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The first sensation was thirst. Her mouth felt dry as she slowly moved her tongue over her lips, then smacked her lips together and exhaled lightly. She felt groggy and lethargic as she moved her left arm out from under her head and felt the skin of her right bicep scrape along the wood and dirt. Taking in a deep breath, she smelled dirt and wood, new wood, like the plywood she’d smelled two weeks ago up at her folks’ cabin when they were building a gazebo. Was she still asleep and dreaming? The smell wasn’t right. Why would she smell that? Where the heck was she?
She opened her eyes to pitch blackness. She blinked her eyes and strained to focus, but no light seeped in through window shades or under a door.
Carrie Flanagan lifted her head up and banged the right side hard, just above her ear, against something above her.
“Ow!” she exclaimed as she brought her head back down. The feeling of pain was quickly overtaken by panic. She flipped off her left side and onto her back, and her right hand felt another body.
“Jesus!” she yelped as she jumped back, hitting her head and back against the hard wood.
The other body didn’t move.
“Hello,” Carrie whispered but there was no movement. She reached over with her right arm, looking for the other body, when her hand hit something round and metallic. She grabbed it. It was a flashlight. Carrie turned it on.
“Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”
Carrie ran her hands along the top of the box and the left side.
“Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”
Shannon Hisle slowly awoke. Carrie reached for her arm.
“Shannon, wake up! Wake up!”
When Shannon’s eyes fully opened, her screams matched those of Carrie’s a few seconds earlier.
“Carrie! Carrie! Oh my God, where are we! What have they done to us? What have they done to us?”
Both girls frantically felt around the box with their hands and feet, pushed at the top, and kicked at the end of the wood box.
After a few minutes of frantic pushing, kicking, and screaming, the girls settled some. Both women were breathing hard, sweating, still wildly looking around, disbelieving where they were.
Where they were was a wood box. It was maybe two feet high, four feet across and six feet long.
And it was solid. They weren’t going anywhere.
They were buried alive.
The girls lay on their sides facing one another.
“What have they done to us? What are we going to do?” Shannon asked weakly, sniffling, tears streaming down her face.
“I don’t know,” Carrie answered, using the back of her left hand to wipe away her own tears.
It was time to take stock.
Carrie used the flashlight to search the box.
“What are you looking for?” Shannon asked.
“Air, how are we getting air?” Carrie replied. She found what looked to be the answer. “It’s behind me, two holes with vents over them.” She turned her back on Shannon and flashed the light on the nearest vent. “We’re getting air, so I guess that’s good news.”
Shannon put her mouth to the opening.
“Help, can anyone hear me?”
Carrie put her ear to the grate to see if she could hear any response. She repeatedly yelled and then listened for a couple of minutes. There was no response.
She scanned the top of the box and upon inspection understood at least one reason why they couldn’t push the top off.
“Look at that.”
“The screws. Or at least those little silver tips sticking through the wood. The top of this thing is screwed on. No wonder we couldn’t budge it.”
She used the flashlight and scanned the box again. Down by Shannon’s feet, in the corner, there was a small black object. Carrie reached with her left leg, caught the object with her toe and dragged it back so that she could reach it with her hands.
It was a Dictaphone.
Carrie slid the button up. There was a whirring, then a crackling sound, followed by the voice she heard when lying on the bed.
“Hello girls. First, if you haven’t done so already, you will want to turn on the flashlight. But economize its use; you may be in the box for a while.”
Carrie reached to the flashlight to shut it off.
“Leave the light on for now,” Shannon said. “I like being able to see.”
“Okay,” Carrie answered and then started the Dictaphone again.
“A little information about your new home,” the voice said. “It is five feet underground. You are in a reinforced plywood box from which you have no hope of escaping, so it would be unwise for you to waste your time and energy doing so. Also, you are in an isolated spot, so yelling is pointless.”
Carrie stopped the tape.
“I guess you can save your breath,” Shannon said. “They’ve probably got us buried in the middle of nowhere.”
Carrie nodded and started the Dictaphone again.
“So how long have you been down there, you’re wondering? We gave you a sedative. It knocked you out for what I expect would be eighteen hours, give or take. By the time you’re hearing this tape it will be mid-afternoon on July third.”
Carrie showed Shannon her watch, confirming that it was 2:10.
“How long will you be in your current abode, you ask? If all goes according to plan, you will be out of that box by tomorrow evening, maybe even in time to see some fireworks. I do apologize for your current accommodations. While I’m sure they are most uncomfortable and frightening for you, they were nevertheless necessary to provide proper motivation for your fathers. This is also why there is no food or water inside. If your fathers follow our instructions to the letter, you’ll be back with them soon enough. If not?” the voice paused.
“Let’s just say that there will be no getting out.”
“Any problems getting down?”
Dean pulled the van into the parking lot of the diner across the street from the Bayside Marina in Hudson. Smith climbed out and looked back.
“We should be up there in about forty-five minutes,” he said.
“See you there,” David replied.
Smith slid the door closed and walked away a changed man. Gone were the work clothes of two hours ago. Now, the kidnapper was a skipper in boating wear with flip-flops, a Brewers baseball cap, flowery Speedo swim trunks, a white cotton golf shirt open at the collar, and black mirrored wraparound sunglasses. He hoisted a black nylon carry-on bag over his shoulder as he walked across the street and through rows of luxury cars and high-end SUVs in the marina parking lot. Beyond the parking lot, he came to the massive, ten-foot-wide, graying wood pier jutting out into the dark waters of the St. Croix River.
The Bayside Marina had four rows of boat slips. His destination was the last row of slips to the north, a guest slip on the outside at the far end of the dock. In the guest slip floated their white thirty-two-foot offshore express cruiser. They’d stolen the boat from a marina along the river in Davenport, Iowa, six weeks earlier. After they applied a new customized paint job of blue and red stripes, they launched the boat in Lake City and spent a great day boating up the river and to the slip in Hudson.
Monica was onboard already. She came up from the cabin dressed in white jean shorts over her one-piece black Speedo swimsuit, accessorized with wide black sunglasses and a white Nike tennis cap. Without saying a word, she tossed the boat keys to Smith.
Smith put the key in the ignition and smiled as the boat roared to life. Monica cast off the ropes, first for the bow and then the stern. Once she was back on board, Smith slowly backed out of the slip and, when the bow was clear, turned right and headed for the river.
He loved the water. Smith had grown up on the water in Garrison, Minnesota, a small town located two hours due north of the Twin Cities. It sat on the west side of Lake Mille Lacs, one of the largest of the state’s ten thousand lakes. His dad ran a charter fishing service on the lake. From age sixteen through his college summers, Smith had driven his dad’s boats and became an accomplished skipper. Though he’d spent fifteen years in prison, the skill that came back to him quickest was operating a boat. He’d felt the excitement of a young child when they launched the boat in Lake Pepin down at Lake City. He couldn’t wait to get on the water and drive the boat, feel the rocking of the waves, the sun beating on and weathering his face, the cool splashes of water spraying him as they took on the large waves of Lake Pepin, working their way up the mighty Mississippi and then turning north at the mouth of the St. Croix River in Hastings. When Smith was in prison, lying on his bed with his eyes closed and mind cleared, he remembered boating, rolling over the waves of Lake Mille Lacs or through the chop of the St. Croix on a weekend, just what he was doing the day before the arrest.
Smith slowly navigated the minefield of speedboats and houseboats in the small bay separating Hudson and the marina from the St. Croix River proper. Once through the bay, he turned to the right and passed under a rusting steel train bridge and suddenly he was out into the wide section of the St. Croix that ran from Hudson to Stillwater, five miles north on the Minnesota side. In open water, with space to maneuver, Smith pushed the throttle down and opened up the boat, slicing through the waves like a snowplow through fresh snow. Monica approached with a bottle of water for him. He took a sip and smiled.
“You love this, don’t you?” Monica said.
“There’s nothing better,” He replied, taking another drink. “After we’re done with this, you and I are going to get a boat like this and spend a lot of time on it.”
Monica smiled and leaned up to kiss him on the lips. “I can’t wait.”
Five minutes north of Hudson, Smith steered to the west side of the river and then sped past a massive window plant in Bayport. Such a waste of beautiful river shoreline, Smith thought. The industrial plant’s two-hundred-foot-high smokestack and chain-link fencing mixed oddly with the gorgeous foliage and exposed rock of the shoreline and river bluff. However, while the use of the land was a waste, it would prove beneficial for him.
A short and narrow channel ran just to the north of the plant. While the window plant may have used the channel at one time, it was now largely abandoned. It would be of use tomorrow.
He had already looked at the channel from land, walked the abandoned dock they would briefly use tomorrow, and even observed the odd fishing boat on the channel. Looking over charts at the local library, he learned that the channel was ten to fifteen feet deep if you stayed in the middle as it wound its way to the old dock. But until now, he hadn’t seen it from the water. From the river, the opening was plenty wide, he thought upon inspection. He could see how he would have to maneuver the boat out of the channel. And, while he couldn’t see the dock from the river, he knew it was there.
Satisfied with his short recon mission, he turned away from the channel and slowly accelerated back out into the open waters of the river. In another five minutes he was approaching Stillwater.
As Smith passed the town, with its parks, restaurants, and marinas, he approached Stillwater’s defining feature, the lift bridge. Built in 1931, the bridge spanned one thousand feet across the St. Croix River, carrying a two-lane highway connecting Minnesota to Wisconsin on fixed arched steel trusses over concrete slabs. On the half-hour, a middle section with towers and cables lifted to allow larger boats to pass through.
Smith took a sip from his water bottle as the boat passed underneath the bridge and moved further north, Stillwater falling away behind them. The river gradually narrowed and shallowed, requiring a slower pace and more attentive navigation. Smith eased back on the throttle, falling in a hundred yards behind a flat-bottomed houseboat, probably better known as a party barge. Several people lounged on the upper deck, sunning themselves and drinking cocktails. He followed the houseboat until it made a gentle right toward one of the long, narrow, sandy islands that occasionally split the river. This island, the second they’d come upon, was filling with boats and tents, people preparing for the revelry of tomorrow’s holiday.
Past the second island, the boat traffic diminished significantly. As the river curved to the left around a high rock escarpment jutting out into the river, the railroad bridge came into view. Sitting two hundred feet above the river, cutting an impressive figure against the deep blue sky, the bridge spanned the expanse of the river from Wisconsin to Minnesota. The bridge served as a marker for Smith’s destination. As they approached the bridge, the river cut through a deep canyon. At the base of the steep walls on either side of the river lay isolated sand bars and beaches, one of which was Smith’s destination.
Slowly, Smith steered the boat to the Wisconsin side, toward a small patch of beach in a narrow channel set well back from the main body of the river. For years, this had been his favorite spot on the river. The last time he boated before the arrest, before prison, was an overnight camping trip in this very spot with his wife and daughter – their last family outing together.
Carefully, Smith navigated to the end of the small channel, not wanting to beach the deep V-hulled boat on the zigzagging sandbars hidden just beneath the dark water’s surface. Two hundred yards out from the shore, he swung the boat far out to the left and then, after another hundred feet or so, slowly veered back right. Fifty yards away, he looked to his depth finder, waiting for and then finding the deeper water, an odd drop-off to fifteen feet, which allowed him to turn left and go straight toward the shoreline. The whole maneuver took five minutes. He beached the boat fifteen yards short, the front two thirds of the boat resting on the soft sand but the rear third in deeper water that would allow him to back off the sandbar with a single reverse thrust of the motors.
Dean and David emerged from the woods and walked out into the water. Monica jumped onto the bow and tossed two ropes with stakes on the ends to her brothers.
“Any problems getting down here?” Smith asked David.
“Nope, took a few minutes, just to make sure it was solid, but once we did that,” David smiled, “it was a piece of cake.”
“Well show me,” Smith ordered. “After that, I want to head back to St. Paul.”
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