None of her peers would have called Gloria Norgen stupid. With a master’s degree in education and a vigorous tongue, she broadcast that sort of vision which won encomiums in pedagogical newsletters and stand-up applause at high school conferences throughout the Midwest. Fellow teachers would have called her idealistic, sincere, well-meaning, even eloquent. Or, if not eloquent, at least voluble. None, however, would have called her stupid.
It was she herself who applied that word. And, that evening, she was applying it without mercy. An attractive young woman venturing alone into one of Chicago’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods, she’d been stupid all right. Stupid to return to the school after dark. Stupid to return in a skirt and high heels. And stupid again to exit her car in a corner of the parking lot from where two knife-wielding thugs could escort her unseen into the building.
And things could get worse.
Roped to a chair in her office, she watched the man in the black ski mask plunge his gloved fingers into her handbag. “How long ya been a teacher?” he mumbled.
“None of your business,” she snapped.
Oblivious to her pluck, he pulled out a key chain and held it up, as if dangling a crayfish by the leg. “Which one’s for the car?”
With a sinking heart, she pictured the new Nissan Maxima in the parking lot and thought of pleading with him not to take it, but how stupid would that be?
“The gold one,” she replied, deadpan.
Best to cooperate. Whatever didn’t kill her would make her wiser. Besides, one could deal only with the consequences now, not erase the stupidities from which they had flowed.
A thump sounded on the door. “Open up!” came a hoarse whisper. “It’s me.”
The robber reached for the door, unlocked it, and pulled it open, and something in his movements jogged her memory. She envisioned the quiet boy with the light cocoa-brown complexion and large, round, doleful eyes—the one who’d always sat in the back of her classroom, apart even from her other Hispanic students. She’d wanted to reach out to him, but her Spanish had been abysmal at the time. Then, two years ago, The Boy dropped out.
Similarly masked, his accomplice came in lugging a loaded laundry bag that clanked when he hoisted it onto her desk.
“You got the trophies?” The Boy asked.
“All of ‘em.” With a jaunty air, the looter turned to Gloria.
Lifting her nose, she shuddered nonetheless. In combat boots, black jeans and a leather jacket, he looked like a medieval executioner—the sort who specialized in lopping heads off cervixes with single swings of an ax.
“You ain’t afraid of me, are
you?” he snickered, lowering his face.
She turned away. A gloved finger began probing her blouse.
“Leave her alone,” said The Boy.
The finger kept probing. She closed her eyes. Dear God, what was she in for? A button on her blouse popped open. The finger invaded her cleavage.
“Hey!” Her assailant cursed.
There was a scuffling across the floor and something thudded into a wall. “God damn it!” he cursed again, this time from across the room. She opened her eyes to see him pinned against the far wall, his back to the plaster, his throat in the grip of The Boy.
“I said leave her alone,” The Boy spoke in Spanish through clenched teeth. “Comprendes?”
The constricted windpipe emitted a wheezing sound followed by a cough and more wheezing.
The Boy released his grip. The other drew a knife. The Boy drew his own knife and they squared off, limbs spread like those of wrestlers about to grapple.
A knock sounded. Gloria looked at the door.
“Are you in there?”
Like visages of terror sculpted from ice, the combatants stared back at her, their fate dependent on whatever she might say.
“Ye-yes, Jim. I’m here.”
“Is everything okay?” asked the night watchman.
“I thought I heard something.”
Gloria laughed. “Just clumsy old me! I…” What should she say? “I was moving a bookcase and…and I banged into the wall by accident.”
“You didn’t hurt yourself, did you?” Jim sounded concerned.
Gloria laughed again, her heart pounding between the ropes encircling her chest. “I’m fine, Jim. Just fine. Have a good night.”
A silence followed. She pictured him in the hall, listening. Had her “good night” sounded abrupt? Should she add something? Try to soften it? Or would any amendment only make it worse?
“Have a good night, Miss Norgen.”
“You too, Jim.”
His footsteps disappeared down the hall. Relaxing, the gargoyles came back to life, pocketed their weapons, but kept their eyes devilishly locked. “You’re dead!” the one hissed, fingering his larynx. “You ain’t no Jaguar.” He seized the neck of the laundry bag and turned to the door.
“I wouldn’t,” Gloria warned.
The effect was electric. The crook froze, his hand on the doorknob.
“I’d use the window,” she said. “There’s a fire escape.”
He turned and eyed her, burning behind his mask like the belly of a raging furnace. Had The Boy not been there, he’d have beaten her to a pulp. Instead he left, still seething but quiet, by the route she’d recommended.
The Boy shut the window.
Suddenly aware of her exposed cleavage, Gloria looked away, embarrassed. He removed his gloves and, discreetly, buttoned her blouse back up.
“Tha—thank you,” she gasped. “Pepito.”
He straightened up with a start.
How stupid had she been this time? To get away after she’d blurted out his name, a thief would have only one option—he’d have to kill her.
“You remember me?” he asked.
“Ye-yes,” she stammered, eager to change the subject. “You dropped out two years ago, didn’t you?”
He looked at the floor guiltily. “I was no good in school.”
“Your mother didn’t think so.”
Gloria recalled the talk she’d had with Mrs. Gonzalez shortly after her son dropped out. His father, manager of a Mexican grocery, had been killed a year before by a stray bullet shot between rival gangs. After that, The Boy’s interest in school plummeted and he joined a gang himself, tempted, Gloria speculated, by all the things a gang could offer—a sense of belonging, personal pride, the thrill of a forbidden allegiance, and revenge. Revenge for his father’s death.
“Here,” he said, “let me untie you.”
“Something’s been stolen and you’ll have to deal with the consequences, Pepito.”
He groaned. “I’m sorry, Miss Norgen. Really I am. Can’t I just untie you,” he pleaded, “and you forgive me and…”
“It won’t be that easy.”
He bit his lip.
“Jim suspects something.”
He looked at her, his eyes narrowed. The tack she’d taken had surprised him.
“Normally, I’d have opened my door to him. On his second round, he’ll notice the trophies missing, put two and two together, and come back here to investigate. He’ll guess that the thief—or thieves—were in my office.”
“He’ll guess that?”
“Besides the staircase,” Gloria explained, “there’s no way to exit the second floor except down the fire escape. Since I’m the only teacher working late…”
The Boy nodded. “He’ll guess we escaped through your window.”
“Exactly. And the police will suspect me of collaboration unless…”
“You’re tied up.”
“But…” The Boy paused, pondering the matter. “You’ll have to answer questions, too, won’t you?”
“Of course. And I’ll tell what I know. But I don’t have to tell everything.” She cast him a wry smile. “I don’t have to say I knew the ‘thug’ who tied me up.”
He brightened behind the mask. “You’d help me like that, Miss Norgen?”
“On one condition—that you come back to school.”
He clouded up again. “I’m too old for school.”
At 20, he’d feel more out of place than ever, scoffed at by peers, shunned by fellow students.
“Get a GED,” she said. “I’ll help you. And I know plenty of employers who’d go out of their way for a smart, honest, hardworking young man with a solid high-school education.”
He eyed her, wanting to believe without quite believing. She’d have to attack his doubts later.
“Just think about it,” she said. “Meanwhile, stay out of trouble.”
“You don’t plan to take my car anymore, do you?”
“N-no, Miss Norgen.”
“Then please return the gold key.”
“Ye-yes, Miss Norgen.”
“Leave the door unlocked. In fact, leave it ajar. That way, Jim’ll be sure to find me.”
“Yes, Miss Norgen.”
As he fumbled with the key chain, she looked up at the cabinet behind the desk. “There’s duct tape in that drawer and a fresh pair of nylons in my handbag.”
“Duct tape,” he repeated mechanically, but then looked up from the key chain, perplexed. “Nylons?”
“Stuffing for my mouth,” she winked. “You better gag me, Pepito. My colleagues’ll wonder why I didn’t make more noise.”
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