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The lull of the subway train barreling through the tunnel had a hypnotic effect. Despite the press of bodies all around her, Sabrina Fox could almost have fallen asleep right there, standing up and squeezed into the middle of the throng of commuters. Her mind conjured the image of the rain that had forced her onto the subway tonight. Her apartment was only about twelve blocks from work, but no way would she walk in this downpour. As for hailing a cab, forget about it. Managing to snag a cab on a rainy evening at rush hour only happened in the movies.
Real New Yorkers took the train when the weather was uncooperative.
There was nothing colder than a rainy December night in Manhattan. Don't let anybody tell you different. Those miles of asphalt and concrete that absorbed the heat and acted as an oven in the summer had the reverse effect in winter, mercilessly radiating the bitter cold. But with Friday evening commuters packed into the train as if this particular one were their last chance for weekend freedom, staying warm wasn't a problem.
Standing room only. Lots of body heat. Every stop was a study in warily choreographed footwork. Dozens of people off, dozens on; of course, no one who wanted off was ever the closest person to the door. Stepping on toes was as inevitable as breathing. That was the reason she carried her fashionable stilettos in her briefcase and wore her less-than-attractive sneakers for the trek home every day. She generally walked so it made sense.
She surveyed the people jammed into the subway car along with her. The usual eclectic blend of cultures, financial classes and age ranges. Fashion ranged from the mismatched castoffs of a beggar to the high style purchased on Madison or Fifth Avenue.
Diversity was one of the things Sabrina loved most about New York City, the city that never sleeps. There was no end to things to do. Even after calling the city home for almost ten years, she still stumbled upon a shop she'd never visited before or a cozy café tucked into the least likely place. This was home, more so than the Midwest town where she'd spent the first twenty-two years of her life.
The same afternoon she'd graduated from college, she'd taken the last plane out of Kansas and headed for the future. Her extensive study of foreign languages-French, German, Russian and Italian-landed her a job at the United Nations as a substitute interpreter. Any time the regular interpreters in her areas of expertise were on sick leave or on vacation, she took up the slack. The rest of the time, she provided translation services for visiting VIPs and their families. Fascinating work. She'd spent three years very happy there until an opportunity she hadn't been able to turn down had come along. An intriguing new world had opened up, one that no one she knew now or in the past could possibly imagine.
A smile slid across her lips. She did love her work.
Beneath the bulky coat she wore, tucked into the pocket of her suit jacket, her cell phone vibrated. There had been a time when the one thing guaranteed by a ride on the subway was the lack of intrusion by one's cell phone. Not always so anymore. With the expansion of service to the platforms and the cutting-edge technology of her special cell phone, there was no escape.
Keeping her left hand on the overhead grab bar to maintain her balance, with her right she elbowed at least two people in her attempts to unbutton her coat and reach into her jacket pocket.
The train braked hard for the next stop, the flux in momentum causing the crowd to lean forward and then snap back. Despite the shift of bodies as some passengers moved toward the doors and others scooted into their vacated spots, she managed to open the phone and get it to her ear.
"The henhouse is unguarded."
Sabrina immediately took stock of her position. The next stop was approximately three minutes away. "I understand."
The automated voice on the other end of the line gave the address. Protocol was the sophisticated link by which Sabrina received her orders.
She closed the phone and slid it into the pocket of her coat. Hoisting the strap of her briefcase a little higher on her shoulder, she considered the best route for getting off the train quickly. The space between her and the door behind her was crowded with just as many people as the space between her and the door forward of her position. She opted for the door behind her since most of those commuters were younger and only one was accompanied by a child. That group, she estimated, would move a great deal more quickly than the other.
As the train slowed, she executed an about-face. She smiled at the man directly behind her with whom she came face-to-face. Thankfully he smiled back. Inertia had the crowd of commuters who wanted off at this stop weaving as they pushed toward the doors.
Sabrina's heart rate kicked into a faster rhythm with her body's release of adrenaline. Every second wasted could make all the difference.
The doors slid open with a whoosh and the anxious emigration began. The instant her feet hit the platform, she broke into a zigzagging run to get around those who had no place special to be, mothers attempting to push baby strollers while hanging on to their older children and those distracted by conversations.
Sabrina took the steps up to the surface street two at a time. The cold, damp air filled her lungs, replacing the warmer, somewhat more odorous underground air. The rain hadn't let up, still coming down steadily from the dark overcast sky.
Scanning the street for the elusive yellow cab, she hustled down to the nearest corner. She was in a hell of a hurry. Taking the train back to 42nd Street and then changing for one that would land her closer to 52nd would be time-consuming. She didn't have a lot of that precious commodity. She needed a cab. With the continuing rain she might as well be asking God for a miracle.
A cab easing to the curb half a block to her right had her thinking that maybe the movies did get it right from time to time. Or maybe God decided to give her a break.
Sabrina didn't give the other folks coming out of the subway station a chance to give her any competition. She ran the half block, thankful for her practical selection in footwear.
She grabbed for the vehicle's back door before the woman who'd just climbed out could push it closed.
"Hey, lady," the driver shouted. He pointed to the roof of his cab. "I'm off duty."
Not wanting him to take off without her, she slid into the backseat anyway, much to his surprise.
"What the hell you doin'? I told you I'm off duty."
"Get me to 52nd and Madison in under fifteen minutes-" she passed a one-hundred dollar bill to him through the open space in the Plexiglas partition "-and I'll give you another one just like it."
Their gazes met in the rearview mirror, his wary, hers determined. "Besides the fare?" he asked.
A satisfied grin toyed with her lips. "Besides the fare."
He accepted the hundred. "No problem, lady." Sabrina relaxed in the seat, pulled the safety belt across her and snapped it into place. She didn't question the driver's chosen route. It wasn't the one she would have picked, but then she didn't drive a taxi for a living. He would know the best direction for beating the traffic. At this hour, he'd be lucky to make it in her specified time limit unless he sprouted wings. But then, it was almost Christmas and money could be a serious motivator.
Anticipation had her counting the streets as the driver weaved in and out of traffic in an effort to maintain his dicey speed...39th...42nd. The blare of horns and the occasional near brush with another vehicle kept the ride interesting.
So far, so good.
Most of the street vendors had closed up shop. A hot dog cart on the corner of 45th still had a customer or two seemingly oblivious to the rain. The ambitious gentlemen who generally hawked knockoffs of designer purses, sunglasses and the like had already packed up their wares and headed home. The few who stuck it out offered umbrellas and ponchos for those who hadn't watched the weather forecast the night before.
The crush of pedestrians on the sidewalks reminded her again that there were only a few more shopping days until Christmas. She should pick up something for her niece and nephew. Overnighting the gifts would be her only option for ensuring they arrived on time at this late date.
Maybe she should also pick up gift cards for the members of her team. Letting the holiday slip by unacknowledged by her wouldn't sit well with her relatives or her colleagues. She'd learned that unpleasant lesson last year.
When they hit 49th Street, the driver started to make his way toward Madison. Four blocks from her destination, they hit trouble-a one-way street with the first of two lanes blocked by a large delivery truck and the other clogged with an accident. The drivers of the two vehicles involved in the fender bender stood in the rain yelling at each other.
Just what she needed.At least the rain had let up. "I'll walk from here." She checked the meter before passing her driver the second hundred as well as the fare. She had to give him credit; with superb driving skills and nerves of steel, he would have made it under the time limit if not for the accident. "Thanks."
He executed one of those half nods in acknowledgement of her appreciation and stuck the money into his shirt pocket. As she got out, he laid down on the horn, joining the unpleasant harmony of the other five or six drivers who were already expressing their displeasure with the delay in traffic.
Sabrina ran the final four blocks.
She slowed as she reached the grand entrance to the Omni Berkshire Hotel, took a breath and squared her shoulders. "Showtime."
The doorman flashed a wide, pleasant smile and opened the door for her entrance. "Good evening, madam, welcome to the Omni Berkshire Hotel."
She thanked him and entered the marble-floored lobby. Chandeliers glittered overhead, and a profusion of flowers provided a welcoming ambience. As she paused at the registration desk, the clerk welcomed her with the same enthusiasm as the doorman.
Sabrina returned the pleasant smile. "I have a reservation. Cynthia Freeman."
A few clicks of the computer keys and he confirmed her reservation. "Yes, here we are."
She passed him the credit card embossed with the name Cynthia Freeman and about ninety seconds later she had a keycard to Room 608.
The elevator car was waiting, another stroke of good luck. She boarded alone and was glad that it didn't stop between the lobby and the floor she'd chosen. Outside Room 608 she slid the keycard through the lock, watched for the green light and went inside.
The room was already abuzz with activity. "Agent Fox has arrived."