I did as Mother instructed, sinking low into the seat where I’d be out of sight. All I could see was a robin hopping on a branch in the canopy of trees surrounding the farmhouse.
My neck grew stiff. The car was like an oven, even with the windows open. Not a single breath of breeze made its way to me.
Sweat trickled down my back. I stared up at the robin, occupying my eyes while my ears listened intently to Mother’s voice when a woman answered the door. I caught a word here and there, but not the conversation.
The pain in my neck grew absolutely unbearable. I straightened up.
Movement in the trees. I leaned forward for a better view.
Yes, there was definitely a person out there. Was he sneaking away from the house? It certainly seemed so.
I looked back at the front porch. It was empty. Mother was already inside. I could see shadows of movement through the front window. She’d never see if I tried to signal her, and going to the door might mean the man would get away.
No one was around. I pushed opened the car door and slipped off into the woods behind him.
The trees were so still and silent I hardly dared breathe. Every step announced my presence loud and clear, but the figure didn’t change his pace or turn around.
My suspicions were finally confirmed when the now familiar barn loomed up through a break in the trees.
Careful to avoid the booby traps around the edge of the clearing, I crouched down, debating if I should run back for mother, or wait to see what the man did.
Before I’d really made up my mind, he reappeared. He cast a quick look around, then strolled back to the house, casual as can be.
Uncertain when I’d get another chance, I darted forward, skipping over the trip line and coming to a halt just outside the structure. The smells of sun baked grass and lumber mixed with loam and the fresh smell of the river, just a stone’s throw away.
And overlaid with all of that was something else, something more astringent that brought to mind hours working in Daddy’s basement laboratory, or going to visit him at the hospital.
With one hand on a rotten board, I peered through the cracks, suddenly realizing why the barn hadn’t felt right the day of the storm. The heavy rain had masked the smell of alcohol, but amplified the scent of fresh timber.
Tip-toeing to the door, I squeezed through the narrow gap. Rotten straw covered the floor. I kicked it aside, creating a path. Sure enough, after the first few weather-worn boards, I found new flooring, starkly yellow against the grey rotted wood closer to the door.
This is it. This must be where they are keeping the still, I thought, brushing straw from a few more boards. I crouched down, examining them. Where the old floor was warped, with gaps between the planks, the new section was placed so close together not a scrap of straw could fall down between them.
The hair on the back of my neck prickled. I looked up, just as heavy footsteps pounded across the floor behind me.
“I thought I heard a little mouse!” said a deep voice in my ear.
I let out a scream as strong arms clamped around my middle, lifting me off my feet.
The back of my head exploded with pain, and the world went black.
I woke up in a fuzzy darkness. The first thing I recognized was the sharp chemical smell of alcohol. It reminded me of Father’s lab at first, before the disorientation passed and I realized the dimly lit basement wasn’t the one I was used to.
The packed dirt floor gave off an earthy scent, nearly overpowered by industrial alcohol and Canadian whiskey.
The ringing in my ears slowly gave way to low, angry voices. My rattled brain couldn’t decipher them at first, until I realized they weren’t speaking English. It took a few seconds for my mind to catch up to the conversation, recognizing first that it was a form of French, but the accent wasn’t what we’d been taught in school.
“On ne peut pas la tuer.”
“Nous ne pouvons pas la laisser partir non plus.”
“Vous pensez qu’elle est avec le flic?”
“Je ne sais. Quel type de policier apporte un enfant?”
Their voices drifted out again. I struggled to get my eyes to focus.
A row of dim bulbs overhead gave off a yellowish glow, just enough to make out the still and barrels and barrels of alcohol. There were three drums stacked around me. I’d been tied hands and feet, dumped on the floor between them like a sack of grain.
I couldn’t see the speakers, only their shadows playing on the walls and floor. It made it seem like there were more of them than just the two voices I could hear.
My left arm was starting to go numb from lying on that side. Shifting slightly, I tried to stay quiet while also trying to get a better look at my captors. The equipment on the table blocked my view, but two rough pairs of work boots were visible under the table. The brown pair on the left shifted from side to side, matching the cadence of the speaker. The black ones on the left stood solidly, almost angrily, in the dirt.
The back of my head hurt, but if I concentrated, I could understand what they were saying now.
Black boots turned toward the table, dismissing their companion. “Make sure she didn’t leave anything behind up there. Walk back to town. Act like nothing is out of the ordinary. I’ll stay down here and keep an eye on her. We need to get this batch ready to go out for the delivery tonight. We can’t draw attention now.”
“What about the boat?”
“Quentin will have to wait. Give Bill a call. He can signal Quentin not to come further south.”
Brown Boots turned, climbing back up a narrow ladder to the trapdoor, and vanishing through it. His heavy footsteps could be heard clomping across the barn floor.
I squeezed my eyes shut, beginning to suspect my headache wasn’t just caused by the blow they’d dealt me. My lungs burned from the smell of the alcohol.
Stills were infamous for exploding and catching fire. I spied a small hole in the corner, smooth and round with a pipe protruding from it. They were at least smart enough to add some kind of ventilation, but I had to wonder how effective it was. The air was thick in my chest. My eyes began to water.