by Winnie Kay
A bank manager has a strange subway encounter.
What’s in the Box?
Evaluations of Debbie Williams's department heads and their assistants were due in the morning. Her own assistant’s review was taking up much of her time. Billy Barnes was new to the bank and had transferred from a branch in Upper Manhattan six months ago. He was efficient enough, but something was off about him, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Though quiet and distant, Billy was always on time to accompany her in the dual-control of opening the vault each morning at nine as bank compliance required. Yet the handsome, young assistant declined numerous invitations to join the other officers and employees for happy-hour drinks at the Dew Drop Inn around the corner. Debbie loved her job and considered herself a firm, but fair, manager. She gave Billy an overall high evaluation rating but noted his inability to maintain effective and productive working relationships with fellow employees.
She glanced at a picture of her husband, Ron, and her two-year-old son, Charlie. Debbie was tired, but it was a good kind of tired. She accomplished a lot during the long day and would soon be home with her family. The branch manager realized how late it was when she heard the cleaning crew start up their vacuum cleaners and nightly chatter.
Debbie straightened the stacks of papers on her desk, grabbed her purse, and briskly walked the three blocks and down the sticky steps to catch the last train of the night. During rush-hour, the hordes of the working-class pushed and shoved to vie for a position on the platform. But when the last semblance of sunlight disappeared behind the jumble of buildings and the nine-to-fivers were long since home in front of their sixty-inch flat-screen plasma diversions, the underground transit system became a dark and lonely place.
The schedule showed the last train was on time, and she had ten minutes to spare. She stood on the platform and looked to her right and left. Among the pillars bordering the track, she seemed to be the only person left in New York who was waiting to get home. Debbie reached in her bag and pulled out her iPhone.
She knew Ron would be on his computer. He often brought work home from his accounting firm. Charlie would be sleeping by now. After three rings, Ron’s voice-mail picked up. She dialed again and got no response. Frustration grew as she muttered to herself, “Damn, Ronnie, how many times have I told you to charge your phone after you got home from day-care with Charlie?” Then she smiled at the thought that she seemed to have two boys she was raising, one with a diamond stud in his left ear lobe and a bushy, red mustache that tickled when he kissed her.
She started to dial her absent-minded husband a third time when she heard footsteps echoing through the tiled platform. A man was slowly walking toward her, wearing a tattered brown coat. As the man neared, she heard a bang like a firecracker over the roar of the approaching train. Suddenly, he stumbled into Debbie, and they both went down on the hard tile. The man pushed a small package wrapped in brown butcher paper into Debbie’s trembling hand, and with a surprised look in his eyes, he dropped his head as blood began to pool under his chest. She looked around, but they were alone. Hesitating, she put down the package and placed her fingertips on the man’s neck. There was no beat. The man’s eyes were glazed, staring into nothingness. He wasn’t breathing.
Dazed, Debbie stood, gathered her purse and her cell phone which had been knocked out of her hand. Picking up the package and turning it over in her hand, she gasped as she saw her name written on one side of the brown paper in bold, black letters. What the hell is going on…?
She put the phone and the package in her purse. The train slowed and came to a stop. The doors slid open. She looked back at the dead man and stepped into the empty car. There was nothing she could do for him, and this was the last train of the night that would carry her home. She took a seat and waited for her breathing to slow and her body to stop shaking. She had to get home, had to talk to Ron. A fourth call to her husband went to voice-mail. The twenty-minute commute to her stop seemed like an eternity, but Debbie managed to make it home.
Running into her apartment building and up the two flights of stairs, she dug her keys from her purse, and as she touched the door, she discovered it was already unlocked. Ronnie would never leave the door unlocked, she thought. Debbie stepped into the entry-way and clasped her hands over her mouth to stifle a scream. The apartment was a mess. Lamps and chairs were knocked over, and there was a smear of blood on the kitchen table. Running to Charlie’s room, she found his crib empty.
“Ronnie? Honey, where are you?” she cried as the panic stuck in her throat. Then she thought about the dead man at the subway platform and the package. Debbie slumped to the floor, grabbed the wrapped box from her purse, and ripped it open. Inside was a small, white box with a note taped to the lid.
WE HAVE YOUR HUSBAND AND SON.
IF YOU WANT TO SEE THEM AGAIN, BE AT THE BANK WHEN THE VAULT OPENS AT 9:00.
MR. BARNES, WILL GIVE YOU FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.
DO NOT GO TO THE POLICE. WE WILL BE WATCHING YOU.
REGRETTABLY, OUR MESSENGER HAD TO BE ELIMINATED.
LOOSE ENDS ARE SO MESSY.
Trembling uncontrollably, gasping for breath, Debbie opened the box and looked in horror at the severed left ear with a diamond stud in the bloody lobe.