25 | A Winding Road

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Evanna's eyes blinked open and slowly adjusted to the dim orange lighting. Turning her head, she scanned her surroundings, which irritated the sore spot on her neck.

She was seated on a folding chair in the corner of an empty room. Stainless steel countertops ran the length of the wall, bathed in the orange glow that spilled out of a serving hatch.

Staggering to her feet, Evanna grabbed the chair to steady herself. She inhaled sterile air with each hurried breath. The stillness was unsettling.

As her wooziness dispersed, fear bubbled up. Her roving eyes latched on to the industrial door on the far wall.

Evanna made a dash for it, but it was locked. Then the swing door next to the serving hatch caught her attention. She took a hesitant step towards it, and her gaze fell on her backpack, perched atop the counter.

Lunging at it, she rummaged inside for her phone. It was missing. Her heart sank. Of course, Ev. What did you expect?

She balled her fists, struggling to keep her rising panic at bay. Then she edged towards the serving hatch and peeked through.

A dark, deserted restaurant lay beyond. A single orange lantern was switched on to provide scant illumination. Minimalist tables and chairs loomed out of the darkness.

Her heart thudded in her chest as she pushed through the swing door.

The resonant space amplified her shallow breaths. She had only taken a few steps when her eyes snapped to the glass doors that glowed like a beacon—the restaurant's main entrance. Beyond it was a concrete corridor lit with white LED strips.

Just when she was about to make a run for it, a glimmer from a dark corner drew her attention.

"You're awake?" a female voice asked.

She jerked violently and stared into the gloom.

A tall figure rose up.

"Who are you?" Evanna backed away, legs wobbling in sync with her erratic heartbeat. "Why am I here?"

The stranger walked forward, her measured tread echoing off the surfaces. The reddish lamplight glinted off her glasses and emphasized the color in her shirt. Short hair sprouted around an oval face, which sent a jolt of recognition through Evanna. The woman in Rind's photo! The one I bumped into at the seminar.

"I—I know you," Evanna whispered. "You're Dara Roberts, right?"

Dara halted and surveyed her. Her face looked drawn, with prominent dark circles. Then she sat down at an elongated table. The clatter of furniture sounded obscenely loud in the quiet. She motioned for Evanna to take a seat.

Evanna hugged the backpack tighter. "Where the heck am I?"

"HEPLOK," Dara said.

She blinked. "What! "

"Sit down, and we can talk."

"You abducted me!" She rubbed the spot where the needle pierced her skin. "What did you inject into my neck!"

"Just an anesthetic. I didn't think you'd be inclined to get into a stranger's car at this time of night."

"You can't just—"

"You're fine, aren't you?"

Dara kicked a chair, indicating for her to sit. Evanna winced at the harsh grating of metal.

The woman appeared to be the picture of calm. Yet, there was something lurking behind the tired, placid countenance. A hundred questions sprouted up. She could've contacted you tomorrow. Why the hurry? How did she find you, Ev? Why now?

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