Lauren Bennett tore a small portion of her white cotton tee-shirt and dropped it on the ground. Already looking as if she’d seen combat action in Iraq, her torn shirt fit the dilemma she found herself in. Dirt ruined her seventy-five dollar manicure. Mud camouflaged her face. Her shaved legs bore gashes and bruises from her many falls while trying to keep pace with her captor. A quarter-sized gash of meaty flesh protruded from her upper left arm and burned from perspiration. She couldn’t remember if she punctured her arm during their fight in the bedroom or when she resisted being shoved in her car.
Though she exercised five days a week, the tremendous hike along the Canadian border didn’t mimic the elliptical exercises at the gym. Her workouts burned enough energy to keep her serpentine figure intact. If the rocks hadn’t given her enough leverage to push off and thrust upward, she wouldn’t make it. Her knees weakened under the intense pressure. They hadn’t taken a rest for forty-five minutes or more and the steep climb tested her will. The thin mountainous air made her gasp.
Before today, whenever she had a moment, she’d sit in the backyard of her five-bedroom home in Medina, Washington, and face Mt. Baker, wishing for something better to do with her time than play housewife for her husband, Jackson. She’d rather daydream of scaling Mt. Baker to touch its ice-caked peaks than concern herself with Jackson’s whereabouts.
Now she trampled those desires under foot only to realize other things were more important, like a cloud cover to shed her from the heat, a cool drink of water, and to go home to her three children.
“You’ll just have to kill me because I can’t go another step!” She sat on the ground and tried to catch her breath.
The man stopped and looked over his shoulder. “Don’t tempt me. It’s something I should have done at the very beginning.” He continued his climb. She had given him trouble, more than anticipated.
“Why didn’t you? You would’ve done us both a favor.” The words surprised her. Death meant separation from her family and her lofty, calculated life of leisure. Thoughts of separation from her three children hurt, but she felt nothing for anyone else.
“You better get up lady or the bears will eat your behind, if the snakes don’t get you first.”
Lauren moved her feet and followed in step. She hated snakes, and Jackson.
“It’ll be dark soon. You can rest then.”
“And then what?” Lauren flung her arms forward to give herself the momentum needed to keep up the brisk pace.
“That’s not an answer,” she said with a hint of defiance in her voice.
The tall, muscular man turned around and slapped her. She fell to the forest floor and hit her back against a rock. She screamed. Blood poured from her mouth.
“That’s what! Anything else?” He hadn’t meant to hit her that hard. Sight of her blood tempted him to kneel down and apologize. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief and threw it at her. “Here! Now get up!”
He had only harmed two people in his entire life. The first one had been an accident. Hitchhiking across New Mexico, he encountered a man headed to California. Two days with that guy made his skin crawl. He wanted to get away from him. He was creepy and spontaneous, and if McIver didn’t know any better, a little schizophrenic. One minute he talked with reason, the next minute he’d answer questions no one had asked. When crossing a bridge, he landed a hard right blow on McIver’s left jaw. As the man postured to hit McIver again, McIver ducked and used the man’s momentum to throw him off the bridge. It took a month for McIver to convince himself the man deserved it.
But his second encounter never left him. He still had trouble with what motivated him to do it. The husband and wife had begged for mercy, but his anger felt like molten rock bubbling through his nose. Killing simmered that anger. He wouldn’t allow himself to dwell on it. No matter what it took, he’d pay any price not to think about it.
It relieved him this woman didn’t beg or whimper as his last victims had done. This female was more shocked than hurt. She fought him at the house without asking him one single question. Matter of fact, if she had the strength of a man, he’d be ousted from the house and on the run from those who hired him. She puzzled him. She wasn’t your typical hysterical female. Strong-willed? Yes. Stupid? No. High-class? Most definitely. An air-head? Not on your life. Sophisticated? Yes. But rugged. McIver asked himself what that meant, but he couldn’t come up with a plausible answer. He suspected the answer lay somewhere in those eyes. He couldn’t look at her too long. He feared he’d drown in them. They soothed him. Her fight was almost erotic, and yet, something told him she wasn’t really fighting him. He tried to appease his curiosities by mistreating her, and he got away with it, so long as he didn’t look in her eyes.
“We’ll stop when I say it’s time to stop,” he said. “You’ve wasted enough of my time. Now step it up!” He jerked Lauren by the arm and pushed her forward. Nearly falling face forward to the ground, she gripped anything she could get her hands on—low tree branches, tree trunks—and thrust herself up the hill as fast as her legs could carry her. Fresh blood spewed down her left arm making a dark maroon paste in the palm of her hand.
An hour and a half later he made a makeshift camp and ordered her to build a fire. Lauren tried to relive the moments before her abduction, wondering why she hadn’t backed out the room. A rancid odor had drawn her attention to the walk-in closet of the master bedroom. Before she thought it through, she had opened the closet door. And what did she do? That wasn’t a fight, she declared. That was panic. With anger smoldering and drying up the snot in her nose, she squinted then gritted her teeth as she attempted to make a fire by knocking two rocks together.
Lauren knelt close to the smoldering fire and blew until the tiny twigs set ablaze. Sparks floated in the air and skinny flames rose and fell. By the time she scouted around for additional twigs, the fire went out and she had to repeat her efforts to start another fire.
Once the fire was steady, she sat close to it with her knees pressed against her chest remembering the only joy in her life—ten year old Taylor; Kaitlyn, seven; Sarai, six. Thoughts of them brightened her spirits any day of the week. Lauren studied the sunset and guessed the time—six-thirty p.m. perhaps. She closed her eyes and imagined Taylor at his desk rushing through his homework so he could watch the last of Survivor at eight before going to bed at eight-thirty. With certainty Kaitlyn and Sarai were in the middle of the family room with toys scattered all over the floor. Soon they’d be getting ready for bed, arguing and being slow to finish their baths. Afterwards, like clockwork, Lauren visualized herself curled on the sofa in front of the television set waiting impatiently for Jackson to come home. As always, she made the lonely trek upstairs and went to bed where cold sheets remained that way–cold.
Tears washed her face clean. The fire blazed. And he had fish.
Lauren hurried and wiped her eyes. She wanted to ask where he had gotten the perch, but she dare not. Intrigued, she watched him with keen eyes on the pale blue, long-sleeve, cotton shirt he had stolen from her husband’s closet. Squeezing the rock beneath her, she allowed questions to rise to the tip of her tongue, wise not to voice them out loud. She was afraid he’d hit her again, but more terrifying was her urge to fight back if he had. The definite possibility that she’d end up floating face down in the Pacific made her palms sweat on this frigid mountain.
He cooked the fish in silence, handing her a whole one on a stick. She hadn’t eaten since noon and feathered the hot meat off and ate quickly and quietly.
When he bedded down, Lauren sat up and gazed at the darkness, looking for a way to escape, hopeful the opportunity would come soon. If he slept as solid as Jackson, once the snoring began he wouldn’t hear a thing.
“If I were you, I’d get some sleep. We’ll be moving pretty fast tomorrow.”
Lauren flinched at the sound of his voice. He read her mind, so she thought. His tone more of a warning; definitely not a suggestion. With nothing to wrap herself in, Lauren cowered down and curled her legs under her and tried to sleep.
Long before daybreak, she felt a blunt kick on her butt.
“Time to move.”
She looked at the sky then toward him, but the dark kept him hidden. She struggled to her feet. Everything hurt—her left arm, her behind, legs, back, face, even her hands.
“How will we travel in the dark? I can barely see.”
“Get up and get moving. We don’t have all day.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Lauren mumbled under her breath.
He made it hard to keep up with him. Lauren found herself running more than hiking. Fifteen minutes into the climb she struggled to breathe the thin cold air. What motivated this man beside sirens and police dogs? That reminded her—she hadn’t heard a siren since their ferry across the Canadian waters. Lauren tried to convince herself Jackson had called the police and the U.S. had warned Canadian authorities about her kidnapping. But would they look for me here? Along this trail? Headed in this direction? It had been eighteen hours since she went missing, not enough time by police standards to report a missing adult. The vermin in front of her would get 20 years for kidnapping; the death penalty for murder. Thoughts of dying made her shiver and with every step she stumbled, fumbled forward, losing part of her bladder along the way.
As the hillside flattened out, Lauren caught her breath and slowed her pace. She was cold, but she couldn’t worry about it. Once again she thought of her children. They were asleep. Jackson was home snoring; then again, maybe he wasn’t. Not unusual to find him crouched over his desk with the lamp on, deciphering a contract. He probably paid the maids to stay the night. Worse-case scenario, his parents had the children. For every day the children were around Anderson and Francine Bennett, it took Lauren four weeks to undo the damage. Lauren cringed. Which is harder—climbing this mountain or raising children? If given a choice, Lauren was sure she’d choose to climb the mountain.
She resented the fact Jackson never lifted a finger to help with anything. Lauren’s anger burned. She couldn’t pretend anymore. Lauren couldn’t find one good thing to say about him. Before, she enjoyed jawing with other soccer moms and flaunting their next vacation plans in each other’s faces. She didn’t dare admit how boring their vacations had become. Jackson brought work with him everywhere he went. After a swim and tumbling with the children, he read, conferenced, and planned to do more of the same. The only thing they exchanged between one another was Jackson’s plans not to be home until ungodly hours of the night. And he never went on a business trip for a few days. It was weeks at a time.
Lauren was tired of carrying the weight of everything—parent/teacher, disciplinarian, attending operas, movies, and dining all alone. So many talk show hosts, psychiatrists, and other well-meaning people kept saying it proved self-confidence to take yourself out to dinner. It was self-love. Lauren became an expert at self-love. She loved herself so much she had redefined the word in five different languages. How many times had she dressed up in a mid-length formal with her expensive bag and shoes and silky, glittering hose and taken herself out to dinner? She had half a mind to interrupt those talk show hosts, pull the bimbo they call an expert by the collar and punch him right in the mouth. “I’m human,” Lauren would scream to the television set. “With needs!”
A real man—a tall, dark, handsome, confident man—would ask her about her day. He wouldn’t have to ask her favorite color; he’d already know it. His conversations wouldn’t be between the pages of a contract. He’d surprise her with flowers, a candlelight dinner, a bubble bath, soft music, intimacy. She wanted to take his breath away with her eyes and bathe in his arms. Lauren’s ache to be touched radiated through the tips of her fingers. Her face emitted intense degrees of heat at the sight of bare flesh. Baritone voices on the other side of a phone call, instantaneously made her rub the phone against her chest. Sometimes she chatted too long with her twenty-nine year old trainer, too long with the kids’ principal, and too long with the teenage grocery boy.
The silence that crept through the house after bedtime horrified her. Music helped, as long as she didn’t play anything romantic. But romance was what she wanted, what she craved. Anecdotes for love didn’t exist. Pills leave you feeling the same needs, just in slow motion.
After Sarai’s birth, the only thing she received from frequent visits to those fancy restaurants was indigestion. Tantalizing fantasies of loving couples in restaurants invaded her lonely nights. She hated to sleep, hated the temptation to love the man in her dreams. It was against all moral judgment to fantasize this way. It disavowed her promise to Jackson. Ooh, how she wanted to break her vow now. But her newfound courage missed an in-your-face-challenge with Jackson.
Hate for Jackson replaced the jitters of death. The sound of his name alone stomped her fantasies into a powdery poof of dust under her feet. Lauren’s heels dug deeper into the ground. A need to fight swelled inside her. Frightened and disgusted at the heap of dirt in front of her, there lay a certainty that she received more attention from him than she had ever received from Jackson. “That has to be worth something,” she said under her breath. “Has to be.”
“Pick up the pace, Raggedy Ann.”
“The name is Lauren,” she said angrily. “Something wrong with your memory?” Lauren sucked in her bottom lip then traced the tip of her finger along her swollen jawline. Her face felt two sizes too big. She’d have to watch what she said or this could get worse.
Lauren ran into the back of him. He held his hand out in a motion for her to stop, but she hadn’t seen it. He grabbed her by the arm and yanked her into a crouching position. Lauren followed his gaze. At the foot of the mountain was a clearing and a log cabin sat smack-dab in the middle of it with smoke escaping through the chimney and an SUV out front. It looked peaceful.
The man hit her and a dull pain made her knee throb. The man indicated she should stay put. He removed his serrated blade and pressed it against her neck. The cold steel pricked her skin and warm blood trickled down. She shook all over, but knew better than to cry out.
The bright moonlight cast a faint image of him and as he made his way to the cabin. He opened and softly shut a car door after gathering some things under his arms. Lauren’s feet and legs inched away, but after her fingers caressed the small cut under her neck she stopped.
Moments later he dropped camping gear, a plaid long-sleeve shirt, a pair of Togg Froggs, two pair of hiking boots, and a naked fishing rod at her feet. He threw a shirt and a pair of boots at her.
“These are too big. Take them back.” Take them back? What a smart thing to say, Lauren. Yeah, and if he takes them back, gets caught, people die.
The man let his hands dangle between his legs as he sat in a squatting position, then he bowed his head and laughed. Within seconds he choked the laughter and turned serious. “Put ‘em on,” he said cantankerously.
Lauren fastened the boots best she could and plowed behind him.
“How much farther?” she asked.
Lauren stopped. His short answers infuriated her and she was tired of it. She lost all reason and determined she’d test him, push him. Could she do that? Was it worth the risk? What else could he do to her? Beat her? He had done that. Humiliate her? Jackson had played that role already. Kill her? That might ease her misery.
“I’m not moving until you tell me how much farther.”
He raised his hand to hit her. Lauren expanded her chest and drew in a breath from the cool night air. “I’ll scream . . . and before you can slice me in little bitty pieces, I’ll scream again, and the woods will carry my sounds across the forest.” Lauren awaited her death. She felt no pain, heard no rebuttal. When she opened her eyes, the full moon highlighted his left hand frozen in midair.
“How much farther?” she demanded, her voice shaky through a heightened sense of confidence.
“A hundred and twenty miles. Maybe more.”
“That means we’ll be hiking for days.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Move it.”
Reluctantly, Lauren followed. She didn’t know why, but she wondered what Jackson would have done in a situation like this. He was good at law and enjoyed the politics of it all. He and his Hollywood clients dated contracts, sold and bought real estate as far west as San Francisco to London, from Alaska to Florida. He had no time to be a husband, a father. Excellent at hiring folks to do his dirty work for him, family came second. She wondered if she and the kids were a token, a notch on his gun, a proven display of achievements. Law he could handle. Family he couldn’t.
What would he do if he was cornered in the forest of Canada and the only way out was through the likes of this man? Lauren decided Jackson didn’t have the wherewithal to hold up under this pressure. He knew nothing of camping; hated to break a sweat; and didn’t have the patience to fish. She laughed at the thought of him baiting a fish hook. His face would become beat red and sweat would turn his cool, sophisticated nature to that of a squealing preteen. He’d worry more about his manicure than a teenager worries about a new zit the day before the dance. Those thoughts empowered her and for the first time she kept in step with her captor.
As warped as it seemed, Lauren was glad to be in the woods. It meant Jackson would be pulled from his world of predictability. This he couldn’t control. And he sure couldn’t renegotiate it.