There wasn't much room for doubt about what was happening. The big guy had her with his one hand wrapped over her mouth and the other tight around her upper arm, jerking her deeper out of the streetlight spillover and into the alley. She wasn't even really struggling, just frog-marching along with him. The weaselly guy was beween them and me with a knife showing.
"Hey!" I shouted. But at 1:30 in the morning in that section of town there wasn't anyone else on the streets to hear, and this wasn't a neighborhood where people would come help even if they heard. The weaselly guy hissed at me, "Beat it, buddy, this ain't your business." The girl started to struggle fitfully, but the big guy jerked at her. "Get outta here," he growled at me.
I stared hard at them, letting the anger bubble up hot and humid inside me. It felt good to let such a strong feeling go, and I gave it rein. "Leave her alone! Let go of her!" I shouted again, and started down the alley.
Closest to me, Weasel broke first. He backed toward the far side of the alley and suddenly darted past me and out to the street with his speed picking up at every step. I suppose he turned and kept going, but he was out of the picture and I ignored him.
Big Guy lasted longer, trying to back away with the girl in tow, but she was struggling again and he couldn't move with her as fast as I was coming. I got to about three paces of him before he gave it up, almost threw her away from him and ran past me down the alley, his breath coming in quick rasps, bumping off the far wall as he went by. I didn't look back at him, either.
She was down on one knee where he'd pushed her, head down and shaking but no worse, which was good. I needed calm now. Deep breaths would help. I took two as I focused on my relaxation mantra before I moved, and by the time I reached out to help her up the adrenalin had quit pumping and I was nearly myself again. When I touched her she shrank away, but she was too panicked to do more than squeak shallowly. I gave her time, with a couple more deep breaths to bring myself down the rest of the way, then held my hand out gingerly to her without actually touching, the careful way you'd do with a strange dog. I stayed just like that, and after a moment or two she reached out her own hand to me very slowly and just made fingertip contact. Then she suddenly clutched my hand hard, pulled herself up and virtually leaped into my arms.
Calm was crucial. I held her and said soothing things: "It's over, it's OK, nothing happened, you're all right," on and on, putting it in the past not only for her but for me. After a bit she started sobbing, first lightly then full out, clinging to me harder for minutes on end until the sobs finally began turning to gasping breaths and then, at last, easier, and her grip began to slacken. I let go of her and moved back a pace to give her space to herself.
For the first time she looked squarely at me. "I—I don't... ," she faltered.
"It's fine," I said quietly. "Anyone would have done the same. And you're OK, just a bad experience for a moment or two. Why don't we move out of this alley?"
Neither of the guys was in view as we emerged from the alley. I hadn't expected it, though I'd been prepared, but they were long gone.
She was flat out gorgeous, I saw as we came out into the lights. Disheveled as she was, with a skinned knee peeking out under the short skirt and the marks of Big Guy's bulbous hand and her own tears across her face, she was about as beautiful a woman as I'd ever seen, let alone met. I drew in my breath at the clear sight of her, then exhaled slowly and easily.
"I'll walk you the rest of the way to where you're going," I said quietly. "Make sure you stay OK."
She looked at me again, this time with questions beginning to glimmer. But the bad scene we'd both just experienced was obviously uppermost in her mind, and all she said was, "OK." I waited for her to pick a direction, and moved with her as she did.
We'd gone a couple of blocks before she spoke again. "Thank you," she said. "I can't begin to say thank you enough. I know they were going to—" she choked off again.
"From the looks of them, they weren't getting it any other way," I said lightly. I know perfectly well that rape is about power and not sex, but it seemed best to ease the mood. It worked; she actually giggled.
"And the smell!" she added. "I don't think they'd bathed in weeks, at least the one who had hold of me." So that was how Big Guy had lasted so long; I'd been really angry.
"Well, anyhow, they didn't," I said. "You're OK now."
"Thanks to you," she said with a grateful look. She abruptly reached over and took my arm, squeezing it slightly. I did a little more calming breathing.
"Do you want to report it to the police?" I asked after a time.
She waited another half a block before she answered. "Do you think I should?"
"You can," I said. "I'll go with you, if you decide to do it. They'll maybe try again with somebody else."
She hesitated again. It wasn't hard to read.
"On the other hand," I continued smoothly, "neither of us saw them in clear light, nothing actually happened, and the police aren't going to take it really seriously all by itself. I'm not sure we could do all that much good for anyone. Besides, maybe they won't try it again, especially around here." I was pretty sure of the last. "And you might upset other people about it," I added, which I figured was the point.
It was. All of a sudden she was very verbal. "My mom would find out, and my dad. And they were against my taking the apartment to begin with, they wanted me to stay home and commute, and if they find out there was trouble—"
"Commute?" I asked.
"I'm going to school. Grad. I'm biochem, and sometimes I have late labs, like tonight, and if my parents find out about this they'll go wild worrying and try to pressure me to move back, and I really don't want to."
"Mmm," I said noncomittally. Late laboratory work and no private transportation for someone who looked like she did and lived around here would have scared me as silly as it would her parents, but this wasn't the moment to say that.
I didn't need to. "I usually drive," she volunteered, "but my car's in the shop and I thought it would be safe enough to take the bus this once, and then, oh, God..."
"It's never that safe at this hour," I said bluntly. "You need to get straight to your door, not walk down the street alone. Next time try a cab."
"I can't afford—"
"You can't afford what was going to happen tonight," I interrupted her. She snapped her head around at me sharply, then shuddered at the memory. We went on for a few paces in silence until she stopped in front of a somewhat ramshackle apartment building. "I live here," she said.
"Good night, then." I smiled at her. "Put it behind you now," I added. "But remember about the cab." She stood hesitating, awkward for a moment. "Or call me," I said on impulse. "Here's a card." I fumbled in my pocket to find one and handed it to her. "That's me, Pete Lanholm. I'm almost always awake until late hours, and I often take night walks. The number is my cell, and I always have it with me. I can meet you at the bus stop and walk you home and it'll be just part of my outing. You'll be safe."
She looked at me wide-eyed. It was a dumb thing for me to have done, but it was done and there was part of me that hoped she'd call, hoped there was something I could do for somebody else and hoped, too, for another evening of her company, however brief. She was a joy to look at and even under this stress some intelligence and personality was glimmering through. And she'd been scared, but she'd come back...
She smiled back at me, and her smile was as lovely as you'd expect from a beautiful woman. "Thank you ... Pete," she said. "Good night to you, and thank you for everything." She stepped close and gave me a quick hug, then turned to go up the front steps to her building. I started to walk on, but she stopped me. "My name is Jennifer," she said quietly. "Jennifer Ashley." She gave me another quick smile. "So you'll know who might be calling you for escort service." I watched her go the rest of the way to the front door. In my dreams...
But she actually did call. It was the next night, right around 1:00, when I felt the cell vibrating. I pulled it out of my pocket and clicked it but said nothing; my phone manner is a little abrupt, but people who ordinarily call me know that.
"Uh ... Pete? Peter?" I heard.
"It's me," I said.
"This is ... well, it's Jennifer."
"Jennifer Aniston," I said confidently. Oh, hell.
There was a gale of laughter. "Ashley," she corrected. "But how nice! She's so beautiful."
"So are you," I blurted. Oh, hell again; there are ways to say things and then there are ways to say things. But I got another easy laugh.
"How sweet of you to say so," she said. "Anyhow, you said to call, and— well, I'm on the bus again."
"And I'm out again. I usually am. Same stop?"
"Well— I feel like I'm imposing. But you said—"
"Meant it. How soon?"
"I guess about twenty minutes."
"I'll be there." I cut the phone off. Well, I said I'm abrupt; I don't have a lot of social experience or skills. When all has been said that needs saying, I just quit talking.
The bus was running a little late, but then they usually do and I only waited about five minutes before it pulled up and she got off, looking uncertainly around until she spotted me. I smiled and gave her a little nod. "Your escort service at the ready," I said.
"Thank you," she said with her own smile. Tonight, with no trace of tears or marks, it was radiant. I needed a quick breath to relax. We started walking. "Pete, I feel like I'm imposing. I know I am. You have to have— where were you when I called?"
"Out," I said economically. "A few blocks away. I told you I often take walks at night."
"Why at night?" she asked. "I mean, aren't you scared? Haven't you had trouble?"
"Fewer people out, that's why at night. No, I'm not scared, and I've only had trouble a couple of times and I took care of it." I didn't go into just how I'd "taken care of it," but she pressed anyway.
"God, that was so brave of you last night. I never even thought about it then, but there were two of them, and I know one had a knife and the other one had to be twice your size and I can tell you he was strong, and you just came down the alley with no weapon or anything and chased them away like they were little boys."
"Mmm," I said noncommittally, searching quickly for something else to talk about.
"Are you a karate master or something, I mean, that you were so sure you could take them?"
"Something like that," I said. "Guys like that don't have a lot of guts." I changed the subject. "What's up with your car?"
"Oh, hell," she said abruptly. "The transmission's gone funny, and I took it to a small shop to keep the bill down and because they promised they could fix it overnight, and now they say they have to order a part that won't be in for several days, and meantime I'm on foot."
"Several days," I mused. "Any more late labs?"
"Every night," she said grimly. "Getting near the end of term, and I missed some and have to make them up. And when I found out about the car I asked around and I can't find anybody to stay with, and nobody else lives anywhere near."
I shrugged. "Is it the same time every night?"
"Mostly, but I can't be sure. Pete, I can't keep asking—"
"Yeah, you can. Call. I told you I'm always up, and usually out and about."
"And you brighten my evening constitutionals," I cut her off. "Mostly I just walk. It's nice to have you to do it with."
"Oh!" she exclaimed, slightly breathlessly. "Well..."
"You're safe with me," I told her. "Safe from me and safe from others. Call. Please."
"Well ... OK, then. I will. You're very sweet."
For several nights following it became a routine. Mostly she was on the same bus, but a couple of times it was a little earlier and once, when she was especially apologetic, a later run. I made sure to stay reasonably close to the stop rather than letting my walks extend as I ordinarily did. One night it was pouring rain and I wouldn't normally have gone out but I left the cell on and when it buzzed I grabbed an umbrella. That was the night she asked where I lived. I pointed it out when we passed—it wasn't far from either the bus stop or where the two guys had got on her, but I use a P. O. box on my card so I don't get visitors. She said oh, but that was it.
I re-lived those nights in my mind over and over. She was terrific fun to be with, full of chatter even when she was tired from the lab work. She was pursuing her degree even though her parents disapproved—they wanted a husband for her, and grandchildren, but grudgingly supplemented her tuition loans just enough for her to keep progressing toward her dream. She seemed to have no current boyfriend, but it was pretty clear that was only a hiatus. Apparently the most recent had turned out to be abusive and she was taking a break from relationships.
There wasn't ever anything more. A couple of times she grabbed my arm kind of tight and pressed herself into me, and I had the strong impression she wouldn't have minded if I'd taken the hint, but that was out of the question and I never pursued it.
Then it was over. It turned out that the repair shop she'd chosen were cheap bastards and wouldn't order the part until she paid for it up front, but they also wouldn't actually come out and say that straight until she challenged them about it taking so long. From then it was only two more days before she finally told me she was picking up the car tomorrow.
"Now I can quit bugging you every night!" she said. "I'll be back to wheels."
It wasn't anything like such a red-letter day to me, but I simply told her congratulations. And meant it; I'm no Adonis, and I know the constant smiles and the reliance of this wondrously independent woman on my masculine company had to have been something of an ordeal for her.
At her door she pulled out a small card, blank except for her handwriting—her name and phone number. "Call me, Pete, please," she said. "I'm going to miss you and our walks. A lot. Please call."
Then she kissed me, putting plenty of enthusiasm into it; it took an awful lot of will power to stay calm. "Good night, Jennifer," I said quietly when it was over.
"Good night, Pete. Call soon, OK?"
Of course I wouldn't, but it was a lovely way to end it.
Three weeks went by and I slipped easily back into my old routine. Well, OK, not easily, especially at first. But after I found myself walking past the same bus stop at the same time three nights running I made a conscious effort and it got easier; my walks began following their old random pattern and I was again seeing new parts of the city every night. Some parts were a little too new; one night a druggie pulled out a gun when he was at least ten yards away and I was genuinely worried until he walked up, pointing it at me, to relieve me of my wallet. He left, without either wallet or gun, a lot faster than he'd come. I pitched the gun into a dumpster I passed later on. Kept the wallet, though.
It was about 5:00 in the afternoon when the doorbell rang, startling me considerably; I don't encourage visitors, and mostly they don't come. I don't bother with a peephole, so I simply opened expecting some door-to-door type, but it was she.
I'd forgotten just how beautiful she was. The harsh corridor light glinted off her softly blond hair and shone on the bright blue eyes.
I was horribly conscious that I hadn't yet shaved that day, and that my hair was probably in disarray, and that I was dressed in yesterday's t-shirt and jeans and sandals and most likely looked like a transgendered bag lady. And how I looked wasn't the worst of it; I gaped, jaw dropping and momentarily unable to even speak. The peasant may look at a princess, but he knows the difference.
She smiled that smile again. "Hi, Pete," she said brightly. "Remember me?"
"Ah ... ah, well..." Tongue-tied R Us.
"Can I come in?"
All I could do was move aside in invitation. She walked in.