“The Power of 3”
By Kellyanne Lynch
22 April 2003, 12:30 PM – 29 December 2003, 11:30 AM

10 – Rigged

“Hey!” Steve yelled in the darkness, his dog howling wildly at his side. The driver scrambled to his feet, and stumbled forward. He banged his fists into the first wall with which he made contact. “Hey!”

Trailing his hands along the frigid metal, Steve searched for the door. His fingers found the handle, and turned it. He jostled it back and forth, and shoved his weight into his shoulder, and his shoulder into the door. Over and over, he slammed into the metal. The rig’s engine started up, and Steve pushed himself harder. The sensation of movement beneath his feet sent him into a fiercer frenzy. He rammed harder with every bump in the road. The burning through the muscle and bones of his right arm numbed, and Harley’s woofing dulled in his ears. A cold sweat washed all sensation from the driver’s frame.

The truck ground to a halt. Steve toppled backwards, and tumbled down the length of the trailer. He fell into the wall at the other end. Harley whimpered. A sodden, sand-papery surface slobbered on Steve’s cheek. He sat up. While clasping one hand to the side of his aching head, Steve ran the other through his Labrador’s fur.

“What’s going on?” he asked the dog. Harley yelped, and nudged his soggy nose into his owner’s chin. Steve hugged the pooch.

The rig roared to life, its walls rattling around him. As the road bumped beneath his seat, Steve held his dog tighter. He drew a ragged breath as pain shot through his right arm. Clutching the aching limb to his side, the driver slid his left hand through the dog’s mane. The petting slipped into rhythm. Steve’s muscle’s relaxed. His eyelids drooped, and he leaned into Harley’s side. His body slackened, and consciousness skated from his frame.

Steve awoke with a start. He squinted into the light emanating from the rig’s door, and focused upon the silhouette stooped there. He jerked himself to a sitting position, ache bursting across his right side.

Harley growled and broke into a barking streak.

“Quiet the animal!” a guttural snarl wracked through the driver’s body. Steve dropped his injured arm across the dog’s back.

“Shh,” he whispered to his pet. Steve watched as Harley drew his mouth shut, and grumbled through bared teeth.

Steve turned to the figure in the doorway. “Why did you take my dog?” he questioned. His eyes watered, and he swallowed hard. “Do you… do you have my friends?”

“I apologise for how this must seem,” the deep voice droned. “You will be enlightened in due time.” The shadow extended a hand to the driver. “If you will just come with me, Mr. Park.”

Pushing off his left hand, Steve eased himself to his feet. He pried at the knot in the rope around his dog’s neck.

“Your pet can be brought to you later, if you please.”

Steve glanced at the shadow. “If it’s all the same, I’d like to take him now,” he stated, and returned to his work on the knot.

“Then I must insist that your animal be restrained,” the cavernous voice replied. The hefty figure grabbed hold of the rope, and yanked it from the wall. Steve jolted. As the man placed the rope in his hands, Steve saw the outline of his smile.

The shadowy mass took a step back. “Please follow me. It pains me to say this, but there will be consequences if you do not cooperate. Do you understand?”

Steve raised and lowered his head, then followed the man out of his metal prison. The sunlight assaulted his sights as he stepped down from the rig. Squinting, Steve scanned his surroundings. His sights swept through a forest and a gray, one-story house, before coming to rest on his captor’s back. His eyes widened at the muscles that bulged down tight, crooked arms, and he followed them down to the man’s balled-up fists. Quickening his pace, Steve led his dog to the house that his captor was headed toward.

The man stepped back, and admitted Steve and Harley first into the front door. Steve glimpsed his captor’s face, and jolted at the other’s gray, hollow eyes. He lowered his head, and stepped into the house.

As the Labrador passed, a growl resounded from the depths of his throat. The dog lashed out, and sank his teeth into the captor’s leg. The man howled. Snarling, he raised his arm.

“NO!” Steve cried out as the man’s hand cracked into his dog’s head. Harley whimpered, and slumped at his owner’s feet. Steve dropped to the ground. Cradling the dog’s head in his arms, he breathed, “Harley?” The animal did not respond.

Steve raised his head to his captor.

“I feel I had no choice,” the man frowned. He wiped his hands on his tree-trunk thighs. Sneering, he gestured toward the door. “Please, step inside the house. I will have someone attend to your dog. I assure you, he will be well cared for.”

Swallowing the lump in his throat, Steve got to his feet. He took one last look at his wounded dog before stepping into the strange house.

A sparkling, lime-tiled kitchen greeted him when he stepped inside. Steve’s sights caught on the man in blue scrubs, leaning against an immaculate counter. The individual raised a glass of water to his lips. His eyes widened when they made contact with Steve’s.

“Mr. Park!” he exclaimed. His thin lips curved into a smile. “You’re here!”

Furrowing his brows, Steve stared into the man’s dark eyes. He took in the man’s sharp cheekbones and pointy chin, and the frizzy jet hair that was swept into a messy ponytail. Raising a hand, Steve pointed to the individual. He opened his mouth, but promptly shut it.

“You must be tired.” The man looked over the ill-fitted Budweiser suit. “I’ll show you to your room.” Bowing his head, he added, “I must apologise. We don’t have much space here, so you will have to share with our other guest.”

Steve’s eyes lit up.

“Please, follow me.”

Trailing the man in scrubs, Steve hung close to the individual’s back. The two stepped out of the kitchen, and trod beyond. Beige walls clung to either side of the driver’s frame down the hallway. Steve stepped on the heels of the person in front of him.

The man turned around. Smiling, he dug into his pocket. He pulled out a handful of keys, carefully selected one, and inserted it into the doorknob beside him. The man’s wrist gyrated, and the door opened.

“Please step inside, Mr. Park.”

Steve passed through the sliver of space between the door and frame. The door shut behind him. The driver swirled around, and listened to the mechanical clicking in the knob. Keys jingled, and footsteps faded.

Pivoting on his heel, Steve scanned the beige room. A breeze whistled in through the bars across the window, lifting peach curtains into flight. Beneath the fabric’s dance spanned a double bed. Steve’s eyes widened at the lump beneath the powder blue comforter. He stumbled forward, and stared into the face of his teammate. The other’s eyes were shut, muscles lax, and mouth hung open as whispers of breath passed in and out.

“Michael!” Steve shook his teammate’s shoulder. “Mike!”

Michael Waltrip’s eyelids fluttered opened. His pupils restricted, and met with his friend’s.

“Steve!” he grinned. “You’re here!” His smile faded from his lips. “Oh. That’s not good.”

“Are you okay?” Steve winced. He sat on the edge of the bed.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Michael replied. He sat up, and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Raising his eyebrows, he announced, “They’ve actually been treating me really well here. They gave me chicken ‘n dumplings last night, and a breakfast with the works this morning. This bed’s real comfy too.” He bounced on his seat. As the mattress settled, Michael looked to the other. Scrunching his nose, he asked, “Are you all right?”

Steve nodded. Looking around the room, he asked, “Where’s Junior?”

“He’s not… isn’t he at the track?” Michael knit his brow, and studied the fire suit that his friend was wearing.

“No. He was kidnapped just before you were.” Steve lowered his head.

The zephyr from the window at their backs picked up, and ruffled through the drivers’ hair. Steve raised a hand to his face, and pressed his palm over his eyes. Scenes from the young Earnhardt’s motor coach flashed through his mind. He swallowed hard.

“Maybe they have him in another room,” Michael suggested. He cleared his throat as Steve raised his hand. “I’m, I’m sure they’ve been treating him just as…” Wincing, the NAPA driver gulped. He looked his teammate in the eye. “What do you reckon they’re keeping us for?”

I don’t know, Mike,” Steve wagged his head. “Teresa and I were trying to figure it out last night. We’ve got four notes now, and all we could figure out is that they all had to do with the #3, and that they had to be from an insider…” Furrowing his brow, Steve pursed his lips. “That guy who led me here, the one wearing medical clothes…” He took in a deep breath, and broke eye contact with the other. “He looked really familiar…”

“The gentleman who brings me my food wears scrubs,” Michael reported. Wrinkling his forehead, he shook his head. “But I don’t think I’d ever seen him before last night.”

Steve’s eyes widened. “I have.” His jaw hung open with the last syllable. Collecting it, he uttered, “He was one of the paramedics who attended to Johnny Sauter.”

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