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Plink, plink, plink, plink.
Four quarters got you through the turnstile at the elevated train station. Four coins that signaled the end of another working day and the time to go home. Four tiny bits of metal that most people handed over gladly as the price of freedom.
Gina felt nothing as she fed the machine its required toll. Or rather, she felt an absence of something. The crowds jostling behind her were impatient--in a rush to get home and cut loose, relax, party, whatever--or they were giddy, joking with friends and pushing at one another. She felt small and cold and alone in their midst, a lost iceberg in the middle of a swelling sea.
But she wanted it that way. It was far better for her to be by herself. If no one knew her, they wouldn't know who--what--she really was. Without that knowledge, no one would be in danger.
Lonely was better than being a walking time bomb.
Gina slipped a hand down to cover her purse as she pushed through the turnstile. If the bag got caught, the few possessions she carried could spill all over the place. They were harmless enough--a tube of lip gloss, a long-expired prescription for mild sedatives, a small travel hairbrush--but anything could be used as a weapon against someone.
Out of sheer habit, barely looking up, she walked the path to the waiting platform for her train. She always tried to vary where she got on and got off, but there were only so many ways to stagger a routine.
Gina checked her watch, a plastic case and faux gold with a plain leather band. The time it showed was right, she felt sure, and according to her accounting, the L was five minutes late.
That could be good,though, right? Another little variation. An added piece to the puzzle. If anyone were watching or lying in wait, it'd throw them off. Gina decided she wasn't unhappy with this turn of events, unlike the complaining crowd surrounding her. Trying her best not to be noticed, she stood there quietly with her hand guarding her purse and her eyes fixed on the ground.
In the back of her mind, she wondered what other people saw when they looked at her. Although Gina hoped that she blended into the teeming masses of people, she had a mirror and knew that she stood out when compared with ordinary men and women. Some people prayed for beauty, but Gina yearned for the kind of regular looks that would leave nothing to remember her by: an ordinary chin, a straight flat nose, regular-sized eyes of a plain hazel. Instead, she had a pixie look to her: all huge eyes and full Cupid's-bow mouth with elegant cheekbones and an overall heart shape.
She was small, almost to the point of fragility, but strong underneath, with muscles that she didn't do anything to earn but which wouldn't go away. Long black hair with red highlights that came down to her breasts when loose was currently knotted up in a neat chignon. Businesslike. Professional. Unfortunately, it was a shade that stubbornly resisted any kind of dye except bleach--and Gina hadn't been able to stand herself as a straw blonde. The coloring hadn't matched her Mexican-European caramel skin tone at all and looked blatantly fake. She'd heard that wigs could change the way a face looked, but the ones she could afford looked horrible even on the mannequin heads. And they itched.
A sure sign of someone in hiding.
Gina reached up with one hand, her fingers feeling cold, and lightly touched her cheek. She could feel the delicate bones underneath that shaped the way she appeared, nothing that could be duplicated in nature or that blended in. Damn it.
If she were put in a lineup for whatever reason, anyone would be able to pick her out.
Still, what could she do? Plastic surgery wasn't an option for someone living on a shoestring budget. Makeup could change her a little, but anyone with a sharp eye would be able to see beneath the eye shadow and base to the woman underneath.
So, she tended to keep her head down, all she could do to avoid attention.
All around her men and women were wrapped up in their own business, tapping their feet and craning their necks in impatient anticipation, looking for the train's approach. A baby bawled somewhere in the midst of the masses, its shrill cries going up and down the scale.
Gina flinched at the sound. Children unnerved her. They were so delicate, so easy to break. When she was younger and she'd still had a family--a big, extended family--she'd been talked into holding an infant once or twice. Freaky. Their bones had been frighteningly fragile, and their faces, full of trust, made her feel like she had to live up to their expectations of being someone to turn to when things got bad. Mom had always teased her about it ... Mom had ... before...
She was dead now. Gina bit her lip as a flood of bad memories raced through her mind. Death after death--her father and her brothers, her mother and her aunts. The rest of the clan moving away, spreading themselves across the nation in an effort to do exactly what she had stayed here and attempted--hiding.
It was risky to stay put, but moving wasn't an option. Gina lived from paycheck to paycheck, squeezing out enough to hand cash over to her landlord and put food on her table. The paper trail leading from her to the water and power companies was in a fake name, as was the moniker she'd put down on her lease. As far as the post office was concerned, they delivered her bills to "Mary Smith." And, although it was risky, she'd taken her chances with some shady types and changed her ID to reflect that name. She was pretty lucky no one had run a credit check to figure out she was living under an alias.
"Mary" was safe. Gina could pretend to live "Mary's" life and be relatively safe; God willing, no one knew she was still Gina underneath.
There came a rush of air, a roaring, and the train finally thundered into the station, noisy on its tracks, grinding to a stop in front of the waiting passengers. When the pneumatic doors opened with a hiss, hardly anyone got off, leaving the mass of those waiting to crowd in as best as they could.
Gina got lucky. One seat became open as an elderly man wrapped up his newspaper and departed. She made a beeline for the hard plastic chair, still warm, and settled herself in without any expectations of comfort. Her purse went on her lap and both hands on her purse. She did look up then, taking a quick glance at the grumbling commuters hanging on to poles and ceiling straps, a few of them darting evil looks at her for snagging the space.
Just as quickly, she looked back down. I should have blended in by standing. Damn.
Maybe she could blame it on the headache that had been building behind her temples almost since she had gotten to work that morning. The pain was beginning to throb, swells of discomfort altering her perception. Getting home, or at least back to the place where she lived--she wouldn't really call it "home"--would be a relief.
Painkillers, food, a bath, then sleep. Maybe a little idle TV-watching while she ate. Gina liked to keep an eye on the news, just to make sure nothing out of the ordinary was going on. Occasionally there seemed to be something suspect about what the media called natural disasters, but on the whole, the telecasts were no more exciting than the weekend weather forecast and local business reports.
Mundane. Everyday business. Good.
Gina rubbed her head, wishing the pounding pressure around her skull would ease. Not eating enough sometimes had that effect on her, but she had an uneasy feeling this wasn't due to any lack of food or anything that had gone on at work today.
She temped in a range of jobs. It was a good way to avoid making close contacts, people who might ask too many questions she'd be at a loss to answer. Mostly, all they cared about was whether or not Gina could answer a phone and direct calls, or take dictation and type, or operate a computer to input data.
Today, she'd been assigned to a busy urgent care clinic. Her main task had been filing patient charts and finding stored files, plus putting together new ones for walk-ins. She'd had a desk in the back corner of a room filled with paper, and nothing to do but answer an intercom system, then find what had been requested.
People, when she ran into them, had been friendly. They usually were. Gina had nodded and smiled politely, then retreated as fast as she could into her private domain. Most anyone else would have considered the job mind-numbingly boring, but it suited her just fine.
Rocking in her hard plastic seat, Gina pinched the bridge of her nose and recalled a conversation she'd overheard when getting ready to leave for the day. The regular staff had been all abuzz about a new club where they could go burn some of their wages.
Someone had suggested they take Gina along.
"The Ice Queen?" another office worker had snorted. "As if."
And that had been the last mention of Gina. While she'd been listening, Gina's heart had pounded in her throat. Going out for drinks was a normal, natural thing to do--good cover--but exposing herself to people who might ask questions or start suspecting--bad.
Being shot down as cold and unfriendly stung, but she was better off for it. Gina knew that much to be true.
The stress and rejection sure hadn't done anything for her headache, though. Gina opened her purse and rummaged through it, hoping against hope even though she knew the exact contents, that she had a packet of aspirin. Damn, that was something else to correct. Would she ever get this disguise down pat? She'd bet a lot of women would have a half-empty bottle of water, some painkillers, a few loose coins, and maybe a fuzzy Tic Tac or three. At least.
She cursed herself for being stupid and snapped her pocketbook shut.
"Do you have any gum?"
The question startled Gina into looking up. She met the frank, open face of a young boy, maybe seven, with curly brown hair flying everywhere, as if no comb that had ever been made could tame it. Where were his parents? God, people really did let their kids run wild on the trains these days.
"Gum?" he repeated. "Maybe grape?"
"Joey!" A tall, softly curved woman pushed her way through the crowd; Gina saw where her son got the wild hair from. "Honestly, what have I told you about this kind of thing? Miss, I am so sorry." She turned to Gina with the same open gaze as the boy, laced by a tinge of amused dismay. "You'd think all those lessons about taking candy from strangers would have sunk in, but this little guy's a fiend for Bubble Yum."
"It's all right," Gina said stiffly, drawing her purse closer to herself. "He wasn't bothering me."
She prayed the woman and her son would go away, no matter how crowded the car was. No luck.
"You know how it is," the woman went on, swaying with the motion of the car. "Kids these days. You tell them what to do, you teach them all the right things, and then they just zoom off on their own little tracks."
The bands of tension tightened around Gina's head. "Kids are something else, all right," she said carefully, dodging the implied question of whether or not she had any. Her ring finger was bare, but she didn't wear any other jewelry, so that might not be a clue. "You never know what they're going to do."
Joey was studying Gina. "You have weird eyes," he said in the frank way children had, pointing out anything from a missing limb to a dangling button as if they were all the same thing. "How'd you get eyes like yours? They're all yellow in the middle. Like sparks." Gina lowered her gaze to her lap.
"Joey." His mother shushed him. "Let's not hassle the nice lady, okay? Come back with me to the doors. You love watching everything zip by, don't you?"
"Yeah, but her eyes are all crazy."
"Kids!" The woman reached out to pat Gina's shoulder. "Hope he didn't offend you."