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Innocent Criminal

Scandal. It burned the lips of every speaking person that day. Surely nothing like this happens in real life? Surely not to people like them… This is America… right? The regular t.v shows were temporarily canceled as breaking news reports kept the disbelieving citizens as updated as was allowed. Schools were closed on declaration of national emergency. To the people of the United States, it was as if time had stopped at the exact moment their simple worlds were obliterated.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. How can I tell you the story if I’m too busy terrifying you?! Oh, don’t get me wrong, the time for terror will come, just be patient. If you are lucky, maybe I’ll have time to record everything before this is found. If you are lucky, The story will not be buried beyond reach, and the truth…. The truth, will never be forgotten.
On the day everything started I was eating a fruit salad. Yes, I know; don’t these stories usually begin with a dark, rainy evening and an alcoholic? Well, not this time folks, sorry to disappoint. As I said, I was sitting alone at my kitchen table, eating fruit salad and watching the clock. I had a meeting with the lawyers at 7:00. Lord knows Helena would take it all if I was a microsecond late. After lunch I grabbed a jacket, my keys, and locked up. My neighbor Jackson was heading in, probably just got back from the gym. We exchanged an awkward glance which was sadly enough for me to see the pity in his eyes. He knew what I was headed into.

Unfortunately, I lack the gift of taxi hailing, so I opted for walking. D.C. streets are never exactly empty, but especially not at 7:00 in the morning. Business suits pass me from what seems like every direction and block my path every few minutes. It took me twenty minutes to walk ten blocks. Upon arrival I was hit with this internal resentment. I longed for this meeting to be over; or better yet, to never happen. The waiting room was sufficiently uncomfortable, no one would have mistaken it for anything other than a law firm. The stuffy, too clean air was accentuated by the stiff leather seats and priceless art. At a large round desk sat a woman wearing professional attire, sleek blond hair in a perfect ponytail, and small black glasses. You have got to be kidding me! This whole scene is surreal, like it’s out of one of those movies you watch and pretend is real life. Apart from me, this whole day feels like it was prewritten by some underpaid indie movie writers. I can guarantee though, it doesn’t end like one.
Lobby magazines are never quite what you want. If you’re a guy all they have in the latest Vogue, a woman, all they have is Seventeen, a teenage girl, sports. I happened to be in an incredibly mortifying position reading an article on “How to make him want you” when Helena and Mr.Dobbs walked in. I couldn’t shut the magazine fast enough. Yet in my attempt to cover up my humiliation I stood too quickly and tripped, knocking down Mr.Dobbs. Yep, I’m just lucky that way.
“For goodness sake Howie, you don’t have to tackle Mr.Dobbs just because you’re embarrassed about your own idiocy.”
Sometimes, I have to remind myself that I love her. We walked into a conference room just off the lobby to begin. Of course, Mr.Dobbs kindly reminded me that I had the right to hire an attorney to assist me in the negotiations, but I declined.
“I don’t need a lawyer. All I’m doing is ending five years of bliss and fighting to keep a few of my own things. No big deal.” It was a very big deal. Call me old fashioned, but when you take vows until death do you part, you don’t skip out because you got a higher paying job. My wife didn’t see it that way. Rather the opposite in fact, but moving on. I won’t bore you with the menial details of my predictable divorce, because that really isn’t our story. If it was I wouldn’t be risking my life to tell you…. I wouldn’t tell you at all.
Just as our little “meeting” was ending and we were headed out I saw a woman running to the front lobby. It was the same stereotypically orderly woman who sat behind the front desk when I had arrived. Curious as I was, who am I kidding? I wasn’t curious; I couldn’t care less why she was running after the hour I just had. I checked my watch on the way down the stairs. 8:50. Divorce is bad enough, but waking up early for it is even worse; now I had the whole day to mull over my lack luster career as a husband.
As I left the building, prepared for another twenty minute walk home, I couldn’t believe what I saw. The streets were nearly empty. Stunned, I ambled down my ten blocks trying to get any clues from the furiously terrified people I passed. I live on the fourth floor of my building so it took me another five minutes to climb up to my apartment. Without second thought, the first thing I do is hang up my keys and jacket next to the door and head over to the fridge for a beer. I deserved won. Beer in hand I plop down in front of the television and turn it on. My first reaction was scrambling to catch the remote I just threw in the air to turn down the volume. Sirens are blaring through my speakers, making my living sound like the set of Cops.
Finally I get the volume to a tolerable level without losing my hearing. There’s a live stream video of the world trade center on the news with so much talking in the background I can’t make anything out. The streamer at the bottom read “Second tower hit at 9:03”. I know this sounds idiotic but my honest first thoughts where, second tower! What was the first? Dumb I know. I reached into my pocket only to find that my cell wasn’t there. I walked over to the bedroom and realized I had twelve missed calls from my boss. Great. Not only did my wife officially leave me, apparently I also missed the story of the century. I called my friend Todd from the Daily and he tried to catch me up while he drove to the airport. Apparently America was being hijacked and crash landed.
My boss soon called me with the information that another plane had just crashed in a field somewhere, probably due to some crew rebellion or something. My mind was spinning. Couldn’t the universe just give me a break? I was sent to wait outside the elementary school where the President was reading to some kids. The street was packed with secret service goons keeping people back. I wasn’t going to kid myself by trying to get to the front. I was about 20 minutes too late for that.
When the president came out he had no comments despite the overlapping “Mr.President….” questions. To be honest, the shock still hadn’t settled in to me; I was tired, and my head was throbbing from the noise. After the president had left I got back in my car barely hiding my delight at getting to escape. I took the long way back in order to avoid the mob of media traffic. Unfortunately, the secret service apparently had the same exact idea.
Exasperated, I pulled over the moment I saw them in my rearview. I wasn’t a bit surprised when an agent asked me to step out of the car. As they frisked me, my mind wandered. Finally, they said I was free to go, and of course, I expected something else to go wrong. This time nothing did.
I headed back to work, this time on the main roads; they might take longer but it’s worth avoiding the stiffs. I parked my car there because the only time I had to use it was for work. Plus, there isn’t really parking around my building. The office was in utter chaos, reporters scattered everywhere, papers flying, fingers pounding the keyboards, and my boss yelling…. My boss! He wasn’t supposed to see me. I could tell too late that he had. While he made the ten step trek from where he was standing to where I was slumping, I attempted to think of some reasonable explanation for why I had given up so easily on the story of the century. I had nothing. “Johnson! You better have a damn good explanation for this.” Imagining he meant my early arrival back at HQ I tried stammering out some form of excuse when he interrupted. “Woods showed me this five minutes ago. It’s gone viral!” As utterly confused as I was I managed to turn and glare at the computer monitor he was pointing at. On it played a news broadcast showing me getting frisked by a secret service agent.
“Sir, I…I…” I stuttered, seemingly stuck on the letter I. Who got this shot, and how? More importantly, why? The secret service checked everyone who came within close proximity of the president; I was no exception.
“Well? Can you explain that to me Johnson?”
“Sir, I don’t understand. What is it I need to explain?”
Frustrated he clicked the replay button and this time very sternly added, “Watch.”
I watched again but still did not notice anything until---. No. It couldn’t be! I reached into my left jacket pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. How did that get there? But I knew how, it just seemed impossible. I turned and begged my boss to explain what was happening, but through his anger he seemed just as incredulous as me. All we knew was that whatever this piece of paper was, it was important enough to get put on the news. All the reporter said was Mysterious encounter between secret agent and reporter.
I unfolded the piece of paper in my hand and read, “T3ffdwwws”. What the hell? What is this, some kind of sick joke? I threw the paper to the ground and as if on cue the office was raided. A dozen men wearing ridiculous black protective gear including a Kevlar vest boldly pronouncing SWAT barged into the room. My boss fainted. For a big man he fell rather gingerly. The orders where to get down on the ground and put our hands on our heads. So I did. Before I knew it I was in cuffs and being half carried away; my colleagues lay horrified on the floor. When I was in the van, I remember seeing a man lying cuffed and unconscious. Shortly after I saw him, I joined him.
Chapter 3
I woke up to a searing pain in my shoulders. The room was like one of those interrogation rooms from a war documentary. I couldn’t see the walls, but in the glow of the light bulb planted right above me I could see the other man. I tried to say something, demand to know what was going on, but my throat was so dry all I could do was cough. His head hung perpendicular to his collar bone, and I thought him dead. His arms were tied behind the chair he sat on, like mine. I cleared my throat. Then again. The man emitted a low groaning noise. Eventually, succumbing to the darkness, I closed my eyes.
Again, II awoke to the pain, this time in the back of my neck. Sleeping with your head slumped forward really isn’t the most comfortable way to rest. The room was still dark but now there was another light turned on above the other man’s head. In this light I could see the blood soaked collar of his shirt. “Psst!” It came out as a hiss followed by a cough, but it was better than nothing. I tried to get his attention again “Psst!” Nothing.
The third time I awoke to an ungodly sound, louder than nails on a chalkboard. Then, a thunderous thud and blinding light flooded the room. It took my brain a while to acclimate. When it did, I saw a man leaning casually against the wall. He wore ripped blue jeans, a plain blue t-shirt, raybans, and a wicked grin. A kid? What is this? He seemed to read my thoughts because he laughed and walked over. “Oh good, your awake!” The look in his eyes terrified me, a little to lively for the given situation. “Now we can start the fun.”
From his jeans he pulled out a huge, menacing knife and waved it in front of me. Seriously, what is this the mob? Again with the laughing. He lifted the knife walked behind me. Soon I could feel the knife cutting whatever it was that held my hands behind my back. My arms swung forward lifelessly and a shock rippled through them from wrist to shoulder. In my head I screamed but I think on the outside it was more of a whimper as I slumped forward. My hands seemed to float detached. It was hard to remember that they belonged to my body. When his patience ran out he kicked the back of the chair. My body spilled out onto the ground where I lay looking up at him.
“So,” I rasped, “Are you gonna tell me what I did or…”
This time he didn’t laugh, he just grinned and tilted his head. “Tsk, tsk, tsk. We don’t want you to over work yourself. Here.” He tossed me a protein bar, the chocolaty kind. I looked at it laying at my feet. I didn’t want to show weakness. I knew that for whatever was going on I would need to be strong, but I could also feel my stomach eating away at itself. Unconsciously, I found myself lunging at the candy bar and scrambling to pick it up and unwrap it. The first bite was heavenly, that is, until it hit my throat. Choking on the bite, I reached my hands up to my throat and tried to force it out by pure will. The man walked over casually and kicked my back. I fell forward onto my hands and knees; the food flew out of my mouth and onto the floor in front of me. I remained in that position, debating whether I was hungry enough to risk another bite when a plastic water bottle appeared under my nose. My gaze followed the hand holding it out up to the crouching man in raybans.
“What is this? Some twisted form of good cop bad cop where you play both parts?” I sat up as sturdily as was possible, purposefully ignoring my urges to snatch the water and chug it. He said nothing, just held out the water with a still hand. I was beginning to wonder if that stupid grin ever left his face. Reluctantly, I took the water, keeping eye contact. I took a few generous gulps, leaving about half a bottle left. Then he motioned toward the bar, still silent. I ate it. The grin left his face. He removed his raybans, stood up and left. The light left with him.
The next day, or maybe the next week. Who knew in a place like this. In any case, both of our pitiful light bulbs gloomed ethereally. The other man was awake for this first time. My eye lids were longing to stay closed because my eyes were so dry. It burned like sand just to look over at him. He kneeled in a corner, hands clasped. I couldn’t make out much about him, but I knew he had seen me wake up. His hands let go of each other with grace and pressed against the ground to propel him up. His walking was painful to watch and undoubtedly more painful to endure. Every few moments he would take a shuffled step in my direction . Although, he never winced, nor faltered their was a hidden pain in his eyes. It wasn’t until then that I realized he was a black man, maybe mid 30s. I couldn’t believe the bravery I was witnessing. He reached me after an eternity. When I tried to speak he did not hear; he held up his individual hands as if to show me something. Free. He wasn’t tied anymore. Which brought on the more terrifying point… Why had they tied me again?
At first the thought caused a panic that in turn caused me to writhe hoplessly on the floor. I imagine I looked and sounded like a pig headed for the slaughter. The man, however, did not change his expression. He did not try to hold me down. He simply sat next to me and waited for it to end, which happened sooner rather than later. My squealing fit was rewarded with gentle hands turning me on my side. I wasn’t sure what was happening other than this patient man was using his nimble fingers to silently release my bonds.
I tried to thank him, used every tongue I could think of. Of course, that wasn’t many. I doubted this man was Spanish, French, or German, and he seemed not to speak English. While I rubbed my wrists I wondered why I had been tied again when that man had untied me earlier. For that matter, why was I here? I still didn’t have an answer. I looked up from my wrists and realized that the man was shuffling back toward his corner. Helpless to communicate, I watched. I watched as he bent to pick up a water bottle like the one the man in RayBans had given me. I glanced over to see my empty one tossed against the wall. He lifted the half full bottle and headed toward me again. I could do nothing but watch, astounded by this mysterious angel. He gently unscrewed the cap and used both quavering hands to take the tiniest sip. Then he held it out to me like an offering. My eyes scrutinized the water carefully. I took a sip and bowed my head in gratitude. But when I tried to hand it back, the man stood and returned once again to his corner.
I decided the only way to reason through things was to write it. I had seen mad men do it in all the movies, it seemed to be the thing to do during imprisonment. I used the chair leg. Metal against stone used to carve out the story that would never be told. The screeching sounds of a condemned man. It wasn’t until then that my critically acclaimed journalist brain put together two and two. A terrorist attack. The picture of me with a secret service agent. The other man. They thought I was a terrorist. The question is what will they do to us now? Will this be the last I figure out? How much longer can I… The door.



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