It couldn’t be him: Joshua Rossi lying unresponsive on the ground, looking like he’d already been through the ringer before she hit him.
With trembling fingers, she reached for her phone in her back pocket and switched on the flashlight. He was sweaty and bruised, yes, and she’d never seen him with a week’s worth of beard, but Joshua Rossi lay before her — or what he would have looked like when he disappeared thirty years ago.
When she’d asked who they were looking for, the man with her, who had run into the forest, chasing whoever Josh had been with, said, “People. Anyone other than myself.”
“Those damn ransom notes,” she whispered, looking down at him. She didn’t get in trouble for the ones she left for Stephanie or Rachel, but for the only man she pranked. God, let us protect all the men. And the joke backfired right away because Joshua Rossi disappeared hours after she left his.
She hadn’t even thought about it. She cut up the Christmas card he sent her, made a handful of copies of the note, and planted them around the arena the night of their concert. Like the blood capsule she’d bitten in front of him, the ransom note was only supposed to wind him up and be forgotten. He made a fool of himself drinking too much at the meet and greet after the show, and she never saw him again.
“Come on,” Nasir said, approaching her with his flashlight trained forward.
Erica stood. “What about that other guy?”
“He got away. Let’s get this one to the cabin before it’s too dark to see.”
Her heart pounded. “I’m not killing him. I can’t kill anyone.”
“All we’re doing is saving our asses. Help me get him up.”
Nasir slung Josh over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. “Light the way,” he said.
Erica had immediately regretted leaving the notes the night she left them. Once Josh caused a scene at the theater and escorted out of the building by two young women, one of them returned backstage later that evening to pick up his things. Along with his violin and a change of clothes, the woman took the original ransom note, lifting it from Erica’s makeup table and stuffing it into a gallon zip bag.
“I want to continue your little joke,”she’d said, and Erica gave the woman her phone number to be included. She didn’t hear from the woman again until three weeks ago.
“It’s Blair,” the woman said over the phone while Erica was shopping for a bigger dress than she wanted.
“I still have that note in the bag,” Blair continued. “With your fingerprints on it. $50mil or Joshua Gr y dies. Harsh words for a joke, but I’m still laughing.”
Her face went cold. “What are you talking about?”
“Do you ever wonder what happened to him?”
“Lady, this was thirty years ago. I didn’t have anything —”
“I need you to do me a favor.”
“You’ve got the wrong person.”
“Erica Brightman. Now Consoli. Soprano. Kew Gardens, New York.”
Erica was silent.
“If you don’t help me, I’ll tell the police I saw you carry Joshua Rossi to your car the night he disappeared.”
“I never even had a car. I didn’t live in New York back then.”
“There was an accomplice. Grainy security footage. It wouldn’t take much to tie you to his disappearance with this ransom note.”
“What do you want out of me? That was thirty years ago. I’m not rich —”
“I don’t want your money, I want you.”
“What I did was a stupid mistake and I want to put it behind me. I have put it behind me.”
“There’s no statute of limitations on murder.”
“Erica, light!” Nasir shouted.
She trained the light ahead of them both as they trudged through the woods. She didn’t think she’d be able to find the cabin again on her own, so she stuck close to Nasir.
Though she hadn’t known exactly what had happened to Josh when Blair called her, murder hadn’t been on her mind. Of course, thinking about it, death made sense; most kidnappings didn’t end with a happy reunion.
But there he was, hanging off Nasir’s shoulder.
The cabin’s lit windows came into view when Nasir stopped.
“Hold up,” he said. “Turn the light off.”
Erica switched off the flashlight, but kept the phone in hand.
“What’s —?” she started, but then saw a man at the cabin door — their cabin. When the door opened, the light revealed he was carrying an ax.
“That isn’t Sean.”
“Maybe it’s one of them,” Nasir whispered. “Do you still have that log?”
“The one you used to put this guy out.” He adjusted Josh on his shoulder.
“Why would you let go of a perfectly good weapon?”
“I guess bounty hunter school was a long time ago. Let’s just go. Maybe he’s captured himself for us and now we only need three more.”
Nasir sighed and continued toward the cabin.
“Put the light on. You want me to fall to my death?”
She tried to keep her exhale silent as she turned on the flashlight.
When they reached the cabin, Erica entered first.
Sean, their fellow amateur hired hand, and a dirty disheveled man sat opposite each other on the ratty old sofa. Erica had been using it as a bed; her backpack and sheet were bunched over to the side and Sean leaned against it.
An ax lay on the floor by the guy’s feet.
Everyone spoke at once.
“I used to work with this guy —”
“Little help with the door?”
“I found this place by accident —”
Nasir adjusted his human burden again, waiting by the master suite door — the only other room in the cabin.
Josh picked up his head from Nasir’s back and made a slow sweep of his surroundings.
“He’s woken up,” she said.
“Get the damn door!”
Sean nearly tripped over his own feet getting off the sofa and charging to open the door in question.
Josh and the other man on the sofa stared saucer-eyed at each other as they entered the master suite.
“The chair,” Nasir said.
Josh struggled on his shoulder until both of them fell.
Sean dragged a wooden ladder back chair from the desk in the corner and left it in front of the unmade bed and quickly lent a hand to stop Josh from running through the open door. Erica jumped up to close it, and when she turned around, the men had Josh on the chair and were tying him with rope.
“Is that really necessary?” she said.
They didn’t answer, just kept tying.
“Erica, help me!” Josh called, hoarse.
“Careful with his hands!” She covered her mouth watching them work. “Let’s just talk to him. We don’t need to do this.”
“We’re not here to talk,” Nasir said. “And I’ll be damned if I get made because you were attached to one of them.”
Josh stopped struggling, his sweaty face tired and resigned.
Nasir and Sean finished.
“Why aren’t you tying the other guy up?” Erica indicated the suite door.
“He’s not trying to escape,” Sean said.
“Josh might not either if we gave him a chance.” She threw open the door and gasped when the other man stood right in front of her.
“That’s Demetri,” Sean said. “He’s harmless.”
He gave her the creeps.
Erica sat on the other end of the room in an armchair while Demetri sat against her backpack and bedsheet. His clothes and hair were dirty.
“What’re you doing with him?” Demetri asked.
Nasir toed the mini fridge closed and handed Erica a beer, then distributed one to Sean and Demetri, keeping a soda for himself.
One beer wasn’t going to be nearly enough.
“You know him, don’t you?” Sean asked.
Demetri popped the tab but put the can on the coffee table. “Not really. We were — he kidnapped me.” He didn’t look at any of them. “That’s why I have the ax. I escaped and chased him and lost track.” He turned the can around on the table. Around. Around. “I’m just afraid … ” He eyed the door. “Is he tied up?”
“Yeah, don’t worry,” Nasir said.
“I didn’t do anything to him. I mean, you can ask Sean, he knows me. He knows I wouldn’t do anything to anyone.”
Erica and Nasir both looked at Sean, but he avoided their gaze.
The can trembled in Demetri’s hand. He tried to bring it to his lips and failed, and so he set it on his knee. “I got hold of an ax while he wasn’t paying attention. I thought… I thought I’d choked him to death on my way out… when I’d broken out.” He eyed the room where they’d put Josh. “I guess I didn’t.”
“But you said you chased him into the woods,” Erica said. “You would have known you didn’t kill him.”
Sean shot a look at her and turned back to Demetri. “You must have been through some terrible things,” Sean said in a gentle voice. “It’s not your fault. We’re not gonna hurt you, okay? You’re safe now.”
“How can I believe anything?” Demetri said, putting the can back on the table. “You don’t even look the same. How far from the city are we?”
“We’re a good three hours outside the city,” Sean said, measuring his words. “I’m here because I heard you might be here and I wanted to help.”
“You’re all here for me?”
Erica glanced back at the door.
Sean put his drink on the table. “Maybe you can help us.”
Demetri shook his head and glanced at the closed door. “I want to go home.”
“In the morning.” Sean settled his elbows on his knees. “How many people were with you?”
“Sean, I don’t know what’s going on or what you’re doing with these people, but I mean,” he paused. “You can’t stop me from leaving.”
“You’re upset,” he said. “You’ve gotten out of one kidnapping situation and you want to make sure you haven’t walked right into another.”
Demetri took a swig of his beer.
“We’re looking out for you, though,” Sean continued. “If we let you leave now, you’ll be lost in two minutes. Those woods are hard enough in daylight.”
“The door doesn’t lock,” Nasir said. “Go if you want, but Sean’s right. The nearest town is miles away. God knows what animal live out there.”
“Yeah,” Demetri whispered.
“In the meantime, it would help us out a lot if you answered some questions.”
He finished the beer. “Like what?”
“There’s a building out here in the woods,” Sean said. “Underground?”
“That’s where I was.”
The three exchanged glances.
“How did you get in?”
“I don’t know. I woke up in there and had to use an ax to get out.” He gestured toward the ax still lying on the floor.
“So there was you and him,” Sean indicated Josh in the other room, whose muffled screams had all but stopped. “Anyone else?”
Demetri hesitated. “There were three others. I think they knew each other. No, they definitely knew each other.”
“We believe the man we captured is behind your kidnapping,” Sean said. “We were told to keep him alive and get answers, but he might be more inclined to talk to you. If we promise to protect you, would you question him?”
“About the kidnapping?”
The three eyed each other.
“We’re gonna tell you what happened while you were in there,” Sean said. “You’re not gonna like it.”