Charlie Wolfe’s phone buzzes in his pocket, but he silences the call.
Tonight isn’t about him. Tonight is about his girlfriend, Elaina Hollar, and his friend, Tony Shepherd. They’re about to graduate high school and become yet more cogs in the industrial wheel of complacent, productive workers. But since it’s important to the people he cares about, he’s going to give the ceremony’s pomp and circumstance his full attention—
He quietly grumbles before muting it, but the caller tries again almost immediately.
Shit! Who’s interfering with his generous spirit? He steps aside to check the caller id: MELANIE.
Dammit, Mom! Really?
She’d bailed on him at the start of the year and disappeared into the ether. He’d have pretty much been homeless if Tony’s family hadn’t taken him in. But her vanishing act hadn’t stopped him sending out the bat signal in search of her. There wasn’t much love left between them—their time together had been rocky at best—but he still worried about her. After all, she was pretty much the only family he’d had, shoddy as it may have been. He has checked all her old haunts—dive bars, old boyfriends—hell, even a bowling alley or two—hoping he’d hear something back, but there’s been nothing. And now that he’s finally given up on her, sure as shit, she picks this moment, Tony and Elaina’s special night, to shake up his world again.
“Hey, Shepherd, do you mind helping Elaina inside? I just need to take this.”
“Everything all right?” Tony asks.
“Yup, totally fine.” Well, not fine, but considering his mom’s typical behaviour, he’s hoping this is nothing more than a check-in. “I’ve just been trying to track down my mom, and I think this might be her.”
Tony doesn’t seem to buy it, and truth be told, he wouldn’t have believed she’d called either if he hadn’t seen her name on the screen.
He motions Tony towards the backstage area of the convention centre’s auditorium. “Go on in there before they decide to renege on your diploma.”
Tony looks back one last time before joining Elaina at the stairwell that will take them to the rest of the grads.
Charlie steps outside to answer the phone.
“Yeah?” Although he’s grateful his mom is calling, he doesn’t want to be too nice.
“What? No manners, Chuck?” a deep voice growls.
Definitely not his mom.
A chill races down Charlie’s back and he does his best to shrug it off.
“Who are you and why do you have my mom’s phone?” He tries to play it cool but he’s not one for surprises.
“Oh, don’t you worry. She’s perfectly fine.”
Charlie is silent, a still figure among the flurry of graduates. His mind is racing. Who else has crawled out of the woodwork? Hadn’t he and Tony caught everyone they’d known about? Could this be someone new? Or worse, someone from his past, from before Tony?
Maybe if he can get the guy talking a little more, he can figure it out.
“What do you want?”
“Again, so rude—”
“Look, I’m busy. People are waiting for me.”
“Oh, I know, Chuck.”
There’s familiarity in his tone, like Charlie should know who he is. It puts his back up.
“You can call me Mr. Wolfe.”
“You clean up real nice, Chuck. Seems like living on the right side of the tracks suits you.”
Charlie glances down at his new clothes, bought for the occasion. The caller is close. Probably watching him . . . maybe for a while.
Charlie’s eyes dart across the incoming crowd to the parking lot, looking for someone on their phone, or a car that doesn’t quite fit the wholesome school parent SUV demographic.
But he’s at a high school graduation. Everyone’s on their devices, what with selfies and video chats and old-school phone calls from their grandmas. And the road is crammed with limos and classic cars and broken-down beaters.
It’s needle-in-a-haystack hopeless.
He needs to flush this guy out into the open.
“You know what? You’re wasting my time. I’m going inside.” Charlie turns back towards the doors of the building but doesn’t immediately enter, scanning reflections in the glass for anyone approaching.
“No, you’re not,” the voice in his hand snarls. “You’ll follow my directions—”
“Or what? You can’t do anything to me in this crowd—”
The man chuckles. “Ah, but you’re not a lone wolf anymore, are you? You’ve found yourself a nice little pack.”
Charlie swallows hard, his confident veneer slipping.
“Are you quite sure Tony and Elaina made it safely backstage?” the man asks.
Charlie whips open the closest door, racing inside. “You can’t save them, Chuck.”
He hits the stairs. “The hell I can’t!”
There’s a smug pause. “Then what about Keya, Ben, and Heather?”
Charlie’s stride falters. Tony’s parents and sister! Had this goon gotten to them too?
“How do I know you’re not bluffing?”
“You really want to test me?”
Charlie grips the handrail at the bottom of the steps, frozen with indecision.
The phone emits another low chuckle. “Poor little Charlie opened himself to the Shepherds, and now it’s going to be his downfall.”
He’s cornered and he knows it.
“What do you want?”
“You’re going to go outside. We’ll roll up, and you’re going to get into the car like everything’s cool. Got it?”
Charlie closes his eyes and exhales.
“You goddamn got it?!” the man yells.
Charlie’s response is barely a whisper. “Yeah. I got it.”
Climbing the stairs, Charlie thinks quickly.
The ceremony’s almost started; most of the grads and guests are now in the building. The few stragglers are either grabbing a last hit off of whatever they’re smoking, or rushing in late.
He considers stopping one of them, but what would he say? “Excuse me, would you mind calling the cops? I’m about to be kidnapped and/or murdered.”
And where would that get him anyway? By the time somebody got help, he—or the people he cared about—might already be dead.
He’s still running through options when a sleek-looking silver Maserati Quattroporte sedan pulls up to the curb behind a white limo. Two black-suited men—maybe in their thirties—sit in the front seat, sunglasses glinting in the late afternoon sunlight—their goon-ness is such a cliché—but at least they’re dressed appropriately for the occasion.
If he can see them through the glass doors, they can probably see him. There’s a whole family—teens, parents, aunts and uncles, and old people—between him and the goons, so he’s got a chance. Fingers flying, he disables his phone’s passcode, then opens his texts and starts typing, but the group of people is called over by an enthusiastic mom and they all step aside, exposing him completely.
He lowers the phone quickly to his hip. He doesn’t need the goons to see him on it—not if Tony and Elaina and the Shepherds’ lives are at risk.
But dammit! He’s only got one word written and he’s still got to hit send, and he doesn’t want to try winging it and accidentally delete the text or close the app.
This is why he loves old technology! An old Nokia would’ve come in handy right about now. A real keyboard, no fragile screen, and he could drop it out of a two-storey building and it’d break the pavement. Maybe he could’ve even used it as a weapon to dent in these goons’ heads. If he gets out of this predicament, he vows it’ll be the next thing he picks up for himself.
He still needs a few more seconds to send his message, but they’re watching him, so he steps outside, acknowledging them with a nod before casually walking over.
“A Maserati? Really? You couldn’t pick something a little more conspicuous?”
The driver is tough-looking, like being hit with a 2 X 4 in the face is a part of his workout regime. He’s definitely called Rocco or Bruiser, or maybe something ironic like Li’l Mike.
“Get in the car,” says the goon in the passenger seat. He’s smaller than the driver, but sinewy, and probably a brawler too, judging by the scraped skin on his knuckles. Definitely the one who called him.
Charlie’s buying time, still looking for his moment, so he lets his mouth run. “Can you even spell Maserati—?”
“Stop talking and get in.”
“Hey, I was told never to accept rides from strangers. What’s your name? Johnny Fingers? Vinny the Knife—?”
“Shut it and get in the back seat—or else.” The passenger indicates the Smith & Wesson revolver he’s pointing at Charlie.
“Geez, take it easy. Just joshing with you.”
As he pulls open the back door, Charlie quickly glances down to check his phone. He’s only got one word. Is it enough to make a difference? As he climbs into the car, he hits send, hoping it is.
Charlie whistles as he settles into the back seat.
“Wow. I know this vehicle is all about performance, but look at the interior: Sabbia Poltrona Frau leather seat trim! I don’t know if beige is what I’d choose, but whatever. You do you.”
He rolls the window down and waves at a couple of girls texting on their phones by the main entrance.
The thug in the passenger seat twists around and yells, “Leave the window alone!”
Charlie is immediately apologetic. “Okay, bossman. Relax. Just checking out the features.” He scoots a little ways from the door, careful to leave the glass down in case he has a chance to escape.
Unfortunately, as soon as they speed away, the windows go back up, and the rear door locks click shut.
Bossman turns in his seat. “Give me your shoes.”
“In case you decide to bolt, it’ll make it harder for you to run.”
Damn, these guys are thorough.
But as Charlie leans down to untie his sneakers, he works out a new chance to mess with their plans.
“Man, I hate you guys taking my shoes. I really like them.”
He leans far enough over to blind their line of sight with his shaggy hair. He slips the phone down by his foot.
“Mrs. Shepherd got me these kicks. She sure didn’t like me wearing them to grad, but I can’t be expected to tolerate the whole ceremony without a little comfort, right?”
He pops open the camera app.
“But hey, I agreed to let her buy me the suit, so I think we reached a compromise.”
He slips the phone by his thigh, and as he pulls his sneakers off and hands them up front, he snaps a pic of Bossman reaching back for them.
“Take shallow breaths. They stink.” The goons don’t react. “What with the hot day and all.”
Bossman grumbles to the driver, who rolls down his window and tosses them out. Charlie watches them skip across the asphalt into the ditch with dismay.
“Hey, man! Didn’t you hear me? Mrs. S. is going to be mad! You guys owe her!”
Bossman bends back. “Give me your phone.”
“What are you talking about?” Charlie pushes a too-casual tone.
“Don’t waste my time. I saw you with it at the convention centre. Hand it over.”
“Fine. Except—” Charlie tosses the phone past the driver’s head and out the open window. “There. Now you guys owe me a pair of kicks and a phone. Guess there’s no chance of you letting me use the one you stole from Melanie, hey?”
The thug sighs. “Dammit, you’re aggravating.”
“Depends who you ask.”
The driver slows down. “Should we go back for it?”
Bossman considers it for a moment, then shakes his head. “Nah. By the time they find it, it won’t matter anymore.”
Charlie swallows hard and sinks into his seat. Maybe he’s a lot closer to getting killed than he thought.
They travel down the thoroughfare that takes them to the freeway. When Charlie leans close to the speaker in the back seat, his furrowed brow confirms his thought.
“You listening to TLC? If you’re planning to kill me, don’t waste your time. I’ll do it myself if you keep playing this crap.”
The driver is about to say something and immediately gets a glare from Bossman. He’s definitely the one in charge of this little operation—at least for now.
Hopefully, Charlie can get himself out of here before things get worse—as long as he can get them talking.
“You’re probably asking ‘What’s this kid got against T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli?—they’re one of the best-selling girl groups of all time, with nine top tens on the Billboard Hot 100, and four Grammy Awards? How can he hate them so much?’”
The driver keeps glancing at him in the rear-view, wanting badly to get into it. But he stays tight-lipped, so Charlie pushes further.
“It’s the drama. The infighting behind the scenes, the arson, the materialistic excess that lead to their bankruptcy. Of course, I feel bad they signed those shitty contracts—that’s the whole issue I have with the music industry—but it’s about discipline in the face of adversity—”
“That’s it. Pull over!” Bossman yells, and the driver swerves to the curb.
The car screeches to a halt, and Charlie tumbles forward on the slippery leather upholstery and slams into the back of the seat. “Shit. I didn’t expect that! I guess that’s why they tell you to buckle up.”
The passenger sticks the gun deep into his cheek, and Charlie smells the pungent odour of grease and gunpowder.
“Easy, Cass,” the driver says. “She wants him in one piece.”
Bossman—Cass—glares at the driver, the barrel pushing hard against Charlie’s face, knowing that the punk kid now knows his name.
But they are also all aware that this standoff can’t go anywhere. Charlie is meant to be kept alive—at least until they get to their destination.
Cass climbs out and opens the back door. “Get your ass out of the car.”
Charlie clicks his tongue, shaking his head. “Get in the car. Get out of the car. Make up your mind—”
Cass grabs him by the scruff of his suit jacket, but Charlie’s instincts kick in—too many fights over the years—and he shoots his arm up to block. He immediately realizes his mistake and holds his hands up in surrender.
“Sorry.” He puts his hands up in a gesture of resignation. “Sorry. Old habits die hard.”
Cass whacks his pistol against Charlie’s skull, and it hurts like hell.
“For fu—” Charlie rubs his head.
“Kid, I’m about ready to shoot you and tell them it was an accident, if you don’t start listening. Get your ass out of this car so we can resolve this amicably.”
“Okay. Okay. You win.” His head is still stinging as he scoots out of the car.
Cass nods to the driver. “Open the trunk.” It pops up and Cass waves the gun at Charlie with mock courtesy. “In you get.”
The street is unreasonably quiet, and Charlie wishes a car would come along and see him being held at gunpoint, but luck is against him. He glances inside the trunk. There’s a tool box, some rope, and a wad of poly. The outlook isn’t great.
“Really?” Charlie asks, playing dumb.
Cass lets out an exasperated sigh. Not eager to experience the repercussions of his stubbornness, Charlie complies.
“Okay, okay. Fine.”
Charlie puts a foot in the trunk. “Is this all because of my opinion of TLC? Because I can give them some love. They really brought some serious issues to light—”
But that’s all he gets to say before there’s a sharp, stinging pain on the back of his head. A numbing pressure spreads across his face, and he tumbles into darkness.
Charlie’s mind drifts, the gentle back-and-forth sway of the car tugging on an old memory.
He’s four years old, lying in the back seat of his parents’ car. They’re up front, rocking out to CCR on the radio, looking back and singing to him with wild abandon. He wants to sing too. He wants them all to sing. But he can’t, because he knows what’s coming, right around the corner, ready to tear their world apart.
And then the darkness comes, clouding in on him, sharing the back seat with him, and he’s not certain he’ll ever be able to escape. He’s face to face with the fear that he’s locked away for far too long, and before he can escape, it engulfs him.
Charlie’s eyes jerk open, banishing the wicked nightmare.
He’s out of sorts, knocked around, and it takes him a moment to remember that he’s in the trunk of a car. His head throbs, and he squints at the pain. A thin scab has formed where they struck him with the gun, his hair matted and sticky with dried blood.
Listening to the steady hum of the tires, he can tell they’re out on the highway, but he’s got absolutely no clue how long he’s been out for, where they are, or which way they’re going.
If they had picked him up on any other day, he would have had his trusty backpack, full of all sorts of handy gadgets and tools—perfect for a situation like this. But dammit if he hadn’t decided to respect the occasion and leave it at the Shepherds’ house.
The tool box. That’s got to have something inside that’ll help him get out of here. A screwdriver, a box cutter, anything. He feels around in the dark until he locates it by his feet.
He wiggles himself around to get hold of it and pull it close. Damn, padlocked. He’s not surprised that it’s locked even before giving it a yank to confirm. It’s not big, but it’s tough enough that he won’t be able to break it with only the few hard tugs he’d have room to do.
He searches in the dark for the trunk release. Most cars have them for situations like these. It’s often located near the latch with a glow-in-the-dark handle or some other type of mechanism, but there’s nothing.
Maybe the tire wrench?
He pushes the rope and poly wrap aside and pulls up the flooring.
Dammit! The whole trunk’s been cleaned out. Not even a spare! He feels the sides, hoping to find a panel that gets him into the wiring and cables, but everything is smooth and fastened together tight.
His kidnappers are clearly old pros.
Charlie’s hot and the space feels tight and cramped and he punches against the sides of the trunk. Not knowing what’s going on, not being in any kind of control of the situation, makes him want to kick the shit out of everything. He wants to scream but he knows he needs to control himself. He’s been in worse scenarios—far worse.
He’s got to gear down.
What does he know? What is the situation?
This settles his thinking. He quits rehashing and worrying about whatever’s ahead and focuses on the present.
Right now, he’s in a trunk. He doesn’t know where he is or where he’s going, and he can’t change that. He doesn’t have any tools to free himself.
The truth is obvious: his moment isn’t now. He’ll have to wait for it. But when it comes, he’ll be ready.
The ride is long and uninterrupted. No turns. No stops. Barely even a yield. Only a straight path into the unknown.
Charlie makes a pillow out of the poly and puts his hands behind his head to pad the bumps. He can’t stretch out completely, but he does his best. He won’t sleep—that’s the last thing he wants right now—but he does his best to compartmentalize and clear his mind.
There’s no room for unnecessary distractions now.
A phone rings. The car’s speakerphone kicks in.
“Where are you two?”
Charlie strains to hear the muffled sounds of Cass and the driver.
“We’re . . . driving.”
“Well, get your ass back to the farm.”
“Robert’s got us doing something.”
Who the hell is Robert? Charlie has heard of a few Roberts around town, but none of them were into kidnapping.
“Don’t matter. I want your asses back, now!”
Charlie has also heard of a Winston before, and the name was never associated with good news.
“No! Someone got to Henry, and we need to handle it.”
Wait a second . . . . Someone got to Henry? Who’s Henry, and who got to him? What exactly has Charlie gotten dragged into?
“But . . . . What should we tell Robert?”
“I’ll handle him. Get here ASAP, and we’ll deal with this quickly!” Winston shouts before hanging up.
Undue hastiness isn’t a characteristic Charlie likes—especially when his life is on the line.
He needs to get out of here. He just hopes he’s overheard enough to make it happen.
Eventually, the car takes a left, and Charlie and the tool box slide into the corner. A roar of rocks strike the wheel wells. Gravel road. Wherever they’re going, it’s in the boonies, so there’s even less of a chance for an easy escape.
Another turn and it feels like the driver is aiming for every pothole he can find. Charlie bangs around, crashing into the trunk lid and back onto the floor repeatedly, until his brain is nearly scrambled.
Thankfully, the car rolls to a stop.
The car doors bang shut, and there’s a loud screech and the thud of what sounds like a large wooden door sliding shut. Then, the soft crackle of footsteps on dust and rock as two people move to the trunk. It unlatches and the lid rises.
It’s pretty dark, but Charlie can tell they’re in an old barn. Hay dust and the heavy scent of manure float in the air. The silhouettes of Cass and the driver tower over him, backlit by the thin strips of sunlight coming through the gaps of a warped wooden roof.
Still reeling from the rough road, Charlie says, “The way you drive, you’d think you just got your licence.”
“Get out,” Cass says.
“Give me a sec, will ya?”
Cass nods at the driver. “Drag him out, Red.”
As the goon leans in, Charlie quickly snaps back and headbutts him in the face.
“Dammit!” Red yells, grabbing his nose, blood gushing over his knuckles.
“I asked for a moment,” Charlie yells. He knows it was wrong, but his gut wants him to fight.
“All right, kid. You got your one shot. You happy?” Cass pulls his gun. It appears he’s done putting up with Charlie’s shit. “Now, decide how you want to get out of this car.”
Charlie raises his hands in surrender and crawls out.
They’re in a large, empty horse barn. Stalls line both sides of the space, and a set of stairs leads to an upper level where old, grey hay hangs over the edge in dirty stacks. There’s a door on one side, secured with a rusty lock and chain, so there’s only one way out—the wide door they drove in—but a third guy stands in front of it.
Tough as Charlie is, this new guy looks mean enough to toss him through a wall if he tries to make a break for it.
Red turns to Cass, rubbing his head. Charlie hopes it still hurts. “What do you want me to do with him?”
“I got an idea,” Charlie grunts. “How ’bout you let me go?”
Red—completely done with him—sucker-punches him hard in the face, and Charlie drops.
“Okay, I deserved that,” he says, spitting out blood and making sure his jaw still works. “But if I get hantavirus from this dirt floor, I’m blaming you two.”
Red adds a swift kick.
Charlie groans. “Okay. I get it. Shhh.”
On the ground, he finally sees a fourth man in the shadows, near the back wall. He’s on a cell phone, looking pissed, glaring at Charlie.
He’s older, compared to the rest of the thugs, and isn’t as much of a brute. He’s got a slighter frame and is dressed to the nines. Not business formal, but a $500 pair of jeans with a perfectly fitted sports jacket. This guy must be management, but since he’s taken the trouble to be out here, he’s probably not shy about getting his hands a little bloody.
Charlie strains to hear what the man is saying into the phone, but catches only bits and pieces.
“I understand that, but these are my guys . . . No, I don’t mean any disrespect to her . . . I promise—I’ll deal with it personally.”
Charlie’s heard enough to know this is the guy he overheard talking to Cass and Red on the speakerphone.
His mind races, trying to assess the situation and put the pieces of this jigsaw in place before it’s too late.
The man ends the call and moves closer, a deep woodsy cologne wafting over Charlie as he strolls over, followed by a base note of stale cigarettes.
“Soooo,” he drawls, “you’re the infamous Charles Wolfe.”
Charlie pulls himself up off the ground and dusts off his clothes before offering his hand. “And you must be Winston.”
This catches the man off guard. “How’d you—?” he asks, then adds, “Well, I’d heard you were good, but I’m impressed.”
Charlie’s quick. “Impressive is my middle name.”
Winston clicks his tongue and wags a finger. “Now, now,” he smirks. “Don’t interrupt.”
He leans back against the car, considering Charlie. “You know, over the months, I’ve had a few of my guys follow you. See who you are, what your deal is, who you talk to. But you always had a knack for losing them—”
“Well,” Charlie shrugs, “I’m a pretty private guy—”
Winston lunges and slaps Charlie’s face—hard. “I said no interrupting.”
Charlie’s cheek burns. His mouth is full of saliva and the taste of old pennies.
The man isn’t done with the lecture. “I know guys like you—digging up people’s dirt, playing them off each other, making a few quick bucks. As a businessman myself, I can’t fault you for that. However, I’m not particularly fond of your relationship with honest cops like Detective Gekas—”
Who is this guy? “Look,” Charlie tries, “I don’t know anything about you or your business—”
Winston punches him in the gut, and Charlie falls to his knees.
Cass steps forward. “Boss? She wants him alive.”
Winston glowers back.
Charlie can barely breathe, barely think. He’s running out of time. And options. He needs to save himself—do something, anything, right now.
Winston kneels beside him. “I thought maybe once I met you, saw you face to face, I’d understand you. Get some sense of why you do what you do.” He stands, brushes himself off, reaches into his jacket. “Unfortunately, you’re an enigmaand I’m not fond of enigmas.”
He draws his gun and jams it into Charlie’s face.
“I don’t care. He’s not worth the effort—”
“I can help,” Charlie cries out.
Winston shakes his head slowly. “Look at you. You can’t even help yourself, son.”
“The person . . . I can help you figure out—”
“What are you talking about?”
“I can help you figure out who killed Henry.”
Winston scowls, leaning close. “And just what do you think you know about that?”
Charlie glances up at the older man, trying not to choke on the overpowering cologne. “Only what I heard in the car.”
Winston scrutinizes Cass and Red, his expression making it obvious that they’ll catch hell afterwards.
For now, Charlie’s own best bet is to make himself useful. “Take me to where they found him.”
It’s a big ask, but he needs to convince this guy to keep him alive. And if Winston really has been having him followed, then he might know that Charlie actually does have a unique set of skills . . .
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Winston scoffs.
“You can throw me in the trunk again. You can gag me. It doesn’t matter. Just help me help you.”
Winston’s finger still rests on the trigger, but the gun is no longer pressed so hard into Charlie’s face. “And what makes you think you can?”
“Because it’s what I do.”
No one says anything. Charlie fears his luck really has run dry. All he can think of is his family.
Winston lowers the gun.
“You got cojones, kid, I’ll give you that. But, look at me.”
Charlie meets his eyes as Winston drops down, getting right in his face, his voice deep and low. “You have until tomorrow—and if you try anything, anything at all, I’m not just going to kill you. My boys are going to lay devastation upon everyone you love.”
Charlie swallows hard and nods. He’s made a deal with the devil.
Now he just needs to figure out who that is.