When Zoe got out of the bath, she was greeted by the glorious scent of cooking beef. A couple of terry cloth robes were hung on a pair of hooks on the back of the linen closet door, and she put one on and went in search of the bedroom where Andres said there’d be more clothes.
Besides the bathroom, there was one other door in the little hallway off the living room. She opened the second door and found what she was looking for. The bedroom was small but not cramped or cluttered, having only a large bed with a wrought iron headboard, a whitewashed bedside table and a closet. She flipped the wall switch to turn on the ceiling fan light and opened the closet. Inside hung several plaid flannel shirts and elastic waisted trousers. A small three-drawer chest was snuggled against the righthand short wall of the closet and she found several pairs of socks in the top drawer. The other drawers held a few shapeless tee-shirts and what appeared to be swim trunks.
She wrinkled her nose a little at the lingering traces of moth ball smell that emanated from somewhere in the closet and selected a flannel shirt, tee-shirt, pants and some socks and took them back to the bathroom. She put her undergarments back on, not loving that they, too, weren’t clean, but not too keen on the idea of wearing some of those swim trunks instead.
Once dressed in the ill-fitting clothes, she searched the vanity’s drawers. She found a comb, washed it off in the sink, then ran it through the tangles of her near-black wet hair. A small travel kit was also in the drawer, and all of the items appeared new and unused, so she was able to apply some shower-fresh scented deodorant. To finish off, she dug the elastic hair tie out of her jeans pocket and pulled her hair up into a ponytail and then took stock of the end results in the steamy mirror.
She definitely wouldn’t win any fashion shows, but at least she and her clothes were clean. She shrugged and followed her rumbling stomach to the kitchen. Andres stood at the stove frying up a couple of burgers. “That smells good,” she said.
He looked over at her to reply, but stopped when he took in her appearance. “Uh, yes, I thought you might like this.” He suppressed a smile. “You look…”
“Like I’m ready to chop down a couple of trees? Yeah, not really my taste in clothes, but at least they’re cleaner than what I had on.” She rolled up the too-long sleeves on the flannel shirt and entered the kitchen, hiking up the loose black trousers. She opened the fridge and saw that he’d been right: this place was fully stocked. She grabbed some ketchup and mustard, cheese, pickles and a couple of Cokes and set them on the counter. He already had found some bread, so she got out a couple of heavy green plates, after finding the correct cabinet.
He turned off the stove and laid the two burgers onto some folded up paper towels to drain. Then he put a pair of bread slices on each of the two plates. “No buns, I’m afraid,” he told her.
“No worries, this works, too.” She dressed her sandwich up the way she liked it and sat at the breakfast bar. She bowed her head and prayed, hearing him slide onto the stool next to her. When she’d asked for God to not only bless their food, but to protect her brother and show her how to help her kidnapper be free of Seve, she began to eat.
Andres took a bite of his food and chewed thoughtfully. Without actually looking at her, he asked, “What do you pray for when eating dinner with your kidnapper?” She thought he had meant his tone to be humorous, but it came off a lot more sad.
“That we all come out of this alive and free,” she answered, taking a drink.
He sighed and started to say something, but his cell phone rang. He dug it out of his pocket and answered. “”Yes?”” He was quiet only a short moment, then hung up. He wiped his mouth and hands on a napkin and turned to her.
“It’s time to go.”
She wrinkled her forehead. “Go?”
“It is over. I’m to let you go free now.” He turned the corners of his mouth down in something not quite a frown. “It seems your prayer has been answered.”
She didn’t know what to think, or how she felt. She was free! But what did that mean for Zeb? Or Andres? “What about my brother?”
“He didn’t say, but I’m guessing that he’s alive. Someone has to come get you, after all.”
He was lying. Or, at best, telling her what they both wanted to hear. “You don’t really believe that, though, do you? Dos- Seve wouldn’t just let us both go.”
His eyes told her everything. She jumped down off the stool and rushed to the bathroom. She put her shoes back on and picked up her dirty clothes, bringing them back to the living room. She dug around under the kitchen sink until she found a trash bag, and then shoved her clothes inside. She paused only long enough to swallow another huge bite of her burger and wash it down with a gulp of Coke before heading to the door.
Andres came up behind her and unlocked the door for her as her shaking hands made the task impossible for her. She jerked open the door, but he closed it again with one hand. “What are you doing, Zoe?” he asked gently.
Tears ran down her face in hot streams. “We have to go, now! I have to get to my brother before -”
“It would take over an hour and to drive you home.”
“I don’t care! I have to get there. I’m a nurse, I can help him.”
The muscles of his jaw flexed spasmodically as he wrestled with a decision. “Get in the car,” he said, stepping away from the door.
She bolted out of the cabin and was at the SUV in no time. She heard the remote door lock chirp and she tore open the door and climbed into the passenger seat. Andres got in a moment later and started the vehicle. They pulled onto the narrow, deserted road and turned the opposite way from which they had come to the cabin.
“Where are you going?”
“There’s a truck stop about ten miles up the road,” he answered. “You can call for help there.”
“But- why can’t I use your cell?”
“There is nothing concrete to tie me to your brother or any of this right now. I plan to keep it that way. Seve’s phone is what you call a burner, untraceable. Mine, however, is not. Part of how he is keeping me in line. If I call for help, the police will investigate and they will see all the calls I got from that burner and be suspicious. If I turn in Seve, they will see the calls he made to me and your brother. I will be-”
“Screwed, in a word,” she finished for him.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m sorry, Zoe, but I have to minimize the danger to myself. I do not want to spend the rest of my life in prison.” He looked over at her. “You are right: I am a coward.”
They fell silent for several minutes. “Do you believe in God, Andres?”
She saw him blink slowly. “Yes,” he whispered.
“Jesus knew men like you. Men who thought the things they had done were so terrible that God could never forgive them. But Jesus knew that wasn’t true, because He was God’s son. He gave His life to atone for the sins of those men, and everyone else, making forgiveness possible for everyone. Including me. Including you.” She saw a tear drip off his chin in the light of the dash panel. “You can be forgiven, Andres. He bought it for you, all you have to do is accept it.”
When he didn’t respond, she continued, “I forgive you for your part in all of this. I won’t press charges. I will tell them how you kept me safe from Seve, how you had been forced to help him for fear of your own life. You don’t have to go to prison. You can find redemption, you can be delivered from this. I promise.”
He shook his head. “It is not that easy,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. They didn’t speak again for several moments. Then he slowed the car and pulled over, idling. He pointed up ahead, to where she could see man-made lights dimming the stars. “The truck stop is just there.”
She frowned. “You’re leaving me here?”
“My orders were to get you close enough to walk so my vehicle won’t be seen by anyone. That is Plan B.” He wouldn’t look at her. “Please, get out.”
She stared at him, incredulous. Then she opened the door so the overhead light came on. She wanted to see his face. “Come with me,” she pleaded. “Get away from him, once and for all.”
He turned to her, his expression bleak. “There is no ‘away’ from him. He would only track me down and kill me.”
“Who is he? Why did he kill Milian?”
“He didn’t actually mean to, that’s why this whole thing has been such a mess.” He reached over and stroked her face with his thumb. “Thank you, for what you said. But, please, you have to get out now.” He dropped his hand then reached into his back pocket for his wallet. He withdrew a twenty dollar bill and handed it to her. “For food, since your dinner got cut short.”
She took it with a sad smile and climbed out, turning back one last time. “Come with me,” she repeated.
He shook his head. “I can’t.” He shifted into drive, so she closed the door and stepped back, watching him turn the SUV around and drive away, back the way they had come.
When his taillights were out of view, she tore her gaze away and looked around. She was almost literally in the middle of nowhere. The forest that surrounded their cabin continued here on her side of the road and rolling, sandy hills cut off her view of the terrain on the other side. If it hadn’t been night, and the truck stop so lit up, she would have never guessed there were any signs of civilization nearby.
She heard the sounds of cars far in the distance, however, and was comforted by the fact that, in a few minutes, she would be able to know if Zeb was still alive. She crossed the road and clambered up the sandy hill. When she reached the top, a large expanse of scrubby brush land stretched on as far as she could see by the faint moonlight. She stayed up on the hill, walking parallel to the road toward the truck stop. She felt safer up there where she could see every direction around her. She wouldn’t believe she was actually free until she was at home with Zeb.
Apparently, Andres had thought the truck stop was closer than it really was. From this vantage point, she could tell it would take half an hour or so for her to walk there. And with the fifteen minutes or more it took them to drive here, that would make it almost forty-five minutes since Seve had made the call by the time she got there.
Right now, that seemed an eternity.
Zoe had made it to within about a quarter of a mile of the truck stop when it happened. She took a step, and suddenly the ground gave way, spilling her down the side of the hill to the road below. She landed in a heap just a few feet from the asphalt, scraped and bruised from head to toe. She groaned and pushed herself up onto her hands and knees.
Tiny pebbles of sand and bits of broken dry grass stems were imbedded in her palms and forearms and she had hit her head on a larger rock somewhere on the way down. Blood trickled into her left eye. Her right ankle, the foot she had stepped down on when the ground collapsed, felt tender, but she could tell that, thankfully, it was not broken.
She sat on the ground, leaning against the hill behind her, and wept. Sure, the fall had hurt, but her tears were for far more than that. She felt helpless because she had failed to save Andres. She was worried she would never see Zeb alive. She was scared nothing would ever be the same again.
But then she remembered Rob and the photos Zeb had given him. There was still a very good chance that Seve would be caught. Her heart leapt at this sudden thread of hope. Until she realized that those pictures would also damn Andres. She felt another spike of panic. She would have to get to Rob and Zeb and make sure they understood what had really happened. She had to make sure everyone knew that Andres was an unwilling participant in all of this. She had told him he wouldn’t have to go to jail, that he could be redeemed; she had to make sure she kept that promise.
Zoe picked herself up off the ground and started walking along the road. Ahead, she caught sight of something moving in the shadows of the trees across the road. It lifted its head and she could see that it was a coyote.
“Scorpions and rattlesnakes next, Lord?” she asked. The coyote dropped into a defensive posture when it heard her voice. Crap, she thought, what now?
She tried to climb back up the hill, but the slope here was too steep. Maybe it would be easier if she went back to where she had fallen, she thought. Maybe she could make the climb there.
She knew not to turn her back and run, so she calmly started backward down the road in the direction she had just come from. She kept one hand on the hill beside her and her eyes locked onto to the coyote. Crap! she thought again, as several more coyotes slipped out of the tree line to join the first.
She started praying fervently, going just a little faster back toward the spot where she had fallen. Her feet crunched on a pile of gravelly sand, and she knew she’d arrived. She turned away then and started climbing, slipping every couple of footholds.
She heard the pack yipping to each other and she started running. She’d only gotten a few dozen yards when she skidded to a stop. Three of the coyotes stood between her and the truck stop. Somehow, they had gotten up the hill.
She held her ground, holding her arms out defensively at the ready. She scanned the ground around her feet and picked up a couple of pathetically small rocks. She heaved one of them toward the coyotes with a wordless shout.
The rock fell far short of its target, but the attack and her shout seemed to make the canines reconsider their position. They loped off a few paces then stopped and looked back at her. “Go!” She threw another rock. “Get out of here!”
She screamed and the pack scattered as a gunshot pierced the air. She dropped to the ground in a crouch and looked all around. Below, in the road sat a dark SUV that she hadn’t noticed approaching from behind her. She laughed in relief and started toward the edge of the hill to thank her rescuer, hoping, somehow, that it was Andres coming back to join her after all.
But he hadn’t had a gun.
She stopped and looked harder at the person below. She couldn’t tell too much in the dark, but something instinctive told her exactly who was down there. The man raised the gun and aimed it at her.
“Run, Zoe,” Seve commanded.
She screamed and darted toward the direction of the truck stop, but he fired the gun again, striking the ground just ahead of her. She skidded to a halt and changed course, moving perpendicular to the road to get out of his sight. She heard him climbing up the hill behind her and she increased her speed.
Another gunshot broke the silence. She dove to the ground and yelped with pain. The bullet had hit her right forearm, just below the shoulder. It was a shallow wound, almost a graze, but it burned like someone had poured molten lava on her skin. She got to her knees and lurched forward into a crouching run. Surely someone from the truck stop had heard the shots and would come looking, right?
She was too exposed here. She had to find cover somewhere or the next bullet could hit something more vital than her arm. She pressed her fingers to the wound to stop the bleeding and did what she hoped was unexpected: she stopped running.
She saw a stand of cactus to her left, away from the direction of the truck stop and moved toward them, still crouched low. She hoped that he would lose sight of her as she blended in behind the cacti, to give her just enough time to do what she had planned.
She heard his footsteps approaching and froze, trying to be as silent as possible. “I’m not going to kill you, Zoe,” he said quietly from a few feet away. “I just don’t want you to get to that truck stop just yet.”
She frowned. Why was he doing this after he’d told Andres to let her go? Was this the plan all along- to make her and Zeb feel like it was over, only to come after them and kill them just as they were about to gain their freedom?
He may not have killed Milian on purpose, she thought, but there was no doubt that Seve was a killer. She eased forward, around the biggest cactus of the small group. She quietly reached over and pulled a couple of the large spikes off the base of the cactus and held one in each fist. Don’t bring a cactus needle to a gun fight, she thought with grim humor.
She drew herself up onto the balls of her feet. “I can smell your blood, Zoe,” he said, coming closer. She prayed for God to guide her, as she knew she only had one chance to get out alive. He stepped into view just a few paces before her, the gun pointed up in the air. “Get up,” he commanded.
She stood slowly, but didn’t straighten all the way up. Instead, she dove forward, tackling him to the ground. He swung the gun at her face as they hit the sandy soil, and she yelped. She stabbed one cactus needle into the wrist of the hand holding the gun, the other at his throat.
He screamed and rolled her off of him, so that the second needle merely scratched his chest instead. She rolled to her feet and ran back toward the road, cradling her injured arm. She dove the last few feet, sending herself headlong down the hill before he could fire the gun again.
She rolled to a stop at the side of the road again. He would expect her to go straight for the truck stop. She got up and ran across the road to the forest. She would have to hide until he gave up looking for her.
She wove between the tall trees, making her way closer to the truck stop, but staying far enough into the woods not to be seen. As she had hoped, people from the truck stop were coming out to investigate the shooting. She could see them standing in the parking lot, scanning the darkness, but she couldn’t see where Seve had gone.
She climbed the tree next to her and sat in the crook of a branch. Her fingertips probed the gunshot wound expertly and she was relieved to feel both an entrance and exit wound. She wouldn’t have to worry about bullet fragments working through her flesh, causing further damage. No, her only worries now were blood loss and, later, infection.
While she could do little about infection at this point, she could stop the bleeding. She carefully unbuttoned the flannel shirt and painfully took off the thin tee-shirt she wore under it and tied it around her arm, pulling it tight with her teeth. Then she pulled the flannel shirt back up over her arms and buttoned it all the way up against the chill in the air.
She leaned back against the rough bark of the tree trunk and took a breather. For the moment, however brief, she was out of danger, so she thanked God for getting her here and asked for continued protection.
Then she closed her eyes and waited.