Her air situation was getting desperate, her breath threatening to explode, her lungs fiercely hungry. She felt blindly, unable to budge the mask a second time so she could gouge at his eyes. Her fingers brushed across his ear, skimmed over a bald head, then went back. Gripping the ear tightly in her fingers, she gave it a vicious twist. His bellow muffled by the mask, the man shoved her away, releasing her hand in the process.
Mila didn’t wait to see what he did, where he went. Eyes squeezed tightly to ease the burning, she shot to the surface and emerged, coughing and choking, no more than twenty feet from Gramma. If she could make it to Gramma, she would be all right.
But she didn’t make it that far. She heard a man, maybe the one she’d spoken to earlier, exclaim, “What the hell?” followed by an incoherent shout from Gramma. Splashes sounded and arms grabbed her, pulled her to the grassy shore. They dragged her out of the water, then someone pushed her to the ground; someone else wrapped a towel around from her. Gramma crouched in front of her, worry etched deep into her face.
“Baby, what happened? Did you get a cramp? Did you get snagged on something? What happened to you?”
All Mila could do was lift her left arm. Everything fell silent for a moment, then a man, definitely the man she’d talked to about Gramma earlier, spoke in a grim voice.
“I’m calling the police.”
* * *
“How the hell did this happen with all these people around?” Sam demanded as he stalked across the parking lot and toward the creek bank.
“The guy was underwater. She was swimming. He grabbed her, pulled her under and held her.” Daniel Harper matched his stride, not bothering to glance at his notes. “She and her grandmother were the only ones actually swimming. They were racing, but Milagro always let her win because she liked to take her time. When Jessica got down here, she stopped to talk with the geezer brigade, and that’s where she was when Milagro suddenly popped up. They said she looked half-drowned, could barely catch a breath. It took three or four of them to get her out. As soon as they saw her arm, they called us.”
Sam’s heart was pounding as if he were half-drowned, too, like there wasn’t enough oxygen in the world to reach the places his nerves and muscles and organs needed it. Who the hell lurked under the water at the local swimming hole surrounded by kids and tried to drown someone in the middle of a busy Saturday? What kind of maniac was after Mila?
He angled off the sidewalk, gave up all pretense of walking and broke into a run across the grass. Six or eight old men were huddled together with two figures in their middle: Mila and Jessica. Both women were pale and shivering, Mila looking unbearably young and forlorn, Jessica’s expression torn about equally between grief and rage.
Paramedics were questioning Mila while one gingerly examined her wrist. Sam didn’t get in their way, but he stepped up right behind her, laid his hand on her shoulder. It did his heart good when she raised her uninjured hand and rested it over his. “Merry, Kerry, how about some good news?”
The paramedics greeted him with solemn smiles. “We’ve narrowed her attacker down to Iron Fist or maybe Bone Crusher. Her wrist is gonna be sore as the devil, and she’ll have lovely bruises, but nothing appears broken.”
Sam winced when he saw the swelling that doubled the size of Mila’s wrist, along with the discoloration that had already occurred. He was so damn angry that it vibrated through him. He felt helpless and impotent and wanted more than anything to pound the man who’d done this into the ground.
No, not true. He wanted more than anything to wrap his arms around Mila and hold her until the shaking stopped, until her breath steadied and her fear faded, until she curled up against him and felt safe enough to fall asleep.
He gazed around the geezers until he found their leader, Charles Brinkley. “Hey, Charles, can you fellows take Jessica here and get her a dry towel and something to drink? Maybe mix a couple of your thermoses together.” He knew Charles always carried coffee in his bottle, no matter how hot the weather. He also knew a couple of the others always carried a little mix-in of liquid courage in theirs. Jessica looked like a stiff drink would do her a world of good.