Excerpt: Chapter One
My name is all that is written on the plain white envelope taped to the mirror.
I step out of the stall inside the bathroom of Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum, and the laughter and joy of the evening’s charity event I’ve been enjoying fades away. Fear and dread slam into me, shooting adrenaline through my body. No. No. No. This cannot be happening and yet it is. It is, and I know what it means. Suddenly, the room begins to shift and everything goes gray. I fight the flashback I haven’t had in years, but I am already right there in it, in the middle of a nightmare. The scent of smoke burns my nose. The sound of blistering screams shreds my nerves. There is pain and heartache, and the loss of all I once had and will never know again. Fighting a certain meltdown, I swallow hard and shove away the gut-wrenching memories. I can’t let this happen. Not here, not in a public place. Not when I’m quite certain danger is knocking on my door.
On wobbly knees and four-inch black strappy heels that had made me feel sexy only minutes before and clumsy now, I step forward and press my palms to the counter. I can’t seem to make myself reach for the envelope and my gaze goes to my image in the mirror, to my long white-blond hair I’ve worn draped around my shoulders tonight rather than tied at my nape, and done so as a proud reflection of the heritage of my Swedish mother I’m tired of denying. Gone too are the dark-rimmed glasses I’ve often used to hide the pale blue eyes both of my parents had shared, making it too easy for me to see the empty shell of a person I’ve become. If this is what I am at twenty-four years old, what I will be like at thirty-four?
Voices sound outside the doorway and I yank the envelope from the mirror and rush into the stall, sealing myself inside. Still chatting, two females enter the bathroom, and I tune out their gossip about some man they’d admired at the party. I suddenly need to confirm my fate. Leaning against the wall, I open the sealed envelope to remove a plain white note card and a key drops to the floor that looks like it goes to a locker. Cursing my shaking hand, I bend down and scoop it up. For a moment, I can’t seem to stand up. I want to be strong. I have to be strong. I shove to my feet and blink away the burning sensation in my eyes to read the few short sentences typed on the card.
I’ve found you and so can they. Go to JFK Airport directly. Do not go home. Do not linger. Locker 111 will have everything you need.
My heart thunders in my chest as I take in the signature that is nothing more than a triangle with some writing inside of it. It’s the tattoo that had been worn on the arm of the stranger who I’d met only once before. He’d saved my life and helped me restart my life, and he’d made sure I knew that symbol meant that I am in danger and I have to run.
I squeeze my eyes shut, fighting a wave of emotions. Once again, my life is about to be turned upside down. Once again I will lose everything, and while everything is so much less than before, it’s all I have. I crumble the note in my hand, desperate to make it, and this hell that is my reality, go away. After six years of hiding, I’d dared to believe I could find “normal”, but that was a mistake. Deep down, I’ve known that since two months ago when I’d left my job at the central library as a research assistant, to work at the museum. Being here is treading water too close to the bridge.
I straighten and listen as the women’s voices fade before the room goes silent. Anger erupts inside me at the idea that my life is about to be stolen from me again and I tear the note in tiny pieces, flush them down the toilet and shove the envelope into the trash. I want to throw away the key too, but some part of me won’t let that happen. Probably the smart, unemotional part of me that I hate right now.
Unzipping the small black purse I have strapped across my chest and over my pale blue blazer, that despite my tight budget, I’d splurged on for this new job, I drop the key inside, sealing it away. I’m going to finish my party. Maybe I’m going to finish my life right here in New York City. The note didn’t say I’d been found. It only warned I could be found. I don’t want to run again. I don’t. I need time to think, to process, and that is going to have to wait until after the party.
Decision made, I exit the stall, cutting my eyes away from the mirror and heading for the door. I do not want anyone to see me right now when I have no idea who me is or will be tomorrow. In a zone, that numb place I’ve used as a survival tool almost as many times as I’ve tried to find the meaning of that symbol on the note, I follow the soft hum of orchestra music from well-placed speakers, entering a room with a high oval ceiling decorated with magnificent artwork. I tell myself to get lost in the crush of patrons in business attire, while waiters toting trays offer champagne and finger foods, but I don’t. I simply stand there, mourning the new life I’ve just begun, and I know is now gone. My “zone” has failed me.
“Where have you been?”
The question comes as Chloe Monroe, the only person I’ve let myself consider a friend in years, steps in front of me, a frown on her heart-shaped face. From her dark brown curls bouncing around her shoulders to her outgoing personality and fun, flirty attitude, she is my polar opposite and I love that about her. She is everything I am not and hoped I would become. Now I will lose her. Now I will lose me again.
“Well,” she prods when I don’t reply quickly enough, shoving her hands onto her hips, “where have you been?”
“Bathroom,” I say. “There was a line.” I sound awkward. I feel awkward. I hate how easily the lie comes to me, how it defines me. A lie is all that I am.
Chloe’s brow puckers. “Hmmm. There wasn’t one when I was there. I guess I got lucky.” She waves off the thought. “Sabrina is freaking out over some donation paperwork she can’t find and says she needs you. I thought you were doing research When did you start handling donor paperwork?”
“Last week, when she got overwhelmed,” I say, and perk up at the idea that my new boss needs me. I don’t need to leave. I need to be needed even if it’s just for tonight. “Where is she?”
“By the front desk.” She laces her arm through mine. “And I’m tagging along with you. I have a sixty-year-old admirer who’s bordering on stalker. I need to hide before he hunts me down.”
She tugs me forward, and I let her, too distracted by her words to stop her. She’s worried about being hunted but I am the one being hunted. I thought I wasn’t anymore. I thought I was safe, but I am never safe, and neither is anyone around me. I’ve lived that first hand. I felt that heartache of loss, and while being alone sucks, losing someone you care about is far worse.
My selfishness overwhelms me and I stop dead in my tracks to pull Chloe around to face me. “Tell Sabrina I’m grabbing the forms and will be right there.”
“Oh. Yes okay.” Chloe lets go of my arm, and for a moment I fight the urge to hug her, but that would make her seem important to me, and someone could be watching. I turn away from her and rush for a door, and I feel sick to my stomach knowing that I will never see her again.
I finally exit the side of the building into the muggy August evening, and head for a line of cabs, but I do not rush or look around me. I’ve learned ways to avoid attention, and going to work for a place that has a direct link to the world I’d left behind hadn’t been one of them. It had simply been a luxury I’m now paying for.
“JFK Airport,” I pant as I slide into the back of a cab, and rub the back of my neck at a familiar prickling sensation. A feeling I’d had often my first year on my own, when I’d been certain danger waited for me around every corner. Hunted. I’m being hunted. All the denial I own won’t change my reality.
* * * * *
The ride to the airport is thirty minutes and it takes me another fifteen to find locker 111 once I’m inside the building. I pull it open and there is a carry-on-sized roller suitcase and a smaller brown leather shoulder bag with a large yellow envelope sticking up from inside the open zipper. I have no desire to be watched while I explore what’s been left for me. I remove the locker’s contents, and follow the sign that indicates a bathroom.
Once again in a stall, I pull down the baby changer and check the contents of the envelope on top. There is file folder, a bank card, a cell phone, a passport, a notecard, and another small sealed envelope. I reach for the note first.
There is cash in the bank account and the code is 1850. I’ll add more as you need it and until you get fully settled. You’ll find a new social security card, driver’s license, and passport as well. You have a complete history to memorize and a résumé and job history that will check out if looked into. Throw out your cell phone. The new one is registered under your new name and address. There’s a plane ticket and the keys to an apartment along with a location. Toss all identification and don’t use your bank account or credit cards. Be smart. Don’t link yourself to your past. Stay away from museums this time.
A new name. That’s what stands out to me. I’m getting another new name. No. No. No. My heart races at the idea. I don’t want another new name. Even more than I don’t want to be back on the run, I don’t want another new name. I feel like a girl having her hair chopped off. I’m losing part of myself. After living a lie for years, I’m losing the only part of my fake identity I’d ever really accepted as me.
I grab the passport and flip it open and my hand trembles at the sight of a photo that is a present-day me. How did this stranger I met only one time in my life get a picture of me this recent? It doesn’t matter I’d once considered him my Guardian Angel. I’m freaked out by this. Has he been watching me all this time? I shiver at the idea, and my only comfort is my new name. I’m now Amy Bensen rather than Amy Reynolds. I’m still Amy. It is the one piece of good news in all of this and I cling to it, using it to stave off the meltdown I feel coming. I just have to hold it together until I get on the plane. Then I can sink into my seat and think myself into my “zone” that I can’t seem to fully find.
Flipping open the folder, I find an airline ticket. I’m going to Denver and I leave in an hour. I’ve never been anywhere but Texas and New York. All I know about Denver is it’s big, cold, and the next place I will pretend is home when I have no home. The thought makes my chest pinch, but fear of what might await me if I don’t run pushes me past it.
I turn off my cell phone so it won’t ping and stuff it, with everything but my new ID and plane ticket, back into the envelope. I have my own money in the bank and I’m not about to get rid of my identification and access to that resource. Besides, the idea of using a bank card that allows me to be tracked bothers me. I’ll be visiting the bank tomorrow and removing any cash I can get my hands on. When I’d been eighteen, naive and alone, I’d blindly trusted a stranger I’d called my Guardian Angel. I might have to trust him now too, but it won’t be blindly.
Making my way to check in, I fumble through using the ticket machine and my new identification and then track a path to security. A few minutes later, I’m on the other side of the metal detectors and I stop at a store to buy random things I might need. All is going well until I arrive at the ticket counter.
“I’m so sorry, Ms. Bensen,” the forty-something woman begins. “We had an administrative error and seats were double-booked. We—”
“I have to be on this flight,” I say in a hissed whispered with my heart in my throat. “I have to be on this flight.”
“I can get you a voucher and the first flight tomorrow.”
“No. No. Tonight. Give someone a bigger voucher to get me a seat.”
“Talk to a supervisor,” I insist, because while avoiding attention means I am not a pushy person, and despite my initial denial of my circumstances that might suggest otherwise, I have no death wish. I am alive and plan to stay that way.
She purses her lips and looks like she might argue, but finally she turns away and makes a path toward a man in uniform. Their heads dip low and he glances at me before the woman returns. “We have you on standby and we’ll try to get you on.”
“How likely is it you’ll get me on?”
“We’re going to try.”
“Try how hard?”
Her lips purse again. “Very.”
I let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you. And I’m sorry. I have a…crisis of sorts. I really have to get to my destination.” There is a thread of desperation to my voice I do not contain well.
Her expression softens and I know she heard it. “I understand and I am sorry this happened,” she assures me. “We are trying to make this right and so you don’t panic please know that we have to get everyone boarded before we make any passenger changes. You’ll likely be the last on the plane.”
“Thanks,” I say, feeling awkward. “I’ll just go sit.” Definitely flustered, I turn away from the counter. Ignoring the few vacant seats, I head to the window and settle my bags on the floor beside me. Leaning against the steel handrail on the glass, I position myself to see everyone around me to be sure I’m prepared for any problem before it’s on me. And that’s when the room falls away, when my gaze collides with his.
He is sitting in a seat that faces me, one row between us, his features handsomely carved, his dark hair a thick, rumpled finger temptation. He’s dressed in faded jeans and a dark blue t-shirt, but he could just as easily be wearing a finely fitted suit and tie. He is older than me, maybe thirty, but there is a worldliness, a sense of control and confidence, about him that reaches beyond years. He is money, power, and sex, and while I cannot make out the color of his eyes, I don’t need to. All that matters is that he is one hundred percent focused on me, and me on him. A moment ago I was alone in a crowd and suddenly, I’m with him. As if the space between us is nothing. I tell myself to look away, that everyone is a potential threat, but I just…can’t.
His eyes narrow the tiniest bit, and then his lips curve ever so slightly and I am certain I see satisfaction slide over his face. He knows I cannot look away. I’ve become his newest conquest, of which I am certain he has many, and I’ve embarrassingly done so without one single moan of pleasure in the process.
“Inviting our first-class guests to board now,” a female voice says over the intercom.
I blink and my new, hmmm, whatever he is, pushes to his feet and slides a duffle onto his shoulder. His eyes hold mine, a hint of something in them I can’t quite make out. Challenge, I think. Challenge? What kind of challenge? I don’t have time to figure it out. He turns away, and just like that I’m alone again.