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Higher Authority Excerpt

     Blythe Oaks ran almost every morning. Early. She liked to time her workouts so that she was heading east just as the sun cracked the horizon.
     This late-summer Monday she was on the Mall in full stride, the Air and Space Museum on her right, the Capitol dome ahead of her. As she approached the border of the Reflecting Pool she stopped abruptly and pivoted to check the path behind her.
     It was deserted. A few homeless people had begun to stir on the periphery of the Mall. But no other runner was within a hundred yards.
     Blythe ran in place while she monitored the progress of a far-off jogger and watched a woman glide gracefully in the distance on in-line skates. Neither approached her. Neither even seemed to take notice of her. Despite the respite from her workout, Blythe's pulse didn't slow. She glanced at her watch and took off again, striving to cleanse her mind of fear by concentrating on achieving good hip extension and not landing too far back on her heels. In minutes, she covered the long stretch of ground that extended west toward the Potomac.
     Blythe Oaks ran fast when she thought she was being followed.
     As she approached the street where she lived alone in a second floor apartment, she prayed that she wouldn't find a flower waiting outside the front door to the building. She mouthed the prayer, her mantra to God, "Please, no flower, please, no flower, please, no flower."
     Please, stride, no flower, stride.
     Blythe had already decided that her stalker bought a fresh bouquet only once a week, because every morning for seven days the single stem left by her door would be of the same variety. The flower was always wrapped in tissue paper color-coordinated with the hue of the bud. The flowers were freshest on Saturday. So, she had concluded, the stalker bought them on Friday. Maybe Friday night after work. But this past weekend, no flower. Before her run this morning, no flower.
     A month before, a blue Toyota Camry with D.C. plates had prompted Blythe's paranoia. The first time she had spotted the car it was parked on the street outside her apartment building, directly across from her own beige Taurus. Blythe remembered noticing the car that first time mostly because the person behind the wheel had turned away abruptly when Blythe looked toward the car. In her mind she had a snapshot image of the driver, recalling long, dark brown hair, a suede jacket, and a baseball cap—the Orioles?—with a plastic adjustable strap in back. Later that day, she thought she spotted the same Camry outside the Supreme Court Building, where she worked. The next day she saw it again, back on the street in front of her apartment. Sometimes she was certain she saw the car drive past her when she jogged. Once, the blue Camry had parked right next to her Taurus at the supermarket.
     Blue Camry.
     After six strong miles Blythe turned the final corner toward her building and decided she liked her new Nikes. A clerk who had assisted her on Saturday had suggested this shoe. The woman apparently knew what she was doing. Blythe fantasized briefly about returning to the store and asking the clerk if she wanted to go for a run sometime. She shook off the impulse. She knew she wouldn't ask. One reckless mistake was enough. More than enough.
     A reflexive vigilance intruded as she neared her building. Blythe was becoming a car expert. Between breaths she quietly called out the makes as she passed them in their slots along the curb: "Camaro, Buick, Honda, pickup, minivan, Saab."
     Stride, stride. No Camry, no flower.
     One step up to the walk. Five more to the door.
     With what felt like monumental effort, Blythe forced herself to look up. Immediately she started to cry. Such pretty blue buds. A note card of heavy gray paper. The beautiful cursive hand.
     "Nice shoes!! Soon everyone will know about us!" the note read.
     Standing by the door, the card between her fingers, the flower at her feet, Blythe smiled awkwardly through her tears to greet a neighbor who was heading out the door to go to work. Inside, she took the stairs two at a time to the second floor, now crying in a desperately muted voice, "Please don't call, please don't call, please don't call."
     She knew she was talking to the stalker now, no longer to God.
     She unclipped the safety pin that secured her key to the waistband of her sweatpants, unlocked the door, and walked into her quiet apartment. Long, lean shafts of sunlight cut a diagonal swath across the living room. Breathing deeply twice, she tried to stem her tears. Involuntarily she looked at the kitchen telephone, then quickly away. If she didn't look at it, she wanted to believe, maybe it wouldn't ring.
     A minute passed. Her breathing slowed. Warily, Blythe moved into her bedroom to shower and get ready for work. She had almost finished stripping off her running clothes when the telephone came alive. With the back of one hand she covered her mouth and focused her eyes like lasers on the bright red phone by her unmade bed.
     If she picked up the receiver, the stalker would say nothing. No breathing. No profanities. Nothing. As if the stalker's only wish was the vacant connection and the sound of Blythe's once confident, now hollow "Hello."
     Soon everyone will know...
     No! No one can know. For the first time that day, the hundredth time in a week, she reviewed her options. A meager, familiar list. Call the D.C. police. Or the Supreme Court police. Report the stalker.
     "A woman? Why might a woman be following you, Mrs. Oaks?"
     "Well, Officer, perhaps it's because I'm a closet lesbian."
     She admonished herself for the fantasy.  Right, Blythe. Not a chance. Maybe I should just leave.  Go back to Utah. Give up my job. Give up my dream.
     Steam drifted from the shower. Water pelted the tile. The phone rang and rang. Standing naked but for her sweaty socks, Blythe Oaks cried again, loudly this time. She didn't know what she was going to do.


Higher Authority

Signet Paperback, ISBN: 0451185110

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