Juliet had never been scared of the dark.
In her childhood, she had always been the impetus behind the silly nocturne excursions she and her brother had undertaken to the wildflower garden behind the house while their parents slept. There, they would tumble through the high grass in creepy black robes, flashlights ghoulishly distorting their young faces as they called out "Hoooo!" and "Woooo!", pretending to be the ghosts, monsters or pirates of their favourite bedtime stories. The warm air of Naples' summer nights caressed their tanned skin, the moon often shone in a clear sky, sparkling in the bay at the feet of the cliffs below, and there was no reason to be afraid of the darkness: it was a friend and an accomplice in their little mischievous games.
Juliet shivered involuntarily. It all seemed just a day ago, but here she was, nineteen, more than four thousand miles away from her birthplace, walking the dark streets of New York. Her brother was not with her. She was alone. And she was scared of the dark shadows around her.
"Coraggio," she whispered to herself. "You're nearly there."
But no courage came to her. Her heart beat loudly in her chest: Thump ... Thump ... Thump, and an iron fist of fear squeezed her bowels. The noise of her high heels striking the hard pavement echoed ominously around her, as if to remind her of her loneliness.
Silently, she cursed her bad luck. How could she have lost her bag? Everything had been inside: wallet, keys and mobile phone! And now she was forced to walk. And why?
She smiled sardonically. Of course ... Francesco! Usually, she was highly organized and nothing ever slipped past her attention, but today her eyes had been glued on Francesco, a new co-worker at the office; an Italian, like her, with dark shaggy hair and soft brown eyes. He was so charming, such a gentleman...
Sirens howled in the distance. Juliet instinctively glanced over her shoulder, back down the row of run-down houses. She was not alone any more. A black figure moved some fifty yards behind her, head bent, walking fast.
A jolt of panic coursed through her and she increased her pace. Two streets further on lived her cousin, who could drive her home. She would only have to get to him and she would be safe. It was not far.
She glanced back again, checking if the figure had come closer. No, the person was still a safe distance away. But if he or she made any attempt to come nearer, she would take off her heels and run. She could do that; she was used to running.
"Ai! Carlos! Little mommy here seems to be lost!"
Juliet froze as two Latin-American men stepped out from the side of the street, their eyes gleaming with a primitive greed.
"Maybe she was looking for us, eh?" They laughed and came closer.
Juliet backed away, but one of them lunged forward and grabbed her arm.
"Where you going? Huh?"
"Let go! Please!" She twisted in his strong grip.
"Please! Please!" the man mocked, imitating her shrill voice.
Several loud bangs ripped through the air in quick succession. The two Latinos stumbled, holding their hands to their torsos from whence blood seeped into their clothing.