The fog surrounding my thoughts slowly lifted, leaving me swaying. The water cleared from my surroundings and the dream where I’d been a mermaid swimming with the seahorses stopped making sense. We were having such a pleasant afternoon. Why did it have to end? I made a kickass mermaid.
What had I been doing before I turned into a mermaid?
The further away from the dream I swam, the more my memories returned.
And the smell. Icky, gross, moldy, wet smells filled my nose.
I wasn’t a mermaid. No.
So what happened to me?
A parking garage. My hospital badge looped around my neck. A man standing next to my car.
His question. If I was a nurse.
My response. Yes.
Then the poke of a needle.
And then… nothing. Darkness until I met with the mermaids and seahorses.
Something more hovered in the recesses of my mind, but I couldn’t pull the hazy details together.
I tried to open my eyes, but they were too heavy for me to control. Wherever I ended up on dry land, it was warm and hard. My head rested on a rock or something equally unforgiving. I appeared safe… which seemed wrong.
I shouldn’t be safe.
The seahorses said I wasn’t safe so I should stay with them, but I didn’t.
Maybe I ended up in a clam, and the hard thing was the pearl.
But that made no sense. I shook my head and felt something scratchy against my face. Pearls weren’t scratchy.
And I wasn’t underwater.
The land swayed me from side to side, lulling me back to sleep, but I continued to pry my eyes open to figure out what happened.
A pearl would be nice, though. I could pluck it from the clam and use it to buy my mother a vacation. The idea of cashing in the world’s biggest pearl made me smile. I sank into bliss again and let my body rest. The warmth and gentle rocking tempted me to go back to sleep. Resting sounded so good right now.
My thoughts drifted along with my body. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. I came and went with the tide.
Land didn’t sway. Something was wrong. Very wrong.
What happened to the seahorses?
Who stole my clam?
My head fell back, but I swam closer to the surface. Forget the seahorses.
I wanted to sleep but couldn’t.
Fight it, Imogen.
I had to wake up.
My thoughts came more frantically now, jumbling together as they twisted and turned, falling over each other. Each one fought for my attention.
Where was I?
How did I get here? The man by my car. He stabbed me with a needle and then carried me to a vehicle. But from the motion of my body, I was no longer in a car but somewhere on water. That explained the seahorses.
My head throbbed. Pounded. Like someone with a heavy fist beat at the edges of my skull. My attempt at forcing the memories caused a massive headache to dominate my now weary brain.
I had to figure out where they’d taken me. If not a car, then a boat. It matched the gentle pattern of movements.
My thoughts paused for a minute, and I lost control of them, once again falling into the ocean’s swirl. The seahorses returned.
How did we breathe under water? How long could I live in my clam?
I studied nursing in college, meaning I lacked more than the most basic knowledge of aquatic animals.
Did clams even make pearls? Or did they come from oysters? What was the difference?
I tried to move my hand and find my legs, but I couldn’t raise it enough to do more than twitch a finger. The seahorses waved goodbye with their long tails and I might have groaned.
I couldn’t be a mermaid. They were mythical creatures. So what was I?
Yes. I remembered again. A nurse someone kidnapped from her work parking lot in North Carolina.
I tried to wiggle my toes since moving an arm had been too much, but they had tiny weights holding them firm. My eyelids wouldn’t open no matter how much I pleaded with them. I also couldn’t force myself awake by sheer will from yelling at myself in my head.
My brain didn’t care.
It just wanted a few more hours of sleep. I hadn’t had a vacation in years, so was a kidnapping and a long nap really the worst thing in the world?
Oh, my word. Working at the hospital had me questioning if getting kidnapped might be a good thing. I needed a new profession.
I groaned for sure that time and it echoed in my delicate head.
My clothing didn’t squish, but I also couldn’t move my toes, so I might not have been a superb judge on that front. With tremendous effort, I made a finger twitch.
I celebrated by giving a little dance, but only in my head. Fingers were the first frontier, even if all my other parts were frozen. Next, my nose crinkled.
Fish. Gross. Where did the smell start and why had it ended in my nose?
I wiggled my fingers again because fuck it. If that’s all I could move, I’d move the hell out of them to show the other body parts how to get their shit together.
The warm thing flush with my body moved, forcing me along with it.
“Are you waking up?” a soft voice spoke much too close to me as if the man whispered right in my ear.
My eyes popped open, light smacked against them, and I slammed them closed.
If I’d had control of my body, I would have tensed every muscle. But I didn’t have control over anything besides my fingers—and apparently my eyelids—so I did nothing.
My mind said, “Run for it, bitch!” but my legs said, “Ha-ha, no. Enjoy the murdering.”
One thing I could do. Lie there like a dead fish.
Even my mouth wouldn’t open to let me answer the person invading my personal bubble. I couldn’t talk or move.
The only thing I could rightfully do was panic. So I did a lot of that with hopes the adrenaline would cleanse my body of the paralyzing drug faster. The longer I kept my heart rate up and worked it out of my system, the faster I’d be able to karate chop the man who had my head in his lap.
I never learned how to karate chop anything, but I figured once the drug released my body, I’d come out arms flailing and whatever happened, happened.
I stopped trying to wiggle body parts because I didn’t want the person—who definitely wasn’t a pearl—realizing I’d gained control of anything other than my fingers. If I resumed function over my limbs, I’d get started on that karate chopping part when I caught him off guard.
As I waited, more memories of the evening flitted into my mind. I finished my shift at the hospital and had almost made it to my car in the parking lot. I wasn’t paying attention to anyone else because I couldn’t wait to start my vacation. A solid week to sit around in pajama pants and watch television. They weren’t super exciting plans, but getting kidnapped was not how I wanted to spend the first day I’d had off in years.
I’d just reached my car—visions of Lifetime Channel binges swimming in my head—when I beeped to unlock the doors at the same time a tall built man stepped out from the shadows.
His body blocked half the light from an overhead fixture. I tried not to judge him from his size and he smiled. So he seemed friendly enough. I smiled back and continued for my car.
“Are you a nurse?” he’d asked.
A warning bell rang but not loudly enough. I hadn’t binged those Lifetime movies yet to be properly worried.
“Yes,” I said, doing a quick glance at my dark blue scrubs.
In the next second, he stood beside me and the two years of self-defense I took in college completely flew out of my head. Then a poke in my neck and pain from where he inserted a needle too far. And that’s it.
I had no other memories. Whatever he injected me with acted fast. As I lay there unmoving, I noticed more parts of my body getting tingly. I had to be regaining movements even though I was still too worried about the man pearl to move anything and experiment.
As pieces of me came back online, I didn’t feel different. Still heavy and groggy, but it seemed I had on clothes. I didn’t have any horrible pains coming from anywhere in particular. I didn’t seem violated —besides the kidnapping.
What did me being a nurse have to do with anything? He didn’t ask my name. Only my profession.
Nurses were always getting crapped on.
If I survived, I’d leave the nursing field and become a secretary. No one from the first-floor secretary pool got kidnapped.
My toes wiggled for the first time and I had another silent celebration, making sure this time I moved nothing else. The arms that earlier held me released my upper body, but his heat warmed my back so I knew he hadn’t left me. The air lost the fishy residue smell and instead I noticed hints of a male’s cologne. It would have smelled great if a thick layer of grease didn’t coat the air and block out most of the scent.
Also, I’d enjoy the cologne more if I hadn’t been biding my time to attack the good-smelling man.
My neck jerked. Or it felt like a jerk. I couldn’t be one hundred percent sure because I refused to move it, but my limbs were definitely coming back under my control. Fingers, presumably from the person who had my head resting in their lap, ran their fingers through my hair, pulling it away from my face with gentle movements.
Did they kidnap me for the sex trade? I watched Dateline and heard the stories.
No, at twenty-six and definitely not a virgin, I didn’t know what use I’d be to them. Besides, North Carolina didn’t seem like a hot spot for kidnapping. Those things only happened to women on vacation and Lifetime movies.
Plus, I wasn’t even that pretty. I had the girl next door thing going for me, but I was not supermodel pretty by any means. I was only fifty percent sure I was even using makeup correctly when I wore it.
My eyes opened of their own accord and I blinked a few times to bring them into focus. As expected, a knee clad in dark jeans hovered beside my face on top of a dark concrete floor. I didn’t dare move my head and look elsewhere.
“I know you’re awake,” the man’s voice said.
Shit. It was now or never on the karate chop. I put my energy into moving every muscle in my body at one time. In my head, I imagined I’d jump out of his lap, turn gracefully in the air, and land with one foot on the ground and the other in a kneeling position. Much like a superhero right before the big fight scene.
That did not happen.
I only had control of about twenty-five percent of my limbs, so I didn’t jump off of his lap gracefully but more rolled and flopped around resembling the dead fish I’d compared myself to earlier.
I worked hard to scramble as far away from him as possible, dragging one leg behind me, but it quickly became obvious I couldn’t get far. The kidnappers had us both in a cage.
A legit cage.
He froze in the middle of the large crate, what looked to be a shipping container with bars on one side, watching me with weary eyes. “Easy. I won’t hurt you.”
It was dark. Only a small bit of light seeped through the bars but enough for me to make out the prominent features of his face like his firm jaw and deep-set eyes. He smiled at me as if that might bring down my defenses and I realized he was actually weirdly cute.
And definitely not the man who approached me in the parking garage. He wasn’t even dressed like a kidnapper although his dark-colored jeans had oily spots on them. I refused to consider what liquid caused them. He wore a light-blue polo shirt with dirt on the sleeves, but his hair was immaculate, flipped over to one side and tussled. It looked like he’d dressed that morning in dirty clothes, but took the time to do his mane.
“Where—” I tried to speak, but my dry and scratchy throat sounded like I hadn’t used it in a year.
I rubbed at it as he looked at me with sympathy. “They dragged you in about…” He took a moment to check his watch, a big bulky silver thing that took up most of his wrist. “Ten hours ago. You looked cold crumpled in a heap on the floor, and I didn’t want you to wake up alone.”
It sounded nice, but the man could’ve been anyone. Maybe he brought me into the container and now wanted to win me over to his side. This was his attempt at trying to make me like him before he did whatever he kidnapped a nurse for. Some weird foreplay. If you abducted someone out of a hospital, you weren’t above trying to pretend to be another captive.
I settled against the far wall, the metal cold against my back, and shivered. My eyes slowly acclimated to the darkness, and I looked around, but there was nothing to see. Past our bars, a bunch of other shipping crates sat lined up in a row, but only the sides were visible in dark greens and oranges. Our floor swayed back and forth.
“Where are we?” I asked, my voice crackly and dry but now working.
The man shrugged and rubbed a spot right above his eyebrow. “A ship, I think.”
I swallowed and my scratchy throat hurt. “How did you get here?”
Was he kidnapped from a hospital as well? Do they want a nurse and maybe a doctor? Were we being sold not for sex but a makeshift doctor’s office?
He laughed, the sound choked off at the end by a cough. “Shopping. I took a day trip to the mall in Portland for a little adventure. They jumped me in the parking lot.”
Portland? I had to assume Maine, not Oregon, if we really were on a ship. If he wasn’t a doctor, why was he selected?
“Why kidnap you?”
He smiled as if he was laughing again, but this time, no sound came out. “Well, considering they kept calling me Corbin, I assume they think I’m my brother. Which means this will eventually end very badly.”
He didn’t elaborate on Corbin, or why these men would want him. “Why do they think you’re Corbin?” The more I spoke, the easier it became.
He smirked that time for real, making me realize he forced the others. It was obvious because when he did it for real, it lit up his face, making him gorgeous even as we sat in a dirty container with decaying fish. “Twins.”
Ah. It was a simple answer but explained everything. “What’s your name then?”
“Cyrus Kensington, and you? Where did they pick you up from? I’ve been on the boat for at least two days, so I have to assume we’re out of Maine and maybe even New York.”
“Imogen… Not Jen or Jenny,” I threw in just to make sure we got off on the right foot. I didn’t want to be kidnapped and annoyed if he insisted on giving me a nickname.
He rubbed the spot above his eyebrow again and smiled. “Got it, not Jen. So what are you in for?”
The way he said it made it resemble a prison sentence, like we were hanging out together in the common areas. “I don’t know.”
It had something to do with me being a nurse. That was the only thing that made sense, but what? I gave him the quick recap of what I remembered from the parking lot. Cyrus grew quiet until I mentioned the North Carolina part and then he tensed.
“That far south?” he asked, more to himself than me, so I ignored it.
More of my story fell out at my feet around me as I talked to him. I didn’t understand why, but he calmed me even while chaos surrounded us. I didn’t know if I’d survive what came next, and part of me wanted to crawl back into his arms. He’d been my warm and safe spot for a little while.
“Who did this to me?” I asked because if he’d figured out we were on a boat and now had an idea where the boat was floating, he’d be better able to figure out our final destination and why.
Or he was more involved than I realized, which then anything I said didn’t matter anyway.
None of the situation made sense. I didn’t owe anyone money. No secret life. I didn’t get involved in crime. I considered myself a good person.
I mean, sure, I shared my Netflix login with my mother, but she didn’t count. Did she?
Another memory hit me. Damn it.
What about Mandy?
Did I really act bitchy one time and fate decided I deserve to be kidnapped? Yes, I told my coworker Mandy Shafter that her new haircut gave her giraffe neck. It was mean. Rude. Nasty.
She walked around for three whole years calling people fat or reminding them how horrible they looked if they came to work tired or with eye bags. You can’t always help eye bags. We were nurses! I’d been tired for years. She didn’t need to remind me how horrible I looked every morning before I had my coffee.
But really? A kidnapping? That seemed harsh.
“Imogen?” Cyrus said my name softly and ripped my thoughts back to the present kidnapping. “I…”
“Who did this to us, Cyrus?”
He stared at me for a second, as if he needed the time to gather his thoughts and decide what to tell me. “I can’t be certain, but have you heard of The Grandmaster?”
I shook my head. “Who?”
“He’s a mob boss in Chicago. Are you sure you’ve never heard of him?” he asked so casually it sounded as if he talked about mob bosses every day.
Another head shake. The only mobsters I recognized were the ones from the Godfather movies and Al Capone.
“I didn’t think so,” he said. “He claims one of his employees has gone rogue. I’m assuming he wants my brother to do side work for him, but I have no idea why they’d take a nurse from North Carolina.”
His words rang with truth but didn’t bring the relief I expected. They left me wondering how long I’d survive.
“What are we going to do?” I asked, hoping he’d have an amazing plan of escape already prepared, and we were just waiting for me to wake up before putting it into action.