Never Look Back – Mary Burton

Heat and humidity punched up the bleach’s faint scent in the van’s dark interior. It made his eyes water, his throat burn, and his palms itch under the latex. Scrubbers and fine brushes cleaned surfaces well enough, but disinfectants seeped into unseen crevices and obliterated pesky droplets of blood. Trace evidence sowed the seeds of a cavalier man’s downfall. Perhaps the second dousing of cleaner had been overkill, but his belt-and-suspenders approach never failed him. He had many faults, but carelessness was not one of them. Better this temporary irritation than a lifetime in a jail cell. He rolled down the driver’s side window, knowing next time he would rinse out the vehicle with more water after the bleaching. He turned his face toward the warm, fresh air. He inhaled and closed his eyes, pretending the whoosh of cars on Interstates 24 and 40 was the ocean. Some of his best Date Nights had been on secluded beaches. He had enjoyed traveling up and down the East Coast because he had decided long ago the women at the beach were the prettiest. Accustomed to warm air and sunshine, they tended toward short skirts and revealing tops and, for the most part, stayed in shape. As much as he loved the ocean, he had sensed it was time to move on to new territory. Maybe it was because he was getting older, but he had felt a pull toward Nashville, his hometown.

His parents were long dead. Any friends he’d once had would not recognize him. Repatriation was good for the soul. It reinvigorated the senses. Challenged the mind. Nashville, Tennessee. Music City. Home of the Country Music Hall of Fame. He had forgotten that it was such an exciting, bustling city filled with beautiful ladies who did not disappoint. What Nashville lacked in beaches it made up for with out-of-the-way spots.

The houses he had found were all located at the end of winding roads on the tops of hills. Their views were amazing. In the five weeks he had been back, he had enjoyed two Date Nights with women he had chosen from the streets. Online shopping for a date was efficient, but it also left a digital trail. Old-school cruising left less evidence. Once he’d made his selection, it was off to his hilltop, where he and his Lady Loves had had all the time in the world to get to know each other. Good relationships needed privacy. They could not be rushed. Yes, sir. He had enjoyed two very fine dates recently.

He should have been satisfied by now. But instead he remained ravenous and craved a third date. He blinked and then rubbed his nose. The smell was fading, which was good. First impressions mattered. The strong scent was due to two cleansings in as many days. Generally, he allowed more time. But he was not getting any younger. And each day he realized how precious time was becoming. He had parked his van in the shadow of an abandoned South Nashville warehouse in an area called the Bottom.

This industrial section was nestled between the Nashville airport and the juncture of Interstates 24 and 40. It was the workmen’s world by day and the playground of prostitutes and johns by night. A couple of miles north, the skyscrapers shimmered over Music City’s business district. Nestled among the tall buildings was Lower Broadway, where red, white, and blue neon lights charmed tourists into cowboy boot shops, honky-tonks, and the Grand Ole Opry. Only a stone’s throw separated Nashville’s vibrant downtown from the Bottom, but the worlds could not have been more distant. In the Bottom, revving cars, shouts, and gunfire replaced the sound of live music. The air carried the odor of fetid garbage rather than smoky barbecue. Instead of smiling tourists strolling Lower Broadway, junkies needled heroin into exhausted veins while hookers slid into an endless supply of cars. This was his tenth trip to the Bottom in the last month. Down here the lineup changed from day to day, week to week.

Always a fresh face. Familiarity could make a man sloppy, but he approached each trip as if it were his first, careful to avoid aggressive pimps or the very rare cop. Most of the women down here had a hard, worn look that did not appeal. He did not care for the experienced ones. Too jaded. Tough like gristle. Not just any gal would do for Date Night. Tonight, he felt lucky. In control. On the corner across the street stood two women.

They had arrived about a half hour ago and seemed to know the area well. The women were constantly adjusting their outfits and scanning the area. A third girl arrived. She spoke to the duo, and the other girls did not appear to welcome her. New Girl was not tall, but she was slim and very fit. Long black hair draped shoulders clad in a white button-down shirt. She had twisted the shirttails around her narrow waist and tied them into a knot above a brass belt buckle. The top four buttons were unfastened to the edges of a lacy white bra filled with ample, perky cleavage. Some men liked legs. Others, ass.

He was a breast man. Skinny jeans perfectly hugged legs rising out of red cowboy boots studded with silver rhinestones. She had a fresh look that was pleasing. His Date Night girl needed to have some experience, but he also did not want rode-hard-and-hung-up-wet. This one looked young. Body of a teenager, but her demeanor suggested she was a few years older. Hard to tell. The streets aged girls like her. This was not the first time he had seen this one down here. Three nights ago, he had glimpsed her laughing with several of the girls, but before he could make his move, the priest who operated the Mission had engaged her in a lengthy discussion.

He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the steering wheel. The glow of the streetlight shadowed Date Night girl’s angled chin. Her back was straight. Tits out. Good posture. This girl was self-assured and would do nicely. He imagined the sound of bones crunching. Screams. The feel of warm blood on his face. The strong and healthy ones could sustain a great deal of abuse.

It was always disappointing to go to the trouble of finding a date, arranging a first outing, and then having them die too soon. He had had thirteen girlfriends in all. A couple of girls had made it beyond a week, but the others had barely survived a few days. His longest relationship had lasted sixteen days. New Girl ran long fingers through her hair, arching her back seductively as if she knew he was watching. His attention focused on the trim waist and then roamed over her full breasts and slim neck. He imagined her stripped down, her tanned skin glistening in the moonlight and a tight collar around her throat. Dangling from the collar was the key to unlock the cuffs that restrained her. He had high hopes for this one. He imagined her breaking, submitting to him.

Growing hard, he palmed his johnson. Anticipation crept through him. “Ready to play in my van, Ms. Perky Breasts?” He was tempted to walk up to her, but with the other girls close, he did not. Moving in the open was a recipe for trouble. Even if the other girls did not remember him, there were unseen cameras or witnesses lurking. Lots of traps in the game he played. And he knew them all. He scratched above his ear where some of his real hair had slipped the confines of the blond wig. Tugging at his gloves, he was anxious to be done with it, as well as the colored contacts and glasses, but he could not reveal himself until he and his girl were alone.

It was the belt-andsuspenders approach. New Girl fished in her purse, pulled out a cell phone, and raised it to her ear. She ducked her head, as if in deep conversation. Pimps kept a tight leash on their girls. Most texted every half hour and expected a quick response, or there would be hell to pay. Always better to avoid the pimps. The priest was also a problem. She watched out for the girls like they were her flock. Date Night girl ended her call as a black early-model Cadillac pulled up. It had chrome wheels and a white convertible top with Tennessee plates.

The first two girls approached the car and leaned inside to chat with the driver. “Don’t you leave me, girl.” He whispered the words over and over as anxiety crawled up his back. As Date Night girl lingered back, the two women laughed at something the driver must have said. The passenger door opened, and the two women slid inside, nestling close to the driver. His Date Night girl took a step back and watched the vehicle drive off. Ms. Perky Breasts was now alone. Another sign. It was just the two of them.

Now or never. He glanced in his rearview mirror, catching the reflection off the leg restraints bolted to the floor. He checked his driver’s side door for the syringe taped to the vinyl. Three other needles just like it were taped strategically throughout the van. All were loaded with enough ketamine to drop a linebacker. And even if she screamed, the van was soundproof. He had tricked out the vehicle specifically to ensure everything was contained until they reached his place in the woods. He turned the ignition key. The van’s engine started. He kept the headlights off as he inched his vehicle out of the shadows toward her.

His gaze swept the area one last time, and when certain it was just the two of them, he pulled up beside her. She held back a moment, eyeing him. Brown eyes glinted with street smarts. No one lasted long on the street without survival sense. He got his first close look at her. She was older than he had first thought. Late twenties maybe, but her skin had a healthy glow that he liked. Her lips were full and her cheekbones high. Exotic. She sniffed, rubbed her nose, and swayed slightly as if she were a little drunk.

Caution checked him briefly. Something felt off about her. What was it? His gaze slowly roamed over her again, but as soon as he got a good look at her breasts, he swatted away his worries. A small cross dangled on her chest, and when she shifted, he was sure he glimpsed pink nipple. She was exactly his type. Better than he had hoped for. She was already one of his top picks, and they had not even started partying yet. The streets may have smartened her up, but he was about to teach her lessons she had never learned. She rolled back those shoulders like she was the one in charge. For a moment he hesitated, reconsidering his choice.

He tended toward the docile but always enjoyed the ones with a little fight and spunk. Risk versus reward. He rolled down the passenger-side window, careful to keep his gloved hands in his lap and out of view. The scent of her spicy perfume reminded him of a previous date. He took it as a good omen. No signs of track marks on her arms. And if she did meth, it had not been for long. She glanced from side to side and then stepped forward. That direct brown-eyed gaze made him anxious for the takedown. Transitions were always tricky.

“Looking for a party?” he asked. She studied him with intense eyes. “Not tonight, pal. Calling it early.” Despite his desire for a challenge, her rebuff irritated him. She was supposed to say yes and get in the car. That was why he was in the Bottom. The hunting was easy. On the passenger side of the van, there was an automatic door that opened with the push of a button. Modifications ensured it snapped open fast.

Repeated practice guaranteed he could be between the seats and grabbing her wrist in less than two seconds. She would have to be on her game to get away. He mentally raced through the steps, already excited about the risk of grabbing her. Door open. Grab the girl. Toss in back. Door close. Syringe. Cuf s. Drive.

His record was three seconds. “I’m looking for a date,” he countered. “And I’ll make it worth your while.” She wobbled again and then stepped a little closer. Anticipation burned inside him. But she halted before she reached the strike zone. “How long you looking to party?” she asked. “All night, and I can afford it.” Greed always shifted the odds to his favor. Large round hoop earrings shifted as she regarded him.

Her eyes narrowed. She sniffed again. “That’s a couple grand.” “Of course.” “I’ve got to clear it.” In a blink, she texted her pimp. Time was slipping away. She should have been in the van by now. He removed a roll of singles with a Benjamin on the outside. He had brandished this same wad before and had even handed it over once or twice.

But he always got it back. It was his lucky lure. She studied the roll but did not reach for it. He smiled. “Time is wasting. There are other fish in the sea, sugar.” She tightened her hand on her purse strap. One gloved hand slid to the syringe. Seconds slowed to a crawl. He was anxious to touch her skin.

“Let’s get this party started.” She glanced at her phone and slowly shook her head. “Sorry, boss man says no.” Fucking pimp. He could feel her slipping away. “We can keep this between us.” She took a step back. “And then my guy beats the hell out of me.” His smile froze in place. He had tried to be nice.

Tried to do this the right way. But she was being difficult. He would show her dif icult. He pushed the button and the automatic door crashed open. His heart pulsed as he ripped the syringe free and bolted between the seats. The needle’s tip rose, glittering in the streetlight’s glow. He reached for her arm and manacled his fingers around her wrist. He jerked her forward, brought the needle down, thumb on the plunger. But she pivoted, twisting her arm up and around and breaking his hold. The needle skimmed along her jeans and the tip broke off.

She bounded back so fast that her ankle rolled before she righted it. He tossed aside the useless syringe and lunged toward her. With his right hand, he grabbed a handful of her hair, and she howled. He yanked her toward the cab. She dug in her heels. But he was stronger. The boots slid over the concrete, leaving black scuff marks as she tried to pry his hand from her hair. As he reached for the waistband of her jeans with his left hand, she released her grip. He mistook it for surrender. A jolt of triumph coaxed a smile.

“We’re going to have some fun tonight.” That short-lived victory incinerated as a rush of pain seared his right thigh. The unexpected pain caught him off guard. What the hell? He recoiled automatically. His grip slackened as he looked down at the knife embedded in his leg. He scrambled to regroup. The second syringe was taped to the back of the passenger seat. If he could just get her to the van . With a grunt, he tightened his hold on her hair, closing the distance to the door. His first Date Night girl had also given him trouble, but he had been inexperienced in those days and she had gotten away.

It had taken him weeks to find her again. This one would not escape. Screaming, she gripped the blade handle, rotated it, and tore into fresh flesh. His blood was on her hands, her face, and his chest. He dragged her toward the car as rage raced through his veins like liquid lava. Punishment! She needed to learn her place. A set of headlights appeared and raced toward him. He was four feet from the van. Four feet separated him from freedom. From fun in the mountains.

Date Night girl drove a knee into his crotch. Reflex had him turning but not fast enough to avoid a glancing blow to the jewels. He caught his breath. His fingers slackened. She jerked free, pulling the knife with her and leaving him with only strands of her hair and his own pain and fury. She stumbled back. Her eyes locked on him as she gripped the handle. Go after her, or get away? The question repeated in his head over and over as the headlights grew brighter. A horn blared. Beep! Beep! He growled his frustration.

He hated relinquishing control but knew he had to cut his losses. The hairs on the back of his neck rose, just as they had when dear old Dad’s mood had shifted. He had survived at this game long enough to know when to fold. Always another day to fight. He jumped into the van and slid behind the steering wheel. He put the van in drive and looked toward the woman, now illuminated by the headlights. Date Night girl stumbled backward, teetered in her red heeled boots so wildly her right ankle bent sideways and would have snapped if she had not corrected quickly. Those perky breasts heaved up and down as she gripped the knife. There was always a tomorrow. Revenge was sweet.

He punched the gas and drove. Tires peeled against the asphalt. The automatic door banged closed. A rushed glance in the rearview mirror caught the girl one last time. She had pulled a gun and stared at the van as if trying to memorize his plates. He rounded the corner as his brain fixated on staying free. He had altered his appearance enough, so if she got a cop to listen, they would have no idea what he looked like. Still, it might not be long before a BOLO went out on a windowless white van. He did not drive far before he pulled into a preselected warehouse. He jumped out of the van, inhaled the scent of bleach, and hobbled to another vehicle.

He would come back for the van soon. He glanced down at his leg and the blood soaking his pants. The wound was throbbing. Belt and suspenders. Sitting in his car, he gripped the wheel with gloved hands. He winced as he started the engine. The van’s seat was wet with blood, but it was hidden well enough. He drove out the other end of the warehouse, took another side street, and ten minutes later pulled into a crowded parking garage near one of the chain hotels. Another car switch and he was on his way to freedom. He slowly tamed his breathing and racing heart.

His thoughts doubled back to Ms. Perky Breasts. No one got the better of him. He would find her, and she would feel his fury in every bone and nerve in her body. By the time he was finished with her, she would beg him for mercy.

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