Sample Sunday — Falling Dark

 

Falling Dark, the first book in my new “Watchers” series, is coming out on Thursday, February 9th, so I thought it was time to give you a little sneak peek at what’s in store!

***

The property I was passing had a low wall that separated it from the sidewalk, and on the other side of the wall grew some thick bushes and several stubby, spreading trees of a variety I didn’t recognize. The bushes rustled, and then out of them burst — well, I suppose you’d have to say he was a man, maybe a few years older than I, with a shock of pale hair and equally pale eyes, and a pasty complexion.

That was all the time I had to take in his appearance, because in the next instant he had lunged for me, wrapping thin but surprisingly strong fingers around my bicep. I let out a startled cry, but I wasn’t so shocked that I completely forgot to fight back. Out of instinct, I swung one of my shopping bags at him, the one that had two of the three bottles of wine I’d bought inside.

The bag connected with his shoulder with a sharp crack, but the blow wasn’t enough to stop him. As the bag fell to the sidewalk with a crunch of glass, he didn’t even blink, instead maneuvering past so he stood in front of me, blocking the sidewalk. He grabbed my other arm with his free hand, squeezing so tightly that I dropped the second bag of groceries.

Adrenaline zinged through my bloodstream, pushing past the initial shock, telling me what I should do next.

“Help!” I called out. Surely there had to be someone around, even though it was a little before eleven in the morning, a time when probably most of the people who lived in the neighborhood had to be at work or school. “Help!

In response, my assailant let go of my left arm and clapped his hand over my mouth. His fingers were cold and hard, and my lip stung as it was ground into my teeth. The metallic taste of blood ran over my tongue. “Shut up,” he growled into my ear. “No one is going to help you.”

The rain fell faster, harder, soaking my hair, stinging my cheeks like little chips of ice. Right then, I wondered if he was right, if he’d chosen this spot on purpose because he knew no one was close enough to come to my aid.

Maybe that was true. In which case, I’d have to help myself.

Without even stopping to think, I drove my right knee into his groin, using all the strength of my yoga-trained muscles. Surely the force of the blow would be enough to make him let go of me, if only for a few seconds. Then I would run like hell, or at least as fast as I could. The old injury in my leg had begun to ache, and it might have slowed me down.

But I never got the chance to find out, as my attacker didn’t let go. A harsh breath escaped his lips, but his grip on my arm only intensified. Tears of pain and fear stung my eyes. Right then, it seemed all too likely that he’d be able to drag me off that sidewalk — maybe to the shabby Volvo parked a few yards away — and take me wherever he wanted.

And why the hell hadn’t he doubled over in agony the second I kneed him in the balls? Was he hopped up on something, like bath salts or PCP?

So maybe I should be more worried about him eating my face off, or —

A dark blur. I didn’t really see where it had come from, because I had been struggling in my attacker’s grip, still trying to wrench my arm out of his hand, even though he might as well have been holding me in a set of shackles for all the good that did. But in the next instant I saw a fist come out of nowhere and hit the man who held me, striking him in the jaw with such force that he did finally let go, right before he reeled back a pace or two and bumped into the wall behind us. I pulled in a breath, wondering if I should scream again, but then I stopped, staring. A man I knew I’d never seen before, tall, with shaggy dark hair, advanced on my assailant, left fist coming up to connect with the other side of his face. Improbably, my attacker began to laugh, even as blood trickled down from his pale mouth.

“You think that’s going to stop me?” He swung, but the man who had hit him moved so fast my eyes could barely track the motion. All I really saw was his left hand coming up to catch that fist before it ever connected.

A sickening crunch, one that could only have come from all the bones in his hand being crushed at once. At last my attacker flinched, the remaining blood draining from his face so he barely even looked human, seemed more like a wax figure before any color had been painted on its features.

“No,” said the man who had stepped in to save me. “But this will.”

He grabbed my assailant’s other hand, crushing it just as he had the first one. The pale man sank to his knees. An odd keening noise escaped his lips, a sound that didn’t even seem as if it could have come from a human throat.

And then — maybe it was pain, or maybe it was shock. I didn’t know, because I couldn’t come up with a rational explanation for what I witnessed next. The man who’d come to my assistance reached in his pocket and pulled out a small vial filled with a strange silvery liquid. He took out the stopper and splashed the liquid on my attacker’s face.

It dissolved. Or rather, he dissolved. All of him, melting down into a pool of a pale oily substance that quivered briefly, as if it still possessed some kind of hideous life. And in the next second it was gone as if it had never been.

“What — ?” I managed. “Who — ?”

“Later,” said my savior, his tone curt. He bent to pick up my dropped bags of groceries, one of them clinking with the sound of broken glass. Even though the bags were the heavy plastic reusable kind, red wine still began to drip from the bottom. “Let me drive you home.”

My mind was still reeling, attempting to process what I had just seen, but I knew I sure as hell wasn’t going to let this stranger drive me to my condo. I’d had enough encounters with crazy men for one day. Letting this one get me alone in his car? Not going to happen.

“No, that’s fine,” I said. Somehow, I even managed to smile. No doubt my mother, who’d made it her goal to ensure that both her daughters could handle every social situation with grace and ease, would be very proud of me.

Not that I would ever tell her what had just happened. That would be the final piece of evidence she needed to be convinced that I was completely crazy.

“It is not fine,” the man said. For the first time since he’d come to my rescue, I was able to take in some more of his appearance, to note that he also looked to be a few years older than I — maybe around thirty — and had dark brown, longish hair that brushed against the collar of his black T-shirt. His eyes were also dark, piercing as he stared down into my face. Tall. Definitely over six feet.

“No, really,” I returned. I pulled in a breath and added, “Unless you’d like to stay here with me while I call the police.”

“To report what?” he asked. His gaze flicked to the spot on the sidewalk where my attacker had melted into nothingness. “Police require evidence.”

“I — ”

“I mean you no harm, Serena Quinn.”

My protests died there. “How do you know my name?”

“That isn’t important. Let me get you off this street.”

Mind churning, I said, “Give me my groceries.”

“No. You’re in no condition to carry them. I’ll give them to you after you’re safely home.”

“Fine,” I told him. “Keep them.”
And I turned away and began walking up the street. Yes, my knees wobbled, and I honestly didn’t know if I had the strength to make it the extra half mile to my place, but the one thing I did know was that I sure as hell wasn’t going to get into a car with him.

From behind me came a muffled curse, followed by the sound of footsteps. A second later, he had caught up with me, thanks to his much longer legs. “You are a very stubborn woman.”

“So I’ve been told.” I didn’t dare let myself look up at him. For some reason, I had the feeling that if I looked too deeply into his eyes, I’d discover things I didn’t want to see, would begin to find some answers to the craziness I’d just experienced.

Right then, I wasn’t sure I wanted answers. I wanted to go home and pretend this morning had never happened.

The rain arrived in earnest then, pouring down in that shocking way it did sometimes in California, as if giving the finger to the endless commentary about the seemingly never-ending drought. The stranger’s hair plastered itself against his cheeks and his neck, glistened in the dark stubble on his chin, but he barely seemed to notice, only kept walking along at my side.

Because I’d stubbornly refused the offer of a ride, I was getting soaked as well, raindrops beating through my jacket as if it was made of thin silk rather than heavy denim. My cotton skirt was equally soaked, beginning to cling to my thighs.

Had he noticed? I couldn’t tell, because I was trying so very hard not to look at him.

Eventually, the silence grew too terrible. I said, desperation clear in my voice, “Really, I’m fine. I’d appreciate it if you could leave me alone.”

He only shook his head. “No, I don’t think you’re fine. And I cannot leave you alone.”

Oh, that was just wonderful. So apparently I’d traded a crazy would-be rapist for a stalker. Or something. True, the man who walked calmly along beside me was an order of magnitude better-looking than the one who’d attacked me, but I wasn’t about to let his looks lull me into a false sense of security. After all, Ted Bundy had been attractive.

Don’t forget about Jeffrey Dahmer, my mind whispered at me, even though I was forced to admit that I wouldn’t exactly have been Mr. Dahmer’s type.

Since I didn’t know how to respond to the stranger’s words, I lapsed into silence again, walking as quickly as I could. At least I’d had the sense to put on low-heeled boots, faux leather ones that did a pretty good job of keeping out the rain. My feet would be dry, even if the rest of me was a lost cause.

Not for the first time, I wished that my powers — or whatever they were — might be of a little more use in situations like this. A vision might come to me of a bus crash or a kidnapped child, but I never seemed to see anything that affected my own life, whether present or future. Every once in a great while I’d get an odd tingle like the one I’d experienced at the Trader Joe’s parking lot. Even that hadn’t done me any good, though. The danger hadn’t been there at the store at all, but waiting for me up the street.

Damn it, I should never have canceled that Uber.

At last we reached Cordova — my street. I turned right and trudged down the sidewalk, and couldn’t quite repress the sensation of relief that went over me as I spotted the awning that led into the lobby of my condo complex. No way would I go in through there, though. Not looking like a drowned rat and with a tall, grim-faced stranger in tow…especially a stranger who carried a trashed Trader Joe’s shopping bag with wine dripping out the bottom.

Instead, I went down a side path that led to the dumpsters. “Toss it in there,” I instructed the strange man. “I don’t want red wine dripping all over my floor.”

His eyebrows lifted. “You don’t have other items in there that you’d like to salvage?”

“No,” I replied wearily. I could live without the bag of dried apricots and the box of gorgonzola crackers. Well, maybe not the crackers….

With a shrug, he raised the cover of the dumpster and dropped the bag inside. Since I somehow knew that trying to take the other bag of groceries from him so I could go up to my place alone wouldn’t do any good, I headed back up the path, then zigged off toward the building where my condo was located.

As I’d feared, he followed, staying only a pace or two behind me. Clearly, he didn’t intend to let me out of his sight. Why, I really didn’t know. Did he think another pasty-faced man was going to leap out of the bushes and assault me? I was shaky and feeling shell-shocked, and all I wanted was to get inside my house and lock the door against the world…including the man who had just saved me. Right then, I needed time to think.

When I reached the door to my condo, I came to a dead stop and turned to face him. “If you think I’m going to let you in — ”

“I would not expect that,” he said calmly. “Here are your groceries.”

I stared at him for a second, then took the bag from his hand. “So…that’s it? You’re not going to stop me from going inside?”

“Of course not. It is safe for you there.”

Usually, I would have found such a statement reassuring. But after what had happened over on Marengo Street…. “How do you know it’s safe?”

“Because I do,” he replied, which of course didn’t help at all. If I hadn’t been freezing and soaked through, I probably would have gone hot with anger at his apparent nonchalance. “That doesn’t mean they won’t still try to get at you in the future. But your home is safe…as long as you don’t let them in.”

“‘Let them in’?” I repeated. Assuming an ironic tone that I was sure he didn’t believe for one second, I added, “What, they need an invitation? Are they vampires or something?”

“Or something,” he agreed. “Take care, Serena Quinn.”

And with that parting shot he was gone, walking swiftly down the path that led to the community pool. A second or two later, he had turned a corner and disappeared.

Vampires. Or something.

Hands shaking, I pulled my house keys out of my purse and went inside.

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