They came for me one night, just as my father had warned me they would. My husband had just patted my arm and reassured me it was the story of an old man.
He was wrong.
~ ~ ~
Masked figures entered our bedroom so silently that despite my restless sleep, the first I knew of the invasion was a hand over my mouth and a gun in my face. My eyes flicked to the left where Jack lay. He had a gun to his face as well.
“Livvi? You okay?” I could hear the fear in his voice.
“Mmm hmm.” With a large sweaty palm over my mouth, that was the best response I could give.
“Get up.” The gunman over me waved his weapon in the direction of the closet. “Get dressed. And if you make a fucking sound, I’ll kill him.”
There wasn’t any point to making a sound. No one would rush to my aid, not in this town. And honestly, I was almost relieved, in a ‘feels-so-good-to-have-the-boil-lanced’ kind of way.
What does one wear to a kidnapping? If they were giving me a choice, then I opted for a turtleneck sweater, sturdy jeans, thick socks, and boots. It had been unusually bitterly cold outside earlier today when we’d laid my father’s body to rest beside the flat, hard-packed earth of my mother’s grave.
My thick and frustratingly curly hair had been braided since before the funeral yesterday, so I didn’t bother with it.
As soon as I pulled the second boot on, one masked man grabbed an elbow, and a second one grabbed the other side, and they hustled me to the bedroom door. My courage began to waver as I realized I didn’t know if I’d ever see my husband again.
There was no answer.
They dragged me through the hall and down the stairs, and out the front door into the night. A black SUV waited at the curb, the tailpipe exhaust billowing in the cold. A third dark figure stood motionless next to an open door. As they pushed me into the back seat, my shirt rode up. A cold draft whistled down my jeans. Fuck. I forgot to put on underwear.
~ ~ ~
It was no surprise where the SUV took me. I took a deep breath as I got out in front of the sprawling old stone manor that belonged to Jacob Schultzman. As teenagers, my girlfriends and I had speculated just what kind of wonders lay beyond the massive wooden front door, or behind the lattice glass of the casement windows. There had been rumors of a handsome son, but he’d been sent away to schools since he was a little boy and no one ever remembered seeing him.
The person inside I knew as well as anyone in town knew him. Jacob Schultzmann owned everything, and pretty much everyone, in town. If you needed to buy a house, you went to Schultzman Realty. If you needed a mortgage for the house, you made an appointment at Schultzman Savings and Loan. If you had a child, she went to Schultzman Elementary School. Same for the hospital – all named after him.
And if you needed the police or the court system – well, you’d better hope you weren’t on the opposite of the issue from him. He pretty much owned them as well.
For the most part, things ran smoothly. He was good for our town. Crime was low, jobs plentiful, no one was homeless. But there were rumors that spoke of evil lurking below the surface.
And I had known the truth of those rumors for a while now.
As I walked up the broad stone steps, the dread in the pit of my stomach got worse. The door swung open silently. I entered the foyer and looked around, concealing my astonishment. There was marble everywhere. The floor, the walls, the matched set of curved stairs that ran on either side of the hallway up to a balcony, even the railings of the balcony itself.
Perhaps marble is easier to clean when it gets stained with blood?
Stop that! Jesus, Livvi!
My escort, who had removed his balaclava, nudged me to the left. I entered a richly decorated room – red carpet, red flocked walls, mahogany trim, and stuffy, uncomfortable sofas. And of course, a magnificent, over-sized desk complete with scroll work on the corners, polished until it shone. Sitting behind it was Jacob Schultzman.
I’d seen him before in public, and he wasn’t much to look at. Balding and given to a slight paunch, he had a face that sported a five o’clock shadow just fifteen minutes after he shaved. He had piercing blue eyes you could see from a hundred feet away. I’d never been this close to him before. Up close, he radiated power like a furnace radiated heat. Almost everyone called him J.S. when they were talking about him, and Mr. Schultzman when they were talking to him.
“Olivia Parkhurst. Oh, excuse me. I forgot you were married. Olivia Rye. Welcome.”
“I suppose I should thank you for letting me attend my father’s funeral before dragging me away.”
He inclined his head, ever the gracious ruler. Fuck him.
“So exactly why am I here?”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Didn’t your father fill you in?”
It almost killed him to tell me what he did. “Of course he did. But I’d like to hear it from your perspective.”
~ ~ ~
Ever since my father’s whispered, tearful confession, I had lived in dread of this moment. He’d pulled me aside on my eighteenth birthday. He looked older and worn down, and even in my self-centered youth I could sense something really wrong. He pulled at a thread on his well-worn pants, avoiding eye contact.
“I did something a long time ago that I don’t regret, but there were consequences I didn’t anticipate. You need to know about them. You remember I told you how your mom and I met?”
“Of course. She was a maid at a hotel you stayed in, and you fell in love with her on the spot and eloped.”
“That wasn’t quite how it happened. I had a meeting at the house of a… client. Your mother was …employed there. I was attracted to her. And we did elope that night.” He ran his hand through his thin gray hair. “The client was Jacob Schultzman.”
I did a double-take. My father was a financial planner, but he’d never had more than one or two clients at a time, and he certainly didn’t run in the same circles Jacob Shultzman did.
“The truth was, we didn’t elope for love. I helped her escape.”
My mouth fell open. “Escape from what?”
Dad chewed on his lip and took a minute to reply. “From being ill-used.”
I looked at him sideways. “Ill-used? What the hell does that mean?”
He resumed picking at the thread and didn’t answer.
“Never mind. I think I get the picture.” I felt sick.
“We ran away, as far away as we could, to the other side of the country. And we thought we’d started fresh. We got new identities through some connections. We had a home, and I had a good position in a prestigious firm, and then we had you. And it was perfect for a while.”
“One day when you were two, and your mama wasn’t home, J.S. showed up at our front door. He was so angry I honestly thought he’d kill me right there. And then, you ran into the room, like a ray of sunshine. He smiled and picked you up, and said he had a deal for me. He wouldn’t take your mother away from you. And he wouldn’t kill me. We would come home and I would work for him for the next 25 years, until you were the age that your mother was when we eloped. He would pay me a modest amount of money to live on. After twenty-five years, the debt would be forgiven. And if I didn’t agree, he’d take you away, right then. He started making funny noises at you, and you laughed and gave him a kiss. I had no choice, and I agreed on the spot.”
“Dad…” I reached my hand out and held his tight. It was bony and cold. When had he gotten so old?
“There was one more part to this so-called deal. If I died before the debt was paid, you had to finish the time. Doing what your mother did.”
I stopped breathing. And then I started again – fast and shaky. “Dad?”
“If you weren’t yet eighteen, he’d wait until you were. If you were older, he’d collect right away. Livvi, I wasn’t going to accept those terms! How could I? And then he walked out the door with you, and his bodyguard blocked me from leaving the house, and he got in his car and started to shut the door…And I screamed at him that I agreed. I had to.” He was hunched down, tears running down his face. I put my arms around him.
“What else could I do?” He wiped his face with his hands. “So, we moved back here. I went to work for him. Your mother just knows I’m working for him and why, but I never told her what happens if I die. And I’ve been working for him for sixteen years now.”
“And nine to go?”
He nodded. “You’ll be twenty-seven when it’s done.” He looked up at me and I watched him force a smile on his face. “And I have no intention of dying before then, I promise!”
“So what do I do now?”
“Nothing. You go to college. You study hard, you graduate, and get a good job. I’ll continue to do what I’m doing, and in nine years it will be over.”
Go to college? Study? Get a job? Suddenly, none of that seemed in my future. I could think of nothing else besides what if? What if?
~ ~ ~
But eventually the worry faded. There was too much excitement in my new life. I did go to college, and I met a man there – Jack – and from the first, we were inseparable. He was tall, with deep brown hair, and emerald green eyes that almost seemed to glow in the dark. He was every woman’s Prince Charming. And the day before graduation, he asked me to marry him. My parents were ecstatic.
I loved my husband fiercely. We had the occasional rough patch, of course. Sometimes he seemed moody and irritated by trivial things, especially when he returned from the frequent business trips his law firm sent him on. I learned to give him space and time, and he got over it and was his usual self again. A year after we got married, my mother passed away, and my husband held me while I cried. My dad looked lost without her, but refused my pleas for him to move in with us.
Dad stayed in good health, and I tried not to think about the time he had left to serve. Five years. Four years. Three. Two. Early on, I had told my husband about my father’s secret. He looked at me disbelievingly and pulled me close. “That’s something out of a good crime drama. Things like that don’t happen in real life.” He hadn’t seen the fear that I’d seen in my father’s eyes the day he told me. I had no doubts.
I never brought it up again.
And then, thirteen months before the debt was paid, a phone call came. Massive stroke. No chance of recovery. A bedside vigil. I’m not ashamed to say that I begged the doctors to keep him alive long past when I should have let him go. They looked at me with pity and sent a grief counselor in to talk. But she didn’t understand. She couldn’t.
Then my father made the decision for us all, and simply stopped breathing.
And yesterday I had watched his coffin be lowered into the grave as the icy wind swept over the mourners, and a cold stillness swept over my heart.
Friends and family extended their condolences at the house afterwords, no doubt sure that the pallor in my skin was from tiredness and grief. They were right about one thing. Part of my pallor was fatigue. I hadn’t slept more than an hour or two at a time for several weeks, since it became obvious he wouldn’t survive the massive stroke.
And when I went to bed last night, I knew the time was short.
~ ~ ~