Morgan Kirkwood hadn't made her bed over a warm grate in some filthy alley in the southeast section of Washington, D.C., for nearly twenty years. She'd replaced shoes made of torn newspaper soles and discarded rags with designer suits, handmade boots and satin bed sheets, but her sense of danger, the need for self-preservation, piqued her senses the moment she stepped from the oven heat of the garage to the air-cooled comfort of her kitchen.
Someone was here.
She could feel him. A man. She didn't smell a male scent or the faint odor of sweat. Not even a cologne betrayed his presence. It was the air that had changed. It hadn't been stirred like a morning cup of coffee or hastily rushed through by an aerobic exerciser. Whoever was here had passed through it with ease, barely moving, seeking, but not with stealth, more with purpose. Morgan had schooled herself to be aware. Living on the streets of D.C. had given her a course in survival, in being prepared for anything at any time. She thought she'd forgotten it, but her senses were alive, and Adrenaline pumped into her blood. Her mind sharpened as she thought of what was at hand that she could use as a weapon. Internal radar scoped the space, trying to hone in on the hiding place of her assailant. She didn't sense more than one.
He could be a robber, someone looking to feed a habit, someone she walked in on, but Morgan knew better. Whoever was here was looking for her. He'd been coming for twelve years. Finally they'd connected.
Tonight one of them would die.
Morgan put her purse on the counter and stepped out of her heels. The kitchen tiles were cool to her stockinged feet. Her clothes were a disadvantage, but she couldn't do anything about them. She'd been to dinner with friends and wore a straight dress with short sleeves and high heels. The dress had no pockets and she'd like to keep the car keys, but the dress had no place to put them. She was going to need her hands. As her mind probed the space around her, hunting for the hiding place of her killer, she removed money and her driver's license and, along with the keys, stuffed them inside her bra.
The kitchen had a pantry, but she didn't feel him in there. The space was small and crowded with canned vegetables, flour, sugar, bottles of maple syrup and other nonperishable foods. The dining room and living room were both accessible from the kitchen. Neither room had any hiding places that didn't involve furniture. There was a hall closet near the front entrance. Like most people living in development housing, they entered through the garage. Morgan's house wasn't in a development. It was set apart, far into the woods, alone, deserted and, now she felt, vulnerable, but the garage was connected to the house by a short hallway. The front door was only opened for guests and to let the air in on warm, breezy days. It was much too hot today. Every house would have its air conditioner running, and the neighbors would be too preoccupied with the noise of life to notice anything different even if they could see Morgan's house.
Taking a knife from the kitchen rack, she noticed all of them were present and accounted for. The killer must have his own weapon. Of course he would, she thought, nearly laughing at her own stupidity. He hadn't picked up anything or moved anything. Every piece of furniture was in the exact place. Every dish, every pot was exactly where she'd left it.
But he was here.
She knew he would come, knew someone would. First Austin Fisk, reporter for that rag the St. Louis Star, begins poking into her past, calling for interviews and following her around. Then the mysterious feeling she was being watched by someone other than Fisk plagued her. He was too much an in-your-face reporter for covert action, but she could feel it. All the time. No matter if she went to the mailbox or drove into St. Louis to meet friends, there was that feeling of being under surveillance. She could see nothing, no matter how often she looked over her shoulder or glanced in the rearview mirror, only the feeling remained. There was no visible evidence of anything, but she knew someone was there.
Morgan moved through the space of her kitchen like a thief. She didn't want to be surprised. Her eyes shifted from side to side, taking in the entire room and all its crevices. Her heartbeat accelerated, pounded in her chest and her ears, and she consciously willed it to slow down. She needed all her wits, all her thought processes to be at their best if she was to survive.
He would know she was in the house. She'd disabled the alarm when she came in and he would have heard that. Somehow he'd gotten past the code that she'd programmed into the system. Morgan knew that wouldn't be hard to do. This was a good system, but it wasn't foolproof, especially for the kind of person they would send after her. What she had was worth a good price. The killer would be experienced, paid well and ready for anything.
Morgan had to be ready too. She circled around the living room, checked behind every piece of furniture and almost convinced herself she was being paranoid. She went to the stairs. She wouldn't go up. There was no way out if she went to any of the bedrooms. There were four bedrooms. He could be in any of them. While she checked one he could surprise her from behind. If necessary she'd go back the way she'd come.
Suddenly she saw something. A shadow. She whirled around. Nothing. Had she really seen it? Morgan was sure of her mind. If she saw a shadow, it was there. She moved toward the area. Slowly, her shoeless feet making no noise on the tiled entryway, she got to the stairs, looking right and left. Nothing.
Suddenly, he was behind her. A hand came over her mouth, cutting her scream. A gloved hand that tasted like engine oil clamped her mouth closed and prevented her from making a sound. She tried to scream, but he pulled her head back, wrenching her neck to the point of pain. His free arm grabbed the hand holding the knife and pulled it backward until the pain in her arm forced her to drop her only weapon. Then he circled her waist and his leg spread between hers and wrapped candy-cane style around one of hers. This kept her from kicking. If she tried to lift a foot she'd lose her balance and fall. Still she fought, using whatever appendage she had free, arms, hands, her body, her head. She tried to butt him, but he moved, anticipating her blow.
Morgan fought with every ounce of the twelve-year-old street waif who learned to withstand the dangers of being alone and female. She concentrated her energy, winding it into whatever move she made, concentrating her entire weight into the blow she intended to deliver. He outwitted her at every turn. But he relaxed the hold on her mouth. Taking advantage of it, she bit down on the hand in her mouth. Her killer screamed, but held fast to her, dashing her hope of escaping his hold. He kicked her leg out, too far for her to remain upright. They both went down to the bare floor. She scrambled, trying to get away, but he was larger, faster, stronger. He grabbed her about the shoulders and flipped her over, pinning her to the floor.
Morgan's hands were free and she pounded at the shoulders and head of the killer. He grabbed her hands and pinned them above her on either side of her head.
"Morgan, stop it!"
She looked at him.
"Not you," she said, and renewed her struggles.
"Stop it or I'll kiss you."
Every nerve in her body froze.
"That's better." For a moment he still held her, but then he sat back and moved away from her. Morgan was surprised. Why hadn't he killed her? She was surprised to find it was him.
She'd hoped whoever came would be someone she'd never seen before. To be killed by someone she knew, someone she'd met. She couldn't call him a friend. They'd been part of the same team once and when they parted, Morgan never expected to see him again. And now he was here.
Here for her.
She had to get away. Morgan inched away from him. He wasn't looking at her, but resting his head on his drawn-up knees. He looked winded. Maybe she could use that, but she had to act now. Morgan would have to pass him to get to the front door, and it was locked. Her only option was to go through the garage or one of the windows. She had an escape route, but she couldn't use it with him running behind her.
In a split second Morgan sprang to her feet and darted for the kitchen and the garage door. She wouldn't have time to open the door and take the car. Her best bet was to get out the side door and run into the woods. It was only fifty feet to the trees. Hopefully she could get there before he shot her in the back. She couldn't go toward a neighbor. She didn't know if he'd be willing to kill more than one person, but she wasn't going to take the chance. And her nearest neighbor was miles away.
Jack came after her. She heard him, but refused to turn around and look over her shoulder. He was a big man. She'd known his strength twelve years before when they were in South Korea together; she as a contestant in the Olympics and he as one of the coaches for the United States swim team.
Her stocking feet slipped on the permanently waxed kitchen tiles. Jack was on her in an instant. They crashed to the floor. She took his weight on her side. Again he flipped her over.
"What is wrong with you?"
"Just kill me now and get it over with," she hissed. She was breathing hard, her voice holding more bravado than she felt. How would he kill her? Strangle her? A bullet? The knife she'd lost the battle to hold onto? She could feel a heavy object pressing against her through his coat.
"Kill you?" He looked at her with piercing eyes that bore through her, but gave nothing away as to his intentions. She saw cold-bloodedness in them. "You think I'm here to kill you?"
"Yes, I do." Her chin shot out without her even thinking about it. She'd learned it in her youth. Never back down. Never show fear. And that gesture came back to her now. "Why else would you come?''
He got to his feet, pulling her with him. Morgan immediately looked for other methods of escape. He was stronger than she was, taller, maybe even faster, but she wouldn't let his advantages be disadvantages for her. She'd try anyway.
"I'm here because you called."
"I never called you."
"You called Jacob Winston."
Jacob Winston was the director of Witsec, the witness protection program. She wasn't in the program, but if anything ever happened to her, she was to contact him.
How could he know that? "I never called anyone by that name." She hedged, buying herself time.
The look he gave her told her he knew she was lying.
"Look, we need to talk."
He released her and stepped back. Morgan didn't know if he'd let her walk away if she tried, but his distance seemed to ask for her trust. She wouldn't give it, not yet. He could be anyone and he still could be here to kill her, but he had given her the proper buzz word. Jacob Winston. She hadn't called Jacob, but she had contacted him, by a secure electronic mail transmission. Her name hadn't been disclosed, only a code she thought she'd forgotten. It, too, had come to her mind as quickly as her street tactics had returned. She could personally attest to the will to stay alive now. Her message gave details of Fisk's efforts to interview her. She'd also mentioned her sense of being watched. That had been two days ago. She hadn't heard from Jacob.
"Let's go someplace else," Jack suggested.
Getting out of the house was a good idea. She was alone with him here and he could certainly overpower her, as he'd demonstrated twice. Going someplace very public would be a wise move. Before she could reply, the doorbell rang. Morgan froze for a moment as if another killer had already appeared.
"Are you expecting anyone?"
She shook her head. Frightened, Morgan's hand came up as if to catch hold of something or someone for support. Jack cautioned her, pulling a gun from under his jacket. She'd known it was there. She'd felt it while he had her pinned to the kitchen floor. Noticing her hanging hand, she dropped it to her side. Jack motioned for her to go to the door. She picked up the knife that had been her weapon against him and went toward the portal. He took up a blend-into-the-wall position which would have been laughable if she wasn't already geared up to be frightened to death. Morgan peered through the curtain and saw her friend, Michelle O'Banyon, standing alone on the porch. She relaxed. Her whole body went limp and she grabbed the doorknob tighter than she would have if her Adrenaline wasn't working overtime.
"It's all right," she said to Jack as she pulled the door open. "Michelle, what are you doing here?"
Michelle pulled the screen open. "I can't come in, Morgan. I'm in a real hurry," she said in a rush. "I have to get to the train station, but since I was passing and I've been carrying this bowl around in my car for a week, I thought I'd drop it off."
Michelle hated being indebted to anyone, even if it was for a bowl containing potato salad which Morgan had taken to a backyard barbecue and left. She offered the package to Morgan, who realized she was still holding the knife. Both of them looked at the gleaming blade at the same time. Morgan offered a weak smile. She was glad she hadn't actually cut Jack with it.
"I was cooking," she explained.
She moved sideways to place it on the small table next to the door where sat a vase of fresh flowers. Morgan changed them once a week. She loved the smell of them. This week it was roses. She'd had carnations last week and an exotic bird of paradise spray the week before. She laid down the knife and turned back to Michelle. The knife fell off the table and clattered to the floor. Morgan instinctively turned and in that split second the explosion sounded.
Morgan turned in time to see Michelle blown inward through the door. Blood splattered across me room. Morgan straightened, a look of amazement on her face. Michelle's body was flung through the foyer. She slammed into the wall and hung there, suspended like a slack puppet for a moment before sliding to the floor. Morgan's heart hammered as she realized Michelle was dead. She started for her. Jack sprang from his hiding place, tackling her, bringing her down to the floor and covering her with his body. Shots rang out, showering the house from the outside. Windows exploded, spraying glass over the room. The vase on the table was hit. A shard pierce Morgan's bare arm. The walls above her were riddled with bullets. She could hear bullets crashing through the windows of her living room, knew the splattered whisper of them finding solace in the books that lined one wall.
Morgan cowered under Jack. Clenching her teeth together, she dug her fingers into his arms, holding him as her protector. The gunfire seemed to grow faster and louder. Outside it sounded like there must be an army using its entire arsenal against them. When would they stop? How many were there? Morgan couldn't wait.
"We have to get out of here," Jack shouted in her ear. "We'll go to the garage and take your car—"
His sentence was cut off by a huge explosion coming from the garage. Morgan knew her car had just been vaporized. There would be no escaping using it.
"Follow me," she told him. "I have a way."
"You're not going to try the back door?"
"No,'' she said, throwing him a look that would have stopped any street thug.
Morgan crawled on her belly as if she were a seasoned soldier. Jack followed her. Outside he'd made out four men, but there could be more. From the artillery they were throwing at the house, he knew it was only a matter of time before they came inside. There were four entrances, including the garage entryway and the sliding glass door off the great room in the back. He'd made sure they were all locked, but none of them would stand up to bullets. The glass doors and windows were definitely a weak point. He had to believe there were people in the back waiting for them to come through one of the doors.
Morgan went toward the kitchen. She opened a door which led to the cellar. He'd explored it earlier. She had a gym down there, hidden, concealed. He'd found the entrance that opened by using a code on a security panel. He didn't know how she got it built under a house this size and this old. But the normal basement, which must have been of standard height, had been lowered to a cavernous size where she could tumble and jump up and down on trampolines and parallel bars. There was no musty smell, only the latent odor of chalk she used to coat her hands and maintain a tight and dry grip on the equipment. Jack hadn't seen any exits on that level. On the level above it were only windows. The old double-door entry had been cemented over.
"There's a way out down here?" He grabbed her shoulder, stopping her on the steps.
"Yes." She didn't provide any more information, only continued to run down the stairs as fast as she could. Jack followed. He knew she could lie. She could run cons, pick pockets, steal into and out of places without being noticed. She could throw a knife with an accuracy rate of a thousandth of an inch to the mark. Thankfully, he'd reached her before she had a chance to use her knife-throwing talents on him. He remembered her file, the things she'd done to survive before she was adopted, before she found her place in the gymnastics arena. She could be leading him to his death, but he didn't think so. The bullets were real. She knew that. And he had no choice.
Morgan punched in the code with a speed that said she could do it in her sleep. Then she pulled the door open and they began their descent into her private gym. The door closed behind them. This was her alone place. No one knew of this room, or she wouldn't conceal it so carefully. Jack wanted to take a moment to question her about this space, but his mind was on escape. If they got out of here, he could ask about it later.
Down they went. Down a long set of stairs that wove back and forth, flight by flight. Although he had found no exit when he'd checked this two-hundred-foot room, not on the flooring under the apparatus or through any of the exterior walls, he knew it was here. She'd concealed it well and he thanked her for it now. Above his head the shooting stopped, but he could feel, not hear, but know the silent footfalls of the intruders.
"They're in the house," he whispered.
"How good are you at gymnastics?" she asked. Grabbing a pair of running shoes lying near the beam, she laced them on.
Jack was thrown by the question, but answered it the only way he knew how. "I can hold my own."
"I hope that's good enough."
He had the feeling she knew he was lying. They passed beams and uneven bars, trampolines, a pit filled with foam rubber cubes over which a single wooden bar hung. In front of them was a wall of mirrors and nothing else. Jack didn't think they could walk through the mirrors, but it looked as if there was nowhere else for them to go. Without his seeing her do anything, a panel opened electronically in the ceiling. It was next to a light at the far end of the gym. When the panel opened a rope lowered to about twelve feet off the floor. Morgan jumped onto the beam as if walking on a four-inch-wide pedestal four feet off the floor was part of her natural state. She negotiated its length without a waver of imbalance, her feet as sure as if she were walking on flat ground. At the end of the beam she leapt two feet straight up and grabbed the hanging rope. With grace as elegant as any athlete in competition and without using her legs for support, she pulled her weight up hand over hand and swung her lithe body through the opening.
"Come on," she said, looking back at him. "They're going to find this door any minute now."
Jack didn't have time to hesitate. Climbing the rope wasn't a problem. He could do that, though not as gracefully as she had. He needed to use his legs. Getting up on a four-inch piece of wood with a padded covering to grab the rope was something else. He made it on the second try. He didn't need to jump far to grasp the rope. Once he reached it, he was up and through the hole in the ceiling in no time.
"How do we close this?"
Morgan did nothing more than touch herself. She had no remote unit, keycard or any other device that he could see, yet the rope and panel started its movement back to the original place. If he hadn't found this opening, he was confident the people shooting at them wouldn't find it either. Even if they did, could they reach it? Jack breathed a sigh of relief. They were safe for the time being. All they had to do was be quiet and wait out the time.
Once the panel closed the space was pitch black. Like being in a darkroom, no light escaped into this area. He had no idea of the dimensions. Was it large enough for him to stand up or was it a crawl space? The air here was stale, musty, feeling as if no one lived here or wanted to live here. He could still smell the chalk, but it was old, like going into a school when they were tearing it down and the bricks and mortar that held the building together had settled into screaming memory of the thousands of voices that once shared the space.
"Give me your hand," Morgan whispered.
He reached toward her voice in the dark. It was the kind of voice that should be heard in the dark: low, rich, seductive, sexy. His hand brushed her waist. She found it and moved it away from her body but kept hold of him. She stood. Feeling the pressure of her hand pulling at him, he stood too.
"Don't let go," she whispered, and she started to walk.
"We aren't going to wait here?"
"Now that they've found me, they're not going to leave until they find where we're hiding. We have to go."
She pulled on his hand and he started to move.
"How big is this. . .place?" he asked, spreading his free arm out to ward off whatever was denied his eyes and to try and maintain his balance in total darkness.
"You don't have to worry about bumping into anything."
That wasn't his concern. The two of them walked. She led and he followed. About thirty seconds after they started in the pitch darkness, she switched on a flashlight. Jack noticed there were no cobwebs. The place wasn't a room but a long narrow corridor with paneled walls and light sconces. Before climbing through the ceiling tile they'd already come to the end of the building. They must be outside of the house by now.
"How far does this go?" Jack asked after they'd walked another three minutes.
"It will end soon."
It did. The paneling ended at another wall. Jack trusted her when she said there was an exit. At the wall was a heavy door which swung open easily, as if its hinges were oiled regularly. Again this one required an electronic code for access. They went through it and into a tunnel. Morgan turned and reset the code then closed the door. It not only had an electronic lock, but she bolted it with three primitive slats of wood that fell neatly into wooden place holders. Anyone trying to get through it would be greatly hampered even if they tried to blast through it with gunfire. She'd thought of everything.
And that made him uncomfortable.
If she'd put this much thought into an escape plan, someone must really be after her. Why? He hadn't gotten that information. He'd wanted to talk to her, but there hadn't been time. Before they got to say anything the bullets had started flying.
After the door was secure she pulled a backpack from a concealed shelf.
"Turn around," she ordered.
"I never expected anyone to be with me. I have to change clothes. So turn around or I'll switch this light off and you'll lose your equilibrium and fall over."
"Wouldn't you like me to unzip you?" he asked playfully.
"Funny," she replied with a look made grotesque by the single beam of light in the vast darkness.
Jack smiled, then turned around. He could hear her taking her dress off. The familiar sound of a zipper being pulled down made him think of things he had no time for now, like how she'd felt lying under him on the floor before the melee started. He could see a shadow thrown against the wall. She pulled something over her head. He had a mental picture of her without that black dress and his body suddenly tightened. He heard the thunk of something falling and her quickly scooping it up.
"A lot of planning went into this,'' Jack said to get his mind off his thoughts.
"Didn't you think I was up to it?" she quipped.
"That's not it," he replied. That was exactly it, but he wasn't about to admit it. "It's just for someone who's such an upstanding citizen, this is not the usual finished room."
"You can turn around now."
She was wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt. Her hair was completely off her face, pulled into a ponytail that fell over her shoulder as she leaned forward. He was suddenly reminded of the nineteen-year-old he'd seen on a strip of film twelve years ago.
"I thought you said you knew all about me." She started walking again. "Didn't you learn all my talents?" Jack ignored the barb. "Where is this leading?"
"To the outside."
The ground under them changed from flat to a smooth incline. Its steepness rose sharply until Jack had to practically crawl. There was no paneling here. He was in a tunnel with corrugated metal cylinders angling toward some unknown area. It was cold but dry. He could smell the earth, not the sweet smell of 1 freshly turned or freshly planted ground, but the dank, mildewy odor of dirt. Morgan stretched the distance between them without seeming to notice. Then they reached a ladder embedded in a cement wall. Immediately she started to climb. Without hesitation, Jack followed. At the top, she pushed at a grate, using all her strength. It opened and Jack could see the sky above them, clear and starry. Fresh air rushed in with the scent of night on it. He breathed in deeply.
Morgan took no time to look at the sky or the stars. She came out of the hole in the ground, and as soon as he cleared it, she slammed the grate back in place and concealed it with the ground vegetation.
Jack looked around the area. They were in the woods. The road was visible about fifty feet ahead of them. Crickets and cicadas vied for dominance in the normal night. "Where are we?" he asked.
She looked at him. "Still in the line of fire."
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