What kind of guests come to the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night?
As a pair of headlights pierce the darkness outside, I get off the leather couch and take a peek through the curtains.
Chevy. Tahoe. Maroon.
Nope. I don’t recognize it. Should I?
Maybe they’re some lost campers. Better yet, they may be some lost female campers – just the kind of company I need to make this spacious log cabin cozy after three bottles of beer.
Three and a half.
Lifting the bottle in my hand to my lips, I take a few gulps then pause to lower the volume of the speakers on my way to the front door.
I open it, finding a man in a black shirt and dark jeans standing a few feet away. Two hundred pounds. Bald head. Thin beard. Expensive watch. Probably not as expensive as the sunglasses.
Who wears sunglasses at midnight?
He’s not alone. There are two more men behind him, one wearing silver earrings and a leather jacket and the other with long hair and the tattoo of a snake crawling around his arm, its head peeking out of the neckline of his shirt, also black. And I can see another man behind the wheel of the Tahoe.
Four men all in black and all more or less the same build.
Definitely not lost campers, unless there’s a camp for wrestling trainees or ex-CIA’s nearby. And something tells me they’re not in a rock band, either.
I take another gulp of beer to smooth the lump that’s suddenly formed in my throat.
“Gentlemen, what can I do for you? If you’re here for the party, I’m afraid you’re a bit early. It isn’t until Friday. You’re welcome to come then if you like.”
“We’re not here for the party,” the man with sunglasses answers.
I thought as much.
I lean on the door post and pull on the collar of my shirt. “Well, then, what can I do for you?”
“Are you Chester Donahue?”
I frown. I don’t like being called that name.
“I believe that’s my grandfather,” I answer. “Sorry, guys, but he’s dead.”
The man in the leather jacket scoffs.
“Well, that’s funny,” Mr. Sunglasses says with a grin as he takes a step forward.
I instinctively reach for the doorknob behind me, my pulse racing.
“Because we’re looking for someone dead, too. At least, he soon will be.”
I drop the bottle, which breaks into a hundred fragments as it hits the front step, as I quickly try to go back inside. But I’m not sober enough or quick enough. A hand grabs my wrist and, as I turn my head, a fist crushes my jaw, sending my body reeling to the floor and my mind into a dark abyss.
When my eyes open again, I find myself staring at a moving trail of leaves. At least, at first, I think the leaves are the ones moving until I realize it’s me.
I’m upside down, bent over someone’s shoulder, my hair and arms dangling. I recognize the smell of worn-out leather beneath me.
I lift my head slightly, seeing a pair of silver Nikes. Probably size 10. Moving my gaze up a little more, I see something else shiny – a Colt Python in a belt holster glinting in the moonlight.
Seeing an opportunity, I push myself up, thrusting my elbow into the nape of the man carrying me. As his grip around my waist loosens, I try to jump off him, aiming to grab the gun of the man behind him before I hit the ground. But I fall clumsily, and by the time I hit the ground, the revolver is out of its holster and aimed at my head.
“Try anything else and I’ll shoot,” Mr. Nike says.
I raise my hands. “Who–?”
I don’t finish, a foot flipping me to the side and then kicking me in the stomach. I curl up, clutching my abdomen, which feels like it’s been dislodged, smashed, and shattered all at the same time, as I fight to suck air back into my lungs and keep my stomach contents from spilling out. I fail at the latter, lifting my head to throw up a puddle of beer before lying on my back, my chest still heaving as I stare at the night sky through the tree branches.
“That’s what you get for hitting me,” Mr. Leather Jacket says, his lips forming a snarl as he rubs his nape.
Beside him, the man with the tattoo laughs as he shines his flashlight right on my face.
“Why are you doing this?” I ask them as I squint against the bright light, my voice still strained.
“Sorry, pretty boy,” Mr. Sunglasses answers as he takes the flashlight and stands over me. “But no questions allowed.”
He gestures to Mr. Tattoo, who pulls me to my feet. I’m still unsteady so I hunch over, my hands on my rattling knees. The cold barrel of the gun presses against the back of my head.
I start wobbling along, the leaves crackling beneath my bare feet. The wind blows, causing the ones on the branches to rustle, and I pull my arms around myself as I feel the chill seep through my thin shirt.
I should have put on shoes and a sweater before heading out the door.
I glance around, trees as far as I can see. We’re in the woods. The good news is it means we’re not that far away from the cabin. In fact, there’s a good chance I’ve jogged here before. The bad news? No one lives for acres around here. There’s no one to save me, no one to find my body until it’s decomposed beyond recognition. Maybe not ever.
The thought causes a shiver down my spine and another lump in my throat.
I know I haven’t behaved. Hell, I can think of a few people who’d want me to disappear. But this is going too far. Who are these men? Who do they work for?
“You know who I am, don’t you?” I say. “I don’t know who’s paying you to do this and how much you’re being paid but I guarantee I can pay you more if you leave me alone.”
“Nope.” Mr. Sunglasses shakes his head. “I don’t believe it.”
“I’ll pay you triple,” I say.
“Did we say you could talk?” Mr. Leather Jacket snarls.
“Just keep quiet and walk faster,” Mr. Nike says from behind me, poking me with the gun.
I obey, having no other choice. These men aren’t going to talk. And they’re not going to change their mind. They’re being paid too well.
Escape attempt failed and negotiation failed.
Fuck. I really am going to die.
Unless by some miracle, someone saves me. Even a hungry bear would be nice right about now.
But the only creatures I hear are the chirping insects and the owls hooting in the distance. I close my eyes and listen to the crunching of the leaves beneath us and the desperate pounding of my heart against my ribcage. The river murmurs its secrets to the silent woods.
“We’re here,” Mr. Sunglasses announces, stopping.
I, too, stop, my eyes scouring my surroundings for the slightest chance of escape. “Now what? You’re going to shoot me?”
Mr. Sunglasses chuckles.
“Maybe we should,” Mr. Nike says, the barrel of his gun pressing so hard against my scalp I feel like it will leave a mark.
“You know we can’t,” Mr. Sunglasses says. “It has to look like an accident.”
I raise my eyebrow. It does?
I’m still processing that piece of information when I get a punch in the stomach, right where I got kicked earlier and this time, one of my ribs breaks with a sickening sound. I keel over, gripping my torso, struggling to breathe as the pain causes everything to blur around me.
“Goodbye, Mr. Donahue.”
I clutch my stomach as they grab my arms and drag me across the ground. In one swift motion, they toss me over the cliff. I flail, trying to grab anything to stop my fall or, at the very least, to break it. But I barely have any strength in my arms, and so the jagged rocks scratch and whip my face and palms, causing me to bleed.
I hit the water with a splash, the cold numbing my senses for a few seconds, the impact knocking what breath I’ve managed to suck into my deprived lungs. I flail my arms and begin swimming to the surface. I manage just a gulp of air before I’m dragged under the current, my legs raked over the stony riverbed.
Like a weightless feather, the current tosses my cut, bruised, and shivering body to and fro. I swallow some of the muddy water and splutter for breath. I can’t see a damn thing. For a moment, I feel like giving up, but I gather all the strength I have left, muster all the endurance I’ve built up in my years of training for triathlons, and I propel myself to the surface, fighting against the clingy tentacles of the tide.
I hit the surface, coughing, the cool wind sweeping against my cheek. I slip beneath the water again as it washes over my face and push myself up, spitting out some of the water I’ve swallowed. A branch swims toward me, knocking me back down. I quickly grab it, pulling myself up on it and clinging to it as the current sweeps us downriver under the moonlight.
For how long? I don’t know. I slip in and out of consciousness, the water constantly slapping my face as the sky turns from black to gray.
I crash against a boulder, which effectively splits the branch. I let it go and grab onto the boulder, ignoring its sharp edges grazing my skin as I climb onto it with my last remaining ounce of strength. I crawl onto the river bank, dragging myself through the mud until I collapse on my back, utterly exhausted. The last thing I see before passing out is the first rays of sunlight peeking through the leafy branches above me.
It takes days before I can manage to walk with my broken rib and all my bruises, and even more days before I can find my way back to the cabin. I live off wild berries, fruits, and plants I can find and identify as edible. When I finally find the cabin, I heave a massive sigh of relief for finally finding a place to stay where no Tahoe or any men in black wander.
They probably think I’m dead. Good.
I go inside and the first thing I do is eat and wash up. I tend to my wounds as best as I can, wincing at the pain that still lingers, the cuts still swollen, the bruises still tender. I put on fresh clothes, glad to find mine still there. I notice my phone and laptop are missing, which means the only way for me to get in touch with my worried mother is to go see her myself.
Thank goodness the car keys are where I’ve left them.
I head to the garage and pick the black Ford pickup truck over the red CRV and the blue Cherokee. I drive off, the tires screeching over the soil before coasting through the rough, winding road.
As the truck moves past endless rows of trees on either side, I turn on the radio. While scanning the stations, I hear my name on the news.
“Sources confirm that the body found two days ago is that of Chester Donahue, who earlier this week, was reported missing while hiking…”
“Funeral services will be held tomorrow morning at the Silvermist Memorial Park…”
What the fuck?
I sit in the pickup truck across the street from the memorial park, watching the crowd of men and women in black from behind dark sunglasses.
Wow. I didn’t think this many people would come to my funeral.
I recognize most of them – friends, people I went to college with, women I dated, relatives. They all think I’m dead.
My heart stops as I see my mother, supported by my uncle. Her face is hidden behind sunglasses and a black veil, but I would know those brown curls and petite frame anywhere. She holds tightly to her golden handbag that my father gave her during their last wedding anniversary.
She, too, thinks I’m dead.
As much as I want to tell her I’m not, to let the whole world know that I’m alive, I know I can’t. Whoever wanted me dead is still out there. His goons are still out there. They can find me as easily as they did before and finish the job.
I’m not going to let that happen. I nearly died. I’m going to make sure I stay alive to find out who tried to kill me and make them pay.
I start the engine and drive off.
Let them think I’m dead. Let the whole world – my mother, my relatives and friends, my killer and his goons – think I’m dead. I’ll ditch this car soon enough to keep them thinking that way.
In the meantime, I’ll regroup. I’ll get smarter, stronger, and when I find out who’s behind this, that person better be ready.
Because even heaven won’t be able to help him then.