Home > Face of Darkness (Zoe Prime #6)

Face of Darkness (Zoe Prime #6)
Author: Blake Pierce




“All right, Billy,” Frank said, setting his bag down on the counter for a moment. “That’s it for today.”

Billy looked up from where he was pretending to rearrange the greeting cards yet again and nodded quickly. “Thanks, Mr. Richards,” he said, hastily putting the last card back into place and stepping over toward the door, eager to get home. “See you tomorrow.”

“Remember to tell your mother what I said about her tomatoes,” Frank said.

“Got it,” Billy said, ducking his head as he left the store. The bell above the doorway jingled his departure, leaving Frank alone, the “Closed” sign settling against the glass.

Frank glanced around one last time, checking everything was in place. He nodded to himself, more of a reassurance than anything. As a business owner, he always felt that there was something more he had to be doing. It was hard to let go of the urge to work and head home. But his family would be waiting, and that was reason enough to give up for the day.

He flicked off all of the lights at the panel near the counter, then easily navigated the dark shelves toward the door. After all, he’d been the one to decide where they stood, and the one to restock them every day for over twenty years. It wasn’t as though his feet were going to forget the way.

Frank locked up, checked the door twice as he always did, and squared his shoulders for the short walk home. The cold February evening was pitch dark already, but there were streetlights all along the way, and home wasn’t far. Ten minutes, and he could get in and warm his hands over the stove while his wife cooked dinner, and put the endless thoughts of stock figures, profit and loss, and marketing efforts out of his mind for another night.

Frank strolled with his hands in his pockets, taking his time. Even with as eager as he was to get home, it wasn’t a long walk, and he didn’t see the point in rushing. He’d only end up out of breath and waking up that ache in his knees that came up sometimes in the cold weather now. He was getting older. No need to get himself stressed out any more than he needed to be. Besides which, it was pleasant to stroll down Salem’s cobbled streets, past grand and historic brick buildings, even in the dark.

Frank passed by businesses that made a living from the town’s rich past: the museum of the Witch Trials, a store that specialized in “healing” home goods, an antiques store. Familiar sights that he had grown up with, since he was born in the north of the town, a Salem man through and through. Spindly trees, with bare branches still reaching like claws to the sky, grew between him and the road, keeping him safe from oncoming traffic, until he turned off the main thoroughfare and down a quieter side street.

A sound somewhere to his left made Frank start, casting his eyes to the side. He couldn’t see a thing. Walking through the circle of illumination splashing from one of the streetlights, it was almost impossible to discern anything that fell outside of the light. His eyes couldn’t adjust to the contrast.

Frank shrugged to himself, continuing on. It was nothing. Kids messing around, probably. They were likely staying quiet now so he wouldn’t spot them. Frank knew the people of this town thanks to his long years of serving them all in the store, and the people of this town knew him. He had nothing to be afraid of here. But he could well understand why a bunch of kids out past their curfew might not want him to report seeing them next time he served their parents.

Frank attempted a whistle to himself, but it died on the cold air, seeming to cut away into nothing. It didn’t float away gently and leave him feeling cheerful like on those warm summer nights—no, the cold seemed to kill it right out of the air, making it feel more like a lonely evening. He fell quiet, concentrating only on his own footsteps.

What would be for dinner? he wondered. It was Friday, so he guessed probably some form of pasta. His wife had fallen into routines just as much as Frank had over the years, and he could usually set a watch by her cuisine choices. He wondered today whether it would be lasagna or spaghetti.

The lonely feeling dropped away as Frank looked forward gleefully to his pasta, cheering his spirits again. He turned down the alley between two stores, a shortcut that he was used to taking every night. Two more turns after this and then home. He wondered if Mrs. Peterson down the way had put out anything new in her window yet. She often changed out her floral displays, since she was a bit of a skilled hand at arrangements, and Frank took a gentle amusement from seeing how it changed every time the fresh flowers seemed ready to wilt.

Without warning, Frank felt something hit the back of his neck; something that made him fall to his knees, dazed, unable to keep up mentally with the physical sensations. He had no concept of the journey between standing with a pain in the back of his neck and being on his knees on the ground, but here he was. He blinked slowly, raising a hand to the place where the blow had been struck, twisting around as he did so.

There was someone behind him. Who was there…? A dark figure in dark clothes, only the pale disc of a face coming at him in the gloom of the dark alley. He blinked again, trying to correct his vision, but it seemed blurry and indistinct. Like he was looking through a fog. “Wh…?” he managed, meaning to ask who it was that was there, but he couldn’t quite get the words to come out.

Frank tried to keep his eyes on the figure as it moved close by him, but he couldn’t strain his neck that far, and when he swung back around to face forward his head rocked with a sickening pain. Still on his knees, he took his hand down from the ache on the back of his head to steady himself and felt something slip around his neck, something rough that immediately rested up against his throat. Frank’s hands shot up toward it, grasping—it was a rope—a rough-fibered rope, he was sure of it.

There was a rope around his neck.

“This is for her,” someone whispered, right by his head. The whisper—it was unfamiliar—a voice he couldn’t place—not masculine, like he had expected, but light—and who was her? What was happening to him?

Frank fought his way up to his feet, still clutching at the rope, intending to pull it up over his head and cast it aside so that he could get away. But the rope tightened around his throat, pulling snug around his windpipe and the back of his neck, and Frank clawed at it more urgently. If he could just get his thumbs hooked under it—

Frank scrambled for purchase against the ground instead, which was inexplicably falling away from him. Panic shot through his veins like ice, taking over from the groggy confusion of his head wound. Someone was not just trying to hurt him—but to hang him. The tension of the rope around his neck only increased, leaving him unable to suck in a breath. His toes fought to strain back toward the ground, but it was too far away—something else was bumping against his hip instead—something dark and hard, a pole of some kind sticking out of the ground. He threw his arms toward it to try and get purchase, but his arms slipped on the wet surface, still slick from an earlier rain shower.

Frank gave up on the pole and the ground and caught at the rope instead, trying desperately to force his hands under it. The world was spinning around him as he fought to gain purchase, to stop the rope from biting into his neck. If he could just get one breath—the surface was burning his fingers, his fingernails bending painfully back as he scrabbled against the thick rope, though Frank barely registered these minor injuries against the overwhelming horror of the desire to breathe.

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