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Lydia Strong ran. She ran in spite of the myriad reasons she shouldn't. She ran hard and fast in December drizzle, her face flushed with cold air and the heat that burned inside her like a furnace. She ran down Lafayette Street past the Gaseteria and the Puck Building, over broken sidewalks, bottles, and litter. Past a dark, dank alley, crowded with bulky shadows and a hundred pink shutters reaching into a sliver of slate gray sky. Into the chintzy chaos of Chinatown, all red and yellow, mobbed with men selling knockoff designer bags, buzzing with windup toys and statues of Buddha, smelling of crispy duck. Past the massive, grand, dirty-white Manhattan court buildings and on to the Brooklyn Bridge.
Lean and strong, with a fullness about her hips and breasts, Lydia was a graceful runner with perfect form, moving seemingly with little effort through the crowded city streets; abs in, shoulders back, heels connecting first with the concrete, her next stride drifting gracefully off her toes. She wove between slower-moving pedestrians on the crowded downtown sidewalks . . . lawyers, cops, slack-jawed tourists gazing up in awe at the impressive size of the stately court buildings. Her strong angular face and storm-cloud gray eyes were expressionless, if a bit drawn and determined, and offered only the slightest hint of the tension she carried with her this day. It was the tension of always being watched. Hunted, in fact, if she was honest with herself.
She quashed the urge to glance behind her as she crossed the street against the light and began to ascend the mild slope toward the center of the Brooklyn Bridge. She knew he was there. Maybe not right behind her, but nearer than she wanted him. She only hoped that he couldn't keep up with her.
She increased her effort against the incline and smiled to herself when the concrete gradation gave way to the wooden slats of the bridge. Something about the feeling of wood beneath her feet, the way it gave under her weight, made her feel safer than concrete, reminded her that there was a more innocent New York somewhere in the not too distant past and that part of its essence still existed on the bridge.
It had only been a few weeks since her worst nightmare came true. Since then, she'd struggled to maintain some semblance of normalcy. Not that normal for her was normal for anyone else. As a bestselling true crime writer, once-con-sul-tant and now partner in the private investigation firm of the newly minted Mark, Striker and Strong, Lydia got a daily dose of horror that would put most people in a sanitarium. She had devoted her life to understanding the criminal mind, wanting to know what drove a man to rape and kill, what was present or missing within him to make him a monster. In this quest, she had nearly destroyed herself and any chance she would ever have at happiness. She'd been pulled back from the brink before, but now she found herself dangling there again.
Jed McIntyre, the serial killer who murdered her mother, was on the loose after fifteen years behind bars. And he was considerably more insane and newly obsessed with Lydia. It had upped the chaos in her life to a level that she was having a hard time handling. Throw in the fact that she had just realized she was pregnant and that Jeffrey Mark- her longtime friend and mentor, and her live-in lover for over a year- was putting the pressure on her to marry, and some moments she felt like her head was going to explode.
Not that she put her love life in the same category as she put Jed McIntyre. But it was all part of the mounting sense that she had lost control of her once very orderly existence.
She came to a stop in the middle of the bridge under the first gigantic arch and walked over to the railing facing west. She felt the cold on her nose and her cheeks, her heart thumping the rhythm of exertion. The skyscrapers of lower Manhattan reached, gleaming monoliths against a flat slate sky, and the morning rush hour flowed beneath her, a slow, noisy river of tires whispering on wet asphalt, the occasional screeching of a sudden stop or the blast of an angry horn rising from the current.
All the answers were on the Brooklyn Bridge. It was the place she always came to when her mind wrestled with a thousand worries and the cacophony in her head made the city noise seem like an orchestra, composed and melodic. She wondered, not for the first time, what was wrong with her. Why she wasn't more euphoric, the way you were supposed to be, about the baby . . . Jeffrey's baby . . . and about the fact that he was gung-ho to get married. Isn't this what women were supposed to want? But she had never wanted what other people wanted. She had never understood the urgent desire some women feel to procreate. Or the happy blissful glow they displayed when they discovered they were finally pregnant. Don't you realize, she'd wanted to ask, what an awesome responsibility you have to this new life? That your actions from here on out will affect this child forever?
Lydia wondered how she could bring a child into a world populated by monsters, monsters that she seemed to have an insatiable desire to chase and destroy, one at a time. Or vice versa. She worried that, at the end of the day, she didn't have enough to offer a baby. It seemed like so many people were concerned about wanting a child, while they never considered what they had to give. She didn't want to be one of those people. Maybe you should have thought about all this before you went and got yourself knocked up, she chastised.
Jeffrey, on the other hand, seemed to have a Zen-like confidence about the whole thing. "It happened now because it's time for us," he had said during one of their midnight conversations after anxiety had disturbed her sleep, and as a consequence his as well. "You'll surprise yourself. You're going to be a doting, intelligent, sensitive mother . . . with your own identity. Trust me."
Jeffrey was the only person in the world she did truly trust with her life, her future. Lydia had met Jeffrey when she was only fifteen years old and he was a twenty-five-year-old FBI agent investigating her mother's murder. Over the next fifteen years, they stayed in touch and their connection evolved into friendship. They became colleagues on a number of projects and he became for her a mentor, confidant, and advisor. Somewhere along the line, he became much more. But it was only a little more than a year earlier that they both finally gave in to the feelings that had been boiling beneath the surface of their relationship.
The years before her life with Jeffrey seemed like a landscape of loneliness and isolation that she had crossed. While her career had flourished, her inner life had been a wasteland of fear and pain. She had felt permanently scarred by the loss of her mother, whose body she had discovered one autumn day when she returned home from school. Abandoned long ago by her father, Lydia was raised by her loving but el-der-ly grandparents. In spite of the love and care she got from them, she grew up afraid to really care for them or anyone, afraid to trust because of a crippling fear of loss. After the death of her mother, she had clawed her way back from the abyss of grief and as a young woman she'd decided, albeit on a subconscious level, that she had no intention of ever being thrown back into that slick-walled pit again.
Loving Jeffrey had changed that, had helped her to trust the universe more, to trust herself, had helped her to embrace life instead of wasting it fearing the death of those she loved. Things had been more or less blissful until she invited the monsters back into her life . . . into their lives. Now Jed McIntyre roamed free. She reached down and felt the Beretta in the pouch she wore at her waist. It gave her some small mea-sure of security.
From the corner of her eye, Lydia spotted a thick figure dressed in black making his way quickly through the smattering of people strolling up the wooden slats of the bridge's walkway. He was like a drifting mountain and people turned to look at him as he made his way past. Lydia moved quickly behind the stone ballast that stood in the center of the walkway dividing it in two, the bike path on the left and the pedestrian path on the right. She pressed her back against the cold stone and waited, her heart racing.
She knew it would happen just like this. When she was being careless, or worse, reckless, he would come on her in broad daylight in a throng of people. He wouldn't come in the cover of night, when demons were expected. He would move from the crowd, take her in front of bystanders. No one would make a move to stop him. She could imagine it all as clearly as if it were a memory. When the time came there would be a fight to the death and the odds were even as to who would walk away. She peered around the ballast to see the giant form almost on top of her.
Dax Chicago rounded the corner, breathless and clutching his side.
"Bang, you're dead," said Lydia loudly, startling him.
"Jesus Christ, woman. What is wrong with you?" his heavy Australian accent making the words little more than a jumble to her. But she had learned to understand him better after three weeks of seeing him every single bloody day.
"I thought you were in better shape," she said with a smile.
"I'm trying to help you," he said, walking a circle, still holding his side.
"You're a mercenary, Dax. Let's not glorify your role here."
"Fuck off," he said miserably. "It's fucking cold out here."
Dax Chicago was six-foot-four of pure muscle and grit. He had the kind of strength that bulldozers envied, and the kind of graceful speed that seemed impossible in a man of his size-in the short haul. Lydia knew that over miles, he wouldn't be able to keep up with her. She did like to make him earn the money Jeffrey was paying him to be with her when he couldn't be. A fact she greatly resented. But Jeffrey could not be dissuaded . . . so Lydia made it as difficult as possible for everyone.
"Pregnant women who are being stalked by serial killers should not be jogging anyway," he added with a smirk.
She punched him hard on the arm and connected with flesh that felt more like a boulder than a man. She didn't really mind Dax, and even when she hated him it was the kind of hate reserved for family members, always threatening to bubble over with laughter and lined with affection. She had to admit he was a good man to have on the team. A former Special Forces agent for the British army, his knowledge of weapons, surveillance, and an almost supernatural gift for stealth had definitely been an asset in the past.
The other thing Lydia liked about Dax was that his whole life was cloaked in mystery. He revealed little about his past, how he came to work for the firm, how he came to live in a palatial home in Riverdale complete with a basement that put dungeons to shame. His basement was a maze of rooms-one a weapons armory filled with enough firepower to equip an army; one with a cruel metal table, complete with five-point restraints; yet another adjacent to a second room connected by a two- way mirror. Lydia never tired of probing Dax for details about himself that he refused to disclose. It was as if Dax Chicago sprang fully grown from the earth in a full set of body armor and carry-ing an AK-47.
"Come on, Lydia. Let's go," Dax said, a pleading look in his jade eyes. His pale skin was blotched with angry red patches from cold and exertion. A few brown curls snaked out of the charcoal wool stocking cap he'd pulled down over his ears. He was not bad-looking for a big dumb Aussie.
"Dax, maybe we need to get you a girlfriend," she said as they reached the bottom of the bridge and headed back into the court district.
He snorted his contempt as Lydia's cell phone rang. She unzipped the pouch at her waist and removed the tiny silver Nokia that rested against the not so tiny Beretta.
"Hi," she said, having seen Jeffrey's number on the caller ID.
"Where are you?"
"At home, on the couch, like a good little prisoner."
He sighed on the other end of the phone. "Are you with Dax?"
"I can't seem to shake him."
"Listen," he said, "why don't you two hop in a cab and come to the office? There's something I need to talk to you about."
They walked across Chambers Street, the sickly sweet smell of honey- roasted nuts from a vending cart carry-ing on the cold air. An angry cabbie leaned on his horn as a Lincoln Town Car cut him off and sped past them. Sharply dressed yuppies rushed along in a blur of navy and black on their way to important jobs, tasks, meetings, carry-ing paper cups of Starbucks coffee.
"What's up?" asked Lydia, hearing the lick of excitement in his voice.
"Did you see the news this morning?"
"Then I'll explain it to you when you get here. Half an hour?"
Dax and Lydia jogged to Sixth Avenue and hopped a cab heading uptown to Mark, Striker and Strong.