I stepped out the back door of the gym, rolled my shoulders, and took a moment to appreciate the quiet of the neighborhood. I liked this time of day. It was silent, calm, no noise from traffic or the bustle of people. Times like that in this city were rare.
Stretching from side to side a few times, I zipped up my sweatshirt, then pulled up the hood and started a slow, steady jog.
This is how I started every day. Just as the sun was appearing in the sky, I ran through the alley’s and reminded myself that although I came from the streets, I’d fought hard enough to stay off them. Each day seeing this was my reality check.
I rounded the corner at the old restaurant and slowed my pace to watch the old woman, I think she called herself Betsy, roll up her blankets. I waited until she spotted me before I spoke. “The kitchen will have breakfast started soon, if you go now and ask for Albert, he’ll give you some hot coffee.”
The only acknowledgement I got was a slight nod, before she looked back to the pavement. Betsy never made eye contact for long. I would have liked to know her story, but that was for her to share, not for me to ask.
I picked up the pace again, making short jabs with my hands as I went. I felt good today. No aches, or gripes from my muscles. It had been a week since my last fight, and this may have been the longest in my life that I wasn’t injured on some level.
Someone stepped out of the shadowed doorway in front of me. He lifted a hand as hello, and then became invisible in the low light before I went by him. Living in the shadows was a hard life, not knowing who to trust and who not to. I had a roof over my head now, but those feelings that tell you to run would never go away, I thought, not that I’d want them to.
The only sound I could hear were my shoes hitting the pavement in a steady rhythm. It was just loud enough to warn any hiding their existence that I was present, and to scare off any rodents or lost pets living in the area.
A clatter to my left had me turning fast, ready, just in case. Relief washed over me when I saw it was only the old guy with the cane. He was struggling to get his wagon out from under the fire escape ladder. He’d probably slept there last night. I stopped and went over to duck under the metal ladder and pulled his wagon to clear the bar that was hanging down. He grinned, his toothless smile and patted the red hat on his head. I’d given him it a few months ago when we had cooler weather. “Kitchen will be open soon. Make sure you fill your water bottles with clean water.” He nodded and turned to pull his creaking wagon down the alleyway.
Rolling my shoulders, I started with a slower pace, in no hurry to finish my run today. I hadn’t been to the south park lately, I should probably drop by later today and see if anyone was around. I’d been so caught up helping the guys in the gym, I hadn’t taken the time, and the guilt rode me hard for that.
The stench of the dumpster I went past had me wrinkling up my nose until I was clear of it. That was one thing I would never miss, the odors that went with living on the streets.
Turning right into the next alley, I grinned to see the light from the rising sun shine down. If there was any way to see this deserted space as beautiful, this brief moment each day was it. It made you forget that rats and homeless lived here in this dirty space that others used to toss unwanted things in. For a brief moment each day, it glowed with the chance to be something better, something more than it appeared to be.
Walking toward me quickly was a woman that lived in this alley, I didn’t know her name, but everyone knew her as the lady that sings. She was always singing. I frowned, she wasn’t singing today. Her expression was one of fear. I slowed as she reached me.
“No, no. Go back.” She said quickly and ran past me.
I jogged on the spot and watched her move away. That was unusual. I looked around, there was no one that I could see. She turned down the dark alley I’d come from and was gone. Odd. I’d have to swing by the kitchen later, after I opened the gym, and see if the guys there could shed some light on what was bothering her.
I grimaced when a sharp pain traveled down my left calf. That would teach me for skipping my stretching this morning. Muscle strains were a tricky thing. Feeling a bit breathless, I turned to keep moving. Getting tired and dizzy before I was half way through my route had me mentally scolding myself. One chocolate bar the night before messed up a carefully maintained metabolism.
I wasn’t one to quit. I’d keep going through the light-headedness until I burned that artificial garbage from my system. I glanced up, blinking to try and focus, gone was the bright sunlight as blackness closed in.
The blood trailed down his face, dripping from his nose as he came at me again. As he widened his stance, I knew there was no chance I’d be sweeping his legs out from under him a second time. My movement was restricted by these bagging clothes they made me wear, otherwise my roundhouse kick would knock him flying. I’d learned the hard way yesterday, the clothes constrained my movement and I couldn’t follow through. The bruises on my arms were proof of that.
“Told you it wasn’t going to be easy.” Blondie said to him from the doorway. His face was sporting a black eye from the day before. He rattled the chain in his hand. “Just grab her and I’ll get these on her legs.”
The other guard wiped the blood across his face and gave an abrupt nod, then stupidly started to come toward me again.
When they’d dragged me in the day before and tossed the jumpsuit at me, I thought I’d been wrongfully busted for something. After a few moments of trying to justify their error, I’d realized this was not a jail, they were not cops, and I was in a different kind of trouble. The kind of trouble that wasn’t on any books, had no rules, and was a matter of life and death.
People usually react three ways in situations like this. Fear, that causes them to comply. Shutting down and doing nothing. Or freaking out, I wasn’t big on screaming and crying. Fight or flight. In my case I had to do the fight the part first to get to where I could run. Fighting. That lead to a much larger problem with the size of these guys. I’d fought big men before, but these two were taking that to the extreme. I couldn’t execute a good elbow-knee combo if I couldn’t reach anything vital to hit.
I could taste the blood in my mouth and it made me want to break his nose again. He knew it too and was shielding his face better now. If I could just get past him and drop blondie at the door, I might be able to find a way out of here.
“There’s nowhere to go.” He growled, hunkering down further, his arms outstretched.
It was a perfect position for me to inflict damage. I sneered at him. “What are you waiting for? Come and get me.” He charged at me, I ducked his arm and jumped up to land an elbow on his temple. He grunted and swung, catching me in the side of the face. The pain radiated up through my eye. I hated face shots, they hurt more than a blow to the kidneys.
“What is going on?”
The guard stumbled back and turned toward the door. Blondie was now standing erect and looking straight ahead.
I wiped the blood off my mouth and stared at the tall woman in the doorway. She had long red hair and her aura and expression both spelled out the same thing: b.i.t.c.h.
“You’re supposed to be transporting her over, not fighting with her.” She looked from one guard to the other. “No one is going to want a pulverized woman. It’s going to take a week for those to heal.”
I backed up, trying to decide if I could make it through the three of them. The words were echoing through my mind. My heart started thrumming out of control. I’d been abducted by human traffickers.
“Sorry, ma’am. We can’t get near her long enough to transport her.” Blondie said, still looking straight ahead.
She turned and looked at the man dripping blood all over the floor. “Go get that dealt with.”
Holding his nose, he moved by her quickly.
Turning, she looked at the chains in the other man’s hands and then to his face. I wasn’t sure, but it looked like she smirked when she saw my handywork.
I didn’t feel bad about his black eye. He’d walked up to me the day before and grabbed my arm. No one grabbed me. No one touched me if I didn’t want them to.
With cold eyes, she looked at me. “Look, Autumn—”
I scowled, she knew my name.
“While I admire your fighting spirit, I simply can’t have you beating up the guards and giving the others any ideas.” She gave me a tight smile that looked more like she was in pain.
I glared at her, if she was waiting for me to throw my hands up, apologize and comply, she was in for a big surprise.
With a slow nod, she sighed and looked at the guard. “Sedate her, get those on her,” she looked back to me, “you may want a pair for her hands as well. Then transport her.” She snickered. “After the walk, she’ll be too tired to fight.” She walked away without another word.
The guard slammed the door. I heard the lock click into place.
Exhaling, I slumped my shoulders forward. My face was throbbing. I’d baby my injuries later. I had to come up with a plan. If they thought they were sticking some needle in me to knock me out, they were in for a world of hurt.
The door opened.
I spun toward it, ready.
Blondie smirked and raised a gun and pulled the trigger, then closed the door again.
The sting of it registered in my leg. I looked down to see a dart sticking out of it. Grabbing it, I pulled it out and tossed it across the room. My head felt weird. I blew out a breath and hopped up and down trying to shake it off. The room tilted, and I stumbled and hit the wall. Sliding down, I glared at the door.
The door started to blur, I shook my head and it felt like I was moving in slow motion. My body was slipping sideways—I think, everything was too fuzzy to be sure. I couldn’t command my arm to stop the fall. I blinked, trying to focus, it was like someone was playing with the light switch and dimming the light in the room. I tried to fight the darkness. My last thought was that I was going to have to teach blondie a lesson.