Retracting a kiss,
Before closed eyes,
May open a wound,
And reveal a disguise.
“A date, huh?” Bradley managed between breaths. He grunted as his attacker broke his guard and landed a blow to his gut.
“Yeah,” Lexus replied. She was terse, for her attention was divided.
“You gonna tell me more or what?” Bradley prodded. He sprang back from her persistent jab and circled to his right, avoiding her good hand. He was tall for a Calrian—just under 5’6”—but this was a necessity for law enforcement. His opponent stood nearly 5 feet: impressive for a woman but not enough to discredit his reach.
“I’ll finish my story once you’re comfortably on your back,” she said, bringing with her words a speedy hook that forced his gloves into his face. Bradley grinned. She had a sharp tongue, but he liked it.
“If that’s the case, then I’m afraid I may never hear the rest,” he said coolly.
Lexus’ eyes took on a fierceness that intimidated but surprisingly aroused him. He prepared for her rebuttal, but it came too fast. Her shoulder held some good power, allowing her jab to squeeze through his gloves and smash his nose. His vision flashed white with the blow, and he bent forward before her right hook could knock his head to the floor.
Still hunched over, he charged forward, leaning a shoulder into her chest and driving her back toward the ropes. She stumbled as he shoved but quickly sidestepped and sent him on by, catching his kidney with a vicious hit. Bradley stopped as he struck ropes and turned with his hands up, deflecting a barrage of right-lefts and taking a swift kick to the thigh before dropping down and responding with an attack of his own.
Lexus heaved as his uppercut crashed into her abdomen, forcing her breakfast to the brink of her throat. A quick gulp purged the threat, and she was back to blows. He was tiring, she could tell, so she focused on beating away at his lingering vitality. The proximity shortened her punches and mitigated her strength, so she slowed the offense and stepped back. His fists chased her on the retreat, but since she moved with them, their contact carried little force.
Lexus closed her eyes as Bradley’s gloves skimmed off her forehead, and then she threw her left jab out before he could recover his guard. His nose took the full force of the blow, a crunch resounding in his skull and bringing with it reflexive tears. He winced them down his cheeks and took a solid hook to the jaw before they could reach his chin. His vision blurred and his equilibrium vanished. Wooziness sent his head bobbing in a circle as he tried to stay upright, but before he realized it, he was face down on the mat, his arms flattened out beyond his head and heart racing to bring him back. Lexus’ boastful laugh boomed in his ears, somehow forcing on him a smile despite his faintness.
“Now you can hear the rest of my story, Bradley,” she said. “No need to fear.”
She trapped her right glove between her arm and side and pulled her hand free, using it to remove the other glove and then unfasten her headgear from beneath her chin. Bradley rose slowly to sit against the ropes, breathing heavily as he regained composure and leaked sweat into the ring’s fabric.
“It was a lucky shot,” he replied. “I decided to take it easy on you, today.” She glared and then feigned a kick at his face, sending his arms up in alarm. “Geez, Lex, I was kidding. Take it easy, girl.”
“That’s what I thought.” She smiled and began to unwrap her hands. “As for the date, it’s nothing special. Just a guy I met at my new church. He seems nice.”
“Oh yeah? Where you guys goin?”
“Down to Brettburg’s. They’ve got some good drink deals on Friday nights, plus I needa go dancing. These legs can do a lot more than kick your block off, you know.”
Bradley laughed. “Ha. I’d love to see that.”
“I’m sure you would. Just because I can kick your ass doesn’t mean I can’t be sexy and get my dance on.”
Bradley grinned again and stumbled up to his feet. “Just be safe, Lex, okay?”
“Sure thing. You know I can take care of myself.”
“That you can,” he replied, rubbing his aching jaw. He wrapped a sweaty arm around her shoulder and shook her gently. “Have fun tonight.”
“Oh it’s gonna be a blast,” she said confidently. “I better go clean up, now. I don’t think my date will appreciate the smell of your sweat on my shoulders.” She laughed and pushed him off, leaving her friend in the ring as she made her way to the locker room.
An amalgam of various perfumes greeted her as she walked through the doorway. The dampness of her outfit was muggy and uncomfortable, so she peeled each article off while she walked. At her locker, she tossed them down to the bench in a heap and snagged a towel before heading to the shower. The knobs screeched with each turn, summoning a jet that slapped the ground and brought a spray of bitter mist about her legs. She shivered and intervened with a finger to gauge the temperature.
By the time it was warm and she was beneath, the digital timer on the wall had a mere two minutes remaining. She wished the damn thing wouldn’t start until the temperature was actually bearable. Sure, Calri had a shortage of water, but it didn’t need an abundance of dirty people, as well. She was in favor of moderation, but three minutes was absurd. A couple years ago, she would have just moved to a different shower and had herself another three minutes, but they’d since developed knob sensors that read the user’s fingerprints and locked them from any further showering for 24 hours. Of course, she had just used a rag to turn the knob so that the thing couldn’t identify her, but the city quickly changed the software so that a fingerprint reading was required to activate the water flow. Damn government.
Lexus cowered forward, her head beneath the spray, the water saturating her hair and flowing downward. She lathered her hands with shampoo and ran her fingers through her short brown locks. Everyone loved her hair. She was one of the few natural brunettes on Calri. Considering the color absorbed light much more efficiently than blonde, the hot sun, over the years, had virtually eliminated dark hair from the gene pool. Even so, her family managed to maintain the trait, and although it was a pain to be beneath the sun without a hat, she loved being unique. Plus, others thought it was sexy. She loved being sexy.
The water ran along her tanned skin, over her toned stomach and slender legs. She slid her hand down her thigh and over her knee where a small scar brought back memories of high school cheerleading. She had hated it, but her parents had forced it on her in an effort to feminize their little tomboy. Her personality had always been strong and fierce like that of a man: confident, independent, invulnerable. Her beauty told another story, but she wished not to conform to it.
Beautiful girls were targets. They were cute, sexy, and bubbly, but weak, naïve, and helpless to the wills of men. She knew this well and took care to follow another path—to avoid falling into this beautiful trap. When other girls were playing with dolls and putting on their mothers’ makeup, she was waging wars between toy soldiers, running miniature racecars down staircases, kicking the neighbor boys in the balls.
Her parents had been elated to find out that they were having a baby girl, but when she’d grown up and defied their expectations, they had no idea what to do. In middle school, Lexus had begun to detect a feeling of resentment from her parents—an unspoken disapproval toward her non-girly ways. She felt a rift forming between her and her mother, and it weighed deeply on her heart.
With high school came a complete external turnaround, a newfound interest in activities such as cheerleading and ballet. Of course, these interests were forced for the contentment of her parents, but she was good at acting, and they were so happy that they dared not question it. By senior year, she had taken on the female persona so well that her peers had almost forgotten what she had been like in the past. But she’d refreshed their memories, one day, when a jock had decided he’d be cool and slap her ass as she walked by in the lunchroom. The kid’s bold act reminded her of what she had almost forgotten: men consider girls to be weak, so they disrespect them without fear of retaliation. She’d decided it was necessary to show that such thought was unacceptable.
Her parents weren’t happy to receive the call informing them that their daughter was to be suspended for breaking the quarterback’s hand and sending him crying from the lunchroom like a little bitch. Personally, though, she had loved it. It felt good to know that she could be girly yet still maintain her tough mentality and summon it when needed. This was the reality she now lived by.
She moved up from her knee, gliding her fingers over her lower abdomen, tracing the letters of “Vengeance for Lily” with a gentle stroke. It had been one year, to-the-day. She had tried to keep her mind occupied in order to make it through, but at this moment, she gave in. First came the childhood memories, followed by the more recent ones and, finally, the harsh fact that new memories would never form. Then the tears. These by-products were lost amongst the shower’s spray, but her deep remorse could not be washed away.
Her sister was cold and lifeless in her grave at Prairie Park. Her skin had long rotted away but her bones still preserved the horrific story of her death: the three bullet holes in her skull still inciting pain for her kin. Lexus had been asleep on her couch when the call had come. The detective on the other end spoke somberly, the sound of her sister’s name plunging her into a trancelike state—a nightmare that she couldn’t wake from. Her shock was replaced with a sorrow that lingered for nearly a month before it was vanquished by hatred and a yearning for retribution.
Lexus’ tattoo reminded her of this self-appointed charge. The vengeance she sought would come when the blood of her sister’s killer coated her hands. Lily had been so loving and sweet. She had never said a spiteful word or committed a single malicious act. Veins bulged in anger on Lexus’ neck as she thought of her sister’s cold-blooded murder. Only a demon could execute such an atrocity, and she hoped, one day, to be the slayer that returned it to the underworld.
“Ten seconds remaining,” a robotic voice informed.
Lexus snapped free from her remorse, using the last bit of water to wash away the shampoo in her hair. A steady beep brought an end to the spray, and she grabbed her towel from the rack on the wall and wrapped up. Stepping from the shower, she shivered as her wet body lost heat to the currents of the locker room vents. Wet footprints trailed behind, tracing her path across the white tile as she approached her locker. Her date was to begin in an hour, and she still had to dress and get prettied up. Normally, she liked to go all-natural, but this guy, she knew, was special. He deserved a little more.
Lexus moved like an angel down the shadowy street. Her red dress shimmered in the pale luminescence of ever-present Fraq, light and darkness alternating up her length, complementing her curves. Her lipstick was red to match, as were the rubies dangling from her ears and the heels on her naked feet. She rocked her hips rhythmically with each step, teasing the drunken nighthawks that watched from within the bar ahead. Their gazes, she sensed, were already attempting to seduce, but she wasn’t having it. She slipped an amused smile on her face and continued forward.
Brettburg’s sat at the edge of town, so the desert stretched off to her right a few miles before the next city began. It was cold as usual, the blistering heat of the day’s sun lost to the other side of the planet, beating on the barren rock of the Dark Plate—the rolling expanse of black stone that had once been flowing magma within Earth’s interior. She crossed her arms to savor their warmth and then began her descent down the structure tunnel. Because of the lack of bodied water on most of Calri, there wasn’t much to help stabilize the temperature between night and day. While the sun was up, the world was sweltering hot, but when it sank behind the horizon, it took with it the heat and left behind a chilling cold.
Such dramatic fluctuation meant that conventional heating and cooling methods proved expensive and inefficient. The early founders discovered the problem quite readily, finding the solution underground where temperatures were much more stable. In light of this observation, buildings were most commonly built into the earth, façades capping off the ends of short tunnels that eased down below ground level. Most cities on Calri were undetectable from the surface, the only signs being roads, street lights, cars, and the occasional person on foot—and these were few considering the underground transportation networks that had long been set in place.
In essence, a Calrian metropolis appeared nothing more than a vast expanse of desert, pockmarked with holes burrowing into the sandy dirt. The biggest cities lay on the borders of oceans where the water helped to conserve a temperate climate. There, the heat of day and the chill of night were much less extreme, and buildings rose high into the sky as centers of trade and advancement. These cities served as cores for most of the planet’s important happenings, and living conditions within were luxurious and consequently expensive. Unfortunately, these hospitable conurbations were far outnumbered by those more modest towns like Dunegrove where Lexus had lived all her life. It was an extreme case of class segregation, but it was the way things were, and most accepted it as such.
Lexus froze as a sudden breeze swept down the tunnel behind, lifting her dress to reveal her thighs for an instant before she pulled it back down in place. The smell of her perfume blew up to her face: Andromedan water lily, her favorite. She stared ahead through the glass facade, noticing the faces of her admirers. Their expressions suggested that they were no doubt jealous of the wind’s intimate reach. There were four of them, all sitting at their own table with their own friends, one even with a girl. Their eyes belonged to her, though, and she basked in the attention.
She walked through the door, struck instantly with the sounds of drunken fun: women laughing, guys hollering, glasses clinking, music droning. The bar was full tonight, the dance floor already bustling with people looking for a one-night plaything. The heat of their anxious souls hovered above them, nebulous, thick, wet. Their thoughts seemed to take form amongst the haze, the sexual tension almost as real as the people themselves. A few shy guys leaned back against a wall, staring in envy at the others as they moved. Their lips flapped but the words were lost amongst the music; probably talking about how badly they wanted to get in there. Lexus giggled as she imagined their conversation.
Her date, she soon saw, was alone at a round table in the corner of the room. In one hand, he held a bottle of blubeer, in the other, his cell phone. He flicked it open and closed, fidgeting in his seat as he questioned whether to call or stay cool and wait.
Lexus moved to him and broke his thought with a gentle stroke on the shoulder. “Hey there, Keith. You looked lonely over here so I thought I’d better come on over.”
“Well hello, stranger. I’ve been waiting for almost five minutes. Thought maybe you weren’t gonna show,” he joked, leaning in to give a hug.
“Oh no. I always show. I hope you brought your A-game tonight because I’m planning on dancing till my legs turn to noodles.” She spun and bumped his thigh with her perfectly-plump ass.
“You better believe it, babe. I’ve got my dancing pants on, and I’m ready to bump and grind. I don’t know if you can handle me, though. I’m pretty good.”
“Oh please, big boy. You ain’t got nothin.”
She grabbed a handful of his shirt at the chest and pulled him up from his seat, her big eyes enticing with assurance. He rose without fight, finishing off the rest of his blubeer and stumbling after her to the dance floor. As they squared up, Lexus, absorbed in the carnal atmosphere, surveyed her man. She smiled at the bulge in the front of his pants.
“Are you packing heat or what?” she said provocatively.
Keith appeared uneasy for a second but then slipped a cocky expression on his face to follow up the advance. “You like what you see?”
“I guess we’ll find out later,” she teased.
The two of them contacted, his hands caressing her sides and pulling her closely with manly strength. She rolled her body, her back arched and hips shifting in steady waves. Their faces came near, his breathing heavy, hers more rapid. The music was deafening, pulsating within the miasma of the dance floor, the vibrations enveloping them. They thought of nothing but their mutual movement, their coordination as a pair. Everything outside that sphere became a blur of insignificance. Song after song fueled them, Keith every now and then leaving briefly to retrieve drinks.
After a while, the floor began to clear, the energy in the air wasting with the masses. A glance at the clock said it was time to go, so Lexus whispered in Keith’s ear and the two took the back exit, staggering down the staircase and through the heavy double doors to the underground walkway. They had made the joint decision to take the tunnel train because neither of them felt like walking in the cold. The underground passage was walled with stone and the ceiling reinforced with metal beams that crossed from one side to the other and occasionally rested on a marble column standing sturdily in the center of the path.
Down the middle of the walkway, the line of pillars stood like an army in formation, alternating with large hanging lights that illuminated the hall in a grimy, yellow glow. Because it was so late, the tunnel was silent and still. Everyone else in town was asleep, but the two of them remained, their drunken feet taking them slowly from Brettburg’s entrance toward the train pickup station. It was a 10-minute walk before the corridor widened into a larger room.
A dark tunnel to their left opened from solid stone and emptied into the area, a pair of dulled metal tracks appearing from its depths to run along one side of the room and then vanish again into another tunnel. Lexus and Keith sat down on a bench opposite the tracks and waited for their ride. Lexus was tired, so she leaned forward, chin in hands and eyes closed. It felt like she would drift to sleep, so she opened them again, turning her head and catching that sly Keith red-handed as he sniffed the sweet scent of her hair.
He jumped back to pretend that he was innocent, but realized it was useless and smiled. “You smell delicious. Like candy. I just wanna put you in my mouth.”
His eyes twinkled above a naughty grin. She knew where he was going with this.
“Maybe some day it’ll happen for you,” she replied. “This is our first date though, so don’t be getting your hopes up quite yet.”
She looked into his eyes and saw a fire of hope exhaust, now merely a smoldering pile of disappointment. His expression changed for an instant but then reverted to warmth.
“Oh for sure. Sex on the first date is off limits in my book,” he lied. “I was just trying to compliment you on how good you smell. That’s all.”
Keeping the dream alive, Lexus thought. I’m glad he knows how to play the game. “Well, thanks for that,” she said with a smile, returning her chin to her hands and staring off down the tunnel. In minutes, the tracks began to emit a low rumble that caught their attention, and soon the lights of the train broke around a bend in the distance.
Keith stood and offered a hand to his date. “Our chariot has arrived, my dear.”
Back at her apartment building, Lexus and Keith walked down the endless hallway toward her room: #250 out of 300, so quite a stroll from 1. When they reached the door, Lexus fumbled in her purse for the key, rummaging through her makeup and trifles until finally resurfacing with the prize.
“Here we go,” she chirped, holding it above her head for the world to see. Keith laughed at her cuteness, and she slid it into the lock and turned, shoving with her shoulder and opening to the darkness of her home. She twirled to her date. “Well, I had an amazing time tonight. You weren’t lying when you said you were a good dancer. Although I think we can both agree that I’m just too good to compete with.”
“Oh yes. You’re very good,” he said in a deep voice, stepping closer for a kiss. Lexus looked at him. He was quite attractive: strong jaw, dark eyes, charming smile. He had a bad-boy look that excited her a bit. She leaned in closer and he closed his eyes, his lips slightly pursed and ready to touch hers. Closer and closer they got, their breaths mixing before their faces and the sensation of kissing already beginning to arise in anticipation.
Their lips were so close that a slight tremble would bring contact, but she stopped before it happened and dropped back, speaking while his eyes were still shut. “Goodnight, Keith. Hopefully, I hear from you tomorrow.”
With that, she turned and stepped into the room, her image nearly disappearing in the shadows. Without casting another glance to her undoubtedly upset date, she shut the door between them and took a breath, or at least what started as a breath. It ended as a squeal.
A loud crack tore at her ears as Keith’s shoulder rammed a fissure through the wood. With it, the door flew open again, striking her across the cheek and sending her to the ground. Her vision was fuzzy from the blow, but she lay there looking up, the man’s dark silhouette dominating the glow from her doorway. With his face from the light, he appeared expressionless like a dark ghost—a demon.
He charged in and slammed the door behind, locking it in all three places and pouncing on her petite body. She cried in fear as he wrestled to pin her arms to the ground and mount her stomach so she couldn’t move.
“You shut your slutty little mouth,” he commanded. His hand fumbled with something in the front of his pants, and it returned with a pistol that he forced between her lips. “Or I’ll shut it for you.”
Lexus whimpered at the taste of metal, the gun’s cold barrel prepared to end her struggle in an instant. Damn, she thought. I knew he was packing heat.