Two hours later
Twenty-eight-year-old Isabella Donnelly pulled her car over to the curb as she came to a gated four-way stop and studied the directions Amanda Nelson had given her. She looked for street numbers up and down the beautifully landscaped yards of the condominium buildings on all four corners.
Wow! These are nice! Amanda’s done well for herself! Girls’ night out is looking good so far.
When Isabella heard Amanda call her name, she quickly closed her mouth to hide her astonishment and turned to see Amanda on the second floor of the condo to her right. Amanda waved to her from the front porch.
“Hey, Isabella, park right here in front.” She motioned with her hands to Isabella.
“Okay!” The gates swung open on the right so Isabella could enter and park her car where Amanda was indicating. When she got out of the car, she approached the building and, once again, heard Amanda call her name from the balcony above.
“Isabella! Did you have any trouble finding the address?”
“No, not really. Your directions were very good.”
“Well, that’s great. Come up to the second floor, and I’ll meet you there.”
As soon as Isabella stepped through the foyer of the apartment building, she knew she had stepped into affluence. A uniformed guard was hanging up the phone.
“You must be Isabella. Please, let me get the elevator for you.”
When the elevator door opened on the second floor, an excited Amanda, wearing her usual jeans, t-shirt, and see-through stilettos, raced down the hall to greet her.
“I’m so glad you’re here.” Amanda ushered her down the hall and into her apartment. “You can relax, make yourself at home, and I’ll go order the pizza. We’re going to have a wonderful girls’ night. I have everything planned down to the last detail.”
When she entered the condo, the stale smell of cigarette smoke overwhelmed her. Isabella swallowed hard and followed Amanda into the spacious, wide-open apartment with side and front balconies that let in tons of natural sun light. She noticed there were no photos, knickknacks, or floral arrangements—nothing personal to indicate what the person was like who lived there.
“Isabella, could you give me a couple minutes to make a personal call?”
“Sure, go ahead,” she said with some reluctance. “I’d still like to get my daily run in before it gets too late, so I don’t want to stay too long.”
After Amanda disappeared down a short hallway and closed the door behind her, Isabella wandered around the beautifully decorated room, realizing how little she really knew about this woman. She began to have a gnawing feeling in the pit of her stomach.
She had met Amanda at the gym across the street from the elementary school where she worked as a second-grade teacher. They had joined at about the same time and attended the same sessions. They had become supportive of each other’s efforts and the accountability that came along with working out regularly. They got along great right from the start and had become close friends. They’d gone out for dinner together, went to a movie, but Amanda had never invited Isabella to her home. This was her first visit, although Amanda had been to her tiny apartment many times. Thinking about it now, she thought their relationship was odd.
Although she had to admit that, during the time they had spent together, she had done most of the talking. Amanda simply asked her a question and she blabbed the hours away, confiding in her about her breakup with Michael.
Isabella’s stomach growled. She began fidgeting, folding and unfolding her arms.
She turned down the hall toward the room into which Amanda had gone. She paced in front of the door, wondering if she should knock.
“Amanda, wha... what’s taking so long?”
When she didn’t get a response, she pounded on the door and called out, “Amanda!” much louder.
“I’ll be right out, Isabella. Just give me a sec. I’m calling Joe about the pizza,” Amanda said with annoyance in her voice.
Isabella’s fists clenched, and anger and dread filled her chest. What kind of game is she playing with me? Who’s this Joe, and why is she calling him about pizza? This is supposed to be a girls’ night, so where are all the other girls I’m supposed to meet? Why is she acting so secretive and weird now? She had always been so kind and considerate to me.
“So much for being nice,” she muttered. “I’m done playing games.”
She let her animosity get the best of her. Standing firm with her feet apart and her hands on her hips, she bellowed, “Amanda! How long does it take to order a pizza, for heaven’s sake? Did you order the pizza or not?”
Amanda finally opened the door and sauntered into the small living area, with a cat-who-swallowed-the-canary smirk on her face.
“Amanda, I’m outta here. I need to get home and get my run in, so I’ll see yo—”
“No, no, you can’t go yet. You have to stay. The pizza will be here any minute. Please, I insist.”
Isabella wanted to forget the pizza and leave right away. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. Amanda wasn’t normal. She could see it, feel it, and she wasn’t comfortable anymore. But she was torn. She wanted to see it through and not hurt Amanda’s feelings by leaving without eating, so she acquiesced. “Well, okay, but just long enough for a slice of pizza. Then, I really need to go.”
“Sure that’s okay, I understand,” Amanda said, her gaze darting around the room.
“Do you want a beer or something else to drink?”
“No, I’m good, but thanks anyway.”
There was a quick knock at the door. The door opened and the smell of pizza filled the room with a mixture of baked cheese, Italian spices, and a man’s cologne. The man who had brought the pizza was tall and rangy, wearing a sports coat over his T-shirt and jeans. His face was attractive yet rugged. In fact, Isabella had never seen anyone look so rough. His nose sat crooked on his face, indicating that he was obviously a scrapper. In general, he gave Isabella the creeps.
“Isabella, this is Joe Sneed, a good friend of mine,” Amanda said as she took the box of pizza from him and put it on the table.
With his dark eyes, he stared blankly at Amanda for a moment. Then, quickly, he nodded in greeting as he tied his thick, black shoulder-length hair back in a ponytail. His reaction to her was as immature as one of her second-grade students.
“Hi, Joe. Nice to meet you.” Isabella nodded at him, ran her fingers through her hair, and looked away as she straightened the wrinkles in the front of her slacks.
“Want a beer, missy? It’s cold.” Joe licked his lips and grinned wide, revealing yellowed, decaying teeth.
His beady eyes traveled lecherously up and down her body. With his yellow fingernails and teeth, he could be a poster child for the effects of long term smoking.
“No thanks. I’ll just have some water.” Her hands were shaking as she turned away from him and grabbed a slice of pizza on her way back to the couch. Amanda handed her a glass of water, and after a few sips and a couple more bites of the pizza, she was finished eating. She sat on the couch waiting for the right opportunity to make her getaway, say her good nights, and get the hell out of there.
Edgy and impatient, getting more eager to leave by the minute, Isabella squinted at her watch. She groaned inwardly. It’s early. I can still get my run in if I leave soon. She yawned. Her face flushed, and her eyelids began to droop. Why am I so tired?
She felt so dizzy.
The room began to spin in front of her.
Hoping to clear her head, she leaned back on the sofa and closed her eyes.
She woke up groggy, her eyelids heavy, hard to keep open. Amanda’s face loomed above her as if from inside a fish bowl. Her words were muffled. Isabella giggled. Something about Amanda’s voice reminded her of how the adults spoke on a ‘Charlie Brown’ show she once saw: “Wah, wah, wah, wah.”
“Isabella, please, let Joe drive you home. It’s gotten late, and you’re too sleepy to drive. I’m afraid you’ll fall asleep or get lost in my neighborhood. In fact, I insist.”
Isabella hesitated, cleared her throat. Thinking about a drive home with creepy Joe made her uneasy, especially since her arms and legs felt like jelly. She struggled to keep her eyes open and was too weak to argue.
Joe half carried her out of the house and placed her in his van.
“What’s your address, missy?” he asked as he backed the van out onto the street.
When she tried to reply, her tongue was tied in knots, swollen in her dry mouth. She licked her rough lips, attempted to swallow, and tried again to form words she didn’t know if he would understand.
“I’ll have you there in no time.” He smiled. “Just sit back and relax.”
His words dripped with reassurance.
* * * *
The van had stopped moving.
Isabella’s heavy eyes fluttered open. She tried to take a deep breath and coughed. Stale cigarette smoke, dust, and old-car smell filled her nostrils. She tried to move her arms and legs, but they were stiff and felt weighted down. Rubbing her eyes, she tried to remember. She had a brief recollection of something about a man helping her into his van to take her home.
She blinked her eyes open, and she squinted, trying to bring her surroundings into focus. She attempted to sit up, swallowing to keep down the rising bile. Turning her head to look out the window, she didn’t recognize the railroad tracks or the blinking red vacancy sign of an old, oddly named motel. Not my neighborhood, that’s for sure.
She sank back into the seat and closed her eyes surrendering to the black clouds swirling behind her eyes. Where the hell am I?
Her head felt enormous and her vision was blurred as Joe half led, half dragged her up the porch steps to a two or three-story house with two dark blue doors, one on each side. Or maybe she was seeing double, she couldn’t be sure.
He guided her through the door on the left and pushed her down onto a small bed. The mattress smelled sour and a spring poked at her hip. She concentrated on lying still, trying to stop the room from spinning. She blinked her eyes and probed at her surroundings, glimpsing the bare outline of three or four single beds in a small room, no night tables or lamps. When her attention settled on Joe sitting in a chair beside the bed, she tried to sit up, but he shoved her back down, his burly, hairy arm stretched across her chest, restraining her.
“What are you doing? Get your filthy hands off me,” she screamed, slurring her words, fighting against him with her arms. “Where am I?”
Joe snarled. “Just shut up an’ don’t give me any trouble. I’ve got a job to do, and I’m gonna make sure it gets done right. You got that? Now drink this.”
He pressed her head back against the pillow, cramming a bottle into her mouth, forcing her to swallow a few sips of foul-tasting soda. She had to swallow or choke. Some ran down her chin dripping onto her clothes. Soon the heaviness signaled the onslaught of black oblivion.