A rusty blue hatchback hugged the curb near the sidewalk waste bin. Arden withdrew his key and unlocked its passenger door. “Say hello to my girl, Bessie.”
“No remote key fob?” Laina chuckled.
“Funny.” He held open the door, patting the top of the frame. “Talk nice to my car, now. She’s sensitive.”
“So, if I hurt Bessie’s feelings, will she spit me onto the road?” Laina settled onto the towel-draped seat.
“Course not. But, sometimes she won’t start up.” Arden closed her door and rounded the car.
Fine white sand dusted the threadbare floor mats, but they remained trash-free. The dashboard featured a bobble-head Jesus wearing a cowboy hat. Hints of cedar and sandalwood lingered in the air, strengthening as Arden slid into the driver’s seat. “Where to, ma’am?”
“Just around the corner on Border Street.”
A turn of the ignition evoked a brief chug-sputter which fell silent. “Not Harbor Towers?”
She nodded, shifting her purse in her lap. “Is your car upset with me, or is it Cowboy Jesus?”
“Neither.” He cranked the key again and the engine rumbled to a low purr. The car lurched forward and back as he jerked the gears to pull out of the parallel spot. “The three of us will get you home quick as a snort, if that’s where you want to go.”
“Three?” Her shoulder smashed against the frigid window.
He shrugged. “Yeah. Me, Bessie, and Jesus.”
“Ah.” The grinning dash ornament nodded its stetson crowned head.
Muffled glissando tones stirred inside her purse. Laina fished out her phone, glowing with Jayme’s gala photo. “How’s the princess bride? I’m surprised you’re not with Dave right now.”
“I am.” The charming voice paused, adding an uncharacteristic stammer. “He . . . told me to call you. It’s probably nothing, but, he kind of insisted.”
The phone case’s seams dug into her fingers as she squeezed it. Her voice deepened. “What has he done?” Heat prickled from her breastbone across her chest and she spouted several curses. “Is he hurting you? What’s wrong?”
“No, that’s what he wanted me to ask you.” The voice trailed off with muttered conversation about awkwardness for a moment, then returned at full volume. “Is something wrong with you? I mean, are you okay?”
“What?” Laina clawed at her throat and chest. A streetlamp’s glow mantled Cowboy Jesus as Bessie idled at the curb along Border Street.
Jayme sighed. “Dave was praying and felt sure something was wrong. I told him it was crazy, but he kept urging me to call you right away.”
“Oh.” Laina sank against the terrycloth and gazed at the gray brick edifice of Harbor Towers looming before them. “Just now?”
“An hour and a half ago. I told him nothing happened and this would be too weird. I’ll let you–”
“Jayme.” She swallowed hard, twisting the purse straps around her fingers. “I was attacked on the way home from work. About an hour and a half ago.”
As Jayme shrieked blasphemy and chattered with Dave, Laina angled the phone from her ear a bit. She glanced at Arden. “Sorry for the language.”
“It’s nothin’ I ain’t heard before, or said myself at some point.” He tapped the quaking dash and winked. “Don’t worry. I’m not as sensitive as Bessie.”
Jayme asked, “Are you at the hospital or police station? We’ll come get you.”
“I’m right outside the building. A pastor brought me home.” She smiled at him. “I should get off the phone and thank him so he can be on his way.”
Jayme’s frantic voice filled the tiny car. “No, wait. You can’t stay in that awful place. Come stay with us for a while. Ask if he’d mind bringing you over.”
“I heard, and don’t mind at all.” Arden pointed to the apartment building. “Can’t recommend stayin’ in that place after a trauma.”
“What about Dave?”
The smooth lilt returned to Jayme’s voice. “It was his idea. Told you all guys aren’t rats.”
“So it would seem. Tell Prince Charming I’m on the way.”
“I’ve got clothes you can borrow, so don’t even bother stopping at your flat.”
“Love you.” She ended the call and tucked her phone away.
The car pulled away from the curb. She cast a furtive glance over her shoulder at the face of her grisly abode. As if the fingers of its shadow reached for her, a chill swept across her back. Laina clutched the amulet and turned away with a violent shudder.
“Keep me safe, Lord, from the hands of the wicked;
protect me from the violent,
who devise ways to trip my feet” (Psalm 140:4).