Chapter 2

Skip groaned weakly, opened his eyes, thought the better of it and closed them again. The world felt as though it was spinning, but all he saw was darkness.

Okay, nice and slow. He was lying on something cold and hard and damp – floor? Street?

Fuck, that must've been some binge. Man, am I hung over. What the hell did I do last night? Coke? Heroin? Can I feel this bad from just booze? Jesus, I can't even remember what I took, not to mention where I took it . . .

Smell intruded next, a nauseatingly familiar smell.

Shit. Or, more accurately, piss. Did I piss myself? Nah, it's all around me. Shit. I passed out in some fucking alley again. Damn it, Thomas, how many times have I told you, take the goddamned stuff home where you can pass out in comfort!

But where the fuck am I? Shit, did I get rolled?

Skip tried opening his eyes again and realized that the darkness was simply that – it was nighttime. He could see a sliver of moon overhead, a couple of stars. Roofs on both sides of him. Yep, an alley. He heard a scurrying sound and winced. Jesus, rats. Get the fuck up!

Easier thought than done. His entire body ached abominably as if he'd been beaten, and his head had miniature jackhammers working away at all angles. His stomach roiled horribly. Had he picked a fight again? Gotten beaten to shit in some bar or at a party? Been gang-raped? What?

Oh, man, it's been ages since I've lost this much. Okay, what's the last thing I remember?

Skip gingerly pushed himself up to an almost-sitting position, leaning against the gritty brick behind him. Given the way he felt, that was quite an achievement.

Okay, let's see. I met that guy Schuyler at the party – ummm, that was Derek's party, right. He said he'd give me a couple lines of coke if I'd let him fuck me, yeah, I remember that, lousy shithead didn't have anything but a couple of quaaludes. Okay, I got the hell out of there, didn't have enough change for bus fare so I started walking home, then . . . what? What happened?

"What the fuck happened to me?" he asked softly, startled at the sound of his own voice. It was hoarse and shaky and sounded very small.

He glanced around, looking for some familiar landmark. The buildings looked squat and strange. He couldn't see a single garbage can, dumpster or fire escape. The ground under him felt strange, like . . . bricks? Oh, please.

Voices. He heard voices, male voices – laughing, swearing, singing off-key. Now that sound he recognized. Men getting drunk. The familiarity of that knowledge relaxed him somewhat. He painfully glanced up. The voices were coming from the building he was leaning against, by way of a wood-shuttered window that leaked a pitifully little flickering light out into the alleyway.

A bar. I'm leaning against a bar. Okay, I can work with that. Probably where I got completely shitfaced. Man, I must've fallen down hard enough to give myself a fucking concussion. Sure feels like it.

The sound of a door slamming, then several louder voices. Right. Men coming out of the bar. Skip saw several large shapes at the mouth of the alley about a dozen feet away, dimly because the street lights didn't seem to be working in this part of town. One of them was holding a light of some sort that seemed to dangle from his hand; strangely, it flickered orange, like candlelight. But who the hell would be carrying a box with a candle in it?

"Excuse me," Skip croaked. "Could one of you guys tell me where I am?"

Brief pause in the voices. Then a coarse chuckle.

"What've we got here, lads?" One of the shapes stepped into the alley, moved closer. The man with the box light followed, dimly lighting the alley – could that actually be a candle or a lantern or something? No, that had to be wrong.

The first man squatted down beside Skip. Skip couldn't see him – he was backlit by the flickering light, but he was big and Jesus Christ, he smelled like he'd never seen a bar of soap – but apparently he could see Skip, because he gave that nasty chuckle again.

"What've we got here, lads?" Chuckles said again. "Why, it's a fancy boy, pretty as a lady!"

Skip had heard comments like this before, and they rarely led to anything good.

"Look, guys, I'm not looking for any trouble," he said hastily, trying to push himself into a slightly more upright position. "Just tell me where the nearest bus stop is, okay, or I'll settle for a pay phone, and I'll be on my way – "

"The boy talks passing strange," one of the men snorted.

"Don't want him for his talk," Chuckles grinned. "I've a better use for that pretty mouth, eh, poppet?"

"Hey, guys, I'm not selling and you're not my type," Skip said as politely as he could manage, given his throbbing head, aching body and general state of disorientation. "Look, never mind, don't tell me anything, I'll just be on my way." That last was nothing but a bluff; Skip was pretty sure he couldn't stand, much less walk.

"Nay, bide a while, poppet," Chuckles said. He grabbed Skip's shirt and dragged him upright, pulling him tight against a massive, muscled and smelly body. "Ye're garbed passing strange, poppet, but I've the cure for that – "

Skip felt the hardness grinding against his belly and sudden terror shot through him, overwhelming even the aches and his pounding head and his dizziness and growing nausea. How could anyone want to fuck him in this state? But the leer on Chuckles' face was unmistakeable.

Dear God, no, not again, please not again –

"No," he whispered helplessly, struggling weakly, painfully against hands that might as well have been made of iron or stone. "No, no, no, no – "

"Ah, fear not, poppet," Chuckles laughed, breathing hop-thick fumes into Skip's face, blubbery lips brushing his. "My mates and I'll do you right, pretty boy, show you what a real man's got for a pretty poppet like you – "

"Nonononono!" Skip's voice rose into a thin scream as he felt the big hands fumbling at his clothes, and he flailed with arms and legs, thumping vainly against the solid chest, too terrified and sick and confused to direct a kick to his assailant's groin. Chuckles laughed, one or two of his companions joining in.

"Leave him be."

The new voice was level, quiet, but it cut through the sounds of Chuckles and his laughing cronies like a knife through fog. For just a moment, everyone froze.

Over Chuckles' shoulder, Skip saw another figure outlined in the dim light at the mouth of the alley. This new figure, though, was slim and tall, straight as an arrow. Skip thought he saw the glint of moonlight on steel.

"Get ye gone!" one of the men snarled. "The poppet's ours. Find your own bum-boy!"

"Last warning," the calm voice said in the same easy tone. "Leave him be."

One of the men, closest to the mouth of the alley, gave an incoherent cry of rage and charged at the slender figure. There was a streak of movement, too fast for Skip's eye to follow, and that glint of light on steel – then the slender form stood alone, a crumpled, still form at his feet.

"He's mine!" another man yelled, charging, and one of his companions joined the assault. Again the lightning fast movement, the merest hiss of sound, and a hoarse cry of agony was abruptly choked off. Now there was only Chuckles, his grip tightening on Skip.

"Get ye gone!" Chuckles snarled. Abruptly Skip felt the chill of a knife blade against his belly. "Get ye gone, nightwalker, else I'll spill his entrails 'round his ankles!"

Then, even as the last word left Chuckles' lips, he froze, unspeaking, unmoving. For a moment Skip was frozen too, in terror. Then he saw something had changed. Chuckles' left eye had vanished; in its place protruded a slender shaft of steel that came to a glistening (now red) point.

Slowly Chuckles' hand released its hold on Skip. Skip fell to the stone, and his legs refused even a token attempt at supporting him; he crumpled limply right back to the piss-smelling ground.

Then a foul-smelling mountain fell on top of him, and to his great relief, the darkness returned.

Email: Shadow