ON most evenings, taxis ran fairly regularly up Hudson Street. Chic residents of uptown neighborhoods knew downtown was the hottest Manhattan scene, so cabbies routinely spent the night transporting the clubbing set to bars and restaurants in Soho and Tribeca, then reversing course to go back uptown for a new load of trendily clothed forms to ferry.
I’d just missed one yellow cab. It swerved for the fare across the road. In the glow of the streetlamp, the silhouette of a man in a trench coat and ball cap climbed into its backseat. But another cab rolled up a moment later, and I snagged the ride.
Traffic was still pretty light, and we traveled from Greenwich Village to the Upper East Side without any major snarls. As the cab circled the block at Eighty-sixth Street and doubled back down Fifth, another taxi hugged its bumper. I saw the flash of annoyance on my driver’s face in the rearview mirror.
“Damn tailgater,” he muttered.
Soon the floodlit walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art loomed into view. Bordering Central Park, the massive museum occupied five full city blocks, its interior crammed with a stultifying array of irreplaceable artifacts. The paintings included many of the world’s masterpieces; the sculptures dated back to ancient Greece and Rome. There were historical displays of furniture, jewelry, arms and armor, vases, tapestries, photographs, ancient mummies, and even an entire Egyptian temple, removed from the banks of the Nile River and transported to the New World. Soon one more treasure would be added to that list, albeit temporarily: the Italian sculptor Nunzio’s Lover’s Spring.
By now, the museum’s visiting hours were over. But for Breanne’s wedding, I’d been given an events pass by the trustees of the museum, a pass which gave me twenty-four-hour access to a locked storage space filled with the things we’d need to cater Saturday’s reception.
I exited the taxi at the corner of Eighty-fourth Street, right in front of the manned security booth. One of the guards hurried across the broad sidewalk and helped me lift the fountain out of the trunk. While we fumbled to deploy the handle on the heavy Pullman, the cab that had been trailing mine sped around us and zoomed away.
The guard helped me roll the heavy suitcase down the steep concrete ramp and through the employees’ entrance to the second security checkpoint inside the museum. I showed the guard my pass, and he admitted me to the museum proper.
Pulling the fountain behind me, I crossed a wide loading dock and followed a gloomy hallway to the holding area. I unlocked the storage unit, rolled the fountain inside, and locked it up again. Mission accomplished!
Too bad, Nunzio. Better luck with the next barista…
My virtue secured, along with the fountain, I headed out.
It was after eleven when I left the museum and trudged up the shadowy ramp back to the street. The storm had passed, but the air was still damp, and the temperature was dropping, too. I shivered under my flimsy sweater. The wrap dress was starting to chafe, and I’d been wearing the same wedge platform sandals for ten hours now. They’d been comfortable most of the day, but by now my feet were throbbing with each step.
I waved good-bye to the guards inside the booth and walked uptown. There was an M3 East Village bus stop at the corner of Eighty-fifth Street, right in front of a fenced-in children’s playground that was part of Central Park. There was a streetlight nearby, but much of its glow was blocked by tree branches. Traffic was light on Fifth, and there wasn’t a cab in sight, so I was relieved to see a bus rolling toward me, though it was still several blocks away.
Standing in the shadows, I groped around in my purse for a Metrocard. That’s when I heard the scuff of a shoe and sensed movement behind me. Before I could react, a skeletal arm wrapped around my throat, and something hard pressed against the small of my back.
“I have a gun. Don’t make a sound, or I’ll shoot you right here.”
I recognized the rasping voice: Stuart Allerton Winslow. He stank of sweat and desperation. I glanced over my shoulder and spied unkempt hair sticking out from around the rim of a baseball cap. Though he’d ditched the trench coat, I knew he was the man in the cab, the one that followed me from the Blend to the museum. My mind was racing. Quinn had warned me the man was going to be released.
“Back up. Into the park,” Winslow said.
His hot breath hit my face, and I flinched at the whiff of onions and refried beans. Jose’s Burritos, I thought; the place was just up the block from the Blend. He must have gone straight to Hudson Street the second he regained his freedom, waiting outside my coffeehouse until I showed.
I risked a sidelong glance in the direction of the security booth, about fifty feet away. I could barely see the glow of its lights behind a screen of tree branches.
“Don’t even think about it,” he warned, his grip around my throat tightening.
With the gun still pressed against my spine, Winslow pulled me into the dark playground. He dragged me backward, past a slide and a set of swings, to an elaborate jungle gym standing in the middle of the yard.
“Little bitch,” he rasped.
Swinging me around, he shoved me face-first against the metal bars. He used his body to pin me there, then his arm tightened around my neck again, like a smothering snake.
I struggled against the scumbag, but the man held firm. He’d seemed puny and weak in his dungeonlike apartment. But he wasn’t weak now. He was furious, his grip cruel. I tried to ignore the pain, stay calm, search my mind for a strategy of escape.
You’re not helpless, Clare. You outwitted him once. You can do it again.
“I could have killed you on the sidewalk,” he rasped against my ear. “But that would be too quick.”
“You don’t have to kill me at all,” I whispered. It was hard to do more than that with his arm so tightly around my throat.
“You’re suggesting I should let you live? To testify against me in court? No, no, little bitch. That will never do. We can’t have the law looking any further at my business.”
I tried again to break free, but he tightened his grip. Once again, I felt the hard poke of a gun barrel against my back.
“Why are you doing this? You don’t even have any drugs. You lied to me.”
“Is that what you think? My word, you are stupid. And your cop friends are even stupider. They searched my apartment, came up with nothing.”
“Because you were lying.”
“Because my real office is in Jersey. The dump’s not in my name, but I assure you the cabinets are full of my product. So you see, little bitch, your stupid cops are to blame. They couldn’t keep me in custody, so you can thank them for the pain I’m about to inflict.”
I struggled harder.
“Ssshhh, shhh, now. Accept your fate, and it will be easy…”
Winslow laughed again, and the pressure of the gun against my spine vanished. With one arm still wrapped around my throat, he raised the other. I struggled to turn my head-it wasn’t much, just a fraction-but out of the corner of my eye, I saw a glint of silver in the shadowy light. A long knife was clutched in his hand.
He doesn’t have a gun! He used the handle of the knife to trick me!
The blade was descending toward my right shoulder. And my move was almost instinctual. Winslow himself had given me the idea: Accept your fate.
Instead of resisting, I gave up. My knees sagged, and I let every pound of my small form go limp. I began to slip underneath his curled arm. On my way down, I opened my mouth and sank my teeth into the man’s stringy flesh. The blade came down, striking sparks off the metal bars he’d been pressing me against.
Winslow cursed me with every word ever invented to degrade a woman.
I bit down harder, a pissed-off pit bull.
Winslow cried out. Using the weight of his body, he slammed me against the jungle gym bars. I kicked at his knee with my big platform wedge and jammed my elbow into his belly. Finally, the man released me, stumbling backwards with a howl. He fell to the ground, and I ran toward Fifth Avenue.
I heard a clang, saw the flash of the hurled knife as it bounced off the slide. I stumbled and nearly fell, but I kicked off my shoes and kept going, right into the headlights of an NYPD sector car.
Tires squealed, and a uniform jumped out.
“A man dragged me inside that playground! He had a knife! Tried to stab me!”
The cop drew his gun and raced into the shadows. His partner leaped out of the vehicle and followed, barking into his radio for backup as he ran. I sagged against the police car, knees weak, bare feet scuffed, hands trembling.
The night seemed suddenly darker. I doubled over at the waist, feeling like I couldn’t get enough oxygen. Another sector car rolled up behind the first, and a policewoman hurried to my side. She helped me into the backseat of her vehicle then leaned against the roof.
“Ma’am, we’re going to get you to an ER. Is there anyone you want me to notify?”
I nodded. My neck was sore, my voice shaky, but it didn’t matter. I only had to speak four words: “Mike Quinn, Sixth Precinct.”