WITH THE HELP OF A STRANGER

By Lauri Kubuitsile


Laying back on the Victorian chaise lounge, winter sun shining through the beveled panes of the solarium windows, he reached for the dog-eared paperback. With a sip from the nearby glass of Chardonnay, he cuddled inside the down comforter ready to spend his Sunday afternoon the way he loved most - with one of his dearest friends, V.I. Warshawski, that feisty Chicago P.I. the creation of Sara Paretsky. Dissecting a crime novel was a past time Sinclair Shepley found absolutely delectable and he looked forward to an afternoon of it.

Opening the book, he scowled when he heard the doorbell ring deep within the house. His butler would attend to it and hopefully advise the intruders that Prof. Shepley was out of town for the day. He turned to get maximum use of the sun and then re-joined V.I. in a brawl in her apartment with the current main suspect, too early to be the real culprit though. Light taps on the oak door of his study meant that Prentice had not been successful on warding off the distraction. "Come in," he shouted across the room.

Prentice, a tall, thin slightly balding Welsh man, stood at attention, a soldier in the fight for a distraction free Sunday. Having failed, he was ready to accept his punishment. "I'm sorry to disturb you Professor Shepley but there is a distraught couple at the reception. They said the matter was of an urgent nature and could not wait. Ò

Though annoyed, he knew Prentice had tried his best and had done so for the last twenty odd years. "Give me five minutes to tidy up, then send them in."

Sinclair Shepley reached into a side wardrobe and pulled out a tweed jacket, folded the comforter at the end of the deserted chaise lounge and sat down at his desk. Soon the door opened revealing a middle-aged couple. The man was obviously wealthy but the flashy suit and heavy diamond studded watch meant this was the first generation of such opulence. His wife was also gaudily dressed but her coifed hairstyle was askew and the heavily made-up eyes melted down her face. The man reached out his hand to Sinclair. "Hello Prof. Shepley. I'm Nick Convolleti this is my wife, Susan."

Sinclair shook the man's hand. "Prof. Shepley we’re so sorry to disturb you without an appointment. We know that you’re a busy man but we’re desperate for help." Tears formed in his eyes. "You might have read in the newspapers about our daughter, Tiffany. She was kidnapped three weeks ago. We paid the ransom last week but they haven’t brought her back. And the police...." His anger built for a moment as he tried to contain his emotion. "... they're useless. Completely useless. We know about your reputation. About saving those other kids. We were hoping you’d be able to find our Tiffany."

As the wife cried quietly into an embroidered, silk handkerchief, Sinclair tried to remember the details of the case from what he had read in the newspapers. He followed it, of course. Kidnappings were his specialty. He wrote the authoritative books on the Lindbergh kidnapping, the 1960 Peugeot kidnapping and the 1973 kidnapping of the grandson of John Paul Getty III. Since the books, he gained widespread fame for finding eight different kidnap victims where the police had failed, and in all cases but one, saving the hostage. In that one case, the young boy, five-year-old Carl Remington II, was found blind folded and gagged in a storeroom of an abandoned warehouse. Unfortunately, he had vomited and had choked to death behind the gag before Sinclair had found him. Otherwise, Prof. Shepley was 7 for 7 and he felt his adrenaline rise at the challenge of another case.

He dug out a yellow legal pad from his desk and pen in hand said, "Okay give me the details." Mr. Convolleti explained how three weeks ago his 16-year-old daughter was picked up by a dark colored sedan car on her way from school. Two witnesses saw the car but they each described it differently, so the police had gotten nowhere. A week later, they had the first contact, which was a letter, computer produced, demanding one million dollars. The money was to be put in a locker at the train station and within 24 hours their daughter would be released.

The police watched the locker for a week and nobody collected the money. The kidnappers never made contact again. When the police finally checked the locker, the money was gone. A hole had been made at the back of it from the public toilet behind and the money removed. They got their money, but Tiffany was never released.

Prof. Shepley rubbed his forehead in frustration. The police inspired little confidence. ÒI see a few places where I can start. I don’t want to get your hopes up Mr. and Mrs. Convolleti but I think I can find Tiffany.”

Nick Convolleti jumped to his feet and grabbed the professor’s hand. “Prof. Shepley I knew youÕd help us. You’re gonna bring our baby back I can just feel it. I knew the famous Sinclair Shepley would be able to help us."

Mrs. Convolleti was smiling through her blurry, black tears and took Sinclair’s face in both her hands kissing each cheek, whispering over and over, "God Bless you."

After Prentice ushered the couple out, Sinclair lay back in his leather chair, a slight smile on his face. Yes, he would help the Convolleti's. He had wondered when they’d come looking for his assistance. Walking to the bookshelf-lined wall of the study, he pushed aside the leather bound set of legal works and behind them was the large family Bible. Opening the cover, he flipped a few pages to where a crude square area had been cut out. In this hidden place, he pulled out a key. He opened the doors of the wardrobe pushing the clothes to one side, a door was revealed at the back. Using the key, he unlocked it and climbed inside, carefully closing the doors behind him and made his way down the steep, dark staircase inside.

At the bottom, a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling revealed a girl sitting on a wooden chair in the middle of the room. She was tied, gagged and blindfolded. Even though Sinclair knew that the headphones that she wore since her abduction three weeks ago drowned out all sound, he came near to her, gently caressing her bare arm, and whispered, "Not long now, Tiffany...."


A Note From The Author:

I am a freelance writer and author living in Botswana. I won a highly commended prize in the 2004 Commonwealth Short Story Competition with my story “A Pot Full Of Tears” which will also appear in an anthology by Oxford University Press coming out in 2008. My first novel came out in April 2005, published by Macmillan entitled The Fatal Payout. I also won a very highly commended award in the John H. Reid/Tom Howard Annual Short Story & Prose Contest 2005 for “The Collector of Lives”.


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