Saturday, September 17, 2016

Room without a key

A young woman is confined in a mysterious room for almost 200 days before escaping. Tom Jurgen’s investigation leads him to the same place—with no way out.

Room without a key, Part One

Well, it seems like I'm caught up in your trap again.
And it seems like I'll be wearing the same old chains.
Good will conquer evil and the truth will set me free.
And I know someday I will find the key.
And I know somewhere I will find the key.
—Jimmy Cliff

I opened my eyes and rolled over on the bed. What the hell?
            I’d been talking to Finn Markham. I remembered standing in front of a door. A short, skinny man, balding. He shook my hand . . .
            And then nothing.
            I stood up, feeling groggy, and looked around. Oh, hell.
            It could have been an ordinary motel room anywhere in the world: a flatscreen TV with a remote, a desk and chairs, the mini-fridge, and the generic landscape painting on one wall. One small bathroom.
            No phone or clock radio, though. And dark curtains that didn’t let any light inside.
            I staggered to the door. This can’t be right. I didn’t do anything. I was just asking questions!
            I pushed the handle down and pulled the door back.
            Oh, no.
            A barricade of cinder blocks, hard and heavy, blocked me from leaving. I put my hand forward and pushed. The barrier felt cold and solid. I’d need a jackhammer or dynamite to get through it. And I was pretty sure I didn’t have anything like that in my pockets.
            My pockets. I patted my jeans. Empty. No wallet, no keys—and no cell phone. Damn it. I slammed the door.
            Across the room I yanked the curtain back. The same blank gray wall loomed on the other side of the glass.
            I sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed my eyes, trying to clear my fuzzy head. My mouth was dry and I needed to go to the bathroom, but my legs felt weak and wobbly.
            After a few minutes I forced myself up. Inside the mini-fridge I found sandwiches and bottles of water. I gulped down half a bottle, then sank into the desk chair, fighting a wave of nausea.
            I knew only one thing for certain. I was trapped.


“Judith, this is Tom Jurgen. The private detective I was telling you about.”
            Dr. Diane Atkinson was a psychologist. And a friend. An African-American woman in her fifties, she sometimes referred clients to me if their problems fit into my area of unwanted expertise—demonic possession, vampire attacks, alien abductions, and the like. She called me her crazy guy. But she did call me. I wasn’t sure how much she believed any of my stories, but she kept an open mind. Mostly because she was determined to help people.
            The office in her Lincoln Park apartment, contrary to stereotype, did not have a big leather couch for her patients to lay back on and free associate about their dreams. Just a few chairs and a table with her laptop, a vase of flowers, and a box of tissues.           
            Judith Stevens looked shy and fragile. Almost painfully skinny, or maybe anorexic? White, 25 or so, she had short brown hair and thick eyeglasses. She shook my hand with a tentative grip. “Mr. Jurgen? It’s nice to meet you.”
            I smiled. “Just call me Tom.”
            Atkinson sat back in her chair. “Judith, would you like to tell Tom what happened?”
            Judith bit her lip, close to saying no. Then she nodded. “Okay. This is going to sound weird, though.”
            “Don’t worry.” I’d heard that before. “If I had a dime for every time someone told me that, I’d have . . . well, a lot of dimes.”
            Judith laughed. They usually do. Although one client actually gave me a dime one time.
             “Okay.” Deep breath. She looked at Atkinson.
            She nodded. “Go ahead,”
            “Right.” Judith swallowed. “Here’s the thing . . .” She closed her eyes. “I was trapped in a motel room for 193 days.”
            I glanced at Atkinson. She nodded.
            “Okay.” I pulled out my notebook. “Tell me more.”
            Judith hesitated, expecting me to tell her she was crazy. Then she went on as if she wanted to get it all out at once. “It looked like a motel room, all right? But I couldn’t get out. There was this gray wall behind the door and the windows. But when I got out—” She started trembling. “It was only a day. I was back home, and no one knew I’d been gone.”
            That was indeed weirder than usual. “How did you get out?”
            She shook her head. “I don’t know. Toward the end I wasn’t really awake. I stopped eating. I just wanted to starve. I know it’s wrong, but I just wanted to get out there somehow.”
            Atkinson sat forward. “Her parents took her to the ER. She was highly malnourished and dehydrated, plus some loss of muscle and bone mass from inactivity.”
            “I tried doing exercises for a while.” Judith seemed almost apologetic. “It just didn’t seem worth it.”
            “Where did your food come from?” I wasn’t trying to poke holes in her story, just make sense of it.
            “There was a little mini-fridge. It had sandwiches and water. And it somehow got refilled all the time. I washed my clothes in the bathroom sink. I thought about . . .” she blushed. “Not wearing any? But I was afraid someone was watching me.”
            I didn’t blame her. “You said 193 days. How did you keep track? Scratches on the walls or something?”
            She laughed, as if that was the silliest idea she’d ever heard. “I read one chapter of the Bible every day. There was one in the desk, like every hotel room has. I know about where I was when I got home, so I counted.”
            “Good idea.” I nodded. “So you live with your parents?”
            She hesitated. “Right now I’m staying with a friend.” She seemed embarrassed. “A girl from college. I just can’t go back to—to my room at home.”
            College. “What are you studying?”
            “Religion. At the University of Chicago.” She seemed proud of that.
            “Okay.” I glanced at Atkinson again. She stared back. So I looked straight at Judith. “So you want me to find out what happened?”
            A long silence. Finally Judith nodded. “Every night I think—I wonder if I’m going to wake up there again in the morning. And I don’t even know where I was.” She grabbed a tissue from the box.
            I knew the feeling. I’ve seen too many things in the dark.
             “Of course.” I hesitated. “Judith, would it be okay if I talked to Dr. Atkinson alone for a moment?”
            “Sure.” She hopped up. “I’ll just—”
            “No, no.” Atkinson stood. “You wait here. Tom and I will talk in the kitchen.”
            She poured me a cup of coffee. “What do you think?”
            I sipped. It was dark and strong, like a Starbucks on speed. “So who’s hiring me?”
            Atkinson crossed her arms. “She doesn’t have much money. I took the case while she was at the hospital. I have to do a certain amount of pro bono work—”
            “So I’m doing this as a favor?” It wasn’t actually unreasonable. And I owed her a few she’d done for me.
            She grinned. “Come on, admit it—you’re intrigued.”
            Intrigue doesn’t pay my cable bill. But Atkinson was a shrink, and she could read me almost as well as my friend Rachel.
            Plus, she was right. I was curious. “Okay. A case of Heineken.”
            She laughed. “I would have bought you two.”
            Back in the office Judith was sagging in her chair, half asleep. But she forced herself up as we sat down again. “I’m sorry. I’m just so tired lately.”
            “That’s fine.” I picked up my notebook. “A few more questions?”
            Judith nodded. “Sure. I guess.”
            “How did you end up in the room? Do you remember?”
            She rubbed her eyes. “Not really. I was at home. I remember that. My parents were talking to someone in the living room—I don’t know his name, but I think he lives in the neighborhood. He’s half-bald? And kind of short. Kind of skinny.” She looked down at herself. “Well, not like me. I didn’t used to look like this. My mother tried to keep me from eating too much, but—”
            “Judith.” Atkinson’s voice was quiet and calm. “That’s a separate issue. But for the record, you look fine.”
            “I don’t know.” She giggled. “Okay. But . . .” She looked at me, then looked away. “I’m sorry. I don’t know. I was just there. And I couldn’t get out.”
            Judith grabbed a tissue, and then another. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry . . .”
            We waited. I wrote notes. When Judith looked up again, her eyes were red. “Sorry.”
            “No.” I set my notebook down. “It’s not a problem. But I have to ask—” Again I glanced toward Atkinson. “May I talk to your parents?”
            That made Judith nervous. “I-I guess. But—” She forced a short nod. “They don’t know I’m seeing a, a psychiatrist. They wouldn’t like that.”
            “You’re an adult, Judith.” Atkinson nodded reassuringly. “You’re allowed to make these kind of decisions for yourself.”
            “Y-yeah. You’re right.” She wasn’t convinced, but she squared her shoulders. “I know that.”
            “I’ll try not to tell them.” I stood up. “Oh, by the way, in the room, there was no phone or TV?”
            “There was a TV. We don’t watch TV at home, so I never turned it on. Well . . .” She shrugged. “My roommate watches TV. I kind of like this show, Friends? It’s on, like, twice a night.”
            I nodded. “Yeah. I like Chandler the best.”
            “Yeah, but Joey’s cute.” Then she blushed again.


So I opened the desk drawer. The Bible was there, left by the Gideons. I closed it and picked up the remote.
            The TV flickered on, but the screen showed only gray and white static. On every channel.
            I looked up for cameras in the corners of the ceiling, but if they were there, they were too well hidden. I could try taking things apart for microphones. That would give me something to do, but I wasn’t sure I’d recognize a hidden microphone even if I found one. Or that I could put everything back together again.
            Even so, I lifted my head. “Hello? Anyone there?”
            No answer.
            In the bathroom I splashed some water on my face. So at least the sink worked.
            I paced the room, counting my footsteps. I tried to remember everything Judith had told me about her imprisonment here—and how solitary confinement drove people crazy. She was still sane after almost 200 days. I wasn’t sure how long I could hold up with only sandwiches, water, and the Bible for entertainment.
            For a moment I thought about Rachel trying to find me. Then I remembered that I wouldn’t really be gone long enough for her to notice.
            I sat down. Stood up. Paced the room again. Drank some more water.
            “Hello!” I shouted again. “Is anyone there?”


Back home, I opened my laptop on the dining room table where I do all my serious detective work, checked my email, and then called Judith’s parents. Her mother lowered her voice to a whisper when I explained who I was. “I’m not sure I should talk to you. My husband might not like it.”
            “I only want to ask you and your husband a few questions. It might help your daughter.”
            “Judith.” Her mother said the name like a prayer. “She’s not here anymore. I can’t believe she’d leave us.” She choked, as if gasping for breath between tears. “I just want my baby back.”
            I couldn’t promise anything like that. “Just a few questions. I don’t want to make any trouble.”
            “Well, maybe.” She sighed. “After dinner? He doesn’t like anything to get in the way. Maybe 8:00?”
            “That’s fine.”
            I hung up, feeling guilty. Mrs. Stevens was obviously scared of her husband. And Judith seemed scared of her parents. So the questions I wanted to ask might make things worse.
            But she’d asked me to find out what happened. And I wanted to find out too.
            “Hi, there!” Rachel let herself into my apartment. She has a key. She’s got red hair and hazelnut eyes. She’s my upstairs neighbor, and she’s sort of psychic. She kissed me and sat down at the dining room table. “You got a new case? What’s for dinner?”
            Yeah, I’ve been cooking a lot for us lately. “Bring me a beer?’
            “What am I, your girlfriend?” She slugged my arm.
            She came back with two bottles, and I tried to show off my manly strength by twisting them open. She grabbed them away when I winced with pain and snapped off the caps with a bottle opener. “Wimp.”
            I shrugged. “So, do you know any kind of magic that can trap someone in a room for 200 days?”
            She cocked her head at me. “That’s pretty different.”
            I sighed and stretched. Yeah, this wasn’t the usual “Oh my god, I’m being stalked by a vampire!” case, or even a cheating husband. “So my client was stuck in the room from ‘No Exit,’ but without other people. No phone, just a Bible and a TV. The doors and windows were blocked, but somehow she got food and water every day. Did I mention she was there almost 200 days?” I sipped my beer. “But when she got out, no time had passed.”
            Rachel raised her eyebrows. “Welcome to the Hotel California.”
            “Yeah. She tried to check out by starving herself at the end. But she did manage to leave. Somehow.”
            She sipped her beer. “I hate the Eagles.”
            I clinked my bottle against hers. “That’s the one song of theirs I can actually stand. Any ideas?”
            “Well . . .” She crossed her arms. “She could have been caught in an alternate reality, or some kind of pocket universe. There are always rumors about people who do that—kidnapping, mostly, or crazed stalkers. Yuck.” She shivered. “Got any names?”
            Rachel’s a psychic, not a sorceress, but she does have lots of contacts in Chicago’s supernatural community.
            “Not right now. I’m talking to my client’s parents tonight. Maybe I’ll get something from them.” I finished my beer. “You want a sandwich?”

Room without a key, Part Two

Judith’s father Joe Stevens was a stern-faced, gray-haired man in a white T-shirt, black suspenders, and dirty jeans. He looked me over skeptically and didn’t shake my hand any longer than he had to. Her mother Gwen wore thick glasses like Judith, and she held my hand as if she hadn’t had a visitor to the house in months.
            She offered me coffee, and we sat down in the kitchen. “What can we do for you, Mr. Jurgen?” Gwen Stevens glanced at her husband, as if she needed his permission to speak.
            “Did Judith tell you what happened?” The coffee was lukewarm and watery.
            Joe scowled. “We took her to the hospital, but they couldn’t find anything wrong with her, except she hadn’t been eating right. She lost a lot of weight. It doesn’t look right on a girl her age.”
            “Did you notice her weight loss before?”
            “She looked—different.” Gwen’s voice quavered. “She’s always had a healthy appetite. She doesn’t do drugs,” she blurted out, as if that was the next logical question.
            “What’s she like?”
            Again Gwen looked at her husband. “She’s very shy. She always did well in school. She—”
            “She’s stubborn.” Joe broke in. “She doesn’t read her Bible enough. She doesn’t listen.”
            I tried to keep my face neutral. “To you?”
            “To the Lord.”
            I nodded. I’m fairly agnostic, but I’d seen enough supernatural stuff not to rule anything out—even God. “Was that a big problem?”
            “No!” Gwen shook her head firmly. “She’s always been so sweet. I mean, we had the normal disagreements when she was a teenager—”
            “I didn’t like her friends.” Joe crossed his arms. “They were a bad influence. This girl she’s living with now? We don’t know anything about her. She could be doing drugs, or have boyfriends, or watch all kinds of things on TV or her computer. But Judy won’t come home.” He frowned. “She’d be welcome here, if she just follows the rules.”
            I took a shot in the dark, mostly for the reaction: “Does she have a boyfriend?”
            Gwen looked shocked at the concept. Joe’s face grew dark. “No.” It was a single syllable that delivered an entire lecture on the evils of boyfriends.
            I nodded. “She didn’t mention one. When she—when it happened, Judith mentioned you were meeting with someone in your living room? Balding, skinny?”
            “Oh, that’s Finn—”
             Again her husband broke in. “It was just a neighbor. He was gone when she came out.”
            “She was crying!” Gwen took off her glasses and wiped her eyes with a handkerchief. “Crying and staggering around like she couldn’t stand up. Her clothes were dirty, and she could hardly walk. And she kept saying that she was reading the Bible, she said that over and over . . .” Gwen blew her nose. “I’m sorry. It’s just—she’s my baby . . .”
            Joe’s face was stony and disapproving, as if wives weren’t supposed to show their feelings about their children. “She was fine. Like I said, we took her right to the ER. But they kept her there. In their psycho ward. Like she was some kind of crazy.” He shoved his chair back. “Are we done?”
            “I guess so.” I dropped my card on the table. “If you think of anything else, don’t be afraid to call. Thanks for your time.”           
            Joe stood up. “I hope she’s not spending a lot of money for your—services, Mr. Jurgen.”
            “Not at all. We worked out an arrangement.”
            Joe walked me to the door while Gwen picked up the coffee cups, and he watched me walked down the front sidewalk and get into my Honda. And he waited until I drove down the street.
            Two blocks away my cell phone buzzed. I pulled over to answer.
            “Mr. Jurgen?” Gwen Stevens was whispering. “It was Finn Markham. He lives on the next street over. He’s—I can’t tell you anything more.”
            “Thank y—” But she hung up before I could finish.


By the third day I’m sick of sandwiches and water. “I could use some beer!” I shout at the air. “And maybe a coffeemaker! What kind of motel is this, anyway?”
            No response.
            I’m keeping track of the days by folding down a corner of each page in the Gideon Bible. I think about reading it. The Bible had apparently helped keep Judith sane, but thinking of Joe Stevens’ words—“She doesn’t read the Bible enough”—makes me want to throw it against the wall.
            I’m already losing track of time. “Day” has stopped meaning a 24-hour period, I just count days by when I wake up. Each “morning” I check the door and the window, turn on the TV for a dose of static—why put a TV in here if it doesn’t work?—and eat part of a sandwich. I shower and then dress in the clothes I washed the night before.
            The towels and sheets are already beginning to smell. Maybe I’m supposed to wash them out in the bathtub.
            I exercise and try to think of ways to keep my mind active. I’ve read about hostages confined to small cells playing mind games to stay sane—reenacting movies they’d seen, or doing math in their heads. I’m already talking to myself out loud half the time.
            I keep thinking about Rachel. And sometimes about my mother and my brother. I don’t see them that often because they live in different states. I should call them more often.
            Maybe I should do a lot of things differently.


I called Rachel first the next morning, but I only got her voice mail. She was either sleeping late or working early. “I have a name. Finn Markham. Can you check it out?” I waited in case she called back. But once I was out of my shower I knew I wouldn’t hear from her for a while.
            After a bowl of cereal I called Diane Atkinson and left a message to call me when she had a chance. She called back between early patients—oops, clients. “What can you tell me about Judith’s parents?”
            Atkinson hesitated. “There are still some confidentiality issues to consider, but . . . I can tell you that they’re very religious, very conservative, and her father is very strict. She had to come directly home from school every day when she was younger. No dating, and he basically vetted all her friends—and he didn’t like most of them. That didn’t necessarily stop her from forming friendships, but she was conflicted about it.”
            She paused. “Her mother seems to have tried to deflect his impact, but she comes across in Judith’s telling as being completely dominated by her father. It was a traditional setup from the 1950s—he worked, she stayed home, cooking and cleaning, all her friends screened by her husband.”
            “That pretty much matches what I saw last night. Has she mentioned a man named Finn Markham?”
            “I don’t think so.”
             “Okay. Thanks. I’m not sure I’m getting anywhere here, but I’ll keep you posted.”
            “Wait.” Atkinson cleared her throat. “I should mention that despite all that, Judith says she has a very close relationship with her parents. She has a hard time criticizing them. Of course . . .” She paused again. “That’s sometimes an indication of abuse.”
            “Right.” I’d been involved in a few ugly cases. “I’m on it.”
            So I spent the rest of the morning looking for Finn Markham online, but all I found was a real estate transaction for a house in Judith’s neighborhood. Other than that, he seemed to keep a low profile.
            I called Judith. Her roommate picked up. “No, Judy’s at class. Can I take a message?”
            “Tom Jurgen.” I gave my number.
            “Oh, it’s you!” She sounded surprised, but cheerful. “Judy told me about you. I’m Lindsay. I hope you can help her.”
            “I’ll certainly try.” I decided to take a chance. “Lindsay, could I ask you a few questions?”
            “Well . . .” She wavered. “I suppose. But I can’t really tell you anything very personal. I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t really know you?”
            “Sure. I understand.” Part of the job was asking questions that didn’t make people hang up, or walk away. “Just tell me you can’t answer anything you don’t feel comfortable about. Has Judy ever mentioned a man named Finn Markham?”
            “No.” She sounded relieved that she didn’t have to tell me to go to hell. “No, I don’t think so.”
            “What do you know about her parents?”
            “Well . . .” This made her nervous. “They sound kind of weird? I mean, she told me once that they made her read the Bible every day until she was 21. And she had to go to church all the time, not just on Sunday, and when she started to say she didn’t want to go, they’d punish her.”
            “Punish her how?”
            A long silence. “I think that’s one of the things I can’t tell you.”
            “That’s fine.” It told me a lot, actually. “Is she reading the Bible a lot now?”
            “Just for classes. She’s studying religion. Like me. But I asked her about it once, because when I first met her she’d read it in the cafeteria, on the bus, everywhere. But ever since she moved in, she says she doesn’t want to open it every day. I mean,” she added quickly, “she still goes to church, and we say grace together, and sometimes she comes to my church. It’s not like she’s given up.”
            “That’s good.” I don’t go to church much myself, but I try to respect people’s faith. “Well, thank you, Lindsay. You’ve been a big help.”
            “Okay. ‘Bye!”
            I spent the rest of the morning and some of the afternoon working other cases from home, online and on the phone. I was just taking a break when Judith called me back.
            “I just got back from class.” She sounded of breath. “Lindsay said you called?”
            “Yes. I was wondering if you’ve ever heard the name Finn Markham?”
            She gasped. For a second I thought she’d dropped the phone. “Judith? Are you okay?”
            “I’m here. I’m fine.” She gulped loudly. “I’m sorry. It’s just that, well, when I was kid? ‘Finn’ was sort of the boogeyman in our neighborhood. Parents would say that if we didn’t behave, we’d get a visit from Finn. I never heard a last name, though.”
            “Was he a real person?”
            “Oh, yeah. He lived a few blocks away. But he hardly ever came out of his house. We’d ride our bikes real fast past it so he wouldn’t see us. But nobody ever saw him.”
            “Right.” For a moment I wondered what the truth might do to her. But I’d have to talk that over with Diane. After I confronted the boogeyman.


I see Rachel all the time now. I know it’s just a hallucination, but I keep thinking it’s her, in the corner of my eye, and when I turn she’s gone. I pound the mattress. Sometimes I yell her name. Sometimes I cry.
            I’ve been in this room for 15 days. Nowhere close to how long Judith was here, but already I can feel my mind slipping away. Sometimes I sit for hours staring at the static on the TV. I wish a spider would crawl up the wall. Or even a fly buzzing around the room. It would be some sort of company.
            I open the Bible every day to turn down a corner. Sometimes I read the first line at the top. But I can’t always focus my eyes. And sometimes the words are just gibberish, like an alien language.
            I try to remember what a breeze feels like, and what fresh clothes smell like. And the taste of any kind of food that isn’t a sandwich.
            One day I exercise for hours until I collapse on the carpet, panting and exhausted. I see Rachel’s bare foot next to my head.
            I don’t look up. I don’t want her to be gone.


I needed to talk to Finn Markham. But before doing that, I wanted to talk to Judith’s mother. Without Joe around.
            So I parked my Honda and knocked on the door. Gwen opened up. “Oh. Mr. Jurgen.”
            “Call me Tom.” I peered over her shoulder. “Is your husband home?”
            She wiped her hands on her sweatshirt. “Joe works until six or seven o’clock. Every night. What do you want?”
            “May I come in?”
            She glanced over my shoulder at the houses across the street. “I guess so. I have to start dinner soon.” It was 3:00.
            Gwen brought me coffee in the living room. A huge painting of Jesus hung over the couch. A bookcase held a handful of paperbacks with titles like Trusting God Every Day, Reasons to Believe, Based on Faith, and most of the Left Behind series.
            “What can I do for you?” Gwen dropped into a chair.
            “I’m sorry to bother you.” I needed to do this right, without spooking her. “I need to ask you about Finn Markham.”
            She flinched. “Oh. I was afraid of that.”
            “Why is that?”
            She squirmed in her chair like a child with a hand caught in the cookie jar. “My husband . . . Joe wouldn’t like it.”
            I nodded.  “I only want to help your daughter.”
            Gwen looked at me. “Do you believe in God?”
            I swallowed. The wrong answer could send me away. But a lie might be worse. “No. Not really. Sorry.”
            “I do believe in God.” Gwen smiled. “But I know—not everyone does, and I think that’s okay. When Judith started asking questions, I tried to answer her. But Joe—he just shut her out. I tried to tell him that questions are the way to faith, but he just . . .” She shook her head. “He couldn’t understand. And it just made everything worse.”
            I tried to make my next question as soft as possible. “So what about Finn Markham?”
            “I hate him!” Gwen’s face turned dark. “Oh, I know it’s wrong, but I just can’t do it. I just can’t . . .” She leaned over, weeping. “Sorry . . .”
            I looked around the living room and found a box of tissues on a bookshelf near a wedding photo. Gwen Stevens, young and happy in her white dress, and her new husband in a dark suit, one arm around his bride.
            “I’m very sorry to upset you.” I dropped the box on the table between us. “I just need to know—what happened? What did Finn do?”
            She grabbed a tissue and blew her nose. “He—he teaches children to behave. To follow the Bible. He says it takes a long time, so we couldn’t expect to see Judith again for . . . I don’t really know.” She dropped her tissue on the floor and grabbed three more. “Don’t tell Joe. He’ll be so mad at me. Please? He’s my husband.”
            “I won’t say anything.” I waited while she caught her breath. “But . . . you know, it is the 21st century. You don’t have to put up with anything you don’t like. And I don’t think God wants you to live with someone you’re afraid of.”
            “But . . .” She looked up at me and wiped her eyes. “You don’t believe in God.”
            Yeah. “I don’t believe in the Loch Ness monster. Or that Justin Bieber’s a musical genius. That doesn’t mean they might not be real. I try to keep an open mind.”
            Gwen laughed. “I hear him on the radio sometimes. When Joe isn’t around.”
            “I switch the station.” I stood up. “Look, I’m not a marriage counselor or anything, so I can’t tell you what to do or what to believe. I’m just trying to help your daughter. You can call me if you want. I know a lot of good lawyers.”
            “Th-thanks.” She blew her nose again. “I’ll . . . can I have another card?”
Rachel had left a message for me while I was talking to Gwen. I’d silenced my ringtone. Her voice was quick and quiet. “Be careful with Finn Markham. He’s got a bad rap.”
            I called her back, but it went straight to voice mail. So I told her where I was, and where I was going. I tried to finish with the right words, but we weren’t there yet. So I just said, “See you. ‘Bye.”
            Then I drove two streets over and parked in front of Finn Markham’s house. The boogeyman.
            The grass hadn’t been cut in weeks. Tree branches hung down over power wires. Weeds grew high in the concrete cracks leading up to the porch.
            No wonder kids avoided the place.
            I locked the Honda, took a deep breath, and made my way up to the front door.
            The doorbell didn’t seem to work. After pressing it three times, I opened the screen door and knocked.
            Nothing. Maybe that was better. I could go home, have a beer, and think about my next move—
            The door swung back. “Yes? What do you want?”
            He was short and skinny, like Judith had said. His forehead was bare, but the hair behind his ears was black. “Uh, Finn Markham?”
            “Who are you?” He wore a jacket and shorts. His eyes were dark as a coal mine.
            “Tom Jurgen.” I held out a card. “Could we talk for a few minutes?”
            Finn took my card. “What’s this all about?”
            “Judith Stevens.”
            “Oh.” He slipped the card into pocket. “I suppose so. Come on in.” He reached out to shake my hand.
            Nothing else happens after that.

Room without a key, Part Three


So I haven’t gotten out of the bed in a few weeks. Maybe months.
            No, that’s not right. I have to get up to go to the bathroom sometimes. Then I stumble to the desk and fold down another page of the Bible. Then I collapse on the bed.
            Rachel looks down at me. Come on, you asshole. When you are going to get up? She punches my shoulder. I can almost feel it.
            Every once in a while I crawl to the fridge for some water. Sometimes I eat part of a sandwich, but most of it ends up on the floor.
            I try to move around, but I’m so tired . . .
            I count the pages I’ve turned down in the Bible. Ten, 20, 30 . . . 51. Oh hell! A month and a half? What will Rachel say? Oh, wait . . .
            You idiot. She’s right behind me, but I don’t want to look. I don’t want her to go away again. What are you doing here?
            I’m sorry. I crawl back to the bed. I’m sorry . . .
            My mother is singing. The curtains are wide and the sun is streaming in. Then she’s driving away, and I’m watching her disappear down the street. I wave as the car fades out.
            Then I’m in an alley. It’s the first time I ever saw a monster, back when I was a reporter. A black shape lurches away from me, crawling up a building. No one believes me.
            I slide off the bed without feeling anything. When I blink my eyes, a vampire is gazing down at me, fangs wide.
            I raise my hands. Get away, get away!
            The vampire turns into Rachel. I can see her hazelnut eyes, her fire-red hair. I reach up for her—
            But she shakes her head. Then she’s gone.
            No. No . . .

Okay. I push myself up. I’m getting out of here. Somehow.
            Water keeps me going. The sandwiches? I need something in my belly, so I force myself to eat the meat, and I throw the bread away.
            Bathroom. I stand under the shower in my underwear. I’m not sure where I left my clothes, or why I need them. Let them look at my scrawny ribs. It can’t be that much of a thrill.
            I sink into the chair at the desk and open the Bible. How many days? I’m not sure I remembered to fold each corner down every day. But even if I didn’t . . . it’s hard to count. Ten, 20, 30, 40 . . .
            “You can’t do this to me!” I slam a fist on the desk. “Are you listening? You can’t do this!”
            No reply. I lay my head on the desk next to the Bible.

I sit up. Finn. Finn Markham. I remember the name. But what does it mean?
            Rachel. Oh, god, Rachel. Her hazelnut eyes. I sit up. What the hell is going on?
            For one moment I remember everything. Judith, her parents, Diane Atkinson, Rachel . . . Rachel . . . and Finn Markham.
            Then I’m spiraling down again in a dizzy spell that sends me spinning around the room. Wait a minute . . . wait . . .
            I clutch the desk. For a moment I feel steady. Then it hits me again. I fight the nausea, except my stomach is empty because I haven’t eaten anything in days. I lean down, choking, until I can breathe again. I try to sit up.
            I can’t stand this much longer. Judith—is that her name? She lived here for 200 days. How did she do it?
            She almost died. I don’t think I can do a hunger strike that long but—
            I rub my face. No, not 200 days. She was very exact. It was 193 days. How could she know that?
            I read one chapter of the Bible every day. There was one in the desk, like every hotel room has. I know about where I was when I got home, so I counted.
            Judith counted the Bible chapters. She didn’t read her Bible enough, her father said. Maybe she learned her lesson.
            I open the Bible.

One hundred and ninety . . . One hundred ninety-one . . . I can barely keep counting. How long have I been here? With a pen and a piece of paper I could do this in a minute, but the desk has only the Bible. I have to count, one chapter after another, trying to stay awake.
            I’m in the book of Joshua. Didn’t he make the sun stand still? Time stands still in here. Maybe that’s the secret. Maybe . . .
            I jerk my head up. I can’t fall asleep now. I don’t remember when I ate last. I’m thirsty, but I’m afraid if I stand up to get another bottle of water I’ll fall down and I won’t be able to get up again.
            I flip the pages, my eyes cloudy, until I reach Joshua, chapter six:

March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have the whole army give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the army will go up, everyone straight in.
Six days? I don’t have that long. But maybe . . .
            I lurch up and open the door. The same gray wall greets me. I almost fall back, as if it’s pushing on my chest. But I grab the edge of the door and take a deep breath.
            “HA!” I shout. The force of my own voice surprises me. I don’t quite believe I have that much strength left. “HA!”
            Five more times. I feel stupid. But I lean back, drawing all my breath into my chest. My feet wobble on the floor. I grab the edge of the bed.
            “HAAAAA . . .!”
            I shout at the top of my breath for as long as I can. My lungs hurt, and my throat aches, but I keep going. Mostly because I’ve got nothing left. If this doesn’t work, I’m going to just lie down and think about flowers and unicorns and Humphrey Bogart movies. And Rachel.
            But my voice keeps going. I’m staggering on my feet. I might as well give it everything I’ve got. It worked for Joshua. Maybe it worked for Judith. Maybe . . .
            The gray wall crumbles.
            What the—? I stumble forward. This can’t be real. It’s another dream. It can’t—
            I push my hands forward. The wall crashes back, dust swirling around my head. I push forward, still shouting, waving my arms. Yes! Joshua! Yes!
            My knees give out. I twist around, looking back into the room.
            The TV flickers one last time, and then it falls over. The screen cracks. The door slams shut behind me, and now I’m in some gray space with no ceiling or floor. I close my eyes. Okay, I’m fine. At least . . .


I opened my eyes and rolled over on the bed.
            The blankets and sheets felt strange. Clean and familiar. I managed to sit up.
            My Casablanca poster hung on the wall. My one cactus plant sat next to the window. The clock radio next to my bed said 4:10 p.m. I stared at it until it clicked over to 4:11.
            My keys and wallet were back in my pocket. So was my phone. I punched the wrong buttons two or three times until I got it right. Please pick up, please
            “Yeah, what?” Rachel sounded annoyed. “I’m kind of busy here with—”
            “H-help me!” My voice sounded like a hoarse puppy. “Help me!”
            “What the—” But she could hear the fear in my throat. “Okay. I’ll be right down.”
            Thirty seconds later she was holding me as I cried. “Oh, god, it’s you, it’s really you. Don’t go away. Please, don’t go away . . .”
            “I’m here, Tom.” She hugged me. “I’m not going anywhere. It’s okay.”
            “Sorry.” I wiped my nose on my sleeve. “I guess I should change clothes.”
            “Yeah, you stink.” But she didn’t let go of me. “What happened?”
            I sighed. “I was in the room.”
            She stroked my arm. “How long?”
            “I don’t know. A month, maybe two. I don’t know . . .” I shivered.
            “How did you get out?”
            “The walls of Jericho.” I remembered that much.
            “Huh?” At least she didn’t punch me.
            “I’ll tell you later. I think I need a shower.” I stood up.
            “Yeah, you do.” She led me to my bathroom. “Something to eat? You look a lot thinner than yesterday. You want a sandwich or—”
            “No!” I pushed her away. “No sandwiches! A salad, fish sticks, raw eggplant, anything but a sandwich!” I sighed. “Sorry.”
            “Okay, I’ll order pizza. Geez.” But she kissed my cheek. “Anything else?”
            “I really want a beer. Please?”
            “Sure. You want me to bring it in the shower?”
            “Yeah.” I clutched her hand. “I might be a long time.”

Two days later we were all in Diane Atkinson’s office: Me, Atkinson, Rachel, Judith—and although they didn’t look like they wanted to be there, both of Judith’s parents.
            “Thank you for coming.” Atkinson looked at her client. “I’ve been working with Judith for several weeks, and I think she has something to say to you.”
            “Who are you again?” Joe looked unhappy.
            “Joe . . .” Gwen patted his knee. “Just listen. Please.”
            We’d talked this over—me and Judith and Atkinson. I’d given Gwen a heads up about what we’d be talking about. Joe? Well, he was being ambushed, a little bit, but I couldn’t really find it in my heart to care right now.
            Rachel hugged my shoulder. I still felt a little shaky. Rachel likes to insult me and punch me, but she’s usually there when I need her.
            “Mom? Dad?” Judith took a breath. “I can’t live with you anymore. I don’t think I can see you anymore, at least for a while—”
            “What? No.” Joe shook his head. “You’re my daughter! You belong with—”
            “Joe?” Atkinson’s voice was quiet but firm. “Judith is talking.”
            “I was in a room for 193 days because you made Finn take me there.” Judith’s voice trembled, but she stayed calm. “And I was all alone. Do you know what that’s like? I read a play that said hell is other people, but it’s not that. Hell is nothing. No one. Can you even imagine? I can’t. I’m sorry, but . . .” She grabbed for a tissue. “I just can’t be with you anymore.”
            “Oh, come on, baby.” Joe leaned forward, reaching for her hand. “It was for your own good—”
            “Joseph, for God’s sake, shut up.” Gwen pulled his hand away from Judith. “I’ve lived with this, and you, and . . . and . . . I’m sorry, Judith.” She grabbed a tissue too. “I should have done better. I really should.”
            For a moment the room was quiet.
            “Nothing can replace the word of God.” Joe’s voice was low. “Not you and your new age therapies. If you really believe—”
            “Joseph.” Atkinson raised a hand. “We’re just talking. We just want to understand each other.”
            “Oh, I understand you fine.” Joe jabbed a finger at me. “But you? What business do you have meddling with my family? Judith is my daughter. I’d do anything for her.”
            For a moment, yeah, I almost felt sorry for him. “She needed help, Joe. I’d do the same for anyone.”
            Joe shook his head, “Not your help. I can take care of my own.”
            “With Finn Markham’s help? Who is he, anyway?”           
            Judith shuddered.
            Joe grimaced. “It doesn’t matter. He does good work. He helps the families around the neighborhood—”
            “He’s a monster, Joe.” Gwen clenched her hands in her lap. “You know that.”
            Joe’s face grew red. “We talked about this, Gwen. You never said . . . I only wanted to help my little girl. Is that so wrong?”
            “When she’s 25 and a grownup?” Rachel was ready to leap up and slap him. I flinched. She looked at Atkinson. “Sorry. I have issues too.”
            I didn’t want to tell Joe how I’d dreamed the last two nights about going to Finn Markham’s house and shooting my Taser repeatedly into his genitals. But someone—“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Rachel warned me—had called the police. Maybe he needed time to set his trap, because instead of ending up inside a room, together or separately, the cops had managed to search his house and apparently find enough evidence of abuse to arrest Finn and lock him up without bail. I hoped he was in solitary confinement.
            But Joe was different. He wasn’t necessarily a monster, just a seriously misguided parent. So I had only one response.
            “Let me put it like this, Joe. Judith?” I looked at her. “I was almost crazy after two months or so in that room. You survived there for 193 days. How did you do it?”
            She smiled at me, as if the answer was obvious. “I had my faith.”
            “Did you hear that, Joe?” I sat back on the couch. “Faith. Maybe you should have a little more in your daughter.”
            “I don’t need to listen to you.” Joe glared at me and Rachel and Atkinson. “Any of you! The hell with all of you. Come on, Gwen.” He reached for her hand and lurched to his feet. “Let’s go.”
            “No.” Gwen snatched her arm away. “No, Joe. I don’t think so.”
            He blinked. For a moment I expected him to explode with righteous anger and a whole bunch of Bible verses. But in the end he just gazed at Judith one last time. Then he turned and lurched from the office as if wounded inside.
            A moment later we all heard the front door slam like a clap of thunder.
            “Well.” Atkinson sighed. “I’m sorry. That didn’t go exactly the way I’d hoped. Judith, are you all right?”
            Judith was crying. Gwen put an arm around her shoulder. “It’s all right, honey. I’m here.”
            Rachel nudged my arm. Gently, for once. I stood up. “We’ll leave you alone to—talk, or whatever. Judith? I’m sorry.”
            “Oh, no!” Judith jumped up to hug me. “Thank you so much! I don’t know what I would have done without you! And you . . .” She shook Rachel’s hand. “Take good care of him. He believes.”
            “Uh . . .” Rachel glanced at me. And smiled. “Yeah. I guess.”

But when the game is over, I won't walk out the loser.
And I know that I'll walk out of here again.
And I know someday I'll walk out of here again.
(Bruce Springsteen video)

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