Good day to all! So happy you’re following along with the preparations for the Crime Cafe Stories Project crowdfunding launch. Now, there’s a mouthful! 🙂
Today, I have another sample from the nine-book boxed set to be published as part of this project.
A half hour before the snatch, everything seemed normal.
Everything was normal, except for a sense of urgency. But that might have been because of the impending holiday.
The mall seethed with the combined enthusiasm and desperation of Christmas only days away. Groups of unruly children surged and pulsed into and out of store entrances, while their parents’ haunted gazes peeked through joyful facades.
It was beginning to look a lot like another Christmas nightmare.
Katherine Brant, known as “Kit” to her friends for an almost long-forgotten stunt, strolled through it all like an amused foreigner, observing the natives but keeping them at arm’s length. She wasn’t a mall-rat by anyone’s definition. She had been coerced into coming here. But really, she could enjoy other people’s frozen rictus grins of surrender to the season’s woes because she had no gifts to buy and no intention of opening up her wallet for anyone but herself.
Kit’s roommate, on the other hand — Irina of the supermodel looks — enjoyed traversing the crowd precisely because of the impression she knew she made, her obvious charms outpacing even Kit’s.
Kit smiled, thinking about it. The two caused a minor sensation in front of The Leather Store, checking out the kind of clothing rock stars wear. Every male within spotting distance knew leather would have hugged their shapes like a second sensuous skin. But Kit had dressed down for this excursion, choosing blue sweat pants and one of her uncle’s old letter jackets, making the most of winter’s late arrival. Unseasonal mild temperatures had proven an aid to shoppers, who were not forced to wrestle parkas while fulfilling holiday lists.
Irina had chosen a different approach. She wore a fashionably ripped pair of retro hip-huggers that delineated her shapely buttocks and displayed the tiger-lily tattoo in the small of her back for everyone’s appreciation. A vaguely hippy-ish peasant blouse barely hid her unencumbered breasts, and the three open buttons assured every male’s gaze within hunting range.
Unlike Kit, Irina had come to play with the natives — tease them and tweak their silly little male noses. Irina made it her life’s work to tease boys, and she was an expert in the field.
Kit had to smile again. They were vinegar and water, surely, but somehow with them the combination seemed to work. Only roommates the four months since the start of the fall semester, they’d somehow bonded despite their vastly divergent approaches to mating and the male animal. Irina wallowed in their adoration, wielding her looks like a scalpel right to their hearts, and lower, whereas Kit actively tried to avert it.
Hence the sloppy dressing, which some males her age nevertheless found alluring. Kit could be coaxed into admitting that her looks were not actually disguised by the rumpled clothing she preferred, but somehow enhanced as if she’d studiedly arranged every wrinkle until it was just so.
Irina favored brassy, glitzy cosmetics, making the boys lust for her without realizing why, but Kit’s use of lipstick and eyeliner was artistic and extremely effective because it was nearly invisible, highlighting her natural beauty without calling attention to itself. Since first becoming roommates, Irina and Kit had often discussed their differences, comparing methods and strategies, but there was no changing the fact that Irina’s drew males to her like bees to blooming chrysanthemums, while Kit’s most often led to “friendships” that never bloomed into anything but coffee and study dates.
All this ran through Kit’s mind as she navigated Irina’s turbulent wake through clumps of loitering teens and small pockets of hit-and-run adult shoppers. She barely registered the looks and leers Irina caused ahead of her, content to slide past unnoticed, her fists scrunched in her pockets.
She was so busy following her roommate’s glowing form that she almost stumbled full-tilt into the tall man who had just dashed out of the Pottery Barn store they’d zipped past on their way to Victoria’s Secret, no doubt, where Irina ran up quite a monthly tab. Where did she get the money? Kit had no idea, but it had to amount to a small fortune.
The tall man, clad in a rough-looking leather trench coat and carrying some sort of store circular or catalog, seemed to almost trip on Kit’s out-flung leg, throwing out his arms for balance and almost smacking Kit in the face with his folded magazine in an effort to insert himself between her and the unaware roommate.
“Hey, watch it, buddy!” she called out.
Kit rarely minced words.
Barely before she’d finished speaking, the tall man turned a scarred lantern-jawed face over his shoulder toward her and scowled. His ugly sneer was intimidating, enough that Kit almost tripped over her own stride trying to slow down and avoid coming too close to his rear. He didn’t notice, having apparently turned his attention back to Irina, whose prow still cut a wide swathe through the milling shoppers, blissfully unaware of Kit’s encounter.
If Irina slowed down at all, the man’s legs would naturally spoon with her hip-hugged derriere and they’d become intimate right there, on the mall’s main level.
Kit shook her head. Who fed her these thoughts? The guy was clearly a jerk, but a harmless jerk too self-centered to notice his space was encroaching on anyone else’s. She adjusted her stride again to keep up with Irina’s gait, figuring the man would extricate himself from the impromptu chick sandwich at any time. Maybe he’d bail at the Radio Shack? The food court?
Maybe he’s late, he’s late for a very important date!
She chuckled and then bit off a curse when her forward motion carried her entire weight into his frame, which had suddenly halted. He whipped his head around and shot her a nasty look, his eyes full of suppressed rage.
“Excuse me!” she screeched, willfully approaching classic Steve Martin territory.
“Get out of my way, you —”
The man’s voice was gruff, foreign.
“What’s going on? Kit?”
Irina, bless her, finally focusing on someone beside herself. She had stopped to admire some article of overpriced clothing in a window, setting off a chain reaction that included the man, who then slid to a stop in order to avoid barreling into her, and Kit, who had been distracted and therefore unable to stop in time from crashing into him.
Once again, she saw him brandish the folded magazine in her direction like a weapon. She stared into his eyes — cold, pale blue until almost transparent, and full of hate — and bit off yet another comment that surged up her throat like a stream of hot liquid.
Who the fuck was he to stare at her as if she’d — if she’d what? All she had done was clumsily stumble into a guy who wasn’t paying attention…
Or who was paying a lot of attention to the goddess Irina. That was the other interpretation. If he’d spent less time leering at Irina and more time being aware of his surroundings…
“What’s your problem?” she blurted out anyway, forever a slave to her quick, sharp tongue.
“Your face is my problem,” the man muttered in an unrecognizable accent. Then he extricated himself from between the astonished Kit and the frowning Irina and melted into the passing throngs.
“What was his problem?” Irina asked, suddenly back on earth.
Kit laughed, shaking her head. “Who knows? Just a grumpy old pervy guy.”
“Let’s keep shopping.”
Kit shrugged. “Whatever.”
But the fun had been derailed. Kit sensed she would replay the encounter over and over in her head. She never realized why until a few minutes later, when Irina swung to the right and down a narrow service corridor.
Barely a trickle of people seemed to have found the dingy hallway which led to offices and the public restrooms.
Kit followed Irina a step or so behind. It wasn’t unusual for her roommate to check her make-up or readjust herself at least once per shopping trip. And, come to think of it, Kit suddenly felt a pressing need to use the washroom herself. All that coffee an hour ago had suddenly begun to call attention to itself in the most unladylike way.
She became aware that people walked behind her, undoubtedly full of mall soda and Frappucinos to evacuate. She almost giggled at the thought.
“Hey, wait up,” she called out as Irina disappeared around a sharp corner. When she caught up and followed, she stood in another long hallway lined with framed wildlife prints, but no Irina. Kit slowed and swiveled. She thought she’d heard someone behind her. But no one turned the corner from the main hallway. She couldn’t see the washroom doors from here, so Irina couldn’t have reached them when she was only seconds ahead of her.
There were two doors immediately across the hall. One seemed like a closed meeting room, lights out in the room behind the glass door. The other was a solid wood door marked Security. In either case, Irina could not have entered and disappeared. The one was probably locked, and the other would have no reason to attract her.
“Irina?” she called out in a half-whisper. “Irina? Stop clowning around, okay? I know you didn’t just disappear.”
The Security door opened a crack and Kit heard voices. Was one Irina’s voice? But what could she be doing in the Security office?
“Irina?” Kit said again, approaching the door which still stood ajar as if someone were holding it. “What the hell are you trying to do, find a date back there?”
Kit stepped toward the door.
Before she could reach it, she sensed rather than heard movement behind her. She started to pivot, her lips forming her roommate’s name again in case she had somehow sneaked up behind her, when instead a massive hand wrapped itself around her face and closed off air to her nose as well.
Kit swallowed the scream in her throat because she ran out of air. She did not run out of moves, however, jabbing backward with a sharp elbow and hearing a grunt in return. The grip around her mouth loosened enough that she was able to rake her left foot down her attacker’s shin, finishing off by smashing her foot solidly into his instep.
She heard a howl of pain and was almost free, twisting around and bringing up her arm to stab a knife-like hand into the face thrust before her.
It was him, pain and anger colliding on his features like a cubist nightmare. Kit barely had time to register his identity when her hand almost connected with his prominent nose, except that he had side-stepped it at the very last second, and she was thrown off-balance.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw movement at the Security door, and even though she was falling into the pervert’s grasp once more, she cheered the cavalry’s arrival. After all, how stupid could he be, attacking someone right in front of the —
She saw a flash of blue uniform coming to her rescue and allowed Pervy Man to handle her as if she were a sack of vegetables, knowing that the mall cop was probably even then lashing out with his baton or flashlight, or whatever these guys carried to protect people like her from perverts like… like him!
She was off-balance and her arms were trapped in his grip, but she expected to see a uniformed arm reach over her and tap her attacker on the head, or drop him in a flying tackle, send him sprawling with a spin-kick, or just beat on him until he let her go.
She expected something!
What she did not expect was her rescuer grabbing her also from behind and forcing her arms down.
“What-” Her mouth was covered again, this time with a wet rag, muffling her voice. “Irina!” she screamed, but the scream was no more than a whisper into the smelly fabric over her lips and nose. Then she wrenched herself to the left suddenly, taking them by surprise, and almost broke free once again, gathering herself for either a kick or a run down the hall. But instead she felt her perceptions slow to the consistency of molasses, and her graceful moves toward freedom became awkward and useless rotations toward the slime green carpet.
Was it chloroform?
She had no idea what chloroform smelled or tasted like, only the fact that whatever it was, it had slowed her down, way down, and she was now falling, falling into the arms not of Pervy Man, but of his friend in the blue uniform whose face was hidden by a cop’s hat, but who smelled of something, something she fought to identify, and then she became that bag of vegetables and they were dragging her through a doorway, but it was the other doorway, the locked up meeting room, with the lights out and the cloth furniture lined in rows for a seminar, and Kit wondered where Irina had gone and whether she was now calling for help.
I’m in some kind of terrible trouble, Irina!
Kit struggled valiantly against the arms and legs of her attackers, who simply held her down, letting her resistance slow to nothing, grunting as one of her fists landed a half-baked punch to Pervy Man’s face, his head snapping back with a pleasant crack of bone.
He howled again, and kicked her once, twice in the ribs.
She felt the pain, or thought she did, but the curtain fell ruthlessly over her vision and she heard voices whispering prayers over her and everything went utterly black.
There you have it. The Crime Cafe stories fiction sample for the day! This is about as close as it gets to looking behind the scenes, unless I talk about it on YouTube, which I might. You never know, huh? 🙂
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And here’s the awesome cover for the Crime Cafe Anthology!