Wednesday, June 15, 2011

wherein a stranger appears...

Another week of the Indie Ink Writing Challenges.  This week's prompt really inspired me.  I pulled out the character I used a few weeks ago for this challenge because it seemed to fit.  And it got my mind spinning with all sorts of ideas, which I always appreciate.  This week I challenged Disease (his response is here) and my challenge - A stranger approaches you on the street and says, "I had to do it; I had no choice.  Help me!" - came from the wonderful Kerri.

If there was one thing I was keenly aware of, it was how quickly things could go horribly wrong. A quiet evening could quickly give way to fighting and blood-curdling screams. Never pretty.

My brother said that it was just me, that I had an uncanny knack for attracting trouble. Part of it comes with the territory of my life and abilities, but I’m also convinced that I’ve been punished for some cosmic injustice I caused in a past life. It was the only way to explain the invisible beam that acted as radar for demented weirdos everywhere.

Like tonight. I headed out the back door of work with a spring in my step and a song stuck in my head. I was in an unusually good mood, which should’ve been the first hint of things to come, and my mind wasn’t really focused on the area, but replaying the earlier conversation I had with Lucian. Despite my best efforts, he was really starting to grow on me. If I had been paying attention, I would’ve smelled the trouble in the crisp autumn air. Instead, I was caught off guard when a twenty-something woman appeared around the corner and rushed toward me.
Her hands balled up into the collar of my coat and she said, “I had to do it; I had no choice.”
“Are you okay? ” I replied. Not my finest moment, but I never claimed to be Sherlock Holmes.
“I had to do it. Please help me,” she replied. I looked her over. Something had definitely gone down. Her face was puffy, her cheeks streaked with mascara, and her hair looked like it had done battle with an electric socket. There were scratches on her hands, which were currently tightened into fists that she knocked into her sides.
I glanced around the area to see if whoever had done this to her was bringing up the rear and ushered her into the back room of the bar. I said, “Are you hurt? I mean, besides the obvious. Should I call the police?” I tried not to wince as I said it. I wasn’t a big fan of the boys in the blue – part of the whole spending your life on the run thing – but I wasn’t sure there was much of an option. I wasn't exactly equipped to handle run-of-the-mill domestic squabbles or robberies-gone-wrong.

“I need help. He’s hurt. I had to do it. He told me I would, but I didn’t…please, we need to find him.”

I placed my hand on her shoulder gently like I was petting a feral animal. I was never very good at offering assurances, usually leaving that sort of thing to my brother. When she didn’t move away, I forced a small smile and said, “I’ll help you, but I need to know what’s going on.”

“I’m going to sound crazy.”

She looked crazy and likely was crazy, but I didn’t want to tell her that. I tried to make my voice as warm and fuzzy as I could muster given the circumstances and said, “It’s okay.”

“It’s Dylan, my boyfriend. He tried to warn me that something could happen, but I thought he was kidding,” she paused as her eyes flittered around the stock room before focusing on me. Her face relaxed for a second, as though everything was suddenly okay, but then her eyes scrunched up like was about to cry again.   She said, “You need to come with me.”

She started to pull me back out the door, but I stepped out of her grasp. “Wait a second. I need to know what we’re walking into.”

“There isn’t any time. He could be hurt. He said you could help.”

“Me? How does Dylan know me?” I asked.

She bit down on her lip, and didn’t say anything for what felt like forever. “It was before. He told me that there were people like him at Traveler’s Bar, that they could help me.”

"Like him?  I'm not sure I understand," I replied.  Warning bells started to go off in my head and I suddenly felt stupid and exposed.  "And I'm not sure you want any drunk customers assisting you, so maybe we should call the cops."

"You said you would help me," she replied. 

This was why I avoided the Good Samaritan crap.  I felt slightly guilty for wasting what could be precious minutes if Dylan really was hurt, but self preservation had been instilled in me since I could walk and something about this didn't make sense.

"We really need to take this inside.  It's warm and we can clean you up while you tell me what happened," I said.  I moved toward the door that connected to the kitchen and further away from the girl.  

"But we're wasting time!"

I didn't want to completely write this girl off if she was telling the truth, but something wasn't right.  Energy was pulsing through me like my body was about to go into fight-or-flight mode and my mind was in overdrive. If she was in such dire need of help, why hadn’t she gone inside the bar instead of skulking in alleyways on the offchance someone would appear? 

The more I thought about it, the more the nervous energy gave way to a prickle of fear as I realized I might have walked right into an Agency trap.  My brother would be so pissed off if something happened because I had gotten sloppy. 
“I think we should go inside. My boss, Ray, can contact the police," I said.  After all, there was a chance I was being paranoid, and I didn't want that on my conscience.
“No, that won’t work.”

She reached for me again and this time there was a gleam in her eye that was definitely not worry or panic. I had just enough time to I side-step her grasp and spin on my heels.  She didn't seem to expect it and almost careened into the kitchen door.  She muttered under her breath and when she turned around to face me, the marred face was gone, replaced with a glittering porcelain complexion with no blemishes and black empty eyes.

Shit.  So much for paranoia.

I tried to maneuver around her to the kitchen door, but she was blocking my way. If I could get into the main area of the bar, I would be okay. The laws forbid the Agency from entering safe havens, which explained why she hadn’t tried to go inside. She couldn’t.

“Cady, you’re a hard girl to track down.”

I rolled my eyes. “Why do you guys always have to use clichés? It makes my head hurt.”

“I’ll make your insides hurt if you don’t come with me.”

“Seriously? Does that work on anyone?”

Her fists unclenched to reveal long, yellow fingernails. “Too bad they want you alive.”

There was no way I was giving her a chance to cut me open and I knew my best bet was to act quickly.  I slipped my hand into the back pocket of my messenger bag and threw my knife. It struck her in the shoulder, which provided me with an opportunity to knock her to the ground with a kick. As she fell to the ground with a grunt, I pulled my knife out and turned it around in my palm. I could feel the blade cutting my hand, but I didn’t care as I tightened my hands and hit her in the face with the handle. 

I shook my head and said, “This is why I always win. You guys talk too much.”

I opened the door and hurried through the kitchen, garnering looks from my co-workers, and made my way to the bar. The place was already packed and a mix of music and conversation reverberated against the walls. I walked up to Ray, the owner and my boss, who was talking about the Yankees with a patron, and said, “We’ve got an intruder.”

His head snapped away from the patron and he closed the distance between us. He picked up my hand carefully and asked, “Are you okay?”

“I’ll live, but you know what this means, right?”

Ray shook his head. “You’re a real pain in my ass, Cady. Things were so much quieter before you came along.”

“And not nearly as fun. Can you handle things back there while I call my brother? If they know where I work, there’s a chance they know where we’re living now.”

“Use the phone in my office. Close the door and don’t let anyone in except for me,” Ray said as we weaved back through the bar. He pushed me into a small dingy room that served as his office and added, “Do you have a weapon?”

“Never leave home without it.”


“I’m not a complete idiot.”

“Remind me of that when you tell me how someone got the drop on you,” he called back to me as he made his way to the kitchen. There was a good chance, she was gone, but if she was still there, Ray would handle it. He had his own special abilities and no one, not even the Agency, messed with guys like Ray. I was just glad he was on my side.

I glanced around the area before I shut the door to Ray’s office. I slouched down into a chair and picked up the phone from the wobbly table from the bar that served as Ray’s desk. I took a few restorative breathes and attempted to make sense of the events that had just unfolded. I had come so close to walking right into a trap and I couldn’t help but wonder how long they had known where I was. The Agency was getting bolder while I had become complacent. Life had being going well for the past year – no major incidents or Agency sightings – and both my brother and I had relaxed into a routine. It was a mistake and things had to change.

If you're interested, I also wrote an Indie Ink Challenge response that featured Cady here.

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