Gagged and bound, Arthur struggled, desperately working to free himself enough to escape. The task was made more difficult because the floor upon which he lie—the trunk of a midsized car—heaved and bucked, making it impossible to focus or concentrate for any amount of time.
Fighting against the motion, Arthur diligently worked to loosen the knots binding his wrists. Wishing he had a knife, the frightened man feverishly twisted his hands. He thought he felt a slightening in the ropes, and could wiggle around a bit more. Yes! He could definitely feel the ropes slackening. With renewed determination, he wrenched fiercely, freedom from constriction in sight.
* * *
Arthur Wooten was a jovial fellow, but he was also known by some to be persnickety and exacting. His good looks had given way to age, the skin on his face wrinkled and loose. One could almost say he had jowls. His hair was mostly white, with just a hint of the black coloring of his youth. Still, his eyes were a cold, piercing blue—a sharp intelligence lurked behind them. His gaze often disconcerted people, a fact of which he was aware—and usually used to his advantage.
Arthur had been enjoying a peaceful morning stroll, marveling at the crispness of the autumn air. The birds chirped happily, dogs barked in the distance at some unknown disturbance. Checking his watch, Arthur realized he was going to be late for his rendezvous with his business partner, with whom he planned to discuss a new proposition this morning. He hurried across the street, disregarding the traffic signal (the roads were empty this early) and quickly entered the designated establishment: a storefront for a personal insurance agent named Amir Pashal.
Arthur knew something was wrong the moment he entered. On the floor, a crimson smear spoke of unimaginable horror, trailing through the office door into the small kitchenette in the back. Afraid of what he would find, Arthur felt compelled to investigate nonetheless.
Taking care not to step in the blood, he poked his head further into the small room and reeled at the scene. He immediately regretted his decision to look, the moment he opened the door.
His longtime associate and close friend Amir, was sprawled on the ground, lying in an entirely unnatural position. Amir’s head had been crushed, and Arthur could clearly see his friend’s brain, surrounded by a copious pool of blood. The sight was more than Arthur could stomach—he vomited violently. Panicking, his first thought was to get away. Arthur Wooten had never been able to handle the sight of blood, including his own. As a child, a skinned knee sent him into a hysterical frenzy, and often resulted in hyperventilation. Since then, he’d grown a little less squeamish, but not much.
In the front room of the office, Wooten was able to regain his composure, though the adrenaline coursing through his body still told him to flee. Eventually, reason overcame instinct, and Arthur realized he needed to call the police. He hadn’t had time yet to question why this had happened, who might have done it, or most importantly, was the murderer still here?
Arthur lifted the receiver and started to call 911, stopping when he heard no dial-tone. Hammering the phone down, he looked about, seeking another extension, but saw none. He reached for his cell-phone, usually kept it in his front-left pocket, but found it missing. For a moment, he allowed himself to wonder where he might have left it, then dismissed the thought as irrelevant, considering the situation. “Think, Arthur,” he said aloud, trying to determine his next move. Realizing the phone cables might have come loose from the box, he decided to check.
Arthur looked away from the gruesome scene and made his way to the back door, out into the alley. So intent on not looking at his friend’s butchered head, Arthur didn’t take notice that the door was unlocked, swinging open easily, as if already parted.
The door opened wide, revealing a darkened alley. The light from inside illuminated a square on the wall opposite the office. Weather-beaten brick glowed a rich, deep auburn, while the unlighted bricks appeared dark, like the blood seeping onto the floor inside.
Wooten turned to the box of communication wires, noticing that there was indeed something wrong with them. The cords had been seemingly yanked from the box; he could clearly see the frayed ends in the dim light. As he reached for the cable, he heard a noise, like the shuffling of feet on concrete.
Before he could react, his world went black.
He awoke sometime later to darkness. Not pitch black, there was enough light to make out vague details, but not enough to read by.
At first he thought he’d been electrocuted by the exposed wires, but another look proved he was in the trunk of a car. There was a bright strip of light where the lip of the trunk met the vehicle, and a dim red glow suffused the space when the driver applied the brakes.
Groggily, Arthur realized he was bound at the wrists, but not the ankles. Apparently, his kidnapper—or kidnappers, he had no way of being sure—had been in a hurry when they tied him, else they would surely have secured his ankles too.
As he became more aware of his situation, he realized that his life was in danger. Amir had been murdered, and Arthur had stumbled upon the scene—seemingly at the wrong place at the wrong time—bad luck to say the least.
Arthur struggled against his bindings, trying to loosen them. The car kept jostling and jerking, making it difficult to do anything. Several times, his head slammed against the floorboard while he worked to free himself. Dizzy with a headache, he was finding it difficult to focus.
Riding in the trunk, it felt like an eternity as the car made turn after turn, bouncing and shaking, navigating rough terrain. Rocks and gravel clattered against the underside of the vehicle while they drove, but Arthur had no clue where they might be. Even had he been conscious from the moment he’d been forced into the trunk, he was certain he’d be lost. They’d been driving for a couple hours, and had made so many turns, he couldn’t be sure how far they might have gone, or what direction they were now headed.
At last, Arthur was able to loosen the cords enough to slip his hands free, and untie himself. His wrists were raw, chafed from the constant struggling. Now that he was able to move a little more freely, he shifted so he could press his ear to the back of the seats and listen.
“—just over there, on the right.” Arthur heard a voice, strong and menacing. It sounded like the man it belonged to was fairly big and well-muscled.
Arthur assumed the voice was speaking to someone else in the car—presumably the driver—but heard no response, answered instead by a sharp turn to the right, nearly throwing him off balance. Without using his arms to steady himself, he would have gone sprawling. Arthur already had an enormous migraine, and could feel the swell of a bump on the back of his head; they must have knocked him out.
After a couple more turns—during which the voice from the front gave directions—the vehicle finally slowed to a stop. The trunk went pitch-black as the driver cut the lights, then the engine.
Immediately, silence descended on Arthur as he held still in the trunk, afraid even to breathe. He could hear his heart pounding in his chest. For a few moments, the whole world was encompassed by that single sound: Arthur’s terrified heart, beating rapidly, like a Native-American drum.
Eventually, the sounds outside the car filtered into his mind, and he could hear crickets, and the clickity-clack of tree branches smacking in the breeze. For many minutes, he propped himself quietly with his ear against the seat, listening intently, for some sign of his kidnappers’ intentions.
Someone was speaking lightly, but he had trouble understanding the conversation. The voice became a bit louder, and he heard the words he’d been dreading. “So do we off this guy or what?” The voice of the first man. It sounded like he was sitting in the passenger seat. Straining, Arthur struggled to hear the response. He thought he heard ”in the morning.”
Both men continued a mumbled exchange, but Arthur couldn’t hear well enough to make out anything. Taking another look around, he realized that night must have fallen; light no longer showed through the crack; it was dark outside. With nothing else to do, and no idea how long until morning, Arthur shifted, and lie on his side, offering some relief to his aching muscles.
The rush of adrenaline long gone, Arthur started to feel his eyes closing; he struggled against sleep. He tried to estimate the time of day, but gave up, realizing it didn’t matter.
Over and over, the image of Amir’s shattered head came back, terrifying him. Looking down, his hands were covered in blood, black in the darkness. Horrified, he focused past his hands and saw more blood on his arms, chest, legs—realizing he was lying in a pool of the fluid, all of which was pouring out of Amir’s ruined skull—
Arthur awoke with a start, realizing he’d dozed off. He chided himself for his foolishness. He could hear snoring from the front seat, and concluded he must have slept for a couple of hours. He heard only one person snoring, and wondered briefly if the other man had dozed off as well. Surely he must have, he thought. Nothing in his capture had suggested to him that these men were professionals. They wouldn’t have the sense to maintain a watch, to prevent their captive witness from fleeing, would they?
He decided to take his chances and affect some type of escape. With no idea what type of vehicle he was trapped in, Arthur felt around, attempting to find some kind of weapon; a tire-iron or even a jack would do nicely. Unfortunately, his kidnappers were smart enough to remove any items that could potentially be used against them—even the spare tire had been abstracted.
Under the hood of the trunk, Arthur felt thin wires connecting forward, to the back of the seats. Recalling the few times he’d looked around inside a vehicle trunk, he remembered that most new cars had emergency releases, allowing someone trapped accidentally to get out. Still feeling around blindly, he came across what he was looking for: a pull-tab-like piece of plastic with a thin wire trailing back toward the trunk-release hatch. Steeling himself for a fight—a prospect he’d not considered since grade-school—he pulled the handle.
The hood popped open, and warm air gushed into the trunk, the overpowering scent of pine needles and cedar flooding Arthur’s senses. Immediately, he realized they were in a forest, and he had a much better idea where he was, in relation to the city.
Slowly and carefully, he climbed out of the trunk, wincing at the pain in his legs. He hadn’t realized they’d gone numb. After spending so many hours cooped up in the tiny claustrophobic space, his legs were flooded with sensation as blood started to flow back into them. For a moment Arthur thought his knees would give, that he would collapse. But they didn’t, and he was able to look around and take in his surroundings.
He quietly lowered the lid of the trunk, dropped to his knees, and looked into the vehicle. It was dark, but Arthur could make out the silhouette of a man, leaning against the driver-side window, obviously asleep. Arthur could hear the figure snoring.
There was no sign of the second captor. For a moment Arthur froze, unsure of his next move. He was certain there had to be two men who’d kidnapped him. Surely it couldn’t have been just this one, could it? Without knowing for sure, he realized it didn’t matter. At the moment he had only to make his escape, while he had the opportunity.
Arthur scanned his immediate surroundings: trees towered over him, completely encircling the car. They were in a small clearing, not forty feet in diameter. Ahead, just through the towering trunks, Arthur could make out a flickering light, and realized he was seeing a reflection of the Moon on water. It was a river. Though he could be any distance from home, he knew all he needed to do was follow the river until he reached one of the bridges, then he would be able to hitch a ride to the nearest police station.
Quietly, Arthur made his way toward a stand of trees, to the right of the car, to avoid being spotted.
Slowly but steadily, he approached the trees. Finally reaching them, he stood behind a tall sycamore, leaned out and looked back at the car, assuring himself he hadn’t been seen. The man was still sleeping, much to Arthur’s relief. Turning, he quietly made his way a bit further into the woods, before hearing a noise: it sounded like a zipper.
Arthur nearly collided with a man as he stepped out from behind the tree.
The second kidnapper.
Arthur realized the man must have left the car to take a leak. Both men froze when they saw each other, but only for a moment. The other had a look of confusion on his face, but recovered quickly. Arthur watched, seemingly in slow motion, as the man raised his gun, and pointed it directly at Arthur’s forehead. Thoughts flashed through his mind, and he realized he was about to die. He did not see his life pass before his eyes, though. Something within him struggled, and screamed out that he wasn’t ready for his life to be over yet; he wasn’t going to go without a fight.
Still moving in slow motion, Arthur tensed, springing toward the gunman, arms outstretched. He saw the look of surprise in the other’s eyes for just a moment. Arthur’s hand closed around the wrist holding the gun, and his forward momentum drove them both to the ground. The gun went off, the sound deafening in the silence of night. Arthur’s ears rang loudly, but he thought he heard yelling. Realizing he had only moments before the second kidnapper would respond, he wrestled with the man now lying under him, trying to wrench the gun out of his grasp. Arthur kneed him in the groin, felt the grip on the gun go loose, and pounded it against the ground, again and again, until at last the pistol dropped to the dirt. Scooping it up, he quickly pointed at the man, who was now free of Arthur’s grasp and rising to his feet.
Without a second thought, Arthur pulled the trigger and felt the gun kick in his hand. Again, the world was filled with a deafening thunder, and he watched as the kidnapper—who only a moment before had had the gun trained on him—fall onto his back. A spreading stain on his chest, above the heart, indicated Arthur’s aim had been true. He could see the man choking, blood gurgling from his mouth. A few seconds later, the shuddering stopped, and his eyes stared glassily into infinity.
Arthur stood in disbelief, shaking, gun still held high. The entire scuffle lasted no more than a few seconds, but he never would have imagined killing someone. His hearing was returning, and he became aware of the sound of someone clomping toward him—closing fast. Spooked, he turned and fired again. The other kidnapper—the one from the car—was racing toward him. Arthur saw the bullet tear into the man’s shoulder, but it barely slowed him down. Terrified, Arthur fired over and over. Eyes squeezed shut, he kept firing, until he realized the thunder in his ears had ceased, the click of the trigger indicating the chamber was empty; no more rounds.
Arthur opened his eyes and for the first time since being kidnapped, looked around, soaking up the details. Both kidnappers lie on the ground, eyes pointing toward the night sky, staring into nothingness. The second attacker had multiple wounds, seeping blood from his chest, arms, and legs. The sight of the crimson blood soaking into the forest floor instinctively horrified Arthur, bringing on the familiar nausea he’d suffered when he first saw Amir’s body. He tried to face away, but couldn’t. Looking now, he realized his attackers hadn’t been men at all, but boys—teenage boys, who couldn’t have been much older than sixteen or seventeen. Arthur wondered what their motive could possibly have been: robbery? Did they kill Amir because he was middle-eastern? In today’s world, it was impossible to guess.
Despite his revulsion at killing the boys in obvious self-defense, Arthur was elated to still be alive. Remembering the car, he pondered what he should do now. His fingerprints would be all over Amir’s office, the car, and the gun. Trying to pretend he knew nothing about the situation would never work. Grudgingly, he realized he needed to call the police, to explain what had happened. He wondered if he would be arrested, charged with murder? Surely they would agree he had acted in self defense.
Well, there’s no other choice, he told himself. Woefully, he made his way back to the car. It was a ’97 Chevy Malibu, black with black interior. The driver’s-side door was still open, and on the seat, Arthur saw a cell-phone. He reached in, dialed 911, and took a deep breath.
“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”
“This is Arthur Wooten,” he responded absently. “I need the police, please. Three people are dead.”
* * *
Amir’s funeral was held that Sunday, just two days after his murder. Arthur attended, but felt out-of-place. Even his clothing—black suit, black tie—didn’t seem appropriate. He’d never attended an Islamic funeral, but found it impressive how devoted the people were to their traditions. It seemed abnormally quiet without mourning women sobbing and wiping away tears, but only men were permitted to attend. They were stonily silent, as they paid their respects. He had considered attending the funerals for the boys who had kidnapped him, but decided it wasn’t appropriate.
After the police had questioned him, he was released. No charges were filed—but the officers had given him some strange looks, when they saw how many times he’d shot the second kid.
The funeral ended, and Arthur slowly made his way through the graveyard to his car, parked a few rows away. He knew that his life was forever changed by killing those two boys. Never again would he think about much of anything the same way. Taking another life inevitably takes a bit of that person’s as well; Death requires more than a single soul.
He reached his car, opened the door, and took one last lingering glance back at the grave-site. The mourners had dispersed, and there were two heavyset men in coveralls, filling in the grave, using shovels.
The afternoon was bright but clear; not a cloud in the sky. Everywhere, birds chirped and a slight breeze was blowing. Arthur could hear the branches making their soft sound, swaying in the wind. He would miss the world he’d lived in, the world where he was still innocent; the world where he’d never caused another human being physical harm. That world was gone for him now, he regretted to say.
However, of all the things Arthur would miss most, he would miss his friend Amir.