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The Little Grave
Author: Carolyn Arnold




Atlanta, Georgia, United States



Five and a Half Years Ago, January

Her past didn’t sit and stay like an obedient dog. It was more a wolf that stalked her every move, breathed down her neck, and inched closer with every passing second. The hundreds of miles she’d traveled or the state lines she’d crossed in the last five months didn’t matter; her hunter was there and had her constantly looking over a shoulder. She yearned to stop and catch her breath but knew the second she did her life would be over. She’d be ripped apart by the unmerciful teeth of her history.

Casey-Anne was three minutes into her set and hanging upside down on the pole when she spotted him at the back of the strip club, leaning against the bar, no drink in hand. He appeared within a haze of cigarette smoke, giving the illusion of an apparition. But he was very much real, and his gaze was fixed on her. Not in the sad, pathetic, and predictable way most men ogled her at Georgia’s Peaches, pinning her with their lascivious leers. No, he had something else on his mind.

He was there to kill her.

Her heartbeat thumped, its bass reverberating in her skull. She spun around and landed on the stage, feeling more vulnerable than she had since that night she’d run away. Performing had given her a sense of power and control. Men could look but not touch. But right now all that confidence had been stripped away. She was more exposed than ever—not because all she wore was a skimpy thong that left very little to the imagination and fine-pointed heels that added six inches to her height—but because of that man.

She carried on her routine, pretending to ignore him. She focused on her well-practiced moves and gave sultry pouts and seductive looks to every man who tossed a wadded bill at her feet. But the only thing she could think about was getting the hell out of there.

Her last song wound down and she rushed back to the dressing room. She’d have to leave the money from the stage behind. Small price if it meant her life.

Tessa, a fellow dancer who went by the stage name of Ginger and wore a wig of red curls that reached her ass, was applying mascara in a grimy, pitted mirror. “How’s the crowd?”

Casey-Anne barely spared her a glance as she grabbed everything from her locker and stuffed all of it into her duffel bag.

“Hello? Ya hard of hearing?”

“I’m getting the hell out of here.” Casey-Anne shucked the heels, slipped on a pair of blue jeans and pulled a sweater over her head. She pushed her feet into running shoes and threw on her coat.

“That bad, huh.” Tessa exchanged her mascara brush for a compact of blush.

Without another word, Casey-Anne flew past her, out the back door and past the bouncer. She’d just swing by her apartment and pick up some things before hitting the road. She wasn’t safe here anymore.

The streets were bare, and the January evening was cool for Georgia. It seeped through to her bones and turned the sheen of sweat on her body into a layer of ice.

She hustled, glancing behind her with attention on the shadows, the darkness the streetlights didn’t reach. She didn’t see anyone following her, but that didn’t mean the man wasn’t there. She could feel his eyes piercing through the night.

She picked up her speed. Her place was only a three-block walk from the club; a short distance but it always felt like a long way in the dark. Her skin pricked with goose bumps, but she couldn’t give in to panic and hysteria. Or let her mind dwell on her nightmarish past.

There was the scuffing of shoes behind her and she spun around. But no one was there.

A half block to go. Maybe she was overreacting. Maybe there was no need to head out right away. She could wait until daylight. Tonight, she’d pour herself a glass of wine and take a nice, long hot shower and crawl into bed. Yes, that was a pleasant thought, and it spurred her forward. In this fantasy she could almost blink away the recollection of that man. Blank stare, hardened jaw, rigid body.

She took the stairs to her apartment building’s front door two at a time and unlocked it. Once inside, she pushed against it to ensure it shut tight and the automatic lock was back in force. It was then she caught movement outside the sidelight. She jumped back.

A man was on the other side. There was a scratching noise at the knob.

She couldn’t get herself to move toward the stairwell for her third-floor apartment. Her legs weren’t responding.

The handle turned—the sound had been a key in the lock—and a man she recognized as another tenant stepped inside.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hi.” She could barely squeeze out the tiny word as she rushed to push the door shut again.

He took off toward his apartment, leaving her in the small entry, heaving for breath like she’d run a marathon. She jogged to her apartment, threw the deadbolt and linked the chain, and fell against the door. Safe. For now she had escaped the wolf on her trail.

She dropped her bag and jacket on the floor and rushed to the kitchen. A bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon had her name all over it. She guzzled some back, assuring herself that soon all would be better, and took some wine in a glass with her down the hall.

She ran the water hot, got undressed and under the spray, closed her eyes and let her mind drift to dreams of a future that didn’t include dancing for money, and where her past was so far behind her she couldn’t recall it. A time, flashing forward, when she obtained her nursing license and had a job in a doctor’s office or a hospital.

A thud.

Her eyes shot open and she turned off the taps to listen. All was silent except for her breathing and the pounding of her heart in her ears. It had to simply be paranoia eating away at her sanity. She was, after all, in a locked apartment, in a locked building. But doubt gnawed on her. If someone were determined enough, they could find their way in. Pick a lock, come up with a ruse, or let themselves in on the heels of another tenant.

She squeezed her eyes shut, took some long breaths and calmed her nattering mind. There. All was better.

The shower curtain was ripped down, and the man from the club was standing there.

A scream curdled in her throat.

She scrambled to get around him but there was no way past. Her feet slipped on the wet surface of the tub and her arms sprang out to help her offset her balance, but he had a hold on her. He yanked her out of the tub and slammed her to the floor.

Her head smacked against the tile, and sparkles of white light danced across her vision.

He lowered himself on top of her, pinning her. “Where is it?” His breath smelled like stale cigarettes and whiskey.

“I…” Her eyes rolled back and there was brief, inviting darkness. A place where pain didn’t exist.

He slapped her across the face and clamped her jaw in his hand. “Tell me!”

She wanted to fight, to show him that she’d learned her power since she’d escaped. But her mind wasn’t working, and she didn’t have the strength to move.

He stood and pulled a gun.

She couldn’t get her mouth to work or she’d tell him where it was. That might give her a chance of survival.

“You want to die? Tell me where it is!” he roared.

Tears fell down her cheeks. “I—I—” Her mind went blank; her thoughts encased within a web of thick gauze.

“Stupid bitch!”

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