My arms were wrapped around the tree and handcuffed in front of me; I was kneeling. The weather had been warm and sunny a few days previously, but now the temperature was hovering around 32 F / 0 C and freezing rain was in the forecast for the evening. Spring hadn't arrived, not quite yet.
Then a pillow case was slipped over my head.
"Man, this thing is filthy," I muttered. It smelled of halitosis and sweat.
"Yep," said a voice behind me, wrapping duct tape loosely around my neck.
Then the men who had brought us there left us alone in silence for a while. One of the guys I was with began screaming for help.
I didn't think that was a bad idea, so I joined in.
The two men I was with were tough guys; far tougher than me, at any rate. They were both about my age -- in their early 40s -- but one was a black guy from Maryland, a former Marine and current police officer. The other guy was of Puerto Rican descent, and he was from a tough neighborhood in New Jersey. He called me "Teach" and clearly didn't like me.
"Let's get it started," said a voice behind me, and then I was hit in the face with a burst of liquid. A jolt of panic went through me, and I turned my head away, within the pillowcase, and was relieved to find I still had plenty of room to breathe. I'd put my chin down when they fastened the hood on with the tape, so I was okay.
"We think you're DEA," said a rough voice near my ear. "You're here to find our crops, aren't you?"
"No, it's not true, I don't have anything to do with the DEA," I said. I could hear the two guys I was with also being talked to similarly. The black guy claimed he was just a street artist, while the Puerto Rican guy said nothing. "Who are you people, and why have you brought us here?" I asked.
There was a sudden sharp pain in my leg, like a wasp sting. It was a small handheld Taser, I knew that, being discharged into me for an electric shock. It hurt, but it wasn't debilitating.
"We're fucking drug dealers, we already told you that," said the rough voice. "We're Cartel. And you're a fucking DEA agent here to fuck with our shit!"
"Look, there's no reason to do this, I don't know who these guys are, I was just walking in the woods and I ran into them. I'm an English teacher," I said. "I'm just here on vacation."
"An English teacher," said the voice doubtfully. "Search him!" commanded one of the voices.
They found my wallet in my right front coat pocket. They quickly started interrogating me about my name and address, which was on my driver's license.
"See, I'm just a teacher, I don't know why you're holding me here. Could you tell me why you're holding me here?"
"Shut up!" said another voice, and the Taser stung me on the leg again.
"You got a wife there, English teacher? I see a picture of a girl here."
"She died a couple years ago. Cancer," I said. I thought that was good for two reasons; it might appeal to the soft-hearted among them, and it would hopefully prevent them from going after her.
"I think you're a fucking DEA agent!" yelled another voice in my ear. "I think you're .... "
"I don't have any connection with the DEA. I don't know why you've brought me here. I just came here as a tourist, could you just take this hood off and we can talk about whatever you want ... "
"You interrupt me again and I'll cut your fingers off!" yelled the voice. "You will show me respect, do you understand!"
"Yes," I said. "I'm sorry I interrupted you."
Another burst of liquid hit me in the face; this time it was pepper spray.
I turned my head away within the pillowcase; the cloth blocked most of it, but it stung my face and my right eye was soon watering too much to keep open.
"Shit," I said. "Look, just take this thing off, I'm not connected to the DEA, I'm a tourist, you don't need the problems you'll get if you hurt some stupid tourists ... "
I was tasered on the leg again. "PROBLEMS? HERE ARE SOME PROBLEMS FOR YOU!" They kept shouting at me that I was DEA. I calmly continued to insist that I was just a tourist, an English teacher, that my job involved helping people in other countries. I said that I'd come here because I thought it was a beautiful country and I loved the people and I was considering moving here to work.
The men moved to interrogating the other guys more forcefully. The Puerto Rican was still keeping quiet, simply denying that he was in the DEA, while the cop from Maryland was putting on a real show, crying hysterically that he couldn't breathe, that he was terrifed, and that he didn't understand why he was here.
Eventually they came back to me for Round 2.
I chuffed a laugh at that, and the voice yelled, "ARE YOU LAUGHING AT ME?" and I was tasered on the leg again.
"No," I said. "Look, I'm having trouble breathing, if you'll take this hood off, we can discuss all of this."
"I believe you're not DEA. But I think those two guys are. They look like cops. Just tell us that they're in the DEA and we'll let you go, and we can kill those two motherfuckers."
"I can't say that, I don't know who those guys are, I was just walking through the woods and I ran into them, but I think that guy is an artist, I don't believe they're DEA ... "
ZAP on the leg again. "You better not fucking lie to us, man."
"I'm not lying, I don't know who these guys are, I don't know why you brought us here, we're just tourists ... "
Another ZAP on the leg. "You say you don't know these guys, and then you say that they're just tourists! How the fuck do you know, man! Are they tourists, or you don't know them?"
I took a deep breath. "I just met them in the woods, like I said, and I asked them how they were and what they were doing here and they said they were tourists and the black guy said he's an artist, I don't know anything else. Look, it's hard to think with this thing over my head, and when you keep shocking me, so just take this thing off and we'll discuss this rationally, and we'll ... "
Another burst of liquid hit me in the face, soaking the pillowcase; I turned my face away, waiting to see whether it was water or pepper spray. Just water, it turned out.
They turned their attention back to the other guys, and then announced they were going to kill the black guy, to impress us with the fact that they weren't fucking around.
They uncuffed him and took him off; I heard them walk away, splashing in the mud, and heard more shouting, and then I heard him screaming that he didn't know anything about the DEA.
I was having a little trouble breathing in the sodden pillow case, but in general I was still managing to stay calm. It would be a fake execution, I was sure. Scary, but way scarier for the poor guy experiencing it.
Three shots rang out.
I kept my breathing even. I felt the knife hidden in my sock, beneath me, and that was some comfort.
They brought the guy from Maryland back and I heard them cuff him up again.
"So you're just an English teacher, huh? Anybody going to pay money for you? You're a rich gringo, eh?"
"No, I don't have much money. Teachers don't make much money."
"Teachers don't make no money, nobody will pay ransom for you, eh, so I guess we should just shoot you and fucking bury you, eh?"
"No," I said. "You're right, I don't have any money, but I think my travel insurance includes kidnapping. You can get money for me."
"How much? How much can we get for you, English teacher?" One of the guys pushed my forehead against the tree. Painful, but again, nothing I couldn't handle.
"Look, it's hard to think when you keep doing this, just take this thing off my head and we can talk about this, you know I'm not going to try anything."
"We have your home address. Who can we contact there? You said your wife is dead."
"You could contact my mother ... but I think it would be better to contact the American embassy. They can help you get your money faster than my mother can." I found I was hesitant to give them my mother's name, even though I knew that a "proof of life" was vital. Otherwise I was just another missing stupid tourist; everybody would think I was on a fucking drinking binge.
The negotiations continued; I felt if I could get them to contact the American embassy, we were in much better shape than if they just contacted my mother. I got pepper sprayed again, also on the right side, and tased a couple more times. I could hear the other guys making their "proof of life" videos and giving names of family members who could be contacted.
"Look, the American embassy can help you get your payments faster than our families, I don't come from a rich family, my mother is sick ... "
"I'm sick of listening to you, English teacher," grunted one of them. "No video for you. We're going to get the Butcher, and come back and cut some of your fingers off and send them to that mom of yours."
"The Butcher?" I asked, and couldn't help but laugh a bit.
"LAUGHING AGAIN!" yelled the mean one, and pepper sprayed me again on the same side.
I could hear the guys climb into their ATV and drive off. "You just sit there and think about how painful this is going to be!" one of them yelled as they went down the hill.
No proof of life video, that was bad. But I felt I'd held up under interrogation reasonably well.
Even before the noise of the departing ATV had completely faded, I was on my feet and pulling the wet pillow-case hood off my head. Then I started struggling to get the bobby pin which was hidden behind the zipper of my coat.
The black guy shouted that he couldn't see at all, pepper spray in both eyes, and that he had a key hidden in his boot, and was asking if I could reach it from my position.
I couldn't. I asked the Puerto Rican guy if he had a bobby pin, and he said he had a handcuff key; I couldn't see out of my right eye, but I saw he was struggling to get out the handcuff key which he had in his pants on a string.
The bobby pin behind my zipper was in the easiest position to access from that position we were in; I got it out, inserted the flat end into the area where the handcuff teeth met the pawl spring, and in less than a minute had managed to "shim" it open. Fortunately I'd been handcuffed with a cheaper model of handcuff; that wouldn't have worked with a more expensive brand, such as Smith and Wesson, and so far I wasn't much of a lockpick. Also fortunately, they weren't double locked.
"I'm out!" I said.
I rushed over to the Puerto Rican guy; he had the key in his hand but was having trouble getting it into the lock; it was still fastened to a string which he'd had hanging down inside his pants, and the string wouldn't reach. I helped him free himself and then he used his key to unlock the cop from Maryland.
The cop couldn't see; he'd gotten pepper spray in both eyes. The men, the 'Cartel guys', had left behind an industrial sprayer, and after I tested it to make sure it was just water, we all cleaned our faces with it.
The cop from Maryland was incensed. "Motherfucker! They tased me, like, EIGHT TIMES! That's completely fucking unprofessional and unnnecesary. And why the fuck I got the fake execution AND full pepper spray, AND tased eight times?"
"They warned us," I said. We had done a video liability waiver before the exercise, agreeing to all of those things.
"But EIGHT times? What's the fucking point of that? I paid money to learn some skills and practice those skills, not to be fucking tasered eight times!" he raged.
This was day four of the "SERE" class -- Survive, Escape, Resist and Evade. This was the final "field exercise' in which we were supposed to use all the things we'd studied over the last four days; after escaping we were supposed to flee into deep woods nearby, reclaim the cache of supplies we'd buried, and then build shelters and scout fires and survive the night. There were a few more activities we were supposed to complete the next day.
"Come on, we've gotta get out of here," I said. I looked around and found my phone and wallet, which were on the ground in my hat, near where I'd been handcuffed.
"Fuck that shit, I vote we stay here and wait for them and when they come back we ambush them!" The Puerto Rican guy seconded that motion.
"We're supposed to escape and evade, remember? It's just a training. Nothing personal." I said.
"Motherfucker tases me eight times, it's personal," he grumbled.
We fled into the woods as we heard the puttering engine of the ATV coming back through the forest.
TO BE CONTINUED!