I should have known better than to pull off on an unlit, backwoods road, but it was my first instinct when I noticed my car pulling to one side with the telltale limp of a flat tire. I groaned, hitting the heel of my hand against the steering wheel. I could change a flat without a problem, but after so many hours of nonstop waitressing, I was exhausted and did not want to be fiddling around in the dark. On the other hand, I wanted to drive the rest of the way home, still another half hour, on an increasingly flat tire even less. With my phone’s flashlight leading the way, I reluctantly got out to inspect the damage. Mercy, my poor old girl who ran half on gas, half on some divine power’s good grace, was lilting obviously to one side in the back.
“How did I not notice that when I got in at the restaurant?” I kicked the tire grumpily and trudged to my trunk for the jack and spare.
I was bent over the spare, struggling to get it out, when headlights from behind illuminated my car. I half turned, one hand lifted to shield my eyes, and tensed as someone pulled over behind me and stopped.
The driver’s familiar voice put me immediately at ease and I waved, enthusiastic and hopeful that maybe I wouldn’t have to do the work alone after all. Greg, the restaurant’s bartender and everyone’s favorite drinking buddy, came over with a concerned frown, “Everything ok?”
“Got a flat, probably from the construction over on Hamilton on my way to work.”
“Need any help?”
“Sure! Could you get the spare out? It’ll be good enough to get me home and then over to the shop tomorrow.”
I turned to move the jack out of the way when the first blow came down, hard and fast, on the back of my head. I didn’t even really register it before the second came and everything went black. I faded in and out for a while after that; there were slashes of red light, the sound of wheels on gravel, the smell of stale cigarettes and booze. I was in a small, dark place; my head was pounding. I felt around clumsily, not yet realizing what was going on. Everything was painfully loud. Was that wind rushing by? Was I moving? My thoughts were hazy, still half scrambled, and in a dreamlike fog I started to piece together what had just happened.
“Greg?” I croaked, my throat dry with fear.
I was getting more coherent by the second and the panic was setting in. I tried to stretch out, to sit up, to move, but I couldn’t, I was completely enclosed. The trunk, I thought numbly, I’m in the trunk. His trunk. I lay very still, my breath coming in quick, shuddering gasps, and I tried to think. The pain, the noise, the fear all shadowed my thoughts, consuming rationality and reason. The only clear thought that came through was of Leo. A conversation I’d had with him once, a long time ago while at our parents’ house.
I didn’t even remember how it started, just that we’d been watching TV, maybe a true crime show. Maybe that’s how it came up. I’d laughed, I remembered that, and said, “If something ever happened to me, you wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.”
He looked at me then and there was no trace of humor in his usually bright face. Somehow, in the span of a single sentence, the warmth and softness that I had always known in him had hardened into iron wrought by a decade behind the badge, “I’d take the case. I’d find you.”
I paused, still half joking, “You couldn’t, conflict of interest and all that.”
“I’d take the case.”
There was such a finality in his tone, an unshakeable certainty that dared someone, anyone, to challenge him, that I could only nod. It was the only time I’d ever seen him as Detective Cooney and not my older goofball of a brother.
Tears burned in my eyes at the thought of him. Large, loud, impossible to ignore, a good cop and a better man. I wished with everything in me that he could be there with me, protect me as he always had, but he couldn’t, not this time. This time, the only thing he’d be able to do is take the case. But I knew that, even if he was allowed, it probably wouldn’t matter. How many stories had I heard over the years about girls who go missing and never turn up? Or if they do, it’s only in body. I didn’t want him to spend forever looking and I didn’t want him to bring me home to our parents in a bag.
In the back of my mind, it struck me as absurdly funny that I was being taken to who knows where in the trunk of a car in the middle of the night by a coworker I thought I knew and one of my biggest concerns was how it was going to effect my family. I started to shriek with laughter and tears and terror. I beat my hands and feet against the roof of the trunk, throwing myself wildly around. I vaguely remembered something about punching out tail lights and sticking your hand through the hole, so I tried to figure out how to do just that. And then we stopped.
In the stillness that followed, I could hear crickets and then squeak of his car door and the crunch of leaves under his feet as he came around the back to the trunk. I had always hoped that, if anything like this were to ever happen to me, I’d be brave; I’d fight like a cornered animal with teeth and nails and the fury of someone hell bent on survival. When he opened that trunk, I huddled as far back as I could and I wet myself. He grabbed me and yanked me out like I weighed nothing, was nothing, and threw me to the ground. My eyes darted around; a shack, woods, a long dirt driveway, and nothing else. The trunk had felt less claustrophobic.
His fingers closed on the back of my neck and he hauled me towards the door. If I went inside, I was never coming out. My screaming barely seemed to bother him. No, he looked amused instead. The door was pushed open and I was dragged, kicking and clawing uselessly, over the threshold.
There was a cot with a filthy mattress in one corner. I was forced onto it, tied to its metal frame by heavy ropes that bit roughly into my wrists. The smell, oh god, the smell. Old piss, sweat, horror. It told a tale of other women before me, I couldn’t begin to guess how many. Greg leered down at me, his bearded face at once familiar and a stranger’s, and I stared at him through unblinking, wide eyes. He crouched beside me and his breath was hot against my cheek, “I got tomorrow off so we could have some fun.”
He slapped me hard when I started to scream again, “Knock that shit off.”
From his pocket, his cell phone started to ring. Given the odd hour, he seemed surprised, and took it out.
“Oh, it’s the boss man.” He said lightly, “I better take this.”
He shoved an old rag from under the mattress in my mouth and I gagged on the acrid taste. He chuckled at me, pat the cheek now swelling from his slap, and took the phone outside. My parents must have called our boss when I didn’t come home, I thought, my eyes squeezing shut, Mom could never sleep until she knew I was back. I could hear Greg adopt a sleepy sounding tone, saying oh no, he hadn’t seen me on his way home, why? Oh dear, no, he’d gone the opposite way to go camping for the night, big fishing plans tomorrow. On and on, all lies.
My thoughts went again to Leo; how would he find me? What would he have to learn about my last night alive? What would he have to tell my parents? Greg Halloway’s awful smirk trailed behind each question. Somewhere, a tiny voice, almost indiscernible from the rest of the mess filling my head, started to speak in my brother’s voice.
I’m coming. Hold on.
I cried at the cruelty of my own mind and its wishful thinking. I cried for my brother and my parents. I cried for myself and for the life I’d never get to lead.
People do unspeakable things in the dark when they think they’re alone. Greg kept doing unspeakable things long after day had overtaken night. I stared at the tarpapered ceiling and wished myself away. The pain grew into a fire, burning over every inch of my violated body, and then to icy numbness before erupting once more with the latest flick of his knife or the shifting of his weight.
Every time I cried out, in the back of my mind, my brother’s voice.
I’m coming. Hold on.
I screamed at the voice, demanding it shut up, telling it to stop taunting me, no one was coming, but it kept repeating itself. And it was getting louder.
I’m coming. Hold on.
Greg was taking his time, but the cuts were starting to get deeper, less careful, and I knew he was almost done with me. How many hours had it been? Enough for the sun to look like it was starting to set through the shack’s single window. I found myself drawn to that window and the rays of golden light that streamed through it. Even as Greg started to get up, his already bloodied knife held tight in his fist, I remained focused on those last few strands of sun that were still reaching towards me.
I’M COMING. HOLD ON.
The window exploded inward. Greg leapt up, stunned, staring at the black hood of the Ford Explorer sitting where the wall had once been. Standing beside it, a man, tall, bald, wrought from iron.
“What…?” Greg asked dumbly, unbelieving.
Leo’s pistol was already up, but he was looking past Greg, to me.
“I almost didn’t believe it. I thought it was a nightmare and then Mom called…” He said, his voice choked, and for a moment there was fear and relief and so much love written on his face as our eyes met, “I don’t know how, but I heard you.” I sagged against my restraints, sobbing pitifully, wanting to run to my brother, wanting him to take me home. Greg moved, little more than a flinch, and Leo’s eyes were back on him and all else was lost behind a mask of black, terrible fury, “I heard everything.”
I hadn’t noticed the radio in Leo’s other hand. He raised it to his lips, “Dispatch, this is Detective Cooney, badge number 7362, Walsh County Police Department. I located missing person Kerri Elizabeth Cooney. She was still with her assailant. A struggle ensued, he attacked me with a knife. We need an ambulance six miles down Old King Road as soon as possible: one female in need of immediate medical attention, one male, deceased.”
Greg’s mouth fell open and he dropped his knife, “I’m unarmed!” He said desperately.
“I’m not.” Said Leo.
He cocked back the gun’s hammer and took steady aim.