Th-thump, th-thump, th-thump. As I run down the old, decrepit alleyway, my heart pounds in my ears, blocking out sounds of my pursuers. I leap over an upturned garbage can, tripping at the last moment, scrambling back to my feet, taking a split second to glance behind me.
Th-thump, th-thump, th-thump. My heart races, this time faster and stronger. In the darkness it is deafening, diminishing my other senses. I need to get out of this side of the city, the area where people disappear without a trace. I force myself to push through the air surrounding me which is clear gelatin, matching the consistency of my legs beneath me.
Th-thump, th-thump, th-thump. I turn briskly around the next corner, and meet with a rattling smash. A fence. I groan. I hear them gaining behind me. I. Must. Get. Out! My muscles contract as I climb the chain links, and I hear the raspy tear of denim while jumping over the top.
Th-thump, th-thump, th-thump. My senses are suddenly heightened from another shot of adrenaline, as I hear my pursuers quickly leap over the fence and close in behind me.
I’m running out of steam and I can’t keep going at this pace much longer. The lactic acid buildup is too much, I’m cramping, and my lungs can’t handle inhaling the frosty air. I make a quick decision, and race toward the only light that glows in the black of the night—a street lamp. I’ll have to take a stand where I can see. I’m at a disadvantage as my pursuers seem to be able to see in the dark.
I brace my back against the chilly lamp post, waiting for my pursuers to surround me, not knowing if I’ll survive this encounter. Moving toward me, coming out of the darkness but disguised by the pre-dawn mist, is a creature—I can only imagine the teeth and claws—the grotesqueness of my demise.
It moves closer to me and my body stiffens as I ready myself to fight. I see two more shadowy figures emerging behind the first one, hidden in the fog. My pounding heart swells with regret, both over my life which is now flashing before my eyes, and over my actions during the last hour which set me on this fateful path.
Two hours earlier
Although I’ve only ever heard rumors of the mythical beasts that supposedly inhabit the east end of town, I do believe in the validity of their existence. Whether they are responsible, or there’s another origin of the evil that is depleting the female population, I am unsure.
Urgency overtakes me as I leave the police station after filing a Missing Person’s report. In my hurry to get to my car, my strides are longer than usual. My shadow is stretched and oblong, as the lights from the precinct parking lot pierce the darkness around me. The light is then sucked in by the shadows of the night, the black holes that deplete the world of its glow, leaving only coldness and emptiness behind.
It’s ironic how that metaphor represents my life right now. Although my sister has only been missing for twenty-four hours, the fear grips me and my life feels cold and empty. “Only” twenty-four hours is how they referred to her case when I filed the report. But she’s never been reckless or irresponsible before, and she’s never disappeared like this.
After driving my car down the streets where she often walked, finding no sign of her earlier, I stopped by the precinct in her area. All other avenues have come up blank, and the many phone calls I made earlier in the evening were futile. None of our family or friends have seen her, including her roommate, Julia, who was the one to initially call me. Natalie hadn’t come home after work last night.
“Psst. Hey, you!” I whip around, quickly analyzing my surroundings. I’m not afraid, due to the bright lights and the fact that the parking lot is next to the police station. However, I am startled as I am jolted out of my thoughts. “Over here!”
I look around until I am able to locate the owner of the voice. Tucked behind the large sign announcing that this indeed is police headquarters, is a scrawny man in a beige trench coat. Oh God, please no. I hadn’t thought an exhibitionist would have the guts to expose himself right beside the police station.
But when he keeps his trench coat closed, I re-evaluate him and see he’s wearing a brown tweed fedora. The way he’s dressed and acting so secretively, he seems like he’s just stepped out of a detective comic book. The corner of my mouth quirks up a bit and I shake my head as I continue to walk to my car.
“I heard you asking about your sister.” In the quiet darkness of the wee hours, his voice carries so I can hear the words he’s speaking, even at low volume. He apparently wants to stay hidden and doesn’t move from the place he seems to feel most secure.
I pause mid-step and turn around to face his direction. “What about my sister?” My level of patience is low, considering my exhaustion and the emotional toll of the day, but I try not to snap at him.
“I think I might have a lead for you.”
I roll my eyes. Everybody wants to play detective.
Nevertheless, although I’m not about to stake my hope on his “lead”, I feel I should at least listen to what he has to say. “What kind of lead?”
“An address and a name.”
Riiiight. Ambush. At least that’s my first thought. But I second guess myself, and that’s what will eventually become my downfall.
Mr. Detective-wannabe scribbles something down in a notebook, then I hear the ripping of a page. I walk closer to where he’s standing behind the sign, but not out of sight of the police station. He stretches his arm over in my direction and gingerly hands me the scrap of paper he’s torn from his notebook.
I look at the address and name scrawled on the paper. I don’t recognize the area of town. “What is this place?”
“It’s on the east side of town. Old industrial area. Knock on the door three times, then three times again, then twice slowly.”
This just keeps getting better and better.
“When they answer, ask for the name on the paper.”
“Speaking of names...what’s yours?” I feel like prying a bit. Get a better feel about this guy.
“Dick. Just call me Dick. Short for Detective.” I roll my eyes again.
Okay, Mr. Dick-wannabe. “Alright...Dick. Where did you get this info and how is it connected to my sister?”
Even with the shadows masking his face, I can make out a small smile on his lips. “The place is linked to the missing girls. Your sister is missing and is a girl.” Well, duh. “The guy’s name. He’s a trusted informant.” I can barely hear him mutter under his breath, but pick up the words, “...at least he used to be…”
“Why didn’t you give this info to the police?” I’m still skeptical. It all feels fishy to me.
“I respect my contacts’ anonymity when it comes to staying away from the boys in blue, and the guys at the club can smell a cop a mile away. Plus the officers think I’m a crackpot, anyway.” I resist cracking a smile. I need to stay focused—even though this whole scenario in the parking lot is almost comical. Under any other circumstances I’d find it amusing.
I carefully fold up the scrap of paper and put it in my jean pocket. “Well, thanks...Dick.” I back up toward my car. “See ya’ around.”
I watch as he nods and tips his hat to me in the shadows. “Glad to be of service, Ma’am.”
I walk the rest of the way to my car, unlocking it on the way, then slide into the cold seat behind the steering wheel. Thank goodness for faux leather gloves. My fingers would be falling off without them. I turn the ignition and put the heat on. And thank goodness for heated seats.
And I might just be thankful for weirdo Dick-wannabes before dawn today. That’s if what he says helps me find my sister. I drive past the sign where he was standing, and through my partially defrosted windshield I notice he’s mysteriously disappeared. Gone with the wind.
I make my way to the other side of the city, depending on GPS to help me find the location scrawled across the paper given to me by Dick. I park on the street next to an older brick warehouse. I’m not sure I like this scenario. I pull out my taser from my glove box to take with me. That’s better. Now I feel more secure.
I sit in my car, debating if I should use the absurd secret knock and ask for the person listed on the paper. But then I remember time isn’t standing still. It's the only lead I have to find my sister.
I decide to do whatever I need to—I really don’t have a choice if I want to find her. Although I have to admit, I’m following a standard trope from a movie script that seems a bit ridiculous. However, I get out of my car, and walk to the warehouse.
Not all lights shine clearly in the parking lot. Instead, one is burnt out, another has been smashed, and a third one flickers violently. Overall, there’s not much light. Just enough to cause the shadows to reign fear and havoc on my emotions, in the eerie silence of the night.
A low fog gives the area an otherworldly feel. I feel dampness settle in with the morning humidity. Today it feels like that same dampness is seeping into my bones. I reach the door in the red brick building, wondering the whole time whether anyone is inside.
I press a lit-up doorbell, but hear no ring or indication it’s done anything. Well, apart from sating that internal urge I have to press buttons. It all starts at age two, trying to press every button in sight. Then it becomes a growing urge to press other people’s “buttons”. Let’s hope I can keep that under control tonight and not anger anyone.
Then I remember the secret knock. I’m embarrassed to use it, like I’m part of some secret society or treehouse kids’ club. Three quick...three quick...two slow. I rap my knuckles on the door following that pattern. And of course, as if I’m in a spy or gangster movie, a barely visible panel slides open and two emerald eyes stare out. They narrow suspiciously as they see me standing below.
“What d’ya want?” The voice speaks gruffly to me.
“I’m here for Justin.” I try to keep the quiver out of my voice.
“Ya'are, are ya?” Then I hear a mutter, barely audible. “That lucky bastard.” I hear numerous locks on the door being opened, and finally the door swings outward violently, with no regard that I’m standing in front of it. I stumble backward to avoid being clipped by it, and land on my butt on the hard pavement.
I am about to stand up when I notice the dark shadow of a man towering over me. He steps backward, and I can see his face in the light. He rolls his bright green eyes, and with an exasperated “Well? Come on then!” he turns around, expecting me to follow him. I jump up and dart through the door just before it bangs shut.
We walk through a lit corridor, then Mr. Emerald-eyes yanks back a black curtain, revealing an adjoining room. I try to take in my surroundings as we weave our way between round tables, but my eyes are still adjusting to the dim light.
I start to make out colors, noting booths with plush velvet burgundy upholstery. Deep purple tablecloths caress the bottoms of the many drink glasses scattered across the room. And the owners of those glasses—well, let’s just say everything screams “Godfather”. Suddenly, I’m wondering what in heaven’s name possessed me to come here.
We arrive at a large booth, close to the back of the room. “Yo, Justin!” An incredibly handsome man lifts his head and looks up at us. “Another one for ya.” Justin eyes me, starting from my toes up to my nose, then his deep blue eyes raise slightly and look into mine.
When we make eye contact, he seems to startle and his eyes widen. He doesn’t stand in greeting, just whispers something to the girls on either side who are seductively trying to capture his attention. The two scantily clad goddesses leave the table with a grumble and a huff. I can feel their glares boring into the back of my head.
“Have a seat, my dear.” Justin points to the seat beside him. I slide between the table and bench, watching Mr. Emerald-eyes saunter off back to his post. As he goes, he drinks in some of the dancers, offerings of the night.
I glance at the stage, complete with poles, cages, and posters of dancers. I notice a screen with a photo of a girl projected on it. It seems out of place, as it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the dancers’ photos.
As I watch the screen, it changes to another girl’s photo, who again doesn’t fit in. She’s absolutely gorgeous, but her face doesn’t hold the expression of a typical model’s. It holds confusion and an element of desperation. As her photo appears, I hear feet scuffle, and watch as several silhouettes exit a stairway down to who-knows-where.
The sweet scents of cinnamon and cedar linger around him, becoming stronger as Justin moves closer to me. “So what is it you want to talk about?” I sense a hunger in him that stirs me uncomfortably, because it’s so alluring.
There is an undeniable attraction between us—I feel like a magnet that’s just found its match, the connection is so intense. The longing I sense in him just serves to increase that attraction, as it taps into my own craving. His desire for me augments my burning need for him, and increases the obvious draw between us.
What is wrong with me? Why do I feel this way toward him?
I am at a loss, not knowing where to begin; I am overwhelmed by the pull toward him. As I make eye contact, trying to speak but finding no words, I am mesmerized by the blue oceans found in his eyes. Rough, wild oceans, not tranquil seas, that speak of untold horrors that have shipwrecked many a soul. Alarm bells go off. This man is dangerous.
“Well? Tiger got your tongue?” He looks amused as he speaks softly.
I sigh, breaking my eyes away from his and willing my dry mouth to speak. I take a deep breath. The words come out in a rush.
“My sister’s gone missing and I’m trying to discover her whereabouts.”
Justin tuts his mouth at me, shaking his head. “Would you like something to drink?”
Normally, I don’t make a habit of drinking, and in a place like this I’d rather avoid it. Never know what someone could slip into my drink. So I decline.
“I was given this address and your name as a contact person who could help me in my quest to find my sister.”
He doesn’t say anything, and I begin to feel nervous as the seconds stretch on. He glances between me and his whiskey, almost as if he’s comparing me to his drink on a set of scales. I knew this was a bad idea.
Suddenly, I blurt out, “You know what? I’m so sorry I bothered you. I’ll find my own way out.” I attempt to rise, but his powerful hands press on my shoulders, keeping me in place.
“Sit.” His voice is quiet, yet commanding. I sit back down, feeling uneasy. “This sister of yours—she looks like you? If so, I may have seen her.
I draw in a quick breath. Yes! I knew this was a great idea! No, you didn’t, I answer myself back. Internally I facepalm. Oh great, so now I’m not just talking to myself but arguing with myself? That’s got to be a whole new level of strange.
I quickly answer Justin. “Yes, people used to think we were twins. She has the same dark hair and eyes I have—”
Justin interrupts me. “Rosebud lips, heart face, amazing body.” His eyes sweep over me hungrily. “Yes, I’ve seen your sister before.”
“Before? You mean in the last twenty-four hours or before that?”
“I saw her several hours ago, and to be honest, it didn’t look like she was doing too well.”
My heart plummets to the ground. “Oh my God.” I put my hand to my chest. “Was she hurt? Do you know where she is now?” My nervousness has morphed into full-fledged anxiety.
“One question at a time, Love. Firstly, I need you to answer a question of my own.” I nod. “How the hell did you find this place, and who in God’s name told you to contact me?” Regardless of his words he doesn’t sound angry, just exasperated. He seems more focused on our surroundings than on me.
I feel embarrassed to disclose my strange source. My words squeak out like a question. “I met a strange man in a fedora and trench coat?” I hear him groan as he rubs his face with his hands.
“You’re talking about Dick?” I nod again. His eyes close and he follows up with another groan. He mutters under his breath, thinking I can’t hear him. “He’s trying to set me up. What a dick.”