She screamed, the sound thundering in her ears as she ran up the stairs, heart pounding, threatening to jump into her mouth. He was behind her, the clip of his boots hitting the stone steps, and she knew he was close. Don’t let him catch me. Don’t let him catch me. Into the kitchen, the room lit by a dull bare bulb, round the heavy oak table. The toe of her sneaker caught the leg of a chair and she stumbled briefly, the clatter of wood hitting the floor sounded as it fell behind her. It would delay him by maybe a second if she was lucky. Into the hall, towards the safety of the front door. Please let it open. She heard his raspy breathing. Knew if he caught her he would take her back down to the basement. She couldn’t go down there again, ever. Her hand grabbed the door handle, yanked it hard, and relief flickered through her as it opened. Behind her the man grunted and lunged, his fingers skimming her hair, and then she was down the porch step and into the front yard. ‘Come back here, you little bitch!’ He sounded mad as hell.
Although he was still behind her, she was younger, smaller, faster. Up ahead the blackness of the woods waited to immerse her. If she could make it to their safety there was a chance she could lose him. The wind had picked up, rattling the chains of the rusted old swing. Twigs snapped beneath her feet. She was aware of both sounds, though neither drowned out the thundering fear in her head. Her breath was ragged, but still she ran, the adrenaline carrying her. She thought of the twins. They had left her behind and were probably long gone. She was all alone.
She had to run faster. She had to get away. Her life depended on it. Into the woods, the thick branches overhead blocking out any light from the moon. Her eyes not yet accustomed, she could barely see three feet ahead, but still she ran, no idea where she was heading, knowing she had to get away. Behind her he stumbled, cursing as he hit the ground. She ran faster. The basement. So much blood. He wouldn’t give up trying to catch her.
She had seen and he knew she would tell. He would do whatever was necessary to make sure she didn’t tell. All around her the trees swayed and whispered. Her foot caught a loose branch and she tripped. Unable to catch herself, she rolled head first down a steep bank, landing uncomfortably in a pile of bushes. Heart in her mouth, she tried to pick herself up. Prickling leaves dug into her back and her ankle throbbed from where it had caught the branch. She knew she had to go, and quickly, but movement was difficult. From overhead came the sound of footsteps crunching twigs. He’s going to find me.
She lay as still as she could, desperately trying to control her panting breath. It was pitch black in the woods. Maybe he hadn’t heard her fall. If she was lucky he wouldn’t see her. The seconds ticked by, each one dragging. There was more rustling from above, then the sound of footsteps again, this time growing distant. He had gone. She let out a low shaky breath, still not daring to move. He was not going to give up looking for her and the slightest sound could alert him to where she was. She thought back to the basement, to what had happened, to what she had seen, allowing it to fully sink in for the first time.
What would have happened had she not run? Gagging, she rolled on to her side and threw up into the bush. Backhanding spit from her mouth, she glanced warily around. Had he heard? There was no sound other than the whispering trees and her ragged breathing. Gingerly she rolled over and started to crawl out of the bushes, knowing she had to get out of there before he came back. Climbing to her feet, she put pressure on her ankle, knowing before the blast of shooting pain she had sprained it or worse. Grimacing, she felt her way through the branches trying to find a path. Behind her came a crunch. Him! Choking down on a sob, she thrashed her way madly through the trees, ignoring the white-hot pain each time her busted ankle hit the ground. In the distance she heard the low roar of an engine. A car? Was she near a road? Forcing herself forward, she could make out the low beam of headlights ahead.
Behind her, rough hands grabbed at her wrist, yanking her back. She yelped, kicking out and managing to wrench herself free. Dragging her bad ankle behind her she stumbled forward through the trees to the road she could now see ahead. Missing her footing on the embankment, she tripped again, this time falling into the road and straight into the path of the oncoming car. The last thing she was aware of was the thud as her body hit the front grille. From the darkness of the trees the man watched as the car skidded to a halt in front of the limp body lying in the road. The problem had taken care of itself. A grim smile playing on his lips he turned and started to make his way back through the trees. He needed to get back to the house, back to his work, and he didn’t want to keep his other guest waiting. T 1 ired from her bar shift, Amy Gallaty cursed herself for the hundredth time for agreeing to babysit her friend’s dog.
She could hear Huckleberry’s pitiful whining the second the elevator opened on her floor and was almost sent flying as she opened her apartment door. It was gone two, her shift had been long, and she wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed. She doubted Huckleberry would make it through till morning without needing to empty his bladder though and so reluctantly she fetched the leash. Ten minutes round the block and she’d be done. Spotting the leash, Huckleberry let out a joyful bark. ‘Hush!’ The disobedient collie gave her a lopsided grin and started panting with excitement as she hooked it on to his collar. Amy made a mental note to have words with Ryan about taking his pooch on a training course when he returned from Europe. Although the night was warm, she was dismayed to feel a few spits of rain as they exited the apartment building. Typical. Huckleberry’s ten-minute walk around the block was about to get cut to a quick stroll to the end of the street.
Willing him to hurry up and pee, Amy hurried along behind him, oblivious to the pair of eyes watching her from the car parked across from her apartment. Victor Boaz finished his shift at eleven and instead of sensibly heading straight home to bed, he had been persuaded by a couple of the other officers to join them for a beer. It was a foolish move. Pastor Ralph had finally agreed to let him help set up before Sunday service and he was supposed to be at the church early the next morning. He had been trying to get in on this gig for ages and didn’t want to screw it up. This was his big chance to impress Brooke Michaels. So far she had been friendly but had kept her distance. When she saw how seriously he was taking this church stuff and helping her dad, maybe she would finally agree to go out with him. As for Pastor Ralph, Vic was sure he would approve of him dating his daughter. Vic was a police officer who had embraced his religious side.
What was there not to like? It was almost two when he finally left the bar. Although he had only had one beer, he’d got caught up shooting the breeze, flirting with the new barmaid and playing pool with the guys. He gave a couple of them a lift home and was swinging his car around for the journey back to his townhouse, groaning at the time and knowing he was never going to be able to drag himself out of bed in three hours, when he had an idea. Pastor Ralph had given him the keys to the church. What difference would it make if he set up tonight instead of in the morning? He could head on over, get everything ready and probably be home in under an hour. Then tomorrow he would get extra time in bed. Telling himself he was a genius; Vic flipped on the turn signal and took the left-hand fork away from the city. The New Hope Baptist Church was a ten-minute ride out towards the coast. It was a little out of Vic’s neighbourhood, but was the place he had found solitude in his hour of need. The pastor had welcomed him with open arms, been a friendly ear to all his troubles, and offered many words of advice.
It also helped that Mrs Michaels was a great cook and always laid out a mouth-watering selection of baked goods for the congregation. His belly rumbling at the thought of her home-made apple pie and banana bread, he veered into the narrow lane leading to the church. Pulling up outside, he reached into the glovebox for his flashlight, cursing the church for not having any street lighting, and also himself for forgetting to put new batteries in the flashlight. The beam was faint and kept flickering but would hopefully be enough to light his way. He glanced at the illuminated digital clock on the dashboard before killing the engine and exiting the car. Fifteen minutes in and out, Vic, buddy. Let’s make this quick. Knowing his bed was waiting, he locked the car door and made his way over to the church gate. Usually Huckleberry liked to pee on everything, but tonight, as if sensing once he had done the deed it would be game over, he was purposely taking his time, stopping to sniff every post and every bush. Amy sighed and glanced around her.
Were it not for the spits of rain it would be a gorgeous night, so quiet and still, a blissful contrast to her busy evening in the bar. Across the road, the trees of the park were illuminated by the faint glow from the street lamps nestled between their branches. In the morning she would take Huckleberry for a longer walk but keep him on his leash, as last time he’d caused chaos by chasing the ducks. For tonight he would have to make do with the sidewalk, where she felt safer. He sniffed for another two minutes before eventually cocking his leg at the bottom of a step leading into one of the neighbouring apartment buildings. As soon as he had finished Amy swung around, eager to get home. Huckleberry whined and tugged on the leash. ‘Come on, you little shit,’ Amy hissed. Ryan owed her big time for this favour. Huckleberry continued to pull, unhappy at the briefness of the walk.
He stared at Amy, brown eyes daring her to make him go back. When she gave the leash another yank, he shook his black and white head from side to side. ‘Huckleberry!’ The dog was having none of it and planted his butt firmly on the pavement. As Amy reached for his collar, he started shaking his head more frantically and next thing she knew, he had managed to slip free. He bolted in the direction of the park, leaving her gawping after him, the leash and collar still in her hand. ‘Huckleberry!’ This time she was louder than intended and from one of the apartments above came angry shouting. ‘Shut the hell up! It’s the middle of the night.’ Amy didn’t respond; she was already across the street, following the direction she had seen Huckleberry run. The dog was a pain, but she couldn’t lose him. Ryan would kill her.
She followed his lead down the path to the river, almost certain this was where she would find him as it was the route they had taken that morning. She only hoped Huckleberry didn’t decide to launch himself into the water again. She was an idiot being out here all alone, but what choice did she have? She could hardly leave the dog and go home. Reassuring herself she was only still minutes from her apartment block and the chances of anyone else being out here in the middle of the night were less than zero, she stopped abruptly as she spotted a shadowy figure, maybe thirty yards ahead, silhouetted against the silvery light bouncing off the water. Amy caught her breath. What the hell? Unsure what to do, she remained where she was, heart thumping and mouth dry, listening to the steadying patter of rain hitting the leaves of the trees overhead. Had he seen her? What was he doing out here? Barking distracted her. Two barks? A larger pale dog emerged from the bushes, Huckleberry hot on its tail. The man yelled, ‘Hey!’ and reached out to stop the pale dog. Letting out a joyous woof, Huckleberry bounded into them both, catching the man off guard and sending him sprawling on his ass.
Cursing under her breath, Amy charged down to the scene, embarrassment overcoming her apprehension. ‘Huckleberry, come here!’ The man was getting to his feet as she approached, and he looked really pissed. ‘Is that your dog?’ he demanded. ‘Yes… No… Um, well, kind of.’ He stared at her pointedly. He was youngish, maybe mid-thirties, dark hair, and from the way the moonlight was playing with the hollows and angles on his face, attractive… in an angry kind of way. ‘Look, I’m sorry, okay. I took him out to pee, and he got off the leash.’ ‘Well, maybe if you can’t control him, you shouldn’t own a dog.’ He stared at Huckleberry who had sat his butt down a few feet away and was watching them, tongue hanging out, looking mightily pleased with himself.
‘He’s not actually mine,’ Amy protested, taking a sneaky step towards Huckleberry, hoping to get the collar back on him before he bolted again. The rain was getting heavier and she didn’t have a jacket. The man wasn’t listening. He had turned his back to her and bent down to stroke the ears of the pale Labrador, as he clipped on the leash. Amy’s temper rose a notch. She had apologised and didn’t appreciate being lectured at and then ignored. ‘He’s not my dog,’ she repeated. The man turned back to face her, eyebrows raised. ‘So?’