Waking up bound and gagged in the middle of the forest, Carlos needs to figure out the dangerous situation he finds himself in and try to understand his bizarre kidnapper in time to prevent a murder. Or more maybe than one. He’s not the only person lying in the little clearing. But the forest itself seems to be working against him, bending to his abductor’s commands.
Carlos woke in darkness, the taste of dryer sheets coating his mouth.
And not just the taste. His cheeks bulged and he couldn’t move his tongue much. Something pressed into the corners of his lips, adding to the pressure and forcing him to breathe through his nose. That meant the darkness had to be a blindfold and a little twisting and pulling led him to conclude duct tape surrounded his wrists and ankles.
He remembered the Laundromat, dumping clothes from the washer into the dryer and reaching into his pocket for quarters. A loud crash. A scream. Then . . . then waking up blindfolded, bound, and gagged with a mouth full of paper fabric softener.
Trying to suck in enough oxygen to jumpstart his brain, Carlos shook his head to get the sound of waves out of his ears. They wouldn’t go away, and he eventually had to decide they might be real and not far from his resting spot.READ MORE
Wind. He could definitely feel wind on the right side of his face, and the surface under the back of his head had some grit and give to it, so unless someone had gone to a lot of trouble to fake it, he was lying outside on the ground somewhere near the ocean.
Which didn’t make any sense. He lived two hours from the coast.
He’d been kidnapped. Why should anything make sense?
With his wrists crossed and far too much duct tape involved to turn one of them around—but at least they were in front of his body—he had a hard time hooking a thumb under the gag beside his ear. He had an even harder time sliding that thumb over far enough to make even a tiny gap he could start to press his bottom lip up and past. Sawing up and down, he worked the digit closer to the centre, feeling like he was using his thumb to rearrange his face instead of freeing the gag. He winced the first time a canine tooth bit into the inside of his lip. The third time, he tasted blood but didn’t stop.
A little pain, his step-father used to say, was a good thing. It let you know you were alive. A lot of pain might make you wish you weren’t, but the alternative was worse. Carlos had never found much use in the statement when he’d just smacked his thumb with a hammer, but it made a lot more sense now.
Most of his raw upper lip eventually fit underneath the gag. One after another, he freed the dryer sheets, counting a dozen before he’d emptied his mouth.
Then he started on the blindfold. Forcing it up over his eyebrows proved, if not easy, at least easier then moving the gag had been. Tiny shafts of sunlight squeezed through clusters of shadow to hammer into his left eye, the brief flash of pain forcing his eyes to squeeze shut, even as he slipped the blindfold over his right eyebrow and off his head.
Two major accomplishments down, he let himself relax, his body not quite conforming to the ground under it. Slowly, he began let a little light past his eyelids. Details took sporadic shape, not that there were many of them. Green and brown, needles and cedar leaves—some waving gently in the wind, some weaving a thick net above him, some strange scraggly fingers clawing at the air. A small break in the foliage to his left let the sun warm that side of his face a little, but the cool spring wind still forced a shiver through him as shadows rippled across the ground.
Trying to steer his mind to something positive in the situation, Carlos exhaled hard through almost closed lips, enjoying the feel of the air puffing them away from his teeth. Until now, he’d never realized just how much he took breathing freely for granted. It was nice, even if he could still taste the dryer sheets.
Someone moaned to his right, and Carlos tried to roll away from the sound even as he turned to look. A dark-haired woman lay with her back to him, a yard or so away. With both arms in front of her, he couldn’t see her wrists, but her ankles were crossed and coated with enough duct tape to choke an elephant, and she lay in a tangle of scraggly grass and weeds. Thinking about the itching and scratching in her future, Carlos didn’t feel so bad about his dirt mattress.
Flopping around a little, he tried to crane his neck to see more of his surroundings, but the effort didn’t reveal anyone else, and he couldn’t decide if that made him feel better or worse. After a moment’s reflection, he decided on worse, but couldn’t quite figure out why.
It took Carlos five tries to lurch into a seated position, due to some combination of his ankles being crossed and the squishiness of his middle area, but he didn’t think about it too closely. Breathing heavily, he held out his arms to keep balance and dug in with his heels, pushing himself backward a few inches at a time until he managed to lean against a thick cedar. The support was so welcome that he let himself slump against the yielding trunk, closing his eyes and revelling in the softness of the bark. Questions rolled through his head, but with a little effort, he pushed them all aside. They could wait. They could all wait. The only two important things were getting himself free and then getting out of here, wherever here was.
He opened his eyes to a man’s face, eyes and grin wider than anyone’s should be, just close enough to his own to make focusing hard. “Good afternoon, brother. I see you’re awake and ready to participate in the celebration. A little early, but that’s okay. It’ll give us time to catch up, or it would, if I had the time to spare, but I have to get things ready for our company.”
Carlos opened his mouth, shut it again, and changed his mind. “Um . . . what?”
The man straightened, his grin not shrinking at all, and glanced toward the woman. “Don’t worry too much about it. Not yet. It’s been so long, forever really, and we really should catch up a little, but maybe you’re not ready. She definitely isn’t.” He turned around and started to walk back into the forest.
“Wait! What do you want? Why are we even here?”
Without looking back, the pale man waved over his shoulder. “Nothing to worry about yet. Just relax. The bait should always be fresh and well rested.” Branches seemed to reach out for the man as he spoke over his shoulder. “Happy birthday, by the way. Make sure you tell her that if I’m not back.”
Carlos gaped as the forest swallowed the man, his brain still trying to unpack everything from those few short statements. Far too much of it depended on information Carlos just didn’t have, so he latched onto the one thing that made any sense at all: it was his birthday. And more, it was the woman’s birthday, too. That was too much of a creepy coincidence, made worse by their captor—whoever he was—knowing it.