Andres’ phone rang a few minutes after they left Zeb’s house. Zoe heard him sigh before answering, as if he dreaded speaking to whomever was calling. “”Hello?”” Andres answered in Spanish. He was quiet a moment as the person on the other line was speaking. “”No, no, everything is fine now. I got her back.””
Zoe’s ears perked up at that. He had told his partner that she had gotten away from him, however briefly. That told her – well, actually confirmed was a better word – which of the two was in charge in this whole thing. “”No! No, I’m taking her there now. Just do what you’re doing. I don’t need a babysitter.”” He fell quiet again, but she heard him smack the steering wheel with the heel of his palm. “”Yes, I know what is at stake, but there’s no reason to hurt anyone-“” Apparently, she thought, his partner didn’t agree. “”Fine. I’ll wait for your call.””
She wished he hadn’t put the tape over her mouth. But then again, she thought, he hadn’t exactly made it impossible for her to remove it. So she did, making a small sound of pain as she ripped off the last little bit. “Andres?” she called quietly, sitting up to look over the back of the seats at him in the rearview mirror.
He flicked an annoyed gaze at her in the mirror. “I didn’t tell you to take off the tape. I put it there for a reason,” he added in a mutter.
“Yeah, sorry about that, but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. And my grandparents are from Madrid, so I speak Spanish pretty well. I think I understand something now, and I just wanted to talk to you about it.”
“I think it’s best if you just sit back there and shut up,” he said, but his words lacked any real threat.
“Okay, I could do that,” she said. “Or we talk about how we’re gonna get you out from under this thing.”
He looked at her in the mirror. Then, abruptly, he pulled the car off to the side of the road, exited the vehicle and disappeared from her view. A moment later, the liftgate opened, startling her. Andres glared at her, then reached in and picked the tape up off the cargo area floor. He started to put it back on her, but she put a hand on his. “Wait, please,” she said.
He hesitated. “What did you mean, ‘out from under’?”
She looked down and said a quick prayer of thanks that she seemed to be getting through to him. She looked back up at him. “I may have this wrong, but it seems to me like your partner is the one who’s really behind all of this. He’s the one who actually killed Nico, isn’t he?”
Andres looked away quickly, but she saw the pain the memory caused him flicker across his features. He nodded. “But I was there, I was part of it,” he told her. “I helped him set up the – the accident to cover it all up.”
“I bet you felt a little helpless then. A little in over your head, maybe?”
He looked back at her, then narrowed his eyes. “I know what you are doing, Zoe. I am not stupid.”
She furrowed her brow. “I don’t think you’re stupid. I think you’re stuck.”
He shook his head. “This will not work. If your brother does not come through for you, I have to make sure he regrets it.”
Her blood turned to slush. “Andres, please. You still have a choice in all of this. You can still put an end to this whole thing.” He started to put the tape back on her mouth again. “Wait, I’m not asking you to let me go.”
He paused at this. “Then what?”
“I’m asking you, whatever happens, to let me live. And not just for my sake, or my brother’s,” she added quickly. “For yours. You’ve done nothing so far that can’t be undone. You don’t have to have your life ruined forever because of what Seve did.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Maybe not. But I can tell you aren’t like him.” She gave him a small smile. “When he broke into my brother’s house and captured me, I thought I was dead. I looked into his eyes and all I saw was ice.” She shook her head. “That’s not what I saw in yours.”
He laughed bitterly. “Oh, no?”
“No. I saw a guy who found himself neck-deep in a situation he has no control over and no idea how to get out of. You could have hurt me plenty of times – on purpose,” she added with a chuckle, lifting her arm, “but you didn’t. I believe there’s a chance you could walk away from all this intact when it’s over.”
This time he really laughed. “Then you really have no idea what you are talking about.”
She frowned in confusion. Then it dawned on her. “You’re afraid of what he’ll do to you when it’s done, aren’t you? You don’t think he’ll let you go back home.”
“Seve doesn’t like a mess,” he said, a bitter hatred hardening his voice. “And this whole thing has been nothing but one big mess. The only person Seve trusts is Seve. I’m here because he needed another person to help him, so as long as I do what I’m told and stay useful, I’ll be okay.” He looked pointedly at her. “I don’t plan on just letting him kill me when this is over, and I sure won’t let him do it before then, either. So whatever you’re thinking, get it out of your head. I will not let you cost me my life.”
She looked at him and felt her heart break a little. He obviously wasn’t evil, just backed into a corner. Unfortunately, she knew that a cornered animal was usually the most dangerous. She nodded silently and took her hand off of his, allowing him to put the tape back over her mouth. She scooted her back against the side of the car and he shut the gate. Moments later, they were back on the road, going, she assumed, to someplace remote where no one would hear her screams.
She must have dozed off. The next thing she knew, Andres was shaking her awake, the liftgate and tailgate both open. It was full dark, and the stars overhead were dazzlingly clear, not like the ones you see in the city. They were far from what she would define as civilization. The SUV was turned off, the only light coming from the little LED lights above her head and the other side of the cargo area. He held his hand out to her, “Come on.”
She looked down and saw that he’d cut the tape around her feet. She reached out to him and he gripped her arm, helping her scoot out of the back. Her feet landed hard on the ground, the scrubby, brushy weeds crackling noisily as she stepped on them. He shut the gates and they were left in near total darkness apart from the starlight and the light of the half moon.
She looked around and, at first, saw nothing but countryside. Her heart began to pound again. Had Zeb failed to give Seve what he wanted? Was Andres now supposed to clean up the rest of this mess, meaning her?
Oh, God, please, she prayed, please tell me Zeb is still alive. She felt tears sting the back of her eyes, her breathing quickening. She tried to back away from him, but he grabbed her hand. “Easy,” he said. He pointed at something in the darkness just to the right of the SUV and up a little hill. “It’s okay. We’re here.”
She squinted and could make out the silhouette of a small cabin at the edge of a large expanse of trees. She remembered the gun Seve had had and now, seeing this, she wondered how on earth these two could have been so prepared for what they were doing. They’d only been in the country a couple days, just like Zeb, where did they get a gun and how did they find this place?
She resolved to ask Andres exactly that, just as soon as she got the tape off again.
He led her up the uneven terrain to the cabin’s porch. There was a dim light coming from inside and she saw a note taped to the door. Andres pulled it off and scanned its contents, then turned to the small woodpile to his left there on the porch. He lifted up a log, the third from the cabin’s wall, removed a key and unlocked the door.
Once again, Zoe wished circumstances were anything but what they were, for the cabin was easily the cutest, most comfortable – and comforting – house she had ever been in. The faint light she’d seen from outside was coming from a fire lit in a large stone hearth. Other than that, the house was dark. It could have been romantic, in some other, alternate universe…
He locked the door behind them and turned on a short floor lamp next to one of the two couches perpendicular to either side of the fireplace. A flat screen TV was mounted above the mantle, a coffee table sat on a plush pile area rug in between the two couches.
To their right, a breakfast bar and stools stood, marking the outer border of the kitchen, which was on the smallish side, but well equipped. A dark granite countertop sat atop cabinets the same color wood as the logs that made up the cabin’s walls. A doorway to the rear of the living room led off to another room. An open staircase by the kitchen led to a loft up over the kitchen and half of the living room.
She pulled off the tape and looked around, gawking a bit. “This place is fantastic!” she said.
Andres looked at her with an odd expression and gestured her over to where he stood in the kitchen. He got a small knife out of a drawer and sliced through the duct tape around her wrists. She pulled the tape off gingerly, wadding it up and tossing it into the trash can that fitted neatly into the narrow space between the fridge and the kitchen wall. “Thanks,” she said.
“We are at least an hour’s walk away from the nearest truck stop,” he said, “and there is no phone but my mobile. Please, don’t try to run or do anything stupid.” He sounded not just tired, but weary.
She walked over to the fire and warmed her hands. It had grown quite chilly since the sun went down. She scoffed. “I wouldn’t even know which way to go.”
He nodded in apparent satisfaction and walked over to drop onto one of the overstuffed ivory couches. He passed a hand across his face and yawned. She sat herself down on the couch opposite him, taking her shoes off and tucking her feet up under her. She, too, was really tired, despite her nap in the SUV. And she was hungry.
“So, does this place come with a stocked fridge?” she asked.
He gestured distractedly toward the kitchen. “Food, running water, even a few changes of clothes in the bedroom.” He gave her a weak smile. “Make yourself at home.”
She hesitated, then asked what she had been wanting to since they arrived. “Can I ask you: how in the world did you guys get this place?”
“Booked online,” he answered, tiredly rubbing his eyes.
She laughed a bit incredulously. “You’re kidding, right?”
He shook his head. “No, why?”
“Maybe I shouldn’t be impressed, given that I’m the victim here, but you two have got to be the most organized kidnappers I’ve ever heard of.”
If she expected him to be amused, she was disappointed. He frowned at her. “Don’t,” he warned.
“What do you-”
“We’re not friends, Zoe. You said it yourself: you are the victim of a kidnapping here. This buddy routine you are doing, it isn’t going to change anything. You know, I get it: you’re a person, not just some pawn. You are a sweet, beautiful woman, but you are also leverage. Your only purpose is to make it so that your brother does what he’s supposed to. If that requires… extra motivation, then, that is what will happen.” He leveled a stare at her. “I told you, I will do what I have to, and I won’t let you jeopardize my own life. Do you understand?”
She felt a coldness settle into pit of her stomach. All the progress she thought she was making with him seemed to have just disappeared. “Yes,” she said quietly, “I understand.” Then she glared at him. “I understand that you are a coward, and you won’t even try to make this right, because you’ve given up.”
“Stop,” he commanded wearily.
“No! If Seve tells you to kill me, you’re just going to do it, aren’t you?” He didn’t answer. “Aren’t you?”
“Just stop talking.”
“Maybe!” he yelled. “I don’t know,” he added miserably.
She blinked back tears then shot to her feet, storming out of the room. Behind her, he jumped up and grabbed her elbow. “Where are you going?”
She shrugged him off. “To find the bathroom,” she answered irritably. “I need a shower; I’m a mess.”