I spent the first week of my confinement pacing my cage like a circus tiger and demanding to see my brothers at anyone who came near. I used mealtimes to gauge the passing of hours and ate as quickly as I could so I could hurl my empty plates through the bars at the heads of my captors. I thought then that I was as angry as I could get.
Then another full week went by and still I had no sign of Alice or my brothers. I knew this was my punishment for hurting Alice that first day—her face probably still showed the bruises from where I’d slammed her head against the bars of my cell. But in the darkest part of the night, I couldn’t sleep for the panicked idea that maybe they’d left for America without me. That maybe, by the time I escaped, Alice would have covered their trail so well, I’d never be able to find my brothers in that giant landscape.
By week three, the two guards Alice had assigned to watch over me started playing Ro-Sham-Bo to determine who would bring me food. I’d taken to hiding in the shadows of my prison, at first with the idea that I’d lunge out and scare
anyone who got too close, but they seemed more unnerved by my silence than they’d ever been by my posturing. So I slid out of sight and watched the cowards huddle close together, stare at my empty cot from over their shoulders, and play their childish games. And when the one called Lucas bent down to slide my plate under the bars, I reached through and dug my fingers into his rough, auburn curls.
I hung on with all my might and pulled his head against the bars. And when he reached his arm through them to try to stop me, I leveraged the limb back and down, twisting his shoulder unnaturally and using my weight to keep him in pain so that he was forced to press his back against the cage to get some relief. Then I slipped my free arm through the bars and around his neck.
Lucas managed to yelp out, “Help!”
The other guard ran over. “Jus’ let him go. Nice and easy.”
“Get me my brothers and maybe I don’t snap his neck.” I was pretty sure I didn’t have the strength to actually hurt him all that badly, but the threat seemed to stun the nameless guard into a bit of a silent panic. Alice had apparently warned them about me. I could use that.
Lucas was doing his best to stay quiet, but when the other one took too long to decide what to do, he shouted, “Get Trent, you dullard!”
Trent was apparently their leader. That was good to know.
“Not Trent. My brothers.” I put a little more weight on Lucas’s oddly angled arm, until he yelped again.
“Stan! Just go!”
Stan obeyed readily enough, though I didn’t expect to see my brothers come through the doors. Not really. Alice was keeping them from me on purpose. She hadn’t even given me an update on Michael’s condition since the night her nurse friend had tended to my wounds. All I knew was that he hadn’t woken up yet, and that was supposedly normal “considering what he’s gone through.” That left me helpless in a cage, with Michael in a coma and my other brothers under the care of a psychopath who had killed three people and was unduly fixated on my mum. She could be doing anything to them, and there was nothing I could do to stop her.
Lucas cried out again, and I shifted my weight a bit to take some of the pressure off his arm. If I were going to break him, I’d do it in front of Alice, not before she got here.
“She’s not coming,” a voice said from somewhere up in the rafters of the barn.
“Who’s there?” I shouted. I must have clung tighter to Lucas in my alarm, because he started to choke and his fingernails dug into the skin of my arm.
“You’ll have to do better than threaten that one there to get her attention.”
“Show yourself!” I held Lucas tighter still, and his breaths started to rasp in and out. He scratched and pulled at my arm some more, but he was already weakening, and something about that fascinated me.
Could I really do it? Could I hold him until he fell unconscious? Until he died?
“Now you’re thinking. You’ve sent one guard off and
you’re putting the other one out of commission. But if this was your plan all along, why’d you wait so long to do it?”
Lucas slumped unconscious in my arms and I let him drop against the bars. I immediately knelt in the dirt, feeling around his pockets for keys to my cell, while I squinted up into the shadows of the rafters looking for whoever was taunting me. It didn’t really matter who he was. He was only one man, and I couldn’t let him stop me. I had to get up to the farmhouse to see my brothers. I had to know they were okay.
No keys. I started to roll him over to check his other side, but then I heard a thud somewhere in the barn, and the voice came closer.
“Do you really think Miss Alice would leave the key to your freedom with a man too idiotic to use the flashlight at his belt to find you before approaching your cell?”
He was right. Alice was too smart for that. In fact, she probably wouldn’t trust anyone but herself. My key was most likely hanging round her neck.
I shook away an enticing little vision of me strangling her with the chain she’d used to hold that key and then grabbed Lucas’s flashlight, holding it up like a club, but turning it on to spotlight the corner of the barn from where I was sure the voice had come. He had already moved.
I turned to the right where a figure leaned against one of the barn’s main support beams. He wore black, like the rest of the guards, but he had a short green jacket on. It was vaguely military, as was his hair, which was all buzzed around the sides
and short on top. When the light hit his face, he lifted a hand to shield his eyes so that only his smile shone bright.
“You must be Trent,” I said.
He didn’t confirm or deny it, but I was pretty sure I was right. He had the confident swagger of a man in charge. Not at all what I expected from one of Alice’s men. Younger and smarter than her usual—too smart, perhaps, to work for the likes of her.
“So, what’s next in this plan of yours? You’ve dispatched your guards. Now what?”
“You let me out?”
He shook his head, but his smile widened. “It wouldn’t matter too much if I did. I’ve got men posted around the perimeter. You wouldn’t get far.”
“I only need to get to the house.”
Trent seemed to consider that. “Tell you what, I see at least four ways out of that cage of yours. If you get out on your own and can incapacitate me, I’ll give you a free pass to the house.”
I eyed him skeptically and then used my flashlight to take him in. He wasn’t more than four or five inches taller than me, and he was mostly skinny, until I got to his shoulders, which were broad; the fabric of his jacket pulled around his arms in a few key places. He was strong. But I’d learned how to fight in a way where his strength shouldn’t matter. Maybe.
“Just you? You’re not going to call in more of your men?”
I watched him for a few seconds and then pushed my hand out between the bars. “Shake on it?”
He chuckled softly and shook his head. “You’ll have to take my word for it. I’m not as easy to fool as the others.”
I shrugged and turned off the flashlight, stepping back so that I could look at my cage as a whole. I’d spent three weeks in the tiny space and had been so focused on the other side of the bars, I’d done very little exploration of the cell space itself. I’d also given Alice too much credit, assumed she wouldn’t put me somewhere that had a way out. I hadn’t even considered until that night that I could have escaped without the key. I should’ve known better. Every trap has a flaw.
And mine was the toilet.
My cell was crafted from what had probably been three horse stalls at one point. The walls between them had been taken out, and the fronts of each had been replaced with a wall of bars. And then the side wall of the farthest stall had been converted into a kind of barred gate—the main way in and out. Alice had built a room to house the toilet, shower, and sink that took up most of the first stall. I thought it was odd to frame and drywall a room within a room instead of just walling off the final stall to create a separate space, but that was how it had been built. And from where I stood, it looked as though a person standing on the toilet tank could reach the top of the framed wall rather easily.
I quickly estimated the space from the toilet tank to the rafter that sliced across the open bathroom ceiling. It couldn’t have been more than three or four feet. If I could somehow reach it, I thought maybe I could hoist myself up. Probably not, but it was worth a try.
My chances were better if I could get a running start, but that meant calculating which foot to start with and timing exactly when to jump from the floor onto the toilet seat and then up onto the tank, so I’d have enough momentum to climb up the sparse drywall behind it. It was an impossible trick, the kind that only worked in action films after careful choreography and several scene takes. But something about Trent’s challenge had lit a spark in me. He was most likely messing with me—playing another of Alice’s mind games, perhaps. But if there was even a sliver of a chance, I had to try. I had to know that my brothers were okay.
“Easiest way out first,” I said, then shook the bars of the gate. I grabbed at the padlock on the other side and pulled down, but it just clicked uselessly. I turned to lean my back against the gate and sighed, then pretended to look around. If I could get up into the rafters quickly enough, I thought maybe I could let myself down again on the other side and run out the front barn door before Trent could catch on.
I was pretty sure that was a pipe dream, but still I waited, staring at the ground until I had completely mapped out the run in my head. And then I ran, left foot first so that my step up onto the toilet lid with my right launched me up. I barely tapped the tank with my left foot for added momentum, but only managed to hook my fingers over the top of the wall for all my running start. I scrambled up the wall, and by the time I managed to pull myself up enough to plant a knee on the top edge, I saw Trent’s head pop up into the rafters just a few feet away from me.
“Not the easiest way, but effective.”
He disappeared and I scowled, hopping up onto the nearest beam. I’d made it into the rafters, and now I was stuck there, with no way to get down or past him. And the rafters wobbled a bit when I stepped from one to the other. They seemed sturdy enough to hold me, but moved just enough to make me feel like I could fall at any second. Still, I walked across them until I found hay bales stacked high enough to act like a ladder for when I was ready to climb down. But first I needed to find a way out of the barn.
I looked around as best I could but didn’t see Trent anywhere. A bad sign, I was sure, but sitting in the rafters wasn’t going to make him appear or make my escape any cleaner. So I started to climb down. At the last minute, before my toes could brush the dirt floor, I saw a flash of movement in my periphery, and then the lights went out. I climbed up and over another nearby bale of hay, setting myself down on the far side. The tantalizing glow of the moon shone in through the doors from the outside, which left me two options: run for it and hope that Trent didn’t expect me to be that bold, or play hide-and-seek for a while until I could find an opening to escape past him.
I ran for the barn doors. I could hear Trent’s footsteps not far behind me, but luck was on my side. A trunk of riding equipment almost sent me sprawling, and when I caught myself, my hand brushed against a riding crop sticking out by the back hinge. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but it was something. Maybe Lock’s Bartitsu lessons wouldn’t turn out to be completely useless.
With Trent close enough that I could hear his breathing, I spun to face him, holding the crop in both hands in front of me. He didn’t even pause. Before I could use my weapon to stop him, his hand was on my arm. In the next second I was completely in his control, both of my arms held behind my back by just one of his. I spent a few hopeful moments struggling against his grip, but then stopped. It was useless. He had me.
He pushed my hand up my back, pressing at my elbow until my shoulder ached. It was an unnecessary precaution. Probably more of a message than an attempt to injure. But it freed up his other hand to pull something from around his neck as he walked me back to my cell. He had a key too, which was good to know, and he didn’t seem overly concerned about his men. Or maybe he was truly cross with Lucas, because he nudged his unconscious body aside as if he were an errant bale of hay.
After he’d unlocked the padlock, he shoved me up against the bars like he needed to get a better hold on me. “The middle child is awake,” he said quietly. “And the oldest sneaks out at night.”
“She giving you trouble there, Trent?” Stan had apparently returned.
“This little thing?” Trent mocked, loudly. “Trouble to me?” And then in a whisper he said, “Two a.m. North corner,” and pushed me inside my cell so that I stumbled and fell to my knees. “She was apparently too much for Lucas, though. Come make sure he isn’t dead?”
Stan laughed, and I hid my face like I was ashamed, to keep them from seeing my satisfaction. I’d managed to find an informant at least. And our deal was still on as far as I could tell. If I could beat Trent somehow, I’d get a free pass to the house. To Michael. All I needed was a plan.
Two plans. One to escape and another to neutralize Alice once and for all. I’d only get one shot at her, I was sure about that.