As a pack of Harleys rumbled onto Forty-Ninth Avenue, Laina hustled toward the inner edge of the sidewalk. An exhaust pop snapped her attention to the lead FatBoy, slowing near the curb.
The grisly-bearded rider sneered, his gold-capped canine teeth glinting in the streetlight. “Want a ride, sweet thang?”
She shifted her purse to the shoulder closer to the buildings.
“Hey!” The guttoral engine growl revved. “I know you hear me talking to ya, ice-girl. You disrespectin’ me?”
“No.” Laina’s grip on her purse trembled. She scanned the office fronts–investment, law, and software firms–all closed. The nearest lit windows gleamed two blocks away.
Another voice boomed from the center of the pack. “Whaddya think, Vamp? She mean no ride or no disrespect?”
“I know she can’t resist a ride with me.” Vamp snaked his tire path to keep upright and in pace with Laina. Oily fumes flooded the sidewalk.
“If I wanted a ride, I’d call a cab.” Laina’s toes gripped the insoles of her high-heeled boots. She crossed the alley in two bounds. Could she outrun them? “I’m sure you have something better to do.”
“Lemme tell you the difference between a Harley ride and a cab ride, baby.”
“Heard that one.” A sharp pain stung her chest, but she dared not rub at her breastbone. “I got nothing for you. Go find someone else.”
A bear-like voice, deeper than Vamp’s, resounded above the chortling mufflers. “Something draws me to you.”
Laina sprinted for the neon sings. Two Harleys shot ahead and rode up the bike ramps onto the sidewalk. She ran beside them, gasping. The pack buzzed up behind her and hemmed her away from the street. Vamp angled to cut her off before the next alley.
“Oh, please, God, no!” Laina squinted and hurtled over his front tire.
She yanked a trash can over behind her. A bang resounded. Crashing and the screech of metal against concrete followed. She focused on the windows ahead. Sharky’s Bar. Tattoo Paradise. Madame Trouver’s Fortunes. She had to get inside somewhere safe. Bertie’s Donut Shop.
As she raced onto the final block, her scarf constricted against her throat and jerked her head back. She thudded against a rider’s side as he yanked her along by the scarf. She choked against gasps of whisky sweat. She twisted aside, planting her face in his smoke-infused beard. Laina gagged and fumbled until she tugged the scarf’s edge out. As she scrambled loose, he grabbed a lock of her hair. Straining through the sting at her scalp, she ripped herself free and shot to the nearest shop.
She thudded against the door’s painted donut, sending a shock through the glass. Laina staggered inside, fuzzy shadows closing in around a narrow tunnel of vision. She aimed her body toward an orange booth and collapsed onto it. She heaved breath, resting her flushed cheek against the cool vinyl seat.
A throat cleared, then a stern woman’s voice erupted at the booth’s edge. “Ma’am?”
Laina coughed up an irony-flavored slime and swallowed it. “Water please.”
A man’s Southern drawl floated across the table. “It’s all right, Maggie. Don’t think she even saw me.”
Pressing herself upright, she blinked at a haze of dark hair and navy shirt. “Officer?”
“I’ve been called a number of things, but never that one.”
She shifted on the seat. Propping her elbows on the table, she pressed her forehead until the formica’s faux-marble pattern clarified.
Maggie harrumphed. “I’ll gladly call the police. You strung out, girl?”
“No.” Laina squinted at the hairnet-crowned sentry. She turned her gaze to the blond fellow seated before her. Scars pitted his cheeks, but his hazel eyes held a gentle amber glow. She said, “I’m sorry.”
Laina rose partway, but the room tilted. She drew in a sharp breath and pressed her temple.
“Sit. You don’t seem ready to walk just yet.” He folded his hands on the tabletop. “If you don’t like my company, I’ll get up and move.”
Maggie scowled, hand on her hip. “You sure, Reverend?”
He pointed at the waitress. “It’s Arden, remember? Let’s have a pot of Jamaican roast and a couple of Bertie’s famous eclairs.”
Laina held up a trembling palm. “No coffee for me. Just water.”
“Back in a few.” Maggie tucked her pad in her apron and sauntered away.
“I can handle the caffeine on my own, but I hope you’ll take one of those pastries off my hands.” His smile brought a dimple to his left cheek. A white cross hung from a black leather strap at his collar bone, peeking through the unfastened top buttons of his gray flannel shirt.
“I didn’t mean to intrude. I just–”
He held out his hand. “I’m Arden, which you already heard. And you’re not intruding.”
Arm quivering, she returned his handshake. “Laina.”
He tilted his head. “Not on drugs, but quaking. Are you okay?”
“A biker, gang of them, grabbed me.” Tears blurred her eyes. Her throat constricted her voice into a squeak. “I was just walking home from the office and–”
Arden got up and ran to the back of the shop. “Mike. Roserio. Get over here.”
Boots tromped to the booth. Men in navy blue uniforms sat across from her.
A gentle hand warmed her shoulder, and the syrupy cadence of Arden’s voice flowed near her ear. “These officers are good guys. You tell them what happened. We’ve been having trouble with a group on this side of town lately. I’ll be here if you need anything, okay?” He snapped his fingers. “Can we get a rush on that glass of water, please?”
“They called him Vamp, I think. He had gold canine teeth and a long, nasty beard.” Laina swept quivering fingers across her tear-soaked cheeks as she related the story to the policemen. Heart racing, her muscles tensed more in the retelling than they had in the experience. “I don’t know what almost happened.”
“I don’t recommend walking alone in this area after dark,” Rosario said. “Vamp isn’t the only issue we’re facing.”
Laina raked through her hair. “I don’t have a car because I live two miles from work. This never used to be a problem.”
Mike drummed the tabletop, and his partner slid out of the booth. He followed. “I understand, but the neighborhood’s not changing for the better. You should try to make arrangements with the bus or ride-sharing. Especially if you’ve been targeted. Do you need a ride tonight?”
“Yeah. Can you do that?” She looked up at the men, noticing their age-weathered features for the first time. She hadn’t realized she was avoiding eye contact while recounting her ordeal.
“Not on an ongoing basis, but we could do it tonight.” Mike shrugged. “Unless Arden wants to give you a ride.”
“I’m fine with it, but she just met me. Some people are more nervous around clergy than law enforcement. ” Arden returned to his seat. “I’ll be glad to spend a little time here with you, if you’d like. To pray, or just talk. But, that’s up to you, Laina.”
Whistling in the stairwell, the gaping corpse, next door’s flat vacated by murder–the horrors of home whirled through her mind. “I don’t feel like going back to my apartment right now. If you don’t mind, I could really use some company for a while.”
“They devour my people as though eating bread;
they never call on the Lord.
But there they are, overwhelmed with dread,
for God is present in the company of the righteous” (Psalm 14:4-5).