STEPPING  UP

 

PART SEVENTEEN:

 

 

 

Norm called his wife then went back to the bed and breakfast with Steve.  "I'm staying in town until

we find my daughter," he said grimly.

 

"How do we do that, Norm?" Steve asked.  "What can we do?"

 

"Her shoe was there.  He had to do that deliberately.  It was a message to us."

 

"A message?  What do you mean?"

 

"Cinderella."

 

"She's not at any ball, Norm."

 

"I know that, but he's playing a game with us.  He's the cat and we're the mice.  I think he'll leave

something else before long."

 

"God, as long as it's not something like a finger," Steve groaned.

 

 

 

Martin stood, looking down at Holli.  Her wrists and ankles were taped but she lay there staring at

him with a mixture of horror and loathing in her eyes. 

 

"What shall I do with you?"

 

"Let me go, Martin.  Please, just let me go."

 

"Now where's the fun in that?" he smiled.  He reached a hand out toward her but pulled it back, truly

seeing her as filthy from Steve's touch.  "His hands have been everywhere on you, haven't they?"

 

"We're getting married," she whispered.

 

"You can't get married, stupid.  You're married to me."

 

"We're not married, Martin, not any more.  You know that."

 

He was paying no attention to her.  "How could you let another man put his hands all over you when

you're mine?"

 

"I'm engaged to him, Martin.  You and I were divorced."

 

"Pah!" he snorted, dismissing her words as irrelevant.  The more he thought about the New Yorker's

hands on his woman, the angrier at Steve he got.  His eyes narrowed.  "He needs to be taught a lesson,"

he said quietly.

 

"No, Martin! Oh, God, don't hurt Steve!"

 

"Did I say I was going to hurt the man, hmmm?"  He sat in the chair, cocking his head.

 

"Please, Martin!" Holli begged.  "Please don't hurt him!"

 

"Shut up!" he snapped.  "I'm trying to think."

 

A moment later he smiled and opened a pocket knife he had with him.  Holli's eyes widened in terror.

He liked that...a lot.  He came toward her, the blade of the knife glinting.

 

"Martin, NO!" she screamed.

 

"Oh, hush," he said pleasantly and began to cut her blouse.

 

"Why...what...?"

 

"Are your hands not taped?  How else am I to get this off?"

 

"My...my blouse?  You want my blouse?"

 

"I have a definite use for it."

 

Deciding he wasn't going to kill her at the moment, she watched intently, trembling from time to time

as he cut up from the cuff of her right sleeve to the collar, then moved around, doing the same with her

left.  The fabric was thin and severed easily. 

 

"There!" he said, pleased, when he had it in his hands.  He smiled down at her.  "Don't go anywhere.

I'll be right back."

 

The door closed behind him and she could hear him talking to his men, though she couldn't tell what

he was saying, but she thought she heard Steve's name more than once.  What?  They were going to

take her blouse and leave it where Steve would find it?  What would that do?

 

In a moment Martin came back in.  "Off on a little mission," he announced.

 

"What are you doing?" she asked.

 

"Time for another token, another demonstration of who's in control."

 

"How...how will you do that?"

 

He didn't answer her, instead saying, "It's getting late.  My bed is calling."  Actually the brunette in

his bed was what he was thinking of.  "I hope you'll find the accommodations suitable, Mrs. Van Frussen."

 

"I'm not Mrs. Van Frussen," she sighed.

 

"Since you are far from trustworthy, Mrs. Van Frussen, I wish to secure you more firmly to your lovely

resting place.  There are two ways that may be done.  You can be a good girl and cooperate and not

struggle with me or you can struggle and I'll simply put you out again and then do it.  Which do you

prefer?"

 

"I won't struggle."  She hated that but it was better than having him drug her or whatever it was he'd

done to her before.

 

"Wise decision."  Using his knife, he cut through the tape binding her ankles.  The cot had a metal frame

and he wound tape around her right ankle then around the frame, doing the same with her left.  He

repeated the action with her wrists.  "Can't have you screaming in the night when the rats come

nibbling," he smiled, taping her mouth. 

 

Her eyes were wide with fear and she arched her back, pulling hard at her wrists.  He observed her

with a frown.  "No, no," he said, shaking his head, "that won't do.  That simply will not do."  The roll

of duct tape was large and he used more, taping her upper arms to the frame, too, so that she could

no longer lift any part of her torso up from the thin mattress.

 

Going to the door, he flipped the switch, the windowless room instantly plunging into pitch blackness.

He stayed there a moment before he opened the door to go out.  "In the dark, the little scritches the

rats make comes more clearly to the ears.  Good night, my dear wife.  Pleasant dreams."

 

Then he was gone.  She heard the sound of a key turning in the lock, then his footsteps as he walked

through the warehouse.  Soon an engine started and a car moved out of the structure, followed by

another large set of doors closing.  Every muscle in her body was tense.  Were there really rats?

 

 

 

Norm and Steve sat in the living room for a while, talking, not really getting anywhere, then Norm

said he was going up to the third floor and try to sleep.  Steve knew good and well he'd never manage

sleep, not this night.  He wandered out to the front porch, plopping down on the big wooden swing. 

He didn't make it swing, just sat there silently, his eyes closed, his fists clenched.  The wind chimes

sang softly and tears stung his eyes.  Clearly he heard Holli's voice in his mind.  "What matters so

much you need to know where it is?" and he'd replied, "I need to know where you are.  I just really

need to know that." But he didn't. He could hardly bear that he didn't.

 

Then the big cloth was there again, coming from behind him. Terror shot through him. No! Not again!

He tried desperately to struggle but there were two men this time, one pinning his arms, the other holding

his head, pressing the cloth tightly to his face.  In a few minutes his body collapsed and one of the men

used Holli's shirt to tie his hands together.  A note was pinned to his shirt.  Once they were in their car

and a block away, Norm's phone was called.

 

Norm had just begun to drift off when his phone buzzed loudly on the bedside table.  Groggy, he grabbed

it.  "Holli?"

 

"Porch swing," the voice said, then ended the call.

 

Norm looked at the phone like it was some alien object.  "Porch swing?" he repeated.  Oh, God, it was the

same voice that had said 'Tara's grave' earlier.

 

"Steve!" he cried, not bothering with slippers or robe but running down the stairs and through the screen

door. 

 

Steve was lying on his back on the swing, his lower right leg dangling to the floor, his left stuck over the arm

of the swing, between the chains.  Norm hurried toward him, touching his face.  "Steve?"  Was he alive?

He found a pulse, almost gasping in relief.  He ran to the kitchen, soaking a big towel in cold water, then

came back,  wiping all over Steve's face.  "Come on, Steve.  Wake up, Son."

 

In a moment Steve groaned and twisted his head.  "Cold," he mumbled.

 

Norm kept wiping at his face.  "Wake up, Steve.  Come on.  You can do it.  Wake up."

 

"No...stop," Steve moaned.  "Don't...don't..."

 

"It's me, Steve.  It's Norm.  They got you again.  Oh, good Lord, they got you again."

 

"Got?"  Steve's eyes fluttered open.  "N...Norm?"

 

"Yes, Son, it's me, Norm.  Come on.  Wake all the way up."

 

Steve tried feebly to sit but somehow couldn't use his hands to push himself with.  "Ha...hands."

 

"Hands?"  Norm hadn't noticed yet Steve's hands were tied.  He hissed in a breath, working at the

big knot.  "Come on, let's get you inside where I can see if you're ok."

 

He helped Steve to his feet, but Steve was very wobbly and almost fell.  Norm managed to support

him enough to prevent it.  "Not on that knee, Son."  It took several minutes to get him across the

porch, through the door, and to the sofa. 

 

Steve sat there, his head swaying back and forth, his eyes half closed. "What...what...?"

 

"Looks like you were chloroformed again, Son."

 

"Chloro...why?"

 

"I don't...wait...what's this?"  He plucked the note from Steve's shirt.  "Good Lord," he sighed.

 

"What...what's it say?"

 

Norm cleared his throat and read, "As you see, I can get to you whenever I want, wherever I want.

Go away or suffer the consequences."

 

Norm was sitting on the coffee table facing Steve.  Steve stared at him almost blankly for a while,

trying to think.  "Mar...Martin?"

 

"Of course it's Martin.  Who else?"

 

"Con...consequences?"

 

"I'd take that very, very seriously, Son.  He wants you gone, one way or another."

 

"No...Holli.  Can't...can't leave."

 

Norm became aware he'd tossed the binding onto his shoulder and now he pulled it off.  He started

to set it aside but Steve's eyes finally came all the way open.  "Wait...that...that's Holli's."

 

"Holli's?"  Norm held up the cloth.  There was hardly any discernible shape to it.  "What is it?"

 

Steve took it into his own hands.  "Her blouse.  She had it on when...when we went to the cemetery.

I remember the pattern."  He pressed it to his face.  "Oh, Holli, where ARE you?"

 

"Holli's blouse?" Norm repeated.  He'd thought Martin would send another token.  This was it.

"Please, may I see?"  He took it in his own hands, turning it, examining it.  "It's been cut, Steve.

It was cut off her.  Oh, my God, it was cut off her."

 

Steve closed his eyes.  This was more nightmare than he was sure he could bear.

 

 

Holli lay there in the dark feeling like she was almost hyperventilating but only able to breathe

through her nose.  She felt sick, dizzy and sick.  What could Steve or her father do against someone

so powerful, so rich, so insane as Martin?  And what had Martin meant by 'another demonstration

of who's in control'?  He had sent men to do something to Steve. She knew he had.  Oh, Steve, be

all right! Please, please be all right.

 

What was that!  No, oh, no...there really were rats!  It was actually a tree branch rubbing against

a metal vent but she didn't know that.  She needed to throw up.  No, she couldn't do that.  She'd

choke if she did that.  Calm down, Holli, she told herself firmly. Calm down.  Slow breaths through

your noseYou can do it.  But what if rats did get up on the bed?

 

 

Norm sighed and called the police again. 

 

"Does the young man need to see a doctor?" he was asked.

 

"No, I don't think so.  But he's had two ordeals today.  I don't want him having to go down to the

station again.  Just send somebody out who can take our statements, ok."

 

"Thanks," Steve said wearily. "I don't think I could face that station twice tonight."  He buried

his face in his hands. As you see, I can get to you whenever I want, wherever I want.  Damn, how

true that seemed to be.  As horrible as that was, it was the fact he didn't know where Holli was,

what Martin might be doing to her, that was worse.  "Holli," he moaned.

 

"You really care about her, don't you?"  Norm laid a hand on Steve's shoulder.

 

"I've never cared about anyone or anything so much in my life."

 

Two policemen knocked at the door and Norm let them in.  He explained how he'd found Steve and

Steve corroborated that he'd been suddenly attacked from behind.

 

"So you didn't see a thing?" one officer asked.

 

"Nothing.  Just like at the cemetery.  I saw nothing."

 

"And you, Mr. Tittswell? They were gone by the time you got to the porch?"

 

"Long gone, yes."

 

"Well, Mr. Moran, judging by this note, I'd say you were a man in need of some police protection.

I volunteered for the job."

 

"I don't..." Steve began.

 

"I'm afraid you've got it whether you want it or not," the officer smiled.  "Name's Grady Putnam."

 

"I think it's a good idea, Steve.  I mean you were right here on the front porch and they got to you."

 

"Oh, all right," Steve sighed, too weary to argue about it.  His whole system felt off.  "I'm going to

bed."  He looked at the policeman who'd stayed.  The other had just left, going back to the station.

"What about you, Officer Putnam?"

 

"Me?  Oh, I'll stay right here in the living room.  Front door's just over there. Nobody'll get in past

me.  I'll just go around first, make sure everything's locked up tight.  You try to rest, Mr. Moran.

Sounds like you've had a hard day."

 

"Hard isn't the half of it," Steve said glumly. 

 

Steve followed Norm up to the second level then turned toward the violet room as Norm continued up

to the third floor. When Norm paused on the landing, Steve looked up at him.  "I wish there were

something we could do tonight.  She's out there somewhere and we have no idea what Martin's done

to her."

 

"I wish the same thing, Son, more'n I can say.  But there's nothing to be done.  You try to rest and in

the morning we'll brainstorm, ok?"

 

 

ON TO PART 18

 

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