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Jake Beaumont saw red. He sank against a granite pylon of the Church Street overpass and tried to rub the crimson haze from his vision.
His hand came away bloody on both sides. Blood from the gash above his right eye smeared his palm. His knuckles oozed from the blows he'd managed to land on his assailant's stocking-masked jaw.
Jake sucked in a breath of damp December air just as a car passed on the roadway overhead. He looked up, blinked away another warm trickle of blood and considered his options.
If he could make it to Church Street, he could flag down a car, but he'd have to climb the embankment. The only other well-traveled road that passed through Haverston Park was Oak Avenue at the south entrance and that was half a mile away. If the knife-wielding mugger was still lurking in the pine grove, Jake wouldn't stand a chance.
On a deep breath he pushed up with his knees, using the pylon to steady himself. He still felt the stitch in his side, the one that had slowed him down on the Kissing Bridge and almost got him killed.
Damn. I thought I was in pretty good shape. He laughed. It was a sound of exhaustion and desperation, rather than humor. And it hurt. He coughed, tasted blood.
His vision swam. The pain should have subsided by now. He'd steadied his breathing, slowed his heart rate ... but if anything, he felt worse. He put his left hand inside his open jacket and found a warm, wet spot below his ribs. The iron tang of blood in the air grew stronger when he raised his fingers in the silvery light that spilled over the guardrails from the street lamps above.
Jake cursed. The bastard had cut him. He hadn'teven felt it until now.
Still don't have a choice, he told himself as he scrubbed both hands on his jean-clad thighs. Gotta climb.
He turned away from the pylon and stumbled. The embankment looked so far away and so steep.
Behind him, something skittered across the gravel jogging path. Someone emerged from the pine grove moving quickly. A slim figure in a dark, hooded jacket rounded the curve, hands jammed into deep pockets, head down.
Jake froze. It wasn't the mugger. He'd been just a hair shorter than Jake's 6 feet 2 inches. Jake held his breath as he watched the figure approach. Should he ask for help or hope the newcomer didn't notice him sagged against the pylon, bleeding all over his crisp white shirt?
Caution won out. There were too many unknowns in the park at night. If he'd thought of that in the first place, this wouldn't have happened at all. Jake retreated a scant inch into the shadows, but his movement must have caused a faint sound. The figure stopped abruptly and turned in his direction.
"Are you all right?" Her voice was strong and clear. She wasn't one of the strung out teenaged hookers that frequented the park's dilapidated picnic area. Jake exhaled as he watched her move into the puddle of lamplight. She leaned forward a little to get a better look at him. "Are you hurt? Is that blood?"
"I was ... mugged." It stung to admit it. Jake worked out twice a week. He'd been varsity track in high school and college. Normally he'd have beaten anyone to a pulp who pulled a knife on him, but tonight he'd been careless, distracted. He'd allowed himself to be lured into the park out of his own careless desperation.
"Do you have a cell phone?" she asked. "The nearest pay phone is on the other side of the pond."
Jake shook his head. The movement made him dizzy and he clutched the pylon's cool surface for support. "Lost it in the fight." He'd heard it clatter to the ground when he and his assailant crossed the bridge.
"It's almost 12:30," she said, stepping a little closer. Jake remained still. How could this young woman be so calm? At this hour she probably had more to fear in the park than he did. "There's a cop who hangs out across the street from the entrance by the kiddie playground. Come on, I'll help you."
Jake steadied himself and focused on her shadowed features. She looked gaunt, but her eyes were clear. She reached out her hand as she moved toward him.
"I'm Jake." He sighed heavily as she slid her shoulder beneath his arm and wrapped her arm around his waist. He probably outweighed her by a hundred pounds but she helped hold him up. Together they walked along the path toward the playground where railroad ties boxed in thick layers of wood chips and brightly painted playscapes made for toddlers had become canvases for graffiti artists.
"What are you doing here at this hour?" Jake asked when they reached the outcropping of aluminum tables and benches just beyond the bucket swings.
"I could ask you the same thing." Her answer came quickly as though she'd expected the question.
"I was ... meeting someone. He didn't show but the mugger did." Jake's reply ended in a grunt of pain. He felt lightheaded again.
"Hey! Hang on. We're almost there." She pushed up with her shoulder and they stood for a moment in an awkward semi-embrace while he willed his legs to hold him up.
"I think I'm going to pass out."
"Oh, come on," she cajoled. "A big, strong guy like you? You can make it a little bit farther."
"No. I definitely need to sit down." Jake sagged against her. She didn't buckle under his weight but maneuvered him a few steps backward toward a bench. Her strength surprised him.
He let her help lower him down when he felt the edge of the seat against the backs of his knees. Pain shot through his ribcage and he grunted. More disconcerting than the pain was the warm sticky feeling that seeped down his side.
"Don't go south on me, Jake. The cop'll be here in a few minutes."
"How do you know?" He looked up into her face. A strand of dark brown hair had escaped from under her hood. She poked it back under with shaking fingers. His heart sank a notch. Maybe she was a junkie after all, haunting the park for a fix. If he hadn't told her he'd been mugged, she'd probably have just taken his wallet and run.
"I've been hanging out here a lot. You start to notice things...."
"You're homeless?" He grunted again and leaned forward against the pain.
"I'm between apartments. I'm not looking for handouts." Her voice rose slightly and Jake realized his question had sounded like an accusation. "Or a date, if you know what I mean. I'm not a hooker."
"I didn't think you were." Jake clamped his teeth shut over the shivers that had begun at the back of his jaw. Damn, it was getting so cold. His jacket was Corinthian leather, fleece lined. His work boots were designed for mountaineering, yet they felt full of ice right now. He looked at her in her tattered, oversized sweat jacket. It was zipped up her chin but there wasn't much bulk underneath. If she wore anything at all under it, it was probably nothing more than a thin T-shirt. He looked down at her feet, which were encased in thin canvas sneakers, the kind they sold at Willard's for $4.99.
If he was cold, how did she feel?
Jake thought of his wallet, still safe in a zippered inner pocket of his jacket. He could give her the $200 he carried and never miss a dime of it.
"There." She turned toward the park entrance. On the far side of Briarcliff Avenue, beyond the sporadic traffic, a patrol car had just pulled into the Redi-Mart parking lot. "Will you be okay here? I'll go get the cop."
Jake eyed the distance between them and Redi-Mart. If she didn't come back, he could still make it to the side of the road if he forced himself. He nodded.
"Hang on. I'll be right back."
Jack watched her run through the empty lot and across the street. He had to squint to keep track of her against the bright glow of the convenience store's large front windows. When she reached the patrol car, she boldly tapped on the driver's side window. The tempered glass rolled down and a local cop in the dark uniform of a rookie stuck his head out.
That was the last thing Jake saw before he blacked out.