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By Carla Neggers
MIRACopyright © 2006 Carla Neggers
All right reserved.
Quinn Harlowe gave up trying to concentrate and tapped a few keys on her iBook, saving the file she'd been working on.
Defeated by an alphabet book, she thought, smiling at the little boy who'd crawled, book in hand, onto his mother's lap at the next table. He made a face and turned his head away from her. His mother, flaxen-haired and smartly dressed, didn't seem to notice and kept reading.
She was only on B. There was a lot of the alphabet to go.
Quinn took a sip of her espresso. The draft of the workshop she was giving at the FBI Academy next month would have to wait. She didn't mind. It was just one o'clock on a perfect early-April Monday afternoon, and she was her own boss. She could work tonight, if necessary. Why not blow off an hour?
Thinking it would be cooler today, she'd worn a lightweight black cashmere sweater that now was too warm. At least she'd pinned up her hair, almost as black as her sweater, and had worn minimal makeup.
Four tiny, rickety tables, each with two chairs, and a row of big flowerpots filled with pansies passed for a patio at the small coffee shop just down the street from her office. Despite the gorgeous weather, she and the mother and son were the only ones outside, and the other two tables were empty.
Washington, Quinn thought, was never more appealing than inearly spring.
She suppressed an urge to head off to Potomac Park and see the cherry trees — that would take the entire afternoon. Even native Beltway types like herself couldn't resist the brief, incredible display of delicate pink blossoms on the more than three thousand Japanese cherry trees that lined the Tidal Basin in Potomac Park. The annual National Cherry Blossom Festival, which attracted tourists from all over the world, was winding down. In a matter of even just a day or two, the blossoms would be gone.
The mother was on the letter D. What would D be for? Quinn smiled — duck. Had to be.
She took a bite of her croissant, the bittersweet chocolate center soft but not melted. An indulgence. She'd have a salad for dinner.
"Quinn — Quinn!"
Startled, she looked up, crumbs falling onto her iBook as she tried to see who'd called her.
Alicia Miller ran across the street, heading for the small patio. Instead of going around to the opening by the coffee shop's entrance, she pushed her way between two of the oversize flowerpots, banging her knees.
"I need your help — please."
Quinn immediately got to her feet. "Of course, Alicia." She kept her voice calm. "Come on, sit down. Tell me what's going on."
Gulping in a breath, Alicia stumbled over an empty chair and made her way to Quinn's table. "I can't — you have to help me." She seemed to have trouble getting out the words. "I don't know what else to do."
"Alicia — my God. What's wrong?"
Tears had pasted strands of her fine dark blond hair to her cheeks. Her face was unnaturally flushed. Her eyes — almond-shaped, a pretty, deep turquoise — were red-rimmed and glassy, darting anxiously around her.
The young woman at the next table shut the alphabet book and grabbed her son around his middle, poised to run.
Quinn tried to reassure her. "It's okay — Alicia's a friend."
But the woman, obviously not reassured, dropped the book on the table and lifted her son, his bottom planted on her hip as she swept up her slouchy, expensive tote bag and kicked the brake release on his stroller, pushing it in front of her toward the opening at the end of the flowerpots.
The little boy pointed at the table. "My book!"
"I'll get you another."
He screeched with displeasure, but his mother didn't break her stride until she reached the sidewalk. She dumped the boy in the stroller, hoisted the tote bag higher onto her shoulder and was off.
Alicia didn't seem to notice the impact she'd had on the mother and son. She couldn't have gone to work today. Not in this shape, Quinn thought, concerned about her friend. They'd known each other since their days together at the University of Virginia, keeping loosely in touch after Alicia returned home to Chicago to work. A year ago, Alicia had headed back East, taking a job at the U.S. Department of Justice, where Quinn was an analyst. Not a great move for their friendship. Quinn's departure from DOJ in January hadn't helped as much as she'd hoped it might. She'd let Alicia borrow her cottage on the Chesapeake Bay for the last five weekends in a row, but not once had her friend invited her to join her, even for an afternoon.
Quinn suspected Alicia must have come straight from the cottage. She smelled like saltwater and sweat and wore a blue cotton sweater, jeans and sport sandals that looked as if they'd been wet recently.
Of Quinn's friends and former colleagues, Alicia Miller was least likely to make a scene.
"Please. I need to..." She grabbed Quinn's lower arm, her fingers stiff and clawlike as she struggled to stay focused on what she was saying. "I need to talk to you."
Quinn touched her friend's cold hand. "Okay, we can talk. Let's sit down —"
She squinted, shutting her eyes. "I can't think."
"What can I do to help?"
Her eyes flew open. "Nothing! No one can do anything now. The osprey..." She screwed up her face, fresh tears leaking out of the corners of her eyes. "I saw an osprey tear apart a duckling. I think it was last weekend. It was horrible. The poor little baby."
"I'm sorry. They're birds of prey, so that sort of thing happens, but it's not pleasant to witness." Quinn kept her voice calm. "Can I get you a cup of coffee, anything?"
Quinn reached over to her table and flipped her iBook shut. "Not really. It's a beautiful day. I've been resisting heading over to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms. They won't last much longer."
Alicia mumbled something unintelligible. She couldn't seem to stand still or stop fidgeting. This was beyond a touch of burnout and the stress of her job getting to her — today she appeared to be on the verge of a total meltdown. She jerked her hand back from Quinn's forearm. "I can't...I don't know what to do."
"About what? The osprey? Alicia..." Quinn hesitated, not wanting to say the wrong thing. "Why don't we go back to my office? We can talk there."
Her friend didn't seem to hear her. "The osprey, the osprey. Quinn, the osprey." Stabbing stiff fingers into her hair, Alicia gulped in three rapid breaths, fresh tears spilling down her raw cheeks. "The os-prey will kill me."
She stiffened her arms as if she was trying to keep herself from shattering into little pieces. Her movements were uncoordinated, jerky. In recent months she'd been openly restless, looking, she said, for more to life than her work, her next promotion, success — she just didn't know what. Weekends on the bay were supposed to help her figure that out.
"Alicia, at least let me take you to your office. Someone there can help —"
"No!" She backed up a step, hitting Quinn's table, startling herself. "I can't — I can't think."
Alicia pushed at the air, as if she was trying to bat away something flying at her. Had the osprey preying on a duckling so traumatized her? Quinn reached for her briefcase, her cell phone zipped inside. If necessary, she'd call 911.
"No one knows I'm here, seeing you. I didn't tell anyone." Alicia lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, but she couldn't seem to stop herself from moving. "Not a soul."
Quinn felt a surge of helplessness. "Alicia, what's wrong. Just relax —"
"Don't tell anyone about me." Her eyes seemed to clear, and her entire body stiffened. She took in a sharp breath. "Please don't tell anyone."
"Promise me." But she didn't wait for an answer, and whispered, "I'm not myself. I — I know I'm not."
Ivan Andropov, the Russian immigrant who owned the cafe, came out onto the tiny patio in his white chef's apron, holding up a cell phone in one hand. "What's going on? I'm calling the police —"
Alicia gasped and bolted, knocking over a chair, pushing her way between two flowerpots.
Quinn waved a hand at Ivan as she climbed over the flowerpots, her three-inch high heels not as suited to mad dashes as Alicia's sport sandals. "Don't call the police, Ivan. She's a friend." She ran onto the sidewalk, but Alicia was already to the corner. "Alicia! Hold up. Nobody's calling the police."
She didn't even glance back. At the intersection, a shiny black sedan pulled alongside her. It resembled half the cars in D.C.
The back door on the driver's side opened. Alicia jumped inside, and the door shut immediately, the window's tinted glass hiding her from view as the car sped up the street.
Quinn kicked off her shoes and ran, but when she reached the corner, the car was out of sight. She hadn't caught a single number of its license plate or so much as a glimpse of the driver.
Who had opened the back door?
If Alicia hadn't told anyone she was here, how had the car managed to find her? Had she hired one for the day? But hiring a car seemed beyond her abilities. Physically, emotionally, she didn't seem to be in a state to do much of anything on her own.
Quinn returned to the cafe, her iBook and briefcase on the table where she'd left them. She picked up the abandoned alphabet book and brought it over to Ivan, frowning at her in the coffee-shop doorway, his arms crossed tightly on his chest. He was in his early forties, round-faced and congenial, but he didn't like scenes.
He took the alphabet book and grunted. "They'll never be back."
"Did you call the police?"
He shook his head. "I don't like police. This friend..." Ivan seemed to exaggerate his Russian accent. "She's crazy?"
"No. I know it looked that way just now, but no, she's not crazy. We haven't been that close lately — since I left Justice."
His eyes widened. "She's a lawyer?"
"Yes, but she hasn't been in a courtroom since law school. I'm sure she didn't go in to work today, not looking the way she did just now." And acting, Quinn thought. "She's been borrowing my cottage for weekends. She said she was a little burned out at work."
"Maybe more than I realized."
Quinn felt her hair coming out of its pins, but didn't care. She had left behind the pressure-cooker atmosphere of working at Justice because she'd wanted more normalcy to her life. The flexibility of self-employment. A more gentle pace to her days, or at least a pace she could control herself instead of one foisted upon her.
While most of her friends had applauded her departure from DOJ, Alicia regarded it as a personal affront, a betrayal not only of friendship but of shared ambition, despite their different jobs and interests.
Excerpted from Breakwater by Carla Neggers Copyright © 2006 by Carla Neggers. Excerpted by permission.
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