Copyright © 2012 Tina Donahue
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
She wasn’t alone.
The thought startled Gwen even as she tried to dismiss it. The hairs on her arms rose up. Something was wrong.
What? Other than the obvious—that she couldn’t afford a car or to live in the suburbs.
Frowning, she gripped her pepper spray even harder and continued across the lot to the surrounding neighborhood, a combination of inner city and working class that had seen better times. Failed attempts at gentrification had resulted in islands of beautiful two- and-three-story historic homes surrounded by blight, trash, weeds.
She hurried past the first vacant lot as quickly as she could, telling herself tonight was no different from any other. No one was after her. She wasn’t a psycho’s type, being too tall and not at all helpless. Hadn’t one of the residents said it very well last week when he’d jokingly referred to her as a ball buster for teaching those self-defense classes at the hospital? You bet he had. Her kind of woman wasn’t on most guys’ radar, especially those looking for an easy target.
Besides, she didn’t have all that far to walk and would get home safely.
Moisture rolled down her cheeks and throat. If the weather deteriorated any further, her hoodie would soon be soaked through. Huffing from her pace, she approached the street corner. The signal was red; the sign warning her not to cross. In both directions, the road was empty. Its wet surface gleamed in the available light.
Wind whisked around an abandoned confectionary, buffeting Gwen. She shivered and turned down the street, deciding to take a shortcut through an alley in the distance. From behind, a car approached. Glancing over, she saw it move down the main thoroughfare rather than turning in her direction.
Her running shoes made slapping noises against the damp pavement, the sounds obtrusive, not seeming to belong. Leaves rustled above her, the dying ones torn free by the wind. The bass of an unknown song thumped from a nearby brick building, its curtainless upper windows amber with light. A young boy with wavy black hair and dusky skin blew on the glass, fogging it, and then he drew a series of letters with his forefinger.
Gwen reached the vacant lot that cut from this street to the next, one over from her own. Just a bit farther to go. She’d be all right. No one was around. No one was following her.
Needing to be certain, she continued to glance back. There was nothing except darkness interrupted infrequently by dated streetlamps, their crumbling concrete facades matching the pockmarked sidewalks. Empty bags of Lay’s potato chips, Cheetos and other fast food littered the area, the cellophane crackling beneath her shoes.
With one hand around her pepper spray and the other clutching her house key, she entered the alley. Debris skittered down it, carried by the wind, the sickly sweet stink of garbage less noticeable in the brisk breeze. Yards ahead, half the length of a football field, was her street, a wall of murkiness separating her from it. Craning her neck, Gwen glanced at the many windows facing the alley, most boarded up. The ones that weren’t were dark.
Go on. She’d walked this route last night and countless times before that. The only hassle she’d faced were stray dogs crouching in the gloom, growling at her intrusion into their territory.
Tonight, even they were gone. For the first time ever, Gwen missed them. She knew she could easily frighten animals. Men, on the other hand… There might be a fight.
Again, she sensed someone watching, following.
Sudden outrage rather than fear pumped through Gwen. Halfway down the alley, she halted and turned, ready to rumble, show the jerk some of her martial arts moves.
No one was behind her.
She listened and heard nothing. Certainly not heavy breathing, except for her own.
Renewed apprehension cut through her aggravation. Gwen pivoted, ready to run the remaining distance. A faint whooshing noise interrupted her panting and the other night sounds. Before she could identify it, something hit her neck, stinging her skin.
Jesus, had someone shot her, with a fucking silencer no less?
Her hand flew up, then stalled not on blood but something else. What the hell?
What felt like a small dart had pierced the side of her throat unprotected by her hoodie. Where in the crap had something like that come from? Suddenly, her limbs went numb. Her hand dropped from her neck before she could remove the dart.
Down Gwen went, her legs unable to support her weight, her knees hitting the broken asphalt. She heard the crack of her bones, but the pain didn’t register, blunted by whatever flowed through her. A tranquilizer, she guessed. Although she tried to remain kneeling, her efforts didn’t last. She fell to her side even as her mind kept screaming run.
Too late. Out of the shadows he came. A man she’d never seen before, hadn’t noticed, his build bruising with a thick neck, burly shoulders and arms. In the light bleeding from her street, Gwen could see his eyes were a light brown, his hair curly and black, his features and complexion not quite African-American or Indian but a mixture of races, the same as her.
He grabbed her arm.
She fought to pull away, but her body refused to work. Helpless, she screamed, or tried; only a croak escaped.
Grunting, he put his hand over her mouth, his fingers clamped so tight Gwen couldn’t bite him. Raw terror tore through her even as her lethargy increased. Was he going to rape her? Kill her? Both? Oh God, oh God, oh God. Her thoughts went in all directions, most of them bad, fueled by adrenaline. She pictured him slitting her throat once he’d finished his sexual assault, leaving her to bleed to death in a trash bin or an abandoned building, her body concealed so well it would be difficult to find.
Aw shit. Her life couldn’t end like this. No fucking way. She had to fight. Come on, dammit. Do it.
She tried so hard to move, her body broke out in a cold sweat. Perspiration mingled with the moisture on her face, stinging her eyes. Despite her efforts, Gwen couldn’t wag one finger. Lifting her arms was as impossible as flapping them and taking flight. Remaining conscious became an effort.
With too much ease, the man dragged her down the alley. Her clothes rasped against the rough surface. Her shoes bounced. Tat-tat-tat, her rubber heels went. Tat—
What’s that? Even in her drugged state, Gwen felt a deeper blast of cold to the left of them and heard a sucking sound that resembled a vacuum. Was it a vent? Leading to where? Why hadn’t she heard it all the times before when she’d taken this route? Why—
What in the holy hell is that?
She listened, hearing another low, menacing growl.
The man stopped at the noise, then hurriedly pulled her toward the intense cold.
The growl deepened, growing louder. Closer.
The man muttered something in a language she’d never heard, couldn’t possibly understand. From the right came a snarl, followed by an animal bounding into the air, hitting the man square in his chest.
His hands dropped away from Gwen. She sagged to the asphalt, straining to remain conscious, gaping at the animal attacking the man. Not one of the stray dogs she’d seen here before. It was larger, more dangerous, looking like a goddamned wolf.
Teeth bared and bloody, it tore at the man’s face, cutting off his scream. Gwen heard his neck bones snap. Unable to keep her eyes open any longer, she allowed her lids to slip down, not wanting to witness the attack, terrified of what the wolf—or whatever the hell it was—would do to her when it finished with the man.
Rain tapped her face. Each breath was a prolonged battle. She wanted to run. She would have given a year of her life to be able to scream.
Quiet. She noticed it suddenly…the utter stillness of the night. How much time had passed? Was she still alive? Had she died and gone to some weirdo version of hell?
Her mouth fell open, but no sound escaped as someone strong lifted her up. A guy, surely. A cop who’d happened upon this nightmare? A Good Samaritan? Had she lost consciousness without realizing it? Where had the wolf gone? Where was this guy taking her?
Gwen’s hands flopped helplessly as he slung her over his shoulder, his forearm firm across the back of her thighs. With quick steps, he moved down the alley.