Excerpt: Sinful Sacrifices
A GUST OF wind pushed the school bus to the right. Brennan Williams glanced up from the game he’d been playing on his cell phone and toward the window where his best friend, Tyler, slept. While Imagine Dragons blasted in his ears, the bus barreled north along the interstate slicing through Ohio. Fat white snowflakes dropped in a steady sheet, blocking out the gray morning sky and blurring the bare, skeletal trees.
Brennan looked to the front of the bus, where Matt Shultz, assistant lacrosse coach and one of Newhouse Academy’s health and physical education teachers, rose from the seat behind the driver. Coach Shultz put on a pair of leather gloves and said something to the bus driver. He then leaned over the aisle and spoke to his cousin, Joel Shultz, who didn’t work for the boarding school, but who had come along as one of their chaperones. He was also a former ski instructor who’d recently moved back to Ohio from Colorado, which made him a great addition to the ski trip. Since Brennan had only hit the slopes twice and had spent most of those times falling, and not all of the guys on the lacrosse team could ski, having an instructor with them was a bonus.
The two men glanced to Wayne Pembroke. The head coach sat in the second row, reading from a tablet. When Coach Shultz caught Brennan staring at him, the corner of the man’s mouth slid into a strange smile and his eyes glittered with excitement. Instead of returning the smile, Brennan’s skin crawled with unease, which was ridiculous. This was Coach Shultz. Brennan and the other guys on the team liked the twenty-five-year-old. He was cool, good looking, drove a kickass Camaro and had a hot girlfriend. Plus, he always gave out A’s in his class.
Brennan yanked out his ear buds and decided hunger had him seeing things. Knowing his mom had packed snacks for him, he reached for the backpack he’d stored beneath his seat and pulled out a granola bar.
When he looked up again, Brennan froze. He locked his gaze onto the gun Coach Shultz pointed at Coach Pembroke’s head. A silent scream lodged in his throat. His heart racing, his chest tightening with fear, he nudged Tyler.
“What, dude?” Tyler yawned. “Why’d you wake—?”
Shultz fired. Red mist shot from Coach Pembroke’s head as blood and bits of brain and flesh hit the window and the back of the first seat.
Brennan’s ears rang from the explosion. Tears blurred his vision. Stunned and scared, he gaped at the dead coach. Ignoring the pandemonium and the terror-filled cries from the others, he concentrated on the blood dripping from Coach’s head, and the way it streamed down the rubber tread in the aisle and toward the back of the bus.
Tyler gripped his arm and tugged. “Get down.”
Brennan blinked. He leaned forward with Tyler and opened his phone. He quickly closed down his game, then began texting his dad.
“Sit up and raise your arms,” Shultz shouted. “And shut the fuck up!”
The bus went silent. Heart pounding, Brennan hit send, straightened and lifted his arms in the air.
Joel also had a gun, but took Shultz’s when he passed it to him. Shultz held up a canvas bag. “Listen well and you might survive. I’m going to come around and collect phones. Keep your arms raised until I get to you. If any one of you tries to attack me, Joel will shoot you.” He lifted Coach Pembroke by the back of his coat until they could all see his bloody, damaged head, along with the coach’s lifeless eyes and the haunting shock they’d permanently hold.
Brennan swallowed back bile and looked away. He squeezed his eyes shut and fought to keep from crying, to stay strong and not look like a pussy in front of the others. He was sixteen, not six. Almost a man, and yet, right now, he wanted his mom. Though he had her by a foot and probably sixty pounds, he needed her arms around him, wanted to inhale her familiar flowery smell and pretend this wasn’t happening. That he’d simply fallen asleep and was having a nightmare.
“Give me the fucking phone, Demko,” Shultz shouted.
Brennan opened his eyes just as their coach easily hauled Chris Demko, the smallest, skinniest and fastest member of their team, from his seat. “I swear, I left it in my dorm,” Chris cried, his pubescent voice cracking. “Please, I swear.”
Shultz pounded his meaty fist into Chris’s stomach. The kid’s knees buckled, but Shultz kept him standing only to backhand him across the face. Blood burst from his teammate’s lips and sprayed along Shultz’s mouth and nose. The coach spat on the floor, then used his coat sleeve to wipe away the blood. “Last warning,” he said.
“He’s not lying.” Alex McGuire, a senior and their team captain, stood but quickly sat again when Joel trained the gun on him. “Chris was complaining about it to Coach…Pembroke,” he said, then cleared his throat. “But Coach wouldn’t let him run back to get it.”
“Since dead men don’t talk, and I don’t trust any of you, I’m going to assume you’re all liars. Hands up and spread your legs,” Shultz said to Chris, then began patting his arms and legs. “Okay, Demko. Looks like you’re telling the truth. But you didn’t mention the tablet in your bag.” He chuckled. “That’s right. When Joel and I were going through everyone’s gear looking for drugs and alcohol, we took anything you might be able to use to contact the police.”
He shoved Chris back into his seat and moved on to the next kid. After he collected their phones, he opened Joel’s window. “How’re we looking?” he asked the driver.
“Hang tight. A car is passing us.” Minutes ticked by. Frigid air and snow whipped in through the window and immediately chilled the bus’s interior. “You’re good,” the driver finally said.
Shultz tossed out the bag. Brennan looked to the window, but between the snow, the speed and height of the bus, he couldn’t see where it had landed.
The window closed. “Everybody pay attention.” Shultz took one of the guns from Joel. “Obviously, there’s been a slight change in plans. We won’t be going to New York, there’ll be no skiing and Coach Pembroke is no longer in charge.” He pressed a gloved thumb to his chest. “I am. If all goes to plan, you’ll be home within days.” He focused on the team captain, Alex McGuire. “So don’t be a hero. Don’t try to defy me or my crew. Just do as you’re told and no one will get hurt.”
The bus slowed and veered right. Through the haze of snow Brennan read the green exit ramp sign: Lodi. Although born and raised in the Columbus area, his dad was a Browns season ticket holder. He’d been to Cleveland more times than he could count and knew Lodi was about an hour outside of the city. Since the trip to the Twin Peaks ski resort in New York was supposed to take about four hours and they were only an hour into the drive, this meant no one would know Shultz and his crew had hijacked the bus until around noon, when they’d miss their scheduled time of arrival. Even then, why would anyone suspect such a thing?
Shultz and Joel continued to face them as they both kneeled in their seats. Shultz lowered his weapon slightly and shifted his gaze out his window as they rolled to a stop at a red light. “Don’t be dumb,” Shultz said as he looked to the snowplow idling to the left.
Brennan quickly glanced over his shoulder. A tractor trailer and other cars were stopped behind them. He then stared at the gas station to the right, along with the McDonald’s next to it. Help wasn’t far away, but with two guns aimed at them, they all kept silent. He wouldn’t be dumb. He had no intention of dying and wouldn’t be the reason someone else was killed.
The light turned green and the bus continued at a slow pace. The inclement weather made visibility bad as snow accumulated on the road. Minutes later, the driver turned right, but Brennan wasn’t able to read the street sign. After passing a travel center and truck wash, the landscape turned desolate. For the next few miles, there were no homes or businesses, only bleak fields of snow or thick patches of woods, and nothing but gray skies.
Tyler hit his leg. Brennan looked down at the folded knife his friend had slipped from the pocket of his khaki cargo pants. Fearing what would happen if Shultz saw, he pushed Ty’s hand, hoping he’d catch a clue and put it away. Later, hopefully, they’d have the chance to talk and come up with a plan. There were fifteen of them, and only three bad guys. The blade was small, but if used properly, it could incapacitate one of the men and give them an opportunity to grab their gun. If they could use the weapon against Shultz and his guys, they could find a way to escape.
The driver veered the bus to the right. The road narrowed and there wasn’t a car in sight, but there were a few homes set back at the end of long driveways, then, once more, nothing but trees or a massive blanket of snow. Tyler hit his leg again and nodded to the left. Brennan looked over the head of Chris Demko, who sniffled and wiped his bloody mouth, just as the bus passed a wooden sign reading, Village of Fred Glen. Who the hell named a village after a guy named Fred? The childish question shouldn’t be on his mind, not given the situation. But there it was, hanging in his head front and center for whatever reason. Maybe because he wanted to be a kid again, back in his bedroom at home, playing with a Lego set. Or maybe he just wanted to be anywhere else but here.
He shifted his gaze to the dead coach, then to his hand where he fisted the granola bar. His stomach churned. Not with hunger, but utter dread.
“Almost there, boys,” Shultz said, facing the front windshield.
Tyler leaned close. “I know where we are,” he whispered. “We’re totally screwed, man.”
“Why?” Brennan asked, concentrating on the men.
Shultz turned back to them and smiled. “Any of you ever hear of Ottawa Lake Park?” When no one answered, he shrugged. “Doesn’t surprise me. Your rich parents wouldn’t lower their standards and make Medina, Ohio, a vacation destination.” Shultz sighed and slid his gaze to the window where the bus passed several small darkened cottages and a closed gas station. When they drove by a country store with a sign stating the place was closed for the season—see you in May―Brennan’s hope hung by a thread. If this was a summer vacation spot, Ty was right, they were screwed.
“Here’s a little history lesson for you,” Shultz continued. “Ottawa Lake was created about thirteen thousand years ago when massive sheets of glacial ice melted and left a depression along Ottawa Creek, making it the largest natural lake in the state. Two thirds of the lake is surrounded by forest. We just passed through the Village of Fred Glen and are making our way to the Village of Ottawa Lake. I hate to break it to you, boys, but don’t even think about running off and looking for help. You won’t find any at this time of the year. Ninety percent of the houses you’ll see are unoccupied during the winter months. The other ten percent?” He grinned. “If you do escape, good luck finding them. The temperature is supposed to drop to zero tonight. With the wind chill, it’ll feel like nineteen below. Did you know under those circumstances you can develop frostbite within thirty minutes?” He shook his head. “Now, there is the lake. If you don’t want to risk the woods, you could always go that route. The lake’s frozen, but some areas might be a little thin, and if you break the ice and go under, you’ve got about an hour to survive. That is if you find your way back to the surface and get out of the water.” He smiled. “In other words, do like I say and don’t be dumb. Stay where we tell you, and you’ll eventually get out of this.”
“What is this?” Alex asked.
Shultz’s smile fell as his eyes narrowed. “This is a kidnapping.”