A shadow of a figure was running in the dark. All around were tall trees, and only a small fraction of the moon’s rays got through the canopy. The ground was a black void with no difference between the dirt and the tree roots.
A pack of wolves howled in the distance. With every gust of wind, the tree branches and leaves banged and rustled like a toddler playing with pots and pans. Under all of that was a low mumble, rhythmic like a drum cadence but ghostly in origin.
The figure trips. "Eli?" The scene quakes. “Eli!” The moon disappeared. “Elijah!” Blinding fluorescent light replaced the woods.
13-year-olds Eli and Tyler were sitting in the mall food court, eating dinner across from each other.
Eli's heart was pounding in his ears, and his hands trembled.
Tyler put her hands on his. "Eli, what did you see?"
Eli repeatedly blinked back at her as the fog lifted from his head. "I don't really know."
"Come on, " she said, slinging on a side bag as she raised from her chair, "you can think about it on our way home. I don't want to miss the bus."
Without a word, Eli cleaned up their table and carried the tray away. As soon as his hand was free, he reached for her hand. They walked away from the tables with Tyler locking her arm from Eli’s swinging.
Not too many people were left in the mall. There were a few stragglers around the pop-up stands, but most were lacing their arms through jacket sleeves by the exits. However, two men - a twig-like one with close to the head African curls and a log-like one with slicked hair mostly to one side - didn't fit in either group. They stood off the side, away from everyone else, surveilling, looking for something.
Their cookies and cream vibe didn’t make Tyler divert their path. She was right until they stepped into their way. “Excuse us. Tyler Woodlock and Elijah Krieger?” the twig one asked through a British accent.
Tyler pulled Eli closer. “No. Sorry,” she answered, starting to walk around them with her and Eli’s fingers turning red.
“Government agents,” the other man stopped them, flipping open his budget case, “Miss Woodlock.”
The brit slid closer as Tyler gave out a nervous laugh. She pulled it together with a devious smirk. “Alright, agents,” she stepped closer, “but one thing first.”
“Yes,” the man said, putting his budget back.
Tyler gave the brit - the fitter one - a stiff kick in the shin. With him on the floor and his partner stunned, she yelled, “Run Eli,” giving Eli a push start.
Eli sprinted off, getting a head start as Tyler toppled over a supply case. He headed for the loading docks, a path Tyler forced him to memorize for an emergency like this. As ordered, he ran without looking back.
He nearly ran off the truck port in his mindset. He jumped down. Falling on his hands, he looked like a frog. He couldn’t find the strength to stand, but he walked - half crawled - to the rear of the building.
Collapsing against the brick, he took his chance to look back. She wasn’t there. He stayed twisted around the corner, waiting for Tyler.
All of a sudden, bright light beamed onto him. Drawing Eli’s attention, the voice called out. “Stay there!” they boomed like a drill sergeant.
He clambered to his feet and did the total opposite as the voice commanded. A stampede of boots followed Eli as he jotted into the wooded area on the other side of the loading lane.
The fall night grew darker as he was chased farther in the woods. With every gust of wind, the tree branches and leaves banged and rustled. Their movement shifted and blocked the moon as if in a game of peekaboo. This and the uneven ground made Eli bobble like a pinball.
The voice rang out again. "Get him! Don't let him get away."
It allured him to look back. A light show of flashlights was going on behind. Even with all the light, however, the people remained shadows.
A gopher tunnel tripped Eli up a bit. As he looked up, a pair of amber eyes low to the ground, stared at him from a few yards away. The progression of howls following the encounter made Eli run fast.
He couldn’t hear the boots anymore. He would turn his head a few degrees before forcing it straight. The last one sent him flying into the ground.
Tyler peered over a row of bushes. Eli laid on the ground, with only his chest moving up and down. As soon as she raised from her position, two men came into view.
One went to Eli’s side, and the other pulled out a radio. “Asset found. About four clicks due east of the loading dock.”
The radio guy looked around the perimeter as the second man searched Eli’s pocket.
Tyler fished around in her bag. In the dark, the inside of her bag was a void. She felt cold metal as more men appeared.
The one left Eli’s side. “The cards aren’t here, sir.”
Eli let at a moan as he began to stir.
“Bring him. We’ll find out soon enough where they are.” He turned and started the procession away.
Radio and Pocket man gave each other a glance before Pockets threw Eli over his shoulder. The remaining men followed.
Tyler took her hand out of her back. She fell to her knees, with her hands on her face. As the first tears started falling, she wiped them away with her fists clenched.
She ran back to the mall, heading towards the parking lot. Her head bubbled back and forth, looking at the cars and people. Losing her structure, she fell back on her knees.
She started crying again right before her ears perked up. Snapping her head around, she saw the two agents from inside. “We lost, Ma’am,” she heard the agent who threw his badge in her face, “they were ready to run.”
A grin grew across her face. She spined back, with her attention being grabbed by the rear of the car she fell in front of. The license read CA EXEMPT 387690. She had seen enough of those when the police raided their Romani dwellings.
The odds of that being their car, she didn't know. Not did she know the odds of them automatically unlocking it far enough away that she could climb into the trunk before they were close enough to see.
The two agents and their unknown guest arrived at their motel on the outskirts of town almost an hour after Eli was taken. The building wasn't too big: just two rows with eight or so doors each. Behind each were a single room and a bath.
The agents went first. Tyler waited until she couldn’t hear them anymore before pushing out the back row cushion. Sitting on the floor of the car, she watched as they entered a room, with the number six on the door.
She opened the door carefully so she wouldn’t hit the next car. In the same manner, she closed it without a sound. She strategically stepped as she reached back into her bag.
After peering into the room’s window, she saw the two agents with their backs to the door. There seemed to be nothing but a wall in front of them, but that didn’t bother Tyler. She walked right in and pulled her hand out of her bag before slamming the door shut.
The agents jumped if shots had been fired. They found that they weren’t too far off. Dropping their phone, they were face to face with a gun barrel.
“Hello, again, Miss. Woodlock,” one agent said, through his British accent, as they snuck for their weapons.
“Don’t patronize me,” she said, cocking her gun. “Do you think you can pull yours before I shoot the both of you? I’ve already proved I have grace under pressure.”
They both bring their hands forward. “What do you want?” the other one asked.
“Well, Agent Vincent Petrov, I’m thinking about a trade.”
Flaunting his arrogant British accent, he asked, “What would you have that we would~.”
Cutting him off, Tyler pulled out a deck of tarot cards. “Really. I might be a child, but I’m not an idiot.”
“That still doesn’t answer my question,” Vincent said.
“I want Eli back.”
“Even if I believe for a second, you’re not with the men who took him. You bring him back to me, and you get these no-so-meaningless cards, and we all live happily ever after.”
The agents gave each a glance.
“Let me make this easier. You do this, or I shoot you and go on my merry way.”
Eli was groggy, teetering between awake and asleep, for the car ride. Though, no one could tell through the blindfold. Nor from his position in the trunk.
They had tried his wrists and ankles to stop the little fight he had in him. No kicking. No hitting. No running. More helpless than he was without Tyler.
He was asleep when the car stopped but was jarred awake when one of the men yanked him out. Being bobbled around, his face was red and breathed deeply, trying to keep dinner in. The only relief came when he was dropped to the floor.
After the bang of the door, Eli was left to wait once more in the dark. He pulled at his ropes, only stopping when the burning turned into papercut sensations.
No closer to freedom, he crumbled. Stopped straining. Stopped fighting. Stopped holding it together.
Back at the motel, Tyler sat crisscrossed on the first bed from the door, yanking her locket back and forth on its chain. She stared at the agents that sat on the other side of the room. She tried to hear what they were saying, but they put the same effort into the opposite.
“What are we going to do, Miles?” Vincent asked.
“Play the game.”
“Easier said than done.”
“We know when, where, and a fair idea of by who.”
“The who is what scares me.”
“I would be more scared of the lass if we don’t.”
“I agree with Agent Walker,” a woman, dressed in a white skirt suit with her dark hair in a spiral braid, said just inside the room.
“Ms. Isles?” Vincent jumped out of his seat.
Tyler did the same. She stared at the woman, jotting a glance at the door then back. No one heard the door open or closed.
“Hello, Miss. Woodlock,” Ms. Isles said, raising her hand.
“Hi,” Tyler said, more like a question than snipe, without shaking her hand.
“Well, do you want the good news or the bad news?”
“Good would be best,” Vincent toddled.
Isles looked at Tyler. “Find the boy. Bring him back. Finish your original mission,” she said through a smile.
She began to walk away. She already had her hand on the doorknob before any of them stopped her.
“What about the bad news?!” Miles shouted.
“Work with her, Walker, work with her,” she said, leaving before and without argument.
Eli had no idea how long he was asleep for but when he opened his eyes he was met with a blinding light. He stretched out to find his legs and arms unbound. Panicked and joyed, he shuddered and jostled.
He missed the hand on the wrist. A shadow eclipsed the bright light. “Do you mind not moving.” The voice sounded familiar.
With the light masked, Eli could start to see the room. First, the man kneeling in front of him: greying hair, flannel button-up shirt, and placid blue eyes. Then small red spots on the grey cement floor. And last, white bandage roll, some on his right wrist and the man wrapping more onto his left.
“I think you’ve bled enough on my floor for today,” the man said, finishing his work.
“Don’t be put off by the casual dress, I’m the boss here, and that’s why I can offer you this: You answer all my questions and you can go home to your gypsy family, to your sweet wife Tyler without any more harm.”
“What do you want to know?” Eli asked as he sat up.
“Why don’t we start with something simple. Why did you run away from me at the loading docks?” said the man who blared a flashlight in Eli’s eyes earlier that night.
Vincent sat at the small two-person table, glaring at a street map and a calculator.
“How is it going, Vince?” Miles asked, leaning over Vincent's shoulder.
“Not great. Knowing that they took Elijah 75 minutes ago and assuming they stayed within 5 miles per hour of the speed limit, they can be anywhere within and around 50 miles away from the mall.”
“That’s a big area.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
“Tyler!” she yelled at him. “My name's Tyler.”
“Tyler,” he put his hands up halfway, “can you give us anything? Car model? Direction? Anything?”
“I was a little busy trying not to get caught myself. Trying to find you fools.”
“If we try to search all of this,” Vincent pulled Miles closer and lowered his voice, “we won’t get to him in time.”
“Don’t talk like that!” Tyler yelled, with a little cry behind it. “You start talking like that and things will end that way.” She fell back onto the bed, with her hands on her face.
Miles glared down at Vincent, with his arms crossed. He kept that position as he walked over to the bed. Sitting next to her, he put his arm around her with an air bubble between them.
“Thanks,” she said, whipping her hands out from her face.
“It’s getting late, why don’t you rest for a bit. We don’t want our sharpshooter’s eyes heavy.”
“I’ve been one for the last ten years, but,” she paused, bringing up her watch on her right wrist. “Watch!” she continued, jumped off the bed.
“What?!” Miles followed her towards Vincent.
“Watch,” she started searching her bag, “I got Eli a watch for our first anniversary. He never takes it off.” She presented the watch’s instructions. “And it has GPS.”
“Anniversary?” they asked
During their time together, the man asked Eli an array of questions. Most about trivial personal things to get Eli relaxed and uncoil from his balled-up position.
It was working too. He was as relaxed as if he was home. His eyes glassed over, as the questions droned on.
The room faded away, a dark place appeared. A spotlight shines on the center. A glint of metal moved in from the bottom. A gun; revolver. A white hand. A flannel sleeve.
The hand snapped the bullet holder back into the gun. It aimed. Destroying the image, the shot fired caused Eli to scream and hold his ear.
His ears were still ringing, when the man tried to calm him down. Eli saw what he expected was on his own face, on the man’s. The man removed Eli’s hands. His mouth moved but Eli couldn’t hear it.
He yanked himself away “Why are you asking me all these questions? What do you want?”
The man had a blank face. He opened his mouth but nothing came out. After straightening his shirt, he said, “You have something that belongs to me.”
“I don’t have anything!” Eli shuddered.
“Not now but…,” he exhaled heavily through his nose, “Tyler gave you something. A set of Tarot cards.”
“I don’t know where they are?” he stuttered.
“Well, it's the last question you have to answer, so give it a good thought.”
“They could be anywhere. In the woods where you chased. Back in the mall where the other two did. With~,” he said, trying to put the brakes in his mouth.
“You know where they are!”
“No! No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do,” he pulled a gun from his back waistband, “Tell me.”
Eli’s mouth opened, but the only crashing noises came.
The sound made both of them jot their attention towards the door. The man gritted his teeth: the other two. Staring down at his gun, he weighed it in his hand before bringing it down on Eli’s head.
Eli fell to the floor again. The last thing he saw before the backs of his eyelids was the man’s black shoes walking out the door.
The black gave away to whisps at first merging into cacti and sand. They whirled by through the view from a car window. Tyler sat on the opposite side, smiling back. In the front seat sat Miles and Vincent. The whole picture felt loving and had a dream-like glow.
It faded into a face-full of fabric. Before he could freak out like his earlier ones, a hand touched his shoulder. “You’re alright now, you’re safe,” Tyler cooed.
In a quick movement, Eli raised to hug her, nearly bringing them to the floor. Regaining her structure, she hugged back. In their embrace, Eli missed Miles and Vincent standing off to the side, smiling down at them.