Shanel Fox exited her car and studied the brick house. Without running a comp on it, she couldn’t be sure, but she guessed the place’s value was around three hundred thousand dollars. The location was a little remote for her liking-at the end of a single gravel lane with no other house within a half-mile. She couldn’t turn her back on the commission she’d get when and if she sold the place.
She wished she could turn her back! What she wouldn’t give to tell her boss and her creditors to take this damn job and shove it!
“Don’t!” she warned when regret and anger threatened to overwhelm her. Life threw curves. She’d better get used to it.
“I have,” she muttered. “Just look at me.”
Although there was no one around to see, she stuck out her foot and glared at her dress shoes. What bothered her most about the damn things wasn’t that they pinched her toes, but she couldn’t run in them.
Couldn’t run when once her athleticism had been her whole world.
Because she knew the danger of getting too deep into regret, she glanced at her watch. Her client-she hadn’t met the man who’d called out of the blue yesterday and asked her to list his place-wasn’t due for another ten minutes. He’d told her business might run him a little late and for her to go in and look around. She wouldn’t even be out here by herself, let alone contemplating walking into an empty house, if her client hadn’t said he was Nevan’s friend.
“I hope you know what I’m doing, Nev,” she muttered to her ex-fiancé. “And I hope to hell this joker and you go back a long way because…” Back a long way? She and Nevan had been engaged for more than a year and dating nearly that long before, and she thought she’d known all his friends.
Well, you didn’t, just like you didn’t know your career as a cop was going to get flushed down the toilet along with the county’s budget.
“Enough!” she snapped and stalked toward the stark-looking house. She carried her briefcase, the tool of a realtor’s trade. Hopefully, what this client wouldn’t need to know was she had a small pistol in addition to assorted material. “And I know how to use it,” she said to no one-maybe the birds squawking at her from the top of the trees. “That’s one thing they couldn’t take from me when they let me go-my training.”
She expected to find the front door locked, but it wasn’t. Hopefully there wasn’t a silent alarm system.
“Hello,” she called out as she stepped inside. “Is anyone there?”
No one answered. As the door shut behind her, her attention settled on her surroundings. She was standing in the entryway. Beyond was the living room, at least she assumed that’s what it was because she could barely see. She searched for a light switch but couldn’t find one. Slightly disconcerted, she continued on. The drapes in the barely furnished living room were closed and so thick only faint illumination shown through. She backed up to the closest wall and waited for her eyes to adjust. The air smelled stale, as if no one had opened a window in months. Now she could make out details about the furniture: large leather recliner, huge, wrap-around couch done in a muted flower pattern, a couple of end tables with lamps, a fireplace that took up nearly all of the far wall.
After putting down her briefcase, she made her way to the closest lamp and switched it on. The bulb was of a ridiculously low wattage but better than nothing. From what she could tell, there was no overhead lighting and no TV. What did people do in this room, anyway?
A prickling at her neck stopped her mental criticism of the interior decorator. She hadn’t heard anything out of the ordinary and told herself her discomfort came from feeling like an intruder. A look at the fireplace revealed no ashes. There was nothing on the low, dark coffee table. The walls were darkly paneled which dated the room and yet the man-what had he said his name was?-had told her the house was only ten years old.
A cave. That’s how she’d promote the place, a cave for a caveman.
In an attempt to counter what she told herself was claustrophobia, she opened the curtains. Doing so improved conditions somewhat.
Because she’d jotted down the name he’d given, she opened her briefcase. However, before she found it, she heard a faint mewing sound.
“Here kitty, kitty,” she said. “What are you doing? Are you lonely? Want someone to talk to?”
The sound wasn’t repeated. Had she imagined it?
Frowning, she turned her attention to her briefcase. The first thing she touched was her gun, and she seriously considered tucking it into a pocket. The trouble was, her straight, hip-skimming skirt had no pockets, and even if it did, the bulge would stand out. A heat-packing realtor wasn’t what most clients wanted. Finding the slip of paper with the necessary information, she walked over to the lamp.
The name hadn’t caught her attention yesterday, but now it added to her sense of discomfort. Joe Smith could be legitimate, but she’d been a cop too long. If she’d been lured in here–
After returning to her briefcase, she grabbed her cell phone. Nothing had happened, yet, to warrant a call to the office or 911, but bad things had happened to female realtors out alone. She wasn’t going to add to the statistics.
“Get your ass here, Joe Smith. Then I can decide whether this is legit or-“
The cat meowed again or rather the sound was more cat-like than anything else. There was a wide archway at one end of the living room, but she couldn’t tell what was beyond it and would rather stay where she was, but Mr. Smith had told her to start familiarizing herself with the place. If someone had left a cat in here–
“Gzz, just do it, will you! You haven’t believed in the bogeyman since you were eight. Find the frickin’ cat and get it to some fresh air.”
Despite her pep talk, it took a few more seconds before she walked through the archway. As soon as she did, she was plunged into, not just gloom, but total darkness. Her throat felt as if it was closing. The prickling at the back of her neck was downright painful.
The meowing sounded closer.
“Here kitty, kitty.” The words came out as a whisper. “Where the hell are you?”
Gathering the courage that had made it possible for her to go undercover and help expose a drug ring, she took two more steps. She clutched the cell phone to her breast with one hand and held the other hand in front of her as if trying to push away the darkness. The cat was purring which should have settled her nerves, but it didn’t.
Two steps turned into three. She felt the space, the utter black swallow her. Her heart pounded, and she couldn’t remember how to breathe. Why she should be afraid didn’t matter. She was.
“Forget it,” she told the cat. “If you want to play games, you-“
Someone grabbed her from behind. Arms like living vises circled hers and flattened them against her sides. She immediately stepped back and tried to mash her heel against the foot of whoever had hold of her. Not finding anything, she kicked back and connected.
Her attacker grunted, but instead of letting go, he yanked her against his too-solid chest. Although she knew it wouldn’t do a damn bit of good, she screamed. She was still screaming when he shifted his grip so he held her in one arm. She tried to twist free, but he covered her mouth and nose with a cloth. She bit down. Instead of the satisfying feel of his finger between her teeth, she closed around something vile tasting.
Desperate to get the cloth out of her mouth, she whipped her head from side to side. She needed to fight his imprisoning arm but couldn’t put it all together. She was making herself dizzy.
No, she wasn’t, she acknowledged as the strength flowed out of her muscles. Already, she felt slightly sick to her stomach, and her lungs burned from whatever she’d inhaled. Most frightening was the sense that she’d lost all muscle control. She could no longer stand erect, no longer lift her arms. The cell phone slipped from her numb fingers and clattered to the floor. She sagged in her captor’s embrace.
He helped, actually helped, her to the floor. When he released her, she slumped into a nerveless heap. Somehow she managed to lift her head as he switched on a light.
He was dressed all in black, a big man with arms like tree trunks and long, thickly-muscled legs made for a physical life. He wore a black skull-hugging mask with holes for his eyes, nose, and mouth.