This week’s post is the first scene of my thriller Witness, set in Rome in the current day. I’m interested in your feedback. Enjoy!
The scowling twenty-something with spiky white-blond hair still trailed her by more than a block, though the distance between them was shrinking fast. Steel zippers and snaps punctuated his black leather jacket, and he hid his eyes behind mirror sunglasses, but the prickling skin on Eugenia Clarke’s neck told her he fixed those eyes on her.
She forced herself not to turn and look. Dozens of times she’d walked these few blocks along Rome’s Via del Babuino, which connects the Piazza del Popolo with the Piazza di Spagna, but the street felt hostile now. Despite the clear autumn sunlight of a Sunday afternoon, the stones of the shuttered buildings reflected no warmth.
She glanced behind her. Damn!
She should have called out to one of the young couples she’d passed when she first entered the street, but at that point she hadn’t expected he would really follow her. Even now she could hardly believe it, did not want to believe it, did not want to panic. Yet the street was unaccountably deserted, its antique shops closed tight as oysters. How ironic, she thought. An experienced travel writer, Eugenia helped tourists stay out of trouble. Thousands of readers relied on her. How is this happening? She picked up her pace.
Her gaze darted left and right, searching for refuge, help of any sort. A side street to the left, jammed with parked cars, no people. On the right, a trattoria a few doors down, closed. Even the cats took siestas. She kicked off her flapping sandals and began to run. The clomp of his boots alternated with her pounding heartbeats. He’d catch her long before she could reach the crowds near the Spanish Steps.
His bootsteps grew nearer, and the metallic taste of adrenalin filled her mouth. Another few strides and, finally, ahead on the right, the Anglican All Saints’ Church. She remembered the sanctuary’s side door that opened onto a narrow park leading to another street. She dashed across the Via di Gesu e Maria—Thank you, Jesus and Mary!—through the main doors, and into a hallway sidling along the sanctuary.
“Hello?” Panting, Eugenia called again, louder, as she streaked past the unattended offices. Silence. Desks abandoned. Phones stilled. Where is everyone? Isn’t there church business on a Sunday? Counting the collection, choir practice—something?
A hint of incense and candle smoke lingered in the empty sanctuary. Sun streaming through leaded windows stained the brickwork bloody. The tile was cold on her feet. She called out to the empty air. “Hello! Anybody here?” After a few seconds, “Anybody??”
She checked behind her, down the unlit hallway. Not there yet. At the side door, the new-looking deadbolt turned easily, but the heavy brass doorknob resisted, and she needed both sweating hands to turn it. A final glance over her shoulder before she jerked open the stubborn door.
Outside, she blinked in the sudden brightness. She sensed movement to her left, and tried to duck away. A harsh blow struck the back of her head. Dizzy, she watched her new straw hat sail to the ground. Reaching up to protect herself, she knocked off the man’s sunglasses. He seized her arm and squeezed it hard enough to bruise.
“Fatti i cazzi tuoi!” he growled. Mind your own fucking business! She swayed, stunned and staring into eyes pale and hard as silver coins, until her knees gave way and she collapsed against him. She slid down his chest, breathing the foul odor of sweat-stained leather. A zipper tore her cheek. He gripped her armpit to keep her from falling, and his fist found her face, stomach, ribs. She twisted away, but she couldn’t escape. Their bodies were locked too close together, and she managed only to bury her face deeper in the rancid jacket. Again a metallic taste. Blood, this time. She gasped for breath as a boot came down hard on her bare foot. She felt the force of his blows, but the pain hadn’t started yet.
Her vision blurred, her thoughts clouded. She stared mesmerized at the intricate tattoo coiling up his wrist and disappearing under the leather sleeve. A blue and green snake’s head covered the back of his hand, and through her hazy perceptions she could almost believe it was the snake striking her. Her gaze followed its hypnotic black eyes as it dove into the man’s pocket, and he pulled out a knife. The flash as the blade flicked open broke the spell. She tore herself from his grasp and choked out, “No!”
“Impicciona!” he spat. Meddler.
A flood of pain rose up within her, and she might have heard shouts, running feet. She fell into blackness.