At the beginning, the trail climbed steeply. Fortunately she was past that and on level ground in woods some hundred feet above the small town. This early in the morning, no vehicle sounds came from the unseen streets below. She sometimes encountered other runners on the peaceful route but usually not when she ran this early.
As soon as she’d put in her five miles, she’d go home, shower, eat breakfast, and go into the room she’d turned into her studio. She’d spend the next how many hours it took on the paintings that paid the bills and fed her soul.
Arms pumping and knees bending, she sidestepped a branch that had broken off since yesterday. She should have stopped and tossed it aside, but she was deep into sub space. It usually took a mile to reach that place where her body ceased to belong to her and became something weightless, mystical.
She loved this part of her daily routine. Thoughts flitted in and out. In a vague way she knew she’d eventually have to deal with reality. Now those things lacked weight. She’d become legs and lungs, heart and arms. Loving her isolation.
The sun was trying to break through the mist, but it would have to work harder than it was in order to get the job done. In fact if she didn’t know the trail as well as she did, she risked getting disoriented. That wasn’t a disaster. After all, the little town was down there. All she’d have to do to reconnect with civilization was—
A faint sound stopped her thought. She tried to make sense of what had caused it, but it hadn’t lasted long enough. A little uneasy, she tried to convince herself she’d heard a deer.
“Look, I don’t want to bother you,” she told the unseen creature. “You do your thing, I’ll do mine.”
Suddenly she wanted to laugh. Before long it would be rut season for the deer. The need to impregnate or become pregnant would override everything else. Bucks and does would have a single goal, to fuck.
In sad contrast, she hadn’t had sex since—
Movement to her left caused her to slow and turn in that direction. For an instant she thought she’d spotted a deer in the dense shadows. Then the survival instinct that had seen her through her childhood kicked into gear.
A man. Standing with his back to a tree. Watching her.
Unease mixed with confusion combined to increase her pace. As she left the watcher in her so-called dust, she concluded he’d been running when the need to pee overtook him. He’d relieved himself behind the tree and had been as surprised to see her as the other way around. She glanced back.
He’d moved onto the trail and was jogging after her. She judged him to be six feet tall and beefy with wide shoulders and a hint of a belly under his sweatshirt. It registered that he didn’t have a runner’s build which begged the question of what he was doing out here.
Even more uneasy, she picked up her pace. If she’d been on a track, she wouldn’t have to pay close attention to where she was going. That necessity kept her from looking behind her again. Besides, she didn’t want him to think he’d unnerved her.
Not that! Definitely not afraid.
Leaving the trees and entering an open area eased her mind. If necessary, she could veer off the trail and head cross-country. No way could the big man keep up. A moment later she chided herself for thinking dark thoughts. She actually considered stopping and waiting for him to catch up so they could chat.
Mist had dampened the ground, making it slippery. She needed to concentrate on her footing.
She was doing that, half losing herself in the memory of the pratfall she’d taken on black ice last winter when a figure appeared ahead of her. This man, leaner and taller than the other, stood straddle-legged in the middle of the path, facing her.
Damn it, what—
“About time you caught up to her,” the man in front said.
Still running, she looked over her shoulder. The first man was trotting toward her. He was far enough away that he didn’t pose a threat, yet there was something deliberate and challenging about his pace. Between that and the solid form in her way, she started to feel trapped.
“I told you I’m no runner,” the man behind her gasped. “Besides, I knew you were there to wrestle with her.”
Wrestle? The woods she’d always felt so comfortable in became a hostile environment. She slowed, careful not to look to the left where she intended to bolt if necessary. “I don’t appreciate this.” She spoke firmly. “The trail’s public. Everyone has equal right to be here.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” The man in front walked toward her with one arm at his side and the other in his pocket. “Didn’t your mother warn you about going alone into dark alleys? You never know who might be waiting to get their hands on you.”
Thinking rationally was becoming harder, and with the way her heart pounded, she could barely hear anything else.
“Don’t try running, little lady. We’re not going to let you go. You’re too valuable to us, a cash cow so to speak.” Pulling his hand out of his pocket, the man pointed a small pistol at her. Ice gripped her.
“That’s right.” This came from the man behind her. “And screaming isn’t going to do you any good because the three of us are the only ones out in this damn forsaken place.”
Oh my God! “What do you want?”
The single word struck her like a fist to the belly. Fighting to remain upright, she stared at one man and then the other. They headed toward her as if they had all the time in the world for this.
“Kill?” The gun-totter waved his weapon at her. “That’s the last thing we’d do although there’ll be times when you wish everything would end.”
“Enough,” the other man spluttered. “We’re exposed out like this.”
“Indeed we are. Well, girlie, it’s been nice talking to you but now it’s time to—“
Shari didn’t wait for him to finish. Propelled by terror and self-preservation, she whirled and ran. Decent sized trees were several hundred feet away, but if she could reach them, she might be able to lose herself in shapes and shadows. Much as she hated turning her back on the men, she concentrated on what lay ahead.
Squawking, a bird took flight. Why hadn’t she screamed when this started?
Because screaming had never done the child she’d once been any good.
“Hey, don’t let her—“
A puffing sound caught her attention. It was still registering when something stung the middle of her back just below her neck. Bee? Wasp? Ignoring it, she fixed her attention on the trees now only a few feet away. She was counting her footsteps when she realized she was no longer running and had started to stumble.
Her mind refused to fully register. Her vision tunneled down so she could barely see. Feeling drunk, she reached out thinking to brace herself against a tree. For a moment her locked arm supported her. Then her leg muscles melted, and she sank to the ground. Her fingers twitched. Other than that, only her lungs and limited vision worked.
And her mind. A little.
“You took your damn sweet time putting her down.” One of the men nudged her side with his boot. Boot? What about running shoes?
“It’s all part of the experience, Reno. This is art, an exquisite event. It would be a shame to rush things.”