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"Okay, Streak, show me what you got." Randy Rails-back stood relaxed, with an easy grin on his face.
The woman he'd nicknamed Streak came at him across the workout room like a charging rhino. At the last second, he casually moved his hands sideways. Completely off balance, she stumbled past him. He caught her ankle with his instep.
She sprawled on the big mat that covered two-thirds of the floor, and rolled over onto her back awkwardly. The other women gasped. "See, ladies," he said over his shoulder, "you use their force against them." He reached down to offer her a hand, and found himself facedown across her body, staring into a pair of brown eyes so enraged they seemed to be entirely black pupil. "Whoa!" he said as he rolled off. "Way to go, Streak. More than just a pretty face."
He came to his feet in one fluid movement. She scrambled away on the seat of her sweatpants.
"Hope I didn't hurt you," he said, and rubbed his wrist. "You definitely hurt me."
The other women tittered. She hadn't hurt him, but she might have. Out-of-control newbies were always more dangerous than pros who understood how to engage and when to stop. "Friends?" he said, and stuck out his hand. She ignored it and struggled to her feet.
Had to be a reason for all the anger she was carrying. Jessica might have an idea. As manager of a working gym, Strength for Health, Jessica often knew more about her clients than they realized.
He hadn't planned to take Streak down, but she'd come at him with such force, he'd had no choice. She toted some muscle on that skinny frame, she moved fast and she was only three or four inches shorter than his six feet two. If she learned to channel that anger, she might turn into a formidable opponent. If she didn't, she was going to get herself or someone else hurt.
"Okay, ladies, gather 'round," he said. "I'm Randy Railsback. I'm a Shelby County cop and I teach this class several times a year, and I'm afraid you're stuck with my standard introduction. After that we'll get to work. During the break, you can all introduce yourselves and tell us why you joined a self-defense class." He opened his hands. "Okay with you?"
Most of the heads bobbed. Streak's didn't.
"A competent big man will almost always beat a competent small man," he began.
"But we're not men, Randy," said the luscious blonde, with a small waggle of her estimable rear.
"I've noticed," he said, and included the whole class in his killer smile. Streak didn't react. "That's my point. Women are usually smaller than their assailants. Most men have greater upper-body strength than women, and most women have a glass jaw. A solid right will take you out every time."
"Then why are we here?" Streak asked. Voice like velvet. Deep, almost baritone, but full of authority. He'd bet she was a doctor or lawyer or top-level manager despite the droopy old sweats. Whatever she was, she sure hadn't made it on her looks or cheerful nature.
"Excellent question. I'm not about to teach you how to start fights. I'mgoing to teach you how to finish them."
"And disable our attackers?" Streak asked.
"If that's what it takes. We have three objectives." He counted on his fingers. "First, get free. Second, get away, and third, get safe." He grinned at her. "And avoid a right cross while you're about it."
"Why not just shoot his ass?" asked a plump and cheerful lady who looked like Mrs. Santa Claus. "My husband says shoot until the gun goes click, click, then if you have time, reload and do it again."
There were nods all around.
"What if you don't have a gun handy?" Randy said. "How many of you have gun permits and carry a weapon in your car, or have one in your house?"
Every hand went up.
"How many of you feel comfortable shooting it?"
Everyone except Streak raised her hand. A cross section of female West Tennessee America, and every one of them owned a gun. If he were a perp, he'd be terrified. But then, if faced with shooting someone for real, so would they. He didn't usually do this until later in the course, but after Streak's little episode, he decided to move up his demonstration. "'Scuse me a second," he said.
He came back from his gym locker with the .38 Smith & Wesson short-barreled five shot he carried in his ankle holster as backup to his Sig Sauer .45. He unloaded it, checked it twice, dropped the bullets into his pocket and offered Mrs. Claus the weapon, butt first. "I carry a weapon at all times, even off duty." He winked at them. "So I can take down your friendly neighborhood ATM bandit at Kroger's. I've never shot anyone and I pray I never have to, and I definitely hope you never have to, either. Now, Mrs.…"
"Ellen," she simpered. She held the gun low with her trigger finger safely along the side, even though she had just seen it unloaded. Someone had taught her well.
"Most shootings occur from six feet or less." He moved back ten feet and stuck out his hand. "Woman, how 'bout you give me that diamond ring you're wearing?"
Ellen narrowed her eyes. The pistol swung up toward his chest. Before she could dry fire, he crossed the distance, blocked her finger on the trigger, wrenched the gun up out of her grasp and pointed it back at her.
"Oh," Ellen said.
"It's not as easy as it looks."
"So we can't shoot, we can't fight. Should we just lie down and… die?" Streak again. He was certain she was going to say something besides "die," but changed her mind. He was glad he hadn't offered her the gun. She'd probably club him over the head with it. She'd relished the idea of disabling her opponent a tad too much.
"You're here to learn to avoid dying," he said. "Get loose from whoever is after you and don't stick around. We clear on that?"
"We can beat his brains out with a rock," Streak said.
"Only if you have one," he said. "Accept that you may get hurt. Don't get dead."
For the next half hour he put them through simple drills—how to move forward, backward and sideways, how to keep their weight balanced so they couldn't be knocked over easily. They were sweating when he called for a break. Everyone collapsed on the exercise mats, pulled bottles of water out of their bags and drained them.
He lobbed his empty bottle into the waste bin in the corner and asked, "Who wants to start?" He smiled at the little blonde. "How about you? First names only. Less to remember." Plus it gave them some privacy among a group of relative strangers. Before the classes finished, the ones who stayed would know one another well, but at the moment, first names were plenty.
"Everybody calls me Bunny," she said. "I have no intention of telling you the name Mama saddled me with. I have a husband and two teenage boys, and there are times I wish I could beat up every one of them. And no, I do not have a job."
"One husband and two teenage boys is a job," said Mrs. Claus.
She went next. "You already know—I'm Ellen. My husband and I raise Black Angus in Fayette County, and he's gone early and late with the stock. If I called the sheriff's department, they wouldn't get to me for at least twenty minutes. I'm on my own. I have to be able to take care of myself."
"Thanks, Ellen. How about you, Streak?" he asked.
She arched an eyebrow at him. "My name is Helena. I want to learn to protect myself."
"I like Streak," said Bunny. "It suits you and it's cute."
The look Helena gave her would have peeled paint, but Bunny grinned and shrugged.
Everyone waited for Helena to continue. When she didn't, he nodded to the fiftyish woman sitting beside her.
"I'm Francine. I live alone, I run a day-care center, and in case y'all hadn't noticed, I'm sixty pounds overweight and black. I didn't give birth to any of my kids, but I still consider 'em mine. As to why I'm here… In the last year three deadbeat dads under Orders of Protection have tried to pick up their kids when they weren't supposed to, and one drunk mama was strappin' her two-year-old daughter into her car seat ready to drive home when I stopped her. I need to know how to handle myself."
"Did you keep the dads from taking their children?" Ellen asked.
Francine grinned at her. "Being a heifer like me has to be good for something. You bet I stopped 'em."
"Good for you," said the tall, dark woman who sat beside her. She was maybe forty-five, and looked like Streak might have if Streak only fixed herself up. Expensive haircut, expensive workout clothes, expensive trainers. Sleek as a pampered Siamese cat. "I'mAmanda. I'm a divorce lawyer. Divorces bring out the absolute worst in people and sometimes they take out their nasty tempers on me." She nodded toward the girl sitting next to her, who was maybe twenty-five, with wide hazel eyes.
"Hi, I'm Lauren." She waggled her fingernails. They were neatly manicured, but so short she must bite them.
Oh, Lord, Randy thought, she's perky.
"Walter and I haven't been married all that long," she continued. "My mama and daddy live all the way over in Birmingham and Walter's got a new job where he travels a lot and works nights. He has to do it to get ahead, but we live in a town house in Germantown, and I don't know anybody to call if I get scared."
Randy was surprised to see tears threatening to spill down her cheeks. Okay, he'd forgive her for being perky, since Walter, her husband, was obviously an insensitive jerk. Lauren was lonely and frightened. He let his gaze run over his group. He'd be willing to bet, by the time the course finished, these women would have taken her under their collective wings.
The final member of the class worried him as much as Streak did, but for a different reason. She had a head of fluffy white curls without a hint of blue or purple, was nearly as tall as Amanda and Streak, and according to Jessica, was past seventy. He'd have to be careful not to hurt her when they practiced. She stood erect, with no hint of a dowager's hump. She might run marathons for all he knew, but that didn't mean her hips would hold up.
"Hello, I'm Sarah Beth." She nodded at Ellen. "I live in the country, too, but we've sold all but five acres. I have four cats, two dogs and a goat. The dogs would probably lick a burglar to death, the cats couldn't care less and, unfortunately, the goat is the variety that faints at loud noises, so I need to be able to protect myself when my husband's gone."
Everybody laughed. The tension was broken.
"You all ready to get started again?" Randy asked.
By the time he dismissed the class an hour later, the women were riding a tide of adrenaline, laughing and high-fiving one another. Except for Streak. She drove away without speaking to anyone.
Too bad Bunny, the little blonde, was married. He watched the others drive off, then found the gym manager in her office.
"You ever go home, Jessica?" he asked.
The manager answered, "I'm like a vampire. I sleep during the day and babysit this place at night. How'd your class go?"
"Pretty well. Interesting group. I'm willing to bet there's a lot they're not telling. Women don't take self-defense for no good reason. What's Helena's story?"
"She's been a member of the gym for three or four months, but she usually walks on the treadmill and doesn't speak to anyone."
"College professor. Why?"
"She came unglued. Lot of rage. I'd like to understand why."
"She doesn't seem like a nutcase. Should I refund her money?"
"Nah. I can handle her."
Jessica rolled her eyes. "Right."
"And I'd like to find out why she wanted to kill me tonight."
"I'm not going back to that class Thursday night," Helena Norcross said. "The instructor is a chauvinistic redneck."
"Tell me what you really think," said Marcie Hal-pern. "Don't leave your dirty glass in the sink after you finish your drink. Put it in the dishwasher."
"Yes, Mother," Helena said. She poured herself an inch of Irish Cream and sat at the small kitchen table to sip it.
"Thank heaven one of us is a neat freak," Marcie said. "Otherwise this house would be so knee-deep in books you wouldn't be able to find your children unless they wore bells."
"You are the best tenant in the universe, as you never tire of telling me. Where are said children?"
"Bathed, tucked in, read to, tomorrow's clothes laid out, lunch boxes filled in the refrigerator…"
Helena patted her shoulder. "I'll run up and kiss them good-night. God help me if you ever find a husband. I'll never have another tenant like you. All this and rent, too."
"Precious little rent. Thanks so much for agreeing to swap nannying for the cash. If that no-goodnik ex of yours would pay his child support…"
"If Mickey doesn't pay, he can't come around and mess up our lives again."
"So, tell me about the redneck chauvinist," Marcie said.
"He made me look like a fool. Told us we didn't have enough upper-body strength to fight off a man, that we had glass jaws and would never get in a shot before the bad guys turned the tables on us."
"I thought he was supposed to help you repel the bad guys." Marcie leaned back so that her chair teetered and only her toes touched the floor. "How'd he make a fool of you?"
Helena told her.
Marcie laughed so hard she had to grab the table to keep from tipping over. "It's the fool part you hated, isn't it? You spend too much time with students who don't dare talk back. God knows what they say behind your back."
"'Nasty old Dr. Norcross thinks Shakespeare's plays are worth reading. Not.' In another generation the entire human race will only text-message. Pronounce 'roflol,' why don't you?" She finished her Irish Cream and set the sticky glass on the table.
Marcie pointed to it.
Helena got up to rinse the glass in the sink and set it in the dishwasher.
"You should have seen him leering at the blonde trophy wife. He'll be jumping her bones inside of two weeks. Would you believe, he actually called me Streak."
Marcie spat her mouthful of diet soda straight across the table and laughed until she choked. Helena grabbed a paper towel and mopped up the spill.
"Oh, dear. Sorry."
"How many thirty-five-year-old women have a white streak down the side of their head? You're lucky he didn't call you Skunk."
"That's it. I'm going to bed."
"Wait. Helena. Please, sit down. Aside from your assessment of his character, does he know his stuff?"