“I’m going across the street now,” the man said. “Meet me behind that bush in three minutes.”
Before Ethan could respond, the man had turned away.
Ethan watched him trudge across the empty intersection as the overhead traffic light changed from yellow to red.
Part of him screaming that something had come off the rails—should’ve been Kate here to meet him.
That he needed to go home right now.
The man reached the other side of the street and disappeared behind the bush.
Ethan waited until the traffic light had passed through three cycles. Then he stepped out from under the awning and started into the street.
Crossing, he finally remembered the man’s name—Bradley Imming.
Up and down Main, all was quiet.
It unnerved him—the stark emptiness of the street. The dark buildings. The single traffic signal humming above him as it cast alternating swaths of green, yellow, and red onto the snow.
He arrived at the bench, moved around the bush.
Something bad was going to happen.
He could feel it.
A premonitory thrumming behind his eyes like a warning bell.
He never heard the footsteps, just felt a warm push of breath against the back of his neck a half second before the world went black.
His first instinct was to fight, his hand digging back into his pocket, probing for the knife.
The ground hit him hard, the side of his face shoved into snow, the weight of what must have been several men crushing down on his spine.
He smelled the sweet, rich funk of the dairy again.
Bradley’s voice whispered in his left ear, “You just settle right on down.”
“The f**k are you doing?”
“You didn’t strike me as a man who would willingly wear a hood. I read you right?”
Ethan strained, one last-ditch effort to force his arm out from under his chest, but it was no use. He was thoroughly immobilized.
“We’re gonna take a little walk around town,” Imming said. “Get you good and disoriented.”
“Kate didn’t say anything about this.”
“You wanna see her tonight or not?”
“Then this is how it has to be. These are what you call nonnegotiable terms. Or we could just call the whole thing off right now.”
“No. I need to see her.”
“We’re gonna get up now. Then we’ll help you up. You aren’t gonna take a swing at me or anything, are you?”
“I’ll try to restrain myself.”
The weight lifted.
Ethan caught a desperately needed breath.
Hands grabbed him under his arms, hauled him onto his feet, but didn’t let go.
They led him out into the intersection of Main and Eighth, Ethan clinging to the sense that he was facing north.
Imming said, “Remember Pin the Tail on the Donkey? We’re gonna spin your ass around, partner, but don’t worry—we won’t let you fall.”
They spun him for a good twenty seconds, fast enough that the world went on spinning even after they had stopped.
Imming said to the men, “Let’s take him that way.”
Ethan was dizzy on his feet, swerving like a drunk stumbling home after last call, but they kept him upright.
They walked a long time, far past the point of Ethan having the foggiest idea of where he was.
There was only the sound of their breathing and their footsteps in the snow.
Finally, they stopped.
Ethan heard a creaking sound, like something opening on a rusty hinge.
Imming said, “Just a heads-up, this part’s a little tricky. Turn him around, boys. I’ll go down first. And check the knot on the back of his hood again.”
When they’d turned him a hundred and eighty degrees, Imming said, “We’re going to lower you onto your knees.” The location of his voice had changed, almost like he was underneath Ethan’s feet now.
Ethan’s knees hit the snow.
He felt the cold bleed through the denim.
Imming said, “I’m taking hold of your boot, putting it on a step. You feel that?” The sole of Ethan’s right boot touched the narrow side of a one-by-four. “Now put your other boot beside it. Good. Boys, hold his arms. Sheriff, go on and take another step down.”
Even though he couldn’t see, Ethan felt as if he were perched over a great height.
He stepped down onto the next rung.
“Boys, put his hands on the top rung.”
“How far of a drop is it?” Ethan asked. “Or do I even want to know?”
“You got about twenty more steps to go.”
Imming’s voice sounded distant, far below him now, and it echoed.
Ethan ran his hands across the rung to gauge its width.
The ladder was rickety.
It shifted and groaned and shuddered with each descending step.
When his boots finally reached the hard, broken surface below, Imming grabbed him by the arm and dragged him several steps away.
Ethan heard the ladder rattling, the other men starting down, and again the grind of that rusty hinge.
Somewhere above, a door banged shut.
Imming moved around behind him and untied the knot.
Off came the hood.
Ethan stood on the most rotten-looking concrete he’d ever laid eyes on. He looked at Imming. The man held a kerosene lantern that muddied his face in a collage of light and shadow.
Ethan said, “What is this place, Bradley?”
“Know my name, do you? How nice. Before we get to what this place is, let’s have us a chat about whether or not you’ll be breathing long enough to find out. Whether you get to come with us, or if we kill you where you stand.”
The sound of shuffling steps spun Ethan around.
He stared into the eyes of two young men in black hoodies, each holding a machete and glaring at him with an intensity that suggested they might actually want to use them.
“You were given a warning,” Brad said.
“No chip or don’t bother coming.”
“That’s right. And now we get to see how well you follow instructions. Strip down.”
“I don’t think so.”
“It works like this. They’re going to examine every square inch of your clothes while I examine every square inch of your body. I understand you were chipped when you met with Kate last night. That means we better find a nice, fresh, ugly-as-sin, stitched-up cut on the back of your leg. If we don’t, if I arrive at the conclusion you’re trying to pull one past us, guess what?”