If it hadn’t been raining, Emma might have seen the man following her. The fact that it was eight o’clock, and long since dark, wasn’t counting in her favor either. With the tenacity of an Oregon native, and the arrogance of a college student, Emma navigated the long, fat body of her ’95 Buick into the assigned space at the college apartments, unaware of the SUV that pulled into a spot two rows over, and one row back.
She, like any sensible woman who had access to a newspaper, tucked her keys between her fingers before checking her cell phone. Three unread messages were glaring up at her. The first was from the school, notifying her that the entire campus, including the apartments, would be closed starting Saturday, and that anything left behind would be property of the school.
“Yeah,” Emma muttered to the message, “because you certainly don’t have enough of me as it is.”
The second message was from Diana, or as Emma liked to call her, the good roommate. While most of it was emojis, Emma understood the dark-haired vixen was currently enjoying her first week back at home, and that Emma should stop being boring and hurry up and join her.
Emma liked boring; her childhood had been exciting enough, boring was just the speed she wanted to go for the foreseeable future.
I’ll be there soon, she messaged back. Try not to break any hearts before I get there.
The third message was from Kristin, also known as the bad roommate. The wild-haired girl seemed to dislike bathing, communicating, or eating her own food. It didn’t seem to matter how many times Emma wrote her name on something, bits and pieces of it—and sometimes the entire thing—always seemed to vanish. While Emma would have liked to blame Diana, that girl believed in nothing but liquor, fresh fruit, and more liquor.
Did I leave anything behind? it asked.
Emma didn’t think so, but she didn’t much want to look. Kristin’s bathing issues meant her room had a certain…odor.
I’ll look, she texted back. She might look, if anything else didn’t distract her.
With a sigh she carefully tucked the phone inside her backpack. It rested between Anatomy of Canines and Internal Veterinary Medicine, Fourth Edition. Her phone would be safer from the rain than she was. Oh well.
To be fair, Emma’s thoughts weren’t really on the rain; that was just a mild annoyance. They weren’t even on the last slice of lasagna waiting for her in the fridge, or the promise of the apartment being all hers for the next two days. Instead, they were focused on next semester, which was supposed to be her last semester, and how she was going to pay for it.
Being frugal wasn’t going to help her. I’m already frugal, she thought as she took her first step out into the rain. The backpack hung heavily over one shoulder. The college diet of ramen noodles, store brand chips, and Vienna sausages had given her naturally waify figure a few needed pounds. Every paycheck from the Oswald Veterinary Clinic had been deposited and cataloged, and thank god for Dr. Oswald working with her insane schedule this year, but minimum wage wasn’t going to pay for her final weeks of college. Hell, it wasn’t even going to pay for her books.
The fact of the matter was her savings had paid most of the way, and it was all gone. If she was very diligent, the money ferreted away in her savings account would be just enough to pay for her share of the rent and books she would need to finish her degree. Then, with a little luck, she’d be one step closer to having her own practice.
One day a main street window was going to say Ketchum Veterinary Medicine, and it was going to be a really good day.
“Emma! Hey, Emma! Hey!”
The voice that broke through her dreams of a window decorated with paw prints was young, enthusiastic, and male. With a sigh Emma paused just inside the awning to her apartment building as a guy who was more leg than body came sauntering up. She could almost see him telling himself to play it cool. Marco, freshman science major and digital chess master, may be cool one day, but this was not it.
“How ya doin?” Water droplets were collecting on the bony tops of his gaunt cheeks, exaggerating his pasty coloring. Emma, pale as she was, didn’t have much of a right to think of anyone as pasty, but at least she looked like she’d seen the sun since the day she was born.
“I’m fine, Marco,” she answered, hauling her backpack higher up on her back. The rain was graduating into a storm and she wanted to get inside to the sanctity of pasta and Parmesan cheese. “How are you?”
“Good, good, I’m…uh…I’m gonna be heading home tomorrow. I was wondering if you were busy tonight. Maybe, uh, well, maybe we could hang out. You know, just chill or something. I dunno.”
If he was going for cool, he lost it sometime right after the second good. She tried to put on her politest smile, but Emma was pretty sure it looked more tired than nice. He wasn’t the first college guy to zero in on her. They took one look at her blonde hair and blue eyes and, for reasons beyond her understanding, got all sorts of ideas. “Sorry,” she offered. It was amazing how much that one word could deflate a person. “But I need to pack. I have to head out first thing in the morning. So, you know…”
“Where are you going?” he asked, trying to lean causally against the outdoor railing. It might have worked if the water running off the awning roof wasn’t puddling on his shoulders.
“Diana is letting me crash with her for the summer in Florence. Her family has a lake house there and, you know.”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “That sounds cool. Real cool.”
“Uh-huh.” She gave him a moment to realize he was being brushed off, but he didn’t seem to get it. “So yeah, I’m going to go do that packing thing and all that.”
“Oh yeah. Right. I mean. Well, maybe I could help. I’m strong, you know.”
Emma wondered what his scale of comparison was, looking over his slender arms and bird chest. It wasn’t that she was shallow; she’d have no problem dating a guy with Marco’s teen-boy build, so long as they had something in common. While Marco might also be enthusiastic about science, that was where it all ended. He wanted to be a proctologist.
While there were plenty of eighteen-year-old guys who wanted to study butts for a living, only Marco was taking it to the next level.
“No, thanks, I’ve got it.”
“No, really, I could help!”
He put a hand on her should and she jerked it free. Suddenly everything that was annoying her, frustrating her, terrifying her, came roaring up to the surface. She snapped. “Marco, my Aikido might be a little rusty but I’m willing to work it out if you don’t back off.”
He gave her a look that was part anger, part embarrassment. “Fine, man, don’t gotta be a bitch about it.”
“Yeah,” she said, brandishing her keys at him, “apparently I do.”
He whirled away from her and stormed off into the cold wet night. His shoulders were slumped and the rain was dripping off his nose. He looked pathetic. A small part of her felt bad, but it wasn’t enough to invite him up to her place.
When she turned back to her apartment the door to the SUV opened. She didn’t notice. She didn’t notice when a large masculine shape followed her steps up the first flight, and then the second flight of stairs. Irritation at the world had muted everything but the goal of an evening alone.
“Hmm?” She was half turned when she felt the kiss of a blade against her throat. It was cold and sharp. A single drop of water shimmered like a diamond as it danced down the blade and over a hand. It was a man’s hand, strong and thick fingered. Veins stood out beneath the kind of golden brown skin you either got by accident of birth, or accident of wealth. The first finger had seven crosses tattooed in black ink lined up down the digit.
Crosses, she knew, meant kills.
“You even think about screaming for help and I will slit your pretty throat, do you understand?”
She nodded once. A lock of hair too dark to be her own fell over her shoulder. A second arm snaked around her belly. She felt her stomach turn to lead, sick and heavy.
The arm flexed and she stumbled back against a body. Emma could hear her heartbeat pounding behind her eyes. This wasn’t a skinny, barely eighteen-year-old boy. She struggled as much as the knife would let her, but his grip was unrelenting. This was the form of someone who knew how to use their body like a weapon. She swallowed hard, which only made her feel the blade that much more.
“Open the door.” His voice was thick with Latin roots. “Slowly.”
Emma hesitated. More than anything she didn’t want him in her apartment, where he could do in private whatever it was he was thinking of doing right now. The lack of space between him and her door, however, was doing nothing but giving him every advantage. With hands that shook more than Emma would have liked she unlocked the door to her too empty apartment.
He kept the blade to her neck and used his free hand to rip her bag off her shoulder and toss it into the hallway. The sound of wet canvas and heavy books plopping against the floor echoed.
“Please,” she whispered softly, picturing the worst. “Please don’t do this. What do you want?”
She felt the dull brush of his stubble against her cheek. Hadn’t she read somewhere that if a guy didn’t wear a mask when he attacked you, he was probably going to kill you? A whimper escaped her throat. She realized she was crying; she didn’t know when it had started.
“Step forward.” His instructions where whispered against her ear. She could smell the mixture of alcohol and cigarettes on his breath. She felt bile burn in the back of her throat.
Every terrifying picture of every morbid headline she’d ever read surged to the forefront of her mind, leaving her breathless and shivering. Would they find her in the morning? Would she even be alive? Would she be in one piece?
“I don’t understand. Who are you?” she pleaded.
“The fucking tooth fairy.”
She took a single step into her apartment on legs that felt like Jell-O. Her mind was screaming Run, but her body wasn’t listening. She couldn’t even remember her Aikido training. Everything was just a blur of fear and uncertainty and self-doubt.
He shut the door behind them. The only light in her apartment came from the lamppost outside. The dull flicker, muted by the rain, did little to offer anything close to illumination. Somehow the dark helped her think. She couldn’t see him, not really. Just a vague outline of a large bodied male.
He grabbed her hair and yanked her head back, exposing a long line of her neck. The blade scrapped and then cut. Her skin gave ever so slightly. Blood, hot and metallic, ribboned down her throat. She squirmed, but he held her tight.
“Tell your daddy he needs to watch his fucking back.”
Few things could have surprised her more. Her father? Emma hadn’t seen or spoken to her father since she was eighteen, nearly seven years ago. She had done her best to live apart from him, to keep her life separated from his, but it hadn’t mattered. The sharp press of the blade proved well enough that it hadn’t mattered at all.
“I don’t even talk to my dad,” she managed to gasp out, hoping beyond hope that this would make the attacker go away. It didn’t. His body pressed harder to hers, enveloping her in the scent of cheap cigarettes. “I haven’t seen him in years.”
“Eh. You better start, puta.” The hand on her side slithered upwards. At first she thought his shirt had thin sleeves, but her eyes adjusted to see that his arm was decorated with tattoos in dark ink. The largest was the Virgin Mary, with two buxom angles forming a protective ring over the praying lady. The wings danced as his hand paused just beneath her breast. He made some shift in his hips that had her stomach jumping into her throat.
No, she thought, anything but that. Higher thought shut down. All she wanted was to get away. Suddenly her body reacted without the impediment of her mind. Her hands shifted over the tattooed arm that held her to his chest. Her heart stopped pumping, the blood went to ice in her veins.
He whispered words she didn’t know, and didn’t care to hear. Her hips shoved backwards. He took it as an invitation and his arm slithered upwards. She stepped back harder and his body rocked forward. She used the momentum to fling his bigger, heavier body over hers, and he went down in a surprised crash.
She didn’t wait; she ripped the door open and pulled her keys from the lock. She had just enough frame of mind left to snag her backpack as she flew down the stairs and back out into the rain. The parking lot was seven blocks away, across wet and muddy terrain.
Her Buick, white enough that it glimmered under the dull lights of the lot, shone like a beacon of safety.
The cold water hitting her face did little to alleviate the shaking of her hands as she struggled to unlock the ancient door.
She shoved the key into the ignition and felt the shudder of the Buick roar to life with a flick of her wrist. She saw the apartment building door open, the single lamppost illuminating the man behind it. She put the car in reverse and squealed out of the parking lot.
The farther she got from the college the calmer she felt. The tears evaporated and her heart slowed back to a normal rate. Slowly, her trembling went from terrified to angry Her blood went from sluggish to boiling. That was her apartment, her home. Someone had attacked her, and for what? Her father. Her damn father.
“Damnit,” she growled, slapping her fist against the steering wheel. “Damnit!”
With a screech of her tires Emma pulled into a twenty-four-hour diner. A glance at the clock on her dash said it was 11:30, but it was busy here. There was unexpected comfort in that. Normally, Emma preferred the company of animals to people, but being alone right now didn’t sound particularly awesome.
She waited until she had a menu and a glass of water before she pulled her phone out.
“Dad?” she said when she heard someone pick up. “We need to talk.”