STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT
The taxi rolled to a stop next to the Chastain building just after nine o’clock.
For a moment, Allie sat there, listening to the raindrops patter against the roof of the cab, staring out through the liquid-smeared window into the darkness. She knew there should be a light burning directly above the door she planned to use to enter the building. The veil of rain obscured it, making the alley between the Manhattan high-rise and its neighbor appear utterly black.
Naturally she’d forgotten to bring an umbrella. It had been that kind of day.
The driver twisted in his seat and shot her a skeptical glance. “You sure you don’t want me to take you around the front?”
The only thing Allie was sure about was that this was the last place she wanted to be. She was exhausted. Her back was killing her, her feet ached. All she wanted was to sink back against the cushioned seat and have him take her home.
But she’d made the mistake of doing her brother a favor and getting him tickets for tomorrow’s Mets game, then compounded the error by leaving them on her desk. That was what she got for being in such a hurry to leave work on a Friday in the first place. Of course, with her luck it had to be an early-afternoon game. For her brother and his buddies to get to the ballpark in time, she either had to come back to work tonight or make the trip early in the morning. After the week she’d had, there was no way she was getting out of bed before noon tomorrow.
She reached into her purse for the fare. “This is fine.”
“You want me to wait?”
“No.” She’d be lucky to afford the fare back to Queens without paying him to sit there while she ran inside. She’d have to try to hail another taxi when she got out.
Shoving the money into the driver’s open palm and ignoring the look that said he clearly thought she had a few screws loose, Allie stepped out of the cab. A few seconds later, it pulled away.
She moved quickly down the alley, muttering under her breath about baseball and younger brothers. She only hoped that by using the back service entrance and bypassing security in the front, she could get in and out faster. One of the night guards who often manned the front desk was a creep. She had no idea if he was working tonight, but wasn’t about to risk it.
The rain continued to fall, and she was nearly soaked by the time she spotted the dim light above the back entrance up ahead. A sigh of relief whooshed from between her teeth. More than ready to get inside, she reached into her pocket for the security code she wasn’t supposed to have. It was good to have friends in high places, in this case Nadine in Payroll. Nadine wasn’t supposed to have it, either, but Allie wasn’t about to rat her out.
Her hand had just closed around the slip of paper when she heard voices.
The sound was so unexpected she missed a step and nearly stumbled. She reached out and steadied herself against the wall, and hesitated, uncertain. She couldn’t make out who was speaking, but they were definitely coming from in front of her–right where she was headed.
Curious in spite of herself, Allie slowly moved closer. She could make the voices out now, hushed and angry. She realized with a start that one belonged to Price Chastain himself. Real estate mogul. Head of the Chastain Corporation. The man whose name was on her paycheck, even though she was more likely to see him in the paper than in the office. Surprise drew her up short again. He was just about the last person she’d expect to be hanging out in an alley. The other voice belonged to a woman. Allie didn’t recognize it. Whoever she was, though, she was holding up her end of the argument. Chastain’s temper was legendary, but the woman was giving it right back.
Moving on tiptoe, Allie peered around the corner to the recessed back entrance.
They were standing directly in front of the door she’d intended to use, clearly illuminated in a puddle of light. Mr. Chastain was right in the woman’s face. She stood in profile, allowing Allie to identify her. Her name was Kathleen…something. Allie wasn’t sure what department she worked in. She only knew her well enough to recognize her face. The woman was shaking, her hands fisted at her sides, her face dark with rage. She didn’t back down from whatever Chastain was saying.
They weren’t alone, either. Two other men stood slightly behind the woman on either side. Something about their stance said that despite their location, they weren’t there to back her up.
An uneasy feeling slid down Allie’s spine. She didn’t know what was going on and she didn’t want to. The last thing she needed was to get mixed up in something that was none of her business. She’d have to suck it up and go in the front entrance. At the moment all she wanted was to get out of there. That sole purpose fueling her movements, she began to inch backward in the direction she’d come from.
Just as Mr. Chastain pulled out a gun.
For a split second, time stood still. Allie froze. Kathleen froze. The air that had been charged with angry voices was now stunningly quiet.
Then Allie noticed that time, somehow, was still moving. Mr. Chastain was still moving. He’d produced a gun from his coat with a casualness that seemed wildly out of place for the situation, the same ease with which he raised the gun, aimed it directly at the chest of the woman standing in front of him.
Like a video running in slow motion suddenly propelled into fast-forward, everything seemed to happen at once. The muffled shot. The eruption of blood that splattered across Mr. Chastain’s pristine silk suit and overcoat. Kathleen’s head snapping back, eyes wide with shock, before she fell to the ground.
And then, once more, silence. Nothing but the steady beat of the rain.
A scream rose in Allie’s throat, pressing at her Adam’s apple with a force that begged to be released. Some deep-seated sense of self-preservation prevented it. She clamped her lips together in a tight line to keep the sound from escaping. She couldn’t scream, couldn’t afford to let him know that she’d seen.
So she stood there, hidden in the alley’s shadows, afraid to move, afraid not to. She watched as Mr. Chastain slowly lowered the gun and returned it to his pocket.
Murder. I just witnessed a murder.
Allie stared at his expression, no less horrified by what she saw there than by what she’d seen him do. There was no remorse. There was no anger. There was…nothing. If she hadn’t seen him kill someone, she never would have believed it. He gazed down at the woman’s body with an expression so blank that she almost wondered if he realized what he’d done.
Then, with a chilling coolness, he smiled.
He said something to the two men, who’d stood there the whole time and done nothing. One of them laughed.
Fresh horror swept over her. Allie slowly became aware of the fact that she was shaking. Tremors racked her body from head to foot. Silent tears mingled with the rain and poured down her cheeks, blurring her vision, the result of keeping that scream inside. She couldn’t wipe them away, couldn’t move at all. Then she realized to her horror that she was still standing there.
How long had it been? Ten seconds? Minutes? An hour?
She had to go. He might glance over and see her at any moment.
And then he would kill her too.
She had to go. She had to run.
Holding her breath, doing her best not to make a sudden movement, she inched backward, retreating further into the shadows. She ducked around the corner. Then, only then, did she start moving faster, spinning on her heel, hurtling into the darkness and the escape that lay beyond.
And she ran, so hard and so fast it seemed as though she would never stop running again.
Copyright © 2008 by Kerry Connor. All Rights Reserved.
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.