|Last night I killed a man.
Pulled a garrote and sliced it into his tight white throat. Held it while the blood bloomed scarlet.
He gasped and struggled, breath gurgling. His knees, once strong enough to hold his weight, now shuddered. They toppled and fell.
His eyes, whites wide and full of terrible knowledge, stared up at me from the floor where he lay.
I watched him die.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Moonlight washed the path with a low glow. The man checked his watch and peered out from behind the clump of trees. He tightened his hold on a branch, gaze riveted on the dirt trail.
She would come. He'd been assured of it.
And when she did, he'd be right behind her.
Automatically, he felt the knife on his thigh. Just under the rim of his running shorts. Handy. Easy to reach.
Soon. She would be coming soon.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A scream ripped her awake. Her eyes snapped open. Saw shadows in the corner of the ceiling. Dark room. No light.
Sweat. She was sweating. Something had woken her.
Noise? Blood thudded in her ears. Was that it? She burrowed inside her head. Dream images. Darkness blurred. Faces smeared. People? Person. Was someone screaming?
She listened hard. All was quiet.
Street light filtered in through a window. One by one she ticked off the gloom-filled surroundings: dresser, mirror, rocking chair in corner. Clothes over the chair arm.
Hers. Of course, hers.
She was home. In her bedroom.
Yet...was it her bedroom?
It was dark. Why was it dark?
She snapped on the light, and it stabbed through her eyes into her brain. She turned it off, collapsed back down, stared up at the ceiling again.
A hammer pounded her skull.
Headaches were unusual. At least...she thought they were.
Why wasn't she sure?
She sat up, groaning. What time was it?
The clock on the nightstand blared 12 am in digital green.
She ran two fingers over her brow, pressed in the sides. Aspirin. She should take some aspirin.
She put her feet on the floor and stood. A wave of dizziness gripped her and she stumbled to the chair for her robe. A pair of running shorts and a tank top were draped over the arm, sneakers stuffed with athletic socks sat on the floor.
Running. Fresh air, outdoors. The call was fierce and compelling. She could no more resist it than she could resist breathing. Aspirin forgotten, she slipped the clothes on. Immediate relief poured through her.
Pulling her tangled hair into a rough ponytail, she staggered down the stairs, and let herself out the front door.
The night washed her with cool, gentle air. She gulped it in, feeling better, much better.
Setting off down the street, she started off slow, gradually increasing the pace until her legs pumped strength into the rest of her. At the end of the block she turned the corner. It was automatic, unthinking. Down the block and around the corner. What she had to do. Was meant to do.
Another three blocks and the park loomed to the left, the entrance a black mouth waiting to gobble her up. She headed for it unerringly, breathing easy, legs sure. Dumbarton Oaks Park. It closed at dark, the sign said so, but she plunged past it, unable to stop even if she wanted to.
Here and there the city had put up a light, but for the most part the trail was dim, lit only by the moon. But her feet were sure, the path as familiar as the way home. She'd been here before.
At the second bend she headed right, and the first prickle ran over her. She stretched her ears, listening hard. Heard nothing but her own steps.
She slowed, then picked up the pace. Branches brushed by, naked and bony against the moonlight. An owl screeched.
Was someone following her?
But when she turned, there was no one. Only the dim shade of the path behind her.
She plowed on, turning into the track that bordered the creek. The name drifted into her head. Rock Creek.
Water gurgled. Swooshed and fell like dark music. Shaking off the jitters, she pounded over the wood bridge. Her feet had just hit the trail again when she sensed him.
She checked behind, saw no one, turned back around. Ahead of her, a man had appeared on the trail, bent over one knee and blocking the way. Too late, her foot slammed into him and she went up and over, landing with a thud.
She grunted with the impact, but in the next instant, she'd sprung back up, crouched, ready. A distant part of her mind wondered how she'd done that. The rest focused on the man as he stood and backed away, limping.
"Whoa. Itís okay. I'm harmless." He held his hands up in surrender. They were empty, unthreatening. "Sorry. New shoes." He pointed to his runners with one of his hands, keeping the other still raised. "Twisted my damn ankle."
She watched him warily, not moving.
"I...uh...didn't see you coming." He smiled tentatively. "Didn't know anyone else was crazy enough to run this time of night. You all right?"
Slowly, she straightened, unclenched her fists. "Fine."
"Good." He ran a hand over his head with a sheepish expression. "Look, I uh...don't suppose you'd give me a hand? My car is at the bottom of the trail, but my ankleís pretty messed up."
He was tall, wiry rather than broad, with long athletic legs under loose, knee-length basketball shorts. His shirt was tied around his waist, so she could see his upper body. No weapons. Why did she even notice that? Better to notice that he was trim, muscled, a fine specimen who obviously worked out or was used to physical labor. His hair, clipped tight to his skull, didn't hide much.
Military, came the word in her head, and instantly she felt less threatened.
Why was that?
"Sure," she said, and a voice inside her head said, you could take him if you had to.
Take him where? How?
He untied his shirt, slipped it on, winced as he limped toward her. Gingerly, he wrapped an arm over her shoulder. "Thanks." They started off, him using her body to offset the pressure on his bad foot. "I'm Jake, by the way. Jake Wise."
"Margo Scott." The name came to her easily. Why shouldn't it?
"You looked pretty scary back there, Margo. For a minute I thought you were going to take my eyes out. You some kind of karate expert?"
The question echoed in her head, and for half a second she didn't know how to answer it. Then, as though it had been there all along, the response came.
She shook her head. "A bookseller. I own a store in Old Town. You?"
"Lawyer." He grunted the word, stumbling over a branch. "Here. Georgetown."
Neither construction worker nor soldier. She was vaguely surprised. "You should stick to a track."
"Don't I know it. Friend told me about this place. Was working late. Thought I'd try out my shoes." He smiled grimly. "I've had better ideas."
His car was parked on the street just outside the park entrance. She helped him to the driverís side, and he fished out a set of keys from a pocket inside his shorts. He opened the door, propped himself against it, and hopped around to face her. "Can I give you a lift? I owe you."
"Thatís okay. I only live a couple of blocks away. I'll run back."
He shrugged. "Suit yourself." He slipped into the seat. "Appreciate the help."
"No problem. Take it slow going home. Ice down that ankle."
"Will do." He closed the door, rolled down the window. "Thanks again."
She nodded and watched him drive away. Her headache was gone.