A floorboard creaked.
Byron Franks woke up. Something, some noise, pulled him out of his sleep. The slightest sound did that now. His rest was rarely deep and undisturbed. He blamed the job, the hours. Stress continually built inside him and it became increasingly difficult shutting it off when he was home, and then turning it back on while working. Instead, it stayed on twenty-four-seven. The darkening bags under his eyes was proof enough. He knew the copious amounts of coffee he consumed wouldn’t help any, but he needed something that would cut into the near constant fog he found filling his head all the time.
He patted the mattress. Janice wasn’t beside him, which might be why he’d stirred in the first place. She usually did her best keeping quiet. His wife knew he wasn’t getting the rest he needed, and he desperately needed much more sleep than what little sleep he got. Her tiptoeing out of the room sometimes wasn’t enough. It wasn’t her fault. He didn’t blame her. She tried. She always tried making his life easier. He didn’t deserve such a caring and loving woman in his life. Guilt festered inside his chest from the list of mistakes made. Guilt might have added stress; a contributing factor for lack of sleep. She wasn’t aware of the list and this could be why she still tried all of the time, rather than just walking out on him.
Franks wished every slight movement made—every floorboard creak—didn’t wake him. Out of place noises became his nemesis. However, he knew the value of wishes.
He passed his hand over the empty space on her side of the bed. The sheet still warm. She hadn’t been gone long and he figured she’d either run to the bathroom, or down to the kitchen for a drink (or for something to eat. Last night’s dinner was baked chicken, and there were juicy breasts left over. The idea of pulling one apart and making a sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and mayo did sound kind of good right about now). If it was down to the kitchen for water, then in another hour or so she’d probably disrupt his sleep again when she snuck out of bed to go to the bathroom.
He rolled onto his side. The alarm clock, set for 0500 hours, let him know the opportunity for another two hours of sleep still existed. The key word, of course, being opportunity. The chance was there if he could close his eyes and fall asleep. It seemed unlikely, though, because now he had to use the bathroom, and a glass of water sounded good, too. Not to mention, the idea of a chicken sandwich was firmly planted in his mind; it wouldn’t easily dissipate on its own, at least not without feeding the desire.
He sat up and swung his legs over the edge with an accompanying small grunt, and groan. He was too young for the aches and pains thrumming through his body every time he got up.
Getting up in the first place was detrimental. More than likely he’d end up doing what he did most mornings after using the bathroom or getting a drink. He would stay up. Brew a pot of coffee. Read the news on the laptop in the family room and see what he missed during the few hours spent in vain attempting a solid night’s sleep.
Franks used the toilet, flushed, washed his hands, and then switched off the light. Halfway down the stairs, he stopped. For only a brief moment he thought he might be dreaming. He closed his eyes, and shook his head, certain what he saw could not be real.
Fastened with zip ties in kitchen chairs sat Janice and their eight-year-old son, Henry. Gags were plunged into their mouths and were secured around their heads with bandage wrap.
Janice’s face was coated in a sheen of sweat. Her terror was visible in her wide opened eyes. Strands of hair stuck in her mouth with the gag and were also tucked under the bandage. She shouted, and screamed, but every sound made came out muffled.
“You will see a pair of handcuffs on the last stair.” The man wearing a black ski mask stood behind Henry; a bowie knife pressed against Franks’ son’s throat. “Have a seat and secure your arms around the banister. No sudden moves. This knife is sharp as hell, and I’m not afraid to admit, I feel a little jittery right now. Never done this kind of thing before, and my nerves,” he held out his left hand, and it trembled, “you see what I’m saying?”
Tears ran down Henry’s cheeks. He tried crying, but the gag prevented sobs from escaping.
“It’s okay, Henry. Don’t worry. It’s going to be okay.” Franks turned his attention onto the intruder. “You don’t want to do this. This is a mistake. I’m not sure if you know who I am. Why don’t you just let my family go, set them free, and I’ll stay right here with you. Keep this between you and I. Okay?”
The man fisted Henry’s hair, tipped his head back, and re-gripped the bowie handle. The meaning not lost on Franks. It was a show of control, depicting who was the one actually in charge.
“I’m not here for you to apply some psychology one-oh-one on me, okay? Now, why don’t you just do what I said? Sit down on the last stair there and cuff your arms around the banister. Please, please, don’t make me ask you a third time.”
The man nicked Henry’s chin with the blade. Blood dripped. Franks lifted both hands in the air in surrender. “Be cool, man. Okay? Relax. I’m sitting. I’m sitting.”
Byron Franks sat on the last step. Every muscle in his body taut. His jaw set. It was an unnatural move. All his training shouted like voices inside his head. Charge the intruder! Against his better judgment he ignored the mental taunts and picked up the handcuffs. This was his family. His wife, and his son. If he charged the intruder and something went wrong, if his son was injured, or worse . . . he wouldn’t be able to live with himself. He always told victims who didn’t fight back they had done the right thing. The man wielding the knife might not harm anyone.
Franks put one arm under the railing, and around the banister before snapping the cuffs around his wrists. He was tethered to the banister now. Subdued, and confined.
The intruder sheathed the knife. Franks figured the guy was about five-nine, five-ten. Maybe one-hundred and ninety pounds. Not thin, but not overweight. There wasn’t much more to take in, other than his attire: dressed in black, wearing gloves, and a ski mask. “What’s this about? Money? We don’t have much money. It’s yours, though. You can have it. Take whatever you want. We’ve got computers. Flat screen TVs. Whatever, man. It’s all yours.”
The intruder squatted between Janice and Henry. Franks saw through the eyelets on the ski mask, black grease over bits of exposed skin. It was like what football players applied under their eyes for reducing sun glare. He had no idea if the man was white, black, or Hispanic.
“Money? I don’t want your money, Franks.” The intruder shook his head as if disappointed or insulted by the offer.
And then Franks’ brain froze. The intruder knew his name. He wasn’t sure how knowing his name changed anything. It might not. Somehow, he figured the recognition was relevant. If anything, it might mean this wasn’t random. Franks was a target. Being a target couldn’t be good. A home invasion, as opposed to a botched burglary? “Then what do you want?”
“What do I want?” The man stood up, back straight, and chest slightly puffed, as if with pride. “I am so glad you asked. I mean, I figured we’d get around to it, but why wait, right? Why not just get right down to the bare bones? What I want, Franks, is I want you to choose.”
“Choose? Choose what?” Franks knew he was shaking. Every nerve inside his body was on fire, the adrenaline racing through his body came in constant waves. His breathing was quick, shallow, and his heart slammed behind his chest. The situation was surreal, and unimaginable at the moment.
The intruder cocked his head to one side, the motion condescending. “This is pretty simple, really. You see, this morning two things are for certain. One, you are going to die. There is no way around that.”
Janice struggled against her restraints, her muffled moans louder than before.
The intruder thumped her in the temple with back of his hand.
“You son of a bitch! Don’t you touch her!” Franks came off the steps, his arms restrained, the metal from the cuffs cut into his flesh. His right wrist bled.
“Sit down, officer. Sit the fuck down.”
Franks never looked away from his wife. Their eyes were locked.
He sat back down.
“That’s better.” The intruder placed on hand on the back of Janice’s chair, and the other behind Henry. “We all settled, hmmm? Good. Now, where was I?”
This was all a game. Franks couldn’t stand the taunting of it all. His stomach was twisted into a knot. He felt the bile in the back of his throat. Part of him wanted the intruder to get to the point. Another part of him was afraid of hearing what might be said.
“Ah, yes. You are going to die today. We established that much already, correct?”
“Fine. Fine. You’re here to kill me. I get it. We get that. But then you’ve got to promise me you’re going to let my family go. Whatever I’ve done to piss you off, it’s on me. They have nothing to do with any of this.”
The man laughed. “I love how you believe you are in a position to call the shots. It amuses me, Byron. I mean, I find this hysterical.”
“Just leave us alone, alright?”
“There you go again.” Only now the man wasn’t laughing. Instead he unsheathed the knife. Franks’ eyes focused on the trace of his son’s blood still on the polished steel. “Secondly, and this is where it gets just a little more complicated. For you, that is. Not for me. Number two, I want you to choose. You get to decide who lives. Either your wife, or your son. I’ll give you that much. You can pick who dies with you, and who is spared. The choice is yours, officer. One dies with you. One lives. You choose.”
“Nah, no. You can’t do this.” Franks resumed his struggle against the cuffs. Janice, and Henry were both crying. Whimpering. He would kill this bastard! He would tear his head off his shoulders!
The intruder said, “You see, that is where you are wrong. I am doing this. And here’s the thing, the part I forgot to mention. If you don’t choose who gets to live, I will kill all three of you.”
“You’re a monster!” Franks tugged and pulled. “Don’t hurt my family. Just wait a minute. Let’s talk this through. You let them go. Kill me, okay? Kill me. I’m fine with that. But not them. Don’t you dare touch them!”
The intruder actually threw his head back and laughed. It was as if he were being entertained at a fancy dinner party and someone just shared a joke. “I love that you’re bargaining. You have no chips in this hand, Byron. You are not calling the shots. This is my game. My rules.” He pulled back a sleeve and looked at the time on a wristwatch. “You have, hmmm, three minutes to decide. I’ll kill whoever you want dead, and then I will kill you. The third person, I promise not to harm. I’ll just leave them strapped to the chair. Whenever the police get here that is exactly how they’ll be found. Alive. Safe. Waiting for help.”
Franks couldn’t wrap his mind around the situation. It was now beyond surreal. There was a way out of this. He just couldn’t think of one. The only thought he could muster was talking their way out of the mess. “Listen, listen, you don’t have to do this. You can let them go.”
“I can’t,” he said. He sounded casual, calm. No longer did he seem unsteady, or anxious. Maybe he’d never been shaky. It could have been an act. Had this man done this kind of thing before? He must have. No one just breaks into a house and kills people on a whim. Maybe the guy started young, started small. Pulled wings off flies. Killed neighborhood pets. Eventually worked his way up to people?
They weren’t dead, yet. No one had been hurt. Henry was cut. The laceration would heal. They could survive this. It would about timing. At the right moment he would rip the guy’s fucking head off! Franks said, “You can. You can, and you should. You should let them go.”
“Two minutes.” The intruder eyed his wristwatch.
Franks twisted. The metal cuffs continued digging into his skin. He knew if he jumped up onto his feet with enough force, he could splinter the railing with his combined weight, and strength.
“Don’t even think about it.” The intruder moved behind Henry, the knife once again against his boy’s throat. “You attempt breaking free and I will kill both of them before you get the chance to come at me. Are we clear?”
Deflated, Franks leaned back. “We gotta talk about this, okay? I just want to understand why you’re doing this. Why me, why us? What have any of us done to you? Help me understand that much. Don’t you at least owe us some kind of explanation?”
“The why will become apparent, I promise you.” The intruder kept staring at his wristwatch, as if Franks was inconsequential. “Just not now. The when will be made known when the time is right.”
“The time? But if you are going to kill me, I might never know the reason.”
The man shrugged. He didn’t care or was no longer listening. “One minute.”
Franks stomped his feet. Hot tears streamed down his face. He kept looking from his wife to his son. They stared at him, silently pleading with him to fix everything, to protect them, to do his job as a cop, a husband, a father, and protect them. “Stop it. Stop this!”
“I hope you’re not just wasting all of your time deciding how best to kill me, when you should be considering who is going to die alongside you, and who will live. That would be unfortunate.”