Henley Johnson had had just a bit too much to drink. She wasn't the only one, of course, and she was not the most intoxicated person in the room by far. But still, as she wobbled around the room, Henley felt it spinning slightly and she had the sudden need to go outside for some fresh air.
Henley and several other 22-year-old former students were celebrating. The UC Berkeley graduation ceremony had been held earlier in the day, and while Henley had been bursting with pride at the ceremony as she received her diploma and listened to the commencement speakers, spending a last few moments, albeit drunk moments, with the friends she had made over the last four years were what really made this day special.
"Henley!" Henley had been making her way to the entrance of the apartment, desperate for just a couple of moments of the cool, night air. At the sound of her friend's voice, however, Henley turned back around.
Alyssa Sanchez, the girl who Henley was paired to room with in their freshman year and who quickly became Henley's best friend, bounded up to her. For those who didn't know Alyssa, she would have appeared wildly drunk with her loud voice and constant bouncing to the music. Henley, however, knew Alyssa, and knew that she had that much energy without a single drop of alcohol in her system. In fact, Henley could tell that Alyssa hadn't had that much to drink tonight at all.
"Where are you going?" Alyssa half-shouted over the music that she was still dancing to.
"Just outside for a bit," Henley made herself heard through all the noise. "I just want a little bit of air. It's hot in here."
Grinning at her friend, Henley took Alyssa's arm and the two girls exited the crowded room and felt the cool, Berkeley air wash over them. "Do you want to walk a little bit?" Henley asked the other girl
Alyssa nodded, and the pair began to walk up the street. The street itself was fairly deserted, but Henley could see lights, sometimes flashing, in almost every apartment as their inhabitants celebrated graduation and the end of the school year.
"I can't believe we're going to be so apart next year," Alyssa pouted.
"It's only half a state," Henley reminded her.
"It's a big state!"
Henley was planning on staying in the Bay Area; she had a job working as an assistant in a book editing and publishing agency. It was a job she had coveted ever since she had decided to major in English with a creative writing minor three years prior. She spent her entire senior year bugging Berkeley English faculty to gain contacts in different editing and publishing agencies across the Bay Area. Henley was pleased at how well it worked out, and beyond excited to start her position there.
Alyssa, on the other hand, had spent a large portion of her senior year working on medical school applications and studying for the MCAT. After moving out from her Berkeley apartment, Alyssa would be moving back home to Los Angeles and attending medical school at UCLA in the fall.
"Well, you'll be much closer to Disneyland," Henley reasoned. "Which just gives me more motivation to drag myself all the way down there to come visit you. So I'm sure I'll be down as frequently as my job allows it."
"It would be fun to do a grad trip there," Alyssa said.
"Remember when we went down for spring break a couple years ago?"
As they continued to wander the residential streets of what was mostly university student occupied apartments, the two girls spent time reminiscing about their time at Berkeley and the travels, mostly to Disneyland, Las Vegas, and Lake Tahoe, that they had done on breaks and long weekends. Henley was beginning to feel more clearheaded as the alcohol passed through her system, and while not entirely sober, she could think straight and was not in any danger of throwing it all up. She was grateful that she hadn't had more to drink than she did; Henley hated throwing up.
"You know, we should probably get back so people don't worry that we disappeared," Alyssa commented. "Henry asked if we would want to go get fries and milkshakes after the party, and I told him we would. He'll be looking for us."
Henry was another one of Henley's friends that she gained in her early days at Berkeley; they had met at Henley's first job of working in an on-campus dining hall.
"What time is it, anyway?"
"Just past midnight."
"Oh." Henley had definitely thought it was much earlier than that. "I'd completely lost track of time, you're right, we should head back."
In an effort to get back to the apartment party in a timely manner, instead of winding back through the neighborhood as they had come, Henley and Alyssa got themselves to a main road that gave them a more direct route. Just as the neighborhood streets had been, the larger road was quiet, and Henley could only distantly hear cars racing on the highway.
Enjoying the relative quiet, Henley and Alyssa walked side by side in a comfortable silence. That was one of Henley's favorite things about her and Alyssa's relationships. They weren't awkward together and felt no pressure to be impressive to each other. They simply appreciated each other's company, even without conversation.
Henley walked a little bit ahead of Alyssa as they approached a red light in order to hit the crosswalk button. There weren't any cars around, but Henley had picked up the habit of never crossing while the light was red from her parents, and it was a habit she had been unable to lose during her time away at school.
"You know," Henley commented, still facing away from Alyssa, "before you move back to Los Angeles, we really should do a few things in this area. We could go to Santa Cruz or something, go to the Boardwalk."
Alyssa didn't respond.
"Alyssa?" Henley turned around to face her friend. Instead, she saw her the other girl lying on the ground.
"Oh my god!" Henley exclaimed. She dashed over to the Alyssa and knelt down beside her. Heart beating wildly in her chest, Henley grabbed Alyssa's hand and pressed two fingers to the wrist. She breathed a sigh of relief when she found a strong, steady pulse. Her friend was only unconscious.
Henley had just begun to wonder whether Alyssa had had more to drink that Henley initially assumed when she felt a pair of strong hands grab her. Panic kicked in and she immediately tried to free herself as those hands worked their away around her body to pin her arms to her side, holding her firm.
A third hand clamped over Henley's mouth just as she had opened it to scream. The scream still came, but it was muffled and Henley tried not to choke on the air that now had nowhere to go.
Henley was only struggling for a few seconds until the van came, but it felt like a life time. When she saw the van, she desperately prayed to herself.
Please, please, please, let that be a third party, she said inside her head. Don't let it be with them, let it be someone else.
Despite her internal pleading, Henley knew that there was no savior coming to her. She also knew that once the men holding her got her into the van, she had no hope at all.
Unfortunately, Henley was outnumbered, and the men holding her were both much larger than she was. Combined with the alcohol still in her system, Henley had little hope to begin with.
The van screeched to a halt in front of Henley, the two men, and the still unconscious Alyssa. The side of it slid open and Henley was dragged to the edge of the curb and unceremoniously shoved into the back. One of the men followed her in; the other got in the passenger's side of the vehicle up front.
As Henley was transferred from the street to the van, she was transferred from one pair of hands to another. There was another man already in the back of the van who had thrown open the door on its approach. In a matter of moments, Henley was in the back of the van with two of her captors, and the so far unseen driver pulled away from the curb, driving Henley to who knows where.
Despite the fact that struggling was futile, Henley still gave the two men trying to tie her up a hard time. After several minutes of scuffle, during which Henley kicked one of them in the mouth earning her a slap across the face, Henley's hands were zip tied and securely fastened to something that protruded from the side of the van, her feet were tied with cord, a strap was wrapped tightly across her chest, also anchoring her to the van's side, and a gag was shoved in her mouth. She glared up at the two captors, mutinously, as they stood hunched over in front of her, panting.
One of them, the one who Henley had kicked in the mouth, looked especially livid. He had long hair that was now a tangled mess on his head. "I don't see why she has to be unharmed," he muttered to his companion, gingerly touching his bleeding lip. "It would have made that whole process much easier."
"You know why," his friend muttered. Henley's stomach twisted as she noticed the long scar that travelled the length of his face. She also could swear that underneath his jacket he wore a harness with several sheaths hanging from it. Henley had no doubt that there were weapons concealed there. "And I, for one, want to get paid," the man continued. "So I think it best that you leave her alone."
Long Hair seem to notice that Henley was listening to them with rapt attention, so he jerked his head to Scar Face and they retreated as far as they could away from Henley to continue their conversation. The move was successful; Henley could no longer hear whatever it was they continued to mutter about.
Left to her own thoughts, Henley attempted to discreetly wriggle herself out of the ties binding her hands and feet and to get the gag out of her mouth. After a few moments, however, Henley realized that the effort was useless, and she was better off conserving her energy for whatever was coming for her. She settled for trying to adjust her legs so the skirt of her dress covered more of her legs. Henley was usually confident with her long legs, but in front of these two creeps, showing off a lot of skin was disgusting.
What was coming for her? Calming down from the initial shock and panic of being grabbed, thrown into a van, and tied up, Henley began to think more clearly. She forced herself to relive everything that had happened and everything she had managed to overhear from the two kidnappers in the back with her, who now had stopped talking but remained in their distant corner.
One of Henley's only sources of consolation was that they seemed to have no interest in Alyssa. They had left her relatively unharmed and had not bothered to take her with them. Although Henley was comforted by her friend's continued well-being, a dreadful thought crossed her mind. If the kidnappers weren't worried about Alyssa calling the police and filing a report that she had been knocked unconscious and that her friend had mysteriously disappeared, the kidnappers clearly did not entertain the thought that anyone could find them. The chances of a rescue were getting slimmer, which given the already unlikely nature of one, was an impressive feat.
Henley then began to think back on the short conversation she had overheard. It contained a few important pieces of information: these men were getting paid, and specifically, paid not to harm her. Trying to keep her heart rate steady, Henley hung onto those two pieces of information. Someone wanted her alive and unharmed. In the back of Henley's mind, the idea danced around that the reason she was kept alive and unharmed was for some unknown entity to do worse to her than what a couple of thugs in the back of a van could do, but she pushed those thoughts away. She was wanted whole for something, she had to believe that.
Henley was jerked out of her own thoughts as the van swerved. She could feel it speeding up. Long Hair and Scar Face looked at each other. Henley was pleased to see a hint of apprehension on both the men's faces. However, whatever they thought was going on, there were no windows in their section of the van, so they had no way of knowing.
Or so Henley thought.
Scar Face picked up a walkie talkie that had previously been out of Henley's line of sight. "What's going on up there?" he spoke into it, not bothering to keep his voice down.
"We're being followed." A man's voice came from the box. Henley assumed it was the man in the passenger's side up front, the man who had helped grab her initially.
The van swerved again and gave another burst of speed. "Seems like chased, more like," Scar Face sneered. He seemed to register Henley's interest in his conversation, so he turned his back to her and lowered his voice. Barely breathing and straining to hear, Henley could just make out what the men were saying.
"Is it possible it's them?" Scar Face asked.
"No, no way." The voice on the other end didn't seem very confident. "There's no way they could find us, not this fast."
Henley didn't know who 'them' was, but she found herself rooting for them.
"Just get us out of this," Scar Face said through gritted teeth. When there was nothing but silence coming from the other end, he threw the walkie talkie down and sat back down by Long Hair. Henley was unable to pick up their following conversation.
Henley wished she could see what was going on. All she could tell was that they were, in fact, being chased by someone, although whether it was the people who Scar Face had suspected or not was impossible to tell. Henley was simply aware of the ever-increasing speed of the van, the swerves and sharp turns it took that threw all the lose material across the back of the van, and the bumps that indicated the driver was not being particularly careful to avoid curbs.
Henley didn't know how long the chase went for, but what she did know was that eventually, they began to slow down. Her heart sank. The only reason the driver would have for doing that would be if they had lost their pursuers.
Eventually, the van came to a halt. Scar Face slid open the door and jumped down. Henley could hear muffled voices coming from outside, but couldn't make out any words. She pretended to not notice the twisted look that Long Hair was giving her.
After just a few moments, Scar Face got back in the back of the van. "We lost them," he said, confirming Henley's worst fears. "We're secluded right now, so we're stopping to get a few hours of shut eye." He looked at Henley. "I'd get some rest," he advised. He did not sound concerned for her well being in the slightest. "You have some long days ahead of you." His laughter made the hairs on the back of Henley's neck stand up.
Henley guessed they were stopped for about three hours. Scar Face and Long Hair only slept for about half the time each; they took shifts to watch her. Henley didn't sleep at all. She sat, arms numb from being tied above her head and mouth dry from the gag, with her eyes appearing to be closed but kept just a millimeter open. The thought of being asleep around the two men made her feel physically ill. Sleeping would not have made her any more vulnerable than she already was, but she liked to think that if they tried anything, she would at least attempt to make things difficult for them. The only benefit was that the van door was left open, giving Henley a little bit of fresh air.
A small amount of gray light was entering the van when Scar Face went outside for a second time. This time, however, he was back within seconds. "Time to go," he told Long Hair. "We should be there by there by the time it gets dark."
Henley felt ill with his words. If they were going to be driving until nightfall, in who knows what direction, it was almost certain that they were going out of California to one of a half dozen neighboring states. Henley was gaining a greater appreciation for the fact that the first 48 hours of a missing persons case were the most important. In under half that time, Henley would be across state lines.
"Get comfortable, sweetheart," Long Hair said condescendingly as he slammed the van door closed. Henley did her best to give him a death glare, but when he started laughing, Henley figured she had not been successful.
It did not take them long to get out of their secluded resting spot and regain a steady pace. Long Hair and Scar Face were talking again, but this time not bothering to keep their voices down.
"You know," Long Hair said, "I bet that once the boss is done with her, he would give her to us. You know, a type of finder's fee."
Scar Face looked almost amused. "And what use do you have of her?" he asked.
Long Hair pretended to think about his answer. "I have a few things in mind," he said, a dark grin on his face. "And if I'm careful, I won't even leave any visible marks."
Scar Face chuckled. Henley had been trying her best not to look at them, but what she saw out of the corner of her eye made her do a double take. Scar Face had taken out one of the knives from underneath his jacket and was now turning it over carefully, almost lovingly, in his hands. "Yeah," he said. "I probably could avoid leaving any marks as well."
Whether or not Long Hair found that comment amusing, and whether they planned to continue discussing the vile things they wanted to do to Henley for their personal amusement, she never found out. At that moment, Henley heard a loud crash, and the van was launched sideways.
How they managed to avoid flipping over, Henley had no idea. But the two men were slammed into the side of the van with the force of the impact and the skidding that followed. Henley, strapped to the van's side, hit her head against the wall and was jarred, but stayed where she was.
"Shit!" Henley heard one of the men yell.
There was another impact, and this time, the van did roll. Henley was unable to process it at the moment, but later she realized that they had been pushed off the road and rolled down a small hill. When time they stopped, Henley was awkwardly hanging from her constraints; the van had not landed upright.
"Crap," came another swear. "Come on, we gotta get out of here. And get her."
Henley could hear a fight taking place outside, and despite being tied up, she managed to nearly jump out of her skin at the first gunshot. One of the men wrenched open the back doors of the van as the other, Henley eventually recognized him as Long Hair, awkwardly waded his way through the junk littering the van to get to her.
Long Hair undid the ties holding Henley's hands above her head and then her chest restraint. Henley fell with the restraint, landing hard and painfully on whatever was now the lowest point in the van. It certainly wasn't the floor.
"Get up," Long Hair snarled, pulling her elbow to get her standing.
He pulled her out the back where Scar Face was. The fighting, apparently, was at the front of the van, and they faced no resistance as they emerged into the sunlight.
Henley's eyes squinted with the sudden onslaught of light. Her legs were screaming, her arms grateful for the rush of blood they were getting, and her head was pounding, although whether from the crash, a lack of sleep, or the hangover that less than 12 hours ago she was sure she was going to have in the morning, she was unsure; however, she suspected it was a combination of all three.
"Come on," Scar Face grabbed her other arm as she and Long Hair approached him, and they began to drag her along.
Henley, however, had little control over what her legs did, and they did not seem to want to do anything. She stumbled along, just barely able to keep herself from falling on her face.
A bullet missed Long Hair by inches.
"Shit!" he yelled. He pulled out a gun and started firing back.
Scar Face let go of Henley and grabbed Long Hair's wrist. "We gotta get her out of here," he hissed. "If we don't…" He was cut off by more gunfire.
Henley was barely upright. After Scar Face had let her go, no one was supporting her so her knees buckled underneath her own weight. She was barely aware when two more figures ran past her, screaming at Long Hair and Scar Face.
In a desperate attempt, Henley began to crawl toward the gunfire as her captors were distracted. She heard one of them scream "Hey!" when he noticed her, but no one came after her. Instead, Henley heard the other man yell, "We have to get out of here!" Henley looked up and could just make out four figures running in the opposite direction down a narrow, pedestrian path.
Confused only for a moment as to why they left her behind, that question was answered as several men ran past her, apparently in pursuit of her captors. Someone came to her side and grasped her arm, trying to help her up.
"Come on," a man's voice said, urgently but gently. "We're getting you out of here."
Henley allowed herself to be led to a black car with dark windows; her vision was beginning to clear up. Her strength, however, was no where to be found. The man who had guided her away from the crash put her into the front passenger's seat before quickly getting to the other side of the car to drive. If Henley wanted to fight it, she couldn't. All she could do is hope that these people were actually here to help her, and not part of some grand, malicious scheme that she was for some reason a part of.