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Janet McAffee stepped out of the Baltimore Medical Center and winced as the icy air coming off the Inner Harbor lacerated her cheeks and forehead. Her eyes began to water as she lowered her head and searched for the taxi cab. At one time she would have called the sensation pain, but that was before she had learned what pain was. The chemical peel had only left her skin feeling tender and exposed, the way a sore tooth would feel if she drank iced tea.
The part of the makeover that had taken her by surprise was the liposuction. That had been the only part of the process that she had been secretly looking forward to, because it seemed like cheating away all the days she had convinced herself she was too busy to exercise and too hungry to turn down dessert. But the liposuction had cost her a week of hot, fiery misery before she had felt like moving again. Because they had sucked most of the fat from the places that a person rested on, stillness had not offered much relief. The doctors never told you that. Instead they drew lines on a photograph of your face to show you how clever the cut-and-stitch surgery was going to be. The mild discomfort from that was already half-forgotten and the scars were almost invisible.
She spotted the taxi cab parked beside the curb just outside the parking barrier, where the driver had stopped so he wouldn’t have to pull a ticket from the machine to come into the lot. She resolved to be more specific next time she ordered a cab. She squared her shoulders and prepared to step away from the shelter of the big medical building into the wind. She felt a hand touch her elbow and shrank from it, tightening her muscles to clamp her arm to her side.
Janet whirled. A tall, thin woman with long black hair was standing beside her, looking into her eyes. The woman seemed to note her startled reaction, but it seemed neither to surprise nor particularly worry her. She said quietly, “Go back into the building and wait for me just inside the door.”
“But that’s my cab. I was just on my way—”
The woman interrupted. “Didn’t they tell you I would come for you? It’s time.” Her eyes betrayed a small glint of amusement as she watched Janet’s face.
Janet sensed a sudden weakness in her arms and legs. They felt heavy, but somehow empty, as though there were no bones. “All right,” she said.
She stepped back in and watched through the glass door as the new woman walked up to the driver, said something to him, gave him some money, and stepped back to watch him wheel out and drive away. She turned and walked across the driveway and through the door, then kept going past Janet without looking at her. After five paces, she stopped, turned, and said, “This is it. If you’re coming, come now.”
Janet nodded and took a step. She could not help wondering if this single step was one of those enormous ones, like a step off the railing of a ship, but then she reminded herself that this wasn’t like that at all. She had taken that step months ago, on the night when she had decided to make the telephone call. She had been busy preparing for this day for a long time—first quietly moving out of the condominium into the small apartment where everything was unlisted and nobody but the police knew she lived there, then enduring the makeover. This was only the next step, not the first.
She followed the tall, dark woman down the hallway and out the front door, then to a small green car that looked a lot like the one that Janet had owned until—No, she didn’t want to follow her memory backward. This was a new beginning.
Janet got into the passenger seat and closed the door just as it began to move. The woman accelerated away from the curb and into traffic, then moved quickly into the next lane, then turned, turned again, and headed east. She was not exactly a reckless driver, but she was aggressive and sure, and those were qualities that made Janet uneasy.
Janet said, “I didn’t think you would come for me here.”
“That’s why I did,” said the dark woman. Then she seemed to change, as though she had thought about it and decided that there was no practical reason not to be friendly. “Everyone who has been wondering if you might try to disappear assumes that you’ll do it in certain ways. What they’re waiting for is to see you some night slinking out of your condo carrying a suitcase. Nobody disappears from a doctor’s office.” She glanced at Janet. “How did it go, by the way?”
Janet shrugged. “He says I’m doing great. I’m not supposed to see him again for six months.”
“He did a wonderful job on you. Big improvement.”
“Thank you,” she said mechanically. It was a shock that this woman, who seemed so strange, would say something as normal and human as an empty compliment. “How do you know? We’ve never met before.”
“I’ve seen a lot of pictures of you.” She made another turn. “What have other people said? Has anyone who knew you before the surgery seen you since?”
Janet shook her head. “I’m a little low on the invitation list lately, and I didn’t go out at all while my face still made people stare. The doctors and nurses are the only ones. And cab drivers.”
The woman swung into a covered parking ramp, went up two levels, then stopped in an empty space and turned off the engine.
“Why are we stopping?”
“I need to give you some things.” She reached into her purse and produced a ticket in an airline envelope. “Your flight leaves in two hours.”
“Where am I going?” She pulled aside the corner of the envelope and read the ticket. “Chicago?”
“You’ll be there for a while, but it’s just a stop on the way. It will keep you out of sight until your plastic surgery is completely healed. You should show up at your final destination looking like a finished product—face, body, hair, wardrobe, credentials.”
She handed Janet a small wallet that was stiff with cards. “Here’s your ID.”
Janet looked at the MasterCard on top. “Mary Anders. Is that going to be my name?”
“Just for this trip. You’ll need to flash identification to get on the plane. If something goes wrong or you’re stalled, you can’t even get a room without a credit card. Use those.”
Janet looked at the driver’s license. The picture was the one she’d taken in a photo booth a week ago, but it had been touched up. It looked to her as though someone had scanned it into a computer and adjusted the color and texture to hide the surgery. She gazed at the picture. It was a young, pretty woman, but it was still her face. Maybe she would look like that after everything healed, and it made her hopeful again. She put the wallet in her purse with the ticket.
“Now let’s have yours.”
“Your license, credit cards, and so on. Whatever you have with Janet McAffee written on it has to go.”
“Oh, of course,” she said. It had not occurred to her that she would have to lose things that took so little space. But of course she did. The dark woman watched impatiently while she took out her wallet, removed her driver’s license, stared at it for a second as though she were saying good-bye to it, and set it down on the seat beside her.
“You’d better give me the whole thing. There’s nothing in there that you’re going to need.”
“But what about later?”
The dark woman looked at her sympathetically and patted her arm. “I wish we had more time together right now, before you get on that plane, so I could help you through the hard parts. I really do. This has all been done before, and there’s a right way. We don’t know how long it’s going to take for things in Baltimore to improve. It might be that those men will get caught trying to put a bomb in your condo tonight, or try to hire an outside killer who is really an undercover cop. Stranger things have happened. But you have to be prepared to wait a long time, and that means doing everything as though it were for keeps. It’s not that much harder.”
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