“Damsel”

In any story, everyone has their part to play. Especially the victim.

*

The Sheepshead Strangler was all over the news again. Although she couldn’t hear from the kitchen, Gwen knew by the tone of the anchors something big had happened overnight. Forensics hadn’t called her to the scene, so it wasn’t another victim. Maybe, she hoped, he’d been caught?

Coffee made, she sat on the couch and watched footage of two vehicles speeding down the FDR Drive. Someone had come close to catching the Strangler—pursuing him on foot, then in a car. The chase went through most of Manhattan before the suspect was lost near Battery Park. Although one anchor praised the cop’s determination, the other condemned such reckless behavior.

No names were mentioned, but Gwen already knew who the pursuing officer was.

“God damn it, Jack.” She found her phone and dialed his number, but went to voice-mail. “Jack,” she said. “I’m watching the news right now. I’m guessing this was you? Call me when you get a chance.”

She tossed the phone aside and slumped with a sigh. She knew Jack had been taking the case seriously—maybe too seriously—but she never expected him to pull a stunt like this. Watching the chaotic footage replay, she imagined him chasing the Strangler through the streets like something out of a cop movie and shook her head.

Nut-job would probably hang from the bottom of a helicopter if he needed to, she thought, finishing her coffee with a chuckle.

After showering, Gwen got ready for work. She considered calling car service—expecting she’d be needed in Manhattan after last night—when she received a text-message from Jack asking to meet at his apartment. Figuring it quicker and cheaper to catch the Q train, she left her apartment and headed to the Neck Road Station.

The morning was damp with a light drizzle of rain falling. White and gray clouds filled the sky, and the leaves were already stripped from the trees, making them look skeletal and bare. It was still autumn, but already cold and dreary.

The Neck Road Station was empty as she waited for the train. It was early, but after rush hour. The only other person on the platform was a young man wearing a black coat who looked like he’d been standing in the rain for some time.

While waiting for the Q, Gwen took out her phone and debated whether to call Jack. Even though they were going to meet in person, she felt an urge to talk to him. It probably wasn’t professional to develop feelings for a co-worker, but since meeting on the Sheepshead Strangler case, she’d found herself growing fond of Detective Jack Walton.

There was something haunting about him. She knew he’d lost a wife some time ago, but he never spoke of it. Was the Strangler case related in some way? Maybe today would be the day she got him to open up?

With a Q train nowhere in sight, she decided to call—if nothing else, to tell him she was on her way. She held her phone to her ear and heard the dial tone … followed by ringing coming from nearby.

The man in the black coat approached her. His eyes were sunken and dark, and he was smiling. Fear hit Gwen’s gut when she saw the ringing phone in his hand. It was Jack’s phone, and the screen was lit up with her name.

“So,” the man said. “You’re Gwen.”

She stared at him, unable to speak. Her eyes darted around. They were alone on the platform, and he stood between her and the exit.

“So pretty,” he said. “I can see why he likes you.” He dropped the phone onto the tracks, looking almost somber. “I didn’t want it to come to this. I truly didn’t. But he’s forced my hand.”

Gwen took a step back, knowing she had nowhere to go. She reached into her purse, but found nothing of use. Her heart pounded. Did she forget her gun? Where was her mace?

The Sheepshead Strangler came closer. He smelled of seawater, and his clothes were filthy. His lip was cut, and a dull bruise circled his eye.

“You can thank Jack Walton for this,” he said, wrapping his hands around her throat.

Gwen started screaming.

No one heard her.

*

Starkwater was busy this morning. Gwyneth rode into town to find the dirt roads packed with people coming and going in every direction. Some were on horseback, most on foot. There were rumors gold or silver had been found in the hills nearby, and it looked like the prospectors were swarming.

She hitched her horse, Strider, to a post and entered Mr. Jacobi’s hardware store. The smell of wood and sawdust filled her nose as she found the old man organizing items on the shelves. Upon hearing the door open, he greeted her with a warm smile.

“Morning, Gwyneth,” he said. “What can I do for you, darlin’?”

“I need some planks of wood,” she said. “If I don’t patch up the roof now, it won’t get done before winter.”

Mr. Jacobi assisted her in selecting three lengths of plain wood. He didn’t say, but he only charged her half-price. “You could probably find some fella around town to mend your house if you need it,” he said. “Girl like you shouldn’t be hammerin’ away on her roof by herself.”

“I don’t mind,” she said. “I don’t want to be a bother.”

A smile came to Mr. Jacobi’s grizzled face, but it looked sad. “Your father was a good man,” he said. “Don’t ever think you’d be a bother to anyone.”

“I appreciate it,” she said. “Thank you.”

She left the store and strapped the planks of wood to Strider. It took longer than it should have, but she kept her composure and told herself she only had dust in her eyes.

Gwyneth never minded chores. She didn’t even mind that her duties had doubled. It was that she had to carry on after Papa’s murder. Two months past and she still awoke every morning expecting to find him tending the cows or working on the cottage. Having to take up his work was hard enough. Having to do so as she was mourning was the true pain.

If she was to take any comfort, she supposed, it was that Jack had promised to get the bastard who stole her father from her.

With the planks secure, she walked down the street to Miss Foley’s inn. She found the round, dark-haired woman fanning herself on the porch outside with an irritated sneer on her face.

“It’s too damn hot out,” said Miss Foley. “Why, girl, why do I stay in this hole?”

“Used to it?” she replied.

“I suspect so,” Miss Foley said, shaking her head. “There’s not much right now, dear. Some slacks that need washin’ and a shirt that needs stitchin’. People are still settlin’ in.”

“Should I come back later?”

“If you don’t mind,” she said. “Hell, girl, why you wasting your time with this? Patching up clothes and people’s laundry?”

“I need the money. Now that Pa is gone …”

“Pretty girl like you should get yourself a fella,” Miss Foley said. “Where’s that Walton boy I seen you with?”

“Jack,” she said. “He, um, he has things that need to be taken care of. He said he’ll come back though.” She scratched her hair and cleared her throat. “I’ll come back before sundown, okay?”

She mounted Strider and started back home. Behind her, she heard Miss Foley: “You tell that boy not to take too long! Girl like you can’t wait forever!”

The morning was crisp and clear on the prairie. A golden shine hovered on the horizon, and the clouds were pink against a crystal blue sky. The fresh air made Gwyneth feel better, and although she had to roll her eyes over people’s constant assertions she should find a man, she couldn’t help but smile.

She was fond of Jack Walton, and he had said more than once he would take care of her—especially with Papa gone. But he had his own demons to contend with first. He might have associated with the Marshals, but Gwyneth knew Jack was a bounty hunter by profession and peace didn’t come easy for men like that.

It wasn’t just her father’s murder that made Jack determined to hunt down Black-Eyed Kaine. He never spoke of it to her, but she knew the rumors about Jack’s first wife and what happened to her. As much as she wanted Kaine brought to justice, Gwyneth worried Jack took his vendetta too personally …

She slowed Strider to a stop. Her cottage was just over the horizon, but she felt a sudden chill go through her blood. She looked back and felt an urge to return to town. A premonition, she wondered? Something connected to Jack, perhaps?

She took a breath and shook it off. It was probably nothing, she told herself, and continued back home. She took Strider to the stable and unpacked the planks of wood she bought. Maybe it was a man’s place to patch the roof, but she was a frontier girl. She didn’t care about getting her hands dirty.

“Ain’t you the prettiest thing?”

The voice came from the shadows behind her and made her jump. He stepped forward, a hard looking man dressed in black. His hair was unkempt, and an ugly scar marked his unshaven face. His eyes were dark, and he grinned at her with a smile she’d seen before.

“Black-Eyed Kaine,” she whispered, her voice slipping out like a death rattle.

“I can see why he likes you,” he said. “I didn’t want it to come to this. Honestly, I didn’t. But he’s pushed me.”

Gwyneth remembered her father. She remembered his face turn white and still as his blood soaked into the dirt beneath him. She stared at the grinning murderer before her, and a defiant rage came.

Her hands were on one of the wooden planks. A dozen images came to her. She could hit him—break his jaw and wipe that loathsome smile from his face. She could escape and get help. She could keep hitting him until she bashed his skull in. She could take the gun from his holster and fill him full of holes. She could be the one who took down Black-Eyed Kaine and avenged her father.

But this was not that story. The wood dropped from her grip and fell to the ground at her feet. She hesitated—a terrible lurch hitting her stomach with the realization her chance had literally slipped through her fingers.

Before she could react, Kaine’s hands were around her throat. “You can thank Jack Walton for this,” he said as he squeezed.

She started screaming.

No one heard her.

*

“This is wrong.”

The salty smell of seawater filled the air, as it always did in Starkwater Bay. The sun was still setting and drunken pirates were already shambling about the outpost. It would only be a matter of time before a fight broke out, swords were drawn, and blood was shed.

Perhaps that was why Silver-Dagger Gwyn felt so uneasy. She stood outside Foley’s Tavern, her hand drawing toward her trademark weapon, and was struck with an intense feeling of terror that stopped her in her tracks. It was as though someone had walked over her grave.

“There a problem, Captain?” asked her First Mate, Jacobi.

It was strange she should feel such dread only now. After almost two weeks at sea, she and her crew had avoided capture and discovered the location of Rusty Sawyer’s lost treasure. They found port in Starkwater Bay without trouble, and if there was anywhere in the world a pirate should be able to rest easy, it was Starkwater.

“I’m going back to the ship,” she said, rubbing her neck. “Tell the others we leave first thing tomorrow.”

“But Captain,” Jacobi said. “We just got here. And I thought you said you were going to meet your boy Jack? Wasn’t the plan—”

“I know what the plan is,” she said. “If you see Jack, tell him I’m on the Stryder.”

Jacobi was confused, but nodded and went into the tavern with the rest of the crew. She lingered a moment, but returned to the docks. Tempting as it was to get a few drinks, she felt safer on her ship.

The evening turned cool and a gentle breeze swept the Bay. Once aboard the Stryder again, Gwyn adjourned to her private quarters to relax and plot where to go when they cast off. Her tension eased, but didn’t go away. She supposed she should use the map and go straight for the treasure, but there was still Jack to consider.

Odd as it seemed, she’d grown to care about him even if he was some runaway only caught up in her affairs because he wanted revenge on Black-Eyed Kane. She wasn’t sure what the grudge was, but Jack seemed to care more about vengeance than he did the treasure. She was no friend of Kane, but she worried Jack was letting …

That dread came back to her like a shot to the gut. The urge to cast off and return to sea was stronger than ever. She didn’t know why, but she needed to get away. Away from what, she wasn’t sure, but she couldn’t shake a disturbing sense of being trapped.

She sighed and sat down, trying to put it out of her mind. Dragging her hands through her hair, she let out a slight chuckle. After all, she thought, she was Silver-Dagger Gwyn, Captain of the Stryder. How many times had she been underestimated because she was a woman, and how many more times had she made them pay for it? No woman becomes a pirate—a Captain, no less—without proving herself.

As much as she might have cared for Jack, he was just some kid. His vendetta with Kane meant nothing to her.

“You always were the pretty one.”

She sprang to her feet, dagger drawn. Standing in the doorway was a lanky man clad in black. His shaggy hair was wet, as though he’d come from the sea itself, and there was a grin on his scarred face. She’d only encountered him once, but she would never forget the face of Black-Eyed Kane.

“It’s a shame you never pledged yourself to my crew,” he said. “I always did like you.”

“You have some nerve coming onto my ship, you son of a bitch!” she said. “Who the hell do you think you are?”

Kane frowned and cracked his neck. “You should’ve stayed out of it, love. You should’ve left the treasure for me and not gotten tied up with that Walton kid.”

Gwyn gripped her trademark dagger. She was the Captain of her own ship. She’d been a pirate since she was a teenager. She’d survived countless battles and proven herself a capable fighter dozens of times. She would not allow herself to be killed like this. Not as an example to someone else.

She thought these things as she strode toward Kane, intent on thrusting her knife into his heart. But this was not that story, as her lover’s enemy proved faster. His blade was out before she realized—it was as though something stalled her—and the pain as it pierced her gut doubled her over.

She looked at Kane’s grinning face as his hands wrapped around her throat. “You can thank Jack Walton for this,” he said, squeezing.

She screamed.

No one heard her.

*

“Gwenn! You’re off course!”

The planet Cassandra-8 glowed like a pearl in the inky void of space. It was cloudy over whatever sector Gwenn was flying to. Lightning could be seen flickering as she approached. She thrust the boosters of her Strider-TC and flew into the storm. There was something wrong—she felt it in her gut.

Her radio scrambled and Commander Jacobi’s voice emerged: “Where are you going?” he demanded. “You’re supposed to rendezvous with—”

The radio turned to static as she entered the atmosphere. Her jet shook in the turbulence and the sound of thunder could be heard through the shielding. When the fog cleared, the abandoned outpost opened up before her eyes.

The sea, so dark it was nearly black, crashed around it and rain sprayed from the green clouds above. Maybe once it was a docking station or radio beacon. It might have even been a lodging where people could live. Whatever it had been, it was a rickety monstrosity of metal platforms and towers now.

Gwenn cut the boosters and hovered to a gentle landing on one of the platforms. Outside, she heard the wind blow and rain tap on the glass. She was supposed to meet with the rest of her unit to discuss a plan of attack against the invading Varyian forces and their cyborg assassins. Jack was supposed to be there. Jack, with his vendetta against the one cyborg in particular.

Gwenn rubbed her neck, feeling a chill in her blood. It always seemed to come back to Jack.

She could’ve stayed on the command ship, but even that felt wrong. Somehow she knew someone was after her and would find her whether she stayed put or went to Jack.

“I must be going crazy,” she muttered, opening the cockpit.

The wind was cold, but she welcomed the fresh sea air. She double-checked her blaster rifle and climbed from her jet. No one was waiting for her here. She had no mission and no objectives on the planet. But for reasons she couldn’t explain, going off the grid made her feel better. She thought she was safe.

“You’re a pretty one, aren’t you?”

It wasn’t fear that hit Gwenn’s stomach at that moment. It was a draining feeling, as though her soul was taken from her. She knew who was behind her without looking. She knew she’d find his grinning, scarred face … his wet, black hair … and those solid black eyes, common for the cyborgs.

“I can see why he likes you,” said Cain. She heard his footsteps on the platform approach.

She turned and aimed her blaster at his face. She squeezed the trigger, but the gun fused and the blast came out as a weak fizzle. Of course it did. Because it didn’t matter Gwenn had been a fighter in the resistance since she was a child. It didn’t matter she watched her parents slaughtered by the Varyians’ assassins and dedicated her life to freeing the galaxy from them. That she’d fought in dozens of battles and survived even more skirmishes with cyborgs like Cain.

None of it mattered, because this wasn’t that story.

Cain continued talking. Something about how this was to send a message to Jack Walton. His hands wrapped around her throat and squeezed with cybernetic strength.

She screamed.

No one heard her.

*

Gwyneira tried to escape.

She had been riding for hours. She could’ve gone to any number of places, but she didn’t feel safe anywhere. She wasn’t secure back in the Citadel. Neither the King, nor his High Wizard, Jacobi, could protect her. She could only flee and hope she might elude the certain doom she knew was upon her.

The sun set behind the great mountains, and the rolling hills of Lorenya dimmed with a misty haze enveloping the countryside. When her horse would take her no further, she continued on foot into the deep woods. Fireflies flickered and crickets chirped around her. Wolves howled in the night. A gentle breeze caressed her, but she took no comfort in it.

To her, it felt as though a grim spectre had touched her flesh. The coming night was a darkening shroud. Her feet ached, but she would not slow. She felt exposed and vulnerable and needed to keep moving because she didn’t realize the truth.

All Gwyneira knew was Kayne was coming for her. Was he an assassin sent by the Dark Lord? Another sorcerer? A former lover? A bloodthirsty mercenary? Did it even matter? He was the villain, and he wanted to send a message to Jack—because it always came back to Jack.

Perhaps that’s what frightened her most: the inevitability. Somehow she knew if she confronted Kayne herself, she would fail. That it didn’t matter she was a warrior in her own right with power and skill that should be superior to some chosen farm-boy named Jack Walton.

It didn’t matter, because this wasn’t that story and she needed to understand that.

“You are a pretty thing, aren’t you?”

The voice slithered out from the darkness, and Gwyneira felt no fear or dread hearing it. It was despair that hit her more than anything. It didn’t matter who she was or where she went. In any story, everyone has their place. The villain needed to make his rivalry with the hero personal, and she had her part to play.

And I will not allow her to disrupt that.

The villain came for her, grinning as always. He reached out and wrapped his hands around her throat.

She was screaming.

Only you can hear her.

END


If you want more, check out
Ones & Zeroes: A Short Story Collection

kindle cover

This and 13 other stories available on Amazon for 99¢

Also on Amazon is my fantasy series, Graylands

©2018 by M. Walsh

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