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Chapter One


On the day she was chosen for death, Dana Enfield rose early and made coffee for George in the hushed November twilight of six a.m. It was a Sunday morning, and she had slept badly the night before, pummeling her pillow while George looked in on three obligatory parties and made excuses for his wife. The people standing around in little clusters against the apricot-colored walls of Georgetown and Kalorama, drinks in their hands, had joked with the Speaker of the House about this morning, about the press buildup and the unseasonably warm weather and where exactly he intended to stand. They had wished her luck, Dana thought as she listened to the drip of the coffee and the crack of old floorboards somewhere near Mallory's bedroom that might or might not mean that George was already awake—wished her luck and a great photo op, with the mental kickback inevitable among politicians. Half of them probably had money riding on the chance she'd never finish her race.

She sniffed the aroma of fresh coffee as she poured it into George's mug, knowing she couldn't take the caffeine's dehydration this early in the day, but craving it all the same. Then—almost as an afterthought—she reached for the insulin monitor and the sharp metal rod she kept on the counter and slit the fleshy pad of her forefinger deliberately. A bead of blood ballooned at her fingertip. She waited for the digital count to flash on the screen; within normal range.

Comforting, she thought, to be offered that assurance at the start of every new day. She lifted George's mug to her lips and permitted herself a single sip.

* * *

The Marine Corps Marathon is fortunate in possessing a remarkable contingent of Navy and civilian volunteers. Navy active duty and reserve units as well as dedicated doctors, athletic advisors and Red Cross members from all over the country come together to ensure that our race is one of the safest in the nation...

Daniel Becker had scrolled through the official marathon website at least twenty times in the past few weeks, committing what was essential to memory. The Marines who organized the event each year called it "The People's Race," because nobody was forced to qualify to enter. It was planned and executed with the efficiency of a military operation; hundreds of Marines in field dress lined the race course, handing off cups of water and bananas and protein bars at two-mile intervals. They played music, clapped, cheered on their buddies, and were extraordinarily courteous to the less athletic hordes who invaded the event in increasing numbers. So many weekend warriors had entered the lists over the years, in fact, that it was impossible to accept them all. A lottery system capped the field at fifteen thousand runners.

When Daniel closed his eyes at night, he could see the course imprinted on his brain like a snake formed from fire. Between seventy and a hundred thousand people would line the twenty-six-point-two mile race as it wound from the Iwo Jima Memorial—the pride of Marine Corps history—straight through Crystal City, past the Pentagon, across Key Bridge into Georgetown and down to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It kicked by the Lincoln and Jefferson monuments, the black wall commemorating Vietnam, the massive dome of the Capitol building, and back again to Virginia across the 14th Street Bridge. The race had been delayed two weeks this year by the terrorist kidnapping and murder of the Vice President; but with Sophie Payne's body returned now to Washington and her funeral scheduled for the following morning, the Marine Corps had received the green light to run. Like thousands of others, Daniel was ready.

He left Hillsboro, West Virginia, before dawn, and drove straight east through Maryland until he reached the District border. He'd shopped a downtown Army-Navy Surplus place for the standard Marine private's uniform and peaked cap; he was wearing his black Army boots and dog tags. Although he was a bit older than the usual kid in cammies, a casual glance would find little difference in the Marines erecting medical check points and water stations all over the course. Rebekah had clipped and shaved his brown hair so that the scalp shone through to the level of his ears. He'd strapped a plastic armband to his right bicep with a label that read Race Staff in big block capitals. Daniel had decided he'd call himself Navy Reserve, if anybody asked.

At 5:30 a.m., Hains Point in East Potomac Park was still open to vehicular traffic. He drove his truck to a picnic area and killed the engine, conscious of ghosts in the early morning darkness.

Once, when Dolf was maybe seven or eight, he'd driven into the city as dusk fell and parked right about here. Put Bekah and the boy in the pickup's flatbed and tucked a blanket around them. They'd lain there, watching the bellies of the great jets soar so close to their faces in takeoff and landing that they could almost have touched the blinking red and blue lights. The noise of turbo engines was deafening, the closest thing to war Daniel could imagine. Dolf was exhilarated—leaping up from his blanket as though he might catch a plane's wheel and sail off into the sky. He was always desperate to go someplace else, Daniel thought. Desperate to fly.

He was sitting here now because of that boy and his clipped wings, the wild animal joy of a child's face when he believes his time is never-ending. He was here for Dolf and the world that boy had lost.

* * *

Dana thrust her left foot against the base of the Iwo Jima Memorial and leaned forward to stretch her calf muscles. She'd been training for six months, gradually building her mileage each week despite the injuries that plagued her body, aware that more than just her own pride rode on the outcome of this race. She was the Speaker's wife, after all—the highly visible second wife of George Enfield, whom pundits called the next presidential hopeful, and Washington society columns followed her every move with thinly-disguised malice. She was thirty-seven years old and the diabetes she calibrated throughout the day had become as famous as her height or the clothing designers she patronized fearlessly for every official function. Dana was, by nature, a private person but George's gradual rise to power in Congress had forced her to submit to the press's mania for detail. She found she could talk about her disease more easily than her soul. Two years ago, she'd become a spokeswoman for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

She was a blunt advocate for stem-cell research, despite the dictates of her own husband's party, which regarded every form of fetal experimentation with horror and reproach. She flew in children with diabetes from all over the country and led tours of Capitol Hill. Sponsored hearings that supported research and put the kids front and center. Today she was running in a JDF T-shirt imprinted with the faces of those children. She'd won the signatures of ten thousand people across the country who'd pledged a dollar to the JDF for every mile she managed to run.

You're absolutely nuts, George had said heatedly when she began to train six months ago. Do you know what you'll do for your precious cause if you collapse and die of insulin shock in front of a whole platoon of Marines?

"They have medical stations," she'd replied patiently. "I'm carrying insulin in my fanny pack. I'll eat the oranges. The protein bars. You can meet me at certain points along the race with soda pop."

In the end, he had agreed to do it, and not just for the publicity she'd begun to attract. George had somehow managed to cull a few hours from each weekend to stand vigil during her training runs, amusing Mallory on her scooter and offering water to Mommy while she clocked her miles. He'd told the press he believed in and supported his wife. He rubbed liniment on her legs without a word, his fingertips oddly gentle as they traced her hardening quadriceps. He did ask repeatedly if she was determined to go through with it—and she understood the fear that loomed in the back of his mind. He was fifty-three years old. He'd already lost one woman he loved to an untimely death. He would never tell Dana to stay home in bed at six a.m. on race day, but he could not pretend to an insouciance he did not feel.

Because parking was impossible to find that morning, even for a congressional limousine, they'd taken the Metro to Arlington like any other marathon couple. The only difference in their situation, Dana thought, was the photographers who'd tracked them from the moment they'd left their front door in Kalorama, Mallory swinging between them. She'd hoped that Sophie Payne's funeral would deflect attention from what some reporters were calling Dana Enfield's Run for Her Life. But Payne was last week's story; she was today's.

"Let me pin your number to your shirt," George said quietly in her ear. "It's eight-twenty. Ten minutes to the start."

As he stabbed a pin into her chest by mistake, four flashbulbs went off in Dana's eyes. She wondered fleetingly if any of the reporters had trained well enough to run with her.

* * *

Daniel lay flat on his back under the cover of some bushes, avoiding the curious and trying to quell his own jitters. For the past hour and a half he'd watched a group of Marines setting up the tables and paraphernalia for Water Point 11 and Aid Station 7, as their signs proclaimed them; about ten guys, as best he could judge from his position a quarter-mile distant. They were spinning tunes and working together like a well-oiled machine, their jacket sleeves rolled high on the bicep. Confident in their sense of mission, as he had been once.

A two-mile loop of the course skirted the river here at Hains Point, just past the Jefferson Memorial. Planes from Reagan International buzzed the landscape every few seconds. The day was fresh and clear: That meant a crowd on the high end. The runners who survived to reach Daniel's water station would already have clocked twenty miles. Some of them would be staggering, their Achilles tendons on the point of tearing. Some would be walking, too exhausted to manage the last six miles. Ahead of them would be the bridge—the 14th Street Bridge, where the wind off the Potomac could thrust cruelly in the face and chest, forcing the runners backward as they struggled toward the finish. Those who limped past him would seize Daniel's cups of water gladly, and toss the contents down their throats.

The first batch—called the Elite Group, the highest-seeded one hundred-fifty athletes from all over the world—would be clipping off five-minute miles as though the pace was no more difficult than bouncing a tennis ball. Most of them, Daniel thought with contempt, were Africans. It was natural they could beat the pants off their betters—lousy bastards had been running from something most of their lives. Somewhere behind them would be the six-minute milers, the fleet-footed aspirants to Elite glory. They'd reach his current position in the next ten to twenty minutes; and after them would come the rest of the fifteen thousand weary runners, hour after hour: the eight-minute milers. The ten-minute milers. The people whose best pace four hours out from the start would be a walk or a crawl. The Marines gave them a total of seven hours to complete a course the winner would finish in a little over two; Daniel had to be ready for the long haul.

He glanced at his watch. Straight up ten o'clock. Waiting was the worst part of this kind of operation. He'd already unloaded the plastic drums filled with water from the back of his truck. The Marines were pouring a particular brand of purified stuff that was heavily promoted on the race website. Daniel had about two dozen bottles of Deer Creek Springs stacked up next to his coolers so he'd look legit. He broke the plastic sleeve on a stack of paper cups as the front runner approached the entry to East Potomac Park just off Independence Avenue. A skinny little black guy with a skull cropped close as a pitted peach; one of them Africans, Daniel thought. Fixin' to steal the whole race from under the Marines. And who was it died for 'em in Somalia?

Daniel turned the tap on the water cooler and watched the liquid spill into the cup. It was tinged faintly brown, as though it came from rusted pipes; he'd have to hope nobody noticed. He thrust the paper cupful into the outstretched hand of the frontrunner.

"Lookin' good!" he cheered, clapping. "Lookin' strong! You go, guy."

The man tipped the water to his lips, crushed the cup in his hand, and ran on. Another marathoner was right behind him, reaching for Daniel's water.

* * *

Dana Enfield was a ten-minute miler. She kept three things in mind as she made her way, in a companionable group of similarly-paced men and women, toward Water Point 4 in Georgetown. She had to keep running. She could not twist her ankle or fall over from low blood sugar. And she had to see George and Mallory.

They'd told her they'd be waiting there, at mile marker nine. An hour and a half into the race, and the day as bright as a new-minted penny. She craned her head for a glimpse of her daughter's face.

The crowd was heavier here on the narrow sidewalks, thrust back against the old brick buildings by the police lines that marked off the spectators from the swollen river of runners trundling down M Street. For an anxious moment she thought she'd missed them, but then somebody called out "Dana!" and she saw George's black hair above his suede jacket, Mallory hoisted on his shoulders. Her daughter was waving a pennant with JDF printed on it in blood-red letters and her mouth was open in a thrilled shriek. Her mom. Her mom was running in the race!

Dana's throat tightened and she drew a deliberate breath, waving to the people she loved. The crowd carried her past. George was trotting through the spectators, bumping them with his elbows and Mallory's feet as they dangled from his shoulders, his eyes fixed on her face. Somewhere he'd lost the photographers. She couldn't tell from his expression whether she looked fine—or as though she were going to collapse.

"Aid Station 5's at Rock Creek," he shouted, "if you need it. Two miles down! See you at the Reflecting Pool!"

She nodded, waved again, and then he was behind her, slipping back like a stone in a rushing stream. The Reflecting Pool was mile marker fourteen or fifteen—she couldn't quite recall—but it meant she'd be more than halfway. She wanted to push on—wanted to pick up her pace if possible—but she was aware of a singing sensation in her brain as though her entire body was about to lift off the pavement. A warning bell clanged in her mind. Too much insulin. It usually took her this way, with a giddy abandon that could end in shock. She should have eaten the orange at mile marker six, but she hadn't wanted it then. Now she was past the Marines with their bananas.

She slowed her steps slightly and fumbled in her fanny pack for a protein bar and juice pack. Glad, for once, that George wasn't watching.

* * *

Four hours into the race, Daniel had lost count of the cups he'd poured and passed to runners of every description: women of fifty shuffling toward the finish, young guys with buff shoulders and sharp-prowed noses glistening with sweat; couples running together; aging men stumbling through their last course. Hains Point was the informal finish line for many of them who could manage twenty miles but no further. After a bit of food and a visit to the Aid Station, some of them packed it in. Others sat for a bit on the grassy spaces of the park, which in Daniel's opinion had to be a mistake. Once you sat down on a marathon, you weren't likely to start running again.

At first he'd tried to be selective about which runners he handed his cups. He wanted to get the Marines who were competing in their tight shorts and singlets—Marines were the blunt tool of repression for the Beast System, dispatched at a moment's notice to enslave another part of the non-Jewish world—and the foreigners and the coloreds and anybody who looked like they might be Jewish. But after a while, the pack was so thick he couldn't stop to judge individual faces. He was the first man in uniform any of them saw, and they expected him to be reaching toward them with water. Their hands were out long before they'd lumbered up to his position. It was like they were asking for death, Daniel thought; he was just an Instrument. The beauty of the seamless repetitive motion caught him in its rhythm: pour and hand; pour and hand; pour, pour, pour and hand. Some of the runners spat out the water as soon as it hit their tongues, crushing the cups in their fists and tossing them to the ground; but Daniel didn't mind. The Lord would decide who lived and who died. He was just the Instrument.

And then, nearly four hours after the race's start, he saw a face he recognized.

A white rime of sweat had dried on her flushed cheeks, so that they were mottled as frosted strawberries. She was lean as a Thoroughbred and her long legs were shaking slightly as they moved toward him; a few strands of her dark hair, pulled back in a tight ponytail, dangled by her ear. Dana Enfield. The Speaker's wife. Couldn't miss her face, it was plastered all over the newspapers and magazines, taking money from honest people's purses and giving it to doctors so's the abortion rate could rise and keep more of the Devil's Spawn alive. 'Fore you know it they'll be breeding babies for their stem cells and killing them at birth. A real factory operation for the Zoggites in power.

She was looking at him, too, her dark eyes filled with something that might be pain. He held out a cup.

"Is there an Aid Station?" she gasped, "somewhere around here?"

He pointed toward the group of Marines who were working the crowd farther down the road.

"Thanks," she said.

And drank his dose to the dregs.

© Francine Mathews