Through gritted teeth, Charlie Burman shifted his legs back and forth desperately trying to loosen the vines that bound his ankles and wrists. He was hogtied and painfully so.
"What are you waiting for Charlie? Hurry up! He'll be back soon enough and you'll still be sitting on your hands," hissed Jenna van der Meer, the celebrated Dutch lawyer involved in the infamous Galatea Shapiro case.
"Hey, maybe if you quit hanging around, we'd be out of here already," shot back Charlie after managing to complete a roll from his left side to his right. "At least I'm doing something."
"Oh, and what is it you'd have me do exactly, you fucking genius. My hands are tied above my head and my feet are dangling inches from the ground. If you don't get me off this fucking thing soon, I may actually pass out, which, under the circumstances, might not be such a bad thing."
Charlie looked up at his ex-girlfriend, casual fuck partner, or whatever the fuck she was now and realized they were both indeed fucked unless he found a way to cut himself loose.
Maybe he could inch his way over to the wall edge and rub the vines on it somehow. Yes, it was worth a try, but he'd have to be quick. The 'freak' would be back soon and on his case if he caught him up to no good.
And Charlie would rather not get caught with his pants down, as it were.
Not here. Not now. Not in this situation.
His skills as a London-born-and-based investigative journalist were kind of useless right now. He'd half expected to be in trouble at some point in his career, but nothing could have prepared him for this. This was on another level.
Little old Charlie was more accustomed to sitting across tables from his interviewees, microphone in hand, asking the questions that no one else dared to ask. He was proficient at chasing 'very important people' down the street at world renowned conferences, expertly word-fencing with celebrity titans and jostling with their overly-zealous bodyguards.
He was a rising star in the world of alternative news, breaking bombshell stories before most of his competitors, headhunted by the American "big boys," loved by his hundreds of thousands of followers on ChannelStar, the only platform that would host the likes of Charlie and his ilk.
But what use was any of that now?
Charlie was good with words. He was good with people. He was likable, charming even. He'd never thrown a punch, got in a fight, not a real one anyway, just a scuffle, some rough and tumble with drunken friends at college, was all.
Maybe that's why his heart was beating at a hundred miles an hour. He knew he might have to 'act,' to 'save the day,' and he'd never done anything like this before so the likelihood of him failing spectacularly was extremely high. And that thought was preying on his mind, clouding his judgement in ways he'd never experienced before in his otherwise intensely-lived thirty eight years of life.
"Oh my God, I should've never hooked up with you," said Charlie after spitting out a mouthful of dirt. "Maybe I wouldn't be here right now, stuck here with you and that mouth of yours."
Charlie flopped face forwards on the ground again, snorting up another round of sandy grit and coughing it out loudly in protest.
Jenna teared up a little. She shook her head and muttered to herself, "It's me that shouldn't be here. I have a life ahead of me with my fiance. I need to know what he's doing right now, what he's thinking. He must be going crazy the poor bastard. I can't bear to think what he's going through. He loves me and I should've never cheated on him. Specially with someone like you."
"Oh God. Please. Spare me the sob story. You and Gerald were never a thing and you know it. I thought arranged marriages were a thing of the past but that useless fop was foisted on you. Your dad made a deal with his bitch mother. She saw you as a brood mare, that's all. I'm the one that has a family Jenna. What about THEM huh?"
" Oh give me a break Charlie. You don't care about your family. Your ex-wife. You never fucking cared about them so don't give me this crap. You were always fooling around on Kali. She didn't deserve it. She's a good woman Charlie, but you just couldn't keep your dick in your pants, could you? If anyone deserves to be here, wherever the fuck this is, it's you."
Charlie managed to shunt up onto his knees for a few seconds before toppling over again. He grunted his displeasure at not only failing miserably to make headway with his escape plan, but also at having to put up with the 'lawyer treatment' from his strung up lover. "Ohoho... slow down there little lady. Is the blood draining from your brain already? Don't get all high and mighty with me. You know perfectly well my wife was an insufferable bitch. She was fucking around with that dickwad of a boss of hers long before I fell off the horse!"
"Jesus, keep your voice down! The crazies can hear you a fucking mile away," said Jenna swinging a leg in the direction of the low, grey, bunker-like buildings sitting up on the ridge. A tall perimeter fence surrounded the compound. Whatever it was harboring, it looked like it was designed to be hidden from prying eyes.
Before Charlie had a chance to bite back at Jenna, a man, barefoot, wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts, swung open the large gate leading out of the compound and sauntered down the path. He made his way towards their position swinging his arms like a playful child, whistling a tune that sent chills down Charlie's spine.
Wasn't that The Lord High Executioner from The Mikado? Yep, pretty sure it was.
He knew it well, high school drama performances flooding back into his mind like rats invading an open grain store.
This was bad. I mean really bad.
Charlie and Jenna immediately shut the hell up and ran their 'play dumb' routine stifling the reflex reaction to celebrity that had formed such a large part of their lives until this day.
"Hello again my little Fuzz Bunnies! Sorry to keep you waiting, but my colleagues and I simply couldn't decide on who should go first. We had to draw lots and guess what... the lovely lady won! I've always said that ladies should go first, but this really does add a new layer to that old saying, doesn't it."
Charlie was stunned into silence, unable to peel his eyes away from the imposing figure lording it over his captive audience. This Miles Haversham was nothing like the tech mogul that had long held the position of 'richest man in the world.' This Miles Haversham appeared to be off his meds, mid-length 'wildman' hair fixed in a clown-like 'do' by whatever hair products were still caked in there. His BO was not the worst that Charlie had ever come across, but certainly up there in the ranks of 'most offensive,' needs a good deodorant. And this Miles was brandishing a ceramic switchblade of sorts, gesticulating with it as he delivered his speech.
Jenna absorbed the incoming information and immediately decided on a strategy, probably the only one she had left, probably the only one that remotely had a chance of giving her and Charlie the upper hand. She was going to try to seduce Miles Haversham, the most arrogant toss-pot she'd ever had the displeasure of being in the same conference hall with. Even at a distance, she'd figured him out back then — a fraud, a front-man, a narcissistic egomaniac that had half the world fooled, but not her. She'd seen many of these types in her line of work and had relished at the chance of bringing them to their knees.
Jenna cleared her throat and did the best she could to look sexy while strung up by her wrists. "Why don't you cut me down Miles and I'll show you a good time, like you've never had, right here, right now."
Miles was taken aback. His posture slumped, deflated even, a look of surprised disbelief fixed on his fake-tanned, botoxed countenance.
"And as a bonus... why not... we'll let Charlie watch. I'm sure you'd like that, wouldn't you Big Boy."
Charlie, watching and listening from his tied-up, helpless position on the ground, coughed loudly, then gulped, then coughed again.
What the hell was she doing?
Miles recovered from his initial shock, looked down at Charlie, snorted, then fixed his gaze intently on Jenna's beautiful, begging eyes. Unpursing his lips, he said, slowly and carefully, "Oh, I can assure you that won't be necessary, darling. You see, my dear girl... I've never been that way inclined. And I'm certainly not about to start now." He chuckled and grinned, perfectly cut teeth glinting in the sunlight. "If you ever saw me in public with a slut for hire on my arm, that was purely for show. I would have thought that was easy enough for someone of your caliber to wrap your pretty little head around, but I guess not."
Miles was injured, defensive. Jenna had misfired, but opened up an unexpected chink in his invisible cosplay armor.
"Now Charlie here, he's quite the catch," said Miles waving his blade in Charlie's direction, keeping his fiery blue eyes fixed on Jenna's. "There's just one thing... my colleagues and I abide by a set of rules, rules that you most likely have never heard of, rules that have kept us at the top of the heap and the rest of you exactly where we want you, for quite some time. My dear Jenna, it is Jenna, isn't it?"
The tech mogul didn't wait for a response and continued with his lecture, "I can assure you, my little pumpkin, that my colleagues would be extremely disappointed if I indulged myself. You see, if there's one thing that we abhor more than anything else in this, dare I say it... God forsaken place, it's this... there's nothing worse than spoiled food, wouldn't you agree my dear Jenna?"
Jenna remained as still as possible, keeping her head back away from the maniac, half regretting what she'd set in motion.
"And unfortunately, as you can clearly ascertain for yourselves by now, we are indeed in times of great need. My little side pleasures will have to take a back seat until we get out of this predicament," he said matter of factly, leaning in on Jenna, his stench threading its way up her nasal passage, making her recoil and turn her head to one side.
"But, sometimes... it's just... I just can't help myself."
Miles chortled to himself. God, this man must've been insufferable to be around in his everyday life, surrounded by sycophants, fans, worshipers, and over-paid, tight-lipped bodyguards 24/7, thought Jenna as she began to plan her next move.
"As I was strolling down the hill, I couldn't stop thinking about how nice it would be to help myself to a little 'taster' before cutting you down."
The words kept pouring from his mouth with a glee that shouldn't have been possible given the situation, but it was clear that Miles had slipped into some kind of alternative universe where only the sound of his own voice existed and only his own ego could hear it.
As he continued with his soliloquy, Miles caressed the side of one of Jenna's breasts with the razor-sharp tip of his pink ceramic switchblade, tracing a path up to her throat and then swiftly nicking her left cheek.
"Oops! Silly me. I slipped. Look, you're bleeding. Here, let get that for you."
Miles placed the front of his index finger under the dripping blood and swept it upwards as Jenna tried to pull her face away. Then he popped his finger in his mouth and sucked it dry like he was a little kid with a lolly.
"Hmm. You taste good! Not bad. Not bad at all."
"You fucker! You'll die for that!" shouted Charlie, desperately trying to release his bonds, but to no avail.
Miles turned fully to face Charlie, arms wide, mockery dripping from his face, derision written all over it. "Come now, Chucky, Mr. Reporter Man. There's no need to be rude. I never liked your kind, but I have nothing personal against you. So, here's the deal, when I'm good and finished with little Jenna here, and Oh Boy, am I going to finish her, then I'll get started on you, all in good time. But, until then, please refrain from interrupting. It simply won't do."
Jenna signaled to Charlie to keep the maniac distracted while she started to swing back and forth gaining momentum like a human pendulum.
"Whatever happens to me, to Jenna, you will be judged by God for this," Charlie continued.
"Oh... I think he judged me a long, long time ago little man. Why do you think I'm here, in this place, having to make do, when I could be up on high, living the good life, hmm?"
Before Charlie had a chance to retort (he actually wanted to know what this lunatic was going on about) Jenna managed to swing close enough to Miles without alerting him. She wrapped her left thigh and calf around his neck in a headlock and kicked his right hand as hard as she could making him instantly drop the ceramic blade. Then she wrapped her right leg around her other and crushed Miles's windpipe, holding on with all her might until the thrashing stopped and his body went limp and a soft wheezing sound squeezed from his lips.
Charlie looked on in shock, his mouth agape, eyes darting back and forth between Jenna's reddened face and Miles's purple one until finally he was able to blurt out, "I think he's done, you can let go now."
"I want to be sure. Quick, get the knife," said Jenna, exhausted.
Charlie body-shuffled over to the switchblade lying in the dirt, picked it up and awkwardly cut through the vines on his wrists and ankles as Jenna urged him to hurry the fuck up!
Charlie, sitting up now, started to giggle, "Damn... I knew you had strong thighs, but... damn!"
"I was a college gymnast Chucky. Took some Jiu-Jitsu too, remember. Never thought my strong thighs would be this useful though... quick, stab him just to make sure."
"Jenna, trust me, he's dead. You crushed his windpipe. I heard it pop. Probably broke his neck. Jesus, look at him, his tongue's hanging out."
Jenna exhaled and gently released her Titan grip on the tech mogul's neck, watching as he slumped to the ground in an untidy heap. Yep, he was gone alright. She exhaled again and swung back to her original hanging position, twisting and turning uncomfortably, her wrists barely able to take any more punishment.
Charlie jumped up and rushed to cut Jenna down. It wasn't easy. Her hands were up high and there was nothing to stand on. Up on the tips of his bare toes, he had to flick the blade between her wrists, catching her skin at times. Jenna grimaced finally freeing one hand and then the other, blood still oozing from her face wound.
Poor girl. She'd been through a lot today. Now he was hurting her too, but he had no choice. It was time to get out of here, far away from Miles's colleagues, whoever they were. Charlie had caught a glimpse of them earlier, still under the effect of whatever drug they'd been given, so he knew one thing for sure — the others were real and not just a figment of Miles's imagination.
And if they were anything like Miles, they were not to be underestimated, they could never be bargained with, no deals could be struck. No, Charlie and Jenna were on their own from here on out and whatever issues still remained unresolved between them would have to wait until the job was done, until they were far from this place, if they were to stand a chance of surviving this ordeal, of getting back home.
"Come on, lets go. We need to get out of here before the others find out," said Charlie in earnest, still gripping the bloodied switchblade.
"Too late," hissed Jenna, her eyes fixed in the direction of the compound.
What looked like a swarm of hoodlums carrying all manner of gardening tools in their hands — scythes, hammers, pitchforks, sickles, saws and machetes — poured out of the camouflaged building, through the main gate and down the hill towards their position.
"Here they come!"
Without wasting a second, Charlie grabbed Jenna by the hand and started running towards the nearby woods, dragging her along until she caught her stride. Gasping for air, they made their way down a cutting, a little path that lead out onto a ledge, and that's when they both pulled up and turned to look at each other and then back to make sure the others weren't following, at least for now. Maybe they'd stopped to inspect Miles or what was left of him. Maybe they'd taken a wrong turn or lost the scent.
Suddenly, a bloodcurdling scream rose up over the tall trees. Startled birds ascended from their perches into the crisp, blue, mid-morning sky. Charlie and Jenna glanced at each other in silence, acknowledging that they had to keep moving forward. There was no going back. They peered over the ledge into the deep chasm below. Shit. It was some kind of underground river, almost a hundred feet down by the look of it. They had to jump.
Jenna looked deeply into Charlie's eyes knowing full well that this could be their last moment together. Their relationship hadn't exactly been a Hollywood romantic comedy with a happy ending, more like a war of egos, of failed, bipolar personalities struggling to make sense of the world and their confusing role in it.
Maybe this is what they'd needed — time alone, away from it all, time to figure each other out and just let things be, to breathe in each others company until it was... normal.
But this wasn't exactly a honeymoon vacation in the Bahamas with Piña Coladas, flip-flops, paddle-boats and suntan lotion. This was a fucking living nightmare and somehow they'd been scooped up into the sickest reality show the world would never air on TV.
Not only did they have an elite gang of upper-crust freaks, wielding sharp implements, baying for their blood, on their tail, now they they were faced with a leap of faith, a leap that could be their last if the water wasn't quite deep enough or unseeable rocks awkwardly materialized where before there had been none.
It was what it was, and fate had sold them both a rotten ticket. Now was the time to punch it, and punch it they must. There was no alternative. They were literally stuck between a rock and a hard place — a bunch of rabid, man-flesh-eating lunatics to their rear and the rock-infested rapids that lay ahead of them.
"I'm so, so sorry," Jenna managed to blurt out, tears filling her eyes. She was holding Charlie by both his hands, her back to the woods, Charlie with his back to the sinkhole. He had a look on his face that screamed Not now! but he let her finish and even indulged in a little peacemaking himself.
"I love you Jenna. You know I do. We just couldn't catch a break. And I'm sorry about all that too. I'm an asshole. And you deserve better. But right now... we need to jump off this fucking ledge and into that hole otherwise we're going to..."
Charlie stopped mid-sentence and took a step back. Something was poking him in the belly. He looked down and gasped. The fluted arrowhead of a harpoon was sticking out of Jenna's chest. It had gone straight through her heart. He looked back up at her face instantly knowing there was nothing he could do. The light was already fading from her eyes. She had seconds to live. "Oh no, no," was all that he could muster.
"I'm sorry." Jenna's last words left her lips before she slumped to the ground releasing Charlie's hands from hers.
Charlie heard the sound of angry men crashing through the woods towards him. One of them burst through the bushes like a wild animal, bald, half-naked, covered in scratches. In his hands was a spent harpoon gun. The man stared into Charlie's eyes with the hunger of a thousand wolves, his gaze cutting through him like a blazing fire. Charlie wouldn't forget that face in a hurry. In fact, he'd already made a promise that if he ever came across that face again, he would reduce it to a bloody pulp with his own hands if it was the last thing he did.
And with that mental image decisively engraved into the deepest parts of his burning mind, Charlie allowed his body to fall backwards into the abyss, that it may take him away, that he may be granted the chance to fulfill his promise.
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