BARRY VITCOV - BEN
As he pulled off the freeway, he thought about what his mother had said as she hugged him goodbye. Whenever he left after a pleasant or unpleasant visit, Ben’s mother always had some sort of sticky cryptic message that haunted him on the ride home. She was, after all, a self-appointed “omenist”, a word she had coined to describe her “powers of knowing the future before the future revealed itself.” When Ben suggested that the correct word was “seer” or “fortuneteller” or, better yet, “con artist”, his mother’s placid rebuttal was that she was different from those who professed special powers, and that omenist would prove to be the better term. His mother made no claims to know everything about the future. She merely claimed to know that every once in a while, something good or bad might be happening soon. Fortunately, he had become unconsciously competent at downshifting through the Triumph’s gears and stopping at the bottom of the exit ramp. Otherwise, being lost in thought would have resulted in multiple disasters.
This visit had been pleasant, unlike the previous one when his mother told him his life was too comfortable. He dropped by unannounced to bring his mother a bag of lemons and limes. After drinking iced tea with some lemon juice and freshly baked oatmeal raisin cookies, his mother hugged him and said, “Ben, just remember that being a man means more than being a man.” At thirty-nine, his mother was the only parent he had known. She was three months pregnant when his father was killed by Maoist terrorists while trekking in Nepal, after being warned by his mother that no good could come of hiking in foreign lands. Growing up meant a seemingly endless stream of caregivers while his mother worked two or three jobs to provide him with private schools, guitar lessons, summer camps, the most up-to-date computers, “with-it” clothes, and a diet of mostly organic foods. His mother never took advantage of knowing the future; rather, as she often reminded Ben, she elected to live in the “here and future.” She often reminded Ben that it would be unfair to take advantage of one’s special gifts to indulge in unnecessary frills or self-indulgencies. After graduation from law school at the top of his class and securing a job with one of the most prestigious San Francisco law firms, he bought his mother a condominium near the Giants new ballpark along with season tickets with his first of many extravagant annual bonuses. His mother loved baseball but could never afford to attend a game.
Ben pulled into his Pacific Heights flat’s driveway, pushed the button of the garage door remote control, and quietly thought about all he had accomplished before forty: An Ivy League law education and an exceptionally high seven figure salary. He spurned the offer of partnership, since it would mean too much responsibility for shared oversight of the firm’s business, and he already made more money that he could ever spend. He invested well, had all the adult toys he wanted, and was recently named by San Francisco Magazine as one of the Ten Most Eligible Bachelors in the Bay Area. He felt very much like a man on top of the world. His mother, however, always reminded him that the future was not what he made of it; it was what the future made of him that mattered.
As he sat in his sports car, he fixated on a red azalea in full bloom. Ben wasn’t a gardener. In fact, he had no interest in gardening. He felt it was important, for the sake of a good image, to have a professional gardener install and maintain the planting beds in front and behind his home. He had spent an inordinate amount of time and money for something he rarely noticed. This particular plant struck him as being perfectly beautiful. The red flowers reminded him of the lipstick his mother wore. They glistened with dusk’s moisture. Something to his left broke his rare hypnotic state. He couldn’t be sure, but it appeared that it might have been someone running silently across the intersection at the end of the block. He turned and saw another runner carrying what appeared to be a baseball bat. He thought nothing of it and pulled into his garage. Before getting out of his classic sports car, he scanned his mostly empty garage. There were no tools, gardening implements, or any other typical items found in garages showing evidence of home ownership. In one corner stood a folded ping-pong table shrouded in a blue tarpaulin that had been used once for a housewarming party given by one of Ben’s law firm colleagues. A dart board randomly stung with six darts hung on the wall to his left.
His garage was a flight of stairs below his two-story home. He entered through the kitchen, threw his keys into the basket that served to catch miscellaneous items for which there were no clear organizational constructs. His home, as were his routines, was organized like an old-fashioned postmaster’s desk. Everything had its own specific cubbyhole. The first floor was a large open space that included the kitchen, dining area, living room, and a small powder room. A professional designer had not only furnished it in Ben’s post-modern taste but had also equipped it with every essential and non-essential gadget she for which she could justify the retail plus consultation fee. Ben did not know that he owned five different types of vegetable peelers, nor did he care to know. It was more important that visitors knew that his Williams-Sonoma furnished kitchen, which included All-clad cookware, six-burner Viking stove, and a Sub-zero refrigerator, stood ready for preparing any dish requiring a state-of-the-art blender, mixer, or cookie sheet. Ben didn’t cook, but he had acquaintances and a mother who did. Upstairs were three bedrooms, the smallest of which served as a home office. The master bedroom and bath, along with the living room, had sweeping views of City lights at night and the Golden Gate during the day.
Before shedding his work clothes, he plugged his iPod into the central music system and selected Mozart’s Fantasia in C Minor for piano, played masterfully by Glenn Gould. He loved the mixture of serious and playful music and the intensity of Gould’s rendering. Ben listened to all music genres except Chinese opera, which he found to be atonal and unnatural. Other than a good wine, music was the only sensory stimulant Ben used to enhance his ritualized life style.
After changing into jeans, sweatshirt, and running shoes, Ben intended to walk down to the bottom of the hill to pick up a newspaper and some gourmet take-out from one of the popular boutique neighborhood restaurants. Intentions change when confronted outside your bedroom door by tall, blond, hallow-cheeked woman dressed in a tan topcoat, flowing red scarf, red watch cap, and large black sunglasses holding what initially looked like a cannon of a handgun.
“Good music choice, now sit down, Ben. You won’t be going anywhere for a while.”
Ben stood not knowing what to do. The woman again told him in a measured tone to sit down against the wall with his hands behind his back “Close your eyes, Ben. You don’t know me, and it would be best if you never do. Close your eyes, Ben.” After following her instructions, Ben felt two large patches being placed over his eyes followed by the sound of tape being pulled off a roll. “I’m going to secure the eye patches with duct tape, Ben. After I do, I want you to roll onto your belly while I wrap your hands with tape. If you try to resist, remember I have a weapon and the ability to use it.” Ben did as instructed and was assisted to a standing position. “We’re going to go downstairs, now.” The lady with the topcoat and gun led Ben down to his living room with the panoramic view of the City lights and seated him in the yellow leather chair he rarely used. She instructed him to sit quietly, ask no questions, and wait for further instructions. He wasn’t sure if those instructions would be meant for him or her.
For several minutes, Ben’s mind remained blank. He didn’t know how or what to think. Slowly he began to meticulously take stock of his situation and try to give it some meaning. He practiced mostly anonymous law. He did research for large class-action law suits. He rarely met the individual clients who benefited from his investigatory gifts. The firm’s partners understood that Ben’s strengths resulted in large corporate profits, and they paid him royally for his efforts. Ben’s first thoughts were that no single person could possibly be seeking revenge against him, because he worked for the benefit of large faceless groups. He also had an astonishing track record: he had never been on the losing side. The losers were always, like Ben, anonymous entities – deep-pocket corporations with deep-pocket insurance companies paying damages. He concluded that his circumstance could not be about his work.
He could not imagine any personal relationship to be the source of any violent behavior towards him. He had few close friends and no current romantic relationship. It seemed that being named one of San Francisco’s most eligible bachelors was more of a curse than a gift. The notoriety more often than not was a reason for women to shy away from being seen with him. He surmised that celebrity must be the reason for his sudden victimization. Clearly, this criminal act would turn out to be nothing more than crime for profit. He thought that what he needed to do was keep calm, be patient, listen carefully, follow instructions, and gather available information so that he could effectively negotiate a win-win settlement.
His captor had not physically harmed him, and so far, appeared to behave in a direct and business-like manner. Her instructions were clear, direct, and not spoken with vile temperament. Ben thought this must be a professional crime, not some amateurish whimsy. He heard three short, followed by two short, knocks at the front door. “Come in boys,” said the woman. “Put the baseball bat in the corner. He’s secured. Remember, I’m the only voice he hears. Have a seat on the sofa.” Ben now knew that she had colleagues in crime. He didn’t know that the two men had been a diversion while he sat in his driveway. They ran across the intersection to pull his attention away from the open garage allowing the woman to enter and hide behind the folded ping-pong table. “We’ll wait for the call.”
“May I ask what’s happening?” Ben said with all the politeness he could fathom.
The woman replied, “You need to sit quietly and wait.”
Ben obeyed. A cell phone rang, and he heard the woman answer. “Yes, I understand. Don’t you think it may be a bit early for that? Okay, then we’ll proceed.” He heard the phone click shut. “Ben, I’ve been instructed to shoot off the small toe on you left foot. I’ll be removing you shoe now.” This marked the first of what would prove to be several feelings of panic for Ben. Suddenly any thought of rationale disappeared. He felt a shudder spike from the base of his spine up through his shoulders and skull. When his left New Balance cross-trainer was slipped off his left foot and sock pulled off, he discharged a small amount of urine and felt cold perspiration ooze around the collar of his shirt.
“Wait, please,” he trembled. “Can’t we talk about this? What is it you want? Money? Legal advice? What is it?”
“Ben, I’m sympathetic to your situation, but I’ve been instructed. We’ll talk about what we want after we get your attention and compliance. You have a reputation for believing you can solve anything through reason and negotiation. We’ll need to make sure you understand in advance that there will be no negotiation, no compromise, no reasoning. This isn’t about being rational; it’s about performance on our terms.”
Ben heard a mechanical sound that he couldn’t identify. “What are you doing?”
“Turning the silencer onto the pistol,” was the cool, surgical reply. Then he heard a pop and his entire body stiffened. “That was a test shot. The only real noise from the next shot will be your scream. Most likely you’ll pass out. We’ll have you treated with an anesthetic and bandage before you awake. We also have pain medication for you.”
Ben began to feel cold and nauseous. “Please, can’t we talk first? Let’s think about future consequences. Let’s think about the future,” he pleaded.
“We are your only future, Ben. You need to know that.”
“I do. I promise. I do.” Silence in the room ensued. Ben felt colder and began to shiver. A metallic taste pushed up through his throat and the back of his head began to tighten and ache. “Please,” he whispered.
Finally, the woman spoke. She said that while she had been given specific instructions, she did have some discretionary power. She assured Ben that unnecessary pain and suffering could be avoided if he followed all demands. He felt his breathing slow and he consciously took a deep breath filling himself to his diaphragm and gaining some measure of calm. He assured the woman that he would do all as she requested.
“I need you to call your mother, Ben. You must instruct her to come here. The business we have involves her. Once you fulfill this demand, you’ll be freed from all other obligations.”
“How is my mother involved in this?” The tightening ache pulsating across the back of Ben’s skull began to surge down the nape of my neck and spread across his shoulders. “You mustn’t hurt her.”
“Ben, you have a choice to make. Get your mother over here or suffer painful consequences for not obeying orders. I’m going to hold a phone to your ear and dial her number. It’s your choice how you handle this. If you tell her something is wrong her, the toe is gone and there will be other serious consequences.”
The phone was put to Ben’s ear and during the six rings that it took before his mother answered, he thought about options. He could make an outrageous request that might alert her to something being very wrong and subsequently prompt her to secure seek help. However, he couldn’t think of any invented story wild enough to prod his mother to take such action. Of course, he could also simply blurt the truth of the matter and suffer whatever consequence might ensue. He chose instead to engage in conversation while trying to buy time to figure out another solution.
“Mom, you said something when I left this evening that I’ve been wondering about. Do you remember?”
“Yes, Ben. I told you that being a man was more than being a man. Is that why you’ve called?”
“It’s just that from time to time you say things that leave me wondering. Like being an omenist and knowing what the future brings.”
“But, Ben, I don’t know what specifics the future holds. I only know if the future might sustain promise or hold potential doom. What’s bothering, Ben? You sound down.”
“I still want to know what you meant about being a man.” The phone was removed from Ben’s ear and he heard it being hung up. The woman told Ben to stop stalling and get to the point. Ben explained he had never spontaneously asked his mother over to his house and that he needed to find a way to do so without raising suspicion. The woman agreed and explained that she would redial his mother. She instructed Ben to say he accidentally disconnected the phone. Once back on line, Ben again asked what his mother meant about being a man.
“Ben, I felt a presence about the future that would require you to make an extremely difficult decision. I simply wanted you know that being a man sometimes requires action that benefits others while resulting in undesirable conditions for the one taking action.” His mother’s response seemed rehearsed. It appeared to Ben that his mother was trying to teach him a life lesson. The tightness in his shoulders increased, perspiration soaked the collar of his sweatshirt, his right eyelid began to twitch, and he felt a shiver and fainted. His captor, while holding the phone in her left hand, used her right hand to push Ben against the back of the yellow, leather chair and keep him from tumbling forward. Her accomplices moved to hold Ben back by the shoulders. The woman took the phone and matter-of-factly told Ben’s mother that Ben would be calling back soon.
When Ben regained consciousness, the woman offered him a sip of room temperature water. Ben sensed perspiration dripping down his spine and soaking through his sweatshirt. The woman observed color returning to his cheeks. What she couldn’t see was that Ben awoke with a new sense of self and resolve. “Ben, you must call your mother again. You’ll need to explain that a friend suddenly dropped in and apologize for hanging up so abruptly. Do you understand?”
Ben replied, “I need more information. You can do whatever you want to me. I don’t really care. But you need to tell me how my mother is involved before I decide what I’ll do next. Go ahead: shoot off my toe.”
The next time Ben came to was in an ambulance. His left leg was elevated, and he felt a throbbing pain from where his toe had been. “You’re lucky,” remarked the EMT. “Whoever shot you had some medical expertise.”
The policewoman riding with the EMT informed Ben that an anonymous caller made a 9ll call from his house to report the incident. She explained that he was found on his back, eyes patched, and his leg elevated on the leather chair. “Whoever did this to you was careful to minimize physical damage.”
Ben asked the policewoman to call his mother and tell her what had happened. “We’ve already contacted her. She’ll meet us at the hospital.”
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