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“It’s not important. I’m fine,” I stress, praying he’ll just leave it alone.

“Goddammit, Dee! I know you aren’t fine. I saw you breaking down like your world just crashed in around you yesterday. That isn’t how someone that is just fine acts. You can’t push that shit off on a bad day, your period, or someone stealing your newspaper. There’s something going on, and you aren’t just fucking fine!”

“Okay, Greg, I’m going to say this the nicest way I can. Don’t worry about me. You have enough to worry about, and honestly, you know I love you like a brother, but right now, I don’t need your protectiveness. Give Cohen a hug and tell Melissa I said hi. I’m going to bed now. I have to be in the office early tomorrow so I can get everything done and get home. Greg, I mean it… Stop. Goodnight, I love you, go hug your wife.” I disconnect the call without giving him a second to protest or pull his crap. He’ll be pissed, but he’ll also get over it. After turning off my phone and pulling the covers up, I settle in for another restless night of sleeplessness.

****

My wake-up call comes at 4:45 A.M., about an hour after I finally manage to stop freaking out about the dark, jumping from every sound that I heard coming in from the window, and my mind finally shut down. I never sleep well when I’m away from my house, so I’m not sure why I thought this time would be any different.

Groggy, annoyed, and a whole lot pissed off isn’t a good way to start the day, especially knowing that I’m about to have another pile of shit land in my lap when I get into the office.

My office back in Georgia is decent in size. I have three other agents and a few other staff members. It’s not the largest, but it works for us. Back home, I’ve just moved into the same strip of businesses where Corps Security is located. When the building came up, I jumped on it. It isn’t that I need a new office, but my old one was out of an old house that had been remodeled into an office. The downside, it was in the middle of nowhere, and I had become scared to even be there by myself. So, I didn’t waste time signing the paperwork for the new space.

Here, my office is slightly larger. I’ve got six agents, plus they each have their own assistants. I had the building built from the ground up, and when it was finally finished and open for business, the sense of pride had been overwhelming. I’ve always been so proud of this office and the staff, and how we’ve managed to thrive when other small businesses have crashed.

This is my baby.

And every day that a new fire starts within the office, I want nothing more than to give this ‘baby’ up for adoption. The thrill is gone, and more importantly, I don’t feel even an ounce of pride when I walk in the doors.

Being that I’m about two hours early, and the staff shouldn’t even be in until eight, shocked would be an understatement when I pull up and see some lights on. I have been so lost in thought that, when I drive up, I don’t even check the front lot before I pull my car behind the building. I guess this would explain the ridiculous power bills; idiots keep the lights on all night! Since I’m the only one that ever parks back here, it doesn’t even cross my mind to wait until normal hours to go in.

My phone chimes a few times before I make it to the back door, and with a huff, I dig it out of my back pocket and start checking my alerts and emails. Unlocking the door quickly, I walk into the back break room, kitchen area, with my phone still in front of my face. Bad habit of mine, having the phone be a constant attachment to my body, but when you’re running two companies in two different states, you need to be available at all times.

I brush off the tingling feeling that makes my skin crawl. Being this early, I’m not surprised that I’m having another one of my ridiculous fears creep up on me. I make another mental note to talk to the doctor about that. I’m too damn old to be afraid of every bump in the night.

Speaking of, I clear the alert reminding me of my appointment with Dr. Maxwell, and switch over to my emails again and surf through the crap while I wait for the coffee to brew. My mind is struck stupid when I see a message from my mother, asking me to schedule in a call at my earliest convenience. Ha, I don’t think so. Deleting the rest of the junk, I pull up my text screen to send Chelcie a message to let her know that I’ve made it in and will see her when she arrives.

I shove my phone back in my pocket and reach for a mug. Right when my hand closes around my favorite University of Georgia mug, it hits me why I had such a sense of unease when I walked through the back door.

The alarm.

It wasn’t armed, and from what I can tell, the door sensors didn’t even chime.

Suddenly, that nagging sense of dread doesn’t seem so ridiculous. I set the mug down quietly, and with a deep breath, turn to face the door leading into the open reception area. My head does a nice imitation of a bobble head as I look between the door to the offices, and the one that leads outside. Fight or flight.

God! I’m so sick of being afraid of everything! I feel like this is a defining moment. Run again, or stand up and fight for my life.

I should know better. Doesn’t every horror movie have that scene that has you screaming at the stupid bimbo who runs straight into the dangerous killer? Yeah, I should know better, but unfortunately, my mind has decided it’s had enough of the two-year freak fest, had enough of being a scared little pussy.

Ever since yesterday and my ‘moment’ with Beck in Greg’s office, I’ve felt different. Not different enough that I can pinpoint the change, but I don’t feel so… damaged. I almost feel a little like the old Dee. I want that Dee back, and I’m ready to fight to get there. That’s the only reason I can think of that would make me take the steps needed to bring me to the solid wood door leading into the offices. When my hand touches the cold knob, I jump slightly, but pull my strength, and try to muster up some of that courage I thought was long gone.

You can do this, Dee. Just open the door and when you see the office is empty have a good laugh. Nothing to it.

Turning the knob, I silently push the door until there’s just enough space for me to see into the brightly lit room. I gasp when the first thing I see is a tall figure dressed in black with a mask over his face, standing right in front of the open doorway. I scream loud enough that my own ears ring and try to pull the door shut. The beefy hand that reaches out and stops the door from closing scares me enough that I lose my footing and fall to my ass.

Panting in fear, I quickly back up, knocking my head against the table in the middle of the room. I keep crawling as fast as I can backwards until my spine hits the wall with a thump. All the while, the tall figure keeps slowly stalking towards me, like a predator would his prey.

“Where is it, bitch?” The voice isn’t one I’ve heard before, but then again, the blood rushing in my ears is enough to make the most familiar voice unrecognizable.

“I don’t know what you’re looking for! P-p-please, don’t hurt me… If you want to take my purse, you can have it; there’s money in there. Cards too. Please, oh God, please!” Tears are streaming down my face and my body is shaking so violently that my teeth feel as if they’re rattling in my head. This is it. My miserable life is going to be over before I ever get a chance to tell the people in my life how much I love them.

“I don’t want your fucking wallet, you stupid cunt! Whatever you have in that goddamn wallet isn’t enough to cover what that idiot owes. Where the fuck is he!” He bends down and roughly pulls me up by the roots of my hair. I yelp, but scramble from the floor to try to minimize the damage. My body is screaming for me to shut it down, to just let him end it. Anything would be easier than living with the emptiness my life has become. But just as quickly as the thought enters my mind, I remember I want to fight. I’m better than what I’ve let my life become, and I damn sure don’t want to go out like this.

“I d-don’t know,” I whimper. “Please, I don’t know!” Apparently that’s not what this stranger wants to hear because he rears back and punches me with what feels like all his strength right in my eye. My head snaps to the side, and the pain that radiates from his punch is almost enough to make me pass out. I can already tell that my eye will be useless, and my other one is watering so badly that I can’t make anything out but a slightly fuzzy black dot in an otherwise white room.

“That will be the least of your fucking worries if you don’t tell me where he’s fucking hiding! That idiot owes a lot of money, and if he isn’t around to pay up, then it looks like it’s going to fall on you. ” He gets right in my face, and with my good eye, I can tell his eyes are ice cold blue. They would almost be attractive if it wasn’t for the flame of pure evil dancing behind them. “Where. Is. That. Motherfucker!”

“I’m telling the truth. I don’t know! I don’t come into this office often! I don’t know who you’re looking for!” Something I’ve said must have registered as truth because he pulls back slightly before looking me from head to toe. Shockingly, he starts to laugh, a laugh full of demonic tones. I can literally feel the color drain out of my face when his eyes meet mine again.

“Well, well, well… If it isn’t Denise Roberts, one and only owner of Roberts Insurance. You aren’t supposed to be here and it’s just like a stupid, fucking cunt to come nosing her fat ass where it doesn’t belong.” What the hell?

Before I can open my mouth to ask him… well, I don’t know what I would ask him, but before I even have the chance, his hand comes out and clamps tight around my neck. My airway closes as he lifts me off the floor with his hand. I reach up and grab his wrist, clawing and fighting for the air he is stealing from me. “You, little Denise Roberts, are a problem, and I don’t like problems. One of your employees has something of mine, and I want it. You see, my problem now is that he’s decided to vanish on me, and I don’t like it when I’m owed money, and I’ve got to play hide and fucking seek to find it. When he stopped answering my calls, I figured the greasy little shit was having a come to Jesus with his conscience. I can’t have that now. You will either find that bastard, or all of the money. And I mean all of it.”

I try to answer him, but I can feel my mind start to panic. My lungs burn, and my hands are desperately struggling against him, but are quickly losing strength. I try to communicate with my eyes that I understand him, but he just keeps tightening his hold, squeezing me so forcefully that I feel like my throat is about to snap in two. My arms and legs start to flap around helplessly, as I attempt to gain just a breath of air.

After another few seconds closer to eternity, he lets go, and I drop roughly to the floor. As I gag and gasp to breathe, tears stream down my face, and my throat burns like I’ve swallowed a ball of fire.

He gives my fallen body a swift kick right in the ribs, which snap with a sickening crack. “I wouldn’t think about crossing me. I know all about you. I mean every single thing about you. I know all about your little friends, too, and I’m not even slightly worried about those dumbasses. I’ve got to hand it to you; I never thought you would show up before I had a chance to cover my tracks.”

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