereotypical movie villain. Poor, poor Alice, whatever would she do? Poor in common courtesy, and now poor as in no money, thanks to Jim’s crazy scheme. He would be sure to raise a glass and toast her misfortune as he and Beth sat out on the beach tonight.

He ought to write a little thank you note to Jim. Beth had done her part, setting up the shell corporation, but he had been struggling for months to find a way to get Alice to buy it. The two of them had been planning to rob Alice for over a year but the opportunity always eluded him. Alice was shrewd and Jim was diligent in looking out for her financials; if he was careless one of them would have spotted it immediately.

And then Jim had called with a request for a high risk investment for Alice. That morning opportunity had come knocking on Jerry Goldberg’s door. He had the perfect stock, thanks to Beth. The meeting last Saturday morning had been priceless, with Beth begging Alice not to sign. The best con is when the mark demands to be taken and won’t say no.

Jerry checked the tickers on his monitor. Markets are down today, he saw. The other brokers all wore glum expressions, the mark of a tough sell day. Jerry didn’t care if his volume was close to zero today, because he wouldn’t be sitting at his desk tomorrow. No, he’d be on a plane for Africa. Beth had decided they would hide out in Singapore, after some dodges through several African countries to throw off the cops. Clean, modern, and they spoke the language; it was ideal for someone with the means to enjoy the best.

He looked at his watch. Beth would be showing up soon to take him to lunch, and then to the airport. He looked in his desk drawer to see if there was anything he should keep. There was a signed copy of Alice’s latest paperback. He left it. He wanted nothing more to do with her.

Where was Alice? Jim had her hidden someplace, and that’s all he knew. The satellite phone was her only way to communicate. The call last night when he deactivated it was one he would repeat inside his head over and over. For one precious moment Alice had broken down, pleading with him not to hang up. Tomorrow morning some executive from the brokerage would call her with the bad news. Liquidation, it had such a nice ring to it. Maybe Beth should leave the name of a good bankruptcy attorney for her.

Jerry stood up to stretch. He went to the window and looked out, just in time to see Beth’s convertible pull into the parking lot. She’d be up in a moment. He looked around the trading floor. It was slow today, but the times when the phones were ringing non-stop, those he would remember. He would miss the adrenaline rush of frantic trading. He would not miss the wolf pack mentality in the company, all waiting for him to slip so they could tear away his clients.

He walked back to his desk and filled out some miscellaneous paperwork, figuring he might as well clean his desk before lunch. He dropped off the forms at the secretary’s desk just as Beth walked in.

“Jerry, ready to go? I’m hungry and you’re buying.” She looked good in a tailored business suit with a too short skirt. Jerry watched the heads turn as she strode across the trading floor towards him.

“One second while I check out.” He picked up his phone and dialed the intercom for his supervisor, Joe Donovan. “Joe? Jerry. I’m gonna head out for lunch, anything urgent before I go?”

Joe Donovan silently signaled the group waiting in his office as he answered. “Jerry? Can you hang on one second? I need to ask you about those Indonesian bonds. Are you sure they can be sold if they aren’t denominated in dollars or euros? I’m worried about the exchange rate, and given the lack of stability there…” He went on, keeping Jerry on the phone as the SEC agent had requested. “Okay, if you say so Jerry. Go ahead and take lunch, I’ll cover your phone in case there’s a call from Djakarta. See you later.” Joe hung up the phone. Indeed he would see Jerry later, but not about foreign bonds.

Jerry hung up his phone. “Sorry, something about bonds. I’ll deal with it after lunch. What’ll it be, Chinese, Thai, Italian?”

Beth looked thoughtful. “Maybe some island type food. What do you think?”

At that moment a group of strangers turned the corner next to Jerry’s desk. The one in front looked at Jerry and Beth. “Jerry Goldberg? Beth Tanaka? My name is Joel Feldman from the Securities Exchange Commission. We have some questions about a trade you submitted this morning.”

Beth and Jerry turned around and saw the uniformed police who had quietly come up behind them. The trading floor was silent as everyone sat watching the arrest. The SEC enforcement agent continued. “These detectives are from the Fraud division. At this time I should advise you of your rights…”

Jerry didn’t even hear what the enforcement agent was saying. It must have been Alice, but how? Jim had assured him the satellite phone would be her only means to communicate, and there was no way she could have made it work. Jim had specifically told both him and Beth that Alice would have no other means to contact anyone until Wednesday. What had gone wrong?

The Last Day

“I still don’t get how you knew Jerry would sabotage the phone.” Alice was curled up in Jim’s arms as they sat up in bed. The sun was still low in the sky, illuminating a few early dawn clouds from underneath. Jim stared out the window. Below them on the kitchen counter was the open canister that supposedly contained flour, the pineapple upside down cake label clearly visible. The spare telephone lay in the bubble wrap in the canister. Alice had left it there after contacting the police. Underneath the phone were the spare keys to the handcuffs. Jim had told the truth. He didn’t have the spare keys, because he had left them in the cabin.

Upside down cake, Alice laughed to herself, obvious only in hindsight.

“I didn’t know. If I had known Jerry and Beth were planning something I’d have gone to the police first. The extra phone in the flour box was in case something happened to you out in the desert and I needed to call in an emergency. I couldn’t count on just one telephone. I had to watch out for you Alice, even if you didn’t know I was there.” Idly he ran a hand up and down her arm.

“You’ve always been there protecting me, haven’t you? Not just the last few days. And I never noticed. Was I really that bad Jim? Is it my fault Jerry and Beth hate me so?” His hand felt good on her arm.

“Well, how can I be tactful. Hmm. Yes Alice, you were plenty bad at times. It doesn’t excuse what Jerry and Beth did though. They wanted to profit from your misery. Remember the cliché about digging two graves when you plot revenge?” He brushed back her hair from her eyes.

“What will happen to them? I was mad last night but I really don’t want to see them suffer. Is there anything we can do?”

Jim shook his head. “Afraid not. It’s a criminal case. The D.A. will decide how to prosecute. Maybe they’ll go easy if you put in a good word. A few years in a country club prison and probation after that. Beth won’t be able to practice law anymore; a felony disbars a lawyer. For sure Jerry will lose his broker’s license. Don’t feel too sorry for them. They were going to leave you penniless. Think of all the hard work you would have lost.”

“I know, but still. They were my friends. At least I thought they were. I can’t just abandon them. Do you think it would be okay if I asked the D.A. to go easy? After all, I’m the only victim.” She looked up at him while snuggling into his arm.

“You’re not the only victim. They broke a trust. It hurts every honest lawyer and stockbroker. And no jokes about a contradiction in terms.” They both laughed.

Jim threw back the bed covers. “Who gets the first shower? Loser has to wait for the water to heat afterwards.”

Alice slid back under the sheet. “You go first. You kept me up late last night.”

Jim stood up. “Alright sleepy, but we have a helicopter to catch later today.”

Alice sat up. From her expression he saw she was bothered by something. “Jim…I don’t know how to say this. Can I ask you to…oh I’m so embarrassed to even say it!”

“The easiest way is to close your eyes, count to ten, then blurt it out. Try that.”

“Very funny. What I wanted to ask, while you’re taking a shower…” she pointed over the edge of the loft to the fireplace hearth where he had put the handcuffs and leg chains last night. “Would you put those handcuffs on me?” She could feel her face blush red. She had expected Jim to laugh but when she looked up he was staring at her intently.

“Yes Alice, I can do that. But,” he paused, “but on my terms only. You understand what that means?”

She got out of bed and came around to stand in front of him. Not even the short prisoner uniform covered her now. She held out her hands. “Your terms Jim. Whatever they are.”

He took hold of her arm and pointed her to the stairway. “Then let’s go.” Following her down the stairs he admired the way her hips swayed back and forth, a view unencumbered by clothing. On the ground floor he led her over to the couch. “Stand still, arms at your side, face forward.” Eager to please Alice did as he ordered.

Jim picked up the handcuffs and leg shackles. The connecting chain he left on the bricks. He threw the leg chains on the sofa as he opened the handcuffs. “No key Alice, I keep it. No pen this time either.” She didn’t answer.

Her eyes glistened as he closed the cuff on one wrist. When he suddenly spun her around and pushed her face down on the couch she gasped but didn’t protest as he pulled her other hand behind her back. She shuddered as he locked her wrists together. “Now it’s my turn to attend to the details,” he whispered in her ear. “Careful what you ask for, you might get it.” He picked up the leg irons, locked one end around her left ankle, pulled it up and threaded the leg chain between her arms before locking the other cuff on her right ankle. Alice was forced to lay face down, her hands and feet bound behind her in a hogtie. “Now you be a good girl and stay there while I get cleaned up.”

Turning her head sideways she saw Jim go into the bathroom. He left the door open as he got in the shower. She heard the water start. Looking over her shoulder she could see how he had neatly wrapped her up in a tidy package. Any attempt to straighten out her legs resulted in painful pressure on her shoulders and arms. She was stuck until he came back for her. She laid her head down, closed her eyes and listened to him singing in the shower. Joni Mitchell, he does have a sense of humor, Alice thought to herself. Maybe I’m looking at love from both sides too. Off key but it was music to her ears. It was the sound of a happy man. Alice hummed along, making it a duet.

25.04.2020

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