Chapter 1


If Nick had known the impact his choices that night would have on the people closest to him, he would have just stayed at the hotel.

He should have just stayed at the hotel.  Kevin even said so.  “Just chill out here, Nick.  Play your video games,” the eldest Backstreet Boy suggested, on his way out the door.  “You know what a scene you’ll cause if you go out; just enjoy the peace and quiet for once.”

“Yeah right, ‘cause that’s what you’re off to do:  enjoy some ‘peace and quiet,’” Nick huffed sarcastically, rolling his eyes at Kevin’s designer outfit and artfully tousled hair.

Kevin shrugged.  He didn’t look too apologetic when he said, “Sorry, kid.  Brian’s not comin’ with us; you can hang out with him.”

“Yeah right,” Nick replied and rolled his eyes again.  He knew where Brian would spend the evening:  in his own hotel room with his girlfriend, Leighanne.  He was not about to be a third wheel to those two.

“Sorry,” Kevin said again.  This time, he sounded more sincere.  “Just a couple more years – then you’ll be old enough to come out with us.”

“Don’t remind me,” muttered Nick, to whom two years seemed an odyssey away.  He’d been spoiled over the summer, while touring in Europe, where he could enter any club or pub he wished and drink as much as he wanted.  Back home in the States, he was still a minor, stuck spending the evening by himself while the others went out partying on their night off.

“Don’t pout,” Kevin chided.  “We’ll do somethin’ tomorrow before the show.  Go see the Liberty Bell, maybe.  Sound good?”

“Sounds lame.  Who cares about a dumb, old bell with a big crack down the middle?”

Kevin smirked.  “Suit yourself.  See ya later.  Don’t get into trouble while we’re gone.”

“Okay, Dad,” Nick retorted, making a face at Kevin’s back as he left, closing the door to their hotel room behind him.  Nick slumped back on his bed, banging the back of his head against the wall, and silently fumed.

Kevin thought he was so cool, so grown-up, compared to the rest of the guys, especially Nick.  He took his “big brother” role in the group too seriously, treating Nick and AJ and even Brian like they were kids.  Well, they weren’t!  Brian acted like a goofball most of the time, but he was really just three years younger than his cousin.  And AJ was twenty-one, a legal adult in every sense of the word.  He, Nick, had only been thirteen when Kevin had joined the group, but he was four months shy of twenty now.  He had his high school diploma; he could vote and buy cigarettes; he’d just bought his family a house in California, and he’d toured the world as a Backstreet Boy.  He was hardly a child anymore.

Then again, maybe he was.  Like a child, he wanted things to go his way, and they just hadn’t lately.  This was supposed to be his year.  The Backstreet Boys were on top of the world, riding high on the success of their third album, Millennium.  They had achieved the global success they’d been chasing since their first taste of fame on those early tours in Germany, and it was undeniable that Nick was the fan favorite, both overseas and on home soil.  After spending the summer in Europe, he’d been looking forward to touring the States.  The first U.S. leg of the Into the Millennium Tour had sold out in a matter of minutes, but it hadn’t gotten off to a great start.  First there had been Hurricane Floyd, which had forced them to postpone the kick-off dates in Fort Lauderdale.  Then there was the fact that while Leighanne was on tour with them, Mandy wasn’t.  As a result, Brian was often preoccupied, and Nick was often lonely and bored.

Reaching over to the bedside table, he picked up his cell phone and started playing with it, scrolling through the names in his contacts.  He still had her number stored in his phone.  He hadn’t had the heart to delete it, even though they’d broken up a month ago.  Though he hated admitting it, he missed her.  Mandy hadn’t always treated him right, but she’d been fun to have around on tour.  Even Leighanne had been more tolerable when he’d a girlfriend of his own.  Brian was still whipped, but Nick was now alone.

For a second, he considered calling Mandy, then quickly nixed the idea, tossing his phone back onto the bedside table so he wouldn’t be tempted.  He rolled off the bed and went over to the TV, where he’d plugged in his new Sega Dreamcast, a gift to himself for the U.S. tour.  He turned the console on and picked up his controller, but he couldn’t focus on his Sonic game, not when he knew Kevin, AJ, and Howie were out on the town, having way more fun than he was.  Even Brian and Leighanne were probably having more fun than he was, though he didn’t want to think about what they might be doing in the room next door.

He paused his game, threw his controller down, and stood up.  He had to get out.

Ignoring Kevin’s warning that he would cause a scene, he crammed a baseball cap on his head, tucking the ends of his blonde hair up into it, and pulled on a plain, gray hoodie over his jeans and t-shirt.  He zipped the hoodie almost all the way and pulled the hood up over his cap.  He completed his disguise with a large pair of sunglasses that hid most of his face.  I look like the Unabomber, he thought, smirking at his reflection in the gilded mirror over the dresser.  He picked up his wallet from the dresser top, checked to make sure his room key card was tucked safely inside it, and stuffed it in his back pocket on his way out of the room.

He hurried past the block of rooms that management had reserved for them.  AJ and Howie were sharing the adjoining room, with Brian and Leighanne on the other side.  Their bodyguards had rooms on either end.  Nick figured most of them would be out with the guys, but at least one would have stayed behind, in case a mob of fans stormed the hotel.  They always tried to keep their accommodations a secret, but that didn’t stop the fans from finding them.  He pulled the brim of his cap down lower over his shades as he stopped in front of the elevator.

It came, mercifully empty, and Nick rode down to the ground level.  He passed quickly through the lobby, darting under the crystal chandelier and keeping close to the handsome, white-panelled walls.  He slipped out the front door and found himself on the crowded, cobbled sidewalk outside.  Lowering his head, he turned right and started walking, blending into the crowd.

He walked without any idea of where he was going, but soon he found himself in a sprawling park that reminded him of Central Park in Manhattan.  He meandered along the criss-crossing paths, his feet crunching in the autumn leaves, until he reached the other side.  The park was smaller than he’d anticipated.  He kept walking, passing downtown shops and sidewalk cafes, looking up at old, brick buildings and quaint, brownstone row houses.  His surroundings reminded him of the The Sixth Sense, which he’d seen on one of his last dates with Mandy.  He thought that movie had been set in Philadelphia.

He walked quite a few blocks, crossing busy intersections with the other pedestrians, and no one paid much notice to him.  With his hood and dark glasses, he supposed he looked like someone who didn’t want to be bothered.  Soon the buildings and traffic gave way to trees and grass, as he found himself in another park.  The car exhaust fumes and the delicious aroma of Italian food wafted away, and his nose picked up the fishy smell of water.  He was near a river.  He could see it up ahead, as he walked through the park.  He had no idea which river it was – in spite of three years of touring, geography had never been his strong suit – but he was drawn to it.  He had always loved water and boats.

The river was narrow and not particularly scenic, bordered by a freeway on one side and industrial-looking train tracks on both.  But beyond the park and past the tracks, there was a walking trail that ran along the riverfront, and Nick crossed the tracks to follow it.  The trail was nothing like the busy, bustling sidewalks; it was dark and quiet, almost deserted.  Though he was still in the heart of the city, he felt like he was outside it.  Up ahead, he saw the silhouettes of a few couples, out for a night stroll, but for the most part, he was alone.  And while he hadn’t liked being alone in his hotel room, he now relished in the solitude.  He was enjoying the peace and quiet, just as Kevin had said he should.  He just wasn’t doing it back at the hotel.

He had only wandered a short way up the trail when he approached an overpass, one of several bridges that spanned the narrow river.  He could see that the trail cut right under it, so he kept walking.  The trail was lit with small streetlamps at regular intervals, but beneath the bridge, it was dark.  As he grew closer, his eyes made out two figures moving around in the shadows, near the water’s edge.  He slowed his pace, lowering his sunglasses to watch them.  They weren’t approaching him, nor were they walking away in the same direction as him, and something about their movements made him stop.

Suddenly wary, he edged off the trail, out of the lamplight, and watched them from the shadows.  The cool night breeze carried their voices toward him, but the rumble of traffic on the overpass drowned out their words.  He crept closer, curious.  There was a certain thrill in the uncertainty of sneaking up on a pair of strangers, in doing the stalking, for once, instead of being stalked.  He knelt down in the dew-soaked grass, tucked his sunglasses into the pocket of his hoodie, and watched as the two men – he could tell that they were men by their physiques and the pitch of their voices – dragged something long and white and apparently heavy out from under the bridge.

Nick squinted, trying to figure out what it was they were rolling towards the water.  Whatever it was, it was long, as long as a man lying down, and had the lumpy look of something that was wrapped up in a white blanket or sheet.  It must have been soft, for it didn’t scrape against the pavement.  One of the men knelt down at one end of it, while the other disappeared into the shadows under the bridge again.  When he emerged, he was carrying something heavy.  It was much smaller than the white bundle, but Nick could tell by the way both his arms were hooked under it that it wasn’t light.  It did make a clunky, scraping sound when he set it down beside the other man, a sound that Nick recognized.  It was a large brick, a cinder block.

As the man sank down beside his companion and set to work, Nick realized what he was seeing.  His heart began to thump, hard and fast, in his chest, as he watched the man unwind a length of rope from the cinder block.  Beads of cold sweat burst onto his forehead and moistened his palms, as the man proceeded to tie the rope around one end of the lumpy white bundle.  Nick clapped his hand over his mouth to hold back a shout, as the man’s companion then hoisted the cinder block up and dropped it into the water.  He heard the heavy splash and watched helplessly as the rope attached to the block pulled the bundle off the embankment and into the river.  He jumped to his feet, swaying light-headedly, as the white shape sank beneath the surface the black water.

The shape of a body!  His mind screamed the words he dared not say aloud.  It was a body!  He had known it from the moment he’d seen the cinder block and rope next to that long, human-sized bundle, wrapped in white:  that he was watching, in silent horror, two men dispose of a dead body.

Murderers! the panic inside his head continued to cry out, though he made not a sound.  They’re murderers!

His fight or flight instinct willed him to run, to get help, to tell someone, but he stayed rooted to the spot in fear.  If he ran, they would hear his footsteps, the rustle of the grass, the pounding of his sneakers against the pavement.  They would see the movement as he weaved in and out of the circles of light from the streetlamps.  Though he wanted to put as much distance between himself and them as possible, he sunk further into the shadows instead.  He crouched low in the grass once more, his rubbery legs shaking beneath him, and held his breath, praying they would turn and go the other way.

They did.

He released his breath a little at a time, scarcely able to believe they were really running away, under the bridge, disappearing into the darkness once more.  He waited until he could no longer hear their heavy footsteps or the light murmurs of their voices, and then he rose up on legs that felt like Jell-O.  His entire body was shaking, from the inside out, and he staggered dizzily as he turned and started to walk in the direction he’d come.  He walked slowly at first, stopping and turning around a few times to make sure they were really gone.  Then he picked up his pace, a brisk walk turning into a jog, then a full-out sprint.  He crossed back onto the trail, into the light, as he ran for his life and didn’t look back.

He wanted to get off the trail, out of the open, but there was nowhere to go.  The trail ran parallel to the train tracks, and beyond those was a parking lot – all wide, open expanses.  Up ahead was another bridge, with cement steps spiraling up to the pedestrian walkways on either side of the overpass.  As Nick ran toward it, he became aware of running footsteps behind him.  His heart leapt into his throat, but he didn’t dare look over his shoulder, knowing it would only slow him down, knowing it would only terrify him more if he was sure it was them.  Please be a jogger, he begged hopelessly as he raced toward the bridge.  Please…

He was running out of breath, his heart threatening to explode from his chest, and he could hear the footsteps gaining on him, but still, he refused to slow down, refused to turn back.

They caught up to him at the bridge.

He knew in a second, with a sinking feeling of defeat, that those footsteps did not belong to a jogger when he heard them thundering up the stone stairs behind him.  In the next second, he felt a rough hand on his head, and a strong grip yanked his hood back.  The zipper of his hoodie dug into his throat, choking him, as he stumbled backwards into a rock-solid chest.  A muscular pair of arms closed around him and wrenched him back down the steps, dragging him beneath the dark underside of the bridge.

“Please!” Nick gasped hoarsely, struggling to catch his breath.  “Please, let me go!”

“You think we gonna hurt you or somethin’?” asked the man who was holding him, vice-like.  Nick could feel his rigid abdominal muscles vibrating as he let out a derisive laugh.  “Is that why you was runnin’?”

Nick thought quickly.  Were they just messing with him before they killed him, or were they really not sure he had seen them?  He decided to play along, to play dumb.  “Please, I’ll give you my wallet, you can have all my money, just don’t hurt me!” he begged.

The man laughed again.  “Yeah?  Let’s see what you got.  Check ‘im, Joey.”

The other man, who was smaller and more wiry, moved in and started patting down Nick’s pockets until he found his wallet.  The bigger man loosened his grip on Nick, as Joey reached in and pulled the wallet out of his back pocket.  “Dang, kid, you’s dealin’ or what?  Where’d you get a fat wad like this, huh?” he asked, holding up a fistful of bills.

“Lemme see that,” snapped the man holding Nick, letting go of him to snatch the cash out of Joey’s hand.

Act innocent, Nick coached himself, as he inched away.  “I-it’s my birthday money,” he stammered.  “But it’s yours now; take it.  Just let me go, please.  My… my mom’s expecting me home.”

The big man guffawed again, throwing his head back.  For the first time, Nick got a good look at his face.  He was younger than he’d expected, no older than thirty.  They were both young, with olive skin and dark hair and eyes, dressed in black wifebeaters that showed off their tattooed and muscular arms.

“You hear that, Joey?  His ma’s expectin’ ‘im home.  I’m afraid she’s gonna be disap- HEY!”  As the man’s taunting laughter turned into an angry shout, Nick scrabbled up the stone steps, using his long legs to his advantage as he took them two at a time.  He could hear their footsteps pounding behind him again, but as he neared the landing at the top of the steps, they seemed to fall back.  Gasping, he staggered onto the landing.

His knees were still weak and trembling, but Nick forced himself to keep running along the bridge.  The footpath was well lit with streetlights, and two lanes of traffic were speeding by in both directions.  If they attacked him here, they’d be doing it in plain sight.  Somehow, he knew they wouldn’t.

He kept looking over his shoulder as he stumbled along the path, making sure they weren’t chasing him again, but neither one of them had followed him onto the bridge.  His heart was still racing when he finally slowed to a walk, hoping to blend in when he made it off the bridge.  Soon the footpath became an ordinary sidewalk, and he was among people and buildings again.  He walked quickly and ducked through the first open door he saw.  It was a delicatessen, nearly empty at this hour.  He made a beeline for the back.

“Hey kid, those ain’t no public bathrooms – customers only!” shouted the woman behind the counter.  “You wanna pee, you gotta pay for somethin’ first.”

“No problem,” said Nick, surprised at how high-pitched and shaky his voice sounded.  He reached into his back pocket, only to remember that his wallet was gone.  His heart sank.  “Uh… never mind.  No money – sorry.”  Knowing he had no choice but to leave, he turned and slunk back out of the deli.

Back out on the sidewalk, he realized he had no idea where he was in relation to the hotel.  There were no familiar landmarks – neither of the parks he’d crossed through were in sight.  All he knew was that he needed to keep walking away from the river, so he did.  After a few blocks, he started recognizing the names of streets he had crossed on his way toward the river and realized he must be a few streets over from the one his hotel was on.  He took a zigzagging path back toward the hotel, walking up a block, then over a block, then up another block, then over another block, hoping he could shake off his attackers in case they were still tailing him from far behind.

At last, he emerged on the right street and spotted the hotel up ahead.  He broke into a jog and didn’t stop running until he was safely inside the lobby once more.  In the elevator, which arrived mercifully empty again, he leaned back against the mirrored wall and doubled over, gripping his quivery knees as he panted for breath.  When he straightened up again, he caught sight of his face in the opposite wall.  It was streaked with sweat, his cheeks flushed, his lips completely white.  He took off his hoodie and used it to wipe his face as the elevator lurched to a stop, trying to compose himself before he stepped out onto his floor.

It was only once he was standing in front of the locked door to his hotel room that he remembered his room key was in his wallet, which was in the hands of a murderer.

***


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