Dawn slowly drifted to. Everything looked dim when she opened her eyes, but she seemed to be staring at-a steering wheel. "Where...?" she thought dazedly, "Weren't we...?"
But they definitely were elsewhere now. She saw she was sitting in the driver's seat of an old, musty-smelling van that was apparently covered with conifer branches, which completely blocked the view out the windshield. And she realized that she was bound to the seat with the seatbelt, with her hands and feet also tied together and with a gag over her mouth. "He tricked us," she rued furiously, "He wasn't a real ranger; he must have been doing something bad up here, and Christy must have stumbled onto it. Oh God, I really hope she's all right now...I hope Bobbie and Jackie are all right...!"
Heavy breathing and muffled moans could be heard elsewhere in the van. Dawn turned her head to the right, where the sounds were the loudest. In the dim nighttime light, she could see that Bobbie was bound to the front passenger seat next to her. Her eyes squinted shut, the brunette was rolling her head wildly from side to side, trying to shake off her own gag, which she was screaming hard into at the same time. Dawn craned her head to look into the rear of the van, hearing more heavy breathing back there. Through the darkness, she could just make out Jackie, who was kneeling in the middle of the floor, also gagged and with her arms outstretched and tied to the sides of the van. Jackie was rocking back and forth in an effort to work on her bonds, her eyes in contrast very wide in fear as she emitted low, muffled cries for help. There was, however, no sign of Christy in the van; indeed, the only other thing Dawn could make out behind Jackie were their backpacks, which had been dumped in the very back of the van, far out of their reach. Christy was apparently somewhere else, and perhaps in just as dire straits as the three of them were now. Dawn shook her head. Some rescue party they'd been.
She twisted her wrists, testing the ropes on her hands, which were unfortunately pinned behind her back thanks to the seatbelt holding her to the seat. The ropes seemed quite firm, and a quick glance around the van showed nothing that might be used to cut them. And with Jackie and Bobbie more or less immobilized in place themselves, well away from where Dawn was seated, no way the three of them could work on each other's bonds. They seemed utterly helpless. But helpless or not, Dawn wasn't going to give up when it stood to reason Christy was in at least as much trouble as they were...
She glanced out the driver's side window, looking for any sign of humanity nearby. There was, however, nothing but thick woods as far as she could see-or at least as far as she could see through the driving rain and the thick brush and thickets the van was parked in, which were almost up to the van's windows. Dawn had a sinking feeling the van was fully camouflaged from anyone who might be looking for it, which didn't bode well for her and her friends. She listened for any sounds that might give any clue at all to their location. Only the loud, incessant pounding of raindrops on the van's roof could be heard. Still maybe someone was near enough to hear them...
Lifting her legs up as far as they'd go, she pushed her knees against the horn on the steering wheel directly in front of her. It blared shrilly, a bit louder than Dawn had actually expected. Still, this was encouraging. She continued pressing her knees against the horn. After about fifteen blasts, she lowered her legs again and waited, praying someone had been around to hear it. But nothing happened at all. They were all alone...
...or perhaps not, for Dawn now heard footsteps approaching over twigs outside her window. She thumped her knees against the horn again, crying out as loud as her gag would permit. Next to and behind her, Bobbie and Jackie also started crying out and thrashing about. A blinding flashlight beam was suddenly flashed right in Dawn's eyes. "Don't do that if you value your life, missy!" she heard the ranger's voice intoning sharply over the pounding rain. She glared at the dark, indeterminate shape outside the driver's side window once the flashlight was lowered. "Ttttt zzzzz uuttttt vvvvv rrrrrr, oooo iiiiiiirrrr!" she roared at him through the thick cloth over her mouth, "Rrrrsss Rrrzzteeee!? Ffff oooofff rrrttt Rrrzzteeee...!"
He paid her no heed and shone the flashlight at her again, apparently checking she was still firmly tied up. Dawn squinted her eyes shut against the blinding beam until she could no longer feel it against her eyelids. She turned to the right in time to see the man, who had now moved over to the passenger side of the van, shine it on Bobbie, who glared back defiantly at him. Dawn heard a key turning in the passenger side door, which swung open. With a sharp moan, Bobbie aimed a kick at the man, who caught her legs in midair and slapped her hard across the face. "Don't start, missy, or I'll do something a lot worse to you," he gave Bobbie a sharp warning. "Good evening, Miss McMillan, Miss Kersey, Miss Gregory," he addressed all three girls, squeezing past Bobbie into the van, "Just wanted to check in how you three are doing here in your new home."
"Oooooooo iiiiiiiinnnnn eeeeeekk, nnnnnttiiiii zzzzz ooooooooww!" Dawn growled furiously at her captor, squinting to try and get a clear look at him in the darkness of the van. He slapped her hard across the face as well in turn. "Don't give me that attitude, Miss Kersey, or you'll regret it big time," he warned her coldly, "Sorry if you and your friends here don't like your current situation, but it's for your own good. We have very important business to conduct concerning your friend Christina Bryant and her family, and the last thing we need is any outside interference ruining our plans, so we decided that fitting you girls with some ropes and gags and locking you up in here so you can't cause any trouble was the best way to go, for you and us."
"Ttttt zzzzz oooooo, eeeeeezzz ttttt zzzzz oooooo!" Jackie pleaded fearfully at him through her gag, rocking back and forth hard. "Oh you can beg all you want, Miss Gregory, but your ropes and gag aren't coming off for anything, and I mean anything, for a long, long while yet," he sneered at her, flicking on his flashlight again, "All three of you girls are going to stay bound and gagged in here for a long time to come. We're playing it safe with you lovely ladies that you can't ruin our plans until we take care of our business with Christina's family. So till then, let's just do a quick check here just to make sure you're all still nice and secured."
"EEEEEEZZZ TTTTTT ZZZZZ TTTTTT FFFFFFFF RRRRRRR!" Jackie screeched, fighting back tears as he tested her bonds. Nodding in satisfaction, he rose and turned towards Dawn. Dawn turned her head away from him in revulsion, but this did not stop him from tugging on the knot to her gag, followed by the knots on the ropes binding her hands and feet, testing that they were still tight. "You three should be happy you have it as good as you do," he announced out loud, moving over to check on Bobbie's bonds, "Christina has it a lot worse than you do right now. Since she's going to make us a fortune before we leave her, it's only right that we fixed her worse. Of course, we can do the same to you girls too if you ask for it. We'll be back to check up on you at regular intervals, and if we find you acting up at any point, we'll fix you all even worse than you have it now, perhaps with some blindfolds or a whole lot more rope, for instance."
He rose up after having tested Bobbie's bonds, nodding in satisfaction again, "Don't any of you pretty princesses get any ideas about escaping or getting help for yourselves now," he gave them a final warning, seizing the brim of Bobbie's cap and contemptuously jerking it downward towards her eyes when she glared at him again, "My colleagues and I are experts with tying ropes and handkerchiefs, as I'm sure you'll all realizing about now, so I'd just sit back and accept that you'll be our prisoners for the indefinite future if I were you girls. And don't think anyone's coming to save you either; you're at least a good ten miles from civilization, and we took care to make this van invisible from both the ground and the air. Oh, and if you do try to escape, we just might hurt Christina bad-really, really bad. Think it over."
He slammed the door shut next to Bobbie and locked it again before flicking off the flashlight and walking away. Dawn slumped her head back on the seat, hardly listening as Jackie let out a loud cry of distress and started rocking back and forth on the floor again behind her. "We've got to get out of this, we've just got to," she reasoned, squirming with her ropes and thumping her feet on the floor trying to make as much noise as she could, still hoping that someone other than their kidnappers was around to hear them, "But it'll take a good long while with how tight these ropes are. Come on, Kersey, you can get out of this; just don't give up, for Christy's sake!"
The wail of police sirens got closer to the ranger station. Jonathan kept his position at the window as his father grabbed an umbrella and bustled outside to meet the approaching cops. "Lieutenant Haverford, nice to see you again," he greeted the officer climbing out of the car, "Anything else?"
"Oh yeah, and it's not good," Haverford shook his head, "We got a hysterical call from the Bryant girl's parents. It looks like she's been kidnapped; they're demanding a ransom for her now."
Jonathan almost fell backwards from the window in shock. "Dear God, a ransom," his father seemed stunned himself, "Somehow deep down I just had a feeling the disappearance of Nancy McCrory earlier may have been foul play; I guess this all but confirms it."
"One other thing," Haverford dug out a notepad, "You said you'd seen Christina Jennifer Bryant earlier today; was she with a Jacqueline Paula Gregory, Dawn Marie Kersey, and/or Barbara Jane McMillan?"
"Yes; they all were; they go to school with my son. I'd recognize them on sight."
"Their families called them in missing as well after we got off the phone with the Bryants, so it's possible they might have been kidnapped too, we're afraid now."
"Well then, I say let's all get cracking and find them at once," Mr. Hilbert seemed nervous to get going, "They were going up the mountain trail, they said when they came in, so I'd say we should concentrate our search efforts on the length of that. I already radioed everyone else in the park to stay overtime, so they're already out looking for the girls already."
"We'll get choppers up once this rain ends," Haverford looked contemptuously up at the sky, "They weren't calling for this mess at all, it's..."
His voice trailed off as he and the ranger apparently started walking away. Jonathan slumped against the window, numb. Kidnapped. What had Christy stumbled onto? Was she even OK at the moment? It was gut-wrenching for him to consider what she might be going through right now...
"Jon, I'm going with the lieutenant with the advance search party," his father stuck his head in the station door, snapping him momentarily out of his stupor, "You stay here and man the phones; you know my frequency if anything comes up."
"Are you sure I can't...?"
"Jon, I know how you feel for Christy, but I need you here," he told him firmly, "The lieutenant says they're bringing in the FBI pretty soon; we're more than covered for search parties. Besides, something big might happen while I'm out; that's where you can be important."
"OK," Jonathan nodded in resignation, "Good luck, Dad," he waved goodbye as his father left to joined the search, then walked over to the main desk, sat down in his father's chair, and buried his face in his hands, wishing there was something tangible he could do for Christy at the moment, wherever she was now.
Christy felt very light-headed as she came to again. The chloroform had been strong and still lingered in her nostrils, tainting the stale air underneath the sheet, once more covering her from head to toe. The loss of blood from the slash point on her arm and leg likely also played a role in her dizzy feelings; she could still feel some of the blood flowing, and she felt significantly weaker from it.
There was no way of telling how much time had elapsed, she knew, in her blind and deaf state. At least she was still alive, but for how much longer, she thought with horror, her mind flashing back to her kidnappers' phone call to her parents. There was no way on earth they'd ever be able to come up with twenty million dollars in time, she thought sadly, which meant she was dead already if they were serious with her parents, and she had no reason to doubt they had been. Would they then follow through on their threat to...after they'd killed her...?
"Oh why is this happening to me!?" she started sobbing uncontrollably, "What did I do to get myself into this!? I'm not anyone special; I'm just ordinary everyday Christy Bryant! Why did this have to be me getting kidnapped like this!? Please, God, I want to go home alive! Help me, please, God, I beg you; I don't want to die! Please, God, I don't want to die!"
She cried and cried until the blindfold was completely saturated with her tears. She felt sorry for her parents; she could feel their horror at her predicament when they'd received the phone call. "It's all my fault," she rued, "If I hadn't insisted on going on this hiking trip...!" She had always been very close to her parents. Would she ever see them again? Would she ever see her friends, or anyone familiar and friendly again?
She lowered her head in misery, fighting hard to breathe through her increasingly stuffed-up nostrils from all her crying. Through her mind flashed images of the past...she was five years old, at her birthday party, blowing out her cake while her parents clapped and her friends cheered...she was eight, in her backyard, letting her father teach her how to swing a softball bat. He'd been patient and gentle with her, and had gone a long way to helping her become a pretty good softball player...now in fact she was twelve, hitting a hard triple down the left field line in the local youth softball league, winning the game as her teammates and then her parents mobbed her...thirteen, camping out in the woods with her friends, agreeing to Dawn's toast that the four of them would be friends forever, joining hands with her, Bobbie, and Jackie and swearing the oath they'd always look out for each other...always...
Her sobbing grew harder still, even though she couldn't hear any of it with the headphones once again snugly over her ears. She needed her friends so badly. They'd always been there for her when she needed them before. Where were they now? Hopefully they hadn't fallen into her kidnappers' clutches as Leo had threatened; she could never forgive herself if anything happened to them because of anything she'd done. Some friend she was, then, if they had. Some friend she was anyway for letting this happen and getting them worried in the first place.
"Why...why...!?" she rued again, not knowing if there was an answer for her utterly helpless predicament. And there was no ignoring the dynamite taped to her chest and legs, which were feeling more and more ominous to her mind by the second. Being unable to see or hear anything, Christy knew her kidnappers could detonate the explosives at a moment's notice, and she'd have no advance warning of it. Meaning she could die right now if they wanted to kill her before they got whatever money her parents could manage to send. A deep chill ran down her spine at the agonizing thought. What did it feel like to die, she thought morbidly to herself? It had never seemed a reasonable question before; at fifteen, she'd always thought it would be decades before she'd seriously have to consider the question. Now it seemed grimly possible she wouldn't live to see sixteen. She'd never get to drive her first car, something she'd been eagerly looking forward to for the last two years, never get to graduate with her friends, never get to play truly competitive softball in college, if not professionally, never get to be a doctor as she knew she wanted to now, never get to experience love or get married, never have children of her own...
It was all too much for Christy to bear. She slumped forward as far as the ropes holding her back to the chair would allow, all but shrieking in terrified hysterics, unable to stop crying as hard as she could no matter how hard she tried. It was no use pretending, she knew in her heart; she was going to die. It was inescapable; she had no more than a day to live, and no one was going to save her now that she knew she couldn't save herself. It was hopeless, completely hopeless...