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Excerpt from Jo-Anne Wiley's current thriller


 Lee slid the steaming seafood medley between her lips and followed the burst of flavors with a sip of wine. “Gosh that's good.”

  Margo checked her watch. “You gonna want dessert?”

    Lee’s brow arched. “Dessert? I've just started my crapes.”

    “Well eat up, dear. We've got things to do.”

    Lee shoveled another forkful of shrimp into her mouth. “Things to do,” she said, speaking with her mouth full. “Like what?”

    “You know Sheldon Creek?”

    “Sure. The park? Across town? With the nature trails?”

    “We're going for a walk.”

    “A walk? Now? You're kidding me. Why?”

    “You said you were interested, so hurry. It's getting dark.”

    Margo drove a classic Mercedes sedan. It was circa 1960 but had been restored and repainted with a rich lacquer finish; the midnight blue so deep you could imagine falling right into it. She crunched to a stop in the gravel parking lot at the entrance to Sheldon Park, pulled the parking brake and turned off the ignition. The sun was just below the trees.

    “I still don't understand why we're here,” Lee complained, watching the shadows deepen. “I didn't get a chance to finish my dinner.”

    “A walk, dear. The exercise will do us both good,” Margo said, and she pushed open her car door.

    “But the park closes at sundown.”

    “There's time,” Margo said, standing to survey the gloomy perimeter of the woods where darkness was moving forward between the trees. “Come along. This is the trail.”

    Lee scowled and tugging her jacket closed about her neck, she followed reluctantly behind. The night-air was chilling rapidly as the sun slipped below the treeline. It fell damp across her shoulders and she tried to ignore the discomfort and concentrated instead on their footfalls against the gravel; the sound obtrusive as they moved along a trail that followed the winding creek-bed.

    “Just here,” Margo said and she placed a hand on Lee's arm to guide her off the path and into the seclusion provided, under the pine boughs. “We'll stop, dear. Catch our breath for a moment.”

    Lee was about to object; about to tell Margo she didn't need to catch her breath. Tell her she could forget the cockamamie notion of a sunset walk in the woods, that she was going home. But the words got hung-up in her throat. Lee was interrupted by the steady crunch of rubber shoe-sole on gravel.     Margo pulled Lee back into the shadows. “Listen. Not a sound, now. Just listen and watch.”

    Lee, her interest peaked, bit off her objections. The beat of footfalls came closer. It was someone running, jogging, and as Lee watched, a young women rounded a curve and pushed toward them, her legs churning out a steady rhythm.

    The woman was tall and lean. She wore leggings and a deeply scalloped training bra with a light fleece swinging open from her shoulders. Her hair was pulled back. A high ponytail bobbed behind and a headband was low across her ears. Her white runners flashed. She pounded past, not noticing the voyeurs lurking in the darkness.

    “It's a jogger,” Lee whispered. “Is that what you dragged me out here to see?”

    But the words had barely left her lips when there was another movement. As Lee stood gaping, two men charged from the underbrush. The runner, seeing their intent, screamed and did her best to double-back, her Reeboks plowing through the loose shale. But she wasn’t nearly quick enough. They closed in and hit her hard; one about the hips, the other with arms wrapped around her neck.

    They brought her down, kicking and screaming, pounding the woman into the ground. The three of them, a whirl of arms and legs, abruptly tumbled out of sight over the edge of the embankment. Lee could hear bushes and small saplings whipping and snapping as the trio bounced and cartwheeled down; landing with a sharp clatter in the weeds at the water’s edge. A moan, then a static swearword drifted up to where Lee and Margo stood. And then the girl screamed: A piteous cry for help that was quickly muffled and swallowed up by the dense pine woods.

    “Holy fuck,” Lee dug into her jacket pocket, “they're raping her.” And she pulled out her cell phone. She took a step forward. “C’mon. We've got to help.”

    “Oh don't be such a pooper.” And before Lee could punch in 911, Margo had plucked the phone from her fingers.

    “Hey...” Lee rocked back on her heels and watched Margo dart across the path to the edge of the embankment to take a peek down. A satisfied smile spread across her lips and with a quick flip of her hand, she waved Lee across.

    Lee took a guarded step forward to the opposite side of the path. She stood beside Margo and steeling herself; she looked down into a shallow gully. Ten feet below the young woman lay by the water’s edge. She was streaked with mud and her hair was tangled with leaves and twigs; her heaving body racked like a fallen store-front mannequin.

    “Wow,” Margo hissed under her breath, “would you look at that...” And she took hold of Lee's arm for support. Margo was looking at the clenched plowing of a man's bare bottom.

    And Lee, mesmerized now, her heart beating against her breastbone, watched as well.

    One of the men had a hammer-hold on the girl's head while his opposite hand was stuffed into the neck of her sports bra. Lee saw his hand move, first to one breast, and then groping across under the tight spandex, he tugged on the opposite mound. The girl's feet were suspended, the remnants of her leotards dangling from an ankle. Her splayed legs were held aloft by the man between her thighs and each time his behind came up and drove forward, Lee heard a startled cry. The woman's eyes were circled wide with horror.

    The man on top came up short, on toes, and held a moment before groaning and rolling away; releasing himself from the grip of the woman's vagina. She shook her head in disbelief. With his semen swimming in her womb, the fight went out of her and she didn't protest when the second man took his turn between her knees.

    “Let’s go,” Margo finally whispered. “Let them have some privacy.” And she pulled Lee back from the edge of the creek bank.

    “We should have done something for her,” Lee echoed bitterly as they walked back to the car.

    “Nonsense. Mind your own damned business; that's what I say.”

    Lee spotted a car in the parking lot. “That must be hers. Poor thing. Just comes down here for a quick run, and those men... We should wait for her. She might need attention; a lift to the hospital.”

    “She's had all the attention she needs for one night,” Margo chuckled darkly. “But we'll wait for a bit if it pleases you, just so it eases your mind.”

    A few moments later the girl stumbled out from beneath the pine trees. She had done little to straighten her appearance. Her leotards were roughly hoisted about her hips and her torn sports bra revealed the slope of a pear-shaped breast. Her fleece jacket was missing. She staggered toward them like she was loaded with booze; almost delirious, Lee thought. The woman's eyes came up, focused.     “Margo. What are you doing here?”

    “Just checking. How did it go?”

    The girl sniffed her nose into the back of her hand. “Great,” she said, and failed to hide the exalted tremor that romped up her spine. “The best ever. They're new, right?”

    “Yes. I was curious. Oh, this is Lee. She might be joining our little group.”

    “Lee,” the woman extended a hand. “I'm Trish. Sorry about my appearance; but well, you know...”

And she laughed, damn it. Lee felt flat-footed. Bewildered.

    “You'll have a chance to talk on Tuesday. Lee's coming by Coven-House.”

    “Wonderful,” Trish said. “Tuesday, then. Now if you'll excuse me, I need a shower.”

    Lee was still gaping as Trish slid into her car and drove off.

    Margo had a slightly bemused expression on her face. “Any questions?” she asked.

    There was a bright spot of hysteria in the back of Lee's throat but she managed to suppress it.

    “I'll see you Tuesday.” Margo said.