“I need to find Alma,” Abigail mumbled to herself, over and over again like a prayer. She paced back and forth, ripping individual pine needles off a small branch. “I need to find Alma. She’s probably dead now. Or giving away all our good information.”
“Alma?” Victor-Vincent prompted. “So that’s her name?”
“What?” Abigail whipped her head up. “No. No, that’s not.”
“Alma’s not her name?”
“No, it’s…” Abigail was torn between giving up valuable information or actually, potentially finding Alma. “You know what? That’s not relevant to you. What is relevant is that a young girl has gone missing and we need to find her.” Abigail turned back to her pine branch, but Victor-Vincent didn’t seem to take the hint.
“How can she have worked for you if she’s just a young girl?”
“Stop asking obvious questions!” Abigail commanded. If she was going to find Alma, she was going to have to do so herself. Abigail sighed and started off in the relative direction of the train station. “I’ll be back in…” She looked at her wrist, then realized that she wasn’t wearing a watch and never had a watch. “I don’t know. Whenever I find her.”
“I’m coming, too!” Vincent-Victor declared, shortly joined by Richard Lee. “This is so much more fun!”
Abigail turned around dubiously. “Hunting after a kidnapped girl is your idea of fun?” She toyed with the ideas of finding a recorder and taping both of them saying that, to show to Alma any time Alma insisted that forcing oneself into inherently dangerous situations wasn’t fun.
Vincent-Victor and Richard nodded. Abigail shrugged. “I guess you can come, then.” She started up again before stopping and turning around one last time. “But you need to listen to me because I know what to do.”
Very quickly, Abigail learned that she had no idea what to do. This whole escapade was revealing that she very quickly sank to the bottom of competence in any situation where there was a right answer. Alma was only in one place, and Abigail making up a story saying otherwise couldn’t change that. Abigail would have to use annoying little things like clues and deduction to actually figure out where Alma had been taken to.
Abigail’s first order of business—completely disregarding the stranger-danger-stay-in-your-primary-location rule—was to go back to New York City. Hooray for the City’s constant stream of trains, busses, and subways, for Abigail, now knowing how she had gotten to the L-House, was able to be back in just over six hours, around the depths of midnight. Thank goodness for being back in a city. Abigail hadn’t realized it back in the country, but she beyond hated being confined with a veering-on-small group of people. She preferred a population in the millions. It was easier to get away with things.
“What are we doing?” Victor-Vincent asked, Richard standing dumbly behind him. They both whipped their heads around, absorbing flashing lights and honking cars and people with actual agendas.
This was not going to work. Abigail couldn’t be bothered explaining everything to those two. That was why she had Alma. Alma would just do.
Abigail decided to ignore them—it wasn’t her problem if they decided to run into the middle of traffic, mesmerized by an actually reasonable pace—and scanned the surrounding streets for Alma. She could only see a block either way and it would be unlikely she would immediately find Alma, but it was a start.
Abigail considered, briefly, going to the police and alerting them. But that would mean Alma’s family would be found out and her parents would be deported—Abigail wanted to be the one to do that, not some silly police. Thankfully Victor-Vincent and Richard were too dull to bother questioning the lack of police interference.
As she walked randomly in any direction, Abigail realized that the L-House was amazingly well-protected despite the family’s lack of intelligence. Did they have automated security that popped up at the nearest threat or was there one small, clever person who had figured out how to install it all? And who was that person?
Abigail’s bets were on Martha. Martha was the wild-card. Martha hid behind her old, frail lady persona. Martha could wreak havoc.
“We walked in a circle,” Richard remarked.
“Thank you for that astute observation.” Abigail didn’t even turn around to look at him. She could just picture his mousy face, crinkling up at the realization that circles did, in fact, exist, and were a perfectly acceptable trajectory to follow. “I really don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“See!” Richard bumped into Victor-Vincent, probably in some display of affection, Abigail couldn’t really tell. “See, I told you I was valuable!”
Abigail almost felt sympathy for Victor-Vincent. How did he cope with his uncle? Abigail shook her head and continued walking. There was no time for sympathy, none at all, she had an Alma to find—
Wait. Abigail squinted. Up ahead, sitting on a lead-colored bench at the top of the stairs leading down to the subway station, was a glowing orb of a person. There was Alma, unnaturally happy and shiny, as she always was, leaving Abigail stunned at how easy it was to find missing children. If I were in charge, Abigail stated to herself, we wouldn’t have the Milk Carton Kids.
“Hey, that’s your assistant!” Richard announced. He ought to make a podcast of all his brilliant ideas. Once again, Abigail ignored him as she clattered towards Alma.
“Alma!” Abigail shouted, louder then strictly necessary. “Alma, tell me who kidnapped you and we can and will destroy-“
“I’m fine!” Alma gasped, darkening slightly, shoving something into her back pocket. “Seriously. I’m fine.” Her eyes flicked between Abigail, Richard, and Victor-Vincent, and she stood up and leaned closely to Abigail. “Next time please refrain from announcing our destructive tendencies in public.”
“It’s New York-“Abigail scoffed.
“There’s cameras,” Alma whispered. “With audio settings.”
Sometimes Abigail wished she did not have access to modern technologies. Then she remembered autopsies and their tremendous assistance.
“There won’t be a next time,” Abigail whispered back. “Nobody’s going to kidnap you again.”
If anything, that just darkened Alma more. Weird. She must be having PTSD or something.
“Well, being as we’ve all found each other, I think we have sufficient reason to go back to your house.” Abigail grabbed Alma’s left shoulder and steered her towards the subway stairs. She was going to need to get a receipt for all their tickets, so the L-family could be charged. They could blame it on hospice. Hopefully they had insurance.
“No!” Alma wrenched back out of Abigail’s grip and wrapped her arms around herself in a hug. Really weird. “We can’t go back. Because…” Alma looked up at Abigail with wide, concerned eyes and a trembling voice. “How much do we trust,” she pointed with her head, “these two?”
Abigail shook her head. “We don’t. But they’re not exactly paying attention, either.”
Alma nodded. “Fair point.” Her tone dropped to the negatives. “But I have something I need to show you.”
Abigail didn’t even need to ask. She simply raised her eyebrows excitedly at Alma, who nodded in defeated confirmation. Alma was truly amazing. She had gone and murdered somebody, right after being kidnapped—she had murdered her kidnapper! Abigail clapped a few times. There was truly nothing stopping them; this would make for a great headline!
Alma led Abigail and, to an extent, Victor-Vincent and Richard, to the back of a store—not an alleyway, the actual back of a store, so it must have been a wealthy store in order to have rights to the front and back of a busy block—and stopped shortly, breathing in and out a few times.
Abigail looked around. It was dirty and an annoying fly buzzed around a dumpster; thoroughly smelly and boring. “Alma, I did not know you had an interest in real estate.” There were no bodies to be seen, but those did always make for the best surprises.
“I don’t,” Alma clarified. She fidgeted, her hands twisting behind her back. “Something is going to happen right now, and I need you to not panic-“
Abigail couldn’t have panicked if she wanted to because the world went black.
Abigail did not faint, she realized; she was still very much conscious, just suddenly blind. Instinctively her hands flew to her eyes, fumbling around for what had even caused the blackout, but before she could somebody else screamed and that was when she fainted.
Some interminable time later, she woke up. A throbbing headache nearly forced her back down, but she planted her hands on the ground below her. Abigail felt around. It was still dark but more that in the sense of the-lights-went-out then a complete absence of any light at all. Abigail had been lying on her back before sitting up. About two feet away, Alma was curled into an upright fetal position, her head buried into her knees and shaking—Abigail hoped she wasn’t crying, she really couldn’t be bothered with crying—and four and six feet away lay Victor-Vincent and Richard respectively, still unconscious. Between them all a candle stood, lit and dripping wax, like the key to a sacrificial ritual. It was too dim, however, for Abigail to see to the corners of the room.
“Alma!” Abigail hissed.
Alma lifted her head. Her cheeks weren’t splotchy but pink in the flickering light.
“Is this what you were intending to show me?”
Alma shook her head. “I have no idea what this is.”
Abigail realized that the room seemed considerably smaller the more she looked at it.
“What’s going on?” Victor-Vincent propped himself up. Abigail and Alma shrugged, and the three pretended not to be internally panicking at the fact that they were locked in a mysterious room under mysterious circumstances.
Abigail thought she would find solace in looking at the ceiling instead of the rapidly closing-in walls, but it just seemed to sink downwards, matching the pulse of her heart, so she switched to the floor, but in the candlelight it seemed to be crawling with bugs. Abigail decided on staring at Alma’s bent head, tracing the curls of her hair like her eyes were going on a rollercoaster. It was the right amount of predictable mixed with bounce to calm her down yet not lull her to sleep, not that she could have slept anyway.
That was until Alma started shaking again, which completely threw off her rhythm. Victor-Vincent started tapping his foot, which echoed through the room like they were timpanies at the Philharmonic. It was considerably less bearable.
“Tax evasions!” Richard shrieked, startling everybody.
“That’s it!” Abigail declared. She needed to get out of the room before it boxed her in. “I’m leaving!”
“How?” Victor-Vincent and Alma asked at the same time.
“I don’t know!” Abigail flung her hands up. She couldn’t touch the candle without burning herself. “I’ll walk around and feel the walls for a doorknob.”
“You could trigger something and blow the whole space up,” Alma pointed out.
“If there’s a bomb, it’ll set off regardless.”
“You could touch a poisonous scorpion,” Victor-Vincent suggested weakly.
“We’re in New York, not…Australia.”
“Tax evasions!” Richard shrieked again, this time swatting the air like a dog.
No, Abigail couldn’t deal with that. She walked blindly with her hands out straight in front until she reached a wall, about twenty feet away from the candle, and padded back and forth. No doors. No doors anywhere! Abigail banged her fist against one of the walls, hoping she caused a dent. A bruised knuckle would be worth it.
“Calm down, Abigail,” Victor-Vincent whined. “My uncle’s delusional and shouting. Don’t let that send you into a tizzy.”
“Yeah, Abigail,” Alma mocked bravely. “Calm down. I didn’t know you were claustrophobic.”
With one hand anchoring her to the wall, Abigail turned around to see Alma and Victor-Vincent leaning together like old, conspiring friends. She clenched her jaw. “For the record, I am not claustrophobic.”
“Don’t hide it.” Victor-Vincent giggled. “We all have fears.”
“I’m not afraid!” Abigail squawked, then paused to gain ahold of herself. That was what her mother always told her. “Don’t be afraid,” as if saying so would magically cure it all. “I am not remotely concerned. I am simply trying to get us out of this room that we are locked in against our wills for no apparent reason-“
“Does anybody hear a siren?” Richard popped up like the last faulty weasel around the mulberry bush. Everybody else waited for him to start off about tax evasion, which he didn’t; his awakening must therefore be legitimate.
“No.” Abigail cut him off. “We’re trying to escape.”
“You’re trying to escape,” Victor-Vincent corrected, as Alma clamped a chuckling hand over her mouth.
“So you like it in here?” Abigail’s hand was growing sweaty against the wall.
“No,” Victor-Vincent sighed. “I followed you here because I was tired of my family, and now wow, would I give anything to go back.”
Familial bonding. How sweet. Abigail was happy somebody was gaining something positive out of it all.
“You’re probably going to be angry at me,” Richard mumbled—conscious, but still tired—"but those sirens are sounding louder.”
Everybody collectively hushed with the realization that the sirens were, in fact, getting louder. Abigail groaned. What with her locked in a room, they were going to be able to save and protect all the good potential-murder-victims before she could get to them!
As the wail of the sirens increased, the room appeared to flash blood-red and chemical-blue, as if the siren was inside with them. How strange, Abigail thought, but most certainly setting the tone.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if there’s a body in the walls as we speak?” she joked. Nobody laughed; if anything, they looked disgusted. Oh, that was fair: they were allowed to make fun of claustrophobia but she couldn’t make a dead joke.
“You’re insensitive for a hospice worker,” commented Richard, still not questioning the fact that neither Abigail nor Alma had done anything particularly hospice-related throughout the whole escapade. He really ought to join Mensa.
The sirens had reached their peak, followed by the thumping of a cane and heavy boots overhead, shaking all four prisoners.
“Jeff,” one deep voice cried out, “it sounds pretty hollow down here!”
“What?” Jeff, presumably, called back.
“It sounds hollow down here!” the first shouted back. “This is not up to code!”
Since when had building inspectors been allowed sirens?
“I’m going down!” the first announced. Abigail sighed. If only it was as easy to go up as it was to go down.
“Jeff!” Loud Man shouted again. “Jeff, I’m moving the tiles!”
It was good Loud Man narrated everything he was going to do before doing it, for Alma, who coincidentally sat right underneath where the tile was, was able to move out of the way and prevent a large chunk of linoleum from falling on her head. That didn’t stop copious plumes of dust wafting down, however, causing her to cough violently.
“Jeff!” Loud Man continued. “Jeff, I’m fairly certain somebody’s down there!”
Loud Man nearly rivaled Richard in pure intellect.
“Bobby, you don’t need to shout,” a third voice scoffed as a retractable ladder—since when did building inspectors just carry those around—dipped into the hole the cracked linoleum had left.
Down crawled three people clad in NYPD police uniforms, barely shocked at seeing four others trapped in a sub-ground room without windows or doors.
“Goodness, this is the fifth time we’ve had a trapping!” the third voice complained. Her nametag read Sandra Jackson and she had a sharp, strict face that Abigail would have hated as a child. She would be the type of person to not allow for any scope of the imagination.
“Five times?” Vincent-Victor breathed, but everybody else ignored him.
“How’d you guys get down here?” she asked briskly, whipping out a notepad and red pen. Bobby and Jeff clambered down behind her.
“We were kidnapped,” Abigail said in a delicate blend of dramatic and earnest. “We were kidnapped by these mysterious blackout forces-“
“You were drunk?” Sandra interrupted.
“No,” Abigail defended. “Why would we be alcoholically intoxicated? We’re responsible people. I just told you: we were detained here against our will!”
With the mention of detainment, Alma wrapped her arms around her and stared fearfully at the floor. Abigail had momentarily forgotten that Alma was terrified of the police.
“Darn these drunk people,” Sandra grumbled. Abigail realized that her skin, like Alma’s, looked golden in the candlelight. Abigail hated how she looked in candlelight: milky and unnatural. Her mother had told her that she wouldn’t be so pale if she got out more. Abigail retorted that there were no opportunities for tanning at night.
“They always break into this exact QuickShop, goodness knows how, and lock themselves up down here, and then insist they’ve been kidnapped.” Sandra seemed very triggered, which Abigail thought was hypocritical, considering it was literally her job to save them.
“Five times?” Vincent-Victor repeated. “People have gotten stuck down here five times?”
“Yes.” Sandra didn’t even look up from her notepad. She swiped her hand against a grimy wall and started fingerprinting, for some odd reason.
Five times? That was certainly dramatic, and great for a potential story. Abigail felt her lips turning up in a smile.
“Have you been here all five times?” she asked innocently.
“No.” Sandra was still intently fingerprinting, now moving on to the floor.
Oh, that was great. “Did the same person come here the other four times?”
“No. Different people each time. Why do you ask?”
That was even better! Abigail’s smile turned into a beam. That was purely amazing! Five different people meant five different perspectives, five different reports, and five different levels of detail; five different people Abigail could trick into believing her narrative.
“Well,” Abigail suggested gleefully, “you’re in luck, Policewoman Jackson, because I just so happen to be a detective.”
“And a hospice worker!” Victor-Vincent piped up. Abigail decided the only reason she hadn’t gotten rid of him was because he knew too much; any other situation and he would have been disposed of. Abigail mimed running a finger across her neck and he quieted quickly.
“But mostly a detective.” Abigail stepped closer to Sandra. “I can help you.”
“No.” Sandra flipped her notepad closed and into her pocket in one fluid motion. “I already have detectives.”
“But I’ve been on the news!” Abigail advertised, complete with flamboyant, welcoming hand-waves and a forcefully wide smile.
“No.” Sandra glared at her. “You’re drunk-“
“And you’re lucky I don’t give you a breath test, but that would just be a waste of our time.” Sandra crossed her arms and stood firmly by the base of the ladder. “Now climb on up and crawl on home.”
Abigail narrowed her eyes. Clearly she wasn’t getting anywhere diplomatic with Sandra, but she couldn’t just let this golden opportunity go to waste. Five different people locked in a mysterious basement under shady circumstances, and she was a first-hand witness! That was prime New York Times material.
Abigail smiled brightly and not-at-all evilly as she climbed into the artificial, glaring lights of the QuickShop, the grocery store her parents never went to because their products faced absolutely no pesticide regulations. Fine. Sandra probably wasn’t letting her work because of some protocol or something. That posed Abigail with absolutely no problem. After all, she was never afraid of cracking the protocol.