Nara Nalone

Snatch Me

Chapter One

You know that girl in the horror movies, the one who hears noises bumping around in the night when she' s home all alone? The one who decides to go downstairs in her panties and bra-defenseless-instead of sneaking out the bedroom window. You know. You' ve felt the hair rise on the back of your neck as she creeps down the hallway.

When she calls out, “Who' s there?”

You know who' s there. You know there' s a guy with a long knife, and he' s ready, hidden in shadow at the bottom of the stairs. Waiting. Your heart pounds when she reaches that point where just one more step will deliver her into those waiting hands. In one more step you' ll see that blade descend, hear her scream. You scream at her. “Turn around. Run. Get out of the house.” But she doesn' t.

I' m that girl.

I' m hovering in the entrance to an alley. And yeah, I know there is trouble at the other end. An overturned police cruiser a few feet away is on fire, oily black smoke curls upward, fading into a blacker sky. The streetlamps here were broken so long ago there are no fragments of lens glass left under them. If those clues weren' t warning enough, No Escape is emblazoned in red spray paint across the gray cinderblock wall that marks the Quarterz entrance.

This isn' t a place anyone cares enough to fix. I look back at the cop car. Those who try to fix it end up regretting the effort.

I know. I know. This is not a place girls should go alone. It' s not a place girls should go together. It' s no place for a young woman in a denim miniskirt, a translucent white tank top, no bra, no panties. But that' s what I am and that' s what I' m wearing.

Why?

I don' t know. Maybe because I' ve stopped caring. Maybe because when I' m standing here at the opening of this dark alley, that dead, empty feeling I' ve lived with these past months is washed away by a sizzle of nerves, a longing for the challenge of a fight, and a belief that I have a fair shot at winning.

I' m drawn to this place like a moth to a flame. I feel a kinship with the Quarterz-

understand the hopelessness of being too broken to fix. I' ve spent three days arguing with myself, telling myself this is a bad idea, but I knew three days ago the sanest of my selves was outnumbered. I can' t be free from the pull of this place until I know why I want this. Until I' ve looked my darkest desires in the eye and walked through them.

My sandal connects with a shard of glass that grates over concrete, releasing the odor of fresh beer. It stings in my nostrils, along with the scent of urine both stale and fresh. A soft scrabble of small feet behind a trashcan raises gooseflesh on my arms. A breeze lifts my hair, licks at the sweat trickling down my neck. The sharp crackle and whoosh of the wind-fed flames makes me jump. It' s just the death gasps of the burning cruiser I passed at the entrance. All evidence that I' m in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whispered warnings. Telling me to run. If I had sense I' d listen. Ask yourself this-don' t you get tired of being sensible?

I can' t make out more than the sharp angles of crates and barrels lining brick walls as I move deeper into the alley. I hear the distant lap of the river at its shore, the slight moan of the wind and the sound of my sandals scuffling over grit and squishier things I don' t want to think about. My heart thumps like a bass drum as the darkness deepens.

It raps against my breastbone as if trying to get my attention. Sure I' m afraid. Who wouldn' t be? I' m just not willing to let fear make a difference.

No hands reached from the shadows to snatch me. No evil laugh heralded my end before I reached the alley' s other end. I blew out a breath. Of course they wouldn' t make it that easy.

A graffiti-covered bus with a flat tire sat at a bus stop opposite the alley. No sign of life stirred up and down the empty street. A lone street lamp glowed two blocks down.

If there were stars in the sky, a blanket of smog concealed them. I had two choices, right or left. Back had been discarded as an option before I arrived.

I went left, toward the light. If you' re thinking that' s a sign I' m not completely crazy, you' d be wrong. When you' re prey the darkness is your friend. I surveyed the urban wreckage for any sign of life, a shadow with an organic shape. A flicker of movement. I knew I wasn' t alone here. I could feel eyes watching. I turned my head, straining to hear, opened my mouth as if that might amplify the sound. I tasted the sharp tang of danger on the air in the too-quiet quiet of this barren world.

There, just a block up, I thought I saw a flicker of shadow at the edge of a doorway, blue rays at the edges of a shaded window. I froze, worked hard to slow my ragged breath, rein in my racing heart.

I had a story ready. Not that stories were necessary. Not that anyone would bother to listen. A woman here could expect one thing. A woman here, by her very presence, consented to whatever happened without her consent. Those were the rules. I knew them. I was ready. But a story made it all feel less crazy than it was. If it provided distraction-teased the hunter' s mind into fantasy for a moment-it might give me the edge I' d need to win this first round.

I' d say I was lost, snatched from my tribe. Having escaped from the original abductor, I was trying to find my way back. I would finger the wide tear running down the seam below the armpit of my top. It showed enough to confirm I was braless, not that the peaks of my nipples, visibly hard under ribbed fabric, wouldn' t make that obvious. While my would-be abductor was looking where I wanted him to look, I' d whap him with the nearest handy object. Then the chase would be on.

I might be prey, but I didn' t intend to be the sort who kept cowered in shadows.

After all, wasn' t the best defense offensive?

My heart had moved into my throat. I swallowed it and moved toward the doorway that had shown the only flicker of life I' d seen. A couch sat halfway on and off the curb near the stoop. I wondered how many women had been used right there, street side. I was certain I was smart enough not to be the next. A trashcan lid sat propped against the arm closest to me. I stepped over a dirty puddle to reach it, briefly taking my attention from the doorway, and when I looked up it was into the face of a man who' d materialized soundlessly. I froze. Hairs rose on the back of my neck and panic closed my throat. My carefully planned story vanished under his steel-blue stare and my nerve fled like a rabbit from the hounds.

Behind me a bell jangled. He frowned. “What' s that?” he asked in a bone-meltingly sexy baritone.

I sighed. “That' s the sound of time running out,” I said. “Sorry.”

Jolie switched off her mic and logged off the Quarterz game world. The fact that none of it was real was lost on her body. Her heart still raced. Her stomach was still doing somersaults when she left her laptop on the workbench and pushed open the workshop door to greet a customer waiting at the service counter in the retail area of the store. It was an elderly lady wanting a keyboard with larger type that her husband would be able to see without a magnifying glass.

Customers were rare enough that Jolie was glad to have her despite the interruption. While she knew her father' s computer shop was destined for the same obsolescence that had brought the end of movie rental stores, she couldn' t bring herself to give up on it. The faint hope that she could move the transaction along and get back to the game in a minute or so vanished under a nonstop flow of data about the woman' s personal life as well as the personal lives of her children, grandchildren and neighbors.

A half hour later, Jolie was still nodding when she lifted the bag with the purchases from the counter, carried them to the door and out to the car for her customer.

Sometimes leading customers to the door worked. This was one of those times. She held the door, helped the woman into her car and managed to keep nodding pleasantly as she shut the door and waved her off.

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