I had to find it. It had to be here somewhere, anywhere. It had to exist. I shoved my way past the crowds of people all walking in the opposite direction. I might as well have been a salmon swimming up a stream. If only they knew what was really going on. Maybe then they'd move. If I didn't have on my hat and sunglasses, if they recognized me as the guy on the news. They would leap out of my way then, wouldn't think twice about it. Probably would've called the police.
The tape said to go to Crescent Boulevard and look for the store with a sign in the window but all of the stores had signs. 'Help Wanted,' 'Big Sale,' 'Grand Opening.' I highly doubted one of them was going to say "Come in here if you're being blackmailed." That would just've been way too easy. I had absolutely no idea what I was looking for and I was running out of time.
There was finally a break in the crowd, some room for me to breathe. Up ahead the road ended so I must've already passed it. Maybe I missed something on the other side of the street. So I doubled back, and there I saw it. A storefront with the lights off inside. Nothing special about it, no one would stop to look at it except me. A piece of cardboard was leaned up against the window with the words 'VHS TAPES FOR SALE' written on it in sharpie. That had to be it; otherwise it'd be too much of a coincidence.
A VHS tape what started this whole thing, set me on this journey. I ad come home from work to find my front door unlocked and a VHS tape lying on the coffee table with a post-it reading "watch me" stuck to it. One it was a man dressed in black explaining my situation to me. The police were after me for murdering some guy because of planted evidence linking me to the crime. He told me if I did what he said, he would clear my name. He told me he also took my wife to keep me in check.
I sprinted out into the street not even waiting for the traffic to stop. The cars honked at me but I dodged them and made it to the other side unharmed. First I had jiggled the front door, I mean I had to at least try, but it was locked. I thought about breaking the window right then and there but that would've caused too much attention. I knew this wouldn't be the only task and I couldn't afford having the police onto me already.
Around back I found a second door propped open by a cement block. Another sign I was in the right place. I took my time opening the door and getting inside, just to make sure it wasn't some kind of trap. Then right there in the back room was an old TV like the kind that used to be wheeled around into classrooms at school. It was already on and displayed the creepy "white noise" screen. Underneath it sat a tape on top of a VCR.
There was no point delaying the inevitable so I popped the tape in and waited for it to play. A man in a ski mask appeared on the screen. The same one from the other tape I could only assume.
"Good. I'm glad you decided to take on the challenge." The voice came over the speakers. Not like he had given me much of a choice. If it was this or go straight to jail, I figured I might as well go down fighting. "Your first task is to break the law. Prove that you wont let anything get in the way of saving your wife." This guy had to be kidding me. Going through all this trouble just to make me break the law? "You're going to need money. Five grand should about cover it. And I'll let you get creative on this one, hold up a bank, rob a store, steal the purse off a little old lady. Simple enough." Simple, sure. But I had to do it. I couldn't just leave Caroline alone with that guy. "Once you have the money, get on bus 37 and get off at the fourth stop. You'll find your next task there. You have until seven o'clock tonight."
The tape cut out. I looked down at my watch. Three o'clock. How am I supposed to get five thousand dollars in four hours? While being hunted by the police on top of that. I had to weigh my options. Going through any legal routes would be too risky; he had made sure of that. Being the city's most wanted didn't make stopping by the nearest bank entirely possible. And using my ATM card would leave a paper trail, even if I had that much money just lying around.
Robbing a bank was out of the question. From what I'd learned through watching movies, bank heists require ample planning and more time that I had. And I doubted any single store in this area would have so much money sitting in the till. Plus now a days, most people used credit cards.
There is where I found my answer. I might not have had access to my own cards, but I could to others. I hustled out of the building and made sure to blend back into the crowd on the street. The key was to find someone that looked like they would have some extra money they wouldn't necessarily miss. In the whole town here were probably only a handful of people that fit that description. I just had to find them.
A group of college students rushed by; between all of them I probably wouldn't have even gotten half of what I needed. Trying to avoid them I hit into a woman dressed in designer clothes. She looked so out of place and uncomfortable in this part of town. People like me at this point were probably why. Her purse fell to the ground besides me and her phone flew in the other direction. I quickly bend down for the bag. I apologized profusely. She said it was fine and turned to get her phone.
With the speed of a viper, I snaked my hand into the bag and slid out a credit card. It was almost too easy. I handed her back the purse and she walked away none the wiser. I headed for an ATM I knew to be close by. In all this mess I had failed to see the major flaw in my plan. I had no pin number and no idea how to bypass that stage of money withdrawal. I was going to have to start using my brain if I was going to complete these tasks.
I couldn't think of anything else to do. The only thing that came to mind was to go store to store trying to add up enough money. If I went into some other parts of town I'd have access to some bigger stores. Plus, spreading out the stores might keep me from getting caught. I scoped out the different stores on the Boulevard. I figured the small liquor store would have the most money sitting in the register so I decided to give it a try.
When I was younger I had thought about stealing the odd piece of candy when my parents weren't looking, but had never gone through with it. This was not something I had confidence in myself to do but in the face of danger I had hoped I would manage. I crept though the front door to find the only worked standing directly behind the register. He asked me if I needed help and I turned him down. I always hated when workers would stare at me like I was about to steal something when I obviously wasn't. Now that stealing had been my intention, I hated it so much more.
I walked down the aisle trying to come up with a plan. I could've hit him over the head with a bottle and hoped he got knocked out. Or I could've pretended to have a gun and gotten him to hand over the money himself. But in those two cases he could have tried to play hero and overpowered me, and that would've been the end of it. I was just about ready to walk out of the store and figure something else out when another customer came in. She greeted the worker like they were old friends and brought him over to one of the shelves pointing at the wine bottles. I took it as a sign. I snuck behind the counter and pressed a button on the register. It popped open and I grabbed all the cash.
It wasn't much. Definitely not enough to move on, but it was a start. I hoped the ease I had here was a sign of what was to come. That I would be able to gather all the money and breeze though the other tasks so I could save Caroline and put all this behind us. Keeping my face as covered as well as I could, I made my way around town and into different stores. There were a few complications, I had to walk out of a couple places empty handed, but by 6:30 I had the money.
I got to the bus stop just in time to get on number 37. I counted four stops and then got off. I couldn't believe where it had dropped me. Just about the last place I should've and wanted to have been at—the carnival put on by the police every year. The whole park was swarming with them, most in uniform and I was sure some not. And they all knew my face. I held my backpack with the money a little tighter on my back. This was a place anything could happen and where I had to search for the next task.
Right before the entrance to the carnival, I noticed a white piece of paper pinned to one of the trees in the woods. That had to be it. It just looked so out of place. At least I didn't have to go into the carnival itself to search around, that would've been asking for trouble. But I thought too soon.
I picked up the card off the tree and read the meticulously hand printed writing. It said:
"Are you prepared to risk your freedom for what you love? Take the money into the carnival and find the dunk tank. There will be a man waiting there for you with a package. Give him the money and you'll be one step closer. Don't get caught."
I knew going into this carnival would be a huge risk. My picture was posted up in all the police stations and was played on repeat on the local news, maybe even national; I hadn't had a chance to catch up on current affairs. The sun was going down but I had to keep my sunglasses on, though either way I was going to stand out like a sore thumb. I just had to risk it.
I made it all the way to the dunk tank without a problem. I found the guy and exchanged our "goods." He handed me a medium sized box without a word. He was extremely sketchy looking but I figured that was the company one kept when making illegal dealings. I took the package over to a picnic table in the corner that was away from all the people so I could see what was inside. With no other direction I could only assume that I had to open it. The anticipation was almost too much to handle. What kind of object would cost me five thousand dollars and have to do with this insane form of blackmail?
I pulled back the lid to find a gun, cell phone, and note card. A gun? Seriously? This escalated way too quickly. I don't know if I will be able to handle this. I wondered what could he have had in mind for me? I picked up the note card and shut the box as quickly as I could glancing around nervously to make sure no one had seen what was inside. The card read:
"To complete this task you must commit to the cause. Take the items I have given you and go to the bleachers by the baseball field. Find a spot with a good view of the whole carnival. Wait for further instructions."
I didn't like the sound of this. Nothing good could come out of carrying a gun to a location with a good vantage point. I shoved the gun into the waist of my pants, the phone into my pocket, and obeyed the instructions anyway. I wasn't sure what to do with the box, fingerprints and all, but there wasn't exactly anywhere I could incinerate it at a carnival. It was just an ordinary box anyway, no one should think twice about it.
At the top of the bleachers I could see everything. There were a few people scattered around me, mostly towards the bottom, eating their horrible carnival food. I hoped that no matter what I was going to have to do they would all be able to get away quickly. It felt like I had waited up there for at least an hour but maybe time only felt that way because of all the possibilities running through my mind. If I had to shoot someone from way up there would I have had enough time to get down before getting caught? Would I have even had it in me to kill another person in the first place? This could all have been some kind of scheme to get me to actually commit the crime I was being wrongly convicted for in the first place. None of it made any sense at all. But I couldn't take any chances, not with Caroline being held up somewhere. The cell phone in my pocket finally rang. Took this guy long enough.
"Turn to your left." I obeyed all while thinking about the clue he had just given. He could see me. He had to be someplace close. I wasn't sure if this was a good or bad thing or what I could even do with the information but at least I had it. "See the group of policemen standing near the ferris wheel?" He paused so I assumed he wanted confirmation.
"Yes." There were five of them, all standing around in their uniforms. I recognized the one as the guy I had seen through the window of my house when they had come to arrest me.
"Take 'em out." I cringed. I couldn't do it, especially with all the other people running around down there. I had never shot a gun before in my life, the chances of me missing and hitting someone else was incredibly high.
"I can't." I murmured into the phone.
"Do you want to hear your wife die? You want to be responsible for that? Cause I can make it happen." I shook my head unable to say anything. No one should have to make a decision like this. "Now pull out the damn gun." I reached behind me and grabbed it. "You're not going to have much time. Just point and shoot." I held it out in front of me. Tears were forming in my eyes as I tried to aim the best I could at my first target. They were just so far away. Why did they have to be so far? "Shoot!" The voice slashed through my thoughts. I cringed and closed my eyes, anything to save her. I pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. I had neglected to switch off the safety.
Things after that happened so fast. One of the people below on the bleachers had noticed my gun and shouted for the police. A pack of them were after me in a heartbeat. The voice on the other end of the line told me to run, so I sprinted down the bleachers and away from the carnival as fast as I could get my legs to move. I couldn't turn my nagging thoughts off. You ruined it. You couldn't save Caroline. You couldn't save yourself. It was over. But I wasn't prepared for that. It couldn't be over. I was going to shoot, to risk it all.
"You failed to complete the task." I was already starting to get out of breath but I was going to finish this conversation.
"I was ready to do it. I risked my freedom now you give me my wife or the next task right fucking now." There was a long pause. I took a second to glance back behind me. Two officers were running on foot and the lights from police cars could be seen in the distance. I didn't have high hopes this would end well.
"Go to the old shoe warehouse on tenth. Further instructions will be waiting for you there. Make sure you lose your tail." The line went dead. Perfect. I still had some hope. And this next task should be my last. I could've sworn he mentioned three in his first video. All I had to do was lose the police trailing behind me, which shouldn't've been too difficult considering we were coming up on the woods that I knew as well as the back of my hand after spending my teenage years exploring them. There were caves and dead ends and a cliff at the edge. It was exactly what I needed. They would have to follow on foot too with the number of trees in there.
Ten minutes into the woods I found a cave to hid in. I knew that if I had to, I could sneak out the exit at the back of the cave. I waited in there for some time and watched as the police ran by with their flashlights. At one point, one of them crept into the cave and stood five feet in front of me. I thought it was the end, I was sure of it. I backed up to try and press myself against the wall, instead, my foot hit into a rock causing me to stumble backwards onto the ground. I landed in a small ditch between where I had been standing and the cave wall. My head smashed onto the floor.
"What was that?" An officer at the entrance of the cave yelled. The officer by me shined his flashlight in my direction.
"Rock must've fallen, I don't see anything." My muscles relaxed. They had no idea how close they had come. The bump on my head was starting to take its toll. Sound started to get all fuzzy and my ears felt as if they were swollen. I tried to keep my gaze towards the searching cops but I was starting to see stars. I tried blinking them away, tried to clear my mind, but nothing worked. After a few seconds I blacked out.
When I woke up I was completely alone, I made sure of that. According to my watch, I guessed I had been out cold for close to an hour. I didn't think I had a time limit on getting to the warehouse, the guy hadn't said anything, but I didn't want to leave it up to chance. I had already wasted enough time lying unconscious in a cave so I ran the rest of the way to the warehouse.
The street around the warehouse was empty. I looked around for signs of police or the guy doing this to me. I didn't find anything. It didn't seem like a set up. At least I hoped not. And with the seclusion there was very little chance I was going to be forced to kill someone else, unless they were tied up inside. I couldn't imagine what the guy had in store for me next. What could be bigger than shooting a bunch of cops? Maybe some kind of explosion or something. I couldn't help myself from thinking that if I managed to survive all this, my "adventure" would make quite the movie.
Inside the warehouse, there was another note sitting on a table along with a pair of handcuffs. All it read was:
"Cuff yourself to the pipe and sit down."
This could not be good. Maybe because I had failed, they were going to kill me—burn down the warehouse with me trapped inside. Or maybe they were going to call the cops and let them know my exact location—just a ploy to collect the reward money that must've been growing on my head.
The door opened. This was it. Whoever walked through that door would give me my answer. Good or bad. But which was which? The thought was kind of ironic. As the bad guy, if the police walked in, the usual "good guys," it was bad news for me. This whole thing was just too complicated.
A man dressed in black, the one from the videos, stormed in dragging a blindfolded Caroline behind him. I thanked God she was still safe. This proof would get me through anything that would follow. The guy shoved her down into a chair and warned her not to say anything. I wanted to call out to her, to tell her I was there, that I was doing everything I could to keep her safe, but I knew it wouldn't be a good idea.
He then turned to me and walked over.
"Where's the gun?" That's right, the gun, I had almost forgotten. I could probably have grabbed it if I had maneuvered just right. He didn't look to be carrying any weapon himself. I could've shot him; got out of those cuffs, and saved my wife. "Don't try anything stupid." He waved at the door. Three men carrying large guns emerged pointing their weapons at Caroline. "Put it on the table."
I struggled to get the gun out. I couldn't understand why he wouldn't just take it from me himself. "Now your third and final task is the most important. Your wife's life is at stake. Do this and I will set her free and clear your name of the murder charges. Not sure what I will be able to do about the carnival fiasco though, that was all on you." Almost done then. I was so close. "Now pick up that gun and take your own life so you can know what it is like to lose everything." Caroline let out a scream. How did we get ourselves into this mess? I should have seen it from the beginning. Something like this would never have a happy ending. Not really. I could hear Caroline pleading with me not to do it. Telling me that there was no guarantee they would even do what they said. But I had to at least give it a try didn't I? My life was a small price to pay for hers. I didn't see any other option. I was totally under his control. But first I needed to know why. Why me?
"Fine. I'll do it. But first I want an explanation." He had the nerve to laugh at me. He had my life line wrapped around his fat fingers and still felt the need to wind it a little tighter.
"You really haven't figured it out yet? No guesses as to who I am? Think about it, Stan. How many lives have you ruined lately?" As soon as he said that, I knew exactly who he was. He was right; I probably should have been able to figure it out.
"It was an accident." It's not like I had been drunk at the time. The roads were icy. No one should have been out there driving in the first place, but for some reason the two of us were.
"It was as much an accident as all this." He pulled off his ski mask to confirm what I already knew. The cuts from the broken windshield were almost completely healed on his face. Some time had passed since the horrible accident, but clearly not enough. I knew he blamed me for his wife's death. My car had skidded into his, causing it to crash into a telephone pole, right on the front passenger side where she had been sitting. I felt horrible. Who wouldn't? And I couldn't blame him for being mad. But all this? This was insane.
"Why all the theatrics? Why not just kill me yourself and get it over with?" He took a minute to answer the question. I wasn't sure if he knew the answer himself.
"I like to play with my food before I eat it." If his wife could see him now. Caroline was silent though all this, trying to get answers like me I would assume. The mood in the room was very strange. Things could go either way at this point. I just had to think of the right thing to say.
"If I could take it all back, I would." Wrong. The guy's body got tense again. His eyes hungered for my blood.
"Hurry up and get this over with, I don't have all day."
"What about Caroline?"
"A life for a life. She means nothing to me. And I'll be gone before she can contact the police. Now grab the gun." I grabbed it off the table with my hand. The metal was still warm from my body heat. He reminded me to switch off the safety this time. I did. I brought the gun up and pressed the barrel against the side of my head. I could only hope that he would stop me because I was going all the way. I would save her. Caroline's pleas filled the room but she would be better off this way. Hopefully they would really do what they said they were doing to do. I closed my eyes and prayed. What happened next would be a mystery.