The Spaghetti Warrior
A short story
by

Dr Robert Rich

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It's five minutes to four, and a long queue is still waiting out there in the public area. All five tellers are flat out. I'm thinking about tomorrow, it's the semifinal. I play right wing for the City Flyers hockey team.

   Jack calls, "Suzie, lock the door, could you?"

   I've been expecting the order, so slip out from behind my computer, go through the locked door in the partition and excuse my way along the press of customers.

   My hand is reaching for the keypad on the wall when the double glass sliding doors open.

   "I'm sorry, Sir, we are clo..."

   He has a gun.

   The evil black eye of the short barrel is looking at me. His hand around the butt is beefy, with black hairs sprouting from the backs of his fingers.

   "Do nothing, say nothing," he says, sounding amused.

   Time has stopped. I couldn't move if I wanted to. He is smiling, showing impossibly even, white teeth, but his eyes are emotionless brown holes.

   "It's only someone else's money, darlin'. Slowly turn around and walk in. No sudden moves."

   How dare he call me 'darling'? I come alive. I must remember his every feature. Six feet tall -- 180 cm -- slim except for the start of a little belly. The straight black hair grows low over his forehead, with silver at the temples. He has a broad face, high cheekbones, thick lips. The voice is deep, cultured. He may be forty-five years old.

   We are well inside, though I don't remember walking in.

   A sharp clap of noise strikes my ear and I'd collapse except his hand suddenly grasps my left upper arm from behind. "Don't move!" he shouts. "Don't even think."

   Somebody screams.

   Another man walks past me, holding something like a short rifle. His face is grotesquely featureless, then I realise that he has pantyhose over his head. He wears scruffy blue jeans and a long-sleeved white shirt. My captor says, more conversationally now, "No-one will get hurt if you all just behave." I try to remember his clothes, but can't. It was different from the gunman's.

   The second man unhurriedly walks towards the back of the bank, the two legs of the pantyhose bizarrely flopping behind him like bunny ears. The customers shrink away from him as he nears them. Shoulders smoothly moving he swivels, and another ear-splitting crack fills the space. I see the second, hidden video camera explode.

   My captor says, "Mr Barton, if you want little Suzie here to stay alive, you'll keep away from the alarm button."

   How does he know my name? Jack's is on the wall, under his picture, but I'm not wearing a name tag. Also, the patronising 'little Suzie' rubs me the wrong way. I'm tall for a girl, only about five centimetres shorter than him.

   His hand on my arm is an irresistible force as he pulls me into the little alcove where the customer enquiry telephone is. Then he jerks me back against his hard body, and I feel a cold touch on the top of my head. His left arm holds me around the chest like a tentacle, pressing against my breasts. I need to vomit. I almost retch but manage to keep it back.

   "Hold up, love," he says, still amused, loudly enough for everyone to hear. "You won't get hurt if those nice colleagues of yours do as they're told."

   Standing this way, I can see the whole bank. A third man has come in. He is short but stocky, powerfully built. He is dressed like the second man and also has pantyhose over his head. He is holding a big carry-all. The man with the rifle has it trained on the customers, who are cowering in a press against the partition at the back.

   My captor says, "Tellers, fill up my friend's bag. No dyes, no tricks or you can say good-bye to Suzie. I know you all like her."

   How can he possibly know that?

   We wait as the short man efficiently goes along the line of tellers, receiving bundles of notes.

   "Mr Barton, Sir, you will now let my friend in, accompany him to the safe and fill up whatever space is left in the bag." His voice is courteous to suit the respect in the words, but the sarcasm is cutting. This man feels nothing but contempt for us.

   Obscenely, his arm is moving up and down, rubbing against my breasts. I can't help struggling, but he taps the top of my head with the gun. "Stay still, little one," he growls.

   The small man comes back out through the partition door. He is leaning sideways to balance the weight of the bag. I can see the sweat all over Jack's face as he shuts the door behind him.

   The man carries his bag of money out, jerking the pantyhose off his head as he exits through the door. He has short-cropped sandy-coloured hair.

   We wait.

   The gunman starts backing towards the door, sure on his feet. My captor shifts his grip back to my left upper arm, and pulls me with him. He announces, "Sweet Suzie is coming with us, for insurance. Mr Barton, if the Police catch us, she dies, so go slow with pressing that button."

   My knees buckle. His arm whips around me again, holding me up. "Come along," he says as if he was being kind, "Nothing will go wrong, and you'll have a story to tell for the rest of your life."

   Nightmares more like.

   "Now, we'll go out of here hand in hand, like friends. I've still got the gun in my pocket, pointing at you."

   I manage to nod, though I'm unable to speak.

   He spins me around, and I see that he has a clown mask over his face. Bizarrely, it's a sad clown, with huge downturning lips and oversize tears. He pulls this off as we turn towards the street, then his right hand whips back into his pocket. The mask hangs off his right arm for all the world like a handbag.

   A car pulls up and double parks, a bottle-blonde woman at the wheel. The slim man, weapon no longer visible, opens the rear door and the big fellow shoves me in, crowding after me. The second man gets into the front, and the woman smoothly pulls away. "Jim drove off without any trouble. I saw," she says in a high-pitched, little-girl voice.

   I pluck up my courage to ask, "Wh... when are you letting me go?"

   He turns towards me. "Sweetheart, you've seen my face! Do you think I am stupid?" He is giving me the same meaningless smile as at our first contact.

   "Please. Don't... don't..." I can't get it out. I feel like wetting myself.

   "I'm not going to kill you. But we'll need to keep you with us until our escape is finalised. It's all planned out."

   "Please. I have a young daughter, I need to..."

   "Good try, Suzie. But I researched things pretty thoroughly. You do not have a child. You broke up with your boyfriend a couple of months back and are living alone."

   "How do you know?"

   He laughs, self-satisfied and smug. "I know everything about every employee in six bank branches. We had several alternative scripts, settled on this one only two days ago."

   The woman says, "He chose your branch because you're the prettiest door closer. He's a sleaze, love." Her voice is lower now, she must have been very tense before.

   "Shut up, Hazel," he answers without heat.

   I go even colder, if that is possible. Why would he let me know her name if I am to be allowed to go?

   We drive into the Eastland car park, hectares of empty cars, but there are many vacant spaces this far from the buildings. I can see nobody within shouting distance, besides he still has his gun.

   "Good, Jim's moved it," the slim man in the front says, then we park next to a battered old white Toyota. The sandy-haired man is at the wheel.

   "Please let me go. I promise..."

   He cuts me off. "Come on, Suzie, don't get difficult. You'll be found, alive, but by then we'll be out of the country."

   Why don't I believe him?

   I am now sandwiched between the two men in the back seat. The other fellow is perhaps twenty-five, with facial features and colouring very much like the big man's. His son?

   Hazel reaches up a red-nailed hand and pulls at her hair. It was a wig, she has short, curly dark hair. "Oh, it's good to get this off. I didn't like being a bimbo."

   Obviously, she is having a go at me for being a blonde.

   Jim drives east along the Maroondah Highway, through suburbs and then open farmland, past vineyards, through country towns, up into the mountains. We wind over the Black Spur, through more little towns, then after what feels like hours, he swings left onto an unsurfaced track. We follow a sinuous path to an old weatherboard house.

   "Welcome home," the big man says.

***

Quite courteously, Hazel shows me into a room, flicks the light on. Jim is behind us, but stops outside the door. It's just a room in an old house, except for the window. A sheet of chipboard had been nailed over all but the top thirty centimetres or so, which is showing the red of a sunset. Dingy floral wallpaper lines the tall walls. The high ceiling has a central plaster rose with an ornate light fitting hanging from it. The furniture is shabby and old, looks like ex-Salvation Army. A faded floral quilt covers the double bed.

   Hazel tells me, "There's an en suite bathroom and toilet, through there. The nearest neighbour is over a mile away, so you can scream to your heart's content if you want to."

   "Please," I whisper, "let me escape, I'll keep your secret."

   She laughs in my face. "You kidding? Dad gets half, he planned it all so that's fair, Jim's my guy, he, my brother and I each get one-sixth. Dad and Pete are counting now."

   She shuts the door and I hear a bolt grate into place.

   If only I had my mobile phone, but it's in my handbag, back at the Bank.

   The door opens again. Hazel tosses in a large soft bag. "It's all your size. Dad thinks of everything," she says, then I'm locked in again.

   This is reassuring. Surely if I am to be killed, they could do it now and never be found out. Also, it's intimidating. How can I play chess against a person who thinks so far ahead? He'd said they'd only settled on this plan two days ago.

   The bag contains everything, all new, even bras in my size. I have a shower, change into jeans and a T-shirt. I lie down on the bed, but as soon as I close my eyes I'm back at the bank door, frozen, looking into the gun's single black eye.

   Will I ever dare to sleep again?

   It's after seven on my watch when I hear the door being unlocked. It's the father, I still don't know his name. He is grinning, his stance is even more arrogant and self-satisfied. "Come on, Suzie, it's dinner time. And we have something to celebrate."

   In my misery I hadn't realised it, but now I feel hungry. As I stand, he grasps my elbow and steers me along a dim corridor to a large kitchen. He says, "And after dinner, darling, you can give me a good time."

   I freeze inside.

   A cheap-looking, metal-legged table is squeezed into an adjoining alcove, with a white table cloth, two steaming pots in the middle, five places set. Two candles add to the overhead light.

   I am made to sit against the wall, next to Hazel. Jim is at the end of the table on my left, Pete opposite him. The big man faces us two women. Hazel serves a nice-smelling spaghetti bolognaise. The big man opens a bottle of champagne, pours into five goblets. He lifts his, and says, slowly and impressively, "Two million fifteen thousand four hundred and eighty six dollars after expenses."

   This is not surprising. Nearly three hundred businesses deposit cash at our bank every afternoon, and Friday is always the heaviest day. No doubt he knew this. They all drink with grinning faces, elation in every movement. I refuse to touch the goblet. What do I have to celebrate?

   He smiles at me, but there is menace behind the friendly face. "Drink up, sweetheart. You may be an unwilling part of the team, but--"

   For once I cut him off. "I am NOT part of the team! I've been terrorised and kidnapped!"

   He is unruffled. "But not hurt, yet. Behave yourself and you'll be OK. Now drink up the bubbly like a good girl."

   I have never felt this helpless in my twenty-five years.

   Hazel says, "Suzie, so far everything's gone according to Dad's plan. If it continues that way, you'll be free and a celebrity in a few days."

   It's easy for her. My being has been violated. He has just threatened me with rape. I may live this nightmare for the rest of my life. And how can I go back to the job I've loved until today?

   I reach for the goblet, in apparent submission, then my hand knocks it over. "Oh sorry," but I fool no-one.

   Still standing with the bottle in his left hand, the man reaches across the table towards the goblet, then I feel a stinging slap across my mouth. The blow has enough force to knock my head back against the wall behind me.

   He picks up the goblet, refills it. "Now, don't waste good bubbly," he says, still in that even tone of voice.

   His face is calm, but those brown eyes glitter with a fire.

   Pete says, "Suzie, we learned as very small kids never to defy Dad. He always wins."

   "You're not MY Dad!"

   He is leaning forward again. As his hand reaches towards me, I hurl my steaming plate of spaghetti bolognaise in his face. I'm beyond thinking, or more exactly my actions are faster than thought. I've shoved Jim's heaped plate into his face, and I'm crouched with my hands under the edge of the table. I heave, and by some fluke the pot of spaghetti lands on the big man's head like some monstrous helmet.

   Jim is clawing at his face, leaning back, so I push hard at him even while feeling Hazel's hands clutching at me. Jim crashes over backwards and I am out from behind the table.

   Pete is coming at me but skids on meat sauce, then trips over the writhing form of his father. I pick up a chair lying on the ground and bring it down over his head.

   The big man has pulled the pot off his head, which looks like a nest of white worms, with spaghetti covering his head and face. I raise the chair and strike again, but Hazel's shoving hand deflects the blow. The edge of the seat lands on his back.

   Hazel is coming towards me. She has picked up Jim's chair. Her teeth are showing in a tiger's grin. Jim is scrambling to his feet, though his face is boiled red where it's not covered with food.

   I skip backwards, putting Jim between Hazel and me, then whack him on the head too from behind. Hazel strikes at me, but is too far away. One leg of the chair smashes into my left shoulder, so that I drop my awkward weapon, but I manage to grasp her chair with my right hand.

   We stand facing each other, panting, with three fallen men and a tableful of food and crockery littering the floor around us.

   She pulls hard. I resist for a moment, then push instead of pulling, and let go. She lands hard onto her bottom.

   By my feet is the bottle of champagne, still quietly emptying itself over the lino. I snatch it up and throw. I am not usually good at sports like cricket, but I guess desperation sharpens my aim. The bottle bounces off Hazel's head, leaving me the victor.

   What now?

   Father is throwing himself from side to side, moaning. His face must be terribly burned. Pete and Jim are lying still. Hazel is face down between the horizontal legs of the table, and I can see a swelling grow out of her dark hair.

   They need medical aid, and I need the police. There must be a telephone. I see none in the kitchen. Do I dare to leave them? If they come to, I've had it.

   Almost walking backwards so I can keep an eye on them, I half walk, half skid my way to the corridor -- the floor is slippery with champagne and meat sauce. I find the light switch. There are three closed doors on each side, and the leadlighted front door at the end. I know the third door on the right is my prison. I try the nearest left one. When I turn on the light I see that this is a double bedroom, must be Hazel and Jim's.

   On the dressing table are various objects including a man's wallet, and next to it a bunch of keys. Wonderful! I run over and shove the keys into one pocket, the wallet into another. It may have identification.

   The next room on the left is a lounge, and there on an office desk is a telephone. I pick up the receiver, press 000.

   A figure staggers in through the door. It's Pete, and he has his rifle in his hand. But his eyes look glazed, and a snail trail dribbles from his mouth.

   Will they never pick up the phone? I scurry around the desk, ready to duck.

   Pete raises the weapon to his shoulder and shoots. The noise is even louder here than at the bank, but I don't know where the bullet went. He reaches an armchair, leans against the back and brings the weapon around towards me. This time it's a lot steadier, and suddenly my terror triples. I duck as he shoots, the noise just as deafening.

   The phone goes dead, shards of white plastic flying over my head.

   Can I use this desk the way I used the table? No, it's much too heavy.

   Next to me is an office chair on castors. I shove hard at it. He shoots as the chair emerges, and I'm out the other side, like a sprinter from the starting blocks, racing for the door.

   I look at him while running, my head twisted to the right. He is swivelling towards me, face contorted, eyes burning with hate.

   I smash into the doorpost, should have looked where I was going. It hurts my right shoulder, but my hand feels the light switch. I flick it off, then throw myself through the doorway and roll.

   Something taps me on the shoulder, and I hear the bang of the rifle at the same time. But there is no pain, except where I have rolled over the keys in my pocket.

   I'm up off the floor, and into the room across on the other side, slamming the door behind me. The curtains are open on the window. Moonlight is streaming in. The old fashioned catch won't budge for what feels like forever.

   The door is opening behind me when at last the catch turns and I raise the window with a squeal and a rattle of pulleys. I dive out head first and roll through some thorny plant. It tugs at my clothes, but then I am away, towards the front of the house.

   I hear the shot and the sound of breaking glass as the room behind me is lit up by a flash.

   The house is longer than it could possibly be. I'm running, but the corner is still ahead, and Pete will be at the window by now.

   Then I am around the corner and there is the Toyota.

   The driver's door is unlocked. I fumble the key but at last it's in the ignition. I actually feel guilty, not taking the time to put the safety belt on as I steer along the winding dirt driveway.

   Did we turn right or left when we came here? I can't remember. In the end I turn right onto the narrow mountain road and when I top a rise, there is the glow of the city in the distance.

   Usually, I am a good driver, but now I find myself going into curves too fast, my steering fails to follow the road, I nearly lose control a couple of times. Thank heavens there is no other traffic. At last I pass a speed sign, then street lights dot the dark road.

   I find a public phone booth and finally get through to the police.

   Within ten minutes, a white Range Rover pulls up next to me, the blue and red lights on the roof unlit. A giant in a black jumper and pants jumps out and walks around the vehicle's nose to meet me. "Miss Jensen?"

   "Yes."

   "I'm Senior Constable Ivan Blake, the local law here. I'm afraid you'll need to show me where this place is. That's if you're up to it... or is that a problem?"

   Even in the poor light from the phone booth, his face makes me feel safe. He looks tough, I wouldn't want to get on his wrong side, but also his eyes shine with concern, his question shows that he is sensitive. For the first time since -- I shy away from the thought -- the coiled spring inside me relaxes.

   "Not with you," I blurt out, and he grins.

   "Come on, hop in. When I get bucked off a horse, I get right back into the saddle again."

   As I clamber up the big step, I tell him, "They have guns. At least one is well enough to shoot."

   "Reinforcements are coming."

   As I turn to shut the door he says, "Hold up, you've been bleeding." He reaches out with a hand like a young tennis racquet and touches my right shoulder.

   I remember the shot in the corridor, and that's when it starts to hurt. "It can't be much," I tell him. "Let's just go."

   "Righto." As he drives off, he exults, "You've made my day, young lady. Every cop in the State is looking for these birds, and here they are in my territory. Beauty."

   "They're dangerous."

   "Now tell me how you got away."

   I give him a stumbling account, and he laughs so much he has to pull over. "Oh, oh, oh, the spaghetti warrior!"

   "Yes, but he must be badly burnt. And actually, they hadn't hurt me until then."

   He is suddenly serious. "Oh yes they have, my dear. Physical harm is the least damaging. I've had contact with many crime victims, and let me tell you, the memories can be worse than any beating."

   "I know. Already, I keep seeing it every time I close my eyes."

   "I'll make sure you get help."

   He is just a bulky silhouette next to me, but even without seeing his face I know he means it. My father died when I was three, but this must be what it feels like to have a Dad. "Are you married?" I blurt out before realising what I've said.

   He laughs, sadly. "I used to be. Oh, we're still friends, but she reckoned she couldn't compete with a 24-hour a day job. Got two kids though, Adam is seven, Jennie is five."

   We drive along the winding road in silence for a while, then he asks, "And what about you, Miss Jensen?"

   "Just call me Suzie. I was about to get married, but he started hitting me during an argument. I wouldn't stand for it."

   "Good for you. No person has the right to abuse another. But surely the fellows are standing in a double queue outside your door?"

   "I've been telling them to get lost."

   "Suzie, not all men are the same. Maybe, when you've recovered from this..."

   "Hmm?"

   "Sorry," he says after a silence. "I've no right."

   "What if I didn't mind?"

   "I made Sylvia unhappy. I've told myself I won't impose the same load on another woman. I love my work too much."

   "Well, Ivan, you're not proposing yet, are you?" He laughs with me. "I might consider something a little less intense if you were to suggest it."

   But then we round a curve that looks familiar and yes, there is the dim driveway. I point it out to him.

   He pulls over, switches off, kills the lights, picks up a mike and presses buttons. Within seconds, he holds an incomprehensible conversation, all acronyms and jargon. He turns the radio off, then says, "Stay here."

   He slips out. I see him pull his gun from its holster, then moving like a ghost, he disappears along the drive. How can such a big man move so smoothly?

   Ivan is still away, and I am chewing my fingernails, for the first time since I became a teenager, when another white four wheel drive coasts to a stop. The lights dim, then two men in blue uniforms walk over.

   I wind down the window.

   "Miss Jensen?" one asks. "Where is Ivan Blake?"

   "He went in... quite a while ago. I... I'm worried about him."

   He laughs, softly. "You don't need to be. He was a Green Beret in the Army. We'll wait for him."

   An ambulance pulls up, the two attendants coming over. Then Ivan is back, I didn't even see him arrive.

   "Little lady," he says, "You're a one-woman army. Well done. I've handcuffed the young fellow who was halfway to effective. We can all go in."

***

So, you see, that's how I found my real profession. Today is my graduation from the Police Academy, and next Sunday will be my marriage to Ivan Blake. He has been promoted to Sergeant, and is my boss as well. And what's more, his promotion has led to more regular hours for him. Until that was arranged, he wouldn't hear of marriage.

   But he definitely does as he is told at home. Last night, when I was a little short with him, worried about today's ceremony, he did his usual: "Oh no! Not the spaghetti! Spare me!"

   But he loves living with the spaghetti warrior. He tells me that every day.

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