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WINDSONG

WrittenBy... Jill Lynn Anderson

HOME
GOODNIGHT, GRACIE
ABBOTT AND COSTELNIK
RELATE ON 78
A JOYOUS HEART
SKETCH
SWEET INTERFERENCE
EXCEPTIONAL LIES
WINDSONG

Finished! This is the novel that semi-finaled in the New Voices contest. It also won third place honors in the annual SouthWest Writers competition. 

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Chapter one 

                                                                                                             

She rinsed the dye out of my hair and rubbed a threadbare towel across my ammonia-tingling scalp.
             “What do you think?” She spun me around to the mirror.
            My gasp couldn’t be contained. Seeing my face framed in black startled more than my collagen-enhanced lips had. The mane of light brown hair with the blonde streaks so expertly placed by a beautician in a high-priced Manhattan salon…gone.    

“Well?” she asked.  
            In shock, I whispered, “It’s dark.”
            She whirled the blow dryer around my head and I longed to see a lighter hair color emerge once dry.  
            It didn’t. It was black. A shade away from jet. “It’s different.”
            “That’s the idea,” she said. “Now your eyes. Have you ever worn contact lenses before?”
            “No. I have good vision.”
            “These are cosmetic, not corrective.” She popped open a case and placed a brown-tinted lens into my outstretched hand. “Put it on your fingertip.”   
            She furthered her instructions and after a couple failed attempts, I managed to successfully insert both lenses. And obliterated the translucent blue eyes others called my best feature. I blinked hard at the intruders and tried to focus on my image in the mirror. My eyes burned, watered in complaint.
            She smiled. “They take some getting used to.”   
            I touched the still-damp ends of the hair she’d cut into a smooth chin-length bob. “I hardly recognize myself.”
            “Hardly’s not good enough.” Her smile faded into a grim line and she brushed bronzing powder across my cheekbone.

Concerned the powder would make my face an unnatural orange color, I opened my mouth to protest.  But a swallow was all I could manage--a failed attempt to rid the cotton-like texture fear had crusted to my throat. She was no beautician, and I wasn’t a pampered client sitting in a high-priced Manhattan beauty salon where my every whim was catered to.  
            I was sitting in a sealed room at the FBI compound in Quantico, Virginia, and she was a federal agent--a master in the art of disguise. The intent of my makeover wasn’t to enhance, but to transform.      
            I, Lexie Gray, was to be no more. Indeed, I was disappearing right before my newly-browned eyes.  


   “Drivel,” I mumble loud enough to stir Bronson awake. The opening paragraphs I penned months ago reek of a flippancy that didn’t do justice to the terror at the start. Nor did they portray so much as a hint of foreshadowing at the tenderness that followed.
   No! Forget emotions. Forget the tenderness. I promised the publisher a serious non-fiction account about my experience, not a cozy memoir about life in a tin-roofed house surrounded by miniature horses.

   I grab a tissue and dab at my eyes, determined to refocus my attention on the beginning. How can I capture in words the magnitude of fear that wrapped, squeezed and often still tightens its grip on me today?  

 

Thrill, not terror, raced up my spine the afternoon my editor called and asked if I could handle the exclusive interview with Governor Manola because Jim Rothberg, originally assigned the plum, could not.  

Dressed in a favorite blouse with oversized faux-pearl buttons, I rushed through my scheduled interview with a wildlife conservation lobbyist to arrive at the Governor’s Albany mansion half an hour early.     
            Julia Sattler, the Governor’s press secretary, greeted me with a handshake. “You’re early.”
            A smear of peach-colored lipstick marked her front tooth and I fought the urge to brush a finger across the slick surface of my own teeth. “I don’t mind waiting.”
            “No, no.” She smiled. “On the contrary, the Governor will be delighted. His son’s Little League game starts in an hour.”
            She led me to the Governor’s office.
            He smiled; his politico-perfect teeth mocking Julia’s. “Ms. Gray. Nice to see you again.” He stood from his desk and shook my hand. “I understand Jim Rothberg had more pressing matters.”

            I returned his smile, both in greeting and in appreciation that he remembered me. “Yes.”
            “Julia, make a note to send a gift.”
            “Of course,” she said and gestured for me to sit down. “Do you know if his wife had a boy or girl?”
            “A boy.” I set my tape recorder on his desk. “Their second.”
            “Speaking of boys.” The Governor pointed to a spot beyond me.
            I turned and saw the Governor’s son wearing his Little League uniform and a youthful exuberance that would do Norman Rockwell proud.
            “Hello,” I said.
            The boy raced toward his father. “Are you coming to the game?”    
            “Ryan, I told you. I’ll be there,” the Governor said. “Now, say hello to Ms. Gray. She’s a magazine reporter and writes a monthly column about children’s law.”

            Ryan’s eyes brightened. “About kids my age?”

            I smiled. “Yes, kids your age.”

            “Cool.”

            The Governor winked at me. “I think you’ve gained a f...” His focus shifted away from me and the color drained from his face.

            I turned to the direction of his gaze and thought the sports-clothed stranger standing behind Julia was the Little League coach.  A flash of silver appeared at Julia’s neck, replaced by a thin red line. Only when the line grew into a waterfall of horror did I react.  
            I scrambled from my seated position and rushed forward. The assassin grabbed me from behind. He wielded his knife toward my throat and the blade deflected off the top button of my blouse and sliced my collar bone. I dropped to my knees as my seeping blood turned the teal color of my blouse into an ugly shade of puce. I fell to my side and watched in gruesome disbelief as the man produced a second knife and aimed it above the number eight embossed on Ryan Manola’s uniform.

            In agony, I squeezed my eyes shut. I held my breath and willed my nostrils not to flair at the pungent odor of blood and urine that now cloaked the room. As consciousness began to fade, I was certain the death I was faking would become reality.

 

     As always, I have to shift my focus from the manuscript and gulp air. While a day never passes that I don’t recall the assassination, describing it in such detail is always more draining than I expect it will be.

     I reread my words, checking to see if my writing has captured the vivid voice my high school creative writing teacher had always stressed. As a journalist for the last decade, I’ve become much more accustomed to factual no-nonsense writing, and while I am indeed writing fact, Jannelle, the editor whose scrawled handwriting decorates this first draft, has reminded me that even a non-fiction account must have a creative flair to it. An example of how to add creativity is to ensure all of a reader’s senses have been provoked. Sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. I think I’ve succeeded in capturing all the senses except sound. I shut my eyes and think back to the horror of the day, searching my memory for sound. Nothing comes and I am horrified anew to remember the silence. As the assassin turned his knife on each of us, none of us spoke. None of us screamed. The only sound was the metallic clink of the assassin’s two knives sometimes tapping each other--a gentle sound if heard in another place and time.

     Why didn’t any of us shout? Why didn’t any of us scream?  Why didn’t any of us cry? I shut my eyes and allow the pain to wash over me.

 

            I awoke in an ambulance and finally managed the scream terror had rendered mute at the mansion… minutes ago…hours ago?  I didn’t know. “No. Help us! Somebody help!”
            The medic eased me back down to the gurney. “You’re okay, but I need you to stay still.”           

           “Help!” 
          “You’re safe,” he said. “I promise you, you’re safe.”
            Shaking with panic, I watched him prepare a syringe. I tried to say no, but only managed to mouth the word.
            Fifty-one stitches and three units of blood later, I awoke in a hospital in Schenectady.
            “What time is it?” I asked a nurse.

            “Five o’clock.”

            “Oh, no!” I tried to sit up. “I have to pick up Bronson from daycare.”

            The nurse lifted my hand from the bed and checked my pulse. “Is there someone I can call who can pick up your son?”
            “No, Bronson’s not--” I stopped. “Yes, please, call Gemma. Gemma Winthrop.”

            The nurse’s soft voice revealed she was no New York native. “The same Gemma Winthrop who writes the restaurant column for the Post?”
            “Yes, my friend,” I said and recited her phone number.

            “I’ll call her,” she said and held out a plastic bag. “I think your clothes are beyond repair. Would you prefer I just throw them out?”    
            With a tentative reach, I took the bag from her hand and pulled out my blouse. I gagged as my fingers touched the fabric still drenched with my blood. I wrapped my finger around the threads of a button, ripped one of the life-saving tabs off, and handed the bag back to her. “Yes.”
            “Do you feel well enough to talk to the FBI?  They’re waiting outside.” She gave me a look of sympathy. “I’ll ask if just one agent can come in, rather than the whole pack.”
            “Yes, okay. That would probably be best.”
            She opened my door to leave and before it swung closed I heard a man berate her for handling my clothes. My favorite blouse was now the FBI’s blood-soaked evidence.

            An exceptionally well-dressed man walked into my room. He resembled Eddie Murphy, minus the smile. He offered his badge and no sympathy. “Agent Roy Bingham.”                    

            I placed a hand atop my hospital gown below my sliced clavicle and the wound throbbed in protest as he started questioning me in rapid-fire fashion. Why wasn’t my name in the governor’s appointment book? Why had I arrived a half hour early?  Why wasn’t my wound fatal like the others?
            Until that moment, I wasn’t aware I was the only survivor. I showed him the button I held in my hand as if it explained everything.
            Once satisfied I hadn’t conspired with the assassin, Agent Bingham’s manner gentled. “Do you think you would recognize the assailant again?”
            “Yes.”   
            He left the room and came back in minutes (or hours?) with mug shots of men the Governor prosecuted during his term as District Attorney.
            I flipped through the first ten pages.
            “Take your time,” he said.
            I turned to page twelve and pointed to the thin-haired blond I estimated to be in his late twenties. “Him.”
            “Are you sure?  Study it close.”
            “I don’t have to.” I shut the book so I wouldn’t have to look further at a set of eyes I knew would haunt me forever. “That’s him.”
            I expected my speed and assurance to bring a satisfied expression to Agent Bingham’s face. Instead, he looked alarmed.
            “Does anyone besides your friend Gemma know you’re here?” he asked.
            “I don’t know. Gemma’s husband probably does.”
            “What’s his name?”
            Perplexed by the urgency in Agent Bingham’s voice, mine weakened. “Adam.”
            “Can you give me a list of people who knew you were at the Governor’s mansion today?”
            “Other than my editor, I wouldn’t know.”
            “Is your editor someone who can be trusted?”
            I couldn’t grasp what he was asking. “Trusted?”
            “Trusted to keep your whereabouts a secret from the press?”
            “Frank is the press. I’m the press.”
            “The less people who know you’re here, the better.”
            I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”
            “If you can identify the assassin in a matter of seconds, he can probably identify you too.”
            “Are you saying he wasn’t caught?” The tendons in my forearms tightened in fear. “He’s still out there?”
            “Yes.”
            A cold, clammy sweat smothered my body. My heart raced and the urge to get up and run so overwhelmed me, my stomach heaved and I vomited.
            Agent Bingham looked at me with disgust or embarrassment; I couldn’t discern.  Nevertheless, he awaited my answer.
            With my hand pressed against my mouth, I spoke through trembling fingers. “Yes. I trust Frank.”
            Agent Bingham nodded. “Would you like me to get the nurse?”
            Vomit covered my hospital gown and the ends of my hair lay in slime. “Please.”
            “Security has been posted outside your room.”
            I  waved him frantically away, and vomited again.           
            A strong sedative enabled me to sleep until a loud, grinding sound awakened me.  Gemma and Frank sat at my side.
            “Where am I?” I sat up and eyed my surroundings. “I’m in a helicopter!  Why am I in a helicopter?”
            “Relax,” Frank said.
            Weakened from the exertion, I lay back down and looked at Gemma. She had eyeliner and mascara on one eye, but not the other.  She’d rushed when she heard.  “Bronson. Did you pick up Bronson? Is he all right?”
            She shouted over the noise of the engine. “Forget about Bronson! Are you all right?”
            My heart sank. “He’s still at daycare? You didn’t pick him up?”
            “For God’s sake. He’s fine! Adam picked him up.”            

            Baffled by Gemma’s hostility, I looked at Frank.
            He stated what should have been obvious. “She’s worried about you.” 

            “Who takes their dog to daycare anyway?” Gemma started crying.
            Floating on the edge myself, I couldn’t handle Gemma’s hysteria and focused my attention on Frank. “Where are we going?”
            “The FBI contacted the Attorney General,” he said. “He agreed to move you to the FBI compound in Quantico until they make more definite plans.”
            “Plans about what?”  
            “About where you’ll live,” Frank said. “Somewhere safe.”
            “What are you talking about?”
            “You’re being relocated. Placed in the Witness Security Program.”
            “What?” I demanded. “Who authorized this?”          
            “You’re not safe in New York.”
            “But my life is here. My job is here. I can’t just leave.”
            “I don’t see you have a choice.”
            “Yes, I do!  They can’t make me leave.”
            “Ms. Gray.”
            I started at the sound of Agent Bingham’s voice coming from behind me. I hadn’t realized he was in the chopper.
            “No one’s making you leave, but we can offer better protection out of state,” he said. “You’ll be given a new identity. A United States Marshal will provide security. You’ll receive a stipend from the government until you find employment. You’ll--”
            I shook my head. “No. I don’t want to hear this.”
            “Lexie. Please!” Gemma said.
            “I have a home. A dog. A husband. A--”
            “I wasn’t aware you were married,” Agent Bingham said.
            At the awkward realization that I inquired of my dog before my husband, I cleared my throat. “We’re separated, but we’re working on reconciling.”
            Frank snorted. “Oh, come on. You haven’t seen Perry in two months.”
            I shot Frank a disarming look, annoyed at his words and more so at his miscalculation. I hadn’t seen Perry since Thanksgiving. Three months ago. Nevertheless, in my drug-induced state, I strangely defended a man who broke his promise of fidelity twice in four years. “He’s busy. Since he took over the anchor spot, he barely has time to--”
            “Your husband is Perry Conaway?” Agent Bingham interrupted.  
            My forehead beaded with sweat. “Yes.”
            Agent Bingham’s brow furrowed. “Well, he and your dog can move too.”

           Gemma’s sarcasm-coated chortle landed like a slap.
            To his credit, Agent Bingham said nothing.  
            “Lexie, be sensible,” Frank said. “The paramedic already told the press an unidentified female survived the attack. They know you’re media because your tape recorder’s part of the crime scene. It’s only a matter of time before this maniac--”
            Alarm gripped me that Frank, a man who had spent the last two decades sniffing out news and driven to be the first to print a story, felt my situation was grave enough to remain silent himself.  

            I jumped. “My car, my car’s at the mansion! They can identify me

by--"

            “Your vehicle was removed from the premises,” Agent Bingham said.

            Rather than calm me, his words defeated me. Everything was set in motion while I slept, my life determined without my consult.    

            “A new vehicle will be provided once you’ve been placed,” he said.

            “I haven’t agreed to be placed.”
            “As the only witness to a triple homicide, your life is in grave danger.” 

            I rolled my eyes. “It’s not me you’re worried about. It’s your witness you’re worried about.”

            Agent Bingham’s eyes met mine in challenge. “We’re talking about a man so diabolical he didn’t hesitate to slice the throat of a nine-year-old boy.”                  

            His words produced a macabre snapshot and I shook my head hard in an attempt to block the image. “It all happened so fast. It’s not like someone’s handing him a book of mug shots to study.”
            “No, but he could see this.” Frank pulled out an edition of World Focus ever present in his coat pocket. He flipped the magazine open and slapped it in front of me.  

            Above my monthly column “Minor Politics” was the photo I always thought flattering, but now looked grotesque. “That picture’s three years old. I look different now.”
            “No, you don’t. Except for the fifteen pound weight loss, you don’t.”
            At any other time, I might have been flattered.  
            “He’ll be caught,” Gemma said. “Then you can come back.” She turned to Agent Bingham. “She would be able to come back, wouldn’t she?  Once he’s captured and tried?”
            “Maybe,” Agent Bingham said.
            “Maybe,” I whispered.  
            I remained quiet. We all remained quiet.
            Frank finally broke the silence. “Think of the material you can get from this. An inside look on how the Witness Security Program operates. An inside look at the FBI, Marshal Services. The works.”

            “God, Frank!” Gemma said. “How can you think of that at a time like this?”
            I ignored Gemma, spoke to Frank with a throat parched from something other than thirst. “Keep going.”
            “Once he’s captured, I’m sure you’ll be offered a book deal. We’re talking bestseller. Fame, fortune. Riches beyond your wildest dreams.”
            My gaze met Frank’s and I managed a smile, grateful to him for giving me a piece of normalcy in a world turned chaotic. I believe he understood that. I believe that’s what he intended to do. Give me a purpose. A mission. An angle. A story.
            A chill raced up my arm. “What if he’s never caught?”
            “He will be,” Gemma said.
            “He will be,” Agent Bingham said.
            I turned and looked at Agent Bingham. His eyes burned with an intensity and confidence that shouted Fed. I clutched the button I still held in my hand and gave him a smile Gemma would later describe as vapid. “How long have you been with the FBI? Did you say your first name’s Roy?”

            And so it begins--my account of what happened after a button saved my life.

 


 

  

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