"Team B, report in," buzzed the FBI scanner that had been set up and activated on the main desk inside the ranger's office
"Team B signing on, another unit's spokesman responded, "No sign of missing girls at all, no clues to their whereabouts. Moving in to take up search in Section Four."
"Roger that, execute move to Section Four," the first agent concurred before signing off with a burst of static. Over in the corner with the Bryants, Jonathan stared glumly out the window, not feeling much warmed by the sun shining in. Every minute that went by increased the chance ever so slightly that Christy might already be dead...
The ranger station door swung open. "Morning, Mr. and Mrs. Bryant," another agent greeted them, looking somewhat relieved as he came inside, "I just want you to know, we may have a lead on who might have abducted your daughter."
"You do?" Mr. Bryant leaned completely upright, "Who, then!?"
"We have a pair of suspects known to have operated around this area: Vinnie Corlack and Harvey White. They escaped from Cederquist Maximum Security Prisoner a few days ago, where they were serving life terms for first degree murder, kidnapping, and assault and battery."
"Ouch," Mr. Bryant grimaced hard at the thought of such men holding his daughter hostage, "And you're sure they may have come this way?"
"It's a reasonable theory given much of their crimes took place within a twenty mile radius of this park; we never found their hideout, but we think it may have been deep in the woods around here. They often worked with a third suspect, one Leo Gravelson, whom we never caught; some of us suspect they might have been going to meet up with him after they escaped."
"Only it looks like Christy somehow got in their way, if it is them," Mrs. Bryant shook her head, fear choking her entire face, "The people these men kidnapped, did they...were they returned safely?"
"I'm sorry to say not," the agent shook his own head sadly in turn, "A banker they grabbed to use as a pawn to steal from his bank was never found; the son of a judge that prosecuted White early in his career was found in a ditch without a head. So your daughter's life could be in serious, serious danger if these are indeed the men who kidnapped her, Mrs. Bryant."
Both Bryants lowered their heads in fear and despair. "Well, anyway, we're just about done getting the ransom money together, so if you two can come along with us, we'll put the finishing touches on it," the agent said quickly, trying to sound upbeat.
"And you're sure this is going to work?" Mr. Bryant sounded hesitant.
The tracking device is waterproof and tamper-proof, and we've hidden it where they won't find it," the agent assured him.
"I hope you're right," Mr. Bryant told him firmly, "We just want Christy back, alive and unharmed. Let's go, dear." He turned back before he left the ranger station. "Thank you for being here, Jonathan; you helped make this a little more bearable for us," he told the boy in parting.
"Glad to have helped, sir," Jonathan stared out the window, watching the Bryants get into the agent's car and drive off. He then glanced back up at the mountain. The description of Christy's likely kidnappers chilled his spine; they sounded like the worst kind of men. And that opened the chilling possibility Christy might not survive to the drop-off point...
Deep down in his heart, he made the decision: he'd help the authorities find her before it was too late-albeit without them knowing it. And, he thought to himself as he bustled out the door, he knew a few off-trail shortcuts the authorities might not have tried yet that might lead to Christy...
"This time I'll get it," Dawn thought hard mentally, steeling her legs for another kick at the buckle to Bobbie's seatbelt. She'd had to twist so far to the right in her seat by now that her own seatbelt was starting to hurt her ribs, but it had paid off: her last few kicks had clanked off the edge of Bobbie's seatbelt's release button (although Bobbie had unintentionally taken a few more kicks in the process). The next kick would probably hit the target if she was spot-on with it...
"Concentrate," she told herself firmly, blocking out her watch, which was now beeping nine o'clock behind her back, "It's all you, Kersey, you can do this, and..."
She swung a hard kick that connected dead center with the release button. With a loud click, Bobbie's seatbelt popped free, prompting both Bobbie and Jackie to cry out in delight. Dawn nodded in satisfaction; she'd done her job well in the end.
She watched as Bobbie now started jerking her body hard to the right repeatedly. This in turn started flinging her seatbelt back around the passenger seat over and over again. Bobbie continued her jerking until the seatbelt had completely unwound itself from around her body and settled back into its usual off position against the side of the van. Bobbie shakily stood up on her bound feet and glanced out the passenger window. Nodding in satisfaction, she stumbled over towards the driver's side of the van, wobbling in the process and tumbling into Dawn's lap. "Wttt rrrrrr oooooo oooonnn, Obbbbeeeee?" Dawn mumbled through her gag, grimacing as her friend climbed halfway over her to peer out the driver's side window.
"Chhsst chhkknnn ttttttt mmmmm kkkkkkssstt zzzzzz kllrrrrrrr, Aaaaahn," Bobbie mumbled back through her own gag at the blonde. Nodding in satisfaction again upon noting that no one was visible outside, she turned back to Dawn and enunciated, "Olllltt tttttttt, Aaaaahn; IIIIII vvvvvv ttttttt gggtttt zzzzz gggggggg ffffffff ffffrrrr nnnneeeenngggg llllzzzz."
"Uuhhh!?" Dawn frowned, still unable to understand a word Bobbie was saying. She watched intently, though, as the brunette dropped to her knees and crawled across the floor towards the passenger side door. Once she reached it, she began maneuvering her head around, trying to get the edge of the window crank underneath her gag, Dawn noted. Minutes passed by agonizingly as Bobbie angled around for the best position, sending her cap tumbling off her head to the floor in the process. Finally, after what had seemed like an eternity, she succeeded in hooking the crank underneath the bottom of her gag. Bobbie took a deep breath, then jerked backwards and tilted her head back as far as it would go. Caught firmly on the crank, the cloth stretched away from her lips with a low swishing sound, then slipped down under her chin once her head went backwards. Bobbie let out a loud gasp of delight. "Oh thank God, finally, rid of that horrible thing," she breathed happily, her voice a weak croak from screaming into the gag all night long, "OK, now for these ropes..."
She turned her back to the door and grasped hold of the window crank. Dawn watched her friend start rolling the window down. When Bobbie had it about halfway lowered, she climbed up onto the passenger seat, rolled onto her back, and kicked as hard as she could at the window. This time, since she was at a direct angle to the window, it shattered loudly on the fourth kick. Her face now flush with excitement, Bobbie squirmed over to the broken window and started rubbing the ropes binding her hands over the jagged glass. Dawn's spirits soared; it looked like they were finally about to get out of this mess. "Hurry, Bobbie, hurry, before they come back and check on us again!" she mentally urged her friend on.
With a loud snap, Bobbie's wrists broke free after about a minute of rubbing. "Thank God," she gushed with excitement, untying her feet rapidly, then picking up her cap from the floor and plopping it back on her head, "I was starting to think I'd never be free again. OK, Dawn, Jackie, let me get your gags off first; I can only guess how badly you want to be rid of them too."
She rushed over to the driver's seat and yanked Dawn's gag off with one quick tug. Dawn took deep breaths of air, ecstatic to finally have her mouth free of the thick cloth. She turned and watched Bobbie pull off Jackie's gag behind her. "Oh thank you so much, Bobbie," Jackie happily commended her, "Hurry, get them loose," she added as Bobbie untied her arms from the sides of the van, "My arms lost circulation being stuck like that all this time."
She waved her arms around in circles once they were free to get the blood flowing again before squirming off her knees into a sitting position to untie her feet. Bobbie, meanwhile, walked over to Dawn, unbuckled the driver's side seatbelt, and unwound it from around her friend's body. "Thanks, Dawn; I couldn't have gotten loose without you," she commended the blonde with a grateful smile.
"Glad to help, Bobbie," Dawn's voice was hoarse as well, although not as hoarse as Bobbie's since she hadn't been screaming as much during their ordeal. She wobbled as she stood up and stretched; her back had gotten stiff from sitting in the van's seat all night. "Now I hope you've got an idea where to find Christy, Bobbie?" she turned her back to her friend so Bobbie could untie her hands.
"Unfortunately, not immediately, Dawn," Bobbie confessed, bending down to free Dawn's feet once the blonde's hands were loose, "It sure doesn't help those guys didn't give a single clue where she was when they stopped in to check on us."
"None of this looks familiar around here either," Dawn glanced out the driver's side window, "We must be well off the trail. Oh well, I'm sure we'll find something if we just look hard enough. Actually," she realized, "since they walked from that way to check on us," she pointed out towards the rear of the van, "I'm wondering if Christy's being held prisoner somewhere in that direction."
"It might be, Dawn," Bobbie was nodding, "Let's go that way first once we're out of here."
"Good," Dawn pulled up the driver's side door's lock and reached for the door handle...
"Uh oh!" Jackie suddenly exclaimed. Dawn turned to see her friend looking out the back windows of the van...and very clearly, two familiar figures were approaching in the distance. "They're back to check on us again," Jackie looked panicked, "If they see we're loose...!"
"Then unfortunately, we've only got one option," Bobbie looked disappointed. She climbed in the back of the van, "Kneel down and put your gag back on, Jackie."
"Are you crazy!?" Jackie protested indignantly.
"It's the only way, Jackie; if they think we're still tied up..."
"N-O," Jackie folded her arms across her chest defiantly, "I refuse to have that gag over my mouth any longer, and that's absolutely final, Bobbie McMillan!"
"Then I guess I have no choice; Dawn?" Bobbie looked at her friend for help. Dawn sighed in resignation. "There's no other way?" she asked Bobbie.
"Dawn, don't you dare take her side; I WILL NOT be tied up again, period!" Jackie warned her.
"Sorry, Jackie," Dawn could see the figure in the window getting closer. In a flash, she and Bobbie seized Jackie's arms and dragged her forward to the spot where she'd been kneeling for much of the night. "What are you doing!?" Jackie protested at the top of her lungs, struggling like crazy. "Let go of me...!"
"I'm sorry, Jackie, but we have to do this," Dawn rationalized, helping Bobbie push Jackie back down into a kneeling position and retie her arms to the sides of the van,
"Stop it, you two!" Jackie continued screeching, "I said I don't want...mmmmmmm, tkkkkk zzzzzz ggggggg ffffff eeeeeeee, Obbbbeeeeee!"
"Will you please shut up, Jackie!?" Bobbie pleaded with her, pulling the gag back over the other brunette's mouth and tying it back in place, "If they hear you screaming, this won't work at all, OK!?"
Her eyes flashing with rage, Jackie continued shouting muffled words at her friends through the gag. "Good, keep that up, Jackie; that'll look natural," Dawn instructed her. She took another glance out the van's back windows. The figures were getting closer still; had they been close enough to hear Jackie's cries? "We do the same, I guess?" she asked Bobbie reluctantly.
"'Fraid so, Dawn; don't really want to, but if they're armed, it's for the better," Bobbie looked dismal as she retied her feet, "But keep your hands free; just hold them behind your back so they'll think they're still tied. We can slip out once he's gone. Just struggle hard and try and make it look realistic."
"Zzzznn wiiiii mmmmm IIIIII kkmmplltleee tttdd pppp, Obbbbbeee!?" Jackie shouted muffledly at her friend, rocking hard back and forth in place. Bobbie paid her no attention. She quickly tied her gag back over her mouth, wrapped her seatbelt back around the seat and buckled it back into place, then slipped her arms behind her back. Dawn hastily did the same, then started rocking hard back and forth in her seat and screaming into her gag as loud as she could just as the footsteps approached the driver's side door again. "Still going strong, huh?" she heard the fake ranger say at her through the window, "I'm surprised you girls have this much stamina. Oh well, it can't last forever, now can it?"
Dawn chose not to look at him, choosing to keep pretending to struggle and look panicked. Deep down, her heart was pounding. If he noticed that the ropes that had previously bound hers and Bobbie's wrists were now lying on the floor at their feet, or that the passenger window was shattered and there were visible rope strands stuck on the broken glass...or if she leaned too far forward and he noticed her hands were free...
She heard the crunching of additional footsteps approaching now. "Still good in there?" came a new man's voice.
"They look pretty secure to me," the fake ranger said, "They've been at it for hours; that one," he gestured at Bobbie in the passenger seat, who was perhaps taking her performance a little too far and throwing herself around too wildly in her seat, "is almost superhuman if you ask me; she's been at it that wildly all night."
"She'll wear down in the end," Dawn saw the profile of the man's face in the window as he looked in to examine his presumed prisoners, but he was too far back for her to make out any features definitively. She tried to look terrified, widening her eyes fearfully at him, hoping that would help the charade too. "Scared? You should be scared, Miss Kersey; real scared," he taunted her coldly.
"Should we go ahead and ransom these three as well like I suggested?" the fake ranger asked his cohort, "Since they're just as pretty as the Bryant girl, I'm sure they'll fetch..."
"With the money we're asking the Bryant girl's family to give us, one ransom should be enough right now," the other man said with a shake of his head, "Too many drops might give us away, and I want us away from here after we get the money. As for them," Dawn noticed him looking right at her again, "For starters, you're coming with us as a hostage for sure once we're done with everything here, Miss Kersey. Since you're the prettiest of your friends, it makes sense to bring you with us; it's less likely the cops would want to endanger you at all."
There was an indignant snort from Jackie, who looked insulted to be told she was less beautiful then her friends, especially since, as Dawn knew, Jackie had been having the most luck with boys in their quartet of friends to date. Deep down, she now felt genuinely scared; she didn't want to be dragged along God knew where as a permanent hostage if their ruse was discovered by the men and they were immobilized again. She valued her home and friends, and refused to be separated from them. "Come on, just leave, you two!" she snarled mentally at her captors, "Let us get out of here!"
"OK then, what about the brunettes?" the fake ranger pointed at Bobbie and Jackie in turn.
"No point in taking them all as hostages," the other man shook his head, "Two's probably sufficient, the Kersey girl and one brunette. The other we kill."
"Which one dies, then, Miss McMillan or Miss Gregory?" the ranger asked as Jackie screeched in terror into her gag and rocked wildly back and forth in genuine panic.
"Haven't decided yet. Besides, the suspense works wonders for the mind," he smiled sadistically at Jackie, then at Bobbie, "Not knowing which of you will live and which will die, it adds a nice bit of suspense, doesn't it, Barbara, Jacqueline?"
He glanced at his watch. "Well, ladies, we've got some business to take care of with your friend Christina Bryant right now; her family's got our retirement fund coming in," he told the girls, "Next time we meet, we'll be taking off with the two of you who're lucky enough to live past today. Enjoy yourselves in there till then."
Laughing, the two of them walked out of sight. Dawn leaned back in her seat, trying to keep calm. She glanced at the rearview mirror, watching the men disappear from sight. Soon, they were specks on the horizon again. "Kkkmmmmm nnnnnn, kkkmmmmm nnnnnnn, nnnnnnnttttiiiiii mmmmmmmm, Aaaaahnnn, Obbbeeee!" Jackie protested indignantly at the two of them, leaning forward with anger in her eyes again, "Zzzzrrrr gggnnnnnn nnnnnnnnnn, dmmmm ttttt, nnnnnnnn nnnntiiii mmmmmmmm!"
"Nnntttt nnntttllll rrrrrrr rrrrrrr zzzzaaa nnnntttt kkkmmmm bkkkkk, Akkeeeee," Dawn turned around and mumbled back firmly; they had to know for sure their kidnappers wouldn't be returning before they could make the break for it. She watched the rearview mirror intently for five minutes after the men had disappeared from sight before turning toward Bobbie for affirmation. Bobbie, who'd been watching her own rearview mirror, nodded at her. The two of them rapidly threw their bonds off once more and turned to help Jackie. "I'll kill you two!" Jackie shouted at them once her gag was off again, "I told you two not to tie me up again, but did you care to...!?"
"Hey, it worked, Jackie, don't knock it," Dawn told her firmly. "Should we just leave her here till she calms down?" she asked Bobbie.
"Don't you dare!" Jackie warned them.
"Only kidding, Jackie; of course we're letting you go," Dawn assured her, "Can't you take a joke anymore?"
"Not when it involves my freedom, Dawn," Jackie stood up after her friends had untied her and waved her arms around again, "Let's just get out of here and find Christy."
"Agreed," Dawn opened the driver's side door and stepped outside into the warm afternoon sun. She breathed a happy sigh. Freedom. It had never felt so good before in her life. She grabbed hold of her gag, which was still hanging limply around her neck, pulled it over her head, and tossed it to the ground, glad to be rid of it for good. "See if we still have our cell phones," she told her friends as they climbed out of the van, backpacks in hand, "Maybe if we have enough reception..."
"No dice, Dawn, they must have taken them when they locked us in this van; Jackie and I just checked," Bobbie shook her head glumly.
"Maybe one of us should go for help on our own, then," Jackie argued, also pulling the cloth she'd been gagged with over her head and throwing it away, followed a moment later by Bobbie, "If they're out looking for Christy now, maybe they're out looking for us; we could..."
"If we knew exactly where we were, Jackie, maybe I'd say yes, but since we don't, I'd advise sticking together until we do," Bobbie shook her head again, "At least, though, we can figure out which direction we will be going once we follow those guys."
She started rummaging around in her backpack until she found a compass. "Looks like almost due north," she proclaimed, aiming the compass through the shrubbery before them, "That should bring us fairly close to Cooper Lake, I suppose."
"All right, like I said, since they came to check on us from this way," Dawn pointed straight ahead into the woods from where she stood at the rear of the van, "I think we'll find Christy that way too. Come on, and let's be careful; the last thing we want is to run right into those guys and end up tied back up again or worse."
She took her own backpack from Jackie and slipped it back on, then bustled off in the direction their kidnappers had gone a few minutes ago, going fast enough that Jackie and Bobbie had to hurry to keep up with her. Dawn felt she had to hurry; what the men had said about "taking care" of Christy made her blood shiver. If anything happened to Christy, and she was too late to stop it...
In about five minutes, the three of them crested a small hill. "Down there," Dawn pointed to a low, dilapidated cabin among the trees, with an equally broken down shed next to it. "You suppose Christy's in either of them?" she asked her friends.
"One way to find out," Bobbie nodded knowingly, "But let's make sure those men aren't around first."
There was, however, no sign of any human activity around the cabin or shed-or anywhere else for that matter. The girls cautiously galloped down the hill towards the buildings. "Easy to see why they'd choose hiding out here, if this is their hideout," Bobbie commented, staring at the cabin, "Under these trees, this deep in the woods, they'd be hard to..."
"Hey," Jackie held up her hand, looking startled, "Sounds like something's in that shed..."
Dawn could hear it too: a low, very muffled mumbling from inside the shed, almost like someone sobbing into a sponge. She glanced around the shed, but it had no windows. Realizing there was another way to see inside, she rushed up to the door, bent down, and glanced through the keyhole. She jumped and gasped, seeing a large white mass, looking very much like a ghost, shifting around inside. Then she noticed wooden chair legs-and what looked very much like the tips of a pair of sneakers-peeking out of the bottom of the "ghost." Her heart leaped; might they have just found...?
"Christy?" she called at the white mass. It made no gesture that it had heard her-yet something deep down was telling her this might be it. "Christy?" she called loudly at it again. Still no response from whoever was under the sheet. Without a word, she tugged hard on the door. It didn't budge. "Locked, Dawn," Bobbie said in her ear, pointing to the large padlock on the door, "But we can get that off even without the key."
Dawn followed her friend's gaze to a large rock laying nearby. "Right. Let me," she told Bobbie, hustling over and hefting the rock. She started slamming it down hard on the lock, which shattered on the sixth blow. Dawn thrust the door open and rushed inside ahead of her friends. "Christy, it's me, Dawn, is that you?" she asked the sheet-covered figure before her. It kept making muffled, animal-like sobs, and did nothing to acknowledge her, but Dawn had a feeling the quest for her friend was over. She seized the sheet and yanked it away. "Oh God, Christy, what did they do to you!?" she gasped in shock to see her best friend before her-tied to a chair, blindfolded, gagged, headphones over her ears, and with explosives taped to her chest and legs.
"MMMMMMMM, MMMMMMMM, MMMMMMFFFF MMMMMMMMMMFFFFFFF MMMMMMMMMMMMM!" Christy screeched in pure terror into her gag and frantically tried to jerk her chair backwards in a blind panic away from Dawn, apparently thinking she was someone else. Dawn seized the headphones covering Christy's ears and tossed them aside. "Christy, it's me, Dawn," she put a hand on Christy's shoulder, "Don't panic, it's just me."
Christy stopped squirming and screaming at the sound of her friend's voice. "I'm here with Bobbie and Jackie, Christy; you're safe now," Dawn hugged her heaving and sobbing friend, "We'll get you out of this in a second."
She seized hold of Christy's gag and pulled it off her lips, then yanked the wad of cloth out of her mouth. Christy gasped hoarsely, taking deep breaths. Her eyes were a mess of tears when Dawn pulled off her blindfold next. She blinked hard at her friend, her eyes very slowly readjusting to light. "Dawn," her voice was even more hoarse than Dawn's and Bobbie's combined, "Oh bless you for finding me...these men kidnapped me after I got lost...they've been holding me for ransom...they told my parents they'd kill me if they didn't pay them, but they were going to kill me anyway...get this dynamite off me; they can blow me up from far away, they said...!"
"It's all right, Christy, we're here now. We'll have you loose in a minute. You guys get her ropes; I'll take care of all this dynamite," Dawn told Bobbie and Jackie. She gingerly started pulling the tape holding the dynamite in place away as the two brunettes begun untying Christy. "Where am I?" Christy glanced around the shed, "How far am I from...?"
"We don't have any clue exactly where we are either, Christy," Bobbie admitted to her friend, pulling the ropes around Christy's knees loose and tossing them aside, "They kidnapped us too when they found us looking for you back by the cave we found your backpack in. They had us bound and gagged like you in an old van not far from here; we just managed to get loose not that long ago, and we came this way and found you."
"We were terrified to be kidnapped and tied up too, Christy, so don't feel upset," Jackie added, putting a sympathetic hand on Christy's shoulder as her friend sniffed loudly. She glanced furiously at the explosives, which Dawn had stacked on the floor next to the chair. "I can't believe they'd be cruel enough to put that stuff on you, Christy."
"You won't believe some of the things they did to me, Jackie; it was terrible. You have no idea how terrified I've been...God, I've never been so scared in my whole life...!" Christy started crying hard again.
"It's OK, Christy, please don't cry," Jackie gave her friend a warm hug, "We're all here for you now, and we're going to get you safely out of here, so you don't have to cry anymore, OK?"
"OK," Christy took a deep sniff and wiped at her eyes with her now free hands. Jackie hugged her once more in sympathy, then bent down and untied the last set of ropes around Christy's ankles, "There, you're free now, Christy. Let me help you up here."
She took Christy's left arm, while Dawn took her right, and the two of them gently helped their friend up. Christy wobbled on unsteady legs, wincing on her injured ankle. "You guys'll have to help me; I can't walk on my own. My ankle hurts too much from spraining it earlier," she admitted, grimacing from the pain.
"We'll give you whatever help you need, Christy," Dawn assured her, pulling the cloths Christy had been gagged and blindfolded with over her friend's head and tossing them to the floor. She and Jackie gingerly helped Christy out of the shed. "Which way now?" Christy looked around at the unfamiliar territory.
"Cooper Lake's to the right, I'm assuming," Bobbie pointed to the right, "Once we reach there, we can hail down a chopper or any..."
Without warning, there came the terrifying crack of a shotgun not far from where the four of them were standing. A bullet slammed hard into the nearest tree. "Hold it right there, all of you!" shouted Leo, having appeared without warning from behind the cabin, shotgun raised, "Don't move!"
"RUN!" Bobbie's scream echoed just as loud as the shot had been. She burst into a full run into the bushes, the others straining to keep up behind her as another shot rang out. Christy's heart beat faster than ever before as she tried to keep her legs going as fast as Dawn's and Jackie's. They may have gotten free now, but the four of them weren't out of the woods yet by any stretch of the imagination...