“Remember us – if at all – not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.”
A soft, hushed voice roused me from the darkness. The words were meaningless in my slurred mind. My head pounded, and it felt as if I’d run five miles. I couldn’t move. My legs were made of lead. A groan rose in my throat.
As I slowly came to myself, I realized I was laying on my stomach across soft, warm couch cushions. A pillow cradled my impossibly-heavy head. I opened my eyes and closed them several times as dizziness and nausea churned through me. My vision came in flashes, rocking and jolting. An off-white couch. A coffee table with a gun and several used cigarettes sitting on it. Intricate glass cabinets containing small, blurry objects. I shifted, grunting, and felt a thick cloth bound tight around my mouth. My arms were numb, pulled behind me, and my wrists stung.
My heart-beat accelerated as my memories returned. The man from the bridge... Had he tried to kill me and discovered he couldn’t? Or had he come to the hospital to kidnap me? Everything he’d told me were lies. For several seconds, I fell into panic, twisting my wrists against my bindings and rubbing my cheek against the couch cushion in an attempt to dislodge the gag. A whimper rose in my throat. Every movement made me ache, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to escape. Not with my leg broken. But my fear came more from confusion than from the situation itself.
Taking a long breath, I relaxed, trying to revive my rational self.
My crutches were leaned against the wall across the room, next to several empty beer bottles.
The voice spoke again, and I twisted my head toward the sound. Dominic was speaking from somewhere past the arm of the couch. I held still and listened.
“Yeah, that’s what I heard. Did you check the hospital records? Okay. Okay, yeah, I’ll go out tonight and look for him... What’s his name again? Jack O’Dair? Yeah, I’ll see if I can find an apartment number.” A moment of silence. “Okay, I’ll let you know when I figure it out. He shouldn’t be hard to find. I’ll keep looking for him.” A click, then the sound of the phone clattering against a table or a counter.
I frowned, trying to piece together his end of the conversation. None of this made sense. Who was looking for me? And was Dominic insinuating that he hadn’t found me yet? I took another long breath in an attempt to steady my breathing. Questions writhed and twisted and tangled in my head.
Heavy footsteps approached, and my captor came into view, lighting a cigarette with a shaking hand. He shifted the curtain hanging in front of a window, looking out. Sunlight poured in and illuminated his sweaty face. After a long moment, he turned to face me. The vicious calm that filled his expression when he threw me into the car was gone, leaving a tremulous anxiety. His shoulders were slightly hunched, and his flitting eyes still reminded me of a whipped dog.
“It’s about time,” he said with feigned casualty.
I glared at him.
“Don’t give me that look, you ungrateful shit.” He picked up a magazine and flipped through it, shaking his head. “Bet you thought being rich was a blessing, huh? Thought you were better than the rest of us.”
I squirmed, looking around, trying to make sense of my situation. If my wrists hadn’t been bound, I would have grabbed the gun on the table. As my vision steadied, I realized that the objects in the glass cases were chess pieces. Different sets all organized and polished, some small and metal, others glassy and intricate. He’d obviously been collecting them for years.
Dominic dropped the magazine with a look of disgust, moving toward me. His hand tangled in my hair and jerked me to my knees. I issued a muffled cry as pain wrenched through my leg. Sweat beaded on my forehead and streamed down my face. He shoved me back, and I fell against the opposite arm of the couch. Tears of pain filled my eyes. I gulped air, groaning, my leg twisted underneath me. Dominic stared down at me annoyance and grabbed me under the knee. I tensed, thinking he was going to hurt me, but he just helped me right my legs.
My captor reached behind me and loosened the gag, letting it fall around my neck. I ran my tongue over my cracked lips, panting. “What do you want?” I wheezed. “Money?”
Dominic snorted, walking back to the window and looking out again. “Oh, I’ll be getting plenty of that.” He glanced my way. “Still glad you saved me on the bridge?”
I took a long breath and closed my eyes, leaning back against the arm of the couch. “I haven’t decided yet. It takes a big man to attack a guy with a broken leg.”
“Shut up,” he growled.
There was a long moment of silence. When I opened my eyes, he was staring at me intensely, his brow furrowed in anger. “Why did you do it?”
“Why did you talk to me at the bridge? How did you know?”
I shrugged. “It’s not like you were being all that subtle about it.”
He scowled, reddening. “Hundreds of people cross the bridge every couple minutes, and you stopped. Why?”
A grin spread across my face. “I guess you could say I’ve got a calling.”
“Stop spewing bullshit!”
I huffed. “If you’re not going to listen to my answers, then why are you asking questions?”
Dominic bristled. I stared at him without saying a word, and, as I looked, I saw how lost and confused he felt. I should have hated him for what he was doing, but he intrigued me.
“Will you untie me?” I asked. “My wrists hurt.” He gave me a long stare, and I laughed. “It’s not like I’m going anywhere with a broken leg. C’mon, just for a few minutes? I won’t cause any trouble. Please.”
Dominic was quiet a long moment, then he nodded. “Lean forward.”
I obeyed, and he pulled out a switchblade, cutting through my bindings. Relief filled my limbs as my hands came free. I pulled my arms around in front of me, rubbing my raw, bloody wrists and trying to restore circulation. My eyes wandered to the gun on the table. It was far enough from the couch that I would have to crawl to reach it, and Dominic would be much quicker. Still, leaving it there didn’t seem like a good move on his part; obviously he wasn’t very adept in whatever it was he was doing. My captor pulled back with the sliced corpses of several zip-ties in his hand.
“Thanks,” I said. “So what happens now? Are you going to ask for ransom?”
He was quiet a moment, then gave a sharp nod, digging through his pocket for another cigarette.
I thought about that for a moment. Part of me was relieved, but the other part was uneasy. My parents claimed that Courtney had been ransomed, and they hadn’t let her go home. The images my parents showed me of her corpse made me shudder. My mind shrunk away.
They were fake. They had to be fake. I knew they were fake.
With images of her capture in mind, I looked at Dominic again, and something clicked.
My jaw dropped in horror. He’d been there that night. He was one of her kidnappers. I hadn’t remembered him because he hadn’t said much, hadn’t harassed Courtney, and he never came close enough for me to see his face.
“Oh gawd,” I choked. “Y—you’re one of them. You took her.”
He stiffened slightly, then continued to light his cigarette.
“You bastard!” My voice lowered to a hiss as horrible rage coursed through me. “You took her! How could you do that? Do you have any idea what she meant to me? What she meant to her family?”
“It wasn’t my idea,” he retorted.
“Not your idea?” I bellowed. “What good does that do? You still helped them! Where is she? Where are you assholes keeping her?”
A snarl spread across his face, and he walked into the kitchen. The counter was cluttered with old mail and dirty dishes. He stooped and began digging through the fridge.
I looked around, fuming, hoping to find something to throw at him. My eyes fixed on the gun. I wasn’t sure what I’d do once I got to it, but I needed information. Being as quiet as I could, I slid off the couch and crawled to the table, dragging my broken leg behind me. Sweating with rage and fear, I snatched the gun off the table just as Dominic was coming back into the living room. My fury grew when I realized there was no clip in the gun.
The man looked at me, blinked, then shook his head. There was a beer bottle in his hand. “Really? You’re going to try that after I untied you?”
“You son of a bitch!” I growled.
Dominic put his bottle on the table and wrenched the gun out of my hand. I took a swipe at him but couldn’t put any force behind it. Red spots flickered across my vision. For a moment, I felt empowered enough to leap to my feet and endure the pain of my snapped bone.
I screamed, “Where is she? Where’s Courtney?”
Looking fed up, he reached down, one hand tangling in my hair and the other gripping the scruff of my shirt. “Listen, bastard.” His hot breath brushed past my ear as he snarled. “I can call my pals and have them pick you up anytime I want. And trust me. You won’t like that.”
“I’m not afraid of them! I’m not afraid of any of you!” I gripped his arm in an attempt to relieve the pressure in my scalp. My body twisted as I writhed and struggled, only able to support myself with the one leg.
“Well you should be!” Dominic jerked on my hair, wringing a cry of pain out of me. “A little pretty boy like you wouldn’t be able to take half the beatings I’ve taken! You’re just a petty rich kid throwing a tantrum. You’re lucky you can buy your way out of things!”
His words felt like a kick to the stomach. Was that really how people saw me? Was that really who I was? “You don’t know anything about me! Let go, you coward! If you were a real man, you’d pick on somebody your own size!”
“Shut up!” he shouted.
Dominic dragged me back to the couch like a wounded dog and threw me down. I gritted my teeth in pain, scrambling around to face him and rubbing my scalp. Dominic stood over me, his fists clenched, fuming. “Stay down, you little bastard, or I’ll tape you to the damn wall!”
“Then tell me where she is!” came my hate-filled retort.
He deflated. His brow was furrowed in anger, but I saw something else in his eyes. Something akin to regret or maybe pity. Taking a moment to catch his breath, he picked up his beer bottle, walked across the room, and fell back into an armchair. The man closed his eyes, rubbing one hand against his face. “Haven’t you heard, kid? She’s dead.”
I fell silent a moment, panting, the fight draining out of me. They were all in on the same lie. But why? “She’s not dead,” I snapped. “I know she’s not. Where are you keeping her?”
“Mandus killed her.”
I opened my mouth to retort but closed it again. If I wanted to find Courtney, I had to find out more about these people and why they were doing this. Part of me wanted to strangle Dominic for his involvement, but I wasn’t the type to stay angry long. Besides, I knew he was lying. They hadn’t killed her. She was still alive somewhere.
Dominic took a drink from his bottle, his gaze fixed on the window. The melancholy swept back over his face, and all I saw when I looked at him was a lonely, lost man who was making all the wrong choices. Yet the self-pity in his expression disgusted me.
“Who is Mandus?” I demanded.
He let out a faint snort. “I’m not telling you anything, kid.”
“Yes, you are,” I replied with an air of confidence. “Because if you don’t, I’ll tell those men that you lied to them.”
A long silence settled over us.
I knew this was a gamble. He could choose not to turn me over and try to kill me himself, but I didn’t believe he would. His only options were to let me go or turn me over. If he let me go, those men would eventually find me, and, either way, I would carry out my threat.
“I heard you talking on the phone,” I continued. “I don’t know why you’re stalling on this, but I’ll rat you out in a second if you don’t tell me what the hell’s going on.”
Dominic bristled, staring at me with loathing, his fists clenched. “What makes you think I won’t beat your face in before I turn you over?”
“I’ll still tell them.”
A nasty sneer twisted his features, and for a moment I thought he might strangle me on the spot. Then he ground out, “Xavier Mandus is a drug dealer. Thinks he’s a big-shot.” There was bitterness in his voice.
“Is he the one with the tattoo?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he growled.
“Why does he want me?”
“Apparently, your parents think you’re worth a lot of money.”
I tried hard to sound casual, hoping to ease his hostility. Short answers were of little use. “He did this to Courtney too? Why? What does he need the money for?”
“What do you think?” He replied with eyes narrowed, arms folded. “He’s a businessman, and he needs money to acquire his merchandise.”
“I know how business works. He should be making enough money to pay for his product.”
He glared at me. “What the hell do you want me to say, bastard? You think you know everything about what’s going on?”
I took a deep breath and let it out, holding back my frustration. “Fine. But can you at least give me one real answer?” When he didn’t reply, I asked, “Why the tattoo?”
He stared at me for a long moment through narrowed eyes, then sighed, taking a drink from his bottle. “Mandus claims to believe in a lot of Chinese philosophy. Good and evil coexisting and whatever. It’s a pile of shit. He’s just romanticizing a bipolar disorder. Thinks he’s being all deep and philosophical when he’s really just out of control.” A look of disgust spread across his face.
“Out of control?” I probed.
“Yeah. I swear he thinks he’s some sort of god. When he hands out drugs in the slums, he acts like he’s doing them a favor, like he’s giving them the water of life or something. He thinks that he’s sticking to some sort of moral code that transcends the rest of us. Asshole.”
A faint chuckle rose inside me, but, at the same time, I was deeply intrigued. I was about to question Dominic further, but the phone started ringing.
We both froze. Dominic looked toward the phone with a hint of dread in his eyes.
I looked toward the phone, squinting, and made out the caller I.D. Xavier Mandus was calling.