The sound of a loud knocking on the ranger station door woke Jonathan up from his slumbering posture on the desk. His heart raced: was it news about Christy? If so, was it good or bad? "Who's there?" he called, bustling over to the door.
"FBI, we'd like a word with someone if we could," came the authoritative voice. Jonathan checked out the window to confirm it was in fact a federal agent. The badges that the men outside in the early morning light were carrying certainly looked real enough. He opened the door. "My father's out with the other search parties," he explained, "Any news on...?"
"We got another call from the kidnappers on the location of the ransom drop," the leading federal agent told him, "If you could tell us how to reach your father and the rest of the search team, we'd really appreciate it."
"Radio's right there, Channel 9 is the frequency you want," Jonathan pointed to the radio.
"Thank you. We'd like to maintain a base here if that's all right, son," another agent piped up, stepping inside anyway, "You folks come right on in as well," he gestured outside, "This way you'll be right here should anything come up with your daughter."
The Bryants that entered the cabin behind the federal agents. Jonathan noticed they looked faint, and their eyes were red. It was starting to drag on them too, he knew. The two of them slumped into chairs by the same window he himself had been at the previous night and stared glumly out into the dawn sky at the mountain towering over them. Jonathan felt he needed to say something to them. He cautiously approached as the agents set about setting up shop in the station. "Um Mr. Bryant, Mrs. Bryant," he introduced himself slowly, "I guess you know me, Jonathan Hilbert...or at least you might have heard of me if Christy...we're in the same..."
"Yes, she's mentioned you when going over the people in her classes every now and then over the years," came Mr. Bryant's distant, distracted reply, "Hello Jonathan. How have you been lately?"
"To be honest, sir, not that good since I heard the news myself," Jonathan admitted, "I'm, I'm really worried for Christy too, because, well, to be honest, Mr. Bryant..." he took a deep breath; he'd kept his feelings for Christy buried for so long, "...to be honest, sir, I've been in love with Christy for some time now."
"Oh?" Mrs. Bryant asked, intrigued and puzzled as she and her husband turned to face him, surprised.
"Yeah, I mean," Jonathan shuffled about nervously, "Christy...everything about her just stands out. She's got that look in her eye...when she looks at you, she just makes you feel better inside. And the way she laughs, it just brightens everything up. Not to mention she is incredibly beautiful. The two of you are really, really lucky to be her parents, I should say."
"Christy's brought us so much joy," Mrs. Bryant sniffed, "I just wish we could be there for her now, when she needs..."
She fought back a sob. "It's a special feeling when your child's born," she mumbled softly, barely holding it together, "When you hold a baby close once they're born and tell them you love them and won't let anything happen to them. All the while, you know you're going to have to step back and take the chance something might happen at some point, but you still always want to be there for them. But you never expect anything this terrible, to get a call in the middle of the night from people telling you they've got your child as their hostage and that they'll...that they'll..."
Her lip quivering visibly, she was unable to continue, fighting hard to keep from breaking down. "It's OK, Cynthia, it's OK," her husband put an arm around her, but he looked like he was going to break down as well. "What exactly did they say when they called?" Jonathan asked, hoping the answer wasn't too personal for them.
"The last time they called, they said to drop the ransom money in Cooper Lake once we've got it," Mr. Bryant explained softly, "If they saw any police when the time came, Christy would be..."
He also couldn't finish. "Why did it have to be her!?" he asked out loud to no one in particular, "We're not rich, we haven't done anything special; why should it be Christy that gets abducted like this!? We're just an average everyday family; this shouldn't happen to us...this shouldn't happen to her..."
His own lip trembled. "The one time I remember the most with her, the one I'm proudest of," he said softly, "She was eleven, it was the final game of the softball season, and she had only been average most of the season-not that it mattered to me, I'm proud of her no matter how good she'd do-but at her last at bat, she hit it out of the park. I was so excited with that itself, but afterwards, when everyone was packing up to go home, she came up, handed me the ball, and said, 'You deserve to have this, Dad; I couldn't have done it without you.' And in that one moment, I felt greater than any president or king could ever be, and I knew my life was worth it. So I gave her a big kiss and told her that she made my life worth living, and rewarded her afterwards with a king sized ice cream sundae. That ball's still sitting on the shelf in my den, and I'm never getting rid of it. It's true, she makes my life worth living...and now I just might lose her for good...my little girl...Christy means more to me than life itself..."
He broke down sobbing, leading his wife to return the favor and hug him back. "Yeah, she brightens everyone's life, Mr. Bryant, mine too, like I said," Jonathan told him sympathetically, "You've just got to hope for the best, that they'll find her before anything terrible happens."
"I hope so, Jonathan, I certainly pray so," Mrs. Bryant looked mournfully at the mountain again, "Ever second that she isn't safely home is torture, knowing what these animals have threatened to do to her. I just wish we could go up there, find her, and bring her home ourselves."
"So do I, Mrs. Bryant, so do I," Jonathan leaned against the window himself and stared up at the summit, wishing deeply there was something at all he could do for Christy's sake at the moment. "At least know I'm thinking about you, Christy," he tried to reach her mentally, "And know there's so many people here looking to find you in time..."
The rising sun shone warmly on Dawn's right cheek through the van's passenger window. Thanks to the pine branches thrown over the windshield, it remained darker than usual inside the van, and cooler than outside would have been as well, so Dawn appreciated any sunlight that got in.
She turned to the left and stared at the thick woods and brush around the van. Still no sign of any would be rescuers, or indeed any sign of humanity at all, although she felt a little more optimistic now that the rain was over that more people would be out on the trail. And by now, she and her friends had to have been reported missing by their families, she knew. Still, that was scant comfort until they were actually found...
She exhaled softly and turned forward again. It had been a long night, and given Dawn's circumstances, she hadn't gotten much sleep at all. Still, at least the van's seat was reasonably comfortable for her, and Dawn might have felt right at home if not for the stiff feeling in her back from sitting in place for hours on end, and of course with the thick gag over her mouth that had forced her to breath through her nose all night long. While the initial terror of finding herself kidnapped had since worn off, it was still an unnerving experience to be sitting bound and gagged in an apparently locked vehicle, and it would remain so until she did get free.
Her watch beeped behind her back: seven a.m. By now her family had to be worried stiff about her, she knew, leaning back against the seat. She felt badly to have no doubt worried them like this, but she knew she had to have stayed in the woods. She owed Christy her efforts to find her as her best friend.
"Oh Christy," she thought glumly, resting her face against the window. She was worried stiff for her friend. It was hard to imagine life without Christy. Indeed, Christy was almost like a sister to her. If anything happened to her...
She twisted her wrists gently. She'd struggled with her bonds all night long, and had been unable to make any progress with loosening the ropes or to unbuckle the seatbelt holding her to the seat. Nor had rubbing her head against the back of the seat to try and loosen her gag worked either, although she continued trying this right now, for lack of anything better to do at the moment. Dawn was ready for a shift in tactics, and she had an idea how to do it: she'd been far too tense when struggling earlier, she reasoned, and thus needed to relax and do it more calmly.
There was a thud to her right. In contrast, Bobbie had only escalated her struggles to increasingly wilder levels all night long. Grunting out a steady stream of muffled phrases through her gag, she was still jerking hard back and forth in the passenger seat, thumping her feet against the window crank all the while. Jackie, on the other hand, appeared to have already given up; she was sitting still in the back of the van, staring blankly at the floor. They couldn't just give up, Dawn thought firmly; she knew in her heart something bad would happen to them if they didn't try and escape. And besides, Christy was counting on them as her friends.
It was time to put her new plan into effect. Closing her eyes, she leaned all the way back in the seat and took long, deep, relaxing breaths. She tried to think of ocean waves gently lapping against the sand. "Just relax...relax...relax..." she thought to herself softly, "Just think calm thoughts, Kersey, and you'll just slip these ropes off. Nice and calm..."
With a soft grunt, Dawn started gently twisting her hands in place and thought of the ropes just smoothly slipping off her wrists. And perhaps, she thought, there was a small bit of slack in the ropes now...
But her concentration was broken by a welcome sound: a helicopter approaching. Dawn leaned forward again and glanced out the window. The helicopter wasn't visible, but it was almost right overhead. She pressed her face right against the window, hoping somehow she could be seen. Across from her, Bobbie, having heard it as well, went into a total frenzy, kicking hard at the window despite not being at a good angle for her feet to hit it properly and screaming as loud as her gag would allow. The sound of the helicopter's motor grew deafening overhead, but just as quickly faded away. "Tttzzzzz Oooo ooooooozzzz, Obbeee," Dawn sadly mumbled through her own gag towards her friend, who was still kicking at the window and screaming, "Aaaaaaa ddddnnttt eeeeeee zzzzzzzz."
Bobbie stopped squirming and lowered her head, disappointment all over her face. While Dawn couldn't blame her-it saddened her they'd been passed over as well-she knew the helicopter hadn't been looking for them, and that the van was probably invisible under their kidnappers' camouflage anyway. And besides, she glumly acknowledged, it was unlikely the three of them could have been heard from the helicopter's apparent height even if they weren't gagged. Escape was most likely solely in their own hands if they could manage it.
Taking another deep breath and closing her eyes once more, she leaned back again and tried to make her mind as blank as she could. "Come on, Kersey, you've got this," she urged herself on, rubbing her head against the back of the seat again to continue her effort with the knot to her gag, "Don't give up, and you've got this made. Just relax...relax...relax...these ropes will just come right off your hands..."
She strained hard against the ropes and increased the scraping of her head against the seat. Time dragged on and on as Dawn continued her efforts. Finally, when her watch beeped eight o'clock, she stopped and took stock of the situation. It wasn't good; the ropes on her wrists were only a fraction looser, and still too tight for her to even contemplate slipping out of. Moreover, though she'd reached and strained as far as she could, the ropes' knots were out of reach of her fingertips, which would have made her job a whole lot easier if she'd been able to work directly on them. And her gag remained as tightly over her mouth as before despite her almost herculean efforts to loosen its knot. Dawn sighed sadly and slumped back in her seat, depressed. She might as well just give up, she conceded miserably, her head sinking low. It was painfully clear now that she wasn't going anywhere any time soon. Which meant something terrible was likely going to happen to Christy very soon...
"AAhhnn," came Bobbie's sudden urgent moan to her right. Dawn spun to look at her friend. "AAhhnn, vvvv otttt nnn iiieeaa," Bobbie mumbled at her, her eyes now wide with excitement.
Uhhh?" Dawn frowned, confused.
"Llllpp mmmm ttttt ttzzzz zztblt fffff," Bobbie jerked her head downwards.
Bobbie rolled her eyes in frustration. "II zzddd, lllpp mmmm ttttt ttzzz zztblt fffff, AAhhnn!" she furiously enunciated as well as her gag would allow.
"AAhhnn, zzzeeezz sssskknn oooo oooo kkkk rrrrr zzztblt fffff!" Jackie leaned forward and shouted through her own gag at Dawn, apparently having somehow figured out Bobbie's words. Dawn sighed loudly, wishing the three of them had been able to get the trio of oversized white cloths off their mouths during the last twelve hours so they'd be able to have an intelligent conversation with each other. And why had their kidnappers even bothered to gag them when clearly no one was around to hear them, she had to wonder...?
Then she noticed where both Bobbie and Jackie were jerking with their heads: the buckle to Bobbie's seatbelt, which was holding her to the passenger seat. It wasn't too far away from where Dawn was seated. It all fell into place for her: if she could undo it, Bobbie could get up and do whatever she had in mind to do that could help them. "KKKKK, IIII ggtttt tttt Obbbeeee, Akkkeeee," she mumbled at them, nodding, "Olld tllll, Obbeeee."
Bobbie nodded and stiffened up. Taking a deep breath, Dawn jerked to the right. Buckled firmly to her seat, she didn't have as much leeway as she would have preferred, but another sharp twist maneuvered her legs further sideways, within kicking reach of Bobbie's seatbelt buckle. Steeling herself, she swung a kick at it-and instead accidentally kicked Bobbie in the thigh, making the brunette cry out in pain. "AAAAAccccchhh wwwrrrrrr rrrrrrrrr kkkkkkkkknnnn, AAAhhnn!" she shouted furiously at the blonde with a stern glare.
"Rrrrreeee, rrrrrreeee," Dawn mumbled an apology to her friend. Her next kick came closer to the buckle, but it was still out of her feet's reach. Dawn twisted further sideways in her seat, almost to the threshold that her own seatbelt would allow. The next kick clanged off the edge of the buckle, very close to the release button. "Lttll kllzzrr, lttll klzzzrr," Jackie mumbled out encouragement, leaning as far forward as her bonds would allow with excitement in her eyes now. Dawn could feel some excitement as well. She readied for another kick...
...and suddenly heard the familiar crunching of footsteps coming closer nearby. She glanced in the rearview mirror and saw the ranger and another man approaching. "Rrrrrrr kmmmmnnn bkkkkkkk, rrrrrrrr kmmmmmmnnn bkkkkkkkk!" Dawn shouted a muffled warning to her friends. She quickly swung herself back into a forward-facing position and stared straight ahead, trying to make her expression look neutral and innocent. The footsteps came to a stop right next to the driver's side window. Dawn squinted her eyes shut as the flashlight beam shone right in her face again-likely, since the sun was now up, to check on Jackie, who was now rocking back and forth in the back of the van and screaming into her gag loudly, trying to make herself looked panicked. "That one sure doesn't know when to give up," the new man mumbled outside.
"Let her; she's just exhausting her energy," the ranger declared, flicking off the flashlight. "Scared, Miss Gregory?" he leaned towards the window and taunted the struggling Jackie, "You should be scared, Jacqueline; you won't have it easy forever. None of you three will," he turned slightly to address all of his prisoners, "And you're never going to see your homes and families again, so you know. For now, though, ladies, get comfy in there; you have some time until your friend Christina's family gives us the money we asked them for. By now, I'm sure you girls realize that you simply won't be able to get your ropes and gags off no matter how hard you try, so just accept that you'll be wearing them until further notice, if not permanently," he snickered contemptuously at his hostages, "Maybe we'll ask your folks for some money too once Christina's family pays up for her-certainly you're all pretty enough for ransoming. Well, we'll be back again soon, so don't go anywhere, girls-and remember, we'll hurt Christina bad if you do try to escape at all."
He saluted his prisoners contemptuously, then turned and walked away with his partner. Dawn breathed a sigh of relief, glad the men were apparently so confident the three of them couldn't get loose that they weren't going to check their prisoners' bonds directly from here on. Perhaps it was better, then, that she hadn't gotten Bobbie's seatbelt unbuckled right away; if they'd found her loose, Bobbie, and, perhaps, all three of them, might have suffered serious consequences. Still, the sooner they were free, the better.
She waited until the men vanished from sight in the rearview mirror before shifting her body back around again towards Bobbie and her seatbelt buckle. Time was starting to be of the essence now, she knew all too well, so the sooner they were able to implement whatever plan Bobbie had, the better. It seemed imminently clear from their kidnappers' words that Christy's life was even now in the gravest danger...
Christy had by now lost all her self-control. Sobbing loudly and shrieking at the top of her lungs into her gag in utter terror, she threw herself wildly against her bonds in a blind panic. Her chair jerked all over the floor in all directions, somehow still staying under the sheet covering her and briefly becoming airborne from the force of her struggles every few feet. Christy no longer cared; she was too overcome with terror to care. Her muscles burned and ached from the supreme effort, which did not so far seem to be loosening any of her ropes in the slightest, and her throat was now utterly sore from her continued screaming into her gag, but she forced herself to keep going; she simply had to if she wanted to live...
"Please, please, please!" she begged hysterically in her mind, hurling her body around in the chair with utter reckless abandon, "Please, God, give me the strength to break these ropes! I'm dead if I can't get out of here soon, I just know it! Please, God, help me...!"
She abruptly threw herself a little too hard to the right, and her chair jumped off the ground again and kept going. Christy quickly tried to lean back towards the left, but it was too late; the chair tipped over and landed very hard on its side on the floor. Christy cried out in agony as she landed hard on her shoulder, which now felt like it had been dislocated. She gritted her teeth hard into the wad of cloth stuffed into her mouth behind the gag, trying to fight back the pain. This was all she needed, another injury to go with her sprained ankle and slash wounds. Part of her wouldn't have minded dying at the moment if that meant ending the terrible pain just coursing through her whole body...
On the plus side, though, the fall had dislodged the headphone from her right ear, and sounds could be heard again. Christy jerked her head against the floor until the headphones slipped completely off. Relieved to no longer be deaf, she listened for any clues to her location. Only the sound of the wind rustling through the trees could be heard, though, so Christy was still at a loss as to where she was. So the next step, she knew, was to get out from under the sheet, which still lay partially crumpled over her, and get her blindfold off; if she couldn't get loose, she at least wanted her sight back along with her hearing. Slowly, so as not to further injure her shoulder, Christy tried to roll her chair backwards and out from under the rest of the sheet...
...when sharp footsteps could be heard stomping towards her location from outside. A key could be heard turning in a padlock, and the wooden door creaked open. "Ah, been busy lately have we?" Leo told her coldly, "Well Christina, I thought we had an agreement you wouldn't act up on us? So, that means I've got to teach you a little lesson about misbehaving."
"No, please, don't, don't do anything!" Christy begged him mentally. Her prayers went unheeded; while the sheet was pulled completely off of her, her chair was roughly pulled back upright, and a barrage of slaps and blows delivered to her face, followed by her hair being pulled backwards hard. "MMMMM, MMMM MMMMM, MMMMMFFFF, MMMM MMMMFFF MMMMMMM, MMMMMMMFFFF!" she screamed muffledly for him to stop. Leo's hands closed on her throat instead. She gasped frantically for air as he tightened his grip, her head beginning to spin. "Please, God," she begged the Almighty again in her mind for any assistance at all, "don't let it end for me like this, please...!"
"You can't take this!?" he barked at her, nonetheless releasing his grip after she'd started whimpering in terror, "You're a real coward, you know that, Christina, just a weak little coward. Maybe I should just set off this dynamite now and put you out of your misery..."
"MMMMM, MMMFFFF, MMMMMMMM!" Christy screeched fearfully into her gag, trying frantically to jerk her chair backwards away from him. Her heart caught in her throat as she heard ominous beeping sounds rise up on her chest and legs; the explosives had come to life. "MMMMM, MMMMM, MMMMFFF MMMMFFF MMMMMMMM!" she pleaded hysterically for her life.
"They're armed now," he taunted her, hovering right over her, "All it would take is one click of this button here, and you'd be instantly blown apart. I really should just blow you up right now, Christina, for being a pain and a coward all in one. Is that really what you want?"
"MMMMMM, MMMMMM!" she shook her head wildly, whimpering in terror.
"No? I didn't think so. But are you going to behave and sit still from now on, Christina?" he pulled her hair back again, "If you don't sit perfectly still from now on, I'll set the dynamite off. This IS your last and only warning, Christina. So promise you'll be a good girl and won't move a single muscle from this moment forward?"
"MMMMMMMMMMMM!" Christy nodded sharply with a low whimper; anything to make him stop hurting her.
"OK, you'll live...for now," he told her, releasing her hair, "But just to be sure, I'm leaving the dynamite armed on you, so you have extra incentive to behave yourself from here on. And besides," she sensed him leaning close to her ear, where he whispered, "Confidentially, you're going to die anyway, Christina. We're going to blow you up after your parents pay your ransom; no point leaving you behind as a witness, even though we're leaving the country. So enjoy the moment; you have about a half hour left to live at most."
"MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM, MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!" a scream of carnal terror that was nonetheless heavily muffled by her gag to barely audible levels escaped Christy. One final slap, harsher than those before, crossed her face, stinging hard. Numb with utter terror, Christy started quivering fearfully in her chair as the headphones were pushed back over her ears, once again reducing the world around her to total silence, and the sheet was pulled completely back over her. So it was final now, she realized with terrible fear, she was going to be blown up in no more than thirty minutes-and they had planned to kill her anyway even if her parents had paid the ransom in full! She slumped forward and once again began crying like there was no tomorrow. She wanted to be brave, she'd fought hard to stay brave and optimistic all through her ordeal so far, but there was no way to be brave with death about to descend on her, and no way she could be saved from it. She knew it was only a matter of time now before, without warning, the dynamite would go off, and her life would be completely snuffed out at only fifteen, with no chance of preventing it...no chance at all...