Authors: Sydney Bristow
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Edited by Madeleine Fox
Cover Design by Damonza
“I’m going to savor each second I spend…tearing every limb from your body.”
My shoulders crimped at the raspy, masculine voice tinged with disgust. I may have practiced various forms of martial arts over the past fifteen years, but when someone threatened you in a dark and vacant alley in Chicago, you couldn’t help but get a little jumpy.
I slipped a hand into my pocket, feeling for my cell phone. Since I graduated from DePaul University this afternoon, not to mention hit my twenty-first birthday, I wondered if my friend, Brandon, had played a not-so-friendly joke on me. After all, he’d suggested that we meet at a bar named
just a block away to celebrate.
In case Brandon wasn’t standing thirty feet behind me feigning a malicious expression, I slowed to a stop to give the impression that I had nothing to fear. “If you’re into tearing off body parts, I suggest you get a bucket of chicken from KFC.” I hoped my voice didn’t quiver with the same intensity as my thighs. I whirled around, eager to find out who’d caught me off guard. “It’s quicker and less messy. Plus, you’ll avoid that whole jail-time thing. Really, it’s a win-win for both of us.” Whenever I faced indecision, I relied on humor until I found a way to deal with the situation.
A man with tousled hair the color of a STOP sign glared at me.
Since he mentioned removing my limbs, I was relieved not to see him holding a serrated knife. Then again, he might have planned to shoot me first then slice and dice later. But I didn’t see a bulge in his fitted tweed suit, indicating a pistol or handgun. At least that put us on even ground.
The creepy dude’s eyes flashed black, as though someone had poured a tablespoon of tar inside them, then he blinked and they returned to a natural olive color. If he hadn’t passed under a lamppost, I’d never have noticed his eyes unexpectedly shift. Was he wearing colored contacts? Had they accidentally popped out before slipping back into place again? What else explained that momentary metamorphosis? Taking casual strides to close the distance between us, the creepy guy spread out his arms in a placating manner.
“Interesting,” he said. “I threaten you with a death, and you…jest?”
“Well, no, because if I jested…I’d be a jester, now wouldn’t I? And I’m not much for the bizarre shoes, the funky hat, and the freaky make-up. It’s all pretty disturbing.”
“Yes,” he said, taking his time while approaching me. He lifted a finger and waved it at me. “Is this how you’d like to spend your last few moments on Earth? With meaningless mockery?”
“No.” My eagerness to escape this predicament made it difficult to latch onto a snappy comeback.
“Ah, your intelligence shines through.”
If I called the police, I’d need to wait at least five minutes before they arrived. And I got the impression that this creepy dude wouldn’t set aside his desire to rip my limbs from their sockets to chat about why he felt the need to attack women in dark alleys. Not that I was qualified to talk down serial killers. I’d just received a business degree, and I planned to use the skills I’d learned to navigate the recording industry, so I could live my dream of leading a heavy metal band to the top of the charts and tour the world. Nevertheless, while I had a strong voice with great range, I couldn’t unleash a superhuman scream that would bust the creepy dude’s eardrums and make him run for cover in the opposite direction.
The way he strolled my way made it obvious that he had complete confidence in his objective—murdering me.
He pulled the suit sleeve away from his wrist to glance at his watch. “Shall we turn our attention to tonight’s festivities? I’ve got an appointment in ten, so I’d like to wrap this up within the next couple minutes.” He revealed two rows of shiny white teeth.
Only one rational option presented itself. I took out my phone and dialed 9-1-1. Then I turned and ran. I hoped to evade the creepy dude long enough for the police to track my whereabouts via my phone. Just after I dialed, however, I felt an arm bash into my back, pitching me forward. The phone flipped through the air and skittered across the concrete fifteen-feet away.
I relied on my training to hit the ground without breaking any bones, while affording me the opportunity to bounce back up, prepared to defend myself within moments. But how had he closed the twenty-foot distance between us so quickly?
He stood before me with an eyebrow quirked. “Impressive!”
“What are you?”
The creepy dude threw a left hook, exhibiting quickness I’d never seen before. I’d dodged that punch, along with a right-uppercut, and a kick to the shins, but I hadn’t been swift enough to elude an elbow to the cheek. The blow elicited a grunt, and I used the direction the blow sent me in to correct my balance and face him again.
Miraculously, he stood in front of me, waiting. He grasped my throat with an enormous hand.
Startled by his inhuman speed, which made it impossible to mount an offensive, I felt waves of intense malice flowing off him. I’d never perceived anything close to the rage emanating from this person, so why had I noticed it now?
His thin lips curled upwards as he tightened his hold around my throat. “You’ll serve as a good warm-up for your family.”
He must have mistaken me for another woman. I’d only ever had one family member: Grams. I shook my head, wishing he’d give me an opportunity to tell him that he’d confused me with someone else. Not that I found it acceptable for him to murder anyone. Nor would he believe me, shrug his shoulders, and say, “Please accept my apologies. It’s dark out here. You can see why I’d make that mistake, right? Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go exterminate that other woman.”
“Hmm,” he said. “I actually believe you don’t know about your relatives. It’s too bad you’ll never find out about them.” He leaned in close. “Because they’re my next appointment.” The freckles on his cheeks disappeared in dimples.
If he hadn’t planned to kill me, I’d have mistaken him for a mild-mannered dentist. I clutched his hand and tried to pry his fingers away from my neck. That didn’t work, so I clawed his knuckles, feeling skin peel away from his bones.
His jawbone clamped down, but he held tight, giving me no opportunity to render him defenseless. Feeling the oxygen slipping from my lungs, trying to push away my fright by relying on my training, I found the pressure point between his thumb and index finger and pressed down hard.
The creepy dude didn’t relax his hold. Anyone with pain synapses would have immediately released me, but perhaps a massive infusion of drugs rendered my move useless. His grin broadened as he slanted his head to the side, analyzing me with an amused expression. Curious by my struggle, he giggled.
He clamped down harder, threw his head back, and laughed. He blinked again and his serene eyes once more flashed dark as coal, as though reflecting the darkness inside his soul.
I couldn’t comprehend how anyone could disregard two incredibly painful maneuvers. Unsure how to attack him now that he’d cut off air from reaching my body, I dangled like a doll, arms and legs wiggling in every direction, while doing my best to ignore the white stars that flashed behind my eyes.
Last week, after Master Nakamura ended my training because he had nothing left to teach me, he’d stated that by the time I reached my twenty-first birthday, I would face my greatest challenge. At the time, I thought he’d indirectly proposed a match between master and student. After all, what better way to determine if a student had learned each lesson? How had he known that person would become my greatest challenge? Had he set me up to determine if I’d grasped every tactic and strategy he’d set forth?
As my graduation and birthday neared, I’d relished the time away from my master’s studio and the chance to
punch or kick an attacker. Now the opposite desire flushed a jolt of adrenaline through me. My pulse slowed. My thoughts did likewise. I overlooked the reality that a man was attempting to choke the life out of me.
Instead, I opened my eyes and scanned his head, shoulders, neck, chest, and waist, looking for an opening, a spot I could pummel with as much force as possible. I settled on the points above either side of his clavicle, so I dug my fingers into those areas and pressed down with all my strength in hopes that the pressure in his grasp would subside.
He glanced at his clavicle. “Ow!” he said sarcastically, entertained by my tactic.
Instead of relying on incredibly painful maneuvers that would have made a normal human fall to his knees in pain, I decided on a move that I should have used earlier. I grabbed his hand and cranked it so hard that I heard the bone crack.
The man finally let me go.
I flailed backwards. My hands went to my neck as I gasped for air.
The creepy dude looked down at his hand. A bone had torn through his skin. Seemingly irritated by the confines of human anatomy, he sighed with the frustration of an impatient child. He shrugged and raised his other hand. “Good thing I have two!”
Now that I had a few moments to recuperate, I stared at him, unsure how to defeat a man who didn’t feel pain, not to mention someone who had superhuman speed, which meant I couldn’t make a run for it.
But I could break his other hand, rendering them both useless and making it impossible for him to follow through on his threat. I got into a fighting stance and waited for him to attack.
He smiled and stepped forward.
Without notice, a man in his late thirties who seemed to shave his head weekly, based on the crop of hair that had only recently sprouted up, appeared behind the creepy dude, grabbed the man’s neck, and snapped it.
Before the creepy dude’s body went limp, a puff of murky fog drifted out of his eyes, an effect similar to that of an extinguished flame.
As air entered my throat without jagged hitches, my head cleared, sending a dose of relief through me. “What the hell!” I blinked, thinking that brain damage had caused me to envision the bizarre tuft of smoke drifting from the creepy dude’s eyes. I settled my gaze on the man who killed my attacker.
Wearing a white dress shirt under a tailored black suit, he strode toward me in a non-threatening but purposeful manner. He ignored the creepy dude’s corpse and extended a hand. “We need to leave. They’ll be here soon.”
Part of my brain screamed out not to trust this man, but those steely eyes entranced me, calmed me, and eventually persuaded me to believe in him. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Darius Coyne. I’m a friend of the family. Let me help you up.”
“But there’s only Grams and me.” It shocked me that two people I’ve never met before told me about a family I didn’t know I had. “She’s the only family I’ve got.”
“That’s not true. Lorraine…well, she didn’t tell you some things to protect you.”
“You know Grams?” I asked, a flutter of relief soothing my nerves. “But—”
“We’ve got to go. The police will be here soon.”
“The police?” I took his hand.
He hoisted me up as though he’d snatched a wrapper from the concrete. “Yes, you called them. Don’t you remember?”
A police siren in the near-distance cut through the humid night air.
“Yes, but how do you know that? You weren’t even here.”
He went over to my phone, picked it up, and crushed it in his hands. “We don’t want them to track us or get any personal information from that.” He molded the destroyed phone into a ball with ease and hurled it into the night sky.
I didn’t even hear a clatter, indicating that it hit the ground.
“As to how I knew about the call,” he said, “we don’t have time for me to explain.”
That statement struck a frightening chord inside me. Now I second-guessed my decision to trust him. But once again, when I looked into his eyes, the tension left my shoulders, and all conflicted thoughts flittered away.
Darius cocked his head toward the empty alley. “Come on, my car’s around the corner.”
Unsure why I followed him, I struggled to keep up until he turned the corner and reached a white Ford Focus with tinted windows.
I couldn’t imagine the man who killed that…
would drive a compact Ford Focus. Maybe a Corvette or Porsche. After all, he’d need to leave the murder scene quickly, right? But not a Ford Focus.
As though reading my mind, he said, “I drive it to keep a low-profile.” He got inside and unlocked the door. Through the passenger window, he said, “Plus, it’s got Eco-Boost, so it’s better for the environment.”
I entered the vehicle. The Focus had that new car smell, and it was spotless.
Darius stomped on the gas, rocketing us down the alley. When we reached the next street, he made a quick turn without even checking for traffic.
“Jesus!” Fright lurched into my heart as I grabbed the door handle to prevent my head from bashing into the window. “This is a new car. You’re a car thief, aren’t you?” Then another thought caught up with me: “I was in shock a little while ago. And because you helped me, I wasn’t thinking clearly, so I got into the car with you. Oh, my God. You’re a murdering, car thieving…friend of Grams?” I gave him a sideways glance. “You’re not even forty, are you? Why are you friends with Grams? She’s like fifty years older than you.” Then a disgusting thought entered my mind and I couldn’t help but cringe. “You two aren’t… you’re not into—”