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Jason Pinter

The Stolen

Prologue

'Finished.'

I saved the document and eased back in my chair. My body had grown accustomed to long days and nights spent in its discomfort. The last few months, I had arrived home nearly every night with a sore tailbone or stiff back, wondering if the supplies department would turn a blind eye and let me expense a newer model. Eventually I forgot about it. Then one day, I noticed I hadn't thought about the aches and pains in a long time. They were a part of me now.

The past three days and nights had sped by in a blur of keystrokes, Chinese food containers and discarded coffee cups. I was on the kind of crash deadline that a year ago would have had me sweating rivulets, but now barely raised my pulse. The fact was, without those deadlines to keep me focused, the pains might not have ebbed away.

Saving the file, I looked outside my window over

Rockefeller Plaza. The view had changed-bright morning into gauzy summer afternoon, fading into the kind of

New York night where the constant bright lights disguised any sense of time.

Until recently, the night always heralded the end of my workday. I would file my story with Evelyn Waterstone, the Gazette 's Metro editor, pack up my things, throw some goodbyes to my night-shift colleagues and one or two guys at the sports desk who were putting together the box scores, and head home to meet Amanda. Good conversation, a hot shower, maybe a movie or a show we'd recorded, they'd all be waiting. Then I'd fall asleep with a whisper of her hair across my face.

Amanda.

We met two years ago. Our introduction wasn't exactly the setup for your average romantic comedy. Our paths crossed while I was on the run after being falsely accused of murder. I had nobody to turn to. Nowhere to go. And just when the situation was at its bleakest, Amanda offered a hand to me, a total stranger. She saved my life. She was running from her own demons, having come from a broken home, spending her childhood recapping her life in small notebooks because she assumed everyone she met would eventually abandon her. It was this that brought us together. We were both damaged, broken, but together we were whole. She was everything I wanted in a partner.

Strong, brilliant, beautiful. And she laughed at my jokes that made everyone else cringe. I repaid her by offering all the love I had to give. Had I offered merely love, it would have been more than enough. It's the other baggage

I brought along that was too heavy for our relationship to bear.

Six months ago, a killer began terrorizing the city by publicly executing those he felt deserved his wrath. I was able to weave together the strands of his mysterious past and learned the horrific truth about his ancestry. During my search, the killer turned his sights not just toward me, but to those I loved.

He brutally attacked my ex, Mya Loverne, and left her fighting for her life. He broke into Amanda's office at the New York Legal Aid Society and nearly killed her. It was then, in the aftermath of those acts of violence, that I realized what I had to do. To protect those I loved, I had to turn away. I had to shield them from myself.

There was nothing more I would have wanted than to spend the rest of my life with her, playing shuffleboard and eating dinner at noon, doing whatever old couples did. It should have been easy. I mean, everyone complains about how hard it is to find someone in New York City. Once you find the right person, you hold on to them for dear life.

Unfortunately I had to do the opposite.

Amanda nearly lost her life because of me, because of my work. And because being a reporter was in my blood,

I shuddered to think that it was only a matter of time before those odds caught up. So I left her. In the middle of the street. And every day since I've had ample time to think about my decision.

We have not spoken in six months. My apartment, once warm with her presence, was now cold and uninviting. The stove, where we used to burn our attempts at lasagna, hadn't seen a pan in weeks. The place reeked of carelessness, abandoned by a man who felt like a stranger in his own home.

Work had always been my passion. Now it was my whole life.

Underneath my desk was a small duffel bag in which I kept a clean shirt, slacks and a pair of loafers. Every other day I would venture back to that unfamiliar home, unload the dirty laundry and pack up a clean change of clothes.

Every other week the accumulation of soiled attire would be sent to the cleaners, and the cycle would start again. I would change in the men's room, always drawing a few weren't you just wearing that? looks from my colleagues.

I heard a noise behind me, turned to see Evelyn Waterstone striding up to my desk. Evelyn had barely given me the time of day when I first started working at the Gazette, but she'd warmed considerably over the past few months.

Evelyn was in her late fifties, a solid tree stump of a woman who commanded attention, respect, and made everyone leap to the side when she walked by. Like many of the newspaper's top talent, Evelyn was unmarried and childless. She was also one of the best editors in the business. Somehow I'd grudgingly gained her respect. I figured as long as I kept my head down and did what I did best, it would stay that way.

'Got your story, Parker,' she said, barely slowing down as she approached, then stopping abruptly before she knocked my desk over. 'I swear you must have replaced your brain this year or taken basic grammar and spelling lessons. I haven't had to smack my head in frustration at your copy in almost a month. You keep it up like this, I might actually be able to cut back on the migraine medication.'

'They say reading is the cure for all ills,' I said.

Evelyn eyed me skeptically. 'Who said that?'

'You know…they.'

'Tell 'they' that they can shove their quotations up my keester. Anyway, keep up the not-so-terrible work. You're giving me more time to spend with crustaceans whose brains haven't fully grasped the ' i before e ' concept.'

Evelyn shot a glance toward Frank Rourke, the city's top sports columnist, to whom grammar was a term of endearment for his mother's mother.

Then Evelyn leaned forward. Sniffed. Scrunched up her nose.

'My God, Parker, you stink worse than O'Donnell the morning after St. Patrick's Day. Your pieces might be clean, but you reek like my nephew's diaper. Go home and shower, seriously, otherwise I'll tell Wallace he has a rodent infestation in the vicinity of your desk.'

'I'm not that bad, am I?' I raised an arm, took a whiff, and immediately nodded in agreement. 'I'm on my way.'

When Evelyn left, I took the duffel out from beneath my desk, opened it. Sniffed. Closed it right up. Maybe it was best to just burn this load.

I grabbed the bag, left the office, took a cab to my apartment. I blew in the door, took a three-minute shower, and seven minutes after that I was wearing a fresh outfit with a spare packed away. Another cab brought me back to Rockefeller, where I strode into the office with a sense of pride that I knew was well undeserved. I waved to the night security team. They were too busy watching a ball game to wave back.

The newsroom was nearly empty. A quiet newsroom felt like an unnatural beast, but I'd grown used to it.

I opened my drawer, pulled out a down pillow I'd bought myself as a present. I took a fresh pillow cover from

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