Time After Time
Be careful what you wish for. I wasn't. All I could think about was how unfair it was, how angry I was, how I should be able to do something about it.
It must have made a difference that he killed me in a church. I was kneeling with my head bent when he burst through the doors, rushed down the aisle, and slit my throat. Nothing personal. Some kind of vendetta, one serfdom against another. But my last child was dying of fever, and he needed me.
Maybe it was because my blood pooled around the altar or because sunlight spilled through the stained glass and transposed the image of a saint over me when I took my last breath. Maybe it was because a breeze blew past the pews and ruffled the pages of the Bible and the church bells clanged while the world went black. All I know is that I didn't stay dead. My spirit cocooned somewhere deep inside me, gathered strength, and seeped back into my mortal form—healed and whole. And when I stood and left the chapel, I found my attacker finishing off what was left of my family—my husband and young son, their blood stains on his hands. He stopped when he saw me, dropped his sword in shock. I picked it up and stabbed him with it, rammed it as deep as I could. Then I ran. I've been running ever since, and though the trappings of this world have changed from peasant huts to modern cities, people stay the same. And a girl alone dies often—and not always well, especially since I put myself in harm's way. That, I found, is my gift. When no one can find a predator, I let the predator find me. It's as though I'm a magnet. They're drawn to me. And it's my job to stop them.
If I can't finish them the first time, I try and try again. But my violent deaths hurt. And vile killers have all the advantages. So I take my calling seriously. This time, I've gotten lucky. I've found friends who lighten the load.
"I don't like this, Anna." Beth shakes her short, dark curls. "I wish you'd stay here. We're a crack undercover team. We'll catch him. You've done enough."
We've had this discussion before. "If I get out there soon enough, I'm the one he'll try for. He won't move on to the next girl. That's the way it works. He'll have to attack me again. I'm as well trained as you are, probably better—and you know what to do if he's faster than I am. I don't want to end up in a hospital, or worse yet, on a slab in the morgue. So stick me somewhere safe to heal."
Beth grimaces. "I really don't want to see you all cut up like last time." That's how we met. The slasher caught me by surprise. Once he left, I could barely summon the strength to crawl to Beth's fire escape while I healed. She found me huddling on the metal steps when she got off duty, meant to call an EMS, but stopped punching numbers when she saw my wounds closing themselves. "How in the hell did you do that?" she demanded.
It wasn't a long story, just an unusual one. We became temporary roommates, working on the case together.
"Hopefully, this time, I'll be ready." I slip a ladylike handgun inside my purse and don a long wig. Our slasher is a bit on the picky side. He's attracted to young, pretty blonds. The light hair doesn't suit my olive complexion, but I doubt that he'll notice.
"It's been two weeks since he killed you," Beth says. "He went a month between you and the last girl. Nine weeks between the two before that."
He's picking up speed. I pull my purse strap over my shoulder. "Wish me luck."
"Yeah, let's hope some psycho rushes you from behind." It's impossible to miss Beth's sarcasm, but she means well. I give a nod and we leave the apartment. Time to hit the streets—she and her men as back-up, me as bait.
I drive to the west side of town, our slasher's favorite hunting area, and start walking from one bar to the next, limiting myself to two drinks at each. I order Tom Collins and ask for a light touch on the liquor. I tip generously. Since my first death, money's never been a problem. The universe provides.
"Dying many times over is burden enough," Beth told me. "You shouldn't have to worry about food and shelter too." A matter of practicality. The cosmos has a job for me to do, and it doesn't want me distracted. But the slasher doesn't choose victims because of wealth or status. Beth believes each girl is chosen because of her appearance. Any young blond will do.
I leave the fourth bar I've stopped at and linger at the door. A dozen young people block my way, laughing and teasing one another. One of them jostles me on accident and turns to apologize. I study them. Four girls are brunette, only one blond, but as long as she's with a group, she'll be safe. I smile and nod as I separate from them and start down the sidewalk.
I glance at my watch. After one in the morning. A car passes, then the street's deserted. Three alleys loom between the bar I've come from and the next. I glance quickly at the opening to the first. Street lights penetrate it for a few feet before being swallowed in shadows. I listen intently as I move on. I never heard him the first time he attacked. Was I daydreaming? Not being careful enough? Or does he fly on winged feet, impossible to detect? Music drifts from open doors, and I strain harder to listen. Was that a movement behind me? I stop and pretend to study the names of businesses that I pass. I don't pick up any motions with my peripheral vision.
I pass the second alley, narrower and darker than the first. My heartbeat thrums in my ears. I take a long breath to calm myself. The last time we met, his knife sank into my back and slit a wide wound before I even knew he was upon me. By the time I turned, more slashes gashed my side and shoulder, and finally, my face. When I fell to the cement, covered in blood, he turned and fled. I never really saw him, only the shadow of his arm rising and falling. This time, I have to do better.
A garbage can lid falls at the back of the alley. I jump. A cat yowls and speeds past my feet—a cliché. I try to be amused, but fail. Then silence. I swallow hard and keep walking. I hear scuffling in the third alley before I reach it. I run toward it, my hand in my purse, my finger pressed against the gun's trigger. If he plans to rush me, I'm ready. But when I reach the gap between buildings, I stop and stare.
Blond hair spills over the dirty cement. Ribbons of red ooze from long streaks that cover the girl's face and body. Eyes stare, unblinking, at the night sky.
Anger burns in my stomach as a coldness washes over my skin. Fire and ice. Temper and shock. I'm too late. He chose someone before I returned to duty. Footsteps sound on the back street and I race toward them. When I fly out the back of the alley, I see a dark form racing away. Even if I chase after him, I won't overtake him. I punch in Beth's number on my cell phone and alert her, but I know there's nothing she can do. The slasher will blend with the shadows or merge with the crowd before anyone can get here.
"You tried," Beth tells me.
"I should have gone out sooner."
"Damn it, you looked like hamburger after he was done with you. Sure, the wounds healed, but you lost a lot of blood. It takes even you a minute or two to get strong again." I slump onto the couch opposite her. She leans forward, elbows on knees, to drive home her point. "You don't have to do this alone. I can help you. It might save a life."
I don't like it. If Beth is out there, walking the streets like I do, she could get hurt.
She watches my expression and says, "If you can risk your life, Anna, why can't I?"
"I come back. You don't."
"It's my job. It's what I do. You can just do it more often than I can."
She's right. I know she is. Beth has every right to make her own decisions, whether I like them or not. I'm not used to team work. I've spent too many years on my own, but where one person might fail, two might succeed. We might catch the slasher and save an innocent life.
"When do we start?" I ask.
"Tomorrow night. We'll make the rounds until something happens."
We go out over and over again until eight nights pass. On the ninth, Beth pulls her Geo into a tight spot in front of a popular, college bar.
"Break a leg," she tells me.
I shake my head. Hardly the kind of pep talk I expect from a cop. We go inside, her in her honey blond wig, me in chin-length platinum. It's warmer than usual tonight with high humidity. I wear a one-shoulder, red spandex top and a short, black skirt. She wears jeans and a t-shirt. We're trying both angles—the casual, California look and a little more sophisticated. We plop on stools at the bar and make small talk as we sip our drinks.
Two guys come over and order beers, standing a little too close behind us. When we glance their way, they turn on the charm. They're too young. They don't care. They smile and schmooze. We listen and laugh, putting on a good show. An undercover cop rolls his eyes at a nearby table. His expression says, "robbing the cradle." Finally, I lay money on the bar and we say our goodbyes.
"Do you have to go?" the first guy asks. He's tall with a rangy build. He doesn't look as if he needs to shave yet. He puts a hand on my shoulder, his expression appealing. "The night's still young. How about a dance?"
I shake my head. "Sorry, we're meeting friends for a party. We stopped here because we were early."
The second guy nods to the bartender. "Just one more drink? On us?"
"Can't," Beth says. "We promised we'd be on time for a change."
They don't push it. We walk out the door and head down the street. We do a repeat performance at the next bar, only this time it's two older businessmen who hit on us. These guys aren't nearly as graceful at goodbyes, but when they realize that pressuring us isn't going to work, they move on to another table of women. Their wedding bands glitter in the dim lights, but nobody seems to mind.
After the third bar, we decide to split up. Beth goes one way. I go the other. My nerves coil like bedsprings. I don't know which comforts me more—the handgun in my purse or the wire Beth's team has planted on each of us. If Beth needs help, it should get there pronto.
My high-heels sound like exclamation marks as I walk. I cross the street and head to a bar on the corner. I'm passing its parking lot when a shadow detaches itself from behind a car and hurries toward me.
"He's here!" I say into my mike. I don't have time to aim, so I duck sideways when he tries to knife me. I slam an elbow into his face. Cartilage cracks. Blood spurts. I follow it with a stiletto to his insole. When he doubles over, I bang my knee under his jaw. He's thrown back, but recovers quickly, jumping sideways and jabbing his knife toward my chest. No slash this time. It's a deadly lunge. I deflect it at the last second. As I reach for his arm, he pounces forward. Stepping out of the way, my foot catches his, and he falls forward, off balance. Before I can stop him, he lands in a heap.
Gun drawn, I aim for his head. "Get up slowly, or I shoot." Beth rushes toward me. Blood seeps from under him, and she carefully turns him. A red stain soaks his dark shirt. The handle of his knife protrudes close to his rib cage high on the left side.
Beth's men join her. The brown-haired, baby face from the first bar stares up at us. Clearly, he doesn't handle rejection nearly as well as he let on.
Beth shakes her head. "What a stupid waste!"
Stupid is right. His soul must be as dark as the blood that flows from him. He cost four innocent girls their lives.
Beth puts a hand on my shoulder. "We can take it from here if you want to go home."
I nod. My part is over. One of the cops offers to drive me to our apartment, and I accept. We pass the first bar on our way. I frown. Some wounds never heal. The slices and gouges close up and smooth over, but the angst and bitterness fester. Is that why I'm always spared? I'm a decoy with a mission. If my death can spare someone else's, why not? Would I have picked this for myself if I'd been given the chance? I doubt it. But just like Beth's job, it's what I do. I was chosen.