Taken from Chapter One...
On the escalator at La Guardia, Paloma Dove shifted her weight. Her knees were trembling because of the slightly vibrating stairs, nothing else. She needed a clear head, not runaway fear. But the thought returned – was her moving profile centered in a sharpshooter’s scope, marked in the cross hairs? Was a pointed rifle tracking her slow ascent, a finger teased on the trigger?
But this wasn’t possible, not today, not in an airport.
Through dark glasses she peered into the teeming, sinking crowd and scanned for a man in a straw hat. Her gaze skittered across the busy concourse. People scurried every which way, like bees in a swarm. How could she possibly spot him?
For the third time in fewer minutes, she pivoted and glanced behind to make sure no one was elbowing through the clotted mass on the escalator. Suddenly the moving stairway shifted. Vertigo. Tightening her hand around the rubber rail, she faced forward, fixed a steady stare and braced herself. Perhaps he’d be up ahead, the first person she’d see.
Three lanky older boys, not yet men, wired for sound and weighted down with backpacks, stood in front of her. Their studied grubbiness, frayed jeans and untucked T-shirts, masked their likely status – not poor city kids but college students. The tallest one, facing sideways, peered down and gave her the once over. She patted down the bangs of the ridiculous blond wig – a mistake, she now realized, a prop that snagged male attention. His glance passed on.
The expanse of the second level began to fill her field of vision, another sea of moving bodies loaded down with briefcases, overnight bags, and children in tow. Her pulse quickened. Perhaps she could follow the young men, tuck neatly behind until she was well-absorbed into the dense crowd. As the stairs flattened and rolled from sight, she gripped the strap of her carry-on and readied herself. With downcast eyes, she raised her foot and stepped onto solid ground. Within moments she became one among many, entrenched in the mass, a welcomed safety zone. In her forty-seven years she’d learned the two best places to hide were in a cave or in a crowd. Anywhere else and you were taking chances.
She parried for position in the stream of travelers. The lack of rest coupled with jangled nerves made the limp worse. Still, she needed to conceal it as best she could. He might be watching for that very thing. Each right-footed step sent pain up her hip, back. She focused recalling how, as a young girl desperately shy and embarrassed, she had practiced walking, shoulders back, stomach in, with a book balanced on her head. Soon she fell into a rhythm.
Security approached. It wouldn’t be long before takeoff and safety. The knot loosened in her neck as one simple, miraculous thought came to mind. She’d be leaving New York City the same way she arrived. Alive.
At the metal detector, she followed the officer’s directions and placed her bag on the rolling tabletop. Barely breaking stride, she then eased through the archway, recouped the carry-on and continued. The gate neared. Only one last precautionary step remained – she had to make sure he wasn’t on the plane.
The waiting area loomed. She crossed to the edge of the crowd. Empty seats against a far wall drew her attention. There no one could sneak up from behind. She broke from the pack and rushed to the spot. At one end an older man sat reading. Perhaps he could provide additional cover. Anyone glancing at them might assume they were together.
“Is this seat taken?”
The man peered up from the newspaper and shook his head. She collapsed into the plastic molded chair and, for the first time in thirty-six hours, realized how tired she was. It wasn’t only her leg that ached but her entire body. Settling back, she asked the gentleman, “Excuse me, do you have the time?”
He glanced at his watch. “Five-fifteen.”
The boarding call would come within ten minutes. Throwaway time, hardly any time at all. Certainly she could manage that. The tension in her chest loosened.
“Where you headed?” the older man asked.
The bald, pale man reminded her of a clean-shaven Santa. She smiled. “Upstate.”
“I’m going to the Falls,” he said.
She sat taller. A man, six feet, maybe more, wearing a hat strolled through the harried mob. His towering head pivoted side to side. Who, what was he looking for? But his coat was wrong, too light-colored. She slumped back.
“You have pretty hair,” Santa said.
He leaned over. “And nice titties.”
She stopped cold. Surely she must have misunderstood. “Excuse me?”
A yellow-tooth smirk played on his face. “What do you charge? Twenty, twenty-five?”
She reached for her bag. He grabbed her arm and pinned it down.
“Let go,” she said through clenched teeth.
His grip tightened around her wrist. “Hard to get. I like that.” He leaned closer. His heated, sour breath fell on her neck. “Don’t play innocent with me. You’re the one who came over here thinking I was an easy mark. Hell, we can work something out.”
Of all the lousy spots she had to pick. She looked at his thick hand and recalled others; creeping, sweaty, disembodied ones that had run up her legs, squeezed her breasts in movie theaters, subway cars. Nervously, she glanced around. No one seemed interested. Under normal circumstances, she would have gone for the neck, eyes or lower where it really counted, but causing a scene now would be suicide. Instead she considered the time. Five more minutes, maybe less. Just sit tight until the boarding call. He’d have to let go then.
“You could ride me like a bull,” he said.
She looked straight ahead and tried to jerk her arm free.
He clamped down harder. “Feisty little mamita.”
“Do me good and I’ll buy you some rice and beans.”
Her heart pounded furiously. She needed to stay calm. Or maybe . . . .
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