Beth Becker was late, very late, for her shift. Sheâ€™d already sprinted ten blocks from the bus stop. Despite the autumn air that bit at the acres of flesh left exposed by her Halloween costume, her skin was slick with sweat. She heard little besides the rush of blood swirling in her ears and the incessant thwap thwap thwap of her boot soles as they slapped the cracked sidewalk. But what little she heard was enough.
She stopped for a moment and strained to catch the sound. It was a whine alternating with a low, throaty growl that was impossible to ignoreâ€”no matter how hard the other pedestrians buzzing past tried to do just that. It came from a gap between two decaying and abandoned buildings that was not quite wide enough to be called an alley. It looked like an empty tooth socket in a meth headâ€™s already ruined smile. Beth drew closer to the almost-alley, ignoring the aura of raw gloom that oozed from it onto the sidewalk.
She cocked her ear toward the shadows, but heard nothing except a thin silence. Beth checked the time. If she left now, she might manage to clock in only fifteen minutes after she was due. That would net her nothing stronger than stern words. If she showed up much later than that, it was anyoneâ€™s guess what managementâ€™s response might be. She turned to goâ€”and again caught that whine, only now it came laced with bits of unintelligible words, piercing shrieks, and hollow laughter. Something about it all was wrong, very wrong, almost sick.
Beth slipped into the alleyway. The chill and shadows wrapped around her like a cowl. The air was rife with an acrid stench which left no doubt that this urban fissure moonlighted as an alfresco piss stop. The familiar New Harbor din began to fade as she stepped farther from the street, overtaken by more jeers, more taunts, and that wavering whine. She drew close to a dogleg in the brick warren. On one wall was a freshly scrawled patch of graffiti: Beware the Night Angel in Day-Glo orange spray paint.
She rounded the final corner and was greeted by a wall of backs. There were five of them, four whippet-thin and wiry, one who strained the waistband of his soiled canvas cargos. They all wore grimy hoodies or grease-stained windbreakers. A pack of punks from Grey Hill or suburban kids playing at it. Past the swaying of their gangly limbs, Beth spotted the source of that whine and growl, a haggard mutt whose collar had snagged on the twisted hem of a rusted cyclone fence.
â€œGet it. Get it,â€ demanded the one on the end, the fat one, his spare tire undulating with sadistic giddiness. One of the others obliged, hurling an empty forty-ounce bottle at the dog. It shattered against the fence and rained glass.
Beth had seen enough. Time cards be damned, this had to stop. She stepped from the shadows. â€œHey! What the hell do you think youâ€™re doing?â€
They turned. Shame blushed across their teenage faces in a wave. None of them would meet her eyes. They started shuffling away from one another in the random pattern of a crowd that suddenly realized its reason to crowd was gone.
All except one, that is, the fat one, who sauntered toward her. â€œWhatâ€™s it to you, skank?â€ His voice was crammed with the mush-mouth adolescent arrogance of someone whoâ€™d just discovered the thrill of muscling around his mother.
Beth planted her feet. â€œShouldnâ€™t you idiots be in school?â€
â€œNah, skank. Schoolâ€™s out.â€
â€œThen go home. Leave that dog alone.â€
He took another step closer, hands thrust into his Carhartts. Beth spied a wisp of peach fuzz staining his brace-faced smile. The others began to advance on her too, exchanging nudges and wry looks. â€œWeâ€™re just having fun.â€
â€œHave it someplace else.â€ Beth quickly glanced behind her. The street was farther away then she would have liked. The fat oneâ€™s ruddy eyes slid down the front of her costume, almost tugging at the laces of her red and black punk-rock devil corset. Beth suddenly felt acutely aware of just how little clothing she had on.
â€œHow â€™bout we have some fun with you, skank?â€ He shuddered out a laugh, shooting glances at his pack, all eager to see the next move. Behind them, the dog rattled the fence, straining to break free. The fat one took another step.
â€œI think youâ€™d better go home,â€ Beth said. â€œJust go home beforeâ€”â€
â€œBefore what?â€ His filthy mitt shot out to paw her corset.
Beth knocked it aside and then hit him with a hard right. His nose exploded with blood. She hit him again, and he went staggering. â€œBefore that.â€ She gripped both shoulders, bringing him in for a knee, followed by an elbow to the jaw.
He sucked air through his ruined nose with a sick gurgle. Beth locked his thumb and twisted him around, almost wrenching off the digit. He managed a babyish whimper as she shoved him down to the slimy pavement. She locked her knee in the crook of his neck. The others stood in shocked silence. The dog yelped in approval.
â€œGet this crazy bitch off me,â€ the kid squawked, all his bluster melting like ice cream dropped on an August sidewalk.
â€œYou all going home now?â€ Beth tugged out her cell. â€œOr do I call the cops?â€ They answered in unison by scuttling for the street. Beth hadnâ€™t fought off a decade and a half of groping delinquents and grab-happy clubbers just to wind up jumped by a pack of teenage twerps. Not today. Not ever. She knew how to throw a punch, and more important, she knew when.
â€œLet me up,â€ he blubbered. â€œPlease, lady, you gotta let me up.â€
â€œShut up, you little prick.â€ As she pressed harder, she got a closer look. His terror was rank. His pudgy cheeks wobbled with each sob as tears and blood pooled on the pavement. Another pool spread out from between his splayed legs. Despite his bulk, he couldnâ€™t have been more than fifteen. A punk, yes, but still a kid.
Beth eased up. â€œWhatâ€™s your home number?â€ she asked, phone held ready to dial. â€œBet your mother would loved to hear how youâ€™ve been spending your free time.â€
â€œPlease, lady. I didnâ€™t meanâ€”â€
â€œOh, itâ€™s â€˜ladyâ€™ now? What happened to â€˜skankâ€™?â€
â€œPlease, lady. Please. Iâ€™m sorry.â€
Beth grew up with kids like this one. A lot of them had wound up behind bars, even more under the dirt. She eased up. â€œYou donâ€™t change that attitude, you will be sorry.â€
She stepped back. He scrambled to his feet, brushing past her without another word. She could still see him wiping away blood, snot, and tears as he disappeared around the bend. Beth knew that the beating sheâ€™d just handed him would pale compared with what was waiting for him as soon as he met back up with his â€œfriends.â€ Theyâ€™d give him the business but good. He hadnâ€™t just been punkedâ€”heâ€™d been punked by a girl. There would be no mercy.
Beth swatted the grime from her skirt as she made her way toward the dog. Its matted fur was dusted with broken glass. It bent low, growling through bared teeth. She reached for the snagged collar. â€œEasy, now,â€ she cooed. â€œEasy.â€ She undid the clasp, and the dog was off like a loosed arrow. â€œThanks a lot,â€ she said to the now empty alley.
Beth glanced at the frayed nylon webbing clutched in her hand. No tag, just a notch where it had been sheared off. Looked as if someone had cut loose the family pet, someone who couldnâ€™t afford to feed it anymore and didnâ€™t cotton to the idea of some Good Samaritan bringing it back.
She checked her cell. â€œFuck me.â€ Her fifteen minutes had stretched into forty-five, and she still had ten blocks to go.