In one hand he held a gun, the other a bottle of pills.
"Your choice," he said and the words weren't unfriendly.
He held out the bottle as if he were being helpful.
Fen licked her lips, her heart racing. The door of the bookstore was solid against her back. Hand behind her back, she fumbled for the doorknob, even knowing that she'd already locked it. "Why?"
The man in front of her wasn't anyone she'd ever imagined killing her. Sure, she'd pictured her death a few times. Any woman who walked home alone at night, after dark, on the cold windy Chicago streets had. She'd imagined a desperate junkie, strung-out on meth, knife in shaking hand. Or one of the biker types, big and tattooed, cornering her somehow on her way home from the bus stop. Even a rowdy street gang or a skinny teenager with cold eyes doing a gang initiation rite. But this guy was wearing a fricking suit. A nice suit! His hair was neatly cut, his teeth perfectly white and even. Hell, he probably got his fingernails manicured.
So why did he want to kill her?
Sounding bored, he said, "It ought to be obvious. You have to die. I have no interest in hurting you. And it's mildly more efficient for me if your death looks like an overdose. So you can take the pills or I can shoot you. Your choice."
"Efficient? You want my death to be efficient?" A moment ago, Fen had been terrified, her chest cold with a fear so intense she thought she'd choke on it. But a trickle of anger at his words broke through her frozen state. She tugged on the doorknob. It didn't turn.
She'd dropped her keys when he'd startled her by stepping out of the darkness. Could she pick them up? Attack him before he shot? But even if she could make herself move, one shot would be all it took.
He shrugged. "I don't want anything. It doesn't matter to me one way or another. This is just a job, miss. No need for hard feelings about it."
Fen choked back a laugh. What an asshole. "You're going to kill me," she said, voice breathless, catching on the air so that it barely carried, "and you don't think I should have hard feelings about it?"
A look of weary disgust crossed his handsome face. Perfect nose, perfect mouth, perfect cheekbones. The guy even had nice eyelashes, dark and lush around his deep green-brown eyes.
Suddenly Fen was furious. Her voice was much stronger as she snapped, "Tell me why. You owe me that at least." She stuffed her shaking hands into her jacket pocket, wishing desperately that she had a gun of her own, something, something that would damage the asshole's face, make him a little less pretty before he murdered her.
Her hand closed around the lucky crystal she carried. Too bad it didn't have jagged edges. Throwing the smooth, rounded stone at him would probably barely leave a bruise.
"You saw something you shouldn't have."
Fen blinked. Oh, help, she thought despairingly. She suspected she knew exactly what he meant. She took a deep breath. "Javier?" she asked, hating the tremor in her voice.
"I can't tell you anything more."
"He would never agree to this," she snapped, her hand tightening into a fist. She and her downstairs neighbor, Javier, they were friendly.
Okay, maybe not quite friendly. More like flirtatious.
But she liked him. He was a bike messenger in the city, his style edgy and just a little dangerous. She hadn't thought him truly dangerous, though, just dangerous in the fun kind of way. Living life a little close to the bone, taking a few too many risks. And with his dark eyes, shaggy hair, excellent ass—yeah, the guy was hot, even if she was so not his type.
Still, he'd definitely flirted back. Maybe for him she had the good-girl appeal, the neat and proper bookstore clerk, working nine-to-five, studying six-to-twelve. Or maybe he'd seen the hint of the bad girl she'd once been under the surface.
Maybe he'd caught a glimpse of one of her tattoos. The one twining close to her collar bone sometimes peeked out under her button-down collars, and in summer, when she didn't wear tights under her skirts, the ivy pattern up the back of her leg was easy to spot.
Still, why he'd liked her wasn't the point. He had liked her. He did like her. No way was he agreeing to this bullshit.
"What he doesn't know won't hurt him," the pretty thug said. He turned the pill bottle in his hand, as if about to put it away. "Last chance."
"Wait!" Fen said, despair close to the surface. "I won't tell anyone. I didn't even see anything. And I don't care. So he's dealing drugs, so what? It's none of my business. It's not like I'd go to the police."
"Uh-huh." The thug's voice was dry. "Like I said, miss, I'm doing a job. I don't negotiate with the target. Pills or pain, your choice."
Fen swallowed hard.
Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God.
That was just a really sucky choice.
Help me, please help me, she thought, closing her eyes. She didn't know who she was begging, but she wasn't going to beg her assailant. Not anymore.
Hating him with a passion that felt colder than the Chicago wind, she stepped forward and extended her hand. "Pills."
"Good choice." He tossed the bottle to her, gently, in an underhanded throw that landed precisely in the center of her palm. Her fingers closed around it.
"What are these?" she asked.
"Take 'em all," he answered. "I'll wait."
She wanted to point out that that wasn't an answer to her question, but she drew herself up, back straight, chin tilted up and said, as regally as she could, "Water?"
A hint of a grin crossed his face and he dipped his head as he said, "Sorry, miss. They're not large."
Jerk. Complete cretin. Moronic, idiotic, loser pretty-boy. Total creeper psychopath.
None of her mental words were making her feel any better as she forced the lid of the bottle down and swiveled it to open it. She dropped the cap on the ground and let the first few pills spill out into her hand. The bottle was almost full, probably at least thirty or forty pills in it. Was she really going to take each and every one of them, even knowing that each one would bring her closer to death?
She wasn't ready to die.
Hell, no, she wasn't.
Six years ago, then maybe she wouldn't have cared. Then maybe an asshole like this could have shown up at her back door and she would have cheered. She would have been thankful. Someone else to take her out when she couldn't quite bring herself to do it.
Close, but not quite.
But today—today she was figuring stuff out. Getting her life together. Okay, so she was way behind the curve, still studying for her GED when most of the kids she'd been in school with were getting close to graduating college. But she was getting there, even if it was an inch at a time.
And twenty-one, twenty-one was too damn young to die.
"How fast will it be?" she asked, keeping her voice steady with an effort.
"Pretty quick if you'll get on with it." He sounded bored again.
"Can I—are you going to make it look like a suicide?"
"Accident, I was thinking."
"Oh, come off it," she snapped. "Nobody takes this many pills by mistake."
He dipped his head to her, another reluctant acknowledgement. "Yeah." The gun, which had dropped to his side lifted again. "But I don't need a fuck-ton of melodrama about this, okay? Believe it or not, I'm being nice."
"A suicide note would make it more convincing," Fen said stiffly. She put the first pill in her mouth and grimaced as she swallowed. It was bitter, unpleasantly so. Shouldn't it be coated with something? But maybe he'd gotten some kind of deliberately fast-acting poison, rather than easy painkillers.
"Yeah." He sounded wary.
"I'd like to say good-bye to Theresa." She gestured behind her. "She gave me a chance when not too many people would have. I owe her… something."
His lips twisted. "What did you have in mind?"
Fen shifted so the messenger bag strapped across her body was more obvious. "I've got paper in here. A pen. Can I write her a note?"
The pause while he thought about her question felt like it lasted forever. Fen took another pill while he debated, again grimacing. She didn't feel the effects yet, but it couldn't be long. "You'll be able to read it," she said. "It's not like I can make up some great coded message incriminating you in my death."
He didn't say anything.
Fen sighed. It had been worth a try. Carefully, she picked another pill out from the few in her hand and swallowed it. She blinked back the tears. Maybe not so many people would notice or care that she was gone, but Theresa… Theresa would mind. It would matter to her.
Fen hoped her boss didn't spend too long mourning. She hoped that Theresa would find another lost sheep and shelter her. God, it would suck if her death did to Theresa what her mom's death had done to her. For a moment she felt doubtful. Maybe she should fight instead? Get shot? Would that be better for the few she left behind?
"Toss me the bag," he said, breaking her reverie. Maybe he'd read her mind. Could murderers do that?
Fen looked down at the pills in her hand. With a shrug, she popped them into her mouth and tried to swallow. Ugh. Too many, too bitter, but she forced them down, swallowing hard to get them past the lump in her throat. Ouch.
She slung the bag off her shoulder and swung it in his direction.
"Oops," she giggled when it landed on the ground. Okay, so the pills were affecting her.
If you were going to die, surely it was better to die happy?
Inside her, somewhere, deep inside, a voice was screaming. She put her empty hand into her pocket again and felt her lucky crystal. Maybe not so lucky, after all, she thought, a deep sadness welling up. Not so lucky.
But she didn't cry. She inhaled and said, lips feeling numb. "Better hurry. Not sure I'm gonna be in shape to write much longer."
The pretty boy snorted, crouching over her bag. "Lightweight."
Fen looked down at herself and then back up at him. "Um, yeah?" Talk about stating the obvious. She'd always wanted to be taller and definitely curvier. Breasts would have been nice. But instead she had the build of a 4th grade girl, short, skinny, flat-chested.
He looked up. His lips tightened, but he didn't comment. He pulled a notepad and a pen out of her bag and shoved them toward her feet.
Fen looked down at the dark asphalt. What was she supposed to do with those? Oh, right… she was going to write a note. Swaying slightly, she leaned down.
"What the fuck?"
The voice was male. Yep, definitely male, Fen thought.
But young. Like really young. Like too young? Was that a boy?
Blearily she turned her head in the direction from which the voice had come without straightening up. The end of the alley behind the bookstore, past the dumpsters and toward the main street. Where she should have run if she'd had a chance, but then she'd never had a chance, she thought sadly. She turned her head back again and picked up the pen.
Why did she need a pen?
She looked down at it, concentrating, turning it over in her hand. Blue. It was a blue pen. Did that matter?
The distraction was enough for her to miss something important.
"Are you all right? Are you all right?" The boy was shaking her. Maybe not a boy, though, because he was taller than her. Fen put a hand up to measure, lifting it above his head.
"Hmm," she said, feeling thoughtful. "You're big. Or not. Or small?" She frowned at him. Who was this?
"Are you all right?" he asked her again, intently.
He had nice eyes, she thought. Pretty, greenie ones like… like who?
She swayed. Forward. Backward.
Who was he?
And then his mouth fell open.
And there was a noise. A big noise.
Or maybe they went in the other order?
His hand was up like he was saying the pledge of allegiance. Very patriotic, she thought, somewhat grumpily. Maybe not the best timing.
But something oozed through his fingers. And then he crumpled, falling to his knees, and pausing there, face twisted in agony.
It was a good face. Boyish. Young. But nice.
Not like that other guy's.
And where had he gone?
Oh, god, it was so hard to concentrate. Fen pinched herself hard, taking a bit of skin on the top of her wrist and twisting it brutally. She'd done worse. It wasn't as if pain bothered her.
But something was happening and she couldn't focus on what.
"Call for help," the boy gasped.
The pain gave her a moment of clarity.
Man, going to kill her.
Boy, appearing out of nowhere.
And somehow scaring the man off? But getting shot in the process.
"911," she said, her entire mouth feeling stiff and unconscious. "Got it." She looked around her. Her phone. It was in her bag. And her bag must be here somewhere.
"No," the boy moaned. Green ichor was seeping through the fingers clasped across his chest.
Green. That was funny. The pills must be causing hallucinations, along with all the physical crap that she was feeling.
Weird hallucination, though.
God, these were good drugs. She'd only taken, what, five, six, of the pills?
"You need an ambulance," she tried to say. The words didn't sound right to her own ears and she squeezed her eyes shut, trying to make sense of her own sounds. Fuck.
She stuffed her hands in her pockets. Her crystal felt warm when she touched it, almost hot. Help, she thought. The logical part of her brain wanted the thought to be frantic, but it wasn't. She felt quite peaceful. Almost placid.
The boy tilted sideways, landing on the ground. His lips were white, she noticed.
Help with what? The thought sounded annoyed.
The boy? She thought back. The one who's bleeding green? At my feet? The one who's shot? The one who's…
The thought stopped there. Dying. Was she dying? Was he dying? She honestly didn't know.
Carefully, one knee at a time, she let herself down to the ground. She could feel the asphalt under her hands, the hard ground under her knees. She could see dark ground, brick walls, metal dumpster, the boy's flesh, the green blood seeping through his fingers.
He opened his eyes. "Who are you?" he whispered. His lips, they were so pale. White almost.
Fen stared at them in fascination. White lips, green blood.
God, these were good drugs. Really good drugs. Except for the part about them being meant to kill her.
"I can't," she whispered.
"Can't what?" he gasped.
"911. I'm sorry." She folded down, down, down, until all she could feel was the hard ground. She needed to find her phone. She needed to call for help. She needed…
…to go to sleep.
That was what she needed.
With a sigh, she let her eyelids drift down.