The three of them stood around the lantern in the middle of the room, all of them facing the door. The room wasn’t very big, but it had enough space for them and a crowd of shadows that danced with the flickering light. There was an old bucket in one corner, but none of them had used it. The whole thing, walls, floor, ceiling, was concrete except for the door, which was a thick, dark metal. There was no handle on the inside of the door and it was locked. Very, very locked.
He brought them one by one over a period of only a few hours. He took their shoes, jewelry, and watches before he left them. Their wallets and purses, too. Stripped them of anything personal but the clothes they wore as they stood blindfolded in a dark no man’s world before shoving them inside. There was no telling how long they’d been in the room since the door slammed shut.
They were strangers to each other. The only thing they had in common was that they’d all been targeted, picked up, bound, blindfolded, and then deposited in this room. They didn’t know why. And they didn’t know what would happen the next time that door did open.
“How long do you think he’ll keep us here?” Tammy asked. She was sixteen, skinny and blonde, hitchhiking her way through the end of the hippie movement. He’d grabbed her first.
“I don’t know,” Steven said. He was a senior in college, a guy too good looking to be thought of as smart, too smart to get mixed up in a scam like this, so maybe that’s why he’d been kidnapped last. He stared at the door. “He’s going to have to come back sometime. He’s going to have to give us food and water.”
“He doesn’t have to do anything,” Maureen said in her cigarette-stale voice. She might have been thirty. She might have been fifty. A hard life of drugs and prostitution distorted her years. It was her bad luck to be getting an early start on her evening shift. “He could leave us in here to starve to death if he wanted to. He’s got the keys.” She paused. “I wish he’d at least give us some cigarettes, though. I could use a smoke.”
No one picked up the loose thread of conversation. Instead, they let it dangle while they stood around the lantern with their arms folded, staring at the door.
Tammy had been picked up hitchhiking. Maureen while hooking. Steven at the gas station after his car had broken down. They’d all accepted a ride from a nice enough stranger in a grey Chevy van.
And they all ended up here, in the concrete box, an unorthodox waiting room.
“He has to open that door again,” Steve said. “He has to. There’s no way he can just lock the door and walk away like that.”
“I’m not so sure this guy is human,” Maureen said.
“He’ll come back,” Steven said. “To dump someone else in here or feed us or whatever. We don’t know what his plan is, but he will come back. And when he does, we should be ready.”
“What do you mean?” Tammy asked, squinting at Steven. Maureen only looked mildly interested.
“We should be able to hear it when he unlocks the door,” Steven said. He looked like he wanted to walk over to it to illustrate his point, but didn’t want to leave the small circle of light. “The door is metal and this place is concrete. It’s like an echo chamber in here. As soon as we hear him unlocking the door, we run over to it and stand on each side.”
“Which way does the door open?” Tammy asked. “In or out?”
“I’m pretty sure it opens in,” Steven said and this time he did walk over to the door, fading but not disappearing as he moved away from the lantern. He reappeared from the gloom. “It definitely opens in. The hinges are on the left.”
“So?” Maureen asked.
“So that gives us an advantage,” Steven said. “If we stand on either side of the door, we can take him by surprise.”
“He could take us by surprise,” Maureen said. “If he flings that door open hard enough, he’ll squish anyone behind it.”
“Why would he do that?” Steven asked.
Steven sighed, irritated, and crossed his arms.
“And who’s to say he’s going to be so naive about coming in here all casual like? This doesn’t seem like it’s his first go-round, if you know what I mean,” Maureen said. “This guy is a pro.”
“What do you expect us to do?” Steven asked. “Just wait around for him to kill us?”
The last two words bounced around the room. Tammy flinched away from them, tears in her eyes. Maureen let the words slide across her skin, like rain on glass, unmoved. Steven looked a little shocked at himself, but quickly recovered, lowering his voice.
“I can’t sit around and do nothing,” he said. “I’m not going down without a fight.”
“That’s fine,” Maureen said with a shrug. “But you better come up with a better plan if you want to get out of here. Surprise alone isn’t going to do it.”
“How would you know?” Steven asked.
Maureen smirked. “Experience.”
Steven glared at her, his lips twitching with the words he really wanted to speak, but didn’t dare. Now wasn’t the time.
“We really should try to think of a way out of this,” Tammy said in a small voice. She didn’t look at either of her companions and her voice sounded watery. “I’d rather do something than just wait.”
“Talk to Maureen about that,” Steven said and Tammy flinched at the harshness of his voice, but didn’t look at him.
“I didn’t say we shouldn’t do anything. I said we should be smarter about it,” Maureen said. “So quit screaming at her, Mr. Hero. She doesn’t need it.”
“Well then you come up with a plan if you’re so smart,” Steven said.
Maureen huffed and looked away.
“Look,” Steven said. “Maybe YOUR life isn’t worth saving, but mine is. I bet hers is, too.”
Maureen’s head turned slowly and she looked at Steven so coldly that the temperature in the room dropped like Death itself just walked in.
“Honey, my life might not be worth anything to you or her or that guy out there or anyone else, but it’s the only one I’ve got and I was defending it while you were still at home with your parents, wetting your bed. I’m not quitting now.”
“Then what are you doing?”
Steven snorted and turned away, looking at the door. Maureen glared at the back of his head. Tammy sniffled and then spoke, her voice absolutely tiny.
“What do you think he wants with us?” she asked. “Why is he doing this?”
“People like him don’t need a reason,” Maureen said, still glaring.
“But he must be doing this for some reason” Tammy said, almost pleading. “People just don’t kidnap other people and lock them up in rooms for no reason. There has to be some reason for it.”
Maureen looked at her. Her pretty blue eyes were wide and sparkled with tears in the flickering, orange lantern light. She was just a kid anyway, but the unfiltered fear made her look even younger. Maureen sighed and put her arm around Tammy. The girl was trembling.
“I’m sure there is,” Maureen said, giving Tammy a comforting pat. “But that doesn’t mean we’ll ever know it or understand it. And I doubt if we did know or understand it would help us get out of here.”
“Maybe. Maybe it’s for ransom,” Tammy said, almost hopeful. “He took our identification cards. Maybe he’s figuring it out, right now, how much he can get for us. Maybe he’s writing up the ransom notes right now.”
Maureen gave her a squeeze, but didn’t comment. The college boy would definitely have a family that would pay anything to get him back, and the little girl probably did, too, even if she was a hippie and probably a runaway. But there was no money to be had with Maureen and there was no doubt that guy knew that as soon as he saw her.
Steven turned around to face the two women.
“I think my plan is the best,” he said. Maureen rolled her eyes. “I can stand on the right side of the door. When he opens it, he’ll see the two of you. When he walks in, I can grab him.”
“And then what?” Maureen asked.
“You guys rush over and help me wrestle him to the ground.”
Maureen shook her head.
“Look, there’s no way he can take on all three of us,” Steven said. “If we all jump him together we can overpower him.”
“What if he has a gun?” Tammy asked, looking at the lantern instead of Steven.
“I’m sure I can get it away from him,” he said.
“Yeah and get us shot in the process,” Maureen said. “He gets one shot off in this box and it’s going to bounce all over the place.”
“It’s a risk we’ll have to take if we want to get out of here.”
Tammy looked away, chewing her lip as she considered the scenario. Maureen shook her head again.
“So we take him down,” Maureen said. “Then what?”
“What do you mean?” Steven asked.
“We have no idea what’s on the other side of the door,” Maureen said. “I was blindfolded when I was dumped in here. What about you?”
Tammy nodded, but didn’t look at anyone. Steven shrugged as he agreed. “So?”
“We don’t know where this room is,” Maureen said. “We could be out in the middle of nowhere. The outside could be booby trapped. The guy might not be working alone. There could be a whole crowd of people waiting outside that door.”
“I doubt that,” Steven said with a roll of his eyes. “He’s probably a loner, working alone. We’re probably out in the middle of nowhere so he doesn’t have any neighbors asking him questions. And this has to be in his basement or a cellar or something. I’m pretty sure we went down stairs to get here. Besides, we do know one thing that’s out there and that’s his van. After all, we were all picked up in one. If it brought us here, it can take us to safety. We just have to get to it.”
“That makes sense,” Tammy said. “All we have to do is get to the van. There we can get away from here.”
“Just that simple, huh?” Maureen said, taking her arm from Tammy. She crossed her arms as she smirked at Steven.
“Yes, it’s that simple,” Steven said, mirroring her. “Why should we make it difficult?”
“Okay. Fine,” Maureen said with a shake of her head. “Let’s do it then.”
Steven blinked and took a step back, shocked by Maureen’s sudden change of mind. “What?”
“Look, I think this is a horrible idea,” Maureen said and Steven opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off. “I think it’s going to get us all killed. I also think we’re all going to get killed anyway. And you’re so sold on it that even if I could come up with a better plan, I’d never convince you to do it. So, fine, college boy. We’ll do it your way.”
Somehow, Steven managed to glare at Maureen while also looking smug.
“Do you really think this will get us killed?” Tammy asked, sneaking a peek at Maureen.
“I said so didn’t I?” Maureen said.
She turned away from her companions and walked to the wall opposite the door, moving outside the circle of lantern light and into the gloom, and sat down.
“What are you doing?” Steven asked.
“I’d think a college boy like you could recognize sitting,” Maureen said, her voice a ghost in the shadows.
“Why are you sitting over there?” he asked. “Why can’t you just stand with us?”
“Because I’m tired and I want to sit,” Maureen said.
“Well, why can’t you sit by the lantern?”
“Because I want to rest my back against the wall.”
“How is that stupid? What is your problem?’ What difference does it make where I sit?”
Steven huffed, annoyed that Maureen was making him spell everything out to her. “When he opens the door he needs to see the two of you standing there. If you’re sitting by the wall he’s only going to see Tammy.”
“Then why aren’t you standing by the door waiting for him to open it?” Maureen asked.
“Because I’ll run over there when I hear him start to open it,” Steven said.
Steven glared at the vague shadow that was Maureen and Maureen smirked somewhere in the gloom.
With the plan set, there was nothing left to say. All they could do was wait and listen for the lock on the metal door to be sprung so they could all rush to their places like some high school play. Steven stared at the door, shifting his weight, ready. Maureen sat. Tammy paced a half-circle around the lantern, looking between the door, Steven’s back, and Maureen, worrying her hands and chewing her bottom lip.
In the end, they didn’t hear the lock.
The door flung open, assaulting them with harsh light from the outside world. Tammy screamed and dropped to her knees. Steven, starring right at the door when it exploded inward, stumbled backwards, tripping over the lantern and falling, blinded. It was only luck that the lantern went out instead of catching him on fire. Maureen was on her feet and in the corner, ready to fight as soon as the door hit the wall.
The small room became crowded with shouts and bodies, everything too loud and too bright. For a few seconds it was like a tornado touched down.
And then someone yelled,” Quiet!” and the chaos vanished. A blinking Steven was pulled to his feet. Maureen stayed in the corner. Tammy cried out when she was touched but quickly dissolved into relieved sobs when she saw that it wasn’t her captor picking her up, but a police officer. The small room seemed to swell with a number of them.
“Are you folks all right?” the lead man asked.
“Aside from the heart attack you just gave us, yeah,” Steven said, rubbing the burn out of his eyes. “How did you find us?”
“A tip and a lucky break,” the officer said.
“Where is he?” Maureen asked, nodding towards the door.
“In custody. Come on. Let’s get you folks out of here.”
A police officer carried Tammy through the door first; she clung to him and sobbed loudly. Steven followed behind, an officer at his elbow. Maureen jerked her away from the officer that reached out to take her arm, but didn’t protest when he walked beside her and out the door.
Steven had been right. The room was in a basement in a house isolated from its neighbors. With the harsh light of investigation filling the concrete, subterranean space, it was easy to see that Maureen had been right, too. This wasn’t his first go ‘round.
But it was going to be the last.