I run, moving quickly.
Through the sheeting rain.
Crossing city streets.
Hidden by the shadows of the night.
My heart’s pounding, blood pumping through my veins as I splash through puddles and blink against the slashing rain.
I smell the earthy, ever-present odor of the Mississippi River.
Familiar and dank.
With my poncho flapping, my boots slapping through puddles, I run along the alleys and streets of the French Quarter.
Street lights are glowing, their illumination fuzzy in the rainfall, soft light reflecting off the hoods of a few scattered cars parked near Jackson Square, rain water gurgling in the gutters, washing onto the street and pooling in the potholes.
This city is, and always has been, my home.
And I loved it.
Until I didn’t.
Because of her.
My stomach clenches at that thought of what I’ve gone through, what I’ve had to endure. But now, after all this time, it’s about to be over.
With St. Louis Cathedral as my beacon, down the nearly deserted streets I fly. The cathedral rises high into the night, white-washed walls bathed in light, its three familiar spires knifing upward to the dark, roiling heavens. From habit, I cross myself as I hazard a glance to the highest spire with its cross aloft, but all the while, I keep moving, the wrought iron pickets of the fence surrounding Jackson Square in my peripheral vision.
On the far side of the cathedral, I slip into narrow Pirate Alley where a few lights in the windows of the shops are glowing, but the street itself deserted, all pedestrians indoors, waiting out the storm.
It’s fine, I tell myself. No, no, it’s good, because in spite the inclement weather, she will be coming.
I know her routine by heart. And, I’ve double checked to make certain that tonight she didn’t vary from it, that her car is parked where it normally is three nights a week, so, tonight is the night. With the rain concealing so much, a wet shroud, I’ll have more time and less chance of being observed, or worse yet, interrupted.
My heart is pounding, my chest tight in anticipation as I reach the end of the alley,
near the Place de Henriette DeLille. Here I wait, crouching low, catching my breath near the park. Swiping drops of rain from my forehead, I squint and stare across Royal Street, usually so busy with pedestrians, but tonight, thankfully, only spotted with a few brave souls dashing through the storm, all seeming too intent to get out of the downpour to notice me or even glance in my direction. It’s too wet for most, a deluge, the wind-blown rain sheeting in the vaporous glow of the street lamps, the pavement shimmering eerily, the night thick.
I check my watch, making certain I’m on time while water runs down my poncho to stream onto the cobblestones. My mask is tight over my nose and chin, but these days it’s not unusual to see a person in a mask though shaded glasses during the night might be considered odd. But this is New Orleans. Nothing here is really out of the ordinary. Anything goes.
Again I make the sign of the cross and let out my breath to count my slowing heartbeats.
And beneath my poncho, my right hand finds the hilt of my hunting knife, a sharp weapon with a thin blade that could whisk off the hide of an alligator and easily slice through muscle and sinew.
I’ve waited for this night for so damned long.
Now that the time has come, I’ll savor it, that sweet, sweet taste of revenge. Licking my lips, my eyes trained on the building with the red door cut into a dimly lit alcove, a striped awning flapping with the stiff breeze, I wait. Then, I’m forced to move quickly, stepping deeper into the shadows as a man with a briefcase, head ducked against the wind passes nearby. He’s in a hurry to get out of the storm and doesn’t so much as throw a glance in my direction.
I hear a siren in the distance and freeze, but the shrieks fade as the emergency vehicle speeds even further away, unimpeded by much traffic on this stormy night.
Anxiously I stare at the red door.
“Come on, come on,” I whisper.
But she doesn’t appear.
Nervous now, I check my watch again.
Five minutes late.
Come on. Come on.
Heart beat pounding in my ears, I begin to sweat.
I’m breathing too fast.
But my nerves are strung tight, the muscles in my neck and shoulders bunched so tight they ache, my hand grasping the hilt of the knife strapped to my waist.
I know she’s inside.
I passed her car, a little Subaru parked where she usually found a space when she visited the gym.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spy a couple dashing wildly through the storm. I turn quickly away to face the park just in case they glance in my direction and somehow see through my disguise. Sharing a shivering umbrella, they rush past, their coats billowing, the woman’s laughter barely audible through the storm. Splashing by, they don’t notice me.
Barely holding onto my sanity, I check my watch. Again.
Seven minutes late!
My pulse skyrockets. All my plans shrivel. Why would anything change tonight? She’s always been prompt. I’ve timed her. On several different occasions. Like clockwork, she’s always walked out the door within a minute or two of the hour.
I’m suddenly frantic. Unsure. Could she have left by another doorway? Because of the downpour? Did someone call her? Warn her? But no. No one knows what I’m planning. No one.
For a different view of the building, I cross the alley but staring through the downpour, I see nothing out of the ordinary as I stare at the building with its recessed red door. Squinting, I look upward to the second floor where the yoga class is held. The lights were still on.
And then the red door opens.
She steps out and into the storm.
My pulse ticks up. My blood pounds in my ears and drowns out the sounds of the city, the rush of tires on nearby streets, the gurgle of water in down spouts, the incessant pounding of the rain. All I hear is my own thudding heart.
Eyeing the black heavens from beneath the flapping awning, she clicks up her umbrella and begins jogging, hurrying across Royal Street, her boots splashing through puddles, the umbrella’s canopy shuddering with the wind.
She’s running straight at me!
My heartbeat is in the stratosphere.
Saying a quick prayer, I withdraw the knife, my thighs tight, ready to pounce.
Suddenly her stride breaks and she veers sideways!
Did she see me? Anticipate my plans?
No. A skinny, drenched cat, caught in the storm, gallops across her path before diving under the protection of a parked car.
Muttering a curse, she hurries forward again, her umbrella her shield.
Not a good enough weapon, I think. No. Not nearly good enough. She’s barely ten feet away when I notice a shadow behind her, a figure running through the curtain of the rain.
She’s nearly to me.
I coil, ready to spring.
“Kristi!” a voice yells and she half-turns.
Startled, I lose my concentration.
Who is that? Someone who knows her? A witness?
No, no, no!
I flatten against the wall of the cathedral.
In a blink, she steps deeper into the alley, sweeps past me.
I take off after her.
This can’t be happening!
Tonight is the night!
I sprint. Faster. Faster.
Splashing through the puddles.
I’ve waited far too long for this to go wrong.
I won’t be denied!
I’m only a step behind.
Suddenly, in a flash, she whirls.
My heart stops.
She peers from beneath the umbrella’s flapping edge, her face hidden in the darkness, her words hard. “Who are you?” she demands. “Are you following me?”
No time to answer.
The element of surprise is gone.
I leap forward, small knife clenched in tight fingers. As I do, I slash wildly,
slicing the umbrella’s canopy.
Just as she shoves the ferrule, the umbrella’s sharp tip, straight at my eyes!
The ferrule glances across my cheek and I stumble. Blood sprays, some onto the white walls of the cathedral as I land hard on wet cobblestones.
She jabs again! Throwing her weight into her make-shift weapon.
I feint, dodging the blow.
Spinning, I’m on my feet again.
Hit her shoulder.
She yowls in pain and scrambles backward, flailing with the useless, maimed umbrella. But I hold on. Drive deep. As far as my blade allows. Twist the knife as she screams.
“Kristi!” A deep male voice yelled. “Kris!”
What? Oh, shit! I’d waited too long!
The man who was following was approaching fast, his footsteps clattering, splashing.
“Kristi! Run!” the man ordered at the top of his lungs. “Run!”
I have to finish this!
I yank the knife’s blade from her shoulder, hear the sucking sound, cut myself in the process.
Still she flails wildly with that damned umbrella, its canopy flapping, its steel spokes exposed and glinting in the barest of light from a street lamp, its deadly tip menacing, slicing through the air too near my face.
This is not how it was supposed to happen, how with one swift blow to her jugular or her heart she would die in my arms, how I would exact my revenge as she looked into my eyes and realized in her dying moments who had taken her life and why.
“Ruuuuun!” the man was yelled and he was closer now. Too close.
I knock her umbrella away and raising my blade I pin her against the wall of the church with my weight. Blood streaks the white stucco. Her blood.
“You sick piece of–” She kicked upward, hard, the heel of her boot hitting me square in the solar plexis. The air rushes from my lungs. Still gripping my knife, I slice crazily, the blade whooshing through air as I land. Hard. Stunned. Pain radiating through me.
Hold onto the knife. Don’t lose the damned knife!
But it slips from my fingers.
She was starting to come at me again, staggering upward.
I don’t give her the chance to attack.
I ram her heard. Force her back against the church wall.
Craaack! Her head smashed into the wall behind her and she crumpled, slithering to the street, leaving a red stain sliding down the stucco.
“No!” The man yelled, springing forward, dropping the bundle he’d been carrying, flowers and paper scattering in the wind.
Scrambling on the street, I find my blade just as Kristi’s would-be savior grabs
me, strong fingers circling my neck.
I thrust upward.
The blade cuts into his chest, through flesh, marrow and bone.
Gasping for air, I rotated the blade. Hard. Force it upward.
His breath sprays me–air, spittle and a few flecks of blood.
The hands at my throat fall away.
Blood from the cut on my attacker’s chest rains on me, and I tear the knife from his torso to strike again.
He blinks. Horror giving way to rage. In a split second his fist slams into my face.
Pain cracks through my jaw, rattling down my spine. My legs buckle and I stagger to my knees.
He rounds on me again. Unsteadily. His legs wobbling.
I duck the wild swing. Thrust upward with my knife. Hit my assailant’s thigh. Drive as deep as possible, all my weight into the jab.
With all my strength, I force the blade to cut sideways, across the thick muscle.
More agonized screams.
And in the distance, sirens shriek.
Footsteps. Running. Hard. Fast. Splashing through puddles.
I fling the gasping man off and roll to my feet. From the corner of my eye I see that Kristi is rousing, blinking, her face ashen a she attempts to focus. “Oh, God!” she cries in agony as I stagger away. I see her stumbling forward, she crawling to the dying man, cradling his head in her lap. “Jay!” she screams her face in the dim light wrenched in pain as she holds him. “No. No. Oh, God. Oh, God. No, no, no!”
There isn’t time to finish her. Already red and blue lights are flashing, washing the cathedral’s walls in eerie strobing lights, lighting up the scene with its blood stained cathedral walls, injured lovers and scattered roses.
Without thinking, I pick up one of the long-stemmed buds. Then my mind clears. And I run. On unsteady legs, I sprint in the opposite direction of the police cars.
My face throbbing I head to the route I’ve planned for months, fleeing down the alleys and streets, avoiding as many cameras as possible, head down, the raging storm my cover.
“Jay!” Kristi’s anguished screams follow me.
But I keep running, slipping twice, righting myself and catching a glimpse of the luminous eyes of the same shadowy cat I saw before. This time it is peering from beneath a scrawny bush.
Bad luck, I think.
Kristi Bentz is still alive.
But only for a while.
Keep moving. Just keep moving.
Don’t panic. Do not panic.
Next time, he thought, the next time you won’t be so lucky, Kristi Bentz. Stumbling, I hurry through the shadows and rain, dodging the few people I come across.
Still grasping my knife in one hand, I reach into a pocket with my other and rub the stones of a well worn rosary. Praying, I cut down alleys and side-streets, moving steadily forward. My heart is thudding, my jaw painful, but the glorious rush of adrenalin keeps me racing forward, putting much-needed distance between the cathedral and me.
Thankfully, because I took the time to find out, I know where the street cameras are located and keep my head low.
Under my breath I whisper, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary . . .”
And then I disappear into the night.
“Jay,” Kristi cried. “No, no, no . . .” Someone was tearing her away from her husband. She had to talk to him. To explain. To tell him she’d made a horrid, horrid mistake. To let him know that she loved him. Had always loved him . . .
Forgive me. Oh, Jay, please, please forgive me.
But she couldn’t get the words out.
Was drowning in the rain.
“Get her into an ambulance!” she heard over the sluice of water gurgling in gutters and down spouts.
With an effort, Kristi struggled to sit up against the building. She was wet, her head aching, struggling to stay conscious, wanting to give way to the blissful blackness of not knowing, of being oblivious to this garish, harrowing night. She slumped again, her voice failing her, the dark night swirling around her, the palpitating sadness reverberating through her. “I have to be with him. Oh, please, God–” and then she let go, was vaguely aware of the cop giving orders. She felt her body being lifting and was barely able to hear voices and felt movement, heard the scream of a siren, though it was faint. “We’re losing her,” she heard though the voice was distant almost muffled.
She was in an ambulance? Was someone talking to her?
“Mrs. McKnight? Ms. Bentz. Can you hear me? Stay with me, now. Kristi? Kristi?” But the sound was far away, as if it were coming from another universe and she was floating, gone again, giving into the sweet unknowing, letting the grip of welcomed blackness surround her.
Over a week passed.
Kristi Bentz McKnight shivered. She was a widow.
And was barely aware of her father’s arm as it tightened around her shoulder. She should have felt pain from her wound, but she didn’t as she stood in the dismal cemetery. She couldn’t feel, couldn’t think, could only stare at the grave site where her husband was to be entombed. Numb to the October weather, heedless of the wind and prayers intoned solemnly by the parish priest, she waited numbly. Friends and family had gathered, all in black, all with sorrowful faces, all expressing grief and sympathy, but whose families were still intact. She saw it in the way a husband and wife would catch each other’s gaze and link fingers, reassuring each other that they were still together. They were still alive. They still had a future together.
Kristi hated them for their normalcy. For their safety. For their feelings of relief that the tragedy that had befallen her, hadn’t befallen them. She blinked back tears of sorrow yes, of anguish, but they were also tears of repressed fury.
Dear God, why, why, why?
Closing her eyes for a second, grounding herself, she heard the priest’s intoned prayers droning over the rush of the wind rattling through the branches of the live oaks lining the cemetery walls, felt the breeze against her skin and wished this had all never ever happened.
It was her fault Jay was dead.
She should be lying in the casket right now, not he.
It had been nearly two weeks since the attack, eleven days to be exact, where she’d gone through the motions of life, spending two days in the hospital after surgery to her repair her shoulder. She’d gotten off easy, the doctor had told her, no artery, vein or nerve had been severed and her muscles would heal, though scar tissue might develop. But if she worked at it, did her exercises, didn’t let the muscles atrophy she would be “good as new,” the bright-eyed surgeon had pronounced.
She didn’t think so.
And, Jay hadn’t been so fortunate.
He’d given his life for her, leaping onto her attacker and bleeding out in her arms as the murderer had fled into the night. Jay’s wound to his femoral artery had been fatal and no amount of guilt, nor prayers, nor feelings of ultimate despair had been able to bring him back.
Now, he was being laid to rest.
Another victim of a violent homicide.
Even the fact that the hospital had confirmed her pregnancy hadn’t lifted her spirits.
The breeze lifted her hair from her shoulders and she looked up from the casket to the field of graying tombs and mausoleums that filled the cemetery, all mirrored by the gloomy sky and burgeoning clouds scudding slowly over the city.
She’d barely been able to function. She’d suffered a concussion and the muscles in her shoulder ached despite the fact that, in theory, there would be no permanent damage.
She’d been lucky.
That’s what she’d heard.
Over and over again.
But it was a lie.
Food held no interest for her and her nights were sleepless, filled with nightmares
of those horrid, panicked moments in the alley next to St. Louis Cathedral, a glorious edifice that had once been comforting to her, a landmark that helped her in her struggle with her faith, a symbol of God here on earth.
Now she avoided it; hated that the huge white cathedral with its three spires knifing into the heavens as if reaching up to God.
Her heart shredded.
Each night as she fell into a restless sleep, she found herself once more in that fateful alley, again fighting for her life, the nameless attacker slashing brutally with his knife as the rain poured over them. Then she would see Jay, lunging forward, trying to save her and as their assailant fled. Finally she would crawl over to her husband, cradle his head in her arms and realize it was over as she witnessed his features fade to black and white. She heard herself screaming her denials. Not Jay. Not her husband. But she’d known his soul was leaving, had witnessed it so many times before and each night, over and over again, while stroking back his hair with blood her stained fingers she watched him die.
A horror film forever on rewind.
It was so wrong. So very wrong. Her soul should have left the earth that night; not his. Not Jay’s.
Except for the baby. Remember the baby.
God help me.
The truth was that as he’d laid bleeding in her arms, she’d vowed her love, begged him to hang on, that they had so much life yet to live. Together. But had he
heard her? Over her cries for help and tears and his own labored breathing, had Jay known she loved him, had always loved him? Despite the ups and downs of their relationship, the passion and the pain? There had always been doubts, she knew, a past of breakups and reconciliations, but deep down, she’d always loved him. He’d know that.
While drawing his final breaths he’d had to have heard how much she loved him. Oh, God, she hoped so.
She surmised that he’d come to surprise her with flowers, that the strewn red roses he’d dropped had been meant as his way of making amends for the fight they’d had.
Her throat swelled at the thought and she blinked against fresh tears.
As the first drops of rain began to fall, her father squeezed her shoulders and she sent a glance his way. He stood ramrod straight, his hair more salt than pepper these days, his jaw square, fine lines evident near his eyes and mouth, his gaze filled with concern. Beside him was his wife, Olivia, a gorgeous blonde woman who stood ramrod straight in a long, black coat, her daughter balanced on one hip. The chid, Ginny, Kristi’s curly-haired half-sister, so innocent was turning one at the end of the month. Too young to be here, Kristi thought. Too little to recognize the enormity of it all. Perhaps best if Ginny didn’t understand the life-altering sadness that would always exist, a dark cloak that would pale with time, but would forever be close, invisible but pervasive.
Kristi fought tears and failed. Unbidden, large drops filled her eyes to drizzle down her cheeks. Her relationship with Jay had not been perfect, they’d shared ups and downs, but she’d loved him fiercely and still did.
But now, he would never know.
Her throat was raw with the pain of that knowledge and the harsh words that had been said. At that thought her knees sagged and her father’s strong arm held her upright.
She was aware of the final prayer, felt the priest’s hand on her shoulder as he whispered condolences and reminded her that Jay was with God. She noticed the small group of mourners breaking apart, individuals and couples hurrying across the wet grass and concrete to their waiting vehicles, obviously relieved to have finished with this final good-bye, this obligation to the departed and his family. Now they could get on with their lives. It would be Halloween soon and the holidays filled with good cheer and friends and family were on the horizon.
She resented them for it all and felt the bitter taste of envy rise in her throat.
She heard the quickly murmured condolences as mourners hurried past, and the growl of car engines starting, the buzz of tires against pavement as they all escaped, but she couldn’t stop the horrid ache, or fill the dark void that was her heart. She caught a glimpse of Reuben Montoya and his wife, Abby, without their baby. Montoya was her father’s partner, a man north of thirty with jet black hair, trimmed goatee and intense, deep-set eyes. His wife was nearly his age, her red hair escaping from a black scarf. Montoya sketched the sign of the cross over his chest, then grabbed his
wife’s hand before striding away from the tomb.
“It’s time to go,” her father whispered into her ear a few minutes later when she and her small family were all that remained other than the men assigned to slip Jay’s coffin into the tomb and seal it, men who huddled a few steps away, past another family’s above-ground crypt. They were waiting, one smoking, avoiding her gaze.
She squeezed her eyes shut, stemming the hot tears.
“Come on, honey.” Her father’s voice was kind. Understanding.
Just leave me alone. Everyone, just leave me alone!
They couldn’t understand her pain, the physical torment of heartache, the mental anguish of knowing that she should be in the coffin, not Jay. He was laying dead. She was alive.
Left to feel the void of the future.
Left to slog forward through platitudes, prayers and grief.
Left so very alone.
He’d died saving her from a faceless, murderous madman.
“We need to go,” Rick Bentz said, tugging at her arm, but she pulled it away and cast him a hard, meaningful glance as a new emotion crawled through her, a bright, hot rage that chased away the blackness, that battled with her self torture.
“Honey, we can’t–”
“Dad. Just leave me,” she bit out, and dashed her tears away with the back of her hand. “I want–I need–some time alone. With my husband.”
“Shh.” Olivia gazed straight at her husband with eyes that, Kristi knew, had seen far too much, witnessed more anguish than any mortal person should ever have borne. “Let her be.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but closed it again, finally seeming to understand. He let go of Kristi’s arm. “We’ll be in the car,” he said against his daughter’s ear, his voice husky as he planted a kiss on her cheek. “Waiting.”
Kristi didn’t respond.
Just stared down at the coffin.
Imagined that her once vital husband could hear her.
“I’ll get him,” she vowed. “I will get him. And he will pay.” She bit her lip so hard it bled, then with bloodstained lips, bent down and kissed the smooth wood of Jay McKnight’s coffin. “For you,” she swore, straightening. “And for our unborn child.”