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"You can't sleep here." A cop, bundled in a heavy winter coat, stood scowling above him.
Max blinked, dizziness making it hard to focus, disorientation making it impossible to think. "Where am I?"
"On my beat, so get your ass up and out of here. I don't care where you go, but you can't stay here."
Max put his elbow on the cold stone and pushed himself into a sitting position. Everything ached, and when he rubbed his eyes he found ice crystals on his lashes. He cursed as he fought to get his bearings, to figure out what the hell was going on.
The cop gave him one more jab in the side with his nightstick. "The soup kitchen is on Fourth. Don't let me find you out here again."
Max didn't bother with a response. He had other things to worry about. Like the fact that he could barely move his fingers. That he had no idea where he was, or how he'd gotten here. The last thing he could remember was the bar last night. He'd had a drink with a couple of guys from the paper. Which would have explained things, except, he'd been drinking soda. He hadn't touched booze for over sixmonths.
He shifted on what he saw was marble. Marble? He turned, the motion making him groan, and not a little nauseous. Behind him, Abraham Lincoln sat impervious to the weather. The Lincoln Memorial? What the ...?
He stood up too quickly and had to grab the corner of the bench. All he could manage were a few deep breaths, the cold hurting his lungs. What the hell had happened to him? His head pounded with pain so intense he couldn't think at all. It helped to focus on his scratchy throat. What he wouldn't do for a bottle or ten of aspirin.
When he opened his eyes, the cop had gone and the tourists, drawn to the Lincoln statue, gave him a wide berth. If he looked like he felt, he didn't blame them.
He didn't think he was going to vomit, but he moved slowly nonetheless, turning toward the street. His car was nowhere in sight, which wasn't surprising. What did surprise him was that his wallet was still in his pocket, along with his credit cards, driver's license and thirteen dollars. So were his keys.
It was Monday. At least he hoped it was. He was supposed to meet his friend and colleague Peter Shelby at the café, then go in to work to face J.G. He cursed, scaring an Asian woman walking her baby. It occurred to him that he still had his watch. Four past seven. Monday. So it was only the one night he couldn't account for.
Again, he thought about the bar. He'd ordered a soda, even though Jeremy had called him a little girl. It hadn't bothered him. Not ordering his favorite scotch had, but that was between him and his maker. Whom he'd clearly almost met overnight.
Max headed toward Twenty-third street. He could catch a cab there and go back to the bar, see if his car was still parked around the corner. Then he'd call Pete, cancel the breakfast chat. He had two hours to get his act together before seeing his boss, and he'd need an hour of that for a shower.
As he walked, his head cleared. It didn't feel a whole lot better, but his thoughts clarified a little. Enough to figure out that he'd been slipped a Mickey. Something damn strong to have wiped everything after it right off the slate.
The only thing he could think of was Geotech. The woman. The redhead. She'd come on to him, using a fine set of double D's and the most incredible red lips, and he'd been putty in her hands. Ready to swim great oceans, or at the very least buy her dinner.
And then, nothing. No memories until the cop had jabbed him. A royal headache, the taste of many pairs of army boots in his mouth, and a terrible feeling that his investigation into Senator William Parker and Geotech had gone from the suspect to the criminal. He wasn't just close to the truth, he was right on ground zero.
HIS CAR was still in front of the Guardian bar, the engine so cold it took five minutes to warm it up enough to turn on the heater. His gloves sat on the dashboard. He usually kept them in his coat pocket but last night he hadn't bothered. His plan had been to hoist a few, get an order of the famous chili fries, then get his ass home.
He headed there now, creeping through the slow D.C. morning traffic. He'd left his cell phone at the house along with his laptop. Even if whoever had drugged him had gotten into his apartment and stolen his computer, they wouldn't find much. He was too careful for that. Everything was encrypted, and the pertinent data was kept on separate disks, hidden behind the wall in his bathroom.
He thought again about the redhead. He'd left her for a few minutes to hit the head, that's when she must have doctored his drink. Probably one of the date-rape drugs, although he felt pretty sure her intent hadn't been to have her way with him. So what was her goal? Why knock him out and leave him on a public bench? Why not kill him, if they wanted the story stopped? Why not beat the crap out of him in the way of thugs everywhere, warning him to back the hell off?
He found a decent parking spot a block away from his apartment. He locked the car, shivering in the still freezing air. It took him awhile to actually get to his building, the five-story box that was the essence of tenement living. He didn't give a damn. No one bothered him here, he was close to work, close to the center of life in D.C.
The elevator ride with all the lurching and grumbling was a quiet nightmare, and then it was all he could do not to bump the walls in his hallway as he made it to his door. It took him a minute to fish his keys out of his pocket. As he pushed the key into the lock, the door swung open. "Damn."
He suddenly felt both better and worse. His stomach rose into his throat, but his mind was horribly clear. If he had an ounce of smarts he would get the hell out, call the police. For all he knew someone was inside, ready to finish what the drugs had started. But he'd never been smart. He listened, heard nothing, then took a step inside. That's when he saw the body. Despite the big winter coat, he recognized the dead man instantly. He'd known him all his life.
"Werner?" he whispered, knowing there would be no answer. The old man lay on his back, his coat soaked with blood, an unnatural pallor to his face. Trying to avoid the wide pool of coagulating blood, Max knelt near the body and put his hand to the cold neck, but could feel no pulse.
Excerpted from Christmas Stalking by Jo Leigh Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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