Soon Jill Montgomery fell into an easy rhythm on the trail through City Park. Her arms and legs pumped, her shoulders and hips rolled. It seemed easier than ever before. She felt light as a feather, could barely feel her footfalls on the gravel path crunching beneath her.
The furrows on her brow smoothed away, as if slipping from her forehead on beads of sweat. They trickled down her cheeks and off her jawline.
Running every morning was routine. The run, pushing herself, was always relaxing. It stretched her muscles. Hell, it stretched her soul, set her up for the rest of the day.
She listened to her faint footfalls on the path. The gravel, starkly white in the pre-dawn shadows, crunched, crunched, crunched beneath her Nikes. Her arms pumped, her hands clenched into loose fists. Her breath came easily, rhythmically, in through her nose and out through her slightly open mouth.
The cool, humid air, a ghostly mist, defined the pines. It draped across the thistle-laden brush, the muted red berries of the holly.
They were white pines, her father said. Yellow said the guy across the street.
Tufts of Johnson grass along the path bowed gracefully beneath the weight of dew.
The air collected scents—damp bark, fallen needles, old leaves—a thousand things gone back into the earth. The heady taste of it mixed well with the salt she licked from her lips.
After a good run and a hot shower, everything would be better. Easier.
Everything was easier after a run. Putting up with mid-town traffic, going to court, even smiling and nodding as clients endlessly lied was easier.
It was the run. The run made it all better.
The run drained the stress of the previous day and eased her into the present.
But today—she closed her eyes, tried to calm herself, opened them—today the run was necessary.
Today she was running with the past.
Bob’s past. Letting it peel away, layer by filthy layer.
Bob’s stupid, selfish admission of his guilt.
Bob’s audacity in making her the judge.
She shook her head slightly as she ran. Her pony tail passed her for a second. A flash of blond spritzed her own dark sweat across her light-grey shirt.
Just like that, in a single, greedy second, Bob lifted the load from his shoulders and slammed it firmly down on hers.
The decision was already made, he said. Oh, and he wished it could be some other way.
And then? Then he walked out. Right? He just walked out.
Fine specimen of a man.
There was no way. No way in hell she’d deal with this today.
She had the Barringer arraignment at 9 a.m. Then meetings from 10 ‘til 1, no lunch again. The old man was a stickler when it came to work. Didn’t he dock Barry Jackson’s check for that client lunch three weeks ago? No matter that Barry landed the account.
And when the day was over, there would be Bob. Stupid, stingy, selfish Bob.
She didn’t want to think about it.
But what the hell?
They’d only been married for three years. So it couldn’t be the seven year itch, whatever that was.
And he was only thirty-two. Not ready for a ‘Vette and gold chains. A rope, maybe, stretched up over a rafter.
Why did she hate him so? Men left their wives every day, didn’t they?
She clenched her fists, pumped her arms harder, watched her shoes crunching on the gravel. She dug in harder with her toes, raced hard toward the little stand of aspens that marked the final turn.
To hell with Bob. She’d shower at the gym.
She had a suit in her locker at the gym, didn’t she? Then she’d fight the boss, the court, the lying clients. Anything but Bob.
She remembered to breathe.
Stupid Bob. That’s what the run was for. Drain the stress. Ease her into the day.
And thankfully, it was almost over. It was a great run. She’d drained a bit more of Bob, and now it was all new.
First there would be the gym, then the day.
The gym. The day. That’s all that mattered now.
She ran past the stand of quaking aspens—she sensed them on her left more than saw them—and flashed through the turn, her fists still clenched, her arms pumping hard.
Her shoulder hurt, as if she hit it on an unseen object.
A tenth of a mile to go. It was almost over. She raised her head to spot the parking lot—
Still breathing hard, she frowned. She uncurled her hands and put them on her hips. She breathed deeply, frowned, breathed deeply.
What the hell?
She turned to look back along the trail.
There were the aspens. On the right as she started out each day, on the left as she raced for home.
She turned around again. So where was the parking lot? Where was her Mercedes?
She turned again, looked back.
The aspens. The trail. It was the same trail she ran every morning. The same one she’d run every morning for the past four years. The same one where she’d first met that idiot Bob.
She bent at the waist, put her hands on her knees, took a long breath.
She’d figure it out.
* * *
She was pumping her arms hard that day too, stretching her legs, reaching with her heels. Every fiber in every muscle stretched in rhythm as she climbed the long incline that passed for a hill not quite halfway through the run.
And she was focused. Tightly focused.
She probably wouldn’t have noticed a gunshot. Seriously. When she was focused on the run or free floating with the euphoria of it, even a gunshot would be a minor noise in her distant periphery.
So she was more than a little surprised when she realized there was a man beside her.
That he’d said just said “Hello” for the third time.
That he was looking at her and grinning even as he ran alongside her.
She started, and moved a half-step to the right. “Oh,” she said through her rhythmic breathing. “Hi.”
He kept looking at her. “How far?”
She didn’t look around, but frowned lightly as the self-generated breeze redistributed his words somewhere behind them. “Huh?”
“How far you going today?”
“Oh. Seven miles. Medium day.” She cast a quick glance at him. He seemed all right. Nice smile. Nothing bad in his eyes. “You?”
“I can try for seven.”
What? Why? Did he mean to run with her? Was he trying to pick her up?
He said, “You start at the parking lot?”
She nodded, trying to return her concentration to the rhythm in her shoulders, her arms, her legs.
Her legs. Is that what interested him? What was she wearing today?
But she didn’t want to look down. Men take that the wrong way.
Her breath formed before her in a series of puffs and she ran through them.
Sweats. It’s cold, so sweats on the bottom.
She visualized pulling on her sweatpants in the locker room. Red sweatpants. Then her sports bra. Then an old t-shirt. Then her shirt. Her jersey.
She was wearing red sweatpants with a mid-weight Guinness jersey her dad bought her for her last birthday.
She wanted to keep her legs warm, even if a little too warm. But she didn’t care for the weight of thick fabric up top. And being cooler reminded her to pump her arms, feel her shoulders.
She pumped her arms, monitored the muscle fibers in her shoulders and reached a little farther with her heels. Inadvertently she sped up.
He laughed lightly. “You trying to get away?”
She glanced at him, then back at the trail. “You someone I should get away from?”
He grinned broadly. “Nope. Not if I’m lucky.”
Goodfellas came to mind. The scene with Tommy DeVito and Henry Hill. Where Tommy was jerking Henry’s chain. Lucky? Lucky how? Ha-ha lucky? Serious lucky? How exactly are you hoping to get— But she said, “I’m an attorney.” That usually sent men packing.
Again he laughed. “Good match. I’m in pest control too. I’m a US Marshal.”
Really? She’d never met a US Marshal. But she said, “I’m a defense attorney.”
Yep? What’s that supposed to mean? She stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Look, I’m really not out here looking for a date, so—”
“Oh. Good. I’ll make a note of it in case I decide to ask.” He grinned, then gestured toward the trail. “So you go out and back or do a circuit or what?””
She canted her head slightly, then turned half-right and started running again.
He fell in beside her, matching her stride for stride.
She said, “Out and back. With a circuit in the middle today. It’s right at seven miles.”
“That’s what you said. Mind if I tag along?”
She shrugged as she fell back into an easy rhythm. “Free country.”
“My name. Bob Trask.”
“Ah.” She nodded.
And he stayed up with her through the course. He talked pretty much continually until they’d rounded the circuit and rejoined the main trail to head back toward the stand of aspens and the parking lot.
Before they got back, she knew all about where he was born and reared, which schools he had attended, and the horrifying event that had called him to work in law enforcement. The murder of his parents when he was 16.
Despite her curiosity about some of what he said, she limited her own responses to as few words as possible. He was easy on the eyes and seemed to have an even demeanor, but probably he was either just lonely and wanting to talk—he’d moved to Cremer a little less than a month earlier—or he was looking to “get lucky.” And in that regard, she wasn’t interested.
As they passed the aspens she slowed to a walk, then pointed to her black Mercedes, an AMG GT. “That’s my car. I guess this is where we part company.”
He grinned. “Really?” Then he pointed at the white Ford F-250 parked next to her car. The nearest other vehicles were several spaces away. “That’s my ride. I guess the universe isn’t finished with us yet.”
How did he know where she was parked? Was he stalking her?
But before she could comment, he said, “I always park as close to the trailhead as I can.” Then he grinned again. “Great minds, I guess.”
She only nodded.
“Do you stretch after you run?” He put his left foot up on the thick steel back bumper of his pickup, then walked the other foot back.
“Not always. I know I should but I’m usually in a hurry.”
He gestured toward the other end of the bumper. “Feel free. Nothing better than a good stretch after a run.”
But instead of putting her foot on the bumper, she reached high over her head and interlocked her thumbs, then bent at the waist to lay her palms on the ground. She glanced at him out of her periphery. He didn’t seem to be watching.
After he’d held the position for a long moment, he took his left foot down, put the right one up, then grinned. “Interesting run. But how do you remember where to turn?”
She continued to stretch, leaning back and then to either side, then forward to touch the ground again. “What do you mean?”
He straightened and gestured toward the trail. “There are at least what, five, six trails off to either side? And three or four off the one you turned on for the circuit. How do you keep them straight?”
“Oh. Just habit, I guess. I’ve been running out here close to a year.”
“Ah. Well, maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Maybe,” she said, then slipped into her car and headed for the gym.
Not quite an hour later, she walked into her downtown office and closed the door. She went to her computer and typed US Marshals Service Ohio into the address bar. After accessing a government page and entering a special passcode, a regional list of Marshals appeared, each with an official photo alongside it.
And there he was. Robert Trask. He’d been with the US Marshals Service a little over three years. Apparently he was one of the good guys. At least so far.
Well, good for him.
She went about her day, which was relatively light. She had one interview with a new client and would spend the balance of the day researching his case unless something else came up.
She pulled his file to familiarize herself with it before the interview.
He was charged with grand-larceny auto, driving while under the influence of a controlled substance and manslaughter.
The guy had lost control of a stolen car and rammed it through the front of a convenience store.
She removed several photos from the file and looked at them.
The first few photos were outside of the convenience store. The only tire marks at the scene were where the tires hit the curb. Nothing on the street. Nothing on the sidewalk. He hadn’t been aware enough even to hit the brakes.
The next several photos were graphic. They showed the twenty-two year old cashier from six angles. She was obviously dead, smashed like a bug between the front of the car and the counter. According to the officer’s report, he shifted the car out of gear and turned off the engine after he arrived on the scene.
She returned to the report. Six other people—an assistant manager and five shoppers—were injured, two grievously. They had been removed from the scene before the photographer got there. But the two with life-threatening injuries were still in the hospital. And this happened—she flipped to back to the arresting officer’s report—one day short of two weeks ago.
She closed the folder. Probably a slam dunk. For the DA.
But the guy surprised her, at first, with a full confession.
When she walked into the interview room, he was already seated at the other end of the table. Before she even sat down, he raised his cuffed hands and said, “Okay, I just wanna say, you know, I done what they said I done. Okay?”
She could hardly believe her ears. “You know you’re charged with grand larceny, DUI and manslaughter, right?”
He nodded, and the beginning of a sneer curled one corner of his mouth. “Yeah, I was there.”
“And you admit to all counts?”
“Right. I admit to it.”
She smiled as she seated herself. “All right. Let me just get your file and we’ll go over some things.” She set her valise on the table and opened it, then pulled out a stack of papers roughly a quarter-inch thick.
For a moment she thought she might have a cause on her hands. If the guy was willing to make an appropriate show of remorse, maybe she could get the judge to hand down a combined sentence. Maybe a shorter prison term and some sort of drug rehabilitation program.
She ran through a battery of basic questions. Did he understand each of the charges against him?
Had he been appropriately advised of his Miranda rights by the arresting officer?
Had he been abused in any way since the arrest?
And what about his treatment in jail? Was he adequately comfortable, given his situation?
“Yeah, yeah. I wish they’d allow conjugal visits though,” he said, a broad grin on his face.
Heat rose in her cheeks. But probably he was just talking off some nerves.
“Could I bring you anything or maybe get a message to your family?”
The man actually smiled at her across the table. “Nah, nothin’ like that. But me sayin’ I done it, that’s between us, right? I mean, you’re my lawyer.”
She frowned. “Well, yes. Attorney-client conversations are privileged, but—”
“An’ me sayin’ I done it, that gets me somethin’, right? You can get me off?”
She was stunned. “Off? I don’t understand.” But she did understand. She understood all too well, although she wished she didn’t.
He nodded. “Off. You know, like with time served or whatever. I been in jail for almost two weeks now.” He shook his head as if with regret. “I tell you what, chica, that ain’t no kinda life.” He laughed, then slouched back in his chair and interlaced the fingers of his cuffed hands on the table.
A sigh escaped her. She felt it go, and it was almost audible. Her hand was trembling as she scooped the short stack of papers from the table. As she inserted the papers into her valise, she looked at her lap so he wouldn’t see the contempt in her eyes. “Mr. Ramirez, you should get used to the idea that you’re going to have to do some time.” She looked up at him. “Now maybe I can mitigate some of that for you if you show a proper amount of remorse, but—”
“Remorse? Like bein’ sorry an’ all that? That’s all I gotta do? Hey, I got remorse comin’ out my ass, homes.” He laughed. “Hey, mostly I’m sorry that cop was so quick to get there. He’d’a give me another few minutes, we wouldn’t be talkin’.”
“No. I mean real remorse. Remorse for the victims.”
He leaned forward. “I am the victim, chica.” Then he sat back again. “Hey, I’m a victim of society, man. I got a drug problem, right? So it ain’t like I can do without the stuff. I gotta have it. An’ I ain’t got no car to go get it. So that’s why I hadda take that other car.” He grinned. “But it was a nice one though, huh? Least ‘til the accident.”
She closed her eyes, opened them. “I mean the cashier, Mr. Ramirez. And the other people in the store. Were you aware— I mean, did you see the cashier?”
“Oh, I get you. Yeah, I seen her. Hey, she was smashed, man. Sucks to be her, am I right?”
She stood almost too quickly and turned away. “Well, I think I have all I need for now.”
“Hey. Hey, where you goin’?”
But she was already reaching for the door knob. “I’ll talk with you again before the arraignment.”
And the door closed behind her. She was able to breathe again.
Maybe she was on the wrong side of this thing. Everyone deserved representation during their day in court. But did she deserve to subject herself to these people?
Maybe she’d put out feelers about working for the district attorney. She could still serve those she believed to be innocent. If she ever encountered any. And she would actually be more in control of making the punishment fit the crime, taking into account things like mitigating circumstances and remorse. Authentic remorse.
In the meantime, she was still here. And she was Mr. Ramirez’ attorney of record. She had to at least try to come up with a viable defense.
Back at the office, she wrestled with that problem for most of the day. When she finally gave up a little after 4:30, she could hardly wait for her run tomorrow morning. Pounding the trail made everything better.
She locked her office, walked down the hallway, and was almost to the front door of the lobby when Marian, the front office secretary, called to her. “Jill, it seems you have a secret admirer.”
Jill stopped and turned around. She wasn’t in the mood. “I’m sorry, a what?”
Marian was smiling. She gestured toward a single daisy in a small bud vase toward the front edge of her desk. A narrow red ribbon was tied around the top of the vase, and there was a small card attached. “A secret admirer. This came addressed to you.” She reached to pick up the vase. “There’s a card.”
Jill approached the desk and took the proffered vase. She bent to set her valise on the floor, then flipped open the card.
Not a date. McClaren’s. Supper. 6 p.m. Hope you can make it.
Her gaze still on the note, she shook her head. “He must be out of his mind.”
Marian beamed. “Who is it?”
“Just some guy I met on the trail while I was running this morning.” She reached the vase back toward Marian with the note still attached. “Here, you keep it. It looks good on your desk.”
“Oh, but I can’t—”
“But for goodness’ sake, get rid of that stupid card.” Jill forced a smile, then picked up her valise and turned away. “See you in the morning.”
“Oh. Well, see you on Monday then.”
As the door closed behind her, Marian said, “Have a nice evening.” Her voice carried the tone of a smile.
* * *
The faded red brick wall of the building passed by on her left as she made her way toward the parking garage.
Weird. What in the world was the guy thinking? Did he just assume he could ask her out when they’d only met this morning?
But he hadn’t really asked her out. In the note, he even said it wasn’t a date.
Still, it was pretty forward of him, sending her a flower.
Did he somehow know the daisy was her favorite flower? Or had he sent it because it was unassuming? After all, it wasn’t as if he’d sent a rose. Probably the unassuming thing. A nice gesture to get her attention without going overboard.
But McClaren’s was her favorite restaurant too. It wasn’t especially romantic, but it was slightly upscale and quiet.
Did he know that somehow? That it was her favorite restaurant?
But how could he? And really, other than the country club it was the only nice restaurant in town. So if a man was out to impress a woman, he would invite her to one or the other.
Still, she wasn’t available to be impressed. She’d told him as much this morning and—
She realized she had inadvertently walked a few steps past the entrance to the parking garage. She turned around, went back to the entrance, and handed her slip to the valet as she snapped her purse closed. “It’s a black Mercedes,” she said.
The young man grinned and nodded. “Yes, Miss Montgomery. I know.”
She looked up. It was the same young man who had been parking and retrieving her car for the past year. “Oh, sorry.”
“It’s all right. I know you have a lot on your mind.”
How in the world did he know? She frowned. “Excuse me?”
“Bein’ a lawyer an’ all.”
“Oh. Yes. I suppose.”
He tipped his cap, then turned and trotted away to get her car.
But supper. Should she go?
How couldn’t possibly know whether she had plans. And apparently he didn’t care. What she ought to do is go home and curl up with a good book. That would teach him to assume she didn’t have a life.
Then again, he hadn’t really assumed anything. Had he? The last part of the note read, “Hope you can make it,” not “Be there or else.”
As the young man—Roger, was it?—drove up with her car, she muttered, “Stop second guessing everything, Jill. Just do what you want to do.”
And actually, she didn’t have any plans.
And it had been a long time since she’d treated herself.
She would go to supper tonight at McClaren’s. If Mr. Trask happened to be there, fine. She would dine with him over some light conversation. And if he wasn’t—well, then she would still have a nice evening away from her apartment. And she could sleep-in tomorrow morning.
Besides, maybe a nice supper and a few glasses of wine would wipe Mr. Martinez and his self-righteous, entitled smirk from her mind.
That’s what she’d do. She’d go to supper at McClaren’s on her own terms, as she often did. Well, as she had done twice in the past year.
But she would be going more often from here on out. Once a month, maybe. At least once every other month. Or maybe once a quarter. A few times a year wouldn’t kill her.
So it was settled. She would go.
With any luck at all, he would show up late. Maybe even after she’d already started eating. That would show him she was neither intimidated by him nor dependent on him.
* * *
And she wasn’t.
She was neither intimidated by him nor dependent on him.
But she became infatuated with him through that first dinner.
She arrived right on time to find him waiting quietly. The maitre d’ was expecting her and showed her to the table. He also seated her, but Bob rose and waited until she was seated before he regained his chair. He did so in an unassuming manner, without flourish, as if it were simply a nice habit he’d developed.
It wasn’t what she expected. At all.
She expected him to be smug about her showing up.
But he apologized for asking her at the last moment and seemed genuinely glad she was able to make it.
She expected him to talk about himself through the evening too. After all, he was the main topic of conversation during their entire run earlier in the day.
But he asked questions about her. And when she tried to reciprocate, he turned the topic back to her.
At one point he even laughed. “After this morning, you know pretty much everything there is to know about me.”
And the rest of the evening went the same way. He was a gentleman in every respect, and an attentive listener.
When the evening was over, he accompanied her to her car, then grinned. “So, would it be all right now if I asked you for a date?”
She almost laughed. “I suppose so. Given my apparent inability to run you off.”
“Great. How about next Friday? Same place, same time?”
They dated almost constantly from then for the next several months.
Then they were married.
* * *
She stared again at where the her Mercedes should be.
Did Bob have a hand in this?
Well no. She wouldn’t put it past him to have her car towed, but the parking lot itself was gone. Just disappeared. That was beyond even Bob’s abilities.
Again she turned and looked back up the trail.
Definitely the same trail.
She looked at the stand of quaking aspens.
Same grove of trees she saw every morning as she started her run.
She turned around again.
Still no Mercedes. Still no parking lot. What the hell was going on?
This wasn’t right.
What the hell?
But there must be a logical explanation.
Her breathing started to calm, and she relaxed. Her focus on the run began to fade. The euphoria drifted up to meet it. Bob no longer mattered. The day no longer mattered. She had a new problem to play with.
She put her hands on her hips and shook her head.
It doesn’t make any sense. It just doesn’t make any sen—
Then she heard the gunshot. Plain as if it had just happened.
And Bob. It had something to do with Bob.
But a gunshot?
Okay, let’s go over it again.
He came in nonchalantly from the bedroom.
He was still tying his tie, still trying for the perfect Windsor knot, and he told her. Just like that.
Matter of factly, no big deal, he laid it all out.
There was another woman. He hadn’t meant for it to happen, but there was a timetable. Their timetable. Their flight to Barbados that afternoon.
The decision was already made, he said. Oh, and he wished it could be another way.
Okay, so? Then he just walked out. Didn’t he?
No, he didn’t leave.
She paled with the memory.
He said the decision was already made.
He slipped his hand under the lapel of his jacket.
He said he wished there was another way.
He pulled his pistol.
And she turned away, her toes digging in, her eyes wide, and raced across the living room. The carpet was mottled, like white gravel. Past the painting, on her left, of a grove of aspens.
She turned down the hallway, glanced her right shoulder off the wall, raced headlong into the bedroom.
The lamp on the dresser in front of her exploded.
She slammed forward, her life blood pumping, rhythmically, rhythmically into the mottled gravel. Into the mottled carpet. The carpet.
* * *
That’s what it was.
That’s all it was.
She looked again back along the trail. She would miss it.
And she faded into the mist defining the trees.
* * * * * * *