The constant throb induced by bound ankles and taped wrists nudged Odera toward consciousness where she floated weary and drained in a vague dream that refused to take form. She felt disconnected and lost. Hours passed. Gradually, she came back unto herself. Impenetrable darkness greeted her. Bunched and twisted pant legs and her blouse created a level of discomfort that helped to focus her thoughts. Swimming in a foggy quagmire, she eventually realized the darkness was the result of a blindfold. But there had been a hood. Hadn’t there? Memories of a hood tried to surface. She screamed for help. Only a rumbling-groan-squeak made it past the duct tape glued to her mouth. Inhuman panic took control. Air surged through her nose. She threw herself into a wild animal frenzy straining, jerking and twisting her arms and her legs to free them of restraint.
Her sinus passages began to congest.
Breathing became difficult.
She needed to remain calm, to hold back the tears and the fear or she risked suffocation. It required monster determination to calm her racing pulse and to control her breathing. Odera worked her tongue between her lips, struggling to poke her tongue between her bottom lip and the sticky tape. It was no use. The tape was too sticky. She reached out with other senses for stimulus clues as to her whereabouts. Something to take her mind off her bonds. Anything to prevent herself from panicking.
Deep rumbling vibrated the cement floor. What was that noise? What possessed a strong enough force to vibrate cement? She froze rabbit-still. Where did the sound go? Nothing. All was quiet. Too quiet. Fear of capture and confinement ebbed. Rocking back and forth soothed some of her fright. Her tongue felt thick and her throat was parched and scratchy when she tried to swallow. Bit by bit the fog thinned. In its wake, vivid memories flashed by in startling clarity.
After Bruce had departed, she finished installing the software. Working from a generic building material list, she logged onto the host collection website where she acquired most of the number sets needed to build a compelling presentation for her father. It was Sunday evening, which explained why manufacturers were slow to post. Having made a cup of herbal tea, she sat contentedly in her favourite chair, legs tucked and folded beneath her, reminiscing about how far she had come during the last two years.
No longer did her past rule her waking thoughts. Already it seemed as though it had happened in another lifetime, to another person. Well, not quite, she thought and smiled as she recalled the moments prior to the doorbell. Their spirits and souls had commingled. A love-spawned body flush pervaded her as she relived surrendering herself to Bruce. In doing so, she rediscovered strength in being vulnerable. Happiness abounded, rampaging pugnaciously where it had not existed for years. Bruce called to her, exuding a strong yearning to connect. Nothing halfway once he committed himself. Anything less and her demons would have endured. He still had not said that he loved her. It did not matter. It was not a sprint to see who triumphed first over their past but a marathon they ran together. They had time. They had forever. Once she completed the Skype call to Bruce and his sister Valeria and laughed outrageously with his adorable niece, Kimmy, Odera telephoned her grandmother to share her happiness. She could not wait to bring Bruce to her parent’s house for the meet-and-greet. Could not wait to live today for tomorrow. Emotional incarceration was over. She said good-bye to Grams.
After visiting several individual corporate posting boards to follow up on the missing items, all but one major product field ― that of wallboard, had been accounted for. She put it to the side. Perhaps she would try once more, maybe. It was not essential to their presentation, but she wanted to be thorough, especially for such prolific building material. Dad and Bruce thrived on detail. It was part of their meticulous natures. May as well omit glass as leave out wallboard, she told herself smiling. Dad and Bruce shared numerous personality traits, not that either one of them would admit so, of course. She felt a certain element of emotional continuity.
The new software and hardware were completely compatible and glitch-free. Even without wallboards, the presentation’s marketing potential was impressive. Still, she’d make one final attempt before she turned in for the night. It was long after nine PM when Odera logged onto Cornerstone Gyprock’s production website and punched in the registration code. Although the bulletin board posted many grades of wallboard, none matched her father’s specifications. Wait, the correct grade and thickness just blinked into sight and then disappeared. It reappeared. She downloaded the file, a set of variables and ratios indexed with a chemical composition table. Nothing special. Not her area. Just more details.
The telephone rang.
It was Mom.
Mom said that she had another PM for her to meet ― Odera’s nickname for potential mate. For nearly a year Odera had not been able to attend dinner at their house without meeting one of Mom’s PMs. She cut the call short and hung up before happiness and excitement made her prematurely reveal everything.
Turning back to her task, Odera ran the wind sheer simulation. Thirty seconds into the simulation, seventy-five percent of the wallboards showed a spider web of cracks and fissures. At the fifteen-minute mark, no wallboards remained unaffected. After re-verifying the numbers, she reran the simulation and re-experienced the same glitch. She made a note to herself, emailed the complete variable set to Bruce at work and ran the flood simulation. That was strange. Water failed to soften the wallboards when introduced. Curiosity made her run a fire simulation. Minutes into the test, prior to the heat triggering the sprinkler system, the wallboards liquefied and released heavy particulates. Without the flame- and heat retardant walls, flames raced room to room unchecked. Fire codes mandated wallboards, according to thickness, remained fire-resistant for a specified period. They should not liquefy in seven minutes. Forty-five minutes was often the fire-rated minimum. They should not have liquefied prior to fire suppression system initiation and before the building’s occupants had had opportunity to evacuate. Odera re-verified the numbers and started at the beginning.
Results from the second test were identical to those of the first.
Gypsum wallboards should not produce those results.
Believing the manufacturer had posted an incorrect number set, or another oversight had been committed, Odera contacted the website for clarification. Further enquiry showed the chemical composition in her specification file contained none of the elements found in the other gypsum files. The variable ratios were skewed way out of proportion. It was as though two very different materials were at play here. The accompanying website information cited naturally occurring gypsum ― a common mineral consisting of hydrated calcium sulphate CaSO4·2H2O ― was a sedimentary rock. Artificial gypsum, a by-product in the manufacture of phosphoric acid, was less plentiful, but every bit usable in commercial construction. Rock phosphate, the essential ingredient of which was tricalcium phosphate, treated with sulphuric acid, produced phosphoric acid and gypsum.
The original file she downloaded lacked these basic minerals and CaSO4·2H2O was non-existent. Also, the variable set she had previously retrieved no longer existed on the posting board. Another set of variables had taken its place and the new set was completely different from the one she had downloaded. This was more than an oversight. It was getting late, but curiosity got the better of her. It was difficult to resist solving this riddle. Odera decided to continue her inquiry and see where it led. After thirty minutes of searching internet websites for additional information on gypsum production methods, she had not solved the dilemma.
She logged onto Queen’s University, her Alma Mater and accessed their chemistry database. After configuring the search engine to accept complex molecular chains, she entered the chemical formula cited in the index table of the file she retrieved from Cornerstone’s website. Almost instantly, an atomic molecular graphic representing its chemical makeup snapped into view. Below the revolving, multi-coloured 3D graphic appeared the names of several compounds. She recognized the compound with the highest concentration.
Fifty-five percent cocaine. The other forty-five percent was an unfamiliar compound. Wallboards and cocaine? It had to be an error. This made no sense whatsoever. She began to re-verify the search sequence with the contents of the manufacturer’s variable set.
A loud bang and the sound of splintering wood whipped her head around.
Her condominium’s front door burst open, kicked so hard that its hinges were partially pulled out of the door jamb. The house alarm tripped. Two men with black hair and brown skin, each carrying a handgun, rushed through the broken doorway and took up positions inside her living room. Almost immediately, they sighted Odera as she jumped up, shoved a dining room table chair with casters across the floor at the closest man and ran for the kitchen. Two more armed invaders breached the kitchen through the backdoor.
Fuelled by unbound fear, an ear-piercing shriek escaped her throat, shouted at the top of her lungs. She relived her previous attack, believing a similar fate awaited her this night at the hands of not one man, but four men. Graveyard-fright froze her limbs. All she could do was scream unending corporeal terror as the past came forward to grip her in its nightmare clutches.
The kitchen phone rang.
“Shut the bitch up,” ordered the thin man carrying a laptop.
“Get out of my home!” Odera shouted and loosed another heart-quavering shriek. “Get out! Get out! Get out!”
Backing into the corner with the kitchen table between her and the two men who closed on her position, her gazelle eyes sought an escape. Bruce! Where are you? The phone. It was ringing. She had to get to it. It had to be the alarm company that was calling. The fruit bowl. Odera snatched the large bowl from the tabletop and threw it at the wall telephone, knocking the receiver from the cradle. It bounced when it hit the floor.
“Help me! Help. Intruders. Get out!”
“That wasn’t necessary,” said the man with the thick arms.
“Ahi, la Chiquita loca. Calm down, lady. We no going to hurt you,” mumbled a huge, burly man.
The second man, shorter but with a weightlifter’s powerful shoulders and arms, reached for her. In the process of stepping out of the shorter man’s reach, Odera moved within the grasp of the giant of a man whose head nearly rubbed the door lintel. Her trembling lips opened to scream anew. A strong hand clamped over her mouth from behind. The shorter man with the muscular arms closed on her in front.
In a terrifying frenzy, she lashed out with her knees, fists and feet. A ham-sized fist ploughed into her stomach, driving the wind from her lungs. For a breathless eternity, her bruised diaphragm denied her lungs air. Her mouth spasmed open and closed like a catfish fighting for air while her throat burned and her feet kicked impotently. On the verge of passing out, she laboriously inhaled a gigantic gulping breath. Dull and deep thumping organ pain pulsed, throbbing outward from her middle. Clenched tight in a crushing embrace, she was carried into the living room. The thin man, the one who carried the laptop, sat in front of the new computer where he stuck a thumb drive into a USB port. Two other men slashed chesterfield cushions and dumped the contents of the china hutch drawers onto the floor.
“Is this all the software?” asked the slim man scooping up discs and manuals from the table. “Where’s the access number?”
“Odera?” Julia called out stepping through the broken front door. “I heard you shouting. Hey! Who are you guys? What’s going on here? Oh my God!” Julia became a statue, mouth hung wide, unable to process the scene all at once, unable to reconcile the guns pointed at her.
The thin man at the computer shouted, “Don’t let her leave!”
The loud voice mobilized Julia quicker than a bell started racehorses out of the gate. She turned to run. Twin gunshots spaced a half-second apart exploded.
The first slug missed Julia’s fleeing form and the second jerked at her left shoulder’s scapula bone and tossed Julia into the wall where she struck her head. Confusion entered her expression, quickly turning into pain. A red, glistening swath grew from her shoulder. Julia fought to remain on her feet. Odera’s pupils panned into saucers at the senseless savagery. Burnt gunpowder stung her nostrils and the back of her throat. Pain entered Julia’s eyes. One hand came away from her shoulder covered in ruby wetness. Odera watched as Julia crumpled to the white carpet in a heap, losing consciousness, perhaps dead. Blood streaked the wall where Julia had clawed impotently to remain standing.
“You idiot!” said the thin man who had given the order.
“What? She ain’t going nowhere.”
The earpiece in the man’s ear with the laptop computer buzzed. He tapped the earbud and said, “Go ahead.”
The driver of a white-panelled van parked out back said, “The scanner picked up a distress call to this address. Two city police units have been dispatched. ETA six minutes. Out.”
“Two units en route. Over.” Speaking louder, in an East Coast, American accent, he ordered the men in the room, “Let’s move! We have two patrol cars inbound. Vamos amigos.”
“Want I should plug this one, too? Si?”
“Bring her. Until we retrieve the list, we need her. Move! Move! Move!”
The non-descript white-panelled van moved closer to the backdoor. They hurried Odera through the passenger side barn doors. Strong arms pinned her shoulders to the van’s ridged metal floor while grey duct tape was wound around her wrists and ankles. One strip covered her mouth before a coarse canvas bag went over her head. Rough hands roamed down her legs. She kicked and thrashed, twisting to break free.
Odera tried to cry out and failed, certain they were binding her limbs before the assault came. A wide palm slapped her face through the hood, rocking her head sideways.
“I said stop!”
Stars floated behind her eyelids. Her ears rang and her cheek had turned warm where she had been slapped. Hands travelled up her legs passing harshly over her delta. Thorough and practised hands searched her pockets before groping beneath her bra, her waistband and at her ankles. Sexual assault was not their intent, she realized. Her mind began to process events now that fear of rape had receded.
“Nada,” notified a voice, the same one that had spoken previously.
“Prepare a shot.”
Two sets of legs dug into each side of her prone body and stopped her from rolling to the side as the van cornered. Muffled by the hood, she heard indistinguishable words behind her. Driver and passenger, she thought to herself. A powerful engine wound out. Something pricked her arm. Pressure followed. Before she formed the intent to renew her struggles, her eyelids rapidly grew heavy. Seventy or eighty seconds later, they closed.
* * * * * * *
The next time her eyes opened, cold cement dug into her hip. Rolling onto her back eased the pain where the cement had bruised bone. Heavy and sluggish limbs thwarted her attempt to sit up. Distorted noises filtered through to her cloudy mind. Compressed air hissed repeated itself with perfect regularity. Mechanical noises. The dregs of the sedative, combined with the steady drone of machine noises, brought more sleep.
“Come on, honey,” said a female voice. Firmly, but not painfully, someone slapped her face until her eyes fluttered open. Hands gripped her biceps and tugged her upward. Strong, but not large. Feminine. “To your feet. Steady now.”
Odera perceived the voice through a foggy haze, as though it was happening to someone else, as though she was a witness, not a participant. A blindfold had replaced the hood. Duct tape over her mouth had been removed. Events were dreamlike. She felt herself rise, too weary, too befuddled to think straight. Steel bands around her ankles and her wrists had replaced duct tape. Handcuffs and shackles, she guessed. Handcuffs were secured to a chain around her waist that clinked and rustled like a dog leash. Shackles made walking difficult. She stumbled and would have fallen if not for supporting hands. Sharp pain induced by shackles gouging her Achilles tendons jolted reality further into the forefront of her drug-clouded mind.
“Far enough. Stand still.”
Hands undid Odera’s pants. They were pulled to her knees, followed by her panties. Feeble attempts to win free from those hands failed. She should have felt terror and fear, but she didn’t. It was not real, she told herself. It was not happening to her. She felt disconnected and numb.
“Sit down.” Odera was in freefall. Cold ceramic arrested her flight. “That a girl.”
Odera’s bursting bladder emptied of its own volition. Immediate relief eased her pain. An absurd sense of indebtedness toward her captors made her curse her thoughts under her breath. Sound of a toilet flushing and then rustling cloth as someone tugged her pants up blended together; a dream without concrete images, without context. Feeling without sight. Texture without smell. The next thing she knew, cement again pressed against her legs and back. Something round and flexible was pressed into her hand.
A female voice instructed, “Drink.”
“Check her for metal,” ordered a second voice. This one, male. “No mistakes. Then give her another shot.”
Without thinking, Odera downed the refreshing water in hungry-thirsty swallows. After the cup was taken from her, she felt another prick. Hands roamed up her legs. She tried to resist and failed. Her small reserve of strength bled off. Everything turned blurry and murky again. Shoes were removed and searched and shoved back on. Hands that were softer than the hands in the van slid beneath her clothes. Her head grew heavy. Pockets were turned inside out, and her bra was checked for wire support. Why wire support? Hands and fingers removed her earrings, belt and her watch. Different hands or the same, she wondered. The sedative was too strong to fight. It was easier to cave-in. So many hands.
One and the same.