Scott Parson, freelance writer
 

Gingerbread Men


Escape


Martin Hoosman sat on the floor of his living room amid the pages of an exploded Sunday New York Times, working the crossword puzzle in the back of the magazine.

At the moment, Martin was flexing and wiggling his under-utilized vocabulary to dislodge an eleven letter word, across, that meant fret work. He’d inked in an F, a G, and an E, confident that fingerboard would do the trick. But there seemed to be no way to make the O or the A work in sixteen and seventeen down.

With Aerosmith’s Dream On coming through the earbuds of his iPod, Martin clicked his pen, marking and discarding consonant and vowel combinations.

Martin wiggled his toes in the sunlight just now reaching the spot on the floor where he sat.

The living room was at the rear of the apartment he shared with his wife, Hilda. The room was large, having a high ceiling and two tall wood casement windows with old-style mullioned sashes. The spacious breezeway between the buildings allowed plenty of sunlight on Hilda's plants which she kept arranged in simple planters on the floor underneath each window.

Sunday was Martin’s most cherished day of inactivity. It was the one day of the week he could sip a sweet cup of nostalgia by recreating the less demanding days of college——before marriage, before a rather haphazard career choice as a performance assurance manager monitoring the assembly of medical prostheses, before the slow evaporation of a casual lifestyle he had thought would simply go of itself.

Martin would recapture the fragrance of that time past with a dead-tree edition of the Times, a mocha frappuchino——venti of course——and a playlist of tunes with which he had scored his days-in-a-haze living off-campus with classmates, girlfriends, and transient idlers.

It was his routine every Sunday to remain fixed and immovable until Hilda put lunch on the table. Certainly, he owed it to her, he thought, as a co-laborer with her in their mutual prosperity to jealously guard this little piece of his week for her sake as well as his.

Which was why he hadn’t hopped up when he’d first heard the burr of the front door buzzer. Hilda was probably in the kitchen, which put the front door in her part of the apartment.

The door buzzer burred again. Then voices. Someone calling out from the hall way.

The only people Martin could imagine being at the front door of the apartment, without having used the intercom to get into the building, were one of the neighbors, Mikiel the super, or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

He couldn’t make out the voices because he hadn’t turned his the music down. And he hadn’t turned his music down because he wanted to be genuinely sorry for not hearing anyone at the door if Hilda accused him of leaving her to answer the buzzer.

Which burred again. And now there was a firm knocking that wasn’t all that neighborly.

Martin felt rather than heard Hilda’s footsteps on the wooden floor heading up the hall.

The knocking and burring stopped. Finally.

Martin went back to the crossword puzzle, tapping his temple with the pen. He tried out a few nonsense words that he hoped would freely associate themselves into the correct answer. He still only had the F, G, and E, along with several inked-out letters.

Something was moving down the long, gallery-like hall, a loud, leathered mass scraping along pushing toward him, heavy footed with a strange smell of oil and cotton duck.

Who in hell did Hilda let in, Martin fumed, popping out his earbuds.

"Is there anyone else in the apartment with you?" a woman's voice asked, flat, motorized, without any upward inflection. More like a polite accusation.

"My husband, Martin," Hilda replied.

Martin clinched his face at how easily Hilda had given him up.

"Martin," she called from behind the moving mass, "It's the police."

He could hear by Hilda’s tone the worry-pinched furrow between her eyebrows.

Martin waited, an unexplained air-ball of guilt forming in his guts.

His brain thrashed around, grabbing for some explanation for having cops in his apartment on a Sunday.

It grabbed for the hash pipe in his sock drawer. Nothing more than a keepsake from a wild college girlfriend and a strange summer of love. But was there enough residue after all these years to constitute possession?

Before his brain could tell his lips to smile, Martin was facing two armored officers, one male, tall and dark, strapped into a protective vest, his pistol out and in his hand, carried slightly behind his thigh.

The other cop was smaller, female, with mid-length blonde hair bunned up in the back, swimming in her own vest, which seemed to make the pistol she carried a lot larger and more menacing.

Martin's neck hairs stood alert as his legs signaled along his neural network asking the brain if now would be a good time to turn and run.

The tall cop’s eyes flicked on Martin then around the living room behind him.

Martin’s legs sent another signal to his brain, just checking to see if the brain had gotten their earlier message. He wondered if cops, like canines, could smell fear. Or if the electrical pulses moving up and down his spine between his legs and his brain made him glow in a special spectrum of light only cops were able to see.

"Martin, they want to use our fire escape," said Hilda, from behind the officers.

The blonde cop tilted her head toward her scanner mic. "We're in the apartment, heading toward the back," she said.

“Is it a fire?” asked Martin, wondering why the smoke detector hadn’t gone off, like it always did when Hilda would blacken red fish, making the in-laws jump out of their skins.

"Sir, we have a hostage situation on the tenth floor. We need everyone to leave the building," said the blonde cop.

Martin’s knees were sloshing. He’d never been so close to an unholstered pistol.

“Sir, there's an officer out in the hall," the blonde cop went on, deciding that Martin was stuck somewhere between fight, flight, or defecate. "He'll escort you and your wife down to the street. We're sorry for the inconvenience."

"I haven't finished my crossword," Martin said, wasting vital oxygen on the only complete sentence that would form in his head.

"We need to secure the building. It's for everyone's safety," said the blonde cop.

Martin saw how the tall cop gave the blonde cop the kind of scowl impatient husbands use on their wives to end tedious dinner parties with tiresome guests. He wondered if they were married. They sure acted married.

A young voice squawked over the scanner, "He's moving! He's moving!"

The tall cop pushed past Martin, jogging, equipment heavy, into the living room, leaving the blonde cop to propel Martin toward the front door.

"Sir, please leave the building. It's for your own safety."

"Martin? Honey? Let's go," said Hilda, reaching for his hand.

What safety was there, Martin thought, being cast out onto the street in flip-flops, Sunday shorts, and a football jersey? The blonde cop sounded reasonable, but she was using hard muscle to move him down the hall.

Just outside their front door, another officer waited in the small foyer that served the four apartments on their floor. He monitored a scanner as well, signaling Martin to get a move on, using sharp traffic cop gestures and pointing them toward the stairs. Their front door had been chocked open. Martin didn't realize he was without cash or keys until they propelled him to the stairwell down to the lobby. The emptiness of his pockets added to his sense of weightlessness, sharpening the weakness and vulnerability he felt.

Martin tried to remember who lived on the tenth floor. He knew the other tenants only as nameplates on the building's intercom downstairs. Hilda was much more inclined to the practice of community, and Martin was happy to leave her to it.

"What the hell is this?" the tall cop shouted all the way from the back of the apartment. "A lock. There's a lock on the gates. Over the fire escape. There's a lock." The tall cop's anger became stereophonic through the blonde cop's scanner.

"Hold one. There's a lock on the gate to the fire escape," she radioed out.

"He's moving!" the young voice insisted once more.

"Tactical is not, repeat, not in place," another voice came back.

"Where's the key!" the tall cop shouted, swearing loudly through the apartment again.

"We need the key," the blonde cop reported, her irritation more modulated.

"Sir, they need the key. Tell them where the key is," the cop in the hall thrust the microphone at Martin who was already headed down the stairs.

Martin's mind blanked. What key, he wondered.

The cop in the hall released the mic button and the young voice burst out again, "He's forced the back window, climbing onto the fire escape. No sign of hostages."

"All right. We’re sending him back to get you the key,” said the hall cop.

Sending who back, wondered Martin. The tide of circumstance suddenly against him, the floor under his feet had become shifting sand and sucking surf.

With an ungentle shove, the hall cop propelled Martin back into the apartment.

"Bolt cutters, man, bolt cutters." The tall cop started swearing again.

A primeval milkshake of adrenaline, endorphins, and testosterone flooded Martin's sedentary systems.

The lengthy hallway had taken on a thirty-degree incline, and the atmosphere thinned. His masculine juices, generations removed from the feral impulses needed for survival, clouded his carefully civilized mental faculties.

His legs, used to nothing more strenuous than a brisk walk to the bus stop, weren’t all that helpful in carrying Martin into a brick and plaster box he no longer recognized as his home. His mind, kept keen on word games and office politics, trendy bestsellers and slick periodicals downloaded to his iPad, began to freeze as it doggedly tried to recall some grotesquely important key.

Along the hall and into the living room, Martin negotiated this two-bedroom terra incognita. He saw that the cops were now bracketing the large windows that faced out onto the breezeway. They were pressed, cheek-to-glass, trying to see up the fire escape, frustrated by the crossed metal arms of the accordion security gates.

Martin had installed the gates himself after he and Hilda had come home to find the window over the fire escape smashed in, the plants trampled, and everything electronic and reasonably portable gone. He'd taken off work the next day, lugged the gates home from the hardware store himself, and then hammered, drilled, screwdrivered, and sweated in a fury, working out the impotent anger of the newly violated.

He’d used padlocks, which Hilda had told him were illegal, but he was convinced that safety latchs just made burglary easier. He’d thrown the keys in the drawer, telling her they’d be right there if they needed them.

Now all he had to do was go over, past the glowering, armored policeman, and find those keys. Martin lurched over to the wall unit, hoping that the officers would see in his angled body his profound respect for the gravity of the situation.

The tall cop glared angry encouragement at him, while the blonde cop strained to see up through the iron lattice of the fire escape. Martin continued to scatter the drawer contents——carry-out menus, camera, CDs——rustling furiously for the keys. The young voice bit through the airwaves again, making Martin flinch.

"He's coming down the fire escape! Heads up! He's coming down the fire escape!"

"Where's tactical?" another voice cut in.

Martin feared a summons for the illegal gate would be the least of his worries. Maybe they'd just shoot him to relieve the tension. The back of his legs began to itch.

Easily, easily, easily grab the key, he pleaded with his fingers.

And then came the rattle and thrum of the footfalls descending the fire escape rungs.

Martin shivered. Someone from his building, an honest-to-God criminal, had been in the same elevator with him, or waited silently, dangerously while he took his laundry out of the dryer, and right now, this minute was coming down his very own fire escape. How fragile life seemed to Martin.

Dear fingers of mine, pleaded Martin, if you never do anything else for me again, please——the ring of keys appeared in his hand. He nearly waved them about in triumph. Touch down! Home Run! Nothing but net!

"Got it," he said in an adolescent crackle.

The tall cop thrust out his free hand for the keys in a ferocious gesture of command. He was intent on the upper flights of the fire escape, and no longer looking at Martin who slapped the key ring, with all the authority of a surgical nurse, into that imperious hand.

A slash of a grimace crossed the tall cop's face when he saw the eight keys from which he had to choose. Martin puddled. The first two keys the officer tried refused his angry twisting. The third seemed likeliest, but resisted halfway, the lock stiff, rarely opened since it was snapped shut ten years ago.

"He's jumped! He's jumped!" the blonde cop shouted in chorus with the distant young squawk over the scanner. The heady splash of adrenaline that had powered and muddled Martin drained from him, leaving a tub-ring of disappointment.

"On the opposite building. The opposite. He's on the fire escape behind us."

This news roller-coastered Martin, and the cold breeze blew through his bowels again. The tall cop swore at the fearsome feat of leaping that concrete chasm between the buildings.

Standing at the window with the officers, Martin feared that the hostage taker might recognize him, and expect some kind of help, some kind of neighborly assistance, expecting Martin to knock the two officers on the head or something, to hide him, all because, maybe, they did some laundry together, maybe shared a cup of detergent.

Still, he strained with the two officers, their faces up-turned to catch sight of the whole man. In spite of his fear, Martin had a new and powerful desire to know this guy.

The running legs became the full man, pausing to peer over the railing. Martin wanted desperately to place that face——in the lobby, in the laundry room, at the mailboxes. To make that face a normal character in a usual life. But the hostage taker waved a blue-black automatic pistol with a wire butt stock and extended clip. Normalcy never had a chance.

The blonde cop levered Martin back away with her arm.

The tall cop grunted success, slapped the gate open and jerked up the sash. Which startled the hostage taker, who squeezed off a fistful of wild shots in the direction of Martin's living room windows.

As the glass and wood of the carefully polished window casements flew around the interior of the room, Martin discovered that everything really does appear to occur in slow motion. His veins, unused to this hurricane tide of adrenaline, had no clue what to do with it.

A life without the practice of terror was unaccustomed to the speed and economies of self-preservation. Everything Martin tried to do with this liquid hurry seemed to occur in a gravity three to four times greater than what he once knew as Earth. Meanwhile, the rest of the world around him turned into shrapnel, buzzing about in real-time.

In the hall, outside this cone of surreality, Hilda screamed, the sound flat, monaural.

Martin swam powerfully against the air to dive behind the lounger. Once he had tucked most of himself behind it, he grabbed the lever and raised the foot rest, using it to cover his still-exposed backside.

Amid the swift, erratic bursts of gunfire keeping them all huddled there on the floor, Martin felt full-fledged, an equal. In spite of the officers' body armor and weaponry, he knew that all three of them shared roughly the same concern about flying hot metal, sharded glass, and splintering wood that could pierce soft flesh without making any distinction between professional and civilian.

The two cops pressed up against the wall, beneath the broad windows so the hostage taker's angle of fire thwarted his aim. Seeing this, Martin experienced a tingle of victory, tiny though it was. He'd made the team, an initiate in the Line-O-Fire club. Maybe their shared risk would mitigate his previous Incompetent Bystander status.

Martin's mind cleared for a mere second and he looked around for a weapon with which he could defend himself if this proven athletic hostage taker took it into his head to leap back across the breezeway into Martin’s living room to finish the job he'd started.

Now Martin wished he'd put his engineering degree to work designing firearms, fabricating cross-bows, or fashioning Bowie knives in his spare time. A whisper of mortality and futility stole what primal defensive vigor had been building up.

"We're taking fire, we're taking fire,” the blonde cop snapped out.

We, thought Martin, nursing the glow he got from being included. He heard that she didn't shout, as he would shout, voice cracking, his larynx dried out from fear.

Martin had never faced anything more fearsome than a 90 mile-an-hour forehand smash fired in anger. After today, Martin could now say with every confidence, over white wine and Brie——if he lived that long——that when the zip and whine of small arms fire fills your living room with hostile metal fragments, your anus really does tingle in indecision, whether to open and jettison excess weight in preparation for flight, or seal off your body from invasion by fragmented hardware.

As the hostage taker jerked off more shots, Martin wanted to know why the hostage taker didn’t shoot at someone else for awhile. Pinned down and forced to take it, Martin’s adrenaline was freed up by inactivity to power the really primal cringe-and-complain instinct.

He raised his head slightly from the floor and saw the crossword puzzle a foot or so away, dirt and debris from Hilda's shattered planters scattered on top of it, there next to the sofa. Few things were ever left undone in Martin's life. He was a meticulous completionist, unwilling to start what he was unlikely to finish or finish well.

But the puzzle was lying out there in no-man's land, half done. If he died, leaving it unfinished, would Hilda, in her grief, remember to tell the mourners that he'd been prevented? Or would she leave them to think he'd become impossibly stuck on the very last word of his life. The thought of appearing stupid and dead upset him. His brain started clicking through words for that last clue. Something to shout with his last breath.

Fret work, fret work, fret work.

Fret. Worry? Stress? Fear?

Work. Labor? Job? Strive?

His completionist self strove with his self-preservationist self to figure out how to get out there with a pen and not get hit, killed over a puzzle.

It wasn’t just the puzzle. It was something more. He realized what he wanted was a chance to issue one last, complete statement that would explain the ambiguities, the misunderstandings, the undecipherable oddities, the peculiar choices of his life. To dispel the confusion that always turns up after death, with which survivors must struggle to decode and find closure, while they stand over the plastified husks of departed loved ones.

He realized he couldn't trust Hilda to decipher him. How well did she really know him? Or him knowing her for that matter?

Another several shots caused them all to squeeze closer to shelter.

But, it was even more than that, he realized. To share with someone, right now, the sheer authenticity of what he was experiencing.

When nightmares dry up for lack of horrors, and contentment relaxes into ennui, dull pedestrian days scuff by in house slippers. Martin was ringside at a contest of raw human agony. Someone else's pain. Unfiltered. It could hardly fail to dominate the hushed knots of lunchtime congregants sharing their weekend highlights with each other.

"Yeah, took a few shots in the old living room this weekend," he'd say, sipping at his mochachino, his eyes flicking among the listeners to spot the feigned amazement, the smiled-over resentment. "Sounded like a nine," he'd go on, "Glock. They've got a sound you can't mistake."

The others would purr patiently, not having real words to fling into such a conversation, just waiting for him to pause for breath, and then they'd leap into that open air pocket with some polished recital about something like that happening to a blood relative or a neighbor or a stranger who knew a blood relative. Because that's what he'd do. That's what he'd done.

He hoped hungrily now that he did know the hostage taker. Only overwhelming and intimate detail would turn aside that vitiating phrase kept handy to deflate the alpha conversationalist——"Something like that happened to me once."

He wanted to know the names of the cops stretched flat in his living room. He nearly laughed out loud. “Yes, Martin,” they’d be forced to admit, “your daring brush with life is all meat and no tofu.”

He wanted to know the name of the cop who'd impelled him back into the apartment. Even the high young voice on the scanner.

As if conjured, the young voice over-shouted the radio chatter, "He's heading down! He's heading down!"

Taking advantage of the lull, the two officers scrambled away from the windows to crouch in the archway of the living room, intent on the fire escape opposite.

"We're in position above him," came a new voice, soothing, confident. The blonde cop stretched out, cat-like, trying to see up the fire escape without exposing herself to additional hostile dollops of lead.

Martin raised up from behind the lounger, looking directly out his window and across the breezeway. Adrenaline sharpened his eyesight, and he saw what looked like the painted face of an urban warrior, in cityscape camouflage. Surely a trick of light and shadow, giving the face a streaked and patchy gray and white disguise. The face leaned back out of the sunlight and into the shadows of the room across.

As the familiar legs of the hostage taker appeared on a level with Martin's living room, the blonde cop yanked Martin by the shorts, exposing the cleavage of his buttocks, pulling him toward her, into the evaporating safety of the hall archway.

Now Martin could see the hostage taker fully framed by the soft-shade colors of the curtains, struggling with the automatic pistol. As he cleared the cartridge, a bull-horned voice floated down from above, slowly, distinctly urging the hostage taker to reflect on his predicament and consider surrender. The hostage taker sprayed upward at the reasonable cop.

Martin wondered if falling bullets hurt as much as rising, or whether they would cascade over the building and down on the people rubbernecking out front in the street.

The hostage taker again turned to look into the living room. Martin felt certain he could see them all crouching there. Once more, Martin's adrenalized eyes dilated for a close-up, giving him a feeling of being face-to-face with this near-familiar hostage taker. But the face he saw was blank, identity having melted off a distant time ago in desperate resignation.

Martin could see no expression, no rage or defiance, or even calculation. The eyes were dead, an unfortunate zoo specimen killed by tormenting boys.

Martin wrung his memory, rag-like, to recognize this man. To have the right to say somewhere in his unfolding narrative, "We were neighbors. I saw it coming."

Everything slowed once more. The fear in the living room, and the unwinding sense of purpose out there on the fire escape fueling hesitation. A defeat was imminent. The very air was heavy with it. The artist giving up on the canvas, the unfinished stone of the sculptor discarded. Martin could feel the hostage taker run out of ideas.

He pointed the gun at Martin's window again.

The blonde cop stepped in front of Martin, a compact dark blue shield, as both officers leveled their pistols preparing to fire.

But from outside there came a harsh snap, unlike the reverberating sounds of the automatic pistol. The blonde cop winced away as if to let the image glance off her half-turned cheek.

She stepped toward the window, leaving Martin with a clear view of the fire escape. The hostage taker sagged breathless against the railing, the weapon rattling loose against the ironwork.

"Nuck-er," said the tall cop, awestruck. A strange word, thought Martin, as he wracked his pedestrian vocabulary.

“Yeah. Nuck-er,” said the blonde cop, clearly the right word for this particular moment, pulled up out of the peculiar argot of policemen.

“Nucker’s right,” said Martin. The two cops flicked a quick look back at Martin, a foreigner suckered into using a scandalous obscenity, betraying his complete ignorance for everybody’s entertainment.

Holstering their pistols, they crowded the one open window.

Martin, despite his embarrassment, was drawn to the other window to look in the face of the hostage taker. Tension ebbed and in its receding Martin felt the airy nausea, in his stomach a cloud welling up with a lightness, the lightness of tragedy.

There was expression on the hostage taker's face now, but still indecipherable to Martin. Like the backside of a cinema screen, the man's life played itself out on that face. The reversed images caused the death face to twitch through the emotional highlights of an age.

Martin wondered if the man saw innocence or childhood. Or only incompletion.

A scarlet froth glistened on the man's lips. The cinema screen went white.

The hostage taker rolled along the iron railing, the weight of his body carrying him around, as if struggling in death to see from where the blow had been struck. The sunlight picked up the bloody, bubbling hole just off-center between the shoulder blades. Martin winced for the man, the muscles in his own back tingled and tightened in sympathy.

The blonde cop made a slight gagging sound. Martin turned around to see the tall cop giving her a chuck on the arm, bucking her up.

Martin was back to being a bystander.

There began to nibble at Martin a wee disappointment. The faintest regret that he'd not actually seen the whole kill. It would be the first, most crucial question. Did you really see a guy shot dead? From your living room? The answer to that question would validate Martin's every word, every observation, every opinion that followed.

His mind was already engaged in extrapolation. He was editing out the blonde cop, erasing obstructions, penciling in with discreet supposition the lines that would become fact in the retelling, and put himself squarely in the middle of this essential detail.

Another sound beyond the living room window caught Martin's attention. The painted face was now a complete figure of a cop, stepping out onto the fire escape across the way, behind the lifeless hostage taker. Martin continued to watch as the painted cop stood over the dead man, then leaned down to move the automatic pistol away from his still fingers, to prevent any extraneous nerve impulse from an emptying brain pan to squeeze off one last, dead-handed shot.

The painted cop raised the captured weapon and his own weapon in a two-fisted half-salute to the partner officers in Martin's living room. Martin felt the sting, knowing that the salute did not include him. He was neither threat nor comrade. Just a bystander.

The tall cop gave the blonde cop another chuck on the arm. "Saves wear and tear on the justice system,” he said, buffing the blonde cop's new shell with a little street-grit abrasion.

She snorted, now-knowing, fully initiated into a tight cop-world tasked with looking on the dirty end of the city's stick.

The tall cop took out his notebook and flipped to a clean page.

"Sorry about the mess. Guy holding his wife and some neighbor up on the tenth floor. You know them?"

"Yes," said Martin, but he knew that wasn't exactly true. "I mean, I've seen him around." Martin was beginning to stretch his imagination over the gaps in this narrative. Too little pizza dough for too much pan. In the office on Monday, there couldn't be any gaps.

Martin knew that when it came time to re-tell the story, he needed to fill in with emotion and motivation and interpretation. To navigate the river and control the destination, the point, the moral. Otherwise he would simply be the driftwood chancing by the drama, flicking along and then gone.

He looked out the window again. Policemen milled around the killed hostage taker.

"You know," said the tall cop, "I don't think your insurance is going to cover this, having locks on the gate like that."

"Sure. I'll fix it immediately."

"Let the crime scene people give you the okay first."

Martin flinched again at the thought of more strangers scouring his living room, sorting through his privacy for the public good.

"Sure," Martin agreed, then, "Officer?"

Both cops turned at his question.

His breathing shallowed out, his skin was flush-hot. "Could I take a picture? There by the window?" He turned to grab the camera as the cops looked at each other.

"For the news?" the blonde cop asked.

"For. Me." Martin gasped through whistling teeth.

"We can't stop you--"

"With your guns out," Martin rushed on to climax.

"No," the blonde cop chopped off.

"Are you a reporter?" the tall cop asked again. He looked at his partner. "If he's a reporter--"

"Come on," the blonde cop said, moving away from the window. She edged around Martin, his camera now something unsanitary.

"Right--" the tall cop remained still. "Oh, jeez, I forgot if I put the safety back on." Still in the frame of the window, he cautiously drew his pistol out before him to examine it, turning it in the sunlight. He made absolutely certain the weapon's safety was on. Martin snapped off a half-dozen shots of the tall cop, the window, and the corpse of the hostage taker beyond.

"There. Always make sure that the safety's on when you put your weapon away." The tall cop holstered his weapon once more, and strode across to join the blonde cop. She looked back at Martin and with a scornful tilt of her head, went back up the hall.

"Hey. Public service announcement. Don't want him getting the idea we're careless."

Martin flushed darkly once more as he put the cap back on the lens and stowed it in the drawer.

Already facts were being sweetened in his mind. He was laying out the tale as he recalled it, not as an observer, but as main character. He was co-opting the dead hostage taker's tragedy. Complete with pictures.

He saw the officers standing in the hall, talking with each other, and a third newly arrived plainclothes officer who wore his badge out on a beaded chain around his neck.

Looking one last time at the fire escape, Martin saw that the hostage taker was now just so much debris. Violently subdued, becoming a part of the landscape.

For however long the cops had watched him, and neighbors had feared him, the hostage taker had been the most important guy on the block. Now he was simply the spring-board for a hundred tales with a hundred heroes, filled with valiance, insight, or hard-edged humor depending on the quality of the story teller.

From up the hall came the flinty laughter of cops.

Martin stooped to pick up his unfinished crossword from off the floor. Glass and splinters rattled onto the paper spread out over the carpet.

"Gingerbread," Martin said. Eleven letters. Gingerbread. Ornamentation. Dispensable filigree. Dainty frill.

Martin thought of his neighbor on the fire escape. The most important guy on the block, if only for a few minutes. The once prime mover, now unmoving. A gingerbread man. Only so much fret work on the architecture of the stories now taking shape.

"Excuse me. Sir?" the tall cop was summoning, his notebook held aloft.

Martin would practice his version of the story on the officers. They'd be a tough audience. But they would have to listen, to take it all down, type it up, just the way he tells it. He reminded himself to memorize the names off their name plates.

For the next few minutes, Martin would be the most important guy on the block.

image by Billie Grace Ward CC BY 2.0 (image modified from original)