Cuffs: An Undercover Novel
Lacey stopped at the mouth of the laneway, puffing, and peered into the waning light. It led to the rear of the building where the café was located. Lined with loading docks and recessed rear entrances, it smelled like a garbage dump. Using the shortcut would either shave a few minutes off her time or it could make her even later if the back door was locked. She’d take her chances if it meant she’d avoid copping a mouthful from her boss, the mad Greek.
Lacey’s history professor was old school and liked to work with hard copies and red pen rather than use the digital marking system. Of course, Murphy’s Law had her mid-term paper at the bottom of the pile, making her the last student out the door. The boss wouldn’t care though. All he cared about was knocking off for the evening so he could get to the greyhounds.
Dark alleys in big cities were synonymous with danger where Lacey came from. But having lived in Sydney’s inner city going on three years now, she was surprised at how safe she felt. Here, you’d have to be real unlucky for something to happen. And Lacey wasn’t unlucky.
She was just late.
Squaring her shoulders, she hitched her bag up and turned her back on the streetlights, unaware the simple chain of events had sparked a domino effect, sealing her fate and changing her future forever.
The buzz of the street she had left behind was absorbed into the stillness as she ventured into the heart of the laneway. Lacey crossed her arms and buried her chilled fingers into her woolly cardigan. All she could hear was the soft sound of the rubber soles of her runners against the concrete … until it was smothered by the voices. She slowed her stride and squinted, detecting four shadowy figures huddled in a small area at the rear of a building ahead. All men. Despite the dim lighting, the three-to-one standover couldn’t be misinterpreted as a friendly chat in a dark alley. She wasn’t taking a step further.
The largest of the three attackers roughed up the smaller guy, feeding Lacey’s growing fear. The victim darted to his left, attempting a getaway. A fist clamped around his shirt, thwarting his efforts, and he was yanked back into the foray, chest to chest against a hulk of a man. Taking a quick sidestep, Lacey ducked behind a large dumpster. Her back was flush against the cold hard metal, and she slapped her palm to her mouth to stifle her gasp. She didn’t dare move or breathe in case it gave her away. Crouching out of sight, she wished she was somewhere, anywhere else, as the men’s voices intensified in pitch, one pleading, the others suffused with menace.
She closed her eyes and inhaled in short, sharp bursts. Swallowing down a swelling lump lodged in her throat, she lifted her lids and gazed back down the way she came. The glow of the streetlights spotlighted people, all shuttling past the entrance to the laneway, ignorant of the scene unraveling before her. The pull to return to the bustle of the street was powerful. But Lacey was paralyzed.
Sucking in deeper breaths calmed her down enough to get her joints and limbs working again. The trick was not to panic. Deliberate, precise movements would aid in an undetected escape. It wasn’t much different to the times when she had come up close to red-bellied black snakes on the farm before she’d shot them.
She carefully eased onto all fours. Inch by agonizing inch, she began to crawl through the darkness. Her shoulder scraped against the wall that shadowed her retreat. She’d call the police when she was safe.
Behind her, a thwacking sound followed by a sickening thud had her body jerking into a higher gear. Don’t look back. Don’t look back.
She struggled to focus on the streetscape ahead, but that morbid curiosity that pricks up at the scene of a car accident made her slow down and turn her head. She wished she hadn’t. Her stomach clenched and she broke out into a shivery sweat.
The bulkiest figure was brutally kicking what looked like a sack of potatoes sprawled out on the concrete. The other two attempted to restrain him.
Her insides shriveled. Dread and panic squeezed her like a vise. Scrambling to her feet, she glanced over her shoulder again, and that’s when the unthinkable happened. A discarded can connected with her shoe and lazily rolled across the concrete. The tinny sound echoed off the brick walls. Holding her breath, she pivoted slowly to face the scene of the assault again, hoping she’d gone unnoticed. Knowing she hadn’t.
Her brain went offline. Instinct hijacked her. In one swift movement she hitched her bag onto her shoulder and bolted.
Alex watched the girl with the long blonde hair take off down the lane.
“After her,” Euge said. “She’s seen too much. I’ll deal with this mess.”
His brother, Nik, stood panting as Alex stared at the cadaver crumpled at his feet.
“Alex, get a fucking move on before she disappears, huh?”
He tore his eyes away and did as he was told. Thoughts whirled in his head as his feet pounded the concrete. He was unable to focus on a single one of them, except that he had to get the girl. He rounded the corner into the street and slowed down, and searched the crowd. Her mane of hair caught his attention. She glanced back. Her eyes were wide with fear at the sight of him and she plowed into a young punk, stumbled, all but shoved the guy out of the way, and kept running.
Dodging pedestrian traffic he legged it after her.
She was fast, but he was gaining ground until a gaggle of women in their workday uniforms of pencil-straight skirts and high heels blocked his path as they entered the Vietnamese restaurant with the rave reviews.
“Out of my fucking way!” He shoved through them, one almost toppling into the oversized flowerpot sitting by the door.
A raucous cursing from the so-called ladies blared in his ears as he slowed fractionally and gave them a death stare. That shut their pretty little mouths up, but in the meantime he had lost sight of Rapunzel. Scanning the street, he caught a glimpse of her on the other side of the road, just about to slip around a corner and out of sight.
Not on my watch, baby.
She led the chase to a large construction site about three blocks away, near the railway tracks. He stopped and combed the dim street with eager eyes. Fibers of pink wool fluttered on a sharp edge of fencing by the front gate, betraying her. She was small enough to squeeze through a gap. Not a clever move. Blending amongst the crowds of Thursday night shoppers and diners would have been the better option for her.
Vaulting over the five-foot wire fence, he walked toward the site office and stopped, surveying the area as he plucked a small container from his leather jacket pocket. He flipped the lid and popped a mint into his mouth. A pallet of bricks piled high on his left, a mountain of rubble on his right, and a shell of a building bang in the center: all decent hiding spots. He felt like shouting Coming, ready or not just to add some humor to the ridiculous situation, but thought better of it, considering the girl was probably scared shitless anyway.
So she should be. She’d just witnessed Nikola Maric, the boss’s brother, killing Mikey, the sneaky, double-crossing douchebag. Nik had more brawn than brain. He couldn’t give a fuck if they tossed his ass in jail and threw away the key. In fact, he’d welcome it. But Euge would do anything to keep his little brother out of prison, and that’s what worried Alex.
He gave himself a mental shakedown. That was the least of his problems. This girl had just jammed a spanner into his game plan, and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
He took one step toward the pile of rubble when his cell phone vibrated in his pocket.
“Alex, you got her?” Euge asked.
“Nah.” He heard a faint ping sound from behind the pallet of bricks and his head whipped around.
Now I do.
“Don’t worry,” said Euge. “I got her name and looked her up. We can pay her a friendly visit at home.”
Alex’s stomach plummeted. Fuck. “How’d you manage that?”
“I have my ways.” He chuckled. “It’s why I’m the boss. All we need is the girl now. Don’t let me down, Alexi. I’ve done my job, now you do yours.”
Alex stared at the neat pile of new bricks partially wrapped in plastic. Arrogant prick. The girl had no idea the kind of danger she was in. Alex did. “What are you insinuating, Euge? I always do my job.”
“Of course you do, Alexi. No need to get all defensive. Just get your ass to the office, pronto, and I’ll tell you what I found in the laneway. Then we’ll nab her at home. Let’s hope she hasn’t paid the cops a visit, yet.”
That text ping revealing her hiding spot was like a knife in Lacey’s back. The strident crunch of the rubble beneath his shoes as her pursuer headed her way made her heart pound like crazy. She slipped around the block of bricks, but before she realized his pace had changed, he pounced. A rough palm clamped across her mouth and her body was wrenched against his. She shrieked, but the sound was muffled by his hand.
How could she have let him catch her so easily?
A wisp of warm breath tickled her neck. “Shh … I’m not going to hurt you.”
The soft sound floated into her ear, his breath stroking her sensitive skin and sending shivers down her spine. In contrast, prickles of fear pierced her insides like stinging nettles. She felt clammy, even a little faint. Her trembling body felt weak and her knees buckled beneath her.
Panicking, her eyes scoured the building site but there was nothing and no one to help her. Her nails scraped across the bricks as she tried to grab hold of an edge or something she could use to leverage out of his grip, but nothing but hardened clay scuffed her fingertips and chipped her nails. She wriggled and squirmed against him, finally going limp to try to drop out of his hold.
His grip was like iron.
It was hopeless. Escape required a gargantuan effort of super strength that Lacey didn’t have, or else a clever tactic taught in defense classes she’d always meant to take.
“Stay still.” The man’s voice was husky and raw.
His grip tightened, holding her still as he nuzzled his face in her hair. Tears sizzled down her hot cheeks. She feared he would rape her, and she’d probably end up like the body in the lane. Dead, or close to it.
Her insides convulsed as her muddled brain short-circuited with panic and anxiety at her imminent fate.
“Don’t cry. I’m not going to hurt you. I’ll let go of your mouth – only if you don’t scream. Got it?”
His voice was deep and calm, but the tone was glacial. Lacey’s body was rigid and ready. If he was to force her to the ground she wasn’t going down without a fight.
“I’m not going to ask you again,” he said.
Lacey nodded. This may be her window of opportunity for escape.
He loosened his grip on her body and the hand cupped across her mouth slipped from her face. As soon as she felt his grip slacken, she launched herself forward.
Her great escape consisted of about three steps before his arm snagged her around the waist. He slammed her back up against the stacked bricks. The air whooshed out of her lungs on impact.
In her respiratory panic, she felt a muscular thigh jam between her legs. His torso crushed against hers, holding her captive and breathless. One of his hands squeezed her wrists above her head, and the other cupped her chin. His face was so close her eyes must have crossed and her vision blurred. The fresh smell of mint and leather permeated her senses. It briefly distracted her from the tremors rolling through her body as she finally managed to inhale a shallow breath. Now she knew what it was like to have an asthma attack.
“Now that wasn’t very nice, was it, Angel?”
She blinked a couple of times and his eyes came into focus a few inches from her. Specks of gold were scattered across the greeny-brown of his irises that glistened in the dim light. Her gaze continued over his cheeks, across his tense jaw grazed with a five o’clock shadow. His lips were pulled tight across his teeth.
“Listen, I’m not your enemy. I’m here to help you. You’ve gotta trust me,” he growled. “Those men I was with want your head because you witnessed a murder. I’ll protect you. Do you understand?”
Trust? Lacey had registered what he said, but his voice was so harsh she feared he would strangle, chop, and bury her in the foundations of the building.
Her wretched thoughts, not to mention his fierce, unwavering stare, immobilized her. He could have backed away and physically let go and she was sure she still wouldn’t have been able to crook her little finger, let alone run. Even if she had he would have caught her. She was trapped.
“Do you understand?” he repeated through clenched teeth.
She nodded in response but really wasn’t sure what to think. Her mind was so battered with shock. This man, with his sweet breath, vise-grip, and the kavorka in his gaze, was confusing her with his talk of protection. She felt nothing but exposed, vulnerable, and weak, especially with his undeniable hardness jutting up against her hipbone.
“Now, listen to me. Those goons I was with know where you live …”
A sob caught in her throat. “What? How?” Surely this was a nightmare, an episode she would wake from? Witnessing a murder and being pursued and captured by one of the gangsters only happened in movies and books. Right?
He shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve got to check in with them. You’ve gotta stay here and wait for me.”
She gave the back of her head a small thump against the brick wall and lifted her eyes skyward. No. “I just want to go home. I promise I won’t say anything to anyone about what I saw. Promise.” A trickle of tears flowed down her cheeks. “Please, let me go.”
He exhaled again and hung his head. “Wish I could.” He looked back at her, his brows knitted tight. He fumbled in his back pocket and brought out a set of shiny cuffs. “Like I said, they know where you live. You can’t go home.”
Her eyes widened. “What are you going to do with those?”
“I can’t trust you to stay put.”
“I will. I will … promise,” she begged.
He smiled wryly. “Angel, in my experience, when a girl ends her sentence with promise she’s more than likely going to do the exact opposite.” He lowered her arms, squeezing one wrist with a strong hand.
He was so right. She would have been out of there in a shot.
She rolled her eyes and huffed out a breath, trying to stave off more waterworks. She couldn’t think. The weakness she felt at having the cold metal clamped around her wrist was feeding her burgeoning hopelessness. “Who are you? A policeman?” She felt her lower lip quiver so she bit it with her top teeth. God, she hoped he was someone on her side of the law, or a good Samaritan. But good Samaritans don’t carry around handcuffs. Besides the likelihood was close to zero, by the looks of him.
Mystery man lifted his eyes to meet her stare. Without saying a word he pulled her roughly across the yard, almost yanking her arm out of its socket. He forced her to drop to the ground and looped the handcuffs around the leg of the cement mixer, clicking the other cuff around her free wrist. “That should do it. Now, do I have to gag you too?”
Gag! He asked the question as if it were commonplace, as if he asked people all the time. Her throat dried up. The thought of something in her mouth, saliva building up and the possibility of her choking, was frightening. She shook her head. “I won’t scream. This is a building site. No one will hear me anyway.”
He looked around, then back at her, narrowing his eyes. “Gotta do it, Angel. I need your bag.”
It had dropped beside her. Snatching it up, he rifled through it. “What’s this?”
She was angry and scared but angrier now watching him go through her personal stuff. “A scarf. What does it look like?”
She jumped when he threw her bag down next to her and ripped the fabric.
“Noooo.” He fucking tore it? It wasn’t worth much but it was her favorite.
“I’m sure you’ve got ten more of these at home.”
“That’s not the point.” She tugged at her cuffs hard. “Ouch.” Tears streaked down her face.
“Don’t pull on the cuffs, otherwise they’ll tighten around your wrist. It hurts, you know.”
She glared at him. “No shit, Sherlock.” She’d had enough.
Ignoring her outburst, he wedged the fabric into her mouth and tied it behind her head. Tight.
“Okay, that should do it.”
He didn’t look happy about what he just did, but he did it anyway. Asshole.
He took her chin between his thumb and his index finger. “Now, Angel, I’m coming back. Just sit tight and trust me.”
Trust him? Yeah, well that was as likely as pigs flying. Outrage tangled with fear and anxiety as he strode away with not so much as a look back. It made Lacey want to hurl abuse at him like a guest on the Jerry Springer show. And she did. It was real colorful stuff too. Pity he couldn’t understand a goddamn word of it.
Lacey leaned against the cement mixer, legs bent. Resting her forehead on her knees, she heaved out a dam of tears. What had happened tonight? Since her history lecture she had witnessed a murder, and been chased and caught by a thug who was bent on protecting her. Or so he said. And now she was cuffed to a cement mixer. Her life had been plunged into peril, all because she took the shortcut down that stupid lane. She swallowed a vat of spit. Well, to hell with that. She had to take back control.
She sniffled, wishing the tears would stop. Now wasn’t the time to fall apart. She had to act. Grabbing her bag with her feet she tipped it up and let the contents pour out. Grabbing her bag with her feet, she tipped it up and let the contents pour out. Her essay paper was missing …
“Huh.” Her mind ticked away. The paper’s front cover had her name, student number … She rubbed her face against her knee to wipe strands of her hair away. Oh God. That’s how they’d gotten her details. She sighed, slumping against the machine, her stomach churning like the aggregate in the belly of the cement mixer. Lacey stared at her belongings in the rubble. Her heart sank. Damn it. Her leather-clad captor must have lifted her phone too.