From what Chris could recall, it had been almost six months since he'd last been to the gym. He'd been thinking of canceling his membership, but decided to give it one more shot. He changed in the locker room and headed toward the treadmill, thinking he'd start off with a night of light jogging. No sense jumping into the deep end first.
Just as he laid his foot on the treadmill, someone tapped him on the shoulder. "Excuse me."
Chris turned around to find a handgun pointed at his face.
"You're coming with me," the man said, grabbing him by the shoulder. His chin was covered with stubble, his hair ragged, his skin dry and leathery, even though he couldn't have been older than thirty. He had the same manic, ghostly eyes of the addict who had lived in Chris's old apartment complex. The gunman jerked Chris around and shoved him through the aisles of exercise machines. Men and women screamed at the sight of the man's pistol.
"Nothing funny or I blow his brains out!"
"Oh God Oh God Oh God Oh God Oh God." Chris's arms and legs became rubber. Any false move, any resistance could snuff him right out, and get a lot of people hurt in the process. It might not even matter what he did. All he could do was let this unshaven maniac drag him across the gym.
They passed through the weight room into a tiled corridor, past the restrooms. The air warmed up.
The gunman threw the door open and shoved Chris into the sauna. He fumbled onto a bench, keeping his eye on the gunman, and the gun itself. The other men, mostly middle-aged, tightened their towels and ran like hell through the door.
"All right!" The gunman shoved Chris onto a bench. "You ain't leaving until I get what I want!" He pulled out a cellphone. Keeping his pistol pointed at Chris, he dialed a number and listened. Chris couldn't hear anything from the other end.
"Hey, Denny. Guess what? It's Marko. You know that gym you own?
"Well, guess where I am.
"It's too late, Denny. I got some turd customer of yours here in the sauna, I got a Ruger in my other hand, and if you don't get me my money in one hour, this guy is gonna get wasted. After that, I don't know what I'm gonna do."
He closed the call and spun around to lock the sauna door. The gun stayed pointed, but not necessarily at Chris.
Sweat was building up under Chris's clothes, as if he'd been running uphill on the hottest day in summer. His terror plateaued into dread. His heart still raced, but without any obvious way out, he couldn't see what difference any particular action would make. He decided to talk. "How much does he owe you?"
And the gun pointed straight at him again. Chris flung his hands up. "That asswipe owes me eight hundred," Marko said. "I need that eight hundred!"
Only eight hundred? Didn't seem like much for a ransom demand. "What's it for?"
"Just a question."
The gunman stiffened his lip. "I need my fix."
Chris pulled his collar to air out his shirt. "Was this… you know, a drug deal?"
"Drug de—" The gunman started laughing. The gun stayed raised and aimed. "Oh man, you're a riot. You think I'm some kind of tweaked-out junkie, right?"
Chris dug himself further back on the bench.
"I mean, you're right," the gunman chuckled, scratching his neck. "But no, that's the problem. That Denny guy, he's too stiff to ever get near any junk. I painted his house."
"Painted his—" Was it some kind of awkward metaphor?
"I'm a house painter! And I did a god dam good job on his house, too! Didn't miss one spot! But I need that money, you know? I got rent, and electricity, and, and… well, and a problem."
"And he stiffed you on your pay?"
Marko's gun trembled. He nodded. "That stupid piece of shit. Like, I know I need help. I want rehab, but I can't afford it, you know? I ain't above working for a little charity. But Denny? He thinks he can get a free paint job from some druggie. Well, not this druggie!"
"Okay, for what it's worth," Chris said, "whoever this guy is, he sounds like a jerk. But you're not doing yourself any favors."
"Screw favors. I just gotta do something."
"And do you really think you're leaving here without either a pair of handcuffs or a bullet in your chest?"
A new burst of sweat gushed out. That was a lot more than Chris had meant to say.
But Marko said nothing. Beads of sweat trailed down his face, which relaxed to something almost wistful. Every possibility seemed equally likely, and equally acceptable to him.
He took his phone back out and checked the screen. It wasn't ringing or rumbling—he must have had it on silent—but he swiped it to answer. "Yo. Oh, a negotiator, eh? Well, maybe you can talk some sense into that Denny Warner bastard. All I want is the eight hundred dollars he owes me. It oughta be pocket change for him!
"Yeah? Well, let him know, when I'm done with the hostage, I'm coming for him.
"What, you think I'm bluffing?" Marko pointed his gun in the air and fired.
Chris curled up and wrapped his arms over his head. Dust and shattered tile fell by Marko's feet. "Next time it'll be for real. Yo, hostage! Tell 'em you're okay."
Marko thrust his phone at Chris. "I—" But as soon as he saw Marko's screen, he no longer knew what to say. It still showed all the icons from the main screen. No call timer or anything. There was no one on the line.
"Well?" Marko said.
Marko shook the phone. "Well? Give 'em your name!"
"I—My name is Chris Reymond. I'm unharmed."
Marko held the phone up to his ear. "Yeah. Yeah.
"All right. Now we're talking. Yeah, eight hundred. Drop it in front of the men's locker room.
"Proof, huh? Okay, fine. But I am staying put until you deliver the cash. If you don't bring it, then I… Whatever. I'll end it, right here." Marko lowered his phone. "Yo, you can go."
"Whoa, hang on. You don't have to—"
Marko lowered his gun. "I'm telling you, get outta here."
Chris staggered to the door and unlatched the lock and stumbled out to the hallway.
Two armed police officers lurked at the corner. They both trained their guns on him. Chris shot his arms in the air. "Don't shoot! I'm the hostage!"
One of the cops, a middle-aged woman, relaxed her arms, and nudged her partner so he would as well. They waved Chris forward. When he joined up with them, the woman asked, "Are there any other hostages?"
"No," Chris said. "He's alone. No accomplices, either."
"But he is armed?"
"Yeah, had a gun on me the whole time. Listen, he's a drug addict, and I think he's suicidal, and he thinks he's been talking to a negotiator. He needs help."
"Well, we know he ain't exactly playing with a full deck. We've been tracking Marko Darren for a murder on the other side of town. You're lucky to get out of there."
Chris stood with a deathly chill inside him while the woman crept toward the sauna. The other officer took his arm and led him out to the entrance. The entire building was surrounded by police cars, ambulances, and a few news vans, as well as some pedestrians and gym regulars. Another officer pulled Chris into the crowd and took him to an ambulance, where an EMT gave him a bottle of water. He was thirsty as hell, and he poured the water straight down his throat.
A plainclothes detective came up to him, peppering him with questions about the gunman.
"Hey, hey, hey," Chris said, "Before I say anything, I just wanna know, who did Marko kill?"
"As it happens," the detective said, "it was the owner of this gym. Denny Warner. Damn shame, too. Seems like it was just a house painting job that went wrong."
Chris took a large gulp of his water. He'd come close to death, all as part of a drama inside another man's head. Somewhere in there, Marko was demanding ransom from someone he'd already killed. For all anyone knew, Denny had intended to pay the eight hundred after all.
"Is there anything you can tell us?" the detective said.
Chris gazed over at the gym. "He's suicidal, and I think he's hallucinating. Is he going to get any help?"
Before the detective could give any answer, an officer up in front gave a signal, and SWAT officers stormed into the building.
The detective said, "I guess we're about to find out."