Refuge

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CHAPTER 14 – A Cornered Lynx

MUIR BEACH

THURSDAY

Time passed with the slow march of sunbeams through the cracks in the sunrise-facing shed. The only sounds were pine needles rustling nearby and surf pounding in the distance accented by occasional screeches of gulls. About the time Erin and Rachel began to hope they had been deserted, that their captors had moved on for some reason, the sound of a shouted word or one of Vic’s laughs wafted through the thin walls of their prison. There was no mistaking that laugh—loud, boisterous, loathsome.

The light beaming through holes and narrow spaces had disappeared with the sun overhead and blocked by the tree when the lock on the outside of the shed rattled. The doors slid open, and Erin looked up into Vic’s grinning face and felt faint. He jabbed a finger at her and snapped another one on the same hand. But her body resisted rising at his command. She considered stalling him, begging to be left alone, begging that he take Rachel instead. After all, she had said she would rather go with him than with Vince. Erin felt a flush of shame that she could even form such a thought. If what Rachel feared did come to pass...

Before she could devise any kind of plan for opposing him, he raised his other hand and the shotgun in it. “Ya know, if it looks like you’re going to be more trouble than you’re worth, I’m just gonna to blow your head off. You remember how that works, right? With this end stuck into your mouth, the back of your head just…goes away…with lots and lots of noise and mess. So…” He jabbed and snapped his fingers again.

The image of John flopping over the deck railing slammed into her mind. She clenched her eyes shut and sucked in her breath, but the shed still spun around her. She breathed out and in a couple of times until the spinning stopped, but the image wouldn’t go away. When she opened her eyes, tears overflowed down her cheeks. She glared at Vic but said nothing.

“Ah, good, you do remember. Okay, step over here.”

When she did as commanded, he removed a length of small chain looped over his shoulder and dropped it to the floor, retaining his hold only on the end attached to a large, leather collar. It looked like the one Vince had put on Crissy. Was it the same one? He hesitated for a moment before leaning the shotgun against the interior wall of the shed then attached the collar about Erin’s neck. With it in place, he did something to the buckle with a pair of pliers. He picked up the chain, looping it in his hand until he got to the leather loop at the other end and slipped that over his hand. Picking up the shotgun again, he stepped backward out of the shed. When the chain between him and Erin’s collar became taut, he stopped and looked at her, cocking an eyebrow up as a silent question.

Remaining silent, she stepped out of the shed and stood there returning his gaze with a glare that should have melted his fillings.

Reaching past her, he slid the shed door closed and locked it. Then, stepping back, he said, “Okay, heel,” and turned to walk toward the house. But he only went a couple of paces when the chain leash went taut again because she hadn’t moved.

He turned back to her, grinned and, without warning, gave the chain a hard jerk. She landed at his feet, her bare body sprawled across a bed of dried pine and redwood needles, bark, twigs and general forest litter scattered across what constituted the unenclosed back yard.

He backed off to the full length of the chain, about fifteen feet, and stopped. Erin sat up and looked at him. Her eyes followed down the length of chain to where it went under her chin, then back to his raised hand.

“Get up!” He said, and after a pause of maybe a second, but not two, gave the chain another vicious jerk.

Erin fell and scrambled forward as the collar dug into her neck. She gripped the chain and took the pressure off then rose up on her knees, wheezing and gasping.

“Now, ya see, that’s not quick enough.” Vic said and walked to her.

When he stopped in front of her, he crooked his finger at her, signaling her to rise. When she hesitated, he began to pull up on the chain. She gripped it tighter to prevent it from choking her again. He raised his hand back and slapped her hard across the face. He crooked his finger again, and she rose to her feet.

“That’s more like it. Not a fast learner, but you’re catching on. Rule number one: Always—always—do what I tell you, when I tell you…no matter what. Got that? Rule number two: Don’t ever take that collar off. It won’t come off, but don’t even try. Rule number three: Don’t pull back on the leash. It’s there for me to use when I want. It don’t matter what you want or don’t want. I own you. And if you do pull back, or otherwise resist in any way—”

He backhanded her, and she hit the ground. He tugged on the leash, almost gently, to raise her back to her feet again. She hesitated, and he yanked her forward onto her face. He held her face down on the ground with his foot on the back of her neck then pulled up on the chain until little, choking noises came from her. He slacked off a bit and gave her a little popping tug. Erin gathered her hands underneath her and pushed herself to her knees, and then with her head remaining downcast, mainly to keep him from seeing the hate and rebellion in her eyes, she rose to her feet. At the moment, all she could do was survive.

When she crossed her hands to cover as much of her groin region as they could, he jerked the chain, but only enough to get her attention. “And, don’t do that. I like to see what I’ve got…all of it…all the time.”

She almost reacted when his hand began brushing the debris embedded in her skin enough to stick. But she caught herself in time to preempt his use of the shotgun. Instead, she stood there with her hands clenched at her sides and her gaze fixed on the horizon somewhere beyond the eastern hills and forced herself to tolerate his touch.

Was this what the rest of her life was going to be, living in a dark, cold shed, going out only to be raped? Would it get easier? Would her hate eventually wane? Would she even begin to look forward to Vic’s attentions one day? Would she become like Mandy?

No! her heart screamed. Not in a million years!

A tug on her collar snapped her head, and she realized she was following Vic down the path beside the house instead of toward the back door. Was it to be on the front lawn again, tied between the stakes again beneath the blue sky of God’s heaven? Would she be able to restrain her impulse to violently resist enough to see the end of the day?

They rounded the front corner of the house and Erin looked with dread at the patch of lawn. The stakes were still there.

The grass looked odd, though. When they got closer, she saw it was covered with something that matted the blades of grass together. It was dark—dark red, almost black. The surface and the air above it was alive with flies. Her stomach churned as she realized she was looking at a large amount of blood. Her hands flew to her mouth and she forced the bile back down her throat. Crissy’s screams echoed in her mind as she realized this must be where the girl had been tortured—murdered—butchered. What depravities were committed here last night?

She hated Vic afresh for bringing her here to see the evidence of the carnage. Before, it was only sounds in the night, sounds that she knew meant terrible things to the girl she had befriended, but, still, only sounds. The sight of the gore made those sounds and the madness they alluded to more real, more than just a nightmare to be buried and forgotten. With tears rolling down both cheeks, her gaze was drawn back to the blood on the lawn, at what had been part of Crissy’s warm, living body only hours before.

“Hey, Vince,” Vic called.

Erin followed his gaze to the front porch of the house, and she saw Vince standing there, braced in the doorway.

Through a haze of red streaked fog, Erin heard Vic call out, “Gonna take my new pet for a walk, man. Gotta exercise her once in a while, you know. Can’t let her get flabby just loungin’ around all day.”

While Vic and Vince exchanged further pleasantries mostly unheard by Erin, whose senses still reeled and rang from the impact of the last couple of minutes, three middle aged men she had never seen before came from somewhere off to the left and stopped near the bottom of the front steps. They paused while they stared at her and made whispered remarks accompanied by leering grins and jabbing elbows.

“Carl,” Vince called out calmly, “You wanta bring your gun out here? We seem to have attracted some vermin.”

One of the men, a chubby little man of forty-five or so, spoke up, “Uh...wait a minute! Yeah…uh, I’m Cappy White. This here is Ed Logan and that’s Mel Kirby. We’d like to talk to the guy in charge here.” Then when the barrel of the Python in Carl’s hands raised, the nervous man went on, “Oh, we don’t want to...uh...we’re not...no, we just want to throw in with you guys. Yeah, that’s all. You know...”

Vince glared at the trio, turned and hobbled inside. As he passed by Carl, he whispered something that Carl nodded to.

Carl kept the strangers standing at the bottom of the steps for another couple of minutes during which time they continued to ogle Erin’s naked body. Vic stood beside her like the proud owner of a champion show dog on display for the buzzing whispers of discerning judges.

The ringing in Erin’s ears blocked out the banter between Vic and Carl. By the time Carl motioned the men up the steps and led them inside, she was almost to the point of passing out from the rancid, coppery smell of Crissy’s blood.

With the departure of his audience, Vic turned and led her down the middle of the road past the private property sign then back along the bottom of the hill where saltwater grass grew knee high. A path worn through the grass by multitudes trekking from the parking lot to the beach took them through a maze of waist high boulders bared long ago by rain and wind and left jutting from the ground like worn molars. At a weatherworn, wooden stairway winding up the hill dotted with dozens of homes reduced to blackened ruins, they turned toward the hard-packed sand along the water’s edge. Erin thought of the countless, happy hikers that must have used those stairs in years past. She remembered Nate, that funny little old man who, with his wife, friends and neighbors, had perished in the fires and in the butchery that followed, and she grieved. They strolled south towards the treeless hill that formed the southern boundary to what was once the haven of Muir Beach. She remembered walking this same sand in the company of an old and dear friend only the day before.

John...oh, John. Fresh tears flowed.

At the south end of the beach, they turned inland and walked through the dunes. She gazed at the wire fence across the bottom of the hill. They walked past an opening in the fence framed by closely spaced posts, the gate she had gone through the day before with John and Nate —so very long ago. Beyond the fence, the hiker’s trail wound its way up the hill.

If only I could just step though that gate and disappear over the top, back to yesterday.

Her pace slackened while she indulged her fantasy, but a sharp tug on the collar brought her back to the nightmare of her reality.

Vic led her down the far side of the dunes to the footbridge. As she stepped up onto the heavy planking, she remembered starting across another time…such a long time ago. Everything had been so wonderful, so normal, then. But before she and Nate and John had gotten across the bridge, the world changed. That thing came in the sky, the fires began, and life had been a terrible, whirling, nightmarish cyclone ever since.

What ever happened to Nate? Did he die? Did he survive the fires only to fall to Vince’s blade or Vic’s shotgun?

She stepped down off the far end of the bridge and blinked her eyes. If only...it happened before...the last time I crossed the bridge, I stepped into a strange, horrible, other world. Change back...please...change back...

The collar jerked, and she slumped beneath the weight of her unfulfilled wish as she followed its lead off the bridge and to the right. A thick, lush lawn surrounded by low, bushy willows along the edge of the lagoon on one side and a parking lot on the other shielded picnic tables with attached benches. Nearby, chains secured corrugated garbage cans in pairs to heavy posts. She had gone through it with John and Nate, but they were running by that time and she hadn’t taken notice. Probably a pleasant place once, it held no charm for her.

She stood stiffly watching Vic settle himself onto the grass. He stretched his arms out and placed his hands behind his head, lying on his back, gazing up at the clear, blue sky. After a moment, he glanced at her, then at the ground beside him. He smiled and patted the grass.

“Come on, sit down.”

His smile seemed sincere, and it had sounded more like a polite invitation than a command. Without thinking, Erin shook her head. Before her head finished its second swing, the chain jerked her off her feet. She fell forward and caught herself on her hands, with just inches between her face and his. How could his smiling eyes be so deceptive? Before she could move off her hands and knees, his open hand knocked her over onto her side. She lay there, waiting, refusing to cry.

A quiver of revulsion raced over her body at the touch of his hand on her thigh. He saw it and laughed like it was a sign of erotic anticipation. His hands continued their roaming explorations and his breathing became heavier—until he went too far.

She thought she would be able to tolerate it, to withstand it until she had a chance to escape. With his touch, it became clear that she couldn’t. She didn’t act with any kind of plan or foresight. She simply reacted. She tore into him like a pissed-off wolverine. One hand clasped the wrist of his offending hand as the other went to his face where she clawed at his eyes ringed in deep purple from their last encounter. Unfortunately, his reaction was as quick as hers.

Although one of his arms was temporarily out of use with him leaning on that elbow, he regained its use simply by rolling backwards off it. As he did so, he slammed that arm and fist across her face. Then, as quickly, he jerked his captured arm free from her hand and slammed his fist into her solar plexus. Just that quick, the fight went out of her.

She rolled away from him and any further barrage, but she was unable to do anything else except draw her knees up to her chest and try to breathe. She fought off nausea and a ringing in her ears until she could turn back to face him as she pushed herself to hands and knees.

He was standing several feet away, over next to one of the secured garbage cans, and he was holding the shotgun in both hands and glaring at her. He hadn’t leveled the gun in her direction, but it looked like he was considering it the way he was jostling the thing up and down in his white-knuckle grasp. He dropped one hand away from the gun and brought it up to wipe across his bleeding cheek. Somehow, he injected even more hate into his glare when he glanced at the smear on his hand. He started to swing the barrel of the gun toward her, stopped and jostled it up and down some more while he appeared to be considering his options. Then, as his familiar hateful grin reappeared, he bent down to lean the gun against the can. As he stood up straight, his grin never faltered while he slowly removed his belt. To clear it from the last two loops, he gave it a hard yank causing it lashed out toward Erin. Then, holding the buckle end and to demonstrate what was coming, he made several swishing figure eights in the air with the strap of tooled leather.

“I can guarantee this is going to hurt you a lot more than it will me.”


GOLDEN GATE NRA at MUIR BEACH

THURSDAY

Jason hesitated to further dampen Emmie’s wearied spirit, but he was pretty sure the burned-over hill below them would offer scant shelter. A brief respite, perhaps, a breather, a chance to talk to other survivors and try to get some understanding of what had happened. And food; water—fresh, cool, and refreshing water; a place to rest out of the sun: luxuries normally taken for granted and now denied. Even the anticipation of them helped to ease the weariness from his body.

They had not descended to sea level since the error that took them to Tennessee Valley Beach, and the constant strain of holding back played hell on his legs. Finally, at the bottom, they passed through a wire fence and shuffled through deep sand toward a parking lot beyond some trees and a narrow lagoon crossed by a footbridge maybe fifty feet long.

Just as Jason stepped onto the bridge, a sharp, slapping sound accompanied by a cry from nearby stopped him cold. It was a short, sharp cry, like from someone in sudden pain. The beach was empty of people, and while coming down the hill they had seen no one in the parking lot or surrounding fields and meadows. They were still too far from the nearest house for the voice he had just heard to come from there. It must have been from the trees across the bridge. Another slap and another scream of pain stopped him in mid-stride.

Reverting to long established instincts, Jason took half a step back and listened. With a finger to his lips, he signaled Emmie to remain silent and to join him in a crouch behind the cover of the bridge’s end.

After a moment, he heard another sound, a man’s speaking voice, but it was harsh, angry, demanding. The words weren’t clear, but the tone was definitely not friendly. He heard another slap and cry and recognized the cry as from a woman, followed by more words from the man he could just make out in bits and pieces.

“--bitch! ...told you...ever...back over here and...give a...nail your hide…barn door!”

It was impossible to make out the full conversation, if it was a conversation. So far, except for the woman’s cries, the man seemed to be doing all the talking.

Another slap and cry were followed by sustained crying accented by sobs that lasted several seconds.

Jason couldn’t pinpoint the voice, but it came from not far beyond the other end of the bridge…possibly from behind the trees to the right.

“Stay here,” he whispered. “And stay down.”

Wide-eyed and breathless, Emmie nodded.

Jason crouched low as he crept across the span. At the far end, he dropped to the ground to the left so that the limited bulk of the four steps there afforded some cover.

He waited and listened.

There was no shout of discovery or challenge, nor was the voice continuing its tirade. He thought he could hear sobbing, but, with the sound of the surf nearby, he couldn’t be certain. He flexed his right hand to relieve the tension in it. He cursed himself for leaving his off-duty weapon in the trunk of his car when he and Emmie had first arrived at the N.R.A. But with everything happening, he hadn’t even thought about it until after his car became smoldering slag. Now he felt naked without it. He pulled the bag of their meager provisions from where he had tucked it under his belt and wrapped it around one fist, leaving close to two feet dangling. It wasn’t much weight with just a few granola bars and bags of nuts, but they had finished the last of their sodas. Besides, it was all he had.

“God-DAMit!”

Jason almost jumped straight up at the sound before he realized the unseen man was continuing as before, yelling at the woman and not at him. He took a deep breath and climbed across the steps, then scurried across a small open space to the nearest of the bushy willows.

After he eased through most of the drooping foliage, he crouched near the far side and saw Vic just on the other side, not more than twenty feet away. Vic’s back was to him and moving slowly forward. Jason searched further and spotted Erin kneeling on the grass in the middle of the open space inside the ring of trees, hunched over with her hands folded in her lap. A tangled mass of hair engulfed her head as it hung forward.

Jason glanced around the clearing while Vic ambled toward Erin. He saw no one else, but he did spot a shotgun leaning against a trashcan. It was to Vic’s left and about as far from him as it was from Jason. Vic wasn’t wearing a shirt and had no other weapon that Jason could see. That’s when he noticed the belt swinging back and forth in his hand and realized what had made the slapping sounds.

Vic stopped in front of Erin. She made no move, but Jason could hear her sobbing. Vic lifted his foot to Erin’s forehead and shoved.

“Knock that shit off!” Vic growled.

When she toppled backwards, Jason noticed the chain attached to the collar around her neck. She flopped and lay sobbing on the grass.

Anger began to burn in Jason’s gut. Even after all the years he had been a cop, the depravity he occasionally encountered still sickened him. He stood up, took a couple of deep breaths and stepped out of the foliage into the clearing. With a practiced, lower but fuller voice, he commanded, “Police! Freeze!”


Vic froze in mid reach, one grasping hand just inches from Erin’s hair and the belt dangling from the other one and ready to swing. He had had enough run-ins with the law for the sudden appearance of the police to cause an automatic and chilling hesitation in whatever he was doing. Regardless of what Vince had told him about the termination of law and order, Vic’s activities in the last two days had had an abrasive effect on even his normally ignored conscience.


Iron sights with flecks of orange rust followed the slow movements of Vic’s head as he walked about the clearing. Then, with the startling entrance of another figure into the clearing, the old, octagon barrel swayed from one to the other. Uncertain now of its target, it withdrew into the heavy brush along the lagoon’s bank.


Jason intended to move over to the shotgun while the uncertainty of whether he might really shoot at any second held Vic motionless. But his sudden emergence from behind the trees also improved his view of Erin. He hadn’t realized she was naked. Even after all the day’s events, it was enough of a shock to hold his attention until he lost the advantage of surprise.

With both hands raised to shoulder height, and with no sudden moves, Vic turned to face Jason. He blinked a couple of times and assured himself he saw no gun in Jason’s hand, just a plastic bag containing enough weight to make it swing from the man’s hand—he wasn’t even wearing a uniform. The unorthodox headwear coupled with the shopping bag even took the edge off the perceived threat level—similar to what overlarge clown shoes or a large, red nose might have done. “Well, if you don’t look stupid. And what the hell is the idea sneaking up on me like that?”


Jason was further shocked to see a face he recognized—possibly. Was he really the youngest Morgan boy? The black eyes and swollen nose made it hard to be sure. Were they really that close to Petaluma?

With the realization that the odds had shifted away from him in the seconds he had allowed himself to be distracted, he went for re-taking the initiative. He jabbed his finger at Vic, and with a tone of voice often used by a school vice-principal who has walked in on a student smoking pot in the rest room, he said, “You are in big trouble, pal.” At the same time, he began sauntering obliquely in the direction of the shotgun.


The subterfuge worked only for a moment before Vic realized Jason’s intent. Not quite ready to force it to a race to see who could reach the gun first—they were still at about equal distances from it—Vic, too, resorted to verbal tactics.

“Yeah? Well, you just hold it right there. I know you. You’re the cop that blew Eric away, ain’t you? Well, maybe I’ll just blow you away.”

Vic hoped the allusion to his use of a gun, unseen but within easy reach, would give Jason enough doubt to stop his progression toward the shotgun. And it worked—somewhat. Jason’s casual sauntering became a more cautious pace, and Vic began his own surreptitious advance toward the shotgun. They would each have to cover a good twenty feet to reach it.


Jason didn’t want to press Vic too hard. There was a chance it wasn’t a bluff; Vic might casually draw a small pistol from a pocket. Or, forced to acknowledge his defenselessness, Vic might make a dash for the shotgun. And, he just might make it there first.

“It doesn’t appear to me that the lady is all that thrilled by your attentions.”


Vic’s temper flickered for a moment at this stranger’s suggestion that Erin didn’t desire him. It was true, of course, but coming from another man, it was a challenge.

He took another measured step. “Ha! Don’t you believe it! You probably heard her scream, eh? Yeah, she was really getting into our little spanky-hanky game. Did you also hear her panting and moaning? She loves it. What’s a little welt here or there? Hell, in her passion, she didn’t even feel ’em.”


Their careful sparring had halved the distance to the shotgun, and the chain from Erin’s neck to Vic’s wrist would be taut after another step. Jason didn’t know if Vic was aware of it, but he didn’t want to bring it to his attention. It just might make the difference.

“Oh, I don’t know about that. It doesn’t look to me like love I see in her eyes.”


It struck Vic how tired Jason looked. He also made quick comparisons of their ages and physical condition. Vic knew he was in his prime, well-muscled, good reflexes. And, with the scorn of youth for anyone over thirty, he began to be surer of his own chances in a struggle.

Suddenly, an icy tendril spurted into Vic’s gut as he remembered the chain attached to his wrist. If he had tried to make a dash for the gun, he would have been abruptly brought up short like a tethered dog on Saturday morning cartoons. A good thing he had used a simple loop over his hand to the wrist. All he had to do was relax his grip, shake his hand a bit, and let the loop drop to the ground.

When he flicked off the leash, he caught a flash of frustration in Jason’s face, and he grinned. He knew that Jason knew that he knew, etcetera. But that was okay. It added a bit of spice to the situation. It was becoming a dance, a game in which the strategy was to out wait your opponent; let him make the first move for the gun. Whoever grabbed it now wouldn’t have time to bring it up to use before the other one was on his back, and, most likely, in a controlling position.


“That thing isn’t exactly my idea of a love bond, either,” Jason said as he nodded to the chain on the ground. There was no point in avoiding mention of it now. And, just maybe he could turn it to his advantage. “Do you always have to keep your women under lock and key?”


Again, Vic’s temper did a reflexive jig at the dig. But, before it cost him, he grinned broadly and said, “Yeah, man. I’ve got a whole harem of ’em. I beat the shit out of ’em once a day just to keep ’em in line and to keep me in practice. And they’re all crazy for me. You like this one?” His thumb stabbed over his shoulder toward Erin. “Tell you what. I’ll let you have her for, oh, say half an hour for a pint—no, make that a fifth of good bourbon—for fifteen minutes. Can’t beat that price, now, can you?”


Jason tried another tack. “Oh, then you aren’t her husband or boyfriend or anything like that, somebody she might actually like. You’re just a pimp. And, a cheap one, at that.”


Vic mistook Jason’s attempt to rile him as the beginnings of a building rage and a loss of restraint. He was feeling more and more in his element. He liked nothing better than to cause outrage and shock in his audience, to offend and appall them with his depravity. He had no one to answer to but Vince, and Vince had said he could do anything he wanted—anytime—to anyone—and no one could stop him. Even with the dance for the shotgun vital to him, he was enjoying the banter and the direction it was beginning to take.

He snickered. “No, man. Not cheap—generous. I saw how you gawked at her tits. Not bad, huh? And you look like you’ve had a hard day. I’ve really got everything I need or want. Except—silly me—I forgot to bring a bottle with me. So, if you’ve got a bottle, she’s all yours—for a little while, anyway. I can tell you, too, she is fine! I just had another go at her, myself, so she may be a little tired right now. But, hell, for a paying customer, I’ll beat her back into shape in a minute or two for you. Do you like ’em awake and squirming, or conked out and just lying there?”


Jason knew Vic’s type, street wise and vicious, and he began to doubt that he could rattle the young punk, but he tried once more. “Hey, pal, I don’t have to pay for a lady’s favors.”

Vic’s face got noticeably red. He spat out, “Up yours!”

“In fact, I have never had to resort to dealing with some skuzzy pimp.”

Vic’s face got redder, but he said nothing.

“And never—ever—have I had to force a lady. It’s much better that way, you know. Or—no, I guess you don’t know, do you? You’ve probably never had that experience.”

When Vic started sputtering through jaws clamped tight, Jason knew he had him on the run. It was becoming clear that Vic would have preferred a more cooperative relationship with his captive, but that she had denied him.

Jason jabbed again at Vic’s revealed weakness. “And, you’re right, she’s a real beauty. Why, I’ll bet she could drive a guy wild—if she wanted to—if she was aroused to desire, wanting his body. You know, half the pleasure is in knowing she wants you, knowing that to her you are so desirable that she just can’t wait to—oh, but then, what would a skuzzy pimp care about being desired?”

“Aarrgh!” Screaming with rage, Vic lunged for the shotgun. Before he completed his first step, Jason charged, too.

Vic’s hand grasped the gun barrel and was raising it to his other hand when the solid weight of granola bars and peanuts slammed the side of his head. He toppled over the trashcan and lost his grip on the shotgun, which thudded down near the edge of the lagoon. Jason’s momentum carried him past Vic, but not past Vic’s feet. He stumbled and hit the turf in a roll, lost his grip on the bag, and scrambled back to his feet just as Vic did the same.

Vic’s lunge met a jarring fist that bloodied his already tender nose and flooded his eyes with tears. Then another jabbing fist rocked him back against tree next to the trashcan. He licked at the blood welling from a split in his lower lip and wiped the back of his hand across his burning nose. Jason could see the rage seethe in him as he dove at Jason with outstretched arms.

Jason tried to sidestep the charge, but Vic’s reach was too great. A strong, clutching hand grabbed Jason’s pants leg, and dragged him to the grass where they grappled and rolled. With a chill, Jason realized being pinned would mean more than losing the match or watching a felon escape. Unlike any of his past struggles, this fight was likely to the death.

Not only did he have several years on his opponent, but the after effects of his concussion still plagued him. He had just spent long, exhausting hours on the trail after a restless night. The meager packs of nuts and energy bars shared with Emmie hadn’t done more than gotten him this far. Now, engaged in a contest of strength with a rested younger and stronger opponent, his reserves of stamina were quickly burning up.

They rolled over and over, first one gaining the upper position, and then, with a twist or a lurch, the other. The demands on their muscles were constant, not a moment to rest, to recover strength.

Vic seemed to get stronger as they fought, but Jason feared it was just relative to his own strength diminishing. Each time Jason wound up on his back, he found it harder to throw Vic off. And it was harder and harder to prevent Vic from regaining the controlling position. Jason’s breath grated like a sharp-toothed rasp in his throat that was as dry as the ashes sifting down from the bar-b-cue when they jarred into it. His arms and legs began to quiver as strength bled from them.

He was on his back again, and this time he was unable to do anything but lie there panting and glare up into Vic’s grinning face.

The hands encircling his throat began to tighten, and he was aware of a greater strength in them than what was being exerted. He stared at the cold knowledge that those hands, apparently as strong now as when he and Vic first closed in their struggle, could clamp shut like a spring trap to wrench the life from him in seconds, or they could close slowly, like a vise. He would be just as dead in the end, but Vic was going to prolong it, enjoy it.

Jason’s thoughts went to Emmie, and he squirmed and struggled afresh, but the strength just wasn’t there. He became aware of an increasing ringing, and he knew it was inside his own head, caused by the reduced flow of oxygen-rich blood into his brain, and that unconsciousness would follow in a few seconds, then death. The blue sky, the green trees and grass...everything bled away to a narrowing tunnel of gray...thickening to dark gray...soon to be black. His dying thoughts latched onto his daughter, pictured her in his mind so the last image he would have would be her beautiful face.

Emmie...

Suddenly, his head whipped as the hands clenching his throat were wrenched away. His narrowing field of vision expanded again as blood pounded back into his starving brain. The ringing in his ears became painful double explosions each time his racing heart pulsed. Awareness crept back as the gray periphery of impending death receded.

The first thing Jason focused on was Vic’s twisted, agonizing face.

He still straddled Jason’s chest, but he no longer hunched forward and drooled into Jason’s face. Vic’s head now pulled back to the left. His hands, so powerful when wrapped around Jason’s neck, clawed futilely at a chain ripping through skin as it embedded into the flesh below his chin. Fingernails on both of his hands tore back and split, ineffectually pitted against the cruel steel of the chain. He made feeble, floundering attempts with his hands to reach behind him, to relieve the pressure of the chain, but his hands quickly returned to their weakening efforts to tear the chain from his neck.

Jason’s reviving senses probed beyond Vic to the no longer shadowy figure looming behind him. Rising skyward behind and above the shoulders of the doomed man towered a terrible angel of death.

Vic’s eyes bulged, and his mouth gaped. His swelling tongue protruded past his blue tinted lips, and only small clicking noises made their way past.

With returning cognition, Jason’s perception of the form behind Vic adjusted proportions, and it became human-sized. But, beyond that, normality still wavered. Taut ropes of straining muscles held her body rock solid. With knees locked and feet planted outside of Jason’s thighs, tension locked arms anchored the chain against Vic’s pathetic struggles. Her jaws clenched grinding teeth behind lips curled back in a grimace twisting its face into a parody of humanity. Her eyes blazed with the fury of an enraged jungle cat. She was primeval woman incarnate with strength ample for survival in a world as primitive as she—and as lethal as a cornered lynx.

She was the woman who had hunched over on the lawn in a submissive pose, seeming, then, to accept whatever abuses her captor heaped upon her.

With his head clear, at last, Jason focused back at Vic’s head as it lolled lifelessly to the side. The chain had chewed deeply into the flesh of his neck. Blood trickled where the pinching links ripped open the flesh. Then he noticed the chain had a similar effect on the hands still holding it taut. Blood ran from knuckle to knuckle, beaded and dripped onto the bare thighs against which they braced. When he looked back to her face, he knew she didn’t feel the pain.

“I think he’s dead,” he said. “You can let go, now.”

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