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.
.... There is more of this story ...