A Room Without a View
Harmony House: Episode 21
“Harmony House” is a serial novel with episodes released every Tuesday morning. You can read the setup for the story or start from the beginning. Each episode comes with high-quality audio narration for you to enjoy on the go with the Substack mobile app.
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In the last episode, Jessie and Deepu were kidnapped at gunpoint while outside in the woods gathering some walnuts. Their captor is a slight young woman with a foreign accent and her hands trembled as she trained the gun on them. While she was restraining their hands with zip ties, Jessie tried to get her to talk but she offered very little beyond the fact that her group has a radical mission focused on combatting the climate crisis. At the end of the episode, she was force-marching Jessie and Deepu through the woods to an undisclosed location.
Jessie’s first thought was that this was a new escalation in the game. Desperate to ratchet up the stakes in what must be a very boring show so far, the BangOn! fuckers had decided to fake a kidnapping. But as he picked his way through the woods, following the orders of their captor, he became less convinced.
If they were trying to capture must-see TV, they would not have taken their devices. Also, why would they choose this slight person with a quivering voice and shaky hand? Wouldn’t they go for a big thuggish type straight out of central casting? It didn’t add up.
She directed them out onto an old dirt track that looked like a neglected forestry service road. They walked for ten minutes in silence, the only sound the crunch of their boots. The binding was cutting a line of fire into his wrists. Jessie was trying to recall any detail about the girl behind them with a gun that might be useful but the only thing that had made an impression was her accent. It was impossible to place, but it was definitely not American. The small blonde braid and fair skin made him think of Norway or Sweden. Nothing at all about her clothing, or what he remembered of it was helpful beyond the fact that it was not a uniform or anything like military. She could have been one of the thousands of young hikers he had encountered on as many trails over the years.
He could hear Deepu’s rapid breathing behind him and worried that he might be having a panic attack. That might not be a bad thing. If the kid collapsed and couldn’t go on, it would throw a wrench in her plans to get them to wherever she was taking them. But after a few minutes, Deepu’s breathing normalized and all Jessie could hear was the sound of his footsteps. The road was beginning to open up a bit as they started to descend, rounding the curve of a steep switchback. The sudden squawk of the girl’s walkie startled Jessie.
“Barred Owl, do you copy?”
“Yes, we’re en route. Almost there, over,” the girl responded.
“Any trouble?” the male voice asked.
“Nope, no trouble. You should be able to see us soon.”
The walkie went silent, and they kept walking down the steep grade. When they rounded the curve, the road straightened, and Jessie could see a vehicle parked on the shoulder about a hundred yards away. It was an old Jeep Wagoneer. As they approached, two men got out, both wearing woolen beanies and balaclavas similar to the girl’s. Neither was holding a weapon. As they got closer, Jessie could see one of the men was older by the way his clothes hung on his wiry frame. The other one appeared to be younger with an athletic build, but he didn’t look like a mercenary. Who were these people and what did they want from them?
“Nice work,” the older guy said, moving to open the rear door on the driver’s side. “Let’s get them into the vehicle and mask them.”
“Wait,” Deepu said. “Can you at least tell us what this is about? Why are you taking us?”
“No, get in,” the older guy said. “And shut up.”
Jessie’s heart began to race. This was not going to end well. It was not part of the game. He could feel it as surely as he had felt the menace of distant grizzly bears the few times he had encountered them in Yellowstone. Deepu’s legs gave out and he collapsed to the dirt track on his knees. The younger guy moved with surprising speed and grabbed him under one of his arms. The older guy took Deepu’s other arm and they dragged him over to the Jeep and pushed him inside. Jessie followed without a struggle and slid into the vehicle without argument. The young guy squeezed in beside him and pulled the door closed. The older one got into the driver’s seat and the girl sat in the passenger seat where she turned around and kept the gun trained on Jessie’s chest. Then it was dark. The younger guy had forced a black sack over his head that had the cloying scent of patchouli.
The Jeep began to move, slowly at first but soon picked up speed and bumped over the deep ruts of the old road. Jessie winced as the zip tie cut deeper into his wrists every time the vehicle pitched. Eventually, the road smoothed out and the sound of gravel gave way to pavement and then they were at speed on a highway. With every minute that passed, Jessie was conscious of how every mile of distance increased the odds that they would never be found. These people were serious, and they were not talking which was evidence that while they may not be professionals, they had planned this, and things were going according to plan.
He could hear the muffled sound of Deepu weeping. As scared as Jessie was, he realized the vast difference between their lives. Deepu’s life had barely gotten started. He was just figuring things out. Jessie’s life had been over for some time.
“It’s alright, man. We’re gonna be okay,” he whispered.
He didn’t believe that was the truth, but it was the right thing to say.
A few minutes later, the vehicle came to a stop. The doors opened and they were tugged roughly out of the backseat.
“Fuck, this guy’s bleeding,” the younger man, holding Jessie’s arm said. “Why’d you tie him so tight?”
“I didn’t, his friend did that,” the girl said.
“Never mind, let’s get them inside,” the older one said, grabbing Jessie’s other arm. “Look, we’re climbing some stairs now. Once we get inside, I’ll take off this hood and cut that tie.”
They climbed a small flight of wooden stairs that Jessie imagined to be a deck. Then they were inside a large room and the door closed behind them. The hood came off and Jessie had to squint until his eyes adjusted. The place looked like the great room in some kind of vacation cabin. The girl cut the plastic tie from his wrists, and he felt instant relief. He gently massaged the angry red lines branded into his flesh.
“Both of you sit, over there on the couch,” the older guy said.
Deepu and Jessie did as instructed. The place was not a luxury rental. Jessie could tell by the cheap décor, the fake wood flooring, and the stiff cushions on the couch. Whoever they were, these people were not part of some big operation. Their captors remained masked, and the older man sat in the chair opposite them. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. He wore weather-beaten Carhardt work pants and some equally tired-looking hiking boots. If it weren’t for the gun, Jessie would have guessed this trio was part of a group of volunteers spending a Sunday afternoon clearing a section of the Appalachian Trail.
“Look,” the older guy said, clearing his throat. “Our plan is not to hurt you unless we have absolutely no other choice, right?”
The man had no detectable regional accent but he had an affectation to his speech that was vaguely academic, bordering on effeminate in the way he articulated certain words.
“So, this isn’t part of the show?” Deepu asked, his voice cracking slightly. “You’re not doing some stunt? This is real?”
“Oh, I’m afraid not, friend. We are not part of the show. But I’m glad you brought it up because it’s precisely why we’re here,” the older guy said, leaning back in his chair. “We plan to use the platform of this ridiculous show to put the spotlight on something much bigger.”
“And what’s that?” Jessie asked.
“The only show that matters right now. The tragedy that’s been slowly unfolding for the past two hundred years. Jessie, you of all people should know what I’m talking about.”
Jessie didn’t answer though the answer was clear to him. He just stared blankly at the man and waited for what would happen next. The man turned to the girl who stood beside his chair and motioned for her to give him the pistol.
“Both of you, go and make sure the room is ready,” he said. “Double-check everything, hear me?”
She handed him the gun and then left the room with the other guy. Jessie heard a door open somewhere down the hall and then the sound of their footsteps descending a long set of stairs. He was genuinely confused. How the fuck did these wingnuts expect to strike a major blow against climate change by hijacking a fucking game show? This guy smelled like an orator though, so Jessie had little doubt he would hold forth and explain their mission with much detail and gravitas. He had known sanctimonious pricks like this his whole life because he shared many of the same passions. The guy turned his attention back to them. Jessie studied the pistol that rested in his hand on the arm of the chair hoping to get some clue as to whether it was indeed the real thing.
“I’m sure you’ve got a lot of questions,” the guy said. “But I’m not going to be able to give you much right now, except this. You won’t be harmed if you don’t try anything heroic and you cooperate with everything we ask you to do. You will be comfortable and well fed but it won’t be delivered by a goddamned drone. If you are thinking about doing something stupid, I want you to remember a couple of things. I will kill you if I need to. I’ve done it before. I don’t take pleasure in it, but I do what has to be done for the cause.”
He paused to let this sink in, his eyes moving from Jessie to Deepu. Jessie looked back at the gun. The man lifted it and held it up for inspection.
“I assure you it’s real,” he said. “And contrary to my liberal leanings, I happen to love guns. I was raised with them. I can drop a grouse from fifty yards out. You don’t want to try me. Are we clear?”
Jessie and Deepu nodded. The clomping of boots indicated that one of the others was coming back up the stairs. The older guy turned in that direction and called out.
“We all set?”
“Yeah, bring ‘em,” the younger one called back.
The basement room was windowless and smelled musty like it had flooded, and the carpet was never replaced. There was barely enough room for the queen-sized mattress that sat in the corner. There were a couple of neatly folded old quilts placed on top of it. Nothing else was in the laminate wood-paneled room, not even a lamp. The only light came from a dim overhead, its frosted glass globe a shadowy graveyard of insects.
After they heard their captors’ footfalls on the floor above them, Jessie walked over to the door and studied it. Given this was a budget rental, Jessie was hoping the room was fitted with one of the cheap hollow-core doors that were standard issue but right away he knew that was not the case. They had thought of that and replaced it with a solid door that had a metal shell and two deadbolt locks. He moved to begin studying the other dimensions of their cell but stopped when he heard Deepu’s irregular breathing.
The kid was sitting on the mattress, his back in the corner of the room, and his knees drawn up to his chest. His eyes were closed, and he was rocking back and forth. Of all the damned people to be locked up with, it had to be this one. If Jessie had believed in God, he would have thought he was being punished. Hadn’t he suffered enough?
“Hey, it’s gonna be alright,” he said, trying his best to sound more empathetic than he felt. “They’re not going to hurt us. We’re just going to be stuck here until they do whatever stupid shit they’re trying to do.”
Deepu didn’t respond. Jessie rarely allowed himself to give into fear. He had spent his life being afraid which was something only his ex-wife had ever known. All the extreme activities he had done in his life were not driven by some reckless desire to push the limits, but rather his version of exposure therapy. After little Mickey’s death, he knew that things didn’t work out, that awful things came after you and there is only the illusion of safety.
Against his better judgment, he had signed up for a game. This was no longer a game.
A few minutes later the door opened. The young man stood in the doorway with the gun pointed at Jessie.
“Get up,” he said, his voice muffled by the mask. “You’re coming with me.”
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Who’s Who in Harmony House?
Having trouble keeping track of who’s who from one week to the next? It’s tough when you only get to visit once a week. I made a little cheat sheet just for you: