By the time I recovered my wind, they’d gagged me and tied my hands behind my back. The rope was tight, making my wrists hurt. Having my arms stretched back was awkward, forcing me to use muscles I’d not used in ages. The car’s air conditioning was on full blast. I was freezing and sweating like a pig. On the whole, it was not an ideal arrangement.
They took me somewhere. I can’t tell you where. I can’t even tell you how long it took. A blindfold takes away all sense of place and time. Being terrified doesn’t make things much better.
When we finally got to wherever the hell we went, they guided me out of the car with hands gripping both my arms. We marched a few yards, then stopped. I heard the jingle of keys. No one spoke.
A door opened and we went inside. The floor was hard and the only sound was the faint echo of our footsteps. We walked until we reached another door. More walking, then up a short flight of steps. Despite my fear, I was amazed at how well my other senses worked, taking up the slack caused by the blindfold. First, a hard floor, then a carpet, now bare floor again. The place felt warm and stuffy, but maybe I was just nervous. The guys holding my arms were firm, but not rough. Not gentle either, but they had no reason to be rough — yet.
They maneuvered me around until I felt something against the back of my knees. One of the men grunted something like “siddown” in my ear. I complied with gratitude. My legs shook. Sweat dripped from my armpits and my stomach was jumpy. I desperately hoped I wouldn’t vomit — especially with the gag on.
They bound my legs and took off the blindfold and gag. I was on a stage, facing a dark theater, squinting into two blinding white spotlights. When my eyes adjusted, I could see empty seats. What had I expected, a full house?
“Ms. McRae.” A disembodied male voice, electrically amplified, boomed from the dark.
I blinked and waited for more.
“Ms. McRae,” the voice repeated in an implacable and monotonous tone. “It’s good to meet you.”
I didn’t trust myself to say anything, so I nodded.
“I’m sorry about the inconvenience. It’s important you know we’re serious.”
No shit, I thought. I licked my lips, but my mouth had gone so dry it was a wasted gesture.
“You do realize that?”
I worked my mouth again and managed to say, “Yes.” It sounded like I’d swallowed ground glass.
“Good. Let’s get down to business then,” the robotic voice droned on. “It would be good to do this quickly and painlessly, don’t you agree?”
He could have been talking about killing me, for all I knew. I said, “Yes.”
“Where is Melanie Hayes, Ms. McRae?”
“I don’t know.”
“What was that?”
“I don’t know.” In my peripheral vision, I sensed a presence. A big, heavy, muscle-bound presence.
“Is that your final answer?”
Had I been kidnapped by Regis Philbin? “I just don’t — ”
Suddenly, I was facing left, my cheek stinging, but I hadn’t turned my head — someone had turned it for me. The slap had come fast and from out of nowhere.
“Where is she?”
I tried to catch my breath. “I … don’t know.”
Another slap, harder this time. The lights were making my eyes hurt. My head throbbed.
“Where is Melanie Hayes?”
Again, I told him I didn’t know. I got a punch in the ribs. Then another.
“Where is she?”
I shook my head. It hurt to breathe now. Another hard slap followed by a punch in the gut. I gasped for air.
“Stop that,” the voice commanded. “Give her time.”
The muscle man stepped back. I got my time. Then the voice said, “What’s your business with Bruce Schaeffer?”
How the hell had Schaeffer gotten into this? “Wanted to ask him some questions.”
“About what? What sort of questions?”
“Thought maybe he might know where Melanie is.”
Pause. “I’m not sure I believe you.”
Hands pulled me from the chair and threw me to the floor. My head hit with a bang. A kick landed in the kidney region of my lower back. I howled as an electric current of pain shot through me.
“What did you talk about, Ms. McRae? Be specific, please. I want details.” The voice boomed relentlessly.
“I asked him if he knew where she was,” I gasped. “That’s all.”
“Why would he know?”
“It was a hunch.” I said it fast, trying to get it out before the next blow landed. “I’m trying to find her. The police are looking for her. That’s all.”
I braced myself, waiting for something worse to happen.
The voice was silent. Finally, the man said, “Did Melanie Hayes leave anything with you?”
“Nothing? Are you sure?”
“No. She didn’t give me anything.”
“You lying bitch. Talk.” This from the muscle man, who kicked me again and again. He slammed me onto my back and with one arm pinned my shoulders down and sat astride my thighs, smashing my bound hands into the hard floor. He stared at me with eyes as devoid of warmth as a shark’s. A deep scar ran down his left cheek.
I heard a metallic snick and a switchblade moved into view above my face.
“Tell us, you filthy, lying cunt. Tell us or I’ll cut your fuckin’ eyes out.” The knife hovered over my left eye, then moved in closer.
“Stop that, you idiot.” the voice ordered. “Get off her right now.”
I lay there, ready to piss my pants, thinking about spending the rest of my life mutilated or blind. I didn’t dare move or breathe. I wanted to pass out.
“I said get off her,” the voice commanded.
The muscle man finally withdrew the knife and got up. He seemed reluctant.
I gasped for breath. My body shook uncontrollably.
“If you’re lying, Ms. McRae — ”
“I’m not,” I said in a strangled voice. “I swear.”
A long pause. The muscle man continued to stand over me, a dark silhouette against the spotlights. The only sound was his heavy breathing.
“All right. I think you’re telling the truth. If I find out you’re lying … things won’t go so easy next time.”
With those words, I knew I was going to live. The blindfold and gag went back on. They untied my feet, helped me up, and half-walked, half-carried me to the car. My head ached where it had hit the floor. The ride home was silent and took forever.
They stopped in front of my building, helped me out, untied my hands and left before I could get the blindfold off. Again, I didn’t get the tag number.
I was right about one thing — the Mob didn’t kill unless it had to. What I hadn’t anticipated was they might beat the crap out of me.
It must have rained while I was gone, although it hadn’t cooled things down any. The parking lot was damp, glowing with the reflections of lights on the apartment buildings. Steam rose from the asphalt, creating an outdoor sauna.
For one panicky moment, I thought I’d lost my purse, until I realized it hung from my shoulder. Dazed, I hobbled to my building, but couldn’t bring myself to climb the stairs. I sat down to rest. Next thing I knew, I lay on the steps, my head on my arm and my eyes closed. My body felt like one huge bruise. Every breath I took was agony. It even hurt to think.
I heard a door open and close somewhere. I considered moving. Why bother? Footsteps. If they could walk, they could walk around me.
“What the hell?”
A familiar nasal voice. I opened my eyes. I knew this guy. Mid-sixties, hair a glossy, dyed brown, brown eyes and a disgusted expression. My downstairs neighbor, Russell Burke.
“Hi.” I tried to push myself upright with little success.
Russell came around and helped me sit up. “What the hell’s wrong with you? Are you drunk?”
I shook my head. “No. Drunk would not be it.”
“What the hell are you doing lying here on the stairs?”
“Resting.” I felt nauseated again. The effort of talking was making me sick. I was thirsty, too. I needed to get to bed.
He scowled. “I hope that crazy fool who left here with his tires squealing wasn’t your date. Hey.” His look changed to one of concern. “My God, you look pale.”
“I feel kind of pale. Ha … oh, ow.” I clutched my rib cage. “Bad move. Worst date of my life. Uh-oh.” Things spun, but I caught hold of a step with one hand to steady myself. My tongue felt like a piece of dried leather.
“Sam? Sam?” Russell’s voice sounded tinny and far away.
“No problem,” I mumbled. “Just get me a gallon of water and a bed, and I’ll be fine. Okeydokey?” I grabbed the handrail and, ignoring the pain, pulled myself up. Then I passed out.