Zebra, Genre: Suspense (August 2013)
ISBN-10: 1420125036 ISBN-13: 978-1420125030
Read an Excerpt
The ground was hard, cold and damp beneath him. He came to slowly, hearing the rustle of leaves around him and feeling a chill breeze against his arms that made his breath shake and his body quiver. He focused straight ahead, staring down the length of his own bare legs to his toes, now bluish in tone. As he registered his nakedness he watched orange and russet and gold leaves eddying away, a small tornado rushing up against the chainlink fence that separated the schoolyard from the front of the building.
He was inside, looking out, and his surroundings came into full focus with a rush of recognition.
Twin Oaks Elementary School.
“Shit. . .” he whispered, cold panic flooding through his veins.
He tried to leap to his feet and smacked his head against the metal pole behind him. Yowling in pain, he momentarily saw stars and squinched his eyes closed. He heard something fluttering overhead and opened one eye to see a woven basketball hoop dancing in the stiff breeze. He was sitting on the concrete basketball court, he realized, and the ache in his arms was because they were bound behind him, around the pole. His wrists throbbed from the pressure, his flesh pinched from the hard bindings.
Gulping in fear, he could feel his heart galloping inside his chest. He was inside the playground, tied to a pole. . . at the school where he was employed.
Blinking, jerking his body around, his eyes frantically searched his surroundings for an answer. He realized belatedly that he did have some clothing on. His boxer shorts. Nothing else.
That bitch. That bitch who’d zapped him with the stun gun! She’d done this. Tied him here on purpose. What had she said when he’d asked her who the hell she was? What had she said?
Christ. Oh, my God. Jesus Christ. Oh, God! If the kids saw him like this. . . the staff? How would he explain it? What could he do?
My God . . .my God. . .
He strained against the bindings and slowly got his feet under himself with an effort, tiny bits of dirt and gravel digging into his soles. Straining, he slid his arms up the pole until he was at his full height. But that put his upper body above the hedge outside the chainlink fence and made him more visible to the street. Did he want to be seen? Hope that someone helped him?
He sank back down to the ground with a thud, jarring his tail bone. His teeth chattered spasmodically. He couldn’t stop them. He was freezing and shuddering with fear.
There was a placard around his neck. With dread he looked down, knowing what it said, strangely hoping he had it wrong though he’d written it himself because she’d forced him to! Dipping his chin, he could make out the bottom words: . . .I can’t have. . .and it wrung a tortured cry from his soul.
That fucking bitch! She’d done this to him! She’d made him drink the drug that had knocked him out, and now he cringed inside, recalling the way he’d begged her to let him go, pleaded with her for mercy. She’d strapped him into the passenger seat of his own van when he’d been disabled by the shock, tying him down and when he’d feebly fought her, she’d zapped him again. But he’d refused to drink her concoction. Wasn’t going to let her take her damn abduction to another level. Wouldn’t do it!
So she’d held up the gun and pressed the button and he’d heard the crackle, smelled the scent of dangerous electricity, seen the determination in her eyes. He’d babbled on and on, promising her things he could never deliver on, anything to be set free. He told her she had the wrong man. Whatever her deal was, he wasn’t the right guy. There was some error here. She must realize that, right?
Her answer had been a hard, “No mistake, Stefan,” and he’d gone slack-jawed at the sound of his own name. She knew him? She’d specifically targeted him?
She’d waited then, the drink in one hand, the stun gun in the other. He tried to reason with her once more and had screamed when she’d lost patience and hit him with the stun gun a third time. Everything he said to her fell on deaf ears. She wouldn’t listen to him. She just didn’t care.
So, he’d drunk the small cup of fluid she’d held to his mouth. All of it, because he believed her when she added coolly, “Spit it out and you’re a dead man.”
The bitch was capable of anything.
And now he’d woken up at the school – his school! – hours later. Who the hell was she? Well, fuck that, he didn’t have time to care. He had to get out of this predicament. Before classes started. Before the sky grew any lighter.
Moving his hands, he realized the binding was plastic zip ties. Like the kind his stepsister and brother – the goddamned cops – used as handcuffs if they didn’t have the real thing, or they just needed another pair. Handcuffed. . .how the hell was he going to get free?
And then he thought of the young girls, coming to school in their little dresses and shoes, their hair shining, their faces soft and pink. He’d only wanted one. . .just for a little while. . .just to love her.
They couldn’t see him like this!
He struggled anew, aware that the bitch knew of his secret desires. How? He’d been so careful. She was getting some kind of payback here, but he hadn’t done anything. He hadn’t. Yes, he’d taken those pictures of his step-niece in the bath, but he’d never touched her! Never.
Only because you didn’t get the chance. . .
Cold tears collected in his eyes and he tried to blink them away. It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t fair.
The bitch had assured him the drink wouldn’t kill him, so he’d complied. What else could he do? But now. . .now he almost wished it had killed him. He couldn’t have people know.
He started crying in earnest, sick with fear. And then he heard the footsteps. Someone jogging, nearing him, just on the other side of the hedge. He looked up urgently and saw a man in a stocking hat running by. As if feeling Stefan’s gaze, he glanced over and nearly stumbled, his mouth dropping open in surprise, his breath exhaling in a plume.
“Hey!” the man called. “You okay?”
No. . .no. . .he was never going to be okay.
With every ounce of fortitude he possessed, Stefan put a smile on his trembling lips. “Stupid prank. . .can’t. . .get free. Can you. . . help?”
Immediately, the man turned back around and circumvented the wall of greenery that barricaded the school from the street. Stefan’s back was to him as he approached, but he imagined him jogging up the sidewalk, crossing the grass at the front of the building, then looping toward the playground. He could hear his pounding steps as he hit the concrete and then he was in front of Stefan, breathing hard, his hands on his knees. “Holy, God, man,” he said. “Whoever did this is no friend. You could freeze to death!” He stood up and dug a cell phone from a zippered pocket, his eyes drifting to the sign around Stefan’s neck.
“Who. . .rrrrr. . ..ya callin’?” Stefan chattered.
“911. Jesus. . .”
But it was too late, the man had connected and Stefan wildly racked his brain for a possible explanation. He couldn’t stick with the prank idea. He would have to come up with names if he did, some reason he felt it had all been done in ‘fun’. That wasn’t going to work. He had to come with Plan B.
Minutes later a Laurelton Police Department Jeep, light bar flashing in the gray light of morning, wheeled to a sharp stop in front of the school. Stefan was sweating. Fine. Good. Get here and get him the hell free because soon, soon, the kids would be arriving. Hurry, he thought, his new story in place, ready to tell. Hurry.
The jogger waved the cop over just as an ambulance came screaming up the road. An ambulance. . . .shit. . .he didn’t want to go to the hospital. Too much attention. Oh, God. . .
The uniform bent down and looked him in the face. He was young. Dressed in dark blue, his expression stern. “Don’t worry. We’ll get you out of here.” He pulled out a knife to cut the zip-ties. “What happened?”
The jogger looked about to speak up.
“I was robbed,” Stefan cut in, a very real quaver to his voice. “He knocked me out and took my clothes and my wallet and left me here.”
The jogger’s head jerked around. “Man, I thought you said it was a prank.”
“A very dangerous one,” the cop said repressively as he cut through the ties. Stefan’s arms flopped down to his sides, damn near impossible to lift.
The uniform helped Stefan to his feet, as two EMTs wheeled a gurney his way. Behind the ambulance Stefan saw a first car arrive at the school, its headlights washing the hedge and the ambulance and the cop car, still with its lights flashing. The EMT’s helped Stefan onto the gurney. Fine. Cover me up, he silently begged, pulling the placard from around his neck with rubbery arms. Better for them to think he was ill.
“Not a prank, eh?” the uniform asked, taking the placard in his gloved hand.
The van? Where was his van? That fucking bitch took his van!
Sensing the cop’s hard eyes on him, Stefan muttered, “He jumped me and took everything I had,” as the EMTs pushed him toward the waiting ambulance. A flutter of worry in his chest as he thought of his cell phone. She had it. But at least the pictures he’d taken weren’t on it any longer. He’d made prints, removed the images, and even the prints were gone now, too.
“I want what I can’t have,” the uniform read as the gurney rattled away from the playground, the words filling Stefan with dread, following after him like a bad smell.
How the hell was he going to explain the placard?
He had a momentary vision of being hauled down to the Laurelton Police Department and being grilled by September, or even worse, her twin brother, August – both cops.
A groan of pure misery erupted from his throat as the doors to the ambulance slammed shut behind him.
It just wasn’t fair!