Email Comments to Friction at wlw@penn.com

 

*****

Part II

*****

When Danielle arrived at work their was a message for her from Liz, the editor of the womenís section. She could barely contain her excitement as she made her way to her office. As she approached the door, Liz motioned her in.

"Dear, Iím so sorry to hear about the robbery. Iím glad you werenít hurt."

"It wasnít bad really, just a little excitement."

"Do the police have any leads on the robber yet?"

"No, I donítí think so. When I stopped this morning to give them a statement, they didnít mention anything."

"Iím sure youíre tired of the whole thing." Liz paused and smiled. "I have some news that should make your day. I like your idea for the battered womenís story."

"Really?" Danielle brightened.

"Yes. Itís a fresh approach on an old topic. The idea of following up on a story done five years ago, to see how the shelterís program may have changed these womenís lives, is intriguing. Itís a good human interest piece. Iím giving you the go ahead to do a small three part series."

"Thatís great! Thank you."

"This is your chance. I want part one on my desk by next Tuesday."

Danielleís thoughts were racing. This was the crack in the door she had been waiting for. If she could make this series a success, she would be given the opportunity to do more writing.

She hurried back to her desk to contact Elaine, the director of the Domestic Violence Program. When she had first arrived in town, she had made an appointment to see Elaine to discuss her idea. They hit it off immediately and quickly became friends. Elaine was a rather petite woman with long curly hair. What she lacked in stature she made up for in her serious no nonsense demeanor. Having been abused herself she was the perfect role model to guide these women into safer lives. Danielle dialed excitedly. She could hardly wait to tell her friend the good news.

"Hi, Elaine."

"Hey, Iíve been trying to reach you all morning. I read the paper. Are you okay?"

"I couldnít be better. Listen, Iíll tell you all about that later." She paused unable to keep the excitement from her voice. "You arenít going to believe this, but I got the go ahead for the series we discussed."

"Thatís terrific! I thought you had something there."

"Have you had any luck setting up a meeting?"

"Yes, of the 35 woman who were in the program when the last story was written, nine agreed to be interviewed by you this evening at the center."

"Thatís great."

"Danielle, I assured these women that their identifies would be kept confidential. I canít stress how important that is."

"I understand. Elaine, thanks for your help with this."

"You bet, I think it can be a positive thing for the center." From Elaineís first meeting with the young woman, she was touched by her need to help others. Danielle was genuinely interested in the program and enthusiastic in her desire to inspire battered women to seek help. Elaine felt that printing the stories of women who had been successful in turning their lives around could only encourage others.

"Okay, Iíll see you tonight then."

"And Danielle, tonight I want to hear all about this robbery thing."

Danielle was still smiling when she hung up the phone.

*****

Elaine walked Danielle to the small conference room and stepped up to the podium in the front of the room to introduce her. Danielle glanced at the nine rather anxious women seated before her and touched Elaineís arm, stopping her introduction.

"Iím sorry Elaine, I donít mean to interrupt but this isnít exactly what I had in mind." She spoke to the women before her. "Is there some place more comfortable we can sit and talk? A lounge or kitchen maybe? I donít know about the rest of you but I would love a cup of coffee."

Elaine lead them to the kitchen, where they all gathered around the large table. Danielle sat on the counter facing the others. "My name is Danielle Stafford, Elaine has probably explained why I wanted to meet you here. I was hoping you would be willing to share your stories."

"Arenít you going to tape us or something?"

Danielle smiled. "I donít use a recorder. I like things informal, besides I have a knack for remembering details. Ever since I was a child I loved hearing people talk about their lives. Iíd like to keep this casual if itís okay with all of you." There was a perceptible shift in the room as the women relaxed.

A woman with short red hair spoke up. "Why do you want to hear our stories? None of us are important."

"I think everyone has a story to tell. But in addition to that, all of you are in a unique position. You have faced difficult times and made it through them. I believe that other women in similar positions might find hope for themselves in your stories. My intention is to reach out to them and show them thereís a way out."

"What about confidentially?," a tall willowy woman asked. "Some of us are worried that our husbands might track us down."

A woman with short cropped dark hair interrupted. "I come back to the shelter to help out when I can. I know Danielle. She spends a lot of time here. I trust her."

"Thanks Spike, I donít intend to use any names and I will keep details from the stories that would disclose too much. Iíll give each of you the opportunity to look over what Iíve written before itís printed. If there is anything you object to or are uncomfortable with, Iíll change it."

"That sounds fair enough." A woman with long blonde hair commented. The other women nodded in agreement.

"Great, Iíd love to hear your stories. Anyone feel comfortable starting things off?"

The dark-haired woman spoke. "I think Ann should start." She turned to face a plain looking woman with straight brown hair. "If you feel up to it?

Ann looked up shyly and cleared her throat. Her hands trembled as she clutched them in her lap. She nodded.

"My name is Ann. I got married when I was sixteen. There were nine children in my family. My leaving meant one less mouth to feed so my folks didnít care. My husband was in training to be a police officer and I felt pretty lucky that a man in such an important position would marry me. The men he worked with really liked him. His friends nicknamed him Ďiceí because he never lost his temper, at least not around them. What they didnít know was that he saved up all his anger for me."

"Anyway, that lucky feeling I had didnít last long. In the fifteen years I was married to him I lost track of the number of times I was knocked unconscious. He hit me nearly every day. Any problem at work was reason enough to come home and beat the tar out of me. My nose has been broken so many times I forget what it used to look like." She shook her head in frustration, "But I stayed with him."

"I had four miscarriages. I think my body was worn out from all the beatings. Probably had a lot of bruises inside too. After I lost those four babies, my husband decided he wanted one for real and the beatings lessened. I ended up giving birth to the son he wanted."

"I was happy during those months when I was carrying my son. It was the most peaceful time Iíd known in my marriage. I thought the baby was my salvation. But, shortly after his birth the beatings started up again. I didnít mind so much cause I had Josh. He was the sweetest little boy, so shy..." she paused and looked down at her hands. The woman to her right lightly touched her shoulder, bringing her out of her thoughts.

"One time, not long after Josh turned seven, my husband had to take me to the hospital. I was broke up pretty good that time. Iím sure I should have gone to the hospital for a lot of the injuries I had over the years, but it was hard to explain to the doctors how I got that way, so most times I suffered alone at home."

"This time when I peed, I could see red. I knew it was bad. The doctors said it was good I came in. They had to sew me up inside. My husband told them I took a bad fall and, since he was a police officer, they believed him."

"I knew I came close to dying and after I got home I began to think about my son and what would become of him if something happened to me. After a while I worked up the courage to ask my parents for help. My father didnít believe me. He said I should stop complaining and count my blessings, my husband was a good provider and they didnít grow on trees. My mother, who had always born her suffering privately, thought I should do the same."

"It was five months after my parents turned me and Josh away that I got the worst beating of my life. He came home one night drunk and mean. I think I would be dead, but Josh stepped between us to protect me. Iíll never forget his small body twisted in a heap on the floor. The doctors told me he died instantly. Those few minutes play over and over in slow motion in my head. Six years later, and I still see them."

The room fell completely quite as if they shared a common memory. Although her face and voice showed no trace of emotion, Danielle could see the loss reflected deeply in her eyes: a pain so great that she would forever be marked by it.

"Even though my husband didnít mean to hurt Josh, he meant to hit me, he ended up going to jail for it. I can only hope he will be there a good long time." She took a deep breath. "Anyway thatís how I found my way here. I remember how strange it seemed to go to bed without pain and wake up without new bruises."

"At first I almost missed it. That must sound funny to you, but for nearly fifteen years the pain was there, proof that I had survived another day, reminding me I had to be careful not to set him off." She sighed at the irony.

"This place saved me. They got me the medical help I needed and kept me safe. Itís been five years, Iíve been on my own. I have a job working as an clerk in the county morgue. I donít like being around people much, so the work suits me. Itís quiet and kinda peaceful."

There was an awkward silence. An attractive woman with brown hair tied in a pony tail spoke up. The shorter redheaded woman next to her was holding her hand. "God, we all knew how to pick Ďem, didnít we." The women laughed in agreement.

"By the way, my name is Nikki" She looked at Danielle. "Our stories are similar except for a few different twists here and there. All of us..." She waved her arm to indicated everyone in the room. "we are the fortunate ones, we survived. Many women donít." She looked lovingly at the woman seated beside her. "Kate and I met here. We both had feelings for women from the earliest time we could remember but we got trapped in loveless, abusive marriages trying to fit in and be Ďnormalí. Whatever that is." She rolled her eyes. "Anyway, after several years of being close friends, we realized that we loved each other. Weíve been together as a couple for over two years. Itís the happiest Iíve ever been."

Her partner nodded and squeezed her hand. "We went to school to become Emergency Medical Technicians. In fact, we work for the same ambulance company, usually on the same shift. The jobís different everyday. We like that. Both of us are kind of adventurous. But the best part of our work is being able to help people when they need it most."

"I think everyone here would agree that Elaine deserves the credit for giving us a second chance in life. She works hard helping women like us. Your story should really focus on her and the good she does." Everyone voiced their agreement. The bond these women shared was tangible. Danielle could almost feel the aura that surrounded them. It was a wonderful thing.

The brassy young woman with the spiky hair and vibrant eyes chimed in. "For those of you who donít know me, my name is Tara, but my friends call me Spike." She ran her hand through her shortly cropped hair for clarification and smiled. "I used to be a hooker. I was in an abusive relationship with my pimp, but only for three years. So I was luckier than some. But like the rest, I never knew what was going to set him off. I blamed myself, thought it was my fault. I wonder to this day why I stayed as long as I did. But you know, in spite of it all I cared for him. After a bad attack, he would be so attentive and loving. At times it seemed almost worth the beating."

Several of the women nodded in understanding.

"You see, they break you down over time. Itís not only physical. There is mental abuse too. Anyway Iím a survivor, thanks to the support of Elaine and the women from the shelter. Believe it or not, Iím a stunt woman in television now. I figured I been thrown around enough that it seemed right down my alley."

The women laughed softly.

"Yep, life experience gave me most of the training I needed." She smiled wryly. "The best part is that now, they pay me for it and pretty well I might add."

Rachel, the long-haired blonde sitting on the end was the next to speak. "Yeah, itís ironic the path life leads us down. I was completely dependent on my husband. My life revolved around him. Leaving was the farthest thing from my mind. The neighbors used to call the cops when they heard him ranting. When the police came, they never did anything. So after I got my life straightened around, I decided to become a cop. I found my own power; the kind that comes from deep inside. There were so many times I prayed for someone to be there to help me. In the end, I had to take that first step myself. The rest wouldn't have been possible without Elaine. I want to make a difference, like she has. I want to help women like me. And the best part is, I think I have. At least Iíve tried. Although Iím new on the force, I make an effort to see that the police are more aware of the problems abused women face and why they are reluctant to press charges and ask for help. I try to stop by the center on a regular basis to encourage the new women. When they first get here they are so down on themselves. All the good feelings have been beaten out of them."

"I know Danielle too. Sheís a good friend. I wanted to be interviewed, the story is a good idea. Battered women need to see that thereís still hope."

Danielle smiled, "Every now and then we all need to be reminded of that."

They talked until late. Each woman elaborating on her tale. Danielle listened intently to their stories. They were compelling and often heartbreaking. She was amazed by their strength and courage. They had found their places in life and were making their unique contribution. If only she could find hers.

*****

Danielle stirred, her mind deep in the throws of a dream. She was in the park. Looking for the lovers she'd become obsessed with. They weren't there. She walked to the tree and ran her fingers against the rough bark. A soft sound behind her made her turn. It was him, the thief, his face covered by the mask. He took a step toward her, raising a gloved finger to his lips. Her heart raced as he came closer, leaving only a few inches between them.

Strong hands settled firmly on her waist, easing her back against the tree. His eyes met hers, silently questioning. She placed her hands over his and guided them down over the curve of her hips. She moaned as she felt the cool fabric of her skirt caress her skin as he lifted it. Her heart hammered. She prayed he wouldnít stop. She slipped her hands under his leather jacket and froze as they came in contact with the gently sloping curve of breasts. Her eyes snapped open.

It took her some time to fall back asleep.

A loud crash woke her the second time, something breaking. It was followed by a male voice raised in anger. It sounded like her neighbors were fighting. So much for the joys of apartment living. She tried to block out his angry voice. She was ready to grab for a pillow to cover her ears, when she heard a womanís scream, followed by a loud bang. Something was wrong. She picked up the phone and called the police.

The ranting continued. She quickly dressed in sweats and went to the door of their apartment. She could hear a muffled voice through the door.

"You bitch, what did I tell you about staying out of my things!"

A womanís voice pleaded in the background. "Not the stomach... please." There was a sickening crack.

Danielle knocked loudly. It became quiet, and she heard footsteps approach. A very handsome man opened the door. She was rather taken back by his appearance. The expression on his face was so casual that she felt she had made a mistake.

"Yes?" His voice was calm. His look questioning.

"I heard... screaming, I was concerned that someone might be hurt."

"Oh that, Iím sorry. We must have had the television too loud. I apologize."

"Of course, Iím sorry I bothered you." Danielleís face colored. Embarrassed for jumping to a rash conclusion. She guessed it wasnít too surprising since she had spent the evening listening to stories of abuse.

She was about to leave when she noticed blood spattered on the front of his shirt. Danielle tried to keep a neutral expression on her face. Her mind searched for a way to stall him until the police arrived. "I live across the hall." She put her hand out in greeting. "Danielle Stafford." He took it awkwardly.

"Drake Morrison". His hands were cold, clammy, not nearly as composed as his face.

"Itís nice to meet you." He smiled warmly. His voice was so charming, compared to the raging she had heard moments before, that it caused a chill to run through her.

"I promise weíll keep the noise down in the future." He began to close the door when she heard a low groan and a terrible wet coughing sound. She held her hand out stopping the door and looked at him questioningly.

"My wifeís got a cold. Bad time of year for that kind of thing."

"Iíve had some first aid training. Maybe I could take a look at her?"

"Thanks, but thatís not really necessary. Sheís seeing our family doctor." A small cry for help came from behind him.

His expression hardened, and he glanced over his shoulder. Danielle pushed past him. About ten feet in front of her she saw a woman sprawled on the kitchen floor. She hurried toward her and nearly slipped in a pool of blood. Danielle had never seen a face so savagely brutalized. She knelt on the other side of the woman, careful not to turn her back to him. She watched him cautiously as he approached. His face stricken.

"She fell."

The terrified woman whimpered like a wounded animal. Danielle laid her hand lightly on the womanís shoulder, in an attempt to calm her. The comment didnít even rate an answer. Her contempt for this man rose like bile. "You can tell it to the police. Theyíll be here any minute."

His mouth opened in confusion. He ran his fingers through his hair nervously. Then, without a word, he turned and headed into another room.

The woman grabbed Danielleís hand. "Heís going for his gun... heís going to kill us." Another violent cough brought up blood. Danielle had no reason to doubt her. She pulled the woman to her feet and struggled toward her apartment. They made it into the hall before he caught up to them.

Danielle leaned the woman against her door and stepped in front of her protectively. "Donít make things worse for yourself. Put the gun down."

"You should have minded your own business, bitch!" The change in his expression was terrifying. Like Jekyll and Hyde. Danielle tried to keep her composure. She had to buy them time.

"You're right, I have a real problem that way. But this can still be fixed." She paused gauging his reaction. "When the police come, we can say she fell down the steps. That would explain the noises I heard. I know you didnít mean to hurt her. She knows that too." She could see that he was considering her words. She just needed time.

A car backfired outside. He spun around to look, startled by the noise, when he turned back to face them, Danielle drove the palm of her hand into his nose. The gun flew from his hand and rattled down the stairs. He buckled and clutched his nose painfully. She used her momentary advantage to push the woman through the door to her apartment, locking it behind her.

The man pounded so violently that Danielle feared the door would give in. She grabbed for the phone and dialed 911. They calmly assured her help was coming. Danielle hung up the phone and shoved a chair under the door knob. Slipping her arm around the trembling womanís back she moved her to the couch. The woman looked about eight months pregnant. As Danielle watched a trickle of blood run down the inside of the womanís thigh, she silently prayed the police and ambulance would arrive in time to save the woman and her child.

In the distance she could hear the sirens approach. She took the womanís hand in her own. "Hold on, itís going to be all right. Help is coming."

*****

Alex finished dinner and settled in for the evening. She sat by the fire, curling her legs underneath her, she paged to the next journal entry.

................................................................

      7/9

      Faceless women with raven hair haunt my dreams. My obsession has prompted me to do something that had previously never occurred to me: I decided to go to a lesbian bar.

      I fretted for an hour over what to wear, finally deciding on black jeans and a T-shirt. The club I picked was a small smoky little place. I stopped at the bar to get and drink and found a seat in the back where I could watch without attracting attention.

      It wasnít much different from other bars I had been in, with the exception that there were only women there. I watched them as they danced, talked, held hands, and kissed. Many of the women were very attractive, but I felt nothing. I finished my drink intending to leave, when a tall woman walked by me, headed toward the bar.

      I inhaled and my head reeled. The scent of her leather jacket sent a rush of excitement through me. I watched her take a seat at the bar. My eyes were riveted to her back. With a shake of her head, her dark hair cascaded down her back. My heart skipped a beat. I watched with interest as she shifted in her seat, amazed at the sensations I was experiencing. My entire body tingled. She stood, her hips swaying as she pulled money out of her pocket to pay for the shot.

      A pleasant fluttering in my abdomen nearly caused me to gasp out loud. My arm were covered with goose bumps. I gently ran my finger over them, thrilling at the sensation. When I looked up she was gone. A panic swept over me as I quickly scanned the room. I caught sight of her heading for the door. She was leaving.

      Without thinking, I jumped up and hurried after her. Just as she was about to exit I reached out, grazing her lightly on the shoulder. When she turned to face me, my heart fell. She looked at me puzzled. I lamely apologized and told her she looked like someone I used to know. As I heard my own words, I felt that somehow they were true.

      She was nice, but I left the bar alone. Unfortunately, I still felt nothing. I had no desire to be with her in a sexual way.

      I am more desperately lonely than before. I could deal with the fact that I might be a lesbian. What truly depresses me is the fact that no one of either sex holds any attraction for me. Iím confused. But, these occasional bursts of sensation leave me hopeful. I feel Iím on the verge of a breakthrough. Itís both exciting and frightening.

       7/10

      Mother called today to remind me about the medallion. She wanted to make sure my uncle remembered to give it to me next week on my birthday. It surprises me how much this tradition means to her considering how strained her relationship was with my grandmother. She never got over the hurt and embarrassment of her mother leaving my grandfather for a woman. She felt abandoned and could never understand how my grandmother could put a mysterious woman before her own child.

      I never knew my grandmother. She died before I was born. Mother never talked about her. I understood even at a very young age that the subject was not to be brought up. My mother only discussed her with me one time and it was very brief. The day my grandfather died I found her in the backyard burning stacks of papers. Her face was wet with tears. In a fit of anger she had burned the letters my grandmother had written to her throughout the years.

      I never understood the magnitude of this loss until I was older. Now, I would give anything to have those letters. A sense of my heritage has always been important to me. I have recorded my thoughts since I was a child. Writing is a life line. I find solace in it no matter how alone I feel. Itís sad that we never knew each other; somehow I feel connected to her. I think her thirst for adventure is in my blood.

      Of grandmotherís belongings, mother kept only two: the leather journal I have used since childhood and the medallion. As the eldest daughter the medallion will pass to me on my twenty-third birthday as it did to my mother before me. Mother never wore it that I know of, but family is very important to her. I think the medallion represents a link to her mother. I will treasure it.

................................................................

Alex set the journal down. The enormity of what she had taken from this young woman flooded over her. She knew somehow she had to set things right.

The ringing of the phone interrupted her thoughts and she moved across the room to answer. It was Sal.

"Thought you might be interested in the late news on channel seven tonight."

She clicked on her set. Danielle appeared on the screen. Alex watched intently as the cameras panned first to the woman on the stretcher and then to the concerned face of Danielle Stafford. At the corner of the screen, she could see a man being directed into the squad car. She recognized the look in his eyes and knew immediately that Danielle was in trouble.

"Sal, I need you to do a favor for me."

He was surprised by the request. In all the years heís known her, Alex had never asked anything of him. "Sure Alex, what can I do?"

"I have a package I need to have delivered to this Danielle Stafford at the newspaper on Monday. I canít have any connection to it. If I drop it by tomorrow morning, can you find someone reliable to handle it?"

"It shouldnít be a problem."

"Make sure the delivery person canít be traced."

"Okay..." He hesitated. "Alex, tell me itís not a bomb."

"Thatís hardly my style." She smiled and shook her head. "And besides, what makes you think Iíd trust you with a bomb?"

He laughed "I had to ask."

"Sal thanks, I owe you one."

After hanging up, Alex couldnít get the young woman off her mind. She sensed danger and she was rarely wrong about these things. She could think of a hundred reasons why she shouldnít get involved but none of them mattered. The instant she had sensed trouble her mind had been made up. She had a few days before she needed to leave town, enough time to follow this woman and make sure everything was okay.

*****

The next evening, after visiting the hospital, Danielle went for a long walk. Her mind was swimming. In the past few days she had experienced more excitement and danger than she had her entire life, but it still left her wanting.

She walked through the park, stopping by the tree where she had seen the two women. Her fingers brushed the rough bark. She leaned against it, closing her eyes. Her mind flashed back to her dream. She could feel the strong hands moving down her hips, the warm breath against her neck. When she opened her eyes the fantasy faded. She felt empty, alone.

Danielle headed back to her apartment, taking a short cut through a rather deserted neighborhood. Gradually she became aware of someone behind her and increased her pace. The footfalls behind her quickened, matching her own. She tried to calm her racing heart, sure her imagination was getting the best of her.

As she turned the corner, she stopped to listen. It was quiet. She took a relieved breath and was about to continue home, when a hand grabbed her from behind, pulling her into a dark alley. He pushed her roughly into the corner.

It was the Drake, the wife beater, and he had two friends with him. She looked around quickly for a way to escape. There was very little gap between the men. She was effectively trapped in the corner.

"You never should have interfered in my life, bitch." A coldness settled in the pit of her stomach. His confidence surged as he sensed her fear. He smiled menacingly.

"Go ahead, scream." He taunted her, his voice filled with hate. "No one will hear you." She tried to break past him but one of the men caught her and threw her back against the wall.

"Iím going to teach you to mind your own business." He glanced back at his friend.

"Joe, watch the entrance." The heavy set man turned and walked toward the street. That left two. She knew this might be her only chance. She had to act quickly.

As Drake reached out to grab her, she struck out hitting his bruised nose. He stepped back wincing in pain. But, before she could run, the other man punched her hard in the face. Her head snapped back and hit the brick wall. She reeled from the blow.

The wife beater wiped a trickle of blood from his nose. His eyes filled with rage. He swung at her face but she managed to dodge the blow. She tried once again to get past him but he threw her back, punching her savagely in the stomach. She doubled over with pain. Taking advantage of her weakened state, he grabbed her hair and forced upright. He hit her several times in the face, splitting her lip. She fought to stay on her feet but her legs were too wobbly to hold her up and she slumped to the ground.

"Grab her hands."

The large man pinned her hands above her head, while Drake positioned himself between her legs. "Youíre going to pay for that."

Danielle struggled to free herself, but the man above her was too strong. She felt Drakeís hands slide under her skirt, pushing it up and knew he meant to rape her. She kicked wildly with her feet as he tore at her underpants. When she cried out for help, he punched her repeatedly.

Pain flooded her body, draining the strength from her limbs. She lay helpless, praying for unconsciousness.

Her vulnerability excited him. He unfastened his belt and unzipped his pants. His callused hands grabbed her thighs and forced her legs farther apart. "Here it comes bitch."

He leaned forward preparing to thrust into her, when a loud thud behind them prompted him to turn. "Joe?"

A tall figure illuminated by the street light, walked slowly toward them. He squinted, struggling in the dim light to see who approached. It was a woman.

"Joe canít answer you, I broke his jaw." Something about her manner and confidence unnerved him. He stood up quickly, haphazardly zipping his pants.

Alex glanced at the man holding Danielle. "Let her go... NOW!"

He released Danielle and rushed Alex. She threw a round house kick to his chest knocking him to the ground. He came at her again. This time, she stepped to the side and grabbed his arm, twisting, while jerking it upward, neatly dislocating his shoulder. He dropped to the ground, screaming in pain. A single punch to the temple knocked him unconscious.

Drake looked at her fearfully, not sure what he was up against. It was one on one and he didnít like his odds. She turned to face him. He saw her face for the first time and his blood ran cold. She was smiling.

"Your fun is over. And mine, is about to begin." She moved in deliberately slow, giving him time to think about his predicament. He back up fearfully, but quickly ran out of space.

"Looks like your luck just ran out." She grabbed him by the neck and pressed him viciously to the wall. He looked at her in horror as he felt his feet leave the ground. She lifted him like a rag doll. Slowly he felt her grip tighten, shutting off his air.

Disoriented, and in a great deal of pain, Danielle could think of nothing but escape. She began a torturously slow crawl toward the street. As she got closer her eyes focused on the back of the tall woman strangling her attacker. The gurgling sounds he made as he gasped for air sickened her.

"You are a dead man." Alex snapped, her voice filled with menace. His feet flailed helplessly as he struggled for breath. His face was flush, an ugly purple color.

"Wait, please." Danielle tried to get up but her legs failed her. "We need to call the police." She pleaded as she crumpled back to the ground in pain.

The tall woman eased her grip, sliding him down the wall, back on his feet. His lungs burned as he took in desperately needed air. He looked into her eyes. The coldness he saw there terrified him. He prayed the girl would go for the police. Alex grabbed his crotch and twisted savagely. He released an agonizing cry as the pain tore through him in an excruciating wave. He feared he was seriously injured.

"No police" She growled.

The words sent a chill through him. Her face was poised only inches from his, her expression feral. He tried to turn his head away, but she grabbed his face and glared at him. His fear doubled when he saw the predatory look in her eyes. Understanding he was the prey, his body shook uncontrollably.

"I take care of my own problems. No loop holes. No juries."

There was something in the tone of the womanís voice. Danielle knew without a doubt that she intended to kill him. She spoke again. Her voice weak and filled with pain. "Please donít do it... not for me."

Alex paused and breathed deeply. She leaned into his ear and for one chilling moment he thought she might bite it off. Instead, she tightened her grip on his neck and whispered. "If I ever lay eyes on you again, or hear that youíve come within a hundred miles of her, I will kill you... slowly."

She glared at him. He nodded, tears streaming down his face. "If anything happens to her, Iím coming after you." Her knee ground into his groin, and he nearly passed out from the pain. She released him, letting him collapse to the ground, his pants soiled by his own blood and urine.

Danielle clutched her stomach, and tried to rise. Alex went to her side and gently picked her up, carrying her out of the alley. Danielle squeezed her eyes shut as her stomach spasmed and ripples of pain rolled through her. "Iím going to be sick..."

Alex eased her to the ground and held back her hair as the she vomited, her bruised muscles clenching painfully. Alex untucked her own shirt and used it to wipe the young womanís mouth.

"Easy... itís okay." She held her, speaking softly. Her soothing voice had a wonderfully calming effect. Danielleís body relaxed in response. She slowly opened her eyes and looked at the face of the woman who had saved her. A gasp escaped her lips.

Alex misunderstood her reaction. She tightened her hold on the young woman, cradling her in her arms. "I wonít let anyone hurt you."

Danielle knew without question that this was the one, the soul she sought. Fate had brought them together. She stared into Alexís blue eyes and prayed she wasnít hallucinating. "Are you real? Am I dreaming?"

Alex smiled softly. "Iím real." Danielle closed her eyes as a wave of pain rolled through her. Alex gently pushed her hair from her face, taking a quick inventory of the damage. The young woman grimaced in pain as Alex ran her hand over the bruised ribs. Her injuries didnít seem life-threatening but she was reluctant to take unnecessary chances.

"Iím going to take you to the hospital."

"No, please." Danielle knew if her family found out it would be impossible to convince them she would be safe remaining in the city. She tried to get up, but dizziness toppled her back into Alexís protective arms.

"Do you live near here?"

Danielle could not make out her words, but she listened, finding comfort in the steady voice. Finally, the picture was complete: the voice, the hair, the eyes. The last thought to cross Danielleís mind before she lost consciousness was leather, the biting scent of leather. She knew she was safe. A weariness descended on her, and she gave into it without a struggle.

Alex made the decision to respect the womanís wishes. She would take her home with her, and they could talk more about it in the morning. She carried Danielle to her car and settled her gently into the passenger seat, buckling her safety belt. Danielle was in a world of hurt, even in unconsciousness her body reacted to every bump in the road. Alex drove carefully trying to spare her discomfort. Twenty minutes later, they pulled up in front of Alexís cabin.

She carried the young woman in and laid her on the waterbed. Alex used a damp wash cloth to wipe the dried blood from Danielleís face. She took great care not cause her further pain. When she had finished she allowed herself the luxury of lightly running her fingers through her soft blonde hair.

Danielleís lashes flickered, and her eyes opened. Her body ached. As the horrors of the night flooded over her once again, her stomach rebelled. She raised her hand weakly to her mouth. Alex carried her into the bathroom, where Danielle dropped to her knees. She retched into the toilet, her stomach long ago empty. Alex knelt beside her, an arm supporting her shoulders and gently wiped her face with a cool cloth.

Danielle went limp in Alexís arms and the tears came. "God if you hadnít come..." She cried for her helplessness, her vulnerability. For the first time she had an idea of what the women at the shelter had faced. " I... I need a shower."

The sight of the battered young woman broke her heart. "Are you strong enough to stand?" Danielle nodded. Alex started the water and went to get some clean towels.

When she returned Danielle was in the shower. Alex set the robe, towels and toothbrush down and left, gently closing the door behind her. Much later Danielle emerged from the bathroom. She staggered, exhausted from her efforts. Alex carefully lifted her and carried her to bed. When she pulled the covers over her, Danielle grimaced. Every breath, every movement tormented her bruised ribs. She closed her eyes tightly and tried not to cry out.

"Iím going to give you something for the pain."

Alex removed a medical kit from the closet. She pulled out a hypodermic and quickly unwrapped it from its packaging. She inserted the needle into a small vial. Carefully eyeing the dosage, she pulled back the covers and injected the Demerol into the fleshy part of Danielleís hip. "This will ease your discomfort and help you sleep." She gently tucked her in. "Iíll be in the next room, if you need anything, just call." Alex stood to leave.

"Please..." Danielle reached out, imploringly. "Can you stay with me for a while?" Alex pulled a chair next to bed and took the young womanís hand. Danielle squeezed tightly and closed her eyes. In a few minutes the pain eased. She felt marvelously lightheaded, as if she were floating. She curled on her side facing Alex. Her eyes flickered open not quiet fixing on anything. She pulled Alexís hand under her cheek and inhaled deeply.

Just before sleep claimed the young woman, Alex heard her whisper "I always knew you would find me."

She seemed so frail. It was all Alex could do to look at her bruised face. If she had only gotten there a few minutes sooner, but she had lost Danielle in the park when a drunk delayed her. Alex wished suddenly that she had killed all three men. They were monsters. Her anger began to surge but dissipated when she felt the womanís warm cheek snuggle against her fingers.

Normally nothing would have prevented her from taking their worthless lives. Alex thought of the young womanís appeal for mercy on her assailantís behalf. She had glimpsed something she hadnít believed existed, something she had long ago stopped fantasizing about: forgiveness. A calmness enveloped her.

She took a deep breath, allowing her body to relax. Why did this feel so right? The need to protect this young woman was almost instinctive. She watched over Danielle for a long time, until, at last, she too fell asleep.

Continue to Part III

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