I lift my head swiftly to get the sharp stinging away from my nose, but it falls back toward my chest from the pain of being in an uncomfortable position for too long. What the hell? And then I remember everything. The dinner. The call from Alice. Following her directions and getting nabbed in the parking lot.
My eyes open in slits to a pitch black room. I blink a few times for my eyes to adjust to the dark but it doesn’t help. I can’t see a damn thing. What time is it? What is that noise? I follow the noise and feel my heart pounding in my chest. I lift my head higher and higher until the crick in my neck passes and I can turn it from side to side without any pain. My wavy brown hair flicks out in long whips as I shake my head from side to side.
I pull at my arms and instantly know they are bound tightly behind the chair I’m sitting in. I try to stand, hoping I can wiggle my way off, but, with my feet tied together, I end up falling over and screaming on the way down. At least I know they can’t look up my skirt, not that pencil skirts are made for easy access. My chair is righted and tape is put over my mouth to muffle any noise I’m capable of making.
I try to follow the movement around me but it’s too dark. Is this what it feels like to be blind? I think I would go out of my mind from fear if I were blind. I have enough problems with the dark as an adult and I still can’t walk around my house at night without turning on the lights. The dark scares the hell out of me.
I can hear tiny shifts of movement and the sound of someone breathing. Who’s in here with me? A sound escapes the back of my throat after I feel a slight movement of air on my right signaling someone just passed me. Prey must feel like this after they’ve been hunted and brought home for lunch.
A tiny stream of light beams across the area and my eyes close automatically. The area isn’t lit enough to see my surroundings, but it helps me count the number of people in the room. Three. One of them has to be the kidnapper and the other two—are who? The muscle? In the photos Alice gave me earlier there were three people they wanted me to photograph, and now three masked people have me surrounded. I knew that job was a bad idea once she explained it, and everything is happening just like I said it would. They are going to make me disappear.
As soon as my eyes adjust to the lack of light a figure outlines itself right in front of me. They have every inch of their skin covered from head to toe in black fabric. The person in front of me is either a male or a woman who has a man’s build. The broad shoulders and huge feet give him away. He shifts where he stands and pulls out an unmistakable shape from behind him. I swallow hard as the gun hits my forehead with a sharp jab.
“What do you know,” a robot voice sneers. They obviously have a voice changer.
I start mumbling under the tape and the person shakes his head.
“Pull off the tape,” says the robot. “If you scream, I will shoot your leg.”
Someone behind me rips the tape from my mouth. I muffle a scream into my shoulder. My lips burn and sting from the trauma. Stretching my jaw, I move it from side to side and glare at the person in front of me. I’ve decided since I probably have a zero percent chance of living, I’m not giving in to any demands.
I don’t want to be the victim. I may be the one tied up but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be an easy target. I’ll annoy the hell out of them before they kill me. Maybe I should sing the song that gets on everybody’s nerves. They’re probably going to kill me after they establish what I know. That’s why I’m in a dark room tied to a chair and not talking to them in a public coffee shop. I don’t remember anyone in movies living after they gave up information, and that is precisely why they died—because they knew too much.
“What do you know?” the robot questions.
“What do you know?” I mock the robot.
He shifts his head and lets his arm rest by his side, still clinging to the gun.
“I’ll ask you one more time. What do you know?”
“I’ll ask you one more time,” I mock him again. I’m too angry to be scared. Who threatens someone by saying ‘I’ll ask you one more time.’ Only people who have the time to ask. Anyone else would have shot me in the foot for being a smart-ass. I wince at the thought of being shot in the foot.
“I will kill you,” the robot snaps.
“I’m going to die anyway.”
“If you tell me what you know, I’ll let you go.”
“First, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Second, I know a lot of things, specifically about art because that’s my major. I’m supposed to graduate this semester but seeing that I’m here with you pointing a gun at me, I might not make it to graduation. Which kind of makes me wonder, why didn’t you come sooner? You could have saved me a lot of time and money if I’m just going to die anyway.”
“You’re a firecracker aren’t you,” the robot chuckles. He sounds familiar.
“And you sound like a robot,” I state the obvious.
He aims the gun and shoots at something. I flinch in my chair. I wasn’t ready for that. Am I still breathing? Opening my eyes, I find the gun pointed at my head again. “What did they tell you at the mall?”
I can tell him what I know, and maybe he will keep his word and let me go. I’m glad I didn’t bring my purse. He would have found everything. In the dark I can only make out the outline of his body, and even though I can’t see his eyes, I know he’s staring straight into mine. The funny thing about adrenaline, it can go either way and right now mine is flowing so fast my body isn’t reacting to the situation like it should be. I’m not scared—well, maybe a little after he shot the gun—but, if anything, I’m livid and annoyed.
“First they said they didn’t have it in a size eight. That sucked because the size six was too small, which is also depressing because that means I gained weight. Unless, it was mis-sized. It happens you know—all the time.” The robot motions to someone else. Another person from my left appears and hesitates next to me. The robot motions again but the person to the left of me still hesitates. Whatever they’re supposed to do, they don’t want to do it. That’s good to know because either they’re a rookie or they have good ethics, or at least I thought they did until they slap me across the face. It stings but doesn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. Thank you adrenaline. I don’t want them to think I’m shocked, so I keep talking.
“Anyway, after that I went out with Tom. I’m not sure if it was a date. We were celebrating his new job. He said I was the only one who replied that I could come. Everyone else had plans. Crap! That makes me sound like a loser doesn’t it?” As I spoke I could see the person on my right shift closer to me as if they were listening intently to what I said. “And I have an entirely different problem with an ex.”
“While that’s a nice little story, you still haven’t told me what I want to know.”
“And you haven’t killed me yet.”
“Is that what you’re waiting for?”
“I thought it was obvious. If I knew something you wanted to know wouldn’t I have told you already? I’m a college student. What knowledge could I possibly contain that you’d want? I spend my day going to school and doing homework.”
“We saw you talking to people.”
“Yea I do that a lot considering I’m graduating and looking for a job. Are you hiring? Because that would really help me out.”
He shrugs, cocks the gun, and jabs it into my forehead, “I’m giving you to the count of two. Tell me what I want to know or I’m going to shoot you.”
I catch a glimpse in my peripheral vision of the other two people in the room moving away from me. It’s coming. I wait for my life to pass before my eyes. He starts counting and even adds one and a half. But I don’t budge, and I hear him pull the trigger. Click.
Am I dead already? I feel my heart pounding in my chest, and my eyes are in pain from holding them shut. Relaxing my eyes, I open them, one by one. I can barely see because the room is still pitch black. The guy with the gun hovers over me inches away from my face. His face is still covered so I can’t see any features.
“That was a long couple of seconds wasn’t it sweetheart?” he apologizes with an Australian accent.
He pulls off the ski mask along with the night vision goggles, and I glare at him in disbelief. I’m definitely going to die now. He just showed me his face … and seems vaguely familiar, but I’m positive I don’t know anyone with an Australian accent. Behind me someone starts untying my wrists. Thoughts race through my mind trying to deem what my next move should be. As soon as someone unties my legs I kick one leg up to smash them in the face. They fall to the ground, and then I go after the Australian. His back is turned to me, so I tap him on the shoulder. He turns around and I punch him straight in the nose. Now I need to find the door.
I strain to see where the door is located but instead I find myself face to face with the third person in the room holding their hands up in front of them. Are they holding their hands up to surrender or do they plan to grab me? I panic. Two of three people are down, but they’re bound to get up again and I can’t take on all of them. I start to feel the walls for a door knob.
I find the door by touch but it’s covered with a thick, black sheet. Tearing at the sheet I can’t find where it ends or begins, so I squat to pull it up from the floor. Between the sheet and the door I finally turn the knob only to find the same parking lot I had been snatched in. Before I can make a run for my car an arm restrains me around my waist. The Australian pulls me back into the room and locks the door. My fists are flying everywhere and my nails are clawing at any skin I can reach. Someone turns on a lamp and I can clearly see an empty living room with black sheets covering every wall. He puts me back in the chair and restrains my arms. One of them still dressed in black uncovers the door and goes outside. Why can’t I do that?
“Wait!” one of them shouts. It’s a woman. She pulls off her ski mask and night vision goggles, and a grin spreads across her face. It’s Alice.
I knew it! She is psychotic! This is some kind of game she’s playing with me.
“Sorry about slapping you. He made me do it,” Alice defends herself. As if her apology absolves her.
I’m trying to find the right words but all that comes out is, “Uh… ,” I want to scream it, but it comes out in a shaky, low voice.
“Sorry, we had to see if you were going to talk,” the Australian claims. I watch his lips surrounded by a five o’clock shadow form the words and want to punch him straight in his pointed nose to help flatten it out again, but he’s massaging my wrists.
Alice takes down one of the black blankets, disappears into another room and brings out a first-aid kit. She examines my wrists and ankles where the ties held them and decides they are both fine. She lifts my legs one by one to make sure they are intact.
“What is this?” I say loudly, but my voice breaks in the middle of the sentence.
“We were testing you,” Alice replies, kneeling down beside me. “We had to make sure you weren’t going to talk. Although, I guess we didn’t do the best job, but we didn’t want to torture you.”
Torture me? They thought about torturing me! What did I get myself into? I shake my head back and forth, still wary of the third person outside. Who are they? Did they leave because they couldn’t torture me?
“So this was just a test? You kidnapped me in the parking lot and put a gun to my head to test me?” I blaze. Why can’t I meet normal people?
“No harm done,” the Australian says casually. He doesn’t even care about what he just put me through. If only I could shove a gun in his face and threaten to torture him—then again, he might like that.
“Who are you?” I inquire of the Australian.
“Chip. Who did you think I was?” the blond guy identifies himself.
“The last time I saw you, you had brown hair coming out of a baseball cap and big sunglasses on with no accent.”
“Oh yea, I guess that’s why you attacked us, eh sweetheart?” he rationalizes. “Disguises are necessary.”
I eye the gun on the floor.
“Relax, it’s not loaded. It was blanks,” he assures me.
My mind spins as I go through every detail of what happened tonight. I know I’m going to wake up to my alarm, get ready for school and eat breakfast, like any other day. No need to panic—just a really weird dream. I probably ate something weird before I went to sleep. What did I eat? Seafood? Was the date real or is it part of the dream too? I’m never eating lobster again. I open my eyes but the scene hasn’t changed so I focus on waking up. Nothing happens. I pinch myself; I open one eye and meet Alice’s confused face. I do it again and again until Alice pinches me really hard.
“Ow!” I yell.
“I thought I would help you out,” she offers. And the torture begins.
“I’m asleep. I have to be dreaming,” Alice pinches me again and I glower at her.
“You’re not sleeping.”
“Then what is wrong with you people?!” I scream frantically at both of them.
I feel betrayed and violated. Who kidnaps someone to make sure they aren’t going to talk? This is behavior for the mob, corrupt cops, killers, deranged people. And they could fit into any of those categories because I have no idea who they are.
Chip hands me a glass of water, “I have to say, you were pretty impressive. I was sure you were going to give us away. I thought the gun would do it. Should have been prepared to torture you,” and he winks at me.
I should be concerned about these people who’ve forced themselves in my life, but Chip is mesmerizing. His accent is sexy, and I find his five o’clock shadow appealing. How tall is he? 6’1”? 6’2”? I drink the water, suddenly parched. Is it hot in here?
Then I remember one member is still missing from the party.
“Who’s the other guy?”
“Oh, that was PB. He’s fuming. He didn’t want you to be involved,” Chip explains while he checks me out from head to toe. “Aren’t you a little fancy?”
“I just got home from a celebration.”
“I know, sounded like you had a great time.”
“What do you mean it sounded like I had a great time,” I sneer at him narrowing my eyes.
“I bugged you. I had to take precautions,” he declares.
I can feel the heat rush to my face, and glower at Alice. “Did you know about this?”
“I knew he was going to do something. I thought he’d just follow you around. I didn’t know he was going to bug you,” she insists.
I sit still in the chair I had been tied to for my hazing into this little group of people. I watch them go in and out of the bedroom to pull out the furniture they had stored in there. They take down all of the black sheets and fold them neatly. The furniture fills the room, making a cute, one-bedroom apartment. They move around me until everything is put back in its rightful spot. I watch them turn on the TV and pretend as if nothing happened.
“Wait, what is it that you actually do?” I ask them.
“We’re journalists or reporters, whichever you prefer,” Chip begins. “We get the hard to reach stuff. Alice is the face. I’m the investigator/writer, and PB is our uh—artist.”
I scrutinize Chip and can tell he is a little older than me; he catches me observing him and winks at me. Alice takes my hand and pulls me onto the sofa to sit down. She opens a folder, pulls out new photos, and places them in front of me on the coffee table.
“We call him Poker. He went missing a couple days ago,” she says, pointing to one of the photos and then she points to the next photo. “That is Arnold Matthews, and he is CEO of CheckBank. Poker came to Chip and told him about Matthews committing fraud, and stealing. Basically he’s up to no good, but before we could get the story Poker disappeared. A missing person’s report was filed. But he has no wife, no kids, his parents are dead, and the police have nothing to go on. So they placed it in the dead end pile.”
“Why Poker?” I ask.
“If we ever find him, don’t play cards with him,” Chip warned.
“What about the photos you showed me at the mall, the ones I have at home?” I ask no one in particular.
“Those were fake. It was a ploy to see if you would say anything. This is the actual story we’re working on.”
“Reporters…who is PB?” I ask glancing at the door.
“You’ll meet PB later sweetheart,” Chip informs me.
“You said you needed me to take pictures, it looks like you already have what you need,” I murmur. Maybe they don’t need me anymore. I cross my fingers.
“Your friend said he worked at CheckBank didn’t he?” Alice asks suspiciously.
“We need you to work there and get on the inside. See if you can find out where Poker is,” she continues. “We need him for our story. He had all the details and bank account numbers. We know Matthews knows something. Check around, get in Matthews’s office to see what you can find out. We want to know if Poker was paid off and left town or if he’s six feet underground.”
“So, you’re using me for my friend,” I want them to make it clear.
“Bingo,” Chip answers.
“And the pictures I’m supposed to be getting paid for?”
“Ploy. We just need you because you’re boinking the big man on campus,” Chip throws in some hand gestures but I ignore them.
“Why can’t Alice work for the bank? Why do I have to do it? Or why not you?” I challenge as I eye Chip while awaiting an answer.
“You ask a lot of questions,” Chip sighs. “Alice already tried. Some blonde in there won’t hire her. I’m unknown and I’d like it to stay that way. I find the story, write it, get my money, pay you, and no one gets hurt. What do you think?”
“What if I say no?”
“Here’s the thing. We need you and you’re looking for a job. You already agreed to help us. I’ll pay you for your time and consider the check from Checkbank as a bonus check. Plus you get a little experience. It’s a win-win for you,” Chip explains convincingly. The part about the two checks definitely helps his cause.
“Fine,” I agree.
The other guy walks in the door with his ski mask on disappearing into the bedroom. Alice follows to check on him. What do the neighbors think about all this? I know they heard the gun shot, even if it was just a blank. I imagine peeking out the window after hearing a gunshot and seeing a man walk out of an apartment wearing all black with a ski mask on. I’d probably hide under the bed instead of calling the police.
“You should meet the rest of the team,” Chip says mischievously. He strains to see them from the living room. “Where’d you go mate?”
He steps into the living room and my mouth drops.
“Hello Brooke,” he says in an unsure tone.
My eyes flit from Alice to Chip. “You’ve got to be fuckin’ kidding me.”
“You agreed to do this sweetheart,” Chip recalls.
Black dots appear before my eyes, so I start to fan myself. I sit down and am swallowed by a black tunnel as Grayson waves at me.
Can’t wait take me to your finished book –> Entangled Collateral
Take me to the next chapter –> Chapter 4