Excerpt for Stealing Margo by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

STEALING MARGO



A Novel by Chad Peery



~Dedication~

Gratitude to all, present and departed, whose patience and support helped me keep faith in myself and to tell the story held within these pages. This is for Janet, Jan, Susan, Lynda, Jace, and especially for you, Bonnie.

~Acknowledgements~

Special thanks to John Kay, Bob Welch and Mick Fleetwood, all of whom gave a young Chad Peery the opportunity to experience worlds only imagined by most of us. I also wish to honor the work and the lives of the many incredible musicians and support workers with whom I shared the path.



~Foreword~

This place, with its hills and mountains, its spoons and hollows, makes one feel as if they are embraced by the land, protected and shielded by the earth itself. In the flatlands you are open, exposed, seen from everywhere and nowhere. Here, each time you descend a hilltop, you enter another world, unique unto itself. Western Virginia, 1794, author unknown.

This is a work of fiction. The events and characters portrayed are imaginary. Any resemblance to real persons, counterparts, or places is entirely coincidental.

Copyright 2009 by Chad Peery. Smashwords edition. Published by Chad Peery.

ISBN-10: 1441481737, ISBN-13: 978-1441481733
First Edition.



STEALING MARGO

CHAPTER 1



Margo kicked aside the door and stormed into the parking garage. She had the urge to strip off her Armani suit right then and there, and she swore that as soon as she got home she’d tear off her damned clothes and burn them.

Tears came as she approached her car, but what did it matter? Margo was alone in this cement-and-steel tomb. Upstairs at the law firm, the Three Weasels, as she called them, wouldn’t be having a good day either. Margo visualized the scene: her elderly client would be in the fetal position, groaning in mock agony while the law firm’s partners gathered around and babbled apologetic nonsense. Ashley, the firm’s precocious and oh-so-sweet, front-desk eye candy, would be waving a towel over the prostrate groper and breathing her favorite mantra: “Oh sir, oh sir, oh sir.”

Margo stopped cold.

Like skulking urchins, silence crept from behind the skirts of automobiles. Margo knew what came next. That nagging voice in her head would chide her for overreacting, again.

Idiot! What’s wrong with you? You should have never let that creep get behind you, you know how he is! March yourself right back up to that conference room and smooth things over, take one for the firm. He’s a very important client! And you think of yourself as an up-and-coming attorney, do you?

“Hell no!” Margo shouted, and the strength of her voice frightened away the last orphans of doubt. She should have kicked the old pervert and kicked him hard. A sharp elbow to the groin was such a polite way of saying “hands off me!”

Margo’s Lexus blinked awake and greeted her in a leather-bound embrace of wood and luxury—her champion of comfort and steel. She slid behind the wheel as the instrument panel activated, and refrigerated air issued from a phalanx of vents, cooling her angry mist. Margo stared into the vanity mirror: violet eyes (red-rimmed, of course); passable makeup; and her dark, pixie-cut hair sitting almost perfect, as usual. She was past her fortieth birthday, but she could still turn a head; she hadn’t lost her cute.

With an expressive squeal the Lexus powered Margo into Baltimore’s labyrinth of urban canyons. Skyscrapers thrust arrogant juts into the sky, and yellow cones of late-summer sun segmented her path. Margo paid them no mind. She grappled with dark thoughts of how her growing need of money had trapped her in a job she despised with people she couldn’t trust.

The cunning, old pervert had waited until they were alone in the conference room and then did a clinch and grab on her breasts that would have made a Neanderthal proud. Even though her groping client had a reputation for sexual harassment, she knew that the Three Weasels would look the other way, since his company generated the firm a six-figure income.

“Enough of this,” Margo said out loud. She guided her thoughts towards home—a long shower, and oh yes, definitely the hot tub. And then, perhaps some laps in the pool to burn off the last remnants of anger.

She relaxed her grip on the hardwood wheel, uncurling petite, graceful fingers that once helped her win Riff Magazine’s Best Female Guitarist of 1985—fingers now relegated to the duties of an attorney with daily commutes from the exurbs. Maybe she would pull her ‘57 Les Paul from the closet and spend some time with her old guitar tonight. She felt the need to touch its scars, to be healed by its sweet voice.

Broken nail.

Damn.

Her nails weren’t long to begin with, but somewhere in the flurry of craziness in the conference room, she had broken the nail of her right index finger. It could wait till she got home.

She switched on her XS receiver, and the first preset came up. Seventies disco. She groaned and punched NEXT. Nineties Alternative. Garbage. NEXT. Eighties Flashback. Get serious—why don’t they try playing some real 80’s? NEXT. Adult Top 40. Get stupid. NEXT. Modern Rock. Yeah, life is that tough, get over it—NEXT.

The car’s phone chimed. Could it be the law firm, sweating sexual-harassment bullets? That thought made Margo smile. The music dimmed, and the Lexus’ voice said, “Zack calling.”

“Hey, Zack,” she said to her eleven-year old stepson.

“Carlita’s gone,” Zack said.

“Gone where?”

“Probably quit like the others.”

Margo grimaced. This would make the third, live-in housekeeper to leave in the past month.

“Dad took her somewhere. Said she had to leave ‘cause—”

With a cry of alarm, Margo stomped the brakes and cranked the Lexus hard to the right. An oncoming minivan had veered into her lane and was barreling straight towards her! Somehow, they missed colliding, and as the minivan swerved past her Margo swore she heard a grinding crash. When she glanced in her rearview mirror, the minivan had veered back into its own lane and was continuing on, apparently unscathed.

Heart pounding, Margo slowed and guided her Lexus into the curb lane. Her car phone clicked rapidly and then hissed sporadic bouts of static, the sound reminding her of bees—thousands of bees.

As the buzzing subsided, she said, “Hello, Zack?”

“What just happened?” Zack asked.

“Moron! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean you, honey, I meant these drivers. Anyway, I’ll be home in about an hour.”

“Just tell my dad that, like, somebody’s supposed to fix my dinner. Like, now would be good.”

“Zack, just back it down. How about pizza? I can stop and pick some up.”

The line closed with a rude click. Siren screaming, a police car, wove like an angry hornet through the upcoming intersection, while banshee sirens wailed from everywhere and nowhere. This was one insane afternoon.

She hit the phone button. “Call Brent!” she commanded.

“Margo, yes?” her husband answered in his semi-irritated, polished tone of voice.

“Zack says Carlita’s gone. What happened?”

Brent gave a condescending pause before replying: “Is there—some reason you can’t handle this—whatever this is?”

“Why don’t you start by telling me what happened with Carlita?”

Margo pictured Brent’s eyes blinking rapidly.

“Like, I’m supposed to know? I dropped her off at the bus depot, some family emergency or some damned thing. You know how those people are. Look, I’m in the middle of a meeting. Gotta go. Love ya.”

Click.

As Margo approached a red light her fingers tapped the steering wheel. Time for a family meeting. Family. Some joke. Zack, Brent’s son from a previous marriage, should have already accepted Margo as his mother—hadn’t the boy’s excessively groomed psychologist said so? Then, why did Zack cling to his aloofness towards her? And why was Brent being such a jerk lately? Tonight, they would have it out.

Oddly, traffic had thinned on Enterprise Avenue, and she was alone as her Lexus pulled up to a red light. From the sidewalk, a bag lady stared in the Lexus’ direction, and when her uneven gaze came to rest upon Margo it caused a twitch of apprehension.

Margo looked away. Crazy people: there never seemed to be a shortage of them these days. She glanced into the rearview mirror. How odd. The only car approaching was a massive beater—probably from the mid-70s. The old Buick came to rest a few car lengths behind her.

Its hood trembled to the engine’s beat.

No front license plate.

Missing teeth in its grill.

And the color! What did that car do to deserve such a god-awful shade of orange? It looked as if it had been dunked into fermented pumpkin juice during some ritual of shame and abuse.

The broad sedan’s expansive front end seemed to smile at her with an ill-fitting grin, which almost made her giggle. Perhaps the old car recognized her as a fellow traveler—another beat-up survivor of the 80’s. The sky dimmed and Margo found it strange how a broad, heavy mass of clouds had drawn itself across the sun. Then, she caught movement in her rearview mirror.

Movement that shouldn’t be happening.

The light hadn’t changed, of that she was certain, yet the old car had lurched into motion and was now accelerating forward. In a split moment the Buick closed the gap, and with a horrid, grinding smash it collided with her Lexus.

Margo sat, stunned.

“Dammit! I don’t believe this!” She unlatched her seatbelt and shoved the door open. Not a pretty sight.

The impact from the old Buick had crumpled the rear of her Lexus. Shards of taillight lens lay scattered across the old car’s orange hood, which seemed undamaged, but who could tell? The driver’s door croaked opened. Unfolding himself arm-by-leg, a very tall, very bearded, longhaired man emerged, wearing a somewhat tucked-in, green-plaid shirt and topped off with a black, baseball cap with a golden “AH” inscribed across the bill.

A hayseed! What was this hillbilly doing in Baltimore’s business district?

“Oh, wow, ma’am, I’m so, so sorry.” The man removed his hat. He raised his furry eyebrows and batted his eyes. “You okay?”

“I’m fine. But look! Just look at this!”

“My foot must a’ slipped.” He indicated a pointed, black boot.

“Beautiful. You got insurance?”

“Well, yeah, sure.” He put his cap on backwards and leaned into the old Buick.

“Could’ve fooled me,” Margo muttered, as she retrieved her purse from the Lexus’ front seat. When she emerged, she noticed the man wore an olive-drab pouch slung over one shoulder in the style of a woman carrying a purse. She wondered if he knew how stupid that looked. A faded, U.S. Army emblem was stamped across the pouch’s flap. Another immature mind in a grown-up body, she thought.

Behind them, both lanes began filling with cars. Horns blared from the rear of the line.

“I’d better call this in. I’ll need to see your ID.” Margo fished in her purse for her cell phone.

The man opened the flap of his pouch and showed Margo the butt end of a mean-looking, large-caliber handgun.

Margo blinked.

He put a hand on the pistol grip and lowered the flap over his hairy forearm. Fear splashed Margo’s stomach. Reality check: yes, that was a large handgun she saw—and yes, she’d better do something fast.

“OK, well, you know what, I’m kind of rushed here, why don’t I just write you a check, I mean, this wasn’t really anybody’s fault, right?”

“Get in my car. Do it now. Don’t even think about it. Just get in, and you won’t get hurt.” Stepping back, he motioned her towards the driver’s door of the old beater, which stood open at a sinister angle.

What now? Margo couldn’t read his expression behind all that hair, and his voice was absent any emotion.

“Look, none of this is necessary, I’m sorry about the accident, it was totally my fault. I’ve got money, would you prefer cash, or will a check do?”

“We’re gonna have us a little talk, you and me. Get in my car.”

Heart pounding and blood rushing, Margo glanced about. Traffic had backed up as far as she could see, and more cars had joined the chorus of bawling horns.

No help there, not from those road-rage jockeys. There were no pedestrians, not even the old woman was around, and no cops.

Should she run and risk getting shot dead on the sidewalk by a hairy lunatic? Margo jogged five miles each morning and did laps in the pool every night, but with this guy’s long, loping legs, she doubted if she could outdistance him, at least not in the short run. Margo took a deep breath. What was she thinking? She was a lawyer! Negotiate! Give him what they all want.

“Look, I’ve got three hundred in cash with me, and tell you what, let me write you a blank check, there’s over forty thousand dollars in that account.”

“I’m hoping I’m not going to have to shoot ya.” He cocked his head towards the Buick. “In the car, or take a bullet. Now. You’re driving.”

“Why? I don’t even know you. What do you want with me?”

He replied with a hard stare.

“Oh, hell—just, hell!” Margo kicked her Lexus’ crumpled fender, and shattered plastic chattered to the pavement. She stormed past the hillbilly and slid into the Buick’s upholstered seat. Margo tucked her purse under her feet, aware that the cell phone in it just might save her life.

Her abductor folded himself into the passenger’s seat. Judging by the angle of his right arm, the gun he held inside the pouch was pointed directly at her midsection. He tossed his black cap onto the dash, which seemed large enough for a family picnic. The plushy, lime-green interior and faux-wood instrument panel made her blink in disgust. The massive steering wheel, emblazoned with the Buick nameplate, seemed better suited for a boat. Cool air breezed from chrome vents.

“Shut your door.”

Margo pulled the heavy door shut. Odd, she thought, how the interior on this old car seemed so new.

“Now, back up nice and easy and pull around your car. Go on.”

She lowered the column shift into reverse. As she backed up, fragments from her crumpled Lexus slid off the beater’s hood. The steering wheel seemed to turn itself as she guided the big Buick into the clear lane and powered away from the accident scene.

Her abductor must have planned ahead—the driver’s seat had been adjusted so that she could easily reach the pedals and see over the wheel. That meant that the car crash and abduction were premeditated acts, and not the irrational impulses of a lunatic.

A maniac with a plan is never a good thing.

“Hey!” He raised his free hand and pointed a finger at her like a gun. “Buckle up! Safety first.”

He helped her work the seatbelt clip into the large buckle.

“Alright. Good job, Margo. Just keep on going down this street.”

“Wait! How do you know my name?”

“You kidding? You’re famous. Everybody knows your name. You’re gonna turn here, then you look for the freeway onramp, northbound.”

She needed to think of something, fast. Things were kind of rocky with Brent, but he wouldn’t hire a hillbilly hit man, that wasn’t his style. He only bought the best, especially if it was with someone else’s money. She would expect an assassin dressed like a priest with a small caliber pistol, not a hairy hick packing a hand cannon in an army-surplus pouch.

She tried to keep her voice calm: “Bottom line, we’re talking serious money. I can get you several hundred thousand, all we have to do is go to my bank, and I’ll get it for you, okay? It’s nothing to me, really. In fact, I want you to have it. Think of it as a gift. I’ll sign a letter of agreement; it’ll be your money free and clear. I’m an attorney; I can make it completely legal.”

“You warned me that you’d do this. Turn here.”

“What do you mean I warned you?”

“You warned me plain as day. Now, get on here.” A big hand motioned toward the onramp.

“Warned you? I’ve never seen you before.”

He gave her a look that chilled, as if he could see through her clothes, through her skin, through her soul.

“Don’t miss your onramp, now.”

The big car seemed to know the way as she pulled westbound onto I-70. She pressed the gas pedal and the Buick merged into traffic.

Her kidnapper grinned and shook his bearish head, as if he’d just recalled a really good joke. “You’re gonna stay in the slow lane. Now, take your cell phone out of that purse of yours, nice and slow.”

“Cell phone? What cell phone?”

“Just give me the phone.”

“Would you like me to call someone for you? I could do that,” she said, as she withdrew it from her purse.

He snatched the cell phone and pressed some keys.

“I’m calling your number at work.”

“My number? You’ll just get my voice mail.”

“Good.” He handed her the phone. “Leave yourself a message. Tell yourself that you’ve been kidnapped by a strange man who says he’s from Maine. You might mention that he’s read a lot of Steven King novels. Ha! Explain to yourself that he has a gun. And be polite. You gotta respect yourself.”

Margo did as ordered, but after she left herself a message, she pushed 1 2, which forwarded the message to the front desk. Assuming Ashley wasn’t cornered in the conference room by the old groper, and assuming she would see the message indicator before she left to have a candlelit tryst with one of the partners, she would hear Margo’s message, release an operatic scream, and call the police.

“What did you just do?”

“Do? I, uh, just finished the call, that’s all.”

He took the cell phone from her and squinted at the display. His window powered down, and muggy air agitated his long hair. He flipped Margo’s phone out the window, where it rolled and tumbled along the grassy shoulder amongst plastic bottles and fast-food wrappers.

“Hey, that was my phone!”

“Sure was. GPS equipped, too. Now, let me have your watch.”

“My watch? What for? All right, here.” Margo removed her Versace Corniche and handed it over.

He dangled the upscale timepiece between finger and thumb as if it were a dead mouse. With a flick of his wrist, he sent it sailing out the window.

There goes a couple of thousand, Margo thought. “Sure you don’t want to toss my wedding ring while you’re at it?” Her wedding ring with its three-carat stone was the only other jewelry she wore.

He gave her an amused look as he raised the window. “Sorry, you’ll have to take care of that yourself.”

At least the old Buick’s air conditioning worked; she never could think clearly in the heat. Margo glanced at the gas gauge inside the chrome-framed instrument panel. It read full, so they wouldn’t need to stop for gas anytime soon—providing the gauge worked. Desperation fisted within Margo’s chest. What advice had the experts given to abductees? Talk! Engage the captor in conversation. Make him see you as a person, not a thing. Get him emotionally invested in you. Learn his motivations—his fears.

“Well, since you know my name, what’s yours?”

“You told me not to tell ya that.”

“I did not. I don’t even know you.”

“Ya told me.”

Margo puffed her cheeks in frustration. “What am I supposed to call you?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

She thought for a moment. “What’s the first letter of your name?”

He ignored her.

“The letter D. How about I call you D?”

“Suit yourself. Just keep your eyes on the road.”

“Married? Have any kids?”

His smirking silence carried an edge of finality. He had to be insane; that was the only explanation that made any sense. The man had displayed some expressions that seemed friendly; at least he didn’t seem agitated, which gave her some hope. Crazy-happy insane seemed better than crazy-mean deranged. But that gun. He still held the pouch in his lap, with his right hand on the pistol grip. And if she hit a bump, or he sneezed or got some weird urge—

She guided her thoughts elsewhere. This route would eventually take her past the exit to her house, with its generous acreage, absent maid, snotty Zack, and I’m-in-a-meeting Brent. Everything had seemed so perfect in the beginning, but that was Brent’s way, wasn’t it? She should have seen that it was his nature to be perfect for whomever he was impressing at the time. He really was a clever man, the way he had passed her tests with flying colors—the way he cultivated her.

Much too late, she’d come to realize that the promise of a fairy-tale life had lured her to him, and she had unwittingly become a part of the farce, convincing herself that this wonderful man was her life’s missing ingredient. Their wild, sexually adventurous beginnings made it easy to find his flamboyant pretense attractive, and his shallowness appealing.

Brent came from a wealthy, stingy family, and she saw early on that his finances were a mess, but the small-town girl in her wanted to believe his excuses about why this was only temporary. Meeting his cold, predaceous family members had made his excuses all the more believable.

After the extended honeymoon, their lustful beginnings had evolved into coexistence and the fairy-tale veneer faded like the sun-bleached paint on this old Buick. Serious debt lurked behind their expansive home and the leased, luxury automobiles—her salary and bonuses from the law firm were all that kept them afloat until his big real-estate deal came through—the big one that always seemed just out of reach. How Brent loved his deals. Lately, she wondered what else, or who else, was involved in Brent’s deals.

Margo pushed that ugly thought aside. Helen, her elderly neighbor, was always lonely and always home. If Margo came to her door with this hairy lunatic in tow and asked to see non-existent horses, Helen would dial 911 in a heartbeat.

“You know what, D? We should stop at my house. I need to pick up a few things, and hey, you know what? Our neighbor has horses. You should see ‘em. They got these two geldings, well—you remember the Lone Ranger’s horse, what was his name?”

“You warned me you’d try something like this. You did.”

“What are you talking about? I’ve never seen you before.”

“Just keep driving.”

“Will you at least not point that thing at me?”

He glanced down at his bag. “This is so you won’t do anything crazy. Drive.”

Who would know she had gone missing? They had friends, but lately, she’d come to realize that they were all friends of Brent’s. As she looked back on the last few years, it seemed that for one reason or the other, all of her friends had become more distant, one by one. Brent always had a problem with each of them, and lately she had begun wondering what he might have said or done to push them away.

Margo tightened her grip upon the skinny wheel. She would deal with Brent later.

Traffic slowed as they neared the exit for her home, and she watched for a police car, not sure what she would do if she saw one. Several times she swore she heard a siren, but as the dull orb of sun sank towards the Blue Ridge Mountains, no black-and-whites appeared.

Gray skies like the ones overhead oftentimes depressed Zack, Brent’s young son. He wasn’t such a bad kid, just wounded by a cruel birthmother and a stinging divorce. Margo understood him better than he would ever know. A part of her still found it disturbing to be around him, and it wasn’t because of his abrasive personality. Zack’s presence conjured up a deep wound—a precious, yet heavy regret that Margo had secreted away in a dark corner of her mind.

She took a deep breath. “Where are we heading?”

“Where do you want to go?”

“Home. That’s the exit coming up—I could just stop in.”

“Keep driving.”

“I have to use the bathroom,” she lied.

“If I can hold it, so can you. If you pee your pants, that’s your problem, not mine.”

Some of the nearby cars bore a West Virginia license plate, so they were probably long-distance commuters working in Baltimore or D.C. West Virginia vehicles had no front license plate, just like this car had none, and her abductor spoke in a soft Appalachian accent.

“You’re from West Virginia, aren’t you?”

He gave her a pensive look. “You’ll know soon enough.”

As the exit to her home flowed past, she felt a strange sense of relief. How many times on her drive home had she wished she could just keep going and follow the road, for no other reason than to see where it led? However, driving a crazy person’s car towards West Virginia didn’t fit her idea of adventure.

Perhaps because of the shock of being kidnapped at gunpoint, time seemed to flow quickly, for they now approached the freeway divide. He told her to continue westbound on I-68, abandoning I-70, which cut north into Pennsylvania. This was getting scary.

“Look, D, let’s just cut to the chase. I’m rich, okay? You must know that. My husband’s very wealthy.” She thought a moment. The Three Weasels’ standard recommendation for dealing with an obstinate target—negotiate, obfuscate, relegate, and rack up the billable hours. Her recommendation? Throw him a curveball.

“D, if I can’t be honest with you, who can I be honest with? My husband is a phony, a big pretender. Fact is, he’s a loser. I’m the one with the money—I control our finances. He doesn’t have a penny. Whatever it is you want, I’ll make it happen. We don’t have to go any farther down this road. Just tell me what you want and it’s yours.”

“I want you to drive.”

“Dammit! WHAT do you want!?”

He thought for a moment. “I want to use the bathroom, but we can’t stop here. Drive.”

Margo’s cheeks puffed in frustration. She sized him up. The man carried a distant familiarity, but really, didn’t all bearded, longhaired men look the same? Beneath all that facial hair might be an attractive face, but who could tell? He had clean fingernails and no scars on his knuckles from busting heads, like her old band’s hard-driving roadies. She saw no tattoos, and he wore no jewelry of any kind. Neither of his hairy arms sported a wristwatch, and both of his sleeves were rolled up. His jeans and earth-green flannel shirt seemed new. Long hair flowed in brown waves beyond his shoulders, and appeared to be in good condition, for a man.

His eyes didn’t seem to harbor anger or wildness, just the stern determination of someone on a mission. What mission? Why her? She tried recalling her past work, any clients she may have angered. Other than the old groper, nothing in her past warranted this kind of behavior. And why did D have her call in a report of her abduction? Would someone be out looking for them now? His reference to Maine was probably a feeble attempt at diversion—and not a very bright one at that.

“D, who sent you to do this?”

“You did.”

“I did NOT! Why do you keep saying that?”

“If you don’t want the answer, then don’t ask the question.”

“D, c’mon, talk to me. You gotta help me here.”

“Drive.”

“OK, let’s try an easy question. What kind of car is this?”

He gave her a sideways look. “Ain’t no Pacer.”

“Alright, I can see that it’s a Buick. What year?”

“She’s a 1974 Buick Electra Limited. Got the 455 engine. That’s it. No more talk.”

He settled his large frame into the seat, staring straight ahead. Margo wanted to ask more questions, but something told her not to.

The Buick Electra felt easy to drive, and handled surprisingly well. Miles passed into darkness, and the highway began its long climb into the Blue Ridge Mountains. They passed the exit for the family’s mountain condo near the ski lodge. Such times she and Brent had up in that place, two years ago when he was the chameleon of her perfection. This past ski season, the three of them had made one brief visit, which turned into a shouting, angry fiasco. The Buick ascended a mountain and then another. Twinkling lights from Cumberland’s outskirts began to appear.

“You’re getting tired, aren’t ya?”

Margo yawned and rubbed her eyes. He was right. The road sign for Cumberland seemed fuzzy, and she could have sworn that the shape of the letters changed as they drove past.

“My eyes are burning, I shouldn’t be driving.”

D instructed her to take the next exit. They pulled into a small motel’s parking lot, where he told Margo to sit tight. He removed the keys, shouldered his bag, and rambled over to the motel’s office, casting occasional glances back in her direction.

Inside the office, D began talking to the desk clerk, but Margo could tell he was keeping an eye on her through the window. She surveyed the motel’s parking lot—there were only two pickup trucks and one SUV. None were occupied.

Margo looked towards the street and spotted a semi tractor-trailer parked at the curb. The trailer had the logo of an office-supply chain splashed across its side, and was attached to a great, purple beast of a tractor that huffed sooty smoke from chrome stacks. Surely the driver had a cell phone.

D was now laughing and gesturing at the clerk.

She lifted the inside latch.

The door clicked ajar.

D was now hunched over the counter, writing.

Margo eased the door open.

One foot, then the other touched asphalt.

Now!

She ran hard. Humid air rushed past Margo’s face, and her stylish business shoes, designed to impress, made way too much noise. She glanced back. D was still in the motel office. Margo reached the purple semi and hopped onto the passenger step. She swung the door open.

The cabin appeared empty.

“Hello,” she called out. No reply. She climbed onto the passenger seat, and pulled back the curtain to the sleeping quarters. Messy bed. Well-read men’s magazines. Empty orange-juice bottle. The place smelled of greasy food and diesel. The truck’s cab vibrated from the idling engine—it was like being in the belly of a happy dinosaur, purring after a heavy meal.

Where could the driver be? She pulled shut the passenger door and scanned the nightscape. The access road seemed deserted, lined with vacant lots and dark buildings. D could not have found a more perfect hideout. She glanced at the motel’s window. He hadn’t yet moved.

What now? She’d driven a stick shift before, so why couldn’t she drive this thing? It was big, but so what? She maneuvered into the driver’s seat and peered over the top of the huge wheel. She cursed her height—being short isn’t cute when you have to crane your neck to see over the wheel and stretch to reach the pedals.

Her mind lectured her on the legality of appropriating private property in order to deter or prevent a crime. She told her mind to shut the hell up and steal the damned truck already. Her plan was to drive into town and find the police station. Even if D chased after her in his Buick, there was little he could do to stop a big rig like this one.

Margo’s slid the seat forward as far as it would go, but her feet barely reached the pedals. She thrust downward, depressed the clutch, and eased the gearshift forward. The lever shuddered in her hand, and a horrible gnashing of gears ensued. She twisted her torso in order to press the clutch deeper. This time, the gears meshed and the lever slid forward.

She pointed her right toe and pressed the gas. Getting up some revs, Margo eased out the clutch. The truck twisted and groaned, like a deranged patient trying to unscrew herself from a straitjacket. Margo gave it more gas. The engine complained. The beast shivered and shook, and then in one last spasm, lurched into silence.

The passenger door opened.

D climbed in, his right hand thrust inside his canvas pouch.

“Going for a ride?” He gave her an annoying grin as he removed the ignition key and tossed it onto the floor. “You need to release the brakes on these big rigs before you try going anywhere.” He stopped smiling and dangled a motel-room key. “If you’re done here, then we'd better get us some rest. Still a long ways to go.”



CHAPTER 2



The motel room reminded Margo of the old days on the road, of coming home dog-tired after a show and being greeted by the vague odor of disinfectant and the gloomy lighting. A television was bolted to a swivel stand upon the wall. How much dust had those faded bedspreads absorbed? A fluorescent light buzzed over the sink next to a gaping closet with missing hangers. She could have sworn that she’d been in this room before, but didn’t they all look the same?

Margo and the Mades had spent years on the road during the 80’s, and many gigs were low-paying affairs, which meant low-budget motels. From the beginning they had insisted on separate rooms—life was crazy enough on the road, and each of them wanted to have their own refuge for a few hours, even if it was borderline shabby.

She sat upon one of the beds—every bit as hard as she remembered. She turned on the lamp. Only one bulb worked. For some reason, she thought of a motel room in Georgia, and how her clothes and hair had reeked of smoke from a post-gig party in what passed as a dressing room at a local club.

D busied himself at the front door. When he stepped away, she saw a chain securing the door latch to a window-shade anchor. He then produced a padlock from his bag and clicked it into the chain, sealing the door. A chill of fear passed through her. Their room was at the far end of the one-story motel, so the chances of being heard or seen were nil. D removed the telephone’s cord and jammed it into his jeans pocket.

“Now what?” Margo asked, her voice strong and even.

He shrugged. “Didn’t you have to pee?”

Margo realized that she urgently had to go and locked herself into the bathroom. She glanced at the window. Far too small to squeeze through, even for her. At least the exhaust fan’s rattle would cover up the sound of her tinkling.

As Margo thought about it, she didn’t really feel threatened by D—his interest in her didn’t seem to be sexual, but you never know with a lunatic, so she would keep her guard up. She must have a forty-point advantage in IQ. Use what you’ve got, sister, she told herself. Discover why he’s doing this and find a way to escape. You can do it, went her mental pep talk. If you got away from that old groper, you can escape from this hayseed!

When Margo returned to the room, she found D seated on the bed nearest the door, his US Army pouch resting at his side. He had turned on the television, and a Margo and the Mades album cover filled the screen. Margo’s spiky hair stood stiff with hairspray, and she wore a strapless spandex top—black, of course. They had cropped off her chest, which was probably a good idea since the material of her top was no thicker than a coat of paint and left nothing to the imagination. Sexual innuendo percolated from her bedroom eyes, and her lipstick glowed with an impossible shade of 80’s, I’ll-do-anything cool. Seeing herself on the screen, Margo felt a mix of embarrassment and pride.

And hope.

Ashley must have called the police, and the TV station had probably downloaded that old album cover from an online store. The authorities were searching for her, and now it was just a matter of time.

“Local attorney Margo Capolini, former lead singer of the 80’s rock group, Margo and the Mades, was reportedly kidnapped from the Baltimore business district late this afternoon. No ransom demands have been received. If you have seen or know the whereabouts of Margo Capolini, please dial 911. Stay tuned for further bulletins.”

D cocked his head at the screen and lowered the volume. “I like that picture the best. Meet the Mades was a great album. But the best album was Steal Me; that was the one.”

“D, what are we doing here? We’re finished driving for now, so let’s talk.”

“Sure.”

“Did someone send you to do this?”

“Oh, I was sent, yes I was.”

“Good. Is this about ransom money?”

“No.”

“Then, what is it? Who sent you?”

“You did.”

Margo suppressed a flash of anger. “I don’t think that’s entirely accurate, D. I don’t recall sending you to do anything. So—if I didn’t, who did?”

“You told me to, and I’m doing exactly what you said.”

“But I’ve never spoken with you. Ever.”

“Oh, but you did, many times. It took me a while to hear you, but when I finally started listening, you were speaking to me and only to me, and as soon as I realized that, it was all so clear.”

What was this guy saying? Margo thought she detected an impish smile on his face, or perhaps it was the devilish smirk of insanity. Careful, she told herself, this guy’s off his rocker—miles off.

“So, D, when was the last time I spoke to you?”

“Yesterday.”

“Oh. Yesterday. And about what time would you say that I spoke to you?”

“It was in the morning, around ten.”

At ten yesterday she was in a conference with Norm, the tax attorney. This man certainly wasn’t Norm.

“And what did I say to you, around ten yesterday?”

“Same thing you’ve always said, of course.”

“Which was?”

“Steal me.”

Steal Me! God! Margo sat, blinking, hands clasped so they wouldn’t do anything to spook this nitwit. He WAS insane! Completely, totally, irrevocably nuts. Her right hand rose in an effort to make a gesture but then retreated. Margo’s mind was occupied, grappling with the completely ridiculous, laughably insane, and potentially dangerous situation that had invaded her life. Guys like this could be innocent, amusing pests, or they could be more lethal than a cunning assassin. The gravity of the situation calmed her.

“So, you listened to the title track from Steal Me, and I spoke to you?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“I see. How did you know my lyrics were speaking to you?”

“Because,” he said, his eyes widening, “I was the only one who understood what you were really saying. You wrote those words for me, and only for me, but you couldn’t know it at the time. Don’t you see? A part of you knew what would happen, what your life would be like today, and this was how you were going to rescue yourself from the wrong path. It’s like you left this roadmap for someone to discover, and that someone was me. I’m the one you were writing to, because I’m the one who heard your message, and I’m the one who came, just like you knew I would, even though you didn’t even know I existed.”

Margo tried to recall the lyrics to “Steal Me,” the song was the title track to her band’s fifth and final album. It briefly charted, but was crowded out by more payola-friendly offerings of the day. Like the other Margo and the Mades’ hope-it’s-a-hit releases, it had seen little radio airplay. Portions of the song’s lyrics came back to her:

Steal me, are you man enough?
Steal me; put your gun to my head
Hear me; say you must be joking,
Make me; see the fire in your bed.

And another line:

Steal me, from what ain’t worth living,
Free me, from the concrete plains.
Take me, from the here to the there,
Show me, how to live again.

A line from the chorus came to her:

Oh, it’s a wild, wild ride, don’t want no other,
It’s a wild, wild ride, if you—Steal Me!

And then, the bridge played in her head:

You’re the answer,
I’m the question,
You’re the whisper in my heart;
You’re the past, in my future,
Beyond the twisting, turning start;
The meaning of the circle
Is the map to the journey
When the shape of the ring
Is the round thin dime,
It’s waiting there to take us
Off to the future,
When you look ahead,
Which is back in time.

Margo hadn’t thought of that song in twenty years. Like many of her songs, it contained cryptic, whimsical lyrics, but to a mind like D’s, they could have instructed him to do just about anything. She usually wrote her lyrics with a guiding premise or emotion, but the message itself came from somewhere beyond her, and she simply played the role of a scribe by writing it down, or so it seemed.

“So, D, that’s very interesting. You’ve done very well. I’m glad you heard my words. Now, since I wrote the song, you know that I must know what it means, right? So, now that you’ve fulfilled the instructions, and done a great job I might add, I now want you to take me home. Yes, now that we’re finished following the instructions in the song, it’s time for me to go home. Okay?”

“You said you’d do this! You really knew, didn’t you?”

“D, I’m me, and I’m telling you to take me home, right now.”

He smiled the infuriating smile of authority. “There are two of you. There is the you that you are now, and then, there’s the you that was you then when you made the record. The you that was you then spoke of the you that is you now, and it’s my job to bring the two of you together. You told me how to do all this, and you knew best because you were in a place where you could know such things, so I gotta follow your directions. You’ll see. It’s all in the song, and the song was sung with truth, and it’s that truth that I’m following.”

This guy was completely insane, and to try to reason with him would be, as her father used to say about her drunken mother, like staring into the eye of a chicken.

The ten o’clock news came on. How could time have rushed by at such a pace? The lead story flashed upon the screen, and D turned up the volume:

“Here’s our exclusive interview with the husband of abductee Margo Capolini.” The camera showed a wide shot of Margo’s house, and then pivoted to focus in on Brent, who stood deferentially by the side of a female reporter. Brent appeared to be in tears. “Please, I just want her back, I’ll do anything, please don’t hurt her, I couldn’t stand to lose her. You can see what this is doing to me.”

Self-centered as always, she thought.

The female reporter recapped how Margo’s car was found abandoned, she had made one call, and no ransom demands had been received. At the edge of the screen Brent waited with a small gathering of people. She recognized his son, Zack, standing near a few of their neighbors, and—there was someone else.

Margo jumped to her feet. “Look at that! His goddam-slut secretary! You see that blonde, the one that looks like she greased her head with a stick of butter? That’s gotta be her, nobody else has hair that bad. He told me he fired her last month! That lying—”

The camera closed in on the reporter, cutting off Margo’s view of Brent and his entourage.

“Brent has got some serious, goddam explaining to do,” Margo said.

D averted his gaze.

“I told him she was being inappropriate, she dressed like a whore, was as dumb at a rock, and to get rid of her. Said he would. Didn’t even argue. Now, this.”

As the reporter finished, the camera pulled back to include a view of the house. Brent, in the background and apparently unaware of the live camera, leaned against a red convertible, his face dangerously close to the butter-blonde in the driver’s seat.

Storm clouds swirled inside Margo. Brent had once made a wisecrack about how short women (girls, as he called them) have big tempers. He was about to learn an entirely new definition of temper. D sat motionless on the other bed, only his eyes moving. Smart man, she thought. Keep your mouth shut and wait for it to pass, Mr. D, although, come to think about it, I should thank you for this ridiculous, hillbilly kidnapping. What a perfect way to catch a husband with his butter-headed trollop! A surge-tide of rage joined the angry river coursing through Margo’s veins.

Commercials came on, and D turned off the television. They sat in silence, save for the laboring hum of the air conditioner. Finally, D moved.

“I got you some stuff at the Walmart, figured you might need something.” From a shopping bag he produced a long-sleeved pullover and full-length cotton pants. “I got a sister, and well, I thought—” He gently laid the clothing on her bed and retreated.

Margo found the clothes to be the right size and her favorite color: faded blue. Wrapped in the shirt was a white pair of cotton underwear and white socks. Margo shook her head as a sad thought passed through her. The last time Brent bought her something that she could actually use was before they were married. These simple, cotton clothes had more thought behind them than all the overpriced, electronic gadgetry that Brent showered her with at the usual gift-giving times.

“Don’t get any stupid ideas, and you know what I’m talking about,” Margo said to D.

“No, ma’am, I’ll just be sitting right over here.” D ambled over to the green vinyl chair by the door. He tucked in his legs lotus-style and rested his Army pouch on his lap.

Locking the bathroom door behind her, Margo washed up as best she could over the bathtub and donned her new clothes. Her business suit lay like an abandoned reptile skin, and she kicked it away.

D watched her return to her bed. She imitated his cross-legged posture.

“Don’t you have to use the bathroom?” She asked D.

“I can wait,” he said.

She shrugged. “D, if I ask you real nice in the morning, will you just let me go?”

“You look really tired.”

He was right, she felt exhausted. Margo gave D one last glance before she pulled back the covers. Fully clothed, she slid in between the sheets, and before she knew it, she had collapsed into the arms of sleep.

* * *

Margo is eighteen years old and too innocent for LA, but there she is, looking out the window of the Greyhound bus. It carries her south, leaving behind her hometown of Happy Camp in the eastern slopes of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. She’ll never return to her tiny room in that rickety house outside the town limits, where the pines begin their climb up the mountain, the rents are cheap, and the neighbors live far enough away that they won’t hear the wailing, the drunken curses, or the unbridled malice.

In the bus’s aluminum belly, resting inside its beat-up case, is Margo’s Gibson guitar, a 1957 Les Paul “TV” ¾ scale model. It has a single cutaway, dual pickups, and a short-scale length to fit her diminutive hands. It’s called a TV model because, in its day, white guitars caused havoc with video cameras, while opaque shades of banana-pudding yellow didn’t. Margo had bought the battered guitar from a second-hand store in Happy Camp with money she earned working at the A&W. She haggled for days with the crusty pawnshop owner, who told her it was a “priceless collector’s item worth all the tea in China,” before he finally agreed to her price. The guitar carried marks from cigarette burns, and the top of the guitar’s head was chipped and broken. When Margo first held the instrument and touched its scars, she knew it was to be her guitar, forever.

For the past few years, Margo had been playing and singing with a few other kids from school in what was a sort-of band, rehearsing in garages and playing songs by David Bowie, Blondie, Peter Frampton, and the Beatles (along with Margo’s early attempts at songwriting). Her band would go out and play at the occasional party, and they had even won this year’s battle of the bands at the high school.

Previously, she had made do with a clunky Sears and Roebuck electric guitar a kid at school had sold her, but now, her new Les Paul played like a dream and sounded sweet with its twin, P-90 pickups. Now, next to her Les Paul guitar in the bus’s luggage compartment, is a VOX AC-10 amplifier she bought as-is at a yard sale for five dollars. Her dad bought some new tubes and tinkered with it to get it working. Stowed along with her guitar and amp is a cracked suitcase she borrowed from her father, which she couldn’t quite fill.

Her spirits soar as the two-lane road leads her bus south from the Cascades, across the high plateau with its scrubby landscape of lava rock and juniper. Before she knows it, the bus reaches Klamath Falls, with its big-city, three-story buildings, and crowded streets.

At the downtown bus station, a passenger steps on board. Margo avoids the burly man’s gaze. He tosses his satchel into the overhead rack behind the driver and then wanders down the aisle, fondling vacant seat tops as he passes.

The man stops next to Margo’s seat, hums to himself, swings his rear around, and then plops down next to her, even though most of the bus is empty. He smells like her deceased mother used to smell on her third day of a bender. As the bus pulls away from the station he holds out a hand, stained with what might have been food, and he offers a handshake.

She ignores his gesture. “Can’t you sit somewhere else?”

“Free country,” he says.

“Fine. I’ll move.”

He thrusts his thick knees forward against the seatback and grins.

“It’s a long ride to Redding. You and me, we ought to get to know each other, have us a nice, friendly time.” He puts a paw on her shoulder and squeezes. “Hey, you’re just a tiny little thing, ain’t ya?” His hand lingers.

Margo has two half brothers from her mother’s first marriage. Their real dad went to prison for doing something awful; something nobody would talk about. Margo’s earliest memories are of big, older brothers holding her down and doing mean things and making her cry. The bullying wasn’t sexual in nature; it was more about physical domination and control—two powerless fools seeking the imaginary supremacy that preying upon a weak child bestows to bullies. Her physical torment didn’t end until she was older and found a book at the public library that showed simple tricks for inflicting pain. They left her alone after that and said that she was a mean little bitch, but what she did she care? Both of them had ripened into malicious drunks. Mama must be proud, seeing the stuporous antics of her boys, as she watches from that special ledge in hell reserved for the profanely vicious, a perch that she’s occupied for the past two months.

Margo’s unwanted traveling companion now shifts his oversized frame in the seat, looming over her. The slit of his mouth curls into a turgid grin, and he releases a gust of rancid breath.

“You have nice skin,” Margo says, gently shrugging the brute’s hand from her shoulder and reaching toward his face. His stubby cheek feels like cornhusk.

His open-mouthed grin widens.

“And such cute ears,” Margo says. Her hands begin moving now, following the motions of a well-remembered, roughhouse ritual, one that always worked on her brothers. Disguised as a caressing motion she moves one hand over the far side of his head, and while this distracts him, her other hand grabs his nearest earlobe. She locks her thumb and forefinger around the fleshy thing as if it were a guitar pick, and then she twists and pulls hard.

“OWW!” He roars. Reflexively, he grabs her wrist, hurting her.

Panic jolts Margo. She knows that this brute has the strength to crush her bones, but she hopes his brain’s tiny kernel of consciousness will remain distracted by the pain in his ear. She pulls harder.

“Easy, easy,” she says through clenched teeth, amazed at how strong her voice sounds.

He whimpers and relaxes his grip on her wrist.

“Good boy. I ripped an ear off a guy in a bar one time,” she lies. “You’d be surprised how easy it comes off. Just one quick tug’s all it takes. Yours is starting to go already, and I’m not even pulling hard. Hear those little ripping sounds? Do you?”

“Ahgh!” he says, nodding gently.

“Want to lose your ear?”

“No, no!”

“Then take your hands off me, now!”

He does so, holding his palms in the air, as if this were an armed robbery. His grimace is scrawled with abject pain.

Mist forms on Margo’s brow. “Get up, on your feet, real easy.”

Still gripping the flesh of his ear she walks him along, guiding him to the seat behind the driver, who appears to have been watching the drama in his mirror.

“You’re gonna sit here, and you’re gonna stay here, and your gonna mind your own goddam business, aren’t you?”

He nods yes and delicately sits down. Margo releases him and moves beyond his reach. His big hand claps over his abused ear, as if trying to press it back into shape.

She moves to a seat farther towards the rear of the bus, near an old woman feigning sleep. The giant remains slumped where Margo parked him, rubbing his ear.

Later, not far past the California line, the bus pulls into the lumber town of Weed. The brute grabs his bag. From the stairwell he shoots a dirty glance at Margo, and then he’s gone.

In her purse, Margo has $226.52 from working as a waitress over the summer. In the overhead rack is one of her dad’s old lunch pails. He had packed it with sandwiches for her trip, so she wouldn’t have to waste money on expensive, bus-depot food. Nothing was said between them when she got on the Greyhound bus in Happy Camp, but in her dad’s sad, proud smile, she knew that this was his journey too.

For him, her escape is his escape. If she never has to return to Happy Camp—that would be his greatest joy. He’s a good, gentle man who married badly, suffered a dismal job, and never found the hidden exit from his rat maze of misery. Before long, she knows, it will quickly end with a blinding pain on the floor of his empty house.

Margo opens a sandwich and checks the ingredients: thin-sliced ham (the cheap kind that doesn’t taste real), and lots of mayonnaise. As always when she thinks of her father, she feels the weight of a regretful stone. He should have left her mother long ago and taken Margo with him, but somehow, he was always in that woman’s grasp. Even in death, she enslaved him.

Margo munches a sandwich as the bus gets back on the highway and tries to use her time composing songs—her intent is to conjure up lyrics that immortalize her hopes and fears like an insect in amber. Nothing comes. No matter, she’s written twenty-two songs during the past year, drawn from her deep well of bitterness and rebellion. The plan is simplistic: first she’ll get a recording contract which leads to stardom and fame. This leads to money, which buys freedom, and as her dad learned so well, without freedom there is no hope.

She’s never before been this far south of Happy Camp, which is neither happy nor a camp. This is also the first time she’s seen the great, arrogant mass of Mount Shasta, whose crown of glaciers is cast aglow by the cut of the sun’s angle.

Within hours, red mountain soils and vast forests relax into the northern reaches of the Sacramento Valley. From there, endless miles flow through California farmlands, while the last of the sun’s golden rays exhaust themselves upon the fertile earth, and the sky surrenders to night.

The grudging light of morning awakens Margo. Outside her window is a sunbaked mountain of worn-out rocks and dead vegetation. The bus’s engine strains as they ascend the steep climb. The driver happily announces that the summit is called the Grapevine, and after that they’ll descend into Los Angeles, their final destination. Margo gathers her things. No one waits for her at the downtown bus depot—no one knows she is coming, and no one cares. This is LA.


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