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The Scarf

by Jack Herlocker

For Made Up Words

“This isn’t going to work.”

It was the first time he had spoken aloud in the — what, ten minutes? — since I had regained consciousness. Just viscous whispers before, barely intelligible. He had a southern accent I hadn’t noticed before when he was whispering, so it actually sounded more like “This isn gawnta wahrk.” It was definitely a case of his voice now, not a woman’s, which I hadn’t known for sure before, even though I had been listening very carefully. Bound, gagged, and blindfolded, still a little light-headed and sick from whatever he had used to knock me out, those whispers had been all that I had had to go by.

Now he was speaking aloud, and it terrified me even more. It meant he didn’t care if I could identify his voice any longer. Whatever it was that wasn’t going to work, it meant that I was going to die. The right arm strap was maybe a little bit loose, but not enough, and anyway that left the other arm and both ankles, and I couldn’t move, and I was going to die, and I still had no idea why.

“Rebecca. Nod yo’ head.”

Not “Nod your head if you can hear me,” which is always a stupid thing to say, but just “Nod your head.” Did that mean he was bright? Or just didn’t like to talk? I nodded.

“Rebecca. Ah’m goin’ to let you go. Ah thought Ah could — Ah was goin’ to do somethin’ but — well, Ah’m jes goin’ to let you go. Ah’m sorry, Rebecca.”

I heard the snap of what might have been my purse, then maybe something being stuffed into it, then the decisive snap it makes when it goes shut that I like. “Ah’m givin’ you somethin’. Ah was goin’ ta use it ta — Ah was goin’ to use it. You may want ta throw it away, or burn it, or whatevah, but Ah don’ need it anymo’.”

Movement. A cap being unscrewed. A slight sloshing. “Breath in, Rebecca.” My sense of balance went away again and my hold on the world went with it.


The cold brought me awake. I was propped up in the corner formed by a box and a wall — a brick wall, as I moved my head and scraped the back of it against the bricks. My purse was in my lap. It was dark, but light enough to let me see that I was in an alley of some sort somewhere.

I grabbed the edge of the box, braced myself against the wall, and worked my way onto my feet. Damn, I was cold. I was wearing my Navy blue business suit and black raincoat, neither designed for prolonged exposure to Pennsylvania winters. I bent over to get my purse, and only the box kept me from going down.

I walked down the alley, toward the end that had street lights. The cold was helping to clear my head, but if I didn’t get someplace warm soon the shivering was going to tear me apart. As I approached the end, on the other side of the street I could see a little deli/market — which resolved itself into Maste’s Place. I turned left, stumbled twenty paces, leaned against the doorway and punched in the access code for my apartment building.

It was warm, and the soft carpet and subdued lighting of the hallway of my floor made me feel like I was in a dream, waiting for the alarm to wake me up. I reached my familiar old door with its lovely brass number, suddenly realized I needed my key if I ever wanted to get in, and unsnapped my purse.

WHAT HAD HE PUT IN THE PURSE?

I dropped the handbag like it was on fire. Suddenly I was wide awake, and the adrenaline surge was pounding the blood in my ears. What had that sonuvabitch put in my purse? Something that would take my hand off as soon as I put it in? Something that would go off when I used the snap? If the latter, it hadn’t worked, because the bag had come open when I dropped it. I moved around to get to where the bag was facing away from me, then bent down and gingerly grasped the edges of the bottom. I quickly dumped the contents on the floor and took a few steps back.

Nothing exploded. Nothing moved. I stirred the pile with the toe of my shoe. Nothing. I snatched up my keys and opened the front door, and ran to grab the first thing I could find to scoop everything up in. I used papers from my junk mail pile to push the stuff onto the other half, then brought it all into the living room and dumped it on the floor.

The light was much better inside. I turned on a couple more table lamps, just to be sure, threw off my coat, then squatted down and tried to figure out what it was that the sonuvabitch had pushed on me.

Everything looked so ordinary. I was looking for a bomb, or handcuffs, or a dead snake, or something nasty and sinister, and all I had was the stuff from my purse, lying there in a big mess like it always did when I went through my monthly attempt at getting it organized.

Only I didn’t own a scarf like that.

I used a nail file to move it away from the pile. It had been neatly folded, and it flowed open when I lifted it. I tentatively held the corners and let it hang down, looking at first one side, then the other.

It was pretty. I had other scarves like it. It was silk, and seemed like a designer make at first, but a closer look showed it was an imitation. What would he have used a scarf for? Tie me up? Strangle me?

It fluttered to the floor as I ran to the bathroom.

I started the water running in the shower, then started scrubbing my hands. I took off my jacket and my watch (7:22, a bit over two hours since I’d left the office — that didn’t seem like enough time) and washed my arms as well, using plenty of soap. Had he touched my face? Of course, when he gagged and blindfolded me. I started to bend down to wash my face — my entire head — but I looked at the mirror first to see if any damage had been done.

I nearly screamed. A maniac was looking back from the mirror. It was me.

The cold that I no longer felt on my skin finally penetrated to my mind. This was wrong. The last thing a rape victim should do is wash.

But I wasn’t a rape victim.

I wasn’t a rape victim.

I was NOT a rape VICTIM.

Never… a victim.

Always… in charge.

NEVER… helpless.

A classmate of mine at Annapolis had been raped. They never caught the guy who did it, and she dropped out her senior year rather than take the chance he might find her again. Someone had destroyed her life, and at the time I felt sorry for her, but I also thought she was doing it to herself, and if something like that ever happened to me I wouldn’t let it destroy me.

Well, Rebecca, you weren’t even raped, and here you are running around like a silly teenager with hysterics. What would J. Thomas say if he saw you now? Would he recommend you to run a branch office? Would he go off the deep end? Would Albert? Would George? No, not even George.

I looked at the mirror again. This time an executive and former Naval officer looked out at me. One who had had a bad day, true. She could probably use a drink — maybe two. But she was certainly in control — the very idea of being out of control would have never occurred to her. She cocked her head slightly and gave a little cold, calculating smile. Yes, no problem with this woman.

I turned off the shower. Before I went to bed I might take a shower. I might even take a nice bath, and use up the rest of those bath salts that whatsisname had given me for my birthday. But only because I felt like it.


The next morning I gathered everything back into my purse, irritated with myself for leaving the mess there all night. The scarf lay a little apart. I picked it up. It was pretty. I might have purchased something like it for myself (well, not an imitation, of course). It would go well with my blue winter coat, the one I was wearing now.

I tried it on in front of the hall mirror. Yes, it would look nice. And if anyone happened to see it and recognize it — not that I really gave a damn — he would know that the whole incident (if you could call it an incident, the whole thing only lasted an hour or so) had meant nothing to me.

I almost stepped out the door, but on a sudden impulse I opened the drawer under the hall table. While I was stationed in Washington as an ensign, during my “wild & crazy” phase, I had been wandering in a part of town I had no business being in and had literally stumbled over a switchblade knife, whose owner apparently either lost it or had no further use for it. I had kept it for all the silly reasons people who don’t know how to handle knives keep things like that. I slipped it into my purse.

Yesterday I had walked to work; one of the benefits of living in the city. Today the wind off the river smelled like snow, so I coaxed my BMW onto the street. Waiting at a red light I heard a police siren, and that’s the first time the idea of calling the police occurred to me. I dismissed it. All I had was a scarf and an unseen person with a southern accent. The police would waste my time with silly questions, take me away from work that needed to be done, and in the end accomplish nothing.

I was only just sitting down in my office and changing my shoes when George came in. George had been forced on me by J. Thomas as my assistant. The poor thing might have been wonderful working for a man (he really was quite bright, in some ways), but he was a total loss when he had to report to a woman. He stuttered. He always acted like he was trying not to look down my dress, even though I almost never wore anything that could be looked down. He had no strength of will. I kept waiting for him to do something really awful that would give me grounds to fire him, but he always managed to come through in the end. He just drove me crazy getting there.

“What, George?”

“The Q3 analysis? I didn’t finish it last night.”

I sighed. “George, you said you would have it done yesterday morning. It wasn’t. Then you said it would be done this morning. It isn’t. You’re screwing up, George. Why are you screwing up?”

“It w-w-was done y-yesterday. But you changed the report specs.”

I stared at him. “Are you saying it’s my fault, George?” Say yes, George. Show some spine, and say yes. You know you’re right, so say, Yes, Ms. Ryan, it’s your fault.

His eyes dropped. “No, Ms. Ryan. I’m sorry. I’ll have it done by lunch.”

Sigh. “See that you do, George. Now get out.”

I had my weekly lunch with Cheri and Albert, my “peers” in the organization. Cheri was no threat — your basic blonde hired to fill a quota, who would last only as long as it would take for someone to get tired of her incompetence — but Albert was definitely someone I had to keep an eye on.

We chit-chatted about this and that. These lunches were “no business,” meaning we didn’t talk about work until the food arrived.

“So how’s George doing, Rebecca?” asked Albert. George had worked for Albert before I came on board. At the time George was transferred to me, Albert had supposedly kicked up a fuss, but lately I was beginning to wonder if that was the real story.

“He’s bright enough, Albert, but the fellow just can’t work for a woman. I think he has a mother complex, or something. Plus he has no personality to speak of, and I need an assistant who has something of a mind of his own.” Tell the truth every so often, and it throws them off guard.

“Oh, how can you say that, Rebecca; I think George is sweet. When you were in New York last week? And George was handling things for you? I just found him so easy to work with. He tells the nicest jokes — he had me chuckling all day. I don’t think it’s women he has trouble with, I think it’s just — well, maybe it’s something else.”

Like me, you mean. Well, Cheri my friend, if you’d been getting work done instead of carrying on with my number two maybe I wouldn’t have had to jump on your case when I got back. But that’s all right. Maybe I can transfer George over to you, and you can both go down in flames, giggling all the way.

Albert helped me with my coat afterward. He seemed a little surprised at my scarf. “Very pretty! Where did you get it?”

I smiled. No concern. No big deal. “A friend gave it to me.” Look into his eyes. “As a gift.” No, he looked away too soon.

Why the interest, Albert? Was it you, Albert? You’ve never gotten over the fact that I could get just as far in the organization with just six years in the Navy as you could with your fancy Stanford MBA. Were you going to turn me into a weak, sniveling woman, but you ran out of guts? Your accent has faded since you came to work for the damyankees, but does it come back?

No. Stop that. Every man is not a suspect. I meet men every day as part of business, it could be any of them. It could be none of them. I am not a victim. Paranoia does not run my life.

When I got back to the office, George was actually entertaining people at his desk. Sergei and Lisa and Ellen (Cheri’s secretary) were sitting around listening to him.

“…so then the Texan stands up, says, ‘Remembuh the Alamo!’… and kicks the Mexican out!”

Three words in a southern accent. Three words, but I knew it was him.

NO! Don’t do this to yourself. You are not a victim.

I paused in the aisle. “I’m glad to see you were able to get Q3 done after all, George. Why don’t you come into my office in ten minutes and show it to me?”

The other three suddenly had business elsewhere. “I — um — M-M-Ms. Ryan, the actual…” George trailed off. He was staring at my shoulder.

I looked down, but there was only… my scarf… I looked up, but George had turned to his keyboard.

Was it you, George? “Ten minutes, George. I want to see what you have.” He mumbled, and I walked into my office.

Was it you, George? Stop it!

The Q3 analysis was done, but not tested, which means it wasn’t really done yet. I told George he wasn’t leaving until it was tested, which wasn’t fair, because I knew George had stayed late before in similar circumstances and would have worked overtime tonight anyway. But I robbed him of the chance to play noble dedicated worker, and instead turned it into a punishment.

I was finishing up the last few things from the New York trip, and didn’t realize it was almost 6:00 until I noticed it was dark outside. I casually moved to a position where I could scan the rest of the office. George was the only one left.

One concession. Please. Let me just make one little concession to the little girl in me, and let me ask George to walk me out. Please? I’ll be big and tough after tonight, but just for tonight I would really like George to walk me out.

I put on my coat, and shoved the scarf in my pocket. I walked over to George’s desk, stood next to him, and put a hand on his monitor. “George? Call it quits, okay? You can finish up tomorrow.”

George glanced up out of the corner of his eye, then looked back at his monitor. “Just a few more figures to put in, Ms. Ryan. It won’t t-t-take more than a few m-minutes to type.”

I patted his shoulder. “Be a dear, George, and stop for the night. You can walk me down to my car.”

George was confused. George had always been like an open book when it came to emotions. I could see that he was trying to reconcile his concept of me with the strange sensation of me treating him as a person. He obviously wasn’t sure how to handle it. He half-turned to face me — and his eyes went up to my shoulder, then down to my pocket where a bit of scarf showed.

WAS IT YOU, GEORGE? This was getting out of hand. I’d have to start seeing a shrink if this went on. I half-sat on his desk. “Let’s go, George.”

A last, almost panicked look at his display. “Okay, Ms. Ryan.” He started to shut down the computer.

“George?” He looked up, ready for the other shoe to drop, ready to be kicked, ready for me to lay some strange new task on him.

“Can you tell me that joke you were doing after lunch?”

That wasn’t what he was expecting. “I — I’m not very good at jokes, M-M-Ms. Ryan. I d-don’t remember the punch line to that one, any more.”

I undid the catch on my purse. “That’s okay, George.” He gave me another befuddled look, and reached forward to turn off the computer.

“George?”

He didn’t yell “What?!” out loud, but his body language screamed it.

“Say something in a southern accent.”

She’s lost it, his face said; the boss has gone around the bend. But his voice only sputtered, “S-southern accent?”

“You know,” I said playfully, giving his shoulder a gentle poke with a finger tip, “something with ‘y’alls’ and stuff. C’mon, George, just one line.”

“I d-d-d-don’t have a southern ac-ac-accent, Ms. Ryan.” George was scared. Why are you scared, George?

“Fake it.” No, too harsh, his stutter will get worse. I smiled. “Please, George?”

He swallowed. “I can’t.”

I reached out as if I was going to stroke his cheek. The switchblade went “sniiick” and suddenly George had a naked knife blade at his throat.

You stupid bitch! a part of me was screaming; are you totally out of your mind?

“C’mon, George. Say, ‘This isn’t going to work’ in a southern accent.” I was speaking very softly now.

George slowly put up his hands in a gesture of surrender. He was terrified, and the poor guy had absolutely no idea what in the world was going on. His mouth was working, but nothing was coming out.

“Say it, George.” But I already knew that George couldn’t say it, and even if he did it wouldn’t sound anything like the sonuvabitch from last night, and I knew he didn’t do it, and I knew I was ruined. I had destroyed myself.

I slumped. “Put your arms down, George. I’m sorry.” His terrified eyes darted down to the knife I was still holding, which I had managed to forget in the last several milliseconds. I half-smiled a half-apology and started to put it away.

He batted it out of my hand and it went flying across the room. He was out of his chair an instant later, and I was spun around and found myself bent over the desk face down. My coat was yanked down in such a way that my arms were immobilized. Somehow the scarf got itself around my neck, and I couldn’t breath.

“You shouldna done thet, Rebecca. Ah sayd Ah was sorry.” He tightened the scarf a little more. “What am Ah gawnta dew with you?”

He gently kissed the back of my neck. “Ah love you, Rebecca.” My face was pressed against the blotter on his desk. All I could see was green. Then green with spots swimming on it. Then it all got smaller and smaller, and finally went away.


When I came to he was gone.

I wore high-collared outfits for a few days after that, until the stigmata on my neck cleared up.

George never came back to work, and basically seemed to disappear. Even these days it’s way too easy to make a whole new identity for yourself, and I think George could easily have done that. There are plenty of places a man like him could go with no questions asked.

As his boss, I had to take care of the loose ends his disappearance created. His personnel record listed no family still alive. He had grown up in a little town in Connecticut. There was no record of him ever spending any time at all in the South.

I assisted the police as best I could, of course, but I wasn’t much help. “No, he left work before I did — I’m not sure exactly when.” His bank account had been emptied, and his apartment apparently had numerous small items missing. “I’m sorry, I really don’t know anything at all about why he might have wanted to disappear.”

I don’t worry about him at all. I know what he looks like, and if he ever shows up I have a small pistol that I carry with me. I shot Expert level in the Navy, and I’m still quite good. I will kill him with a few quick shots to the throat.

Or maybe not. I know that I can kill him, and that’s what counts. I am not a victim.

He took the scarf with him.

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