...with her back to him and his gun dug into her head, she was almost defenseless.
IT REALLY WASN'T THAT FAR. Gaia Moore studied the small garden four stories below her window. Well, it wasn't her window, exactly. It was one of three back windows that belonged to the top floor of the New York City brownstone of George and Ella Niven, her so-called guardians. George was a CIA friend of her dad's from way back when. "Way back when" was typical of the vagueness you got when living with spies and antiterrorist types. They didn't say, "You know, George, the underground assassin I met in Damascus?"
Gaia flinched at the voice materializing in her ear. Ella Niven's voice didn't seem to react to air molecules in the normal way. It was breathy and fake intimate, yet carried to the far reaches of the house without losing any of its volume.
"Guy-uhhhhhhh!" Ella bleated impatiently from her dressing room one floor below.
Gaia inched open the window. The window frame was oak, old and creaky with its lead chain and counterweight.
"Gaia? The Beckwiths will be here any minute! Come down now! George asked you to set the table twenty minutes ago!" Now Ella sounded downright whiny.
Gaia could smell bland, watery casserolelike odors climbing up the stairs and mixing with Ella's strong, spicy perfume. George was a sweetheart and a terrible cook but probably a better cook than potato-brained Ella, who wasn't a sweetheart and never set foot in the kitchen except to whir up a fad-diet shake. The unspoken rule when they had company was that George prepared the food and Ella prepared herself.
Gaia grabbed a five-dollar bill from the top of the bureau and stuffed it in the pocket of her pants. Keys or no keys? That was the question. Mmmm. No keys, Gaia decided.
When the window was open just enough, she climbed out.
Although Ella might think otherwise, Gaia wasn't having dinner with the Beckwiths. They were old State Department people, certain to ask questions about her parents, her past, and her future, her parents, her parents. Gaia could not deal. Why was it that people over the age of thirty felt the need, when confronted with a "young person," to ask so freaking many questions?
Gaia had never agreed to make an appearance tonight. In fact, when Ella had demanded her presence a few hours earlier, Gaia had told Ella she would jump out the window before she'd have dinner with the Beckwiths, and she wasn't kidding.
The autumn air was scented with dry leaves and frying garlic from the Italian restaurant on West Fourth Street. Distantly Gaia smelled chimney smoke and felt a moment's longing for a different life, when she'd had parents and a pretty house in the Berkshires with a fire in the fireplace every autumn and winter night. That life felt like it belonged to a different person.
She knelt on the narrow windowsill and gripped it with both hands before she lowered herself down. Errg. Her feet tapped blindly for her next toehold while her fingers began to tremble with the exertion of holding up the full weight of her body. Wasn't there a window top or trellis around here somewhere?
At last the toe of her sneaker found purchase in a deeply pitted slab of brownstone. She sank her weight into it, releasing her cramping fingers. And just then, the brownstone cracked under the weight and she fell.
She winced in surprise and annoyance, but she didn't scream. Her mind didn't abandon its rational sequence.
She fell several feet before her hands jammed against the windowsill of a third-floor window, and she miraculously arrested her fall, saving her skull from the slate patio below.
God, that hurt. Angry nerve endings throbbed in her palms, but her heart beat out its same steady rhythm. Air entered her lungs in the same measured breaths as always.
That's why Gaia Moore was different. A freak of nature. Gaia knew that any normal person would have been afraid just then. But she wasn't. She wasn't afraid now, and she wouldn't be ever. She wasn't born with whatever gene it was that made ordinary people feel fear.
It was like something was missing from her genetic tool kit. But doctors weren't sure exactly what it was. They only knew it seemed to affect her reaction to fear. Scientists know the basic setup -- there's a master gene that triggers a series of minor genes that in turn control fear reactions. After extensive testing they came up with the theory that one or more of Gaia's genes in that cascade might be inactive or just plain missing.
Something moved on the other side of the window and Gaia squinted to get a better look.
Oh, crap. It was Ella.
Obviously hearing a noise, Ella swiveled her head from the mirror where she was gunking up her eyelashes with mascara and stared into the darkness outside. Ella was both dumb and otherworldly alert. She was self-obsessed but controlling at the same time. Gaia felt her blood start to boil at the mere sight of George's young, plastic wife. Whenever Ella was around, Gaia began to wonder if Mother Nature had given her extra capacity for anger and frustration when she'd left out the capacity for fear.
Gaia's fingers were straining so hard on the windowsill, she felt her muscles seizing up. Go away, Ella. Go away now!
A less annoying version of Ella would have figured the noise was just a pigeon or something and gotten on with her elaborate primping ritual. But this being the actual Ella, she came right over to the window and started to open it. Gaia glanced back over her shoulder, eyeballing the distance between her dangling feet and the patio. It had been reduced to twelve or fifteen feet.
Ella succeeded in throwing open the sash, narrowing her suspicious eyes. "What in the...? Oh, Christ. Is that Gaia? Gaia!"
Gaia raised her head from her painful perch, and their eyes met for a fraction of a second.
It was weird. Ella was vapid and worthless at least nine-tenths of the time, but when she got really mad, her face became sharp and purposeful. Almost vicious. Like if Barbie were suddenly possessed by Atilla the Hun.
Ella's fingers were only inches from Gaia's. "Oh, hell," Gaia murmured, and let go.
Wump. Her feet took the brunt of the impact, then her knees, then her hands slapped down to steady her. Her knees stung, and she rubbed her hands together, doubting whether she'd ever have feeling in her palms again.
"Gaia! Get back here now!" Ella shrieked.
Gaia peered up momentarily at Ella's white face leaning out of the window. Gaia really hadn't wanted to make a scene. Poor George was never going to hear the end of it.
Without another look behind her, Gaia ran for the back of the garden. Briefly she paused to glance at the seven fat goldfish swimming in the tiny pond before she leaped over it. She scaled the five-foot garden fence with exceptional grace.
Ella's supersonic voice followed her all the way to Bleecker Street and then dissolved amid the noisy profusion of shops, cafes, and restaurants and the crush of people that made the West Village of Manhattan unique in the world. In a single block you could buy fertility statues from Tanzania, rare Amazonian orchids, a pawned brass tuba, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, or the best, most expensive cup of coffee you ever tasted. It was the doughnuts, incidentally, that attracted Gaia.
She walked past the plastic-wrapped fruit laid out on beds of melting ice and into the deli, where the extravagant salad bar at its center emitted a strong, oily aroma. It was called a salad bar, but it was filled with the least healthful stuff Gaia could imagine (apart from doughnuts, anyway). A trough of deep-fried egg rolls, chicken blobs floating in a sea of pink grease, and some slop vaguely resembling potato salad if you quintupled the mayonnaise. Who ever ate that stuff? Gaia didn't know for sure, but she would have bet her favorite Saucony sneakers that the smelly egg rolls she saw now were exactly the same smelly egg rolls she'd been seeing for the last month.
She made a beeline for the doughnut shelf. Crullers? Cinnamon cakey ones? Powdered sugar? Glazed? Chocolate?
Oh, who was she kidding? She'd been jonesing for a sticky chocolate doughnut all evening. Why pretend any other kind came close? Her mouth was watering as she laid the crumpled five on the counter. The pretty young Korean woman took the bill and gave Gaia her change without really looking up. Somehow, in spite of the fact that they saw each other nearly every day, Gaia and this woman never made any sign of recognition. That was a New York thing -- pretend anonymity -- and frankly, Gaia liked it. It was perfect, what with Gaia being a not-very-friendly person with a lot of secrets and an embarrassingly large appetite for doughnuts.
Gaia said no thank you to the plastic bag and carried her box of doughnuts in her still-numb hands out of the store, along Bleecker Street toward Seventh Avenue. She figured if you weren't woman enough to carry your doughnuts with pride, you shouldn't be eating them.
Her feet went into auto-walk. They knew their way to Washington Square Park by now. That was her favorite place to eat doughnuts or do just about anything. She chose the perfect park bench, clean and quiet, and sat under a canopy of red-turning leaves that carved the glowing night sky into lace. Hungrily she tore open the box.
This moment suddenly contained the entire universe. Hell was eating George's food, watching Ella flirt shamelessly with Mr. Beckwith, and fielding questions about her parents she couldn't imagine answering. This doughnut, this bench, and this sky, on the other hand, were heaven.
Okay. Gaia's pupils sped to the corners of her eyes, but she didn't turn her head. Okay, it felt very much like the cold barrel of a gun pressed against her neck. Okay, if Gaia were to feel fear, now would be an obvious time.
The drying leaves were rustling sweetly overhead, the picturesque little puddles cast the glow of the streetlamps back up into the sky, but there wasn't a soul in sight besides the heavy-breathing, perspiring young man crushing the gun into her trapezius muscle.
He was standing behind the bench, but she could make out enough of him through her straining peripheral vision to recognize the nasty little hoodlum she'd seen in the park many times. His name was CJ Somethingorother. She'd not only beaten up his friends but identified him in a police lineup two weeks before as the gang member who'd stabbed Heather Gannis in the park. It didn't tax her imagination to think of why he wanted to scare her. Even hurt her. But kill her?
"Don't freakin' move an inch, bitch."
She sighed. She glanced longingly at her box of doughnuts.
"I mean it!"
Ouch. Jesus, he was going to puncture her flesh with the goddamned thing.
He was breathing heavily. He smelled like he'd been drinking. "I know you killed Marco, you sick bitch. And you're gonna pay."
Gaia swallowed hard. Suddenly the doughnut was a bitter clump in her mouth that she couldn't choke down. This guy's voice didn't carry the usual stupid bravado. He wasn't just trying to feel like a man.
Sweat trickled from his hand down the barrel of the gun.
He was dead serious, partly scared, maybe crazy.
Gaia had wondered what had become of Marco. He was a vain, annoying loudmouth, the most conspicuous of the thuggy neo-Nazi guys who contaminated the park. She could tell from the new graffiti she'd seen around the fountain that one of their number was dead.
Now it made sense. Marco was gone, and his boys believed Gaia killed him. That wasn't good news for her. Gaia felt sure there was any number of people who would have wanted to kill Marco.
"I didn't kill Marco," she said in a low, steady voice.
"Bullshit." CJ dragged the gun roughly from her neck to her temple. "Don't mess with me. I know what you did. That's how come you're gonna die."
She could feel her pulse beating against the dead, blunt metal.
CJ steadied the gun with both hands, breathing in deeply.
Oh, God. This was bad. Gaia eased her left hand along the thickly painted wooden slats of the bench.
"Don't move!" he bellowed.
Gaia froze, cringing with pain at the pressure of the gun against her head. A surge of anger ripped through her veins, but as badly as she wanted to break his neck, she recognized that in this position, with her back to him and his gun dug into her head, she was almost defenseless.
She tried to subdue her anger before she opened her mouth.
"CJ, don't do it," she said tightly. "It's a mistake. You're wasting your time here -- "
"Shut up!" he screamed. "Don't say anything!"
His hand was poised on the trigger. He was going to do it. He was going to kill her right here, right now. If she moved, he would just kill her sooner.
She prayed for an intervention of some kind. A noise, a voice, even a car horn. She could turn the tiniest distraction into an opportunity. If he even flinched, she could wrench away the gun and demolish CJ with a couple of quick jabs. But the park and its surrounding streets were eerily calm.
Her mind entered into that dream state, in which you process things without quite believing them. This was it? This was the end? This was what it felt like to die?
The barrel shook as he tightened his grip on the trigger. She could see the taut, quivering muscles in his forearm.
The wind had ceased. It seemed there was no one alive on the planet. The night was so silent, she could hear the grinding of his teeth. Or was it her teeth?
His muscles strained, her heart stopped, her eyes squeezed shut. He pulled the trigger.
Her mind was in free fall. Perfectly blank. Then, like the burst of a firecracker, came a searing moment of understanding and regret, so complete and profound it shouldn't have been able to fit into a small fraction of a second --
What was that?
She turned her head. She realized her whole body was shaking. CJ looked just as shocked as he stared at the gun.
It hadn't fired. There was no bullet lodged in her head.
Not yet, anyway. Thank God CJ was an incompetent cave boy. Now, if she didn't get off her butt quick, she'd lose the only chance she had to save it. She shot up to her feet, grabbed CJ by the arm that held the gun, and used it to flip the bastard right over her shoulder. His body smacked hard against the pavement. The gun skidded off the path and into the brush.
She stared at his seizing body for a second. Under normal circumstances she would have stayed to pummel him like he deserved, but tonight she was too genuinely freaked out. She needed to get out of there. Her brains, thankfully, were still safely in her skull, but her emotions were splattered on the pavement.
Gaia ran. She ran as fast and gracefully as a doe. But not so fast that she didn't hear the tortured voice screaming behind her.
"I will kill you! I swear to God I will kill you!"
Copyright © 1999 by Francine Pascal