Ian arrived far too early but that was okay. It was always smarter to get there in advance, check out the place for an easy out if things went sour. He appreciated that Quinlan had chosen an open area by the dry, leaf-choked fountain, where he could see what was coming in all directions. Ian hated meeting people in alleys or abandoned buildings where anything might be hiding in the shadows.
The night was colder than he’d expected and he bounced on his heels a little, wishing he’d worn a jacket instead of just a T-shirt. His bare arms prickled with gooseflesh. Digging in his back pocket, he pulled out the last little square from a pack of Nicorette and popped it in his mouth. As his jaws worked the precious drops of nicotine out of the gum, he cursed his attempt to give up smoking. For a guy who operated primarily on impulse, it was amazing he’d been able to kick the habit. So far.
A dark figure approached from the east side of the park. Ian bounced a little harder in anticipation and his pulse sped up. Nothing was ever routine in his line of work. Things might take a nasty turn in the blink of an eye.
“Hey. What have you got for me?” Quinlan was a tall man with thick glasses and a crew cut. He looked and sounded too bookish and educated to be a bottom feeding, petty criminal, which explained why he was so good at his job.
Usually Ian had more to show, but tonight it was a handful of credit cards taken from wallets he’d lifted earlier that day. He drew them from his jeans pocket and fanned them out for Quinlan.
The man took the cards and studied them. “How old?”
“That’s old.” Quinlan looked up, pale blue eyes magnified by the glasses. “Not worth much.”
“Not my fault. You wouldn’t meet me any sooner.”
Quinlan shrugged. “Two hundred.”
Ian hesitated. He knew better than to complain since it wouldn’t do any good, and he didn’t want the danger of hanging onto the cards and using them. Besides, Ian had gotten several hundred in cash from the wallets, a pretty good haul. “All right.”
Quinlan pocketed the credit cards and pulled out a money clip from an inside pocket of his brown, corduroy jacket.
“Would you be interested in X-boxes? I might be coming into a small shipment if things work out right.”
Quinlan shrugged and handed Ian a stack of twenties. “Maybe. Call me after you get them.”
Ian nodded and pocketed the money.
On the left periphery of his vision, something moved through the park. He lifted his head and his senses opened. His eyes narrowed as he focused on the figure racing through the trees, coming his direction. When he turned back toward Quinlan, the fence was already moving quickly away in the direction from which he’d come like a giraffe loping away from an incoming cheetah.
Ian’s gaze swung back toward the runner, drawing closer, dodging around trees and bushes, zigzagging through the park rather than following one of the paved paths. The small figure was a woman. Chasing fast on her heels was the shadowy silhouette of a man. The pursuer appeared to be holding a gun, but wasn’t shooting … yet.
Following Quinlan’s example, Ian turned to fade away.
“Help me!” Help me! The feminine voice came simultaneously from behind him and from inside his head. The word-thought was accompanied by a rush of fear-fueled adrenaline, which also originated from outside of himself.
Despite every instinct of self-preservation screaming at him to disappear, he looked back.
The woman was only a few yards away, barreling toward him. She had something clutched to her chest so only one arm pumped along with her running legs. She hurtled straight at him, so close now he could hear her breath gasp raggedly in and out of her chest. Then she was upon him.
Without thought, he grabbed her arm and ran alongside her. His long legs and firm grip on her wrist propelled them both along. He practically dragged the woman with him. Her breath was failing and her energy flagging.
Ian glanced over his shoulder long enough to see the pursuer drawing steadily closer, and as he faced forward again he heard the sharp report of a gun. The bullet didn’t bite into his body, but the shot encouraged a burst of speed. He jerked the woman along, his fingers digging into her flesh and his mind encouraging her. Come on! Run!
He knew the layout of the park like it was his own home. He’d slept there for a while when he first came to the city before he got his various businesses up and running and could afford to rent a place. Darting right, he pulled the woman down a steep incline into a wilder part of the park, where undergrowth had not been cleared and no paths were laid out. The park became woods. Low growing brambles snagged their legs and branches whipped their faces as they dodged small saplings.
Behind them, their pursuer crashed through the underbrush like a rampaging bear, which, Ian supposed, made them the frightened rabbits.
The slope was uneven. They stumbled and slid down the hill, impeded by rocks and fallen branches hidden in the dark. Then the woman lost her balance and went down hard on her knees almost jerking Ian off his feet. He pulled her back up, continuing to tug her behind him with all his strength.
At the bottom of the incline, the land leveled out. Ian cut a hard left, racing for the sanctuary he had in mind. The place would either be their salvation or a trap, depending on whether their pursuer found them. The fact the man wasn’t shooting at them indicated they were no longer in his sight. Although he might shoot to maim, it seemed the hunter wanted the woman alive so he wouldn’t fire blindly into the woods.
Up ahead, loomed a ghostly white shape, the birch tree marking the entrance to Ian’s secret den. He hadn’t been here in a few years, but the area wasn’t so overgrown he didn’t recognize it. “Down. Crawl,” he commanded.
The woman obeyed him before the words even left his lips.
Both of them dropped to their hands and knees and crawled through the dense vegetation. The ferns and brambles shielded the opening of a natural cave in the side of the hill. It was a mere pit in the wall, only a yard or two deep, but big enough to fit a bedroll when the need arose.
Ian scrambled into the nest of dried leaves and dirt, beneath the sheltering roots of the tree above and pulled the woman in close to him. His arms wrapped around her, his chest pressed to her back. Feeling the rise and fall of her chest, he wanted to silence her loud, gasping breaths to keep her from betraying their location. No sooner had the thought entered his mind than the woman followed the mental suggestion. With a last shuddering inhale, she calmed her breath, letting it whisper silently out her nose.
They lay listening for sounds of pursuit, but the world outside the little cave was quiet. Ian realized the man was listening for them, holding still until he could locate them scrambling through the woods. For a moment, he flashed back to Jack, one of his mother’s many “dates.” He remembered hiding in the space under his bed, pressed against the wall, holding his breath, waiting to be dragged out and whaled on, but praying tonight he’d be overlooked as the drunk man roared around the apartment. He shuddered at the memory.
A stroke of the woman’s fingers on his arm calmed him. It was as if she knew and understood his fears.
He squeezed her a little tighter and waited.
Beyond the drooping branches and weeds that screened the den, footsteps scuffled through the underbrush. The pursuing man stopped right outside the hiding place. There was a muffled curse then the man’s voice cut through the quiet night, obviously speaking into a cell phone. “I lost her. … She couldn’t have gone far. She’s with some guy now. I don’t know. … Yeah. Tell the boss I’m working on it. Cover for me. … All right. Meet you there.” After a moment’s silence, the man whispered, “Shit,” then his footsteps crunched away through fallen leaves.
Jesus, lady, what’d you do? Ian wondered