Excerpt: Heart of Stone

Book One of the Negotiator Trilogy

She ran, long strides that ate the pavement despite a diminutive height. Her hair, full of tight curls, was pulled back from her face, bunches jouncing as her feet impacted the asphalt surface. Feminine and female, the words less interchangeable than they might seem, both described her well. Feminine, as he understood it, gave rise to a sort of delicacy, though not without its own strength. Female encompassed power as blunt and raw as sex. Watching her, neither descriptor would suffice without the other.

Lithe and athletic, she ran nearly every night, usually not long after sunfall. Tonight she was late: midnight was barely an hour off, closer by far than the January sunset. He watched from his arboreal refuge, hunched high and safe above the concrete paths, protective and possessive of the slender woman taking her exercise in a dangerous city.

There were safer places to run, safer times; he thought she must know that. The park was notorious for nighttime crime, but she threw off caution for something greater. For defiance against an ordered world, and perhaps for the thrill of knowing the danger she put herself in. There was confidence in her action, too: her size very likely precluded fighting off attackers, but the muscles that powered her run would help her outpace any enemy that might approach. It was a gambit, and he liked her for it. It reminded him of other women he’d known, sometimes braver than wise, always willing to risk themselves for others. Such demonstrations made him remember there was life outside the confines he’d created for himself.

So he watched from high in the treetops, protecting her whether she knew it or not. Choosing to make her safe against the independent streak that sent her running after dark, without taking away her illusion of bold solitude. She would never see him, he reasoned. Her people were predators, and they’d come from the trees. In the primitive part of the mind that spoke of caution, they were the danger that came from above.
Humans never looked up.

He shook himself as she took a corner, careening out of sight, and leapt gracefully over the treetops, following the paths she took.

#

Air burned in her lungs, every breath of cold air searing deep and threatening to make her cough with its dryness. Each footfall on the asphalt was a jolt of syllable through her body: ir. Ir. Ir. Ra. Shun. Al. There were slick patches on the trail, thin sheens of black ice that didn’t reflect until she was on them. She slid ten inches, keeping her center like she wore ice skates, stomach tightening to make her core solid. Keeping control in an out-of-control moment. It stung her body as vividly as a man’s touch might, heat sweeping through her without regard for sense or sensibility. Then the ice was gone and she was running again.

Eyes up, watching the trail and the woods. The air was brisk and as clear as it ever got in New York. Pathways were lit by lamps that buzzed and flickered at whim. Patches of dark were to be wary of, making her heart beat faster with excitement. No headset. Taking risks was one thing. Outright stupidity was another, and even she knew she ran a thin line between the two already. Her own labored breathing and the pounding of her footsteps was enough to drown out more nearby noise than was safe. That was part of it, too, part of the irresistible draw of the park. She was not safe. Nothing she did would ever make herself wholly safe.

It was almost like being able to fly.

“Irrational,” Margrit whispered under her breath. The word might have given her feet wings like Hermes, sending down the pathway with a new surge of speed. Feet jolting against the ground made echoes in her hips and breasts, every impact stinging her feet and reminding her of sex and laughter and the things that made life worth living.

Risking everything made it worth living. Friends, only half joking, wondered if she was suicidal, never quite understanding the adventure that drew Margrit to the park at night.

The Central Park rapist had confessed when she was in her first year of law school and wondering if she should have instead chosen to follow in her parents’ footsteps–either her mother’s MBA or her father’s medical degree–but the headlines that morning had solidified her belief in her own decision. Even now, seven years later, she knew her parents wished she’d chosen one of their professions, or at least a more profitable arm of law than the one she pursued, but thinking back to that day always re-built her confidence. Bouyed by the memory, she stretched her legs further and reached again for the feeling of freedom running in the park gave her.

Minutes later, she skidded to a halt under a light and leaned a hip against a battered bench, putting her hands on her knees. Her ponytail flipped upside-down, nearly brushing the ground as she heaved for air. Thirty seconds and she would start running again. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight.

“Good evening.”

Margrit spasmed upwards, whipping around to face the speaker. A nonplussed man with pale hair and lifted eyebrows stood in the puddle of lamplight, several feet away. His hands were tucked in the pockets of suit slacks. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“Jesus Christ.” Margrit backed away a step or two, putting even more distance between herself and the man. Caution knotted her stomach, sending chills of adrenaline through her. “Get the hell away from me.” Every muscle in her body was bunched, ready to sprint, but her heart pounded harder with the thrill of the encounter than with the impulse to run. She wore running shoes to his smooth-soled leather slip-ons, and had the head start. Caution hadn’t flared into panic or even true fear yet, confidence in her own abilities greater than evident danger.

That degree of cockiness was going to get her killed someday.

Not today, Margrit whispered to herself, and aloud warned, “I have a gun.”

His eyebrows rose higher. “I don’t.” He took his hands out of his pockets and lifted them slowly, shifting the hang of his jacket so she could see into the shadows against his torso. His shirt was lilac in the lamplight, almost glowing against the depths of the jacket. There was no gun in evidence. “I was just out for a walk.” He made a careful small gesture off to the side. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Yeah, well, you freaking well did.” Margrit edged back another step or two, weight on her toes. “This is Central Park, asshole. You don’t start up conversations with people here. Especially in the middle of the night.”

He spread his fingers more widely, peaceful intimation. “Do you normally carry on conversations with people in Central Park in the middle of the night?”

“No.” The excitement of the moment was passing, and so was the high from running. The sense of fun, if that was the right word for the encounter, faded with it. Margrit took one more step back. “I’m going now. Don’t follow me.” He had at least ten inches of height on her, but she had faith in her own speed. Faith warred with confidence and both lost out to an unspoken admission of arrogance that almost brought an undermining smile to Margrit’s lips.

“I won’t, but–may I ask you one question?”

“You just did.” Margrit curled her lip in irritation. She hated that particular piece of tomfoolery and resented it coming out of her own mouth. “What?”

“Where are you hiding your gun?” The man looked her up and down, more critically than lasciviously. Margrit glanced down at herself.

Tennies. Socks. Running tights with hot pink stripes that picked up the blue in the streetlamp and radiated neon purple. A snug white and green sweatshirt that covered her midriff only if she didn’t move; otherwise, her belly flashed between hems.

There wasn’t really anywhere for a gun.

Margrit looked up again. “None of your goddamned business.” Her breath puffed in the cool air, reminding her that she was only dressed for the weather if she was running to keep herself warm. She bounced up on her toes, muscle tightening in her calves. “Don’t follow me,” she warned again.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he murmured.

Margrit put on a burst of speed and raced down the path, putting a dozen yards between herself and the man in a few seconds. When she looked back a moment later, he was gone.

#

“You’re going to get yourself killed.”

Margrit leaned against the still-open door, doubled over to pull her laces open. Her breath still came in little puffs, and she counted out syllables with each one. Ir. Ra. Shun. Al. The encounter in the park left her repeating the word more often than usual. Irrationally safe. Irrationally foolish. Irrationally defensive.

“Hello, nice to see you too, my day was fine, thanks, how about yours? What are you doing up this late, anyway?” Margrit closed the door and locked it, leaning against the knob with both hands behind her. Her roommate stood down the hall, filling the kitchen doorframe. “Cole, I’m fine, really.” She pushed off the door and came down the hall to brush by him. His sweater, thick cable knit, itched her arm as she passed, and she added, “Nice sweater,” in hopes of distracting him before she breathed, “I’m fine,” a final time.

“She went to bed early. Five a.m. client. Thank you, he added automatically. “Irish wool. Cam gave it to me for Christmas.”

Margrit shuddered. “Five a.m. Better her than me. Oh yeah, I remember. I said I was going to borrow it and she threatened to tie my legs in a knot. It’s a nice sweater. She has good taste.”

“Of course she does. She’s dating me.” Cole offered a brief smile that fell away again as he visibly realized Margrit had succeeded in distracting him. “You’re fine this time, Grit. I’m afraid you’re going to get hurt.” He scowled across the kitchen, more concern than anger. “You shouldn’t run after dark.”

“I know, but I didn’t get out of work until late.”

“You never do.”

“Cole, what are you, my roommate or my big brother?”

“I’m your friend, Grit, and I worry about you when you got out running in Central Park in the middle of the night. You’re going to get yourself killed.”

“Maybe, but not tonight.” The words lifted hairs on her arms, echoed reminder that she’d thought something similar facing the pale-haired man in the park. She should have heard him, Margrit thought. Even over the sound of her own breathing, she should have heard his approach and departure. Being careless enough to allow a man to sneak up on her was every bit as alarming as Cole made her running out to be.

But there’d been nothing of the predator in the man, despite his size. Margrit had defended enough criminals to know when she was being sized up as bait. The man in the park had moved gracefully, slow motions, as if aware his very size bespoke danger, and he mitigated as best he could by calming actions. As if she might be an easily startled animal–which she supposed she was. The idea brought a brief smile to her lips.

Margrit leaned on the counter and pulled the refridgerator door open. The fridge was an orange behemoth from the fifties, too stubborn to break down, energy inefficient, and had a silver handle that could double as a club in a pinch. Margrit was unconscionably fond of it. She grabbed a cup of yogurt and bumped the door closed, turning to lean against it instead of the counter. “I’m sorry I worried you, but I just really needed to run.”

“There’s this crazy new invention, Grit. It’s called a treadmill. They have them at gyms. Gyms that are open twenty four hours a day, no less.”

“Bah.” Margrit stuck her spoon in her mouth and turned to open the fridge again, looking for more food. “I don’ like thredmillth. Y’don’ go anywhrr.”

“No, but there aren’t random lunatics in the gym, either.”

“Speaking of random lunatics, there was this guy in the park. Said hello to me.” The memory of the man wouldn’t leave her, lingering around the edges of her mind, pale and polite. The image of light eyes, colorless in the park lamps, reflected in the fridge walls. He’d had a good mouth. Well shaped without being feminine, even held in a curious purse as he’d looked her over.

God. She had friends she’d known for years whose features she couldn’t remember that clearly. Margrit shook her head, exiting the fridge with a plate of meatloaf in hand, using its mundanity to push away thoughts of the stranger. “You made dinner. I worship you.”

Cole folded his arms over his chest, frowning. “Flattery will get you nowhere. What guy in the park? Dammit, Grit–”

“He was just some guy in a business suit.” He hadn’t looked cold. Despite thirty-degree weather and no winter coat, he’d seemed comfortable. The silk shirt beneath his suit jacket couldn’t have afforded much warmth, but there’d been no shiver of cold flesh when he’d opened his jacket to show he was unarmed. Maybe the jacket had been so well cut as to hide padding, but Margrit doubted it. The breadth of shoulder and chest had looked to be all his own.

“And that what, renders him harmless?”

“I don’t know. He looked like a lawyer or something. Speaking of which.” Margrit cast a look of mock despair across the kitchen, at the same time feeling relief to have work that would take her mind off the blond man.

The kitchen expanded into the dining room, a solid wood double-doorframe making the rooms nominally separate. Legal briefs and somber-colored binders were piled precariously on the dining room table, over which hung an enameled black birdcage instead of a light fixture. Two desk lamps fought for space on the edges of the table, bordering a laptop-sized clearing. “I should get to work. Two hundred grand in student loans won’t go away if I end up unemployed.”

Cole shook his head with a frustrated smile. “And it has to be Legal Aid because nobody else can do it, right?”

Margrit shrugged. “Not nobody else can, but Legal Aid doesn’t have the glamour of a corporate job, and needs all the help it can get. And I’m good at it.”

“You have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, you know that?” Cole shook his head. “Cook some kind of vegetable to go with the meatloaf, Grit, and go to bed so you can get up early and get out of work at a decent time so you’re not running around Central damned Park in the middle of the night, okay?”

“I will,” Margrit promised. “Swear to God. As soon as I’ve finished going over these papers.” She gestured at the dining room table. “I’ll be in bed by midnight.”

“Sure you will. You know that going over papers doesn’t mean going into the living room and turning on the TV?”

“Yeah. I’ll be good. You can go to bed.”

Cole drew his chin in and scrutinized her. “Promise?”

“I promise. Scout’s honor.” Margrit held up three fingers.

“Okay. Should I wake you up on my way out?”

“At three thirty?” Margrit couldn’t keep the horror out of her voice. Cole shook his head.

“I’m not working until seven tomorrow. Vern’s got a catering event tomorrow night and wants me to do the pastries for it, so somebody else gets to make the doughnuts.”

“No wonder you’re up so late.” Margrit laughed, shaking her head. “When was the last time you made a doughnut, Cole?”

“Christmas,” he said placidly. “Cam asked me to make them for breakfast.”

“I meant for work.”

“Oh. Probably in culinary school. Don’t be difficult. Do you want me to get you up?”

Margrit pulled her hair out of its ponytail and scrubbed her hand through it. “Yeah.”

“Okay. Get your work done and go to bed. Night, Grit.” Cole smiled at her and disappeared down the hall.

“Night, Cole,” she called, and waited. When his door clicked shut, she grabbed the plate of meatloaf, a carton of double-swirl chocolate fudge chunk ice cream, a legal brief from the table and a pen from the birdcage, and paraded into the living room to plunk down on the couch. Soft cushions grabbed her hips, sucking her in with the confidence of an old lover. Margrit spilled her armload onto the cushion next to her and switched the TV on, flipping it to the news as she rescued the meatloaf before it irrevocably stained her paperwork.

She elbowed her binder open and twisted her neck to stare down at it over her biceps as she ate. The television droned on in the background: a dockworker had drowned and the union was striking; two murder victims had been found in Queens. A note of local interest news was wedged between sound bites of doom and gloom: a recently discovered twentieth century archeological site beneath the city was being opened to the public on a limited basis. Lest the site opening be considered too cheery, the reporter continued on to solemnly report a Park Avenue suicide. Margrit smiled ruefully at the endless bad news, its dismaying litany unable to deflate good cheer buoyed by her run.

“Irrational creature,” she mumbled, then frowned at the ice cream carton. “Spoon.” She fought her way out of the couch and brought the meatloaf plate into the kitchen, the binder still in her free hand.

She’d spent enough late nights on the case–a plea for clemency for a woman convicted of murdering a brutally abusive boyfriend–that she could see the annotated pages and carefully printed facts when she closed her eyes. Luka Johnson had served three years of a twenty year sentence, only allowed to meet with her daughters once a week under highly supervised conditions. The case had been dropped in Margrit’s lap literally weeks out of law school. She’d been Luka’s advocate for the entire length of her incarceration.

Three years. It didn’t seem so long, but Margrit had watched Luka’s youngest daughter grow from a squalling babe in arms to a thoughtful, talkative little girl in that time. The girls lived with a foster mother who cared for them very much, but every week that they left Luka behind in prison was a little harder for everyone. The trial judge was sympathetic to their cause; the state coalition against domestic violence had given their support. The governor was expected to hear and make a decision on the clemency within the week. Margrit couldn’t stay away from the paperwork, grooming it for the hundredth time, wondering if she’d missed anything that might cost Luka and her children more years of their shared lives.

Ir-ra-shun-al, the back of her head said. Margrit smacked it with the spoon. As if doing so turned up her reception, the TV in the other room suddenly got louder, a female reporter’s voice cutting through the quiet apartment: “…Park improvements will have to be delayed…” The sound cut out again. Spoon in her mouth, Margrit went back to the living room and dropped into the couch, juggling ice cream and the remote to turn up the volume as she watched the pink-cheeked reporter.

“This area of the park, scheduled for renovation, is tonight the scene of a crime the likes of which have not been seen in over a decade,” the woman said earnestly. Locks of hair blew into her eyes and she tucked them behind an ear with a gloved hand. Margrit sat up straighter, spoonful of ice cream dripping back into the carton. “A young woman was attacked here tonight, just beyond where I’m standing now, Jim. I have with me Nereida Holmes, who witnessed the attack.”

The reporter turned, angling her microphone under the mouth of a petite woman with large eyes and carefully arranged, flat shining curls. She wore a chocolate brown coat, the collar lined with darker brown fur. In the hard white light of the TV camera, the fur looked stiff and unyielding, like it would prick the woman’s chin.

“It looked like he hit her, no?” Nereida Holmes’ words were tinged with a faint Spanish accent. “He was crouched over her, like he was some kinda animal. Growling. There was blood on his hands. And then he saw me and ran away.”

The reporter pulled the mike back, demanded, “Can you tell us what he looked like?” and thrust it toward Nereida again.

“Um, yes, he was a white guy, maybe so tall?” Nereida Holmes lifted a hand well above her head, some inches beyond the top of the reporter’s head as well. “He had long legs, you could see that even when he was down low. And he had light hair, real light, and good shoulders. I couldn’t see nothing else, ‘cept he was wearing a business suit, but no winter jacket.” She shook her head. “He musta been cold.”

“Anything else you can tell us?”

Nereida blanched, even under the whiteness of the lights. “I heard that girl screaming. It was terrible. I hope they catch that bastard.”

“Thank you, Ms. Holmes.” The reporter turned back to the camera. “Anyone wishing to report seeing a man of this description in Central Park between the hours of 10:45 and 11:15 P.M. this evening, please contact the police immediately. This is Holly Perry, reporting for Channel Three. Back to you, Jim.”

Ice cream slid off Margrit’s spoon and plopped onto her running tights, the chill immediate and sharp against her thigh. She startled, stuffing the spoon back into the carton, and reached for the remote. She turned the television off and sat, silent, staring at the blank screen.

Ir. Rah. Shun. Al.

From HEART OF STONE

Heart of Stone

CE Murphy

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