Durrell Pratt glanced down at the car's clock to see that it was nearly 1 a.m. On an ordinary night he would have been asleep hours ago. Instead he was cruising a practically deserted highway of Leeds City, Erie County. He had been driving for almost an hour and had seen less than fifteen vehicles. No pedestrians on the streets at this time of night. He'd passed a few all night gas stations where workers sat in chairs, some smoking, waiting for customers. Customers that rarely came after midnight.
He realized regardless of the time, he still had a long night ahead of him. One that would turn out to be far from ordinary.
"The love of money is the root of all evil," The voice replayed in his mind. They were the words of his pastor during a sermon he'd heard weeks ago. He tuned out the other passengers, as well as all distractions outside the car, and reminisced.
"Only when someone is put in a position where money is desperately needed, does the truth of that statement become clear," The pastor had explained. "There's nothing wrong with wealth, in and of itself. Nor is there anything inherently evil about money. Yet it is the love, the desire, and the lust for it—which is capable of bringing out the darkness that resides within all of us. The nicest people in the world, in the drop of a hat, can turn into flesh eating, blood sucking, heartless monsters for the sake of financial gain."
Durrell remembered especially what was said of those who loved money. In the end, they would "fall into temptation and a snare", and "pierce themselves through with many sorrows". He had been wrestling internally with his motivations for the past six days. Was it really his desire to continue supporting his grandmother that had him out here tonight? Or was it somehow a selfish desire? Love itself could cause the best of people to act in unusual ways. It had driven some to insanity, and Durrell feared that he was going down that same road.
He tried to console himself by saying that he was doing the right thing; what anyone else with half of a heart would do in his situation. Hopefully his seemingly good intentions would help him escape what he feared was imminent. Sighing, Durrell glanced down again to see that slightly less than two gallons of gas remained in the tank. He was driving in a tan-colored, 2005 Toyota Corolla; a relatively spacious car that he didn't particularly care for. It belonged to one of the three others who were in the vehicle with him.
His girlfriend, the owner of the car, sat beside him in the passenger's seat. Her name was Jennifer, and she was a thin Hispanic girl with black hair and blonde highlights. Despite having a hardened face from the difficulties she had endured all her life, she was still a beautiful young woman. Jennifer's thin frame and her big, baleful, eyes belied the tough spirit that had initially attracted Durrell to her.
In the back seats sat Ben and Damien. Damien was a tall, white teenager with an intimidating physique. His mere presence was able to calm potentially violent situations, and his eyes were piercing. Ben was closer to Durrell's own height of 5'8", and had a similar build to Damien's but less bulky. He was Hispanic with self claimed "movie star" looks. His charisma, at least, wasn't debatable. When he wasn't being spiteful and bitter, Durrell found him a likeably guy to be around with a great sense of humor. It was rare, unfortunately, that he was anything but spiteful and bitter.
Durrell himself was black with eyes that were either light brown or hazel, depending on his mood. Either way, the brightness of them was a sharp contrast to his skin and hair color. He worked out to maintain his health, but wasn't nearly as massive as Damien. Currently, he was trying his best not to be distracted by Ben, who was sitting directly behind the driver's seat. He knew that both Ben and Damien were holding weapons in their hands. One had been brought along for Durrell's use although he hoped that the opportunity wouldn't arise.
The headlights of a larger vehicle came into view half a mile up the road. Durrell was driving down the highway, Route 130, and the lights were on the other side of the divider. It was the first vehicle they had seen since a car passed ten minutes ago. Others might have come nearby but due escaped detection due to the headlights of the Toyota Corolla being out. Durrell grimaced as the two vehicles drew nearer to each other. The other was a white van with a lone man sitting in the driver's seat. It was far too dark for any details of his clothing or face to be visible. Durrell's body tensed up as the van came within twenty yards of the Corolla.
Much to his chagrin, the van flashed its own headlights three times as it passed by. The beams were so bright that the light briefly flooded the entire car with each flash. It also blinded all of the four passengers from seeing the driver. Damien muttered, "About time," from the backseats as Durrell lowered his head. He wished that he had imagined the flashing lights but he knew he was hoping against hope. Approximately fourteen vehicles had gone by since Durrell turned off the car's headlights. None of them had bothered to warn him. Ben had been resilient and insisted that they continue to drive around until someone did flash their lights. Now's the moment of truth. What are you going to do?
"About time is right," Ben said. "People don't care about anybody these days. It takes twenty cars going by before ONE idiot has the courtesy to flash his lights. What's wrong with fools these days?"
"I'll have to wait for the U-Turn up the road," Durrell stated to no one in particular. He wanted to give the driver of the van time to get as far away as possible.
"Turn around right here, NOW," Ben demanded.
Durrell's eyes met with Jennifer's and she nodded her head reassuringly. He sagged his shoulders and waited until they came to a break in the divider, where he made a U-Turn in the middle of the highway. Then he stepped down a little harder on the gas pedal to pick up speed. He took notice of the gas gauge for the second time and spoke, "We should probably stop for gas…"
"Look, niggah," Ben held the muzzle of a pistol to the back of Durrell's skull. "Someone is going to get shot tonight and right now it's up to you who that's going to be. Either that goodie two shoes in the van or you. What do you want?"
"Ben, relax," Jennifer glared back at him. "We are a little low on gas. He was just warning you."
"Yeah, alright," Ben lowered the gun as he peered over Durrell's shoulder to see the gauge for himself. He considered it for a moment before saying, "The quicker we catch up to him, the better. We can stop for gas after you take care of him. So stop driving like an old lady and keep up."
Without saying a word, Durrell sped up. The van was roughly thirty yards ahead by now and was moving at a relatively slow pace. The speed limit for the highway was 45 miles per hour. Drivers usually went at 50 or 55 unless the police were around. There weren't any tonight, although Durrell wouldn't mind being pulled over. Anything to get me out of this. The van was going a little less than the speed limit and Durrell's vehicle was gaining ground on it with every second. There were double doors in the back of the truck with windows three-fourths of the way up. Durrell switched the headlights on as he neared.
"What are we going to do?" He asked.
"Try to pull alongside him and I'll take the wheel," Jennifer said, solemnly. "Then it's all your job, hon."
"Great," Durrell muttered.
Durrell increased the speed of the car even more and swerved to the left. Jennifer rolled her window down with one hand while reaching back with the other to accept the pistol from Ben. She inspected it to make sure that the safety was off before holding it securely in both hands. Then she stared at her boyfriend, immediately seeing the consternation on his face. It was less than sixty degrees outside and he was beginning to sweat. His eyes were trained on the driver's side window of the vehicle they were pursuing. His mind occupied by what he was practically being forced to do. Jennifer wanted to take him home and tell him to forget about joining the gang but she knew it was too late. Regardless of her arguments, Durrell would either murder the driver of the van, or Ben would murder him.
The Toyota gingerly pulled up alongside the larger van and Durrell's hands tightened on the wheel. He would be able to see inside the van soon. From what his girlfriend had told him, he would have a narrow window of opportunity to fire. Victims were usually too shocked or frightened at the aggressiveness of the initiates to respond quickly. She had recounted to him her own initiation into the Hoods. Five years had passed since that day and she still remembered it in vivid detail. The reaction of the older man to the weapon in her hands never ceased to haunt her. What if he has a kid in the van with him? The rules were that all occupants had to be killed. If there was a child in there, infant or toddler, he wouldn't have any choice but to…kill it, too.
Another second or two and Durrell would be side by side with the van. He wondered what the expression on the face of his victim would be. Whether it would be the sheer terror that he expected, or what Jennifer had described. Would the man simply watch him with grief in his eyes, asking what he had done to deserve such a fate; looking like a pathetic animal caught in the headlights of an approaching vehicle? As haunted by what she saw as Jennifer was, Durrell had no doubt he would never forget the man's face. Is it really worth it? Durrell didn't think he could live with the guilt of having taken an innocent human being's life. His grandmother, on the other hand, might die if he didn't.
"Here," Jennifer whispered while holding the gun out to Durrell. "Take it."
One of his shaky hands came off the steering wheel and accepted the gun. His fingers managed to close around the handle of the instrument of death. He removed his eyes from the van for a second to glance at what he was wielding. It was cold and lifeless and had probably already left many innocent people the same way. Just like Ben and Damien, Durrell was now in the place of a hunter. He was a man preying on the life of another person who was minding his own business—possible someone with a family and children waiting at home. If they weren't in the van with him.
Durrell's index finger found the trigger and he aimed the gun directly at the window of the van. Jennifer leaned toward him, keeping her body underneath his arm to avoid an accident. She covered her ears with both hands and closed her eyes. Durrell desperately wished he could do the same as he peered into the window, his finger beginning to tighten on the trigger. There was movement from inside the window and Durrell saw the brim of a dark hat come into view as the driver leaned forward. He prepared himself to see the face of the man…
The van suddenly veered to the right, catching Durrell, Ben, and Damien by surprise. Ben and Damien jumped and swore while Durrell yelped. Tires screeched on asphalt as a result of the large vehicle struggling to complete the abrupt change of direction. Jennifer sat up and turned around in time to watch, with the others, the van go roaring down an exit. Durrell dropped the gun into his lap and wrestled with the steering wheel, trying to keep his own vehicle under control. He barely avoided crashing into the divider before pulling the Toyota to a gradual stop. Then he paused with the car parked in the middle of the highway road.
All four passengers sat in momentary silence and disbelief. No one had expected the driver of the van to react as rashly as he had. There was no way he could have seen the gun in the dark. Ben, on the many occasions where he drove along for an initiation, hadn't seen anything like it. He shook his head and exchanged a glance with Damien. "The hell was that about?"
"Most people think the 'lights out' initiation is an urban myth or something," Jennifer told him. "Maybe that guy is familiar enough with the area to know that it's true?"
"Whatever," Ben shrugged. "He's not getting off the hook. Back up and follow him."
Groaning, Durrell reluctantly put the gear into Reverse and obeyed Ben's command. He scanned the area around them as well as the rearview mirrors for any signs of help. Still nothing. The police in town were notorious for roaming the streets late at night to pull over unsuspecting speeders and gang bangers. They were especially tenacious toward the end of the month, which it was. Tonight, however, it was as if Durrell had sealed his fate the second he climbed into the car. He'd had several opportunities prior to tonight to change his mind. Now it appeared that they were all exhausted.
When he had backed up enough, Durrell took the exit to the right. He could see the taillights of the van in the distance. They were like a pair of red eyes staring back at him, warning him to pursue no further; possibly even reflecting the evil that would overtake him - if he indeed spilled blood tonight. I don't have many options at this point, do I?
Almost as if in response, the van accelerated and went out of view, seemingly disappearing into the night. Swallowed up by the darkness that shrouded the road. Both sides of the two-lane street were framed by thick forestry. The streetlights set up roughly every twenty yards did little to penetrate the enveloping gloom. They were counteracted by the creepy shadows from the trees, crawling along the surface of the street. The thick clouds in the sky created more shadows as they constantly drifted in front of the waning moon.
Realizing that there was quite a distance between he and the van, Durrell carefully increased the speed of the Totoya to 75 miles per hour. He was uncomfortable traveling at such a velocity but had to catch up. Although there were no deer signs in view he knew they lived out here. One had crashed through the windshield of a car two months ago and impaled the driver and passenger with its antlers. The local newspaper didn't show pictures of the accident until the blood was cleaned up. Those who investigated and recovered the bodies said that it had covered the car, the deer, and the road all around. Durrell thought about bringing it up but knew his cause wouldn't be helped. Ben and Damien could care less. All they're worried about is playing their sick game.
"Turn the radio on," Jennifer suggested.
"Huh?" Durrell asked, not removing his eyes from the empty road ahead of them. He had barely heard her voice and didn't understand what she was saying initially. Vans aren't known for moving THAT fast. It was possible that he was being impatient due to the stress of his circumstances. Yet even then, he thought that the van should have been in view by now. Instead his gaze was returned by a forlorn setting. He hadn't noticed the name of the road when turning onto it, and it didn't appear remotely familiar. "Do what?"
"The radio," Jennifer said again, louder this time. "It'll help to numb your mind some and make it easier to…"
"Don't listen to her," Ben snapped. "Just worry about driving. What kind of a man are you if you can't handle a little assignment like this?"
"Ben, shut up or I'm going to slap the taste out of your mouth," Jennifer responded. "Music will help him get into the mood for this. Leave him alone."
Focusing on anything but the task at hand seemed unlikely. There were reports, however, of serial killers and gangsters listening to music to ease a nagging conscience. No doubt, meditating on violent rap and rock music could release one's inhibitions. Durrell was well aware of that and he preferred the lighter songs. His grandmother, who had raised him from the age of 5, made it clear that she wouldn't allow certain things in her house. He respected her enough not to tamper with those "things" outside of the house. Tonight though, he would do whatever was necessary to lighten the burden he felt on his shoulders.
"Good idea," Durrell said, pressing the button to turn the radio on.
An old jazz song was beginning with the lyrics, "I don't care what the weatherman says when the weatherman says it's raining. You'll never hear me complaining; I'm certain the son will shine. I don't care how the weathervane points when the weathervane points to gloomy. It's got to be sunny to me-"
"What in the…" Ben stammered.
"When your eyes look into mine," The song continued.
"Hey man, turn that garbage off," Ben urged as Durrell was reaching up to switch the channels. "The hell was that song? And why is your radio even on that station, Jen?"
"Don't start," Jennifer grinned. "I like the oldies."
"And you're dating a youngster who is trying to take every opportunity to get out of this. That makes sense."
"We all had to start somewhere," Jennifer shrugged, despondently. "To be honest with you, I wish I had a way out of this type of life. And even more so, I wish I hadn't even mentioned it to Durrell. There's money and protection, but…"
"If I had a choice, which I don't…" Ben replied. "I'd get out, too."
The talking stopped when Durrell found a station playing a Snoop Dogg song, "Murder Was the Case." The sound and lyrics were nearly a perfect fit for the present situation. It was a surprisingly tame song with few, if any (Durrell couldn't remember) profanities, and a lack of explicit lyrics. Apparently the artist had a near-death experience in which someone representing the devil offered him a second chance. He was allowed to come back to life for a price. Durrell could relate to a degree. He was practically selling his soul with his actions.
His grandmother had always taken pride in being able to support Durrell without him working. She was adamant about him staying the course in school and earning a decent education. Her son, Durrell's father, had been a blue collar worker who struggled most of his life. She refused to accept the same for her grandson. Durrell had been content to obey her until her employer called him to say that her mental health was declining. As a result, her hours would decrease dramatically and eventually she would be laid off. To support her employer's claim, she didn't notice the drop from 40 hours to 25. Nor did she have any idea that Durrell had dropped out of high school in search of work. He hadn't had the heart to tell her.
Two bright red dots showed up in the horizon and Durrell shook his head clear. He had turned the radio on to help him escape his dilemmas. His sweet grandmother and their financial predicament was the last issue he desired to have on his mind. Yet, the song had stirred up memories that he'd been fighting to hold off. That was the single silver lining in all of this. Becoming a part of the gang would allow him access to enough money to support his grandmother. He might even be able to return to school if…
It's the van. The vehicle was parked right in the middle of the road with the driver's door wide open. Durrell slowed down and warily observed their surroundings. His first thought was that the driver had gotten out to attempt an ambush. There was no telling what kind of weapons he might have had in the van with him. Ben and Damien joined him in scanning the woods on both sides, searching for movement or hints as to where the driver had gone. Jennifer, meanwhile, was staring nervously at the van itself.
"Maybe it's a setup," Damien offered, rolling his window down and poking his head outside for a clearer view. A relieving, brisk, wind met his face and was carried into the car behind him. "Smells like pork..."
"You think so?" Ben raised an eyebrow.
"Maybe Jennifer was right and they've caught onto the initiation," Durrell said. "I don't think it would be wise to have a run-in with the police."
He was only partially telling the truth. If it was a police officer, then he or she had obviously seen the gun in Durrell's hand. The driver had leaned forward into a position where the side-view mirror might have exposed the inhabitants of the Toyota. Ben and Damien didn't fear the police and Durrell knew they would resist arrest. The cops would then target Durrell along with them since he had been seconds away from murdering an officer. I know they saw me. Hopefully they would listen to reason and spare his life.
"There's nowhere for them to be hiding backup squads," Ben reasoned. "The cops would have had a bunch of patrol cars waiting for us with more following up. It's not them. The engine stalled and he ran for it. That's all."
"It's either that, or…" Damien paused for dramatic effect. "The Erie County Devil got him."
Damien and Ben laughed.
"Must you be a jerk?" Jennifer asked, rolling her eyes.
"Hey, I'm just saying," He shrugged. "Even I don't go out near Shady Dawn after dark. In fact, none of the gangs do."
"Probably because there ain't a damn thing out there," Ben shook his head, grinning. "Erie County Devil. The hell's your problem?"
As the two laughed, Durrell brought the Toyota to a halt ten yards away from the van. The engine of the other vehicle sounded like it was still running and smoke was pouring out of the exhaust pipe. There had presumably been plenty of time for the driver to take his keys with him. He'd remained out of sight for five or ten minutes with Durrell trailing. So what had happened?
"Let's go," Ben opened the backdoor on his side and started to stand up when he noticed Damien doing the same. "Wait here with Jennifer. Durrell and I can handle this ourselves."
"You're going to take your chances with that punk?" Damien argued. "He barely knows how to hold a gun, and you know he doesn't want to go through with it. It's too dangerous for you to go with him alone. And if something happens to you then I can't say I won't ice him for it."
"Calm down, man," Ben stood up. "We'll be all right. You know darn well I can carry him if I have to. Besides, in case it is an ambush would you leave Jennifer in the car by herself?"
"Just be careful," Damien sat back, eyeing Durrell the whole time. He didn't speak a word to him, but Durrell could see that the look was a warning not to mess up.
Ignoring Damien's glare, Durrell pushed open his own car door and started to climb out when Jennifer touched his forearm. He paused, turning back to her. She was staring at him with an expression as intense as Damien's, yet with far different emotions behind it. At first he thought it was fear. All of the men were slightly rattled by the odd behavior of the van driver. There was a tint of fear in the eyes of even Damien and Ben to Durrell's surprise. Jennifer, on the other hand, gazed into his eyes with regret. He knew what was on her mind prior to her parting her lips to whisper.
"I'm sorry I got you into this, Durrell. I hope you'll be able to forgive me for bringing it up in the first place. It's all my fault."
"No," Durrell reached over with his right hand and placed it atop hers. "You were trying to help in the only way you knew how to. I made the decision to come out here tonight so don't blame yourself."
"If something happens…" Jennifer's voice cracked and hindered her from finishing the sentence.
"We'll be fine," Durrell squeezed her hand, fighting the urge to remain in the seat. Despite the grief etched on her face, Jennifer's eyes were always an escape for him. Life hadn't treated her particularly well and Durrell was well aware of that. Her reasons for joining the gang were far more severe than his. She had witnessed and taken part in things that she refused to share with him to the present day; for fear that he would leave her if he learned everything about her. That would never happen.
Winking to her, Durrell released her hand and climbed out of the car. He figured it wiser to leave the keys turned into ignition, rather than risk a delay in the event that a fight broke out. Also, if anything happened to he and Ben he wanted Jennifer to have an opportunity to escape quickly. Perhaps his death would convince her to leave the gang for good. Stop thinking like that. The cops won't just shoot you. That was true. Police procedure required officers to use the least amount of force necessary. Armed and dangerous criminals were warned once or twice before police escalated to lethal tactics. Ben was wielding an AK-47, an automatic weapon, with the muzzle trained on the van. Durrell held the pistol loosely in his right hand, prepared to drop it in a moment's notice.
He stepped to the side and slammed the car door shut. It sounded like an explosion in his ears and was loud enough to startle Ben. The gang leader muttered under his breath while motioning for Durrell to follow. He begrudgingly obliged, glancing to each side for signs of an ambush. The forest was undisturbed. No movement on either side. The trees and various plants beyond the road were so dense that Durrell had the impression that he and Ben were surrounded by massive black walls. The lone indication that they were trees was the visible outline of the tops, forty-five feet above the road.
As they came nearer to the van, the silence of the forest around them began to bother Durrell. He could hear the low hum of the Toyota's engine twenty feet to the rear, barely audible due to the louder engine of the van. Absent was the usual night chorus consisting of dozens or hundreds of crickets rubbing their hind legs together. Birds occasionally joined in with chirps here and there. After 2:30 or 3 a.m., the birds came out to stay, adding to the natural symphony until the sun rose and the crickets ceased their song. Erie County residents enjoyed opening their windows at night to hear the sounds. The forests were especially musical at night. Except for tonight. A faint, howling, wind was all that Durrell could hear besides the vehicles.
"Get up there and turn his engine off," Ben ordered, peering into the van's vacant front seats. "I'll watch your back."
"Hold the gun," Durrell held it out to him.
"Okay," Ben said. Then he lowered his voice to a whisper and leaned closer, "Take it with you. I think he's hiding in the back."
"Wouldn't he have run off by now?"
"That's just what he wants us to think," Ben continued to talk quietly, nodding at the open driver's door. "Why else would he leave the door open and the engine on? He's trying to create the impression that he rushed out. I say he's hiding in there, waiting for us to run around the forest looking for him. Then he'll pull off. Or he's hiding in the forest because he thought all of us would get out of our car. Either way, he's definitely nearby."
"And if he really did run out into the forest like a maniac?"
"Then I'll owe you one," Ben grinned. "But I don't think I'm wrong."
It made some sense. In actuality, none of the driver's actions were reasonable. He had managed to stay far ahead of the Toyota. So why did he stop in the first place? Maybe the constant high speed or the earlier sudden turn had caused the van to malfunction. Didn't matter, Durrell had a job to do. No matter how much he hated it.
He dropped the pistol on the seat and grasped the steering wheel with one hand, and the back of the chair with the other. He tugged at the objects twice to make sure that they would support his weight. Then Durrell hoisted himself up into the van and placed his knee on the seat. Once he was steady, he scooped the gun up from the cushion. Oh, man.
The side of the gun that had been lying in the seat was wet. His first assumption was that the driver had lost control of his bladder in fear. Disgusted, Durrell dropped the gun and turned his hand over to see what it was. Not urine or water, both of which would be clear in the darkness. The tips of his fingers and his palm were covered by a dark, thick, liquid. He raised his hand so that the light from the headlights of the Toyota hit it. The rear windows of the van were dusty, but the illumination allowed him to see color. Crimson.
While he stared in shock at his hand, a foul odor wafted across Durrell's nostrils. He balked in revulsion, balling his hand into a fist to avoid covering his face with it. Whatever was in the seat looked like blood and he wanted it off of his skin as soon as possible. Especially if it's causing that awful stench. The odor permeating the air resembled a combination of rotten eggs and old garbage. He'd never smelled anything quite like it before. I have to get out of here. It was trapped in the van and being inside probably wasn't safe for health reasons. Has to be toxic, whatever it is…
Durrell prepared to move backwards when something in the back of the van caught his attention. There was an open space behind the seats with equipment hanging from the ceiling. The shadows left most of the tools unrecognizable, though a few had sharpened edges that glistened in the dim light. Rows of odd utensils lined the walls, some sticking out of compartments, some held in place by strips of a leathery material. Lying on the floor close to Durrell was rope, coiled in several layers.
Beyond them were five large objects, wrapped in white sheets and bound by rope. They were long, ranging between five and a half to six feet in length, with unique shapes. Despite the differences, all of the objects shared a distinct human outline. A chill settled along Durrell's spine as he sucked in a deep breath. He regretted it immediately when the tainted air entered his lungs. The smell, terrible as it was, was the least of his concerns. Unless his eyes were playing tricks on him, what was under the sheets either closely resembled human bodies or… they were human bodies. Let's not jump to conclusions.
The van might have been transporting life-like dolls. Too big to be children's toys. True, yet there were plenty of plausible possibilities. Life-sized replicas of sports players, wrestlers, and celebrities were popular. The tools might be back there to provide maintenance for the models. They could have been damaged and were on their way to the factory where they were produced. The ropes were there to hold the dummies intact. Yeah, that sounds right. It was more rational than believing that there were human bodies underneath the sheets.
Durrell could have convinced himself of that if not for another problem. The sheets were stained in various locations along the bodies. Dark stains that matched the appearance of the liquid on his hand. He hoped that it was due to a leak. There were chains tied into machinery in the ceiling, swaying gently back and forth. Large hooks had been attached at their ends. Five of the hooks were directly above the wrapped and roped objects. To Durrell's dismay, only one was dripping the same dark liquid onto the torso of the corpse underneath it. It didn't account for the blood that coated the body's face area. And it certainly had nothing to do with the hand sticking out of a tear in the sheet. A pale, lifeless hand.
With his head spinning, Durrell stepped back and gingerly climbed out of the van. The instant his feet touched the concrete, his stomach began churning violently. Falling to his knees, he doubled over as his abdomen sucked itself into his spine. Then his stomach emptied itself of its contents and he gagged, struggling to breathe as his airway was obstructed by vomit.
Ben watched him, confused. The driver of the van must have killed himself to avoid a brutal death. That or the excitement of the night had finally caught up to poor Durrell. The look in his eyes, though, had been one of sheer terror. He had seen something. Feeling uneasy, Ben turned and climbed up into the seat. His hand fell into the same liquid that Durrell's had, and he lifted it to his face. Blood. That wimp couldn't handle a little blood? Ben was about to mock him until he saw the scene in the back of the vehicle.
"AAAAAAAH!" A shrill scream broke the silence, causing Ben to jump and bump his head on the ceiling. "Damien!"
Now what? The contents of Durrell's stomach had finished emptying out onto the pavement. He recognized the scream as having come from Jennifer's vocal cords. She had never screamed before in his hearing but her voice was unmistakable. Immediately, he staggered up to his feet and jogged toward the Toyota. Jennifer was sitting in the passenger's seat, staring off into the forest on the side of the road. Damien was gone.
Durrell ran around to her side of the car and pulled the door open. Tears were streaming down Jennifer's face and her eyes were stretched. She didn't even seem to notice him standing there. Her focus was on the unmoving, soundless forest. Durrell reached down and took up one of her trembling hands in his own (the one without blood on it). He doubted he would be of any comfort since he was shaking as well, struggling to put the image of the bodies out of his head.
"What happened, Jennifer?"
"He… Damien…" Jennifer's lips were quivering so frantically that she could barely speak.
"Where's Damien?!" Ben called, running from the direction of the van.
"He grabbed him… snatched him right out of the car!" Jennifer said.
"Damien…" Jennifer paused to take a few deep breaths. "We were sitting in here, wondering what was taking you guys so long. I looked up and there was a man in a coat and hat standing next to the car. He reached in through the back window and pulled Damien out. That's when I screamed and… he dragged Damien out into the forest."
"He what?" Ben asked. "There's no way someone could just drag Damien off like that. You know how tough he is."
"That's what happened!" Jennifer screamed at him. "I don't know how he did it. Damien was trying to fight him off but… but… it was like he was helpless."
Durrell and Ben exchanged a glance. Jennifer was in shock but they knew she wasn't the type to make up details. As insane as her story sounded it was corroborated by the obvious. Damien was nowhere to be seen, and he had rolled his window down earlier. But no one could… He was over two hundred pounds of muscle and had the skill to engage more than one person at a time. Jennifer had told Durrell about some of his exploits and they weren't exaggerated. So how could a single person yank him out of the car and drag him away like a little child?
Ben whirled around to face the forest, holding the AK-47 in a ready position. Spraying the area with bullets would drop whoever had attacked his friend. At the same time, Damien might get hurt too. If he wasn't already dead. Ben refused to accept that idea. Damien had survived a lot worse than some nutcase in a hat and coat. Or nutcases. There had to be two or three of them to be able to move with such speed carrying a grown man. And they had also probably left the five corpses in the back of the van.
While Durrell stooped down to hold Jennifer, Ben's eyes lowered to the pavement. A weapon identical to the one he had was lying a few feet from the edge of the road. He had brought along three AK-47's and two pistols for the ride. Damien had instinctively grabbed it as he was yanked out of the car. Then what? Either one of the attackers had slapped the weapon down, or Damien had dropped it. If the first was true then why hadn't they taken the gun along with them? And what would cause him to drop it after hanging onto it at first? Is it really important to try and find out? No, it wasn't. But Ben had a feeling that whoever had taken Damien would come back for the van… and possibly for the rest of them.