The moonless sky looked murkier than ever, freckled with stars. The atmosphere was abuzz with dreams of what 2009 had in store for everyone. Loralie called out a cheerful goodbye, but her besties, still partying hard and well on their way to brutal hangovers, barely noticed. Sober seldom mixed well with drunk, and Loralie had chosen mocktails all night, despite her friends’ urges to usher in the New Year in style, and now she found herself leaving the party—early and alone. She walked with short, quick steps to the nearest sidewalk. With a slight shiver, she rubbed her palms against each other and blew some hot air into her hands. Alabama’s winter wasn’t being kind to her.

Glancing at her watch, she frantically looked around; not a single soul in sight. It was almost two o’clock. No wonder! An eerie silence pervaded the air as the nearby street light flickered, casting a crepuscular glow on her toffee skin. Her chestnut eyes shuttled left and right, hoping to find one cabbie or another.

Tousling her auburn hair, she gazed at the deserted street, humming Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.” Just then, a phone call interrupted her short-lived melody. Loralie glanced at the caller ID and shook her head in annoyance. It was Mom. Bracing herself for the worst, she picked it up.

“Are you fuckin’ out of your mind, Lori?” Her mom fumed, not letting Loralie utter a single word. “A serial killer is out loose in the city and you’d left me a message saying you’re partying with your friends. You better come home now!”

“Calm the hell down, Mom!” Loralie snapped. “Stop being such a drama queen. It’s not like I’m gonna die or something. I’ll be home in 30.”

“Language, young lady! I’m your mother. So don’t talk to me the way you talk to them bitches.”

“Mom, they’re my friends. Shut up!”

“No, I can’t. Not when my daughter is out all alone in the dead of the night. Tell me something. You’re seeing someone, aren’t you?”

“For Chrissakes, stop assuming stuff, mom. I’m waiting for a cab. No big deal!”

“You’re dumb, just like your crazy old man. Now I’m pissed off at the thought of you leaving me, too. Hope you come home alive!”

After assuring her mom that she’ll be safe for the gazillionth time, Loralie hung up the call with a long sigh. She was sick and tired of all the mollycoddling and the overprotective nature of her mom. Ever since her dad left them for another woman when Loralie was hardly five, they both had to fend for themselves. Though their life hadn’t been a bed of roses, she grew up and worked her ass off to make ends meet.

Her mom’s worries were not invalid, though. The rampant serial killings had sent shockwaves across the town. So far, seven lives had succumbed to the killer’s cold-blooded fantasies, most of them being women. The modus operandi was a precise cut on the jugular, the victims left to bleed to death. Despite the top cops being assigned to crack this case, all their investigations hit a dead end. The people neither knew the reason behind the killings nor had a solid clue of the killer’s identity.

There were murmurs that it was an ex-Marine who escaped from the lunatic asylum a year back. At the same time, an urban legend floated around that it was a satanic ritual spearheaded by a cannibalistic cult. With every passing day, new conspiracy theories surfaced on the Internet; a vengeful ghost, a mafia hit job, and so on and so forth. However, all these theories were shots in the dark. The killer was out there, but the case was as cold as the bitter winter snow. Yet Loralie never had to worry about any of this. She considered herself a strong, independent woman, capable of handling things on her own. No matter what she did, she was a perfectionist. Being afraid was not her thing, or at least that’s what she thought. But sometimes, anxiety meets even the strongest of minds.

Her hair stood on end, her heart pounded in her chest, and she broke out in a cold sweat. She bit her nails and grew restless. Hardly a car was passing by the street, much to her chagrin.

Just as she was about to give up hope, something bright approached towards her like a bolt from the blue, blinding her. At once, she covered her eyes with her hands. As the glare dimmed, she realized it was the headlight of an oncoming vehicle.

A black Ford Explorer pulled up right in front of her. The windows went down to reveal a rugged-looking man, presumably in his late forties. His puffy, bloodshot eyes pierced straight into hers, while his long, disheveled grey hair peeked out from under the black beanie he was wearing. He stroked his unkempt beard as his lips parted into a sinister grin, revealing his decayed teeth.

“Happy New Year!” he croaked in a hoarse voice, spitting gum on the ground.

“Happy New Year,” she echoed his wish and craned her neck, resuming her search for a cab.

“Looks like you’re waiting for a ride.” The man quizzed with raised eyebrows. “Wanna hop on?”

“Err, thanks, but no thanks. To be frank, I’ve got to travel really far—North Courtland. I don’t wish to bother you.” She turned away from his line of sight.

“You know what? That’s on my way home.” The man leaned his head closer. He reeked of cigarettes and body odor. “I don’t mind dropping you off. If I were you, I wouldn’t be waiting over here. It’s way too late!”

Loralie’s heart raced at the polite gesture of a total stranger. But she couldn’t say no, owing to her circumstance. Flashing a faint smile, she slid into the car’s backseat as he stared at her through the rear-view mirror.

Within seconds, her slender fingers rifled inside her handbag, reaching for the Swiss Army knife. After all, eight was her lucky number.