Ashley was strapped down in a strange-looking reclining chair in a large white room, otherwise bare and featureless except for the white box on the ceiling, and the large window in the wall facing her through which she could see a pair of white-coated men. One of them was sitting at a control console, the other standing at his shoulder.
She wondered what she was doing there when all at once she was assaulted by a swirl of colored lights and a series of sounds so intricate and intense that it made her feel as if her skull was vibrating—even as she felt like she wasn’t really seeing or hearing anything. No, the light, the sound, it seemed to be surging up from inside of her.
A scream rose above the rest of that sound that wasn’t a sound, and then Ashley realized that it was a real sound she was hearing not in her mind but with her ears. But who could have been screaming? There was only—
Her, it was coming from her, all as the assault on her senses tearing those screams out of her throat grew still more intense, intense enough to drown those screams out of her consciousness, intense enough to overwhelm her so that she sensed less and less of anything, her visual field fading to black, a black in which she saw the New York skyline from above, at night. She felt herself running, running like she was being chased, and then falling, falling, falling . . .
When she snapped upright in the darkness, clear-headed in that way that told her she would not be able to fall asleep again. She reached for her cell and checked the time.
It was eight A.M.
Four hours, then. Four hours of sleep in which she seemed to dream the whole time, and dream so vividly that it felt as if everything she dreamed was still clinging to her, more real than the bed and the room. She would have liked to think it was all just the meaningless detritus of consciousness, but she knew better.
Ashley took another quick shower, this one with the pressure turned up to the maximum to wake up her body as well as her mind. As the jets hit her she started thinking about the day ahead. She didn’t have to worry about the gallery; she’d already told her assistant Emma that she wouldn’t be coming in that day, leaving the run of the place to her. That left Ashley free to go to the meet in the park straight from the safe house.
For this outing she selected a pair of faded jeans, a short-sleeved light green top, sneakers—more practical than the previous night’s footwear given all the walking she planned on doing, and the running she might have to do. She also opted to wear another wig, dark brown rather than black, and shorter, with hair falling just to her shoulders.
So dressed, Ashley next put on a black glossy imitation leather backpack, which combined with the rest of what she was wearing to make her look like a tourist, or a college student, neither type especially scarce where she was going. Completing the outfit were a pair of sunglasses and a pair of buds in her ears trailing wires down to a Qpod in her pocket. The glasses and the buds were just for show, making it look like she was in her own little world, oblivious to her surroundings, while she scanned the faces around her.
For breakfast Ashley had a cup of coffee and a muffin, then woke up Logan to let him know she was going and left the office to return to Manhattan on the subway. This time she rode with the Monday morning rush hour crowd, that flood of people, millions of them, heading onto the island for the working day over the bridges and in the trains shooting through these underground tunnels.
Her train was so crowded that there was barely room to stand, and so was the next, and so was the next, but the crowds helped hide her. All the same, she looked out for anyone who might have been looking out for her, or simply noticing her. At one point she thought she saw the bartender from McLaren’s. The cut of her hair, those cheekbones—but no, it wasn’t her. But if it was, how much difference would that have made, given how she’d gone in and walked out?
Ashley wondered if she wasn’t giving the matter too much thought, if it wasn’t, like the dream, a reminder that she’d become jumpy. She’d always carried on this side of her work with sufficient discretion that she’d never had to face a cop, never felt as if she’d been subjected to more than the usual scrutiny passing through airport security, never spotted a real sign that she was being watched, and not for lack of checking.
But then the Client practically recited her résumé to her in that hotel room. She’d thought that was far as it went. But Northrop’s people chasing her like that, her unwittingly becoming a MyTube star . . . that was something else, something she hadn’t been prepared for, something that would necessitate bigger changes than setting up a new identity to replace Amy Mercey.
The sight of the subway tunnel’s walls gave way to the illuminated interior of the station as the third and last train Ashley rode to her destination pulled up at her stop. She exited the train, rather less packed now as the midday hour approached, then crossed the platform and took the stairs up to the street, on which the sun shone brightly out of a blue end-of-summer sky.
The city into which Ashley had stepped was less the New York of skyscrapers that blotted out the sky than the city that preceded it, remnants of which were evident in brownstone towers and Victorian mansions. Ashley walked four blocks west, and looked across the street at a gate admitting car and foot traffic through the tree line.
She crossed the street and continued walking along Bethesda Drive until she arrived at the park’s center, where she saw the entrance to a columned passageway. On the other side was the terrace, which inside the sandstone walls bounding it was as big as a city square. In the middle of it was a circular fountain big enough to contain many of the palatial homes she’d passed on the way over, with a bronze column taller than most of the trees she’d passed rising out of the middle to provide a pedestal for a statue of an angel.
On the far side of the terrace, past the wall, was the park’s lake, on the other side of which was a woodland so lushly verdant that standing there one could almost imagine they were not inside a city at all. But she didn’t have as clear a picture of that side of the terrace as she would have liked, because of the big fountain in the way, and all the people moving about, and so she continued inward blindly, past a skateboarder displaying his moves to his friends (kids skipping school she guessed), and a violinist playing to a small but appreciative crowd. At the fountain she paused to marvel at the statue, just like a tourist, and then kept on walking to the other side as if going to check out the lake for herself.
When they made the plans for the transfer of the disc, the Client told Ashley she would be making a brush pass to a man in a gray suit, holding a cup of Windjammer’s coffee in the appointed place. As the message on the blog mentioned the benches at the end of the terrace along the lake she expected to find such a man waiting there. And sure enough, there he was, a man sitting on one of the two benches to which the message could have referred, with a gray suit jacket matching his gray trousers draped over one arm, and a cup of Windjammer’s coffee held in the other.
But sitting on that other bench was another man, also in a gray suit, holding his own cup of Windjammer’s coffee.