Becoming a Number
I didn't know I was a Number. I didn't know what it meant to be a Number. I just knew when everything changed.
The morning was windy, like so many others in early October, so I wrapped my purple jacket around me tightly as I got out of the blue Mazda. I waited an extra second, hoping Aunt Judy would say goodbye or wish me luck, but she didn't. She never did. I was lucky if she looked at me. She didn't this morning.
I braced myself against the morning chill and started to walk around the red brick school building. I didn't see any of my friends, so I walked alone. I felt a funny feeling in my stomach when I passed the row of overgrown plants that hugged the elementary school side. Later on, I would wonder if I'd heard or seen something subconsciously, but at the time, I just walked faster, wishing more people were around, but most of the other kids were already inside.
As I rounded the back of the building, I heard three noises in succession: heavy feet coming up behind me, a pistol being cocked, and heavy breathing. Instinctively, I tried to turn around, but I felt something pressing into my neck. "This is a gun," said a low voice. "Don't make noise and keep walking, or I'll kill you right here." I didn't seem to be in any spot to argue, so I did as he said, changing direction only when he told me. I tried to figure out a way to let the few stragglers still outside know that something was wrong, but I couldn't think of anything. My brain was paralyzed with surprise and fear.
Finally, a few blocks from the school, the gunman pushed me toward a dark gray car, some kind of nondescript sedan. Another man was leaning against it, and he stood up straight when he saw me. "This her?"
"Of course it's her, you moron. Would I have taken the wrong one?" answered the irritated voice of my captor as he herded me toward the car door.
"I dunno, just, how can we be sure she's really his?" The second man was less resolute, twitchy even.
"Elias says she's the one. He knows." My kidnapper spoke in the manner of someone who has already explained the same thing several times and is about ready to assault the asker.
"Ok, all right," answered the other, in conciliatory tones. "I don't want this on my record for nothing."
"That doesn't matter," said the other as he tied my hands with twine. "Elias can take care of records."
My kidnapper, who was short and stocky, took his place behind the wheel, and his associate, who was taller and thinner, sat in the passenger's seat and stole worried glances back at me every few seconds. I didn't say anything. Better not to give them anything to latch onto, I thought. It was a technique I'd been using with my uncle for ages, and it worked pretty well.
We drove through Manhattan, and I wished I'd paid more attention to landmarks instead of drifting off into a daydream every time I was in the car. I noticed we seemed to be hitting a lot of lights red, and finally, when we were stopped at the fourth one in a row, the jumpier of the kidnappers finally growled in frustration and smacked the dash of the car.
"Don't worry," said the other one drily, "no one knows she's even gone. It's not like we're in any danger right now." Except, it turns out that what he said was really, really ironic.
We were turning the corner into a small side street when suddenly, a huge black SUV came barreling down on us, followed by a station wagon. You know how you can tell when another driver is after you and not just in a rush to get where they're going? Well, maybe you can't always, but it was pretty obvious this time. Our driver didn't have any time to react. Within seconds, we were pinned to the wall by both cars, and the drivers were getting out with guns trained on us—well, not us, just the two kidnappers.
The driver of the SUV was tall and broad-shouldered and wearing a suit like a superhero from a movie. The other driver was short and pale and looked like he wasn't too keen on the gun in his hand.
"Let her go," said the SUV driver. "We won't do anything to you if you let her go." His voice was barely more than a whisper, but its determination was chilling.
"Fine by me," said the jumpier kidnapper immediately.
"Deal's off unless you both agree," said the taller man again, enunciating each whispery word with steel.
The stockier kidnapper waited a moment and seemed to be fighting with himself before shrugging. "Elias will find her," he said, before turning around and following his associate away from the scene. I stared after them, unable to process what was happening and the fact that I was free.
"Hello, Katherine." I looked up and into the eyes of the taller man, who was smiling. "I'm John, and this is my friend Harold. We've come to take you away."
Great, I thought, I'm being kidnapped again by someone else.
The shorter man, who wore a three-piece suit and small-framed glasses, shook his head in exasperation. "Can't you see you're only frightening her more, Mr. Reese?" He smiled at me. "I'm Harold, and this is John. You're in danger, I'm afraid, and we're going to take you somewhere safe." This didn't really help me feel better, but he seemed to mean well.
I followed Harold and John to the SUV, and John gave me a lift inside like I was three years old. The important things were all confused in my brain, so the one manageable thing I settled on as we drove away was wondering what they were going to do about their other car. What kind of crazy person ditches a perfectly good station wagon? I wondered.
"Are you comfortable?" Harold asked after a few minutes. I just stared at him. It hadn't occurred to me to think about it.
"I'm…fine." I certainly didn't want to draw attention to myself.
"Leave her alone, Harold," said John, "she's had a tough morning." John understood. I was starting to see that there were things Harold understood and other things John understood, but it was hard to predict which was which.
John drove to a really posh hotel in the Upper East Side, a hotel I'd seen a few times but never been inside. It was the kind of place movie stars liked to stay. He stopped at the entrance and gave the keys to one of those guys who parks cars—a valet—and came around to let me out of the back and give me another boost onto the ground. If I had dared, I would have rolled my eyes at him. Harold followed behind, a little more slowly. He had a limp, the kind that looks permanent instead of the kind you get from a sprain or a break.
We went inside, and I followed Harold and John into the glass elevator, wishing I knew what was going on and what in the world they planned to do with me. It didn't occur to me to ask. It was always best to stay silent, I thought.
The two men didn't speak either, though their silence didn't seem to be a tense one. I wondered what sort of kidnappers they could possibly be, certainly a different caliber from the ones of the morning. They didn't seem intent on hurting me, at least, and that was something.
I didn't look at either of them head-on, but when I could, I stole a look out of the corner of my eye. Harold was compact and meticulous, with a determined expression and strange blue eyes that seemed to see everything and file it away, as if he were a computer sorting data. John was strikingly handsome; even a little girl could tell that. His face was closed, inscrutable. I had no idea what kind of thoughts he had.
John and Harold didn't leave the elevator until the top floor of the hotel, and I noticed that Harold looked around carefully before the three of us entered the wide hallway. It was luxurious, with thick red carpet and glass lamps that hung from the ceiling. John walked close beside me, and Harold led the way to a door that had the number 330 on it. I knew it had to be a penthouse because we had passed only one other door in the long hallway. I had a read a book once in which a character lived in a penthouse, and for a second, my desire to see what was inside almost competed with my fear.
Harold opened the door with some kind of plastic card and a code that he punched into a number pad by the doorframe and led the way inside. I stopped dead at the entrance for a few seconds, taking in the impossibly high ceilings, stone flooring, thickly overstuffed furniture, and huge dining room.
"Nice, eh?" said John softly. I hadn't noticed he was at my elbow. "Harold doesn't skimp on luxuries; I'll give him that."
"Not when we're on a mission, Mr. Reese," said Harold without annoyance. "Come inside and have a seat, Katherine, and I'll try to make all of this a little clearer."
I did as I was told, coming into the sumptuous living room and taking a seat on the edge of a tan sofa opposite Harold, who was sitting in a wing chair and typing on a laptop.
"There's a man named Elias," he began, and I perked up, remembering my kidnappers' morning conversation. "He's a criminal, and he's trying to kidnap you. Mr. Reese—John—and I found out you were a target this morning. Our information came a little late, so we had to improvise. I'm sorry we couldn't warn you ahead of time." Mr. Reese had been hovering somewhere behind the sofa, but I heard a ding and saw him reach for a cell phone as he disappeared into the recesses of one of the rooms I hadn't seen.
"Why does Elias want me?" I asked. Harold looked surprised, as if he hadn't expected me to believe him so quickly. "I heard the other guys talking about it before," I said, by way of explanation.
"I don't know that yet," Harold said apologetically, "but I'm going to have to keep you here until I find out."
"What about my aunt and uncle?"
"They'll receive proof that you're safe, and that will have to be enough for now. If you were with them, it would put them in danger."
"Finch—" John came into the room just then, looking genuinely upset, far more than he had during the morning's standoff. He jerked his head in the direction of the hallway, and Finch rose slowly.
"Sit tight, Katherine, Mr. Reese and I need to talk." He raised an eyebrow and gave a not-entirely-pleased look to his associate as he limped over to join him. I stared at my hands in my lap and tried to look uninterested until they disappeared; then, as noiselessly as I could, I followed.
I tiptoed to the door on the right side of the hall, the one I thought they'd disappeared into. Sure enough, I could hear quiet voices. I stood as still as I could and gradually began to make out sounds.
"—Carter. She says it's definitely them," said Reese's voice.
"This is definitely not what we had planned," answered Harold.
"How do we tell her they're dead, Finch? They're the only thing she has."
I started to put two-and-two together, though I didn't want to. I stopped trying to make out the words, willing myself not to hear them. My aunt and uncle weren't the best people in the world, but they were someone—someone who belonged to me. When Harold opened the door, I was huddled on the floor with my arms around my knees, trying to be as small as possible.
"No need to tell her now," said John, with more sadness than annoyance. He picked me up effortlessly and took me back to the sofa. I didn't look at him.
The three of us sat silently in the living room, Harold in his chair and me and John on opposite ends of the sofa. I didn't ask what had happened, and Harold and John neither one volunteered the information. All I could think about was that it was my fault. Aunt Judy might have ignored me and Uncle Robert might have yelled, but they hadn't deserved this, and I was the one being hunted by some kind of criminal. I wished Elias had found me instead.
Harold broke the silence after a very long time. "I'm going to find out why this happened, and then we're going to stop it from happening again."
John put out a tentative hand and touched my hair, so lightly I could hardly feel it. "We're going to keep you safe," he said. "I know it doesn't fix anything, but you don't have to be afraid."