Chapter 03: Hitman

Lila’s nose for odd smells may have eliminated the first half-second of surprise and it certainly saved her life. Such a short amount of time, yet in retrospect, so vital to gaining the upper hand. Dominic Riehl sussed this out hours later, obsessing over how badly he had screwed up while nursing a set of swollen and painful testicles along with bruised ribs. He would curse himself for a full three days, as he hobbled around the cramped apartment he had rented and listened to the squabbling voices of the tenants above, below, and on all sides through the thin, cheap walls.

If he hadn’t indulged in that damned Indian buffet on 75th and Wornall, she wouldn’t have turned at just the last millisecond, ensuring that his initial rush towards her was off by just enough. It had to have been the smell of curry that had given him away before he could grab her and stun her with a crack to the jaw. Just another half-second is all he would have needed as he swiftly emerged from the shadows in the poorly lit underground garage.

Lila had found the parking garage in her apartment building slightly creepy. Chalk it up to watching an unhealthy amount of horror movies in her teens, or the news of another body found in a vacant home in the Northland two nights previously, but her spider sense had tingled the second she stepped into the dimly lit expanse of concrete pillars and empty cars. A disastrous blind date set up by her boss Morris had ended in her waiting for some loser that never showed, before she gave up in disgust and ended the night at a late-night movie at the AMC Barrywoods. Just her and her delectable dates, twins by damn, a bag of popcorn and a large box of Junior Mints.

The movie had been creepy and sinister, which would have been great if she were hooked up with a special honey to cuddle up to during the worst scenes. Instead, she had seen the movie with a handful of other pathetic loners, each of them lounging or scrunched in their seats in turn among a sea of empty red leather recliners. She could have just waited for it to come to Redbox and rented it alone.

She pulled into her parking spot, gliding silently into position with her fuel-efficient wunderkind Prius. She noticed that the light near the stairwell door was out again. Why they couldn’t use the LED lights, instead of those wattage sucking losers, Lila couldn’t understand. The cheap bulb hadn’t lasted more than a month this time. It was dangerously dark in the underground garage and Lila felt a tingle of fear wash over her.

All those damned specters coming around corners, damn it girl, get a hold of yourself.

She slipped out of her seat, grabbed her purse in her right hand, and closed the door behind her. The remote locked and alarmed it with a quiet chirp. Her heels clicked on the cement floor and Lila felt annoyance all over again. She had dressed up, and for what? Some loser no-show. She hadn’t been interested, but Morris had been so insistent. And really, how do you say “no” to your new boss? She was still worried about making a good impression, it had only been a couple of months since she started there after all.

As she neared the light rectangle of the stairwell door, there was an odd odor, something she couldn’t quite pinpoint, and then the shadows moved impossibly, coalescing into a man’s shape before closing in on her. She blinked, delayed for a moment over the impossibility of what she was seeing, a rush of darkness coming straight at her. In the last crucial millisecond, her body reacted and she turned and shifted to one side as a man smelling of curry attempted to tackle her. The mixed martial arts training she had been taking for the past four years came in handy, so did those endless miles on the treadmill in her apartment building’s exercise room earphones in her ears, music turned up, as she did her best to avoid giving her neighbor in Apartment 1503 any opportunity to ask her out.

Her response, despite being slowed by the stiletto heels she had worn for her “didn’t bother to show up or even call” failed date, probably saved her life. Instead of being thrown against the pillar, or being knocked unconscious and choked out from behind, she was now facing her attacker, hands at the ready as he course corrected and came at her again. He moved fast, powered by her side-kick to his groin with a pained grunt, before grabbing her leg and twisting it, pushing her off balance. Lila hit the pillar hard, her right shoulder popped and the corresponding arm lit up in a bright wash of pain. It felt as if she had touched a live wire, her arms burning and tingling. When she tried to move it, it refused to respond, shocked by the violence done to it. Lila’s brain was slow to catch up. Sparring with her instructor or with the other students was one thing, but this was completely different. Her opponent wasn’t waiting for her to catch her breath or solicitously inquire as to her well-being.

Riehl’s brain and body were still processing the groin hit Lila had scored. Beginners luck with that kick of hers had cost him his first option on the hit, to make it look like rape. And she sure as hell had made it so he wouldn’t get a chance to use the equipment he was so proud of. Having scoped out the patterns of the residents for the past few days, he had figured he had time, or time enough, to have a bit of fun before killing her, thus fulfilling the contract. Instead, his balls were informing his brain that the only thing he would be boning in the next couple of days was an ice pack. It took a conscious effort to ignore the rising tide of pain that was crawling its way up from his balls to his stomach. Hell, he felt the impact of her knee in his throat.

Slamming the woman against the pillar had knocked her breath out of her and his hands closed on her neck before she could scream. The garage was far from any of the tenant apartments, many floors above, but Riehl wasn’t taking any more chances. Lila’s left arm slammed into his ribs with a surprising amount of force. There wasn’t much to this woman – slender, small-boned – but she had obviously taken some kind of self-defense training. The heel now raking along his instep with brutal sharpness was painful, possibly bloody, but he would be damned if he was going to let his commission get away from him. He tightened his grip. She let out a choked squawk of pain, fingers digging at his, trying her best to break his grip.

One…

“Three seconds, Lila, that’s all it takes for a person to lose consciousness when being choked out.” Lila’s coach had told her, “If you are ever in a choke situation, get out of it…quick.” She crunched her knee into the man’s groin with all of her might. His body shuddered in response, but his grip didn’t loosen.

Two…

Lila’s vision was darkening at the edge, narrowing down to a tunnel…

“What the hell? Hey! You! Get the hell off of her!” The voice belonged to a man, someone familiar, but she could see nothing. The hand at her throat shook, broke free at the force of impact, a new body in the mix. Lila flew backward, back against the pillar, cracking her head sharply, scraping skin as she sprawled on the hard cement floor. It was a maelstrom of arms and legs, on the ground, her attacker and someone familiar, someone she knew. It took a moment for her to regroup, and find the top of the pepper spray she kept on her keychain in her purse which lay within reach, slamming her thumb down hard enough to bruise, the spray shot out, just at the moment her attacker had taken the advantage, and made the mistake of looking down at her.

Riehl snarled curses and fell back, temporarily blinded. So did George, her neighbor from down the hall in Apartment 1503, who had also received a fair share of the spray while being slammed on the rough concrete parking garage floor. George lay there and writhed, caterwauling in a high, shrill voice.

“Oh my God, my eyes, my eyes!”

Riehl, realizing his opportunity had elapsed and fighting to see from eyes that were now filled with liquid pulsing fire, had enough sense to get up, stumbling, running, and swearing as he peered, half-blind out of one half-functional eye. The other felt fully on fire, enough that he was tempted to claw the damned thing out of its socket, if only to end the pain. He disappeared into the depths of the garage, becoming one with the shadows, his footsteps receding.

Lila’s throat was constricted, she could barely speak. Meanwhile, George was screaming loud enough to wake the dead, or at the very least, some of the nearer level of residents. A stream of words issued from him as well, random thoughts, just…noise…

“Couldn’t sleep, thought I heard something, my EYES, oh my God my EYES! Just thought I’d go for a walk, but no, oh God, what if I’m blind? The burning…jeezsus…”, his nose was bleeding freely as well, but George was too busy pressing his hands against his eyeballs to notice. The blood dribbled over his cream polyester shirt.

George continued to scream while Lila frantically pulled her phone from her purse and dialed 9-1-1. By the time the cars arrived, lights flashing like strobes and weapons at the ready, George had settled down to a pitiful sobbing, and Lila’s attacker was long gone. The police had nearly arrested George, thinking he was the attacker. Lila had explained for the third time that he had come to her aid, not attacked her.

“Anyone with a beef? A jealous ex-boyfriend perhaps?” The officer asked, his gaze traveling down her long, shapely legs, lingering on the rip in her dress. “Were you on a date with the neighbor, perhaps?” Lila winced as the doctor tried to flex her arm. The shoulder felt as if it were full of hot knives and fire. She caught the cop eying her cleavage, the front of her dress had ripped and a delicate lace bra strap was showing, the sleeve of the dress slipped from her exposed, and rapidly darkening, bruised shoulder.

“George? No, I, no, we aren’t dating, he’s my neighbor.” Lila said, hissing in pain as the doctor tried again to manipulate her right shoulder.

“Okay, Ms. Benoit, this is going to be a little painful. Just try to relax.”

Lila bit back a retort. Why did doctors tell you that and then tell you to relax? She bit back a yelp as the doctor first turned and then gave her arm a short, decisive yank. She felt it pop back into place and rode a red wave of pain. It still hurt like hell, but at least the shoulder was back in the socket where it belonged.

The doctor handed her a prescription bottle, “You are going to be sore for a few days. Especially with those bruised ribs. Make sure to take these with some food and try to avoid driving.”

“Thanks, Doctor.”

The officer muttered something indistinct as the doctor left and asked, “And you don’t know anyone who would want to harm you?”

“No.”

“Alright then,” the officer eased his large bulk up from the small chair at the end of the ER room bed and shifted his bulk in the flimsy chair. The woman was a looker and that was for sure. Straight black hair, piercing green eyes, a slim figure and legs that just didn’t stop. Pretty. Her pale skin was bruised, but that just gave her a vulnerable look.

The radio on his shoulder squawked and he muttered into it. “Well ma’am, I’ve got all I need.”

“You don’t need to do a sketch of the guy or have me look at some photos?” Lila asked.

The officer laughed. When he did his stomach jiggled. “For a snatch and grab? Sweetheart, you have been watching too much Law and Order. Nah, this guy got the crap kicked out of him and pepper sprayed to hell and back. My bet? He’s back at home in the ‘hood, washing out his eyes, cradlin’ his balls and thinking that walkin’ the straight and narrow would be a hell of a lot easier than dealing with another babe in high heels schooling him.”

“You think it was just a robbery?” Lila felt a sense of unease rise up in her.

“Sure seems like it. I mean, hell he probably would have tried for a little more, if you know what I mean. A pretty girl like you, he woulda taken advantage of that.” He paused, nonplussed at Lila’s reaction. “Why, you got this all figured out as going some other way?” The cop asked, a smug, condescending smile on his face.

“No, I, well, I mean…” Lila’s voice petered out. The way he had grabbed her throat, the look on his face. She shook her head, which made the room dance and her stomach clench, “I guess not.”

The officer smiled, “You got someone to pick you up? Take you home?” His eyes traveled up and down her again as if he were imagining her naked.

Lila’s mouth tasted sour…ewww.

“Yeah, sure do. Thanks, Officer.”

“Officer Tom Collier. You can call me Tom.” He winked at her and her stomach clenched again, “If you need a ride, you just give me a call.”

He handed her a card. She took it and managed not to shudder until after he had turned his back. So not her type.

An hour later, her right arm in a sling, her other injuries reviewed and treated, and higher than a kite on pain meds, she slowly eased her way into her friend Kaylee’s backseat.

“Oh my God, Lila! What happened?”

“I got mugged in the parking garage.” She fell asleep halfway through telling the story, slumping in the seat on the short ride back to her highrise. She barely blinked when Kaylee and her roommate Andy walked, half-carried her to her apartment door. As she nodded off in her own bed, Lila was thankful that it was Friday. She had two days to recover before returning to work. No rest for the wicked, or those saddled with student loans.