Perhaps pain was a clarifying agent. Ham realized that if there was one time in his life where he needed to use his wits, this was it. Nathan was ready and almost eager to put an end to Ham’s life, and if Nathan’s story was to be believed, Ham knew that choosing death now would not turn happily into him being alive and well tomorrow. So much for the perfect life.
Nathan was standing over him again, an alpha dog confronting another pack member for dominance. “Ham? What’s it going to be?”
Ham felt weak, but realized that this was most likely due to several days without food or water. He was not in shape to make wise decisions. He needed time.
He then realized that Nathan couldn’t possibly be one of the main players. If these men behind the scenes were so powerful, they would have others do the dirty work. If Nathan came prepared to kill him, Nathan was one of the, what had he called them…Future Loyalists. Yes. Nathan worked for these men just as he wanted Ham to do. Nathan perhaps occupied a higher rung on the ladder, but when told to jump, he still responded with, “How high?” Ham instinctively knew that if he opted for a choice that was not one of the three given him, Nathan would be unable to carry it out without permission. At least, Ham *hoped* he instinctively knew that. Given his current situation, no harm could come from testing his idea.
“Nathan,” he croaked, his voice surprising them both, “I need a little time to think about what you’ve told me. If you and your friends have put so much time and money into my ‘project,’ I would think you would at least want me to make a lucid decision. I’m tired. I’m hungry and thirsty. I’m also very confused.” The effort of speaking was too much. Ham closed his eyes and drifted.
Sunlight poured in through a crack in the curtains. Ham opened one eye and looked around. He was in a bed but it wasn’t his bedroom. He opened the other eye and swiveled his head to take in the room. “This must be how the Tin Man felt when he was oiled up after a long freeze,” he thought, as he continued to check the condition of his arms and legs. He was wearing clean pajamas. He didn’t feel hungry or thirsty, and a quick check under his sleeves showed him a piece of gauze taped to his arm. “Hmmm…it would appear that someone had me on an IV. That’s promising, I guess.”
Ham sat up and swung his legs onto the floor. He stood unsteadily and took a few steps over to a window. He was on the second floor of a house that was surrounded by trees and neatly tended lawns. No other houses were visible through the foliage. The area was unfamiliar to Ham, but he wasn’t frightened. In fact, he felt strangely calm. His bid for time had worked. Now, he had to figure out his next, and possibly his last, move.
He tried the door; as expected, it was locked. He heard rustling in the hallway and then a soft click. He backed away from the door and sat down on the bed.
The door swung open and a woman entered, carrying a tray. Ham was surprised to recognize her as the woman who was always leaving Nathan’s office whenever he arrived for his appointments. She settled the tray on a small table underneath the window and turned to face Ham.
“It’s good to see you up and about,” she said. She had lovely gray eyes and a sweet smile. Ham caught a slight scent of honeysuckle as she passed him on her way out of the room.
“Wait. Don’t go yet.” Ham moved over to the door, blocking her exit. She looked down at the floor, unwilling to meet his gaze.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Hamilton. Ham.”
“Are you one of Them? A Future Loyalist?”
Cynthia seemed perplexed by the question. “Am I a what?”
“You know. One of the players in Their game. You go around and make things perfect for people. Then, these same people end up choosing their fate from a less than stellar list of options. Game over.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Cynthia tried to step around Ham, but he grabbed her by one elbow and refused to let her move.
“There’s a movie called ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ Did you ever see it?” Ham asked.
“Yes, I saw it. Angela Lansbury, Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey…” Cynthia’s voice trailed off.
“Think of me as Laurence Harvey. I’ve been manipulated and now there’s no way out. I don’t know why I was chosen and I don’t know whether or not to believe what I’ve been told. I just need to have some questions answered. Can you help me?” Ham released Cynthia’s elbow; she rubbed the indentations left by his fingers and moved closer to the door.
“I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about. All I know is that you were brought here in horrible condition; it seems you chopped off one of your fingers and then disappeared for several days. Nathan was worried sick about you and had almost lost hope of finding you alive. When he brought you here, he gave strict orders that you were to be kept sedated until your body healed. You’ve been out of commission for three weeks now and the rest has done you a world of good. I heard you moving around and brought up something for you to eat. It’s time you had some real food in your system.” Cynthia went over to the table and busied herself, setting up the lunch tray.
Ham tried to process what he had been told. If she was telling the truth, she wasn’t involved in the ruse that brought him here. If she was lying, he needed to know why. Were They testing him again? He thought of his three choices: a life of misery, a life as a pawn of a group of bizarre strangers, or death. None of these choices appealed to Ham. He decided to try more conversation.
“So do you live here?” he asked, walking over to examine the contents of the tray. He picked up a small sandwich and took a bite. Some sort of meat paste, but it was good, so he chewed and swallowed.
“Yes. I moved back home when our parents became ill and stayed on after they died. Nathan says it’s really helpful to have me here since he has to travel so much.”
“Wait. Nathan lives here?”
“It’s his home, too. He’s my only sibling, so we inherited everything when our parents died. He is away a lot, so I do what I want. Life is pretty perfect.”
Hamilton shot her a glance, but she didn’t appear to be speaking cryptically. So Nathan was her brother? Perhaps she was telling the truth and she didn’t know about his extraneous activities. Regardless, he needed help and she was here.
“I need to get out of here. I need to go home.” Ham looked around for shoes, but found none. Cynthia went out into the hall and returned with his shoes in hand. He took them from her and slipped them on, then addressed her again. “I don’t want to involve you in anything dangerous, so if you can just tell me where I can find a car and the car keys, I’ll be on my way.”
“Dangerous? Ham, you’re sounding delirious. Nathan said you might experience after-effects from whatever you’ve been doing, so perhaps you should stretch out on the bed and rest again. I’ll give Nathan a call to let him know you’re awake, and…”
“NO!” Cynthia jumped at the sound of Ham’s voice. “I mean, please don’t call Nathan. You don’t understand what’s going on. He’s involved with a very unsavory group of people and the longer I stay here, the more likely you are to become involved. I can’t have that on my conscience, no matter what else I decide to do.” Ham pushed past Cynthia and went out into the hall.
Making his way downstairs, Ham headed for the front door. Once outside, he realized how futile his escape attempt would be. There was no sign of a vehicle and no sound of traffic, while only the occasional chirp of a bird broke the stillness of the day. He decided to walk. There had to be an access road nearby where he could pick up a ride to the nearest town. Anywhere would be better than staying here. Nathan would call or return, and Ham intended to be as far away as possible when that happened.
The breeze shifted direction. Honeysuckle.
“Cynthia? Is that you?” Ham peered into the dense foliage by the driveway, but could see nothing. The aroma of honeysuckle hung in his nostrils. She was nearby, but why?
“Cynthia, come with me. I’ll explain everything. It will sound fantastic, but you have to believe me.” He heard a rustling in the shrubbery, and Cynthia stepped out onto the drive. She was holding a small pistol, and as she stepped closer, she raised the pistol and took aim at Ham.
“Wait a minute! What are you doing? Give me the gun. Whatever Nathan has told you is a lie. I’m not dangerous and I won’t hurt you.” Ham reached out for the gun, but Cynthia raised her other hand to bring him to a halt.
“You may not be dangerous, but *I* am,” she answered. Her lovely gray eyes had a hardness to them and the sweet smile was but a memory. “You men are always so cocksure about everything. Did it occur to you that everyone in Nathan’s fancy little group might not be male? Of course it didn’t! Dear Ham. Nathan works for me. He never had a good head for money and quickly squandered his share of the family fortune on ‘sure things’ and ‘guarantees’ while I sat back and watched. Once he was in over his head, I introduced him to my group of friends and we brought him on board. He has done fairly well in the past, but for some reason, he was making quite a mess of your situation. I had to step in. Normally, I would not become involved, but you’re rather special and I felt that we should give you a little time to come around.” Cynthia flashed a small smile, but held the gun steady. “You know your three options. You’ve had time to rest, heal, and reflect on your future. I will now ask you for a decision. Go out on your own and have us ruin your life for you. Work for us and live a fairly comfortable life. Choose death and it will be immediate.”
“When you think about it, each choice is a type of death, because my life is no longer my own.” Ham watched Cynthia’s face as he spoke.
“That’s true, and that’s what makes it so perfect, don’t you think? It comes down to which type of death you can handle today. Make your choice, Ham. Your time for thinking is over.”
Ham lunged at Cynthia, grabbing her hand that held the pistol. They struggled, locked in a bizarre dance, until a shot rang out.
The body hit the ground with a thud and all was quiet once again. Somewhere, a bird burst into song.
The cell phone was set to vibrate. Nathan pulled it from his pocket, flipped it open, and said, “What?”
He listened intently, said, “I’ll send a clean up crew,” and hung up.
When he reached his house, everything was as it should be. He took a seat in one of the rocking chairs on the front porch and accepted the tall glass of tea handed to him. “Very nice work. I’m impressed. I knew I would be.”
“It played out exactly as you said it would,” replied Ham. “I think I’m going to like it here. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do.”