Read 23 Minutes Online

Authors: Vivian Vande Velde

23 Minutes (10 page)

BOOK: 23 Minutes
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Racing up the stairs, she intercepts him on the landing between the first floor and the second, by the leaded glass window that is letting in the last of the sunshine before the rain will take over.

Daniel has already stepped aside to let her pass, his envelope of papers in one hand, sunglasses in the other.

“Daniel!” she says.

“Yes,” he answers, his voice bright to match the enthusiasm of hers, though he makes no attempt to bluff that he has any idea who she is.

“Armadillo,” she tells him.

“Excuse me?” he says.

Well, of course she knew it wasn't going to be
that
simple:

              
ZOE: Daniel!

              
DANIEL: Yes.

              
ZOE: Armadillo.

              
DANIEL: Wow, you must be someone I met and trusted in an alternate reality. Tell me what you want me to do.

In place of that scenario, Zoe says, “My name is Zoe. We've never met—well, we have, but not exactly—but you said I should say
armadillo
.”

Daniel already looks like he's having trouble keeping up. “I did?”

“It's … sort of a code,” Zoe explains. She should have asked for more details, but had been too afraid of getting stranded on the wrong side of her allotted twenty-three minutes. Now she has to admit, “I'm … not sure what's the significance of the word itself.
But my saying it is supposed to let you know you can trust me.”

He's amused and intrigued—an expression that very much suits his features.

Zoe hopes she isn't looking at him in the drool-y sort of way she and Rasheena have caught Mrs. Davies looking at actors in those old black-and-white movies from the forties and fifties. Zoe remembers Mrs. Davies sitting in front of the TV. Rasheena asking her, “You like that guy?” Mrs. Davies nodding. Rasheena saying, “Don't you know that guy been dead longer than we been alive?”

Dead guys
is not a topic on which Zoe wants her mind dwelling.

So it's a good thing when Daniel says, “I see. Well …” He looks around, but there are no chairs in the small lobby, so he sits on the floor of the landing, his feet on the next step going down. Apparently willing to trust her at least long enough to chat with her.

“That's not your office up there?” she asks, just to make sure, in case Daniel was being evasive before because she was coming off as stalkerish. An office would be more comfortable, more private.

“Just visiting someone.” The way he chooses that moment to set down the envelope he's been carrying, putting it behind him on the landing, suggests to Zoe that he was seeing the lawyer on the second floor about those papers—which still doesn't mean
he
isn't a lawyer, too. He asks, “You know about
armadillo
, but not where I work?”

He's left room for Zoe to sit next to him, and she does.

It's a bit of a tight fit. She squashes herself against the banister so as not to press against him, and she tells herself not to get flustered by his eyes. Or his hair. Or his smile.

“No,” she admits. “Why
armadillo
?”

He hesitates, and she's about to tell him
never mind
when he
says, “When I was … maybe ten, and I'd been spooked by stories of kids being snatched by strangers who claimed to be sent by parents—that was the code word I told my family to use:
If
they absolutely had to send a stranger to pick me up from school or wherever, make sure the stranger said
armadillo
, so I would know they had really sent him.”

Zoe suspects Daniel's parents were not the kind of people who ever sent strangers to pick up their son from anywhere. Zoe often had strangers pick her up—though more often didn't have
anyone
show when she needed fetching—and yet she never even thought of having a code word. She can't imagine her mother having the patience.

“Why
armadillo
?” Zoe asks. “Are you originally from Texas?” Not that she would have ever thought so from his speech.

“No, I've always lived here,” Daniel tells her—which is what she would have guessed. “I suppose it takes someone from Rochester, New York, to think an armadillo is cute.”

“OK,” Zoe says in the same deliberate manner she's heard him use—just, not yet.

Daniel asks, “So … how did we meet—but not exactly—and why did you and I need a code word?”

The whole purpose of having a code word was to get things moving faster, so Zoe jumps right in. She says, “I had just told you something that—on the face of it—seemed impossible. But something happened that made you believe me. That's when you gave me the word.”

He's watching her, not closed-faced as when they'd sat in Dunkin' Donuts, but trying to take this all in.

He says slowly, piecing it together, “So you and I have met …
and it's not that you've changed your appearance …?”—she shakes her head—“but I don't remember meeting you … and you knew I wouldn't remember you …” His blue eyes are scrutinizing her, which is disconcerting. He doesn't sound challenging, just looking for information, when he asks, “Why don't I?”

It's to avoid the intensity of his eyes that she glances away from them, from his face. Sitting has caused his jacket to gap, and a glint beneath the jacket catches her attention.

Zoe freezes.

He has a gun.

Damn.
He has a gun.

Her thoughts ricochet around in her head. He can't be a police officer. He never identified himself as one. And surely he would have. Maybe not that first time in the bank. Conceivably he might have thought that would have just complicated things, with the robber already all freaked out at the bank guard. But surely this last time, when they were talking in the doughnut shop. He would have said, once he believed her: “Zoe, I'm a policeman. I can handle this.”

But he didn't.

Who else carries a gun?

Well, her mother did that one time, but Zoe doesn't want to think about that.

Yeah, right. A lot of good
not wanting
does. The thoughts come anyway …

The impossibly long ride to the Family Counseling Center, with her parents bickering and sniping all the way, her attempts at making peace only seeming to escalate their hostility playback through playback, her father, who simply would not stop shouting, even once they got into the office. Her mother, finally quiet, pulling
the gun from her purse. The family counselor (who would have guessed such a fat old man could move so fast?) diving for cover behind the couch. And she herself too stunned to move, despite the clear hints anybody with any sense would have picked up on. Continuing to sit like a pathetic, useless lump. Like a target, if that had been her mother's intent. Like her mother's accomplice, for all the help she was to Dad.

And there's Delia's ex-boyfriend, the one before the one at the bus stop, the reputed drug dealer. Zoe had given him the benefit of the doubt, not believing what the other girls said about him because she'd thought he looked—well, not exactly upstanding, but not exactly disreputable either. Until that time, watching a pick-up basketball game, he'd pulled out a gun and took a shot at a guy for hogging the ball. Never mind that he'd hit the nearby Dumpster instead of the player, or that he claimed the Dumpster had been his target all along: Zoe has clearly demonstrated she is not good at reading people.

But still. In Zoe's experience, people who have guns fire them.

Who brings a gun to a family counseling session?

Or to a basketball game in a city park?

Who brings a gun to a bank?

Zoe's mind refuses to accept the obvious.

Till suddenly things fall into place.

Daniel can't be trusted. Any more than her mother. Or Delia's ex-boyfriend.

That look? That expression that flitted across Daniel's face when he first saw the bank robber, that emotion or feeling she wasn't able to give a name to? She has a name for it now. That was recognition. Daniel recognized the robber. And now Zoe realizes: The robber
recognized Daniel.
That
was why the man started shooting. He knew Daniel could identify him.
That
was why he wanted to take Daniel hostage, and why Daniel balked, why he was so sure he would never survive should he be taken away from witnesses.
He's never going to let me go
, Zoe remembers him saying.
He's never going to let any of us go. So you might as well just shoot him now.

They recognized each other.

And yet Daniel isn't a cop.

But he's carrying a gun

She had called him
Mr. President
after William Henry Harrison, bad luck president extraordinaire.

How much more bad luck can you have than to be inside a bank, planning to rob it—at the exact same time another robber of your acquaintance walks in to hold up that same bank?

If there are other reasons for Daniel to be carrying a concealed weapon, another explanation for why he recognized the robber, Zoe doesn't have time to try to figure them out.

“Crap!” she says.

She tries to scramble to her feet. But her position is awkward, what with sitting on that step so her knees are higher than her waist, and what with being more or less wedged between Daniel and the banister. Somehow her legs get tangled in his and she teeters on the edge of that top stair.

And all the while, she's still saying, “Crap crap crap!” knowing she's about to fall the entire length of the staircase.

Except that Daniel has caught hold of her wrist. This keeps her from tumbling backward, but also keeps her from being able to transport herself with the playback spell.

“What is it?” he asks. “What's wrong?”

She just barely manages to keep from falling fully onto him by twisting so that—almost as bad—she lands back exactly where she started from, sitting hard, her thigh brushing against his, which, just a few heartbeats ago, would have caused her distress for an entirely different reason.

“Zoe?” he says. Calmly. Gently. Concerned. “What's happened? What's frightened you?”

“Let go of me!” she shouts at him. Once more she tries to stand, tries to yank her arm out of his grasp. Uses her other hand to beat at his hand holding her. “Let go of me!”

Still looking at her with that mixture of confusion and … and something that certainly
looks like
the desire to help—he tells her, “Careful. I'm letting go.” And then—once he's sure releasing her won't catapult her backward down the stairs—he does: He lets go of her arm.

But he can't be trusted.

She manages to step back onto the less precarious footing of the landing. Away from his touch.

“Zoe,” he says, sounding as reasonable as she could have ever wished for, “Don't be afraid. Whatever kind of trouble you're in, let me help you.”

But he's the trouble.

She puts her arms around herself and wishes herself away from him.

CHAPTER 9

T
IME RESETS TO
1:16.

Zoe's ponytail elastic is once again holding her hair. She is embarrassed for herself—and furious with herself—that she wanted to look nice for Daniel.

She has never felt so betrayed. Not when her mother would hit her. Not when her father would pretend he didn't notice. Not when her friends and her friends' parents and her teachers and her doctors refused to believe her about her ability to play back time.

But this is worse.

All this while she was feeling sorry for him, trying to help him, trying to save him—
risking her life to save him
—and here he is, just as bad as the man who shot him.

Because Daniel, too, brought a gun into the bank. Maybe just to threaten. But surely someone who plans a crime and supplies himself with a weapon knows there's a chance he might end up using it. Some of the kids in the places she's stayed have scars that can prove this. As does her father.

Is it purest coincidence that Zoe has seen Daniel killed? Couldn't it just as easily have ended the exact opposite way?—with Daniel waving the gun and menacing tellers and customers alike, with Daniel shooting the other bank robber point-blank in the head?

Zoe needs some physical release for her anger. Anger management has never been one of her particular problems. But
she's heard enough from the other girls to be familiar with some of the buzzwords. A
time-out
doesn't seem relevant for this situation.
Deep breaths. Think before you speak. Identify possible solutions.
She guesses these techniques are as meaningless to the people they're inflicted on as her own doctors' therapies were for her.

She wants to hit someone. Specifically, she wants to hit Daniel, but he's back at the Victorian house, talking to the lawyer on the second floor. Perhaps asking about the legal ramifications of armed robbery. Daniel is a careful person, she thinks (with—all right! all right!—maybe a bit of bitterness): He's a planner. He would surely weigh the consequences and decide if the risks were worthwhile.

How could you?
she mentally screams at him.

Some of the boys with whom Zoe has come up through the ranks go to the gym, take out their frustrations on a punching bag. She isn't sure if the girls do this also.

But in any case, Zoe isn't in a gym. She's out on the street, in front of the hat and purse boutique, and there is nothing around that offers itself up as suitable punching material. The brick wall? The window? Zoe isn't so far gone into rage as to injure herself. Or one of the passersby.

Besides, her hands are full. She once more is holding the folder of papers she stole from the group home.

Well, they will have to do.

She will rip the whole folder in half. She's seen people rip a phone book in half, which looks eminently satisfying, and the folder is a fraction of that thickness.

BOOK: 23 Minutes
13.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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