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A Learning Experience

I got to thinking about this story the other day for no particular reason, so I decided to pull it out of its hiding place, clean it up, and add it to the Miscellany pile.

It had been three very long hours. It was hot outside, a hundred-degree-plus summer day, but it was freezing on the blood-drive bus. People were huddled together on the narrow strip of floor, trying to shelter themselves from the direct blast of the overly-efficient air conditioning. The doors were locked from the inside, the windshield and single window covered so that no one could see in.

The man at the front of the bus picked up his cell phone, putting an end to the ringtone that had been filling the bus with maddening monotony for fifteen minutes or more because he had turned off voicemail. He looked amused when one of the people on the floor screamed for the person on the other end to stop calling, to please stop calling, before someone else clapped bound hands over the offending mouth and dragged the screamer further into the huddle of bodies. The man chuckled into the phone when the caller demanded to know what that was about. “They do not like my ringtone,” he said in a heavily-accented voice. “They are requesting that you stop making it play. See? A request only you can grant, to benefit these hostages you are so fond of, and you will not do it. What a bastard you are.”

The person on the other end apparently did not care about this, and the man’s amusement quickly slipped away. “You are wasting my time. Again,” he accused. “I told you what I want. You refuse to provide it. We still have a stalemate, goodbye!”

Down on the floor, more than one person started to cry when the phone almost immediately began to ring again. The man placed it on the dash and promptly returned to conversing in his normal voice across the length of the bus with his compatriot at the rear door, seemingly unbothered by the tinny song blaring out of the tiny speaker.

It had been blaring for two and a half hours. The same half-minute of badly recorded music, over and over again. It was the police outside calling, saying they wanted to negotiate but not willing to give in to anything. And also not willing to stop calling, not even for five minutes.

The person on the floor who had screamed, a youngish man, crawled out of the pile and over to the hostage taker, who watched him with amused interest. “Please make it stop,” he begged. He reached the hostage taker’s feet, raised hands bound with pink elastic sticky bandage to tug at the man’s pants leg. “Please…”

“I’m so sorry,” the hostage taker said sarcastically, lifting his foot to kick the young man away from him. “That you’re such a wuss…”

Which was when the young man yanked hard on his pants, unbalancing him, while at the same time another person lunged forward to smack the rifle out of his hands. His accomplice at the other end of the bus yelled, pawing at eyes that had been blinded by a squirt of thick red liquid as other hostages mobbed him and took his rifle as well. A few seconds of struggle and the hostage situation was over.

Almost. One of the now-former hostages, a white-coated phlebotomist with a nametag that read BRANDON in red letters, picked up the phone and stopped the ringing by answering it. “Is this the person who’s been calling?” he asked. “No, this is one of the phlebotomists. Yeah, we did…and now we have demands. We want you to come in, alone. We want to talk to you about what happened.” He looked over his shoulder, then held up the phone. “Are we all in agreement?” The mass-voicing of agreement could probably be heard outside the bus, even without the phone. He put the phone back to his ear. “You’re going to come in, we’ll talk, and then we’ll come out. So get your ass in here, because we all want to leave.”

He disconnected and put the phone back on the dashboard, watching the two hostage takers being manhandled onto beds and sticky-taped into immobility. He patted the young man who had begged on the shoulder. “That was a great performance, Jimmy, he totally bought it.” He indicated the hastily-applied blue bandage wrapping the other man’s arm. “You okay? When he made me yank that needle out…”

“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just sore.” There was a knock at the door and the phlebotomist opened it, letting in a hot, puzzled man wearing a bulletproof vest over a sweaty white shirt. “You’re the negotiator?”

The man shivered, frowning. “Wow, it’s cold in here. Yeah, I’m Lieutenant Dickerson. Did they say anything in front of you? Were they terrorists?”

Jimmy snorted. “I can’t believe you bought those phony Middle Eastern accents.” He waved a hand at the taped-up hostage takers. “Terrorists? They’re wannabe badasses who’ve watched too much TV.”

“Sadistic idiots,” Brandon agreed. “They were getting off on letting you help them make us miserable. Now get down on the floor, please.”

Dickerson frowned at him. “Now listen, I know you’re…”

“You don’t know shit. Or you wouldn’t have kept calling.” Brandon pointed. “Sit.” At the rear of the bus, someone raised a captured rifle meaningfully but without pointing it when the lieutenant looked back in that direction. “I said please.”

The lieutenant lowered himself to the floor between the beds, holding back another shiver when the full force of the cold air hit him. “What’s this all about?”

“Think of it as a learning experience,” Jimmy told him. He put down the hostage taker’s cell phone when his own buzzed, pulling it out of his pocket to check the screen. “Got it.”

“Great.” Brandon waved, and the rest of the people on the bus filed out the rear door, leaving the gun behind. He pointed at the lieutenant. “You’re going to sit there, right where we’ve been sitting all this time, and you’re going to listen to what you made us listen to. It won’t be two and a half hours, but let’s see how you like it anyway.”

The two men went out the front of the bus, closing the door behind them. Dickerson shivered and started to stand back up…and that was when the hostage taker’s cell phone rang. And rang, and rang some more. When it didn’t stop, he sank back down, grimacing. The guy in the lab coat had been right, he hadn’t known. But he should have. The captain of the SWAT team had told him he’d be better off only calling once every thirty minutes, or every hour…but he’d been sure he could wear the hostage-takers down if he kept calling, so he hadn’t listened. He glanced over his shoulder at the taped-up criminals – who didn’t look happy – and rolled his eyes. No, definitely not the same ethnicity their accents had been. And no way they hadn’t picked that godawful ringtone on purpose.

One of his people opened the door and he waved them back. “Give me a minute.”

“Shouldn’t you answer the phone?” the other officer asked.

The lieutenant grimaced again. It hadn’t even been five minutes, and he was already freezing. “No. Start taking statements from the hostages, I’ll be out in a few. I’m…learning something.”

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