From The Shadows
A faint laugh echoed against the steel I-beamed ceilings—a man’s laugh.
Or was it?
Belle pirouetted on the hard asphalt. Her hips warmed when they hit the hot side of her car. She squinted at the blinking fluorescent lights. They stuttered against the garage in fitful illumination.
“Hello?” The word echoed back to her unaccompanied, sending pins and needles through her hand as it tightened on the strap of her purse.
Belle’s senses sharpened almost painfully: the metal keys biting into the flesh of her palm, the blood slamming against her eardrums. A gust of fear rushed through her spine, setting her ears ringing, preparing her to fight—or maybe run.
Instincts. The word pulsed through her thoughts quickly.
She pushed her head forward, straining to listen, trying to penetrate the shadows to locate that chilling laugh. Instead, all she heard was the tick-tick-tick of her engine cooling and the muted hiss of silence.
Was it real?
A moment of doubt made her step away from the car. She stared at the oily surface of the garage floor, mesmerized. The scuffed blacktop triggered a memory.
A pale hand coiled around her face, clamped hard against her lips and nose, cutting off her oxygen. She desperately bit, clawed and fought, but nothing loosened that unnatural grip. It clung to her face like an iron mask.
Belle squeezed her eyes tight, willing the memory to go away. She knew the deeply masculine violation had permanently infected her confidence. There was nothing she could do
about it. Uncertainty was her constant confidante. She had to pull strength from a deep will to fight the trembling.
It’s just a memory. A memory can’t hurt you. The mantra lost juice in the silence.
Even with a year of therapy and all her martial arts training, a cold chill still ran through Belle in this eerie-ass garage. The attack was a year ago today, wasn’t it? She knew anniversaries sometimes triggered memories, but knowing that didn’t help.
Broken lights deposited black shadows in one corner. Peering into the darkness, Belle fancied she saw two beaming pins of white, like eyes. Another blaze of recall weakened her knees.
Sliding backwards on broken heels into the shadows, she was a rag doll in his arms.
Belle shook her head violently to dislodge the flashback and deliberately rushed toward an elevator that seemed to fall away from her as she moved. Frozen bumps formed on her neck.
Ripples of static tingled against her face, electrifying her hair until it danced. A sweet smoky smell enveloped her senses. His smell. She couldn’t move—wouldn’t move—a kind of desire pushed through her, forcing her to comply. Her body went limp in his embrace, as if he had opened her soul and thrust himself inside her—
Pulling in a shaking breath, she scanned the solid concrete pillars as she moved and found the exact spot where John had stood that night, hoping that memory would expel the others.
Her ears rang with the sound of a stranger’s voice bouncing across the concrete. “Hey!
You! What the hell do you think you’re…”
The monster dropped her. Her tailbone snapped sending waves of nausea through her bowels. She threw up and curled into a ball of shock. Everything fizzled like an ailing balloon into black.
From out of the shadows around her, another sound eclipsed the laugh.
Her feet and heart stopped simultaneously. Fire rose in her cheeks and the back of her hands. The whispered word was soft, haunting—close. Ice wrapped around her spine.
“Who’s there?” she demanded, but only silence answered.
Brahms’s Fifth Symphony suddenly buzzed like a hornet’s nest from her purse, impelling her into the air. Pinpricks like fireworks traveled up her arms. “Shit!”
Belle pulled the cell phone out of the side pouch and flipped it open. The neon green JOHN IAN on the screen fortified her enough to get her legs moving again.
“Hello?” She scurried toward the elevator, the jarring click-click-click of her heels against the asphalt vibrating up her naked legs.
“Are you all right?” John’s voice sounded strange, far away and full of static. She barely recognized it.
“Who else would it be? Are you all right?”
“Yeah, fine.” Belle hit the up button next to the elevator door hard then turned around and bit her lower lip. “Thought I heard something. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“Do you want me to come over?”
The elevator slid down to meet her and the doors whisked open.
“I—surprise—you.” The words broke into pieces.
“—soon.” There was a strange lilt to John’s voice, but the phone went dead. She looked at the screen, and the call was gone. Probably just the connection. She’d call him when she got upstairs.
Putting the phone away, she backed into the metal box and jabbed the first floor button, a buzz of fear forcing her finger to hit it several times.
When the door closed, she blew out a breath and slumped against the cold metal wall.
The clang of steel on steel as the little room hummed its way up the cables was somehow comforting. Smells of cooking garlic mingled with flowery air freshener and the greasy mechanics of the old lift. Twisting her neck from side to side eased her muscles but not the persistent rapid beating of her heart.
Belle hated herself for being so paranoid. It was why she had let John talk her into his tae kwon do classes to begin with. It was also why she had allowed him into her life when she wasn’t looking for anyone. He did rescue you from that maniac, sister. She would have done just about anything he asked. And I did…
A shot of guilt tensed her shoulders. She liked John, was grateful to him for everything, but she didn’t love him. They had become friends over the past year, but she knew John wanted
something more significant from her. To make matters worse, in a moment of weakness spurred by his warm caring nature and a few glasses of wine, Belle had slept with him. That hadn’t helped at all. Another pang of guilt joined the first making it unanimous. Her roommate Cary asked her on a daily basis why she didn’t just dump John, but it was complicated. She didn’t want to hurt him.
A daily calendar taped to the elevator wall reminded her it was Wednesday; Cary would be out with his boyfriend tonight, so she’d have the apartment to herself.
The thought of spending the night alone in her little sanctuary helped to slow her breathing. Her wonderful office/bedroom was the only place in the world Belle felt safe. Smiling, she could almost hear her therapist saying in the background, Now, Belle, you need to expand beyond your little world into the bigger one. Go out. Have fun. Don’t stay cooped up so much. Belle couldn’t help it; her books, her research, her life was tucked into that four hundred square feet of security, and she wasn’t about to leave it for anything.
It suddenly dawned on her that she had just told John to come over. After spending several hours in high heels lecturing at Portland State, she just wanted to fall into bed with a book and a glass of wine. Her new graduate students were a lively bunch; they had questioned her raw. Belle thanked her stars that the adjunct professorship would end in the spring when she would leave for a Celtic dig in England.
The elevator eased to a stop on the first floor, and the familiar creak calmed her heart as the doors whisked open. By the time Belle stepped out, the voice in the dark seemed distant, almost silly. Maybe I should start parking on the street.
The lobby was deserted. She could make out O’Donnell’s back through the glass double doors, his uniform as wrinkled as ever. He rocked on his heels watching the street, cigarette smoke circling his head, a stolen break from the security desk that gleamed in one corner of the lobby.
Belle really liked the rugged Irish guard. He was friendly, funny and had developed an almost fatherly devotion to her. Why, she didn’t know, but she didn’t mind. Despite her deeply rooted, almost radical independence, secretly she thought it was nice having someone looking out for her. Pride had kept her from asking him to escort her from the garage each night, though he had offered many times. She knew the demons she had to confront were her own, and she had to face them that way.
She was tempted to linger and chat, but her eyes were already drooping. Maybe tomorrow.
Crossing to the bank of golden mail boxes, she pulled a small key from the bunch. It slid easily into the worn keyhole, and the little door popped open under the stress of mail behind it. Belle pulled out the bundle and sorted it above the recycle box next to the panel of little doors, throwing most of it away.
Junk. Junk. Junk. Bill. Junk. Bill.
She froze at a small white envelope with her name printed neatly in the middle and no return address. Her heart caught in her chest.
It was from him.
As the police had instructed, she was careful not to handle it much. She wrapped a small flyer around the menacing post and tucked it under her arm, wiping her hand on her hip when she was done.
Belle imagined the stacks of little white envelopes tucked away somewhere inside police headquarters. There must be almost a hundred now. Each typed on plain white paper, folded exactly alike and stuffed into a common envelope. Every single one of them containing the same four words:
Just so you know.
She always turned the letters into the cops, and they always gave her the same answer: no fingerprints, no clues, no step closer to catching the son of a bitch who had taken away her independence—her innocence.
The night of her father’s murder snapped into her head unexpectedly, sparked by those four words, reminding her of what she had hidden from the police—from her therapist—from herself.
In a panic, Belle pushed that memory as far down as she could manage, but it was getting harder all the time.
The world is deadly… there is no safe place…
With an audible, “Stop it!” Belle got herself under control by biting down on the inside of her cheek. “You’re not going to let him do this to you!” she whispered to herself. The top of the
white post gleamed at her, and, in a frantic move, she stuffed it further into the flyer. She didn’t open the letters anymore. Her therapist had insisted.
Searching for anything to appease the anxiety, her mind took her to the one thought that always instantly trumped the rest.
Cranston could have solved this case in a heartbeat. She had almost called him more than once, but each time she managed to control the impulse, knowing it was a bad idea.
Cranston was the only man she knew who could drag the best and the worst from her. He was arrogant, irreverent, completely maddening and one of the most exciting men she had ever known. Is that why you married him? The question made her tighten her lips.
Since their divorce, she had seen him maybe a dozen times: police fund raisers, weddings of mutual friends and even a chance meeting once or twice. Every single time he had managed, with no effort at all, to anger her to the point of violence while at the same time reminding her deeply of emotional and physical needs that hadn’t been satisfied since their break up. It was infuriating that he could still touch her like that. She had moved on, made something of her life without him—hadn’t she? The thought of her ex-husband back in her life, in whatever capacity, sent a quick shiver down her arms. Belle wasn’t sure if it was pain or pleasure.
Let’s not go down that road, girl! Forcing her thoughts to behave, she couldn’t suppress a little smile. Belle had to admit, it was a lot more pleasant thinking about Cranston than it was about the asshole who had ruined her self-confidence.
Turning toward the elevator, she caught O’Donnell’s eye as he held the door open for a group of laughing, obviously drunk, tenants. He winked at her, which animated the kind old face, and tipped his hat. The worn uniform was dull gray against the dark night behind him.
Belle sent a quick smile his way and stepped inside before the noisy group crowded into the elevator. Tucking herself in the back, she leaned against the wall, tilted her head and closed her eyes. God, she was tired. The group stumbled out on the seventh floor, leaving her alone for the journey to the tenth.
When she reached the door to her apartment, she slipped the mail under her arm and searched for the key from the bundle. Glancing to her right, the lights from downtown Portland dazzled her for a second. The city was lit up like Christmas.
She found the right key and shoved it into the lock.
That’s odd. The door was unlocked.
A bolt of shock turned her knees to rubber and another flashback triggered. There was something about his touch…
Belle squared her shoulders and tightened her jaw at the door. “You’re not going to run my life. Cary probably just left it unlocked. Piss!” she whispered to the hallway. Cary was a dear friend, but he had the responsibility of a herring sometimes. Just Cary being an idiot.
But that didn’t stop a murky premonition that started as a pain in her left temple. Maybe she should call O’Donnell. And tell him what? That you’re afraid to go into your own apartment.
Belle, you’re tougher than this!
She turned the knob and pushed the door open with deliberation.
The apartment was dark. Closing the door, she eased into the little hallway off a large sunken living room. Her instincts blazed like cannon fire, but Belle knew to ignore them; PTSD playing Russian roulette with her nerves, that’s all. She could defend herself. Hell! She had earned her brown belt in less than a year.
Setting her purse and the mail on a small table, she flipped the wall switch.
The kitchen lights flooded through the half-open wall and blinded Belle. Making her way down the two steps into the living room, she rubbed her eyes.
When they cleared, a jolt of cold wrapped around her head. She stopped.
There was something there. Something big.
It covered the sable couch, spilled over the white carpet, broke the black marble table under it into two sections. It was dripping syrupy pools of liquid onto the floor.
A gasping sound started in her chest, and she took a step back. Her mind couldn’t wrap itself around what she saw. Shock choked her throat. Her hands went numb. Everything faded from her vision except the tunnel that formed around the incongruity in front of her.
Spread over her furniture lay John Ian’s mutilated body.