They were out looking for a payphone. This being two o’clock in the morning, the streets were mostly deserted,
which suited their purposes just fine. Problem was, there weren’t any damn payphones.
“You know what it is?” Clay said. “Everybody’s got cell phones these days. Even homeless people, man, street
junkies. I seen ’em, pushing shopping carts full of junk and chatting away on their cells. That’s why there aren’t
any payphones anymore. Nobody needs ’em.”
Robert, behind the steering wheel, shook his head. “There will always be a need for payphones. You know how I
“Because you know everything?”
Robert ignored the dig. “Because there will always be people like us out there who want to conduct their
At a red light, they both looked to the right side of the street, at a strip mall that was dark but for the
overhead lights of the parking lot. Within the strip mall there was a laundry mat, a pet store, a check cashing
place…but no payphone in sight. The light turned green and Robert accelerated through the intersection.
They’d been searching for a little over twenty minutes. At a convenience store south of downtown, they’d
found a payphone hanging from the wall, but pulling up in front of it, they’d seen that the metallic, segmented
cord had been severed, with a few frayed wires dangling from it.
“I wonder how your brother’s holding up,” Robert said, apropos of nothing.
“He’s all right,” Clay said.
“He better not be asleep.”
“Nah, we can trust him.”
Robert grunted. “I sure hope so.”
“I been thinking, though,” Clay said. He adjusted himself in his seat to better face his friend. “Maybe we need
another hand in this.”
Robert looked at him. “Say again?”
“You and I’ve been up for forty-eight hours, about. We’re gonna get sloppy if we don’t get some sleep.”
“We can’t afford sleep.”
“Exactly. Get someone to help us, we can catch some shuteye.”
“You have anyone in mind?”
Clay shrugged. “How about Lionel? I hear he’s out and about.”
“Lionel? Are you serious?”
“What’s wrong with Lionel?”
Robert smirked. “He’s a crackhead.”
“What makes you say that?”
“The fact that he smokes lots and lots of crack.”
They drove in silence for a while. Then, at a stoplight, Robert turned to him.
“You hear about the last time Lionel got pinched?”
Clay nodded. “He robbed a gas station, I heard.”
“Is that what he told you?”
“Why? What’d you hear?”
Robert laughed. It took a moment for him to collect himself. “This is a true story, okay?”
“This happened, what, a few months ago? Lionel was hard up for some crack, so he heads to some
convenience store with the idea he’s gonna rob it. But it’s the middle of the day, there’s witnesses everywhere,
and he loses his nerve.”
“See, I already have a problem with this story.”
“You said he loses his nerve. How do you know what’s going on in his head?”
“Let me tell the story, all right? So he’s sitting outside in his truck, and he gets an idea. The store has a big
cooler on the outside where you can grab bags of ice you paid for inside, you know the ones. So he starts
grabbing ice out of the cooler and throwing them in the back of his truck, one after the other, until he’s got,
like, thirty bags of ice in the back of his truck, then hauls ass without paying for them.”
“What’s he gonna do with thirty bags of ice?”
“Excellent question. What he does, he goes around the neighborhood knocking on doors, trying to sell them for
a dollar a bag.”
“No way.” Clay crossed his arms and shook his head, smiling.
Robert laughed again and raised his right hand like he was testifying in court. “Swear to God, dude. Only, okay,
this is the middle of August, hottest part of the day. How long you think that ice lasted in the back of his truck
before it turned to water?”
Clay sniffed. “Why am I even listening to this?”
“Wait, here’s the best part. The store had a surveillance camera outside, and it caught his whole act, even
caught a shot of his license plate. So the cops show up at his place, and he’s still got those bags he stole in
the back of the truck. They tell him he’s under arrest for stealing the bags of ice, and you know what he says?”
“I can’t wait.”
“He kind of shrugs it off, is like, ‘You said it was bags of ice that was stolen from that store. All I got is bags of
water.’ He’s telling them, see, they got no evidence on him, trying to pull some kind of bullshit Johnnie Cochran
Clay laughed in spite of himself. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“No. You want to know what the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard is?” Robert dropped his smile, his face suddenly
serious. “You wanting to bring Lionel into this job with us.”
They drove for a while, looking out the windows. Then Clay spoke.
“First of all, I don’t believe the story you just told me. Second, bringing Lionel in, that was just a thought. We
don’t have to bring anyone in on this besides who’s already here.”
“Now you’re talking sense. Every person you bring into a job like this is another mouth that can go off sometime
in the future and ruin everything.”
“I’m not going to say a word.”
“Uh-huh. It’s your brother I’m worried about.”
“Tommy’s cool. He’s our ace in the hole.”
They were cruising downtown now, their eyes searching the sides of the street. Sitting there, Clay began
stewing over the way Robert had so abruptly and definitively dismissed his idea of bringing on someone else.
Christ, it had only been a suggestion. And since when did Robert become such an expert on everything? Since
always, Clay answered himself. He’d always been like that, the goddamned know-it-all. Acting like he was so
Clay was lost in thought, eyes glazed and oblivious to his surroundings, when they came upon a grassy square
in the middle of downtown called Woodland Park, and when Robert slammed the brakes, Clay lurched forward at
the waist and had to plant his hands on the dashboard to stop his forward momentum.
“What the hell, man?” he yelled at Robert.
Robert calmly pointed out the windshield and said, “Payphone.”
* * *
“You ready for this?” Robert asked.
“Stop asking me that, man. I’m ready.”
They stood in the park beside a payphone bolted to the wall of the restroom building. Robert had parked across
the street in the deserted parking lot of the city hall, and they had sat there in the truck for a few minutes,
Clay taking nips off a vodka bottle to fortify his resolve, Robert expressing his dissatisfaction with this location,
where he felt they were too exposed, too conspicuous. They argued over the relative merits of the park’s
payphone, until Robert said screw it and got out of the truck.
Robert fed the thirty-five cents into the payphone and dialed a number. He angled the receiver slightly away
from his ear so Clay could stick his head in close and listen in. The phone rang twice before it was picked up.
“Who is this?” a voice answered.
“You know who this is, Frank,” Robert said.
“Where’s my boy?”
“He’s right here, safe and sound.” He glanced at Clay and added, “For the time being.”
Clay grinned at him and nodded.
“I want to talk to him.”
“Listen to me, you little punk – ”
“Whoa, Frank. Be careful with that kind of talk.”
“You know what I’m going to do to you when I find you?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Robert shifted his weight and said, “You got the money?”
A pause. “I’m working on it.”
“Noon today, I’ll be calling you with instructions.”
“I need another day. I don’t have that kind of cash just lying around.”
“I ain’t playing with you.”
“Give me until noon tomorrow, and I’ll have the money.”
“You’ve stalled twice already.”
“One more day.”
Clay could feel Robert shaking his head.
“Now let me talk to Clay,” the man said.
Robert didn’t move for a moment. “Hold on.” He palmed the receiver’s mouthpiece and gave Clay a stern look,
saying nothing, letting his bugged out, unblinking eyes deliver the message: Don’t screw this up.
Clay took the phone and angled it so Robert could listen in. In a shaky, affected voice he’d practiced many
times over the past week, he said. “Dad?”
“Clay, thank God. Have they hurt you?”
“A little, yeah,” he said. “Dad, you have to pay these guys. They mean business. They’re gonna kill me.”
Robert gave him a thumb’s up at this, and Clay felt a small thrill of pride.
“They’re not going to kill you,” the man said. “You’re worth nothing to them dead.”
“I’m really scared.”
“I want you to hang in there. You hear me? You’re going to be okay.”
“Please, Dad, tell me you’re gonna pay them.”
“I will pay them.”
“Because these guys, they’re professionals. They’ve done this before. They – ”
Robert yanked the phone away and glared at Clay, who shrugged sheepishly at him, understanding that he’d
ventured too far off the script.
Into the receiver, Robert said, “I’m giving you until noon today, Frank. I’m through with your shit. If you don’t
have the money, your son is dead.”
“If you harm one hair on his head…”
Robert started to say something, but stopped, as if something had just occurred to him. Then, in a calmer,
quieter voice, he said, “You know, it’s clear to me that you’re not taking this seriously enough. So you know
what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna cut off one of your boy’s fingers.”
Clay looked at his friend, his mouth opening.
“Wait,” the man said. “Don’t do that. Please. You don’t have to do that.”
“I do,” Robert said, “and I will.”
“I will find you,” the man said. “If it takes me the rest of my life, I will hunt you down, and – ”
Robert hung up and let out a long breath.
“Let’s go,” he said.
* * *
Back in the truck, heading for Robert’s apartment, Robert said, “I think that went pretty well.”
“You do, huh?” Clay said, furious.
Robert glanced at him. “What’s with you?”
“You mind explaining what happened back there?”
Robert looked bewildered. “What do you mean?”
“What was that about cutting off my finger?”
“Oh, yeah.” Robert chuckled. “That was sort of an improv thing.”
Robert explained. “It was what your dad said. ‘If you harm a hair on his head…’ It got me thinking. If I return
you to your dad and there’s not a scratch on you, he’ll be suspicious. He’s a smart man, your father.”
“But my finger?”
“We’ll take your little finger. The pinky. What are you, right-handed? We’ll take the left-hand pinky. You’ll never
“Why couldn’t you just tell him you’d slap me around some or something?”
Robert shrugged. “It had to be something authentic. Think about it. If next time he sees you you’re minus one
finger, he’s gonna be much more likely to credit the whole supposed kidnapping. Why? Because only a crazy
person would cut off his own finger.”
“Exactly my point,” Clay said, exasperated. “Last I checked, I wasn’t crazy.”
“Crazy is a relative term.”
“I could just say tell him it turned out to be an empty threat.”
“No,” Robert said. “That will make him more suspicious than ever.”
“I’m not cutting off my finger.”
“Yeah, well…I was thinking I could do that for you.”
They rolled to a stop at a red light.
“Be reasonable,” Robert said. “Think about how much money’s heading your way. How many people out there
would gladly trade off one of their fingers for that kind of cash?”
“Easy for you to say.”
“We’ll get you liquored up, put your finger in ice water till you can’t feel anything.”
“Nuh-uh. I don’t want to go the rest of my life being…disfigured. Chicks don’t go for disfigurement.”
“Stop being a pussy. No one will even notice.”
Clay looked down at his left hand and flexed the pinky finger. Would he miss it? As far as appendages went, he
had to admit the pinky was pretty useless. Still, it was an intimate part of himself, always had been. Without it,
he’d be diminished – to a very small degree, true, but diminished nonetheless.
“Anyway, think about it,” Robert said.
“I don’t need to,” Clay said. “I’m not going to do it.”
* * *
At Robert’s apartment, sitting in the living room and passing a joint back and forth, they talked about the
tradeoff of Clay for the money and how it should go down. Clay thought it sounded pretty airtight. So did
Robert, but he wasn’t as concerned about the tradeoff itself as he was the aftermath, when Clay would have
to recount, possibly to the cops, what had happened to him. “They’re gonna want you to go through your story
again and again,” he said. “And you have to be consistent.” One idea Robert came up with was that Clay
should say the kidnappers made him wear a sack over his head the whole time. That way Clay wouldn’t have to
remember seeing anything. For an hour, Robert made Clay go over and over his account of the “kidnapping,”
poking and prodding for holes and inconsistencies. They ironed a few things out, at the end of which Robert
nodded and pronounced that they were ready.
“Now, about that finger,” Robert said.
Before he could continue, there was a knock at the door, loud enough to make them both jump in their seats.
Robert bolted to the door and looked out the peephole. He let out a relieved sigh, his shoulders sagging. “It’s
your damn brother.”
He opened the door and in walked Tommy, holding his bike by the handlebars and wearing sweatpants and a
plain white tee shirt that had gone transparent in places where the sweat had soaked through. He was
breathing hard. The clumps of acne on his cheeks and forehead stood out in angry reds and purples, as always
happened when he exerted himself physically. He rolled the bike into the apartment and propped it against the
wall, then used the sleeve of his tee shirt to wipe sweat from his forehead.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Robert asked.
“I snuck out,” he said. He chinned hello to Clay, who was still on the couch. “What’s up? Do I smell weed?”
“No,” Robert said.
He grinned and rubbed his hands together eagerly. “Can I have some?”
“You better sit your ass down.” Robert pointed at a chair adjacent to the couch, and Tommy went and dropped
his weight into it.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Clay said. “What if Dad looks for you?”
Tommy swiped a hand through the air dismissively. “He’s passed out on the couch in the study.”
“Were you there when we called?” Robert asked, taking a seat next to Clay on the couch.
“Yeah. I was standing right next to him.”
“What happened after we hung up?”
Tommy’s shoulders went up and down. “Nothing really. He talked about calling the cops, but I could tell he didn’
t mean it.”
“How do you know?” Robert demanded.
“I just do. Anyway, I told him if he called the cops and Clay wound up dead because of it, I’d never talk to him
“Good,” Clay said.
“Did he call anyone after that?” Robert asked. “Did he do anything?”
“He didn’t call anyone. But he loaded his Berretta.”
“Shit.” Robert blew out a long breath of air. “Is he planning on bringing it with him for the tradeoff?”
Tommy pondered his fingernails for a moment. Finally, he said, “You think I could snag a beer from you?”
Robert wiped a hand down his face, looking suddenly exhausted. Clay felt for him. He too was beat. This whole
thing had started a week ago, when Clay’s dad had thrown him out of the house for being an aimless, jobless
bum – “deadbeat” was the word he used – accusing Clay of taking advantage of his goodwill for far too long,
and worse, of being a corrupting influence on his sixteen-year-old brother Tommy. “This house is for people
who work hard and contribute,” his father said. “And you’re toxic waste, poisoning the well.” After the yelling
match that ensued, he’d kicked Clay out of the house with a suitcase full of clothes and a fifty dollar bill.
Having nowhere to go, Clay drove to a bar on the south side of town and pounded beer after beer, marinating
in his own misery and indignation. It was after the ninth beer that he bumped into an old high school friend –
Robert, as fate had it – to whom he drunkenly spilled his most recent tale of familial woe. Robert was
sympathetic – surprisingly so for a guy Clay remembered to be such a masochistic bully in high school. They
talked about Clay’s situation for a while, and eventually an idea began to take form, mostly, Clay would later
reflect, out of Robert’s prompting. It was an idea which, at first brush, seemed insanely risky, an alcohol-
soaked conceit whose allure would evaporate come the light of morning’s sober coherence, but the next day,
after further pondering it, the idea refused to depart from Clay’s thoughts. Unexpectedly, the idea began to
seem kind of solid – genius, even. It was the inclusion of Clay’s brother that made it so. Tommy would be their
inside man. He could let them know everything Frank was doing – whether he’d called the cops, whether he
was making arrangements to pay the men who took his son, and anything else relevant regarding Frank’s
actions. It wasn’t a perfect plan, but Clay liked it. He liked the idea of all that money, of course, but he also
liked the poetic justice in it, the thought of his dad tossing him out for being a deadbeat, then winding up
paying a fortune because of it.
Now, as Tommy went to help himself to a beer from the fridge, Robert gave Clay a stony look. “Something’s
up,” he said.
Tommy came back with a frosty can of beer in his hand, slurping the foam that wormed out of the top, and
plunked down on the chair. He made a face and said, “This is some skunky beer, dude.”
“Never mind the beer,” Robert said. “I asked you about your dad and his gun.”
“I heard you,” Tommy said. “I don’t know what he’s planning on doing with it.”
Clay looked at Robert and said, “When you call him later, tell him you’re gonna have someone pat him down at
the rendezvous point.”
“Rendezvous…I like that.” Tommy chuckled. “You guys talking like you’re a couple of professionals.”
“Shut up, Tommy,” Clay said.
“Tell him what we discussed about your finger,” Robert said.
Tommy turned a puzzled grin on Clay. “What about your finger?”
Clay heaved an exhausted sigh and told him about it.
“No way.” Tommy clapped his hands in delight. “Priceless.”
“It was a spur of the moment kind of thing,” Robert admitted. “I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into it. But
you can see the bind this puts us in.”
Tommy shrugged and pushed out his lower lip. “I don’t see what the big deal is. It’s his little finger you said?
Hell, small price to pay.” He nodded at Clay. “You yourself said we have to do whatever it takes to make this
“Exactly,” Robert said, pointing at Clay.
Clay crossed his arms in a way that hid his hands under his biceps. “I’m not doing it.”
“You are doing it,” Robert said. “If I have to hold you down and force the matter.”
“There you go.” Tommy raised his beer in salute at Robert.
“Shit, man.” Clay shook his head and looked away. Robert had a good fifty pounds on him, all muscle, and he
didn’t doubt that Robert could take his finger if he wanted to bad enough. Especially if Tommy was willing to
help in that regard, which it appeared he was.
Tommy picked up remote control from the coffee table and began flicking through the channels. “Anything good
They ignored him. Tommy began tweaking a zit.
“You need to listen to reason,” Robert said to Clay.
They argued about it for a while and came up with a compromise: they’d see what happened next time they
called Frank. If the man tried any more of his stalling tactics, Clay would allow his finger to be severed. They’d
find a way to mail it same-day to Frank. As Robert had said – and Clay had to agree – it would show Frank how
serious they were.
Clay continued drinking vodka, and after another hour or so, he fell asleep. When he woke up, gray light was
sifting through the window blinds, and Robert was asleep on the floor in front of the front door. What was up
with that? Clay wondered. Did Robert believe he might try to make a break for it during the night? Over the
possibility of losing his finger?
* * *
Noon that day they headed back for the payphone in the park. Homeless people abounded, many of them
sleeping on the grass or sitting in small groups and drinking liquor out of bottles in paper bags. Clay was cotton-
mouthed, red-eyed, and headachy – hung over, in other words.
“Time’s up, Frank,” Robert said into the phone. “You got the money?”
“Not exactly,” Frank said.
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean. Either you have it or you don’t.”
“I’m having it wired to my bank account from some overseas investments. But it’s going to take a little more
Robert stepped back and cocked the receiver over his shoulder, as if he was going to smash it against the wall.
Then he shook his head, set his jaw, and told Frank, “I’m gonna kill your boy. Do you understand that? I’m going
to stop his fucking heart.”
“Now, you hold on one minute.”
Robert hung up the phone. He let out a long breath.
“Why’d you hang up on him?” Clay asked.
Robert flashed him a smile that contained no joy whatsoever. “He’s not gonna pay us.”
“Of course he is.”
“No, he’s not. This whole thing was stupid. Fucking idiotic. Your dad’s a tough bastard. He’d never let some
kidnappers get one over on him.”
“But I’m his son.”
It wasn’t until the ride to Robert’s apartment that Robert told him. “After you passed out last night, your
brother and I had a chat.”
Clay felt something stir in his guts.
“About your dad.” Robert sighed and shook his head. “According to Tommy, he’s made absolutely no move to
get the money.”
“You heard him on the phone,” Clay said. “He’s having it wired.”
“No, Clay. He’s not doing shit.”
“You don’t know that.” Then, a little desperate: “I’m his son, goddamnit.”
“I know, but…you have to consider the idea that your dad doesn’t give a shit about you.”
“No.” Clay shook his head resolutely. “He’s not a big fan of me, true, but he loves me.”
“Sorry, bro. I don’t think so.”
“Then why is he bothering with us? Why doesn’t he just tell you to go to hell, and let you kill me?”
“I don’t know,” Robert admitted. “Maybe he’s looking for a chance to meet the kidnappers face to face.
Regardless of how he feels about you, he wouldn’t appreciate anybody trying to rip him off.”
Back at Robert’s apartment, Clay said, “Okay, so we send him my finger. I’m willing to do that.”
“What would be the point? He’s called our bluff. It’s over.”
Clay drank a couple of beers – hair of the dog – and tried to work out a way he could go forward on this
without Robert. He could call Lionel, see if he was interested. The problem there was that he had no idea where
Lionel was staying these days or how to reach him.
Finally, he decided he’d had enough, and he got up off the couch and made for the front door. Robert was on
him in a flash, pressing his back against the door to keep Clay in. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked.
“For a walk. To clear my head.”
Robert pointed at the couch. “Sit down.”
“Why should I?”
“Because I’ll kick your ass if you don’t.”
Clay examined his friend’s face and decided he was serious. “What the hell’s gotten into you?”
Robert cocked a fist and said, “If you don’t move your ass in three seconds…”
Clay went back to the couch. Robert stayed by the door. They eyed each other warily for a half a minute,
Robert’s chest heaving as if he’d just gotten back from a jog. He had just looked away from Clay when there
was a knock on the door. Robert looked in the peephole and opened it.
Tommy walked his bike into the apartment and leaned it against the wall, and at the sight of him, Clay felt relief
surge through his veins. With his brother here, it was two against one. They could take Robert down if they
Tommy unhitched a backpack from his shoulders. He unzipped it and pulled out a gun; no, not a gun – a
crossbow. He’d bought it at the state fair last summer, Clay remembered. It was a wicked, medieval-looking
weapon whose shot carried enough force to bury its half-foot arrows three inches into the trunk of an oak tree.
Even cooler, it had a revolving mechanism: after you fired an arrow, its six-shot cylinder automatically rotated
and lined up the next arrow. All you had to do was yank the arrow back on the bow and lock it in place, to be
discharged with but a few pounds of pressure from the index finger.
“What are you doing with that?” Clay asked, a nervous laugh escaping his lips.
With no warning, no ceremony, no nothing, Tommy aimed the weapon at Clay and pulled the trigger.
A twanging noise issued from the crossbow. The sound was nothing impressive. But when Clay looked down, he
saw that the arrow had hit him in the right side of his stomach, and the sight of what it had done to him made
him dizzy. It didn’t hurt as bad as he’d have thought it would. It just kind of…stung a little. A patch of blood
expanded on his tee shirt, and when he leaned forward and looked behind him, he saw that the arrow had
passed straight through his body and into the couch cushion, making a hole roughly the size of a cigarette burn.
“Jesus,” Robert said, stunned. “You really did it.”
“Of course I did,” Tommy said. “I said I would, didn’t I?” He locked another arrow in place and took aim at Clay,
his arm fully extended and one eye closed.
“Wait,” Clay said. He got to his feet, causing the pain to flare up and radiate throughout his torso, bringing
tears to his eyes. He winced and put a hand on his wound and began edging backwards. If he could just make
it to the bedroom, lock the door, open the window…It was a two-story drop, but there was no other way out.
The second arrow hit Clay in the side of his neck, again passing straight through. Hot arterial blood pumped
down his neck, collecting in the hollow made by his collarbone, running down his arm and chest. He put his hand
on the wound and felt the blood running through his fingers. Clay saw a look of horror on Robert’s ashen face.
Tommy’s face, a stark contrast, showed a kind of shrewd bemusement.
“I’m your brother,” Clay pleaded.
“It’s what you said from the start” Tommy said. “You have to be willing to do whatever it takes to make it
work. You’re damaged goods, brother. Dad doesn’t want you back. Me, though – he’d be willing to pay the big
bucks for me.”
“No,” Clay said.
He saw it clearly in his head, what was going to happen. His body would be found on the side of the road
somewhere, and his dad would finally get it into his head that these kidnappers did indeed mean business, and
soon thereafter he’d get a phone call from the kidnappers and learn that they now had possession of his other
son. His good son.
Yes. He would pay.
A third arrow hit Clay in the chest. He fell to his knees as an unbearable pressure grew in his lungs and blood
came foaming to his lips. For a few seconds he tottered, and then he fell face forward. His eyes were open,
and he wasn’t moving, but he wasn’t dead.
“Oh, Jesus,” Robert whimpered.
“We need to wrap him up in plastic,” Tommy said, “garbage bags or something, before he bleeds through the
“What do we do then?”
“I had an idea. You remember Lionel?”
“Yeah,” Robert said.
“I was thinking we could give him a call, see if he wants to get in on this, make a little money.”
Clay had gone into shock, neurons firing wildly in his brain, and that the next thought that entered his head,
triggered by the mention of the dude’s name, was to wish he could ask Lionel if it was true he’d stolen
those bags of ice.
by Jack Thrift