Merrill Ross was on his way to the 11:10 Chicago flight when he saw them. Two of Paul Brumucci’s men. Goons right out of central casting, standing side-by-side against the wall of the concourse between him and the scanning stations. Both were focused with laserlike stares on the passengers queueing up for the screeners and metal detectors. Merrill froze, his heart in his throat.
He should’ve expected something like this.
On trembling legs he turned and headed quickly back down the concourse. But not quickly enough. He heard the sound of hurried footsteps behind him (hurried, not running; nobody ran in an airport these days), and the grunts and protests that always happened when bystanders got pushed aside. Too late, Merrill realized he should’ve shouted for a security guard—but the only ones he had seen were behind the tables at the screening area.
Merrill walked faster, back toward the ticketing area and the exits, weaving his way through the blank-faced Saturday morning travelers, trying not to let the panic show in his face. He was just another stressed-out businessman, overworked and late and scurrying to catch a cab outside. He slowed only long enough to strip off his sport coat and place it and his carry-on bag beside a bank of elevators before he turned a corner. Maybe it would delay the pursuit a minute or two.
His car was his only hope. Ignoring glares and curses and a few middle-finger salutes, he bullied his way down an escalator, found a staircase to the parking garage, flew down it, and pushed through the door to level P1. Seconds later he spotted his little Honda.
But there was Brumucci himself, standing beside Merrill’s car with a cell phone in his ear and watching the elevators. Merrill threw himself backward against a wall to avoid being seen, but it made little difference. The two musclemen from upstairs would be here any minute now.
He was trapped. Fear knotted his stomach. If they caught him, where would they take him? A deserted pier, a back road, a dark alley? And when his body was found, what would that do to Connie, and his son, and Jake—
A warm rush of hope surged through him.
His business partner, Jake Neely, had left yesterday for Boston. A weekend conference on workplace safety, ending tomorrow—Sunday—afternoon. And when Jake traveled by air he always parked here in the garage, on the second tier.
Jake’s car was here.
If Merrill could get to it.
He took one last look at Brumucci’s swarthy profile and ducked back into the empty stairwell. Up he went, two steps at a time, running almost as fast as if he were on level ground. Moments later he burst through the door to P2 and dashed all the way to the other end of the garage before he finally spotted Jake’s Grand Marquis. Thank God.
Merrill of course had no ignition key, but that didn’t matter—by now, one of Brumucci’s men would be covering the garage exit. And Merrill didn’t need a ride, anyway. He needed a hiding place.
He sprinted toward the big Mercury, slowing once when he saw a scary-looking character with spiked hair and a fishnet shirt shuffling along the adjacent row. Whoever it was was carrying a sports bag and staring at each car he passed. Either a traveler who’d forgotten where he parked, Merrill decided, or a potential thief or vandal looking for a target. The guy didn’t seem to pay Merrill any attention, though, and he gladly returned the favor. Street punks, law-abiding or not, were not his problem today.
Merrill stopped at Jake’s car, checked the license plate to make double sure it was the right one—JNEELY2—and glanced around one last time. The weird guy was gone, doing whatever weird guys do. Not a soul in sight.
Thanks to modern technology, and to a recent conversation with Jake about auto security features, Merrill’s lack of keys was no problem. Without a second’s hesitation he tapped the six-digit entry code—their receptionist’s birthdate—into the little keypad next to the door handle on the driver’s side. The lock disengaged.
Merrill jerked the door open. He knew trying to hide inside would be too dangerous—his pursuers would probably look through the windows of every car in the garage if they had to. For him, it was the trunk or nothing.
He pressed the release button on the inside door panel, heard the trunk pop open, pushed another button to re-lock the door, closed it, and ran around back. He climbed into the open trunk even as he heard distant voices, and running steps.
He pulled the trunk lid shut, then tugged on it until he heard it latch. And waited.
More voices, more footsteps. Had the frantic activity in the concourse been enough for someone to alert Airport Security? Merrill doubted it. His pursuers were still in pursuit, and they knew he had to be somewhere nearby. But would they know his partner’s car was here? Would they know which one it was? Probably not.
All he had to do was wait them out.
Merrill wouldn’t have believed anyplace on earth could be this dark. At first he found it hard to breathe, but realized that was only his imagination. He’d heard these big late-model car trunks had air vents. He found the button to light up his wristwatch, pushed it, and raised his arm to see the time. 10:34. How long should he hide out? Twenty minutes? Thirty? An hour?
He tried to lie still, tried to relax his trembling body and quiet the thoughts zinging through his brain. Since it was just as dark with his eyes open, he closed them and forced himself to draw long, even breaths. Eventually his pulse rate slowed. At least he didn’t need to use the bathroom.
Exactly twenty-two minutes had passed when he heard more footsteps. They approached the car, slowed down, and stopped. Merrill’s mouth went dry.
Whoever it was went around to the driver’s-side door. Stopped again. Merrill couldn’t believe it. How could they know about Jake’s car? And then he heard something that froze the blood in his veins.
The clink of metal against metal. A remote, on a key ring? Someone jimmying the door lock?
Whichever, it only took a moment. A door opened, and something THUMPed as it was tossed into the car. Merrill’s first thought was of the spiky-haired guy’s overnight bag. Was he one of Brumucci’s men? If so, why had he waited so long?
Then the car shifted. Someone’s weight had dropped into the seat. Whoever it was, would he pop the trunk?
No. After a short pause Merrill heard the motor crank over. Apparently hotwired. He was convinced now: this was no hired killer. And it certainly wasn’t Jake, returning early. Those safety conferences never finished early. Besides, for business trips Jake Neely traveled with more gear than a fashion model—he would’ve put his bags into the trunk, a moment ago.
No, this was a car thief, pure and simple. Probably the guy Merrill had seen wandering the garage awhile ago. If he’d been on Mooch Brumucci’s payroll he’d have been watching for Merrill earlier, and he hadn’t been. This guy was an independent, and he had somehow picked this car, out of all the others in the airport lot.
Merrill Ross didn’t believe in luck, good or bad, and certainly not luck of this magnitude. How could this have happened to him?
Even as he tried to sort out this new turn of events, he was thrown forward. The car was reversing out of the parking space.
He braced himself, heard the shift into DRIVE, felt the surge of takeoff.
This was beyond incredible. Here he was, a stowaway in a stolen vehicle. The frying pan into the fire. And he knew there would be no questions asked at the garage exit; Jake was notorious for leaving his parking ticket lying in plain view on the dash. Just an added convenience for your local hoodlums. Merrill felt a jolt of anger—how many times had he told Jake not to do that? Now, it was probably the reason the thief had singled out this car among all those parked there. The irony of that was maddening.
Calm down, he said to himself. What’s done is done.
When the Grand Marquis rolled to a stop at what must have been the exit from the airport lot, Merrill found himself faced with a decision.
Should he call out, make a racket so the guy manning the ticket booth would hear him and investigate? This might be his last chance.
He decided against it. The noise might reveal his presence not to the booth attendant but to whoever was inside the car. And Merrill had a feeling the driver wouldn’t welcome an unannounced passenger.
That triggered another worry. Could there be more than one person, up front? Possibly. A moment ago it seemed he had heard a voice.
Then a welcome thought hit him: Maybe the airport had gone into lockdown mode. Even a minor disturbance, if unexplained, could be considered a Homeland Security threat—and if so it might have temporarily halted all traffic in and out of the area, on foot or via highways or airways. But had that happened? And for how long? Did Brumucci have contacts on the security staff? Would they be powerful enough to prevent, or shorten, emergency procedures?
By the time he’d gone over all these scenarios, it was too late anyway. He felt the car speed up. So much for the lockdown idea. They were past the ticket gate now, and probably approaching the interstate on-ramp.
Merrill again tried to calm himself, tried to think. His body was stiff, his back and legs aching. He forced himself to pull his knees up to his chest, extend his legs, pull them up again. Get some blood flowing, ease the stiffness. His clothes were soaked in sweat.
He had to come up with some kind of plan.
But what should he—what could he—do? He had no weapons, no cell phone, no way at all to get free. And there was no chance now of overhearing anything from up front. Too much road noise. It was making his head throb.
One option, of course, was to do nothing. When the thief or thieves arrived at a destination (quite possibly a den of more thieves) someone would eventually get around to opening the trunk. Not an appealing thought. The other option was to try, after they stopped, to sneak out unseen. He could at least open the trunk himself, from where he was—Jake had demonstrated the inside release lever during his security lecture. Once again Merrill shifted his position, flexed his legs. When the time came to act, he would have to be ready.
And then he had an idea. Not a great one, but an idea just the same. It involved a cardboard box Jake always carried in his trunk, a box containing samples from their business. Which was at this moment jammed into Merrill’s left hip.
With a few contortions he was able to get the box open, and remove one of the items inside. Its shape and feel was familiar enough—he cupped it in his right hand. At least he had a weapon, now. Having done this, he tried to relax.
But this time he couldn’t. It wasn’t just his fear, or his cramped position, or the rising temperature inside the trunk, or the nagging concern about carbon monoxide poisoning. He found himself thinking about his wife Connie, and his money troubles, and Jake, and the crazy circumstances that had led up to this moment.
Because the circumstances had been more than just crazy. They had been unnecessary. His drinking, his carousing, the neglect of his family—all that had been needless, and avoidable. Worse, his gambling had taken almost every penny he owned. He realized his earlier thought that he didn’t believe in luck was false. He believed too much in luck. It was why he was in this fix.
As the debts had mounted, Merrill hadn’t wanted to borrow from Brumucci—who would? But he’d had no choice. He’d told himself what most gamblers told themselves: he would win again soon, and pay it back.
But of course he didn’t win. Born losers never do. His run of bad luck continued, and despite warnings, the loan payments were overdue. The good thing—the only good thing—was the fact that they had separate bank accounts, he and Connie. She hadn’t known about his growing debts.
Neither had Jake. Unless maybe he suspected something, because of Merrill’s recent job performance. He and Jake owned a pest control business, and a successful one, due to Merrill’s hard work and Jake’s business sense. But Merrill had been wandering around in a blue funk for weeks, and even Jake’s financial savvy—he’d once worked for a megabank in Boston—wouldn’t have been enough to get Merrill out of the hole he’d dug for himself this time. Besides that, Merrill doubted his partner would offer help, even if asked. This time Merrill Ross was on his own. And there was no way out.
That’s why he’d decided to run. Not far, and not forever—but out of town for a while at least, until he could figure something out and send for Connie and their young son. He was no good to his family dead, and that’s what he would be if he stayed.
He’d been considering it for weeks. Then, yesterday, he’d completed his downward spiral. He had hit bottom. He’d caught himself standing in their bedroom holding Connie’s checkbook in his hand, thinking about how easy it’d be to postpone the inevitable, to forge her name and go downtown and withdraw what she had in her personal account …
That was the last straw. Even he wasn’t that far gone. This morning while Connie was showering he threw a few things in a carry-on bag, scribbled an honest note professing his love for her and his son, and made a one-way flight reservation that would pretty much deplete the rest of his funds. Her checkbook he left unviolated in her purse. He put the handwritten note beside her alarm clock so she wouldn’t see it until tonight, took a long look around, and drove their Honda to the airport.
That was hours ago. And now even that plan had gone awry. His plane had left without him, his debts remained unpaid, his Neanderthal creditors were searching for him, and here he lay, a carjacked jackass stretched out in a trunk that smelled like pesticides while a two-bit thief drove him heaven knew where.
Merrill’s guardian angel, whoever she was, must have given up on him. Not that he could blame her.
Maybe the insecticide fumes would kill him. That would be a fitting end, he figured. Like the smoker who got hit by a tobacco truck.
A series of bumps—speed bumps, maybe?—interrupted his thoughts. A residential area? He felt the car slow down, turn, then stop for good. The engine switched off. Merrill felt his pulse quicken, his breathing speed up. He took a quick glance at his glowing watch. Half past eleven. They had traveled no longer than it would have taken him to drive from the airport to his home in the suburbs. But in what direction? There was no way to know.
Merrill drew a lungful of air and let it out between clenched teeth. A car door opened, but he heard no voices, no other sounds of any kind. Would they bother to check the trunk now, maybe for possible valuables? If they didn’t, should he stay put? Would the driver leave the car alone long enough for Merrill to escape?
The answer came quickly. The pad of footsteps on concrete. They came closer to the back of the car, seemed to pause …
And passed by.
Relief flooded through him. He felt hot tears in his eyes. His thoughts whirling, he relaxed his right hand a bit, and when he did the object he was holding—the item he had taken from the box of pesticides—slipped from his fingers and clanked against the inside of the trunk.
The footsteps stopped.
Jake held his breath, his heart triphammering in his chest. He picked up what he had dropped and held it tight, waiting. This time he heard nothing.
But his luck had run out.
The trunk lid popped open.
For a fraction of a second, Merrill found himself wondering exactly how it happened. Had the thief had a key fob—a remote—and activated the trunk that way? Had one person signaled another, to push the trunk-release button on the driver’s door? It didn’t matter. As Merrill had been fond of saying in college, the fat was in the fire, now. Church was out.
Brilliant sunlight poured into the trunk, blinding him. He could just make out a shadow above him, a silhouette. Someone leaning over him, speechless with surprise.
But Merrill didn’t need to see well, in order to do what he’d planned. All he had to do was press a button of his own.
He raised the demo can of Kil-Kwik Wasp Control, squeezed his eyes shut, and sprayed a high-pressure foamy stream directly into the face above him. The thief grunted as if gut-punched, then fell backward to the ground, kicking and writhing in pain.
Now was the time. Squinting, Merrill dropped Jake’s can of insect spray, grabbed a heavy tire iron he’d found beside the box of spray cans, groped for the edge of the trunk, and flopped over the side and onto the ground like a landed trout. In the process he banged his forehead, hard, on what felt like pebbled concrete. Reeling and bleeding, he dragged the tire iron over to the moaning man. With a huge effort Merrill raised it high and brought it down with a sickening but satisfying crunch onto what he thought was the back of the thief’s head. The man went limp. For good measure Merrill raised his weapon and—using all his strength—hit the man again.
One down. Now he had to get away from the others.
Still half blinded by the brightness and by the warm blood in his eyes, he dropped the blood-streaked tire tool with the ringing clang that only a piece of iron can make, stumbled to his feet, tripped over what must have been the punk’s luggage, got up again, and ran. He ran unseeing and uncaring, his hands out in front of him in case he fled straight into a tree or a car or a building.
What he ran into was a post. A gatepost in a tall wooden fence that, although he didn’t know it, encircled a back yard. His upraised hands didn’t help—each arm missed the post—and for the second time in less than a minute his soft forehead slammed into an unyielding surface. He fell again, and this time he stayed down.
Merrill woke up in a woman’s arms. Above her he could see the top of a board fence, and a corner of a roof with blue sky beyond, and what looked like the backboard of a kid’s basketball goal.
“Where am I?” he mumbled.
“You’re safe,” a soft voice said. “I called nine-one-one. An ambulance is on the way.”
“Ambulance?” Merrill tried to turn his head, look around, but the pain stopped him. “Where are the bad guys? Am I shot?”
“Shot?” The woman’s outline wavered, then faded in and out. “What are you talking about?”
“Got to hurry,” he said. For a second, he thought he saw his wife’s eyes in the blurry face above him. “Connie?”
“You’re hurt. Don’t try to talk—”
“Connie. I made a mistake, I kept things from you. Paul Brumucci’s people … they’re chasing me. I owe them money—”
“Hush, Merrill, I know all about that,” she said. “That’s why Jake went to Boston.”
“Jake Neely. Your partner.”
Merrill squinted, tried to focus. Was this really Connie? Was that Merrill Junior’s basketball goal up there? Was that why the time from the airport to here had been the same as it would have been to his own house? Because this was his house?
“But … how’d I get here?”
“You drove here, didn’t you? In the Honda?” She looked past him, and he turned too—but the driveway was hidden by the corner of the house. “I saw it was gone earlier, and figured you went in to the office.”
“Jake’s car,” he murmured. “Stolen. It’s—”
“Jake’s car’s fine,” Connie said, caressing his cheek. “It must be—he called me from his car a while ago, on his way here from the airport.”
“Jake flew back here this morning, Merrill. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. There was no conference. He flew to Boston to get his stock certificates from his safe deposit box there, to pay off your debt. He figured that was the quickest way.”
She smiled. “All he has to do is sign them over to us.” She leaned closer, and half whispered, “It’s over. We’re going to be okay, you and I.”
“Jake …” Merrill swallowed hard. “Jake was the one driving the car?”
“Just take it easy,” she said. “He should be here any minute now.”
Really enjoyed this story!! Well written! I read it twice, even!
Very enjoyable story. Nicely woven. Great ending (except for Jake). Well done.
Excellent, John! Loved the ending.
A terrific story, John with a perfect O'Henry-ish ending.
Fun story, tricky twist. One typo: just before the trunk lid pops open, it read "Jake," but I think it should have been "Merrill."
Great story, John. Terrific twist.
Great story. Well written with a powerful ending.