Authors: Jeff Strand
I STOOD there for a couple of minutes, just feeling sorry for myself. Roger and the others had it worse, undoubtedly, but after all I’d been through I deserved a bit of self-pity.
Then there was a sudden light to my right. I spun around and saw a flare on the far end, by the fence. The figure was much too far away to identify, but it was waving both hands over its head.
Who the hell...?
I was still concerned about leaving footprints, but it wasn’t worth worrying about at this point. I began to run toward the figure, as well as I could through two feet of snow.
As I got closer, I saw that it was Thomas.
He was wearing a parka and earmuffs, but as I ran up to the fence I could see that he had a huge gash over one eye, and his face was bright red. He’d been out here a while.
“Andrew! I can’t believe it!”
“How did you find me?” I asked, but I knew the answer before I even finished saying it. It wasn’t at all surprising that somebody so concerned about being bugged would have the resources to do it himself.
“I bugged both of you,” he said, slurring his words just a bit, no doubt because his face was numb. “On your shoes. Where’s Roger, is he all right?”
“Yeah. At least I think so. They would’ve told me if they did anything to him. They think I’m the Headhunter.”
“No.” I gave him a thirty-second condensed version of the story.
“That’s incredible. I’ve been staking out this place for the past two hours. I could hardly believe it when I noticed you coming outside through my binoculars.”
“Yeah, well, seeing you was a nice surprise, too. But please tell me you’ve contacted the police. They know you’re here, right?”
Thomas shifted a bit, looking somewhat uncomfortable.
“There wasn’t time.”
“Oh, that is bullshit!” If there weren’t an electrified fence between us, I would’ve punched him. “So tell me, did you intend for things to work out the way they did? You meant for them to take Roger and I away so you could follow us, didn’t you? Where did you go after you got stabbed?”
“I swear, I didn’t lie to you. At least not after I lied about having to go inside the building. I chased the man for a few blocks and then I had a dizzy spell and passed out. I woke up to a pair of prostitutes trying to steal my jacket. But I got here as quickly as I possibly could.”
“Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but why didn’t you
“I needed to investigate the situation beforehand.”
“Look, I don’t know what your frame of mind is, but it appears to me that you want to be some big-shot hero, and that’s not what’s gonna get us out of here! I’m locked outside the house, I’ll be murdered or worse as soon as they find me, and they may very well execute all of the prisoners if they think somebody is on to them. So it would be really nice to have the cops or the military or the Justice League of America around here to save the day!”
“I understand that,” Thomas said. “But there’s a problem. I’m not used to driving in these conditions and my car went off the side of the road about two miles back. I had to walk here.”
I squeezed my eyes shut in frustration. “You have a cell phone, right?”
“What does that mean?”
“I’ve got one, but the battery died. I thought I’d recharged it, but I’ve had a lot on my mind recently, as I’m sure you can understand, and—”
“Do you have a gun?” I interrupted.
“Do you have bullets for this gun?”
“Sarcasm isn’t necessary. Yes.”
“Good. Give it to me.”
He shook his head. “I have a more effective plan. I’ll pretend to be a stranded motorist.”
“It won’t work. They’ll kill you.”
“You don’t know that. I just need to get over the fence.”
“Have you tried the front gate?”
“Yes. It’s the only part that’s not electrified, but the bars are too narrow to squeeze through, and too slippery to climb.”
“Maybe you could climb one of the trees and jump over,” I suggested. “Even though you’d probably break your leg.”
“I tried that. I shouldn’t have tried to climb with mittens. I lost my balance, bashed my face into a branch,” he pointed to the gash above his eye, “and fell. I can’t tell because it’s so numb from the cold anyway, but I think I broke my foot.”
I sighed. “How are you possibly going to get over the fence with a broken foot?”
“I’m not certain. I’ll figure something out. And even if I can’t, if I stand by the front gate they’re bound to see me.”
“Not necessarily. And if they do, it’ll be after you’ve frozen to death.”
“I’ll be fine.”
I leaned my face closer to the fence. “Just give me the gun, Thomas. There are only five of them. If I can catch them off-guard, I might be able to take them out.”
“No, I’ll get in there. I promise.”
“Thomas, I’ll make sure you get your share of the goddamn glory! This is no time to be a hero! Now give me the gun!”
“You don’t have experience with guns. I do. Trust me, I’ll get you out of there. I promise I’ll get you out of there.”
“Your hands are going to be frostbitten! You’ll barely be able to hold the gun, let alone shoot it accurately!”
“Andrew, I came here to do a job, and I’m going to do it.”
“So, what, you essentially called me over here to say that you don’t want my help? Me, the guy who’s on the inside, who they all think is one of them. How can you possibly be so stubborn?”
“No, I didn’t say that I don’t want your help. I want all the information you can provide.”
“What information do you need if your big plan is to pretend you’re a crippled, stranded motorist and start shooting?”
“I need the layout of the place, where the kidnapped people are being held, that type of knowledge.”
“I don’t see how that’s going to...” I trailed off, and then decided it wasn’t worth arguing. I told him what I knew, which wasn’t much.
“Do you think you can arrange to be with them when they answer the doorbell, or at least when they go outside?” he asked.
“I’m supposed to be locked in the bedroom at this very minute. So no, I can’t promise you that.”
“Why are they locking you in the bedroom if they think you’re the Headhunter?”
“They’re not big on trust. Listen, why don’t you try to get over the fence right now? If by some miracle I can get back inside, we can find the prisoners, then pick off the bad guys when they show up.”
“How did you get locked out?”
“I have no idea! The card stopped working!”
“So it’s an electronic lock?”
“Yeah.” I held up the card for him to inspect.
“I had my tracking device on when you came out,” he said. “Maybe it was interfering with the access system.”
“Would it do that?”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing, but it’s possible, I suppose.”
“Is that tracking device good enough to pinpoint an exact location? Like, could we tell exactly where Roger is right now?”
Thomas shook his head. “No. It’s very general.”
“Then why did you have it on?”
“Because if they discovered the bug and destroyed it, I’d lose the signal. I’ve just been making periodic checks.”
“So you were just checking to see if we were still alive?”
“Well, your shoes, anyway.”
“I am so glad I met you. How about you start climbing a tree, okay?”
A couple of feeble attempts made it clear that there was no way Thomas was getting over that fence with a broken foot. As he landed on his back the second time, I almost fell to my knees. “Please, Thomas. Give me the gun.”
“I’ll make it over.”
“No, you won’t. Accept it.”
I’d been out here way too long already. Though Thomas could conceivably provide some assistance—maybe they
think he was a stranded motorist and be taken by surprise—I had to assume I was on my own again.
“If the card works this time, I’ll investigate the other building,” I said. “Try not to kill yourself.”
I waded back through the snow. The snowfall was getting heavier, so it would probably cover my tracks, but to help things out I kept pushing snow over them. It meant that the trip back to the door seemed to take forever, and by the time I got there my arms were completely numb and soaking wet, but if I was lucky things wouldn’t seem too out of place.
I had trouble even getting the pass card out of my pocket, but managed to wave it in front of the door to the metal building. Nothing.
I tried it again. A beep and a click.
The problem may have been interference, or it may have just been a system glitch, but either way, I was in!
IT DID NO good.
The first thing I encountered were two doors, one to the left and one to the right. Both of them had number pads instead of card readers. Keeping with my trend of self-delusional optimism, I tested the handles on each door.
I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t open.
I was soaking wet from the snow, which blew my cover story about just getting bored and going for a walk. I hadn’t found anything useful in the mansion so far, and they could check my room any minute.
As much as I hated to admit defeat, it was time to head back and hope that a different opportunity presented itself. Or that somehow, despite his maddening stubborn streak, Thomas came through for me.
SURPRISINGLY, I managed to get back to my room without incident, save for an easily retraced wrong turn. I stripped out of the wet clothes and wrung them out as best I could, and then draped them over the hot tub. They probably wouldn’t be dry before anyone showed up, but I’d just say that I’d taken Daniel’s advice and went straight for the cold shower, not bothering to get undressed. It was weak, I know, but I’m sure they thought I was the kind of guy who would do something like that.
I debated long and hard over what to do with Josie’s pass card. When she discovered it was missing, she’d know for certain it was in my room. I didn’t think that trying to deny it would go over very well, and I probably couldn’t hide it anywhere that they wouldn’t find it. Somewhere else in the house, perhaps, but they’d have me locked up with the other prisoners long before I could retrieve it.
No, as much as it pained me to give it up, I had to pretend I’d never found the card. I set it on the floor, under the bed but poking out enough that anyone walking into the room would be able to locate it easily. I’d have to find another way.
I took a quick hot shower, toweled off, and got in bed. I was absolutely exhausted, and wasn’t going to get anywhere if I started keeling over from lack of rest.
I fell asleep right away. It was a deep sleep, the kind I used to enjoy in study hall. My unconscious mind was generous enough to give me pleasant dreams out of deference to my conscious nightmare.
I AWOKE several hours later to a knocking at my door. It opened, and Josie stuck her head in.
“Rise and shine. You don’t want to miss the fun.”
I rolled over, groggily, and noticed that a fresh new set of clothes rested on the dresser, folded neatly. The old ones had been removed. I leaned over the side of the bed and saw that the card was gone. Since I wasn’t presently dead, I guessed that they didn’t think I’d noticed it.
I got up, stumbled into the bathroom, and took another shower. The hot water seemed to help a bit.
Then I jumped as if somebody had snapped a bullwhip right by my ear. Every last remnant of grogginess I felt vanished as I realized that I’d left the fax in my jeans pocket.
I WASN’T going to panic.
I wasn’t going to drop dead of a heart attack.
I was going to be fine. Perfectly fine.
I washed clothes with stuff in the pockets all the time. Almost every time I do laundry I wash some paper currency (this is but one reason Helen rarely asks me to do laundry). One time I ruined several of Helen’s favorite shirts by washing them with a pair of Kyle’s pants that had two full packs of bubble gum in the pockets.
They’d have no reason to check.
They probably weren’t even going to wash the jeans yet.
I probably wasn’t dead meat.
I shaved, got dressed, and paced around the room while I waited for somebody to show up. Five minutes later, Josie did.
“I really want to apologize,” I told her as we walked out of the room and down the hallway. “I was a total jerk last night.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. Her voice didn’t sound completely like I shouldn’t worry about it, but at least she was trying to be friendly.
We entered the dining room just as Daniel was stepping out of the kitchen, wearing a “Kiss the Chef” apron and holding a plate with an omelet on it, which he set in front of Stan. “Hi there!” he said. “I’m just making my world-famous ham and cheese omelets, without fingers this time, since the cannibal in our group has moved on to bigger and better things. Have a seat!”
I have to admit, it was an incredible ham and cheese omelet. If Daniel ever got bored with torturing and murdering he and Josie could open up a fantastic gourmet restaurant.
Conversation was relaxed, or at least as relaxed as it can be when you’re in a room with five sadistic killers. Well, kidnappers anyway. I had yet to witness a murder. And I hoped I hadn’t jinxed myself by thinking that.
There didn’t seem to be any hint that they’d found the note or noticed the tracks in the yard. And I wondered if perhaps Josie had been the one to bring me new clothes, had discovered her card under the bed in the process of delivering them, and hadn’t said anything to anyone for fear of pissing off Daniel. It was possible.
So where was Thomas?
Maybe dead under that same tree.
We finished our meal, and Daniel stood up. “All right, everyone, last night we had a successful Initiation, so now it’s time to let the games begin!”
“‘Bout time,” said Stan, breaking the hook off of a candy cane and popping the long end into his mouth.
Daniel ignored his comment. “And guess what we’re starting with?”
“Darts?” Mortimer asked, hopefully.
“Darts is correct! Let’s go!”
IT WAS STILL snowing as we stepped outside. I wanted to look over and see if there was any sign of my tracks, but I didn’t want anyone to follow my gaze. We entered the metal structure, and after Daniel punched in a code we went through the door to the right.
Daniel, wearing a lightweight leather jacket, broke into a jog, and the rest of us followed as we headed down a corridor past the gladiator ring. We passed through a crossway, and then he opened another door and we entered a large room.
An immense clear plastic cube took up most of it, about thirty feet square and ten feet high. Inside it looked like a playground jam-packed with equipment: a slide, hanging bars, a climbing rope, and a tire swing. There were also about five large punching bags hanging from the ceiling. Several blue flags and several red ones were randomly placed throughout the cube. The side facing us had a clear plastic door with a sliding lock.
A man, about twenty-five years old with glasses and a black goatee, sat on the bottom of the slide, wearing a blue shirt. A blonde woman who was a few years older was standing in the corner, sliding her hands along the plastic as if searching for a weak spot. She wore a red shirt.
Each side of the cube had what looked like two cannons mounted on it, like the kind in carnivals where you spray the stream of water to make your horse win the race. Each cannon was about ten feet from the nearest corner, with about fifteen feet separating the cannons that shared a side. Beneath each cannon was a small cardboard box. Daniel stepped ahead of us, and then turned around to face us and gestured for us to stop.
“And here we are at our first event, darts. The rest of you know how the game works, but I’ll explain it for Andrew’s benefit. We’re divided into two teams. Josie, Foster, and I will be the red team, and you, Stan, and Mortimer will be the blue team.”
He approached one of the cardboard boxes and reached inside, pulling out a thin metal spike, about three inches long and half an inch thick. “These are the darts. You load them into the shooter as so.” He slid the spike into a hole in the back of the cannon. “To fire, pull the trigger.”
He pulled the trigger, and with a loud
the spike shot across the cube, striking the far wall and dropping to the floor. “Nice and simple. The people inside, who can’t hear us, by the way, have been told that the first one of them to collect all ten of their flags will be set free. They won’t, of course. That’s just to keep them moving. The game gets pretty boring if they just sit there.”
“And, what, the object is to kill them before they can get the flags?” I asked, wondering how I could possibly put a stop to this.
“Of course not. That would be way too easy. As long as your person is still moving, you get a point every time you hit them. The object is to rack up the most points, which means you have to shred your person bit-by-bit. Hit a vital organ too soon and that’ll cost you the game.”
“Cool,” I said, nodding my understanding. That nod was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do in my life.
“Everyone grab a spot!” said Daniel. The others hurried to their places, Foster on the far side of the cube across from me, Josie and Mortimer to the left, Stan to the right. I took the spot next to Daniel. “It works like this,” said Daniel, swiveling his cannon up and down, left and right. “Since you only have enough maneuverability to cover about half of the cube, you need to use teamwork.”
I swiveled the cannon. If only it weren’t fixed to the cube. “What if you hit the wrong person?” I asked.
“You no longer get to shoot, and your team loses five points. Don’t do it.”
I had to do something to stop this, but once again I was stuck with no options. At least no good ones. I did have a box full of the darts, but Daniel was fifteen feet away, and I didn’t see any reason why he wouldn’t still have his gun. Could I stroll on over to him before I got shot?
Could I stab him with the spike and get a hold of his gun?
Or could I press a spike to his neck and force him to order the release of the prisoners?
The first option wasn’t likely. Even if I could pull off the stabbing portion, there’s no way I’d have time to go through his jacket before the others got me.
The second option didn’t seem much better, but I had to do
. I could stand here all day, watching them kill off prisoners one by one, and never get a good opportunity. This problem wasn’t going to be resolved by getting a prisoner to feign unconsciousness. If I didn’t act, and soon, they were going to die excruciatingly painful deaths.
“The game of darts is about to begin!” Daniel announced. “On the victim’s side, being shot at by the blue team, unable to hear me but being introduced anyway, we have Trevor Winford!”
“Wenford,” Foster corrected.
“I’m sorry. Man, that’s tragic. The last time he’ll ever be introduced and I screw up his name. Oh well. Let’s hear it for Trevor Wenford!”
Everyone applauded with great enthusiasm. I joined them, while crouching down to pick up a spike.
“And being shot at by the red team, let’s give a warm welcome to Susan Picci...Piccini...how do you pronounce it again?”
“Sounds like ‘pitch-a-ninny,’” said Stan.
“Ah. Why the hell do you always kidnap people with such hard names to pronounce? Let’s hear it for Susan Piccinini!”
“All right, everyone, load your first dart!”
The others began to load their cannons. I clutched the spike tightly in my hand, wondering if I should just rush over there.
No. I couldn’t be stupid about this. Daniel would be much more distracted once he was playing the game. They were purposely trying to avoid killing the prisoners, so I had some time. Not much, but some.
I slid the spike into the cannon, and then picked up another.
“Let me ask you something, Daniel,” I said. “I know the money portion isn’t a problem, but how do you get something like this built? I mean, you can’t just hire local construction workers, right?”
Daniel chuckled. “Actually, yeah, you can for a lot of it. Well, the designers weren’t local, but a lot of the workers were. I just have to do my own modifications. For example, this thing was built to be a paint ball game, and then I turned it into something a little more fun. As far as the construction crews know, I’m building the world’s biggest indoor theme park...most of which is a haunted house. They just don’t know that I’ve made it lethal. It’s still a lot of work, even with an outside crew doing most of the manual labor. But wait’ll you see what we’ve got underground. It’s mostly functional but not completely finished yet, so it won’t be part of this year’s games, but it’s
. You’ll be astounded, I promise.”
Daniel tapped the side of the cube. Trevor and Susan looked in his direction, and Daniel held up his hand, counting down on his fingers.
“Ready to begin in five...four...three...”
I looked across the cube at Foster, who was smiling at me, as if he knew how little I wanted to be here.
The prisoners leapt into motion as there were five simultaneous
, and then loud slamming sounds as the darts struck the opposite sides of the cube. A spike tore across Trevor’s upper arm and he cried out, though I couldn’t hear it. I saw that Susan also had an arm wound, much worse than Trevor’s, and a spike protruding from her thigh.
“Foster! What the hell are you doing?” shouted Daniel, hurriedly pulling out another spike. “You’re gonna cripple her already!”
“The aim’s off on mine!” Foster protested.
“Don’t blame the cannon!” Another dart grazed Susan’s shoulder. “Nice one, Josie!”
I quickly began to walk toward Daniel.
“What are you doing?” he demanded. “Stay by your cannon!”
“Mine’s not working,” I insisted.
“Just pull the trigger! C’mon, your teammates are counting on you!”
Trevor crashed against the cube right next to me, the bottom of his ear gone.
“Shit! You made me miss that hit! Who did that? Mortimer?”
“Hell yeah, baby!” Mortimer announced.
“You know very well that you weren’t aiming for his ear,” Josie informed him.
“It’s not the intent, it’s the action!”
“Yeah, kiss mine!”
“I just need you to—” I began.
“Goddamnit, Andrew, you pull the trigger! Don’t make me shoot you!”
He returned his attention to the game, firing a spike that grazed Susan’s leg, but I’d lost any possible element of surprise. I should’ve just rushed him...except that I’d have ended up dead.
I went back to my cannon. My heart nearly stopped as a spike struck the wall right in front of my face. Foster grinned and waved.
I had to play the game. Not
, of course, but I had to play. I had to shoot to miss, and pray that it would be over quickly.
Trevor had gathered three of the flags. I swiveled the cannon to the left, aiming it in his general direction but making sure it would miss, and then pulled the trigger. The spike struck the slide, twirled up into the air, then came down on Trevor’s foot.
” said Daniel. “I know you’re not on my team, but that was
I reloaded the cannon and fired another spike that became imbedded in one of the punching bags. I flinched each time a spike hit the cube wall, even though most of the hits were nowhere near me. My head was pounding.
Susan fell to the ground, a spike protruding from her side. “That was Stan!” Josie shouted. “Stan hit her! He’s outta here!”
Stan spat out his candy cane, smacked him palms against the cube wall, and stepped away from his cannon.
“Get her up!” Daniel shouted. “Foster, she’s out of my range! Put a dart in her arm! Hurry!”
Mortimer fired a dart that took a chunk out of Trevor’s lower leg. Trevor let out a silent scream and dropped his flags.
I aimed at Susan. If I hit her, I’d be disqualified and no longer have to participate in this horror.
But before I pulled the trigger, I realized that I couldn’t do that. That was selfish and cowardly. Why should my whiny moral anguish be more important than the agony the prisoners in the cube were suffering? I had to do something else. Susan and Trevor were going to die. That was for certain. I had to make their deaths as quick and painless as possible.
A spike fired by Foster grazed Susan’s arm. Sobbing, she got to her feet and staggered toward the closest flag.
I turned the cannon toward Trevor. He was in range, facing the other way. I aimed for the back of his skull and fired.
Instead, the spike sliced across the side of his neck. He clutched at the wound, trying to stop the bleeding.
one!” shouted Mortimer. “You guys don’t stand a chance!” He fired a spike that missed Trevor and struck another punching bag.
I loaded another spike, aimed at the back of Trevor’s skull again, and fired.
Trevor turned his head, and the spike ripped off his ear.
“Oh my God!” Mortimer shouted. “Both ears gone! Blue team rules! Blue team rules!”
“Yeah?” asked Daniel. “Well, watch this.” He fired a shot at Susan that missed completely.
“Watch what?” Mortimer inquired. “I was watching, but I didn’t see anything. Andrew, what were we supposed to watch? I guess I wasn’t watching closely enough, because I just don’t recall seeing anything worth watching.”
A spike tore through Susan’s thigh, close to where the very first spike had hit her. “How about that?” asked Josie.