Hide & Seek Chapter One

Posted: February 16, 2018 in Uncategorized

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one

 

 

Aurora Maguire was looking for her last hope, so it made sense that the bar she’d been told to find him in was called Last Resort.

Even while riding in the back of a cab to get there, she kept her heavy coat pulled around her body and her hood over her head in a feeble attempt to protect herself. Last Resort was located in the center of the worst part of town making her fearful of what she might find when she got there.

The first four cabs she’d gotten into had refused to bring her to this district. The driver of the one she was in now had agreed to take her only after she gave him a hundred-dollar advance tip and she proved to him that she was armed. Pepper spray was feeble, but it was all she had to protect herself.

Her last hope. All she knew was his alias. One of them at least.

Venturing down this path was beyond dangerous, crazy most people would say. But she wasn’t crazy. Not crazy. Just determined… and desperate.

The cab stopped in the middle of an unlit block. Rain battered the window and the usually comforting sound of raindrops on the roof made her edgy.

Though she couldn’t see anyone or anything other than the narrow space between two dilapidated buildings leading to an alley even darker than the street, she knew that she was in the right place. The only man capable of helping her save Benjamin was right down there.

He could say no. He could tell her he wouldn’t help and if he did, she had nowhere left to turn.

The cab driver twisted to rest an arm over the chair beside him to look through the scratched screen between them. “Want me to take you back uptown, miss?”

“No,” she said quickly, but swallowed just as fast. “No, I… I’m fine. Thank you.”

Giving him the fare on the meter, Rora, as she was known to her friends, licked her lips and steeled herself. She’d known this wasn’t going to be easy, but she hadn’t fought this hard for this long, just to give up at the first bump.

Not that this was the first. It seemed that since she’d started this mission, all she’d hit were bumps. If anything, she hoped this fear was going to be one of the last. Best case scenario, she went down there, found this guy without any trouble, and he agreed to help. If he was as good as his legend told, she could be back out of there in minutes, on the street, clutching an address and embracing a glimmer of light at the end of this arduous tunnel.

“Word to the wise,” the cab driver said, sorrowful when their eyes met. “At the first sign of trouble, turn, run, and don’t look back. Even the cops don’t venture into these parts.”

Good to know. That knowledge didn’t ease her anxiety, it reinforced her determination. “I passed the first sign of trouble a long time ago, sir,” she said, and didn’t let herself take the time to appreciate his sympathetic smile.

Rora opened the cab door and got out. Taking a few steps forward, she waited for the cab to speed off, but it didn’t.

So, holding her hood over her face, she kept going, crossing the sidewalk to venture into the narrow alley. The further down she got, the greater the darkness became. It closed around her, consuming and polluting her with its intensity and hunger. But she didn’t stop.

Her skin began to vibrate and the vague sound of heavy rock music met her ears. There was something down here. Something she couldn’t see. The rain got harder. It was a wonder it managed to penetrate this enclosed alley at all, but she felt it on the back of her hands that clasped the edges of her hood.

When she heard the spin of tires, she paused to glance over her shoulder; the end of the alley was little more than a slit, giving a sparse view of the dark street beyond. The cab driver must have been making sure she wasn’t going to change her mind and flee. Either that or he’d seen something, or someone, approaching that made him nervous. Whatever the reason, he was gone.

But she was here now. This was it. There was no backing out.

Venturing forward again, Rora zeroed in on the grimy brick wall up ahead. In it were two doors, painted black, neither more appealing than the other. Having no idea which to choose, she wondered if it made a difference, one could be locked, or maybe they led to the same place.

Her eyes were darting back and forth between them, trying to make a decision, when the one on the left opened. The flare of music and the escape of smoke gave her the only clue she needed.

Hurrying on, Rora meant to catch the door before it closed. She did manage to catch it and was grateful that she had because the smooth surface didn’t appear to have any handle. What she hadn’t counted on facing were the two mammoth-sized bikers who came out, almost knocking her onto her ass.

The first, chewing some kind of stick, glared at her, but stepped aside, more confused by her presence than intrigued by it. The second seemed to be the same; he clucked at her and followed his buddy to the right, without saying anything to her, but mumbling something to his friend.

Few people knew this place existed; she never had.

Holding the door, she had no choice except to round it and go inside. The bass of the music hit her. It wasn’t too loud that she couldn’t hear the susurration of conversation—some pleasant, some questionable—but it was turned up so high that it knocked her heart from its rhythm.

There was so much to take in that her senses almost overloaded. It was dark, so dark that her eyes couldn’t adjust for a clear minute. When they did, she could that she was at the top of three stairs, with the room laid out beneath her.

Lewd graffiti graced the walls along with posters of naked women, heavy rigs, and choppers. The vague lighting came from random neon signs dotted on the walls around the room. One stated, “Girls! Girls! Girls!” But she didn’t see any girls.

It was man after man, at least sixty of them, packed into this space probably meant for less than half that number. But the fire code wouldn’t be the main concern of this establishment. She didn’t know if this kind of place had any concerns.

The Last Resort wasn’t on any map or in any phone book.

The room smelled of beer and weed. Smoke hung in the air, and just about every patron held something in their hand that shouldn’t be there. Guns, spliffs, chains, everyone was prepared for fun or violence, and she’d guess these guys would consider both a good time. The smoking ban had been in place for years in this state, but she supposed that wasn’t a consideration either. Like the cab driver said, cops didn’t venture near here, and God help anyone who tried to hand out a fine in here.

Fearful of drawing attention to herself, Rora knew she should move from her slightly elevated position. Though at only five foot five inches tall, she wasn’t towering above any of these guys, most of whom seemed to be six foot tall and then some, and all appeared to be over two hundred pounds.

With her heart pounding in her chest, she took a step forward, still scanning the room. The darkest corner, that’s where she’d been told to find her last hope. The bar was in one back corner, the restrooms in another. The third corner was probably the best lit in the place and the fourth, over her right shoulder… there was no light, but there was a booth… she was almost sure there was… something…

Squinting to see if there was a person seated there, she saw a brief flash of red light. It didn’t come from a person, it came from a… laptop. Yes, on the table was a laptop, as black as the night she’d left behind the door, that’s where the red light had come from.

Figuring he had to be there, she hurried down the stairs thanking her lucky stars. He was right there, twenty feet from the door, she didn’t have to go deep into the place to reach her last hope, she could—

A hulking form stepped in front of her making her gasp and come to an abrupt halt so she didn’t run right into him.

Tipping her head up slowly, Rora inhaled again when she registered his narrow eyes boring into her. This guy had to be seven feet tall. Twice the width of her, with room to spare, he was the epitome of what she imagined mean would look like if it morphed into a person. His massive, bare arms were adorned with chain link bracelets at the wrists and a length of actual chain hung around his shoulder, swinging over his tattooed bicep.

Though it wasn’t just his bicep that had ink, it appeared to be all over him, down to the backs of his hands that rose when he folded his arms across that impressive chest. Color of some sort adorned his neck, creeping right up to the beard on his chin.

This was no accident, he hadn’t just happened to cross her path, he was blocking her way, and she had no idea how to deal with him. Rora couldn’t fight. She could run, but that meant giving up, and she had no intention of doing that. Not that running was any guarantee of escape, she’d passed a few tables already, if this hulk called out and told his buddies to stop her, she’d be trapped in an instant.

“You’re in the wrong place, tiny,” he said, his voice so deep it was almost inaudible.

Snatching her shoulder, he spun her around and began to haul her back toward the door. “No,” she said, but fighting was useless. Her resistance was insignificant and though she tried to turn back, and to pull away, he just kept on going. “Please, no! I need to—please!”

He hauled her up the stairs, grabbed the door and tossed her out. “Don’t be coming back, crazy kook!”

Oh, that was one button no one was allowed to push. “Hey!” she said, grabbing his wrist in both hands before he could go back inside. “Don’t call me crazy! I am not crazy!”

Bending, he scowled into her. “Any woman who walks through that door is crazy. We got a no-woman-allowed policy.”

“That’s sexist bullshit,” she called out, determined to hold on even when he tried to shake her off. “I am coming in there! I am going to keep on coming back until I do what I came to do!”

“And I’ll keep throwing you out,” he said. “Don’t matter if it’s once or a hundred times, I’m here every night, knock yourself out, keep me entertained. And we don’t bar women by choice; we do it for their safety.”

Again, he tried to turn and walk away. Rora bent her knees, pulling him back harder, using all her weight to make her point. “Please,” she said. “I just need to talk to someone. Let me talk to him, after that, I’ll leave, I won’t cause any trouble. I won’t come back. I promise.” Considering her, he was probably trying to figure out why she’d put herself at risk like this, but that should prove how serious she was. “Please, would I be here if I had any other choice? I’m desperate… please.”

“Who you looking for? I’ll go bring him out.”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, that would be amazing. Thank you!”

“He didn’t knock you up, did he?” he asked, holding up two hands, each twice the size of her face. “ ‘Cause I ain’t getting my hands dirty in any bastard’s personal shit like that.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “No, nothing like that. I need to talk to Exile, that’s it. Just him.”

His slightly parted lips closed causing his teeth to clack together. His expression didn’t change and for half a beat, she wondered if maybe he didn’t know the guy she was looking for. That would be just her luck. But before she could recount what she’d been told about where to find Exile, the guy dropped the door, letting it close hard behind him.

His burst of laughter hit her hard. Rora was still stunned by its force when he slapped his belly, laughing so hard that she thought there might be moisture in the corners of his eyes. Well so much for him being mean. Displaying this kind of hilarity made him lose his edge.

“Did I say something funny?”

He breathed in, arching his back and tossing his chin toward the wet sky. “Oh, I was right, you are loopy-loo,” he said, sighing out a high-pitched sound of humor.

“Excuse me? I don’t appreciate you calling me names. All I want to do is talk to the guy, what’s so funny about that?”

“Yeah,” he said, trying to recover from his laughter. Once he’d managed to straighten his face, he took another breath. “There’s no one here by that name.”

He tried to turn away, but she grabbed his wrist again. “No one has a reaction like that to someone they’ve never heard of. You know him. It’s obvious that you do.”

“Tiny, you’re insane,” he said, tugging his hand away from her with enough force that she stumbled forward. “Exile doesn’t come out and talk to strays. He doesn’t talk to no one.”

“I’m not a stray… and I can pay.”

His brows rose. “You say that to any other guy in there and he’d bite your hand off. Ex doesn’t give a damn about money.”

“What does he give a damn about?”

He folded his arms, returning to his intimidating pose. “Best I can tell? Not a damn thing,” he said. “But he’s not a big talker.”

“But, I—”

“Look, lady, I don’t know what you think you read on some website or what your nutso friends told you, you don’t play with Exile. No one plays with him. And the guy’s got no sense of humor, about anything. What do you think you know about him?”

“He has skills,” she said and he bobbed his head in agreement. “Skills that I need him to use to help me.”

Instead of the pity the cab driver laid on her, this guy was incredulous, but not in a sympathetic way. He seemed to be getting more annoyed by the second. “You don’t have a fucking clue what you’re inviting into your life if you talk to him. You know they say his only goal in life is to break every law there is. Do you know why they call him Exile?” She shook her head. He came closer. “Because they say he has no nationality, no country. He doesn’t come from anywhere. He has no parents. No family. And he sure as hell has no friends. They say he was spawned by the devil, some say he isn’t even human.”

“A fairytale,” she said, recognizing exaggeration when she heard it.

“Maybe,” he said. “But I can tell you he’s wanted in every state, by every major agency across the world, and Interpol couldn’t track him. He’s impossible to hold. Evidence disappears. Information vanishes… People die… He doesn’t exist.”

“Yet he’s sitting in that bar right now,” she said, nodding past him.

He shrugged. “Maybe. We’ve been out here talking for a few minutes; he could be out of the country already.”

“I’m not law enforcement. I don’t care about what he’s done or where he’s wanted. All I want is help.”

“He won’t help you. He’s not for hire.”

“I heard he likes a challenge,” she said. “And that he has an interest in the Black Jewel.”

This time when he scowled at her, Rora read ignorance; he didn’t know what she was talking about. She didn’t expect him to, she hadn’t heard of the Black Jewel before she started this journey. Rora still didn’t even know what it was.

The door opened, hitting her associate in the back. Anger made him tense as he spun, but when a guy in jeans and a leather jacket came out of the bar, her new acquaintance relaxed.

“Strike, you out?” he asked.

“Sure am, Buddy,” Strike said, glancing at her. Buddy lifted a fist, Strike bumped it with his. “Little vanilla for you, isn’t she?”

“You want her?” Buddy asked.

Her mouth fell open.

“You paid for the privilege?” Strike asked.

Rora inhaled her shock, but they carried on discussing her like she was deaf.

“Not yet, but I might be able to make a deal. I know what she wants.”

Strike’s chest expanded. “They all want the same thing. The last fucking shred of our dignity.” He turned up the collar of his jacket, scanned her figure one more time and then went the same way the other guys had gone, down the perpendicular alley. But he wasn’t done. Without slowing or turning, Strike called out to them. “Let her in, Bud.”

She smiled, feeling triumphant, figuring that guy was the owner or manager or someone who had authority at Last Resort.

Buddy twisted and stepped back, hooking a finger into a hole at the top of the door she hadn’t seen. It was a good thing he was here to open it for her because she’d never have reached that notch herself. No wonder they had a no woman policy and every guy in there was so tall, the only way in was to reach that tiny groove, all the way up there.

This time because she knew what to expect, she didn’t let the place shock her. Rora also didn’t spend any time loitering on the stairs. Hurrying down them, she ignored the music and the smell and the patrons and went straight to the table in the corner.

The bubble of her optimism that had been infused with adrenaline and hope, burst in one devastating moment. There was no one at the table, it was empty. No one sat on either of the two seats fixed against the corner wall. There was no computer. No drink. No sign anyone had ever been there. Had she imagined the computer? The red light? The shadow seated in the corner?

A small rectangle, paler than the rest of the tabletop, drew her closer. What was that? Peering at it, she tilted her head and leaned down to inspect it. Except… Rora gasped when she recognized her own face on her driver’s license!

In a panic, she dug her hand into her pocket to tug out her wallet. She’d known better than to carry a purse tonight, thinking she’d hold onto her possessions if she kept them on her person. Apparently, even that hadn’t been a guarantee because when she opened her wallet, sure enough, there was an empty slot where her driver’s license usually fitted.

How had he done that?

Grabbing it off the table, she scrutinized it, but saw no notes or clues he may have wanted to pass to her. It was the same as it always had been with a nick in one corner and a glue smudge in the other.

It was her driver’s license.

How the hell did he get it? And why would he want it?

“That you?”

Slapping the card to her chest, Rora peeked up to see Buddy looming over her shoulder. “He stole from me.”

Buddy stuck out his bottom lip and nodded again. “I heard he does that.”

And if he took that, what else did he steal? Searching her wallet, nothing else appeared to be stolen. She had her phone in her other pocket and inside the case was…

Rora gasped. “Oh no.”

(C) Scarlett Finn 2018

 

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