She stole glances at him as she pretended to study her Introductory Managerial Accounting textbook; and she noted that he was also stealing glances at her.
This gave Kara Teller a tentative tingle of delight: he might be interested in her; but would he do anything about it? Many guys turned out to be chickens when it came time to actually make the first move.
The young man with the dark, wavy hair was the lone occupant of the couch on the other side of the student union study lounge. He was reading a paperback novel. From this distance, Kara could not make out the title. But every few moments he let his eyes stray from the pages, and glanced in her direction.
Once she caught him looking at her and their eyes met dead-on. He did not quickly plunge his face back into the book, as most men would do when caught looking at a woman. Instead, he held her gaze for a few seconds and smiled before resuming his reading. Kara did not need a mirror to know that her cheeks were flushed.
Kara turned the next page of her accounting text and tapped her pen absently on the top of the varnished wood table beneath it. Scholarly concentration was a completely futile effort at this point. Who was he? She had never noticed him before; and she inhabited the student lounge every morning between her nine o’clock English Literature class and her eleven o’clock Chemistry 101 lab.
How long was this game of furtive glances going to continue? Kara was now agonizing over the worst-case scenario: He would leave without actually speaking to her, and she would never see him again.
Now that would be a shame.
But when she looked up again, she saw that the worst-case scenario was not going to be the outcome. He had arisen from the couch and was walking in her direction, threading his way through a gaggle of students who were holding an impromptu study session on the carpeted floor.
Kara could see that he was tall—six-two or six-three. He had broad shoulders and the trim waist of an athlete. He was well-dressed, but not overly dressed for a campus environment: tan dress slacks and a pressed white oxford shirt. His black leather loafers appeared to be new.
Whoever this guy was, he was definitely a few years older than her. Kara guessed his age to be somewhere in the vicinity of twenty-seven or twenty-eight. That meant that he was probably not another undergrad. He might be a graduate student, or perhaps a very young professor.
Anyway, she was about to find out.
As he closed the final distance between them, Kara dropped all pretense of studying the accounting text. There was no reason to exaggerate the hard-to-get routine now. She gave him a smile—but not too much of a smile.
Then he was standing before the small table that she occupied. He gestured to the wooden chair opposite her.
“It’s okay for me to sit down?” He phrased it as a question but it was really more of a statement. He knew that it would be okay for him to sit down. More than okay.
He pulled the chair away from the table.
“Nicholas Naretti,” He said by way of introduction, extending his hand. She took the proffered hand and he squeezed hers gently before releasing it and sitting down.
“That sounds Italian,” she said, and then immediately thought better of the remark. You had to be careful when making any reference to a person’s background nowadays. Everyone was so touchy about that sort of thing.
But if Nicholas had been offended by her casual observation, he certainly did not show it. “Not for almost a hundred years,” he said with a laugh. “My great-great grandfather was born in Palermo—or so I’ve been told.”
“I’m Kara Teller,” she said. “And no, that’s not Italian.”
“You don’t say,” he said. And although the remark was not particularly funny, it caused them both to laugh.
Kara daydreamed through her eleven o’clock Chemistry 101 lab. Of course she had given Nicholas her cell phone number; that had been a foregone conclusion. He had promised to call her within the next few days. Until he did, Kara knew that she would spend most of her waking hours waiting for her cell phone to ring.
Nicholas had revealed that he was originally from the East Coast. When she asked what he was studying at the University of Cincinnati, he had replied cryptically: “I’m studying the earth. I’m studying people.”
“No, really,” she asked. “What’s your major?”
But he had simply smiled in that maddeningly attractive way of his and shaken his head.
“Next time we meet I’ll tell you,” he said. “That commits you to seeing me again.”
And see him again she would (provided that he hurried up and called her); but she didn’t like the way he had dodged a direct and legitimate question, even though he did it under the cover of flirtatious banter. “Never trust a person who won’t give you a straight answer,” her father had said.
That last thought made her feel suddenly melancholy. Less than six months had passed since her father’s funeral. To his many employees and business associates, Frank Teller had been the founder and CEO of Teller Electronics. To her he had simply been Dad.
Kara wiped her eyes as the Chemistry 101 lab instructor droned on about the proper technique for inducing the Benzene reaction that was the subject of today’s experiment.
“What’s the matter?” her lab mate, Jodi, asked. She was a heavyset young woman with a pierced tongue.
“The chemical smells in the lab,” Kara whispered, pulling herself together. “They bother my eyes.”
Jodi nodded without saying anything more. Kara tried to concentrate on the instructor’s words; but all she could think about was her father and Nicholas.
“Tell me about your family,” Nicholas said. It was Friday night, and Nicholas was expertly guiding his silver Lexus down the highway. True to his word, Nicholas had called Kara within forty-eight hours of their initial meeting. For their first date, he was apparently going all out, although he must have known that he had already impressed her. They had just finished dinner at one of the city’s best steakhouses.
And this car. Kara admired the door-to-door leather and wood trim, the latest electronic gizmos on the dashboard. She was no car aficionado; but she knew that a vehicle like this was beyond the means of most college students.
“Not much to tell,” she shrugged. “My parents were both born and raised here in Cincinnati.”
“And they still live here?”
Kara paused and then forced herself to answer. “My mom does. My dad died about half a year ago.”
“That’s horrible,” Nicholas said. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. You had no idea.”
“I know,” Nicholas stepped on the accelerator to speed past a lumbering eighteen-wheeler. “But that must have been hard on you and your family.”
“It was,” Kara allowed. “Dad was only fifty-six.”
Nicholas nodded. “It must have been difficult financially, too.”
Kara shifted uncomfortably. She was always uncomfortable when the subject of her family’s money came up.
“We’re fortunate in that regard, at least.”
“My dad had his own business. It was pretty successful.”
“Would I have heard of it?”
“The company is called Teller Electronics, the factory is located—”
“Very close to the Shawnee Trails Nature Preserve,” he finished for her. “Yeah, I know Teller Electronics. That’s impressive, Kara.”
“I suppose so.”
“You bet it is. How many employees work there? A thousand? Two thousand?”
Kara shrugged. “Something like that.”
“What happened to the company?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean: Who is running the company now? Now that—sorry.”
“It’s alright. My older brother, Andrew, became president after my dad died. He’s only thirty-three; but he’s been working at the company for almost twenty years, if you include summers and all.”
“Then at least your family doesn’t have any financial stress to deal with.”
Kara shook her head. “No.” Her father had been a very meticulous investor. Over the past thirty years, Frank Teller had amassed a small fortune in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, certificates of deposit, and who knew what else. Well, the family accountant knew, she supposed. And her mother.
“You’re a lucky little girl, aren’t you?” Nicholas asked without turning in her direction. He kept his eyes glued on the dark road before them.
“What?” The question shocked her. It seemed inappropriate, and more than a little accusatory.
Nicholas chuckled. “Don’t take it the wrong way, Kara. I just mean that you’re very fortunate.”
“Really? I don’t feel so fortunate right about now. My father just died, after all.”
Nicholas sighed. “Kara, I’m sorry about what happened to your dad. But everybody’s father dies sooner or later. That doesn’t erase the fact that you are lucky in other ways.”
“I suppose you mean in the moneyed way.”
“Well think about it: There are people starving in Africa right now. Do you know how many people die of starvation each day?”
“No. Do you?”
Now he turned his attention away from the road and stared at her. For a moment he did not look like the dashing young man she had met in the student union a few days ago. Something in his eyes brought other images to mind: like those of the robed figures from the Spanish Inquisition. It was as if he wanted her to confess some unnamed sin.
“As a matter of fact I do,” he said quietly. “Thousands. Thousands die everyday.”
Kara remained silent. What could she possibly say in response?
“But you,” Nicholas continued. “You don’t have to worry about anything. I mean sure, you have to worry about your grades and all—but you don’t have to worry about where your next meal is coming from.”
“And what about you?” Kara asked. “What does your father do for a living?”
“He’s an orthodontist.”
Kara laughed. “The last time I checked, the average orthodontist makes a pretty good living. You didn’t exactly grow up poor yourself, did you?”
“No I didn’t. I may not be poor, Kara. But that doesn’t mean I lack empathy.”
“Empathy? What do you mean by ‘empathy’? How in the world could one of us possibly ‘empathize’ with a person living in Ethiopia or Bangladesh in any meaningful way? And what good would that do them anyway?”
Nicholas smiled warmly and put his hand on hers, an intimate gesture that abruptly disarmed her.
“Look, I’m sorry,” he said. “You’ll have to forgive me. I just feel strong about certain issues: social justice, helping out the poor, halting the destruction of the earth.”
“Okay,” Kara said noncommittally. “But if you think I’m some spoiled little rich girl, you’re wrong. I’ve worked every summer in the family business since I was fourteen years old.” She opened her purse and pulled out a keycard that bore the words “Teller Electronics” in bold blue lettering above her photo. “You see? I even have a badge for the employees’ entrance.”
“I see it. Okay, so you’ve worked for your money, too. Let’s change the subject. I didn’t mean to offend you. Challenge you a little bit? Well, maybe I wanted to do that. But I never wanted to offend you.”
She silently considered the implications of this newly revealed side of Nicholas.
On one hand, his desire to act as her conscience struck her as presumptuous and more than a little arrogant. On the other hand, though, she had to give him points for having an awareness of the world beyond himself. How many times in the past had she grown frustrated by vacuous boys who seemed to have no depth at all, who thought about nothing but trivial matters?
Admit it, she scolded herself. You’re making excuses for him because he’s so good looking, and he has that incredible charisma. If he were five-feet-five and pudgy, you would have told him to shove it—after giving you that self-righteous spiel about your family’s money.
But for the rest of the drive, Nicholas resumed the confident, carefree manner that had so attracted her during their initial meeting. He recounted summers on Long Island, and December weekends spent skiing in Vermont and Connecticut. He made her laugh with a story about a clumsy friend who couldn’t balance himself on skis. And he invited her to laugh at him, too, as he admitted that he had once driven all the way to a ski lodge in a snowstorm, only to discover upon arrival that he had left his ski equipment behind.
By the time they arrived back at her apartment, Kara had all but forgotten the near-argument about global poverty and the privileges of money. It seemed unimportant, in light of the way that they clicked on a more personal level.
“Can I come in?” he asked, standing on her front porch.
She wanted to say no, as she knew exactly where such permission would lead. It was too soon; she had met him only last week, after all.
Nicholas did not plead. He did not pressure her with long-winded entreaties like other guys habitually did. He simply looked at her and smiled almost sheepishly. There was something vaguely boyish about his expression. He would obediently take no for an answer, his face said; but she would disappoint him horribly.
And in that moment, disappointing him was the last thing she wanted to do. She could not bear it, in fact. If she disappointed him now, there was a possibility that she would lose him forever.
Afterward, they lay in her bed with her head resting upon his chest. He was gently stroking her hair. Their bodies were covered with a sheen of light perspiration. For the time being neither of them spoke; this seemed ordained as a conversation-free interim.
When she opened her eyes and looked up at him, she saw that he was biting his lip. His eyes were narrowed beneath furrowed brows.
He was staring directly at her.
She felt a sudden chill ripple through her body. He was regarding her as a man might regard a mortal enemy—rather than a woman whom he has just made love to.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Nicholas’s face softened immediately. The light-hearted smile was back.
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s just you—you wore me out. That’s all.”
She laughed softly. “I hope that’s a good thing.”
“It is. Everything about this is—perfect.”
“You never did tell me what you’re studying.”
“Ah, this question has been lingering in your mind all this time?”
“Well, it’s a natural question, don’t you think? I met you at school, you know.”
“I was thinking that maybe you’re a grad student or even an instructor, and you didn’t want to tell me because there are rules against fraternization with undergrads. If that’s the case then I completely—”
“No,” he interrupted her. “And you’re partially right. I’m not a student. But I’m not a professor, either.”
“Then what were you doing on campus?”
“Well, Kara,” he said at length. “I’m a recruiter.”
“A recruiter? For the army?”
“Do I look like a soldier to you?”
“No. No you don’t. Who are you recruiting for, then?”
“I work for a non-profit foundation.”
“A charitable organization?”
“Sort of. Our focus is on the environment: global warming, endangered species, that sort of thing.”
His James Bond routine was becoming wearisome. Despite the pleasant nature of what had passed between them a brief while ago, she could feel a twinge of outright irritation creeping across her otherwise pleasant state of mind.
“What’s the name of this foundation?”
“You wouldn’t have heard of it. But I know that doesn’t suffice for an answer. So I’ll tell you what. Tomorrow night I’ll not only tell you all about my organization—I’ll show you. Some of my colleagues are having a little get-together. I want you to attend as my guest. I’ll pick you up here around six.”
For the third or fourth time that evening, Nicholas Naretti gave her conflicting feelings. A part of her believed that the best course of action would be to beg off. She needed time to process her impressions of him. Perhaps she had made a mistake by sleeping with him tonight.
“Oh-kay,” she said without much enthusiasm.
“Come on, Kara. Don’t disappoint me. You’ll have a good time. And tomorrow night, I’ll be able to answer every question you could possibly have. I promise.”
Every question? Maybe she should take him up on his invitation. Another part of her was insatiably curious about Nicholas Naretti, and determined to unravel the mystery that he had thus far been hiding behind.
She sensed that there was a dark edge to Nicholas; but it didn’t strike her as dangerous. And anyway, she thought, each one of us has a dark side.
“Alright,” she said. “You’re a hard one to say no to. But I’m going to hold you to your promise.”
The location of the “get-together” surprised Kara. Nicholas’s upper middle-class roots, impeccable dress, and expensive car suggested a certain set of associations. Kara had been anticipating a venue in one of Cincinnati’s nicer suburbs, or possibly an upscale bar in the city’s entertainment district.
She had not been expecting Nicholas to take her into the run-down belt of urban decay that lay just north of downtown. This was a ramshackle sector of partially occupied warehouses, abandoned brick office buildings, and dilapidated row houses. These were streets where gang graffiti adorned every other wall, and where weeds poked up between the cracks of crumbling sidewalks.
“Is this neighborhood safe?” she asked, her trepidation showing a bit.
“We’ll be fine,” Nicholas said.
He parked the Lexus along the street outside a dirty red brick building. At the front door Nicholas rang the buzzer and spoke briefly into an intercom speaker that was mounted into the outside wall. This interchange was followed by an electronic buzz and a metallic click. Nicholas pulled the door open and ushered Kara inside. He followed directly behind her. Once inside, they immediately ascended two flights of stairs before turning off into a dimly lit hallway on the second floor.
Nicholas stopped before a door that was unmarked except for a small metal plate bearing the number 206. He rapped twice and a diminutive female in her mid-twenties answered. She wore dark eye shadow and at least a half-dozen earrings in her nose, lower lip, and ears. Her closely cropped blonde hair had black roots.
“Kara, meet Moon,” Nicholas said. “Moon, this is Kara.”
Moon regarded Kara with raised eyebrows and a hint of a smile.
“Meetcha,” she said, as she pulled open the door.
The inside of the apartment flat was peopled with about fifteen guests who shared Moon’s fashion sensibilities. Many had dyed hair and multiple body piercings. They wore tee shirts and hooded jackets that bore the peace sign, a marijuana leaf, or the iconic image of Che Guevara in a beret. There were more tattoos than Kara could count.
The dress itself didn’t bother Kara. She had been to plenty of campus parties where the crowd was “alternative.” And she had occasionally toyed with the idea of getting a discreet tattoo herself.
No, the way these people dressed didn’t make Kara uncomfortable. What made her uncomfortable was the way they regarded her: an entire room full of narrowed eyes and sullen faces.
She recalled how, the previous night, Nicholas had briefly displayed the implacable glare of an inquisitor. But Nicholas’s “colleagues” weren’t as skillful at dissembling as he was, and they apparently lacked all sense of tact and propriety. As Kara looked into each of their faces, their accusatory glares never wavered.
Nicholas clapped his hands together. “Hey, let’s give Kara a warm welcome,” he said.
All eyes were upon her. At first there was only stone cold silence. Then a few awkward, perfunctory claps.
And then, a deafening roar: “KAARRAAA!”
Kara recoiled as a huge man burst forth from the crowd, his feet pounding on the floorboards. She barely had time to note that her attacker was wearing camouflage army pants and an olive green utility jacket. His mouth was wide open, her name on his lips. “KAAARAAA!” he screamed again. The giant appeared so suddenly and unexpectedly that she had no time to move out of his way.
But rather than assault her, the big man embraced her.
“Any friend of Nicholas is a friend of ours! Welcome, Kara!” he yelled in her ear. As he pulled her close, she cringed at his musky smell of perspiration and unlaundered clothing. He released her just as she was about to push herself away.
“Welcome, Kara!” he repeated in that booming voice of his.
He towered over her. The giant’s bushy, tangled mane of reddish brown hair was tied behind his shoulders in a loose ponytail. His long beard obviously had not had contact with a blade for weeks. Although his girth belonged to a sedentary man of forty, he was the age of a typical undergraduate.
“Well, now you’ve met Bear,” Nicholas said. “That’s the hardest part for any outsider. It’s all downhill from here.”
That broke the ice. Kara’s audience was laughing now. They might have been just another group of college kids.
Bear playfully punched Nicholas on the arm.
“Kara, these are the members of Gaia Cried Out.” Nicholas put one arm around her shoulder. With his other hand he made a half-circle sweeping gesture toward the college kids that were gathered around them.
“We take our name from Gaia, the Greek goddess of the Earth,” he said by way of explanation. “And right now Gaia is indeed crying out. She is in pain. She is in crisis.”
There were murmurs of agreement. The young woman called Moon stared intently at Nicholas and nodded her head.
“Our organization is dedicated to turning things around, to stopping humankind’s shameful exploitation of the planet. Kara, this is what Gaia Cried Out is all about.”
Kara wondered if she should say something. Perhaps an intelligent question about their organization would have been in order. But the levity of a few moments ago was already hardening again. She believed that any words she might utter at these sullen faces would be the wrong ones.
“Okay,” Nicholas said, clapping his hands together. “Now that you’ve met Kara, let’s not overwhelm her with attention.”
They dispersed, and Kara was alone again with Nicholas.
“I bet I know what you’re thinking,” he said.
“You’re thinking that I’m very different from the other people in this room.”
Kara paused for a moment to contemplate Nicholas, with his GQ looks and equally GQ dress. Then she surveyed the motley band of misfits throughout the room again.
“Yeah, I guess that had occurred to me,” she said.
“You’re partially right,” Nicholas said. “My appearance may stand out in a room like this; but believe me: I share the same concerns and passions as everyone in this room.”
“What is your role in all of this, then?” Kara asked.
“A very good question. I can tell that you come from a family of industrialists. You want to know if I’m the CEO, don’t you?”
“No, I’m not the CEO. Gaia Cried Out doesn’t have such a position. We adhere to what you might call a flat management structure. Gaia Cried Out has chapters all over the country. I’m the recruiter for the Cincinnati chapter. I’m the organization’s external face. I recruit people, of course; but I also recruit money. It takes resources to do what we do.”
And it also takes resources to buy a Lexus, Kara thought. She was now able to guess how Nicholas could afford such an expensive car.
“You solicit donations, then.”
“That’s only part of it.”
There was a burst of appreciative laughter from the far corner of the room. A throng of Gaia Cried Out members were gathered around a laptop computer perched atop a rickety card table. Moon was seated in a folding metal chair. Her fingertips clicked across the keyboard.
“Now check this one out,” she said.
Kara could see that they were watching online videos, though she couldn’t see the details.
“Go ahead,” Nicholas said. “Take a look.”
Kara practically tiptoed over to the card table. She slipped into a gap between the shoulders of two young men. Moon had already started the video.
Kara could make out the shape of a two-story house. Flames engulfed half of the home. The camera angle shifted and panned to four people—what looked liked two parents and two children. They were dressed in their nightclothes and shivered in the predawn chill. The red and blue lights of emergency vehicles shifted and flickered in the darkness around them.
Then the video cut to a young female reporter with a microphone. “The Robinson family was awakened this morning by gunfire, flames, and shouted insults from radical environmentalists.”
“Listen to that,” said Moon. “How the media always insults our cause.”
“Police say a group calling itself Gaia’s Revenge had been making threatening phone calls to the Robinson home for several weeks before this morning’s arson attack. The Robinsons incurred the wrath of the environmentalists when they built their home on freshly cleared land near—”
“Yeah, tell ‘em!” shouted a man who stood directly behind Moon. “Tell them what those pigs were doing to Gaia!”
“I’m Amanda Hartwell, reporting in Boulder for KH12TV.”
Now the newscast was replaced by a solid red screen. Ominous music played in the background. It was the score that always accompanied Darth Vader in the Star Wars movies.
Three sentences appeared on the screen in bold white caps:
“THIS IS WAR! GAIA’S WARRIORS ARE TAKING BACK THE EARTH! THIS TIME, THERE WERE NO HUMAN CASUALTIES!”
“BUT GAIA WILL NOT ALWAYS BE SO MERCIFUL!”
As the video ended, Moon and the others competed in offering appreciative comments about the video’s production and handling of the subject matter. Recalling the family of four huddled outside their burning home, Kara was horrified.
She looked for Nicholas, and Nicholas was at her shoulder.
“Is this what your organization does?” she asked.
“No,” he shook his head and flashed that warm, irresistible smile of his. “Gaia’s Revenge is a different group, no relationship to Gaia Cried Out.”
Kara said nothing more; but she was certain that Nicholas was lying to her.
For the first fifteen minutes of the drive back from the party, they were all but silent. Then Nicholas asked her:
“What did you think of my colleagues?”
“They’re great,” she said a tad too quickly.
“Kara,” he said. “Kara, you aren’t being honest. I can tell. I’m a fairly perceptive judge of human nature, you know. Now tell me what you really think.”
“Oh-kay,” she began. “I found them a little—”
“Fanatical?” he provided.
“That word fits the bill as well as any, I guess.”
Nicholas said nothing in response.
“Sorry,” she said.
“That’s alright,” Nicholas said slowly. “I understand. Really. I think you’ll see in time that it all depends on your perspective. What you see as fanaticism can also be seen as dedication. Those people are very dedicated to saving the earth from environmental destruction. Don’t you think that’s important?”
“Of course I do, but—“
“But all you can see is your own life and your own concerns.”
“That’s not it at all.”
“Then prove it.”
“Prove it? How?”
“Join us. Become a member of Gaia Cried Out. Help us rescue the planet from humankind’s destructive ways.”
Kara recalled how the members of Gaia Cried Out had howled at the images of the burning home.
“You’re going to have to give me some time to think about that, Nicholas.”
“Sure,” he said. His tone suggested that he knew the truth: She had no intention of thinking about it at all; her noncommittal reply was simply a way of avoiding an awkward refusal.
“We’re going to make a little stop on the way home,” Nicholas announced.
“It’s a surprise. Trust me, Kara.”
Ten minutes later Nicholas turned off the highway onto a familiar exit.
“I know,” Nicholas said. “This is same exit on which Teller Electronics is located. But we aren’t going there.”
“Where are we going?”
“The Shawnee Trails Nature Preserve.”
“It’s a surprise.”
After a few turns and a few more miles they were in the empty, moonlit parking lot of the Shawnee Trails Nature Preserve. Nicholas killed the engine. Without saying a word, he reached across Kara’s lap and withdrew a small flashlight from the Lexus’s glove compartment. Then he opened the driver’s side door and stepped outside. He began walking across the gravel parking lot, toward an open field.
Not knowing what else to do, she followed him.
“Nicholas!” she demanded. “Where are you going? Tell me what this is about.”
He did not turn around to look at her when he responded. “Just keep walking, Kara. Not much farther. You’ll understand everything in a few minutes.”
She continued to follow him as he threaded his way through the knee-high field of grass, black-eyed Susan, and other wild flora. Then he stopped abruptly and turned on the flashlight.
Finally she caught up to him. “Nicholas!” she repeated his name. “What are you doing?”
He ignored her question and crouched down in the grass, probing the ground with the beam of the flashlight. A smile crept onto his face. “They’re still alive,” he said. “Still alive thanks to Gaia’s mercy.”
He motioned toward her with his free hand, his gaze still fixed on the ground. “Come here,” he said. “But be careful.”
She closed the remaining distance between them. Now she stood over the crouching Nicholas, and she could see the focus of his attention.
A small moth with white and green wings clung to a stalk of Queen Anne’s lace. The insect was apparently spinning a structure around the stalk of the flower.
“You see that?” he asked. He was looking at the moth as a man might look at the face of his first-born child.
“See what? All I see is a moth building a nest.”
“It isn’t just any moth. Look at these patterns on its wings. This is a spotted turtle moth. And what you see around the stalk of this plant is an egg sac. The spotted turtle moth uses the Shawnee Trails Nature Preserve as a breeding ground. The conditions here are perfect for it: lots of leafy vegetation and plenty of open space.”
Kara said: “I’ve never seen that kind of moth before.”
A shadow fell across Nicholas’s face. “That doesn’t surprise me. The spotted turtle moth is dying off, because so much of its habitat is being bulldozed for strip malls and subdivisions. And industry, of course.”
“Is the spotted turtle moth on the EPA’s endangered species list?”
Nicholas snorted. “Gaia Cried Out has been lobbying the EPA about this moth for two years now. They won’t listen to reason. Maybe now you can see now why our organization needs to do so much fundraising. It takes money to lobby in Washington.”
Kara decided to use this opening to confront Nicholas about the video.
“Does it also take money to destroy people’s homes? I’m concerned Nicholas, about what I saw on that video. Based on what I saw, Gaia Cried Out is involved in criminal acts. Hurting people.”
“I told you: we disavow violence. There is no connection between us and the people who burned down that home, but—”
“But a part of you approves, don’t you?”
“Think about it like this, Kara: Sometimes the ends justify the means.”
“I want to go home now.”
He stood up, exercising visible caution to avoid disturbing the spotted turtle moth. “We can go wherever you want, Kara; but I want you to reconsider the idea of joining Gaia Cried Out. I could tell that you weren’t very enthusiastic about the idea.”
“No,” she said truthfully.
“We need you Kara. You could really benefit our organization.”
“I don’t understand, Nicholas. Why me in particular? Why is it so important to you that I become involved? You don’t even know me that well, even though—”
She was going to say: Even though we slept together. But she stopped herself.
“Kara, we need to expand the Shawnee Trails Nature Preserve so that the spotted turtle moth will have plenty of room to breed. It takes continuous, uninterrupted wilderness to support a thriving population. That means that the companies in this area will have to relocate. You’re a member of the Teller Electronics family. You could convince your brother to move the company elsewhere. That would get the ball rolling, and other companies that have factories around here would follow suit.”
“Nicholas, have you ever run a business? Do you know how difficult it is to relocate a working factory? The expenses involved? It isn’t something that you do on a whim.”
“It’s all about priorities, Kara. For that matter, it wasn’t easy for me to meet you, but I planned and—”
Nicholas paused abruptly, apparently sensing that he had said too much.
And suddenly Kara realized how it had all come about: Her seemingly serendipitous meeting with Nicholas in the student union had not been so serendipitous after all. He had planned it all out. He had targeted her because he believed that she would be of use to him.
“This was all a big scam, wasn’t it?” she said. “You used me, didn’t you?”
“Don’t be so self-centered, Kara. People kill for important causes everyday. It wasn’t as if I didn’t like you anyway. I did.”
She slapped him across the face.
“You son of a bitch!”
Nicholas ran his palm over the cheek that Kara had slapped. “If you ever do that again, Kara, you’ll be very, very sorry.”
She did not want to talk to him anymore. She did not want to look at him, or even be near him. Accepting a ride home from him was out of the question at this point. There was no way she could bear to sit so close to him in the little compartment of the Lexus.
Kara took off running, back toward the parking lot. At first he stood his ground and commanded her to stop, to come back. This gave her a sizable head start. When he finally did run after her, she was already huddled low on her hands and knees behind a cinderblock grill at the edge of the parking lot, near the picnic tables.
Nicholas walked around the Lexus, kicking gravel and shouting into the air. “Kara, this is your last warning! You either show yourself now or I’m going to leave you here!”
She remained silent, pressing her body against the wall of the grill, so that she had a chance of evading him if he walked back into the picnic area. Kara knew that her hiding spot was not particularly secure; it bordered on obvious, in fact. She had no doubt that Nicholas Naretti would be able to locate her if he was truly determined.
But Nicholas did not seem intent on making an exhaustive search.
“You know that it wouldn’t take me that long to find you!” he shouted, as if reading her thoughts. “I’m not going to track you down, though. Instead I’m going to leave you to think about your priorities. You’re a self-centered girl, Kara.”
She heard the ignition of the Lexus and then its rumbling engine. The car shot gravel from beneath its tires as Nicholas sped out of the parking lot.
And then she was alone in the darkness of the nature preserve. Just me and the spotted turtle moths, she thought grimly.
Luckily, Kara had taken her purse with her when she had set out after Nicholas. She therefore had her cell phone.
The readout on the cell phone told her that it was 10:22 p.m. She considered calling a taxi, and then thought against it.
Instead she dialed the home number of her brother, Andrew.
“Kara, we’ve got to do something about your taste in boys,” Andrew chided her, half seriously. They were riding in his minivan. Kara had given her brother a very limited account of the events that led up to her abandonment at the nature preserve. Her first impulse was to let Andrew believe that this was a garden-variety date from hell. She felt foolish: Nicholas had set out to bamboozle her, and he had succeeded.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” Andrew said after a while. “You might as well give me the bloody details. You look like you’re ready to burst at the seams. Besides, we have a thirty-minute ride ahead of us.”
With that she relented, and told Andrew the entire story: Nicholas’s deception of her in the student union, the precipitously intimate first date, and finally the events of this evening.
When she had finished, Andrew said nothing.
“What’s the matter with you, Andrew?” she asked. “Now you’re the one who looks ready to burst at the seams.”
“Well, it could be only a coincidence,” Andrew said. “But I’ve been receiving some threatening communications from a group a lot like the one you describe.”
“Gaia Cried Out?” she asked.
“Nope.” Andrew shook his head. “This group calls itself Minions of the Earth. They’ve sent several harassing letters to my home: a bunch of rambling nonsense about closing down the factory.”
“Did they mention the ‘spotted turtle moth’?”
“No. These letters have been more or less boilerplate rants against industrialization, laced with a bit of fringe socioeconomic invective. ‘Tear down the factories and free the people’ That sort of thing.”
She reminded Andrew that Gaia Cried Out seemed to have loose affiliations with some more destructive groups. “Have they done anything violent?” she asked.
“Nothing so far. But I there was an ‘incident’ of sorts.”
“Well, the other day I was helping Karen prepare dinner and Jenny was playing out in the yard. Your niece may only be eight years old, but we’ve drilled a healthy fear of strangers into her head.
“Anyway, Jenny runs into the house and she was obviously frightened. She said that some scary looking men were hanging out near the house. Jenny said there were two or three of them sitting inside a van.
“I peeked out one of the front windows and saw that sure enough, there was a van idling across the street, sort of cater-cornered to our house. The neighbor over there is Mrs. Johnson. She’s a widow and doesn’t receive many visitors; so that made me suspicious.
“Then I went outside to investigate. I exited through the side door—by the garage—rather than going through the front door. That enabled me to approach from behind the van, sneak up on them, if you will.”
“And?” Kara prompted.
“Well, the driver saw me in the side mirror. He had a shocked look on his face. Let me tell you—I think that I scared him more than he had scared either Jenny or me. When he saw me, he threw the van into gear and sped off.”
“Did you get the license plate?” Kara asked hopefully.
“Sure didn’t. I know: I should have taken the time to do that; but it isn’t everyday that I surprise a large bearded man while he’s staking out my house.”
“Wait a second,” Kara said. “What did you say?”
“I said I should have taken the time to note the driver’s license, but—”
“No, your description of the driver.”
“Oh, him. He was seated of course; but he looked like a big guy. He had a long beard and even longer hair.”
The image that immediately formed in Kara’s mind was: the giant man whom Nicholas had introduced as Bear.
“Andrew, we should call the police,” she said. She related the similarities between Bear and the driver of the van.
“Whoa, whoa, Sis. I appreciate your concern. But what do we have to go on, really? You had a bad experience with this Nicholas. I’ve received some letters that are annoying—but not overtly threatening. And I saw a suspicious vehicle in my neighborhood.”
“Andrew, the driver of that van was the same guy I saw at Nicholas’s party. He has to be.”
Andrew paused to consider this. “Well, maybe. But we still don’t have any proof. All the same, I’m going to keep the kids inside for a few days.”
“Watch out for yourself, too, Andrew.”
“Relax, Kara, these fanatics aren’t going to hurt your big brother. Hey, this is your apartment, right?”
“Be careful, Andrew,” she said as she exited Andrew’s minivan. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
“I will, Kara. And you stay away from Nicholas Na—what’s his name?”
“Naretti. Don’t worry. I don’t plan to ever see him again.”
But as she walked up to the front door of her apartment, Kara knew that it would not be as simple as that.
Gaia Cried Out. Gaia’s Revenge. Minions of the Earth. Kara entered the name of each organization into various search engines, and followed their respective trails of hyperlinks.
She was too tired to sleep, even though the system clock on her computer read 12:44 a.m. She now had no doubt that Nicholas had lied to her. The only question was: how vast was his deception?
All three environmental organizations had numerous references on news sites and blogs. Kara opened a Word document and made a record of each one, then cross-referenced them.
A pattern quickly emerged: When an environmental issue arose, Gaia Cried Out spoke to the press and the relevant politicians. (Kara found a half-dozen quotes from Nicholas himself on various online news sites from around the country.) Minions of the Earth sent semi-threatening letters to business leaders and other targeted individuals. Then Gaia’s Revenge did the actual dirty work: the bombing of a factory, residential arson, etc.
These three groups were either part of the same organization, or they at least worked in close coordination. They were often mentioned in relation to the same environmental controversies, and always in the same ascending order of lawlessness.
I have to get out of here, Kara thought. I have to leave right now.
She grabbed her car keys and headed for the front door, still unsure of her destination. Should she go and warn Andrew first? Or would it be better to begin with the police?
Kara was standing outside her apartment, fastening her deadbolt in the darkness when she heard the sound of breathing.
Bear had expended some effort in climbing the stairs to the front door of her apartment.
“Kara, any friend of Nicholas’s is a friend of mine,” he said.
She began to step around him, to sprint for the street; but he was not alone. Someone knocked her purse and keys from her hands.
Then a blunt object struck her in the head, and Kara saw only darkness.
She seemed to be in an abandoned warehouse of some sort. There was a single overhead light bulb and bare cinderblock walls.
They had her bound and strapped to a wooden framework on the floor—probably an old pallet. A rag was stuffed in her mouth and secured with duct tape.
She was immediately aware of two additional physical sensations: her aching head and her nakedness. She suspected that she might have a concussion.
But her nakedness frightened her far more.
She heard male laughter from the darkness, just beyond the field of light created by the light bulb.
“Oh, Kara,” one voice said. She knew who the voice belonged to.
Bear emerged from the shadows and stood over her. Her heart began to pound frantically when she saw that he was also naked. And he was already excited by the sight of her.
His sagging chest and big belly—both covered with thick body hair, jiggled as he knelt down and began to stroke her thigh.
“Get to it, Bear,” said another male voice she did not recognize. “I want my turn.”
She tried to scream. But the effort was futile with the gag stuffed in her mouth.
“I want you to know,” whispered Bear as he lowered his sweaty bulk onto her, “that Nicholas ordered this. He said it was your punishment.”
When they were done they knocked her out again. She did not receive another blow to the head. This time they put her to sleep with chloroform. When the damp rag descended onto her face, it was almost a mercy, as defiled as she felt by Bear and the two other men. She did not look at their faces; she looked at the darkened ceiling, struggling in vain to free herself as they had their way with her.
Then she awoke again; and for a little while—she could not tell how long—she faded in and out of the chemically induced sleep. Finally she managed to regain full consciousness. She was in a motel room, lying on one of the room’s twin beds. Her hands were bound behind her, and her legs were tied at the ankles. She was still gagged.
She turned her head and there was Nicholas.
“Good morning, Kara,” he said.
She was beyond hating him now, and expending further mental energy on her rage at Nicholas Naretti would have been futile. She had to think, had to figure out what Nicholas was up to, if she hoped to extract herself from this situation alive.
Nicholas was standing on the far side of the room. Two other men were hunched over the little motel room table that was bolted into the carpet. On the wall behind them, the room’s drapes were closed; but sunlight streamed in around the edges. It must be Sunday morning.
Her stomach turned: one of the men at the table was Bear. She began to relive the events of the night before and willed herself to hold back her hysteria. There was no time for that now. They had kidnapped and raped her. This had raised the stakes exponentially. If they freed her, they doomed themselves. So what were they planning to do to her next?
The other young man was slight of build and wore glasses. Nicholas addressed him as Cody. Was Cody one of the three men who had raped her last night? Yes, she believed that he was.
Cody was assembling a mechanical device of some sort while Nicholas and Bear watched.
“Let me get this straight,” said Nicholas. “All we have to do is push the button, right?”
Nicholas was referring to a small black metallic box that lay on the table. There was a red button on the top side of the box.
“That’s right, Nick. Push the button and boom!”
“Okay,” Nicholas said. “Let’s get this straight. We use Kara’s employee card to get in. Since it’s Sunday morning, there won’t be a security guard on duty. We plant the bomb in the boiler room. Then we hightail it out and press this button. You said the detonator signal works from how far away? A quarter of a mile? Is that right?”
“That’s right,” Cody said.
“Good. We’ll have plenty of time.”
Nicholas was twirling Kara’s Teller Electronics employee ID in his hand. He looked at the photo on the ID card and then at her.
“I wish you had helped us willingly, Kara. Really I do. But since you decided to be stubborn—decided to be selfish—this is what it’s come to.
“You’ve probably already gathered that we’re going to take out the Teller Electronics plant this morning. I won’t lie to you, Kara, since you’ve demonstrated that you value the truth so much.”
And then Kara desperately tried to communicate to Nicholas through the gag.
“What are you trying to say, Kara?”
Bear and Cody laughed.
“Cat got your tongue, Kara?” Bear asked.
Kara strained against the gag to speak.
“Leave the bitch gagged,” Cody said to Nicholas.
“No. She might actually have something to say that could help us.”
“I think it would be a bad idea to let her talk.”
“I’ll decide what is a good idea and what is a bad idea.” Then to Kara: “Okay. Cody here will pull the gag down and let you talk. But I’m warning you: If you try to scream, I’ll have Bear crack your skull.”
Muttering beneath his breath, Cody walked over to the bed and almost gingerly lifted Kara’s head. He pulled the gag down over her chin.
“Nicholas, please. My brother will be in the office on Sunday morning. He always works Sundays after—”
At Nicholas’s signal, Cody stuffed the gag back into her mouth and let her head fall back onto the pillow.
“First of all, Kara, I’m not sure I believe you. But let’s suppose that I do. Our only option for blowing the factory is Sunday morning. There is no way we could do it on any other day. And there would be far more casualties if we did.”
Nicholas paused and seemed to consider the dilemma in greater depth.
“No, no, Kara, I’m sorry. For once Gaia is going to come first. You probably think that the spotted turtle moth is trivial. Well, I’m telling you, at this moment it is more important to us than your brother.”
Kara tried to scream at Nicholas.
“I’m sorry,” Nicholas said.
As Nicholas gave orders, Bear and Cody packed the detonator and their other equipment into a gym bag. Kara watched, knowing that the contents of the gym bag would likely end her brother’s life.
Behind her back, her fingers probed the knots that bound her hands. She moved her shoulders and arms as little as possible. She did not think they would notice: Nicholas and his companions were absorbed in their final preparations.
They are going to drive to my dead father’s factory and kill my brother, Kara thought. Unless I can find some way to stop them.
And then Kara felt a glimmer of hope. Her finger found a loop in the nylon rope fastened around her wrists. She stuck her finger in the loop and—
“Hey,” Bear was seated on the edge of the bed, caressing her calf. “What you say, Nicholas, can I have one more turn?”
“No,” Nicholas said firmly. He clenched his hands into fists. Kara half expected Nicholas to stride across the room and strike Bear. She did not believe that Nicholas was actually having second thoughts about permitting the rape. He was annoyed that Bear would allow a momentary fit of lust to jeopardize their operation.
“Bear, go downstairs and wait in the van!”
Bear sighed and heaved his bulk up from the bed.
The motel room door opened and closed. Kara continued to work the knot behind her back.
“I know you hate me,” Nicholas said to her at length. “And believe me, I didn’t picture it working out this way. I thought you would understand the significance of our cause, Kara.” He caressed her cheek.
Then his face shifted. The charming façade had returned for only a moment and now it was gone again.
“If only you weren’t so goddamned selfish!” he shouted. He slapped her across the face. She saw stars.
“Easy, Nicholas,” Cody said. “These walls are paper-thin, you know.”
“I know, I know. You’re right, Cody. It just makes me angry, the way some people can go about their lives and never think of the bigger picture, never think about all the damage they do.”
Nicholas’s next pronouncement was preempted by a chirping sound from his pants pocket. He pulled out his cell phone.
Kara felt a major portion of a large knot give way behind her back.
“Bear!” Nicholas said into the cell phone. “What are you talking about? Okay. Hold tight. We’ll be right down.”
“What?” Cody looked at Nicholas.
“Bear says one of the van tires is flat. We have to change it before we leave.”
“Couldn’t Bear do that?”
“Bear is practically useless for anything except driving. You know that. Come on.” Nicholas started for the door.
“Hey what about…” Cody gestured to Kara.
For Kara, the world slowed down to slow-motion speed. If Nicholas decided to check her bindings before he stepped out, she was dead. If one of them stayed in the room, she was dead.
Nicholas paused to consider the situation.
“It will only take us a few minutes if we hurry,” he concluded. “She’s tied up. And she’s gagged.”
Cody shrugged as if to say, you’re the boss, Nicholas.
Once the door to the motel room was closed behind them, Kara made herself wait a full thirty seconds before sitting up. She had worked her hands completely loose from the nylon rope that bound them.
Next she had to free her feet. Her heart sank when she examined the multiple knots that bound her ankles together. It would take her half an hour to loosen all those knots—and she figured that she had no more than fifteen minutes, at the most.
She swung her bound feet onto the floor and stood erect. The room swam before her and she nearly toppled back onto the bed.
She scanned the room for a phone. The cheap motel room either had no phone, or Nicholas had removed it and hidden it somewhere. Did she have time to look for it? Probably not.
The closed curtains, framed around the edges by sunlight, were an irresistible magnet. She had to risk a look outside, although Nicholas and his friends might see her.
Kara hopped awkwardly toward the curtain, on her two legs that were now joined as one.
When she carefully pulled the curtain back, there was a sliding glass door. Outside, a balcony and a landscape that looked vaguely familiar. She was on the second floor of a motel located near Teller Electronics. She recognized the two-lane highway that stretched out beyond the motel’s parking lot.
A fresh wave of panic surged into her chest. She had been thinking herself so brave and clever when she loosened the knots; but now there seemed to be no way out. She couldn’t telephone for help, and running would be impossible with her legs tied like this.
Maybe she should hop out into the hall and start screaming. That might work; but how many guests would be in the motel on a Sunday morning? These places primarily serviced business travelers, most of whom would be home spending the weekend with their families. And what if she fell in the middle of the hall, a sitting duck for her captors when they returned?
The gym bag containing the bomb and the detonator was sitting where they had placed it on the table. Cody had left the bag open and the bomb was clearly visible. It was a jumble of wires and duct tape—not a very professional job from what she could determine.
Kara began rifling through the bag, careful not to touch the red button on the detonator. There were various tools inside the gym bag: screwdrivers and pliers that Cody had used to assemble the bomb.
Kara was wondering if she could use one of the screwdrivers to free her feet when she heard Nicholas’s voice in the hallway. He was laughing boisterously, probably a display of false bravado before they carried out their mission.
Why would they be coming back already? she wondered. They had been gone barely five minutes—certainly not enough time to change a tire.
That question could have any number of answers, and it made no difference anyway. She had less than twenty seconds before they were in the room and upon her.
Kara looked down into the gym bag and made a decision.
When Nicholas opened the door to the motel room, he found Kara flat on her back with her eyes closed.
“Sleeping,” Cody said, apparently taken in by her routine.
“Well, what do you expect, after what she’s been through?”
“Should we wake her?”
“Why should we?”
“Do we do it now, then?”
Nicholas paused. “No, we’ll wait.”
“We don’t have to do it, you know.”
“Yes, we do. It’s not pleasant. But I’ve thought about it and there’s no way around it. Not after last night—and everything she knows.”
“I wish there was some way around it.”
“So do I.”
“Do we take her with us, then?”
“No. She’d only slow us down. We’ll leave her tied up here.”
“What about the maid?”
“We’ll hang the DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door before we leave. And we’ll be back in an hour or less.”
“Okay. But I still wish—”
“No more about that. I already told you. Concentrate on the mission. Come on. Bear’s waiting for us in the van.”
“Bear’s an idiot.”
“We agree on that. He can’t even recognize a flat tire.”
“You really don’t think the tire will be a problem?”
“No. It’s a slow leak. And we don’t have far to go.”
“If it goes flat along the way, we’re dead meat.”
“Stop worrying, Cody. Leave the worrying to me. Now grab the bag and let’s get out of here.”
The door clicked shut behind them. Kara could hear them hanging the DO NOT DISTURB sign over the doorknob.
Kara permitted herself a brief moment of self-satisfaction. These men had thought so little of her that they were willing to leave her alone in a motel room after casually discussing her murder. They had abducted her, raped her, and held her as a prisoner. Next they would take everything from her: her brother, her family’s business, and finally her life.
But they had underestimated her, hadn’t they?
Kara raised herself onto her feet again, now fairly adept at hopping with her ankles tied together. She hopped over to the heavy, drab-colored curtains. She parted the curtains a little and edged the sliding glass door open. Then she grasped the wrought iron railing and eased herself onto the balcony.
She grasped the outside railing only with her right hand. She could only use one hand for the railing, because she held an object in her left hand. She had removed it from the gym bag, then shoved it behind her pillow before Nicholas entered the room. And the two overconfident men had not thought to double-check the contents of their bag before leaving.
Kara heard the van’s engine start up. A few seconds later it rolled into view: obviously an old clunker that had cost them no more than a thousand dollars. Or perhaps the van was stolen.
The van edged out of the parking lot and onto the two-lane highway in front of the motel. Kara could see Nicholas in the front passenger seat. No doubt Bear was driving. And Cody would be seated in the back, double-checking the bomb, the detonator, and whatever tools he deemed essential.
The van screeched to a halt. So Cody had finally noticed that the detonator was missing.
Kara held the detonator aloft and aimed it at the stopped van. With it being Sunday morning, there were no other cars in sight—except for a few empty ones that were parked in the motel lot.
She pressed the little red button.
The initial sound reminded her of a thunderclap. She felt the shockwaves even as she witnessed their effects: The sides of the van buckled outward before ripping completely apart. The deafening boom of the explosion was followed by the slightly lesser sounds of shredding metal and shattering glass. The van’s windshield burst out onto the pavement.
At least one of the men inside the van screamed; but he did not scream for long. There was a second explosion as the fuel tank ignited. The van rocked back and forth on its chassis.
Then it tipped over onto the highway, a twisted hulk of blackened metal. The capsized van was entirely engulfed in flames. Kara could feel the heat from where she stood on the balcony. A column of smoke and airborne debris billowed high above the wreckage. Particles of debris fell back to the ground like black snow.
I’ve got to get to a phone and call Andrew, Kara thought. No—before that I have to call the police.
But before she did any of that, she wanted to completely free herself. Kara hopped back inside and sat on one of the motel room’s double beds. Using a screwdriver that she had taken from the gym bag along with the detonator, she began to pry at the knots that bound her ankles.
Copyright 2009 Edward Trimnell