By Daniel Davis
They arrived fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. Mark started to invite them in, but the lead man, roughly the size of a small shed, punched him in the jaw. Two others stepped forward and grabbed him by the arms, to keep him from falling. The fourth held the door.
They dragged him outside, to an unmarked black van. Mark tried to help them as they lifted him inside, but the first man punched him again, in the small of the back. “Don’t struggle,” he said. “Go along and we’ll be okay, asshole.”
Mark nodded, which made his stomach heave and the world spin. He found himself face down on the metal floor of the van, listening to tires squeal. Something jolted—that crack he’d been meaning to fix in the driveway must’ve widened. The driver cursed. Mark muttered an apology, but no one seemed to hear it.
The van pulled out onto the street. Mark closed his eyes, feeling the vibrations against his cheek. He could taste blood. He’d never been punched in the jaw, he realized. A friend of his had jabbed him too hard in the gut once, but no one had ever thrown him an actual blow. He was proud of himself for not passing out.
After a while, the van came to a stop, and one of the men nudged Mark with a foot. Someone murmured something about concussions. “He’s all right,” the first man said. “I didn’t hit him too hard. I know what I’m doing, Larry.”
The van door slid open, and Mark was carried across a yard of dead grass, into a ranch-style house that had clearly been empty for some time. The interior was barren, carpet ripped out, the only furniture disposable: folding chairs, a card table, a couple of coolers. He was dragged into a small room, complete with a mattress and a bucket. The two men dropped him to the floor. One of them said, “The mattress is new. And we fumigated last week.”
They slammed the door shut. Mark rubbed his jaw and listened to their muffled voices from the other side of the house.
They’d left him his watch, but he refused to look at it. Instead, he lay down on the mattress and put his hands behind his head. He hadn’t seen water stains like the ones above him, endless brown loops, dotted occasionally with what he fancied were bullet holes. He closed his eyes, still tasting blood even though the bleeding had stopped. His spine started to throb, from where he’d been punched the second time, but compared to his jaw, it was nothing. He rolled onto his side and snuggled deeper into the mattress. It wasn’t expensive, but it wasn’t as bad as he’d expected.
After a while, the door opened and the first man came in, dressed in dark blue jeans and a denim jacket. He had a broad, tan face. Such faces usually smiled, Mark thought, but the man just scowled at him. Military-grade buzz cut, and shoulders made for hard labor. He carried a stool with him, and he set it down in front of the mattress. The metal frame groaned beneath his weight.
“Sit up,” the man said.
Mark obeyed. Again, he fought the urge to say something. He could do this. He could be strong and stay silent; it’s what was expected of him, wasn’t it? It’s certainly what he expected of himself.
“We can do this the easy way or the hard way,” the man said. “First, I’m going to tell you my name. It’s Terry. The other three are Larry, Harry, and Gary. I’m in charge. When I’m out, Gary is in charge. But that’s none of your business, ’cause we’re all the boss of you. Got it?”
“I want you to say it, Mr. Smith.”
“I’ve got it.”
“Good.” The man pulled a notepad out, flipped a couple of pages. “Okay. Second, I’m going to tell you what we want. Ten grand. That’s ten thousand dollars, cold, hard, untraceable cash. We’ve got a briefcase for it already. It’s a very nice briefcase. I hope I can use it. Do you think your family will pay, Mr. Smith? Say yes or no, please.”
“That’s good. We’ll give them four days. If after four days they refuse to pay, I’ll kill you.” He flipped another page in his notebook, then went back. “Uh, that’s the third thing. We’ll kill you if they don’t pay. I’ll kill you.” He pulled out a very smart-looking, very black pistol. “With this. It’s a Glock. Nine-millimeter. It’s very accurate and very lethal. Do you believe me, Mr. Smith?”
Mark nodded and confirmed his belief.
“Fourth,” Terry said, “if you try to escape, we will hurt you. If you resist us, we will hurt you. We won’t kill you unless we have to, but we’ll hurt you enough to make you wish you hadn’t resisted. Is that also understood?”
“Good.” Terry flipped through a couple more pages, then tucked the notebook away in his jacket pocket. “Uh, we’ll feed you. You’ll have plenty of water to drink. If you behave, maybe you can have a beer, if Harry is willing to part with one. Good luck with that. You can piss in that bucket. Anything else, there’s a Port-a-Potty in the back. The backyard’s fenced in and no one lives around here anyways, at least no one who’s gonna give a shit if you scream. But don’t scream, or we’ll hurt you.”
Mark nodded. He hadn’t used a Port-a-Potty since he was a kid. He wondered if he’d be able to do it. He’d always been squeamish about doing his business in public.
“Well,” Terry said, sitting back on the stool. He eyed Mark for a while, then he said, “I guess you can resist, if you want.”
Mark had to think about it, but then he started to push himself up, opening his mouth to say something. He didn’t have anything in mind, but it didn’t matter; Terry was quicker than he looked. Even though the big man remained sitting, a booted foot lashed out, catching Mark in the chest. He fell back against the wall. The man’s bulk followed the foot. A fist collided with Mark’s stomach, another seemed to smash half his face in. Mark felt another kick, though he wasn’t sure exactly were the foot landed. When Terry left, Mark was a throbbing mess, curled up, clutching himself, struggling to breathe. He thought maybe he was smiling, but his face was too numb for him to tell.
They fed him later that evening. Pizza, with ice water. The man who brought the refreshments introduced himself as Larry. “Terry went out,” Larry said. “He’ll be back, though. I’m the nice one. I’m the one that doesn’t want to hurt you, but I will if I have to.” He stopped, staring at the floor for a second. “Oh, right,” he said, grinning sheepishly. “Sorry. Sometimes, you know, I forget. Like mushrooms?”
Mark took another beating the next day. This time, he resisted without prompting. His captor—Harry—seemed surprised, and only hit him after a few moments of blank staring. That night, Larry forgot to lock the door. Mark almost said something, then laid back down on the mattress and tried not to think about it. Terry did a lot of shouting the next day, but he didn’t mention the incident to Mark.
On the third day, Terry burst into the room, pulling the gun from his belt. He grabbed Mark by the collar and pulled him onto the floor, then pressed the barrel of the pistol against his head.
“Why haven’t they paid?” he shouted.
The gun hurt. Mark gasped, his eyes filling with tears. He opened his mouth, spittle flying out, followed by a scream of surprise and pain.
The gun pulled back a little, but Terry’s grip didn’t loosen. “The money,” he said. “Why haven’t they paid us?”
“I don’t know!” Mark screamed.
A punch to his gut. A boot to his thigh. Mark fell onto the mattress, expecting the pistol to whack him across the face. Instead, Terry kicked him once more, almost lightly, and said, “They’d better pay, Mr. Smith. We don’t do this shit for the love of it. We got kids to feed, too.”
Mark stared up at his captor, all four versions of him. He wiped the back of his hand across his eyes and nodded.
Terry lowered the gun. “Do you love your children, Mr. Smith?”
Mark nodded. Sweat and tears stuck to the mattress.
“Good.” Terry put the gun away. “Think about how they’ll feel growing up without their father. Which they will, if we don’t get our money.” He turned and left.
When the door closed, Mark rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. Dust drifted onto his chest as the tiles jostled, something small scurrying across them. He whimpered, but the tile stilled eventually as the traveler wandered on.
He awoke that night in the midst of a nightmare, certain that something had crawled down his throat. He sat up on the mattress, choking, unable to suck air into his lungs. He coughed and hacked, felt something squirming against his windpipe. He tried to cry out, but only a soft hiss escaped his lips. He looked around the room, seeing nothing but darkness. Only shadows moved.
He glanced upward. The water stains seemed to dance, spiraling into one another. Mark closed his eyes, unwilling to die here in the dark, in an abandoned house on an empty mattress, a bucket of his urine just a few feet away. He couldn’t let that happen. He wouldn’t let that happen. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way.
At some point, after a few minutes passed, he opened his eyes again. The feeling in his throat had vanished. He breathed easily, peacefully. The darkness had returned to its ceaseless self. He lay back down, keeping his eyes open as long as possible, so long that they closed of their own accord, and he fell asleep without being aware of it.
At noon the next day, Terry game into the room with some papers and a smart phone. Gary brought in a card table and two chairs, set them up, and walked out, closing the door behind him.
“Good news, Mr. Smith.” Terry sat down, and used his leg to scoot the other chair away from the table. “Your family has agreed to pay. Nothing like waiting until the last minute, eh?”
Mark blinked, pushing himself up. He rubbed his eyes.
“Come on, Mr. Smith,” Terry said. “You’re free to go. Just a little paperwork, and you’re out of here.”
Mark slowly got to his feet and stumbled to the table. He massaged a cramp out of his leg as he set down. He saw blood on the back of his hand and almost threw up the pizza he’d had the night before.
Terry slid a piece of paper over. “It’s all there,” he said. “Four days, five grand apiece, last half due upon release. Sign and it’s done.” He put the phone between them and plugged a credit card processor into it. “And a cover story for your family, of course, assuming they don’t know. I recommend a simple mugging. The more complicated a lie gets, the harder it becomes to maintain.”
Mark nodded and signed, then pulled out his wallet and handed Terry his Visa.
“I’ve called you a cab,” Terry said. “Fair and tip already paid for. It’s on the bill. I’d wait inside if I were you, though. I wasn’t kidding when I mentioned the unsavory neighbors. Occupational hazard.”
Terry gave the card back and folded up the papers. He smiled and said, “I never offer my hand. Too many of you want to kick my ass after. I mean, I understand, but I’d still like to avoid it. I do hope it was worth it, however. It’s good to know our services are appreciated.”
Mark stared at the blood on the back of his hand. He looked up and met Terry’s eyes for a brief moment, then looked back at the table. It hurt to shrug, so he simply inclined his head and said, “I think so.”
“Good.” Terry patted the table. “You take care, Mr. Smith. Be obliged if you passed our name along. Discretely, of course. Some people just wouldn’t understand. People different than yourself.”
They left him alone. Mark waited until he heard the cab pull up. Then he waited a little longer, for the driver to start blaring the horn. Mark hobbled out of the house and fell into the backseat. The driver looked him over in the rearview mirror and said, “Jesus.”
Mark nodded and gave his address. They pulled away. Mark watched the house until it was gone. Then he glanced at the back of his hand again. After a while, he spat on his skin and used his shirt to wipe the blood away. The stain merely shifted location, from his hand to his clothing. He rubbed the fabric, trying to rub it out. Eventually, he gave up and closed his eyes, where he could still see red, but mostly there was only black.
About the Author
Daniel Davis is a native of rural Illinois. His work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can find him at Facebook.com/DanielDavis05, or @dan_davis86 on Twitter.