The dark-haired victim suddenly dropped from sight and Grace stilled, stunned. He was there and then…he wasn’t. He’d just disappeared.
The goon holding her moved forward, together with the other two thugs, to the small window. There was a clear view of the alleyway and she could see that the man hadn’t disappeared. He had simply dropped to the ground like a stone. Grace would have thought that he’d been shot, but it looked like he was…
Oh my God, yes. He wasn’t down for the count. He was fighting. From the ground. And winning, too, from the looks of it. He had his attacker in some kind of complicated hold, completely paralyzed.
The victim’s legs tightened around his attacker’s middle and he held the attacker’s neck in the bend of his elbow, squeezing. One hand was squeezing the gun out of the attacker’s hand. The attacker was kicking madly, like a pig in a slaughterhouse, but nothing he did could dislodge the dark-haired man. The gun clattered to the ground and the dark-haired man snatched it up, handling it with familiarity.
One of the thugs in the gallery kicked open the door to the alleyway and the man holding Grace moved forward until they were spotlit in the doorway.
The two men on the ground looked up, both breathing hard, muscles straining.
“Drop the gun. Now.” Leather’s Coat’s voice was hoarse, as if he didn’t talk much, with a heavy Hispanic accent. He lifted his arm until her feet dangled again. The gun barrel cruelly ground into the skin of her temple. The entire right side of her face was covered in blood now. She could smell her own blood—a dark metallic smell. “Drop it or I pop her one right in the head.”
God. Watching the attack in the alley, she had, for a second, completely forgotten about the man holding her tightly against him with a gun to her head. She started trembling. She had no idea who the victim of the attack was. How could using her as a threat possibly work? It hit her like a sledgehammer to the heart that she was one second away from dying.
She twisted in her captor’s hold, trying to kick him, suddenly desperate now to get away. There wasn’t enough oxygen in her head to make plans, she only knew she didn’t want to die without putting up some kind of fight.
The arm around her neck was like steel, the muscles she could feel against her side and back thick and hard. He probably outweighed her by over a hundred pounds. Fighting was insane.
But the animal part of her refused to die without a struggle. Grimly, she clawed again at the arm around her neck and kicked as hard as she could at his shins, but all she encountered was something stiff and unyielding. The man was wearing boots that went to his knees.
Her tormentor growled low in his throat and squeezed. Tight, tighter.
Oh God, she was going to die. Right here, right now. All the things she had left to do with her life, all the paintings she wanted to create, the music she wanted to listen to, the walks she wanted to take—it was too late.
“Throw it,” her tormentor rasped.
The dark-haired man kept his gaze fixed on Leather Coat, unblinking in the rain that threw a scrim over the scene in the alleyway.
Her vision was failing, spots revolving in front of her eyes. There was a dull blackness at the edges of her vision. “Throw it,” her tormentor said again.
Throw what? What was he talking about?
A clatter on the ground. Her tormentor hadn’t been talking to her. He had addressed the dark-haired man, who had thrown the gun he’d wrested from his would-be assassin onto the oily, pebble-strewn ground. He slowly stood up.
“Let up on her,” the man said quietly. He had a deep, calm voice with a hint of accent. “You’re choking her to death.”
“Your other weapons first.”
The dark-haired man reached inside his parka and pulled a gun out. He held it carefully by the muzzle. “Safety’s on, as you can see. Now let her breathe.”
Amazingly, that quiet voice held enough command to make the arm around her throat loosen. Her feet scrabbled, touched the ground for the first time in what felt like hours. Grace took in a big wheezing breath, hoping it wouldn’t be her last. Though the chokehold had loosened, the gun was still rock-solid against her head. She was still so close to the man who held her that she could feel the vibrations in his chest as he spoke.
“The rest of your weapons,” he said to the dark-haired man.
The gun came away from her head, the cold barrel sliding horribly down her neck, trailing down over her arm to stop at her elbow. “Or I blow a hole in her elbow. Then shoulder. Blow her arm right off. First one, then the other. Then I kneecap her. She’ll die piece by piece.”
Grace was shaking so hard her teeth rattled. The man’s low tone was matter-of-fact, not menacing, which made it even more horrible. He could have been ordering a drink in a bar, not threatening to kill her by slow degrees.
Fear set up a keening whine in her head. She looked around wildly, wondering if this would be her last sight on this earth.
A filthy alleyway in the rain, cloudy light at one end, dank darkness at the other. One of her few friends, Harold, lying behind her on the floor, wounded, if he hadn’t already died from the blow. And four men, all violent, all dangerous, all armed. They wanted something from the dark-haired man and, crazily, were using her to get it.
Though she felt danger to her coming from the four attackers, she didn’t feel that at all coming from the man who’d been attacked. The menace he radiated was tightly focused on the man holding her.
“Go on,” Leather Coat growled. The gun tapped horribly against her elbow. “Give me an excuse to shoot.”
Grace looked up at the man holding her. He was grinning at the dark-haired man. He never looked at her. She had a horrible feeling she barely existed for him. She was like a tool dangling from his arm, useful to get something he wanted, of no intrinsic importance. “I’m waiting. I hope you give me the excuse to blow her away bit by bit. I’ll enjoy it.”
No doubt he would. Cruelty was etched in every line of his face.
The dark-haired man reached around his waist, pulling a gun from behind him. Moving slowly, he placed it on the ground.
“Knives,” her tormentor rasped. “And don’t tell me you don’t have any.”
In a second, two sharp, gleaming knives clattered to the ground.
“I hear you carry a karambit. Out with it.”
A wicked-looking curved knife that came to a surgically sharp point fell to the ground in a flash of steel. The man holding her grunted.