“This is the police!”
Bam! Bam! Bam!
Hammering knocks fired Melissa Bennett to her feet. Her mind jarred.
Oh God...Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!
The stench of copper impaled her senses.
Broad blue eyes locked on the hardwood floor slicked with blood. And the body in the center of it all.
That of a friend whose fight and agonized shrieks now dulled to spasms and murmurs, low and indistinct.
Holding fast to her sliced abdomen, the bleeding woman heaved the groans past her mumbles. She moved to speak again but a wheeze and wet cough stole her cries for help.
Then, more blood bubbled to her mouth’s surface. She would die soon.
Her and her unborn child.
“Shit!” Melissa grated, fault and fright feasting on her insides. “Shit! Shit...shit!” She jumped back.
The soiled knife dropped from trembling, blood-stained hands to the ground with a clang. “Oh, no...no, no!”
The damned voices...
She shouldn’t have listened to them.
Why did I listen?! Why! Why did I listen?!
Hours ago, the voices were her salvation. The voices were her direction.
Now, they taunted her, berated her for doing the very thing they’d wanted from her all along.
Oh God...I’m so sorry...I didn’t mean to...
Bam! Bam! Bam!
The thrashing knocks again. “Open up!”
Swift kicks went to work on the wooden door, one after another, severing decrepit hinges with each fatal blow.
Grabbing up her weapon, Melissa ran toward the exit through which she had first come with her victim—restrained and unconscious from an unexpected bash to the head—as the barrier came undone.
Sirens exploded. Footsteps closed in.
“Mommy! Mommy, wait! Please!” A little girl wailed.
“Stop! Mommy! Please! Don’t go! Don’t leave me!”
Those cries, desolate and pained, faded with each pound of Melissa’s path to a freedom somewhere in the darkness.
If she could just find it...
Come on, come on...it has to be somewhere around—
“Mommy, please! Come back!” Tears sprang to her eyes.
She should go back and get her.
After all, she did this to keep her daughter safe and out of the way of a harm she believed would wind its way back into their lives if she didn’t do...something.
The voices, magnified by pictures of a dark and ever-present past, told her so.
“Do you love your daughter?” they’d challenged. “Do you?”
As if they didn’t know.
As if they needed the proof. She would do anything for her.
If danger lurked anywhere around her little girl, she couldn’t take the chances.
She had to heed the warning now and get moving; leave the consequences for later. Kill if necessary.
Melissa hoped one day the precocious little redhead named Abigail, who never left her side, would understand and, perhaps, forgive her.
But, for now, the child didn’t deserve a life on the run. That much she knew for sure.
“Abby, honey...I can’t. Mommy’s sorry,” the mother whispered in tears, still running fast and blind, right and left down pitch-dark and dingy halls in search of the way out. “Mommy’s so sorry for getting you into all of this.”
As she ran, the bottom of one of her sneakers caught the shoelace of the other. Ignoring it, she kept running and, somewhere in the madness, the lace loosened. She nearly tripped when the shoe came off.
Keep going, she thought, kicking the sneaker out of the way as she did just that.
Go, go, go!
Don’t get caught! Don’t get caught!
More heavy tracks melded with Abby’s sobs and barreled behind her. They came closer, gaining fast.
She sped up.
“Police!” another voice boomed. “Stop!” She looked around.
Nothing but dark, pierced by the thin beam of a flashlight, greeted her. She ducked in evasion of the light.
Feeling around in the blackness, she found the knob to the structure’s back entry, turned it, and, huddled to the floor, escaped.
Once outside, she found one of the many hiding spots the area offered and—from tormenting memory—selected the tall, thick tree a few feet away.
Thunder indicating the start of a downpour quieted Melissa’s climb up the branches.
No cop heard or saw a thing.
In the bushel of leaves at the top, she pulled out her cell and dialed the number of the lone person she knew would help her now, praying she’d be right in her assumption.
She hadn’t spoken to him in years, but he had always been one of the good guys that were few and far-between in her life.
If nothing else, he would at least hear her out.
She hoped so.
Her life depended on it.
The other end’s incessant rings threatened to drive her mad until...
“Hello?” a man yawned.
“P...please,” Melissa panted, terror and tears ripping at her throat.
She cleared it to project a confidence she didn’t feel and pleaded, “You have to help
“Who is-,” he started to ask then recognition seemed to hit him like a ton of bricks as he added “Melissa? Is that you?”
He sounded puzzled. And a bit...annoyed? Was that it?
Can’t say I blame him...
“Y...Yeah, it’s me. Thanks for picking up. I appreciate it,” she said, gaining back the shredded threads of her bearings inch by inch.
No time for a breakdown...
“Look, I can’t say much right now, but you have to help me. I mean...I...I need your help. I don’t have anywhere else to go and-”
“Whoa, Mel. Hold on. Slow down a minute and take a breath. Let’s start over. Where are you right this second?”
She bit her lower lip and debated what she could say and how much time she had to say it.
Not much, on both counts.
She trusted him, but not that much. Not right now.
Not in this. Not yet.
Down below, an ambulance sped through the dirt road then stopped in front of the building on the grass amidst the cops’ cars.
Paramedics jumped out and sprang into action.
As they bounded to the entrance, a woman detective Melissa recognized came out, cradling a crying redhead to her chest.
She shut her eyes, closing out the scene.
“Melissa! You still there? What’s going on?” the man on the phone pressed, his compassion laced with impatience. “You in some kind of trouble?”
“Yeah, some kind of,” she said, eyes back on the commotion below.
Now, the medics brought out the woman, her friend—brown skin fused in the blood around her dissected belly—a shaking hand caressing leftovers of torn abdominal flesh— and loaded her into the back of the truck. Melissa’s stepfather, Detective Stephen Bennett, never left her side.
“I...I’ll be in Jersey in a few hours.”
“You still haven’t told me what the hell’s going on or, for that matter, where you are!” he demanded, harsher this time. “And are those sirens I hear?”
“You still live in the same apartment, right?” she asked, changing the subject and hoping he would go with it for the time being. “In Short Hills?”
“Don’t do that. Answer me,” he urged, not falling for the ruse. “What’s happening? Where are you?”
“Please!” she begged. “I know I have no right to ask for anything from you and, normally, I wouldn’t. You know that, but...I have nowhere else to go and I really, really, really don’t have time to talk about this right now. Okay?”
“Yeah, fine,” he exhaled, giving in and, no doubt, wondering why he wanted anything to do with her. Again.
“I’m at the same place. Door’s open. And you better be ready to talk when you get here.”