“I’m the one who broke into your office in September,” Ashley said. She didn’t waste her time answering the second question.
Northrop didn’t answer her right away. “I have to take this,” he said to someone else amid the clink of silverware and the hum of background conversation.
Ashley looked to her left, saw the sun sinking into the ocean. She hadn’t seen a sunset over water in years.
“How do I know you are who you say you are?” Northrop asked when he spoke again.
“Check your e-mail,” Ashley said. “You’ll see there a copy of a portion of the file on the disc you kept in your safe. That is to say, material relating to Project Athena. I cannot be on long, so please do this quickly.”
Unlikely as it seemed given her timing, she couldn’t rule out the possibility that he was trying to have her call traced—and she didn’t intend to make that process any easier for him.
“All right,” he said, apparently convinced. “Why get in touch with me now, Ms. Sutton? What is it that you want?”
Ashley didn’t miss his casual use of her name, that reminder that he knew exactly who she was.
“I want to end this,” Ashley said. “I want my life back.”
“And you expect me to just let you have it?”
“No, but I think you know when an effort’s become pointless,” Ashley said. “I know you got your disc back, and how; and because of that I suspect you realize your fight is not with me. But that it can be.”
She felt preposterous as she said that, just as she had felt preposterous threatening de Ruyter and Mackelvore, and desperately hoped he didn’t catch on to the fact.
“What exactly are you insinuating?” Northrop asked her sharply—but not dismissively.
“Your people have been chasing me all around the country, and they must have figured out what I was doing,” Ashley said. “So you must have some idea of the information I’ve collected, and what I can do with it. Because of the other parties out there that do not necessarily see eye to eye with you on this project of yours. Which is, after all, how all this got started.
“Or I can back off, leave you alone just like I want to be left alone.”
“Very well,” Northrop said. “Be at Rockefeller Center, in the plaza, at eight P.M. next Friday night. We’ll settle things there.” Not an offer, but an order, from a man who sounded almost as put out about her interruption of his dinner, or his having to make his own appointment, as her breaking into his office.
“In the meantime, you’ll have nothing to fear from my people,” Northrop continued. “Provided that you refrain from any more actions against our interests, of course.”
“Of course,” Ashley agreed. “Eight P.M. Friday it is.”
Northrop hung up then.
The Client was satisfied, and Northrop had backed off for the time being. They couldn’t count the authorities out in quite the same way, but there seemed no reason to think that the incidents in New York and Baltimore and Chicago were being treated as more than local curiosities.
So it should have been safe to fly. But Ashley hesitated to get on a plane just yet. And it was a week until the meeting that she hoped would settle the issue. If she flew out that very same day, walked off the flight in New York six or seven hours later, what would she do with herself for that week? Return to her old life, her apartment, her gallery, her friends, as if everything was settled and normal when it very clearly wasn’t, when she half-expected that things would go bad and force her on the run again?
There was just no point in rushing back, especially when she couldn’t count on Northrop keeping to the terms of his proposal. So it was to be another drive, from San Diego to New York, and that many more thousands of miles on the road. But this time, as they were neither running from or to something, they paced themselves, eating every meal out of a plate resting on a table, and sleeping every night in a clean hotel bed.
Every once in a while they even permitted themselves a look around, starting in Vegas, where they treated themselves to a day and a night off, during which Ashley lost five hundred dollars at the roulette table, and Logan a thousand at blackjack—by far the most pleasant losses of the trip. From there it was east through the desert spaces of Utah, where there was a brief false alarm about a car that turned out not to be following them after all, and Colorado, where snow was falling again. They had another little scare in the Kansas farm country, before crossing the line into Missouri and, heading past the Gateway Arch on their way through St. Louis, reentered Kentucky from the west. Traveling that state’s highways they partially retraced their drive up to Chicago on their way north and east into Ohio, where she watched open fields give way to that density of concrete and steel that showed they had clearly returned to megalopolitan spaces.
From there it was east again, into Pennsylvania, where they passed through Leigh of all places. This time she thought not of the ways in which her experience leaving it had been similar to Julian’s, but the ways in which it had been different. She remembered the toll that the closure of the mill took on the town, and the ways in which it touched her home life. How stressed her father had looked all the time and the strain it put on his marriage to her mother.
But it was the happy memories of the place that predominated, and leaving it that had been confusing and wrenching. She hadn’t understood why her father couldn’t just get a new job in town, why they had to go all the way to a whole other state. She hadn’t been happy about leaving her house, her friends. She remembered how confining that little apartment in Newark seemed, how when she went outside there was no yard, just a hallway that led to an elevator that led to a lobby that led to a gray street. Remembered, too, how much more controlling and restrictive her parents were, frightened for their little girl in the big, unfriendly city that was as new to them as it was to her.
No, it hadn’t been easy. But over time she got reconciled to the apartment, even came to think of it as home, and she made new friends, and had a life until her parents both lost theirs, and since then—how much she had missed them.
No, her story had not been the same as Julian’s. That deep-seated need to escape everything he’d been born to, a town, a family, a name, had never been part of her. Not that that had stopped them from winding up in the same place at the end, alone but for each other in a milieu much farther from home than the mere number of miles they’d traveled indicated.
She remembered, too, what Julian told her about his journey there.
“People will know things about you, and they’ll be able to use them against you forever.”
That was exactly what happened with the Client, after all this time still just “the Client.” And she realized that there was nothing to prevent it from happening again.
But she could stop lengthening the list of things people could use against her, stop putting herself in the situations that threatened to bring everything crashing down on top of her. She would be restless, but so what? After being in the grip of the Client, forced to let him pull her strings, after these weeks on the run and all she’d seen and suffered in them, her taste for the thrills of her secret profession seemed a small and trivial thing, a thing she could learn to let go, overcoming the damage to the wiring in her head one way or another, like every addict who wanted a life had to eventually. There would be at least the hope of an end, and then . . .
And then she wouldn’t need Logan to watch out for her like this anymore. That would make things simpler between them. And more complicated. Much as Ashley hadn’t wanted to admit it to herself, she’d suspected—no, known—for a long time that Logan had feelings for her that went beyond protectiveness, or friendship.
He hadn’t tried to say anything about those feelings, of course. It was rather a matter of the things he did for her—God, this past month—and the things he didn’t say, all those times when he seemed to be thinking something, but held it back. The harried father, she told herself, but that was just self-deception. He was the lover who refused to declare himself. Because if they crossed that line, and it went badly, it would be very difficult for him to stay in her life, doing what he felt like he needed to do. And because even if she had been out on a few dates since Julian’s death, even had something approximating a relationship for a few weeks, the truth was that she wasn’t over Julian.
But even so, Ashley had to admit that she felt something for Logan, too, this man who was always there for her, sharing her burdens and her dangers, trying to protect her in spite of herself—just the way Julian had. This man who knew her better than anyone else in the world, maybe even better than Julian had, and understood and forgave all of it.
It was far, far past time for them to bring all that out in the open and deal with it, one way or another. As soon as this was all over they would do just that, she promised herself. But it wasn’t over, not just yet.
They continued from Leigh to the Jersey coast, arriving in Newark Friday morning. Inside the city limits they sold the Nissan to a used car dealer and continued by subway to the safe house, which seemed to have escaped the notice of her pursuers all the way down to the end. Ashley stayed there with Logan until night fell, then changed into a skirted business suit and a coat she hadn’t needed the last time she was in New York, and finally headed off to her appointment.
From across the river the sky over the city was a vibrant purple, sparsely jeweled by those stars bright enough to shine through the last light of the day, and the first man-made lights of the night. It looked like the sky of an alien world, over a metropolis out of the future.