“So, you think you’re clever, then?” he asked softly. “I have no time to waste on kids who say too much and know too much"
Close up, the Boss looked a hundred times more vicious than when they’d seen him by the campfire. Everything about him was huge, from the beefy fists planted on his hips, to the monstrous bush of black beard on his face, to the oversized nostrils flaring in fury as he surveyed the two boys cowering in the corner of the tent.
“So,” he said, the traces of a foreign accent even more marked in his barely restrained anger. “So, these are the two busybodies who had to waste the precious time and resources of my men by snooping around here in the middle of the night?”
Elchanan forced himself to stare right back at the giant man, hoping the fear that he felt wasn’t reflected in his eyes. Next to him, Avi started mumbling under his breath. Was he saying Shema?
Elchanan twisted around to look at his partner, but Avi’s eyes were darting all over. He looked terrified out of his wits.
“Answer me!” roared the Boss, and Avi startled violently, letting out a tiny squeak of fright.
“We weren’t snooping,” Elchanan said, finally. He had no idea what to say, how to extricate themselves from this situation, but one of them had to deal with it, and Avi looked in no state to be the one. “We were just trying to find the path that leads out of the forest. We were on a hike...”
He stopped short as the Boss made an impatient gesture.
“Snooping, not snooping, it’s irrelevant, you know,” he growled at Elchanan and Avi. “The facts remain, you have trespassed on our campsite—”
“Trespassed?” Elchanan dared to ask, boldly. “Isn’t it a public forest?”
The Boss stopped, midsentence. He narrowed his eyes and stooped down a little, so he was closer to Elchanan’s eye level.
“So, you think you’re clever, then?” he asked softly. “I have no time to waste on kids who say too much and know too much. Men!”
There was a scramble of activity. Three or four rough-looking men appeared in the tent, and Elchanan could hear more of them right outside. Slowly, the Boss drew a shining revolver from his belt and played with it, passing it from hand to hand.
“We have two impertinent children in here,” he told his men, voice hissing a little through his teeth. “A nuisance, but one we can deal with, of course.”
Four pairs of menacing eyes turned on the two boys.
“Want us to teach them a lesson, boss?” cackled a weedy-looking man with stringy black hair and a missing tooth.
“Yeah, liven things up for all of us,” another man added.
The men murmured their agreement. One of them, Elchanan noted with rising alarm, had a sharp knife in his hand.
“This is not the time for jokes!” snarled the Boss, and the other men fell silent instantly. “These boys are a danger to our entire operation. They know too much, and they need to be eliminated.”
Elchanan went ice cold. They had to get out of here, this had to be a bad dream, a nightmare. They were surrounded, outnumbered, the men were closing in on them, had they gotten this far just to be—
His thoughts ground to a terrible, sickening halt.
What about Tatty? Mommy? Bracha and Yoni and Mendy and Leah and Chaim and Gershon and Goldy and Miriam and Tzvi, all of them, all his siblings, even the annoying ones, what would they say, what would they think?
No no no no…
“W-wait!” came a hoarse cry from next to him. Elchanan’s eyes flew open — he hadn’t even realized he’d been tightly squeezing them shut.
“Wait,” Avi said again. “Stop. This is all — a mistake. We don’t know anything. We’re innocent. Please, we were just hiking and we went the wrong way… it was a mistake.”
The Boss took five steps forward until he towered over the two of them. “It’s the last mistake you’ll ever make, then,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.
Avi was struggling against the ropes. Whether it was from a newfound surge of strength or utter desperation, Elchanan didn’t know, but he felt profoundly relieved that Avi was taking the lead here, doing something. Even as part of him wondered, was there really anything to be done?
Keep them talking, something whispered in his mind. Keep them talking, and maybe, just maybe, the search party will come in time…
Avi, it seemed, was thinking along the same lines.
“There are people out there looking for us, you know,” Avi continued, his voice quavering a little but with some of the old confidence in his voice “My father’s in the forest… they’re going to find us. They’ll be here any minute. If anything happens to us, they’ll know it was you.”
The Boss threw back his head and gave a laugh that sounded like a dog barking. “Well now, haven’t you been helpful? Just the information we needed.” He turned to his men. “Those voices we heard last night — that must have been the search party, looking for these two boys. And they’ll be round this way soon, no doubt.”
Elchanan felt hope flare in his heart.
A short man with muscular bare arms covered with tattoos spoke up. “We can have the campsite cleared in ten minutes, Boss,” he said.
The Boss nodded. “Do that. And remember, when we meet them — we’re just regular hikers, out on a day trip. A very long and interesting day trip.”
The men laughed appreciatively. The Boss didn’t smile. He merely surveyed the boys again, thinking. Elchanan held his breath.
“It makes no difference to the situation,” he said at last. “The boys know too much, and they must be disposed of.”
“I’ll do it,” the weedy man said, drawing a gun.
“Not here, you idiot!” the Boss roared. “You want the entire police force after us? They’ll find the bodies, we’ll be done for.” He raised an imperious hand. “No. We’re smarter than that. We’ll use the river.”
A low murmur swept through the group. Elchanan looked at Avi, saw his own horror mirrored in his partner’s eyes.
They had to escape. But how? They were tied up and completely helpless, a dozen dangerous criminals against two puny eighth graders. They didn’t stand a chance.
“Ivan, Stefan, and Matt,” ordered the Boss. “You will… escort… our little friends here to the river. And then you will meet us at the cave, later.” He turned to the boys, eyes gleaming with evil satisfaction.
“By the time the police find them… we will be far, far away.”
To be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 881)
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