I press the engine-start button.
“Turn on the navigation.”
I turn it on.
“Click on ‘previous destinations.’ ”
I’ve never owned a car with built-in GPS, and it takes me a moment to find the right tab on the touchscreen.
Three locations appear.
One is my home address. One is the university where I work.
“You’ve been following me?” I ask.
“Choose Pulaski Drive.”
I select 1400 Pulaski Drive, Chicago, Illinois 60616, with no idea where that even is. The female voice on the GPS instructs me: Make a legal U-turn when possible and proceed for point-eight miles.
Shifting into gear, I turn out into the dark street.
The man behind me says, “Buckle your seat belt.”
I strap myself in as he does the same.
“Jason, just so we’re clear, if you do anything other than follow these directions to the letter, I’m going to shoot you through the seat. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
I drive us through my neighborhood, wondering if I’m seeing it all for the last time.
At a red light, I pull to a stop in front of my corner bar. Through the deeply tinted front passenger window, I see the door is still propped open. I glimpse Matt, and through the crowd, Ryan, turned around in his stool now, his back to the bar, his elbows on the scuffed wood, holding court for his postgrads. Probably enthralling them with a horrifying cautionary tale of failure starring his old roommate.
I want to call out to him. To make him understand that I’m in trouble. That I need—
“Green light, Jason.”
I accelerate through the intersection.
The GPS navigation guides us east through Logan Square to the Kennedy Expressway, where the indifferent female voice instructs me, Turn right in one hundred feet and proceed for nineteen-point-eight miles.
Southbound traffic is light enough for me to peg the speedometer at seventy and keep it there. My hands sweat on the leather steering wheel, and I can’t stop wondering, Am I going to die tonight?
It occurs to me that if I do survive, I’ll carry a new revelation with me for the rest of my days: we leave this life the same way we enter it—totally alone, bereft. I’m afraid, and there is nothing Daniela or Charlie or anyone can do to help me in this moment when I need them more than ever. They don’t even know what I’m experiencing.
The interstate skirts the western edge of downtown. The Willis Tower and its brood of lesser skyscrapers glow with a serene warmth against the night.
Through the writhing panic and fear, my mind races, fighting to puzzle out what’s happening.
My address is in the GPS. So this wasn’t a random encounter. This man has been following me. Knows me. Ergo, some action of mine has resulted in this outcome.
I’m not rich.
My life isn’t worth anything beyond its value to me and to my loved ones.
I’ve never been arrested, never committed a crime.
Never slept with another man’s wife.
Sure, I flip people off in traffic on occasion, but that’s just Chicago.
My last and only physical altercation was in the sixth grade when I punched a classmate in the nose for pouring milk down the back of my shirt.
I haven’t wronged anyone in the meaningful sense of the word. In a manner that might have culminated with me driving a Lincoln Navigator with a gun pointed at the back of my head.
I’m an atomic physicist and professor at a small college.
I don’t treat my students, even the worst of the bunch, with anything but respect. Those who have failed out of my classes failed because they didn’t care in the first place, and certainly none of them could accuse me of ruining their lives. I go out of my way to help my students pass.
The skyline dwindles in the side mirror, falling farther and farther away like a familiar and comforting piece of coastline.
I venture, “Did I do something to you in the past? Or someone you work for? I just don’t understand what you could possibly want from—”
“The more you talk, the worse it will be for you.”
For the first time, I realize there’s something familiar in his voice. I can’t for the life of me pinpoint when or where, but we’ve met. I’m sure of it.
I feel the vibration of my phone receiving a text message.
He forgot to take my phone.
I look at the time: 9:05 p.m.
I left my house a little over an hour ago. It’s Daniela no doubt, wondering where I am. I’m fifteen minutes late, and I’m never late.
I glance in the rearview mirror, but it’s too dark to see anything except a sliver of the ghost-white mask. I risk an experiment. Taking my left hand off the steering wheel, I place it in my lap and count to ten.
He says nothing.
I put my hand back on the wheel.
That computerized voice breaks the silence: Merge right onto the Eighty-Seventh Street exit in four-point-three miles.
Again, I take my left hand slowly off the wheel.
This time, I slide it into the pocket of my khaki slacks. My phone is buried deep, and I just barely touch it with my index and pointer fingers, somehow managing to pinch it between them.
Millimeter by millimeter, I tug it out, the rubber case catching on every fold of fabric, and now a sustained vibration rattling between my fingertips—a call coming in.
When I finally work it free, I place my phone faceup in my lap and return my hand to the steering wheel.
As the navigation voice updates the distance from our upcoming turn, I shoot a glance down at the phone.
There’s a missed call from “Dani” and three texts:
DANI 2m ago
Dinner’s on the table
DANI 2m ago
Hurry home we are STARVING!
DANI 1m ago
You get lost? :)
I refocus my attention on the road, wondering if the glow from my phone is visible from the backseat.
The touchscreen goes dark.
Reaching down, I click the ON/OFF button and swipe the screen. I punch in my four-digit passcode, click the green “Messages” icon. Daniela’s thread is at the top, and as I open our conversation, my abductor shifts behind me.
I clutch the wheel with both hands again.
Merge right onto the Eighty-Seventh Street exit in one-point-nine miles.
The screensaver times out, auto-lock kicks in, my phone goes black.