Lost Christmas Memories

By: Dana Mentink
ONE


Tracy Wilson jerked to a stop in the decorated lobby of the deserted Mother Lode Equestrian Center as a scream died away. At first, she’d doubted her senses. Perhaps it had been the whinny of a horse she’d mistaken for a cry. Then came the thud.

Had someone fallen? A worker unloading boxes after hours? She ran down the hallway to the one open door. Pushing into the dark space, she stopped dead. A figure, tall and wearing black, leaned over a dark-haired woman, hands on her throat, squeezing. Tousled hair screened the woman’s face and her hands gripped convulsively, clawing at the fingers throttling her. The attacker was in shadows. Was it a man? Woman? She couldn’t tell, but the person looked up at Tracy just as the choked woman went limp, her hands falling away, the life draining out of her. Irises black with hatred locked on Tracy.

The scream of horror died in Tracy’s throat as the attacker let go of the victim and dived for her instead. Panic fueled her. She raced back into the hallway, intending to make for the exit, but her pursuer was right behind. In her frantic flight, she knocked over a Christmas tree, sending it to the floor, where it smashed into a mess of silver fragments and gold beads. It did not slow her pursuer.

Tracy knew at that moment she would never make it back to the parking lot. Who could help her? The center was deserted, the Christmas decor gleaming oddly in the dim light. Surely even after hours someone would be around, tending to the horses, the steers? Was there not a single soul to hear her if she screamed for help?

She threw herself at the first door she came to, an office, which was locked. The second door, a storage room, was her only hope. Pulse thundering, she shoved her way inside. There was only a flimsy lock, but she managed to ram a dusty chair under the doorknob.

What she had just witnessed...brutal, incomprehensible, murderous...rocked her to the core.

A fist slammed at the door and booted feet began to kick at the flimsy wood.

Panic bucked like a rodeo bronc inside her. She reached for the phone in her pocket, realizing with a flood of despair that she’d dropped it somewhere. On her way in? In her flight down the hall?

Her clumsiness had always made her father laugh. Now it might just get her killed.

Nerves firing, she searched for a way out. There was no rear exit inside the room, which was cluttered with new supplies for the first ever Yuletide Silver Spurs Horse Show. She yelped as another kick rattled the door. “Help! Somebody help me!” she screamed, hoping the noise would frighten the attacker off.

There was no response except a renewed onslaught of kicks. A chip of wood detached and fell to the scuffed linoleum as the chair shuddered under the knob.

What could she use as a weapon? There was nothing but an old broom, boxes of file folders, rolls of tinsel, cleaning supplies, a folded stepladder. Another vicious kick to the door sent vibrations through the floor.

This can’t be happening, she thought. She’d arrived in town only hours before, before making the seventy-mile drive to her newly purchased property in the foothills. She’d never even set eyes on the Mother Lode Equestrian Center until now. After making better time than she’d expected, she’d decided to pop in on the off chance Bryce Larraby, the event’s main sponsor, would be there to let her take a peek at the horses she was eyeing for her clients. She’d messaged him that afternoon but he hadn’t replied.

Violent memories of what she’d witnessed made her head spin. The killer’s fingers throttling, eyes gleaming from the shadows, riveted on her.

A pale glimmer made her look upward. Set high in the wall was a small window that looked out onto the newly erected corrals. It would be a tight squeeze, but she could do it—had to do it.

She dragged the stepladder over and hoisted herself up just as the door lock failed and her flimsy chair barricade with it. She didn’t stop to look or scream, legs scrambling up the ladder until a hand reached out and grabbed her ankle. Kicking for all she was worth, she made contact, heard a high-pitched gasp of pain. The effort made Tracy wobble, her cheek hitting the edge of the window frame. Pain seared through her. Flinging the window open, she sucked in a lungful of freezing air and charged through, dropping to the ground, the breath forced out of her.

In a moment she was on her feet again, racing for her Jeep. As she ran she looked for someone, anyone, but there was only the pattering of winter rain and the sound of a horse whinnying. She sprinted, heedless of the crack of thunder and the sizzle of lightning, and finally reached her vehicle. Jamming her key in the lock, she half fell into the front seat. With icy fingers, she shoved her pile of messy blond hair behind her ears and gunned the engine, flooring the Jeep along the road away from the Mother Lode Equestrian Center.

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