It's always the same, a sensitivity at the base of my neck, as if there's a stiff label back there irritating my skin. Whenever it happens, it always means the same thing: trouble. And any time I've ignored it, I've eventually paid for it in one way or another. So over the years, I've learned: when you get the message, kiddo, pay attention! Unfortunately, my wedding, as simple as it was supposed to be, had reduced me to a blithering idiot. How people with megadollar budgets and seven-page guest lists do it is beyond me. In other words, I was distracted, and as a result, wasn't paying attention to The Itch. And I paid for it. Big time. So did others, and I have only myself to blame.
I'm still not sure when the prickling began, but I can damned sure mark in red the day I finally realized it was there. December 6. Even then, it took a couple of incidents before I connected the dots. I can be forgiven for not recognizing the first of them that day. After all, it was snowing. If you live in Washington, D.C., you accept the fact that a mere prediction of snow will be greeted with the same degree of panic as an impending nuclear attack. God forbid if the white stuff sneaks up on the city unexpectedly. People drive as if the devil himself is pursuing them, horns and tail a-twitch. And if you're unlucky enough to be a pedestrian, you're on your own, because traffic signals and "Walk" and "Don't Walk" signs become purely decorative to those behind the wheel. Which is why I didn't take it personally when the old tan compact swooshed by close enough for me to warrant checking to see if it had left a streak of rust across my backside.
"Dag, lady." A twenty-something unlocking his car gave me a wide-eyed stare as I reached the sanctuary of the sidewalk. "You all right? She almost cleaned your clock."
I leaned against a lamppost and took stock, my heart skipping double Dutch. "Well, I'm still ticking, so I guess there's no harm done."
At least not physically. I had to admit, however, that the moment I'd spotted the compact barreling down on me, I'd flashed back to the last time I'd found myself a walking target, on that occasion the target of a drunk driver. In trying to get out of his way, I'd collided with a fire hydrant, making mincemeat of my knee and, as a result, my career as a D.C. cop. This time there hadn't been any--time to get out of the way, that is. It was pure luck she'd missed me. Another inch toward her right and I'd have been an inch on the Washington Post obit page: Leigh A. Warren, thirty-three, victim of a hit-and-run. Because I knew without a shadow of a doubt that the driver would have kept right on going. Her excuse? Hey, it was snowing!
Turning to look back, I tried to reconstruct the incident. She might not have been able to see me before she'd made that left turn, thanks to a double-parked truck at the end of the block -- except that I'd been twothirds of the way across and should have been visible after she'd rounded the corner. Perhaps I hadn't been walking fast enough for her. Wherever she was going, she was in one hell of a hurry. And I was one lucky duck.
"You sure you're okay?" the twenty-something asked again. "You're shaking. Do you need to sit down? Here." He opened the rear door on his side. "I'm in no hurry."
I focused on him for the first time, surprised and, perhaps because of my years as a cop, immediately suspicious of the offer. He looked harmless enough in his sweats, a gym bag in one hand, and the only expression on his face appeared to be one of genuine concern. I gave myself a mental slap on the wrist. This was no white slaver intent on abducting me and selling me into a life of prostitution or having his way with me himself. In the first place, our skin colors, tinted by our African descendants, nullified white anything, much less slaver, and I was well past the age to qualify as a anybody's pleasure girl. In the second place, as scuzzy as I felt -- ratty blue jeans and an even rattier sweater under a well-worn car coat, the only person I could imagine wanting his way with me would be someone being paid to perform a complete makeover.
"I appreciate the offer but I'm fine. Really. And running late. Thanks anyway."
"No problem." He tossed his gym bag in the back and closed his door. "Merry Christmas."
"Same to you," I said, to be polite, and made tracks for Connecticut Avenue. Normally I'm one of those people who loves the holidays and everything that goes with them, but I admit that as I hurried through the late-lunch bunch in Barney's, I was reaching deep for the Christmas spirit.
I spotted Eddie in a booth all the way in the back. He didn't see me, but from the expression on his face, he and Scrooge were of like minds. Perhaps the raucous office party in high gear a few tables over had gotten to him.
"Greetings of the season," I said as I slid into the booth, just barely avoiding a celebrant gesturing with a full glass in his hand. If I hadn't been watching him, I'd have been wearing his beer in my bra.
Now I'm usually a fairly even-tempered person. And I like Eddie Grimes. I've known him for a long time. He was slated to be Duck's best man, and perhaps under ordinary circumstances I might have cut him a little slack. But my most recent days had involved no ordinary circumstances ...
The foregoing is excerpted from Killer Chameleon by Chassie West. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022