Bucks County Writers Workshop
The Yellow Bus
e knew what she was thinking. Also knew the terror he saw in her face was keeping her from saying it. It was something all kids were told. Common sense, actually. Just sounded stupid and gross for a young girl to say to a grown man. His jaw unhinged; he would break the ice. "You think I should lick from the bottom up, don't you?"
She smiled weakly, said "Yeah," then, "Look, mister, we ... I mean I ..."
"Gordon. My name is Gordon." He eased the limo onto the entrance ramp. "And you are ...?"
"Darlene. See, there's a man back there ..."
His eyes drilled the rear view mirror, their bulging whites drizzling roadmap red from too much tequila, today, yesterday, the day before. Melting white soft serve crept down the yellow cone until it bridged onto his fingers. He stared into the mirror, unflinching, one hand on the steering wheel, one hand on the leaning vanilla cone, his peripheral vision guiding him.
What a sweet, baby-soft face this dimple-cute head-turner had. Perky little tits, too. And look at those tangles of beautiful blonde, schoolgirl hair. Mmm.
"I changed my mind," Darlene said. "I don't want to talk about it. Do you have a phone?"
Getting laid was the biggest reason for working this job. That and the money, of course, which was all under the table and higher than the going wage for other limo assignments when you included the tips. Add to this the schedule -- it fit in perfect after his day shift at the hospital -- and bingo, he had a full-card, final-call jackpot. Still, the number one perk was the girls. Driving this limo meant at least once a week the piece of tail he got would have some major quiver to it. Something only morgue orderlies like him could really appreciate.
She could be as old as fifteen but was probably younger. So what? Put a runaway girl in a bad-ass, celebrity-tint, gangsta-stretch-Hummer like this and she gets real thankful inside of ten minutes. On-her-knees, you-said-a-mouthful thankful. Fifteen minutes tops.
"Sonovabitch. How in the fuck ..." He hadn't paid attention at the forked entrance to I-95. The limo was now headed south toward Baltimore, not north toward Wilmington, where his paying customers were waiting. "Sorry, honey," he said, lying. He repositioned his thin black tie underneath his pasty bottom chin. "Hope I didn't offend you." Again a lie. "Your fine face got me all turned around out here." True.
Darlene managed another nervous smile. "That's okay, mister; I shouldn't even be here. See, there's this yellow school bus somewhere ahead of us -- I mean me -- andä did you say you had a phone back here?" She scanned the limo interior. Soft, buff leather encircled three of the four sides of the pit that was the Hummer's back seat. Overhead and underfoot were built-ins: a small swivel TV with a DVD, a CD stereo, a fridge, a bar, even a microwave. "Wow. This is as big as our family room."
"Sure, there's a phone back there," Gordon said. "Inside an arm rest. And it'll be yours to use soon as I, ah, know you're a paying customer." He glanced back at her again, one eyebrow raised. He took a final bite of his ice cream cone and flung the rest of it out the window, into the rain. "Want to come up in the front with me so we can talk about it?"
"I don't think that's a good idea. That's your seat, mister."
"Relax, honey," he said, a playful edge to his voice. "My seat, your seat, what does it matter? Like they say on the street," he chuckled, "long as I've got a face, you've got a seat. Ha-ha. Isn't that right?"
"The way I see it, loser," Robert Grossman said, his square-topped haircut popping up and now in full view, "as long as you've got a face, I've got a toilet." Robert struck a martial arts pose for emphasis, his meaty fist raised. "Stop the car at the next rest stop. We're getting out."
"Oh my. Jackie Chan to the rescue. How about I stop the car right now, Jackie, and leave you two little creeps on the side of the interstate in the pouring rain in the dark, you ungrateful wise ass?"
"That wouldn't be such a good idea, mister," Robert said. He grabbed a bottle of Southern Comfort from the bar and held it up. "I might accidentally spill this somewhere back here. All of it, all over. And I gotta pee real bad, too. Bet your customers wouldn't like that."
"Why, you little punk ..."
"The next rest stop." Loser.***
Lt. Deever was the first to say it. "This is too well organized. Your father-in-law is getting help, Needham, and we need to know from where."
Charles Needham sat behind his expansive desk; he stiffened at the word organized. Looking back and forth between the seated Lt. Deever and the FBI agent wandering his school office, he said finally, "Mason has an accomplice? What makes you so sure, Lieutenant?"
Deever fidgeted in the chair. "Accomplices, as in plural. For one, he's switched to a third vehicle. An ex-cop witnessed the transfer in Havre de Grace, Maryland. The cop felt something was wrong, all these kids looking cranky and haggard, piling out of the van and into a UPS truck for God's sake, a loony old man barking at them the whole time. The cop thought better of forcing a confrontation when he saw how bad he'd spooked your father-in-law. Munford was talking crazy, got all loud, started shouting at himself. The unarmed cop saw a gun tucked into the old guy's waistband so he backed off because of the kids. Did you know about that, Needham? The gun, I mean. Did you know he had one?"
Charles Needham answered yes, he knew about it. "It's an antique. I don't know if it even works."
"A gun's a gun, Needham," Lt. Deever answered. "We're talking about a convicted felon who drives a school bus and is in possession of a firearm. A very bad, very illegal, combination. Just why in the Christ would the school district ..." Deever's voice elevated to a disbelieving tone then sunk back to interrogation level. "Look, Needham, we're not here to grill you. Just trying to connect the dots. The other reason we believe he has accomplices is the cabin he took the kids to. We're not talking a car blowing exhaust into a garage here. We're talking a sophisticated poisonous gas delivery system. Right, Agent Galloway?"
"That it was," said Kaitlyn Galloway, Special Agent, FBI, profiling expert. She listened intently to the lieutenant while she scoured the walls of the office. "An air tight room, a fast acting toxin. Attempted murder," she said, "of the premeditated variety. With accomplices." Agent Galloway continued her slow walk around the office, stopping to read the plaques and awards and anniversary certificates, and to study the pictures. One picture in particular. A game preserve in Virginia. She turned to address Needham, her hands clasped behind her back. "So the sooner you can get us a list of Munford's pals, enemies, relatives, neighbors, even his confessor, the better." She turned to the seated Deever. "I think we're done here, Lieutenant."
The door whipped open and a frazzled Miss McGovern blew in, speaking before she'd fully entered the office. "Charles, I'm so worried ... oh, excuse me. I didn't know you had visitors this late."
"Miss Ingrid McGovern, this is FBI Agent Galloway. You, of course, already know Michael Deever's father, the Lieutenant."
"Yes, hello, Lieutenant. And nice to meet you, Agent Galloway. Sorry about bursting in like that. Any news?"
"Not news enough," Deever said, his eyes drifting to his lap. Then his hands tightened around each other.
"Lieutenant ..." Galloway sensed Deever's frustration but it was too late. Deever raised himself, leaned across the desk and stuck a pointed fist into the administrator's face. "Needham, I swear, if anything happens to my Mikey before we catch up with your father-in-law ..."
Agent Galloway curled both her hands around Deever's bicep. "Lieutenant, I said we're done here. You've got work to do and so do I. Let's go. Now."
A second door closed at the end of the hall; their interrogators were gone. Ingrid McGovern was the first to speak, her tone frantic. "Charles, I'm hearing Mason's losing his grip. We're so close. This can't be happening now. I'm getting worried, Charles. Please tell me he won't snap. Please."
"Ingrid, my dark and lovely Sister," Charles said. His hands lowered to her shivering shoulders and pulled her closer to him. "Mason will hold up just fine. It had to be this way. We needed someone slightly off-kilter, didn't we? What other kind of person could be convinced to kidnap all those kids? Hmm?" Charles brought his hands down to her elbows, squeezed them delicately and smiled until she smiled meekly back. Suddenly he slapped his palms roughly onto her skirted buttocks and pulled her into him. "It won't be long now. We will have it all! After we give them to the Master, the Master will give us everything in return."
Her shivering stopped. "Oh, Brother Charles ..." She melted into his arms.***
Munford poked and flailed around the back of the UPS truck, tossing boxes like an epileptic juggler. He'd parked under a tree, away from the rest of the circus-goers who, like them, were awaiting the eight o'clock performance. "Where is it, damn it? Where's the box marked 'Jake the Fake'?"
"I ... I think one box fell out when those bigger kids left, Mr. Munford, sir." The squeaky voice belonged to a boy with black-rimmed Poindexter glasses, his mouth otherwise preoccupied with his third Baby Ruth, making it his eighth jumbo candy bar of the long day. Keep them fed, Munford knew.
Munford read the labels on each of the other boxes, the resignation bringing him close to tears. "Are you all right, sir?" the boy said. "Are we still going to the circus like you said, Mr. Munford? Huh? Are we?"
"No, we are NOT going to the circus like I said. Not without Jake. Jake the Fake doesn't go to the circus without his Jake-the-Fake clown outfit and makeup." Munford's wrinkled hands went abruptly to his ears. "What?! Which one of you said that? Stop it. No, no, NO! STOP! Goddamn it, shut up, all of you ... SHUT UP!" A few of the kids had been dozing but now all of them were awake, yet none had spoken a word. Now there were whimpers. "Okay, squirts, calm down. Sorry I yelled. Just ... pipe down. We'll look for a McDonald's."
Munford leaned over his ragged charges to perform another kid count, his face twisting as he tapped the last few heads, ending with nineteen total. This confirmed he hadn't made a mistake. Nineteen before, nineteen now. So be it. He held his temper. Nineteen wasn't the right number; the deal he struck with them had been for twenty-four. They'd been specific, said they had to have twenty-four. Some kind of magic number, twenty-four was. If he delivered on his promise, well, in the words of the ole boss man hisself Charlie Speed the dead deejay, everything would be 'copacetic.' They'd get their twenty-four kids, perform their little ritual, then deliver on their promise to him, which was to summon up his dead wife Betsy. Munford wanted -- needed -- to talk with her. Some out of love and some out of loneliness. But mostly it was because he had a question only she could answer: Where had she hidden all that money?
Nineteen. He needed five more kids. Shouldn't be a problem. He'd pick some up at McDonald's.***
The Hummer limo came to a squealing stop at the beginning of the exit ramp.
"Get the fuck out. The both of you. Out. Now."
Darlene stumbled backward through the door, landed hard on top of her backpack, came up sitting on the wet blacktop. Robert catapulted out as the limo bucked forward. He tucked his shoulder under himself, tumbled and rolled like he'd learned from his karate training. The limo sped away. "You okay, Darlene?" he asked, hovering.
"Only skinned my shoes. Mom will have a fit. I'm fine. Where's your shirt, Robert?"
He used one arm to lift her up. "Had puke on it so I put it in the limo microwave. Ten minutes on high." He smiled. "Some really good-sized chunks, too."
She giggled then shielded her face from the rain. "But it's getting chilly out here and your undershirt's soaked already." Her voice shook, some from a shiver, some from fear. "You'll get sick."
With a flourish he produced his left arm from behind his back. "Nope! Check these out!" He held up a fistful of hangers with laundered shirts hung on them under thin plastic. In the limited light she could see what looked like buttoned, short-sleeved maternity blouses with starched collars, all in a sky blue. Or maybe it was a green.
"Pregger clothes?" she said. "You gonna wear a lady's pregnancy top?"
"You're retarded. They're not women's clothes, dork. Look at the back."
She squinted, could make out some embroidering. When she got in close and reached under the plastic she could tell it was a picture. An embroidered skeleton sitting in a coffin on a gurney, one long bony arm hanging down, ready to roll a big black ball along the floor. "I don't understand ..."
"They're bowling shirts, dummy! Five of them. A whole team's worth! See it says 'The Lucky Stiffs' on the front pocket, under a person's name. Must be the limo driver's bowling team. 'Saint Raphael's Hospital League, Baltimore, Maryland.' I'm picking this one. Says 'Clint.' That'll be me. You can call me Clint from now on. Here," Robert unbuttoned a shirt for Darlene to slip into, "put this on. The rain's getting you wet."
"So who am I?" Darlene said, slipping off her backpack so he could help with the shirt. "I can't read the name. It's in longhand and it's upside down."
"It says, 'Dodie,'" Robert answered, smiling.
"'Dodie?' That sucks, Robert. I don't want to be a 'Dodie.'"
"It's the smallest shirt. It fits you." Robert said. "So you're Dodie. Let's go. Dodie."
"Let's go? Go where, Robert?" she said, her impatience showing. "We don't even know where we are."
"Sure we do. The sign on the way in said we're at the Buhnne Tramutola Rest Area in Maryland. C'mon. Let's hurry and get inside the building. You have any money?"
"Yes," she answered, falling in step behind him. "My mom makes me keep a hundred dollars in my book bag. For emergencies."
"All righty then. I'm starving. We'll eat then call home."
They walked close to the trees lining the bend, away from the cars and vans and tractor trailers pushing up road spray. When the trees thinned out Darlene was first to see it through the din. "Look! Robert!"
Stopped on the shoulder before the great expanse of the rest area's parking lot was a school bus, their school bus, its yellow lights flashing. Crouched next to it, looking at something underneath the steel midsection, were Mikey Deever and Tommy Difford. Darlene and Robert ran up to greet them but stopped short.
"It felt like a speed bump," Tommy said.
"He's not moving," Mikey said.
"He really stinks," Darlene said.
There was a groan.
"He's really drunk," Clint said.
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Bucks County Writers Workshop