Oh! How many times we die before death! - Julie de Lespinasse
How could she have been so careless? Ordinarily when Jill worked late, she hailed a cab to drive her home, but tonight she opted for a late stroll to unwind before tomorrow...her big day. Maybe the biggest day of her career, if she lived to see it.
Heavy footsteps pounded the pavement behind her until she turned the corner of M Street. She listened intently for the sound of someone following her but heard nothing now. Desperately searching for any sign of life spilling out of the lighted doorways and on to the sidewalks of the business district, she saw there was none. Even the flicker of lights of the corner liquor store seemed dimmed. The streets of Washington D.C. were deserted, but Jill couldn't shake the feeling that some unknown pursuer was still out there and following her.
Chill! She forced herself to calm down and think of tomorrow. Soon visions of explosive headlines floated through her mind. A smile curled at the corner of her lips as she imagined the shock wave that would roll across America as its citizens unfolded their newspapers to read the words wielded by her pen. The story she had investigated for almost a year would not only change the course of history but also her life. By the next morning, lucrative job offers, media appearances, and six-figure network deals would pour in across her desk.
But Jill's pleasant thoughts quickly faded when she heard the shuffle of feet again. Perhaps the late morning edition might sport a different headline: "Top Senator Questioned by FBI for Reporter's Murder." She fumbled in her purse for her cell phone and felt it near the bottom. Cradling it in her hand, she pressed the on button, waiting for it to light up, but instead it flickered and died. Why didn't I remember to put it in the charger last night? Reaching down inside her purse again, she curled her fingers around the tiny canister of pepper spray that dangled from her key chain.
Whirling around in her head were all the "what ifs," tormenting her until she suddenly remembered that the presses had already rolled. It's too late for the senator to get rid of me. But this fleeting surge of confidence quickly vanished when three men emerged from the shadows and lunged at her. Attempting to back away, she realized it was too late. She was trapped.
Jill tried to keep her voice from quavering. "What do you want?" she demanded.
But the men remained silent. Breathing deeply, she commanded herself to stay calm. Hadn't she taken risks before and been in situations far more perilous than this one? Carrying large sums of money and meeting her shady informants in dark alleys late at night or in the wee hours of the morning? But then, she'd always had her cell phone in her hand and a taxi waiting. And even though she'd taken a couple of self-defense classes, there was no way she could fight off three attackers.
She began to scream. "Help me! Is anyone there? Help me, please!"
To her astonishment, her screams sent two of the perpetrators scurrying like rats into the dark alley. But the larger of the men hadn't flinched; he towered before her like a mountain.
"What do you want?" she demanded again.
With a look of arrogance the man uttered a deep groan, mockingly sending smoky clouds floating out of his mouth, permeating the cold winter air with the fragrance of cheap wine.
Muffling a faint cry, Jill searched his face, trying to determine her next move.
His dark eyes glared at her from underneath a red knit cap pulled down over his forehead. A bushy black mustache drooped down, hiding his lips, and he was clad in a pair of tight-fitting jeans and a shabby sweater riddled with holes exposing a tattooed chest. The man stepped toward her.
Suddenly, he pounced, grabbing her by the hair and trying to stuff her scarf into her mouth. Thinking quickly, she flung her briefcase at his groin, managing to spray hot pepper in his face at the same time. The man shook with rage and then staggered, enabling her to break away.
Adrenaline pumping, heart racing, Jill felt as though she had wings on her feet as she soared down the sidewalk to escape her tormentor, but goose bumps pricked her arms when she heard him cough. Turning slightly, she saw the man striding across the street after her. Frantically she hiked up her skirt and began to sprint even faster.
Jill gasped for air. Six blocks down and nine more to go. She figured there was no use wasting her energy by screaming for help, and focused every ounce of her strength on making her legs move faster toward home.
After a few more blocks her long strides had significantly widened the distance between her and the stalker. For the first time since the chase had begun, Jill believed she might make it home alive. But at the corner of Washington Avenue, she bumped into an empty newstand. She clutched her left side as a sharp pain seared through her hip. Stumbling, she hastily struggled to get back on her feet, but she wasn't quick enough--the footsteps behind her came to an abrupt halt. A chill danced up her spine as she felt fingers coiling around her neck, dragging her backwards into a darkened alley. Biting, scratching, and screaming, she tried to escape from the attacker's powerful grasp, but his fingers squeezed even more tightly around her neck, causing her to sputter and gasp for breath.
Words from long ago sprang into her consciousness.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Was that a Bible verse she had memorized in a long ago Sunday School class?
I will fear no evil.
The Twenty-third Psalm.
For thou art with me.
"God, please help me!" she whimpered as the lights slowly dimmed. Just at the moment she thought she would lose consciousness, a vehicle careened around the corner, screeching to an abrupt halt in front of her and the stalker. In slow motion, the attacker released his death grip; Jill's head flopped like a limp rag doll. Dizzily, she staggered toward the car.
"Need a cab, lady?" the driver called out the window. He released his seat belt and reached over to open the back door.
Gasping for air, Jill couldn’t speak but leaned into the cab and collapsed into the safety and warmth of the backseat. She glanced out the rear window. The street was vacant of any creature, alive or imagined. Turning back around, she leaned forward and let out a sigh of relief. “Sir,” she rasped breathlessly, “did you see?” She paused to catch her breath. “Did you . . . did you see that man chasing me?”
“Nope, didn’t see a thing. But you shouldn’t have been out walking this time of night. A lot of bad stuff goes on in this town, but you can relax, lady, you’re safe with me.”
“Thank you,” Jill mumbled. The driver’s voice was reassuring.
Within moments she was stepping out of the cab in front of her apartment building. Henry, the doorman, stood waiting to let her in the building.
With a large white-gloved hand, the elderly doorman took Jill by the arm to help her out of the cab. Henry greeted her with a tip of his emblemed hat perched atop a silver Afro. Muscles bulging beneath his immaculate gray uniform, the retired FBI agent towered over Jill making her feel both safe and secure.
“You working late tonight, Miss Lewis?” Henry smiled at Jill, exposing a pair of dimples in his high-boned cheeks and a dazzling set of perfectly aligned teeth.
“Yes, a bit too late,” Jill responded as she turned to pay the cabby.
But the cabby was gone.
“That’s odd. He took off before I could pay him.”
“Don’t you worry, he’ll be back for it, and I’ll pay him. You get on upstairs.”
Jill tried to slip money into Henry’s hand, but he refused. “You can take care of it later.”
“Thanks. Good night, Henry.”
“It’s morning,” the doorman reminded her as they both looked down at their watches to see the hands moving well past midnight.
“So it is. Uh, good morning, then, Henry.”
Jill took the elevator to her tenth-floor apartment. Once inside, she dropped her purse and coat in the nearby chair and double bolted the door. Collapsing on her sofa, she put her head in her hands and sobbed into a wad of tissues.
How long she cried, she didn’t know. But when the tears would no longer come, she stood up and dabbed her swollen eyes. Letting out a long sigh of relief, she walked over to the windows and looked out over the city. No boogieman looked up at her. The familiar sounds of night traffic, sirens, and voices floated up to her window. Feeling safe at last, she went to her room and dressed for bed, channel surfing to Fox News and then CNN to distract her but also half-listening to ensure that no late-breaking story would usurp her own morning headline. Within minutes her eyelids had grown heavy, and she nodded off with the lights on and the television blaring.
Startled awake by a noise, Jill groggily sat up in bed. There was a light tap at the door. Or was there? Reaching for the remote, she flipped off the TV and listened intently, but the room was quiet except for the distant wail of sirens and the hum of traffic beyond her window.
With shaking hands, she reached for her terry-cloth robe, pulling it around her and tying it tightly at the waist. She grabbed her tennis racket and cordless phone as she cautiously headed for the door. Straining to look through the peephole, she was relieved to see no one there. “Must’ve been a bad dream,” she muttered to herself.
Figuring there was no way she could fall back asleep, she headed for the kitchen and turned on the copper kettle to make a cup of chamomile tea. She stood at the stove watching the steam from the kettle rise into the air like a smoke signal. Calculating that it was still early enough on the West Coast to make a call, she dialed her boyfriend, David, who was in California.
The sound of his voice immediately began to calm the butterflies in her stomach.
“David!” she said, pouring the hot water into her china teacup. “How’s your trip?”
“Hi, Jill. It’s going great. We’re being very well received here. The fund-raising events have gone beyond our expectations. If Senator Jacobs wasn’t already slated for the party’s next vice presidential candidate, I’m sure he could be elected governor in California.”
Jill smiled. Everyone agreed that David had a bright future in Washington, but he chose instead to remain loyal to the man who had given him his first political post. She never ceased to be impressed by David’s continued loyalty and admiration for his boss, a rarity in politics.
“Hey you . . . I miss you,” she said.
“I miss you too. I was thinking that the two of us should maybe consider moving to California one day. It’s eighty degrees out here.”
“Sounds heavenly to me! We’ve reached a high of forty-five degrees here. When do I start packing?”
“You, leave Washington? I won’t hold my breath,” David replied. He knew her too well.
“But I doubt you’ll stray far from Washington either, Mr. Chief of Staff. I’m thinking your boss will one day be our president.”
“From your mouth to God’s ears. Hey, what are you doing up so late . . . your investigation?”
“It’s over. Finished. Morning headlines,” she said proudly as she pulled back a strand of loose hair from her eyes and headed to her bedroom, carefully balancing her teacup and the phone tucked under her ear.
“Ah, so is this the big one that’s changing the course of history?”
“Yep, this is the one.” Jill Lewis’s name had been a household word for over seven years. Even after only a couple of months at the Washington Gazette, she had broken a big political scandal by working with a street informant who had daily searched the trash of the president’s mistress. Jill’s future had been sealed with that story, but this one now was by far the biggest story she’d ever broken.
“Congratulations! You know that all the networks and cable news stations will be clamoring with offers for you, right?”
“They’re wasting their time.”
“Aw, come on, are you telling me that even a seven-figure paycheck won’t lure you out of bed for those 4:00 A.M. camera calls?”
“I’m already up at 5:00 every day for an early morning run. I’m just more of a behind-the-scenes kind of gal.”
David chuckled. “It must be nice to have such a rich daddy that you can do whatever you darn well please,” he ribbed her. Then there was a long pause on his end of the phone. “Oh, Jill, I’m sorry. I just forgot. I’m such an idiot.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she replied softly. “It’s only been a year; sometimes it’s even hard for me to believe my father’s gone.”
There was another long pause. “Come on, now, tell me who’s going to be resigning in the morning?” he probed, obviously avoiding the subject of her father’s death.
She laughed nervously. “You can read all about it in the paper along with the rest of the world.”
“Can you at least tell me if I should be concerned about my job?”
Jill had always refused to discuss her work with him, and David knew this. She referred to it as a conflict of interest, considering his strong political connections. After an awkward pause she laughed. “Your job is probably safe.”
Truthfully, after she had dug deeper and deeper into her investigation, the thought had crossed her mind that David’s boss, Senator Jacobs, might be involved in the scandal. Much to her relief, Jacobs had come out squeaky clean. In fact, with Senator Burke’s political ruin, she believed the party would elevate Jacobs from vice presidential candidate to the presidential slot.
“Good! If your story is put to bed, tell me, what are you doing up so late?” David’s question jarred her back into the conversation.
“I . . . uh . . . I’m just nervous about tomorrow, I guess.”
“Come on. What’s wrong?”
Jill cleared her throat. “All right. I was walking home from the office, and some creepy guy came out of nowhere and started chasing after me.” She fought tears as the memory of the terrifying attack came flooding back.
“Oh my goodness, Jill, are you okay? Were you hurt?”
“I’m fine—a cab showed up just in time. I feel very lucky.”
“Well, you might not be so lucky the next time. What in the world were you thinking, walking home alone? You could’ve been killed!” He blew out a frustrated breath. “Dealing with all those shady informants, you know you have to watch your back all the time. How could you have been so stupid?”
“I guess I just—”
“Did you call the police?”
“I tried, but my cell phone was dead, and then when the cab came the guy took off so I figured he would be long gone by the time the cops arrived.”
“How many times have I told you to carry a spare battery? It just astounds me that a woman of your accomplishments, especially one with your street smarts, can be such a flake!”
She began to get angry. He was grilling her like he was some hotshot prosecuting attorney. “I was just preoccupied with the investigation, and—”
“That’s no excuse.” He sighed. “Listen, Jill. I didn’t mean to lecture you. You’re safe and that’s all that matters, but you’ve got to promise me you’ll never walk home alone again.”
“Okay, I promise.”
“All right, then, let’s forget about it. Today’s your big day. I’ll be back in a week, and we’ll celebrate. I love you, Jill.”
“Love you too, David. Bye.” After putting the phone back in the charger, she climbed into bed and pulled her down comforter over her head.
So David thought she was a flake, huh? Well, he had good reason, she reckoned, suddenly trembling with the memory of her close encounter with death. If he had reacted so strongly over this little episode, how would he react if her story ruined his boss’s political career, trashing his own in the process? She had been confident that Jacobs would be the party’s nominee for president after Burke was ousted, but what if the public turned on Jacobs because of his association with Burke?
Jill tossed and turned; sleep was elusive. A flurry of thoughts whirled around in her head. The cab driver’s sudden appearance saved her from the attacker. She was lucky to be alive! But was it luck? Perhaps God had intervened on her behalf for some divine purpose. Or was it a coincidence that the cab pulled up moments after she called out to God? Having ignored him for so long, she knew God didn’t owe her any favors. Yet how else could it be explained?
Jill stared at the ceiling until her clock radio blared at 5:00 A.M. Silencing the alarm, she kicked off the covers and took a deep breath. The biggest ride of her life was only hours away.