“The world is a dangerous place, not
because of those who do evil, but because
of those who look on and do nothing.”
Dominic stood and picked up the phone, wiping his damp face. He shot me a glare before pressing the button and holding it to his ear. “Hello?”
I leaned back, folding my arms and taking a deep breath. I was afraid of what would happen if those men tried to ransom me, but I had high hopes for finding Courtney.
Yet...why hadn’t Dominic told the others that I was here?
The voice on the other end of the phone was metallic and flat, and I couldn’t quite make out the words. Judging by the look on Dominic’s face, something wasn’t going as he’d hoped. My captor’s eyes widened slightly, and he squirmed, one hand twisting the zipper on the front of his jacket. He walked into the kitchen. “I... Yeah, yeah, I found him. I was about to call you and let you know... No, it’s not like that. Mandus... Alright, I’ll be there in ten minutes.” He hung up the phone, muttering, “Damn it...”
I could only guess that they’d found out he was lying. Frustrated, I sighed, stuffing my hands into my pockets. My leverage was gone.
Dominic stalked out of the kitchen, tossing the phone back onto the counter and scowling. He grabbed my crutches and dropped them on the couch next to me. “Get up,” he snarled.
Moving slowly and deliberately, I fitted the crutches under my arms and hauled myself to my feet. It felt good to stand again. From here, I could better see the layout of the house. The invading sunlight was tinted red with the approach of evening. Dominic went across the room and dug around in a nearby cabinet, grabbing a gun and a clip, tucking them into his jacket.
“Turns out...” he growls, “that there’s cameras in the parking garage.”
“Why didn’t you just tell them from the start?” I asked.
He shot me a glare over his shoulder.
I watched him as he slipped into his shoes and bent over, tying them. Maybe he hadn’t turned me over because something was holding him back. Maybe he’d been thrown into conflict. Some of the first questions he asked had to do with why I’d helped him on the bridge. Perhaps that was the only honest thing he’d really said out of all our conversations. Something in that had, at the very least, confused him, especially since he thought I recognized him at the bridge.
My eyes wandered to the glass cabinets, full of chess pieces. “You must have been collecting those for a long time.”
He glanced at me and gave a sharp nod.
“What’s your favorite piece?”
There was a long moment of silence, and I didn’t think he would reply. Then he murmured, “The pawns.”
I thought about that. “The pawns?”
He nodded. “You play chess, kid?”
“I used to.”
“They’re the weakest pieces in the game, but they can make the difference between victory and defeat. Poor players are the ones that think their pawns are dispensable.” He glanced at me with a smirk. “Come on.”
I swung myself across the house, following Dominic. My enthusiasm for the crutches had plummeted. I was desperate to be able to run, to at least stand and face my enemies. On crutches, I was helpless.
Dominic stopped in front of the door and turned, looming over me. His large fingers wrapped around my neck and gave a threatening squeeze. I winced, my heart accelerating. His thumb lodged beneath my jaw, forcing my head back, and he leaned toward me. “Don’t you dare try to draw attention to us,” he snarled. “If you do so much as wave to someone, I’ll beat your face in and stuff you into the trunk. Do you understand me?”
I looked away from his intense gaze, telling myself I didn’t need to be scared. There was no logical reason for me to be scared.
“Yeah. Yeah, I get it.”
“Good.” He released the pressure on my throat and opened the door, walking out. I followed him, my head ducked as I tried to shake off the feeling of suffocation. Cool air met my sweaty face, and I took a deep breath. From what I could tell, my captor lived in a dingy apartment outside city center. We moved along a walkway, passing several numbered doors, and came to a set of stairs. I craned my neck, looking around. I couldn’t see any skyscrapers along the horizon, so city center must have been on the other side of the complex. The streets were quiet with only the occasional passing car.
Dominic stopped at the top of the stairs and turned. There was a cold look on his face, and anxiety swept through me. I couldn’t help but think he was going to throw me down them after the trouble I’d caused.
He grabbed the crutch from under my left arm and yanked it away from me. I swayed unsteadily, lifting one hand as if it would prevent him from grabbing me. “Wait,” I gasped. “Please, don’t.”
His hand locked onto my arm, making me flinch, but he just pulled it around his shoulders, helping me ease my way down the stairs. Descending was harder than I expected, especially since the crutches were too big for me, but Dominic held me steady. Once we were down the stairs, he helped me get the crutch back under my arm.
“Thank you,” I said.
He led the way to his car without a word. I scanned his face as I followed him, but he was unreadable. Dominic walked ahead and opened the passenger door. Obviously he didn’t want to give me the chance to make a fuss. I climbed into the seat and pulled my crutches in after me. Thirty seconds later, we were both in the car and pulling onto the quiet road. A red and purple swath of colors was spread across the sky. The prospect of the approaching darkness left me uneasy.
I looked over at Dominic. His eyes were fixed on the road, and he was smoking profusely, a look of anxiety on his face.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
He was silent a long moment before replying, “To your apartment.”
“Yeah. Mandus is searching the place. I guess exploring old gang hideouts and drug nests wasn’t the best plan, was it?”
His words took a moment to sink in. Had my explorations been a threat to them? Was that one of the reasons that they needed to get rid of me? “They aren’t going to let me go once they get the ransom, are they?”
“What do you think?” he growled.
“They can’t kill me,” I stated. “They can try, but they can’t.”
The man shook his head in bewilderment. “Your medical file said you were delusional, but I didn’t know I was dealing with a psycho.”
I chewed on my lip in anger, trying to control myself. The word “delusion” was enough to set me off, but I had to be patient. Flying off the handle wouldn’t help anything. “At least I’m not a coward that drags off innocent girls for ransom.”
Dominic stomped on the brakes, and I would have been shot through the windshield if I hadn’t been wearing a seat-belt. He whirled on me, his face red with rage. “I told you before, you asshole, that wasn’t my idea!”
“But you let them take her!” I retorted. “And goodness knows what you’ve been doing to her in the meantime! I saw the way some of you looked at her! I...I knew what you wanted.” My voice cracked, and I took a breath, steadying myself. When I found Courtney, I would have a lot to apologize for, starting with my cowardice and ineptitude.
“Don’t you get it?” His hand tangled in the front of my shirt, jerking me forward. “Shes dead! D-E-A-D, dead! You’re just too afraid to deal with that! You’re running away from your grief!” He was quiet a moment, his chest rising and falling rapidly. “I don’t care what you think of me, but I didn’t have any part in what they did to her. I wasn’t even there most of the time when they were holding her prisoner. I’ve been trying to get out of this business for a long time.”
I stared at him a long moment. Maybe that’s why he’d been on the bridge. Death was his only escape. “You can’t just walk away?” I scoffed.
“No. None of us can. Anyone that leaves is a liability.” His eyes drifted a moment, then snapped back to me. “I don’t suppose it matters now. If I can’t convince Mandus that I had a good reason for stalling, I’m as dead as you.”
“Then don’t do this.” I looked him in the eyes. “You can go to the police.”
“Ha! And go to jail after the fact? No thanks, kid.”
“But if we answer their questions, maybe they can protect us and help me find Courtney.”
Dominic looked ready to explode at another mention of her name, but the look of anger slowly drifted away, and he stared into the space between us. “Look. I was there when he killed her. When her parents dropped off the wrong amount of money – and bugged it, no less – he flew into a rage. He was stalking around, cussing, tearing his hair out. And then he walked into the room where he was keeping her...”
My heart sank, something inside of me ready to snap.
It’s not real. It’s not real.
“She screamed for...a while, and then it got quiet. I wanted to stop him, but...well... I wouldn’t have gotten far with all his buddies around.” He looked sick, and I could almost believe he was truly sorry. “She seemed like a real sweet girl.”
I tried to summon some sort of protest, but I couldn’t. My head was spinning, and confusion tangled my thoughts like a violent whirlwind. All this time, I’d been so sure of myself...of my beliefs. But how did I really know she was alive? Why would everyone stick to the same, consistent lie?
I pushed such thoughts away, trying to find a calm place inside myself.
Dominic stared at me a moment, as if sensing my turmoil, and released my shirt, starting forward on the road again. We completed the ride in silence. My apartment building was smaller than his. After several more threats about not drawing attention to myself, Dominic helped me up the stairs and led the way to the apartment. The door was open a crack, with scuff marks on the side like it had been jimmied. My insides twisted with unease. I couldn’t help but remember the crowbar cracking against my skull, causing irreparable damage. I didn’t want that to happen again.
I wasn’t even sure what to believe about Courtney. I was so desperate to believe she was alive.
Dominic took a deep breath and pushed the door open, grabbing my arm and hustling me inside. He closed the door behind us. My apartment, which Aiden and Lucy had taken such care to clean, was a disaster. My belongings had been torn from their rightful places and scattered about in a wild array. Cabinets and shelves hung open. They’d even gone so far as to break my dishes and smash my television.
A gathering of men were putting together the puzzle Aiden and I were working on. Unlike the two of us, they had made progress on the field with the geese and the purple mountainsides. The four men looked up when we entered, and Dominic stiffened behind me.
I didn’t recognize any of them except the demon-faced man, Xavier Mandus. He wore the same calm look on his overly-smooth, tattooed face. His eyes seemed to pierce through me and search my inmost thoughts. My hands clenched around the handles of my crutches as vivid memories flashed before my eyes. My throat went dry.
“It’s about time,” Mandus drawled, looking at Dominic. “We thought you must have gotten lost.”
“Heh...” Dominic gave me a rough shove, and I stumbled further into the room, catching myself on my crutches. “What can I say? If he hadn’t caused so much trouble, I would have been here sooner.”
“Must have been a lot of trouble, to delay you five hours.”
A couple of the men snickered while the other looked suspicious. I glanced back at Dominic. The whipped-puppy expression had returned, and his shoulders were hunched. These two had a history, and it was obvious that Mandus didn’t have any reservations about pushing him around.
Mandus stared at Dominic for several tense seconds, then his gaze wandered to me, and he smiled. Mandus stood, straightening his rough, dirty jacket like it was a tuxedo and offering his hand. “Hello, Jack. It’s been a long time.”
After a moment of hesitation, I shook his hand.
“Come sit down.”
My eyes followed his gesture to the couch. I didn’t want to be off my feet again, but I didn’t have as far to fall that way. I hobbled forward and sat down, leaning the crutches against the cushion beside me. Dark anger seeped into my stomach as I thought of Dominic’s account. I didn’t know – didn’t want to know – all that they’d done to Courtney. But I did want to make them pay for it.
Mandus sat on the coffee table in front of me with a calm smile, crossing one leg. “I have a couple questions I should ask you before we get down to business.”
My eyes wandered the room again, roving from the shady, violent-looking men gathered around my puzzle to the squirming, nervous Dominic. Then I nodded.
“Good. We’ve performed a thorough search of your apartment and found nothing of interest. Do you have any phones or cameras around here?”
I shook my head. “Where is Courtney?”
Mandus brushed me off. “She isn’t important at the moment. Now, this next question is very important, Jack, and I need an honest answer from you. Truth is very important. You understand?”
“Yes.” My brow furrowed. I didn’t like the way he spoke to me as if I was a child. But, at the same time, it could be much worse.
“Good.” He offered an approving nod. “Now, one of my friends saw you in our hideout and drove you away. Did you come back to that spot more than once?”
“Was there anyone else with you? Did you tell anyone about it?”
I repeated, “No.” This obviously wasn’t just about the money. This was about my meddling. My stupid stupid meddling. What good had it ever done me? I still hadn’t found Courtney.
If she was even alive.
Mandus looked at me through narrowed eyes. “Are you sure?”
“Honesty is very important, Jack. So many people nowadays go around wearing masks, never embracing the truth or letting themselves become who they are. It’s quite sad, really. And I see a lot of that in your family.” He picked up an old magazine my mother had left in the apartment. “Look.” He pointed out a picture of my family. “There you are. I bet none of you are as perfect as the media would lead us to believe. In fact, most people coming from privileged situations like that are pathological liars.”
I frowned, fidgeting. Dominic was right when he said Mandus believed he was a bit of a philosopher. One would have to be in order to justify things like kidnap and smuggling.
“I don’t care about any of that,” I said quietly, leaning forward. “Where is Courtney? She’s all I care about.”
He was just opening his mouth when we heard a knock at the door. Everyone in the room froze, whirling. My brow furrowed in confusion. Evidently the visitor wasn’t one of them. Then my eyes widened in horror as realization hit me.
I couldn’t contain the trembling, despair-soaked words, “Oh gawd... Aiden...”