The stench was distinct, a mixture of formaldehyde, bleach, and death. The cold, damp concrete floor was unforgiving against Stephen’s bruised body. He was wearing only shorts now, once they had been full-length pants, but now torn off at the knees. His shirt was missing, and his pain was unbearable from the beating received just hours earlier.
He remembered leaving a wedding reception for his best friend. A dark van drove up next to him in the parking lot of the swanky hotel. Someone dressed in black, wearing a mask, jumped out from the driver’s seat, grabbed him and shoved him through the back door of the van. A solid strike of a fist to his jaw put out the lights.
When he came back to consciousness, he was a prisoner in that dark room. He started feeling around looking for any clue to his whereabouts. Chains attached to his arms and legs scraped the concrete as he tried to find his way around.
“Who is there?” A voice in the dark called out. “Who is it?”
Stephen continued his search of the room, unaware of the voice. Stephen, deaf since birth, has never heard a sound. Wouldn’t even know one if he did. What does one even sound like?
“Who is there?” The voice came from another in the same situation in the damp, cold room. “Please, tell me who is there.” Clearly, the sound of a female, although Stephen heard not a single syllable. She asked once more, “Please, tell me who is there.” The darkness was not foreign to Victoria. She had been blind since birth. Her world had no light, no sense of day or night, nothing but darkness.
Victoria heard the metallic cries coming from the chains dragging on the floor, getting nearer with each passing moment. Stephen’s breathing was getting heavy and labored. He reached out one more time. His hand landed on Victoria’s foot. She recoiled, feeling the cold hand touch her naked skin.
“Who is there? Please, I beg you, who is there?” She balled up into a fetal position, her only clothing: what was left of the little black dress she wore on a blind date set up from some website. The cloth now in tatters barely protected her from the cold, she too was bruised from head to toe. The sound of the chains continued, but not coming closer, and was now joined by animal sounds, frantic screeching, inhuman sounds to Victoria’s ears. These are the only sounds Stephen could make. Sounds that he had never heard himself.
He continued his search on the floor around him with no success until he felt the table leg. It’s a metal table, he’s handled this before he’s sure. Not the same one, a similar table, perhaps in the garage at his parent’s house. He shook off this moment of discovery, who cares where he’s felt it before? He continued to follow the table leg upward, and just as his chains reached the maximum give, he found the box.
As he lifted the box, a digital timer lit up on the front. The display began counting downward from 00:20:00 marking each passing second — to what? Setting the box back on the table, he feared the future now flashing before his eyes. There is nothing else on the table that he can find. He feels around the floor for more clues and finds nothing more near the table.
What he doesn’t know is, when he picked up the box along with the timer started a pre-recorded message. Addressed directly to Victoria, the voice in the recording began:
“Hello, Victoria, please don’t interrupt as this is a recorded message and I do not want you to miss anything. Since you can hear my voice, I assume that Stephen, the gentleman in the room with you, has found the box on the table and has lifted it causing the recording to play.
“He doesn’t know it’s playing because he’s deaf, Victoria. He can’t hear a thing. Even better, the room is dark, and he has no idea that you are blind. Imagine, a Deaf man and a blind woman held in a place together with the only way out to work as a team. Quite the situation we have here, wouldn’t you say?
“As I said, you must now work as a team. Victoria, you have to find some way to communicate with Stephen. He will find the way out of this room. When the timer reaches zero, a poisonous gas will be released into the room. If you are still here you will both die. Even more exciting, isn’t it? So, don’t dawdle. You have only seventeen minutes at this point, according to the timer. I will give you a clue to get started.
“Above your head is a mirror. Attached to the bottom of the frame — a key. That key will open one of the locks in the room and will help you find the next clue. Good luck!”
The recording stopped there. Victoria sat with her back to the wall and reached above her head. The voice was right, there is something in a frame. The frame was securely attached to the wall, but under the frame edge, she felt the key. She removed the key and tried to unlock the cuffs on her wrists and ankles. Not the correct key at all. It must be for Stephen’s chains.
She had to find a way to get his attention and show him the key doesn’t fit her bindings. If she throws the key, there is no guarantee he will even get it. She’s not entirely sure what direction he’s in now, except his movements are making noise directly in front of her. Suddenly, by a stroke of luck, she felt his hand touch her foot again.
She reached down to grab his hand, and he pulled away. Now what? She remembers once learning about how the Deaf can feel vibrations and how that’s the way they experience music. She started pounding her feet against the concrete floor. Just when she was too tired to make another movement, the hand touched her foot.
She grabbed his hand and patted it with her other to let him know everything was okay. She slipped the key into his hand and tapped on the cuffs. He tried to open his cuffs to no avail. Not the right key. Same thing with the cuffs on his ankles. He slipped the key back into Victoria’s hand.
“No. This key does something!” Victoria cried. Naturally, he didn’t hear her. She took the key and rapped it against the cuffs, then placed it back into his hands once more. Then she made the shape of a box against his palms. He immediately understood. Of course, the box on the table.
The timer was showing 00:09:00 now, and a minuscule amount of light from the crystal display provided no help at all. Stephen felt around the box and found a slot in the back. He put the key in the slot, and it turned! The key wasn’t for a lock, it was for a switch. Immediately the room was lit up by overhead lights. The table, the box, and Victoria are all Stephen can see in the room, until he looked up and saw the mirror above Victoria’s head.
In the reflection, he could see the wall above him, and there he saw a single brick missing from an otherwise perfect wall. Inside the opening, he found an envelope, and when he opened it, found printed instructions:
“Congratulations, Stephen. You have found the next clue. This is a simple one, Stephen. The woman with you is blind, she has no idea the lights are on, or that you are reading these instructions. All she knows is that she is supposed to help you find a way out of this room. She has been told you can not hear, and she apparently found a way to tell you about the lock on the box.
“She also knows when the timer reaches zero, a poisonous gas will be released into the room, killing both of you. What she doesn’t know is what I am about to tell you here. In a few minutes, when the timer on the box reaches one minute thirty seconds, the top will open, and inside the box is a gun with a single bullet in the chamber.
“Someone has to die today, Stephen. You can make a choice. The only way to save a life today Stephen is to take another. So, the choice is up to you. Choose wisely.”
Stephen slowly folded the paper and placed it on the table. He looked at the woman across from him. He didn’t recognize her. Had never seen her before. He didn’t even know her name. She was moving her head around to try to hear anything, any indication of what is happening. Stephen reached out and took her hand, rubbing it gently to keep her calm, then drew a simple message on her palm. He outlined two letters: OK.
She smiled and nodded, she understood, everything will be okay. She mouthed the words “Thank you” back.
As the letter promised, when the timer reached ninety seconds, the top of the box opened, and inside was the weapon loaded with a single bullet. Stephen removed the gun, pulled back the hammer, and pointed it in the direction of the woman’s head. He pulled the trigger. The sound was deafening to Victoria, the last thing she heard was the shattering of glass.
The old man stopped talking, and looked at the vessel sitting on the bar. The ice had melted into the whiskey, a ring of water formed around the bottom against the wood. He picked up the glass, swallowing the watered-down contents in one gulp. Then said, “I found them that night still holding hands, and the person responsible for their kidnapping was killed by a single gunshot. That was the last case I worked for the bureau. I couldn’t take another after that.”
Fifteen minutes earlier, I had stopped taking notes for my Real Crime feature story, hanging on every word from the old man’s wrinkled face. “But how…”
The old man interrupted me, “How did Stephen know he could kill the kidnapper?”
“He didn’t. When the room was dark, Stephen could see a small red light blinking on the far wall. When the lights came on he saw only a mirror on the wall, and there was no blinking light anywhere. That’s when Stephen realized the mirror was two-way and the flashing red light was something not intended to be seen at all. The kidnapper was watching from behind the mirror. Stephen fired the gun toward the unseen.”