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Death in the Fort - Chapter Fifteen

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Jan Hoffman | The Journal Gazette

Chapter 15

Maybe Jessica and I aren't that smart. Actually, maybe there's no maybe about it.

Just a few weeks ago, for instance, I tried climbing - feet first - into an old papasan chair. I "walked" into it, if you know what I mean. And, naturally, I tipped the entire thing over and ended up lying on my gut on the floor with the bowl of the chair on top of me. ("Was there ever a time when people got into chairs feet first?" Jessica had asked. "When you first learned how to sit down, did your mother say, 'First, put your feet on the chair?' ")

Common sense is a gift. Some people have it, and some don't. So I guess I'm blaming nature for what I did the night Jaime's girls went missing. Yep. Definitely nature's fault. Without thinking - without calling the police or wondering what we were getting ourselves into - Jessica and I packed up Darleen's box and drove to Freimann Square, ready to ... I don't know what we were ready to do. Give Nikki and Travis the box? Rescue Jaime's girls?

But it turned out Travis was just a thug, not a mastermind. He and Nikki were waiting for us - alone - when we arrived at the park. Jaime's girls, it turned out, were still safely at Teisha's house, probably watching "High School Musical" for the thousandth time and eating big bowls of popcorn. We'd been duped. And now we were staring into the business end of Nikki's gun.

"You two are heroes," Travis said, smirking and shoving us toward the viaduct at the back end of the park. "Coming all this way to save a few brats."

Beyond the parking lot at Freimann Square there are elevated railroad tracks - the kind that probably serviced passenger trains long ago. Now, they're traveled solely by freight trains, long lines of graffitied boxcars that carry coal or cows or cars from east to west and west to east. Underneath the tracks, the ground is hard and peppered with gravel. Looking around, I remembered there used to be a big skull with spiky fangs painted on one of concrete walls. Who painted that? I guess I was trying to distract myself by that point.

Travis was digging through the box now, looking for the buttons and shaking the rest of the stuff out onto the ground.

"They're all here," he said, counting the buttons in his hand. "Go ahead, Nikki. Shoot 'em."

In the movies, people are always coolly talking their way out of sticky situations like this. Even when someone is waving a big gun in their face, movie characters are still able to casually ask, "So, Mack. Why'd ya do it?" And their captors always give them a full confession. How did I do it? Well, it proceeded thusly. ...

Actually, a gun in your face renders you pretty speechless. And someone desperate enough to shoot you generally doesn't want to keep you around long enough to tell her the story of your life. At one point, Jessica grabbed my hand and squeezed it. I squeezed back. But that was pretty much all we did.

"C'mon, girl!" Travis was getting impatient, walking toward Nikki with his hand outstretched, reaching for the gun. "Let me do it then," he said.

Nikki took another look at us and then turned toward Travis.

"Sorry, baby," she said.

And then she shot him. Three times. Chest. Face. Stomach. His head kicked back and unleashed a spray of something dark and liquid, and his body just crumpled like an old hanky. But - and this was weird - he never let go of the buttons. They were still clutched in his hand, even while he twitched on the ground. It's creepy. The stuff you remember.

Nikki stumbled over to the body and unfolded Travis' hand, retrieving the buttons.

"Wow," Jessica said, letting out a big sigh and rubbing her eyes. "I really thought you were going to shoot us."

"I am," Nikki said, not even bothering to look up.

"You shouldn't have taken that box," she continued, slowly standing up and walking closer to us. "I was there the whole time, you know. You just couldn't see me."

"Why were you hiding?" Jessica was slowly backing away.

"When Martha barged in, I thought she was Travis," Nikki said. "You've got big feet, Martha."

There is a stillness that creeps over you during times like this, right before panic sets in. It's a quietness of mind, a sharp focus. Something that happens as your body decides: fight or flight? For me, my focus was on the real Darleen - the woman who "looked like someone crapped in her fries." And I didn't feel scared right then, strangely enough. I felt angry. At Nikki, yes. But also at the kind of world that could let someone like Darleen slip right through our fingers.

Without thinking, I walked up to Nikki and slapped her face.

Everyone just stood there for a second. And then - no struggle, no fuss, absolutely nothing like in the movies - Nikki dropped the gun, and I calmly scooped it up.

"I'm sorry, Darleen," I said.

"I'm not Darleen!" Nikki screamed, stomping a foot and grabbing at her frizzy hair, raking it back between her fingers. "Are you too stupid to have figured that out yet?!"

I lowered the gun and aimed it at her leg.

"I wasn't talking to you," I said.

And then I shot her.