After what couldn’t have been more than three hours, Colton stirred at my feet. He slid away from Emilia silently and rose to his knees. Without making a single sound, he placed his hands on either side of me, propping his palms on the box I sat upon and rested his forehead to mine. Wordlessly, he simply wiped away my renewed tears with his thumbs. Then he kissed me with a force, a desperation that forced the reality of the situation from my mind for the briefest of moments before he pulled away. Mimicking me, he patted the ground he had just risen from and used my own words against me, “What? You gotta get some sleep.”
I knew he wasn’t actually giving me an option. So, I switched places with him, where armed with the knowledge that he was looking over me, I slept soundly.
Daybreak had not yet arrived when I felt Colton moving at my side. Darkness was giving way to warm light and shifting shadows, though the air remained heavy and dense. A subtle, sour smell emanated from the cloth covers, sun-faded tarps and patched plywood, the pungent aroma of makeshift structures that had suffered years of neglect. The Underbelly was silent and calm. In other circumstance, another situation, the morning might have been picturesque, serene… glorious, but we weren’t in that place. Of course, the opportunity for people to enjoy any aspect of life, to choose how and where they wanted to live, was one of the very reasons we were in such a predicament.
I rubbed lightly at my chilled nose as I surveyed the room. Everything was as it had seemed a few hours prior. There was no movement outside the dilapidated walls, no sound, seemingly no life. Colton rummaged through the stacked bins and crates behind him, but found nothing. Seeing that I’d woken, he motioned for me to resume watch as he moved to the metal shelves and larger items stacked within the interior of the room. He removed a burlap cover from items near the doorway and pocketed something just before he tensed, froze. He tilted his head to listen before quickly retreating to a defensive position, too late.
I turned from the window on my haunches but was not able to rise before the tarp door was whipped to the side abruptly by a tanned and strong male arm.
The same old man from the night prior stepped through the open doorway.
“Now, now.” the old man cautioned, wagging his finger at Colton before he had an opportunity to strike. “What good’s that gonna do, huh? Is that how you thank me for lettin’ y’all stay here, in my quarters overnight?” He tisked his tongue.
As he shook his head in dismay, two larger, significantly younger men entered the room behind him. The man in the rear released the tarp as he too entered the room, without fear that they may have been followed.
Seeing this, I could assume only that they had allies in the area just outside the doorway.
Emilia had jolted awake when the men entered the room and now clung desperately to the back of my leg, only peeking one eye out to look at them. I gathered her to my side and kept her moving, working to maneuver to the other side of the men, opposite Colton.
Seeing the movement, each man quickly drew their weapons, one on both Colton and myself.
“Tst, tst,” The old man shook his head. “Y’all ain’t bein’ too gracious to your host, now are yas?” He turned toward Emilia before saying “Hi there, Puddin’,” as he crouched on rickety knees to waive at Emilia.
Her only response was to tighten her hold on my leg and withdraw a bit further behind me.
“No?” he asked her before rising to his feet again laboriously, a loud tick sounding from his knees within his worn denim pants. “Well, ok, then. ‘Least I tried.”
“What do you want?” Colton demanded, his voice firm and without any of the feigned speech dialect from the night before.
“What do I want? Ha! What do I want? Heck, I just wanna get through my night without some outsider breakin’ in. I wanna go through my day without them Military Nats pokin’ their damn noses in my business and assaultin’ me in the middle a’ the night. But you know what I want, what I really want?” He turned back to face me, his back straight. His walk was victim to a bit of a labored swagger, though his steps remained confident. “I wanna go ‘bout my day without an Elite, hell, a Premier, ‘specially you showin’ up.” He pointed at me angrily. “What do you people want from me? That’s what I wanna know.”
Colton began to move towards us, but was promptly blocked by the larger of the two men, drawing his weapon a bit more precisely at Colton‘s eye level. As Colton looked to step around him, the man chambered a round, keeping him at bay for the time being. His denim jacket was ragged and tight at his raised shoulders; he was larger than Colton, who only moved subtly now, maintaining eye contact with me around the man’s frame.
“Excuse me?” My darkest fear that our identities had been found out began a sinister dance of joy in my heart. “Especially me? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
He laughed bitterly. “You in my place, here, firl. I ask the questions. Not the other way ‘round.” His voice strengthened as he drew closer yet. “What does a Premier piece of trash like you want from an old man like me?”
Cornered, I felt myself give way to my training, but more so, to my true nature.
I had been selected as a Premier for various reasons, not the least of which was my tendency towards strength of will and violence. I had a short fuse but enough control to manipulate scenarios, using my aggression to achieve containment of most situations. This was often achieved by escalating moments to a level above most people’s comfort, but well within my own.
I edged Emilia away from me, motioning for her to retreat to the wall. She did as I had hoped, moving slowly and I crept a bit further from her, ensuring she was no longer in the line of fire.
My movement brought the second man’s weapon to the ready, focusing his attention on me. “Premier trash like me, huh?” I moved to circle the old man.
He didn’t move to keep me in view, which surprised me. He didn’t even move his head but instead remained alert to my actions, even as I moved into his peripheral. “Ah. So ya did hear me? Clever girl.” his voice dripped with sarcasm.
I laughed satirically and the gunman began to move in. The old man only raised his right hand, commanding him to stop.
‘Superior.’ I thought to myself. He commanded their respect, one way or another. Meeting my eyes, Colton indicated that he too was aware of the situation. “And just who, exactly, do you think I am?”
He said nothing, allowing me to complete my circle of him. Once I was directly before him again, and within arm’s length, he looked at me levelly. “Harper Eckles.” he stated without emotion.
I didn’t risk a look at Colton but instead kept my gaze locked on the old man’s. “Who the hell is Harper Eckles?”
“Girl, don’t ya play me for a fool, now. Harper Eckles, the lil’ darlin’ of the Premier Elites. I’d know you anywhere. You look like hell, but I figure you got your reasons for that. So, I ask again, what is a Premier piece a’ trash like you, doin’ in my quarters? Huh?” His voice hardened with every word.
I gave no response. My mind raced while I struggled to remain in control. It wasn’t impossible that some people might recognize me here. Cautioning myself to ignore the disbelief, I tried to remember that it was also possible individuals had been placed throughout the Underbelly, who were underestimated or misplaced. In truth, I simply hadn’t expected to encounter it to this degree. After all, the guards I had spoken with while entering the Middle just the night before hadn’t any idea of who I was, despite the fact that they sought me out. I wasn’t exactly a public figurehead for the Elites. Admittedly, I was a top level Premier, but not one who regularly gave interviews or issued statements. Any praise I received for missions I completed successfully was almost always given anonymously, and never widely communicated or broadcast.
Upon receiving no response, the old man continued. “Harper, you and me, we can play this a couple a’ ways. One, you answer me and we move on from there. Two, I kill her,” he motioned a thumb toward Emilia, who tried to conceal herself behind a shelf. “you get pissed off and try to attack me. They kill your friend, who I’m guessin’ idn’t your brother, and put you down. Then, ya answer. Three, we take you both down and hold yas ‘til ya answer. You pick. I get my answer from ya, any way you choose.” He clasped his gnarled hands in front of him casually.
“We were just passing through.” I issued, my voice level.
“Hm. Right. Sure.” He nodded, jutting his jaw out in feigned good humor. “Try again, Premier.”
“We were passing through, needed a place to crash.”
“Passing through to where?” It was then that the old man began to move, better positioning himself in the room.
Before I could answer, Colton lunged at the armed man nearest him. Instantly, the gunman before me shifted his weapon in their direction, but I began to grapple with him mid-motion. With just a few, swift movements, Colton had his man pinned to the ground, the man’s own weapon drawn at his back, and I had the tip of my knife dug into the jugular of my intended captor, his right hand still on the weapon, now raised in the air in surrender as each breath he took drew the tip of my blade further into his throat.
Just as the subtly sweet feeling of freedom began to enter my thoughts, Emilia’s shrill scream pierced the air. “Harper!”
I felt the mouth of a gun dig into my spleen, held there at the hands of a man I had not seen slip into the room, just as the tarp door gave way to yet four more armed men.
“Tried doin’ this the civilized way, but you Premiers just don’t know how, do yas? And then, yous act like you’re better than us, like we’re the animals?” he shook his head in disdain. “You got ‘nother thing comin’.”
I saw the fist too late and then, only darkness.
* * *
Thoughts moved through my consciousness as quickly as old oil from a generator on a cold winter’s day. With some doing, I realized I was unable to move or talk and my world had grown dark. I attempted to make sense of the shadows and patches of light but everything was hazy. Standing was impossible, as were my attempts to lift my arms.
Sounds from the repeated efforts at movement merely echoed amongst the outcry of high pitched ringing in my ears. Panic fought to reach the surface, but I lacked the presence of mind to focus on the fear. My thoughts were muddled and forced. It was not until I attempted to utter “Colton, Emilia,” that I even realized my mouth had been gagged. Another layer of confusion worked to settle in before a sharp kick to the back of the chair I discovered I had been bound to brought the memories of recent events filtering in through the haze.
“Welcome back.” a harsh voice taunted.
Unsure of my surroundings, my captors, my location, I gave no response.
What light I did see was blocked as a man’s large frame leaned over me, his hands clamping onto my forearms and the chair. I could feel the heat of his sour breath. “Hmmm…” he said lowly. “Maybe there’s something we can do to get you to talk, Princess.”
“Princess?” another voice hooted. “Ha! Something tells me she ain’t afraid to get dirty. I’ll bet the only time this one’s a Princess, is when she’s on stage,” the second man’s voice grew closer, “bumpin’ and grindin’ to earn her wages.” He then tightened the straps that bound my torso and shoulders to the back of the chair. “A’course, you do look real good bound.” he laughed in my ear.
I gave no response and my heartbeat remained steady, my breathing even as the fog lifted from my mental cognizance.
The man leaning before me gave a throaty laugh before standing and spitting on me as approaching footsteps approached. These steps were not trodden upon desert sand as was the normal ground in the barracks of the Underbelly. It sounded, solid, concrete, perhaps even flooring. I assumed it was a hallway of some sort, though due to the structures in the Underbelly, it was a bit difficult to determine.
“You two got her under control?” the approaching man called.
“Yes, Sir.” They called in unison.
“She come to?”
“Good. Guess that means I get to play.” With that the third man removed the shroud from my head and let the gag fall to hang loosely around my neck.
The man who had been standing behind me eased to my right as I met the third man’s gaze. “And what is it you want to play?” I asked coyly.
“Hmm. A feisty one, huh? My favorite.” He crudely applied a clear tape to my mouth as he smiled, taunting.
The first two men laughed as they sauntered off to the far wall of the dingy room. The expression worn by the second man caught me off guard. As he leaned against the wall, I caught the fleeting look of remorse, of sadness, pass across his bright green eyes.
Seeing me study him, he quickly set his jaw and feigned harshness and disinterest though his eyes belied the attempt. Realizing I saw through his ruse, he began to look casually about the room, refusing to risk another moment of eye contact.
I began to look at my surroundings as well. It became clear that this location had been framed and the walls were still relatively intact; sunlight was unable to pierce the neglected, stained linoleum and the sounds of the Underbelly could not be found here.
Instead, I focused my attention on the newest addition to the room. He was a lean man with hollow cheeks, and stood over six feet tall. He wore dark slacks, a light sweater and black leather jacket that were not tattered; his clothing properly fit. He was well groomed, left wrist adorned by a gold smart watch, his shoes clean. His voice too was polished, pointing toward an educational background. It was clear this man was not from the Underbelly, unlike the other two men in the room who were of large frames, strong but unkempt.
I attempted a verbal challenge but only managed an inaudible mumble.
“What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?” asked the first man from the wall.
The second man smirked but the well-groomed man acted as though he hadn‘t heard their childish antics. “Got something to say already, huh? Shame. I haven’t even gotten started.” Without further ceremony, he ripped the tape from my mouth and I noticed the briefest flash of disappointment play across his face as I gave no response to the pain he had intended to cause.
“Where are they?” I asked evenly.
“No, no. See? You’re confused. You’re the one tied to a chair, with these two morons just waiting to get their hands on you.” He leaned so that his face was directly before mine, hands clasped around my forearms which were angled so that the thumbs of my balled fists were up, and fingers closed toward me. He smiled smugly “Don’t you see? You’re mine now. I ask the questions. You answer. It’s simple really. I -”
“Where are they?” I repeated calmly, knocking him from his imagined soapbox.
The angles of his face sharpened, but he didn’t react. “Not too smart are you? See now that, that surprises me. I would have expected more from you.” he repositioned his fingers and began to squeeze them around my arms, cutting off circulation while simultaneously tearing holes in my flesh with his fingernails.
“What did you do to them?” I asked, refusing to react to the pain.
He laughed joyfully while he squeezed harder yet.
Frustrated and in pain, an animalistic growl escaped my chest as I gave him an abrupt, sharp head butt. “Where the hell are they?” I demanded.
“Bitch!” he roared as he stepped back and brought a swift backhand across my face.
My heart rate was beginning to increase as rage crept up from within. “Answer me!”
“Answer you?” his voice broke along the edge of agitation. “Answer you? Who the hell do you think you’re dealing with?”
“A lowly, pathetic, shell of a man,” I began as he rushed and put his hands to my neck. “who thinks he’s more important than he truly is.” My voice had grown more and more strained as I struggled for precious, precious air. “You’re nothing but the go-to boy of an old man afraid to get his hands dirty.” I was barely able to choke out the last few, strained words.
He continued to cinch his hands tighter around my throat.
“You’re nothing.” I managed. “Not even smart enough to know that if you kill me, you lose on this intended interrogation.” My last words barely more than a whisper.
Snarling, he released my throat. “Who are you?” he asked attempting to regain his composure, haphazardly brushing a wisp of hair from his forehead.
“That’s,” I struggled to pull air into my lungs, “all it takes to set you off?” I laughed maliciously between gasps. “No self-control?”
I watched as irritation and duty warred within him. “Who are you?” he repeated sullenly, duty winning out.
“Funny, your old man claims to know the answer to that question. He didn’t tell you?”
“Why are you here?”
“Ah. So you do know.”
“What is your purpose, Premier Eckles?”
“Like I keep telling you people, just passing through.”
“To what end?” his voice was growing dark.
“Why the hell would I tell you anything. Where are they?”
He turned from me, every muscle in his back taught. He paced the length of the room twice, rage growing within. I couldn’t help but think he looked like a caged an animal. “They’re secure.”
“Gonna need more than that.”
Instead of responding, he walked to a table, grabbing and polishing a blade from atop same.
I only laughed in response and settled back into the chair. “Boys and their toys.”
“I am going to kill you.” He stated matter-of-factly.
“Oh, well, sure. Naturally.” I laughed again.
“That’s funny to you?”
“If you were going to kill me, you would have already. Instead, you tied me to this chair, or more likely, you had one of them tie me to this chair.” I watched as the two other men exchanged surprised expressions at my indifference. “Oh. I’m sorry, was I supposed to say -” I allowed my voice to rise an octave, sounding like a child, feigning fear, “Oh, no, please don’t!” and laughed raucously.
Without further ceremony, my captor rammed the blade through the fleshy underside of my left forearm, mounting it in the arm of the chair below.
I bit back a verbal reaction to the pain and instead pulled forward against the tethers, struggling to break free.
“Talk.” he said lowly.
Knowing it was juvenile, pain and anger propelled the response, “Bite me!”
He looked at me briefly before shrugging and biting me hard, on my left shoulder.
I fought and kicked, trying to angle my head to fight him off, but was unable. Instead, a subhuman roar clawed at my throat as my efforts achieved nothing. After a brief moment, he pulled away and spat my own blood in my face. I was shocked to see the look in his eyes as he did so; I had expected to see an ice, an animalistic glee, but instead found only sadness, regret.
After the slightest hesitation, he crudely pulled the knife from my arm, drawing a scream of pain and a flood of dark blood as he did so.
I gave no response and so, he brought the edge of the blade more lightly across my good forearm twice. As my blood spilled too from the new wounds, he looked at me expectantly.
“Do what you want to me. I’m not going to give you a damn thing.” Between the pain and hot waves of anger, fear had no room to enter my thoughts.
He regarded me a moment before launching his fist into my face followed immediately by a solid left hook. “Oh, you will. Eventually. Everyone does.”
I laughed again and spat blood at him.
He smiled wryly before bringing a hard kick to my left ear.
A searing pain ricocheted through my head, shooting down into my neck, my shoulders. The world grew a bit fuzzy around the edges as I swooned. He returned to the table that displayed his toys where he selected a thick linked metal chain. He jostled it theatrically as he approached, the eerie sound ominous enough to bring me back to a state of clarity.
“What are you doing here?”
I gave no response, as I recognized the warmth of blood running from my nose and noticed that my right eye must have begun to swell, its angle of view growing smaller.
After getting nothing, my captor feigned indifference though I witnessed a weight settle into his shoulders. Reluctantly, he tossed the chain to the closer of the two men and nodded slightly.
The second man approached me from behind, wrapping the chain around my neck and tightening it viciously. Hopelessness clogged my throat; I couldn’t grab at the chain but tried bucking out of the chair. Using every amount of my remaining strength I pressed my feet against the ground, my body against the tethers but managed only to tip the chair over as the chain grew tighter still. My neck felt as though it might collapse inward even as the chain pinched and tore at parts of my flesh. Stars began to dance along the edges of my vision as my head grew heavy from the lack of oxygen.
The heartbeat that had been pounding in my head began to slow, fade away, and it was not until it began to increase again that I even realized the chain had gone lax. My gasping body and the chair I was bound to were once again righted on the floor while my torturer said something.
I didn’t hear what was said, as I focused instead on the rather arduous task of breathing.
Frustrated by my continued lack of response, he forced his knife deeply into my flesh and dragged the large blade the length of my left thigh drawing a shrill screech of pain, along with the blood.
As I regained awareness of the situation, I noticed that my interrogator’s attention had moved to the doorway. After focusing my vision, I heard a commotion in the distance. It sounded as though it was drawing near but I couldn’t trust my perception. Within moments, two more men burst through the door, followed by a bloody and clamoring Colton.
“Stop!” he began as the other two men within the room rushed to restrain him.
“Stop!” the old man who had been in charge commanded from behind him. “Release him!”
They did as ordered and stepped back as Colton scurried over to me. He crawled before me and held my face gingerly in his bloodied hands. “Oh, Baby. What the hell did they do to you?”
I breathed laboriously through my mouth and cried in relief at the sight of him.
“Untie her!” he demanded. “Cut her loose. Now!’
The man who had been torturing me was speaking animatedly with the old man who seconded Colton’s demand. As such, my captor returned with the knife still dripping my blood, but this time it was only to cut what bound me to the chair.
Once freed, I stood shakily and before my legs gave out from under me, managed to land a single, forceful blow to the man who had moments ago brought so much agony. Then, I could do little more than watch as the floor rushed to greet my face.