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It had been another long, quiet day at the real estate office. In the current economy nobody was buying or selling property in the small town of Black Rock, Kansas.
Layla West shuffled her feet beneath her desk, seeking her newest pair of navy sling-back heels. If there was one thing in the world that Layla loved it was shoes. There was also the fact that she'd been left with an inheritance that allowed her to remain calm despite the fact she hadn't made a sale in a month.
With high heels in place, she rose from the desk and grabbed her coffee mug. As she carried it into the back room where there was a bathroom, she noted that darkness had fallen outside.
At least it hadn't snowed yet, she thought as she dumped the last of the tepid coffee down the sink. Early-December often brought winter weather to the small prairie town.
Coffee mug rinsed, she returned to the front office and grabbed her coat from the back of her chair. It was time to get home to her cat, Mr. Whiskers, the only male who seemed content to stick around with her for the long run.
With her coat around her shoulders and her purse in her hand, she locked up the office and stepped outside. She looked around to make sure nobody was lurking nearby and then headed down the street where her car was parked against the curb.
She'd stayed late in hopes that somebody might call, and because she'd been reluctant to go home where lately the silence, the loneliness, had begun to press in around her.
The streets were deserted, most of the stores having closed not long before. She picked up her pace, uncomfortable with being out alone after dark.
She noticed that the streetlight above where she'd parked had burned out and made a mental note to mention it to Sheriff Tom Grayson. The candy cane decorations hanging from all the streetlights reminded her that it was time to get her little fake Christmas tree out of its box and go wild with all her other seasonal decorations. She loved Christmas and always went nuts decorating her house.
Eager to get inside and get the heat blowing, she started to open the car door and realized she'd left her cell phone on her desk in the office.
"Nobody is going to call you," she muttered aloud. Besides, she had a landline at home if anyone really wanted to get in touch with her.
Deciding to get the cell phone in the morning when she returned to work, she quickly unlocked the car, slid in and punched her key into the ignition.
Before she could turn the key an arm snaked around the back of the seat and against her neck. A scream tried to escape her as the arm applied pressure to her throat.
For a moment she thought it was some kind of a weird joke, an old boyfriend trying to scare her, a friend playing a prank, but that momentary thought fled as the pressure on her throat increased, cutting off her airflow.
Wildly, she glanced at the rearview mirror, but realized it had been flipped up so she couldn't see who was in her backseat, who was trying to choke her.
Her first instinct was to grab at the arm, to scratch and claw in an effort to get free. A searing fear gutted her as she thrashed against the seat. Her head pressed against the headrest as the arm tightened; her attacker did not make a sound as he squeezed the air from her lungs.
This isn't a joke, her mind screamed as her vision was narrowed by encroaching darkness. The candy cane decoration hanging from the nearest streetlight began to blur and fade as first tears, then stars danced in front of her eyes.
She tried to scream again, but it came out only as a strangled sob. He was going to kill her. He was going to choke the life out of her. Tears once again blurred her vision and she knew if she didn't do something quickly she was going to die.
The arm around her throat was strong and she knew she didn't have the strength to pull it away and would waste precious energy in the effort. As she realized she couldn't break his hold, she did the only other thing she could think ofshe pulled her foot up and took off one of her high heels. Using the heel as a weapon she slammed it back over her head.
There was a low grunt and the pressure against her neck momentarily eased. As she drew in a rasping gasp of breath she slammed her hands down on the car horn.
As it blared in the otherwise silent streets, the attacker jumped out of the car and raced off into the darkness of the night.
She hit her automatic door locks and began to cry in deep, gulping sobs. Still she held down the horn, a bleating plea for help as she squeezed her eyes tightly closed.
Dear God, what had just happened? Why had it happened and who had it been? The questions couldn't maintain any weight as terror still fired through her.
She'd almost been killed. She forcefully coughed, as if the act could banish the feel of pressure, the terror of not being able to draw a deep breath.
A knock on the driver window ripped a new scream from her, but she gasped in relief as she saw Sheriff Tom Grayson standing next to her car. He'd either heard the horn from his office down the street or somebody had called and he'd come to investigate.
A new torrent of tears escaped her as she unlocked the car and opened the door. "He tried to kill me," she finally managed to gasp as she nearly tumbled out of the car. Her throat burned and her words sounded raspy.
"Who?" Tom asked as he grabbed her arm to steady her trembling stance.
"I don't know who. I didn't see his face. He was hiding in the backseat of my car." She raised a hand to her throat. "He he tried to choke me. I hit him with my high heel and when I leaned on the horn he ran out of the car."
Tom used his cell phone and called for his brother, Caleb. "Which way did he run?" he asked her as he clicked off the phone. In the distance Caleb left the sheriff's station down the street and hurried toward them.
"Back that way," she replied as she pointed down the street. Her heart banged against her ribs and the taste of horror crawled up the back of her aching throat.
Within minutes Caleb was chasing after the attacker and Tom was leading her down the block to the warm interior of the sheriff's office. Once inside he deposited her into a chair in his office and instructed Deputy Sam McCain to get her a cup of coffee.
Layla glanced at the clock above Tom's desk and realized it had only been about fifteen minutes since she'd left her office to get into her car to go home.
It felt like an eternity. It felt like a nightmare and no matter how hard she tried she couldn't wake up. Somebody had tried to kill her. Somebody had tried to kill her. The words thundered in her head over and over again.
She took the coffee from Sam not because she wanted to drink it but rather because she needed the warmth to banish the chill that gripped her.
"Tell me exactly what happened," Tom said.
"There's not much to tell," she said, surprised when a laugh escaped her. Hysterical. She was definitely on the verge of becoming hysterical.
She took a sip of the coffee and leaned back against the hard surface of the chair back. "I got into the car, he wrapped his arm around my neck and he squeezed."
"Was your car locked?"
"Yes. At least I think it was but maybe not. I looked around to make sure nobody dangerous was lurking when I left the office and I didn't think about anyone hiding in my backseat."
"Did he say anything?"
She shook her head. "The only sound he made was a grunt when I hit him with my shoe. I hope I didn't break the heel when I smashed him. Those shoes were expensive." Once again a nervous burst of laughter rose to her lips but she quickly swallowed it down.
It was a fault of hers, the inexplicable need to make light when she was scared or upset. "Why would somebody do that to me, Tom? Why would somebody try to hurt me?"
He frowned thoughtfully. "Can you think of anyone in your personal life who might be angry with you?"
"No, nobody," she said firmly. "You know me, Tom. I don't make enemies."
"What about professionally? Any problems at the office?"
"I'm a Realtor, for goodness' sake. I work for myself and I make people happy." She set the cup on the edge of the desk with trembling fingers.
At that moment Caleb returned to the office. "I didn't see any sign of anyone, but I did a cursory check of the car and grabbed your purse," he said to Layla. He handed her the oversize bag and then turned to Tom. "I also found this in the backseat." He held up a plastic bag with a syringe in it.
"Oh, my God, what's that?" Layla asked as a new horror washed over her. "That's not mine," she exclaimed. "I don't do drugs of any kind."
"I don't know what's in it, but it looks fully loaded," Caleb replied.
Tom rose from his chair and motioned Caleb out of the room. "Excuse us for just a minute," he said as he and Caleb walked out into the hallway.
Left alone, Layla's anxiety flew off the charts as she grappled with what had just happened to her. She couldn't imagine anyone hating her enough to try to strangle her. She even got along well with her ex-boyfriends.
Sure, she knew that a lot of people in town thought she was shallow and superficial, brash and a bit of a wise-mouth. She also knew that there were some who probably thought she was a bit loose, but Layla was the first to admit that she made a lot of mistakes when it came to men.
Even as she thought about her personal life she knew the truth, and the truth was far more terrifying than an ex-boyfriend.
She reached for the cup and took another sip of the coffee, but the warmth of the brew didn't begin to touch the chill that had taken up residency in her bones.
What happened now? Did she just get into her car and go home? The idea of being alone in her house terrified her. What if he knew where she lived? What if he came back to finish the job?
Other women had recently disappeared in the town of Black Rock. A new chill took possession of her body at this thought. They'd disappeared and never been seen again.
Tom returned to the room and sat at his desk, a sober expression on his handsome face. "Layla, you know about the missing women we've had in the last couple of months."
"Of course," she replied. "I was just thinking about that." There had been four women who had disappeared from Black Rock in the last four months or so, including Tom's own sister, Deputy Brittany Grayson. "It was him, wasn't it?" Her heart beat so fast she felt slightly nauseous. This was the truth she hadn't wanted to think about.
Tom nodded. "Caleb and I think maybe it's possible you were intended to be number five."
His words hung in the air between them as she stared at him in horror. Nobody knew what had happened to the women who had disappeared but the general opinion of everyone in town was that they were all dead.
"We think that all the women were taken from their cars. Most people don't look in their backseats when they get behind the wheel. I would guess that the syringe is filled with something that would knock a person unconscious. He was probably going to choke you unconscious and then administer the drug."
"Or it could have killed me instantly," she said. Her throat began to hurt again, as if in response to their conversation.
He hesitated a moment, his eyes flashing darkly. "We'll know more about that after we send it to the lab."
"So, what happens now?" she finally managed to ask.
"As terrible as this experience has been for you, this could be the break we've been waiting for. We're keeping your car and will go through it with a fine-tooth comb to see if the attacker left anything behind besides that syringe. Hopefully we'll get some hair or fiber or fingerprints that will lead us to an arrest."
"And what about me?" she asked.
"I've called Benjamin. He's going to come by and take you by your house to get some things then we're going to stash you in a cabin out at the ranch until we're certain you aren't in any danger."
"A cabin?" She didn't know about any cabin located on the Grayson property.
He nodded. "It's kind of a family secret, an old caretaker's cottage that my parents renovated years ago."
"What about my cat?"
Tom frowned. "You have a neighbor or somebody who can take care of him while you're gone for a couple of days? Either that or we can see if Larry Norwood can board him."
Layla set the coffee cup on the desk and then leaned back once again, finding it difficult to comprehend everything that was happening. "The only person I'd trust to take care of Mr. Whiskers is Portia and she's allergic." Portia Perez was Layla's best friend and Caleb's fiancée. "I guess it would be okay to board him for a couple of days. I'm sure Larry would take good care of him."
Larry Norwood was the town veterinarian and Layla was comforted by the fact that he seemed like a nice guy who loved animals. Mr. Whiskers already knew the vet, for Larry's office was where she took the cat for checkups and shots.
"I'll see that he's taken care of," Tom assured her. "The important thing is to get you someplace safe until we can figure out exactly what's going on." He leaned forward, his dark eyes piercing into her. "Layla, is there anything else you can tell me about the man who attacked you?"
She thought of those terrifying moments in the car when she'd been certain death was a mere heartbeat away. "Nothing," she finally replied. "It all happened so fast. All I can tell you is that he was strong."
"If you think of anything else, if you think of anyone who might have a reason to harm you, let me know. In the meantime all I need from you is that you tell nobody where we're putting you, and I mean nobody, and that you stay put until we know the danger has passed."