Paulina Cole left the office at four fifty nine p.m. Her sudden departure nearly caused a panic in the newsroom of the New York Dispatch, where she’d worked as a featured columnist and reporter for several years. Paulina was prone to late nights, though many argued whether the nights were due to a work ethic that was second to none, or simply because she was more comfortable spending her time among competitive, ambitious and bloodthirsty professionals than sitting on the couch with a glass of wine and takeout.
She had left that day after a particularly frustrating conference call with the paper’s editor-in-chief, Ted Allen. Paulina had spent the better part of two years becoming the city’s most notorious scribe in no small part due to her ambivalence concerning personal attacks, heated vendettas, and a complete refusal to allow anyone to get the best of her. When her instincts faltered, she called in favors. When she got scooped, she would trump the scoop by digging deeper. And she held grudges like ordinary folks held onto prized heirlooms.
Which is why, after reading a copy of that morning’s New York Gazette, the paper Paulina used to work for and now wished buried under a paper landfill, she demanded to speak with Ted. She knew the man had a two o’clock tee time, but she’d seen him golf before and cell phone interruption might even improve his thirty seven handicap.
That day’s Gazette featured a story about the murder of a young man named Stephen Gaines. Gaines’s head had met the wrong end of a bullet recently, and in a twist of fate that Paulina could only have wished for on the most glorious of days, the prime suspect was none other than Gaines’s father, James Parker. James Parker also happened to be the father of Henry Parker, the Gazette’s rising young star reporter, whom Paulina had as much fondness for as her monthly cycle.
Paulina had cut her teeth at the Gazette, and had briefly worked side-by-side with Henry Parker. But after seeing what the Gazette had become--an old, tired rag, refusing to get with the program that hard news was essentially dead--she’d made it her business to put the paper out of its misery.
Nobody cared to read about the government or the economy--they only cared about what they saw right in front of them, day in and day out. It was all visceral. You bought the celebrity magazine so you could make fun of the stars’ cellulite with your friends. You shook your head at the news program that exposed the foreman whose building was overrun with rats because he refused to pony up for an exterminator. You scorned the politician’s wife who stood at the press conference by her cheating louse of a husband. Paulina gave those with no life something to live for.
The New York Gazette was dead. It just didn’t know it yet.
So when Ted Allen suggested that Paulina write an article about vampires, she was taken aback to say the least.
“Vampires are huge,” Allen had said. “There are those books that have sold like a gajillion copies. Now there are movies, television shows, soundtrack albums. Hell, newspapers are the only medium that isn’t getting a piece of it. Teenage girls love them, and teenage boys want to get into the pants of teenage girls. And this all scares the living hell--no pun intended--out of their parents, so you write a piece on vampires I bet it’s one of our best selling issues of the year.”
“What the hell do I write about a fictional creature?” Paulina said, laughing at herself for even asking the question.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Allen had said, clueless as ever. “Didn’t I hear about some boys and girls who go around biting people on the neck because they think they can be vampires? Go interview them. Even better, go undercover and pretend to be one of them. You know, pretend you like to bite peoples’ necks and see what they tell you.”
“Ted, I’m almost forty,” Paulina said. “I don’t think undercover will work.”
“Are you kidding?” Ted said. “What’s that term? Milf? The teenage boys will love you.”
That’s when Paulina left.
Rain beat down upon the streets steadily, with the precision of soft drumbeats. The drops splashed upward as they struck the pavement, and Paulina felt the water soaking her ankles as she exited into the gloom. A bottle of Finca Vieja Tempranillio was waiting at home. It was a good red wine, with a slight plum taste, and she could picture slipping into a warm bath with a glass in one hand and a romance novel in the other. The rest of the bottle sitting on the ledge just within reach, ready to be tilted until the last drops were consumed. Ordinarily she was not that kind of girl, but Paulina needed a night away from it all.
Paulina opened up an umbrella, and stepped into the sea of New Yorkers, entering the crowded bloodstream known as the commute home. The streets were chock full of open umbrellas, and she tried to wedge her way into the crowd without having her eye poked out by a random spoke.
As she took her first step from under the Dispatch’s canopy, Paulina heard a man’s voice yell, “Miss Cole! Miss Cole!”
She saw a man wearing a dapper suit and dark overcoat approaching her. He was tall, six one or two, with hair so blond it was nearly white, peeking out from underneath a billed cap. He looked to be in good shape, late thirties or early forties and for a brief moment Paulina felt her heart rate speed up. The car service company had really stepped up their recruiting.
“Miss Cole,” the man said, stopping in front of her. “My name is Chester. I’m from New York Taxi and Limo service. Ted Allen called to request a ride home for you.”
“Is that so,” Paulina said, barely hiding her smile. She knew months ago that she had Ted by the balls. Keeping her happy and pumping out pieces was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to the Dispatch, and the publicity she received raised the paper’s profile more than their ‘crackerjack’ investigative team ever could. That Ted would extend an olive branch so quickly surprised her at first, but if she ran the company she’d want to make sure her star reporter got home safe, sound, and dry.
“Please,” Chester said, “come with me.”
He opened up a much larger umbrella and held it out. Paulina smiled at him, a big, bright, toothy smile, and stepped under the umbrella. He led her to a Lincoln Town car which sat double parked at the curb. Holding the umbrella to shield her from the rain, the driver opened the door. Paulina thanked him, picked up the hem of her skirt and climbed into the back seat of the car. The driver shut the door, and Paulina watched as he walked around to the front.
Two sealed bottles of water were set in a pair of cup holders, and crisp new editions of that morning’s newspapers were folded in the pocket in front of her. The rain pattered against the windows, as Paulina unscrewed one of the bottles and took a long, deep sip.The driver flicked on his blinker and pulled into traffic. He headed uptown. The only sound Paulina could hear was the rubber squeaking of the windshield wipers. The only smell that of the car’s leather.
“Good day, Miss?” the driver asked.
“Better than some, worse than others,” she replied. Traffic was bumper to bumper, and the car inched along. Paulina began to grow restless. As much as she hated taking the subway, she probably would have been home by now.
“You think there might be a faster route?” she asked, leaning forward slightly when the car stopped at a red light. The driver turned around, grinned.
“Let’s see what we can do.”
The driver made a right turn, and soon the car was heading east. When they got to First Avenue, Paulina could see signs for the FDR drive north. He pulled onto the on ramp and headed uptown. The FDR tended to get flooded during heavy rain, but Paulina didn’t mind chancing that to get home quicker. She watched the cars outside, eyes widening as she saw her exit, 61st street, appear in the distance. Yet instead of slowing down and pulling left towards the exit ramp, the car sped along, bypassing the exit completely.
“Hey!” Paulina said, leaning forward again. “You should have gotten off there.”
“My apologies,” the driver said, “I must not have seen it.”
Paulina cursed under her breath. The next exit wasn’t until 96th street, and then he would have to loop all the way back downtown. Just like Ted Allen to hire a car service for her and get the one driver who didn’t know North from South.
Traffic moved along steadily, and Paulina sighed as they approached the 96th street exit.
“Exit’s coming up,” she said, making sure to remind him.
“Got it, thanks Miss Cole.
As they approached the exit, Paulina noticed the car was not slowing down at all.
“Hey, slow down? The hell is wrong with you, you’re doing to miss it!”
The car drove right by the 96th street exit without slowing down one bit.
“Where the hell are you going?” Paulina yelled. The driver did not answer. “I’m calling Ted. You’re never going to work our account again.”
“Put the phone down, Miss Cole.” The driver’s voice had lost all of its pleasantries.
“Screw you. Now I’m calling the cops. Forget our account, your ass is going to jail.” She took out her cell phone and flipped open the cover.
“If you ever want to see your daughter with all her limbs intact, you’ll put the phone down right now.”
Paulina’s mouth fell open in a silent scream. Her daughter...how? Paulina’s daughter lived with her first husband, a wreck of a man named Chad Wozniak. He was a good father, an aspiring architect who never made it past the word aspiring. He was a good man, a decent man, but not a provider. That’s what Paulina had wanted for her family, but in the end she had to do what Chad could not.
Abigail. She was twenty years old. A junior in college. A 3.7 average, captain of the soccer team at some all girls school up in Massachusetts. She and Paulina barely spoke. Maybe once every few months, and usually only when Abby’s checking account ran low. Abby was beautiful, even if sometimes this budding young woman seemed like a stranger to her own mother.
“You’re a sick monster,” Paulina said, closing the phone.
“Don’t be like that. We’re almost there.”
The driver took the FDR to the Triboro bridge, pulling off once they’d arrived in Queens. He skidded around an off ramp, took several turns in a neighborhood Paulina did not recognize, and slowly eased into an alleyway bookended by two buildings that looked like they were about to collapse. Paulina could see nobody, hear nobody. She was all alone with this man. Through the rain and desolation, nobody would hear her if she screamed.
The driver exited the car and walked around to the back seat. Paulina locked the door from the inside. She heard a click as the driver unlocked it with his remote. Before she could lock it again, he threw open the door, grabbed Paulina by her coat and spun her into the mud.
Wet slop splashed into her eyes. Paulina felt her eyes grow warm, anger rising inside of her. She launched herself at the man, her nails bared to rake at his face, but he merely grabbed her by the neck, held it for one horrible moment as he stared into her eyes.
Then Paulina felt him press something against her side, and suddenly she felt a scorching pain worse than anything she’d ever experiences. Her body twitched as she screamed. She lost control of her bladder, then dropped face down into the mud. Paulina looked up to see the man holding a taser, smiling.
“I wouldn’t do that again. I can smell your piss.”
Paulina could feel hot tears pouring down her face. She was on her hands and knees, caked in grime, and her body felt like it had just been plugged into an electrical socket. She slowly got to her knees, managed to stand up, her breath harsh and ragged.
“What do you want?” she cried. “Money? Sex?” She shuddered at the last word, praying he didn’t, praying there was something else, something that wouldn’t leave a scar. Pain she could take, but that kind of pain would never leave.
The man shook his head. Holding the taser, he reached inside his overcoat, rain beading down the dark fabric. The water spilled down his forehead into his eyes, but the man who called himself Chester hardly seemed to notice.
He removed something from his pocket and held it out to Paulina. She focused her eyes, then gasped.
It was a picture of her daughter, Abby. She was at the beach, wearing a cute pink bikini, standing in front of a massive hole she must have dug in the sand. The photo looked fairly recent, within the last year or so. Abigail’s eyes were bright and cheerful, her skin a golden brown. Abby. She looked so joyful.
Her daughter. Her blood.
“Where did you get that?” Paulina yelled.
“Do you really need to ask? I had a dozen others to choose from. You really should tell her to be careful of what photos she posts on the Internet.”
“You’re a freak,” she spat. “What the hell do you want?”
“I want you to listen to me very carefully,” the man said. He stepped closer, still holding out the photograph. Water droplets landed on the photo but he didn’t seem to care. “A long time ago, I fought in a war. I fought alongside men and women who were like my own blood. Then, one day, we found ourselves trapped. There was one man I fought with who was closer to me than anyone. He was like a daughter. A mother. A brother.”
“That day, we found ourselves fighting for our lives. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, someone throws a grenade at us. I was out of harm’s way, but the grenade went off right beside this man I cared about. I remember looking at him after the smoke cleared. He blinked his eyes, looked around like he was just confused. The only thing I remember more than his eyes was the splash of blood beneath him. Right where his legs had been blown clean off.”
Then, in one fluid motion, he held the right side of the photo with his thumb and forefinger, tore off a piece and let it flutter to the ground. It landed in front of Paulina, speckled by rain and mud.
“This is what your daughter will look like when I cut off her legs”
Paulina felt her stomach heave, her mouth opening, her eyes burning as she cried. She reached out for the photo, but was too weak to do anything.
“Blood has its own smell. It makes you want to vomit. And imagine what happens when you see that much blood coming from someone you love.”
He gripped the picture, and ripped off another piece. Again the shred fell, twisting in the rain.
“This is what your daughter will look like when I cut off her right arm.”
“Please,” Paulina whispered, her throat so constricted she could barely talk. She closed her eyes. “Stop. Just stop.”
The man stood there, holding the mutilated picture out for Paulina to see. “Open your eyes,” he said. Paulina shook her head. “Open them!”
“I have something for you,” the man said. “I want you to take it home with you and I want you to read it.”
“What?” she said, blinking away the tears.
“When you’ve read it, I want you to write an article for your newspaper based on the information contained within. Your article will run this Thursday. If it does not, for any reason whatsoever...” the man took the photo and ripped off a piece. Then he dropped the tattered photo into the mud.
“I will cut off your daughter’s head and send it to you in a box.”
He walked over to Paulina, and before she could react he grabbed her by the hair and thrust the taser into her side. Again Paulina shrieked, and again she fell into the mud, panting.
“If you don’t do what I say, before I rip your daughter apart I will burn her in places only her mother knows about.”
The man took an envelope from inside his jacket. It was sealed in plastic. He gave it to Paulina.
“This is the last you’ll hear from me if you do what I say. If you tell anyone, I’ll will tear Abigail apart limb by limb. If you go to the police, I will know you did and I will burn her body after I kill her. I will know. I’ll burn it so thoroughly they won’t be able to identify a single piece of her flesh, and the last time you will ever see your daughter whole is in photographs. I will save her severed limbs and leave them on your doorstep. ” The man paused, watched the blood drain from Paulina’s face. “If you live up to your end, your daughter will be able to live the rest of her life like a normal girl. She will be blissfully ignorant of what happened tonight.” Chester did
not find this funny. “Otherwise, she will know a pain of which you’ve only felt a fraction of tonight.”
“Please,” Paulina mewled.
Chester looked at the photograph of Abigail on the beach, her smile wide like a small child. “If not, the only bliss she’ll know is whatever happens after she dies at my hands.”
Paulina took the plastic, turned it over in her hands. Then she looked at him, confused.
“In there is everything you need to know. And make sure you don’t lose the piece at the bottom.”
Paulina looked at the bottom of the clear folder and saw what appeared to be a small, block rock, no bigger than a pebble.
Paulina sat there, crying, sniveling and drenched. Chester stared down at her, rain dripping off the tip of his nose.
“For your sake, I hope your daughter doesn’t have to die. Terrible thing to lose one’s family. But that’s up to you.”
By the time she looked up, the driver was back in his car. Something about those words felt personal, as though Chester had experienced loss himself. Then the engine revved, and he was gone. Paulina sat in the rain, mud staining her dress brown.
She watched him go, waiting to make sure he was gone. Her body was wracked with pain, and she could barely stand. Her hands felt like they’d held a battery from both ends, and when she dialed the car service it took three tries to get the number right. When he asked where she was, Paulina had to walk ten minutes just to find a street sign.
“What the heck are you doing way out there?” the man asked.
“Just get here, fast,” she said before hanging up.
It was half an hour before the car service arrived. Paulina huddled under a nearby tarp to stay dry. The driver, a short, thick man with a bushy mustache, got out. He looked her over, his lip curled up. He was as confused as she was.
“Miss,” he said, “are you ok? Do you need me to take you to the hospital?”
“Just take me home,” she said. “And help me up.”
The driver bent down, put his arm around Paulina, and helped the shuddering reporter into the backseat of his car.
As he drove away, the man said, “Don’t worry, miss. I’m taking you home. Everything’s ok.”
Paulina looked up at him, slimy mascara stinging her eyes. And she thought, no. It’s not.