As I neared, however, I had the marked feeling she wasn't.
It was the sound of her footsteps, too heavy for such a slight person, the way she walked so stiffly, as if waiting for me. I suddenly had the feeling that as I passed she'd turn and I'd see her face was not young as I'd assumed, but old. The ravaged face of an old woman would stare back at me with hollowed eyes, a mouth like an ax gash in a tree.
She was just a few feet ahead now.
She was going to reach out, seize my arm, and her grip would be strong as a man's, ice cold --
I ran past, but her head was lowered, hidden by her hair. When I turned again, she'd already stepped beyond the light and was little more than a faceless form cut out of the dark, her shoulders outlined in red.
I took off, taking a shortcut as the path twisted through the dense shrubbery, branches whipping my arms. I'll stop and say something when I pass her again -- tell her to go home.
But I logged another lap and there was no sign of her. I checked the hill leading down to the bridle paths.
Within minutes, I was approaching the North Gatehouse -- a stone building beyond the reach of the lamps, soaked in darkness. I couldn't make out much more than a flight of narrow stairs leading up to a rusted set of double doors, which were chained and locked, a sign posted beside them: KEEP OUT PROPERTY OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK.
As I neared, I realized in alarm, glancing up, that she was there, standing on the landing, staring down at me. Or was she looking through me?
By the time her presence fully registered I'd already run blindly on. Yet what I'd glimpsed in that split second drifted in front of my eyes as if someone had taken a flash picture: tangled hair, that blood red coat decayed brown in the dark, a face so entirely in shadow it seemed possible it wasn't even there.
Clearly I should've held off on that fourth scotch.
There was a time not too long ago when it took a little more to rattle me. Scott McGrath, a journalist who'd go to hell just to get Lucifer on the record, some blogger had once written. I'd taken it as a compliment. Prison inmates who'd tattooed their faces with shoe polish and their own piss, armed teenagers from Vigario Geral strung out on pedra, Medellin heavies who vacationed yearly at Rikers -- none of it made me flinch. It was all just part of the scenery.
Now a woman in the dark was unnerving me.
She had to be drunk. Or she'd popped too many Xanax. Or maybe this was some sick teenage dare -- an Upper East Side mean girl had put her up to this. Unless it was all a calculated setup and her street-rat boyfriend was somewhere here, waiting to jump me.