“Let me speak to this Mr. Vitek. If there’s someone there who wants my tooth, then I want to talk to him.”

“The tooth should be there by sundown tonight. That’s what he’s saying Charlie.” The timbre of real fear came into her voice. “He’s not kidding around.”

“That’s absurd.” Charlie had the queasy feeling that the phone booth was moving very slowly along the sidewalk. “You’re not making sense, Mom. You need to come home right away. Tell whoever is there to send you home in a cab. Or I’ll come get you. I know it’s been hard for you these past years. I know you’re not feeling yourself. I will take better care of you, I promise.”

“Just do what he says, Charlie.” The phone went dead.

That night, Charlie couldn’t sleep. Each time his breathing slowed down and his thoughts thinned to smoky images, something at his very center would knot up like a cramped muscle, and he would jolt into wakefulness. His mind seemed to be swimming in a malaise that he couldn’t name or get hold of. He didn’t really know what was going on with his mother, so he didn’t know how bad to feel.

He had finally settled into a stable doze when there was a savage pounding on the front door. He stumbled across the apartment and opened the door, but nobody was there. He wondered if he had dreamed the noise, and was closing the door when he noticed something, a crumpled piece of paper or cloth sitting at the edge of the doormat. He picked it up and carried it inside.

It was a cranberry-red silk handkerchief with the four corners pulled together and knotted to form a little satchel. The letters MV were monogrammed in gold thread at one of the corners. He untied the knot and spread the little scarf out on the kitchen counter. It held a small pile of teeth, a couple of them broken off at the roots and all of them flecked with bits of blood. Most disturbing was a molar whose gold cap was identical to his mother’s.

Charlie became nauseated, then faint. He sat down at the kitchen table and rested his head on his folded arms until the vertigo and terrible lightness eased up. He sat up, but the walls began to swirl with images he had no control over, of hammers and screwdrivers and grimy pliers and his mother’s bloody hole of a mouth screaming, then laughing, then screaming again. He had to stand up and pace around just to shake the pictures that flooded his brain. He poured himself a glass of bourbon and drank it as quickly as he could without gagging, then poured some more. He was not a drinker, and his stomach rebelled, and the nausea returned, then subsided again as the warmth of the alcohol flowed up through his spine and into his head. He still couldn’t shake the imagined sights and sounds of his mother’s agony, and he carefully lifted the splayed handkerchief from the counter to the table, then sat back down. He found himself staring at the little pile of teeth just to push away other, more threatening visions.

There were six — he touched each one as he counted. He fiddled with them, carefully looking them over, pretending he was a detective, but not making any particular sense of what he observed. He arranged them into an arc that curved toward him — a toothy grin. This made him smile, not at the grotesque sight before his eyes, but at the memory of his mother’s lively, mischievous face when she had been younger and happier.

He shuffled into the living room and turned on the TV. A vaguely familiar, sixtyish actor was jabbering cheerfully about a prostate drug that helped him urinate. Charlie went back into the kitchen and grabbed his glass from the table, then went to the counter for more bourbon. Next to the bottle he spotted a tiny, tightly folded piece of yellow paper that must have fallen out of the scarf. He spread it open and read the message, written — shakily — in what was clearly his mother’s hand. “Usual booth, usual time,” was all it said. He walked back into the living room and sat down in front of the TV. Half an hour later he was asleep, the glass in one hand, the remote in the other.

6.

As the cab pulled into view of the phone booth, it occurred to Charlie that he had begun to see it as a kind of person — silent, stolid, slow-witted, but powerful and ruthless, like a guard in a concentration camp. He paid the cabby and hurried into the booth. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He had never prayed before and didn’t know how, but he felt his eyes look upward under their lids, felt his heart ache with a pilgrim’s yearning.

The ringing of the phone hit him like a cold wind. He hesitated before answering, feeling a physical terror, as though the phone itself could hurt him. It wasn’t until the third ring that he answered. He heard his mother’s voice, but her speech was slurred and it was difficult to make out what she was saying. It was his name. “Cha-eee,” she said over and over, “Oh Cha-ee,” and then came long garbled sentences like someone talking through thin oatmeal.

“Mother,” he responded; then, in a higher, younger voice, “Mama. Mama I’m so terribly sorry.” There was a long silence. “Are you there, Mama?”

There was more silence, then muffled sounds. A voice finally spoke. “This is Mr. Vitek. Your mother is in good health and reasonably good spirits, considering her little dental mishap. There is really nothing to worry about, so long as you listen very carefully to what I tell you.” The voice was low and assured, and somewhat cold, with a thick Eastern European accent.

“Who are you?”

“I am Mr. Vitek. We are holding Elsa Sofer until the terms of the detention are met to our satisfaction. I believe you understand now that we mean business. Perhaps we can communicate at a level of mutual respect.”

“What do you want, Mr. Vitek? I beg you to leave my mother alone. I’ll give you whatever you want. I have some money in the bank. I have music players and a laptop and two vintage guitars that I can sell. Just tell me what you want.”

The voice continued in the same cool, cultured tone, but with an edge of malice. “You have been behaving as if you have some voice, some control in these transactions. I want to disabuse you of such notions. You have none. We will communicate with mutual regard, because that is my way: I will show a man every courtesy as long as he does the same for me. But I am making the rules here. Do you understand?”

“I do, I understand.”

“Yes, well. You have seen by now that to disregard me is to invite my wrath, and my wrath is no small thing. It is my custom to mete out vengeance in biblical proportions. If you do not do as I request, I will raise your debt by a factor of seven. You now know this to be true, yes?”

“I . . . I think so, yes.”

“You did not give me what I asked for, a simple tooth, and my response was swift and severe. The retribution was sevenfold.”

Charlie thought a moment, then corrected Mr. Vitek. “There were only six.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” Vitek’s voice sounded both irritated and confused.

“There were six teeth.”

“That’s impossible. I told my man to extract seven.”

“Six.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I have no reason to lie.”

“This is an outrage.”

“I respect you, Mr. Vitek, so I am telling you the truth. I hope you understand that.”

“I do appreciate the feedback. As you might imagine, I am more than a little upset with my man, Lars. He’s a professional who has served me for years.”

“I hope you value my honesty. I’m hoping you might reward my honesty.”

“Your reward will come when you follow my instructions.”

“Of course, yes. I just . . . Mr. Vitek, I’m begging you not to harm my mother.”

“There is no need to lower yourself to entreaty.”

“What would you like me to do?”

“As before, I am demanding a real sacrifice, a show of sincerity and commitment.”

“If you want a tooth from my mouth, I’ll give you a tooth. I’ll take a pair of pliers, a hammer, whatever, and knock out a tooth.”

“Unfortunately, the stakes have been raised since the last communication.”

“What do you want?”

“I was thinking about a toe.”

“Oh God.”

“Yes, a toe. It’s not so much, really. When you think of what I could ask for. It’s a token gesture.”

“Please, Mr. Vitek. I can give you money. You can’t really have any use for body parts. Take anything I own. Take all of it.”

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