In the old days - ten years ago anyway - she had friends living at the Chelsea Hotel on West Twenty-third Street. The hotel was half tourist, half residential, all-around kooky. Artists, writers, students, methadone addicts of every stripe and persuasion. Black fingernails, goth-white face paint, bloodred lipstick, hair without a trace of curl - all in the days before it was mainstream.
Little had changed. It was a good place to remain anonymous.
After grabbing a slice of pizza across the street, she'd checked in and had not ventured out of her room. New York. She'd once called this city home, but this was only her second visit in the past eight years.
She missed it.
With too practiced a hand, she tucked her hair under the wig. Today's color would be blond with dark roots. She put on a pair of wire-rim glasses and jammed the implants into her mouth. They changed the shape of her face.
Her hands were shaking.
Two airplane tickets sat on the kitchen table. Tonight, they would take British Airways Flight 174 from JFK to London's Heathrow Airport, where her contact would meet them with new identities. Then they would take the train to Gatwick and take the afternoon flight to Nairobi, Kenya. A jeep would take them near the foothills of Mount Meru in Tanzania, and a three-day hike would follow.
Once they were there - in one of the few spots on this planet with no radio, no television, no electricity - they would be free.
The names on the tickets were Lisa Sherman. And David Beck.
She gave her wig one more tug and stared at her reflection. Her eyes blurred, and for a moment, she was back at the lake. Hope ignited in her chest, and for once she did nothing to extinguish it. She managed a smile and turned away.
She took the elevator to the lobby and made a right on Twenty-Third Street.
Washington Square Park was a nice walk from here.
Tyrese and Brutus dropped me on the corner of West Fourth and Lafayette streets, about four blocks east of the park. I knew the area well enough. Elizabeth and Rebecca had shared an apartment on Washington Square, feeling deliciously avant garde in their West Village digs - the photographer and the social-working attorney, striving for Bohemia as they mingled with their fellow suburban-raised wannabes and trust-fund revolutionaries. Frankly I never quite bought it, but that was okay.
I was attending Columbia Medical School at the time, and technically, I lived uptown on Haven Avenue near the hospital now known as New York-Presbyterian. But naturally I spent a lot of time down here.
Those were good years.
Half an hour until the meet time.
I headed down West Fourth Street past the Tower Records and into a region of the city heavily occupied by New York University. NYU wanted you to know this. They staked claim to this land with garish purple NYU-logo flags everywhere. Ugly as hell, this garish purple set against Greenwich Village's subdued brick. Very possessive and territorial too, thought I, for such a liberal enclave. But there you go.
My heart pounded on my chest wall as though it wanted to break free.
Would she be there already?
I didn't run. I kept cool and tried to distract myself from what the next hour or so could bring. The wounds from my recent ordeal were in that state between burn and itch. I caught my reflection in a building window and couldn't help but notice that I looked utterly ridiculous in my borrowed garb. Gangsta Prep. Yo, word.
My pants kept sliding down. I hitched them up with one hand and tried to keep pace.
Elizabeth might be at the park.
I could see the square now. The southeast corner was only a block away. There seemed to be a rustle in the air, the onset of a storm maybe, but that was probably my imagination shifting into high gear. I kept my head lowered. Had my picture reached the television yet? Had the anchors broken in with a be-on the-lookout announcement? I doubted it. But my eyes still stayed on the pavement.
I hurried my step. Washington Square had always been too intense for me during the summer months. It was trying too hard - too much happening with just a little too much desperation. Manufactured edge, I called it. My favorite spot was the large clutter of humanity near the cement game tables. I played chess there sometimes. I was pretty good, but in this park, chess was the great equalizer. Rich, poor, white, black, homeless, high-rised, rental, cooped - all harmonized over the age-old black and white figurines. The best player I'd ever seen down here was a black man who spent most of his pre-Giuliani afternoons harassing motorists for change with his squeegee.
Elizabeth wasn't there yet.
I took a seat on a bench.
Fifteen more minutes.
The tightness in my chest increased fourfold. I had never been so scared in my entire life. I thought about Shauna's technological demonstration. A hoax? I wondered again. What if this was all a hoax? What if Elizabeth was indeed dead? What would I do then?
Useless speculation, I told myself. A waste of energy.
She had to be alive. There was no other choice.
I sat back and waited.
"He's here," Eric Wu said into his cell phone.
Larry Gandle looked out the van's tinted window. David Beck was indeed where he was supposed to be, dressed like a street punk. His face was covered with scrapes and flowering bruises.
Gandle shook his head. "How the hell did he pull it off?"
"Well," Eric Wu said in that singsong voice, "we can always ask him."
"We need this to go smoothly, Eric."
"Is everybody in place?"
Gandle checked his watch. "She should be here any minute now."
Located between Sullivan and Thompson streets, Washington Square's most striking edifice was a high tower of washed-brown brick on the south side of the park. Most believed that the tower was still part of the Judson Memorial Church. It wasn't. For the past two decades, the tower held NYU student dorm rooms and offices. The top of the tower was easily accessible to anyone who looked as though she knew where she was going.
From up here, she could look down at the whole park. And when she did, she started to cry.
Beck had come. He wore the most bizarre disguise, but then again, the email had warned him that he might be followed. She could see him sitting on that bench, all alone, waiting, his right leg shaking up and down. His leg always did that when he was nervous.
She could hear the pain, the bitter agony, in her own voice. She kept staring at him.
What had she done?
She forced herself to turn away. Her legs folded and she slid with her back against the wall until she reached the floor. Beck had come for her.
But so had they.
She was sure of it. She had spotted three of them, at the very least. Probably more. She had also spotted the B amp;T Paint van. She'd dialed the number on the van's sign, but it was out of service. She checked with directory assistance. There was no B amp;T Paint.
They'd found them. Despite all her precautions, they were here.
She closed her eyes. Stupid. So stupid. To think that she could pull this off. How could she have allowed it to happen? Yearning had clouded her judgment. She knew that now. Somehow, she had fooled herself into believing that she could turn a devastating catastrophe - the two bodies being discovered near the lake - into some sort of divine windfall.
She sat up and risked another look at Beck. Her heart plummeted like a stone down a well. He looked so alone down there, so small and fragile and helpless. Had Beck adjusted to her death? Probably. Had he fought through what happened and made a life for himself? Again probably. Had he recovered from the blow only to have her stupidity whack him over the head again?
The tears returned.
She took out the two airplane tickets. Preparation. That had always been the key to her survival. Prepare for every eventuality. That was why she had planned the meet here, at a public park she knew so well, where she would have this advantage. She hadn't admitted it to herself, but she'd known that this possibility - no, this likelihood - existed.
It was over.
The small opening, if there had ever been one, had been slammed shut.
Time to go. By herself. And this time for good.
She wondered how he'd react to her not showing up. Would he keep scouring his computer for emails that would never come? Would he search the faces of strangers and imagine he saw hers? Would he just forget and go on - and, when she really mined her true feelings, did she want him to?
No matter. Survival first. His anyway. She had no choice. She had to go.
With great effort, she tore her gaze away and hurried down the stairs. There was a back exit that led out to West Third Street, so she'd never even had to enter the park. She pushed the heavy metal door and stepped outside. Down Sullivan Street, she found a taxi on the corner of Bleecker.
She leaned back and closed her eyes.
"Where to?" the driver asked.
"JFK Airport," she said.