I unbuckle my seat belt.
As I unzip my gray hoodie and shrug my arms out of the sleeves, I cling to a single shred of hope—he’s still wearing a mask, which means he doesn’t want me to see his face. If he were planning to kill me, he wouldn’t care if I could identify him.
I unbutton my shirt.
“Shoes too?” I ask.
I slip off my running shoes, my socks.
I slide my slacks and boxer shorts down my legs.
Then my clothes—every last thread—sit in a pile in the front passenger seat.
I feel vulnerable.
What if he tries to rape me? Is that what this is all about?
He sets a flashlight on the console between the seats.
“Out of the car, Jason.”
I realize that I see the interior of the Navigator as a kind of lifeboat. As long as I stay inside, he can’t really hurt me.
He won’t make a mess in here.
My chest is heaving, I’m starting to hyperventilate, black spots detonating across my field of vision.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he says, “and I can hurt you just as easily inside this car.”
I’m not getting enough oxygen. I’m starting to freak out.
But I manage to say, breathlessly, “Bullshit. You don’t want my blood in here.”
When I come to, he’s dragging me out of the front seat by my arms. He drops me in the gravel, where I sit dazed, waiting for my head to clear.
It’s always colder near the lake, and tonight is no exception. The wind inflicts a raw, serrated bite on my exposed skin, which is covered in gooseflesh.
It’s so dark out here I can see five times the number of stars as in the city.
My head is throbbing, and a fresh line of blood runs down the side of my face. But with a full load of adrenaline shotgunning through my system, the pain is muted.
He drops a flashlight in the dirt beside me and shines his at the disintegrating edifice I saw as we drove in. “After you.”
I clutch the light in my hand and struggle to my feet. Stumbling toward the building, my bare feet trample sodden newspaper. I dodge crumpled beer cans and chevrons of glass that glitter under the beam.
Approaching the main entrance, I imagine this abandoned parking lot on another night. A night to come. It’s early winter, and through a curtain of falling snow, the darkness is ribboned with flashing blues and reds. Detectives and cadaver dogs swarm the ruins, and as they examine my body somewhere inside, naked and decomposed and butchered, a patrol car parks in front of my brownstone in Logan Square. It’s two in the morning, and Daniela comes to the door in a nightgown. I’ve been missing for weeks and she knows in her heart I’m not coming back, thinks she’s already made her peace with that brutal fact, but seeing these young police officers with their hard, sober eyes and a dusting of snow on their shoulders and visored caps, which they shelve respectfully under their arms…it all finally breaks something inside of her she didn’t know was still intact. She feels her knees liquefy, her strength giving way, and as she sinks onto the doormat, Charlie comes down the creaky staircase behind her, bleary-eyed and wild-haired, asking, “Is it about Dad?”
As we close in on the structure, two words reveal themselves on the faded brick above the entrance. The only letters I can make out spell CAGO POWER.
He forces me through an opening in the brick.
Our light beams sweep across a front office.
Furniture rotted down to the metal frames.
An old water cooler.
The remnants of someone’s campfire.
A shredded sleeping bag.
Used condoms on moldy carpet.
We enter a long corridor.
Without the flashlights, this would be can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark.
I stop to shine my light ahead, but it’s swallowed by the blackness. There’s less debris on the warped linoleum floor beneath my feet, and no sound whatsoever, save for the low, distant moan of wind outside these walls.
I’m growing colder by the second.
He jams the barrel of the gun into my kidney, forcing me on.
At some point, did I fall onto the radar of a psychopath who decided to learn everything about me before he murdered me? I often engage with strangers. Maybe we spoke briefly in that coffee shop near campus. Or on the El. Or over beers at my corner bar.
Does he have plans for Charlie and Daniela?
“Do you want to hear me beg?” I ask, my voice beginning to break. “Because I will. I’ll do anything you want.”
And the horrible thing is that it’s true. I would defile myself. Hurt someone else, do almost anything if he would only take me back to my neighborhood and let this night continue like it was supposed to—with me walking home to my family, bringing them the ice cream I’d promised.
“If what?” he asks. “If I let you go?”
The sound of his laughter ricochets down the corridor. “I’d be afraid to see what-all you’d be willing to do to get yourself out of this.”
“Out of what, exactly?”
But he doesn’t answer.
I fall to my knees.
My light goes sliding across the floor.
“Please,” I beg. “You don’t have to do this.” I barely recognize my own voice. “You can just walk away. I don’t know why you want to hurt me, but just think about it for a minute. I—”
“—love my family. I love my wife. I love—”
“I will do anything.”
I’m shivering uncontrollably now—from cold, from fear.
He kicks me in the stomach, and as the breath explodes out of my lungs, I roll over onto my back. Crushing down on top of me, he shoves the barrel of the gun between my lips, into my mouth, all the way to the back of my throat until the taste of old oil and carbon residue is more than I can stomach.
Two seconds before I hurl the night’s wine and Scotch across the floor, he withdraws the gun.
Screams, “Get up!”
He grabs my arm, jerks me back onto my feet.
Pointing the gun in my face, he puts my flashlight back into my hands.
I stare into the mask, my light shining on the weapon.