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Blair sighed with resigned patience as the line he wasn't in moved forward yet again while the one he was in remained obstinately motionless, whatever transaction - or transactions, she had to be making more than one! - the woman at the head of it was making. Certainly she was being distracted by the small child with her, who, obviously bored, kept wandering away from her side - but she was keeping an eye on it, and kept being delayed by running to retrieve the kid every time it went too far. Frustrating though it was, he had to respect her diligence in that respect. On the other hand, in her place he would have tried to get a babysitter for the kid rather than drag it around... or maybe she had tried, but hadn't been able to get anyone.
And he had to admit that when it came to his turn, he, too, would be holding up everyone behind him - but he had really expected the bank to be fairly quiet at this time of day.
Knowing that he too would create a hold up, he glanced behind him and then at the other line to see how many people were waiting, half debating leaving and coming back later - but he knew himself well enough to be aware that if he left, it might be several days before he did come back, and he had been procrastinating long enough. It was more than time that he cleared his student loans, even although repayment wasn't yet due - but now he had the money to do it, thanks to the maturing of a trust fund he hadn't even known he had.
It seemed that although Naomi had always claimed that she didn't know who his father was, she had indeed known; the man was very rich... and married. He had been unwilling to desert his wife, who was severely brain damaged after an accident, but had been perfectly willing to pay Naomi a generous amount in maintenance when she told him she was pregnant. Instead, she had asked him to set up a trust fund for the child. It had actually matured on Blair's twenty-fifth birthday, but - when Blair made no attempt to touch it and a lawyer representing his now-widowed father finally tracked him down - Naomi claimed that she had forgotten all about it. Blair wasn't totally convinced that was the truth, although it did seem to be in keeping with her often casual approach to life. She had never been short of money and would have given him an allowance when he went to Rainier if he had asked for one, but he had preferred to be independent of her; he loved her dearly, but he was well aware that if he was dependent on her for money, she would expect him to march to the sound of her drum, and he already knew that he wanted to live his life, not let it be a shadow of hers. Scholarships had taken him through university and holiday and weekend jobs, grants and a small student loan, coupled with his stipend as a TA, had kept him at least marginally solvent since he was sixteen.
He still hadn't met his father, who lived in Southern California, but he had written to him after reading the letter the lawyer gave him, and he planned to visit the man one day.
The sound of a gunshot shattered the near-silence of the bank, immediately followed by a harsh voice. "Everyone on the ground! Now!"
The child was running down the line; Blair snagged it - between its youth, possibly three or barely four years old, and the way it was dressed, he wasn't sure if it was a boy or a girl - and pulled it down with him. It screamed with what was probably a combination of fright, frustration and sheer temper; out of the corner of his eye he saw the mother beginning to move towards him, and the gunman fired again. "On the ground!" he repeated. "And you - shut that brat up!"
Blair raised his head slightly. "It would be best - " he began, and closed his mouth again as the gun was turned towards him. "Ssh!" he murmured. "The bad man won't hurt you if you stay quiet."
"Mom told me to scream if a man I didn't know touched me!" The kid wasn't too young to answer back, it seemed.
"Yes, but that's only if she isn't there. She is here, over beside the counter. But the man beside the door has a gun and he'll shoot everyone if you keep on screaming."
Even as he tried to calm the child, Blair kept half of his attention on the robbers. Two others had come in, and were now collecting money from the tellers while the one with the gun kept his attention on the - yes, hostages who lay on the floor.
All three wore masks, so he couldn't give a description of their faces, but Blair memorized their build and clothes. The two collecting the money were definitely white - he could see the back of their necks; the third, the gunman, was wearing gloves, and Blair couldn't see any bare skin, but he decided that this one was probably white too - these gangs usually showed a bias towards their own color.
"Hurry up!" one of the men getting the money snarled. "You're just wasting time - you wouldn't have hit an alarm by any chance? Delaying till the cops get here? Gimme that!" He grabbed the bag that the teller had just filled and retreated towards the door, joining the other one who had already taken his bag of money to there. The gunman moved forward. He nudged one of the customers with his foot. "You - get up. And you... and you." He tapped Blair with his foot. "And bring the kid."
Blair pushed himself up on his knees. "It's not mine - " he began.
"Did I ask you if it was? Bring it!"
"Lynne!" The mother screamed. "No, don't take her - please don't take her!"
The man turned and fired his gun, and the woman screamed again, this time in pain as the bullet hit her. The gun swung round towards Blair. "Bring the kid."
Blair took a deep breath and scrambled to his feet, grasping the child's free arm firmly - her other arm was clutching a stuffed toy rabbit.
"Bad man!" the child screamed again as Blair urged her towards the door.
The gunman took one step forward, and backhanded the child's face. "I don't want to hear another sound out of you, kid, you understand?" he snarled. Then he gestured with the gun, and Blair followed the other hostages out into the cold December afternoon, the child - Lynne - clutching his hand firmly, and he decided that for the moment he represented some sort of security for her.
A few flakes of snow were drifting down, adding to the thin layer of snow that had settled while Blair waited in the bank.
As the hostages were hustled into the back of a van, the gunman climbing in with them while his friends, having tossed the bags of money into the back as well, got in the front. The van started with a jerk just as Blair heard the sound of a police siren.
He took another deep breath to steady himself, then turned his attention to the child. Willy-nilly, he was landed with the care of the kid... and although, as a fourteen-year-old in one of the communes Naomi had visited, he had been expected to look out for the younger children, it was the girls who had the responsibility for the youngest ones... and he had had nothing whatsoever to do with young children since then.
Yes, he had encountered one or two youngsters in the last year or two - but Daryl was fourteen when they first met, Pam Ferris was ten - but this child, Lynne, was definitely pre-school even though she seemed surprisingly mature, and he had no real idea how to talk to her...
The van took a corner too fast, skidding on the snow, and the passengers in the back were thrown sideways, apart from the gunman who had braced himself firmly against one side. Blair could only guess that he knew what sort of driver his friend was, even when road conditions were good. It took another corner too fast, sliding sideways, and in his attempt to protect Lynne, Blair was unable to protect himself; his head cracked against the side, and he slumped, unconscious.
Blair regained consciousness to find himself in a windowless small room that was lit only by a single dim light bulb, in the company of two other men - one Asian, definitely older, the other, he guessed a little younger than himself - and a child, who had pushed herself into a corner as far away from the three men as she could get, and was holding her stuffed rabbit in front of her as if it were a shield. As he pushed himself into a sitting position and memory returned, he recognized the others as the other hostages the bank robbers had taken.
"You okay?" the Asian asked quietly.
Blair touched the side of his head, feeling a stab of pain as he did. "Ouch!" he jerked his fingers away. "Yeah, not bad. Got a bit of a headache, though."
"Not surprised - you hit the side of the van hard."
"So where are we?"
"Somewhere that can't be far outside Cascade," the younger man said. "It seems to be a building standing on its own, but we didn't take too long to get here."
"Didn't the police follow us? I thought I heard a siren - "
"Crazy driver, but he managed to shake them off," the older man said. After a moment he went on, "Might as well introduce ourselves, since we might be stuck here indefinitely. I'm Andy."
They glanced at the third man, whose hair, gelled into spikes, gave him a look of would-be bravado that was at odds with the fear in his eyes.
"And that's Lynne." Blair nodded towards the corner, then shrugged. "Her mother seems to have made a damn good job of teaching her to see all men as dangerous."
"Can't understand why these guys would want to take the kid too," Andy commented.
"In case there were cops outside when they left the bank. They'd reckon that cops might shoot if the hostages were all adult; they'd be less likely to shoot if one of the hostages was a kid."
The other two nodded, accepting that.
"But it doesn't explain why they're keeping us," Blair went on. "Once they were safely away, surely the sensible thing would have been to stop long enough to drop us off, then drive on. We'd be on foot, I was out cold... It could have been two or three hours before we were found. They'd have been a hundred miles away by then - even on these roads."
"They were arguing about that," Howard said. "I heard one of them saying something about 'Stockholm Syndrome' and needing recruits, and one of the others saying he thought that was a myth."
"Stockholm Syndrome?" Blair said unhappily. "I don't like the sound of that."
"Why? What does it mean?" Howard asked.
"You've never heard of it?" Blair asked. Howard shook his head. "It means that the prisoners begin to get emotionally attached to their captors and start to sympathize with their beliefs, even when those are opposed to what the captives originally believed was right. If they're rescued, they've even been known to defend their captors, find excuses for them. Doesn't always happen, of course. The captors have to seem friendly and treat the prisoners fairly well, and even three or four days can be enough for the syndrome to manifest. Doesn't work with suspicious-natured or cynical people, the ones who look for a catch in everything... I doubt young Lynne, there, would ever start to think well of our kidnappers - young though she is, she's been too brainwashed into not trusting men... makes me wonder if her mother had been abused herself as a kid. I don't think I'd fall for it - I have a minor in psychology and I know what they'd be doing. But there are no certainties.
"Did either of you hear anything else?"
The two shook their heads.
Blair moved over to the door and leaned his head against it, listening. Sure enough, he heard voices on the other side...
"... not nearly enough money here yet. We need a lot more if we're to start recruiting. Kincaid has a big operation, but he started off with a lot more money than we have here. He has the right idea - pity it's so limited. He never had the vision to see the big picture."
Blair's eyebrows lifted. Just what were these guys planning? Kincaid had wanted to overthrow the American government and - as far as Blair could understand - return America to the values of the eighteenth century, with white male domination... What were these guys after, if 'white male domination' wasn't 'the big picture'?
"Well, we've got our first recruits here," a second voice said. "Shouldn't be too difficult to swing 'em round to our way of thinking - hell, the guys the Stockholm Syndrome was named for were turned in less than a week!"
"An' how do you figure we can do that?" third voice asked.
"Well, we'll leave 'em for a bit, let them start worrying, then we throw 'em a few curves. A meal, a bottle of beer... Let 'em watch a bit of TV with us...
"As for the kid - she's young; give her enough candy when she does what we want, we can easily teach her her place, train her up to serve us."
"Yeah!" "Right!" Voices One and Three seemed in total sympathy with that.
Had Two said 'serve us' or 'service us'? Whichever - I don't think so! Blair thought. Not if I have anything to do with it!
He was well aware of the insidious nature of the Stockholm Syndrome. Granted, he knew all about the less well known Lima Syndrome too, where the captors started sympathizing with the captives... but Voice Two seemed to have at least some knowledge of psychology; he probably knew about the Lima Syndrome, and would warn his friends about it.
Blair had never been totally convinced of the reality of either syndrome - both were often used in fiction as a plot device; but, he decided, he would just as soon not be in a position where he would find out just how fictional, or not, they were.
The voices fell silent, and Blair turned his attention back to the room as Andy said, "Did you hear anything?"
"They're crazy," Blair replied. "They have some kind of long-term plan, that much was clear, but... " He shook his head. "Have you heard of the Sunrise Patriots?"
"One of these guys said that the Patriot's leader - Kincaid - didn't see 'the big picture'. The Sunrise Patriots want to take over running America - if that isn't 'the big picture', what is?"
"Running the world?" Howard suggested.
Blair raised his eyes heavenwards. "Crazy," he repeated. "Half the governments in the world are fighting rebels who want to take over - usually to 'return our country to its traditional - aka old-fashioned - values'. If governments, with the resources they can call on, can't flatten the rebels, how can three men, stealing what is basically petty cash from banks in order to finance their operation, even begin to hope they'll get anywhere?"
Blair opened heavy eyes, wondering just how he had managed to fall asleep on this hard, uncomfortable floor - his last memory was of standing beside the door - and feeling very, very cold.
He pushed himself into a sitting position and looked around.
There was nobody else in the room with him.
Now that was weird. Why would their captors take the others away, but leave him? Of course, they had been conscious, he hadn't...
He looked around again. On the floor near him were a toilet brush and a pair of wooden chopsticks. He shook his head, thinking for a minute that he was hallucinating, but when he looked again, the objects were still there. This was beyond weird!
Looking towards the corner where Lynne had been crouching, he could see her stuffed rabbit lying there. Well, that made a touch more sense, though he wondered how their captors had persuaded her to give up her security blanket. He pushed himself to his feet and went over to the corner to pick up the toy, feeling guilty that he had fallen asleep and therefore hadn't been there to try to protect her - strange how responsible for her he felt... and yet perhaps it wasn't so strange; if he hadn't grabbed her in the bank, the robbers mightn't have decided to take her as one of their hostages, even though, as he told Andy and Howard, having a child with them would have inhibited the police, made them hesitate...
He picked up the rabbit, seeing now that it wasn't a stuffed toy but a slipper - an adult slipper - and he wondered for a moment at the mentality of an adult who would wear this kind of footwear. Or no - the mentality of any firm that thought adults would find this kind of slipper 'cute'. Kids, yes, but adults? Okay, a gag gift... but otherwise? He looked at it again, finding it oddly pathetic. It didn't even look as if it had ever been worn. Had Lynne's mother bought the slippers as toys because the child liked them? It was possible.
Blair put the slipper down beside the brush and the chopsticks, and went back to the door. He listened, but could hear nothing.
All right - could he get out of here? He had to warn Jim that they had a group of serial bank robbers to deal with - robbers with delusions of grandeur. He put one hand on the door handle, and jerked it quickly back as the burn of an electric shock jangled his nerves. It was a fairly mild shock, like that of the static electricity he had occasionally received when he opened his car door, but it was unpleasant just the same. He touched the handle again - the merest flick of his fingers, and felt the tingle again. Not just static electricity, then; the door had been wired so that anyone trying to open it would automatically flinch away.
How to overcome that? He looked around, wondering if there was anything he could use - and registered the slipper. Going back to it, he picked it up. Yes! The sole looked as though it could be rubber. Now... should he try to turn the handle using it, or put it on and stand on one foot using it to insulate himself as he tried to turn the handle?
He felt unsteady enough that the first option seemed the better one.
With the fingers of one hand in the toes and the other at the heel, it was an awkward two-handed grip, but he managed to turn the door handle... and nothing happened. The door was locked.
Damn! Now what? He had to get out... He felt in his pocket. Yes - the robbers hadn't searched him; he still had his Swiss Army knife. It wasn't one of the all-singing, all-dancing, everything-on-it-but-the-kitchen-sink models, but... He studied the tools on it and shook his head. There was nothing on it he could use.
He looked around again.
Could he use one of the chopsticks as a lock pick?
Picking one up, he looked thoughtfully at it. Made of wood, it was really too broad, but... Opening one blade on the knife, he began to whittle at the wood, narrowing the end. After a minute, he tried it in the lock. Mmm... just a shaving more off it... Then he tried again, and heard the lock click open. He dropped the chopstick, put his knife back in his pocket and picked up the slipper again, fumbling at the handle. This time the door opened. He peered out.
He was in a small room that opened onto another, slightly larger and very sparsely furnished, one. There was nobody in it. Well, all that might mean was that everyone was in another part of the building.
Going back, he picked up the toilet brush. Not that it would be much of a weapon, but it was better than nothing.
Moving as quietly as he could, he went through the room to the other door. He touched the handle carefully, a quick flick of the fingers again, but this one wasn't electrified. It turned easily, and the door opened onto a hallway. Pausing again, he listened. No voices, nothing... except... he could hear a soft ticking sound.
There was a small box against one of the other doors in the hallway; he could see red numbers ticking down. 30... 29... 28...
Oh, God! It had to be a bomb... and he was trapped here, with the bomb between him and what he thought was the front door, which was undoubtedly locked. He moved quickly over to it as the number changed to 20...
He could see where contact would be made to explode it - but there were too many wires leading from it. He had no idea which one to pull to disarm it. But if he could get something down there to block the contact...
10... 9... 8... 7... 6...
He pushed the bristle end of the toilet brush down into the narrow, narrow gap, hoping they were long enough...
3... 2... 1...
Moments later, the door slammed open, and Jim rushed in, Joel just behind him. Jim grabbed Blair, just holding him as Blair gasped, "I can't move, Jim. I've got to keep this from making contact... "
"It's all right, Chief. Joel's got it in hand. Just a few more seconds... You can let go now. It's disarmed."
Blair allowed himself to slump into Jim's arms, and as he lost consciousness, he heard Jim say, "If this bomb had gone off, it would have set off a chain reaction that would have destroyed everything. You saved... " Jim's voice faded for a moment, then sounded more strongly again. "... the world, Chief... "
Blair lay, half awake, wondering where he was. He was warm now, and the surface he was lying on was more comfortable than the hard floor...
He could hear the murmur of voices nearby.
Surely... surely he had been alone, the last time he woke?
Or... no. Jim had come, and Joel, and he was safe...
"... come round by now."
"He was pretty out of it when we found him, Simon. Really hypothermic, though considering the conditions and the fact that he was barely conscious when he tried to go for help, and had given his coat to the kid, it's not surprising. He'd only managed to go three or four hundred yards before he collapsed. At least he was still on the road, thank goodness; if he'd wandered off it... "
Blair thought about that for a moment. Gone for help? Wandered off the road? And then memory began to connect.
The thieves hadn't escaped. Driven too fast, the van had skidded badly on the icy surface, and ended up on its side, continuing to slide for some seconds before coming to a halt, its occupants tossed around like leaves in a strong wind. He had tried to protect the child, and seemed to have been successful; she was crying, but he thought it was from fright rather than pain.
The gunman was dead; from the angle of his head, his neck had been broken. The other two adult hostages were also nursing broken limbs; not counting the child, Blair seemed to be the only one in the back who had escaped relatively uninjured, though he knew his head had impacted the side of the van fairly hard.
One of the back doors had swung open, and was lying on the ground, and he crawled out. They were on a narrow road somewhere outside Cascade - no houses in sight - and the road, although the only tire tracks visible in the snow were those of the crashed van, was extremely slippery; he clung to the bodywork of the van as he made his cautious way to the front to check on the men there. Both were unconscious - he wasn't sure how badly injured they were. He slithered his way back to the rear and crawled back in.
In the short while he had been outside, one of the men had slumped, unconscious; the other blinked pain-filled eyes at him. "What...?"
"We've slid off the road, but it should be obvious to anyone who comes along - if anyone is stupid enough to be out in these conditions - that we've had an accident. However... " He groped in the side pocket of his backpack, and drew out his cell phone.
Well, as the only adult who was mobile, it was up to him to walk - well, slide - to someplace he could get a signal. He hesitated for a moment, then pulled off his jacket and draped it around the child.
"I'll go back down the road a bit, see if I can get a signal there," he said, and set off.
It was bitterly cold. Luckily there was no wind, but he was unable to make any speed at all; he slipped and fell more than once, and pushed himself upright again, to continue his cautious walk down the side of road, where the footing was slightly better than on the road itself. Finally, however, he was unable to regain his feet. His last thought, as he lost consciousness, was bitter; he had failed the other hostages, who had been depending on him to get help for them.
Well, help had obviously reached them, but had it been in time?
He forced his eyes open. "Jim?"
It was the merest breath of sound, but it instantly drew his friend's attention. "Chief! How do you feel?"
"The others?" he managed.
"In better condition than you, Frosty," Jim said. "They were cold, but they didn't spend half an hour lying out on a sheet of ice trying to melt it with their body heat. The kid was terrified, but not hurt - one of the men was still conscious, and said you'd kept her from being thrown about too much. He has a broken leg, the other man broke an arm and has a fairly serious head injury, and is still unconscious. The robbers - one of them is dead - broke his neck when the van crashed; the other two were knocked out, and were still unconscious when we got to the van."
"There were helicopters out monitoring the roads, and the pilot of one of them saw the crashed van and called in another chopper to check it out," Simon said, "though it wasn't until Mr. Lee told them someone had gone to try to get help that they found you. Luckily you were still on the road, so they found you quickly."
"But that was nearly twenty-four hours ago. It's taken that long for you to warm up and come round," Jim said.
Blair blinked still sleepy eyes at him and then allowed them to close again.
With luck, this time he would sleep without dreaming...