She cursed under her breath as she glanced at the time on her cell phone. "Shit, I'm going to be late," she said aloud as she hurried along her normal route to work at Bookworms Coffee and Books.
She was never late.
It was a matter of pride for her. Claire Stillwell had built her reputation on finishing projects on time, usually sooner than expected. She was known as an artist who could not only create an original work, but produce it on time. Word of mouth was imperative in her business. If it was good, she could soar, her business expanding right along with her, but it only took one or two unhappy clients to sink her plans. And she was just about to sign a lease to open her own gallery.
Claire had already put in her resignation at Bookworms and even though it was her last day there, she still needed to be prompt. She wanted to keep that door open to her in case her gallery ... no, she shook the thought from her head. Her gallery would succeed, she needed to believe that. Visualize success and it will happen.
But she still needed to be on time and it would take another twenty minutes at least to get to Bookworms, unless...
She veered into the next alley. She could take the shortcut through the narrow back paths and be safe and sound at work in less than ten minutes. Right on time.
She'd taken the route once before, shortly after she began working at Bookworms. Cassandra, her co-worker and persistent worrier, had reamed her a new one when she'd found out.
"Don't you ever walk those streets again, Claire. What the hell were you thinking?" she scolded her. "There are gang symbols all over the place and God only knows what's hiding back there, you could have been killed."
"Don't be silly, Cassie..."
"No, Claire." She interrupted. "I mean it. It's not safe in those alleys."
Claire flashed Cassie a smile but her words were cut off by the impatient demands of a customer, obviously in desperate need of a caffeine fix.
She had to admit, as she looked down the shadow-filled alley, it was kind of creepy. Tall buildings crammed within mere inches of one another lined the narrow street. Their brick facades were marred by time and grime and tagged with graffiti of various designs. Gang symbols, Claire thought as she quickened her pace.
She continued down the alley, sweat beaded at the nape of her neck as her eyes flicked around her, looking for any sign that someone was about to jump her.
As one of the remaining lights illuminating the dark passage flickered and died, Claire wished she had heeded Cass's advice. For a brief moment she considered turning back the way she came, but she had already come this far and it would take her longer to backtrack than to keep going.
Claire's own footsteps seemed to echo around her and her heart beat a staccato against her chest. The first trickle of fearful sweat flowed down her spine. Litter swirled around with the wind, twisting at her feet. The alley grew more heavily shadowed the farther she walked and her imagination played fearful images of what may lie in the darkened corners.
A dark figure darted across her path and she screamed, bringing the back of her hand to her mouth, then laughed at herself when a cat gracefully hopped on a low overhang and lazily sat, flicking its tail and watching her.
Claire took a deep breath and raked a hand through her hair. "Get a hold of yourself, girl," she admonished herself as she continued walking, albeit at a faster pace. She didn't bother turning when she heard the clang of a garbage can lid hit the pavement. The cat had apparently found its next meal and she was late enough already.