The mystery was why Stuart went along. The young woman had grabbed his wrist as he started to get in his SUV. “Help me!” She whispered fiercely. “We've been kidnapped.”
Stuart looked at her in amazement, a pretty blond with an oval face and serious blue eyes.
“I’m Esmeralda and we have to go while he is away. Free the others, my friends.”
Shaking loose, Stuart took out his phone, saying he would call 911. But the girl pushed the phone away, there was no time. Stuart, an ex-athlete and over six feet, was not worried about safety, but sensed a prank. Yet no one else was around in the early evening, just a few cars in the mall lot.
“We have to act before he returns. After we free the others you can call 911 and be a hero!” The girl enthused.
Stuart paused and put the phone away. He was a substitute television anchor in the Pacific Northwest, covering Idaho, Oregon and Washing ton. He filled in for absent reporters doing the news, sports, business, and even the weather, hitting singles. But Stuart needed a home run…maybe this was his opportunity.
He got into the SUV and motioned the girl to the passenger side. If he called 911 and it was nothing, Stuart would look foolish. On the other hand, if the girl was telling the truth and he could free the other captives, then he would be the center of attention. Interview the captives, maybe a book. The girls would owe him. What was there to lose?
Following instructions, Stuart drove to the east side of Lake Payette, an isolated area near the state park. Esmeralda directed him to turn left off the two-lane blacktop and they wound through the evergreens. She directed him to stop in front on an aged, sprawling, log house, an ideal spot to hold someone. Behind the structure, Stuart caught a glimpse of the lake.
“Park here.” Emeralds said anxiously. “We will be in and out, and then you can call 911.”
Stuart surveyed the scene and then joined the nervous girl at the front door. She cautiously opened it, poking her head inside and listening. The hairs on the back of Stuart’s neck stood up as a gust of wind blew through the trees. Somewhere a dog howled and Stuart almost balked. But Esmeralda looked back and nodded, so Stuart followed her into the dim hallway.
As he stepped into the entry, Stuart saw a sudden movement to his right. He turned and was greeted with a cascade of bright stars and then darkness.
Hearing a voice calling, Stuart slowly opened his eyes, putting a hand to the back of his throbbing head. He was sitting on a concrete floor in a dim light. Again he heard a voice, then someone laughing, more of a cackle. Trying to sit up, Stuart heard the rattle of a chain when he moved his legs. He blinked, stunned and disbelieving as he saw there was a collar around his right leg with a chain leading to the wall. As his eyes focused, Stuart realized he was in a square room which must be in the basement of the house. There were three other men chained to the opposite walls.
Across from Stuart was an elf-like man with knee-length pants and whiskers, wearing a hat. There were also two men chained to the other walls, one to his left, the other to his right. Both men were tall with long hair, beards, and thin, almost emaciated.
The small man started humming and hopping, as if doing a jig. “Hey,” he called. “I’m Paddy and who be you?”
Stuart introduced himself and Paddy named the other two men as Travis to Stuart’s right and Carlos to the left. Paddy went on to explain he was the “Dean” of the cellar prison, the longest serving, so Stuart had to mind him.
“But not to worry.” Paddy called. “Your arrival means it‘s time for me night swim.”
“You just had a bad spell.” Travis said to Paddy. “Once you’re right, you’ll be upstairs again.”
Paddy laughed, saying when he started hearing the voices and seeing visions he knew it was only a matter of time.
“Pray,” intoned Carlos, who was darkly handsome and dressed in a white robe. With his long hair, the chained man resembled a Messiah.
A gloom settled over the room and Stuart questioned Travis, then Carlos about where they were and why they were chained in the windowless room. Behind each man was a small cubby with a bed, sink and toilet. Carlos seemed to be in semi-trance and Travis with his surfer looks appeared tired and dispirited, not interested in the newcomer’s inquiries.
Nodding upstairs, Paddy said, “Do what they say and make them laugh. I used to make them laugh and had free reign.”
Stuart motioned to Paddy, encouraging him to continue.
“That’s when I saw a night swim. Chills me to think of it…” And Paddy’s voice trailed off.
Paddy began speaking again with a faraway look on his face. He said three guests in the basement was the norm. When they added Carlos a year ago that made four and Howard, an intellectual who never fit in, was plucked for a night swim.
“A night swim?” Stuart queried.
Paddy smiled, telling Stuart he had been upstairs with a room off the basement door and he saw them bring Howard up, who appeared drugged. They wrapped Howard with his ten foot chain, and then wound him tight with heavy electric tape, a mummy in black. Then they walked Howard out to the lake behind the house, put him in a rowboat on a moonlight night and rowed to the center of the lake. A hooded figure set the oars, took a paddle, and shoved Howard in the chest, toppling him into the black water. There was a slight splash, as if a bass had jumped.
Stuart held his breath as Paddy described the scene. Who or what was upstairs?
Paddy leaned forward and smiled at Stuart.
“Try to fit in.” The elf-like man advised.