He floated, weightless and timeless, in a pool of peace and quiet that was a welcome relief from the chaos of the morning. His memories floated with him, separate and unconnected, easy to avoid. All, that is, but one. Aunt Min’s voice whispered through the void, calling him. Snowden. Unwillingly, he focused on the sound of her until her thought-voice rang clear and true. Snowden, shame on you!
What? What did I do? He felt uneasy and his pulse quickened. What did I do?
Snowden, you gave your word. And then you broke it. Remember! The pieces of a broken promise are like pieces of broken glass. They will cut you.
I remember Aunt Min, but what… who?
The girl, Snowden. You promised to stay until she returned.
With that, memory and consciousness came rushing back. Gina!
His eyes flew open and he sat up, crying out “Gina!”.
A small group had gathered around him, all faces and feet, showing a mixture of concern and curiosity. He could see that a few were pointing their cell phones at him, and he supposed they were taking his picture and he was disgusted. But that was quickly swept away by myriad voices, blending together. Through the muddled murmur he heard:
“I called 911.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t get up.”
“Might have a concussion.”
“Who’s Gina?” and,
“What’s going on over here?”
The last question, authoritative, came from a very young looking policeman walking toward the little group. Now that someone had arrived to take responsibility, they turned away, directing their attention back to the bigger action in front of the Pacific Cascade Building. One elderly woman in large glasses stayed behind to explain that “the man” had suddenly passed out and had been unconscious for several minutes and that 911 had been called. Then she, too, turned away.
The officer, whose name tag read “Davison” knelt down beside Snowden. It took just moments for the him to learn Snowden’s name and to determine that, all things considered, he was quite all right.
“Would you please follow me, Mr. Smith. The Chief wants to talk to you.”
~ ~ ~
Gina stood next to Snow’s car in the little lot behind Beans Coffeeshop, trying to decide what to do. Snowden had promised to wait for her while she went to borrow a car, but instead he had left. She felt terribly guilty, blaming herself for causing him to get beat up earlier that morning. Plus, she had promised to make sure he got safely home. He must have given up on me, she thought. And who can blame him? It had been a terrible morning so far.
The distant sound of a megaphone and the whoop of a siren brought her attention back to the street in front of the coffeeshop, and she remembered that Snow had seemed intensely interested in whatever was happening out there. Maybe he went to find out what’s going on. With that thought, she walked quickly up the alley to the street and turned right toward the growing crowd and flashing lights.
~ ~ ~
Michael (Mickey) Dahlgren had been Chief of Police for almost 10 years, and aside from gang activities and a few murders and endless drug trafficking along the nearby I-5 corridor, his tenure had been quiet. Until now, that is. He scowled. This hostage situation was threatening to turn into a pile of horse-hooey. If they could just get the perpetrator to talk, he might avoid a dangerous assault on the building. Luckily, the Smith guy showed up at just the right time. His eyes narrowed. He didn’t like coincidences.
He looked Snowden up and down again and wasn’t any more impressed than when he first saw him.
“Look Smith, what do you know about this Assad guy? What’s his background? What does he want? And why is he asking for you?”
Snowden glanced up at the Chief and frowned, looking quickly back down toward his shoes. Chief Dahlgren’s eyes were mean and dark, and his narrow features, lean frame, and hunched shoulders gave him the predatory look of a vulture. Snow shivered involuntarily while sweat broke out on his forehead.
“Really, Chief Dahlgren, I don’t know anything. I just want to go home.” He looked up hopefully, and then wished he hadn’t. The Chief’s face was turning a mottled red and the lines around his eyes had hardened into deep wrinkles. When he spoke, his voice was flat and even and cold.
“Answer. My. Questions. Now.”
Snow felt another chill run down his back and his palms were sweaty. He didn’t know where to start. “Um. OK. Jerry and I play chess. At my house. On Wednesday nights.” The words came faster as he went on. “We really don’t talk much. Chess isn’t a talking kind of game, you know. We don’t talk much at work, either because he’s on the 2nd floor, you know. I know that he grew up in Topeka, Kansas and he doesn’t talk to his family much because he’s gay and all and they don’t like that and I guess I’m pretty much his only friend even though were not close, you know, not like that anyway, and I don’t know what he wants is it true that he’s holding a hostage?” He stopped abruptly as Chief Dahlgren held up his hand. His face was still red but now he looked less mad and more as though he had a toothache or something.
“Hold on kid. You’re talking so fast that I can barely understand you. It’s obvious that you either don’t know anything or you’re the best con-artist I’ve ever met. And to be honest, you don’t look smart enough to pull off a con. Or play chess.” He paused, thinking.
“All right. Here’s what I want you to do. This Assad guy is asking for you and refuses to talk to anyone else. I’m going to put you on the phone with him and I’ll have one of our crisis response analysts listening in on the call. I just want you to talk to him long enough to find out what he wants. If you can, find out where he is and find out where the hostage is. Can you do that?”
Snow nodded. He refused to look directly at the Chief, afraid that he would get mad again. The sun was getting higher and brighter and it was starting to get hot, the morning fog gone. He took off his jacket, and not knowing where to put it, draped it neatly over his left arm. He had a terrible headache and somewhere along the way, he had lost his watch. Not knowing the time made him vaguely uncomfortable and he had to keep shoving away the urge to look again at his empty wrist or to ask somebody for the time. He wanted to run away, but he felt trapped standing behind the Crisis Response van with the Chief. It seemed like the best way out of this situation was to just get through it. Aunt Min always said that if you find yourself going through hell, keep going! Now after all these years, he thought he might know what she meant by that. He decided it was best to keep the Chief happy, if he could. Then he remembered something.
“Chief, I just remembered something else about Jerry. He likes to use the devil’s gambit in chess. It’s a weakness of his.” Chief Dahlgren scowled at him over his shoulder and turned back to the tech, who was hooking up a second line to the phone system. Disturbed by the Chief’s unpredictable mood, Snowden shut up, and staring at the ground, waited.
~ ~ ~
Not far away, at the Channel 7 News van, Jimmy adjusted the parabolic microphone and made sure the recording equipment was capturing everything from the command post. Becky stood behind him taking scribbled notes. She grinned. “A gay devil worshipper. This story is getting better by the minute.” Her phone rang. “Jimmy, let me know if anything good happens.” She walked several feet away to take the call.
~ ~ ~
Gina joined the crowd standing behind the line of crime scene tape. She scanned the faces around her, searching for Snowden without luck, until finally her eyes were drawn to the makeshift command post. Her jaw dropped when she recognized him standing next a tall, thin guy in a bad suit. What was he doing out there?
A happy shriek nearby drew her attention away from Snowden and she recognized her roommate, Becky, about twenty feet away and jumping up and down as though she had just won the lottery. She should have known that Becky would be here. The downtown area was her beat for the local news station. Of course she would be in the thick of things.
She waved. “Becky, over here.”
Becky ran over. “Gina, guess what? I got it! I got the job in Seattle!”
“Oh, Becky, that’s wonderful! When did you find out?”
“They just called me. One of the executives caught the live broadcast that I did a few minutes ago and called me with the job offer.” Her face fell a little. “I have to report next week which means I’ll be moving out of the apartment almost right away.” She paused. “I guess you’ll have to get a new roommate.”
Especially now that I don’t have a job, Gina thought ruefully. But she kept a smile on for her friend. “Don’t worry about that. I’ll be fine. Becky, I’m so happy for you. This is the break you’ve been waiting for!”
Her attention turned back to the crowd and the scene playing out before them. “Becky, what’s happening here? And why is Snowden standing out there with the Chief of Police?”
“Snowden? You know him? Wait a minute. That’s your white knight isn’t it. The guy who saved you from Dickie?”
“That’s him. I’m supposed to make sure he gets home. What’s he doing here?”
“I’m not sure, Gina, but I think the Chief is going to use him as a hostage negotiator.” An idea came to her and she wrote another note on her pad.
~ ~ ~
Snowden looked at the handset the technician was holding out to him. His head hurt. He still felt a little woozy after being unconscious. And his vision was a little fuzzy around the edges. Everything seemed so unreal, and he longed for the quiet and safety of his own home. At the back of his mind two worries circled like moths buzzing a street lamp. What time is it? Where’s Gina? He took the handset.
“Now listen, kid. Here’s what I want you to do.” Snowden listened to Chief Dahlgren’s instructions again and nodded. Then, when the technician pointed a finger toward him, he slowly raised the handset to his ear. “Jerry?”
~ ~ ~
Jerry Assad paced frantically up and down the aisle between two long rows of cubicles. Where’s Snowden? What’s taking so long? The two had known each other for a little over ten years, having both started with Pacific Cascade at the same time. Even so, they had little in common beyond their weekly chess matches. But at this point in his life, Jerry didn’t have anyone else that he could call his friend. And he desperately needed a friend right now.
How had he gotten into this mess? Fired! And the company closing. It just wasn’t fair! He had been so shocked by the enormity and the suddenness of the closing announcement that he had been unable to move from his desk. As everyone packed their belongings and left the building amid quick goodbyes and promises to stay in touch, he refused to move. Finally, Betty had come around with Curt, the old security guard, to force him to leave and he had lashed out in anger. Crying and hysterical, he had thrown things at them: a stapler, a hole punch, a keyboard, even a chair, until they finally retreated and left him alone.
And now the building was surrounded by the police and he was accused of holding a hostage. It didn’t make sense!
The phone rang and he grabbed it. “Snow! Where have you been? Do you know what they did?” Distraught, he couldn’t help but start crying again. “We’re all fired! The company is closed! And I lost everything! Everything I had was wrapped up in this company, Snow. My income, my savings, my 401K. Everything! Like an idiot. I let the company handle my investments and now there’s nothing!” He took a deep, shaky breath. “I lost my house, Snow.”
Snow was confused. Obviously, Jerry was very upset. And he should be. But what was that part about his house? “What do you mean you lost your house, Jerry?”
“The bank took it! I bought more house than I could afford five years ago, and then took out a home equity loan to make improvements. And then I couldn’t make the payments and I kept getting farther and farther behind. I was too ashamed to tell anyone and I didn’t know what to do. There wasn’t anything I could do! The evicted me on Saturday. Snow, I’m homeless!” He dissolved into tears again.
Snow held the handset tightly to his right ear and listened to Jerry’s anguished sobs. He had to do something! “Jerry? It’s OK. You can stay with me if you want to. I have an extra room.” He was uncomfortably aware of Chief Dahlgren glaring at him. Swallowing, he cleared his throat.”Um, Jerry? Where’s the hostage? Jerry!”
After a moment, Jerry pulled himself together. “I don’t have a hostage, Snow. It’s just me up here on the fourth floor. The only other person in the building is Amelia, and trust me, she’s not a hostage. She’s in the employee lounge on the second floor with her arm stuck in a vending machine.” He laughed. “Apparently, the Nutty Bar didn’t fall.” He laughed again, the sound harsh and shrill. “Can you believe it? I couldn’t get her arm out and she was making such a racket that I had to come all the way up to the fourth floor to get away from her.”
Snow was speechless. Something was always happening to poor Amelia. Dimly, he heard Chief Dahlgren giving terse orders. He saw a team of police officers clad in black body armor storming the building and disappearing inside. A sudden sense of foreboding overwhelmed him and his mouth went dry. Desperately, he swallowed, trying to force words out. “Jerry!” His voice came out hoarse and strained.
Chief Dahlgren whirled, cutting him off. “Shut up kid!”
Through the phone, Snowden could hear muffled shouts. “Freeze! Get down on the floor! Get down!” Then shots rang out.
He dropped the phone and sank to his knees. “Oh God. They shot Jerry!”