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The Lower Level
You have to understand something – I love my daughter Missy.
She was the only child my wife Joanne and I had. Eight years old, shining brown hair and the deepest brown eyes I’d ever seen. My baby.
I’d do anything for her. That’s what started it.
I looked at the woman I’d tied to the chair, using her panty hose for rope. She had a big goose egg above her right eye. That was where I’d hit her when she tried to fight me before.
I felt really bad about that. I mean, it’s one thing to hit a guy. I was in construction and it’s a macho kind of thing to be able to take a punch or two. But I’d never before hit a woman.
I couldn’t even bear to punish Missy. I spanked her one time, when she was two years old and had smeared chocolate syrup all over the kitchen cabinets. I cried harder than she did. After that, I couldn’t do it.
Patricia Fox stirred and moaned a little. She was coming to. I sat down on her bed and gulped down some of the water I’d brought into the room with me. My mouth was pretty dry.
Ms. Fox’s eyes opened. She looked around her neat bedroom and her gaze finally rested on me. Her mouth opened.
I dropped the glass and rushed to put my hand over her mouth. She tried to scream against it. I felt her lips mash against her teeth as I pushed harder.
“Look,” I said. “I don’t wanna hurt you, but you can’t scream. Okay? Don’t scream.”
She struggled a little more. I felt sweat dampening my armpits. I hadn’t planned this very well. But I had no choice.
“Don’t scream,” I said again. “I just wanna talk, okay? I’m not gonna rape you or anything like that.”
She finally settled down. Her head jerked into a quick nod. I carefully removed my hand, ready to put it back over her mouth if she tried to scream.
Instead, she wet her lips. “Who are you?” she asked.
I checked the panty hose around her wrists. She was tied tight, but hopefully not too bad. Her long black braid waved in front of my face.
“My name is Sid Griffin,” I told her.
She jerked her head around to look at me. “
“Yeah,” I checked to see that her ankles secure against the legs of the chair. “You saw me and my wife at the police station. When you were going to see your brother.”
I kinda spat that last word out.
She understood – of course, I didn’t think she was a dummy. “He didn’t do anything to your daughter.”
I shook my head. I went to pick up the glass I’d dropped. The water was soaking into the cheap carpet. “That’s not what the cops say.”
“It’s a mistake,” she insisted. She leaned forward a little. “
Norman made a mistake five years ago and the
police won’t let go of it.”
I frowned at her. “You think a guy showing kids his privates is a ‘mistake?’ Your brother is a monster, Ms. Fox.”
She sighed. “I spoke to him. He said he didn’t do anything.”
“He was in the park my daughter was playing in,” I said. As I spoke my words got faster and faster as I got hotter and hotter. “A couple a witnesses saw Missy get into a white van. Your brother owns a white van. When the cops stopped him to question him, he ran. Almost hit a cop trying to get away.”
I stood over her, my fists clenched. “And the cops say he’s hinted he knows where she is, and he’ll talk if he can walk!”
Ms. Fox was shaking her head. “It’s a mistake.
is trying to fix his life. He lives here
with me. He’s trying -”
“You think you know him?” I yelled. I stopped, tried to calm down. Joanne, my wife, always tells me to stop and count to ten when I’m losing my temper.
She’s not here at the moment. I sent her home in a cab. Then I waited for Ms. Fox to come out of the police station and followed her here, to her apartment.
I didn’t know what else to do. The cops said be patient. Patient? With my little girl who knows where, maybe hungry and thirsty, maybe cold? Who knew what that monster had done to her before the cops nabbed him?
Tampa was a big place. They wouldn’t find her without help. So I decided to help.
I grabbed some pictures off the bed. After I’d knocked out Ms. Fox I had ransacked the apartment looking for clues. I even checked the rat’s nest I’m sure was her brother’s room – the rest of the apartment was fairly neat.
I shoved one of the pictures into her face. Her dark eyes got wide, then she looked away. “Why are you showing me that?”
“I got it from the messy bedroom in here,” I told her, my voice tight. “And this one -” I shoved another one in front of her eyes. “And this one -”
She winced each time I showed her one of the disgusting pictures I’d found in her brother’s room. I dropped each one to the floor after I showed her. When I dropped the last one, I wiped my hands on my jeans.
Her face was beet red. She shook her head. “I didn’t know…”
“Do you know where my little girl is?” I asked her, my voice shaking.
“I don’t,” she said, raising her eyes to mine. “I swear it. But let me go, let me talk to
Norman. I’m sure he’ll listen to me.”
I shook my head. “I wish he would, but he’s been hiding this from you all this time. So I have to do this my way.”
“Your way?” she asked, her eyes widening.
I forced a rolled up pair of socks into her mouth. She gagged and struggled, but I got it in. Then I wrapped some tape I’d found in the kitchen around her head, so she couldn’t spit the socks out.
“I’m really sorry,” I said. I picked up a knife I’d gotten from the kitchen. Her eyes got huge and she began to buck in the chair.
“I’m not gonna hurt you!” I said, grabbing her shoulder to settle her down. I put a foot on a chair rung to settle it. “Don’t move and I won’t hurt you,” I told her as I grabbed that beautiful braid.
A little bit of sawing and I had the braid in my hand. I went around to check on her. Tears were running down her face, and she was making awful sounds behind the gag.
I felt bad. I really did. But I had to do this. I patted her shoulder. “It’ll be over soon. I promise.”
I took the phone from her bedroom. After gathering the other phones in the apartment and throwing them into a closet, I left.
I had to talk to Norman Fox.
On the way to the police station, I stopped at a discount store to buy a cheap briefcase.
I wished I could’ve gone home and gotten a nice shirt and tie on, but Joanne was there. And she’d have asked questions, questions I really didn’t wanna answer. I didn’t want her involved in this stuff. I wanted to bring Missy home to her and put her baby in her arms.
On the way back to my car after buying the briefcase, I saw a kid with who I supposed was her mom. The little girl was licking an ice cream cone and holding her momma’s hand as she practically danced as she walked. It brought tears to my eyes. I wanted my little girl back safe.
I drove to the police station. I hoped that the guy at the desk would not be a cop who’d seen me earlier. I wasn’t sure I could pull this off. But Missy’s life was at stake. I had to try.
I ran my hand through my hair, trying to make it neat. I grabbed the briefcase off the passenger seat and got out of my truck. Walking like I thought a lawyer would walk, I went into the police station.
I had a bit of luck. The cop sitting in front wasn’t one I’d seen earlier. He raised an eyebrow as I came up to the counter. “Visiting hours are over.”
“Well, I’m here to see my client,” I said in a tone I hoped was authoritative. I put my briefcase on the counter.
The cop frowned. “Name?”
“Norman Fox,” I said. “I’d like to see him as soon as possible.”
“No, idiot, what’s your name?” the cop asked.
I thought fast. “I’m Donald Gibson. I’m from out of town.”
“Great,” the cop said. “Well, Mr. Gibson,” he flipped through some papers on his desk. “As far as I know, Norman Fox doesn’t have a lawyer.”
“His sister hired me,” I said. I was getting nervous.
“Yeah?” the cop shrugged. He looked me up and down, noting my jeans, work boots, and denim shirt. “Well, you don’t dress like one.”
I swallowed. “Fine,” I said, picking up the briefcase. “You go ahead and keep me from my client. I’ll be in court first thing tomorrow to tell a judge about it -” I leaned over to glance at the officer’s tag - “Officer Bronson.”
The cop paled. “Okay, okay, you don’t have to get all nuts about it.” He got to his feet. “Come on, I’ll take you to an interview room.”
I followed him to a small room with gray cinderblock walls and a mirror on one wall. A table and metal folding chairs were the only things in the room.
While I waited for Fox to come, I worked on not fidgeting. I didn’t see any cameras on the walls, but I’d seen enough TV shows to know that the mirror was a two way one, and anyone could watch from the other side.
Would they watch? Or would they give us privacy? I tried to put my worries out of my head. I was way too deep into this to stop. Missy was counting on me.
The door opened, and I got my first look at Norman Fox, the man who had my daughter.
He wasn’t that impressive. Taller than me, and not as much muscle. His black hair was thinning on the top of his head. Black eyes regarded me with curiosity.
“Okay,” the officer – not Bronson – said. “I’ll be outside by the door if you need anything.”
Fox rubbed his wrists as he sat across from me. I nodded. “We just need some privacy, Officer.”
“No problem,” the officer said and he shut the door, leaving me alone with Fox.
I stared at him. I found myself having to swallow a horrible taste that rose from the back of my throat. I wanted to reach out and break his neck.
But Missy needed me to have self-control. I took a deep breath.
“Look,” Fox said, spreading his hands. “I understand that my sister hired you, but I don’t need a lawyer. I have it covered.”
“Your sister didn’t hire me,” I said. It took an effort to keep my voice steady.
Fox frowned. “The cop said -”
“I lied,” I interrupted. I placed the briefcase on the table.
“You…lied,” Fox said. His forehead wrinkled. “Who are you?”
“I’m Sid Griffin,” I told him. I opened the briefcase, not letting Fox see what was in it yet.
Griffin…?” Fox looked surprised. Then he grinned. “Hey, you got guts.”
“I want my daughter,” I said to him. “Tell me where she is. Now.”
He threw back his head and laughed in my face. “Or what? Oh, this is funny.” He grinned and leaned forward, still chuckling. “Look,
Griffin, assuming I knew where your kid was –
and I’m not saying I do – why would I tell you?”
“Because you love your sister,” I said.
His grin faded. “My sister? What does she have to do with it?”
I silently held up the braid I’d hacked off Fox’s sister.
His eyes got wide. For a moment, he lost the whole composure thing he had going. Then he grabbed the braid out of my hand. “What have you done, you –”
“Keep your temper!” I snapped. “And keep your voice down. Neither of us want to alert the cops, do we?”
Fox was breathing hard. If he called the cops in, it was all over. I had to insure he didn’t do that. “I have someone with your sister. Unless I call them with instructions…” I let the sentence hang.
Fox twisted the braid in his hand. “You’re bluffing,” he hissed. “You don’t have the guts to do this.”
“My daughter is in danger,” I said in a cold voice. “That gives me all the guts I need.”
He glared at me. I glared back. I thought of Missy, frightened somewhere in the city. That helped me keep the look.
“Maybe,” I said slowly, “you don’t care what happens to your sister. Maybe you’re so selfish you’ll let something terrible happen to her.”
“I love my sister,” Fox growled. “What kind of person do you think I am?”
“I know what kind of person you are,” I shot back. “Now tell me where my daughter is, you creep.”
Fox kneaded the braid in his hands. “Let’s say – just for the sake of arguing – that I knew where your kid was, and I told you. What would happen?”
I’d thought that part through. “Simple enough. You tell me where she is. I go get her. I make sure she’s okay. Then I alert my partner, and he lets your sister go.”
“And then what makes you think I won’t tell the cops?” Fox frowned.
“Because neither of us wants to go to jail,” I said. “Once my daughter is safe, I’ll do what I can to get the charges dropped.”
I could almost see the wheels turning in Fox’s head. Of course, we both knew he’d still have charges to face. But they would need my family’s cooperation to make the bigger charges stick. I’d withhold that if it got my little girl back safe.
“Okay,” Fox said. He leaned forward, the braid now limp between his hands on the table. “Let’s talk.”
I pulled up to the address Fox had given me. It was an empty house with a “For Sale By Owner” sign in front of it. The sign looked a little weather-beaten under the moonlight – the streetlights weren’t working on this block.
Fox told me that he knew the owner of the house and had the key. He was supposed to show the house to prospective buyers while his buddy was out of town. It was, he thought, the perfect opportunity to grab a kid like Missy.
I didn’t have the key, but he’d told me about a window in the back that wouldn’t lock. I crawled inside the dark house.
It was so quiet I could hear my own breathing. That scared me. I turned on the flashlight I’d brought and made my way to the bedroom Fox had told me about. I yanked open a closet door.
My baby girl looked up at me, her tear-filled eyes squinting in the sudden light. Fox had taped her mouth shut and used tape on her wrists and ankles.
I pulled the tape off her mouth. She cried with the pain of it, but I couldn’t stand to see it on her face. I grabbed her and held her to me, letting our tears mingle together. “Daddy,” she said in a hoarse little voice. “Daddy, Daddy.”
“It’s okay, baby,” I said. “It’s all okay. You’re safe now.”
I carried her to my truck and cut the tape off her ankles and wrists. The I headed for Tampa General. Fox had sworn that he hadn’t hurt her much, just maybe squeezed her arm a little, but I wanted to be sure she was okay.
On the way I called Joanne on the cell phone, told her to meet me at the hospital. She wanted to know what was going on, so I told her was that I found Missy and she looked okay.
Joanne started crying and asked me how it happened but I didn’t answer. Just told her to come to the hospital.
I knew I’d have to keep my end of the bargain, of course. But taking care of Missy came first. She was what it was all about, of course.
Joanne got to the emergency room moments after I did. The emergency room was busy, and my wife found us in the waiting room.
“Mommy,” my little baby croaked and weakly reached up her arms to Joanne. My wife grabbed up Missy and hugged her tight, crying hard. I felt like crying too, but it was gladness.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Let’s get her into a room.”
I turned and saw a large man with a blond crew cut and a gray suit looking down at me. I recognized him – Detective Miller, one of the guys who’d talked to my wife and me earlier that day.
My heart skipped. I looked at Joanne. “I called them,” she said. “I thought they’d want to know.”
“Oh,” was all I could say.
“Come on,” Miller said. “Let’s get your little girl checked out.”
I followed my wife and daughter to an exam room. I kept my eyes on my little girl while the nurse got her a cup of water and the doc gently checked her out. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
Miller left us at one point to answer a page or something. He didn’t ask me any questions like I thought he would. I was glad. I had to have some time to talk to Joanne, to explain why we had to leave the cops out of the situation.
The doc said he wanted to observe Missy overnight but he thought she’d be fine. By then she was smiling a little at my bad jokes. She was looking more like my beautiful little girl.
When it came time to take Missy to her room, Miller put a hand on my arm. “Mr. Griffin, I’m sorry, but I need to talk to you.”
Joanne shot me a questioning look. I tried to smile. “It’s okay. Go with Missy. I’ll be right there.”
In a moment Miller and I were alone in the exam room. I dropped my eyes to the table where my baby had lain. I put my hand on the paper that covered it. It was still warm.
“Mr. Griffin,” Miller began, but his voice caught.
I looked up. He seemed to be struggling with something. “What do you want to know?”
The detective hesitated. “I need to probably read you your rights.”
“Why?” I asked. I felt my heart start pounding. What had happened?
“Let me read you your rights and then I’ll explain,” he said. He pulled a little card out of his front jacket pocket and read it off, just like you see on TV.
I said I understood, then didn’t say anything else. I just stood there and waited for the detective to speak.
He did, finally, but it seemed to take a lot of effort. “Mr. Griffin, when your wife called us and told us your daughter had been found, we decided to question Norman Fox further.”
“I see,” I said. Inside I was kicking myself. I should have thought of that. But once I had Missy all I could think of was telling Joanne I had her. Not that my wife would think to inform the cops. And not that they’d talk to Fox.
“Fox told my partner that you met with him earlier,” Miller continued. “And that you told him you had his sister captive.”
I just nodded. Miller seemed both sad and grim. I could feel coldness spreading in my chest.
“We sent officers to Fox’s apartment to check on his sister,” Miller continued. Then he quit talking.
The silence stretched in the room. I spoke because the quiet threatened to drown me. “What did Ms. Fox have to say?”
Miller met my eyes. “She couldn’t say anything, Mr. Griffin. She was dead.”
Miller explained it to me. Apparently, while I was gone, Patricia Fox had thrown up. She couldn’t get the vomit out of her mouth thanks to the gag I’d put in, and she’d choked to death.
After he’d told me that, I broke down and told him everything. I couldn’t help it.
Joanne managed to get me a lawyer when the story hit the papers. The lawyer thinks he can get me off with a temporary insanity defense. I’m not so sure.
I get to see Missy once a week during visits at the jail here. She doesn’t understand why Daddy isn’t living at home right now.
We don’t talk about it. Instead I ooh and ah over the pictures she draws for me and drink her in.
I’m not sorry I saved my daughter from a monster.
I just wish I hadn’t chosen to become one.
The Lower Level. Copyright © 2011 by Laura Ware
Published by JJ Press
Cover design by JJ Press
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction, in whole or in part in any form. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.