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He Went Out with His Boots On
Harold was sleeping when his phone on the bedside table rang. He groaned, then rolled over and checked the clock: 6:32. He flipped open his phone and managed a groggy, “Hello?”
A far brighter voice returned: “Hey Hal. It’s Sanders. You awake?”
“I am now. What’s up?”
“We got a call from a Rolling Meadows High School. Guy with a gun walked into a classroom. Twenty-six hostages.”
“I know. How soon can you get in?”
Harold rubbed the sleep form his eyes and shook his head to rouse himself. “I’m off today. Isn’t Farnesworth there?
“Nah he called in sick about an hour ago. Something about bad shrimp he had last night.”
Harold shook his head. “Unbelievable. Yeah, I’m on my way.” “Alright, see you in a few.” Harold closed his phone and slowly got out of bed, trying carefully not to wake his wife, Clara, who was asleep next to him. He quickly put on pants and shirt, then strapped on his vest with F.B.I. written in large letters on the front. Jacket on top of that. He buckled on his holster which held a Beretta 9mm. He picked up his briefcase and had his hand on the doorknob when he heard a sleepy voice behind him inquire “You going somewhere?” He turned to see Clara sitting up, a small smile on her face, the same one that was always there when she watched him leave in his battle gear. Harold smiled back, then strode over and kissed her gently on the forehead.
“Yeah, I’m reading books to some blind kids and then it’s off to the pet shelter.” She smiled again.
“Be careful, alright?”
He kissed her again and whispered, “Always.”
Harold got into his car and buckled his set belt. He drove fast, and after twenty or so minutes could make out flashing lights in a parking lot in the distance. He turned and his headlights illuminated a large engraving that read Rolling Meadows High School, the same one he passed everyday on the way to the station. He pulled in and parked, then sat staring at the buildings rising up in front of him. The sun was rising from behind them, giving the school a sinister, shadowy look. He gazed at the buildings. One of them held a desperate man. The air around him was charged. He always felt this way when he was negotiating. The life at stake could be felt hanging in the air. He opened the door and stepped out, and began walking towards the group of men beckoning to him; wondering the whole while how he ended up bargaining with dead men.
Harold made it to the group of men standing outside the back of an open van. He recognized most of them, having worked wit them on most calls. He shook hands with them all, and then asked “What have we got?”
Sanders stepped in, “We got a call from a classroom on the bottom floor of this building here,” he said, pointing to the two story building rising in front of them. “A teacher heard screaming, and then three or four shots fired out a window on the second floor. They’ve been in there for about twenty minutes.”
Sanders offered Harold a phone which he gently took. He wiped some moisture off the screen, and then hit send.
We sat in silence for a few minutes; the tense quite occasionally punctured with a whimper or a drop of glass. The air was blowing through the window now, a cold chill shifting through the shattered glass and wrapping itself around us like a restless ghost. The lull was broken by the sounds of approaching sirens. Soon the noises could be heard clearly, the squad cars entering the parking lot on the left side of the classroom. Boots calmly produced a cigarette and proceeded to light it up. He seemed remarkably unconcerned with the arrival of the police, despite my previous observations. The tan phone on Mr. Leyander’s tan desk rang, and Boots picked it up and answered. “Hello?” he said.
There was some static, but a different voice could be heard dancing back across the line. “This is Harold Crowe; I’m a negotiator with the FBI. Who am I speaking to?”
“My name isn’t important. It’s only important that I get what I want, Harold.” Boots hissed into the phone.
There was a short silence on the other end, then Harold returned: “I understand sir, and I am going to do everything I can to get you what you want, but I am going to ask that you remain calm. I’ll get you whatever you need as long as everyone stays safe.”
“Then let me be very clear; I want you to alert the families of every child I have taken hostage. Let them know what is going on.”
“We have an attendance sheet and are notifying the families as we speak.” Harold said.
“No. I want you to call each family personally Harold. Let them know what I’ve done.”
”Ok, whatever you want.”
Boots blew a puff of smoke from his lips and glanced in our direction, as if he had forgotten we were there. He turned his back on us, his hand still on the Glock, which he was tapping on the desk. Boots looked up at the digital clock hanging near the ceiling of the room, in the back, then asked “What time you got Harold?”
Harold paused, checking his watch I assume, then said “Ummm…..its 6:57.”
“Good, that’s what I have. Let me know when you are finished with your task. If I don’t hear back from you by 7:57, I’m going to shoot a child every minute after. You understand?”
Static. “Yes I understand.”
“Tick tock Harold.”
Boots tucked the phone back into its cradle. He snubbed his cigarette out on the desk, before turning to look at us once more. He smiled and said, “Good morning.”
Harold hung up the phone and turned to the group clustered around the table in the back of the van. “He has given me one hour to notify the families.”
Lieutenant Kearney removed his glasses and asked “Just you? Why would it matter who lets the families know? And how would he be able to keep tabs on you?”
Harold shrugged “I don’t know, but hits guy isn’t following any of the usual patterns. He takes a classroom of high school kids hostage but then doesn’t give a reason or demand anything when we get here. It seems like his first step was to intentionally involve the families. That isn’t exactly normal.”
Kearney stroked his thick mustache thoughtfully. “Then it’s publicity he’s after. How are you going to negotiate with a man who doesn’t have any tangible demands?”
Harold sighed, “You grant him the intangible ones.”
Harold strode briskly out of the parking lot, seeking some privacy for the calls he had to make. He stopped outside the bathroom near the 500 building entrance to the school. He gripped the list of phone numbers, which was wrinkled from being passed from hand to hand until it had reached him. The numbers seemed so plain, so impersonal, though each of them represented a separate world, a world Harold would have to callously invade to satisfy a madman’s desires. He flipped open his phone and began to dial.
WE sat shivering, huddled together against the wall. Boots just stared at us, holding a new cigarette and occasionally blowing smoke rings in our direction. The rings seemed awfully sophisticated for a man who looked like he hadn’t slept in days. He looked burnt out; though his eyes still smoldered, like the remnants of flame surrounded by ash. I glanced at the clock from time to time, wondering who was going to bite the bullet first if Harold decided to make the most out of his unlimited plan. Boots seemed to know what I was thinking, because he gestured at me with is gun, waving it haphazardly in my direction, saying “No need to fret. Mr. Crowe came off as quite the professional don’t you think? He should be done in plenty of time.” Boots shifted his weight on the desk, angling his body so he wouldn’t have to turn his neck to talk to us. “Then again, he may not.” He blew smoke out his nostrils. There was a shifting of bodies and a girl, Shelby, whimpered “Why are you doing this?”
Boots half laughed, half grunted. “Ahhh finally, the eternal question, why.” Boots shoved the barrel of the gun underneath his chin and scratched his neck, running it up and down; the whole while I was hoping it would spontaneously go off and this crazy s*** would end. Boots opened his mouth, paused, and then closed it again. He grinned. “I’d tell you, but I don’t want to spoil the movie,” he said.
The first number on the list was for the parents of a girl named Stephanie Robins. It was the number for the emergency contact that was given to the school, but could they have foreseen something like this happening? After three rings a woman answered. “Hello?” she said.
“Hello this is Harold Crowe, I’m a negotiator with the FBI.” Harold said. There was no answer, so he kept going. “Are you Stephanie’s mother?”
Another pause, then a tentative voice responded “Yes I am. What is this about?”
Harold took a deep breath, and then pulled the trigger. “Ma’m, according to the attendance sheet I have in my hand your daughter is currently being held captive by a man in her first period psychology class.”
Mrs. Robins began gasping, and then Harold heard the sound of the phone being dropped. In the background he could just make out…”Oh my God,” then the line went dead. Harold gritted his teeth, and then looked at the next name on the list. He began to dial again. He made his way down the list, checking his watch after every call, sticking to his instructions in the hopes of better understanding his man. Some cried, some yelled, and others said nothing at all. But the grief could be felt through the phone, dripping down Harold’s arm and onto the ground. He grimaced at each anguished cry. He looked down at the last name on the list and started to dial when he heard footsteps behind him. He looked up and saw Sanders running towards him with a phone in his hand. He arrived, breathing hard, and in between breaths managed to say “We got gunfire in the room; a single shot. The guy wants to talk to you.”
Harold took the phone and pressed it to his ear. “Hello?” he whispered.
Boots was looking at each and every one of us, one by one. He blew smoke out his nostrils as he searched our faces. Finally he settled on the guy two over from me on the left, Johnny Masin. He gestured at Johnny with the Glock. “You,” he said. “Come up here please.” It was like being asked into the gas chamber. Johnny hesitated, but eventually stood up and slowly walked over. “Perhaps we started off on the wrong foot.” Boots said. “My name is Lars. Lars Odekin.” Johnny gave him a confused look. “I’m half Russian on my mother’s side or something like that,” Boots explained.
Masin swallowed hard and said, “I’m Johnny.”
“Well Johnny, while we have some time how would you like to play a little game with me? Just until Mr. Crowe calls back.”
Johnny seemed to shiver for a moment, but slowly nodded. Boots (Lars) set the gun down between his legs and held out two fists, like they were about to choose colors for a chess match. “For the sake of the game, I have in my left hand, “he said, holding it higher and shaking it slightly, “Happiness, and in my right I have contentment. Given the choice, which would you choose to have?”
Johnny shifted from side to side, balancing his weight on his right foot, then left. “Happiness I guess,” he said, pointing to Boots’ left hand. Boots nodded, then with a flash of movement the gun was pressed to Johnny’s forehead.
Boots’ eyes were stone. “Now if you had to choose, life or death, which would it be?” His finger tensed on the trigger.”
“Life, life!” Johnny gasped. Boots removed the gun and nodded. “You may sit down.” He said. Johnny made his way back to the corner on the opposite side of the room. When he got there he fell to his knees and vomited. A few students gathered around and tried to comfort him. Boots glanced at Leyander and nodded sympathetically. “I’m sorry this is what you have to deal with on a day to day basis. Educators are extremely underpaid.” He said He began looking around the room again and his eyes settled on me. He motioned for me to step forward. As I began walking forward Boots addressed the class. “I forgot to mention the rules of game.” He said. “Answer correctly and you will be rewarded. Answer incorrectly and there will be consequences.” My eyes were glued to the gun. Boots noticed this and said “A bit extreme I suppose, but I’m quite desperate for answers.” I approached the desk and Boots showed me the hand again. “You know what I hold and the question previously asked. Which do you choose?” he asked, placing the barrel of the gun to my head. It was warmer than I thought it would be.
“I stared at him quietly for a moment, and then very carefully said “I choose contentment.”
“Why?” Boots hissed.
If there was ever a moment to answer truthfully, it was now. “Because in the midst of happiness, one might not appreciate what happiness is. But to be content I know what I have and don’t, what I am and am not, and I am at peace with it.”
The gun was removed and I was looking into those fiery eyes again. He pointed the gun across his chest and fired once into the wall. “You’re a very interesting young man,” he said. “You may sit down.”
As I made my way back to my spot on the floor I felt sour bile rising in the back of my throat, but I swallowed it. He only had six bullets left in the Glock, and I had figured out how the game works.