Sue Barnard

Time Out

Monday 23rd June

Where to begin?  What was it that the King of Hearts said? “Begin at the beginning, go on until you come to the end, then stop.”  The trouble is, I don’t really know where – or when – the beginning was.  And I won’t get to the end until the day somebody follows my coffin.  And maybe the story won’t stop even then.

If anyone at breakfast on Saturday had predicted what was going to happen that morning, I would probably have laughed out loud.  But I’m not laughing now.  In fact, I’m still trying to convince myself that it was all a ghastly nightmare, that I somehow imagined the whole thing.

I haven’t dared tell Martin about it – though I’m not sure how long I can go on keeping it secret from him.  But even if I don’t tell him, he’ll still know, instinctively, that there’s something wrong.  And this is the first time, in all the years I’ve known him, when I have absolutely no idea how he’d react…

II

Helen eased her eyes open and squinted at the unfamiliar surroundings – the crisp linen sheets lightly scented with lavender, the soft lace-edged pillows, and the elegant carved four-poster bed – as the morning sunlight forced its way through the chintz curtains.  Wafting up the stairs was the tantalising smell of bacon frying.  She lay back and smiled. 

She’d had no idea that Martin had been planning this.  If she had known, she would probably have tried to talk him out of it.  Not because she didn’t want to go away for a romantic weekend to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary, but rather because she couldn’t help thinking they could hardly justify the expense.   Having two sons at university was a costly business.  But now, with their first “quality time” as a couple in what felt like half a lifetime, she was forced to admit that he’d been right.  They needed time out.  Sandwiched between supporting Jamie and Luke on one side, and meeting the increasing demands of two ageing widowed mothers and a doolally maiden aunt on the other, they had been neglecting their own needs for far too long.

Next to her, Martin stirred.  “Happy Anniversary,” he murmured.

“Thank you.”  She kissed him lightly.  “Ready for breakfast?”

“Hmm… Not just yet…”

Half-an-hour later they finally hauled themselves out of bed and made their way down to the dining-room.   They chose a table next to an elderly, miserable-looking couple, then winked at each other and set up their favourite hotel breakfast-time charade.   They had been playing this game ever since their honeymoon, but the reactions of their fellow-diners still never failed to amuse them.  In fact, the older they grew, the funnier it became.  Martin made a great show of settling Helen into her chair, carefully poured her tea, then asked slightly too loudly, “Do you take sugar?”

The old woman choked on her toast and her knife clattered to the floor.  As she bent down to retrieve it, her longsuffering husband shot them a glance which bore more than just a hint of envy.

Yes, Helen thought.  We’ve been very lucky….

* * *

The picturesque seaside town was in Midsummer Festival frenzy.  The market square was a blaze of colourful stalls and sideshows, and a rousing Sousa march could be heard from the brass band playing on the nearby pier.  As they wandered hand-in-hand, soaking up the carnival atmosphere, Martin spotted a tent displaying a barber’s pole.  

 “Hey, look!  ‘Haircuts £5 – no appointment necessary’.  That’s a lot cheaper than at home!  I wonder if they could fit me in?”

“Why not ask?  At least they won’t charge a search fee!”  Grinning, she ruffled his thinning battleship-grey locks. 

“OK.  I’ll come and find you on the pier afterwards.” 

He disappeared into the tent.

Helen ambled contentedly along the pier, where the festival attractions continued.  Eventually she paused outside a brightly-coloured booth.

 

Mystic Merelina. 

Summer Solstice Special

 Five-Minute Fortune-Telling £5

Intrigued, she peered inside.

Merelina didn’t correspond at all to Helen’s imagined picture of a “mystic”.  She looked about thirty, her short fair hair was stylishly cut and tastefully highlighted, and she was casually dressed in jeans and a fitted blouse. 

She smiled welcomingly at Helen. 

“Come in….” Her voice was West-Country soft. 

Sweeping the room with a glance, Helen noticed images from the Arthurian Tarot adorning the walls.  Playing quietly in the background was the slow movement of a Mozart piano concerto. The booth smelled faintly of rose oil and patchouli.  

“Now, sit down and relax.  I’m going to do the basic three-card Tarot spread – it’s a simple past, present and future overview.  As I shuffle the cards, I want you to concentrate on whatever question you want to ask them.  Once that question is firmly fixed in your mind, tell me to stop shuffling.”

Helen settled into the chair.  Lulled by the calming music and the slightly hypnotic ambience, she found that her subconscious mind had taken over.  Her biggest fear – the one she had never discussed with anyone, not even Martin – was now banishing all other conscious thought.   

“Stop.”

Merelina turned over the top card on to the table.  The Lovers.

“This is where you are now.”

Helen couldn’t help smiling.  How appropriate, she thought, after last night and this morning…

The second card showed The Tower.  Looming, Rapunzelesque, prison-like.

“This is your recent past.”                           

Captive.  Yes, that was how she had been feeling – always at someone else’s beck and call… 

What had started out as a little harmless time-filling diversion was now becoming uncomfortably accurate.  Helen was starting to feel distinctly uneasy.  But Merelina was already turning over the third card.  The Wheel of Fortune.

“And this is the future.  Now, ask your question.  But please be careful what you wish for – because The Wheel of Fortune might just give it to you.”

Helen took a deep breath.   Whatever her misgivings, she couldn’t wriggle out of it now.

 “I’m worried about old age.  I don’t want to end up totally decrepit, or gaga, with no dignity, and being a burden on my family.  I’ve seen too many lives blighted by that, and I wouldn’t want to put anyone else through it.”

Merelina was silent.  Eventually she said slowly, “That will not happen.  You will see…”

                                                             * * *

Emerging from the semi-darkness of the booth, and still feeling slightly disconcerted, Helen was dazzled by the bright sunshine.  Once her eyes had readjusted to the daylight, her attention was caught by the incongruous behaviour of three men standing at the far end of the pier.  The oldest of them was holding what appeared to be an oversized coffee jar.    Helen thought, idly, that in profile he looked like a younger version of Martin’s late father.  As she watched, he unscrewed the lid of the jar, and, supported by his two younger companions, leaned over the pier railing.  The jar’s contents, a copious quantity of coarse pale grey powder, billowed on the breeze and swirled into the sea.

When the jar was finally empty, the three men straightened up and turned to walk back along the pier.  It was then that Helen had her first full sight of their stricken faces.  She froze.

“Martin?  Jamie?  Luke?”

For a split second, the youngest man’s gaze appeared to pause as he glanced in the direction of where she was standing.  She gasped, and her eyes involuntarily closed as she tried to catch her breath.  When she opened them, the trio of mourners had vanished.  And Helen was left to contemplate the full meaning of what Merelina had said: 

She would see that she would not be a burden on her family in old age…

“Darling – what’s wrong?”

Helen jumped.   Still reeling from what she had just witnessed, she had totally failed to notice the newly-coiffed Martin approaching. 

Whatever could she tell him? 

“I…” 

She hesitated. 

“I – saw a man.  I think he was scattering his wife’s ashes.”  She paused, then managed a wan smile.  “He – reminded me of your Dad.”

Even heavily edited, the truth was still infinitely preferable to an unconvincing lie.

Martin put a comforting arm around her, giving her the opportunity to hide against his shoulder.  At least now he couldn’t see if her face was betraying her.  She was vaguely aware of him saying something about a pub lunch.

Oh Lord, she wondered, how long have I got?  A few more years, or just a few more days?  Shit.  If I hadn’t encouraged him to have that bloody haircut, I wouldn’t have seen Merelina and I wouldn’t have seen this.  But would that change anything?  Would it still be going to happen anyway, even if I hadn’t seen it?

And had Luke, in that brief scene out of its own time, also been able to see her?  

She would probably never know.  Not this side of the grave, anyway…

III

Helen would be the first to admit that she had never been the world’s greatest housekeeper, preferring to maintain that an immaculate house was a sign of a wasted life.  But she was always meticulous about vital paperwork.  Passports, driving licences, medical cards, and certificates of birth, marriage and death were filed away carefully in the same drawer, and everyone knew exactly where to look for them. 

It is inside this drawer that Martin will find the letter.

The letter is addressed to Helen, in her own handwriting, and unopened.   The postmark bears independent witness to the date: two days after they had returned from their anniversary weekend.  Turning the envelope over, he will see the date-stamp repeated across the flap, alongside the splashes of sealing-wax – blood-red against the ghostly white paper.

He will open it, in mystified trepidation, and will read:

Monday 23rd June

Where to begin?  What was it that the King of Hearts said? “Begin at the beginning….”

 

By Cindy von Hentschel

Murder at Maple Grove

You know that little voice inside you that tells you not to do something, yeah, you should listen to it. I didn’t and what I encountered was hell.

 I was sitting under the shade of a big weeping willow in our front yard when a FedEx truck pulled up, I had received a packet of letters from my grandfather’s attorney stating that I was the new owner of Maple Grove, an old antebellum mansion that had been in our family for several years, and before that had different owners.

Feeling excited and a bit unsettled, I decided to go check the old place out. It was about a 30 minute drive from home.  As I pulled into the drive there was a long line of Maples on either side, thus the name Maple Grove. There at the end of the drive was a big beautiful mansion. It was white, had four columns in the front and a huge wrap around porch, with six wide steps leading up to it.

For as old as the place was, it wasn’t run down looking. I mean, the yard needed tending to, grass mown, weeds pulled, hedges trimmed; all in all, it wasn’t that bad. I took the old key out of the packet I had been given, walked up the steps to the front door when a burst of cold air blew by me. I was startled to say the least, already feeling uneasy, but the clouds had started forming on my way there and I knew a storm was brewing. I opened the door and stepped in. It was beautiful. A large open foyer, a magnificent winding stair case right in the middle leading up to the second floor, and large doors on either side of the entrance. As I stood there, sweeping the room with a glance, I wondered who walked these floors before me.

 I walked in closing the door behind me just as it started to rain. Thunder cracked loud and close and I jumped. I found the light switch and turned it on, it flickered a bit before coming to life. I opened the large double doors to the right of the stair case to find what could only have been a ball room. It was a bit musty, and dust flew around and it was empty so I closed those doors and went across the hall to the others and opened them. A large living area with a fireplace and windows looking out over the lawn. Behind this room going into another was a beautiful dining room, this room too was empty like the others. From there a large old fashioned kitchen. Across from there was a wash room/mud room and then heading back up to the front again I found a smaller room which was used as a library.

As I was getting ready to step foot on the stair to make my way up, I heard whispering, then running. Softly, but loud enough that I froze. It sounded like a child running, but I knew that couldn’t be true. I had the only key to the place and It was locked up tight. After standing there for a couple minutes, I didn’t hear anything else. It was must be a raccoon or something lurking around, I heard they could get into attics and walls, etc. I slowly walked upstairs, when I heard it again, the whispering.

I stopped, listening, but heard nothing but the wind brushing the branches of a tree on a window. Coming to the top of the stairs, I decided to turn right and go down the hallway.  The first door I opened was large, empty and musty. It was painted white and had a large fireplace. The next room was even bigger, again empty but painted a soft pale blue. Next I went into what was the bathroom. It had been updated over the years, but still had an old claw foot bath, an old sink and toilet.

I found a door leading to the attic, well what I thought was the attic. It lead up to what looked like a very old nursery. Two old twin sized beds was in one corner, an old wooden rocking horse. This was the only room with furniture in it, and the only room that couldn’t have been used in at least a hundred years.

The rain outside settled down, so I opened the two large windows in the room to let in some air. As I stood there looking out the hairs on my neck and arms stood up, and I knew I wasn’t alone. I slowly turned, to see a young girl standing there looking at me. She was about 10 with long dark hair and a white dress that went to her knees, a pink pinafore, stockings, black boots and a large pink bow in one side of her hair.  She pointed to the rocking horse, then she was gone. I had just seen a ghost!

I walked over to the rocking horse, examining it. I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but when I placed my hand on the flat seat, it wobbled. I lifted one end of the seat and it came off. Inside was a locket and a small book. The locket held a picture of a little boy and the little girl I had just seen. The boy’s name was Ben and the girl’s name was Evelyn. They looked to be about 10 years old, and obviously twins. 

I needed some fresh air, and as the rain had stopped, I decided to go outside and sit. I found a nice little gazebo with an ornate metal bench in it. As I sat there thinking I had a feeling of being watched again. I looked up at the house, and standing in the nursery window was the little girl Evelyn. She stood there grinning at me, then disappeared. The rain started up again, I ran back up to the house and into the only room that had furniture, the nursery. I took the little book out of my pocket and opened it. It was a diary, belonging to Evelyn Marie Duquette. The first several pages were doodles and poems, then the words started turning sinister. She hated her mom, dad and Ben, she was going to make them pay.

I needed to find answers. I drove back to town and went to the library. I asked the librarian for any information on Maple Grove she could give me. She brought out an old book and told me everything I needed to know was in there. I opened the book and started scanning thru the pages, I stopped after a few pages to find a picture of Evelyn, Ben, and Mr and Mrs Duquette.  The Duquette’s were the original owners of Maple Grove.

I then found a newspaper article starting that the entire family had been murdered at Maple Grove, everyone but Evelyn, who was missing A servant, Hattie, had been the one to find the family. She first found Ben, his throat cut and blood everywhere. Hattie ran down the stairs screaming for Mr & Mrs Duquette, bursting into their rooms to find them dead, their throats cut. Evelyn was never to be found.

I drove back slowly to Maple Grove, back into the nursery, sat on the bed and pulled out the locket. I heard a soft giggle and looked up to see Evelyn grinning and softly said “You’re next” My blood rain cold and that’s when I felt small hands around my neck, icy cold. I tried to fight, but how can you fight something that’s not there? The choking suddenly stopped and I could breath. Standing there staring at me was momma. Momma walked with me downstairs and we sat on the porch. Momma told me “Evelyn wasn’t right in the head” “The Duquettes hired Hattie to take care of her.” “For her 10th birthday, Evelyn received a puppy but she wasn’t allowed to keep it in the house, it had to stay in the barn with the horses” “Well, Evelyn decided to sneak it in one night when it was storming, she was scared for the puppy” “Ben warned her to take the puppy back but she wouldn’t, he didn’t want to get in trouble so he told his parents.”  “Evelyn had the puppy taken away for disobeying, she was so heart broken.”

“The sheriff thought that it was an intruder that had come in and killed the family, but Hattie knew different.” She saw the small bloody handprints on the sheets surrounding Ben. “That’s so sad, is this why she still haunts Maple Grove?”

I heard crying, I turned looking and saw her standing near the creek pointing then she disappeared. There, near the bank I saw a piece of white cloth.  I reached down and started digging with my hands, about a foot down, the cloth was attached to a hand. I used mommas phone to call the sheriff.

When the sheriff came, I showed him where the body was. He and a few others started digging. Momma and I stood by watching. Evelyn’s skeleton was pulled out, a large crack in the skull, her dress raggedy, in her arms she held the skeleton of a puppy.

 After we got back to the mansion, and the sheriff and his men had gone, I pulled the diary out of my pocket to show momma, when a sheet of paper fell out and hit the floor. In scraggly writing the letter said “Please forgive me for not saying anything, I was scared. The child was not right in the head. After I found Mr and Mrs Duquette’s bodies, I saw a flash of white out their window. I knew it was Evelyn, she was running towards the barn. I followed her as quietly as I could.” “I heard crying inside, I walked in and in a corner she was sitting holding her puppy and saying “It’s your fault, you made me do it” The puppy was squealing and writhing in her lap. She was so furious that she killed her family over the puppy. “I gathered the courage to speak up and said, “Evelyn, let me help you” “No!” she screamed in horror and pain. “I didn’t mean to, I just wanted to make them pay” “It’s ok, Evelyn, I’ll help you” she stood up ran out the back of the barn towards the woods. I followed her begging her to stop, the puppy still whining, she still crying hysterically. The rain was starting to come down hard again making it hard to see. Next thing I know, I heard a crack, then a splash. When I got over to the creek, Evelyn was gone. The rain was coming down so hard I couldn’t see. I didn’t see her or the puppy. I went back to the mansion and alerted Cook and Fred that I found the family dead and Evelyn gone. We never did find her body, I thought it was washed away by the heavy rains. Please forgive me~ Hattie”

“Well, that explains that. I guess she couldn’t rest until her body was found.” “It oddly makes sense” Momma said. Now let’s go home. As we walked down to the car, I turned to look at Maple Grove one last time. Nothing, I saw nothing. Evelyn was finally gone. I sold Maple Grove, buried the letter Hattie had written and turned over the diary and locket to the library to add to their collection. The librarian said “I heard they found little Evelyn’s body, sad to think that someone murdered her too” “Yes, sad” I said.  “It’s mysterious that it was found after you went searching for clues.” “Everything I found, I gave to you, I don’t know what happened, or why.” “Well, I guess some mysteries weren’t meant to be solved” “No, I guess they’re not”

 

By Brant Landon

Hell Hath No Fury

Cletus Culpepper exhaled a plume of smoke through his yellow teeth as he grinned at the cowering girl in the corner. His black eyes scrutinized her angelic face. He said, “I don’t know what we’re gonna do with you. You’re nothing but skin and bones.”

Trinity Morgan huddled with her knees pulled up, her pink floral nightgown clinging to her slight frame. Her cornflower-blue eyes pooled with tears, and her wheat-blonde hair stuck out with static.

“You could let me go home.”

“That’s an option that I haven’t considered,” he scoffed, then stuck a toothpick in the corner of his overly large mouth.  “Your daddy owes us money. Till he pays, you get to stay with me. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

“He told you he’ll pay when he can.”

“This ain’t the first time he’s made promises and didn’t deliver.”

“I'm only staying with him until tomorrow. Then I go back to my mom. You don’t want to mess with her. She’s an attorney.”

“I went to school with your mother.  She thought she was better than everyone then, and I am sure nothin's changed. Maybe this'll knock her down a few rungs,” he said with a leer.

The girl shuddered as she took in his pock marked cheeks and turkey neck.  His pear-shaped 250 pounds spilled grotesquely over his belt. She closed her eyes; praying when she opened them, she'd be back in her cozy bed. A tear slid down her cheek as she whispered, “Wake up; please wake up.”

Cletus picked his teeth. His laugh exploded in the room, causing the girl to flinch. “You ain’t sleepin', girl. I may be your worst nightmare, but sleep's the last thing you’re gonna get.”


***


Ashley Morgan sat in her well-appointed law office and placed her steaming coffee on an ebony coaster. “Jason, put her on the phone, now,” she demanded.

Jason Briscoe clenched and unclenched his fists as he paced the room. “You don’t understand, Ashely. Trinity's gone. I went to wake her this morning and she was just...gone. “

A long pause greeted his revelation. The crash of a coffee mug against marble made him flinch. His ex-wife had always had a temper to match her cold heart, but this would put her over the edge.  Jason had dreaded the call for two hours as he'd paced the kitchen linoleum trying to wrack his brain, deciding how to tell her.

“Hello? Are you still there?” he asked.

“I'm here,” she said in a clipped voice. “If we get cut off, I’ll call you back. I’m in the elevator.”

“I've got everything under control, already called the cops. I’ll ring you when I know something.”

“You’ve never in your miserable existence had anything under control. One night of stupidity, and I’m stuck with an idiot for the rest of my life.”

“There's no need for names, Ashley.”

“You lose our child, and all you can think about is your wounded pride?” She scoffed as she ran her fingers through her chestnut hair and fought to keep her rising panic under control. 

“It weren’t my fault.”

“If you are going to grovel, at least use proper English. You’re a lame excuse for a man. I’m coming down there, and if you don’t have information for me, you can expect a swift kick in the balls.”


***


The floorboards creaked as Cletus stood, adjusting his pants and running a stubby hand over his nearly bald-pate.  He walked toward the girl, the floor protesting with each footfall.  He stopped next to Trinity, his lascivious gaze flowing over her like molasses, making her squirm. His sneer gave the livid scar on his cheek a deathly pallor.  “If your daddy don’t pay, you get to be my girl. Wouldn’t you like that, sweet thing?”

Panic welled in her like a geyser as she swept the room with a glance. Ten feet to her right, the front door teased her; the two bolt locks above the patina laced knob mocked her predicament.  Her heart pounded a violent staccato. Please don’t touch me. Oh God, please, she prayed.

Cletus leaned down, and his rancid breath assaulted her senses. He ran a finger across her cheek with a sneer.  Trinity's hand shot out and wrenched his pinky to the side with a snap. Cletus howled in pain as Trinity scrambled to his left.  He grabbed the hem of her gown, leaving him with nothing but a strip of white lace gripped tightly in his fist. 

He regarded his mangled pinky and recoiled at the odd angle of the digit that had already swelled to double in size. “Get back here, you twit!” he growled. “I’m gonna teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.”

She twisted the final bolt lock with a click and wrenched the front door open. The girl stumbled down the steps, and gravel bit into her palms as she fell headlong in the dirt yard.  Terror etched her face and a sob tore from her throat as her gown twisted around her legs. She struggled to rise, and collapsed, grazing her cheek. 

His coarse breathing sounded loud behind her as he descended the stairs, the thump of his obese frame straining the wood as he pounded into the yard. “I’ve got ya now, girl and we're gonna have some real fun. You’ve got a lesson comin', you minx,” he raged, reaching for her, his bloodshot eyes wide with anticipation.

Trinity grabbed a handful of dirt and flung it into his face, then raked her fingernails across his cheek; blood welled from the welts and ran down in red trickles.  She hiked her torn gown around her knees and ran toward a copse of cedars to the left of the open yard. 

His hand shot to his face and came away with a crimson stain. His breath came in rasps as he lumbered after her. I'll catch you, he thought, and then I'll have my fun.  Forget the lot of them. The girl crossed the line, and he would make her pay the old-fashioned way.  His breathing came hard, partly from exertion but mostly from expectation, his intentions clearly evident in his lascivious eyes as he pursued her into the foliage.


                                                                                                ***


A police cruiser sat in the driveway, the blue lights pulsing off the weathered yellow siding of the rental duplex.  She walked up to the faded blue door on the left and knocked.  In moments Jason poke his head out, his hair disheveled and his shirt only half-tucked.

The slap sounded like bull whip and he yelped and backed into the house, raising his arms in a defensive gesture.  She came in after him, and slammed the door behind her.

“Dang, Ash. You-”

“Don’t call me 'Ash,' you creep. If you want to have more children in your future you'd better tell me what's going on and make it fast. “

“I-I kn-know who took her.” he stammered. “I can’t prove it, but I swear…”

An officer stepped into the hall from the kitchen and said, “Is everything alright in here?”

“Sorry, Officer. This is my ex, Ashley.”

“I’ve heard about you,” the cop said.

“I bet you have.” She scoffed and grabbed her ex-husband by the ear and jerked the door open. 

“Hey! That hurts.”

“Good,” she said. She turned to the policeman, “Hold down the fort. We’re taking a ride.”

When she had deposited Jason in the passenger seat of her Mercedes 500SL and slammed the driver-side door, the officer hurried outside.  “Ma’am I need your statement.”

She ignored him as the engine roared to life. The tires chirped as she accelerated into the street, turning left in front of a Honda who gave her the finger. 

“Where?” she spit through gritted teeth.

“What do you mean. 'where'?”

“You said you knew who took her. If you don't tell me, I'm throwing you out of this moving car.”

He had no doubt she would, and pictured himself smeared on the asphalt. He said, “Turn left on Main and park to the right of the hardware store.”

She slipped into the last space, cutting off an old pickup, forcing the driver to slam on his brakes to keep from plowing into her. She ignored the “Hey lady! You took my space.”

“Lead on creep,” she said as she pulled Jason from the car.

The reception area of the small office looked like an accountant’s office. Two doors beckoned behind thefront desk.  A young blonde sat, filing her nails and smacking gum.

“We're here to see Mr. Russo,” Jason said.

The young lady looked at them with a raised eyebrow. “You have an appointment?”

“Tell him Jason Briscoe is here.”

The door to the right opened, and a tall well-built man stepped out. He had blond highlights and flashed them a car-sales grin. “Briscoe, if you don’t have the cash, I’ll take the broad,” he said as he looked Ashley up and down.

Ashley’s stilettos sounded loud on the parquet floor as she stepped forward and planted a knee into Russo’s groin and stomped down as hard as she could on his tan Ferragamo loafers. “Where's my daughter,” she spat as she pulled a Taurus 357 Magnum from her purse, and in a smooth motion, held it to his head.

Danny Russo crumpled to the floor. “Hey! Wait, lady. I—“

“You have ten seconds before I redecorate this office,” she said, her normally blue eyes a north-sea gray.

“Route 9, Number 47. I wasn’t going to hurt her. I swear. She's insurance so Jason pays the hundred grand he owes me.”

The click-click of the gun’s hammer binging pulled back sounded loud, and she said, “He owes you what?”

 “Nothing, lady. I said, he owes me... nothing.”

“Good. Draw up the paperwork and leave it on the desk.  I'll be back to get it, and if you're still here, I'll finish what I started.”

She raked her stiletto heal across his cheek, leaving a gash; blood ran down his face and soaked his Brooks Brothers shirt. Ashley backed to the door and ran to her car.  Jason barely made it into the vehicle before she left rubber on the pavement as she accelerated.


                                                                                                ***


A snarl cut the afternoon heat as a pack of four feral dogs caught the scent to blood in the air. With easy strides they ran through the brush. The lather on their muzzles wetted the leaves they passed in their quest.

Trinity glanced back; the large man followed not thirty feet behind her.  She had gained on him, but one misstep and he would have her in seconds.  Her heart in her throat, she sobbed as she stumbled through the trees.  Pain seared her bare feet as if she walked across hot coals. She left a trail of crimson with each step. Tears stung her eyes as she limped between two pines.

Cletus noticed the blood on the leaves and shouted, “I'll get ya in the end, girl!  You can’t run forever in your condition.”

Something hit him from the side, and he toppled into the leaves.  He screamed and curled up in a ball as the dogs tore at him. The animals' lust turned into a frenzy of growling and ripping with the first taste of blood.

A shriek, mingled with snarls, chased her as she scrambled up the bank to reach the berm of the road. She turned left and began to limp.  A silver Mercedes screeched around the corner and slid to a stop a few feet from her.  Ashley jumped from the car and lifted the girl into her arms, tears dampening her daughter's hair.

Jason stood; He lifted his hands and said, “All's well that—“

Ashey lowered her child and punched him in the mouth, cutting off his words.  She put her little girl in the car and accelerated, peeling away, and leaving Jason watching after her, blood welling from his lip.