“I’m not leaving her,” Richard insisted, running into Shooter and hitting him with his shoulder.

The impact didn’t budge Shooter.

“I don’t care what you do to me, Shooter, just leave him alone.”

“You care about this old man?” he asked me, grabbing hold of Richard by the scruff of his coat, lifting him off his feet to the point where he was choking. Hot coffee sloshed out of his to-go cup onto the sidewalk. Richard struggled to break free, but it did no good. He was too old and feeble to put up much resistance.

“Okay, okay,” I cried. “What do you want from me?”

“Where’s Caden?” Shooter demanded.

“I don’t know,” I said, growing frantic. “I swear.”

“Don’t feed me a crock of sh—”

“I don’t know,” I shouted again, enunciating each word. “I haven’t seen my brother in years.”

“I don’t believe you. That sniveling piece of crap clung to you like you were his mommy. You know where he is, so tell me, otherwise…” He left the threat hanging there.

“I swear, I don’t know.”

Shooter released a short, sick laugh. “You always did have a soft spot for your baby brother. You think I don’t know that you’re protecting him?”

“I’m not, I swear it.”

As best I could, I edged away from Shooter, taking tiny steps in retreat. I prayed that Sadie and Frankie would wonder what was taking me so long and come to investigate. This side of the café was dark and without windows. My chances of escaping were nil. Leaving Richard wasn’t an option.

Shooter released Richard, who staggered and fell against the side of the building. With his arm free, Shooter’s fist shot out and hit the side of my face with a punch that sent me flying backward. “This is the only thing you’re good for. Weak. Spineless. White trash.”

I went down like a brick, seeing stars. As soon as I hit the sidewalk, Shooter kicked me in the ribs. Turning away, I tried to get up on my knees, but his fists kept me down. Grabbing me by the hair, he slammed my forehead against the sidewalk.

Richard screamed. Maybe it was me.

Shooter was going to kill me. Having already received a life sentence, he had nothing to lose.

“Give him up, woman.” The side of my head crashed against the concrete.

“Step away from her now or you’ll regret it.”

I heard someone speak, but the voice seemed to come from a long distance away. I was having trouble staying conscious. It sounded like Frankie, but it couldn’t have been him. He was inside the café in the kitchen, preparing for the breakfast crowd.

A siren sounded in the distance. I blinked and saw that Frankie held a baseball bat in his hand. Chuck stood next to him with what looked like a mop. I wanted to laugh that he thought he could defend me against Shooter with that. I loved him for trying, though.

I started to sit up when Shooter swore and kicked me in my ribs again with his heavy boot. Pain blasted through my side. I gasped and my knees shot up and I cradled my stomach to protect myself. It was then that I felt the darkness chasing after me. I fought it, but it was no use.

I don’t know how long I was out. Probably only a minute or two. When I regained consciousness, Richard was kneeling on the sidewalk next to me with tears in his eyes.

Sadie was on the other side of me, holding my hand.

“Hold on, Shay,” she whispered. “An aid car is on the way.”

I blinked up at my friends, wondering at the worry I saw in their eyes. “I’m…” I tried to tell everyone that I was okay and found that I couldn’t.

“Sorry, Shay…so sorry,” Frankie said. “I didn’t know. I would have come sooner…”

I offered him a weak smile, letting him know I understood.

Everything hurt. My head throbbed like someone had slammed a hammer into my skull. Blood flowed from my head wound into my eyes. I read the fear and concern on their faces and knew I was in much worse shape than I realized. Breathing was difficult and everything blurred as I struggled to remain conscious.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I figured I must have a concussion. Shooter had hit my head hard. Kicked me, too.

Years ago I’d heard it was important to remain conscious after a head injury. Who’d told me that? A teacher? No. Had I signed up for a first-aid class? When was that? Couldn’t remember. Couldn’t keep my eyes open, either, despite every attempt. They closed and I couldn’t make them move.

Voices drifted my way.

Different voices. Not Sadie or Frankie. Unfamiliar voices. One voice sounded like it was from a policeman. I could tell from the questions he asked. Cops always did ask a lot of questions.

Then I was being lifted off the sidewalk. A floating sensation came over me. I didn’t remember that I could fly. Who knew? Maybe I was one of the characters in the book Peter Pan. What was that girl’s name? Couldn’t remember that, either. I should read more. Wendy, that was it. Wendy. Nice name.

More voices, strange ones. Their words were slurred and grew loud and then soft. Had they been drinking on the job? Someone needed to report them. I tried to lift my hand, but it wouldn’t move. Straining I tried again, but to no avail.

“Shay, we’re taking you to the hospital now,” the man with the slurred voice told me.

If I couldn’t move my hand, I should be able to open my eyes. Hospitals were expensive and I really couldn’t afford this.

Shooter should pay. That was it. I’d make him pay.

No. I never, ever wanted to see him again. Him or Caden. My brother. If Shooter found my brother, he’d be killed for sure. I didn’t want Caden dead.

Fear and adrenaline shot through me as I remembered the way Shooter had looked at me. He’d wanted Caden.

All at once Shooter was there again. Evil radiated from him.

I tried to scream but nothing came out. He looked straight through me and reached out and grabbed hold of my throat with both hands, strangling me.

Panic attacked every nerve as I struggled to escape. I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move, and no one was helping me. Why weren’t the men who were drinking trying to stop Shooter before he killed me?

“She’s convulsing.”

Someone, not Shooter, was talking.

I wasn’t convulsing. I was doing everything within my power to escape Shooter. They should get him off me. Couldn’t they see what he was doing?

Why had they let him near me again? Couldn’t they see the damage he’d already done to me?

A piercing sound hurt my ears. A fire siren? I welcomed it because it sent Shooter away and I could relax. Relief washed over me.

My head hurt like no pain I’d ever experienced before. The pain so intense it blinded me.

I tried to open my eyes. I really tried, and couldn’t.

It was impossible to stay awake any longer, and while I wanted to do what I’d learned in first aid, I couldn’t. Although I fought it, I surrendered to the darkness.

My sermon notes were coming along nicely when someone knocked on my office door.

“Yes.”

Generally, if someone came into the office, Mary Lou would let me know via the intercom.

My assistant opened the door and let herself in, closing it behind her. Something was definitely up.

Before I could ask, she spoke. “Two men are in the lobby demanding to talk to you. They claim they know you.”

“Is there a problem?”

Mary Lou looked uncomfortable. “They look like homeless people.”

That she would hesitate surprised me. “I’m sure it’s fine. Let them in.”

Still, she paused, as if questioning my judgment. “You sure? I can ask them to leave. They look agitated and upset. When they arrived I considered calling the police. I still can if…you think it would be best?”

Mary Lou tended to be a lion at the gate, as far as I was concerned. When I could I’d explain that the night I’d gone out on the Search & Rescue, I’d met any number of the homeless. I’d told them who I was and where they could find me if the need arose. Perhaps I should have mentioned this to my assistant, who continued to look uncomfortable and unsure.

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