Police officer Tom Keller ran a hand over his face, picked up the convenience-store coffee cup in his cup holder, and took a sip. The coffee hadn’t been great to begin with, mediocre at best. And now it was lukewarm, bordering on cold. With a grimace, he put it down and picked up his radio. “Unit 245 to Dispatch. Show us back in service after that last call.”
“Copy, 245. Back in service.” A short pause, then, “Good timing. Respond to 486 Maple Street, approximately four miles from your current location. Caller reports hearing possible suspicious activity in an empty warehouse building.”
“Any further details?”
“Caller says they possibly heard glass breaking, and noises that sounded like something moving or falling down.”
His partner, Officer Nick Snyder, raised an eyebrow. “Could be anything.”
“Copy, Dispatch. Show us en route.” Keller put his seatbelt back on, put the car in gear, and headed towards the designated location.
The car pulled to a stop in front of a large brick building. The parking lot and street were dark and quiet, with the exception of a few fallen leaves skittering across the pavement in the wind. The light posts on either end of the parking lot were dark, their bulbs either broken, burned out, or entirely gone. The windows that the two officers could see were boarded up.
“Unit 245 to Dispatch. We’re on scene,” Keller reported. “From the front, first impression, it’s all quiet. We’re heading in to take a look.” He glanced at Snyder. “You want to split – actually, scratch that. With how big this place is, I don’t want to get separated. Stay together.”
“Fine by me.” Snyder eyed their surroundings. “This place looks like ground zero for the start of the freaking zombie apocalypse or something.”
Both officers drew their pistols, gripped a flashlight in their other hand, and headed across the parking lot towards the building.
Keller tugged at the knob of the heavy metal door in front of them. “No access here. Locked.” They continued around the side of the building to the back, weapons at the ready, scanning their surroundings for any sign of a threat.
Snyder aimed his flashlight down at a basement-level window, just below knee height for the two of them. “Broken glass,” he murmured. “Somebody or something broke through that.”
Keller crouched down to peer through the window. “That’s ceiling height in the basement. Hell of a hard drop to the floor, and I don’t see a ladder. Doesn’t look like an entry point.”
Snyder approached the building’s rear door, and flashed Keller a triumphant thumbs-up. “Bingo. Lock’s busted. Only looks like it’s secure. This door’s open.”
They stepped through the door, and Keller stifled a curse as he nearly lost his balance at the top of a flight of concrete stairs. He grabbed for the hand rail, adjusted his position on the step, and made his way down with Snyder behind him.
Keller shined his flashlight around their surroundings, inspecting the large open room with a few haphazard pieces of old broken furniture and some random trash. He identified two doorways at opposite ends of the room. “Counter-clockwise. We’ll take the right side first,” he murmured, barely moving his lips. A faint sound reached his ears. He cocked his head. “You hear that?”
Snyder nodded. “I’m telling you, ghosts or zombies,” he replied in Keller’s ear. He grew serious again, listening, as the sound came again. “Over there. Left side.”
“Okay, then, left side first.”
They moved across the room, bypassing the scattered debris and trash, heading for the left-side door.
“Movement!” Snyder snapped as his flashlight beam lit up the room in front of them. “Police! Show me your – holy shit,” he exclaimed.
Both officers stared at the sight in front of them. A young man lay on the dusty concrete floor, his hands secured with silver duct tape, and a strip of duct tape plastered over his mouth.
“Holy shit,” Keller echoed. “You watch my six, I’ll get him,” he ordered as he holstered his pistol and reached for his tactical knife. Snyder positioned himself by the doorway, pistol at the ready, watching and listening for any sign of other people’s presence.
A muffled sound somewhere between a moan and a whimper escaped from behind the duct tape over the man’s mouth. Keller crouched down next to him. “Hey, buddy, look at me. You with me?” Head turned towards the sound of his voice. Long, matted dark blond hair was damp with sweat. Keller gently brushed back the strands that were plastered to the young man’s forehead. One red-rimmed and bloodshot hazel eye squinted vaguely at him. The other eye was severely bruised and swollen shut.
“I’ve got you, buddy.” As gently as possible, Keller peeled the strip of tape off of the young man’s mouth. “Can you look at me? Are you with me? That’s Officer Nick Snyder over there, and my name’s Officer Tom Keller.”
He wordlessly mouthed something, swallowed, licked his chapped lips, and tried again. His voice was a hoarse croak. “Wh-why?”
“Why is my name Keller?”
“N-no… Why are you… h-here…?”
“We got called here to check out this building. Why are you here?” Keller flicked open his tactical knife. “I’m going to cut the tape on your hands. You won’t try to fight me? Or run away?”
He exhaled, a sharp sound that might have been a laugh. “Hurts to move.”
“Okay, then.” Keller sawed through the thick rope of tape, and carefully peeled the sticky mass off of the young man’s wrists. Then he noticed that both hands were slick with blood and covered in multiple cuts of varying sizes. “Jesus. What happened here?”
The young man rolled his head towards a window – the broken one that they had seen from above, Keller now realized. Beneath it was a rickety table, and on the floor by the table was a flimsy plastic chair tipped over on its side, with two legs snapped off. Neither item looked capable of holding any weight. His words came in short, pained spurts. “Climbed up there. Punched out the window, sliced up my hands. Chair broke. I fell.”
“Who are you? What’s your name?”
“Josh. Joshua…” He cleared his throat. “J-Joshua Nichols.”
Snyder’s head practically spun around backwards like a cartoon character as he whirled towards them. Keller’s head jerked up as his heart skipped a beat. “Joshua Nichols? Did you say your name is Joshua Nichols?” A nod. Keller’s mind raced as he locked eyes with Snyder. Two months ago, shortly before his nineteenth birthday, Joshua Nichols had finished working an evening shift at the local pizza shop in a small town. At the end of his shift, he went outside to the alley to throw trash bags in the Dumpster. Surveillance camera footage captured an unidentified man coming out of the darkness, approaching him, and speaking with him. Footage from two other cameras showed him climbing into the backseat of a black car, and the car driving away. Then it disappeared from view and vanished into the night. The car had been found a day and a half later, abandoned. Joshua Nichols had disappeared without a trace. Until now.
Snyder held up his cell phone, displaying one of the photos that had been used in the missing persons’ file. Keller took the phone and held it next to the young man’s face. “Face has definitely been banged up, but far from unrecognizable. It’s him.” He shook his head in disbelief.
“Where am I?” Joshua croaked.
The officers exchanged glances. “You’re near Chicago,” Snyder informed him.
The young man’s mouth dropped open in shock. “How the hell did I get here?”
“That’s what we’d like to know,” Keller replied dryly. “How long have you been here?”
“Here in this place? Don’t know, a week maybe? They’ve moved me around a few times.” Joshua squinted. “What’s today’s date? How long has it been since I was… that night…?” When Snyder told him, Joshua blinked in surprise. “Two months? Feels like forever.”
He thought about the events that had led to this moment – insanity – as he stared at the two officers in front of him. The one called Snyder was younger, slender and trim, with green eyes and slightly messy light blond hair. Keller was the older of the pair, well-built, muscular, with dark brown hair and hazel eyes.
His gaze traveled over them. Kind eyes. Concerned faces. Alert eyes, scanning for any sign of danger. Tense postures, ready to spring into action. Pistols. Protection. Maybe the insanity was over and he was safe now.
Snyder took his phone back, and Keller approached Joshua again. “Request immediate medical – no, scratch that,” Keller corrected as he thought about their location. “We’re closer to the hospital. We’ll get there faster than EMS will get to us. We’ll take him in. Notify them and Dispatch that we’re coming in.”
The young man had curled into a fetal position and rolled onto his left side. For one heart-stopping moment, Keller thought the filthy pillow under his head was splattered with blood. Then he realized that it was a couch cushion, covered in a pattern of ugly large red flowers. “Josh, I’m going to pick you up now, okay? We’ll carry you out of here. We’re going to take you to the hospital.”
“Don’t like doctors. Never have,” he muttered. He turned his head to look in Keller’s direction. “Don’t let them hurt me.”
“Nobody will hurt you,” Keller soothed. “They’re going to check you over from head to toe and get you all taken care of. A whole bunch of poking and prodding and questions. It’s not the most fun time, I know, but they’ll take good care of you.”
He slid his arms around the young man’s slender frame and carefully lifted him off of the floor. His whole body tensed, and a sharp cry of pain escaped his lips. Keller cringed, murmuring apologies as he stood up and adjusted Josh’s position in his arms. “Sorry, sorry, sorry. There you go. I’ve got you.”
Snyder led the way, his flashlight illuminating their path, as Keller tenderly carried his wounded cargo out of the dark room, up the stairs, and outside to the waiting patrol car. “Can’t reach my keys. Right shirt pocket,” Keller informed his partner. “You drive. I’ll ride in back with him.” He held still as Snyder unbuttoned the pocket and withdrew the keys. As Snyder climbed into the driver’s seat, picked up the radio and checked in with Dispatch, informing them of developments, Keller gently laid Josh down across the backseat and climbed in after him. With the wounded young man’s head and upper body lying across his lap, Keller awkwardly fastened seatbelts around them both.
Snyder flipped on the lights and siren and pulled away from the building, racing towards the hospital.
As they sped through the streets, Keller looked down at Josh. “Can you tell me more about what happened? How you ended up in there? We were sent there because somebody heard glass breaking and some noises, thought somebody was breaking in, and called 911. Then we find you in there, broken furniture, broken window, and you bleeding and taped up.”
Josh drew in a shuddering breath. His voice was hoarse, rough, and laced with pain. “I met this guy online a few months ago. His name is Sam – at least, that’s what he told me. He was good-looking, nice, and we hit it off. We made plans to meet up. It was a little while before my birthday. I hauled a bunch of trash out to the alley at the end of my shift, and while I was tossing bags in the Dumpsters, he showed up. We left, and he took me back to his apartment. We had only been there for about five minutes when his buddy – friend, roommate, I don’t know – showed up. His name is Rick – I have no idea if that’s really his name, probably not. He was creepy as hell, like obsessed with me. Some fantasy or something. He kept calling me ‘pretty’ and saying a bunch of other stuff. He hit me really hard at some point, and I blacked out. And I’ve been with psycho Rick ever since. When I came to after he hit me, I was in another tiny apartment. We’ve moved since then,” he added. “That apartment, a house, a cabin way off in the middle of nowhere, and now here – wherever this place is. Rick is fucking crazy. It looks like this was all his idea, he’s the one in charge, and Sam went along with it to keep him happy. They… um… did stuff to me.”
“What kind of ‘stuff’? Sexual?”
Josh nodded. A street light flashed across his face as they drove past it, and Keller could see that he was blushing fiercely. “Yeah. Both of them. I hated some of it… but I-I… liked it too,” he blurted out. “I never liked Rick. He wasn’t nice. But Sam… the things he did, he always made it feel good. And he was nice. I didn’t want to be there, and I didn’t want to like it, but it felt good. It felt really good, I liked it, and I-I wanted it. Maybe there’s something wrong with me.” The words tumbled over one another, his voice hoarse and trembling, on the verge of tears.
“No.” Keller said it so sharply that Josh flinched. “Listen to me. You have nothing to be ashamed of, and there’s nothing wrong with you.” He cleared his throat. “Sex is supposed to feel good. That’s normal. And it’s natural for your body to react to something that feels good. Do you hear me? You did nothing wrong, and there’s nothing wrong with you. Understand?” Josh managed a nod.
Keller left it at that. Everything else – sexual experiences, options, and pleasure – was for the young man to explore on his own.
“So Sam was good to you,” Keller continued. “What about Rick? He did this to you?”
Josh nodded. “Yeah. No matter how nice Sam was to me, I had to get away from Rick. I tried other times before tonight, but didn’t make it. Sam left yesterday some time, I don’t know why. This,” – motioning to his injuries – “happened earlier today. From Rick. This time he took it farther than before. Then he left too. He figured I wasn’t in good enough shape to try to get out again, so he just taped up my hands, taped my mouth, and left. It took a really long time, but I found that stupid flimsy chair down there, put it on the stupid table – that thing is old and weak enough that it looks like it would collapse if you breathe on it wrong, so I guess that’s why Rick never cared that it was there – and climbed up on it. Took forever and hurt like hell, but I did it. I broke the window and was trying to decide whether to scream my head off or go for it and try to climb out, when the damn chair broke and I fell back down. Banged myself up too much to move. Then you showed up.”
“Here we are,” Snyder announced from the front seat as the car turned into the hospital parking lot. “ER’s been notified and is waiting for us.”
Keller heard Josh swallow hard. “I hate this,” he mumbled again. He didn’t outright say 'I’m scared', but Keller knew that was exactly what he meant.
“Remember what I said earlier,” Keller said gently. “It’s just a physical exam. Poking, prodding, and questions. Nobody’s favorite thing, not the most fun or pleasant, but you’ll be okay. They’ll check you out, and then they’ll get you taken care of.”
“I know I’m not a kid, but… I-I don’t want to be alone.”
“One of us will stay with you if you want.”
He nodded shakily. “Okay.”
“Okay, then. Let’s go.”
Keller had to wait for Snyder to open the back door for him. He carefully gathered Josh into his arms again, wincing and murmuring apologies when the young man cried out in pain like he had done before. The three of them headed towards the ER.
A male nurse met them in the doorway and led them into a room that was ready and waiting. “Bring him in here.”
“Nineteen-year-old male, assault victim, multiple injuries. His name is Josh,” Keller informed him as he gently laid the young man down on the bed.
“Hi, Josh. My name’s Marcus. Nice to meet you. Wish it was under better circumstances, though.” The nurse smiled at him. He was a tall, muscular black man with warm brown eyes and a kind smile. “We’re going to take good care of you.”
“Where are you from?” Josh blurted out, noticing the man’s accent. His voice had a lyrical lilt to it, almost soothing in a way.
“Texas, of course, can’t you tell?” Marcus quipped. Josh breathed a laugh, and Keller chuckled. Marcus grinned. “No, actually, I am from Jamaica.”
He rummaged in the cabinet and dropped a folded hospital gown on the bed. “We need you to put this on. How about I stay in here and help you with that? I think I’m probably strong enough to hold you up,” he joked, “and we don’t need you losing your balance and hurting yourself any more than you already are.” Josh nodded silently.
“We’ll step out while you two do that,” Keller said. He and Snyder ducked out of the room and pulled the door closed behind them. “I’ll stay here with him,” Keller said quietly. “We need to track down his family and have local PD notify them. You can handle the notification while I take care of stuff here.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
A few minutes later, Marcus poked his head out of the room. “You can come back in now.”
Keller stepped into the room. Josh was wearing a blue hospital gown, and Marcus had raised the head of the bed so he could lean against it and sit up. “Do you still want me to stay here?” Keller asked.
Marcus approached the bed. “I’m just going to get a set of vitals on you, buddy. Nothing that will hurt. Temp, blood pressure, all the usual stuff.” He held up the thermometer. “This goes under your tongue. Open for me?” Josh obeyed, and Marcus stuck the thermometer in his mouth. “98.6, normal,” he announced when it beeped. “No fever. That’s good.”
He picked up a blood pressure cuff next. “Just going to give your arm a tight squeeze here. Any preference to which arm?” he added. “Any really sore areas I should avoid?”
“Right arm, please.” Josh held it out.
“You got it.” Marcus strapped the cuff around his bicep and pressed the button to activate it. Josh winced, but didn’t protest. “BP’s a little elevated,” Marcus observed as he read the monitor.
He unhooked the stethoscope from around his neck and pressed it against Josh’s chest. “Nice deep breath for me.”
“My ribs… deep breaths hurt.”
“Okay, got it. As deep of a breath as you comfortably can, then. We’ll take a look at those ribs in a little while.” Marcus gently moved the stethoscope over his chest and back. “Your heart’s just pounding away in there, and BP’s a little elevated too. Are you nervous? Hurting?”
“Both,” Josh managed.
“Not a fan of doctors and hospitals, eh?”
“Nope,” he bit out.
“Understandable. We’re going to make this as least scary as we possibly can for you,” Marcus assured him. “And we’ll get you some medicine for pain in a little while.”
Marcus stepped over to a computer in the corner of the room and quickly typed Josh’s vitals and other information into it. “Do you smoke? Drink?”
“Nope, neither of those.”
“Good. Are you sexually active?”
“It felt good…” “It’s SUPPOSED to. There is nothing wrong with you.” The conversation on the way to the hospital flashed through his mind. Josh blushed. “Um… yes,” he stammered, biting his lip.
Marcus simply nodded, typed something else into the computer, and didn’t press further.
Then he opened a cabinet and collected a handful of supplies. “I’m going to clean your cuts, okay?” He sat down on the edge of the bed, gently took Josh’s chin in his hands, and tilted his head upward, inspecting the cut above his swollen black eye. “I’ll take care of this one first, then your hands. I’ll bandage up the ones on your hands. I promise I’ll be very gentle and try not to hurt you.”
Josh tensed and flinched a few times, but held still as Marcus worked, gently and carefully tending to the wounds. “There,” he said a few minutes later. “We’ll have the doctor take another look later, but they definitely look better now that they’re cleaned up.”
He peeled off his gloves and tossed them in the trash, then turned towards the door. “The doctor should be in soon. You just sit tight for a little while, okay?”
“ ’Kay.” Josh leaned his head back and closed his good eye.
A few minutes later, a woman dressed in blue scrubs entered the room. She was older than Marcus, and Keller’s first impression of her was that she was a kind, motherly figure. Her dark brown hair, pulled back in a ponytail, was lightly streaked with gray. “Josh? My name’s Marie.” She smiled at him as she set a plastic container on the table next to the bed. “I’m here to draw some blood, and start an IV line in your arm.”
The word burst from Josh’s lips so vehemently that it surprised Keller. He leaned forward to look at the young man. “What’s wrong? Did they do something to you? Drug you?”
“No. Nothing like that. I-I just… I really hate needles.” He swallowed hard. “I had a couple of really horrible experiences with needles and doctors and hospitals when I was a kid, and I’ve hated them and been scared of them ever since. The older you get, the less patience anybody has for that, so it just got worse over the years.” He looked back and forth between Marie and her supplies. “I’m sorry, I know it’s stupid, I know I’m being a baby… but please don’t.”
She smiled sympathetically. “It’s not stupid and you’re not being a baby. I understand. But they need blood samples to run some tests, and you need this IV so we can get fluids and meds into you. You’re dehydrated, so we want to get some fluids in you to help with that. And it’s important that you’re comfortable and not in pain.”
Marcus appeared in the doorway behind her. Josh raised an eyebrow. “So that’s how it works? They send in the nice sweet lady to sweet-talk me into letting you stab me with needles, and the big guy to make me comply?”
They both chuckled. “No,” Marcus said. “I just stopped by to check on you and see if you need anything.”
“Some water to drink and meds in pill form so I can skip the whole needle thing?” Josh said dryly. Despite his deliberate effort to keep his tone light, Keller could see the apprehension in his eyes.
Another sympathetic smile from Marie. “Sorry, hon. We’re doing this to help you, not hurt you. I promise I’ll be very gentle.”
Josh shuddered, took a deep breath, and gave a miniscule nod. “Fine. I guess.”
“Once I get the IV started, I should be able to draw the blood that I need right from it,” Marie said as she tied the rubber tourniquet around his left arm. “And we can give meds through the IV, too. So I’ll save you from more poking.”
“Great.” Josh turned his head away from her, looking in Keller’s direction.
“Just hold still for me,” Marie said. “Here’s a big pinch.”
“No – ” One last protest. It was cut off by a sharp gasp and cry as he felt the sting of the needle. His breathing quickened, and he instinctively tried to pull away. “Ow!”
“Shh, I know, I know,” she murmured. Then, a moment later, she clicked her tongue and shook her head. “Sorry, hon. You’re really dehydrated, and your veins are playing hard-to-get. I’m going to have to try again.” That news was almost too much to bear. A stifled whimper escaped Josh’s throat as his good eye squeezed shut.
Marie murmured soothing sounds as she re-tied the tourniquet around his right arm and searched for another vein. Keller grasped his hand, partly as reassurance, and partly to hold him still.
“Here we go. Hold still for me. Take a deep breath and try to relax.” Josh blew out a tiny puff of air that would barely have made a birthday candle flicker. “Again. Deeper. Keep taking deep breaths.” Another breath, this one deeper, but trembling. “There you go. Okay, here’s a stick.” Josh visibly flinched, and another pitiful cry escaped his lips. Keller maintained his grip on Josh’s hand, and gently ran his thumb over it, offering what small comfort he could. “I know, hon. I’m sorry… There!” Marie said triumphantly. “Got it that time. The worst part’s done, I promise,” she assured him. “Now I’m just going to tape this tubing down, draw some blood, and get some fluids hooked up for you.”
Josh deliberately kept his head turned away, not looking at her, as she deftly drew several vials’ worth of blood from the IV line, labeled them, and placed them in her container. When that was done, she positioned a wheeled IV stand next to the bed and hung a bag of clear fluid from it.
“There,” she said with a smile. “Hard part’s over now. Those fluids will help you feel a little better. Once the doctor’s gotten to look at you, he’ll order some pain meds for you.”
She collected her supplies and left the room, pulling the door closed behind her.
“That sucked.” Josh blew out a breath, then glanced sideways at Keller, blushing. “Sorry. I know that was dumb.”
“Not dumb at all. Nobody likes being a pincushion. I hate needles, too.” Keller smiled crookedly. “And since we’re adults, we don’t get stickers and lollipops for letting them stick us.” He was pleased when Josh chuckled at that. “Want me to go ask her if she has any?”
A smirk and another chuckle. “Nah, I’m good.”
“My partner is working on having your family contacted and notified,” Keller said. “They’ll get here as soon as they possibly can, but it’s still going to be a while yet. Until then, I’ll stay in here with you if you want. If you’d rather I go wait outside, just say the word.”
“For now, stay. Please.” Josh cleared his throat. “Having somebody to talk to is keeping me from going crazy or getting bored out of my mind.”
“You got it.” Keller smiled at him.
There was a polite tap at the door, and a man who looked to be in his mid-forties stepped into the room. His short, close-cropped black hair reminded Josh of a military-style haircut. His blue eyes seemed intense, yet kind. “Josh? Hi there. I’m Dr. Jeff McNeil. I’m going to be taking care of you.”
“What are you going to do to me?” he blurted.
The doctor smiled reassuringly. “First, I’ll do a complete physical exam. I’m going to examine you from head to toe, to make sure you’re in good shape. Then I’ll send you for some x-rays – but we have multiple trauma patients from a pretty bad car accident, so Radiology is backed up right now, so the x-rays will wait a little while,” he added. “We’ll make sure you’re comfortable. Okay?” Josh nodded mutely, and the doctor smiled kindly again. “Let’s get started. You’ll be fine. You’re in good hands.”