I am the traitor, p.4

I Am the Traitor, page 4

 

I Am the Traitor
 


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  “Who put us in there?” she says.

  Is it possible she doesn’t know?

  I say, “Why don’t we save the discussion until we get some food. You guys must be hungry, right?”

  They nod.

  I check the road in front and behind us. Traffic in this area is too light.

  “I have to get us to a more populated part of the state,” I say.

  “Why?” Howard says.

  “There’s safety in numbers.”

  There’s nothing illegal about three teens driving in upstate New York, at least during the day. But once night comes, we will be at risk—from The Program primarily, but also from local cops, who might find it strange to see us driving around in the middle of the night and pull us over.

  So I head east, where there will be larger towns and more traffic. I need to get somewhere where I can talk to Howard alone and discover what he knows about my father. And I have to find out how well he knows Tanya.

  I think about the kinds of places we can stop without attracting too much attention.

  Gas stations and convenience stores are likely to have video cameras, even in upstate New York. Hotels are out, too. It’s going to be tough for three teenagers to check into a motel without ID.

  A diner. That’s the best solution.

  I drive up 13 toward Interstate 81 and pull off when we get to Cortland, a university town. As soon as I spot a freestanding diner, I drive in and park on the fringes of the lot.

  “I’ll go in first and check it out,” I say. “I’ll give you the signal if it’s safe.”

  “And if it’s not safe?” Tanya asks.

  “That will be pretty obvious,” I say.

  “Blood spatter on the front windows?”

  “Something like that.”

  “I wish you guys would stop joking,” Howard says nervously.

  “Sorry,” Tanya says, and she puts a hand on his forearm.

  I glance at Tanya. She’s covering her fear with humor, a sign that she’s coming out of shock.

  I leave the two of them alone for a minute while I walk through the front door of the diner, scouting the crowd inside. I see students hunkered down over books and some local families having dinner. Nothing out of the ordinary.

  “Anywhere you like,” a friendly waitress says. “Grab yourself a menu.”

  I smile to set her at ease. “Thanks. Coffee and water, please. Times three.”

  I catch Howard’s eye through the window and wave him in. I pick a booth on the side where I can view the entire restaurant from my seat, and I wait for Howard and Tanya to slide in across from me.

  I look at them up close for the first time. They are dirty and bruised, but I don’t see more serious signs of torture. However, coercion takes many forms, psychological and physical. I sense that they are traumatized, so I have to go easy if I’m going to get any information from them.

  The waitress appears at the table. She’s about fifty, stressed at the dinner hour but with a genuine smile on her face. “How are you kids doing tonight?” she says, dropping off steaming mugs of coffee and glasses of water.

  “We’re great,” I say. “And starving.”

  “Starving is good,” she says. “We specialize in starving. And waffles.”

  I smile, matching her energy. She glances at Howard and Tanya. Her gaze travels to Tanya’s black eye.

  “What happened to you?” she says, a hint of concern in her voice.

  “We just came from an Ultimate tournament,” I say.

  “That’s the Frisbee game?”

  “Yup.”

  “How’d you do?” she says.

  “We got our asses kicked.”

  “I can see that,” she says. “Bathroom in the back if you need it. It’s not pretty, but it’s clean. And I’ll bring you some ice for the eye.”

  “I’d appreciate that,” Tanya says. “And about a hundred Advil.”

  The waitress laughs. “I think I’m going to like this girl.”

  “We already like her,” I say. That earns me a smile from Tanya.

  I want to win her trust because I’m going to have to question her soon. It will make things easier.

  “I’d like a big burger,” Howard says.

  He’s eyeing the menu like he hasn’t seen food in a long time.

  “You want the deluxe with fries?”

  “Definitely,” Howard says.

  “Make it two,” I say.

  The waitress looks to Tanya. “How about my friend over here?”

  “You said the waffles are good?” Tanya says.

  “The best.”

  “Could I get, like, three thousand of them?”

  “I’m not sure we have enough butter.”

  “Then I’ll take a double order. And some scrambled eggs. And syrup. And do you have whipped cream?”

  “Wow, you sure are hungry, hon.”

  “I’ve been running in the heat all day,” Tanya says. “I need sustenance.”

  “Coming right up,” the waitress says.

  She gives Tanya a wink and heads back behind the counter to put in our order.

  I look at Tanya.

  “What’s the problem?” she asks.

  “Try to act natural,” I say.

  “This is natural. They were feeding us like one protein bar a day in that place. I’m friggin’ starving.”

  “Me, too,” Howard says.

  The phone buzzes in my pocket. I check the screen.

  It’s Mike.

  I decide not to risk talking to him, at least not until I’ve spoken to Howard and Tanya and sorted through their stories.

  Howard and Tanya are watching me, curious.

  “I need to talk to Howard for a couple of minutes,” I say. “Would you excuse us?”

  “Will you be okay alone?” Howard says to Tanya.

  “I guess,” she says.

  “I’m not worried about her,” I say. “Did you see the way she kicked that guy?”

  “I was aiming for his balls, but I missed,” she says. “My soccer coach would have torn into me for blowing the kick.”

  I note Tanya’s reactions and the things she talks about. I find my doubts about her receding.

  I motion to Howard, and he gets up and follows me toward the back of the diner. I take him into the restroom and check the stalls.

  They’re empty.

  I slip a broomstick through the door handle to prevent anyone from coming in without my knowing.

  “I don’t understand what’s happening,” Howard says. “Who are you?”

  “Let’s start at the beginning,” I say. “How are you feeling right now?”

  “So-so.”

  “Can you tell me who the girl is?” I say, pointing back toward our booth.

  “She’s Tanya,” he says.

  “What’s your relationship with her?”

  He looks confused as he searches for the right answer. “They put her in the room with me a couple of days ago. They’ve been interrogating the both of us since then. We kept each other sane. Mostly.”

  I think about that—the idea that two prisoners would be in the same house at the same time, waiting to be transported. It’s plausible.

  “They hurt her,” he says. “I didn’t see it, only the aftermath.”

  I think about the bruise on Tanya’s eye. His story makes sense.

  “Howard, do you remember who I am?” I say.

  He bites at his lower lip. “You said we’re friends, right?”

  “That’s right.”

  “I should know,” he says, frustrated. “It’s right there, but I can’t get to it.”

  “Don’t try too hard. It will come back on its own.”

  Howard stumbles on his feet, then catches himself.

  “I think I’m tired,” he says.

  I open a stall door and sit him down. I gently roll up his sleeve and find the telltale mark of a series of injections at the vein in the crook of his elbow.

  “Have t
hey been drugging you?”

  “Maybe,” he says.

  His breathing grows rapid and shallow. He leans over and groans. “What’s happening to me?”

  “You’re okay, buddy,” I say, patting his back.

  When I first met Howard, I was on assignment at a private school in New York City. He was an obstacle to my mission that I thought I was going to have to get rid of. I had no idea he would become my first and only friend.

  Howard wipes snot with his forearm, fighting tears.

  I go to the sink and run the tap, wetting a bunch of paper towels.

  “Put these on your forehead,” I say. “It will help you feel better.”

  Cool water on the skin. The shift in sensory information helps to bring a person back to the present moment.

  He puts the towels on his face, and I see his eyes slowly coming into focus.

  “That’s good,” I say. “Keep breathing.”

  He takes a deep breath.

  “Can you tell me how you got to the house?” I ask.

  He shakes his head. I decide to try to jog his memory.

  “A couple of days ago you were in a hotel room in New Hampshire. We were talking on the phone when some people came into your room. Do you remember that?”

  “I don’t like hotels much,” he says. “Slow Wi-Fi.”

  I smile. That’s more like the Howard I remember.

  “You found out something about my father,” I say. “You were going to tell me.”

  “Your father—is he dead?”

  Mike said my father is gone. If Howard confirms it—

  “Dead. That’s what they told me,” I say. “But you were trying to get to the truth.”

  Howard struggles to retrieve the memory. “I was talking to you about it on the phone—” he says.

  “That’s right. What were you going to tell me?”

  His face turns red with frustration. “Damn it!”

  He punches his thigh.

  I close my eyes for a moment and relax. Getting upset with him right now will be counterproductive.

  “There’s plenty of time,” I say. But how much time do we have before Mike—or The Program—comes after us?

  I reach to take the paper towels from him, and Howard surprises me by grabbing me around the waist and hugging me tight.

  Whatever brave front he’s been keeping up in front of Tanya comes crashing down in a flood of tears.

  “I’m sorry I can’t remember anything,” he says. “I want to remember.”

  “I believe you,” I say.

  He glances up at me.

  “You do?”

  “Absolutely.”

  I look at Howard. He’s the same guy I remember from New York and New Hampshire, the one who risked his life to save mine.

  “Thanks for getting me out of that house,” he says with a weak smile.

  He’s still got his hands clamped around my midsection.

  “Maybe you should let go now?” I say.

  He sniffles and wipes the tears from his eyes.

  “That’s probably a good idea,” he says. “It was getting awkward, even for me.”

  BACK AT THE TABLE, TANYA IS NOSE-DEEP IN A PLATE OF WAFFLES.

  “Sorry, I couldn’t wait,” she says with her mouth full.

  She’s quite a sight, shoveling in waffles with one hand while holding a bag of frozen peas on her eye with another.

  Howard and I sit down and dig into our food.

  “Where are you from, Tanya?” I ask.

  “Philadelphia,” she says between bites.

  I do the math in my head. Philadelphia is a four- or five-hour drive from the house where I found her.

  “Can you tell me how you got to the house?”

  “I was in a park and I felt a sharp pain on my neck, like I got stung by a bee, but then everything went dark. I woke up in the back of a truck, not knowing where I was. I screamed until I was hoarse, but nobody answered me. Eventually I passed out, and I didn’t wake up until the doors opened.”

  “And then?”

  “The men pulled me out of the truck, took me into the house, and started to ask me questions.”

  She lowers the bag of peas. The swelling is down around her eye, but the bruise is an ugly purple-red color.

  “Questions about what?” I say.

  “About the neighbor.”

  “Your neighbor?”

  “My friend’s neighbor. He died last week.”

  “Why do you think they were asking you questions about him?”

  Her voice drops to a whisper. “Because I saw him die.”

  Howard looks surprised. I can tell he hasn’t heard this before.

  “We have to get out of here,” Tanya says, her eyes suddenly flitting back and forth, fear breaking through her composure. “We have to get away and call the police. They’re going to come back for us!”

  She tenses in the booth, ready to bolt. I grab her across the table.

  “Tanya, keep your voice down,” I whisper. “I know you’re scared, but you have to trust me.”

  She looks at me with tears in her eyes.

  “Can I trust you?” she says.

  “Yes,” I say, knowing it’s a lie.

  Her breathing slows as she settles.

  “I have to go to the bathroom,” she says.

  I glance at her face, trying to determine whether she might run, call the cops, or take any action that could harm us. I’m betting on the bond she and Howard have established in captivity. They’re both still traumatized, and she won’t want to leave him alone.

  “Go ahead,” I say. “We’ll pay and meet you outside.”

  Howard gets up, and Tanya slides out of the booth and hurries to the restroom.

  “You didn’t know about her neighbor?” I ask Howard.

  He sits back down. “She didn’t tell me.”

  Before I can ask another question, the waitress appears at the table.

  “Which one of you is Zach?” she says.

  Howard looks at me, puzzled.

  “I’m Zach,” I say with a smile, as I slip a steak knife from the table, palming it in my lap, ready to defend us if need be. “How do you know my name?”

  I scan the space for danger, my senses firing on all channels.

  “Your brother described you,” the waitress says.

  “My brother?”

  She holds out an old cordless phone. “He said it was an emergency and he couldn’t get through on your cell.”

  I take the phone from her hand.

  “Sorry about this,” I say. “We’re having some trouble at home.”

  She waves me off. “My manager is out, so it’s fine.” She walks away.

  I motion for Howard to be quiet, then I bring the phone to my ear.

  “I trusted you,” Mike says.

  The anger in his voice surprises me.

  “Do you know how many men I had to kill?” he asks.

  “I’m guessing the answer is ‘too many’ or ‘not enough.’”

  “All of them,” Mike says. “Our own assets are dead because of you. Then I blew up the goddamn house.”

  “Why did you do that?”

  “To cover the evidence and save your ass.”

  “Are you sure it was my ass you were saving?”

  “What do you mean?”

  I glance toward the restroom, checking for Tanya. She hasn’t come out yet. I need to stall for time.

  I say, “Maybe you destroyed the evidence at the holding house because it implicates you. How did I find out about the house? Who sent me there in the first place?”

  “You’re going to tell Mother I sent you on a mission?”

  “If I have to.”

  “Do it if you want to give yourself away,” Mike says. “Right now, The Program doesn’t fully comprehend the situation. They’re rushing more assets into the area, but they don’t know what they’re looking for. Or who.”

  “Do they suspect me?”

  “Suspect
? Of course. But they don’t know. They asked me to go and check on you in Columbus. Make sure everything was on the up and up.”

  “What did you tell them?”

  “I said I’d be there by morning. You know what that means?”

  “Jeni’s ice cream at North Market. You’re buying.”

  “Funny guy. It means I have until morning to find you. And finish this. You want to bring yourself down, that’s one thing. But you are not bringing me down. No way in hell.”

  Right now I’m running a checklist in my mind. How did Mike know to call me here? He must be tracking us somehow.

  Mother still thinks I’m in Columbus, Ohio. The leapfrog app on my phone is broadcasting locations several hundred miles from here. And we weren’t followed when we left the holding house.

  That means there’s something I’m missing. I decide to try the direct approach.

  “How did you know I was here?” I ask Mike.

  “If I tell you, that kind of kills the magic.”

  “So you know where I am, but The Program doesn’t.”

  “Not unless I want them to.”

  Mike is arrogant. It’s one of the few flaws I might be able to use against him.

  Tanya steps out of the restroom, her face freshly washed and shining, her bangs hanging low to try to hide her bruise.

  She sees me on the phone and hesitates. I signal for her to meet us at the front door.

  “You’re with them now,” Mike says.

  “How do you know?”

  “Because I know you,” Mike says.

  “Obviously not as well as you think you do.”

  I check outside the diner window again.

  “I’m coming for you,” Mike says. Then he laughs, a hollow sound that sends a chill through me.

  If he’s coming for us, that means he isn’t here yet.

  I put the phone down.

  “The waitress said the call was for Zach,” Howard says. “Is that your name?”

  I nod.

  “Do I know you?”

  “Not by that name. Howard, we can talk about this later. Right now we have to go.”

  I use a napkin to wipe down the utensils and glasses on the table, removing fingerprints and trace evidence. When I’m done, I do the same with the phone, wiping it from top to bottom, before leaving it for the waitress on top of a pile of money for the bill, along with a sizable tip. If she’s questioned later, the goodwill from the tip could mean the difference between her cooperating with authorities and playing dumb.

 
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