"Your parents sent you to Lake Harmony because they love you."
"Excuse me. M y hands are numb."
"So?" replies the man driving the car. His name is Harry.
"Maybe you could loosen the handcuffs?" I ask.
"Sorry blue blood."
"If you're sorry then why don't you help me?"
"No can do." Harry wears a cowboy hat and speaks with a western accent. From my seat in the back of the dark car I can only see the silhouette of his shoulders and thick neck beneath the wide-brimmed hat. My hands, locked behind me for the past two hours, have gone numb. I feel nothing but tingling from my wrists down.
"Would you at least tell me where you're taking me?" I ask.
Harry doesn't answer. The car bounces and lurches through the dark. Except for the short stretch of dusty reddish dirt road illuminated by the headlights, it is as black as blindness outside. Rocks kicked up by the tires clank against the car's underside. The air-conditioning murmurs. Now and then sudsy spray splashes against the windshield, and the wipers wash away dust and splattered bug carcasses.
With my hands joined by the handcuffs in the small of my back, there is no way to get comfortable, no way to relieve the pressure that has cut off the circulation.
"When my parents hired you, did they know that physical abuse was part of the deal?" I ask.
From the movement of his head, I sense that Harry is looking at me in the rearview mirror, but his eyes are hidden in the shadow from the r im of his hat. "That was some spread we picked you up from, blue blood. What's your father's business that he can afford a place like that?"
Harry's been calling me blue blood ever since he and the woman riding shotgun took me against my will from my parents' house, drove me to the airport, and flew me to upstate New York.
"You really want to know what my father does? How about loosening these handcuffs and I'll tell you."
"Nice try, partner." Harry chuckles. The woman sitting beside h im turns to look over the seat at me. Her name is Rebecca, and she is younger than Harry. In the eight hours since they grabbed me, I've learned that Rebecca is new to the business of kidnapping for hire (Harry prefers you call h im a "transporter"). She has a pretty face and streaked blond hair with dark roots. But there is a hardness around her eyes and mouth that makes me think of someone older.
"Can you feel anything at all?" she asks.
"No. I'm worried I'll have permanent nerve damage or something."
In the dark car, she turns to Harry. "Couldn't you loosen them just a little?"
"Fat chance," Harry chuckles." Come on, sugarplum, you've been there. You know how it works. First rule is, don't believe a word these kids say. You loosen those cuffs, next he'll say he needs to relieve himself by the side of the road. Now how's he gonna do that with his hands cuffed behind him, right? So he swears on his mother's grave if you undo them he won't run. Next thing you know, you're chasing him through the woods cussing yourself for being such a fool."
Once again Rebecca glances over the seat at me. Even in the shadows I can sense her uncertainty.
"What does he mean, 'you've been there'?" I ask.
"I've been where you're going," she answers.
"Why?" I ask.
Before Rebecca can answer, Harry snaps, "That's none of your business, blue blood. I've heard enough out of you. Now shut it."
"One last thing," I tell him. "I really do have to go. You've been with me for the last eight hours, so you know I'm telling the truth. A n d I give you my word that I won't run."
"Ha! Now that is what we call manipulation," Harry says with just a hint of annoyance. "See how the moment he acts agreeable it makes you feel sympathetic toward him? Like he can't be such a bad kid, right? Giving you his word and all. Well, sugarplum, that's the first step toward h im trying to get you on his side."
Rebecca gives h im an astonished look, as if that is precisely what she's feeling.
"Never forget, these kids have had years of experience lying, manipulating, doing whatever it takes to get what they want," Harry counsels her. "That's why their parents hired us. That's why they're paying four grand a month to send h im where he's going."
Rebecca swivels her head and faces stiffly forward. I wonder if she feels angry or humiliated now that Harry has demonstrated how easy it is to fall under the spell of my "evil" ways.
In silence we bump down the narrow dirt road. I yawn and wish I could stretch. It was after midnight when we landed at the airport in Utica. Now it must be close to three A.M.
"How much longer?" I ask.
Neither Harry nor Rebecca answers. Rocks bang against the undercarriage of the car. The potholes are getting bigger, and we toss and heave like a boat on rough seas.
"So I guess when I said I really did have to go to the bathroom, you didn't believe me."
My words are met with silence.
"Or maybe you'll say, ' Go right ahead, it's not your car, why should you care?'"
Harry reaches up and adjusts the rearview mirror. This time our eyes meet. "I told you to shut it, blue blood." His voice drops ominously with the implicit threat or else. After a few more minutes he veers onto another dirt road. In the distance, through the dusty windshield, I can see dim lights, which gradually grow brighter. We stop before a tall chain-link fence topped with loops of razor wire. A man steps out of a small white booth and shines a flashlight into the car. Rebecca shields her eyes from the glare. I have to turn my face. The man seems to recognize Harry. He unlocks the gate and we drive through, past a dark basketball court and a bare flagpole, and pull into a gravel parking lot.
"Here we are." Harry jumps out of the car with unexpected energy after the long ride. He comes around to my door and pulls me out with a firm grip. After sitting in that awkward position for so long, my legs and back are stiff, and I straighten up unsteadily. But I also feel a brief wave of relief, as standing temporarily takes the excruciating pressure off my bladder, which has felt near bursting for at least half an hour. I shake out my legs and glance around.
"Trust me, blue blood, don't be thinking about running," Harry warns. "Even if you got through the fence, there's nothing but forest out there. You're so far away from civilization, y o u ' l l starve before you see another human being."
The air is cool and smells like pine. The chatter of crickets is almost as loud as traffic on a city street. In the dark I can make out four or five buildings, none more than two stories tall.
Then the crickets go silent.
And I hear screaming.
Copyright © 2007 by Todd Strasser