Mark Fife was being watched.
He realized this in a coffee shop three blocks from the townhouse where he and his girlfriend, Allison, lived, sitting in a stuffed chair with his back to the front window. It was early on a weekday morning; all of central Ohio had woken to four inches of new snow, and Mark and Allie had decided to take a morning walk, ending here. Just before rush hour, the Cup O’Joe was full, noisy, the air warm and humid from snow melting off scores of boots. Allison had left Mark alone to use the restroom, and he was pretending to read the Dispatch while he waited. And then came the prickle at his neck, the sudden shock-as though a sly lover had drawn the tip of a fingernail across the hairs of his nape.
He lifted his eyes from the paper and scanned the shop, but no one was looking his way. Then he turned around in his seat and was startled again: A woman-a stranger-was peering through the window at him.
The woman was older than he was, forty-five maybe. Her face was round, unnaturally tan for December, and wrapped in a silver scarf; what hair escaped was curly and very dark. Her eyes were wide: she seemed surprised to see him, in a way he recognized, and that soured his stomach.
Mark might have ignored her, but the woman was too odd-too nervous and frenetic-to ignore. Her mouth hung open; her gloved hands were twisting together in front of her. She wasn’t simply surprised to see him. She was afraid.
He raised his hand, automatically, and she flinched-as though, instead of waving, he’d held up a gun.
Was she really afraid of him? He turned back to the shop, but the only other person in the woman’s line of sight was a young blonde, wrapped in a shawl on a nearby couch, frowning at her textbook.
When Mark turned back to the window, the woman had vanished.
He stood, peered out onto the sidewalk. At that moment maybe a dozen people milled outside, all dressed in dark coats, covering and scattering, getting in and out of cars, puffing steam. The silver scarf, that hair-he searched for them, but saw nothing. The woman was gone.
He dropped back into his seat, trying to place her, failing. He told himself that she must have made a mistake. She’d thought he was someone else. Or she could simply be crazy; Columbus had its share. Still, her appearance and departure left Mark oddly shaken, maybe because the strange woman was of a piece with a morning that had already done its best to unnerve him.
Not forty minutes before, Allison had woken him from an endless nightmare- the pressure of her fingers in his hair as gentle, as unreal, as the sensation that had alerted him to the strange woman’s gaze.
It snowed, Allie had said, when he’d opened his eyes. Come see.
Mark had been dreaming of his son, Brendan, who had died on a cold January day several years before, just weeks after his seventh birthday. The dream, was an enemy whose tactics were familiar, intimate. In it, Mark and Brendan’s mother-Mark’s ex-wife Chloe-were still living in their old two-story brick house in Victorian Village, on the far side of downtown. In the dream their old, rambling home had become a labyrinth: Floors had traded places; new hallways branched into shadow’ doors had been smoothed over into plaster walls.
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