Chapter 16

© Copyright 2006 by Kendra Cornell

Karen had switched her trek to the alleyways that divided the city blocks into halves. She figured that approach would help to keep her out of sight. As of yet, no one had seen her- at least not that she had noticed. Dusk had broken before she left the library, and now she walked in the dim light of the sunless sky.

As before, she had no direction, no focus. Karen’s heightened senses only sought to stay unseen. Nothing more, nothing less. She thought over the information her stint in the library had produced. There was nothing of great interest on Elizabeth James, only that she had been involved in some business transactions with an unknown associate... Well, it didn’t take a lot of brains to put together that it was Thomas Delaney. But whatever business they were involved in was still a secret to Karen.

What about Jeff Yendale? She still didn’t have a good lead on him. Something tickled the back of her mind... but she just couldn’t get a good solid lead on it. A far siren began to register in her brain as she walked in the dark, but she didn’t experience the same fear she had before. Karen smiled wearily to herself- for some reason, she had ceased to fear, and only to react. She was too exhausted to keep worrying and panicking. Really, surrendering right now would have been a bit of a relief. Karen’s stomach was throbbing- the fact that she hadn’t eaten much today was beginning to catch up with her. She was used to a high protein, low fat diet that she could mostly grab on the run. The protein kept her head in the game. And right now, she was beginning to feel dizzy. Adding to some serious discomfort, her feet throbbed and had begun to bleed, the pain worsening with every step. When she stopped to examine them with her hands in the dark, she felt thorns and tiny stones embedded in the soft flesh of her feet. Karen realized with evident relief and a little concern that she was going to have to stop soon.

As she approached the end of yet another block, a car with a searching spotlight rolled slowly past. Karen reacted instinctively, crouching immediately and rolling to her right behind a series of trash cans. The fence behind her was chain link, and had only risen to her hip when she stood. Through the open window of the squad car, a young man’s voice carried through the still darkness to Karen’s ears.

“Hey, did you see something up there?”

“Naw... it was probably just a dog or something,” another voice replied.

“Wait... I really think I saw something. The captain said she would likely stay in this area, didn’t he? It won’t hurt to check. Back up and turn right.”

Karen heard the car stop, and the whir of the engine as it backed up and turned in her direction. Her heart started to pound. Quickly searching the area behind her, she located a small gate in the fence. Reaching up quietly, she unlatched it and backed through, still sitting. Slowly, she relatched the gate, breathing a silent sigh of relief that it didn’t creak. She crawled again behind the cans as the car rolled past. The officers were so close, she could hear them breathing.

“Did you see anything Tony?” A moment of silence passed before she heard his reply. “No, but I could have sworn...” His car door opened and slammed and Karen saw the beam of a flashlight shining along the ground. Her palms grew clammy, and her breathing grew uneven as he came nearer to the gate. She slid quietly as close to the fence and relative concealment as physics would allow. His steps ceased and the gravel shifted and crunched as if he had changed position.

“Hey... Look at this! It’s blood. Someone came this way- do you think she could have been bleeding?”

“Could be- Hang on.” Karen closed her eyes tight, wishing again that they would just leave. Another door opened and slammed.

“Would you look at that! But on the gravel, Tony, it could be anything- maybe a dog or a cat. Who knows?” Footsteps crunched on the gravel behind her. The beam of a flashlight swung over the fence, coming closer and closer, the only barrier a row of trashcans.

Just as suddenly, the footsteps backed up and walked around the other side of the trash cans. The beam of light swung close to Karen, who inched back the other way in agonizingly slow motion.

She heard a sigh of frustration as both officers got back in the car.

“Told you, man. Should have listened to me.”

There was no reply as the tires began a slow roll back down the alley. As soon as darkness again reigned over her, Karen cautiously rose to her feet, checking to make sure the police had gone. Just as suddenly, the strong beam of light mounted to the car lit her in a wash of light. Stunned, Karen stood there a moment before she bolted in the other direction toward the house whose backyard she stood in.

“There she is- I’ve got her on foot. Try to head her off in the next block. Go! Go! Go!”

The police cruiser sprayed rocks and gravel as it spun out of the alley. The tires squealed as they hit pavement and the car rocketed around the corner. Karen heard a muffled thump as one officer jumped the fence and began his pursuit.

Not knowing where the strength came from, Karen leapt over the waist-high fence and into the darkness. Scampering across the street, she ran through the front yard and over the fence of another house. She heard the police car tearing down the street, its lights and sirens blaring. The other officer was not far behind her.

“I’ve got her man! Keep going!” Karen registered another ...oomph’ as the officer landed behind her and fell. She jumped on top of some trash cans set in this backyard and leapt over the five-foot fence into another alleyway. She heard the clatter of the cans as they fell from the force of her volley.

Landing with a burst of pain in her feet, Karen ran to the left, and doubled back two houses down. Thankfully, all the alleys were gravel, and hopefully she left no noticeable footprints. Her instinct was that he would continue forward into the yard directly opposite the one she had just left. But if he stopped, would he notice the trail her wounded feet left? Karen crouched behind a tree, silent and almost hidden.

The officer made it over the fence and stopped, huffing noisily as he tried to catch his breath. She sensed his confusion as he tried to discern which way she had gone in the darkness. He then continued as she had hoped he would into the other yard. She had done it! Sharp relief flooded her veins, panic and fatigue bringing unbidden tears to her eyes.

Noticing a small shed set close to the house, she limped around it and hid in an unseen niche. Her feet were throbbing with almost unbearable pain and she could no longer walk, let alone run. Sinking to the ground, she could almost bring herself not to care if she shared her space with spiders... almost. This respite would not last long.

She heard a cacophony of sirens as more officers joined the search. Twice, a lighted car rolled slowly down the alleyway, but Karen was completely hidden, her legs cramped underneath her. Unwillingly, she dozed off twice, her head leaning against the shed. But after an hour, the pain became too much and Karen rose on dead legs. Blood rushed in to the deadened limbs, and Karen almost cried out from the shock. The only good thing was that because of the poor circulation, her feet no longer screamed out in protest.

Stumbling, Karen headed for the darkened street. She only needed to find a quiet place for the night- preferably somewhere with food and void of bugs. She still heard cars going by, and not knowing whether they were police cars sent to apprehend her or not, she chose to play it safe and stayed hidden near the houses that sheltered sleeping people- families with children, singles and couples.

By this time, hunger and fatigue combined with pain and Karen no longer felt capable of forming any coherent thoughts. The day’s events had progressively weakened her- physically and emotionally. But she forced each step, her only desire at the moment a safe haven where she could find rest.

A streetlight lit one spot on a darkened block not far from where she had hidden. On the corner stood a small, brick church- its windows darkened for the night. Approaching glass double doors, Karen reached one shaking hand out, expecting them to be locked against intruders like herself. She was surprised and filled with sharp relief when the door swung out easily. Karen stepped into the dark, quiet interior of the church and waited for her eyes to adjust.

To her left were stairs that presumably led to the basement. To her right, stairs led up to a foyer- a large open space with a beautiful mural on the wall. Believing that her best chance of food was downstairs, she headed to her left. The carpet was much kinder to her feet than the gravel and sidewalks had been, but they still pulsed in anguish with every heartbeat. Karen awkwardly made it to the basement, driven almost to her knees with the pain. Passing through a hallway with marked restrooms, she came into a large open room, lit only by a small nightlight plugged into a wall socket. A small kitchen stood off to one side, and Karen sighed with relief. Unbidden tears began to trickle out of the corners of her eyes.

Opening one of two refrigerators, she found a bountiful assortment of food. Either these people had just had some kind of a party, or they fed a regular battalion. Karen looked at the plastic bags and containers marked in permanent ink with the date. Opening one that contained a now cold macaroni salad, she scooped up the pasta in scraped, filthy fingers and shoved it into her mouth.

A large pitcher of lemonade sat on the top shelf, and with trembling hands, Karen drank straight from the container savoring the sweet-tart coldness as it ran down her parched throat. Next, she took several slices of freshly carved ham from a bag and ate them slowly. A cut-fruit salad filled with melon and strawberries filled the last chinks in her shrunken stomach, and achingly satisfied, Karen closed the refrigerator door.

Without the light from the open door, Karen was again shrouded in near darkness. For a few moments, she allowed her aching body to rest in the relative quiet. Slowly, lucidity drained the fog from her mind and she realized she couldn’t stay in a kitchen indefinitely. Awkwardly rising, she tested each foot. She emitted an unwanted cry of pain as she took a step, but forced herself out and up the stairs.

There was something so quiet about a church. Karen had only been in one once before, at Christmas when she had been very young. Candles had lit the sanctuary where she had gone with her family- Karen remembered light and music. The choir had sounded like the angels they resembled in long flowing, satin robes. After the service, people left in silence and Karen had been deeply moved by the beauty of it all. Crying on the way home, she had been unable to explain her tears to her parents. And they had never gone back.

Now, she made her way through the shadows. A certain wariness tensed her muscles and strained her senses. Karen came to a door, and entered it in the gloom. Instantly, sharper light caused a twinge in her eyes. She had been walking in the darkness for so long.

Karen entered the sanctuary. Pews stretched back in the small chapel, their seats covered in a cushioned fabric. Toward the front stood a grand piano, its cover already lifted as if expecting a sonata to fill the hush with grandeur. Muted stained glass windows rose up alongside the chapel. She stood still, struck with a sense of something unfamiliar and unnamable. Those windows must be beautiful in the daytime, Karen thought.

Shaking off the reverie, she sat in the fourth pew and looked up at the front of the chapel releasing her feet from the pressure of standing. A few stairs rose to a platform where a podium had been placed. A simple cross hung above the entire proscenium. Lights burned dimly along both sides of the chapel. For the first time in uncounted hours, Karen felt safe again.

Beside her on the pew, there were short stacks of books. Inching over she lifted one.

“The Holy Bible,” she read aloud. Another was a gray-covered songbook that she flipped through absentmindedly.

“Songs of Praise... Songs of Lent... Songs of Advent... What is all this?”

Replacing the songbook, she picked up the Bible again. In the semi-darkness, she couldn’t make out the small print, but for some odd reason, it felt good to hold it- comforting almost. Weariness was beginning to overtake her again- her eyelids growing heavier by the second. Karen stood, intending to leave the church, when vertigo hit with force and finality. Blackness filled her field of vision, and Karen fell back to the cushioned pew- her body finally collapsing with fatigue and exhaustion.

HEY! and don't forget to e-mail Kendra Cornell if you have a comment! She would really like to hear from you.

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