[Read the thrilling previous chapter. In which our hero has a nasty encounter with a pair of pruning shears]
I can’t say exactly how accurate my perception of the event was, but it seemed to me that the needle was nearly a foot long, and filled to brimming with a strange yellow liquid. The suit squirted a bit of it out the top of the needle like they do in the movies, and it landed on the table looking for all the world like a hocked-up bit of phlegm. “I would say I was sorry about this,” the suit said, “but since you won’t remember anyway…”
He moved around the table toward me, and I felt a flood of fear like I’ve never felt before. I’ve always been terrified of needles, and even if I wasn’t there was no way I wanted that stuff, whatever it was, inside of me.
In desperation I strained against the bonds that held me, and suddenly, to my surprise I felt one of the arms of the chair start to give. The suit was standing next to me now. “Don’t make this harder than it has to be,” he said, softly. “It’ll be over in a-”
That was the moment the arm chair gave way with a jolt, and the muscles I had been straining, now suddenly freed, carried the whole assemblage of wood and flesh and duct tape outward in a short arc that ended somewhere in the vicinity of the suit’s crotch. I feel I should disclaim that even though I’m not above fighting dirty, I wasn’t actually aiming for his balls. But regardless of my intentions, the man doubled over in pain, dropping the needle to the floor with a clatter. I swung again, this time aiming the wooden chair arm at his head. I felt the jolt of the impact all the way up to my shoulder, but there was a strangeness in the feeling, a kind of spongy give when I connected with his skull, and as he sank to the floor I realized there was blood gushing from a deep gash in his scalp.
I started tearing at the tape that bound my arms and legs. It was harder than I would have expected. The duct tape stuck to itself, and it was wrapped over and over so many times that it took agonizing minutes to unwind myself from it.
I kept glancing over at the suit, fearful he would regain consciousness and finish what he’d started, but he didn’t even groan. By the time I had released myself from the tape I’d worked up a couple plans. The first one involved me kneeling on the suit’s arms, pinning him to the ground and using the needle to inject him with that strange yellow fluid, possibly adding some witty quip like, “Sweet dreams sucker.” I could see it in my head. That was what the hero of a movie would do. Unfortunately I’m no hero, and this is no movie, so I took option “B” instead.
But it wasn’t until I was up out of the chair that I turned and realized the room I was in wasn’t a room at all. I had been facing one wall, but behind the chair where I had been sitting a long rectangular space stretched out to a set of heavy double doors. The answer came to me almost in a daze. I was in a shipping container. I didn’t have time to try to figure out what that meant.
I hit the doors with my shoulder half expecting them to be locked from the outside, but they swung open no problem. Outside the only illumination came from the halogen glow of a light on a pole. No, not just one light, but lots of them, reaching up to the sky like a strange metal forest. And the asphalt under my feet had yellow lines painted on it at regular intervals. My mind struggled to grasp what my eyes had seen.
I was in a parking lot. How? Why? For a moment, and only a moment I pondered, but then I heard a sound from the shadows, and I remembered my predicament. I started to run pushing myself toward the sound of traffic. If there was a road, there were people, people in cars. Maybe someone would give me a ride. Out of habit I reached down to the pocket where I keep my cell phone, but of course it was gone.
By the time I reached the highway, my body politely reminded me that the most strenuous activity I was accustomed to involved directing a bulky space marine’s movements with my thumbs. I slowed to a walk. I kept glancing back over my shoulder, but it appeared my friend in the suit wasn’t going to be waking up any time soon.
As I looked back I saw that the parking lot belonged to a Walmart. Unfortunately not one of the ones that stay open twenty-four hours a day. As I got my bearings I realized that in spite of my escape things weren’t exactly looking rosy for me. I was in an area of town I knew very little about, but it had the feel of a place you didn’t want to hang around at night.
I started walking along the highway toward the north. A few cars whizzed by me in the darkness, but I was too scared to try to get a lift, and I figured anyone who’d want to pick me up on this side of town in the middle of the night probably wouldn’t be trustworthy.
The night air wasn’t as blast-furnace hot as it was in the daylight, but it was still humid and warm and my sweat clung to me like a film. As I walked, I tried to figure out what had happened. The guy in the suit had been after the key to that email, the one Frog sent the day he disappeared. But why? What had Frog gotten himself mixed up in? My first instinct was organized crime, but that didn’t make sense, for two reasons. First, Frog’s nature didn’t tend toward the criminal side. And second, the suit had said something about his employers not wanting him to hurt me. That didn’t sound like mob mentality to me.
Homeland security then? But they weren’t the kind to be setting up in shipping containers in a Walmart parking lot were they?
And that left me with…well not much. All I could know for certain that whatever Frog was into had rattled their cages. Maybe it was some quasi-political group worried about some dirt Frog might have dug up while he was messing around with his “Invasion of the Pod People” theory. I could also guess that these people whoever they were, didn’t have Frog, or else they wouldn’t be going to the trouble of hunting me down to find out what he had put in that message.
But that only raised the question of what was in the message. The suit was right. Frog must have meant for me to decode it, or he wouldn’t have sent it to me. Maybe I did have some knowledge of how to figure it out locked away in my mind. I tried to think back to the stuff Frog had told me about codes. Vague images of grids full of letters and tubes with spinning numbers filled my head, but none of it stuck. Truth be told, I mostly zoned out when Frog was talking codes. I supposed it was possible he had given me some vital piece of information that would have helped me unlock the secrets of the email at some point, but if he had, I’d long since forgotten it by now. Way to go Vinny. What did my teachers always say? Vinny doesn’t listen. Vinny could do so much better. Vinny isn’t living up to his potential.
Not much had changed I guess.
My mind snapped back into the present, but for a moment I couldn’t figure out why. Then I heard it, faint but clear, the sound of crunching footsteps somewhere behind me.
I didn’t turn to look, because, really, I didn’t want to know. If I didn’t look I could always imagine that it was a couple of Mormon’s whose bikes had broken down in the worst area of town in the middle of the night and who just happened to be going the same way I was. Right. That was it.
I started to walk a little faster, but not too much faster so that whoever it was behind me wouldn’t know I knew they were there. A line from an old Don Knots movie I had watched a long time ago when mom was still alive popped into my head. Don’s standing a outside barber shop in the old west waiting for some criminal to come out and he says, “He’s in there. And I know he’s in there. And he knows I know he knows he’s in there. But what he doesn’t know is that I know he knows I know he’s in there. So I got the edge.”
Hilarious. And at a time like this a guy could really use a laugh. But I wasn’t laughing. Because the steps were getting closer and closer until I was sure whoever it was must be close enough to put a hand out and touch me. And still I didn’t turn around. My heart was pounding away like an out-of-control jackhammer. I tried to think what I should do. Running seemed like a bad idea, because I was so far out of shape it was more likely to make them mad than anything. Fighting was equally inadvisable. Which left me weighing the benefits of surrender. Maybe if I smiled and said, “Good evening gentlemen, I presume you’re here to unburden me of my wallet,” they’d leave me alone. But no, even that wouldn’t get me out of it. Because a guy like me, a hulking pathetic mountain of flesh might as well be begging for a beating. And this wouldn’t be like high-school.
I was formulating a plan to lie as still as possible in hopes that these guys would get bored and leave me alone when I was blinded by the glare of headlights. The plodding footsteps behind me suddenly quickened into a run, and I turned to see three shadowy figures disappearing between two apartment buildings. I turned back to the car that had pulled to the side of the road and shielded my eyes against the light.
The door opened and someone got out and stood there looking at me. “Vinny? What are you doing here?”
[Tear a chunk out of the incredible next chapter! In which our hero cooks scrumptious pancakes.]