yes. There was a toughness in them, a determination that belied the fact that her slender body was shaking in reaction.
He walked the night. Alone. Restless. Ready. Clad in black, masked, he was a shadow among shadows, a whisper among the murmurs and mumbles of the dark.
He was watchful, always, for those who preyed on the helpless and vulnerable. Unknown, unseen, unwanted, he stalked the hunters in the steaming jungle that was the city. He moved unchallenged in the dark spaces, the blind alleys and violent streets. Like smoke, he drifted along towering rooftops and down into dank cellars.
When he was needed, he moved like thunder, all sound and fury. Then there was only the flash, the optical echo that lightning leaves after it streaks the sky.
They called him Nemesis, and he was everywhere.
He walked the night, skirting the sound of laughter, the cheerful din of celebrations. Instead he was drawn to the whimpers and tears of the lonely and the hopeless pleas of the victimized. Night after night, he clothed himself in black, masked his face and stalked the wild, dark streets. Not for the law. The law was too easily manipulated by those who scorned it. It was too often bent and twisted by those who claimed to uphold it. He knew, oh, yes, he knew. And he could not forget.
When he walked, he walked for justice—she of the blind eyes.
With justice, there could be retribution and the balancing of scales.
Like a shadow, he watched the city below.
Deborah O’Roarke moved quickly. She was always in a hurry to catch up with her own ambitions. Now her neat, sensible shoes clicked rapidly on the broken sidewalks of Urbana’s East End. It wasn’t fear that had her hurrying back toward her car, though the East End was a dangerous place—especially at night—for a lone, attractive woman. It was the flush of success. In her capacity as assistant district attorney, she had just completed an interview with a witness to one of the drive-by shootings that were becoming a plague in Urbana.
Her mind was completely occupied with the need to get back to her office and write her report so that the wheels of justice could begin to turn. She believed in justice, the patient, tenacious and systematic stages of it. Young Rico Mendez’s murderers would answer for their crime. And with luck, she would be the one to prosecute.
Outside the crumbling building where she had just spent an hour doggedly pressuring two frightened young boys for information, the street was dark. All but two of the streetlights that lined the cracked sidewalk had been broken. The moon added only a fitful glow. She knew that the shadows in the narrow doorways were drunks or pushers or hookers. More than once she had reminded herself that she could have ended up in one of those sad and scarred buildings—if it hadn’t been for her older sister’s fierce determination to see that she had a good home, a good education, a good life.
Every time Deborah brought a case to trial, she felt she was repaying a part of that debt.
One of the doorway shadows shouted something at her, impersonally obscene. A harsh feminine cackle followed it. Deborah had only been in Urbana for eighteen months, but she knew better than to pause or to register that she had heard at all.
Her strides long and purposeful, she stepped off the curb to get into her car. Someone grabbed her from behind.
“Ooh, baby, ain’t you sweet.”
The man, six inches taller than she and wiry as a spring, stank. But not from liquor. In the split second it took her to read his glassy eyes, she understood that he wasn’t pumped high on whiskey but on chemicals that would make him quick instead of sluggish. Using both hands, she shoved her leather briefcase into his gut. He grunted and his grip loosened. Deborah wrenched away and ran, digging frantically for her keys.
Even as her hand closed over the jingling metal in her pocket, he grabbed her, his fingers digging in at the collar of her jacket. She heard the linen rip and turned to fight. Then she saw the switchblade, its business end gleaming once before he pressed it against the soft skin under her chin.
“Gotcha,” he said, and giggled.
She went dead still, hardly daring to breathe. In his eyes she saw a malicious kind of glee that would never listen to pleading or logic. Still she kept her voice low and calm.
“I’ve only got twenty-five dollars.” Jabbing the point of the blade against her skin, he leaned intimately close. “Uh-uh, baby, you got a lot more than twenty-five dollars.” He twisted her hair around his hand, jerking once, hard. When she cried out, he began to pull her toward the deeper dark of the alley.
“Go on and scream.” He giggled in her ear. “I like it when they scream. Go on.” He nicked her throat with the blade. “Scream.”
She did, and the sound rolled down the shadowed street, echoing in the canyons of the buildings. In doorways people shouted encouragement—to the attacker. Behind darkened windows people kept their lights off and pretended they heard nothing.
When he pushed her against the damp wall of the alleyway, she was icy with terror. Her mind, always so sharp and open, shut down. “Please,” she said, though she knew better, “don’t do this.”
He grinned. “You’re going to like it.” With the tip of the blade, he sliced off the top button of her blouse. “You’re going to like it just fine.”
Like any strong emotion, fear sharpened her senses. She could feel her own tears, hot and wet on her cheeks, smell his stale breath and the overripe garbage that crowded the alley. In his eyes she could see herself pale and helpless.
She would be another statistic, she thought dully. Just one more number among the ever increasing victims.
Slowly, then with increasing power, anger began to burn through the icy shield of fear. She would not cringe and whimper. She would not submit without a fight. It was then she felt the sharp pressure of her keys. They were still in her hand, closed tight in her rigid fist. Concentrating, she used her thumb to push the points between her stiff fingers. She sucked in her breath, trying to channel all of her strength into her arm.
Just as she raised it, her attacker seemed to rise into the air, then fly, arms pinwheeling, into a stand of metal garbage cans.
Deborah ordered her legs to run. The way her heart was pumping, she was certain she could be in her car, doors locked, engine gunning, in the blink of an eye. But then she saw him.
He was all in black, a long, lean shadow among the shadows. He stood over the knife-wielding junkie, his legs spread, his body tensed.
“Stay back,” he ordered when she took an automatic step forward. His voice was part whisper, part growl.
“Don’t think,” he snapped without bothering to look at her.
Even as she bristled at his tone, the junkie leaped up, howling, bringing his blade down in a deadly arc. Before Deborah’s dazed and fascinated eyes, there was a flash of movement, a scream of pain and the clatter of the knife as it skidded along the concrete.
In less than the time it takes to draw and release a single breath, the man in black stood just as he had before. The junkie was on his knees, moaning and clutching his stomach.
“That was …”—Deborah searched her whirling brain for a word—“impressive. I—I was going to suggest that we call the police.”
He continued to ignore her as he took some circular plastic from his pocket and bound the still-moaning junkie’s hands and ankles. He picked up the knife, pressed a button. The blade disappeared with a whisper. Only then did he turn to her.
The tears were already drying on her cheeks, he noted. And though there was a hitch in her breath, she didn’t appear to be ready to faint or shoot off into hysterics. In fact, he was forced to admire her calm.
She was extraordinarily beautiful, he observed dispassionately. Her skin was pale as ivory against a disheveled cloud of ink black hair. Her features were soft, delicate, almost fragile. Unless you looked at her e
Her jacket was torn, and her blouse had been cut open to reveal the icy blue lace and silk of a camisole. An interesting contrast to the prim, almost mannish business suit.
He summed her up, not as man to woman, but as he had countless other victims, countless other hunters. The unexpected and very basic jolt of reaction he felt disturbed him. Such things were more dangerous than any switchblade.
“Are you hurt?” His voice was low and unemotional, and he remained in shadow.
“No. No, not really.” There would be plenty of bruises, both on her skin and her emotions, but she would worry about them later. “Just shaken up. I want to thank you for—” She had stepped toward him as she spoke. In the faint backsplash from the streetlight, she saw that his face was masked. As her eyes widened, he saw they were blue, a brilliant electric blue. “Nemesis,” she murmured. “I thought you were the product of someone’s overworked imagination.”
“I’m as real as he is.” He jerked his head toward the figure groaning among the garbage. He saw that there was a thin trickle of blood on her throat. For reasons he didn’t try to understand, it enraged him. “What kind of a fool are you?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“This is the sewer of the city. You don’t belong here. No one with brains comes here unless they have no choice.”
Her temper inched upward, but she controlled it. He had, after all, helped her. “I had business here.”
“No,” he corrected. “You have no business here, unless you choose to be raped and murdered in an alley.”
“I didn’t choose anything of the sort.” As her emotions darkened, the faint hint of Georgia became more prominent in her voice. “I can take care of myself.”
His gaze skimmed down, lingered on the shredded blouse, then returned to her face. “Obviously.”
She couldn’t make out the color of his eyes. They were dark, very dark. In the murky light, they seemed black. But she could read the dismissal in them, and the arrogance.
“I’ve already thanked you for helping me, even though I didn’t need any help. I was just about to deal with that slime myself.”
“That’s right. I was going to gouge his eyes out.” She held up her keys, lethal points thrusting out. “With these.”
He studied her again, then gave a slow nod. “Yes, I believe you could do it.”
“Damn right I could.”
“Then it appears I’ve wasted my time.” He pulled a square of black cloth from his pocket. After wrapping the knife in it, he offered it to her. “You’ll want this for evidence.”
The moment she held it, she remembered that feeling of terror and helplessness. With a muffled oath, she bit back her temper. Whoever, whatever, he was, he had risked his life to help her. “I am grateful.”
“I don’t look for gratitude.”
Her chin came up as he threw her words back in her face. “For what, then?”
He stared at her, into her. Something came and went in his eyes that made her skin chill again as she heard his words: “For justice.”
“This isn’t the way,” she began.
“It’s my way. Weren’t you going to call the police?”
“Yes.” She pressed the heel of her hand to her temple. She was a little dizzy, she realized. And more than a little sick to her stomach. This wasn’t the time or the place to argue morality and law enforcement with a belligerent masked man. “I have a phone in my car.”
“Then I suggest you use it.”
“All right.” She was too tired to argue. Shivering a bit, she started down the alley. At the mouth of it, she saw her briefcase. She picked it up with a sense of relief and put the switchblade in it.
Five minutes later, after calling 911 and giving her location and the situation, she walked back into the alley. “They’re sending a cruiser.” Weary, she pushed the hair back from her face. She saw the junkie, curled up tight on the concrete. His eyes were wide and wild. Nemesis had left him with the promise of what would happen to him if he was ever caught again attempting to rape.
Even through the haze of drugs, the words had rung true.
“Hello?” With a puzzled frown, she looked up and down the alley.
He was gone.
“Damn it, where did he go?” On a hiss of breath, she leaned back against the clammy wall. She hadn’t finished with him yet, not by a long shot.
He was almost close enough to touch her. But she couldn’t see him. That was the blessing, and the curse, the repayment for the lost days.
He didn’t reach out and was curious why he wanted to. He only watched her, imprinting on his memory the shape of her face, the texture of her skin, the color and sheen of her hair as it curved gently beneath her chin.
If he had been a romantic man, he might have thought in terms of poetry or music. But he told himself he only waited and watched to make certain she was safe.
When the sirens cut the night, he could see her rebuild a mask of composure, layer by layer. She took deep, steadying breaths as she buttoned the ruined jacket over her slashed blouse. With a final breath, she tightened her grip on her briefcase, set her chin and walked with confident strides toward the mouth of the alley.
As he stood alone in his own half world between reality and illusion, he could smell the subtle sexiness of her perfume.
For the first time in four years, he felt the sweet and quiet ache of longing.
Deborah didn’t feel like a party. In her fantasy, she wasn’t all glossed up in a strapless red dress with plastic stays digging into her sides. She wasn’t wearing pinching three-inch heels. She wasn’t smiling until she thought her face would split in two.
In her fantasy, she was devouring a mystery novel and chocolate chip cookies while she soaked in a hot bubble bath to ease the bruises that still ached a bit three days after her nasty adventure in the East End alley.
Unfortunately, her imagination wasn’t quite good enough to keep her feet from hurting.
As parties went, it was a pretty good one. Maybe the music was a bit loud, but that didn’t bother her. After a lifetime with her sister, a first-class rock and roll fanatic, she was well indoctrinated into the world of loud music. The smoked salmon and spinach canapés weren’t chocolate chip cookies, but they were tasty. The wine that she carefully nursed was top-notch.
There was plenty of glitz and glamour, lots of cheek bussing and glad-handing. It was, after all, a party thrown by Arlo Stuart, hotel magnate, as a campaign party for Tucker Fields, Urbana’s mayor. It was Stuart’s hope, and the present administration’s, that the campaign would end in November with the mayor’s reelection.
Deborah was as yet undecided whether she would pull the lever for the incumbent or the young upstart challenger, Bill Tarrington. The champagne and pâté wouldn’t influence her. Her choice would be based on issues, not party affiliations—either social or political. Tonight she was attending the party for two reasons. The first was that she was friends with the mayor’s assistant, Jerry Bower. The second was that her boss had used the right combination of pressure and diplomacy to push her through the gilded swinging doors of the Stuart Palace.
“God, you look great.” Jerry Bower, trim and handsome in his tux, his blond hair waving around his tanned, friendly face, stopped beside Deborah to press a quick kiss to her cheek. “Sorry I haven’t had time to talk. There was a lot of meeting and greeting to do.”
“Things are always busy for the big boss’s right arm.” She smiled, toasting him. “Quite a bash.”
“Stuart pulled out all the stops.” With a politician’s eye, he scanned the crowd. The mix of the rich, famous and influential pleased him. There were, of course, other aspects to the campaign. Visibility, contact with shop owners, factory workers—the blue, the gray and the white collars, press conferences, speeches, statements. But Jerry figured
if he could spend a small slice of one eighteen-hour day rubbing silk elbows and noshing on canapés, he’d make the best of it.
“I’m properly dazzled,” Deborah assured him.
“Ah, but it’s your vote we want.”
“You might get it.”
“How are you feeling?” Taking the opportunity in hand, he began to fill a plate with hors d’oeuvres.
“Fine.” She glanced idly down at the fading bruise on her forearm. There were other, more colorful marks hidden under the red silk.
She smiled again. “Really. It’s an experience I don’t want to repeat, but it did bring it home, straight home, to me that we’ve got a lot more work to do before Urbana’s streets are safe.”
“You shouldn’t have been out there,” he mumbled.
He might as well have nudged a soapbox under her feet. Her eyes lit up, her cheeks flushed, her chin angled. “Why? Why should there be any place, any place at all in the city, where a person isn’t safe to walk? Are we supposed to just accept the fact that there are portions of Urbana that are off-limits to nice people? If we’re—”
“Hold it, hold it.” He held up a surrendering hand. “The only person someone in politics can’t comfortably outtalk is a lawyer. I agree with you, okay?” He snagged a glass of wine from a passing waiter and reminded himself it could be his only one of the long evening. “I was stating a fact. It doesn’t make it right, it just makes it true.”
“It shouldn’t be true.” Her eyes had darkened in both annoyance and frustration.
“The mayor’s running on a tough anticrime campaign,” Jerry reminded her, and gave smiling nods to constituents who wandered by. “Nobody in this city knows the statistics better than I do. They’re nasty, no doubt, and we’re going to push them back. It just takes time.”
“Yeah.” Sighing, she pulled herself away from the brink of the argument she’d had with Jerry more times than she could count. “But it’s taking too much time.”
He bit into a carrot slice. “Don’t tell me you’re going to step over to the side of this Nemesis character. ‘If the law won’t deal with it quickly enough, I will’?”
“No.” On that she was firm. The law would mete out justice in a proper fashion. She believed in the law, even now, when it was so totally overburdened. “I don’t believe in crusades. They come too close to vigilantism. Though I have to admit, I’m grateful he was tilting at windmills in that alley the other night.”
“So am I.” He touched her lightly on the shoulder. “When I think of what might have happened—”
“It didn’t.” That helpless fear was still much too close to the surface to allow her to dwell on it. “And in spite of all the romantic press he’s been getting, up close and in person, he’s rude and abrupt.” She took another sip of wine. “I owe him, but I don’t have to like him.”
“Nobody understands that sentiment more than a politician.”
She relaxed and laughed up at him. “All right, enough shoptalk. Tell me who’s here that I should know and don’t.”
Jerry entertained her. He always did. For the next few minutes he gulped down canapés and put names and tax brackets to the faces crowding the Royal Stuart ballroom. His clever and pithy comments made her chuckle. When they began to stroll through the crowd, she hooked her arm easily through his. It was a matter of chance that she turned her head and, in that sea of people, focused on one single face.
He was standing in a group of five or six, with two beautiful women all but hanging on his arms. Attractive, yes, she thought. But the room was filled with attractive men. His thick, dark hair framed a long, lean, somewhat scholarly face. Prominent bones, deep-set eyes—brown eyes, she realized, dark and rich like bittersweet chocolate. They seemed faintly bored at the moment. His lips were full, rather poetic looking and curved now in the barest hint of a smile.
He wore his tux as if he’d been born in one. Easily, casually. With one long finger he brushed a fiery curl off the redhead’s cheek as she leaned closer to him. His smile widened at something she said.
Then, without turning his head, he merely shifted his gaze and locked on Deborah.
“…. and she bought the little monsters a wide-screen TV.”
“What?” She blinked, and though she realized it was absurd, she felt as though she had broken out of a spell. “What?”
“I was telling you about Mrs. Forth-Wright’s poodles.”
“Jerry, who is that? Over there. With the redhead on one side and the blonde on the other.”
Glancing over, Jerry grimaced, then shrugged. “I’m surprised he doesn’t have a brunette sitting on his shoulders. Women tend to stick to him as though he was wearing flypaper instead of a tux.”
She didn’t need to be told what she could see with her own eyes. “Who is he?”
“Guthrie, Gage Guthrie.”
Her eyes narrowed a bit, her mouth pursed. “Why does that sound familiar?”
“It’s splashed liberally through the society section of the World almost every day.”
“I don’t read the society section.” Well aware it was rude, Deborah stared stubbornly at the man across the room. “I know him,” she murmured. “I just can’t place how.”