Finnian Burnett

Storyteller

This was an exercise in writing a crime/thriller – not my usual genre but I enjoyed it.

Her Sister’s Son

Jackie grabbed the boy’s hand, dragging him around the corner. The car zipped by the alley. She heard the squeal of brakes.

“Faster,” she spat, unable to say more through heaving breaths. She veered toward a wall, putting a dumpster behind them. When the car came around the corner, they’d have a few seconds of grace before the driver saw them.

She heard an ear-splitting scraping of metal on brick as the car made the tight corner. She dragged them forward faster, the heavy duffle bag on her shoulder slamming against her leg. The boy’s breath was barely labored next to her and she was near puking.

She scanned the wall and found the door. She kicked the bottom of it, and a panel fell in. She shoved the boy in the hole and dove in after him, yanking her bag in behind her. Scrambling around, she fit the panel back into the door. Outside, the car screeched to a stop. Footsteps crunched on broken glass. The boy was still, eyes wide. The door rattled as someone tried the knob. “Locked,” she heard someone say.

Something slammed into the door, rattling her teeth. She threw a hand over her mouth to keep from crying out.

The footsteps moved away, and Jackie allowed herself a breath. She rested her forehead against the door. The boy fiddled with something in his hands. “Drop it,” Jackie mouthed. God knows what he’d find in here. Old needles, empty beer cans, used condoms.

She motioned for him to keep still. Finally, she heard the car backing down the alley. She stood carefully, pulling the bag back over her shoulder. She took the boy’s hand and crept down the hall, away from the door.

Around a corner, a couple junkies were lying on a dirty futon. They ignored her and she edged past them, heading toward the front door.

A shadow crept from the hallway and even in the dim light of the squatter’s room, Jackie recognized him. She backed away. “I don’t want any trouble, Kade.”

He raised his hands in an innocent gesture. “I’m just happy to see you, baby.”

Jackie yanked the boy’s arm and continued to the front door. As they squeezed past Kade, he slammed an arm against the wall, blocking her path. “Where you going so fast?”

Any sign of weakness would give Kade an excuse to try to reel her in again. She slipped a knife out of her pocket and touched it to his throat. “I don’t need your shit. I need to borrow your car.”

 “How much you got?”

 “Five hundred.”

Kade didn’t respond but she saw his nostrils flare and she knew she had shocked him.

“Where’d you get that kind of money?”

“I can get more if you let me borrow your car. If we make it back, I’ll give you five hundred more.”

He pulled back from the knife and looked her over. “That my kid?”

“It’s not even mine.”

***

The kid sat on the back seat, playing with a plastic figure he’d found on the floor of Kade’s car. Jackie glanced at him in the rearview mirror.

“I’m sorry about your mom. I know we haven’t had a chance to talk about it.”

His eyes met hers in the mirror and for the first time, she noticed the dark shadows under his eyes.

The kid looked away and Jackie shrugged. She turned down W. 117th and made the on-ramp to I-90. She was going to have to see her parents. Even with a duffle bag full of money, she didn’t know what to do. Why had her sister left the kid to her? She couldn’t take care of him. She could barely take care of herself.

She tried the kid again. “Do you know why your mom had so much money in the bank?”

The kid didn’t look up this time and Jackie gave up. She hadn’t seen her sister in years, didn’t know she had a kid. She didn’t even know Sam had died until the lawyer called asking her to come in to talk about the will.

Her sister had left her two million dollars, a note that said Mary Mack, and custody of the kid. She’d walked out of the lawyer’s office with the intention of withdrawing every penny from her sister’s bank account and dropping the kid at her parent’s house. Her head was reeling. How had Sam become a millionaire since Jackie had seen her?

She looked at the kid again. In the dying light of the day, she could only see him in the passing headlights of oncoming cars. His hair was blond and thin, falling across his pale face. He had her sister’s hazel eyes. Her parents must love him, his frailness and his soft voice would fit well in their world. Jackie was the throwback, thick, loud, with dark curly hair that had never been under control, despite the unfathomable money her mother had thrown at posh hairdressers to make it less wild.

By the time she made it to Cleveland Heights, she was dangerously near sleep. She’d kill for a coffee. A car was parked halfway up the long, curving drive to her parent’s house. It looked like the car that had chased her and the kid as they’d left the bank this afternoon.

She passed the drive without slowing. “Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack,” she sang under her breath.

“All dressed in black, black, black” the kid murmured from the backseat.

Startled, she glanced in the mirror to find him awake and staring at her. “My mom used to play that with me.”

“Me too,” Jackie replied. “We used to play it all the time when we were…” she trailed off. A vision of her sister, laughing as they slapped hands together popped into her head. She and Sam had been best friends. She blinked, shaking away the memory.

She pulled onto the street behind her parent’s house. If she remembered correctly, she could slip between the houses and swing over her parent’s back fence from the back-neighbor’s tree.

“You wait here,” she told the kid. She reached for the door handle and a boom rocked the car. Flames licked the sky above her parent’s house. Another explosion and lights started coming on around the neighborhood. She leaned back against the seat, tears pricking her eyes. She hadn’t seen them in years, not since their last forced attempt at an intervention. Struck suddenly by a wave of regret, she allowed herself a moment to cry. She ignored them, but they were there, they existed. She once believed they’d take her back when she was clean. She had kept telling herself once she was clean for thirty days, then sixty. Then six months. At six months, she had told herself she would approach them all when she’d been clean a year and then she’d gotten the call from the lawyer.

“Hey, Jackie,” the kid called from the back seat. “Are you okay? Was that grandma’s house?”

Of course, he would recognize the neighborhood. He’s probably been welcomed here, unlike her.

“I’m hungry,” the kid said.

Jackie drove back past her parent’s house. It was completely engulfed and the car that had been parked in the drive was gone. She made way for the approaching fire trucks and headed toward the highway. At the first exit, she pulled through a fast food drive-thru and got the kid a happy meal and herself a coffee. She pulled into a parking space and lit a cigarette, blowing the smoke out the window.

Why wouldn’t Sam have left the bank account and the kid to their parents? They had a stable life. They knew him, even. She closed her eyes, thinking about Sam. Sam could sing like an angel. Everyone said so. Sam danced lightly when she walked. Jackie clomped. Why are you clomping through the house, Jacqueline? Her mother’s voice flitted through her head, the voice light and musical, belying the sting of her words. Why can’t you be more like Samantha?

The kid’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “Are you my aunt?”

Jackie met his eyes in the mirror. “I’m your legal guardian.”

He blinked. “Am I going to live with you now?”

Jackie sighed, exhaling a plume of smoke toward the driver’s side window. “First we have to find out why people are trying to kill us.”

“Because of my dad, probably.”

Jackie turned in the seat to look at him. “Who’s your dad?”

“I never met him. But he gave us a lot of money. We went to the bank every month and took out money. After that, we’d go get pancakes.” He paused and for a second, looked as if he was going to cry. “Mom was always happiest on bank days.”

The coffee was getting cold and the kid was done eating. Jackie needed to figure out where to go. Back to Kade’s? She didn’t relish taking the kid into a crack house and she didn’t trust herself enough to be around it.

She’d have to get a hotel. Thank god she had cash. Mary Mack. Her eyes were so heavy, she just needed to close them for a second. She jerked awake with a sore neck. The kid was asleep, and the sun was coming up. She’d been dreaming of Sam. Dreaming of the two of them making a pinkie swear. “We’ll be best friends forever,” Sam had said. “Forever. Sam and Jack and Mary Mack.” They took off their necklaces, two halves of a heart and put them in a box, hiding them in a hollow in the giant oak in their parent’s backyard.

The oak tree. Jackie turned on the car and beelined down the highway. When she turned on her parent’s street, she looked for the familiar peak of the roof. She parked outside the house and peered up the drive. The firetrucks were gone, but so was the house. There was yellow tape across the drive. “Stay here,” she told the kid. She ran up the neighbor’s drive and slipped into her parent’s backyard. The gazebo hadn’t burned and neither had the huge old oak behind it. She dropped to her knees next to the tree and felt around in the hollow of the trunk. She pulled out a box. Tucking it under her arm, she ran back to the car.

The kid had climbed into the front while she was gone. She handed him the box as she drove away. “What is this?”

“Something your mom left me.” She touched his hand. “I’m sorry about your mom, Matthew.”

She watched him open the box from the corner of her eye as she got back on the highway.

“There’s a letter,” Matthew said.

“What else?”

“It looks like a bank book. And a key. And a really thick envelope”

“Read me the letter,” Jackie said.

“What if my mom didn’t want me to know?”

“I gotta drive, kid.”

He cleared his throat.

Dear Jack,

If you can read this, I’m dead. I’ve rewritten this a dozen times and I have no way of making this clear to you. I made a deal with some people to take Matthew in exchange for a lot of money. And every year that I kept him alive, I got a raise. I knew eventually they would want to end the project, so I set up an escape route for us. All I care about is getting Matt to safety. If you get on a plane and take him to Switzerland, you’ll find a bank account in your new name. All the ID is in safe deposit box 1843. Please get him out of here, Jack.

She pulled over to the side of the road and reached for her shoulder bag and pawed through the papers from the lawyer until she found the statements for Samantha’s bank account, the one she had drained just yesterday morning. Deposit after deposit going back seven years. And so many cash withdrawals. She couldn’t imagine how much money was in the Swiss account. She scanned the papers, looking for a name. Stagg Genetics. She glanced over at the kid who was pale and wide-eyed. “What does she mean she took me?”

Jackie shook her head. She grabbed the cheap flip phone she’d been using since her old cell had died and opened it, praying she’d added enough money last time to make a call. She called information and asked to be connected to Stagg Genetics.

When she was connected, she cleared her throat. “My name is Jacqueline Sullivan. My sister was Samantha Sullivan. I’d like to speak to someone in charge of bank deposits.”

There was a pause and a man came on the line. “Ms. Sullivan?”

“It wasn’t very nice of you to have your people try to kill me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Ms. Sullivan, I can help you. Trust me, you don’t want to be involved in this. We just want our child back.”

“My sister’s son,” Jackie said.

“He isn’t your sister’s son,” the man replied. “He’s ours. No one cares about you, Ms. Sullivan. If you drop the boy off, we’ll let you go. You can keep the money and you’ll never hear a word from us again.”

“And if I don’t?”

“If you don’t, we’ll never stop hunting you.”

She closed her eyes for a moment, dreaming of a beach in Belize. She could buy an awful lot of coconut rum drinks now.

“Ms. Sullivan.”

“Where would I bring him and how do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“You can drop him off at the greyhound bus station. Get him a ticket to Albany and tell him to get on the bus. We’ll pick him up from there.”

“And he’ll be safe?”

The man clucked his tongue. “Of course, he will, Ms. Sullivan. We just want him back.”

Jackie hung up the phone and tossed it out the window as she drove off. She’d buy a new phone when she had her new name.

When they got to the Greyhound station, she parked in long-term parking and pulled a wad of cash from her duffle bag. She buried it under the front seat. Hopefully it wouldn’t get stolen before Kade got his car back. Maybe he’d use it to get high, but just maybe, he’d see it as a new start.

She packed everything back into her duffle bag and got out of the car. As they walked toward the depot, she took the kid’s hand. “You ready to go on a trip?”

The kid shrugged. He looked up at the buses. “Where am I going?”

Jackie veered away from the terminal and stopped at the public bus stop. As the number 12 pulled up, she climbed on, helping Matthew up behind her. “The airport, kid. We’re going to Switzerland.”

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