Identification Please

By Jack King

G.FINAL.webinny was just two blocks from her condo when an explosion sent her flying into a newspaper vending machine. Her head rang like a bad summer cold, the kind where her sinuses would hurt so much her teeth ached. She picked herself up only to get knocked back down by a herd of panic-driven people, their mouths open, gulping air. They could’ve been screaming, but she couldn’t hear them. The sounds of the world had become all bass and dull tones. Her vision centered on the newspaper in the vending machine. The evening edition headline read: Court Grants Jersey Woman Rights to Dead Boyfriend’s Sperm.

A boy in a letterman’s jacket helped her up. He was speaking, but she couldn’t make out the words. Ginny looked herself over. Hands and feet still attached. Work blouse torn a bit but mendable. When she turned around, she saw the deep crater in the sidewalk behind her. Charred white arms and legs were in the hole. Ginny was shaking with a helpless panic she hadn’t felt since she was a girl watching tornadoes swirl across cornfields in Wyoming. She didn’t know she was screaming until the boy put his acne-cratered face inches from hers and shouted something; his voice was lost in the same shock-wave depths her hearing had gone to, but his lips said, Lingerie Madness.

The storefront behind the crater had a torn sign that read Naughty Nighties. The victims in the hole were lingerie mannequins, some still clad in charred stockings, white lace tops that hid very little, and the kind of shoestring panties that only looked good on tragically emaciated girls. No bodies, no blood.

Ginny’s eyes fell on a man standing on the far side of the crater. He was tall and dark-skinned; his grin flashed expensive white teeth. He was holding something that looked like a remote with a bright red button. He locked eyes with her and smiled a kind of sadistic serial-killer grin that would’ve started her shaking if she wasn’t already.

Ginny ran. Her hearing trickled back with sounds of sirens echoing in the canyon of buildings. Her mind flooded with words like terrorist and jihad and Jersey Woman Granted Rights to Dead Boyfriend’s Sperm. This couldn’t be right because things like this didn’t happen to farm girls who moved to the city.

Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, as her father would say, and denying the truth didn’t make it less real. She was running, and the strange man was chasing her.

She reached her building and punched in the code to the lobby. The door gave a satisfying click when she shoved it closed.

The man was there seconds later, yanking on the handle, yelling, “Let me in!”

“You don’t live here!” was all she could think to say. She backed into the elevator and pressed the button for twelve. She kept her eyes on him until the door closed.

Her hands were shaking so hard that it took three tries to stab her key into her condo’s lock. Adrenaline made her hands shake like a tractor engine out of tune. She walked through her condo and turned all the lights on. It wasn’t dark, but it helped calm her.

She tried to think of what to do in an emergency, but the only things that came to mind didn’t fit: Raise your arms when you cough; hold the cut to stop the bleeding; duck under your desk when the siren goes off. She couldn’t remember what to do in a terrorist attack.

Was that what this was? The guy that chased her didn’t wear a turban and wasn’t undulating his tongue and firing a machine gun into the air. Not all terrorists would be so obvious, and now that she thought on it, what did a terrorist really look like?

She remembered the suspicious activity hotline plastered to the side of city buses. If you don’t report it, no one will, the sign read. She grabbed the phone and dialed: 1-800-TER-RARR.

“National Terrorist Hotline. What’s the nature of your call?” The woman on the other end seemed calm. Maybe this wasn’t an emergency after all. Wouldn’t all the officials already know if terrorists were blowing things up?

“Um,” Ginny stuttered. Her ears still rang. She wanted to sound confident, so she cleared her throat and started again. “I’d like to report a bombing.”

“Can you repeat that please?”

Ginny did. It felt good to talk through it. She recounted the blast, the broken glass, and the lingerie. She tried to keep her voice emotionless, but after the words left her lips she realized how silly it must sound. She could almost read the headline: Terrorist Strikes at Lingerie Mannequins. Or maybe they’d go for Lingerie Madness!

Her voice only wavered when she got to the part about the man who chased her, his remote for the bomb, his smile, and how he tried to get into the building.

The woman said, “Thank you for calling. Someone will get back to you shortly. In the meantime, please seal your windows in plastic wrap and duct tape, don your gas mask, and wait in a sheltered doorway.”

Ginny couldn’t respond before the woman hung up. When she moved to the city, her dad told her to buy a fire extinguisher. Her mother told her to get high-thread-count cotton sheets. Nobody said anything about a gas mask.

She only had a quarter roll of plastic wrap, barely enough for one window, and no duct tape. She thought about setting a wet towel in front of the door, but that was just for fire. She sat on her couch, rocked slowly, and waited.

She switched on the TV for background noise. Every channel showed the blast from a different angle. “No one has been injured,” the handsome newscaster said. “The nation is on orange alert, and the city of Chicago is on red alert.” Wouldn’t red and orange make it brown?

There was a knock at the door and she jumped. Through the peephole she saw two young men in dark blue police uniforms.

“Ma’am, we’re here to ask about…”

Ginny undid the latches and chains and dead bolts and opened the door before he could finish. “Yes, I called.”

The two officers strode slowly into her condo. They looked young, perhaps just out of cadet school or wherever it was police learned to walk softly and shoot bad guys.

“So, is it just you?” the first one asked.

“Just me,” she nodded. “I saw everything.”

“You saw a man’s face who was suspicious?”

“Yes!” she nodded again, even though the policeman had a strange way of phrasing things. “He chased me. He had a button thingy and he was smiling and shouldn’t you be writing all this down?”

The first man reached for something in his belt when a knock at the door made everyone jump. Policemen shouldn’t be so jumpy.

Ginny had barely opened the door when Ms. Bainer, the widow across the hall, shoved her way in. The old woman was short and smelled of dust and garlic. She didn’t look eighty-two, but only because fat had smoothed out the wrinkles. “Hello, deary,” she said, touching Ginny’s hand. “Did the police come? Oh yes, there you are. How nice. I can tell you everything I heard. Why don’t you come over to my place for some tea?”

The first officer was about to speak when Ms. Bainer grabbed his arm. “Now, I won’t hear no. You boys work awfully hard, and you need to know how much we appreciate everything you do.” The other officer appeared from the short hall that led back to Ginny’s bedroom.

“You too, deary,” Ms. Bainer said, pulling both of them along. “You can use some tea and doughnuts. I have fresh crullers from Bronson’s Bakery. Not that godforsaken Jewish place across the street.”

The two officers looked to Ginny as if she could save them, but Ms. Bainer pushed them across the hall and into her condo. Ginny closed the door just as Ms. Bainer was telling them how the lack of good German bakers was ruining the city.

The phone rang and Ginny pounced on it.

Her mom said, “Honey, I’ve been so worried!”

“Hello, Mom. I’m fine.”

“It’s been on the news all afternoon. You need to get out of that city.”

Her mother had always been against Ginny leaving home. Ginny couldn’t understand why it was safe for her to drive a grain harvester capable of shredding her into a fine pulp but not OK to live eleven floors up in a condo. “This city is perfectly safe, Mom,” she said while pulling a pint of ice cream from the freezer. She tried to keep ice cream on hand for the occasions her mother called. “I wasn’t anywhere near…whatever it was that happened.”

“You can’t live there alone, honey. You need a man in your life.”

“I’m fine, Mom,” Ginny said. The ice cream calmed her nerves.

“You’re not a lesbian, are you?”

“Mom!”

“They say if you don’t have a man, you must be a…”

“I’m not a lesbian, mom.”

“Well, honestly, dear, what do you expect people to think? When was the last time you went out on a date?”

She spoke around a mouthful of ice cream. “Just last week.”

“Oh really? What’s his name?”

“Um,” Ginny glanced at the ice cream, “Jerry Benjamin.”

“Well, I don’t know why you don’t tell me these things. You act like you don’t want me in your life. I’m not going to be around forever you know, and…”

A knock sounded at the door and Ginny leaped from the couch. “Mom, I gotta go.”

“Well, wait a minute…”

Ginny hung up. Leaving the pint of ice cream on the couch, she looked through the peephole and saw a man in a suit.

“Who is it?”

“Police, ma’am. I’d like to talk with you.”

Ginny opened the door and let the man in. Like the two policemen before, he looked around like he was taking inventory. It made Ginny feel self-conscious. She probably should’ve cleaned up. The new man was handsome with dark hair and big hands, muscular jaw.

“I’m John Clayton,” he said, and handed her a business card.

“The other police were just here,” she said.

“Other police?”

“Yes,” she said, “they went into Ms. Bainer’s apartment.”

Clayton threw open his coat, pulled out a radio, and clicked the talk button. He moved so quickly it startled Ginny. “Central, this is Clayton. I’m at one twenty-one Wilshire canvassing for witnesses. Can you confirm other officers working this building?”

The radio clicked and beeped. A female voice said, “That’s a negative, Clayton. No one else has been assigned that building.”

“Copy that,” he said. “Can you send two black and whites to this location?”

“Negative, everyone in your area is tied up.”

“Copy that, out,” he said, and switched the radio off. To Ginny he said, “Can you describe these men?”

“They had uniforms and guns. I thought they were police. Are you saying they weren’t?”

Clayton moved to the door and looked through the peephole. “They went to your neighbor’s?”

“She’s not really a neighbor,” Ginny said. “More of an acquaintance really. I barely know her except that—”

Clayton pulled a huge gun from a shoulder holster, cocked it, and aimed at the floor. “You keep this door closed until I get back. And remember, if anyone comes, ask for ID.”

“But they looked like police!”

“Anybody can get a uniform.”

Why would someone do that? Why would they go into Ms. Bainer’s apartment? On TV, the bad guys are always robbing and killing innocent women. This couldn’t be the same thing, could it? First terrorists, and now robbers pretending to be police! Maybe her mom was right.

She latched the door after Clayton left and watched through the peephole as he knocked on Ms. Bainer’s apartment. The old woman answered, so they must not have killed her yet. Clayton said something, and Ms. Bainer stepped aside to let him in.

Ginny backed away from the door. She could barely believe there had been two killers in her apartment. Ask for identification, Clayton said. That was a lesson she had forgotten. If you’re on fire, stop, drop, and roll; don’t open the door for strangers; ask for ID. But couldn’t they just use a fake ID?

She jumped as a loud bang sounded out, then another. Was that gunfire? It was a hollow and flat sound that didn’t resemble gunfire on TV. There was another bang, then a loud thump, and silence. Ginny looked through the peephole but the hall was empty.

Her heart banged in her chest and her pulse throbbed in her ears. For ten minutes, nothing happened. She imagined Ms. Bainer on the floor with a hole in her head. Maybe Clayton was dead too.

The phone rang and she yelped. It rang four more times before she could get the nerve to answer.

“Missus Roberts, I’m Floyd Wilson from the FBI. You placed a call earlier into the National Terrorist Hotline, and this is just a routine follow-up.”

“They’ve already come. Two officers, then a detective who said they weren’t officers. He went to find them and I think he might be dead now.”

The silence on the line lasted so long she began to wonder if the call was disconnected. Floyd Wilson said, “I can be there in less than five minutes.”

She hung up. What if Floyd Wilson wasn’t FBI? What if he was one of them? And just who were they? The caller ID on the phone read US Government. They probably couldn’t fake that.

The apartment was locked; the FBI man was on the way. Ginny told herself there was nothing to be afraid of. She was still holding the phone when it rang again, and she yelped. She answered and spoke a nervous hello.

Her mother said, “You shouldn’t hang up on people like that.” She had a tone that made Ginny feel like a little girl. “I called because I was worried about you.”

“Sorry, Mom, but I had to answer the door,” Ginny said.

“You don’t get to talk to your mother that often. You can make them wait. Who was it anyway?”

“What? Oh, um, just some boy selling newspapers.”

“You didn’t sign up, did you? Because your father signed up for a free two weeks, but they didn’t cancel it. We got the paper for six months and then we got a bill. They should pass a law that says you can’t just bill someone for something they didn’t want. I paid it, because your father went ahead and signed up for another six months. Why does he do that when he doesn’t even read the paper? They collect by the mailbox until I go out and clean them up. The other day he was mowing the grass and ran over one of them. You should have seen the mess. Newspaper all over the yard. And then it rained!”

Ginny pictured a shredded evening edition headline: Court Grants Jersey Woman Rights to Dead Boyfriend’s Sperm. “I gotta go.”

“What’s wrong, dear? I know something’s wrong.”

Ginny switched the phone off.

A knock sounded at the door. Ginny looked through the peephole to see a man in a blue shirt with a dark brown jacket. “Who is it?”

“FBI,” the man said. “Agent Wilson.”

“Can I see your identification?” It was a little late to be regimented now, kind of like closing the barn door after the horse had run off, but it made her feel better.

Wilson mumbled something she couldn’t hear and held a badge up to the peephole. It looked official, stamped with FBI.

She let him in. Agent Wilson looked around her apartment, giving Ginny a feeling of déjà vu. He took out a notepad and said, “Describe the two officers please.”

“They were both in uniforms, had guns, and said they were policemen.”

“And when you let them in, what happened?”

“One of them asked me what I saw and the other looked around my apartment.”

“Was he ever out of your sight?

Ginny had to think about that. “For a few minutes. He went into the bedroom.”

“Back there?” Wilson pointed down the hall and Ginny nodded, following him. It occurred to her that no man had been in her bedroom for months, and suddenly every man she met wanted to be in her bedroom. Her bed was unmade. Dirty clothes were on the floor. She blushed as she ran around picking up her things.

Wilson stood before her nightstand. He picked up the phone’s charge cradle and followed the cables, leaning back to the space behind the nightstand where dust bunnies lived. He pulled up a small black box.

Ginny asked, “What is that?”

“They tapped your phone. This antenna can’t transmit far, so they’re probably in the building,” he said.

“Why would they do that?”

“Because you saw something,” he said.

“But I didn’t see anything!”

“You saw the man who set off the bomb.”

“No, I saw someone suspicious. I don’t want any of this!”

Wilson grabbed Ginny by the arm and held up the wiretapping box. “Want it or not, it’s here. These people are not going to stop.”

“What can I do?”

“You need to come with me.”

“I can’t just leave!”

Wilson switched the light on in the closet. “We need to get you out of here!”

Feeling dizzy, Ginny leaned against the wall. Was this really happening? Were people really trying to kill her? And who were the we he spoke of? Wasn’t he alone? Did he mention the suspicious man before she said something to him?

A knock sounded at the door. Ginny looked at Wilson who said, “Don’t answer it.”

The knock came again. Ginny went to the living room.

Wilson said, “Miss Roberts, please!” Color had left his face. “You need to listen to me! This is an Amber Alert!”

The knock came again, louder. From the hallway, a man shouted, “Missus Roberts, it’s agent Wilson. I’m here with the police.”

Ginny looked at the first agent Wilson.

“Don’t,” he said.

“Open the door, please,” the agent Wilson at the door said.

This is an Amber Alert, the first agent Wilson had said. But wasn’t that when a little kid got kidnapped?

Ginny threw open the door. In the hallway stood a man in a dark suit. Four policemen were behind him.

“He’s in the bedroom!” she said, pointing. The police and the second agent Wilson rushed in and she followed them. Now five men in her bedroom at once!

The first agent Wilson was gone. The window was open, and the second agent Wilson was looking out. He leaned out and looked up. “Fire escape!” he said. “To the roof!”

They all shoved past her, running back to the hall.

From the open window, Ginny could hear the sound of traffic on the street below. It was oddly calming, and she had to force herself to close the window and draw the shade down. Back in the living room, she closed the door and start latching the dead bolts and pulling the chains and twisting the locks.

She was on the last lock when someone knocked.

Looking through the peephole, Ginny saw a man in a dark suit who didn’t look like either agent Wilson or the policemen. “Missus Roberts, I know you’re in there. My name is Robert Kern. I’m with the Department of Homeland Security. I’d like to speak with you, if I may.”

“Look, the police have already been here,” she said. “And two FBI men and another policeman. Most of them went up to the roof, but some of them went across the hall for doughnuts.”

“Excuse me?” the man said.

Ginny sat on the couch.

“Missus Roberts?” agent Kern called. “It was a botched bank robbery you saw. Not a terrorist attack.”

Ginny picked up the melted pint of ice cream and said, “I’m going to bed now.”

“We need your statement!” agent Kern yelled.

“Not today,” she said.

Ginny sat on her bed and ate ice-cream.

The phone rang again. Her parent’s number flashed on the caller ID. Ginny switched it off. She lived in the city now, and city people must deal with these kinds of things all the time.

She spooned ice cream into her mouth, and thought about getting a cat.

 

___

An MFA graduate of Queens University, Jack King has worked for over fifteen years in the IT industry. His writing has been drastically colored by having met so many different kinds of people, ranging from those in the entertainment industry to the Department of Defense. He has studied with Pinckney Benedict, Fred Leebron, and Naeem Murr, who taught him that nothing is more powerful than the written word.

His articles have appeared in various IT journalsHe placed first in the 2005 Maryland Writer’s Association Novel Contest in the thriller category, and won the “gold” in their 2012 short story contest. His short prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Epiphany and Gemini Magazine as well as the Oklahoma Review.


Comments are closed.