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Underdogs

Michaels was sleeping on his bus, and woke startled to a knock on the glass of the door. He rubbed his eyes and saw Ms. Richards, the cheer-leading coach for the basketball team at Herbert Hoover High School. The Wildcats had taken a beating in the first two quarters, which was no surprise, and took full control of the game in the last two quarters, coming out of the halftime with full stamina and resolve to take back the game. The Wildcats were generally known across the state as underdogs, and had won countless games in similar fashion for the past thirty years. But, Michaels didn’t even know this, because he cared little about sports, and even less about high school sports. Generally, he drove the little cheerleaders and their coach to the game, and then read a book or slept until someone knocked on his door. Outwardly it appeared that Richards didn’t care much for him. From an academic standpoint she was an English teacher, and from a personal standpoint she was somewhat of a snob.

He leaned over, and opened the door. Richards stepped up into the short bus, which their squad often got ridiculed for, and scowled at him.

“Cold out?” He smirked as he asked, knowing full well what the weather was going to be like all night.

“Let’s just go, please.” She landed in the seat behind him, shoving a small business bag on the floor next to her feet. She often brought along papers to grade; tonight she would be grading tests the whole way home, and shaking her head at how efficient her students were at butchering the English language.

One after another the girls climbed the three stairs into the bus, some looking at Michaels and blushing out a “Hi, Mr. Michaelson.” Michaels was merely a nickname.

“Get to your seat, girls!” Richards roared. In reality, she was a bit intimidated by Michaels, and had to constantly remind herself to be professional, otherwise she’d be coming on the bus and saying Hi, Mr. Michaelson too. In her mind, he looked like a blond Steve McQueen, and she had a Bullitt poster hanging in her bedroom. She wasn’t quite as snobbish as she often let on, but she believed in creating a persona to keep her students in line.

“Hi, Mr. Michaelson.”

“Come on girls, let’s go!”

At the back of the bus, Paris and her best friend Taylor took up the whole back seat, which stretched across the whole back of the bus. There was enough room for four or five girls on it, but Paris was always keen on claiming her spot and shooing away the less popular. It didn’t take her long to have her territory marked, and the juniors and sophomores stayed away. The other senior on the squad just rolled her eyes, and left her and Taylor alone on the bus. In actuality, Taylor was much liked by the other girls, but when she was associating with Paris everyone kept their distance.

“Hey, Taylor, doesn’t Mr. Michaelson look like Daniel Craig?”

“I don’t know, Paris, maybe.”

“Maybe? He looks exactly like him.”

“You and your obsessions with unknowns.”

“Hey, it was either look at him or Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider, and I’ll take Daniel Craig any day. I can’t wait to see his new movie Layer Cake. Looks great.”

“Whatever.”

Michaels shut the door, and thew the bus into reverse. Richards hit him on the shoulder, because he was always eager to take off, but she always liked to give her girls one last talk before the road home. It was his way of unsettling her, knowing she couldn’t resist him. He slipped it back into park, and with a smile remarked, “You’re the boss, Boss.”

She stood up and looked back at the girls. “You all did well, and we had fun and won the game, but that doesn’t mean you need to act like a pack of hyenas. Don’t get stupid, and we’ll get home quicker.” As she sat back down, she punched Michaels shoulder again. This was his cue to get moving, and he obliged.

As they were leaving Riverside, they stopped at the combination gas station and McDonald's. Much to Richards’ dismay, McDonald’s was the only fast-food place in Riverside and this meant she’d be forsaking her diet for the third time this week. At least it was Friday night, and the week was over.

Inside Richards shook her head as she ordered a Big Mac meal, and then shook her head again when she opened the cardboard box that housed the towering mess of buns. So many carbs, so much fat, she thought to herself, and then sipped on her Diet Coke. She looked at the large, red box that had fries falling out of it onto her tray. So much sodium.

She jumped when Michaels sat down across from her, and dropped a tray on the table with three Big Macs, a large order of fries, and extra large soda. She stared at the mass of food, and then looked at him.

“You don’t mind, do you?” He asked.

“How can you eat all that and...” She stopped abruptly, as she felt she was going to say something unprofessional, which she just couldn’t do at any costs.

“And... not blow up like a balloon?”

She smiled. “Something like that.”

“Good metabolism, and lots of exercise helps too.”

She could feel a smile on her face, and mentally wiped it away. And that was the last interjection they had, as they quietly ate their meals. He had finished his first two Big Macs, and ate half of his fries before she had started on her own fries. He ate fast and furious.

Back on the bus, Richards did a quick scan of heads and noted one was missing. Then she scanned faces, and determined it was Stacey.

“Alright, where’s Stacey? Anybody know?”

A voice replied, “I don’t know, maybe she’s in the bathroom.”

Richards sighed. “It’s like teaching fourth graders all over again.” She looked back at Michaels. “I’ll be right back.”

“You’re the boss, Boss.”

Richards scanned the restaurant, looking for Stacey. There were two biker dudes laughing about something, and eating fries in one corner of the room. And the only other customers were a woman with her two sons, one about ten and the other maybe seven at most. Their mother kept scolding them about this and that, and they sheepishly ate their happy meals.

In the bathroom, Richards heard a toilet flush. “Stacey, come on, we’re all waiting. We almost left without you.”

The stall door opened, and a six foot tall blond biker chick with tattoos up and down her arms stepped out. “I ain’t Stacey.” She muttered in a low voice.

“Sorry ma’am.” Richards was floored. “Thought you were one of my students.”

“Do I look like one of your scanty cheerleaders?”

“Um... no? Sorry again.” Richards walked down the row of stalls, checking them all. Each one was empty. But she kept one eye on the woman she had upset as she did all this, and noticed she left without washing her hands. Nasty.

Moments after Richards had stepped back into McDonald’s, Michaels saw in his rear-view mirror two men carrying what appeared to be a living body. It was kicking, and squirming, but he didn’t hear any screams. He jumped from his seat and began to run to the back of the bus.

“Paris, Taylor! Look out the window, what do those two men have?! NOW!”

Paris and Taylor spun around as if their lives depended on it, as well as the other girls, and everyone was looking out the back of the bus now. Micheals planted himself in-between the two girls and watched in horror as the two men dropped a bound and gagged girl into the trunk.

“That’s Stacey!” Taylor screamed.

“They’re taking her!” Paris emphasized.

Michaels bolted up the aisle and started down the stairs of his bus. The girls all became frantic, screaming at him not to leave them. He quickly stuck his head back in and pointed at them, screaming, “Shut up and sit down. I’m not leaving anyone.” And then he burst out of the bus, but by the time he reached the back of the bus, the car was speeding out of the parking lot and spitting gravel. He tried to make out the plate numbers, but could only make out the first letter in the night. He spun around and made his way back to the front of the bus, and looked inside. Richards was coming out of the bathroom.

She was surprised to see Michaels standing outside of the bus, screaming and motioning at her to get outside. She hurried out of the doors, and he quickly ran onto the bus. She stepped in as he set down, and shifted to drive.

“What is it?”

He shut the door behind her.

“You better hope your phone has good reception. Get in and sit down.”

As soon as she was visible by the girls, they were screaming all at once and she could barely gather from it all that Stacey was taken by two thugs. Before she had time to respond to anything, Michaels was making a donut in the gravel and heading off after the car. She fell into a seat, and lunged back at him.

“What are you doing?”

“Use that phone of yours, call local law enforcement.” He pointed ahead. “You see those taillights? Those are our guys.”

Without further adieu, she set down and pulled her cell phone from her bag, which had slid under her seat. She had two bars, at most, and she quickly dialed the emergency number. It rang once, and a woman’s voice answered.

“911, what’s your--”

The phone call cut off.

She looked at the phone display again, and it had lost all reception. It said it was searching. Give me roaming, I don’t care!

“Any luck?” Michaels asked.

“Not yet.”

“Keep trying.”

Stacey couldn’t see a thing in the trunk, but she could feel every bump, and imperfection in the road. At first, her concern was to undo the restraints on her ankles, figuring she could at least run. Maybe even kick the trunk open, and take a dive for it. She figured these were her best options. But then she realized the quickest thing to do was to work the gag in her mouth loose, and this would give her an advantage even if she couldn’t get the rope off her legs. Screaming could alert someone, and that may be just as well as running. She grabbed the T-Shirt that had been tied around her head, and began to work it loose in her mouth, the spit helped. She slowly pulled the shirt over her head and let it catch on her ponytail. That was enough she knew, and went back to her ankle restraints. It was a mess, not being able to see the knot, and having limited mobility with her bound wrists. Luckily though, she hadn’t had her arms bound behind her back. This would have made any escape near impossible. After several frantic seconds, which seemed like hours, she gave up on the rope and began to focus all her efforts on the trunk lid. She maneuvered around so that her head was cramped against the backseat, planted her feet in the middle of the trunk, she then pulled them back and landed the first blow. It felt solid, and she uncontrollably screamed. She planted her feet again, and took another blow. This time she felt stronger, and it felt weaker. She had to keep reminding herself the car was old and rusted, and could break easy. She planted her feet again and landed another blow, and then began to repeat this pattern over and over and over, screaming in anger with each failed blow. The music in the car was so loud, she figured she was safe, and judged on the talking and laughter coming from behind her head, she figured she was right.

The bus was roughly fifty yards behind the car now, and Michaels let up on the gas, coasting behind the kidnappers. His palms were sweating, and he was going through the scenarios in his head. None of them were pretty, but he had a good idea what needed to be done. It would mean the end of his driving career, which was fine by him, since he hated the job. But it also meant starting over, again, and that was what he hated most. Just when he was getting comfortable where he was, and strongly considering going on a date for the first time in three years, maybe getting close to someone even, now he’d have to start over. He sighed.

Richards was squatting behind him, with her chin on his shoulder now. The girls had all come upfront as far as they could, but at Richards’ demands they had remained seated. Even Paris and Taylor had moved up a few rows.

“What are we gonna do?” Richards whispered into his ear.

“Get my toolbox, it’s under my seat.”

She bent down and found an old, metal toolbox. It was green and rusted with a padlock on it. She sat it on his lap. “Now what?”

“The key is on my key-chain, it’s the smallest one, round and bronze. Take it off the ring.”

She crawled around under the steering wheel, resting her left arm on his leg for balance. She saw the keys dangling from the ignition, then sat down on the floor completely for more balance, and used both of her hands to remove the key from it’s ring.

“Open the box.” He said, keeping his eyes on the car ahead.

She sat on her knees, and turning the toolbox to face her in his lap, she unlocked it and opened it up. Inside was a Walther PPk, a small but precise pistol. The kind James Bond used when Sean Connery knew him well. Next to it was a loaded clip.

“Can you put the clip in the bottom of the gun?” He asked.

“You have a gun on a school bus?”

“You’re complaining about this now? Seriously?” He grabbed the toolbox for effect. “Because if you want I could throw it out the window, right now?”

“NO!” She had a death grip on the toolbox. “I can load the clip.” She took the gun in her right hand, the clip in her left, and shoved it in until it snapped into place. She then handed him the gun, and put the toolbox back under the seat.

Gripping the gun between his legs, he opened the door. “I’m gonna need you to drive for a bit, sorry. Just keep her steady mostly, and do what I say.”

“Okay.” She nodded.

They awkwardly slid around each other’s bodies, and she seated in his warm seat and kept her foot on the gas pedal. He walked down the stairs and hung out the side of the bus. He looked back at her.

“I’m gonna need you to speed up.”

Stacey heard something snap upon her latest blow, and she felt the trunk door give way. She laughed hysterically, but before she could get any further she heard a gunshot. She panicked, and her eyes were wider than ever. She heard a second gun shot, and felt the back left tire blow. The car swerved left, but the driver recovered control quickly. They were screaming over their music, but she couldn’t make out anything they were saying. She could hear a second vehicle, something in the lane next to them, and she wasn’t sure what to think, but suddenly jumping out of the trunk didn’t feel like such a good idea any more.

She heard a male voice shouting back at her kidnappers, and they just screeched back at him. The third shot must have hit it’s mark, because one kidnapper screamed in terror, and the car hit the shoulder and spun to a stop, tossing her around in the trunk with each spin. She could only hear one of her kidnappers now, and he exited the car cursing at the top of his lungs, but a fourth shot silenced him. All she could hear now was the motor of the car hissing, and the large motor from the second vehicle running. Then she heard someone digging around in the car, and the third male voice turned off the ignition.

She wasn’t sure what to do, Was he a hero, or another kidnapper? She heard him walk up to the back of the car, fumbling with the keys. She prepared her legs again, if needed she would be thrusting them into the intruder. But then she heard Richards screaming at her fellow cheerleaders to stay put, and she came to the back of car as well. The door opened, and she was relieved to see Richards standing next to Michaels. Richards reached in and wrapped her arms around her, and she burst into tears of joy as they helped her out of the trunk.

“Are you hurt?” Richards asked.

“No, no.”

Stacey looked back at Michaels who stood at the trunk, watching them walk to the bus, he had a gun in his hand that appeared to be emitting red smoke next to the taillight. He looked calm, but coldblooded. Richards helped her into the bus, and her friends quickly took over giving her seat and comforting her.

“You girls stay put, I’ll be right back.”

Richards walked over to Micahaels, and he could see Paris staring at him in shock through a window on the bus. Richards looked incredibly out of sorts, her hair was a mess, and her blouse was half loose from her skirt. Her face was pale.

“Uh, what...” she swallowed dry. “What just happened?”

“Does that phone of yours have reception yet?”

She searched her pockets, not remembering where she had put it in the chaos of the chase. She found it in the left pocket of her black and orange Wildcats jacket. “Yes, it’s roaming finally.”

“Call it in.”

He turned around and began to walk off into the ditch.

“Where are you going?”

He turned back to her. “You expect me to stay here after this? Just sit and wait for the cops? That would be just dandy.”

“But it was self-defense, or well, something like that. They would have raped her--or worse! They can’t have anything against you. For crying out loud, you’re a hero!”

His eyes turned gray as steel, and his voice cut like a knife. “I’m no hero.”

Two suits who Richards didn’t recognize stepped into the interrogation room, and she knew she’d be telling the same story all over again. It was like going to the emergency room: tell the girl at the desk what’s up, tell the nurse what’s up, tell the next nurse what’s up, tell the doctor what’s up, and by the time they diagnose you, they still can’t remember why you came in.

The two suits looked like FBI, and a quick glance at their name-tag style badges clipped to their jackets confirmed her suspicions. They both looked aged, and experienced. One leaned against a wall with a coffee, the other sat in the chair across from her, like all the other cops before him.

“What was the bus driver’s name?” He had a notepad and pen ready.

“What?”

“The bus driver, his name?”

“Who cares?”

He looked up from his notepad. “I care. Tell me.”

“Everybody in this precinct, district, county, and state knows his name by now. Ask the reporter in the lobby, he knows it. Can’t I take my girls home to their families now?”

“Soon enough. A name?”
“Michaels. Or Michaelson; Michaels was a nickname I think.”

“First name?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?”

“I DO NOT KNOW.”

“So, this guy drove you and your students to how many games this year?”

“All of them.”

“And you don’t know his first name?”

“Never asked. Finished?”

He sighed. “And where is he?”

“I don’t know. He saved Stacey, got scared and ran.”

“He didn’t tell you where he was going? Maybe some insinuation?”

“Hmm... wait, now I remember. He said, I gotta get away before the cops show up, but if you ever need anything call me up on my cell phone, and I’ll be chilling in Fresno.”

“You have his cell number?”

“No, I don’t think he has one.”

“But you asked?”

“NO.”

He bit his lip, then licked it. “His hair color?”

“Blond.”

“Was he built?”

“Built?”

“Ripped, in good shape?”

“He looked like Steve McQueen.”

He bit his lip again. “And the gun? Can you remember what it looked like?”

“Yeah, it was the same one Sean Connery used as James Bond in the old Bond movies. Whatever gun that is.”

“Black?”

“Pink, actually.”

“Ma’am.”

“Miss.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Black.”

He leaned back, looked at his comrade who simply nodded. He leaned back and licked his lips for the million dollar question. “Did he have any distinguishing marks?”

“Yeah, he had a I love Mum tattoo on his shoulder. I don’t know, he just looked like a blond Steve McQueen.”

He was holding back anger now, and he spoke forcefully. “Just answer the question, and curb the humor, Miss.”

She felt bad now, so she sat and thought, and couldn’t really think of anything that stood out. She shook her head. The man sighed in relief, and looked back to his comrade who was also looking relieved. But then she remembered something.

“Wait... there was a scar... a very definitive scar on the side of his neck. I had almost forgotten about it, he kept it covered most the time with his collars flipped up.”

“The right side, or the left?”

“I saw it once when I got on the bus, so that would be his right side.”

The man looked like he’d just seen a ghost, and then suddenly, without warning, he leaped from his chair and ran into a corner of the room, grabbed a trash can and threw it against the wall. It fell to the floor, spinning as it hit, but he quickly kicked it around the room like a soccer ball, and then picked it up and crashed it against the floor. It eventually spun to a stop. He adjusted his posture and watched it as it finished. He slowly calmed down with heavy breathing, readjusting his shoulders. He looked at her, apologetic. “Sorry ma’am... I mean, Miss.”

The clock on Richards’ wall read 2:13pm when she walked into her apartment on Saturday. She was utterly exhausted, not having had any sleep since the previous night’s fiasco. They had all been interrogated over and over again, with the local cops only interested in how the events went down, recognizing that what Michaels did had to be done. But there were those FBI agents, What was their deal?

She wanted to understand it all, but she had exhausted the issue in the bus ride back to Babylon, depriving herself of much needed sleep. Now she was home, and ready to call it a day. She slowly removed the outer layers of her clothes as she made her way to her bedroom, walking in and falling flat on her back into bed. She was looking at the ceiling, and could feel her eyes heavily weighing down, then she reached up with her right hand and flipped the light on. She looked down towards the foot of her bed, and hung over her dresser was a fantastic poster of Steve McQueen in Bullitt. He stood firm, leaning against a wall only for dramatic effect. His gun perfectly holstered under his armpit, and dressed in a black turtleneck. He was looking right at her in a calm, coldblooded sort of way. Like he’d snap her in half, if she said the wrong word.

She had surely met Steve McQueen reincarnate, and she didn’t even get his first name. Professionalism, what a waste. And then, she was out like a light.

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