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The Limit: Chapter 9

...They were almost at the car when the man stepped out from behind the van.

"Jesus Christ!" Ruth said.

Toni looked behind. Two more men had appeared. They were dressed in dark trousers and sweaters. There was nowhere to run...

If she needed further convincing Toni Rossetti is made to realise that this holiday town is now a very dangerous place.

Peter Lacey's atmospheric crime novel continues apace. To read earlier chapters please click on The Limit in the menu on this page.

Ruth's sports car looked out of place among the limousines. So did the Ford van parked alongside it. Maybe that belonged to holidaymakers who had gone downstairs where the noise was louder, the clientele less select, and the odds were legally stacked heavily in favour of the house with roulette, dice and blackjack.

They were almost at the car when the man stepped out from behind the van.

"Jesus Christ!" Ruth said.

Toni looked behind. Two more men had appeared. They were dressed in dark trousers and sweaters. There was nowhere to run.

"You gave us a shock," Ruth said to the one in front.

There was a catch in her voice. The keys rattled in her hand as she attempted to open the car door.

"Not so fast," the man said, and moved to stand in front of the door. His accent was soft and Irish. "We've only just met."

The fear hit Toni's stomach. It was a whisk that threatened to get out of control. She took a deep breath to try to ease the paralysis in her arms and legs, and turned to look at the other two. One leaned on the rear of the van, the other stepped closer. Both were grinning with the power of the situation.

"Don't scream," the nearest one said conversationally. He held up a Stanley knife so that she could see it clearly. "It wouldn't be worth it. I could open your face so quick you wouldn't feel it."

She knew it. He didn't have to say it. Perhaps he wanted to say it. She stared at his face, trying to memorise it, pretending she would be able to do something about it afterwards.

"What do you want?"

It was such a lame bloody question she wished she hadn't asked it. At this particular moment, they could take anything they damned well pleased.

He moved her with his left hand and she let him, her eyes watching the blade of the Stanley knife and, beyond it, his grinning face. He moved her until she was between him and the man at the rear of the van. She could sense him close behind her.

"Well, you are a beauty, aren't you?" he said. He held the knife inches from her face and stroked her cheek with the fingers of his left hand. "A real classy piece."

"Get on with it," she said. She was getting angry. "You haven't got long. Other people will be leaving the club any minute. I saw them getting ready." She plucked two names from the past. "Peter Isaacs and Mike Bennett. They'll be out any second ..."

"Shut up."

The knife rested against her nose. She told herself he was not going to use it. Whatever they were going to do, they were not going to cut her. The knife was a threat to make her obey. She would obey, for now. She shut up.

She felt hands on her buttocks. The one behind was feeling her body.

"This is a dangerous town," said the man with the knife. His left hand dropped to her breasts. "A very dangerous town for a woman on her own."

Her skirt was being raised. She felt sick, not with fear but revulsion. His accent. What was his accent? Think of other things to divert attention from the hands above her stockings.

The accent was flat and northern but the regional edge had been smoothed away. It was an anonymous accent. His face? Although she had stared at it initially, it had failed to make an impression. The knife had dominated her senses. She looked past the blade so that the sharp edge blurred out of focus.

He was late twenties, square face, no distinguishing marks, thin fair hair, cut short, wisped over his forehead. His grin showed his teeth. They were surprisingly white and even, not false. His smile was designed to display them.

"You know, you need protection if you plan on staying around here," he said.

She shuddered and tried to ignore the hands. She couldn't maintain her control much longer. It would end in a scream of rage or a wild swing at the grinning face. She breathed deeply again and concentrated on the scent of the sea.

The waves sounded muted from beyond the casino and across the deserted promenade. The only other sound was the occasional purr of a passing car, probably a taxi, taking nightclubbers home to a safe bed.

"Just think what we could do. If we wanted," he said.

His left hand squeezed her breast and twisted it, so that she gasped at the pain.
A car turned off the promenade and drove down the road alongside the casino. It didn't stop but its engine noise stopped him hurting her. His expression changed and he looked over her shoulder at the man behind her, his eyes giving orders.

The hands were removed and her skirt fell back into place. She heard footsteps crossing the gravel of the car park. Relief waited to flood in.

Was that it? Was it over?

"You should be more careful in future." The grin had returned and he made patterns with the knife before her face. "Next time we could get serious."

A car engine started somewhere close and he stepped past her and went round the back of the van. She slumped against its panelled side, her eyes closed, her body trembling. Car doors slammed. The car drove away.

"God," Ruth said. "Are you all right?"

Toni gulped for saliva.

"I'm all right."

She opened her eyes and saw Ruth sitting against the bonnet of the car, clutching her handbag.

"Did they . . . hurt you?" Ruth asked. Her voice was shaky.

"No. They didn't hurt me. You?"

"He asked for a kiss!" Ruth laughed nervously. "He was such a big bugger."

"What did you do?"

"What did I do? I bloody kissed him."

Neither of them laughed.

Toni felt no relief. There was no room for it. She was too full of anger.

The assault had been planned to demonstrate how vulnerable she was, and to frighten her. What had annoyed her was that it had succeeded so well. There had been no point going to the police. Technically the men had been guilty of threatening behaviour and indecent assault, but it was the sort of situation that occurred many times each night in the season and that was rarely reported to the law.

Neither she nor Ruth had been physically hurt, nothing had been stolen and the men would be impossible to trace in a town seething with strangers. If they were found, it would be difficult to prove anything.

If she had been a man the assault would have been violent, but it was no consolation that she had not been hurt. If she had been a man she could have fought back and she would not have had to suffer the indignities of strange hands being intimate with her body.

The assault had not deterred her. Like the attack on Mario, it had made her all the more determined to fight back. She wanted the grinning ape with the Stanley knife hurt and, if necessary, was prepared to do the hurting.

After three days, the anger still came in waves, like jetlag. She was adjusting to the time difference between two continents but she couldn't adjust to the humiliation she had suffered.

She had told Ruth that she wanted to hit back.

"But how?" her friend had asked. "They're bastards."

Her reply had been cold and simple.

"By being bigger bastards."

It was time to meet Maudie and hope he had found her some.


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