The throbbing in his brain was the thing that woke him up hours later. Or had he even slept? Had he simply closed his eyes and lost track of time, hidden in the windowless room with the light above burning the back of his head? Whatever had happened, Richard pulled his head up and slowly opened his eyes, trying to get his bearings as his head lolled to one side. The blue-eyed man was still there, pacing lazily across the room, unaware of his victim’s awakening. As much as Richard wanted to keep quiet, a minor adjustment in his seat made his stiff back ache, forcing a groan out of him. The blue-eyed man stopped and looked at him.
“You’re awake, eh?” he commented, his voice echoing and sounding oddly loud. “I’ll get Mr. Hendrick, then.”
As much as he tried to focus on the retreating body, Richard found he couldn’t get his eyes to focus. As a matter of fact, the room seemed to be bigger somehow, the sounds louder. His coherency was fading, mixing reality with something almost dream-like. What had happened to him? Why couldn’t he focus?
The door opening was so loud that it startled him. Sucking in a breath when his muscles began to cramp, Richard did everything he could to avoid the amused smile of his captor. He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again, but they wouldn’t completely focus. When he forced himself to meet Hendrick’s gaze, he had a hard time telling the difference between the two images he saw. They danced mockingly before him, merging then separating and merging again. Then the two images smiled openly.
“How was your evening, Mr. White?” Hendrick asked, leaning a bit closer to Richard’s face, obviously aware of his disorientation. “Were you comfortable enough?”
Richard swallowed slowly, trying to reduce the taste of bile in his mouth. “It was… satisfactory.” His words boomed in his head and nearly made him groan again.
The answering chuckle from Hendrick made the young reporter look him in the eyes. He figured the two closest together had to be the real thing, so he focused on those as much as he could.
“Spoken like a true reporter. I’m glad you enjoyed your stay, then. I’m sorry I can’t tell you how long you’ll be here…” His voice dropped and a small level of intensity threatened to overtake him. Clearing his throat, Hendrick stood up and gestured to the blue-eyed man, telling him without words to leave the room. When the door opened and closed again, the sound was louder than ever.
“What did you do to me?” Richard asked. He was having a hard time controlling his breathing, and focusing on the man before him was becoming too difficult. His head lolled to the other side, a mute gesture to the trail of blood on his arm.
Hendrick turned to it and grinned. “That? We just gave you a little something to help… calm you down. Don’t worry. If you’ve been sleeping all night that means what we gave you can’t be all that bad, right?”
Richard’s brow furrowed at the statement. It took a moment for him to finally get what Hendrick was implying. He had been drugged. “What did you give me?”
“That’s irrelevant,” The answer was cold, a complete turnaround from the lighter tone used moments before. Hendrick crossed the room and dug into the brown bag he had left earlier. From its cotton folds he pulled out a newspaper. “The only thing that should matter to you right now is answering my questions truthfully. Do so and you might get out of here sooner than you think.” Holding the newspaper into the light, he showed him the front page. “Does this look familiar to you?”
Richard’s heart pounded in his ribcage. Whatever had been given to him was increasing his heart rate. Were his pupils dilating? His breathing was coming in shorter gasps… He firmly shut his eyes. Focus on the paper. What do you remember about the paper? Doing his best to read it for details he found he couldn’t even do that. Whatever he had been drugged with was still taking effect.
“I suppose it’s the wrong time to be asking these questions, isn’t it?” Hendrick said quietly, observing Richard like a scientist with an experiment. “You look a little pale, Mr. White. And I believe your breathing has increased since I’ve been in here. Tell me, are you afraid?”
The question of fear had never struck him before. Suddenly he became aware that he had never seen anything behind him. Was someone there? Was he being watched this whole time? The chair limited his movement. As much as he wanted to turn his head to look behind him, he could barely make himself focus his vision. How could he really know if someone was there?
“Do you worry about what’s behind the crates in this room? Or what’s behind you?” Hendrick gave a pointed look over Richard’s shoulder. “It must be agonizing to think that you can’t assure yourself that you’re safe somehow. Those doors that I walked through…you don’t know where it leads. You don’t know who’s behind it.”
The reality of his situation suddenly hit him all at once. Richard, bound to the chair with the wires cutting into his arms and legs, started to tremble. His breath came in shuddering gasps. Was he being watched? Just how safe was he? Just where on earth am I?
“Are you afraid, Mr. White? Were I in your shoes, I would be.”
Hendrick stood and folded the paper. Setting it on the crate next to the brown bag, he turned without another word and walked to the door.
“Wait,” Richard muttered quietly, swallowing quickly to help his volume. “Wait!” he said again.
Hendrick didn’t turn back to him. He continued moving toward the door.
“Please, wait!” Blinking furiously, Richard watched his captor move behind a crate. His body, trembling uncontrollably… was he going into shock? His head was pounding so fiercely it felt like it was going to explode. He felt himself panic when the door creaked open. “Wait! Please!”
It slammed shut and the sound echoed loudly in the small room. Or was that just his deluded reaction? What had he been given? How much did he have running in his system? With short gasps he glanced back and forth, desperate to see his surroundings, trying to reassure himself that he was safe somehow. Beads of sweat ran down his forehead. Then the shadows…
When did the shadows get… bigger? Broader? Suddenly more intimidating in the existence of the single light, he never realized just how they had been looming over him. Or how, if he stared long and hard enough, he could see them moving.
He gently shook his head. The shadows weren’t moving. There was no one there…
But there could be someone behind him…
He could feel the panic return. The room suddenly closed in on him. Taking a deep breath, his voice cracking fearfully, he screamed. “Wait! PLEASE!!”
Then he threw up.
Hendrick returned hours later to find Richard covered in his own vomit. His form was still and his breathing was even. Green depths stared back at him in fear and confusion. Weak and helpless, Richard bent his head and stared at his lap, his senses long dulled to the smell covering his clothes. He stared at Hendrick’s booted feet, but didn’t lift his head.
“I’ll have you know you can only thank yourself for the condition you’re in,” Hendrick said quietly, crouching down to force Richard to meet his gaze. “You might not know it now, but you will soon. My advice to you is to answer every question as truthfully as possible.”
He stood and walked away once again. For half a second Richard feared that he might be leaving the room again, but he returned moments later. Still standing, he dropped the newspaper on the floor inches away from Richard’s vomit covered feet.
“Think very hard, Mr. White,” he began slowly. “Have you seen this newspaper before?”
Richard stared at the headline and the front page photo with its vibrant colors. It was a copy of the Planet’s British affiliate dated several years ago. The edges were worn and there was a big crease down the middle from where Hendrick had folded it earlier. Beyond obvious details he could spot, he knew that remembering this particular paper would be nearly impossible. He was a part of many projects while being an intern here.
“It’s an older edition, yes,” Hendrick’s voice startled him out of his thoughts. “But I think seeing it again might jog your memory. I should be more specific, though. I apologize.”
Reaching down, he lifted the paper and flipped to a certain section with no hesitation. It was like it had read it hundreds of times before, knowing exactly what page and article he was looking for. Folding it in half again, he set it, gently this time, on the ground. “It’s the first article on this page, though I really don’t know if that’s being specific enough. Perhaps I’ll just read it to you.” Hendricks crouched down before him again and lifted the paper, clearing his throat and preparing himself like he was going to read a toddler a bedtime story. “To be direct, this article was written by an intern in his third year of service with this paper. You, to be exact. It’s obviously not front-page material, but there’s an interesting paragraph in the heart of the story that caught my eye a long time ago. There’s a lot of boring and poorly written material before it – maybe you were still learning how to write effectively? Ah, here we are.” He cleared his throat again. “In light of the current events surrounding the case, however, one cannot help but think that other lords might be hiding in the shadows with the same criminal intent in mind. You could say it’s safe to believe that Reuben Atticus would find all of the circumstances surrounding his wealth and prosperity heading underground, but one must consider the success of his ideas and his brilliance in keeping a major drug corporation alive for as long as he has.”
Hendrick stopped and re-folded the paper, setting it on the floor beside him. “It’s funny, really. It’s very subtle, but it’s right there. Bold print for the entire world to see. But for some reason, you’re the only person who has dared to bring it to light. I’ve had a hard time trying to keep this corporation under wraps, but believe me, every moment spent plotting to get you here has been worth it. I’m a very, very, curious person, Mr. White. You see, Reuben Atticus was my father. And your theory on the direction of his wealth is eerily accurate.”
Richard froze, staring at Hendrick’s brown eyes in complete bafflement.
“Tell me what you know about Underground.”