“Sure.” He returned my smile and winked. “See you around.”
“Yeah.” I headed back for the hall, which was now crowded with people making out. At the end of the narrow space was a backdoor that led into an alley, which I knew Jude usually used for smoking a cigarette whenever she went out. I opened it and walked outside. The door closed behind me as I scanned the dark space.
There was no sight of her. Sighing, I breathed in the cool night air, which wasn’t too bad by L.A. standards, and gripped the doorknob, ready to head back into the bar, then pushed.
I frowned when the door didn’t open.
I had locked myself out.
I stared at the door, willing somebody to open it. Blaring music echoed from inside so loud, I doubted anyone would hear my pounding. Even though I knew my attempts would remain futile, I tried one last time and then gave up in favor of a different approach. To re-enter the bar, I figured I had no other choice but to walk around the block. It would take me five—ten minutes, tops. It wasn’t a big deal at all, except…
Alleys of east Downtown Los Angeles scared the shit out of me, especially now that I was on my own and surrounded by darkness. Garbage littered the sidewalk, large bins blocked the view, and the lack of street lamps made it a place of anyone’s nightmares. I didn’t mind the smell or the rats scurrying around, or the few syringes and condoms lying around. Never mind some of the burned-out buildings or the scary sub-art culture with graffiti adorning the walls that screamed ‘stay the fuck away,’ but the fact that those dark alleyways were a sign of rebellion on their own—a place neither courageous people, which I wasn’t part of, nor the police would venture into at night, unless they had no choice.
East Downtown L.A. was a city of chaos, where shady deals were made, and people were killed or fought for their life—where everything dark poured out of the beauty of L.A. and was swept into a place that screamed danger and poverty. Some said it was a gateway to hell—out of the view of the rich and famous, stacked away from the tourists. A place where superficial beauty surrounded a perilous sliver.
Ever since moving to L.A., I had known to stay away from those uncharted back lots of downtown at night. Generally safe at day, L.A. was different in the darkness, especially the Seventh to Ninth Street, when the poor homeless and the addicts started crowding in some places, while others, being territories belonging to the gangs that ruled them, became deserted.
My eyes scanned the long, narrow alley stretching to both sides of the backdoor. A stray breeze blew my hair into the face. I was brushing it away when thudding footsteps echoed from my left. My head snapped toward the noise, my eyes wide, my heart racing in my ears.
A naked bulb over the door cast an ominous light, its weak rays barely reaching the large bins on my left side, filled to the brim with garbage.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and pressed my hand against my pounding heart as the steps inched closer. The figure of a guy entered my line of vision. Even in the darkness I could make out the dull eyes, hollowed cheeks, and clothes that had seen better days. He looked like a drug addict in dire need of the next quick fix. Or maybe he was already high out of his mind, seeing that he barely acknowledged me as he passed me, each step slow and steady, and then he was gone. I breathed a sigh of relief and hurried in the direction he had come from.
Wrapping my arms tightly around me, I quickened my steps. I had almost reached the end of the alley when steps echoed behind me. With a quick glance over my shoulder, I kept walking, but my breath caught in my throat. Someone reached me in a few strides—a different guy, and yet he seemed familiar. My mind raked through the last hour’s faces but didn’t come close to finding an answer.
“Hey,” a voice shouted close to my ear.
My breath came fast as my steps hastened in the hope I could get out of there as fast as possible.
The possibility of screaming for help entered my mind, but I quickly discarded of it. Even if someone heard me, I knew no one would come to my aid.
“Hey, you,” the guy yelled again. “I’m talking to you.”
His hurried steps told me his pace had picked up, the knowledge making me panic so much that I started to run.
But it was too late.
He grabbed my shoulder and twirled me around.
“Hey, you.” He cocked his head, and I recognized a guy I had seen eyeing up Jude earlier. “Where’s your friend?”
By friend he was talking about Jude.
“She went home,” I whispered in the hope he’d leave us both alone.
“So it’s just you?”
My breath caught in my throat as I stared at him. Why the fuck had I just given him that answer? The streets were abandoned. We were alone and I had just told him that.