Flash Mob Rule
The Call Waiting signal beeped in her ear just as Cora Ridgeway was telling her friend Joanne Struthers about the birthday present she’d gotten her husband.
“Bill’s been using this old golf bag, so I thought I’d surprise him. He always keeps his clubs in the trunk of our car, so last night while he was sleeping, I snuck down to the garage, took his clubs out of the old golf bag, and put them in a beautiful, new Titleist bag with a big ribbon on it. He drove off to the golf course this morning and never suspected.”
The Call Waiting beeped again.
“Hold on, Joanne, I’ve got another call. Maybe it’s him.” She felt a tingle of excitement as she switched over. “Hello?”
“Cora, God damn you! What the hell did you do?”
The rage in her husband’s voice startled her.
“Y…you don’t like it? I can always exchange it,” she stammered.
He gave a bitter laugh, then groaned. “Unfortunately, that’s not the goddamn problem.”
“I don’t understand. What’s wrong?”
She could hear him breathing heavily. “You didn’t throw out my old golf bag, did you?”
“No, I just put it in the closet.”
“I still don’t…”
“Listen to me,” he said. “Listen carefully.”
She suddenly remembered. “Bill, I’ve got Joanne on the other line. Let me switch over and tell her I need to get off; it’ll just take a sec…”
She had to pull the phone away from her ear; that’s how loud it was.
“Cora, for God’s sake, listen to me. This is life or death!”
Her stomach did a flip. Life or death?
“What do you mean?”
“We don’t have time. Go to wherever you put the golf bag. Take the phone with you.”
“Okay, I’m doing just that.” She hurried down the stairs to the hallway closet, pulled open the door, and dragged it out.
“Do you have it?”
“All right, I want you to reach down into the bag. At the bottom you’ll feel some duct tape holding the lining together. Pull it off.”
“I’ll have to put down the phone for a second. Is that all right?”
“Just do it!”
She flinched, then dropped the phone on the floor. She reached into the bag. Her arm was barely long enough to reach the bottom, and her hand shook so much she could hardly grip the tape, but she managed to pull it off. The lining came away.
Something bumped against her skin, making her recoil and yank her arm out of the bag. Cautiously, she peeked inside.
Lying at the bottom was a stack of money.
She reached in again and pulled more of the lining away, as more stacks of money tumbled out.
“Cora! Cora! Are you still there?” Bill’s voice was shouting from the phone. She picked it up.
“Bill, what’s this money for? What’s going on?”
“There’s a briefcase in my office.” It was as if she’d said nothing. “Whatever’s in there, dump it out. I think it’ll be big enough to hold it all.”
“What are you talking about? Where did you get this money?”
“There’s no time!” She could hear him panting. “Listen,” he said more softly, “I’ll explain it to you when you get here, but you have to do what I say. If that money isn’t in the hands of some very scary people by three o’clock, they’re going to kill me, do you understand?”
“I’m in Huntington, Long Island. You have to get here.”
“But you took the car…”
“I know that! God damn it, Cora, just shut up and let me speak.”
She stayed silent, her head reeling.
“It’s a major station on the Long Island Railroad, so there are lots of trains that come out here, although, not so many on a weekend. Anyway, you have to take the train from Penn Station. Do you know how to get there?”
“I guess I take the Metro North into the city.” It was like someone else was talking for her, while her mind spun helplessly. “Then I take the subway from Grand Central to Penn Station.”
“Never mind the subway. Take a cab, it’ll be quicker.”
“You’ll have to get the train schedules, I can’t. I’ve got to stay hidden, and my cell battery is low. Call me as soon as you know what train you’ll be on.”
“What about the money?” She looked into the golf bag at the stacks of it. “How much is there?”
“Never mind that now. And don’t count it because we don’t have time. Just make sure you bring it all.” His voice got softer. “Do this for me, Cora, I’m depending on you. Will you call me when you know what train you’ll be on?”
“Sure,” she said, still in a daze, “if you want me to.”
He hung up.
She sat clutching the briefcase, grateful the Metro North train wasn’t crowded. At least no one would be jammed in next to her, giving her dirty looks because she hadn’t put it up on the rack. The idea of letting go of it for an instant was terrifying.
Actually, Bill had been wrong; it wasn’t big enough to hold all the money, not nearly. She’d had to cram several stacks of it into her coat pockets. Now, as she huddled against the window, she realized she was the only one in the car who was wearing a coat, but there was nothing she could do.
The timing was going to be tight but doable, at least according to Bill. This train got into Grand Central at 1:03. The train from Penn Station left at 1:30 and would be the last one into Huntington before 3 o’clock. She had twenty-seven minutes to get across town and catch it.
She’d called him, as instructed, after momentarily panicking when she got a recording saying his number wasn’t in service. Then she remembered, he’d changed it just a couple of days before because of all the telemarketing calls he was getting.
Oh, God, where was the new number? She’d written it on a slip of paper and put it in her wallet, or at least she hoped so.
Her wallet was in her coat pocket under one of the stacks of money. She’d fumbled through it, found the piece of paper, and called the number.
Bill told her to sit in the front car of the Long Island Railroad train and he’d be waiting on the platform. “Please, Cora,” he said, “whatever it takes, be on that train. If you miss it, my life is over.”
“Bill, will you please tell me what’s going on?”
“I’ll explain when you get here. My battery’s running low; I can’t stay on the phone.” Then he hung up again.
She’d charged the battery in her own phone that morning. She used it now to go online and check the balances in their checking and savings accounts. He’d cleaned them out, as of yesterday.
She fought back the anger. A lot of that money had come from her salary teaching English at the high school. For the past year, his contributions had been minimal, after his systems analyst job got eliminated and they gave him a severance package he called “laughable.”
She couldn’t check his IRA, but he must have emptied that out too, judging by how much money she was carrying. She hadn’t counted it, also as instructed, but it had to be a hundred thousand, easy.
Was this about drugs? No, knowing Bill, it was gambling. They used to go to Atlantic City a lot back in the day, and he loved it.
Then, after his job got eliminated, he spent all that time in his den on the computer, looking for job openings and sending out résumés. But when he wasn’t doing that, she thought miserably, he was losing their life savings.
A tear slid down her cheek. She mustn’t cry, mustn’t attract attention.
And he couldn’t just take it from their bank accounts because she’d notice. He’d have to borrow it. And not from a bank, but from what did he call them? Some very scary people.
A hundred thousand dollars. He’d need some sort of collateral for that much, wouldn’t he? What could he possibly put up? Her breath caught in her throat.
Their house. It belonged to his parents when they’d moved in, and now it was in his name.
This was overwhelming. How was she going to deal with this?
In her desperation, she thought of Joanne, her best friend, whom she’d left hanging when Bill had called. Maybe she shouldn’t do this, but she had to talk to someone. She went to her contact list and found the number.
It rang three times, and then Joanne’s voice invited her to leave a message.
She didn’t. She went back to the contact list and tried Joanne’s cell. This time she was successful.
“Hi, Cora,” Joanne said, surprising her. She was always forgetting about Caller ID. “We got cut off before. Was it Bill? Did he like the golf bag?”
She couldn’t help it; she started to cry. “Oh, God, I think we’re in big trouble.”
It all spilled out of her, at least as much as she knew or surmised. When she finished there was silence.
“I’m sorry, I was just trying to absorb it all. This is terrible.”
“Am I doing the right thing? It’s all the money we have, but he said they’d kill him.”
“Of course you’re doing the right thing.”
“I wish we lived closer, so I could see you more.” Cora sighed. “You always know what to do, and I never seem to.”
“Come on, that’s not true at all.”
They’d met back in the eighties, during their sophomore year at Rutgers, and they were certainly an odd pairing. Cora was shy and introverted. Joanne was captain of the cheerleading squad, engaged to the quarterback, Frank Struthers, whom she later married. Cora never understood why she and Joanne became friends, but she was always grateful for it.
It was Joanne who’d introduced her to Bill, Frank’s roommate. Bill was as different from Frank as she was from Joanne, as quiet as Frank was loud and gregarious.
Bill was really nice back then, and he seemed to be as much in awe of Frank as she was of Joanne. They’d all stayed friends, and wound up living only a few miles away from each other in Westchester County.
There were no children. In Cora and Bill’s case it was an abnormality of her uterus. For Joanne and Frank, it was their careers.
Three years ago, Joanne’s cosmetics firm reassigned her to Scranton, Pennsylvania. It was all the same to Frank, since he was a freelance food consultant with clients all over the world, so it didn’t matter where he lived. It was all the same to Bill, who was never much for overt sentimentality. It was decidedly not all the same to Cora, but she never let on, not wanting to lay a guilt trip on Joanne or seem needy.
In the beginning, the two would talk at length several times a week on the phone and, occasionally, Skype. After a while, Cora was almost getting used to it. Then a routine physical revealed that Frank had pancreatic cancer. Seven months later he was dead.
Joanne stayed on in Scranton, despite Cora’s wishes that she move back. Her company would never go for it, Joanne said.
Cora wanted to know why she had to work at all, since Frank’s inheritance and his life insurance policy more than took care of her. Joanne said her work was especially important now. And her new neighbors and coworkers, who’d been wonderfully supportive while Frank was sick, had become her friends.
Cora wished she could be half as adaptive.
“What am I going to do?” she said softly into the phone. “This is all the money we have in the world.”
“There’s nothing you can do, you have to bring it to him. And then you have to insist that he stop.”
“Are you kidding?” She laughed sourly. “When could I ever insist on anything with him?”
“You’ll just have to start now.”
That was Joanne, everything simple. Problem posed, problem solved.
“I’ll try,” said Cora.
“Do more than try. I wish I could be there with you, but you don’t need me. You can do this. Will you call later and tell me what happened?”
“Get me on my cell, because I won’t be home. I’ll be out running around all day.”
“Okay,” Cora said sadly.
“I have confidence in you. Just be firm.”
“Okay,” she said again.
In one sense, luck was on her side. The train got into Grand Central three minutes early, which meant she now had a full half-hour to catch the next train.
In another sense, luck wasn’t. Her car turned out to be the furthest from the stairs. Even though she’d stationed herself at the door as the train was pulling in and was the first one off, the other cars disgorged their passengers ahead of her onto the platform, slowing her down as she tried to get by them.
At the stairs, there was another obstacle. No one was moving. She could hear music coming from the main terminal above, and the people at the top of the stairs were staring through the entranceway at something, a few of them smiling.
Stifling a moan and muttering, “Excuse me, excuse me,” she tried to move sideways up the stairs between them, clutching the briefcase and fervently hoping no pickpockets in the crowd would reach into her coat pocket and come up with a bonanza.
Inch by inch, Cora elbowed her way up, enduring dirty looks and muttered curses, until she finally reached the top. She stared ahead into the terminal and her jaw dropped.
The entire center of the vast area was filled with nearly a hundred people, energetically dancing in unison to “People all over the world, join hands. Start a love train, love train.”
They stomped and whirled about, throwing their arms in the air, as everyone else drifted to the sides, watching in rapt fascination, taking pictures with their phones.
Cora looked frantically for the exit to Vanderbilt Avenue, where the taxis were. It was clear across the terminal. The only way she could get to it was to keep to the edges of the crowd, which she immediately started doing.
She could sense the seconds ticking away as she tried to avoid the people drifting into her path, unaware of her as they watched the spectacle. The marble staircase to the exit was just ahead, only a few feet further. Then the song changed to “Footloose.”
The exit doors flew open, and a new group of dancers burst through. They boogied down the stairs toward her, as she leaped back, almost bumping into a mother and a small child.
There were twenty dancers in all, and they arrayed themselves on the staircase, doing high kicks as people all around oohed and aahed.
Cora looked for another exit nearby, but there was only the one leading to the subway. A wail of frustration tore from her throat.
Then, mercifully, the dancers continued down the stairs into the main area, joining the others. The staircase was momentarily clear. She charged up the stairs and out onto the street.
Like a heavenly chariot, there was a taxi standing idle by the curb. She jumped in and shouted, “Penn Station, and please hurry!”
The driver, a large man in a turban, looked back at her. “I’m so sorry, madam,” he said with an Indian accent, “I was just going on my break.”
“Please,” she implored him, “…I’ll give you a hundred dollars!”
He considered it. “Very well,” he said, and pulled away from the curb.
She was pretty sure she had that much cash in her wallet. If she didn’t, there was nothing she could do but dip into the mother lode and hope that a few dollars less wouldn’t mean Bill’s life.
The traffic was predictably horrible. They crawled their way west along 43rd Street, missing the light twice at Madison Avenue. She gnawed at the back of her hand and tried not to look at her watch, but she couldn’t help it. It said 1:10. She had twenty minutes.
The cab turned left on Fifth Avenue instead of going to Seventh and dealing with Times Square, which was a good idea. There was still lots of traffic, but it was moving. They were making pretty good progress, and when they got to 34th Street her watch said 1:15.
As soon as they turned the corner, the pretty good progress was pretty well over. They crept along again, in fits and starts, toward Sixth Avenue and Broadway and what looked like a crowd of pedestrians in front of Macy’s.
It was. Yet another group of dancers had commandeered the sidewalk and were strutting and shimmying to “I Had the Time of My Life,” while people gawked. The cars ahead had slowed down even more to get a glimpse of it.
“Some city, wouldn’t you say?” the cab driver remarked, turning to her, his eyes twinkling. She wanted to punch him in his big, fat, flowing gray beard.
Now it was 1:21. She had only nine minutes.
Cora reached into her coat pocket for her wallet. She pulled out five twenty-dollar bills, which she was relieved to see she had, flung them into the front seat, and leaped out of the cab.
Crossing 34th Street on foot was the easy part, because the cars were stopped at the red light. Crossing Broadway, and then Sixth Avenue, was impossible. She stood, shifting her weight from side to side, willing the “Don’t Walk” to become “Walk,” which it finally did, after forever.
At least she knew where she was going. She’d looked at a map of Penn Station on her phone, and there was a stairway entrance to the Long Island Railroad on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 34th, which was only one block away, one long block away.
Unless you’re prepared to knock people over, no one can move quickly on a midtown sidewalk; it can’t be done. But Cora tried. Clutching the briefcase, she finessed her way through families pushing strollers, snaked around groups of oblivious teenagers, and even jumped the curb into the gutter and circled around parked cars.
She got to the corner of Seventh Avenue on the dead run. Amazingly, the sign said “Walk,” so she just kept going. She still had to navigate through people as she tried to dash across, but she managed it, and now there were the stairs to the LIRR right in front of her. She plunged down them.
Miraculously, she did not trip or fall. She found herself in the waiting room, her eyes anxiously searching the big board for the Huntington train.
It was still there! It was on Track Fourteen. Her watch said 1:28.
Where was Track Fourteen? There it was, just across the concourse. She began to move in that direction, but, just as she did, the introductory guitar figure to the Beatles’ song, “Birthday,” suddenly poured out from hidden speakers. Everyone around her began to dance.
“No, no!” she cried out. “Please, God, no!”
She was engulfed in a sea of dancers, struggling against the tide, marginally aware of the irony. Today was Bill’s birthday, and this had all started with her surprise gift for him.
The dancers grinned maniacally at her as she desperately bobbed and weaved, clutching the briefcase to her chest. One of them, a young man, thought she was trying to join in. “Atta girl!” he yelled in her face.
Birthday…I would like you to dance.
Birthday…take a cha cha cha chance.
Birthday…I would like you to dance.
Cora stumbled toward Track Fourteen, which now seemed ever more distant. She was hit right and left by swinging arms and legs as she lurched onward. It was like running some nightmarish gauntlet.
And then she was at the gate, sprinting down the steps to the platform. The train hadn’t left yet, but the doors were closing. She got there just in time to bang her fist helplessly against one of them as the train started to move.
“No!” she cried out and then burst into tears, as she watched the train to Huntington pull away, taking her husband’s life with it.
She couldn’t call him yet, not till she’d composed herself. There was a Starbucks in the concourse that was fairly empty, so she took a seat in a corner. After several deep breaths, she called him.
“Are you on the train?” he said.
“No, I’m not.” She fought back the urge to cry again. He listened to her gasp out her explanation, and then there was silence. She thought they’d lost the connection.
“Bill?” she said. “Are you still there?”
“Flash mobs?” he said incredulously. “Flash mobs? What the hell kind of excuse is that?”
“You don’t know what it was like. I couldn’t get past them, they were…”
“I can’t trust you with anything, can I? You had plenty of time to catch that train and you couldn’t even do it.”
He launched into a tirade about how unreliable she was and always had been. She barely heard what he was saying, as her mind recoiled from it.
“Bill,” she interrupted him, “why did you gamble away all our money? What are you doing in Huntington?”
“What am I doing here?” The anger in his voice had evaporated, replaced by resignation. “This is where they told me to go. And I got here in plenty of time. It would’ve been fine.”
His sadness touched her. He’s just a helpless man in the grip of an addiction, she realized. And no matter what, she still loved him, and her love trumped everything.
“I could catch the next train,” she said. “You could still give them the money.”
“Right!” he snorted. “And then they’d kill me anyway, or at least, break my kneecaps. You don’t mess around with these people. They said ‘by three o’clock,’ and they meant it. Oh, God, Cora, what did you do to me?”
“I didn’t do anything,” she sobbed. “I was only trying to give you a…”
“And God damn it, why couldn’t you keep this to yourself? Why, of all things, did you have to go and tell…” He stopped himself. “Listen, Cora, I need you to go back to Grand Central and get on the next train home. I’m driving as we speak, and I’ll meet you there. I’m going to need some of that money to go into hiding.”
“I’ll figure out where and let you know. We’ll have to play this by ear.”
“I don’t want to talk anymore,” he said, and hung up.
She sat there, dazed. Could she be in danger as well? If he ran, would they come after her for the money?
Then another thought intruded. What was he starting to say about her not keeping this to herself? How did he know that she’d talked to Joanne? They must have spoken to each other. But why?
Since Frank died, the friendship had really only been between her and Joanne. Bill’s interest in Joanne’s activities had been practically nil. In fact, during the last few months, whenever Cora talked about her he hardly seemed to be listening.
So why, at a time like this, with his life in danger, would he care so much that she knew about his predicament? Why would that be so important to him?
The room seemed to tilt. Her face drained of color and it felt like she would lose consciousness. She gripped the edge of the table to steady herself. Could it be?
Back in college, Bill’s respect for Frank hadn’t just been about Frank’s larger-than-life personality, Cora knew that. There was also a little bit of envy at Frank having a girlfriend like Joanne. It was only natural, and something she’d dealt with because Bill loved her. But now, after nearly thirty years, and with Frank gone…
Okay, she could see it from Bill’s libidinous point of view, but what about Joanne?
It was sad to admit, but she could see an attraction there as well. How many times had Joanne told her how brilliant Bill was, what a keen, analytical mind he had, what a great problem solver he was? He’d made a career of it. In many ways, he and Joanne were similar.
And Bill was no movie star, but he was certainly good-looking enough, and he could be very sweet and charming when he wanted to be. She could imagine Joanne, who’d never in her life been without the attentions of a man, falling for it.
Cora’s head began to ache and she wanted to scream. She gritted her teeth and forced herself to think. If they were doing it, how were they doing it? Especially since Bill was home so much of the time now. Except for…
His Saturday golf game. He’d certainly lied to her this morning, why not other Saturdays when he was gone all day? He didn’t even have to tell her much about it, since golf stories bored her.
She considered the drive from their house to Scranton. It was a little over two hours. If the two of them wanted to meet at a motel somewhere in between, they’d only have to drive an hour. Saturdays would be good for Joanne, too, because she worked during the week.
And come to think of it, Cora did notice on a couple of occasions that the gas gauge in the car was lower than it should have been. Maybe he hadn’t had time to fill it up again.
But wait a minute. Surely, she must have spoken to Joanne during some of those Saturdays. Actually, she recalled, there were many Saturdays when she’d get voice mail on both numbers, and Joanne would call her back later.
Oh, God, it was really true! What was she going to do?
Well, the first thing she had to do was call Joanne. She had to make absolutely sure.
Joanne’s voice mail answered, which made Cora wonder if Bill was talking to her. She hung up without leaving a message.
To kill time before the next attempt, she went over to the counter, clinging to the briefcase that had now become a part of her, and ordered a mocha latte. She paid for it with a credit card and was relieved when the transaction went through. It was probably because the card was from another bank, not the one he’d taken all their money out of.
By the time she got back to the table, she had a plan of sorts. She tried Joanne again and, this time, she got through.
Did Joanne’s voice sound a bit wary? She couldn’t tell.
“I know about you and Bill,” Cora said, her voice as icy cold as she could make it. “He told me.”
It was the kind of bluff she used on her students, and in a way, it was no bluff. By his unconscious slip, Bill had, in a sense, told her. Didn’t matter, though, because it worked.
“Oh, God!” Joanne moaned. “I’ve been so afraid of this moment. I’m sorry, Cora, I couldn’t help it. It just happened. Please don’t hate me. I’d never intentionally hurt you. I was just so lonely, and when he…”
Cora hung up, and for good measure, turned off the phone.
She sat for a while and sipped her latte, amazed at how calm she felt. Maybe later, it would all come crashing down on her, but right now, her mind was astonishingly clear.
The first thing she’d do would be to go over to Macy’s and buy a suitcase, as well as a few days’ worth of clothing. Then she’d find a hotel and stay there until Monday, when she could go to a bank and deposit all this money.
She’d have to call the school, of course, and tell them she wasn’t coming in for a while because of a family emergency, which was true enough. She was going to miss her students, but there’d be others.
Maybe she’d fly out to Denver and spend some time with her younger sister Nancy, whom Bill had never cared for and for whom the feeling had been mutual. That didn’t seem like such a bad idea. There was more than enough money to last until she could get a teaching license in Colorado, or someplace else if that’s what she decided.
She thought again of Bill, and how he’d become Joanne’s problem now. Joanne was so good at solving problems, let her solve this one. The idea of it actually made her smile.
A teenage girl in a baseball cap had sat down at the next table and was nodding her head in rhythm to something on her iPad, her blonde ponytail bobbing up and down. Cora looked over, and it was yet another flash mob.
“It’s amazing how they organize those things, isn’t it?” Cora remarked.
The girl realized someone was talking to her and removed one of her ear buds. Cora could hear the tinny sound of Gloria Gaynor singing “I Will Survive.”
“Beg pardon?” said the girl.
“I said those flash mobs are really something, aren’t they?”
A big smile lit up the girl’s face. “They sure are,” she enthused. “They rule!”