“Jesus, Charlie. Hold on. I’ll get you to a hospital.” Lexi swallowed hard against the rising tide of acid degrading her throat’s lining as the unfolding scene corrupted her sanity. Pressure against the makeshift bandage on Charlie’s belly wound yielded a deeper crimson soaking her jacket, the provisional dressing secured by fingers encased in a thickening, sticky glove. So much blood.
This could’ve been Lexi’s fate—stabbed, slashed, disfigured for all time, blood forming rivulets pooling in the alley’s filth. Maroon puddles mingled with body fluids common to alleys sheltering the homeless as if destined to couple in a macabre, virulent concoction.
“R-run, Lexi. D-don’t let him make you a w-whore. I wasn’t—strong enough. Y-you were never p-part of the street life.”
Trash and other filth from the narrow passageway cushioned Charlie’s bruised and battered head. One front tooth was missing, probably swallowed, while blood seeped from jagged slashes on her cheeks and brow, both career enders in the event she survived.
“You shouldn’t be here. It was a mistake to text you, but the cops wouldn’t believe us girls.”
“Did your pimp do this, Charlie? What’s his real name?” Tell me so I can help you.
Remnants of a cardboard box, a vagabond’s homemade privy, retained odors of the dispossessed, rivaled only by the excrement saturating every molecule of thickened air drawn into her lungs. This was no place and no way to die.
“Yeah—said I stole from a customer. But I didn’t. The b-bastard just wanted a freebie.” Otherworldly pain glazed eyes forecasting a nonexistent future while icy wind leached color from a once-beautiful face now smeared with crimson streaks and pain. “Won’t tell you his name. I didn’t want to die alone. You’re f-free. You made it.”
“No, Charlie. I’ll get help. Lie still while I secure a pressure dressing.” This late at night, there’d be few cars to flag down and no foot traffic from which to enlist help. She was forced to rely on emergency personnel who’d classify the incident as NHI, no human involved.
Terror-induced flashbacks spewed forth of a stranger offering refuge to a teenager standing on a precipice, a choice. She’d first thought him relatively handsome, not understanding the slimy base of his character. She’d had no experience with pimps. Still, something inside steered her away from his pleasant façade.
Perhaps she’d sensed his underlying character. Instinct had directed her to the unknown, where a small group of prostitutes offered shelter and nurtured her mind.
With one hand, Lexi freed her belt and maneuvered it under the fallen girl’s tiny waist amid groans and mewling cries. Youth and a livelihood from flatbacking necessitated a svelte figure, which facilitated her efforts to cinch the leather strap tight. Lexi reached for the cell clutched in Charlie’s hand, knowing the late hour meant a longer wait for help. Her fingers, covered in sticky crimson ropes of blood, tangled briefly with Charlie’s, a squishy squeeze to lend encouragement. Another bolus of acid rose in her throat.
“No.” One word spoken from the disembodied voice behind her could flash freeze Hell and instigate the formation of ice crystals in any world, under any circumstance.
The cold, hard scrape of death filled her mind. Slowly, her gaze turned, lifted. At the head of the alley and backlit by dingy sodium-vapor light, the corpulent flesh-peddler stalked forward.
“I knew we’d meet again, Lexi. Remember me? I’ve dreamed of this day for years.” Moon glow shimmered off his blade, which weaved a figure-eight motion, the steely threat weaker than his words. “I always wondered how you’ve managed to elude me…Now I know.”
“And I always wondered if the perverted psycho my friends feared was you, since they kept your identity a secret. Now I have a face to put to their terror.”
In twenty yards, she’d either breathe her last as a human shish kabob or replace Charlie in the pimp’s stable. He stopped and tilted his head to the side as if inventing a new and horrific way to terrorize before he began his sociopathic playtime.
“I need to call an ambulance or she’ll die.” The chill shimmying down her spine spread outward to encase every nerve and muscle with the knowledge of his intentions. No one should die in a filthy alley.
He merely shrugged.
I move frequently—but gain no distance.
I am warm, moist, and dark but give no comfort.
I can stretch and shrink, giving or taking at will, bringing both pain and pleasure with each.
“If God wanted you to tie the knot, he’d give you a near-death experience to better appreciate life, along with a craving for procreation. Then he’d smother your soul with the essence of venison, squirrel, frog legs, taters, or beer, to attract a likely counterpart from the sticks. No, wait. The latter has already happened, hasn’t it? Sorry.” Ethan narrowly kept his balance on the green-slicked, handmade bricks leading up the two-story, mauve-colored Victorian. If his 210-pound mass ended up sprawled on the steps, no doubt the picture would be splashed all over the precinct by noon with various unsavory captions.
“Maybe you should try it. The stick up your ass has to cause at least minor discomfort.” Larrick’s early-morning snark was a common greeting.
“Hey, I’m a normal guy.” Ethan glared over his shoulder.
“Still wet from our early-morning storm. Watch your step, it’s slippery.” Scanning the myriad amorphous shadows lurking in the wood line, realization struck that he and his partner were sitting ducks if a sniper perched among the loblolly pine and oak trees lining the front and side yards.
Larrick’s reply came in equal measure of soft tones. “Either that or a large flock of birds dropped in recently to help her redecorate. Great detective work.”
“Bird droppings are—”
“Sought after for facials. Especially the Japanese Nightingale shit.” Larrick grinned.
“Only you would know that.” Ethan adjusted his tie, an acknowledgment of the apprehension filling his mind.
“Are we whispering because your paranoid gut can’t assimilate food well enough to distinguish indigestion from an outside threat? This woman lives alone, gonna think we’re a couple of perverts and liable to shoot us.”
“Word has it she’s a pacifist.”
“Fine. You’re one to talk about signs—dragging my ass to a stranger’s house at this ungodly morning hour. I love knocking on a stranger’s door and asking, ‘Lady, are you all right? We’re police detectives who received an anonymous tip that you might have a hangnail. Perhaps we could lend you a pair of nail clippers…’ then ask if she needs the gutters cleaned.” Derision and humor warred for dominance in Larrick’s tone, yet his sharp gaze continually scanned the perimeter in consideration of his partner’s unarticulated hunch. Yin and yang, they fit together, a clean-cut detective and his partner whose hair length had passed regulation specs weeks ago.
“You know this isn’t the first tip we’ve gotten, not to mention the fact that the other leads were solid and led to arrests. And while we’re at it, why don’t you step to the side? Standard police procedure when approaching an unknown situation.” Ethan turned sideways, standing by the door with his hand poised to knock on the solid oak. He hesitated. Moisture coated his palms, a rare occurrence. Scrutinizing the interior through the narrow sidelights yielded nothing more than expected. Elegantly upholstered furniture, gleaming hardwood floors, and delicate bric-a-brac adorning the thick mantle and each side table completed the sophisticated picture. “Don’t see any problem. Maybe she’s fallen and can’t get to a phone.”
“You expected an old lady brandishing her curling iron? As for leads, I get mine from three-dimensional people while you get yours from a bunch of ones and zeroes. Why can’t our IT department trace your anonymous texts further than the loony bin? Though that’s probably appropriate since your secret admirer’s last present consisted of a flower basket bigger than my TV along with fur-lined cuffs. I’ve never laughed so hard I pissed myself. I thought that was hogwash, a myth made up by old ladies.” Larrick leaned over the iron railing to peer through the window. “Can’t see squat, bottom sill’s too high.”
“As my partner, you’re supposed to have my back, not stab me in the back. You didn’t have to broadcast it through the whole department by hanging the cuffs from the sprinkler system with a bunch of roses twined in them. Now my brothers won’t let up, and I’ve been subscribed to every kinky magazine known to the publishing world. You think I should know why some whacko chose me for their personal marionette?” Ethan suppressed a shudder before his partner gained more verbal ammunition. If his suspicions were correct, his informant was in fact a beautiful enigma with waist-length, chestnut hair and an emerald gaze capable of melting steel.
“Maybe because you were the youngest to make detective? Rising star, golden boy, and all that shit.”
“No. Probably afraid your redneck ways would rub off on them, or maybe because I’m the biggest sap.” Ethan’s gut rumbled, more of a warning sign from a well-heeled intuition than hunger. “Larrick, this doesn’t feel right.” Behind him, the slide of metal on leather let him know his partner just palmed his Glock. Three years of working together circumvented the formality of dissecting gut reactions.
A creak of leather sole betrayed Larrick’s backtracking to scrutinize the surroundings. “Side windows are lower. I’ll take a look.”
“Hood of her BMW is cold. Didn’t go anywhere recently.” Larrick’s harsh whisper halted a nearby squirrel scampering up a tree, its head cocked to one side while studying the strange human interlopers.
Sunshine warmed the first spring buds on the low shrubbery bordering the walkway to complete the idyllic setting. Nothing but peace and serenity, yet Ethan’s heart hammered against his ribcage like an aggressive punk drummer. With his partner disappearing around the corner, he again scanned the perimeter while the morning’s corrupted equanimity formed a sour wad in his chest. A lazy March breeze combed its cool fingers through his short hair while the deep foreboding received with the initial text message blossomed into multiple horrific scenarios, leaving one of them a corpse, their life’s essence forming macabre shapes on gleaming hardwood floors.
“I see bare feet beyond the kitchen island. Toes up. Probably female.” Larrick’s disembodied whisper just provided probable cause. “Backup?”
Bound By Shadows
Confusion and pain intertwined to delay Kaylee’s escape from the depths of a nightmare. Her subconscious’ attempt to alert her to some horror or another had been common the past two years, but this time the warning came with physical characteristics she couldn’t ignore.
The pain was an unwelcome element for which she could not account.
Cozy flannel sheets had never felt so rough under her cheek, nor had her head ached from a glass of wine. Despite the tomboy tag since adolescence, she appreciated certain creature comforts. The rough material scratching her face didn’t number among them.
A quiet foreboding swelled within that fuzzy twilight between the dream state and the hazy stages of surfing to consciousness. Sleep would be welcome if not for the musty odor and an undefined menace crowding her mind. Her brow furrowed as her pulse increased, awareness mounting with each painful throb.
Why is there dirt in my bed and what the hell is wrong with this mattress?
With each erratic contraction of her heart, the tension in her head increased, ratcheting like the shell around a drumhead until pain reverberated along every nerve. In grim anticipation, she reached to touch her temple. A crusty line of fibrous, threadlike strands crumbled in her brow line and snaked down to her ear.
Blood? What the hell?
Moving back to Portland had entailed a certain degree of compromise, yet shouldn’t include a cotton-mouth morning. This was too much. A light finger-comb revealed a large tangled knot and a painful lump over her ear.
Did I fall off the mattress and hit my head?
“Hey, kid. Wake up, damn it. Hurry.”
The harsh whisper embodied urgency and desperation that replicated and swelled within her chest.
What the fuck? The voice in her head wasn’t her own. Enlightenment would come after punching through the suffocating fog and fully emerging in the suddenly hostile world. Stabbing pain accompanied the dingy light spearing her eyes after cautiously lifting one lid.
A blur of flashbacks included sitting in an outdoor riverfront café enjoying the sunset with her favorite camera nestled in her lap. Snapping the riot of colors slipping into the ocean had equaled the day’s highpoint, nature’s way of assuring her she’d made the right decision in moving to Portland.
Now, for reasons evading memory, her gaze soft-focused on a scene defying logic.
“Kid, open your eyes before it’s too late. Grab the small rock by your head. Hide it behind you.”
Okaaay, evil mini me is crazy, and I will never drink wine again.
Five minutes of silence would help her collect her thoughts and allow time to search her virtual portfolio for whatever was causing the nausea-producing pests in her brain and stomach. Each vied for the position of top party host. Intuition whispered taking that time would be her undoing.
Instead of the distant hustle and bustle of city life swarming her senses, Kaylee found the intense quiet more disturbing than the harsh whisper. “Wait...what rock?”
Fragments of her surroundings wavered in and out of focus. Brick walls smeared with dirt were partially visible through the horizontal bars.
She reached with shaking fingers to touch the rusted metal cylinders then tried to rattle them. They didn’t budge. A cramp in her thigh from resting in a semi-fetal position grew in intensity while her feet crowded against hard, cylindrical surfaces and prevented her from stretching out.
She didn’t have the strength to yell.
The quick, indrawn breath was also not her own. “C’mon you stupid kid. Knock that off, or we’re both dead.”
A shower of dirt sprinkling her face and hair made her cough, the resultant sandy inhalation perpetuating the cycle.
The collaborative dream, having taken a southern turn into hell, brought another wave of anxiety along with nausea. Each of her senses plunged deeper into a dark abyss, taking logic and rational thought through a twisted, interactive roller-coaster ride.
Disorientation, chaos, and the first stirrings of panic took root like a well-fertilized seed that sent its growing tendrils sliding deep within the earth.
Loose dirt and small rocks covered the hard base and abraded her shoulder as she moved to a cramped position on her back. The changed perspective brought enlightenment.
That’s why the bars were horizontal.
“Fuck.” Details assimilated sluggishly. Dirt-covered metal comprised a bed, but it wasn’t in her apartment. Walls of brick as seen through her cage, lack of windows, and stale, dank air, pointed to an underground zip code.
Micro currents ferried a thick, putrid scent and muffled the faint, eerie groans of venting tunnels.
“What’s your name?” Again, a whisper twisted with annoyance and despair saturated the air.
Halting breaths and extreme concentration staved off the blind terror threatening her sanity.
“Kaylee. My name is Kaylee.” Slowly, she searched for the irritating heckler.
“Listen up, Kaylee. The bastard who took you is gonna be back soon, probably looking for a bit of afternoon delight. And he won’t be asking. He kidnapped you, too. I don’t know why.”
Kaylee’s befuddled mind took in more of her surroundings, low ceiling, dirt floor, cramped, cave-like room, and the caged, bedraggled woman three feet away. Purple and black surrounded her right eye and busted lip. Her shirt front hung in tatters, the ripped flannel exposing a large bruise above her breast.
“How long have we been here?” A torch along the wall cast flickering shadows over the adjoining cage, just short of her own.
Flickering—indicates an air current.
“The last thing I remember is shopping.” Tears trailed down the petite blonde’s mud-streaked alabaster cheeks which sharply contrasted the bruises marring her face.
“There’s a slight breeze coming from—that way.” Kaylee strained to see where the tunnel led. Pitch black. Some apparitional entity scuttled in the darkness beyond the seedy illumination and left the impression of ghostly stalkers. Stalkers that chittered in the dark.
I’d rather see the boogeyman than rats. “We seem to be in an underground room?”
“Yeah. I think so. I woke up just like you, but the bastard tied my hands before my head cleared.” A sob choked further words as the victim’s wide eyes flickered around the room.
A cursory exploration of the small perimeter marked the filthy, tight confines, then the small, sharp-edged rock which fit in her palm. Instinct saw her sliding it behind her. Mud covered her jeans and colored her T-shirt and jacket. Bathing was the least of her worries.
“Someone slipped us a roofie.” Bruises, tattered flannel, and bound wrists conveyed the woman’s recent past.
Kaylee’s continued scrutiny yielded no clues of how to escape her dilemma. Even if she could squeeze her hand and arm through the bars’ two-inch gaps, she didn’t have the strength or leverage to break the heavy-duty padlock securing her prison.
“Yes. Yes. But at least you’re not tied up, yet.” The girl lifted her hands to reveal a double loop, plastic cuff. “See if you can break out.”
Death in degrees
Jackie Milburn didn’t do fear.
The late-night walk to her car had never provoked an accelerated heart rate. Tonight, however, a bone-deep foreboding arose from vestiges of instinctual awareness, all merging to question her mission’s strategy. If she failed, millions would suffer and life as anyone knew it, would end.
Indistinct shadows granted a cozy ambience where she often lurked, but dingy light filtering through overhead branches mocked her bravado. Shadow limbs shook with laughter as Fate’s sense of humor conspired with nature to saturate creation’s mindset with malice.
Regardless of destiny’s intentions, she squared her shoulders while scanning the deserted parking lot, alert to any threat. A sense of relief had washed through her after depositing the damning evidence in the USPS blue box. The evil shits would never expect an investigative reporter to mail the sophisticated mechanisms across country. Precautions taken with the dispatch ensured no one could trace the recipient. Always have a backup plan.
This was the biggest scoop of her career and would spotlight one of Delaware’s billion-dollar companies as a collection of hi-tech, sociopathic thugs.
It wouldn’t take CSV Pharmaceuticals long to discover crucial evidence missing and ferret out their traitor. As corporations went, they were as paranoid as any. She prayed Dr. Sorenson made it out of the country alive, and not as shark chum. Paranoia had compelled her to refuse him the number to her newest burner phone. Intuition saw the last one tossed in the Willamette River after tapping out a quick message to her old college roommate. Jackie survived by instincts and prayed they would serve her well—one more time.
Making the last stop to pick up her go-bag would supply the necessary items to disappear until her story broke. The finishing touches included copies of lab reports and communication between the Delaware scientists and a company on the West Coast, ClickChip.
Various colored and styled wigs, plain lens glasses, makeup, and diverse fashion ensembles would allow her to blend with any crowd, but wouldn’t prevent CCTVs and facial recognition programs from pinpointing her location. Planning ahead, she had a well-stocked safe house outside city limits.
Trembling fingers failed to punch the unlock button on her key fob. Instead, her headlights cut a swath through the misty ground cover, a beacon to any waiting goon. Shit. The subsequent knocking of heart against ribs rivaled the best hammer drill while sweat coated her palms and face despite her warmed exhalations sending puffed smoke signals in the frosty air.
A slow, deep breath reclaimed her sense of calm and allowed the subtle scent from emerging camellia blossoms drifting on the night’s currents to settle her spirit. There. This is who I am. For visual affirmation of her feelings, she glanced at her reflection in the driver’s side window.
The sudden thrust of a phantom arm emerging from the dark pinned her against a hard chest. The steely limb angled and applied pressure to tilt her head back as if she were a rag doll.
“Oomph.” Collision forced air from her lungs while shock produced a gasp that inhaled a sickly sweet odor from the cloth rammed over her mouth and nose.
“Wanna play?” Malice drew out each syllable in a parody of innocent sport.
Momentary panic barred all reason. Instinctive reaction initiated clawing at the vise-like grip. Subsequent kicking and twisting of her body yielded no compromise in her position.
In her periphery, she caught sight of a malevolent smile and glinting dark eyes under a black fedora. The boogeyman does exist.
Lethargy and disorientation. Another breath or pass out from hypoxia. No more pain. All her muscles relaxed against her will. The invading blackness closed in from the margins.
NO! An enraged cry died in her throat.