The effect was instant. It wasn’t like The Matrix, where Nick could watch the trajectory of the bullet in slow motion. He didn’t see the bullet at all. One moment, Kevin was standing tensely with his back to Nick, and in the next split second, he was lying limp on the ground at Nick’s feet.
Nick stared down at the circular wound in Kevin’s forehead and the dark, red blood pooling beneath the back of his skull. He looked up and saw feathers floating to the ground from the exploded pillow. The effect was surreal, and suddenly, he did feel as if he were in slow motion. He couldn’t react; it didn’t feel real.
And then he saw them coming around the bed, coming through the feathers, coming for him as they had last night, and he snapped back to reality and into action: he bolted. He turned, tripping over his own feet, and fled from the room. He ran up the hall, his sneakers pounding heavily against the patterned carpet, and ducked into the same stairwell Marcus had taken just minutes earlier.
Perhaps it would have been smarter to head downstairs, but Nick ran up. All he could think of was getting to the next floor, to the safety of one of the bodyguards’ rooms. They would protect him, lock him in and call the police. But running up the stairs was slower than running down, and just as they had the night before, the two men caught up to him.
Nick could hear them close behind, but didn’t turn around, staying just a few steps out of their reach. But then he felt a hand close around his ankle, and his feet were jerked out from under him. He fell hard, landing on his chest, clipping his chin on the edge of a step. It started gushing blood, but Nick could hardly react: the wind had been knocked right out of him.
They rolled him over onto his back, and the hard stairs dug into his spine. Then they hauled him to his feet. He swayed dizzily, his chin throbbing, his chest screaming out in pain, but the big man’s arms came around him again, holding him tight, holding him steady. He felt the barrel of the gun press into the small of his back and heard the man’s voice in hiss in his ear: “Don’t make a sound.” Instinctively, Nick flinched away from his hot breath, but the man jerked him tighter, the gun jabbing him painfully. “And don’t you fucking try to get away again, unless you want a bullet in your spine, you got that?”
Nick nodded, his eyes filling with hot, stinging tears. For a moment, he couldn’t see, and he tripped blindly as they dragged him down the stairs. “You better use those big feet of yours and walk, blondie, or we’ll make it so you’ll never walk again,” threatened Joey, as his companion tried to maneuver with Nick. “Your choice.”
So Nick walked. Somehow, despite the pain in his chest and the blood dripping down his face and distant knowledge that Kevin was dead, he walked down ten flights of stairs. The gun in his back was enough of a motivator, constantly pressing him forward. At every landing, he prayed someone would come into the stairwell, but no one did. Why take the stairs when there was an elevator? Their footsteps echoed hollowly in the empty stairwell, all the way down to the ground level.
Even then, Nick wondered, How do they expect to get me out of here without being noticed? He thought of the group of fans out front, and his heart lifted a little. But it plunged back into his aching chest when the two men did not take him through the lobby, but instead veered a different direction, to a back exit probably reserved for employees. He found himself in a dark alley, where a getaway car was parked and waiting.
Joey opened the door to the back, and the man holding Nick thrust him in headfirst, kicking ruthlessly at his backside until he pulled his legs in, too. As the door closed on him, Nick pulled himself up onto his shaking hands and knees. He started to scramble across the back seat, irrationally thinking he could just crawl out the other side of the car and run, but before he could reach for the opposite door handle, the door flew open, and Joey’s leering face greeted him.
“What, you goin’ somewhere?” he asked, laughing cruelly.
“Move outta the way, Joey,” said the other man, knocking Joey aside. “C’mere, Carter, I got a little somethin’ for ya. Somethin’ to take the edge off, help you sleep.”
Before Nick could even process what he was about to do, he reached in and grabbed him by his shirt collar, jerking him forward. Nick’s head hit the roof of the car, but that was nothing compared to the pain he was about to endure. A second later, the man raised his gun and brought it crashing down on his skull. The blow brought an instant of crushing, blinding pain, until Nick blacked out.
Fifteen minutes later, just as they’d planned, AJ, Howie, Brian, and Leighanne entered the stairwell and started down the flight of steps to the floor below.
It was Leighanne who noticed the blood. “Oh!” she gasped, pointing down.
AJ, always a wuss when it came to body fluids, grimaced and looked away. “Sick, dude.”
“That doesn’t look good,” murmured Howie, his eyes following the trail of blood from the small puddle Leighanne had pointed out to the drips of red that continued on down the stairs.
“Should we let someone know?” Leighanne asked.
“We can call the front desk when we get to Kev’s room,” Brian said. “C’mon.” He led the way to the landing below, where they exited onto a floor that looked identical to their own.
“What’s the room number again?” AJ wondered aloud, as they trouped down the hall.
“1114 – oh, right here!” said Brian, noticing the number on a door near the stairwell. He knocked. No answer. He knocked again, tapping out the rhythm of “Shave and a Haircut” to let Kevin and Nick know it was them. Still no answer.
AJ rolled his eyes. “Dude, are you serious? Lemme at it.” Nudging Brian aside, he strode up to the door and pounded on it. “Yo, open up!” he hollered. When nothing happened, he turned to the others. “They’re fucking with us.”
“Probably hoping we’ll get attacked by fans if they leave us waiting out here long enough,” added Howie. “That sounds like Nick.”
“Yeah, but he’s got Kevin in on it, too?” Brian was skeptical. “That doesn’t sound like Kev. You know he never goes for the practical jokes – not the stupid ones, anyway.”
Leighanne looked mildly concerned. “Do you think something could be wrong?”
“With both of them?” AJ shook his head. “Nah, I told you, they’re just fucking with us, seeing how long we’ll stand out here.”
“Well, then let’s go down to the front desk and tell them we think something’s wrong, and maybe they’ll let us in,” Howie suggested in a low voice. “See who’s laughing then.”
Agreeing, they took the elevator down to the lobby together and went up to the front desk. The same, black-haired receptionist who had been working the night before was there again, and she smiled up at them in recognition as they approached. “Hi, how may I help you?”
Howie did the talking. “We need to get into our friends’ room – room 1114. They’re in there, but they’re not answering the door, and we’re worried something might be wrong.”
The clerk arched a skeptical brow. “You sure they’re not just messin’ with you or somethin’?”
Howie shook his head, making his eyes go wide and innocent. “They wouldn’t do that.”
“But if they would,” Brian put in, his eyes twinkling mischievously, “wouldn’t you want to get them back, too?” The clerk smiled, and confident that he’d successfully charmed her, he went on, “We just want a key to their room. Can you please help us?”
“Alright… I know who you are; I guess I can bend the rules a little. Lemme just grab the spare key.” She disappeared behind the counter for a minute and reappeared looking perplexed. “That’s weird,” she said, frowning. “The spare’s not here. Well, that’s okay; I’ll call someone from our housekeeping staff to let you in. Just a second.”
She got on the phone, and they listened to her side of the conversation as she explained the situation. When she hung up, she said, “Go on up, and she’ll meet you there in a minute.”
“Thanks for your help,” said Brian, before they turned and walked back to the elevator, completely forgetting to tell the clerk about the blood in the stairwell. “We should have the maid pretend to be a rabid fan,” he told the others on the way up, grinning wickedly. “That’ll make them wish they’d opened up when it was just us.”
AJ and Howie snickered.
As promised, the maid met them outside Kevin and Nick’s room. She spoke to them in broken English, so Brian nixed his prank idea and settled for thanking her when she unlocked the door for them. As she shuffled back up the hall, he reached for the doorknob and threw the door open with a bang, hoping to startle them.
But it was he who got the shock.
The light fixture in the entryway was still on, casting dim light over a horrific sight: Kevin, lying flat on his back on the floor, his eyes closed, his skin ashen, his head soaked in a pool of blood.
Please let this be a joke, Brian’s mind pleaded, as he dropped to his knees beside his cousin’s body. But as his eyes took in the bloody hole in Kevin’s forehead, he knew not even Nick could pull off such a realistic-looking prank.
“Oh God!” he heard AJ cry behind him, as the others came up onto the scene that had greeted Brian.
“I’ll call 911,” came Leighanne’s shaky voice, and he felt her maneuver around him to get to the phone. “Is he breathing?” she called shrilly, as she dialed. “They’re gonna wanna know if he’s breathing.”
Brian thought there was no way Kevin could still be alive, but when he looked more closely at his body, he saw it through tear-filled eyes: the slight, but steady rise and fall of his chest. “Yes!” he cried, his voice sounding strangled. He leaned closer, bringing his face close to Kevin’s, so that he could hear the faint rattle of air being inhaled and exhaled and feel Kevin’s warm breath on his cheek. “He’s breathing!”
In the background, he heard Leighanne’s voice speaking rapidly into the phone, and he felt a rush of relief. Perhaps the scene wasn’t as bad as it looked. Kevin was still alive, and help was on its way. “Hold on, Kev,” he whispered, gripping his cousin’s shoulder.
His relief was short-lived. It turned back to panic again, when Howie suddenly asked, “Where’s Nicky?”
Brian looked up. AJ, who was pacing in the entryway, froze. For a moment, they just stared at each other, thinking the worst but refusing to say it. Then, all at once, they sprang into action.
“NICK!” they called, rushing off in different directions. They tore the hotel room apart, searching every room and every corner. “NICK!” AJ ripped the sheets off the beds and lay down on his belly to search underneath. “NICK!” Howie raced into the bathroom and jerked back the shower curtain to check the tub. “NICK!” Brian left Kevin’s side, left the room completely, and ran up and down the halls, calling Nick’s name.
He circled the entire floor before venturing into the stairwell, and it was then that he remembered the blood. With a sickening realization, he knew whose blood it was.
When Nick came to, the car was moving. Lying across the backseat, he could feel the gentle bumping motion of the tires spinning over the pavement and hear the rumble of the engine. He opened his eyes without sitting up, trying to survey his situation without letting them know he was awake.
If he tipped his head back, he could see sky flying by outside the window – upside down, of course. It was still night; the sky was dark and spattered with stars. We’ve left Philadelphia, he realized. He’d never seen so many stars in a city.
The sounds of traffic were also absent. He heard no car horns, no sirens, no rush of wind as a truck passed by in the opposite direction. This further confirmed that they were now in a rural area.
He turned his head, peeking into the front seat. He could only see Joey, sitting in the passenger seat, staring straight ahead. That meant the other man must be driving. Neither of them spoke. He wondered if they had talked about him while he was unconscious. He wondered if they had a plan. Where were they taking him? And what were they going to do with him when they got there?
He was suddenly aware of his own heart, pounding away in his chest. Its beat was so frantic, he could feel it against his ribs and hear it in his ears. Irrationally, he worried they would hear it, too. He lay still, trying to calm it down, but neither of them turned around.
He began to wonder if there was any chance of him escaping from the backseat while the car was moving. He wasn’t tied up; he could move his arms and legs. His chest hurt when he tried to twist his torso; he suspected his ribs were bruised or even broken from when he’d fallen on the stairs. His chin was sore too, and his head ached. He cringed at the thought of running, imagining how much the bouncing sensation would hurt. Even so, he inched his body backward across the seat, closer to the door behind his head. Slowly, slowly, his arm reached upward, his fingers groping for the door handle. They found it and latched on.
He hesitated, trying to think through what he would do when he got the door open. He couldn’t exactly tuck and roll, not when he was positioned to slide out headfirst and upside down. That was a head injury waiting to happen. Maybe if he flipped onto his belly first…
Reluctantly, he let go of the door handle and tried to roll over, a little at a time, without making noise. His ribs flared with pain, but he gritted his teeth and kept going. He made it onto his side, but his arm was pinned under him. With careful effort and some serious muscle control, he managed to free it. Lying facedown, he stretched his hand up again, feeling his way blindly to the door handle.
Knowing if he hesitated again, he might never get his chance, Nick grabbed onto it and pulled.
The door handle made a hollow click as it snapped back into place, and though Nick made himself go limp against the seat again, he heard the ominous sound of Joey’s sarcastic snicker. “Hey D, look who’s awake!” he announced, and Nick turned his head to see Joey looking back at him, his dark eyes glinting in the starlight. “Thought you were gonna escape, huh? Didn’t think about no kiddie locks, did yous?”
Nick’s heart sank. The door wasn’t just locked; the child safety locks were activated. Now he understood why they hadn’t bothered to tie him up.
“That’s okay, Joey,” said the man Joey had called “D.” “I think we’re plenty far out of the way. This looks like a good place to stop, don’t you think?”
Nick sat up and looked around. They appeared to be in the middle of nowhere; out his windows, he saw dark expanses of field, broken here and there by clumps of trees. He leaned forward, peering between the two front seats. Through the windshield, he could see a stretch of narrow, two-lane road ahead of them. It led to a building of some sort; he could just make out its silhouette, jutting up out of the darkness. It looked like a barn. But as they grew closer, bringing it into the glow of the headlights, he realized it was not a barn, but a covered bridge. The road ran right through it, but D parked the car in the middle. He cut the engine and the headlights, and he and Joey both climbed out.
It was sixty degrees outside, but sitting alone in the backseat, Nick started to shiver. This was it, he realized. Whatever they had planned, whatever they were going to do to him, it was going to happen now.
D opened the back door. “Get out,” was all he said, and Nick obeyed. He didn’t want to find out what would happen if he refused to get out of the car. “Get down on your knees,” he commanded. This time, Nick hesitated. It didn’t matter. D shoved him roughly in the small of the back, forcing him to fall forward. Nick gasped in pain as the rough, wooden floor of the bridge skinned his knees through his jeans.
As he straightened, he felt D come up close behind him and heard his voice, silky yet sinister, in his ear. “You was in the wrong place at the wrong time last night, that’s for sure. I wish you hadn’t a been there. You prolly don’t deserve to die. But I can’t let you live either, you understand? Not after you seen my face. Not after you seen me kill your friend.”
Nick was shaking uncontrollably now. Tears filled his eyes as he pictured Kevin’s body, the blood seeping from his head wound. He was going to end up just like that, in the middle of this bridge, in the middle of freaking nowhere…
“Please,” he begged. Even his voice quavered. “I won’t say anything to the cops. I’ll… I’ll say I never saw your faces. I don’t know your real names or anything; they’ll never be able to trace it to you. Please, just let me go… please…”
D uttered a humorless chuckle. “What, a famous singer like you? Yeah, I know who you are now, kid. You think the cops are gonna buy that? You think they’re gonna let that go? Fuck no. When they find your friend’s body, they’re gonna investigate. They’re gonna ask questions. You think we want you alive to give ‘em answers?”
“Please!” Nick’s voice rose pitifully. “I swear!”
“Now ain’t the time for swearin’. Now’s the time for prayin’. You’re down on your knees, now bow your head and pray.”
“I said, NOW BOW YOUR HEAD AND PRAY!” A large hand grabbed a fistful of Nick’s shaggy hair and forced his head down. “Get ready to meet your maker…”
And before Nick could plead again, before he could cry out or try to get up, the pistol crashed down, once again, on the back of his bowed head.