“Look at that poor kid over there,” Renee Sebastian said to her husband, motioning with her head. “You’d think the mother would at least look at him every once in a while.” Ben laid down the paperback he was reading, pushed down his bifocals, and glanced over to the next blanket.
A little boy, five year old with light blond hair and a baggy bright orange bathing suit, was digging in the sand with a plastic pail and matching shovel. The toys still had the price stickers from one of the shops up on the boardwalk that catered to the crowds who swarmed down to the Delaware shore every summer. The boy had built a lopsided sand castle, and he was trying to get his parents to notice. The dad was asleep, stretched out on a blanket with a newspaper covering his face. The mother, sitting under an umbrella in a rented beach chair, was on a cell-phone, talking loudly and gesturing wildly with her free hand.
“Look, Frank, I don’t care what the hell they want. There is no freaking way we are going to approve those medical claims by the end of the month. If they have any problems with that, then tell them to read their contract. Starting with the fine print.”
“Mommy. Look what I built,” the little boy called once again.
The mother must have finally heard him, because she frowned and said, “Frank, hold on for a second.” Then she put her hand over the phone and looked at the child.
“Conner,” she said in an artificially sweetened voice. “Mommy is busy right now doing very important work. Remember your promise to play quietly and leave mommy and daddy alone.”
The boy listened silently, digging little holes in the sand with his foot.
“Yes, mommy. I’ll be good,” he said, his head hanging low.
The woman faked smiled at the boy and immediately resumed talking into the phone.
Ben leaned over and looked at his wife while raising an eyebrow. Renee had taken out her knitting and was furiously attacking a blanket for the newest grandchild she was expecting in October.
“Wonder why some people have kids if they don’t want them around,” he said.
“Well, it just make me sick,” his wife said. “I get so tired of seeing this.”
Ben and Renee came down to the shore just about every day. They had their usual spot all staked out by nine, before the tourists even crawled out of bed. The couple made it a habit to leave the beach before noon, when the sun got too bright. Renee was convinced that Ben was going to get skin cancer. He never wore his hat and refused to put on any sun screen, no matter how many times she reminded him.
After spending the morning admiring the waves, they would pack up their blanket, the two beach chairs, umbrella, and assorted books, magazines, and papers. They would trudge back to their townhouse two blocks off the boardwalk for a nice lunch. Today, it would be a salad, some tuna fish, and a freshly sliced cantaloupe. Afterward, they would take a nap or meet some people for bridge down at the club. Like Ben and Renee, their circle of friends were retirees, full-timers who lived at the beach year round.
Ben and Renee had moved here right after Ben had left the job. He had worked twenty five years in the Baltimore police department, the last five as a detective. Renee had not been ready to give up her job teaching kindergarten, but she knew that Ben had wanted to get away from all the things he kept bottled up inside when he came home every night, so she had retired as well. Ben had taken to the quiet beach community right off, but it had taken Renee a few years to settle down and find her way.
Renee nudged Ben.
“Look, he’s going down to the water, and neither parent has even noticed.”
“Yeah, I see,” Ben said. He had picked up the paperback again, but now was watching the child over his glasses.
The boy went out a few feet into the waves, which today were less than a foot high and not big enough to knock the boy down. He bent over and filled his bucket with foamy saltwater. Then he ran carrying it back to the blanket. Lifting the bucket high over his head, he poured the water into the hole he had dug next to his mother. Some of the water splashed on her. Both Ben and Renee saw the woman roll her eyes, but she didn’t miss a beat on her phone conversation.
Renee squirmed in her chair.
“What do you think? Should we?” she said in a low voice, leaning close into Ben’s good ear.
Ben ran his hand though his thinning gray hair. He looked around.
“Let’s take it slow. See what happens.”
Suddenly the mother’s voice grew even louder.
“Frank. You’ll have to speak up. I can’t hear you.” She looked at the cell phone and frowned.
“Listen, Frank, shut up a minute. My phone is about to die. I’m going to have to run back to the hotel and call you from there. It should take me about ten minutes. Don’t move until you hear from me. Frank. Frank?”
She looked at the phone like she had been betrayed by her best friend. Frowning, she threw it into her beach bag.
She leaned over and pulled the newspaper off the man laying next to her.
“Tim, wake up.”
The man opened his eyes. He immediately shielded them from the bright sun shining directly in his face.
“Yeah. I’m up. What’s going on?” He sat up quickly, reaching for his sunglasses perched on the cooler next to him.
“My phone died. I have to run back to the hotel to call work. Keep an eye on Conner.”
“Right Vicky, No problemo,” Tim said, still half asleep. He looked at the boy, who was now using a small toy bulldozer to construct a roadway system around his sand castle.
“Just you and me chief.”
Conner stood up.
“Can we go in the water now?”
“In a bit. Let daddy rest for a little while longer.”
Vicky stood up, brushing the sand from her legs.
“I shouldn’t be gone long.” She put a sheer silver beach cover up on over her black two-piece suit and walked away.
“When can we go in the water, daddy? You promised,” the boy said.
“We’ll go, Conner. But in a few minutes. Daddy wants to rest. Just for a little while. Now don’t wander too far.”
The boy nodded and sat back down in the sand, looking out at the ocean.
Tim laid back down, but not before putting on headphones connected to a portable CD player.
Renee had already seen enough.
“C’mon Ben. Let’s do it.”
“Honey, you have to be patient. Let the situation develop. We don’t want to rush things. Besides, it’s not all that bad.”
Renee sighed. “I know, I know. It’s just that it breaks my heart…”
Renee and Ben pretended to relax. They pretended when it became obvious that Tim had fallen back asleep. They pretended when a half hour passed and Vicky still had not returned. They even pretended when Conner picked up his bucket and started making his way down to the water.
Finally, Renee could stand no more.
“Really, this has gone on long enough. That kid could have drowned twenty minutes ago, and neither of those idiots would have noticed. Unless, someone called on a cell phone and told them.”
Ben nodded and then looked at his watch. He turned in his chair, scanning up and down the beach. The lifeguards were all looking out at the water, and there were no beach patrols in sight.
“OK, we do it.”
He checked his watch.
“It’s 11:15 now. I’ll meet you next to the ice cream place in exactly one hour. That’s 12:15, sharp. And be careful.”
Renee reached over and patted Ben’s head.
“It’s so cute the way you worry about me.”
Ben smiled at his wife.
“That’s because I wouldn’t know how to make lunch without you. Now get going.”
Renee stood up. “You have a note, right?”
Ben nodded. “Yes mother.”
Renee laughed, turned, and walked down the beach, towards where Conner was now wading in water that was almost up to his waist.
She stood next to Conner for a few minutes. Close, but not too close. Just enough so he could get comfortable having her there. Renee knew the child was bored and she just had to wait him out.
Finally, he looked up at her and said, “I hope there are no jellyfish around here. Do you see any?”
Renee smiled down at the boy. “No honey, it’s too early in the season for jellyfish.”
“Good,” Conner said. “They scare me…a little.”
Renee patted Conner on the head. “I can’t believe that a big boy like you is scared of a silly old jellyfish. Not a boy who can go into the water all by himself.” Renee knelt next to him.
“What’s your name, honey?”
“Conner. I like the beach, especially when there are no jellyfish and when the waves aren’t too big. Don’t you, lady?”
“Oh yes dear, I do. Very much. And you can call me Miss Renee.”
Ben watched the pair from up on the blanket while Tim obliviously snoozed nearby. Within minutes, Conner and Renee were running up and down the beach, playing tag with the waves, like two old friends. Ben glanced over his shoulder every few minutes, keeping a watch out for the mother. He didn’t want her showing up. Not that they had done anything illegal. Not yet anyway.
Ben checked his watch. 11:30. Time to get moving. He waited until Renee looked up at him. He nodded at her. She nodded back.
“C’mon, Miss Renee. Chase me again,” Conner shouted. Renee tried to catch the boy, but he squirted through her arms and dashed into the waves. Renee ran after him for a few steps and then flopped down on the white sand.
“Conner, I’m bushed. Why don’t you come sit by me for a minute?”
Conner plopped down next to her. “Do you want to dig for crabs now? Wait for a wave to go away, and then look for the bubbles in the sand. There’s a little crab right under the bubble. But you have to dig fast.”
“We can do that in a few minutes, dear. But I imagine that a big boy like you must be getting hungry, especially after running around so much. Would you like a snack?”
“Yeah, that sounds great. Do you have any Oreos?”
Renee laughed. “Well, goodness no. Where would I be hiding cookies? I meant that maybe you and I could walk up to the boardwalk and get an ice cream cone. Or maybe some candy. Salt water taffy is my favorite. Would you like that?”
Conner eyes narrowed.
“My mommy says that I should never go anywhere with strangers.”
Renee reached over and took the boy’s hand.
“And she is exactly right, your mommy is. And that’s a very good rule to remember. But I’m really not a stranger, am I?”
Conner shook his head. “Well, not exactly.”
Renee said, “Besides, I bet that mommy and daddy leave you with other people. Right?”
Conner nodded. “Yeah, lots of time. When we aren’t at the beach, I go to summer camp during the day and we have lots of grown-ups to watch us. My group leader is fifteen years old. It’s not sleep-a-way camp because I want to come home at night. Mommy says that next year I should be old enough to stay away for a whole week. I’m a little scared about that.” Conner got quiet for a second, then brightened.
“But during school,” he said, “my Nanny Fisher picks me up after kindergarten. Every day. I like Nanny Fisher a lot. She plays cards with me.”
“Well, there you go,” Renee said. “I love to play cards with my friends too. How would it be if I was your summertime Nanny?”
“I think that would be OK. I don’t play cards much anymore. Nanny Fisher had to go away,” Conner said. “She used to fight with mommy a lot. When summer’s over, mommy said I get to pick out a new nanny.”
Renee tried to hide her scowl.
“Well then Conner, what do you say? How about you and your new summer nanny take a walk to get the biggest ice cream cone on the beach.”
Conner smiled. “Great.” He paused. “But can my dad come too?”
Renee looked up the beach.
“I think he’s still asleep, dear. Why don’t we just let him rest?”
“OK,” said Conner, “he did say he was tired, and that I should leave him alone.”
Renee and Conner stood up together, crossed the sand, and quickly disappeared into the crowd that was flowing along the boardwalk.
Sitting in his beach chair, Ben watched the pair move past him. He counted to sixty in his head. Then he reached into the Renee’s floral beach bag and sifted through it until he found a manila envelope. He opened it and pulled out a sheet of paper. He glanced at it only for a second, then folded it in half.
Ben looked up and down the beach one last time. This was the tricky part, from here on out there was no turning back.
Seeing nothing unusual, he stood slowly and picked up a beach towel, which he used to conceal the sheet of paper. He walked over to where Tim was sleeping. Ben saw that the man was already starting to burn, and if he didn’t wake up soon, he was going to have a very painful next few days. Without looking down, Ben quickly slid the paper under the CD player that was sitting on Tim’s chest. Ben straightened up and then continued walking towards the water. He was careful not to look back, just in case Tim was a light sleeper.
Ben stood on the shore for a few minutes, letting the waves wash over his feet. He watched a tanker move across the horizon, making its way out of Delaware Bay towards the open sea. He nodded when his friend Bernie walked by, his metal detector swinging back and forth. Bernie called over. “You guys coming down to the dance tonight? It’s a fifties theme.”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Renee ironed her poodle skirt this morning,” Ben shouted back.
Ben watched Bernie move off down the beach, stopping periodically to dig in the sand and put a coin or two in his pocket. When he was far enough away, Ben turned and went back to his blanket. Tim was still asleep.
Ben sat, killing time, reading his paperback. It would be best if Tim woke up on his own, but Ben didn’t think that was going to happen. If anything, the man’s snoring had only gotten louder.
By 12:00, Ben knew he was going to have to do something. He reached over into Renee’s bag once again and pulled out a battered orange Frisbee. In one quick motion, he flicked the Frisbee at Tim while at the same time picking up his paper back. Ben already had his face down in the book when the disk hit Tim in the stomach, hard enough to wake him mid snore. Tim sat up quickly. The CD player and the note slid into his lap. Ben studied his paperback with apparent great intensity, while he watched Tim out of the corner of his eye. It was a trick Ben had picked up patrolling the streets of Baltimore all those years.
Tim looked around, scanning the beach for his son. When he couldn’t find the boy, he started to rise up, but then he noticed the white sheet of paper in his lap. He picked it up, still half looking around. He opened the note and read it.
“We have your child. Your child is safe. Don’t be foolish and everything will work out. Get up right now and walk north along the boardwalk to the ATM on Silver Lake Street. Withdraw five hundred dollars. Then walk south to the free newspaper box in front of the candy store on Main. The one right near the bandstand. When you open the box, there will be an envelope tucked in back. In it will be a note with instructions on where to find your child. Leave the money in the envelope and put it back in the box. You have one chance to do this right. No cops. $500 bucks is not worth being stupid for. Your child is too important.”
Ben watched Tim read the note and saw the look of terror appear on the man’s face. Suddenly, Tim turned his head. He frantically looked up and down the beach. Ben buried his nose even farther in the book.
Tim stood up and peered up and down the shore. Then, he ran off, up towards the boardwalk, clutching the note in his fist.
Ben waited a few seconds and then slowly turned around. He saw Tim run up to Vicky who was finally returning from her phone call. Tim handed the note to Vicky. She read it quickly.
“Let’s call the police,” she said.
Tim frowned and then turned away.
“You see what it says. No police. It makes it pretty clear.”
“I can read. But say we drop off the money. Who says these guys will release Conner? It’s better if we call in the cops.”
“I can’t believe that you are thinking this,” Tim said. He put one of his hands on his wife’s shoulder. “Let do what the note says. I just want to get Conner back.”
Vicky pushed Tim’s arm away. “Well, if you had been watching him, then maybe they wouldn’t have been able to snatch him up from under your nose, would they now?”
Tim frowned. “And maybe if you had left your cell phone at home, you would have been here to keep an eye on Conner yourself. It’s not like taking a nap on a beach is a federal crime, is it?”
“Hey, I work just as hard as you do. Just because you make eight thousand a year more than I do doesn’t mean that my job is any less important.”
Tim started to say something, then caught himself. He took a deep breath.
“Wait a minute, honey. Let’s calm down. We need to concentrate on getting Conner back. Enough of this ‘who works more thing’ again. Agreed?”
Vicky looked Tim in the eyes. Then she nodded, bit her lip, and looked like she was going to start crying. Tim stepped towards her and put his arms around her. They hugged for more than a few seconds.
Vicky said, “You’re right. Conner is all that matters now. What do you think we should do?”
Tim squinted and looked around the beach. He blew a strand of hair out of his eyes.
“To be honest, I really don’t have a lot of confidence in the local police force. They probably don’t know how to do much beyond clearing the drunks off the beach every morning. Handling a kidnapping may be out of their league.”
“You may be right,” Vicky said. “Do you think that we should just pay the ransom? Like the note says.”
Finally Tim said, “It seems like the right thing to do. These guys don’t want much. And they sound pretty professional.”
Vicky nodded. “Okay. Then let’s do it. I just want to get my baby back. Do you know where this ATM is?”
Tim said, “Yeah. I saw it the other morning, when I was out jogging. It’s right up the boardwalk.”
“Well, then let’s go. Hurry. I can’t stand thinking about my baby being with…those animals,” Vicky said. They started to walk up the beach. Vicky reached over and took Tim’s hand. Then Tim stopped.
“Wait a minute. I don’t have my wallet. Did your bring yours?”
“It’s down in my beach bag. In the little side pocket with my keys. Better yet, just get the whole thing.”
Tim turned and sprinted back to his blanket. He slid down on his knees. Ben watched Tim snatch up the bag. Tim opened it and peered in to check if the wallet was there. He stood up and turned to run back up the beach and back to Vicky. Then he stopped and looked at Ben. Ben wondered if he had been made.
“Excuse me. Mister. I was here before with my son. Did you see where he went? Did he leave here with anybody?”
Ben relaxed. He put down his book and then he turned to Tim.
“Sorry. What? You are going to have to speak up. Left my hearing aid back in the room.”
Tim moved closer.
“I said, did you see my son?”
Ben nodded. “Sure did. Nice looking kid. Where’d he run off to?”
Tim looked at Ben with disgust.
“Forget it, old timer. Go back to your retirement.”
And he ran up the beach.
Ben watched him leave and then smiled. “Nice talking to you.” He looked at his watch and said under his breath, “And you better move your ass, you’ve only got ten minutes.”
Tim and Vicky got their money from the ATM in less than five. They both noticed the sign on the machine that said that $500 was the maximum per day limit on withdrawals.
“These guys have this figured out, don’t they?” Tim said.
By the time Tim and Vicky reached the newspaper box in the town square, Ben had already staked out his favorite bench across the street. He watched them open the box and peer inside. Tim reached in and pulled out the envelope that Ben had placed there earlier in the day, on his way down to the water. Vicky and Tim handled the envelope carefully, as if Conner himself was inside. Slowly, Tim opened it and read the note inside.
“You are almost done. Put the money in the envelope and place it back in the box where you found it. Then go sit on the bandstand. Your child will be there shortly. When that happens, you should all leave. Do not come back. Ever. And maybe in the future you should keep an eye on your child. It’s more important than you think. And one day they will grow up and be gone. For good.”
Tim took the cash out the front pocket of his bathing suit and put it in the envelope. He placed it back in the newspaper box, making sure that it was firmly tucked behind a metal clip. He carefully let the door swing shut. Then he took Vicky’s hand and the two of them walked over to the bandstand, where in about six hours, an eight piece fifties band would begin playing.
Ben looked at his watch. 12:15 on the nose.
Nearby Renee and Conner were sitting in a small ice cream shop. Renee brought her own grandkids here when they visited because the ice cream was homemade and the best in town.
“C’mon Conner. Finish up your cone. It’s time to leave,” Renee said. She grabbed a napkin from the shiny metal holder and wiped some chocolate from Conner’s mouth and chin.
“Miss Renee has to run some errands, so I think it’s time you went back to your mommy and daddy. I bet they want to see you again.”
Conner said, “Okay. Thanks for the treat. And thanks for playing with me. Will we be able to play again later?”
Renee smiled. “Oh, I don’t know. We’ll see.”
She walked over to the window of the ice cream shop.
“Look, there’s your mommy and daddy sitting right over there. Why don’t you go out and surprise them?”
She walked Conner over to the door and held it open. He ran to his parents. Renee quickly exited the shop and walked down the boardwalk in the other direction, ducking into a beach shop. She needed to buy a battery for her camera; she wanted someone to take a picture of her and Ben at the dance tonight.
Ben watched Conner run across the boardwalk and sneak up behind his parents.
“Boo!” he shouted.
Tim and Vicky jumped and then both parents turned and hugged the child.
“Oh, Conner. Where have you been? Are you all right? Did they hurt you?” Vicky said, nervously examining her son for any signs of violence, or worse.
“I’m fine, mommy,” Conner said with a puzzled look. “I had some ice cream with a nice lady. Are you mad that I spoiled my appetite?”
“No son. Not at all. Are you really okay?”
Conner smiled, “You bet. Can I go back in the water now?”
Vicky grabbed up her son and held him tight.
“No. We have to leave right now.”
Conner started to complain, but Vicky interrupted.
“We need to go home. But how would you like it if you didn’t have to go back to summer camp. Maybe mommy could take a vacation…a long vacation…so we could have some time together. Would you like that?”
Conner beamed. “That would be great.”
Tim took Conner from his wife and lifted him up on his shoulders. “C’mon sport, let’s go home.”
Ben watched them leave and then walked over to the newspaper box. He opened the door and pulled out the envelope. Renee walked up behind him.
“How did it go?” she asked.
“Went fine. I think they got the message.”
Renee said, “I hope so. He really was a nice little boy.”
They started walking back down to the beach. When they passed one of the big blue municipal trash cars, Ben tossed in the unopened envelope.
“Bernie said he’ll see us at the dance tonight,” said Ben. But Renee wasn’t listening. She was watching a mother drag a child along the boardwalk. The woman had a red face and was yelling at the little girl.