Indistinguishable


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Part 1: The Taking

What is a dream?
What is reality?
Just a demarcation in human memory.
-Xu Yunuo, Little Poems

Ground not upon dreams; you know they are ever contrary.
-Thomas Middleton, The Family of Love

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
-Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca


Chapter 1

The Walled Garden

I’d been dreaming about the gardens again.

Once, a couple years ago and on the other side of the country, I’d told my friend Ana about these dreams of mine. I’m pretty sure it was over double mochas and glazed crullers at one of the half dozen identical Starbucks coffee shops infesting Center City, since that’s what we usually ordered—but I couldn’t swear to it. Nor could I tell you which Starbucks it was, because we always just stopped at whichever one had street parking available nearest to it.

You know how memory works: Only the important stuff sticks, while the irrelevant details blur and become indistinct. Or to put it another way, sure, there are extraordinary individuals who can tell you exactly where they were last October 4th at 10:30am and what they had for dinner that evening, but I’m not one of them.

“So Maggie, these are recurring dreams?” Ana had asked me, nibbling at her cruller.

Per usual during these post-lunch coffee breaks of ours, we didn’t look at each other while talking, but instead indulged in our favorite mutual hobby: People watching.

Ana worked for the Philly Inquirer—and, well, she was single and didn’t want to be. She was also a lesbian, which made things doubly difficult for her because her ‘gay-dar’ wasn’t very accurate and she had an unfortunate tendency to hit on straight women. Which was, in fact, how we met a few years back. I was following up on some health care reform thing, and so was she. My angle, alas, was writing marketing copy for an insurance company client that obviously didn’t want any reform, thank you very much, and I honestly have to admit I didn’t like that particular assignment. We both sat uncomfortably for the better part of an afternoon at the insurance company’s regional headquarters in Wilmington before both of our appointments were cancelled without explanation.

At first I thought Ana was just being friendly and chatty, and we went out for drinks after. Then she touched my right arm just a few too many times, and I realized she was edging towards an outright “wanna come home with me?” proposition. Despite the faux pas, we laughed it off, ordered a plate of hot-wings to share, and eventually discovered we had a mutual passion for the Phillies. She also had a pair of comped season tickets for a box halfway down the third base line. Gary, still my husband at the time but not for much longer, didn’t mind because it was ‘safe’ for me to be out with other women, although I think he would’ve felt differently had he known about Ana’s preferences.

Anyway, that particular day in the Starbucks, I was telling her about the dreams. I remember blowing across the top of my double mocha before taking a tiny sip because as usual, it was scalding hot. I’d shifted uncomfortably, because the bruises and healing welts on my backside and upper thighs were just entering the maddening itch-phase of healing. I looked forward to the day when I could go back to my usual jeans, rather than the long rayon skirts and out-of-style shirt-dresses which had been my only tolerable wardrobe for the last two weeks. “It’s not that they’re recurring dreams,” I answered. “Recurring implies it’s the same thing over and over, and being helpless to stop the repetition.”

“Then what are they?” Ana asked. “How can you keep having the same dream, but not the same dream?”

“I keep dreaming about this one garden. A huge garden, at least a couple acres, maybe more. There’s a colored pea-gravel path that wanders all over, not following any regular pattern. The place is filled with an amazing variety of flowers—roses, marigolds, tulips, mums, peonies, rhododendrons, you name it. Ornamental trees here and there, usually with small stone benches under them. It’s all enclosed by a high, gray granite block wall, polished and shiny on the inside, and if there’s an exit, I don’t remember ever seeing it. Except maybe back into the house or mansion or whatever it is.”

“I still don’t understand.” Ana shook her frizzy brown, shoulder-length curls from side to side, as she often did when she was puzzling a difficult problem. For an instant, her blue eyes met and held mine—which are green, by the way, in case you were wondering. I’m mostly Irish, so have the usual reddish hair and fair skin that freckles and burns rather than tans. “How is that not a recurring dream? Same place and all that?”

“Because I’m never doing exactly the same thing each time I have it,” I said, shrugging and looking away into nothing. “One night, I might be sitting on one of the stone benches, holding a bunch of flowers. Another time, I’ll be walking the paths. Once it felt like I was resting my forehead against one of the walls, but I couldn’t see anything—I guess I had my eyes closed. At the same time, I still knew it was the garden. The smells or something…I don’t know.”

Just then, a young blonde woman in a gray pinstripe skirt-suit came in, clacking on stacked heels. Ana’s gaze immediately locked on the newcomer, checking her out, and I wasn’t the least bit surprised: She had a particular weakness for femme business types, especially those whose skirts would be right at home on an old Ally McBeal rerun. Our conversation remained suspended and I chanced to sip at my mocha, which had finally cooled to a non-lethal temperature, while Ana frankly admired the woman’s slender legs. We didn’t talk for almost a full minute as business gal placed her order for a single light half-caf latte, soy please. Then the inevitable happened.

This woman with the long salon-tanned legs turned to another of the small crowd standing at the payment section of the counter. With a giggle and single-hand backsweep of her long hair, she put her hand on the forearm of another business-suited customer. A gorgeous guy who clearly used a ton of hair product each day, six-feet four easy and looked like he spent all his spare time at the gym. He turned to her with a huge grin. “Cassie! Hey there! How’s it goin’?”

“Couldn’t be better, Trev.” Cassie giggled and swept her hair back again. “We still on for dinner tonight? La Premier?”

“You bet!” He sounded eager. No surprise there either.

“Trev and Cassie, gawd… but it figures. Ah well,” Ana sighed, swiveling back towards me. “Some day.”

Over at the counter, Cassie giggled and did the hair sweep thing a third time. I decided it was a nervous tic. “Yep, someday your princess will come,” I quipped.

“You bet she will,” Ana said, winking at me as she repeated the punch line of the old joke we often shared. “Again and again and again…”

* * *

This time, the dream was different. It was always different and yet, like some habit or ritual, some elements were always the same. It was the same in the way a prison is always the same, even if from day to day specific small details change.

Make no mistake either: Somewhere deep inside I knew this place, this garden filled with an abundance of sublime and brilliantly arranged floral beauty, was without a doubt my prison.

I was dreaming of the walled garden again. Like all the other times, I could not quite remember exactly when I’d stepped out of my old familiar life and into this one. Whenever I was in the garden, my other life—my real life—felt like the dream-world. I knew who I was, what I did for a living and all that, but the details kept skittering away, almost willfully trying to be forgotten in the same way dreams evaporate like morning dew. In the garden, it was as if I was an entirely different person.

As ever, I had this strange, bifurcated sense of being both passenger and active participant in the dream. Like sometimes I’d think, ‘I’ll turn left at that fork up ahead, see what’s down that way,’—and it would happen. Other times though, for instance, I might be sitting on one of the ubiquitous hard stone benches under the trees, looking at nothing, bored to death, and for the life of me I simply could not make myself get up and go wander the gravel paths.

On this occasion, it was mid-afternoon, a warm autumn day, the sun high and bright in a cloudless, azure sky. A slight breeze puffed from time to time cooling me, occasionally carrying a hint of wood smoke and pine. I was meandering slowly along the edge the path, my left foot feeling the rough pea gravel shift and crunch under my foot, while my right foot sometimes walked on the grass, sometimes on bare turned earth. I could feel the ground so well because I was wearing soft and rather impractical gold silk slippers. I’d apparently been walking thus for some time, for there was a brown line of dirt across the right toe, as well as on the hem of my pale powder-blue robe.

Of course it was a robe, but this didn’t come as a surprise either. In these dreams, I was almost always clad in some long robe, cloak, or old-fashioned dress. I had had no idea why I never dreamt about wearing my usual scuffed jeans, or perhaps even one of my old business suits, but this is how the dreams always were. I know better now why this was so, but I didn’t at the time.

‘…how these dreams always are,’ I half-mused, half-thought, inside the dream itself. It struck me as funny, because I’d been having the garden dreams off-and-on for nearly four years. Not often, only every few months, but they felt more real than real, which made them more memorable, if that makes any sense.

I also had noticed on more than one occasion that my hair, although the same color, was much longer here in the dream-garden, and usually it would be up, pinned or tied with ribbons. On the few occasions when it had been down, the red-brown length hung halfway down my back. This struck me as odd, as I’d never worn mine longer than the shoulders since the age of nine, when I’d insisted my mother cut it off to be just like Diane down the street—the popular girl in my class. Today, from the weight it seemed my hair had been wound into a thick twist, then coiled atop my head and held by some means. I couldn’t tell exactly how it was arranged, nor could I check for myself because my hands were otherwise occupied.

In the crook of my left arm, I cradled a large bouquet of flowers. As I wandered along the paths seemingly without aim or plan, I dallied every now and then. I would reach down, or over, or up as required, and using nothing but my long, red-lacquered thumb and forefinger nails, I’d pinch off the stem of another flower to add to my bouquet.

That was another discrepancy. In my waking world, I always kept my fingernails sensibly short so they wouldn’t interfere with typing. Moreover, I had the vague notion that these flowers were blooming well outside their normal seasons… Were they being brought in from somewhere else, a hot-house perhaps? If so, was this solely for my benefit?

Of course it was foolish to expect consistency and sense in dreams, no matter how vivid. Dream-worlds are, by standard definition, the creation of a single brain and thus could not be blamed for being inherently self-centered.

A thought came to me, unbidden and unexpected, as I bent down to clip off a mariposa tulip: ‘I’ll need to collect a few more, so they don’t—

With this notion came the dead certainty I was being observed. One or possibly two others were following a short distance behind me, watching. Somehow I knew they were close, making no effort to hide. I didn’t feel as if I was in any particular danger—they meant me no harm, I knew that much, and yet at the same time, there was in me a powerful desire that they’d just leave me the hell alone. This emotion seemed familiar, as if I’d experienced it often.

A little further along the gravel path, I added a fawn lily and then a penstemon to my bouquet. I looked down at it, quite the gaudy profusion of colors and scents and shapes, a complete mish-mash of at least a dozen flowers that included varieties I couldn’t even begin to name. Some of them looked a little…off. Colors just this side of too intense, and one rose had an asymmetry of petals that just didn’t seem natural or healthy.

I paused. Or rather, my body paused. I would have been fine to continue down the path a while longer, picking more flowers, but my unseen, unsensed co-driver apparently decided to call a halt. My hands shifted the bouquet, holding it before me, almost as if I was going to present it to somebody. Instead, without volition my head lowered itself, bringing my nose in among the petals and leaves. In an instant, the perfume almost overwhelmed me. I buried my whole face in the blossoms.

This is something else I never would’ve done in real-life. I have terrible hay fever allergies.

The scents were sweet, earthy, spicy, minty, fruity. It occurred to me then that I’d not smelled flowers like this, with such flagrant abandon and relish, for many, many years. Not since puberty as far as I could recall, which had been when the allergies had kicked in with a vengeance. I’d gotten myself scratch-tested once and discovered I reacted to cat dander, dust and dust mites, certain types of mold, and pollen. Oh yes…pollen. A snootful of it like I’d just inhaled ought to have set off a sneezing fit, sinuses filling, and had me reaching for my antihistamine caplets and nose spray. For whatever reason—maybe because this was just a dream, I thought at the time—it didn’t affect me at all.

I savored those mingled perfumes for several moments, then the odd bifurcation happened again, that sense of divided self, and even as I was feeling a little gratitude for the little dream-gift of being able to smell flowers again without anxiety, the other half of me was quite anxious about something. It was a vague, half-formed and wordless fear, with a hint of shame and a whole lot of cloying despair. This dream-self of mine was a prisoner and she knew it.

Directly in front of my eyes, in the center of the bouquet, was a dark maroon blossom, a huge globe shaped flower bigger than a closed fist, with a thick frothy profusion of curving petals—a gorgeous peony. Definitely out-of-season…

My face dipped down, pushing closer to the peony. At the same time, I became aware that other fearful part of me was straining to listen for the sound of approaching footsteps on the gravel. ‘Boots are louder, so I should hear if they’re coming for me,’ came the thought.

Before I realized what was happening, before I could even think to try to prevent it, my lips and tongue reached forward and took hold of one of the peony petal clumps. I pulled it off the blossom and, with a flick of my tongue, pulled it in just as a horse might do. Another quick, furtive grab, and another. Soon they lay like a mass of soft, moist membranes in my mouth. Pushing the peony to one side, now my lips reached for another odd looking flower I didn’t recognize, a series of purple dandelion puffs arranged up a long stem, smelling very strongly like spearmint. I took a bite of this, snapping the stem between my teeth. My god, it was bitter and astringent.

A stab of fear hit just then, because I could hear footsteps drawing closer. I pulled my head up from the bouquet and resumed walking down the path, trying to match my earlier, measured pace and striving equally to calm my breathing. The bouquet was cradled in the crook of my left arm again.

The wad of flowers remained in my mouth like a great lump of cud, but I didn’t chew, instead working the muscles in my jaw and tongue, bringing up saliva and tasting a little sweetness, a touch of powdery grit, and a whole lot of naked bitterness. If I’d any volition, I would have spit it out, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. Eventually, when I had enough saliva, I swallowed the whole thing and had to fight not to cough as bits of it caught in my throat on the way down. Almost immediately, a light sheen of sweat broke out on my forehead despite the cool, swirling breeze. Another alien thought came: ‘Don’t be stupid, you know it doesn’t happen that fast. It’s just an anticipated—‘

Somehow, something in my body reacted, or remembered a reaction, although why this should be the case, I had no idea whatsoever. For that matter, I couldn’t make the least sense or sanity out of the portentous act of eating some flowers. ‘Why such a big deal? Why should anyone give a damn if I nibble on a flower?’ That thought was mine.

My doppelganger had no answer to this. I supposed this was simply another manifestation of the usual illogic in dreams. There was no way this could be anything but a dream. Nothing else made sense.

Still walking the path with smooth, measured steps, feeling gravel roll under my left slipper, the slide of grass under my right, I became aware I had a slight headache and that I also felt slightly nauseous. That other part of me knew I’d been nauseous a lot lately, which this other me didn’t mind, except for that fact I couldn’t be seen being sick to my stomach. In the moment, I was also glad my unseen escort was behind me, because I knew my skin was even more pale than usual and my heart raced.

Unfortunately, as I continued down the path, the desire to throw up kept growing.

Not-me chided, ‘Control yourself… It’s too soon. It takes the better part of an hour—‘

The trouble with the human body is sometimes it does what it wants to do, regardless what the mind says. Sometimes the body says, ‘Hey dummy! Those things are bad for us, remember? Tell you what—if you won’t get rid of ‘em, I will.’

It’s a survival mechanism.

I battled to keep my breathing, my walking, and my increasingly irresistible desire to blow chunks all under control. I was losing the war.

With a small burp, bile rose in my throat, burning and bubbling as it came—

* * *

I woke abruptly to the sourness of stomach acid in the back of my mouth and the unforgettable smell of two things: Duct tape and burlap. The garden, my dream, all of it evaporated in an instant, along with the remembered perfumes and scents of the flower bouquet.

The duct tape odor was more obvious and stronger. Anybody who’s ever used duct tape—and who hasn’t?—knows the plastic rubber adhesive smell that wafts from the roll when you unwrap it from its plastic shrink-wrap, and whenever you pull off a fresh strip.

I had other associations with the stink of duct tape, deeply unpleasant ones. Tying me up with duct tape, and then covering various parts of my body with it, had been one of my ex-husband’s favorite bondage fetishes. I got nothing whatsoever out of it, save rashes and fungal infections, but it always got him harder than a rock. Once, I suggested we try nylon straps instead, like the kind climbers use. Gary had pouted like a five year old. Lower lip all pooched out and everything, and the little tent in his fire-engine red Calvins collapsed like its center pole had been yanked out. I relented.

I always did, in those days.

In addition to the duct tape and burlap smells, I couldn’t see either. My eyes were open, but all was dark.

A kind of dumbstruck confusion filled my brain, and my senses seemed to be coming online slowly, one at a time. Taste had been first, of course, but fortunately the nausea seemed to have abated. Then smell, and now I could catch a third scent, the acrid tang of my own perspiration.

Touch came back and, as if a ton of raw data had downloaded into my aching head, it took me several seconds to make the pieces form a mental picture. At first it was just a great jumble: Rough burlap against my face, scratching there and also against my left arm where I lay on top of it. My legs were immobile at the ankles and knees, bound together. My hands tingled slightly, circulation impeded, and joined tightly together at the wrists, crossed behind my back. I was also hot, perspiring, and probably rather aromatic myself.

I thought I detected something different, something other than burlap under the exposed skin of my lower left leg. Carpeting? I couldn’t be sure. If so, it was thin and barely padded, like an outdoor rug. One thing I did realize then is wherever I was, it was in motion, the surface under me rocking from side to side in no regular pattern, with an occasional small thump-thump.

I’m in a vehicle, I realized. The back of a truck or van?

Pain came next. My wrists and ankles hurt from the tightness of the duct tape itself, abrading the skin, while my bent-back legs and twisted arms ached from the stretched awkwardness of my enforced captive position.

Captive… No! Don’t go there, don’t you go there.

In addition to rising panic, I also had the mama bitch-kitty of all migraine headaches. The pain started in the base of my neck, with hot wires in the back on both sides, rising up over my skull where they turned into a parallel set of steel bands. Complete with steel fastener bolts through my temples and the inner upper corner of each eye. Oh, I knew the steel bands were an illusion, just an apt description of the raw vicious hurt filling my head, but then I’d always been gifted—or cursed—with an overactive and extremely vivid imagination.

Hearing returned. Although muffled, I recognized the hum of wheels on pavement, the whine of an engine running fast, and the unmistakable lyrics of a Creedence song—

Find me out awalkin’, time the whistle starts acallin’,
Maybe stoppin’ early, knockin’ at your door.
Take so long to answer, Lord knows it ain’t the milkman
Could be stoppin’ early, sellin’ Door To Door

All of a sudden, it all came crashing in on me. Oh sweet Jesus… I would’ve whispered the words aloud, but the wide strip of duct-tape across my mouth made all speech impossible. ‘No, no, no no no no no…’

The mental electrician engaged the rest of the breakers in my mind and, despite the migraine headache, I guessed where I was and what had happened—and more to the point, who had done it.

I was bound with duct tape and stuffed head-first into a large burlap bag, but the tiny bit of light coming through the fabric told me I hadn’t been blindfolded. The steady, regular sensation of motion without much in the way of turns or stops—that suggested we were on a highway. The wheel and engine sounds supported my theory we were moving pretty fast, too.

The duct tape alone wouldn’t have forced the conclusion—any kidnapper might’ve chosen tape because it was both easy to get and made for very secure bonds. But the Creedence…

CCR had been Gary’s favorite band of all time. ‘He used to say John Fogerty was God, remember?

Gary Lambertson. My Ex. I am so incredibly fucked.

* * *

There was a gap in my memory. Actually, several gaps.

As I lay there, I tried to reconstruct what had happened, but it was like fighting through cobwebs. I’d heard once that major trauma, especially head injuries could disrupt the formation of long-term memory, something about how the short-term just didn’t get filed in the brain, like that poor guy in the movie, ‘Memento’—only in his case, his condition was permanent. Given how much my head hurt, the skull-pounding migraine—maybe I’d been hit?

I remembered getting up that morning, watching a little news while I had my coffee and rice cake with smear of peanut butter. I’d planned to go running at Big Basin Redwood Park, as it had the twin benefits of being close by and a nearly endless network of trails and access roads. The trails themselves were well-marked but I had the ones I usually ran practically memorized. I changed straight from my nightshirt into a sport-bra, knee-length gray lycra running shorts, a slightly oversized Oakland Raiders t-shirt, padded socks and sturdy trail-rated running shoes.

I remembered hunting around my cozy one-bedroom rented house for the Camelback water-pack when the memories stopped—

No, that hadn’t been right. More recollections surfaced, just as I was beginning to think Gary must have snuck in, bopped me on the head and taken me from there. I did find the pack near the foot of my bed, and the water-pack liner was in the dish rack next to the kitchen sink. I filled the liner bag with a liter and a half of cold filtered water from the fridge, then checked the pack pockets for my usual selection of odds and ends: Tissue travel pack, emergency nasal spray, granola bar, miniature first aid kit, a half-dozen dog treats in a Ziploc bag… I didn’t own a dog, but I learned a long time ago that a small bribe can work wonders with otherwise nervous or barky ones.

I grabbed my purse, the Camelback, and my cell phone on the way out and locked the door.

The van or truck slowed for a moment, causing me to roll forward. Damn, it hurt. I’m positive I made a noise or whimper, but if my kidnapper noticed he didn’t pay any attention. Actually, the Creedence was quite loud, so I doubt I could’ve made myself heard even if I’d wanted to.

This stuff’ll get the stain out if you use it
Loosely wadded; This here’ll take the pain out and
Won’t mess your hair. Place your order early
‘Cause you know I’m in a hurry; Your neighbor’s in
Her doorway, won’t you sign right here…

I thought I could hear some voices under the music. Right, plural—really not good. Both male, I could tell that much, and one was kind of high in tone and…well, I guess the word I’m looking for is whiny. Wheedly. That sort of thing. The other seemed more self-assured, confident and commanding. Dominant. I assumed the second voice must be Gary’s, but the other one? Did he pick up a hitch-hiker? No, he’d never do anything like that.

So Gary got himself an accomplice, and together they kidnapped me? That didn’t make sense either.

Oh, the kidnapping part—for sure. My divorce had been beyond messy, and Gary insisted repeatedly that I was a gold-digging opportunistic bitch, even in front of the judge, which earned him a stern rebuke. He made these ridiculous allegations despite the fact I didn’t get any part of the two houses we bought together, not a single one of his six cars, and a monthly alimony so low even my own attorney had the grace to look both abashed and angry. My ex-husband was not a poor man. In fact, even though he’s a stockbroker, he actually did quite well in the recent market troubles because he’s one of those short-sellers who always make a ton of money every time the Dow and NASDAQ tank, and all that money meant he was able to hire a way better attorney than mine. Gary might’ve even bribed the judge—I wouldn’t put it past him, if he thought he could get away with it.

Less than a week after the divorce was finalized, he started phoning me, usually late at night and from the slurring of his voice I could tell he’d been drinking heavily. He’d call me names and make oblique veiled threats, usually involving the powerful and connected men he claimed to know, and demand I file a quit-claim with the court on that lousy alimony settlement. It seemed to drive him berserk to know I’d left the marriage with anything more than the meager contents of a single U-Haul truck, the smallest size they rented—which even then was only halfway full when I pulled out of the driveway of his Princeton mini-mansion.

For my part, I wasn’t doing anything except trying to put my life back together, discovering just how low my credit scores really were, and waiting for alimony checks which never arrived, not a one. Finally, I asked my attorney to send a reminder—there was no way I was going to do it myself. Gary’s phone calls became even more abusive, and that’s when the anonymous postcards started. They were computer-printed and mailed from a variety of locations around New Jersey and NYC, and a few even came from Pennsylvania, with several literally tucked into my mailbox without postage or postal markings. In other words, he hand-delivered those ones, or paid someone to do it.

I don’t want to get into the details as to what was on those postcards, which were vile, profane, and obscene. Each one managed to include a vague, unspecified threat towards me, but never quite explicit enough to get the police involved. “Tell us when he actually does something Ms. O’Connor,” is what they said to me when I filed the first report.

A week later, I went out one morning to find all four of my tires slashed. I reported it of course, but again the cops demurred, suggesting it could merely have been random vandalism. “Just my car, no one else’s?” I’d asked the officers.

They had no answer, because there was no direct evidence as to who did it.

About a week and a half after that, I found a dead, disemboweled cat on my doorstep. Reported that, too, then buried the poor thing out back in my condo’s little postage-stamp back yard.

Then the anonymous cards and now letters started showing up at my workplace. At the time, I was writing website content for a marketing company—a rather boring job actually, but it paid the bills. The mailings invariably accused me of some malfeasance or crime, like stealing petty cash or selling off office supplies by the carton. One memorable series alleged I had an off-hours business as a professional dominatrix and furthermore was a convicted sex-offender.

These slurs were especially galling, given the fact I could have brought up Gary’s…unusual sexual preferences during the divorce proceedings, but never did. I could have shown photos of the scars on the backs of my thighs and on my ass…

So why didn’t I? Because for the longest time I really didn’t want to think about that last, awful night. Because then I’d have to think about all the warning signs I’d ignored, all the times when what I told myself was just harmless bondage play in fact went way the fuck over the line. I mean, how many times can someone claim they were just too wound up and distracted to hear when you’ve cried out the pre-arranged safe word, or didn’t see you drop the yellow silk handkerchief which was supposed to mean, “STOP NOW”?

To be sure, I started off with the complete support of my manager and the company’s human resources people, and once even the VP in charge of our division had me in to offer sincere assurances they’d stand behind me. But those cards and letters were like a slow poison. Co-workers stopped talking to me. I think some of them were afraid that my stalker would turn on them, and perhaps some few thought maybe the accusations had some basis in reality. It became more and more uncomfortable at the office.

It was around then I told my attorney—a really lovely matronly woman by the name of Stella Blue—about everything that had been happening for the last six months and showed her the cards and letters, which by this point filled two large manila envelopes. She was shocked I hadn’t come to her sooner and insisted on taking charge. Not long after, we had a court protective order telling Gary to leave me the hell alone and reminding him sternly about the alimony in arrears, with ten days to comply with the last or we’d go to court again.

On the ninth day, my mailbox exploded. It was Saturday afternoon, and I’d been taking a nap. I hadn’t been sleeping well, and more frequently than usual I’d be in that dream garden, doing aimless things and feeling a sense of vague foreboding. When I told my therapist about it, he assured me with his thirty years of professional training that recurring nightmares were a common reaction to stress, then called my doctor and had him write me a prescription for Restoril.

The detonation shocked me awake and without thinking, I ran outside to find a fine scuff of white-and-green confetti littering the street in front of my Flemington condo. Someone else must have called 911, because I was still standing on the sidewalk in a dazed state of shock when the cops came—lights on, but siren quiet. They figured out before I did that the confetti consisted mainly of shredded money—fifty dollar bills, plus some twenties—and the explosion had been caused by several large M-100 firecrackers wired together and all set off at once.

Gary turned out to have an airtight alibi, with receipts proving he was at a brokers’ conference in Boston, and two written statements from friends who said he was with them that entire day.

I started coming apart after that, a slow disintegration. Already depressed, I also became somewhat obsessive-compulsive, constantly checking everything for sabotage, and just getting in my car was a process that took a minimum of ten minutes. I even had a mirror on a telescoping wand, which I used to check the underside for tampering or damage, and when I got home, I’d stop at the door and sniff for the smell of natural gas. Every time the phone rang, I risked a panic attack.

By then, yes, I was on anti-anxiety meds—Klonopin, with some Valium to back it up when my nerves were especially bad, plus the aforementioned Restoril for sleep. I had a choice of two states: Doped up or terrified. I lost a lot of weight. Once, a dark-haired woman at the Shop-Rite came up to me in the salad dressing aisle, out of the blue, and asked me what was so terribly wrong, that I looked like I was about to burst into tears at any moment. I thanked this kind stranger and told her I was just having a bout of insomnia, and promptly abandoned my shopping cart right there, and fled to my car, where I wept uncontrollably for nearly half an hour.

About the phone calls—see, by that time Gary had changed tactics. Now he just rang the phone, and if I answered, he’d hang up. Those calls always came from public phones, as I found out when I filed that particular report with the police, usually from a Denny’s or some fast food joint.

I got my number changed, which worked for about two weeks. After the empty calls started again, I stopped answering the phone and just left an answering machine on the line, always just deleting the recorded messages unheard. When the ringing at all hours got to be too much, I unjacked the phone and answering machine both.

Obviously my work suffered and although my employers at the time were still pretty supportive and understanding, such support only goes on for so long—especially when said employee isn’t hitting her deadlines anymore and the clients are complaining about the sloppy quality of her output.

Then Gary raped my credit. Well, he was the one with the motive, but there was no way of proving who, how, or exactly when six different individuals in four different states—Texas, Nevada, North Carolina, and New York—all opened credit cards in my name, with my social security number and birthdate, and then proceeded to live the high life. At first, I had no idea this was happening because remember, I wasn’t answering my phone. I only found out when all my credit cards were declined one evening at the Shop-Rite. My god, that was embarrassing, standing there with a hundred bucks worth of groceries already bagged and me with no way to pay for them. I was dumbfounded when one card after another came up denied—and this was doubly shocking to me because I always kept them paid off each month. Always.

I went home and called MasterCard to start with. The young man I spoke with—he said his name was Kevin, but I feel pretty sure he was based in Bangalore, and thus probably had a name like Mohinder or Raj. Anyway, he was very kind and understanding, and the first to suggest I might be the victim of identity theft. He gave me more numbers to call.

Instead I dialed Stella Blue’s office, and she ordered me to come down right then, that she’d handle it. She really was great about it all. I think something about my situation called out the she-tiger in her, so very protective and fierce, and maybe a little of it was guilt for getting such a poor settlement in the divorce, but truly I didn’t blame her.

I, however, had had enough. For sure, we got my credit records sorted out and set to super-high security, such that I practically would have to give a blood sample before anyone would issue another card or authorize a loan in my name. But I also knew I was still the equivalent of a ragged doggy chew toy in Gary’s mouth. He obviously had plenty of personal information on me to continue fucking with my life. I told Stella I wanted to disappear, to relocate, to do like a witness-protection thing for myself, and since I’d been to the west coast a few times and really quite liked the Santa Cruz mountains, it seemed like it might be a good place to start over fresh. What we ultimately did to ensure it would work was Stella’s idea.

She got me a new social security number, and I also changed my name. Twice. First I changed it in New Jersey, and for a very short time my New Jersey driver’s license read Joan Smith, no middle initial. Three months later, after I’d moved to California, my new attorney—an avuncular shaven-headed fellow named Bill Hodges, an old friend of Stella’s from law school—helped me change my name again. I took back my first and middle names—Margaret Joann—but instead went with my maternal grandmother’s maiden surname: Walker.

I lied and told the California DMV I’d never had a license before. The driving test administrator probably suspected I was too good to be a brand new driver, but he didn’t say anything. Just dinged me a couple points for not checking my mirrors as often as he thought I should and then marked the test as passed. Okay, technically what I’d done was illegal as all hell, but there was no way I was going to use my original name-amended birth certificate, giving Gary a clearly marked trail to track me down. Bill hooked me up with a semi-shady friend of his who was able to supply me with very official-looking but phony documentation that put my place of birth somewhere in the middle of Iowa, a county which as yet did not have digitized online records.

It was also Bill who had a few contacts that got me back on me feet, writing on the Internet.

I soon discovered I had this uncanny instinct for picking out the one councilman, the one disgruntled legislator with an interesting story to tell, and I could get them to talk to me. I became a blogger for a liberal/progressive website, one of the larger ones with some underwriting and advertising revenue—all I had to do was put up at least one good post two days out of three and keep a decent hit-rate on the incoming traffic, and it covered my modest rent and expenses. I’d broken a few stories, but nothing with enough pizzazz to get me national recognition—which, of course, I didn’t want. Still, I had a small number of loyal fans, as well as some others who never failed to let me know just how badly I was screwing up, and one woman named Frieda was convinced she could bring me home to Jesus. I suppose I could have just shunted her emails to my spam folder, but they were actually quite sweet; I didn’t have the heart to tell Frieda I was agnostic.

Best of all, the website let me post under an assumed identity, so I was safe.

Or rather, I thought I was safe. Obviously, I’d been tragically mistaken on that account.

Anyway, that’s the back-story, and why I was certain Gary must have tracked me down. As I lay there in the truck or van, I remembered a little more, and meanwhile the next track was playing:

Sweet hitch-a-hiker
We could make music at the greasy king.
Sweet hitch-a-hiker
Won’t you ride on my fast machine?

It sounded like Gary’s whiny-voiced accomplice was singing along with the tune, which I found a little surprising. Gary hated it when anything or anyone ‘adulterated’ his CCR—his term.

What I remembered now was stopping in Boulder Creek to get gas, and I’d thought briefly about popping next door to the little supermarket, maybe get a cruller, but resisted the temptation. Even as I recalled these details, more came with it like a picture resolving itself from white nothingness, like one of those old-style Polaroid instant photographs, the kind they don’t make anymore.

Up at Big Basin State Park, I’d parked my silver Honda in the main lot and locked my purse in the trunk, adding keys, wallet, and cell phone to my Camelback pack. Did the usual deep knee bends and stretches there beside the car and a little jogging in place to get the blood flowing. I put on the pack and fastened the straps, making sure the little blue rubber bite-tube was positioned in its clip on the shoulder strap not far from my mouth.

Again, I’m only pretty sure I did these things, but having done them so many times before, it kind of blurs together. Plus the migraine wasn’t helping.

Then the run: I crossed over near the Redwood Trail, north up Skyline, with Opal Creek to one side. The day had been sunny, but cool—a lovely early autumn day, just about perfect as far as I was concerned, especially for running. I may have been running away those many months ago, but I doubt I could’ve found a better climate to which to flee. I’d had long since come to the conclusion that Californians, especially those dwelling in the Santa Cruz mountains, deliberately overstate their fears of earthquakes, mudslides, and El Nino winters just to keep everyone else from moving there.

Did I pass anyone on the trail? I thought so. A Japanese family, if my memories could be trusted. Father, mother, two little boys, about six and eight years old—all chattering excitedly about the immense, towering redwoods. Not knowing the language, I couldn’t understand their words, but the gestures made their meaning clear: “Look! Have you ever seen anything so gigantic?!”

I’d been tempted for a moment to hold up and suggest they’d find even more impressive redwoods down in the other state park just south of Felton, but I didn’t want to stop running, and wasn’t sure the family spoke English anyway.

Anybody else?

Yes… Another jogger. A guy in his late forties, dark hair but balding, black mesh tank-top, shiny red shorts. He was kind of cute, even if his running togs were mega-dorky. I waved and so did he—one of the little habits of mutual recognition shared by both runners and motorcyclists alike. We all do it.

“How’s the trail today?” I called as he neared.

“Uphill both ways as usual.” He grinned, huffing hard between his words.

I remembered laughing at the old and familiar joke, and the look of the man’s slightly winded smile as we passed each other. This was where? About halfway to Meteor Trail, right?

Right. Meteor is a thinner trail, breaking off to the left from Skyline and parallel with Rodgers Creek; I was enjoying the sun’s warm embrace, sipping water occasionally from the Camelback’s bite-tube.

And then? Around a curve with a large twisted madrone just ahead, a tree I’d seen many times before, and always it looked like Atlas, bent under the weight of his worldly burden, only in this case with a globe merely hinted by leaves. Beyond the madrone, a small circle of young redwoods—

A sudden stab of unbearable pain in my head, starting out feeling almost like an ice-cream headache, but rapidly cycling higher and higher, spreading to encompass my entire skull. I slowed, stumbled, cried out and pressed hands to my eyes and forehead, and for an instant I wondered if I was having a stroke or aneurism. Then the ground came up at me all at once.

WHAMMO! Lights out. That’s all she wrote.


Chapter 2

Captive

At least I felt I could finally, with some confidence, identify the point where my memories stopped, but I still had no explanation as to how collapsing alone on a trail in the middle of a redwood forest resulted in me bound and gagged in the back of a van. The dark-haired jogger had been long gone, I felt certain, and he didn’t seem the type anyway.

Some sort of poison dart? The idea seemed ludicrous. I was still missing a ton of crucial information, not least of which was what had happened between the moment when I passed out and when I woke up. I tried to think past the massive headache, to reason it out. We were moving pretty fast and not taking very many turns. That meant highway, but the nearest ones would be all the way over in San Jose—and that meant I’d been out for a minimum of an hour, probably longer.

Up front, Sweet Hitch Hiker ended, and the CD must have been on repeat because it cycled back around to the first track on ‘Mardi Gras’—Lookin For A Reason.

I struggled some more, trying to find any give whatsoever in the tape but it was no use. There really were only two choices: Lay there quietly and wait for something to happen, or do my utmost to attract some attention and force the matter.

After pondering this for a bit, I opted for the second.

Twisting around, I began writhing on the carpeted floor and trying to summon as much noise as I could behind the duct tape gag. At first it seemed rather pointless, as the only sound I could make was a sad, stifled moan, and I soon bumped up against something large and blocky, but eventually the gyrations brought my legs around far enough to reach a wall. ‘Ah, now that’s more like it…’ I thumped my feet against the side as hard as I could, generating a satisfying metallic boom. Encouraged by this, I hit the wall several more times, grateful for my shock-absorbing running shoes, one of the few luxuries I’d allowed myself since moving to the west coast.

The CCR cut off in mid-verse. “You hush back there, or you’ll get what for! Be still and behave!” It was the wheedly, whiny guy.

My response was to thump the wall even harder, although I’ll be honest and admit part of me wanted to give up, to comply, not to make him or Gary more angry with me than they already were. Illogical, I know, and pathetic—but old habits run deep.

I heard muffled cursing. Briefly I wondered why Gary wasn’t saying anything, but figured maybe he didn’t want me to know he was responsible yet. I just kept on hammering with my feet.

This went on long enough I started to tire and to wonder if my kidnappers were just going to let me exhaust myself like a parent might wait out a toddler throwing a tantrum. I was soaked with sweat, some running into my eyes, stinging badly. Then I felt the vehicle slow, make a turn, then roll over a few bumps in the road. We straightened out, driving along for several minutes more at a reduced speed, and finally came to a halt. A door opened and slammed shut.

I rammed my feet against the wall a few more times, having decided it was better to be angry than afraid.

Another larger door opened behind me and the floor wobbled. Two hands grabbed my shoulders roughly, whipping off the burlap sack. Involuntarily, I ducked and squeezed my sweat-stung eyes shut, expecting to get slapped or punched, but it didn’t come. A weak skirl of hot, dry air puffed over me, cooling and welcome despite the temperature. I dared to look again.

He wasn’t Gary. This captor was a small man, maybe five foot eight or nine, with a skinny, rangy build. His hair, which met above his pimple-blemished forehead in a strong widow’s peak, was ash blonde mixed with gray and tied back with a leather thong. His face was all angles, with a sharp chin and narrow bloodless lips that looked chapped and abraded, as if he habitually chewed them, and his rough-stubbled cheeks were pocked with old acne scars. He wore blue jeans which had seen better days, a black t-shirt, a denim jacket, and scuffed, light brown cowboy boots. His face, hands and what I could see of his arms looked tanned. On his left wrist, he wore a analog watch with a brown leather band—it was mine, actually.

I was deliberately trying to notice all these details, and to memorize them, to burn them into my brain, so I could give the police a good description. If I managed to escape at some point…

The one detail that really caught my attention was the fact his right eye was bright blue, while the left was dark brown. Wow, talk about an identifying feature…

He snarled at me then, as if my examining him had been offensive, upper lip curling back just like an enraged dog, and grabbing a handful of my shirt, he hauled me up and backhanded me hard across the face.

I was already in a great deal of pain, but the force of his strike nearly knocked me out. He reached for me again and I flinched, but his purpose then was to yank off the strip of duct tape over my mouth.

When he did this, I caught a glimpse through the open door behind him, and was further shocked to see not the fields and rolling hills of the Salinas or central California valleys, but instead Joshua trees, yucca, and scattered low, round shrubs. We were already in the desert. This meant I must have been unconscious for hours.

Another thing I noticed was the odd shape and design of the truck bed interior. The space I was in was no more than four feet wide, and lined with thin gray nylon carpet, and easily a third of the available space forward, just behind the cab, was taken up by a large metal footlocker. The padlock on it was one of those large round ones, the kind that are almost impossible to remove with bolt-cutters. By the olive drab color and battered but sturdy construction, as well as the faded unreadable remnants of stenciled lettering, I presumed the locker itself was probably military surplus. On hooks and shelves around me were an odd assortment of items whose purpose I could not guess right away—lengths of rope, poles with hooks of line through them, plastic bottles with names I couldn’t read, a few small metal cages.

I didn’t have time to puzzle this further because my captor grabbed another handful of my shirt and made as if to hit me again. “Is she going to stop the fussing and behave?” he demanded in his irritating whine. “Or does she want another taste of the lash?” An instant’s pause, then as if answering his own question, he added in a deeper, colder register, “She’s awake—ask her yourself, sponge-brain.”

‘Oh great,’ I realized. ‘He’s a lunatic and he’s objectifying me. Where the hell is Gary? He should be back here, gloating over his prize.’ Amazingly, this guy frightened me more than my mailbox-bombing ex-husband. I tried to think what to do. It was difficult to concentrate with all the pain, but one discomfort in particular gave me an idea. “Listen, I don’t know who you are or why you’ve done this, but I really need to use a bathroom.”

“You need to what?” The whine was back, but at least he talked to me as if I existed, progress of a sort.

“You know—to pee? Urinate? Relieve myself?”

“Oh—have a slash.”

“To what?” I’d never heard the term before.

He ignored my question, instead shaking his head firmly. “Forget it. Won’t happen.” The deeper voice again. “We haven’t scryed the precise coordinates yet, and Bart says we have to hurry or we’ll miss the phase convergence.”

‘Scryed the coordinates? Phase convergence?’ I let it go. Clearly, I was dealing with an insane man here and didn’t want to provoke him. “Bart? Is he your friend? I thought I heard you talking earlier.” I was no dummy—I deduced that my captors didn’t include Gary—unless maybe my Ex was using an alias? So was the Creedence just a coincidence? Even if so, that still didn’t mean Gary wasn’t responsible.

I think, however, I’d asked the wrong question. “You shut up about that!” The pock-faced little man widened his eyes in an expression that managed to convey both terror and barely contained rage.

“But you just—“ I stopped myself, struggling to think of something, anything which wouldn’t set this guy off. I decided to try soothing and submissive, an approach with which I had a great deal of unwanted experience. “I’m sorry, truly I am. Listen, can you tell me your name?” I hurriedly added, “It’s okay if you don’t.”

His lip curled a little and he looked away as if vaguely ashamed. “B-Buh-Bartholomew,” he stuttered in an oddly flat, lifeless tone, completely unlike his previous voice. Then, blinking, the whiny version returned, defiantly asserting as if it was a complaint, “My name is Bart.”

“Okay, Bart,” I said, struggling for a calm I most certainly did not feel. Two personalities or three? I wondered. “Please, my bladder really is full—no kidding, no tricks. If you don’t let me go urinate, I won’t be able to hold it, and I’ll…um… ‘slash’ right here. That would make your nice truck all stinky and me all wet. You don’t want that, do you?”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” he sniggered in still another voice, the comment not even directed at me. “She really has no idea, does she?”

Uh oh. I decided to take another small risk for the sake of getting a confirmation. “Who was that?” I dared.

“Barney,” he snapped. “Ignore him—he never takes our missions seriously.”

My heart sank as it sunk in, that the degree of my ‘being fucked’ had just taken an exponential surge: I’d been kidnapped by a schizophrenic with overlapping active personalities, at least four of them. There was no second kidnapper; what I’d heard was my captor arguing with himself. On the other hand, I didn’t want to give up either. Maybe one of the personas—perhaps this Bart—would be more sympathetic than the others. “Bart, please,” I begged. “I won’t try to get away. I can’t even feel my feet, so it’s not like I’m going to be able to run or anything.” This last part had the added fact of being true.

Of course, I was hoping that just maybe my circulation would come back fast enough for me to run the second I got the chance. Maybe we weren’t that far from the highway…and maybe I could flag down someone before Bart caught me again. I also had to hope he didn’t have a gun handy. The last of my hopes hinged on the deduction that my aching head was because he’d clubbed me, unnoticed, and perhaps he didn’t have anything else on him.

It was a whole lot of maybe’s, but it’s all I had. “Please, I’ll be good.”

He stared at me for several seconds, and the expression on his face kept shifting, his jaw working as if he was chewing on his thoughts. “All right,” he said finally, reaching into his right front jeans pocket and pulling out a pearl-handled folding knife, a rather nice one actually. “But you tell him I treated you nice and proper-like.” As he unfolded it, he said, “Lay back down now and roll over on your tum-tum.”

‘Him? Did he mean his more commanding personality, whose name I didn’t yet know? Or Gary?’ I did as he bade and soon felt warm, slick metal against the insides of my wrists; a few tugs later, the tape separated and they came free. A couple more pulls, and my ankles were free, too. When I rolled back over, Bart had already retreated to the back of the truck and was letting himself down. Stalling for time, I paused to pull the tape remnants from my ankles and wrists, rubbing them and willing the blood to flow again to my numb fingers and toes. “Hurry up!” he urged, eyes darting and fearful.

Not trusting my ankles to hold me, I scooted down the carpeted floor, eased over the back bumper, and braced myself against the truck to stand up. The vehicle was big and white, a large oversized pick-up truck frame with an oversized boxy-looking custom back-end to it. At about chest height, along each side, there were four or five doors with sturdy latches. The logo on the passenger side door up front read, “Wilcox County Animal Control.”

I sighed and wondered just how much worse this nightmare could get. At least there hadn’t been any sexual assault, and I hoped fervently the operative word there wasn’t ‘yet.’

“Go on then,” Bart ordered, somehow managing to combine both command and wheedle. “Have your slash already. We’re on a tight schedule.”

I looked around, both for a place to relieve myself and to assess my chances. Judging from the sun, the time seemed to be late afternoon, and given the flora and terrain, this was definitely in the southeastern part of California, maybe somewhere out in the Mojave. It pissed me off a little, that I couldn’t be more certain and to see my stolen watch on his arm. The sky was clear, cloudless, with a high pale haze that washed out most of the color. I took a wild guess that we were somewhere near Boron, but I could have been off by a hundred miles and not known any better.

Unfortunately, Bart had parked the truck between two abandoned buildings. To the right was a large rusting metal barn big enough to store a semi-trailer, and on the other side lay the boarded up shell of a failed diner, one that gave every appearance of having gone out of business decades ago. A narrow track led over a weed-infested section of raw, dry dirt, and beyond that was an old asphalt two-lane road, badly cracked and lacking any remaining paint or markings to indicate lanes. I tried to listen for traffic noises and heard nothing but the soft whoosh of wind and the rusty creak of an old hinge swinging freely somewhere.

I let go of the truck and, on wobbly ankles, staggered roughly toward the nearest corner of the derelict diner. Above the building, so badly faded the original red had turned to gray, a sign read, ‘Last Eats.’ Below that, the motto, ‘Good HOME-COOKED Food!’ It reminded me I hadn’t had anything but a rice cake since morning, and despite the stress and anxiety, I was famished.

“Hey!” came the command from behind. “That’s far enough. You kindly take your relief right there, your Ladyship, or nowhere.”

I recognized this voice again: It was the confident, commanding one I’d heard earlier when I’d first awakened, and it had a touch of western twang. “Can I at least go behind that bush right there?” I pointed at a big round thistle close enough it was plausible that’s where I’d been headed all along.

Glancing back to see if I had permission, I noticed that Bart now held a long silver and gold stick. I didn’t see where he’d gotten it from. For all I could make out at the distance, it was about twelve inches long—an ornate rod or wand with carvings along its length and a number of embedded jewels encrusting one end. It looked expensive as all hell. He cradled it in his left hand, while rubbing the raised bumps of the gemstones—seemingly unconsciously—with his right thumb. “As my Lady wishes, but do not try to escape. You would regret the attempt.”

He really did sound like an entirely different person; I couldn’t quite get over the difference. Shaking my head, I went behind the bush, pushed down my shorts and did my business. Crouched with my behind pointed away from my captor, I didn’t want him to see the old scars, as I felt a tired yet familiar vague shame. The scars were the main reason I wouldn’t join a gym, never went to a spa or sauna, never went swimming anymore even though I used to love it. I couldn’t bear the stares, the unwanted attention…the pity and the judgment.

On habit, I glanced at my wrist to check the time, but there was nothing but a watch-shaped mark somewhat more pale than the rest of my slightly freckled forearm. Dammit—he’d taken my watch and my Camelback with everything in it, including the cell phone for which I’d have given my right arm just then.

For a time, the hiss of my urine hitting the ground was the loudest thing anywhere near us. Squatting there, I looked around for any help whatsoever, without success. The land behind the diner contained nothing but an endless expanse of southern California desert. I saw a thin, horizontal line at the southern horizon which might have been power lines, but couldn’t be certain, while behind me, to the north, lay more emptiness and perhaps a hint of purple shadowed humps in the northwest distance—the Sierras? No idea. I’d never spent much time in southern California except to pass through it on my way elsewhere.

Too soon, I was finished. My bowels were loose enough from anxiety I could have done that too…but I didn’t have anything to wipe with, and maintaining some small shred of dignity was important to me just then. I squeezed a few more drops, then stood, pulling my shorts up as quickly as I could.

Bart was staring at me, still fondling the wand…and had a look in his eyes that wasn’t like any of the other personalities, but something far worse. The only word I can come up with to describe that look was hunger. I’d become like prey to him.

I swallowed hard, but then he blinked several times and as his expression cleared, he glanced down at the slender, jewel-handled wand as if wondering how it had gotten there. Finally, he shook his head and gestured with the rod. “Come on, we don’t have forever.” The original Bart was back, whiny voice and all.

My toes were only tingling at this point, no longer entirely numb. Standing on the balls of my feet, I bounced to test them and was pleased to note the wobbliness in my ankles had also passed. Part of me wanted to go along, to comply and hope for some degree of kindness, but another part of me remembered the videos Stella made me watch, back when Gary first started his harassment campaign. They had featured a retired police officer with the most outrageous moustache I’d ever seen—to this day, I can’t remember his name…Bitterroot? Baldrick?—but he had entire lists of practical advice to avoid being a victim of violence, and graphically tragic stories about what happened when you didn’t.

Top among these nuggets of sage advice was, ‘Never, ever let the bad guy take you to another location.’ Why? Because they will always take you further away from public spaces, to some place where they feel most powerful and comfortable, and once there, your chances of being raped or murdered or both begin to approach near certainty. In my mind’s eye, I pictured a Unabomber-style shack dozens of miles from nowhere, and myself chained beneath the floorboards, except when Bart/Barney/Tolly wanted a playmate to assault and torture…until he tired of me.

I said I had a vivid imagination.

I made a quick mental inventory: My lunatic captor had a truck. Maybe he had a gun somewhere, but if he did, he hadn’t thought to threaten me with it yet. I, on the other hand, although possessing nothing more than the clothes on my back and the shoes on my feet, could run for six miles without stopping, and furthermore, I could do this in the Santa Cruz mountains which, not quite really mountains, nevertheless featured rather steep terrain.

I pivoted and went rabbit, aiming first for the corner of the deserted diner. If I could get that far, even if he had a gun, I still might have a chance.

A howl of frustrated rage came from behind. “Bitch! You dasn’t!”

Bert began to mutter and curse in some foreign language, sounding vaguely like bastardized Latin. At the same time, I heard a high-pitched ringing—an attack of fierce tinnitus—and my limbs threatened to turn to rubber with sudden weakness, while a huge yawning pit of unreal fear opened in my belly.

I shook my head, figuring some of it had to be related to stress, dehydration and maybe even the migraine. The noise and weakness faded as I rounded the building corner. ‘Oh happy day…’ What I hadn’t been able to see before, blocked by the abandoned diner, was a cluster of about a dozen small houses and house-trailers maybe half a mile away across acres of high thistle, mesquite, and clumps of salt-bush. The dwellings didn’t look all that well maintained, but they did seem to be inhabited. I even noted a laundry-laden clothesline out behind one of them, red and white striped bedsheets billowing in the light desert breezes. It may not have been much, but it sure looked like heaven to me. The only thing I didn’t see was any people.

With half an ear cocked back to listen for the sound of Bart starting the truck, I bore down and broke into a flat-out sprint, my teeth bared in a fierce grin of satisfaction and righteous anger. This son of a bitch expected a meek and submissive kidnap victim—whether for himself or on Gary’s behalf, I no longer cared, I wanted him to know I wasn’t an easy mark. Ducking and weaving among the spiny thistle-weed, I imagined Bart being shoved into the back of a dust-streaked sheriff’s car, as I gave my statement to a portly and serious, yet sympathetic county officer. ‘That’s right Sheriff, he drove me all the way here from up near Santa Cruz. Of course, sir, I’ll be glad to testify at his trial…’

I made it about fifty yards. A piercing shriek filled my head, along with horrific pain easily twice as bad than the worst migraine I’d ever experienced, and raw terror began to paralyze me. I stumbled, and for the barest second the pain, weakness, and noise relented. Gathering myself, I kept my eyes on the striped bedsheets hanging on the clothesline, the promised land of trailers, tarp-covered shacks, and paint-faded manufactured housing, and pushed on. No matter what, no matter the agony and crippling fear, I’d get there.

The agony in my head doubled, and then doubled again. I couldn’t see, blinded by the pain. My legs no longer obeyed my desperate will to keep running.

When I fell to my knees, I crawled. The pain and panic never let up, and exactly when I lost consciousness, I’m not sure. The last thing I saw was the twisted base of a sage bush, with small clusters of ants running in demented, chaotic circles along it. They seemed confused.

* * *

The climb back to consciousness felt like it took forever. Part of me wanted to embrace oblivion, stay deep inside this womb of dark forgetfulness and vague and unthreatening non-garden dreams. An aching body, ravenous hunger and thirst, and above all knowing I was in desperate danger shoved me rudely back to wakefulness.

The good news was that Bart hadn’t gagged or hooded me again. The bad news? My arms and legs were bound more securely than before, wrists pulled painfully back and fastened to my ankles. Once more, I was on the ratty thin carpet which smelled vaguely of urine and wet fur in the back of an animal control truck, from a county I’d never heard of and probably stolen. And we were still in motion. I mentally kicked myself for failing to note the license plate number when I’d had the chance.

Twisting myself around, the small wire-grilled window in the back door of the truck showed only darkness. I squirmed back the other way and the view through the small sliding glass window forward seemed no different. Nighttime? I had no choice but to conclude I’d been unconscious again for hours, and worse, I had no idea how he’d done it to me again. Tranquilizer darts? Drugs? Alien brain implants? What?

The unmistakable tune of “Bad Moon Rising” wafted through the small open window, although nowhere near as loud as Bart had been playing the music before, and thankfully he wasn’t trying to sing with Fogerty’s howling rendition, but merely hummed along. I don’t think he quite knew the tune, as he often got the notes wrong or late.

I was faced with a choice: Sit quiet and wait, or take some action?

Still channeling the wax-mustachioed Bitterwood or whatever his name was, I opted for the second choice as before. “Hey!” I shouted, but broke into a coughing fit because my throat was so dry. When the jag passed, I called again, “Hey! You paying attention up there?”

The silhouette of Bart’s head bobbed into view, outlined briefly by the headlights of oncoming traffic. “Whaddya want?” he demanded.

Actually, I was still groggy enough I hadn’t thought that far, so I blurted the first thing I could think of. “I’m dying of thirst back here and haven’t eaten all day.”

“No. You were a naughty, disobedient bint.”

“C’mon,” I pleaded. “You can’t really blame me for trying. Besides, didn’t you want me to tell him how well you treated me?” I still had no idea who ‘he’ was, whether Gary or someone else, so it seemed safest to keep it vague.

Bart’s head reappeared, then drew back. I heard muttering through the window, the whiny voice arguing with the deeper, more confident one, but couldn’t make out the words. After several minutes, we swerved right and began to slow, wheels rumbling and bumping over the rough road shoulder. Once halted, the rear compartment’s overhead light came on, the sudden comparative brightness hurting my eyes and causing the lingering migraine to surge. Bart got out, came around to the back and opened the rear door.

He did not look happy. His lower lip was so badly chewed, the left corner had broken open and looked raw. He had the bejeweled wand in his right hand and, keeping his suspicious gaze on me, he reached down for a plastic gallon jug of water, the label on the container reading, ‘Mountain Springs Pure.’ Gesturing with the wand, he commanded, “Move yourself up there.”

I did as he bade, scooting and wriggling as far forward as I could, until coming up against the big metal footlocker. Bart climbed in, opened one of the high metal cabinets opposite me, and rummaged for several seconds before finding a large, flat-bottomed metal bowl: A dog’s water dish.

I noticed then that he had several colorful brochures stuffed precariously in the right side pocket of his denim jacket. They looked like the kind of thing you’d pick up from a highway rest-stop vacation guide display. The one facing me, unfortunately, was backwards and all I could make out was part of a generalized map, a grid of lines that at the distance meant nothing to me and could have been anywhere on the planet.

Bart put the bowl on the floor and emptied roughly half the jug of water into it.

I looked pointedly at the bowl, then at him. “You have got to be kidding.”

“No, I don’t gotta. Not giving you another chance for tricksies. Drink or not, as you like.”

Shit. I’d been hoping for at least the temporary respite of having my arms unbound, even if for just a few minutes. Sighing, I tried a different tack. “Any chance for something to eat? But please, if you’re thinking dog food, don’t bother.”

“Aye,” he answered curtly, backing to the rear door. “Not dog food.”

“Where are you taking me anyway?” I didn’t think he’d answer, but it was worth a shot.

He didn’t reply. As he hopped back and down, the colored brochures caught on the door edge, pulled loose from his pocket and tumbled to the carpeted floor. My heart skipped. Maybe, finally, some information? I willed myself not to stare at the glossy rectangles, while Bart bent down to pick up something he’d left on the ground under the rear bumper. I recognized the blue-and-white spiral logo on the crumpled bag, not needing to see the text beneath to know where it was from: Burger Galaxy. Bart reached in and pawed around before pulling one, then a second paper-wrapped burger from the bag, tossing both in my general direction. One landed flat, while the other rolled until it bounced off the footlocker before flopping over. The grease-stained wrapper read, “Burger Galaxy – HyperCheese Combo”

“You’re not going to unwrap them for me?” I asked, while at the same time wondering if I could somehow hook those brochures under my legs while he was distracted.

“No.” He slammed the door shut.

Soon we were rolling again, accelerating so roughly a large portion of the water in the bowl sloshed out onto the rug. I ignored both the water and the cheeseburgers and inchwormed my way to the back, twisting around to block Bart’s view through the cab window in case he checked. With my chin, I separated the brochures—there were three of them, and also a half-sheet of yellow lined paper with rough, angular block-letter writing on it. Luckily, the brochures had landed right side up and were easy enough to make out, but that didn’t help me make any sense of them. From left to right, they were pamphlets for the exciting family vacation adventures available at Shiprock New Mexico, Sedona Arizona, and Crater Lake Oregon.

I was still puzzling over the three colorful pamphlets, wondering what they could mean, when the truck suddenly lurched to a halt, throwing me halfway to the front, my knees brush-burned on the thin nylon carpet. Bart was cursing. “Blasted whore-juicing—“

The front door open and shut roughly. I threw myself around, lunging at the small pile, but knew there was no way I could hide all of them. Instead, I leaned sideways and grabbed the yellow paper with my lips. Twisting back, I had an idea. I dropped the paper and lay supine upon it. By time Bart opened the rear door, I was making half-hearted attempts to unwrap one of the cheeseburgers with my teeth.

His mismatched eyes narrowed with suspicion and the jewel encrusted wand pointed at me as if it was a weapon, Bart looked around the compartment until his gaze fell on the trio of brochures. With a scowl, he swept them up and, after folding them in half, stuffed them back into his jacket pocket. For several seconds after he just looked at me, blinking hard. Guessing what might be happening, I wondered who would be looking at me when he came back to himself.

Abruptly, he put the wand away, tucking it into the back of his jeans, jumped into the compartment and reached for what I was certain would be the hidden paper under me. Instead, he took the cheeseburger, unwrapped it, and set it back down on the opened wrapper near my head. He retrieved the other burger, too, and did the same, placing it next to the first. “Sorry, m’lady,” he said, this time in a voice and accent I’d not heard before. It was vaguely British, and yet decidedly not. “Your people’s idea of meat popkins leaves much to be desired, including taste and actual beefsteak. Alas, Bart loves these horrid things and Tolly doesn’t care as long as it fills the belly. As for myself, I cannot abide them but perforce must admit they are technically edible.”

“Tolly’s the one in command, talks with a slight twang?”

“Aye,” he said, nodding. “A man of crude manners and violent temperament, but highly self-disciplined. I believe Tolly may have been a crusader, a soldier in service to his church—he thinks like one with a veneer of fanatic religion atop military training, a most dangerous combination.”

To me, this new persona sounded…well, educated and cultured, as well as infinitely sad and resigned. Had I stumbled onto the one sympathetic personality in the asylum behind those unsettling eyes? “What’s your name, if one may presume to ask?” I decided to match formality with formality, hoping he’d stick around. If I had a chance with any part of Bart’s fractured psyche, I felt certain this persona would be the key. “I don’t believe we’ve met. Until now, that is.”

“Nathan, m’lady. Named for the martyr, not the renowned general, but I doubt you would have heard of either of them on this strange shard.” He turned away, face downcast as if deeply embarrassed. “I don’t get out much,” he added by way of explanation. “I sincerely apologize for all this—it is most regrettable. Not that an apology from me accounts for anything.”

“You could let me go, you know,” I suggested helpfully. “Just a small head-start is all I ask. If you could hold on—”

“I’m sorry, no,” he interjected, shaking his head. “If I had said ‘yes’ or even considered the intention, that would be the last you’d hear from me for a very, very long time. Bart may be a complete weasel of a man, but he has an extraordinarily strong will, stronger sometimes even than Tolly, much to his chagrin. I’m among the weakest of us in here still capable of rational self-expression, and right now, I am here only because he and Tolly are preoccupied, having a fierce argument.”

“Us?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking. “How many of you are there?”

“Dozens, but only a handful are dominant, however. Usually, it’s either Bart or Tolly, occasionally Bartholomew when he’s needed—this body’s original lone soul, poor sod. Barney perhaps, as whimsy strikes or when a bad situation can be made even more unpleasant by the inappropriate addition of crude, boorish humor. Most of the other souls are mere ghosts, barely aware they even exist and unaware of anyone else, believing they are trapped in a terrible dream or in eternal Hell. Several are barking mad.”

“Oh,” I said, not sure what to say or ask next, and wishing I’d paid a lot more attention during my college psych courses. It struck me as tragically funny that one of Bart’s personalities would judge the others to be crazy and fail to recognize all-encompassing scope of his insanity. Turning my face down to conceal the small involuntary grim smile, I saw one exposed yellow corner poking out from under my shoulder. I twisted around as if to see him better—an awkward, painful position but I didn’t have much choice. “And what is it you believe?”

Nathan shrugged. “By definition, I must be mad, as surely it cannot be the normal state of affairs for a single body to contain more than one soul. I can think of no other explanation.” He smiled ruefully and asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you, m’lady? Perhaps I can fetch the water bottle and spare you the indignity of that bowl?”

“No, no!” I interjected, knowing if he did that there’d be no chance of keeping the paper concealed. I also didn’t want Nathan to leave, not yet, although I hoped to God I wasn’t going Stockholm. “No, it’s okay, really. Thanks for your help with the burgers.”

“You are welcome,” he said, and hopped back out of the compartment, leaving anyway. Before closing the door though, he paused for a second as if debating with himself—which in his case could very well have been true—then said, “M’lady, a word of advice.”

“Yes?”

“I am certain you find Sirrah Tolly somewhat frightening, and while I do suggest it’s not in your best interest to gain his ire, there is another persona in here… He almost never talks, and does not come forth very often, but I must warn you that of all of us, he is the most dangerous. Because…” He hesitated as if unsure he should continue, possibly even he was not certain he could.

When Nathan blinked several times, I worried that I’d already lost him, a notion that struck me as ironic considering whatever the personality, this one individual was still my captor. But I had to try. “Why, Nathan?” I asked, willing him to hang on for just a few more seconds. “Who is he?”

“Because he is an animal,” he finally said. “His name…is Batt.”

With that, he closed the door. Nathan was not quite done, however, as he added from outside, his voice muffled but clear, “I have witnessed what he’s done to others, especially women, and I would beg to God not to remember what I saw, the horror of it, the butchery. If Batt comes to you, your only friend is Death, and a swift one if you are fortunate.”

He returned to the truck cab and we rolled away, rather more gently than last time. Although the cheeseburgers were right in front of me, my hunger had fled, leaving just a cold, hard knot in my stomach and the pounding ache of my sore head. Still, I could drink, so I scootched and turned until I could lower my face to the bowl and noisily slurped. The water was tepid, but I didn’t care, the liquid like soft honey balm to my sore throat. I drank about half the bowl, then belched loudly.

Enough, I told myself. The paper, quick, before he realizes he forgot that, too.

It was damned hard maneuvering, my arms and legs bound and tethered as they were. I thought for sure with every lurch and thump, the guy up front—whoever he was now—would notice, but he didn’t. Lucky for me, he’d also left the compartment light on.

The blocky handwriting was barely legible, a childish scrawl looking more like the efforts of a semi-literate five year old than a grown adult, and a few of the letters didn’t even resemble written English. The top part was a list, with several words crossed out:

CRATER LAKE ORGON – NOT AXESSBUL THIS SHARD

SHASTA – RONG VEKTOR

SHIPROCK NEW MEXICO – FAKE

SEDONA AIRZONA – ???

CHAK CHACO CANYON – SAME AS CHALKO ON PRIME?

Under this was an indecipherable scribble of interlinked lines, geometric shapes, and bizarre quasi-mathematical symbols, many of them crossed out so hard the ink had bled through to the other side.

The unavoidable conclusion, of course, was we were heading either to Sedona or Chaco Canyon, locations about which I knew next to nothing, except for the fact both were considered powerful spiritual places by some mystics and lots of squirrelly New Age types. Considering this, it made a kind of sense given my captor’s fractured state of mind—of course he’d believe in other crazy stuff. A small tickle of memory, something I might have read or heard a long while back, suggested that of the two I’d probably prefer Sedona because civilization and large numbers of people would be much closer.

Not that I had any choice or say in the matter.

At the time, I didn’t feel like eating, but I also didn’t know when I’d get another chance for food of any sort, not even these ‘horrid popkins’ as Nathan had called them. Flopping over to the unwrapped cheeseburgers, I ate them.

Even cold, they were delicious, and once I’d gotten started I realized I actually was starving. I even licked the grease and crumbs off the wrappers.

Afterward, I lapped up more water. My body’s needs temporarily sated, I wriggled and inch-wormed around until I was clear of the water-soaked section of carpet nearest the dog bowl. I lay there a long while, trying to figure out some way, any way out of this nightmare.

By this point, I no longer felt certain Gary was involved, the Creedence just an unlucky coincidence perhaps. I also still had no explanation how Bart—or whoever he really was—could disable me so easily, and where I had no direct memory of exactly what happened. Some kind of extreme head pain, followed by sudden weakness and unconsciousness. The only clue was that jewel-encrusted wand which, when I thought about it, Bart did seem to handle as if it was a weapon of some sort.

Surely it was just a silver or platinum colored rod, right? On the other hand, Bart had been fingering some of the colored, faceted gems embedded along the bottom third in a way consistent with them being activation buttons. Was that it? If so, where had he acquired this strange device? A secret government project? Dropped by an alien spacecraft?

Okay, by this point I was spinning off into realms of fancy and an old X-Files addiction. In any case, if the wand was supposed to be a weapon, whoever engineered the ergonomics ought to have been fired. You want an accurate aim off a human hand and wrist, you’d do it with a curved handle.

Nothing made sense. With too many crazy possibilities spinning through my head, and no answers, I lay there a long while.

Maybe half an hour later, the light illuminating the compartment went out.

After a time, I realized I was getting drowsy. No help for it, I realized, but remembered there was one thing I needed to do before dropping off. I dragged my face around the floor until I found it again—the piece of paper with Bart’s notes.

With my tongue and lips, I dragged it into my mouth and ate it. Not unlike the way I ate the peony petals in my dream.


Chapter 3

Vortex

When I finally came to again, we’d slowed down and the road became noticeably rougher. At least my migraine had abated.

I checked: It was still dark outside. At some point while I’d been asleep, Bart had turned off the music, but up front in the cab, the interior dome light was now on. Several times in the space of about ten or fifteen minutes, we’d slow down, pause, and then as if a hesitant decision had been made, we would turn left or right. Judging from the rustling noises, I think he was trying to follow a map.

Once, we stopped altogether, turned around and backtracked the way we came, the adjustment accompanied by Bart’s colorful, profane cursing. He never used the word ‘fuck,’ but with his vocabulary and imaginatively graphic metaphors, he didn’t need it.

Finally, I heard the sound of gravel crunching under tires and we came to a stop; Bart turned off the engine, killed all the lights including the dome, and got out. A few seconds later, he was at the opened back door, with just enough moonlight overhead to illuminate his silhouette, gesturing at me impatiently with the wand. He wanted me away from him, up towards the cab again.

I noticed then that the jewels in the wand’s handle seemed to glow a little, as if lit from within, like the keypad buttons on a cell phone.

Wriggling around with limbs that felt like lead, I did as he ordered. An inopportune flop put my face right onto one of the old cheeseburger wrappers, gaining me a large smear of ketchup and mustard on the left cheek and yet another measure of indignity. I felt certain Nathan would have wiped it off and with sincere sympathy, but Bart wasn’t the sort who cared about such things.

When I rolled to face him, he shook his head and indicated I should stay on my stomach. He climbed into the compartment, rocking the truck slightly on its springs. I heard the snick of his folding knife.

A minute later, I was sitting propped against the rear bumper, pulling bits of duct-tape from my arms and ankles and trying to massage a little feeling back into my limbs. While doing this, Bart grabbed my right wrist and, before I could react, slapped one end of a formidable but peculiar pair of handcuffs on me and attached the other to the truck’s rear door handle. They didn’t resemble any cuffs I’d seen before. Instead of the usual chrome police model, with these were dark, rounded and contoured, and made of some ceramic/metal composite with no visible keyholes.

Bart hopped up into the rear compartment. I thought about yelling for help, but the gravel parking lot was completely empty and deserted. A ways off I could see the back of a large metal sign, whereas our side only had a small attached marker that read “Pack Out Your Trash! Leave Only Tracks – Take Only Photos & Memories!”

I did make a point of noting and memorizing the Oklahoma plate number on the back of the animal control truck, even though I no longer completely believed I’d have a chance to make use of the information. I knew only I had to keep trying, to at least act as if I could eventually escape, a thin strand of hope that was the only thing keeping me from wailing like a lost child.

When Bart returned, he was struggling with the military-surplus footlocker, dragging it by one handle to the rear door. Once clear of the truck, despite the footlocker’s weight and awkward size, he lowered it carefully to the ground. Puffing from the exertion, he went forward to the cab to collect a pair of neon-colored day-packs, green and orange, and both full to bulging. Then he drew a small rectangular box from the pocket of his denim jacket, a box made of the same metal as the weird cuffs. Turning half away, he cupped the box in his hands and with a suspicious glance cast my way, whispered intently at it. The only word I could make out sounded like ‘prensio’—whatever that was supposed to mean.

He brought the little box toward me, held pinched between thumb and forefinger. Inches before it came into contact with the cuffs, the circlet on the door handle suddenly sprang open, but the other end remained locked to my wrist. I gave no thought to running though because Bart still had that jeweled wand in his free hand, pointed at me again. “Put on one of those knapsacks, either will do.”

I did as he said, opting for the green pack, which seemed the smaller of the two and fortunately wasn’t too bad, maybe ten or fifteen pounds. I heard the slosh of liquid, probably some water bottles.

He tossed the keys into the rear compartment area and locked all the doors as he shut them—the implications of which I really did not like. ‘We’re either changing vehicles…or we’re probably not coming back.

My heart sank further when he added, “Now you help me pick up that box. And mind you don’t bang it around, else you’ll get the lash.” He emphasized the point with a waggle of the wand. “I’ll take the other handle.”

“Oh god…” I grabbed the handle nearest me and lifted, the footlocker every bit as heavy as Bart had made it seem.

Something tugged firmly at my right wrist and I heard a loud snap. Bart had his hands full and was several feet away from me, yet the handcuff had somehow reattached itself to the handle right next to where I was gripping it, my knuckles already whitening with the strain. Involuntarily, I started in surprise, the crate unbalancing.

“Watch to it, you cock-gobbling cow!” Bart shouted, lifting his end higher as if to compensate. “Careful!”

I didn’t drop the crate, but it was a very near thing.

“Do not let it fall, your Ladyship.” Tolly had decided to put in an appearance, his voice dripping with disdain and arrogance. “Carry it as if you life depends upon it, for surely it does.” He gestured with the wand. “Over that way now.”

We walked to the back of the empty gravel lot, towards another sign I could not make out at first. Rather, he walked and I staggered; my captor didn’t look like much, but without a doubt, of the two of us, he was far stronger. When we drew closer, I was finally able to read the marker: Boynton Canyon Trail.

The name meant nothing to me. Soon, we passed out of sight of the parking lot and into section of scrub-brush and manzanita, then into a sparse forest of twisted juniper pines. A few hundred yards later we reached a fork in the path. There we paused and set down the footlocker. As Bart or Tolly or whoever he was now peered myopically at a small trail map, and I awkwardly tried to rest with one wrist tethered nearly to the ground, I had to ask the question which had been driving me crazy ever since we left the truck. “Um, excuse me? Can I ask something?”

“Yes, Ladyship, what?” Still Tolly then, but distracted.

“Why the tape before, and not the cuffs?”

He grunted. For a few seconds I wasn’t sure he’d heard me, but finally he answered, “Because the bindings require a long rest after they have been used. They are very old and the sticky-tape is cheap, so I chose to wait until they were truly needed.”

I did not feel the list bit enlightened. I’d never heard of electric self-recharging auto-securing handcuffs before. Maybe they were some kind of military surplus gear, too, like the locker? Then why did he say they were old?

Of course, I had no particular reason to believe anything this lunatic might claim. He did, however, reach a decision and we hefted the heavy metal footlocker again, taking the left trail fork. I stumbled along beside him, and despite the cool, dry desert breezes rattling the scrubby juniper trees, sweat ran down my face in small rivers. At the next branching there was a sign and Bart didn’t hesitate, turning right to follow the direction labeled ‘Vista Trail.’

Unfortunately for me, Vista was all uphill and sometimes steep—not that there was much trail to speak of because the ground was so hard and rocky. We would have lost our way easily if not for the wire-bound red rock cairn markers appearing periodically alongside the trail. I struggled not to drop Bart’s precious crate. When he complained about my slow pace, I merely grunted. I had plenty of other questions, but no energy or breath to ask them.

At last, we reached the top of the knoll. The path ended at a wide, packed-dirt area that, given the trail name, probably offered a nice view in the daytime. As it was, the only things I could discern were the vague dark shapes of looming rock cliffs off a distance, the misshapen partial moon overhead, far more stars than I was used to seeing in the night sky, and wild juniper pines of all sizes in every direction. If anything, these junipers looked even more distorted and twisted than those at the beginning of the trail. Some of the nearer ones bore signs of cuts among their lower spiraled branches, as if people had sawn off the smaller limbs. Why anyone would do this, I could not fathom. Souvenirs? I guessed.

“We put down the box by yonder tree,” Tolly directed, and when I glanced back I saw he was indicating a particularly large juniper specimen on the far side of the knoll-top clearing. I started moving, anxious to be free of the burden, jerking the footlocker and nearly causing us both to drop it.

“Gently, blast you! Gently, as you would a babe.” We both had to readjust our grips to recover the balance. Some notion occurred to him though, because rather than heading across the knoll-top clearing, we stayed there for several seconds. Mismatched eyes narrowed, he asked in a put-on casual tone of voice, “As for that, have you had any bairns…I mean, babes? Any children?”

If he was trying to convince me this was mere chit-chat, he’d failed. I didn’t know which alternative he preferred, or which would help my immediate predicament, but I also could imagine no reason to lie. “No, no kids.” Thinking how children would’ve complicated the divorce immeasurably, I couldn’t stop myself from adding, “Thank God.”

“But you can be quickened yet, yes? You’re not barren or ceased your flows?”

The hell? I really didn’t like the direction this was going. Technically, I could bear a child—although at my age, even he had to know I’d entered the range of problematic and risky pregnancies. The question of course was whose child did he have in mind? His? I shuddered to imagine it.

I also feared his reaction to the complete truth. Point of fact, Gary had been adamant on the subject of children: He wanted none and no chance of any, so he’d had a vasectomy and my tubes were tied. Again, technically these were both reversible procedures, but success was never guaranteed; on the other hand, we’d been assured in-vitro fertilization would serve as a reasonable back-up plan, even if we didn’t have any eggs or sperm in deep-freeze.

But if I told Tolly I was surgically infertile, what then? Would he let me go? That seemed exceedingly unlikely. More probably he’d kill me on the spot, leave my remains for the vultures or desert wolves or whatever passed for scavengers around here, and go kidnap himself a younger, more nubile baby-maker.

Even had I been post- or perimenopausal, I concluded there was only one life-sustaining answer, so I gave it. “I can get pregnant,” I prevaricated. “But I’ve never actually been pregnant, so I don’t have any idea how it’d go. I’m also a little old to be having a baby.”

“Good…good.” His relief was obvious, and my comment about being old for pregnancy seemed not to make a difference to him.

We took the footlocker over to the tree and set it down, finally, blessedly. Somehow, and in some manner I could not see, Bart unfastened the handcuff from the handle and reattached it firmly to one of the juniper’s lower branches. When he was done, it was so tightly affixed the loop actually dug through the stringy bark and into the wood. I was too busy trying to massage feeling back into my sore fingers and wrist to care.

As Bart carried our two day-packs back to the middle of the dusty, shadowed clearing, I glanced at the big footlocker, really glad to be free of its massive and awkward burden, yet also curious to learn what might be inside. Could it be a body in there? I wondered. It was certainly heavy enough. Was one of my purposes here to help him dispose of his last victim’s body? Would the locker contain the remains of an unfortunate woman who gave Bart the wrong answer to his fertility quiz?

This place felt like a final destination of some kind, although for my own sake I desperately hoped it wasn’t final-final, even if it meant lugging the footlocker elsewhere. It’s too public, I reasoned. Even though there’s nobody here now, clearly this is some kind of tourist spot—people will come. I’d seen a few bits of recent trash along the trail, suggesting this was a moderately popular hiking destination. Sedona… All at once, it came to me. “We’re here because of the energy vortices… er, vortexes, aren’t we?”

“What do you know of ‘energy vortexes,’ Ladyship? Tell me true.”

I knew I couldn’t tell him what I really believed on that count, so I opted instead for diplomacy. As best I could, I shifted the nearest poking branches so I could sit myself near the tree and rest uncomfortably against it, the sharp, pungent short needles digging into my skin in a number of places. “There are people of certain religious faiths who believe there are energy vortexes around here. Around Sedona. Power spots, which some claim they can sense.”

“So say you,” acknowledged Tolly rather non-committedly, unsnapping the buckles to open the neon-green day-pack. “Can you? Can you sense power here? Would you know it without the scrying and ciphering?”

“Scrying and ciphering—?“ I shook my head. “No, I don’t feel anything except exhausted, scared, cold and thirsty. I was just relating what I’d read on the Internet, what others say about Sedona.”

His answer was a disappointed grunt and a bottle of water from his pack, lobbed underhanded toward me. It pleases me to say I actually managed to catch it one-handed. As I poured a little of the water on a carpet-burned knee, drawing an involuntary hiss of pain, I thought about his question and the way he’d asked it. He actually thought I should feel something here, didn’t he?

Well, did I? As Tolly busied himself with the packs, removing two thick paper- and map-packed bundles along with other things I could not discern as more than shapes in the dim moonlight, I searched my feelings, my senses, trying to set aside my abject fear and physical discomforts. Was there something else?

A vague half-felt sensation of slippage…like in the instant when you feel your car’s tires lose their grip on snow-covered pavement. And a kind of weird backwards echo…

Unaccountably, I thought then about all the choices I’d made that day, and how badly they’d turned out. Suppose I’d gone a different way, back at the diner, I wondered, might I have escaped?

What if along the redwood forest trail, I’d stopped and talked to the guy in the dorky running clothes, or tried to speak with the Japanese family, would this madman be up on this hill alone? Or might he have abducted some other woman to incorporate into his incoherent psycho-daddy fantasies?

Suppose I’d not chosen to go on my run today, what then? A brief wave of vertigo took hold and the feeling of slippage intensified. When it passed, I noted my captor staring at me, his blue eye reflecting the wan moonlight like a milky cataract. “Hmmh,” Tolly grunted, the trace of a satisfied grin tightening his chapped lips. “So I see.”

He picked up one of the oblong shapes from his pack, fumbled with it for a second until it illuminated with a blue-white glow: A small LED camping lantern. There were two more as well, and soon he had them positioned to light up a small triangular area atop our dusty, red-rock strewn hilltop. Indicating the lamps, he commented, “These are not as meet as the conjure-lights where we are going, nor as long-lasting, but they were trivial to acquire. Tell me, is magic here so commonplace and tolerated that everyone here has it?”

“Magic?” I could only repeat dumbly. “What do you mean?”

“These lights, that self-propelled conveyance below which seems to need nothing more than a smelly, volatile liquid to operate. The music box inside it. All the other vehicles on your impossibly well-cobbled roads, operated by mere commoners and tradesmen and the like. I’ve seen devices with moving pictures, some looking as real as if you were actually there, and others like some artist’s drawings, blasphemously lifelike but monstrous—one featured a vicious man-rabbit ravaging a poor farmer’s carrot crop.” Tolly waved his arms as if indicating the entire world. “Magic has infested your entire shard, vastly more than remains in Bartholomew’s lands, and yet it seems unremarkable to any of you—why is that? Is it so common, its evil so pervasive, you’ve forgotten it’s there?”

This led me just then to consider a theory: Tolly—and perhaps others of his concurrent personalities—had felt the need to break with the modern world, to believe he had no concept of technology. Maybe he had some kind of trauma so bad he created a delusion in which he’s come from a distant non-technological culture? It occurred to me then that he could be a war vet—it would explain a lot. I wondered if Bartholomew ever showed up again, whether he’d be the one suffering from PTSD. Yeah, but some part of him understands most technology well enough to operate it, no matter what he claims. At the very least, he knows how to drive a truck. I realized something else: It doesn’t matter whether his delusions are inconsistent or contradictory; all that does matter is he believes in them.

I had to keep asking questions. Information was the only power available to me, but to get it, I reasoned I would have no choice but to keep playing along as I had with ‘Nathan’ earlier. “In this world, it’s not magic but science,” I told him. “Um, things we make—machines and electronics and so on. We’ve been steadily improving on it ever since the Renaissance—the Enlightenment…and since the Industrial Revolution.” Honestly, I had no idea if at some point he was going to start laughing at me for being so gullible, or smack me for failing to take him seriously.

“Industrial Revolution,” he repeated slowly, blinking. “Your machines revolted against you, you mean to say?”

“Ah, no. It just means lots of people figured out how to make bigger and better machines—and factories for making more—pretty much changing the whole world and how we lived in it. Standardized parts, assembly-lines and so on, that’s when things really took off.”

“So these easements and luxuries seduced your people, as they once did my ancestors.”

“Ya—what?”

“Seduced us, I said, as the old stories go. Back in the day, they built soulless thinking machines, which then fought with one another for domination and enslaving their creators in the meanwhile. Our Padres said the evil spirits and imps all died in the bright sky-fires of God’s divine retribution, before the years-long hellish winter. None of the old magic devices worked after the Armageddon, but our chastened forefathers still smashed them to bits and burned the remnants to ash. The unnatural metals, they melted to slag and threw into the ocean. We learned the hard lesson, through the Almighty’s holy wrath for our arrogant presumption.”

“Okay…”

“On Prime, they held on longer, Bartholomew says, a century or more. Something about Shelley’s Commandments keeping their Autonoms in check.” He shrugged. “Fat lot of good it done ‘em, for the venomous regions are far larger and more deadly there—a high price to pay for delaying God’s divine will.”

Talk about a complicated delusion. My head was aching again, and all I could think was that my captor had externalized the shattering of his own schizoid breakdown, such that each persona held a completely different view of the world. The only thing they seemed to have in common was a varying degree of discomfort or unfamiliarity with technology, a notion which would actually be consistent with a war-related post-traumatic stress illness. I’ll bet he was a fan of post-apocalypse movies before the crack-up…

The other thing they shared was a pissed-off God, angry over sins of pride and arrogance. The PTSD theory was making more and more sense by the minute.

It hadn’t passed my notice that Tolly was in a moderately talkative mood here, so I decided to press on another angle, a different question. “I don’t know a polite way to come right out and ask this, so I’ll just go ahead and ask: Why me? Why am I here?”

“Why indeed…” Tolly paused then, still crouched beside the day-pack, and after several seconds I thought he wasn’t going to answer me. His head slowly bent forward until his chin was nearly on his chest. Then abruptly he shook all over, shuddering like a wet dog. He turned to face me, his forehead knotted and brows jutting upward like an inverted V, completely transforming his face. “B-b-because you’re the c-closest compatible muh-match so far.”

Remembering the last time my captor had stuttered, I ventured a guess. “Bartholomew?” When he nodded, mismatched eyes darting nervously like a child about to be caught stealing a cookie, I asked, “What do you mean by ‘compatible?’ Compatible with what?”

“To the buh-baseline.” He picked up one of the two thick bundles of papers and fumbled through it. From where I sat, it seemed to be a folder filled mostly with maps, diagrams, and a large number of those colorful vacation brochures, like the three I’d seen earlier. Evidently determining the first folder did not contain what he wanted, he went through the second and found what he was looking for. Bartholomew scuttled toward me and unfolded a quartet of copy-paper sheets cellophane taped together. When it became clear to him I couldn’t make out a thing, the mini-lanterns too far away to do any good, he retrieved one and held it in front of the sheets.

Squinting, I still couldn’t see much. Some kind of flow diagram with boxes and lines, converging from left to right. I leaned forward as far as the cuffs would allow and Bartholomew flinched as if I’d just lunged for him. Quickly, I reassured, “Easy, I’m just trying to see.”

“S-s-sorry.” He didn’t move any closer himself, but he did make an effort to hold the paper and LED lamp a little further towards me.

The little hand-drawn boxes were filled with names and dates, written by someone with far more advanced penmanship skills than Bart, and a degree of flair and precision in his cursive lettering. I couldn’t understand the significance of it until I realized the lone box to the far right had my own name in it, and immediately to the left and connected by two lines were boxes containing my parents’ names. And my grandparents to the left of that. There were six or seven generations in all, but the leftmost section of the tree was only about two-thirds complete. When I looked back at my own name, I saw it had my birthdate and all three surnames I’d borne: O’Connor, Lambertson, and Walker. A dashed line connected my box to my maternal Grandma Walker’s, probably to explain my choice on the second name change.

This nervous little man was holding up a diagram of my family tree, and a very accurate one, no less. I hadn’t been a random target at all. “But why me?” I repeated, anxiety making my voice shake.

Bartholomew unfolded a second diagram, this one on a large single sheet of thicker and cruder-looking paper, and held it in front of the first. It also had a number of incomplete boxes along the left edge, somewhat more than on mine. With a forefinger reaching around the doubled sheets, he indicated the rightmost box. The name read, ‘Madeleine Joan Anders (nee Connor).’

Her birthday was the same as mine, and the time of birth recorded was as near as I could recall, too. This woman’s parents’ names were John and Marie; mine were John and Marion, but again the birthdays matched up. Same deal with the grandparents, although to be honest I couldn’t confirm the birthday part, and beyond that, it was anybody’s guess. That weird feeling of slippage began to take hold again, but I put it down to the sheer insanity of trying to make coherent someone else’s complex delusional construct. “I don’t get it,” I told him. “What does this have to do with me? These are two different family trees.” One of them likely fictional, I didn’t add aloud.

Tapping his finger against the box with this other woman’s name, he explained, “There’s d-divergence no duh-doubt… For instance, your m-muh-maternal great-grandmother married the older Mackay son, whereas Lady Anders’ ancestor wed the y-younger. A few other p-p-possible anomalies. However I estimate the lines ruh-ruh-remain close enough for a ninety-five percent chance of match. We won’t know for certain until a full scan, but you’re the best candidate analog so f-f-far.”

“A match for what?” Now my head was hurting for real, the migraine threatening to return. “And what do you mean, ‘candidate?’ Candidate for what?”

“T-t-to serve as Facilitator, of course.” I could almost hear the capitalization of that word. Bartholomew began refolding his genealogy trees. “It’s a tremendous honor and a p-puh-privilege to serve the District in such a critical role.”

So he’s not going to kill me, I reasoned. But then I remembered the fertility interrogation and wondered if ‘Facilitator’ wasn’t just his wacked-out term for ‘Baby Factory.’ “Um, how did you get all this information about me?”

“The archivist—“ he started to say, then corrected himself. “The luh-luh-librarian. He showed me how to operate the interweb device. I found your great-aunt B-Bethany at the genealogy-com interweb place, and she’d done most of the research alruh…already.”

Damn her. I knew I was being unkind and none of this was Aunt Beth’s fault, but I found it hard not to be annoyed at an old woman whose avid hobby had indirectly led to my own abduction. How or why, I still had no idea and as far as I was concerned, all of Bartholomew’s explanations told me exactly nothing of use. Y’know, it’s still possible Gary met this lunatic somewhere and set him after me… I could even imagine the scene, with my hated Ex humoring the delusions of this unfortunate but volatile madman, giving him money and making a few suggestions, pointing him in my direction, like a master loosing a vicious trained dog at the desired prey. “I didn’t exactly leave a clear trail and nobody, not even Aunt Beth, knew where I was living. So how did you find me?”

Bartholomew looked abashed, his face ashen and gaze downturned. “Your former buh-barrister,” he whispered. “She knew.”

“Oh God, no…” I really, really didn’t want to hear what he was going to say next.

“She didn’t want to t-t-tell, refused to tell—so Batt c-c-came and he…” Bartholomew swallowed thickly and shuddered. “I’m s-s-so sorry.”

I felt sick. Stella Blue had been tortured and murdered, all for the mistake of trying to help protect me. The horror into which I’d been plunged seemed to have no bottom.

I was about to describe Gary—since he might’ve used an assumed name—and ask Bartholomew if he’d ever met him when Tolly broke in. This time there was no physical symptom, but the change in voice was unmistakable. “Enough yammering. Bart says it’s nearly time and this one has preparations to make, so let him get to it.” As he turned away with the LED lantern and paper charts, Bartholomew apologized meekly and in a low, hoarse whisper, “S-sorry, I’ll be good. P-p-promise.”

After he recrossed the clearing to the heap of file folders and had his back to me, I gave the handcuff a good strong tug—and felt a brief thrill to see it slip on the juniper limb. It was just a fraction of an inch, but even that much was enough to hang a little hope upon. When my captor returned to retrieve the footlocker from beside me, I shifted my body and shoulder to conceal the damaged branch.

As he dragged the heavy metal crate away, bumping in the ruts on the packed dirt, I thought sourly, Delicate, my sorry ass. My curiosity got the better of me, so I asked aloud, “What’s in there anyway?”

Bart shot back a guarded, suspicious look, tinged with guilt. “Magic.”

* * *

The contents of the big OD-green footlocker didn’t appear magical in the least. On the contrary, it most closely resembled a random heap of old junk: Cards, wires, little plastic boxes, odd connectors and twisted metal frameworks, all in a great jumble—a techno-geek’s toy-box of discards. Once, I’d seen a garbage dumpster outside a failed Silicon Valley start-up, and its contents—broken phones, networking boxes, shredded cables and half-disassembled computers—had seemed by far more potentially functional and useful.

Nevertheless, my captor efficiently and methodically made a kind of sense out of his collection. In less than an hour by my watch-deprived estimate, there were five short pylon-like, articulated constructs placed in a very precise pentagrammic arrangement, encompassing most of the knoll-top clearing. And by ‘precise,’ I mean that Bart—or Bartholomew—started by drawing an actual pentagram with a big iron peg hammered into the unyielding ground, a length of knotted clothesline, an oversized mechanical protractor, and a plastic bag of white athletic-field chalk.

Yeah, it really, really didn’t help my feeling of foreboding. I knew if I saw him pull out an athame—a ritual pagan dagger—or affix a pair of deer antlers to his head, I’d start screaming my head off, consequences be damned.

The assembled pylons were roughly the shape and size of traffic cones, perhaps a bit taller, and although they seemed similar to one another, each varied in construction, wiring, and components. To me, they gave the appearance of someone trying to make the same thing five times over, but hampered by a shortage of suitable materials and possibly know-how. When stored in the crate, they’d been partially disassembled and their aluminum frameworks cunningly folded to conserve space. Two of them, I decided as I watched, had been lightweight camera or telescope tripods in previous incarnations.

From each of the rickety pylons he unspooled a pair of cables, one thick and one thin, to the iron peg in the center—which had a ring atop it. The bigger cable I guessed was for power, while the latter resembled an Ethernet network cable, except the connector was too large and had too many pins. Another spool of thin cables connected each pylon to its nearest two neighbors. This done, Bartholomew pulled two more pieces of equipment from the footlocker. The first was a junction box to which he attached all the incoming lines, both thick and thin, while the other resembled nothing less than a miniaturized version of a mad scientist’s laboratory control panel, standing nearly waist-high and covered with gauges, displays, unlit indicator lights, and a wild profusion of disorganized controls. Hinged aluminum outrigger supports which unfolded from the back and sides helped keep it standing upright. I half expected to see pair of a Jacob’s Ladder spark antennae sticking from the top, but evidently Bartholomew’s rig lacked this feature.

He ran another thick ribbon cable from the junction box to his mad scientist panel. Finally, he attached one clamp of a set of automobile jumper cables to a jutting bolt on the box and the other to the base of the iron peg. I forgot to mention—he’d also been muttering or chanting under his breath the entire time, occasionally glancing with his mismatched blue and brown eyes up at the sky or at my watch on his arm, which always took him half a minute to puzzle out.

I also noticed his chanting was stutter-free, perhaps in the same way some are freed of this particular speech impediment if they sing or recite…or maybe Bartholomew was channeling another personality for this purpose—anything seemed possible. As for the language, it sounded somewhat like Latin. I’d been a good Catholic schoolgirl until the sixth grade, and heard the parish priest speak it often enough. The main difference is my captor’s version didn’t sound like proper Latin at all, and if it was any kind of prayer, it was not one I’d ever heard before.

When Bart returned to the footlocker yet again, I finally saw one of the reasons it had been so bastardly heavy: A car battery. I decided it must have been a foreign import, because as with the rest of my captor’s scavenged junk, it didn’t look quite right, with rounded edges, the dark shape shorter and more squat, and it sported not two terminals but three. A second set of jumper cables plus the unused half of the first one completed his construct.

By now, he’d been ignoring me for what felt like the better part of two hours. During this interval, whenever he faced away from me or seemed sufficiently preoccupied, I had slowly worked the handcuff several inches down the juniper limb where, unfortunately, it ran into a side branch as thick as my thumb. I kept waiting for a chance to see if I could break it off, knowing if I didn’t get it on the first go, I was cooked. On the other hand, if I could just get it past that point, the rest of the way to the end would be easy: Yank it loose, then run like the devil himself was after me.

As he surely would be.

Squatting in the middle of the clearing before his control panel, Bartholomew flipped some switches and toggled some toggles. Evidently his jury-rigged mad scientist set didn’t behave as expected, as nothing happened. He worked the switches again and waited anxiously, rocking back and forth and chewing at his lips. The board remained dark. Then a third time, but still no luck. “No, no, no, no, NO!” he moaned and reached over one shoulder to grab his dirty blonde ponytail and tugging it hard enough to hurt.

Frantic, he scrambled around the clearing to check and re-check the cable connections, chanting his garbled quasi-Latinate incantations louder. He worked the switches, knobs, and levers once more, but the equipment remained completely unresponsive. Bartholomew wailed his inarticulate negation and plopped down to land on his bottom, clutching his knees, and began to rock back and forth like a disappointed toddler. Soon he was pounding his forehead against those bony denim-clad knees.

I reached back, grabbed the half-inch thick branch in both hands, and shoved it as hard as I could toward the trunk. Luck was with me: It snapped easily, at the cost only of a mildly scraped right palm.

Better still, if Bartholomew had heard the noise, he gave no indication, his quiet, desperate moans going on unbroken. I began sliding the cuff down the rest of the juniper limb, flinching at each snap and pop as smaller twigs broke, but the only difference revealed by furtive glances over my shoulder was to note he’d started crying.

Having had little else to do in the meantime, I’d already planned my escape route. I would head straight down the slope behind me, hoping the junipers and other shrubs didn’t grow too close to allow passage, and even if they were thick enough to slow me down, they’d still provide valuable cover. Once on level ground, I thought it best to head east or southeast—the direction in which I could detect the faint glow of reflected light, which had to be Sedona proper. I was going to avoid the trails, streets, and any open spaces until I saw lit houses or stores, and in my mind’s eye the ideal outcome was something like a supermarket, a brightly-lit Safeway perhaps, with a respectable number of insomniac late-night shoppers and a sympathetic assistant manager who’d summon the Sedona police right quick.

Part of me felt a little sympathy for this sad, broken, cognitively-damaged man suffering under the burden of his wildly complex and convoluted delusions—but only a little. He had, after all, kidnapped me, rendered me unconscious twice, and dragged me something like a thousand miles to take part in… Well, exactly what ‘it’ was, I had no idea, and aside from a mild curiosity to learn what he’d intended this all to be, I didn’t care enough to want to stick around.

It shocks and shames me to admit this, but if I’d had a gun right then, I would have emptied it at him without hesitation, even if in the instant when I pulled the trigger, kindly Nathan’s bi-colored gaze met mine, or stuttering Bartholomew’s. Some of his personalities were clearly harmless, but others just as obviously were not, and one thing I knew for absolute certain is I did not want to chance an encounter with the one Nathan had named ‘Batt.’ I felt I’d caught a glimpse of him back at the abandoned diner, just before my failed escape attempt, and in that instance I knew I had seen briefly into the face of real evil.

This man had made me feel afraid and vulnerable again, terrified, and after everything I’d been through, everything Gary saw fit to inflict on me, I had in me only two possible reactions to fear: Depressed surrender or righteous anger. The former, I knew, was the sure path to an early death, suicide by my own hand or by outside instrument. I wanted to live, dammit. Once, I’d given up everything I had—my career, my friends, even my name—and built something new that was entirely mine. Thinking on my new work, my small but comfortable house, and the few friends I’d made, it didn’t seem like much, but I felt fiercely attached to it all. Deliberately, like feeding kindling and twigs to a small fire, I stoked my rage and indignation, driving back the fear. He killed Stella, for God’s sake!

The handcuff slid past the last few juniper twigs. I lunged to my feet and ran, legs wobbly from disuse, but I made up for it with determination and adrenaline.

My captor seemed to have forgotten momentarily that I existed. In my last view of him, he’d just begun slapping himself hard across his own cheeks, and in between the blows berating himself—in Tolly’s harsh voice. “You mewling, useless worm!” Slap. “Bawling like a craven brat!” Slap. “You oughta be castrated and your balls fed to a sow!” Slap, slap.

Apparently Tolly had some skills at verbal abuse, too, although perhaps not as colorful and scatologically detailed as Bart’s. The insults continued, but I was too busy fleeing to pay them any more attention, and for a few precious seconds, dodging junipers and low, spiny shrubs, I thought I might actually escape this nightmare.

No more than ten yards below the crest of the knoll, all at once, electric fire lit my body from end to end and a loud piercing shriek like the sound of ten smoke alarms all going off at once filled the night. Not far from me, a rabbit broke cover and bounded away. I stumbled, fell, and slid face-down in the dirt an unknown distance further, the pain increasing exponentially and strongest in my right arm, and it felt like my heart was skipping every other beat. My vision began to tunnel gray from the sides. Somehow I ended up with a mouthful of alkaline desert soil and sharp broken twigs.

Soon after, the screaming shriek dropped from ten alarms to maybe three, accompanied by the sound of my hacking, rasping coughs as I tried unsuccessfully to expel the dust I’d accidentally inhaled. That was all I could do as I lay sprawled and paralyzed on the slope between a large yucca and an even larger sandstone boulder, while every few seconds, a new electric jolt caused my arms and legs to spasm and shake.

The shriek cut off, leaving my ears ringing; the shocks stopped too, but my long muscles all kept twitching involuntarily anyway. I heard a scuffing, the crack of brittle branches heedlessly broken, and under it all the familiar, obscene and blasphemous cursing of wheedle-voiced Bart himself. His silhouette loomed above me, blotting out the swollen, gibbous moon as he hissed, “I told you, you dasn’t misbehave! Stupid, willful, whoresome bint!”

I saw him move to put something away into his jacket pocket, and I guessed it was probably the control box for the handcuffs—which obviously were an advanced and fully functional technology, as contrasted with his schizoid science experiment up the hill. Must have some kind of taser function built in, I guessed, and wondered if it carried with it the risk of inducing cardiac arrest or fatal seizures. Absolutely, it had to be stolen military gear and illegal as all hell.

Bart held the wand yet in his other hand, the jewels in its handle glowing dimly, and he gestured with it. “Turn over now, you poxy cunt or you’ll taste this as well.” When I didn’t immediately comply due to the fact I remained almost completely paralyzed, Tolly interjected, “So soon after the shackles’ discipline, you’d surely void your bowels and even if time wasn’t too fucking short to do anything about it, I’d still happily leave you to sit befouled in your own filth.” Bart returned in the next instant. “I won’t ask again, you sponge-brained cow—now, turn the fuck over!”

His voice shifted yet again. “Oh go on, do it!” Barney said, giggling. “Use the lash! It would be hilarious to watch her shit herself. The initial shock and surprise, followed by the look of utter dismay, and finally the deepest horrified shame and embarrassment—it would be delicious. The high-born bitch deserves a little degradation after everything she’s put us through.”

“Bugger off, jackass—you know this isn’t the same one,” replied Tolly. “I’ve got enough to deal with here without your asinine remarks.”

The righteous anger long since evaporated, all I had left was bitter despair and the tiniest shreds of dignity, and I didn’t want to give up that last. Somehow, using my torso and hips and a lot of painful twisting, I rolled onto my stomach. Bart refastened the loose handcuff, binding my arms behind my back and, with surprising wiry strength, heaved me to my feet and up over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Cursing vilely the entire time, he hauled us both up the slope and back into the dusty, hardware-strewn clearing.

This time, instead of tethering me again to the juniper tree at the edge, he dropped me ungently next to the iron peg in the middle of the chalked pentagram and locked the handcuff to its iron ring. He withdrew the little metal control box again and held it up. “If you try to run away from me, from this, you will be disciplined. At first just a little warning jolt and siren, then more if you don’t stop.”

Oh Christ, I groaned inwardly. He’s got me on the handcuff equivalent of dog’s electric training collar. Now I understood what he’d meant about its charging requirements; such a device couldn’t be used often or for long without running out of juice, and while active the cuffs must be constantly sending a radio signal. What still puzzled me though is Bart implied they recharged themselves automatically, unless maybe they had some solar cells?

“Go too far away from this little magic box and it will surely slay you, and neither of us wants that,” he continued sharply, answering my earlier question as to whether the cuffs could be lethal. “You stay put and behave. There’s not much time left.”

Still spitting out twigs and dirt, I asked bitterly, “Not much time for what?”

“Not much time to get this abomination working, pus-for-brains,” he said, replacing the wand behind his back, in his belt. “Now shut your ass-kissing gob, I need—we need—to figure out what’s wrong with it. I may not grasp how or why it functions, but the ciphering I do know and the numbers never lie—we’ve got maybe half an hour left before the alignment shifts to the next likely node.”

“And if that happens?” I prompted, taking a chance. “If the ‘alignment shifts?’”

He growled audibly, like a dog. “Then it’s hours, maybe days of more ciphering and re-figuring, and only the Almighty knows how much travel to get to wherever it is. I am already overdue.”

One moment, he was angry, whiny Bart; the next, his shoulders slumped and indeed his entire posture changed. I knew without his saying a word that Bartholomew had been summoned forth once more.

The transition actually fascinated me despite my dire circumstances, because I felt certain I’d never read or heard about such a pathology before, where a patient had multiple personalities, at least some of them aware of each other, combined with an apparent ability to bring a specifically needed one out at will. Judging from what he’d said and done, Bart was the dominant personality, gifted with some skill at mathematics—or what he himself felt was such—but no particular understanding of technology. Bartholomew seemed to have some grasp of electronic gadgets, but no force of will. As for Tolly, I’d seen him only when my captor needed a commanding presence, a decisiveness. I had a feeling Tolly was the one truly in charge, but he allowed Bart to be the face he presented to the world most of the time.

I found myself wishing Nathan would put in another appearance.

* * *

Ten, maybe fifteen minutes after resuming his pseudo-Latin chant, Bartholomew still hadn’t figured out why his equipment continued not to do anything, becoming increasingly frantic once more and beginning to stutter the prayers a little. After checking and rechecking the pylon cables, he replaced one of the data lines from the spool in the footlocker. No joy.

A particular tightness had crept into his voice as well, and I knew he was fighting hard not to break down weeping again. The red marks on his cheeks stood out starkly, even in the dim light of the miniature camping lanterns and pale, silvery moonglow; there’d be some bruising in the days to come, for certain.

As I sat there tethered to the iron peg, my gaze fell upon it. Puzzled, I looked more closely and saw that the jumper cable clamp was just lying there on the ground, barely touching the peg but not actually clamped to it. Maybe it was sympathy, or just simple dread of being stuck with this lunatic for who knew how many more days, locked in the back of an animal control truck, being fed Burger Galaxy HyperCheese Combos and watered from a dog bowl as he drove us to the next New Age hippie mecca, but whatever the reason, I spoke up. “Excuse me, but isn’t this supposed to be attached?”

Bartholomew scrambled over like a spider, not bothering to get to his feet. “Yes!” he exclaimed, interrupting the chant. “Yes-yes-yes! Thank you! Guh-guh-guh…grounding! The apparatus nuh-needs grounding!”

The clamp gave off a big spark as he refastened it to the iron peg, and I felt a little of the jolt in my arm. Back at the panel and chanting again, he worked the controls like Mr. Chekov at the navigation console on the Enterprise. To his absolute childlike glee, the board lit up like a Christmas tree and, in counterclockwise sequence, so did the five pylons, one after the other, revealing the entire hilltop clearing with a soft yellow-orange glow.

Peering intently at some of the gauges and indicators, he adjusted some of the settings and toggled a few more switches. The pylons’ light brightened and shifted from dull yellow-orange to a bright, actinic blue-white, their illumination soon making the little LED camp lanterns pointless. Wow, I had to admire the result. All this from a car battery? Of course, at this rate of consumption it stood to reason he wouldn’t be able to maintain the light-show for long.

Across the way, I could now see that the great sandstone cliffs and boulders weren’t gray as they’d originally appeared but actually a bright ochre red, and it occurred to me then that anyone within a half mile ought to be able to see the intense light shining from atop the knoll.

But would they? Even if anyone did, would they care to investigate or call the cops, or just write it off as a bunch of teenagers having a harmless late-night beer party in the desert?

Bartholomew had gone back to the footlocker to retrieve something. He shuffled toward me, a metal circlet in his hands and a bashful, apologetic look on his face. “I’m s-s-sorry,” he stammered, working a hidden catch to open the circle into two halves, hinged together. It was a silvery color, like burnished aluminum, a plain ring of rounded metal. “This is for y-your own puh-puh-puh…protection.”

Eyes wide enough to show the whites all around, I drew back as far as I could until checked by the handcuff on my right wrist. “No, please—wait,” I pleaded. Unwanted memories and associations filled me with dread. “Wait—you don’t need to put that on me!”

“I h-have to, Lady,” he said, coming closer. “P-p-please, don’t make Tolly use the l-lash on you—it muh-might decalibrate the ap-p-p…apparatus.”

“But why?” My right arm was stretched so far the cuff bit painfully into the skin of my wrist. I thought briefly about kicking the jumper cable off the iron peg, but in the end what would that do but delay the inevitable? Sagging, I complied.

As he leaned in to fasten the smooth metal collar around my neck, the clasp locking in place with a loud click, he whispered, “It’s s-so you don’t get shard sickness.”

I wanted to ask what he meant by ‘shard sickness,’ but then he did something else to the collar and instantly I felt as if I’d just spent the last half hour chugging a bottle of cheap fortified wine, along with several heavy tokes off a well-loaded bong. Woozy, dizzy, I also felt a curious sense of poignant loss, as if something important and vital had been taken from me…in addition to about 20 or 30 points of I.Q. I felt really stupid all of a sudden.

Blearily, with my mouth agape, I looked up at Bartholomew as he backed away, his lips tight and downturned with chagrin. He shrugged in a gesture I assumed was more apologizing, but I had no idea what was happening to me and couldn’t think clearly at all. Had he injected me with something while I was distracted by the collar? Another massive wave of dizziness and confusion washed over me, taking my mind out to sea with it.

I must have passed out for a time, because when I came around again, Bartholomew had changed his clothes. Gone were the jeans, t-shirt, and denim jacket; now he was clad in a long, dark iridescent indigo robe, and he’d unbound his lank, unwashed gray-blonde hair, letting it hang loose across his shoulders and down his back. Blinking to clear my vision, I saw he’d kept the cowboy boots, the pointed brown toes peeking from under the robe’s heavy hem. His face was painted like a Native American warrior, with a trio of lines crossing his forehead, and circles, lines, and mathematical symbols drawn on his cheeks and neck. The backs of his hands were painted with arcane shapes, too.

He was chanting again, but now it sounded to me like an incantation, the invocation of deep ritual. At the panel once more, he worked the controls like a virtuoso giving a performance, including the flamboyant arm and hand flourishes. The pylon lights changed, becoming a deeper and more intense blue and somewhere along the way transitioned to the distorting neon glow of blacklight. They flickered off and, for the space of several seconds, except for the glowing control panel with its brightly twinkling indicators, we were surrounded by darkness.

Then one of the pylons, the north-most in the pentagram, came back on. When it went out, the pylon to its left illuminated. Then the next, and the next. “Signumus kwadob firmo,” sang Bartholomew, his face luminous and exultant. “Coe pie red-dough!” The counterclockwise sequence began to accelerate, the sequentially firing pylons acquiring the illusion of motion. My dizziness and vertigo increased as the lights spun around us faster and ever faster.

My indigo-robed captor leaned in to make some more control adjustments, then stood upright and stepped back. Still chanting, he began gesturing at the panel like a magician conjurer, arms making sinuous shapes in the air, fingers jabbing and twisting as if he was weaving a cat’s-cradle out of invisible string.

After reaching forth to caress a dial, press a pushbutton and minutely adjust a knob, he took two measured steps back again from the colorful, glowing control panel, breathed deeply…and began to dance. It was like no dance I’d ever seen before.

I became aware then of a low, bass-note hum, a steady note just barely within the reach of human ears, but I also felt it in my belly, a deep, sonorous vibration which engendered a profound feeling of anticipated dread, one which grew stronger with each passing second.

If Bart/Tolly/Bartholomew/whomever felt anything similar, he paid it no mind, singing the Latinate free-verse words in an alien tune, arms waving in the air, cowboy booted feet dancing and stomping in a complex rhythm as the dark purple light swirled around us impossibly fast now, like a living serpent of purple fire.

The subsonic rumble grew in intensity, a sound not experienced at all in the ears but in stomach and heart and in one’s very bones. The nausea increased and without so much as a warning burp, I was doubled over, vomiting up the water I’d drunk and some bits of the cheeseburgers from before, and when that was done, I kept dry-heaving for half a minute more. I reached for the silvery metal collar around my throat, unexpectedly warm for reasons I couldn’t begin to guess, and yanked at it, thinking that maybe if I could get it off, my gag reflex would stop spasming. It wouldn’t budge and my grasping, fumbling fingers could detect no sign of the catch.

Earlier, Bart or Tolly—I couldn’t remember which one—had asked me if I’d felt or detected any sign of ‘energy vortexes’ that made this place and several others around Sedona so popular among the New Age folks. There’d been a mild but disconcerting impression of slippage, as if the walls between reality and everything else were thinner here, although to be honest, within a very short time I was already chalking it up to exhaustion and suggestion, the first worrisome warning signs of a healthy mind beginning to crack under the stress of captivity and threatened violence, both physical and emotional.

When my stomach finally stopped trying to expel nothing, when I gave up the futile attempts to yank the metal circlet from around my neck, left with the dizzied confusion filling my brain and the ever pervasive dread in my middle, I realized that slipping sensation was back, but increased a hundredfold. My thoughts were like a cacophony of voices shouted into hurricane winds, and emotions flitted through me like a child’s flip-deck of cartoon pictures, reshuffled into a jumbled, random order.

I looked down at my hands pressed on the dusty red dirt and they seemed to belong to someone else.

I stayed there on all fours, staring at my fingers… No, I pushed back to sit upright again… No, I lifted one hand, then the other, restrained by the dark ceramic metal cuffs… No, my stomach clenched and I dry-heaved some more… No, I curled around myself in a fetal ball, and there were no restraints… No, I…

No, I did sit upright, and my captor was still dancing, still chanting, and I don’t know why this surprised me, but there was only one of him. No trails, no ghosts, no flickering pre-echoes of intended, predestined movement. He seemed even more real than I did to myself.

Lifting my muddled head, I tried to look beyond the spinning enclosure of pylon blacklight but could see almost nothing. Over where there had been high red sandstone cliffs, they now seemed hazy and insubstantial, an ochre colored fog rather than solid rock. Overhead, the moon was still there, high and misshapen in a cloudless pitch-black sky, but oddly smeared and sometimes it even flickered erratically like a failing fluorescent tube. My dazzled eyes could make out just a few stars, but they were the only things that didn’t shift or change.

The pylon lights strobed so fast they passed well beyond persistence of vision and became a solid, rounded pentagon of dark purple light around us. The bass-note hum increased in both volume and pitch, and the feeling of raw, yawning dread changed as well.

It transformed gradually into an immense cosmic Om, like a thousand… no, I billion throats all intoning the glorious sound of Creation itself. It was like the voice of God and intense, profound awe washed over me. In those moments, I truly and completely didn’t care how I’d come to be in this place, or even if my mortal human life would soon come to an end at the hands of a crazed abductor. Though I knew I had no sane reason to feel the way I did, I just wanted the soul-bliss to go on forever, to drown in it, to be consumed by it.

I still felt incredibly dull and stupid, my thoughts moving like cold molasses, but I also didn’t care in the least.

Just then a musical triplet tone sounded from the control panel and a voice spoke from a scuffed black plastic speaker grille on it. No, not the voice of God, but the voice of a man who could’ve made a fortune as a radio or television broadcaster—deep, pleasant, and well-modulated. “Coordinates locked and redundantly verified,” he said in an absolutely neutral North American accent. “Signal is five-by-five nominal. Confirm programmed target, two individuals plus gear?”

My captor danced over to the panel and, while pressing a button, spoke near the grille. “Confirmed, tuh-tuh-two plus gear.”

“Please enter your access code now.”

Bartholomew typed in a series of digits on the control panel’s keypad, which had to have originally been a personal calculator. When done, he spoke into the grille again. “Access code sent, puh-password is ‘rhubarb pie.’”

A bare pause, then came the reply. “Non-duress codes acknowledged. Remote data-stream indicates recall systems are functioning within acceptable parameters, but decidedly less than optimum. Shard geographic offset compensated. Prepare for translation, and start the clock on your mark. Recommend you begin soon as you have only seven minutes thirty-five seconds main power remaining.”

“Acknowledged, Sequent,” replied Bartholomew. “Ruh-ready in thirty.” He adjusted a knob and flipped another switch. “Mark!”

“Translation in thirty,” replied the unknown voice. Sequent? I wondered fuzzily. What kind of name for a guy is that? French? He doesn’t sound French. “Twenty-nine…twenty-eight…”

Bartholomew came over, sat down behind me and took me into his arms. He was grinning from ear to ear, and to my surprise I felt my face return the expression—even after everything I’d just been through. Or maybe my brains were being cooked by microwave radiation from the collar. “I don’t understand,” I said. “What’s happening?”

“We’re going home!” he laughed, then began chanting softly again. “Pater nostra, kee ess in kayless, sanctifi-seeter nomantum…”

I giggled with him, uncomprehending but also not feeling any particular concern. Yet the chant…something was familiar about it. Pater nostra? I realized knew this one: Even slurred and mispronounced, even with this intense sensation of stoned drunkenness, I recognized the unmistakable words of the Lord’s Prayer, as sung in Latin. Only I knew it should’ve been, ‘Pater noster, qui es in cœlis… Our Father, who art in Heaven.’

Meanwhile, the countdown continued. “…twenty-one…twenty… Isolation field engaged.”

“Paynem nostrum, kotee dianum da nobiss hoodee…”

(Give us this day our daily bread…)

Overhead, the moon and stars all brightened and enlarged, smearing and merging until we were contained under a limitless dome of pearly gray-white, and I realized then I could no longer see anything outside the enclosing purple-black bar of pylon light.

Part of me continued to revel in the emotion of glory and possibility, and part also found some comfort in the warm circle of Bartholomew’s lean, strong arms, the soft rumble of his voice resonating into my spine…but I also remembered through the thick buzz in my head that I really ought not be feeling comforted, safe, or protected.

I remembered that the man whose heart beat steadily behind mine was, in point of fact, completely mad. And one of the personalities in his damaged mind was a violent psychopath named Batt. My kidnapper, my friend’s murderer.

“…sed libera nossa mallo…”

(But deliver us from evil.)

I wanted to push him away, but also could not quite bring myself to do it, so instead I asked over my shoulder, indicating his closeness and embrace with a shrugged gesture, “Is this necessary?”

Interrupting his chant, he shuddered briefly, the set of his eyes and mouth changing subtly. Nathan smiled ruefully and nodded, his accent confirming my guess as he told me, “It’s for the best, m’lady.”

“But why?”

“Beginning matter-phase translation,” the grille voice reported. “In eight…seven…six…”

Nathan tightened his grip around me. Sounding as if he was deep inside an echo chamber, he explained, “Because this bit is usually pretty bumpy.”

The last word repeated several times before fading into the choir of pure noise.

Oh shit…

“Three…(three…threeee). Two…(two…twoooo). One…(one…one…nnnnnnn)…”

The awe and blissful joy ended as if severed by a knife. The bottomless dread returned, and with it the utter certainty that I was about to cease to exist. No, worse than that: It felt as if my entire existence was about to be erased, that I would simply never have been, not ever. Never born. Never lived. Never died, and never mourned by those left behind. Every choice ever made by me, or made in relation to me, or influenced by my presence in the world, was being expunged.

The entire universe was Silence, and I was about to merge with that endless, perfect, unchanging void, a miniscule and insignificant drop of water flicked into an infinite and uncaring black ocean. ‘I’ would be no more, never have been, my soul obliterated.

Behind all that, deep inside my mind I heard a thought, one which seemed like and yet unlike my own. It was soft, low, muffled and barely discernable as through a crackling static of distant lightning storms. ‘Thank Jesu, almost done…’

I felt nothing anymore, not even the arms around me. I saw nothing, heard nothing.

I was alone, falling into a gray-white abyss, and could not even sense air passing by me.

It seemed to go on for an eternity.

This must be what going insane feels like…


© Rebecca Morn, all rights reserved. This novel is a work-in-progress.

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