Later, I tossed and turned in bed, my mind swirling with thoughts and fear I kept trying to shove away. Every time I drifted off I saw Billy M’s enraged face, glaring in my direction. I heard his angrily muttered words, You don’t know that! She can’t be.
Had they been talking about me? I wouldn’t have thought so, except that his gaze skimmed to mine and locked on, resentment clear in his expression.
What if Billy M had been my threatening caller? I tried to remember the voice on the phone, its inflections and cadence. It could have been him. It could have been almost anybody. When my mind returned to that event my heart started beating so hard it was impossible to think.
Then I thought of Nick. Where had he gone? Was it just a massive coincidence I got that call right after he disappeared? Why hadn’t he gotten back to me about those numbers? He’d been acting strangely from the very beginning. Although I’d made my decision to trust him…I kept finding myself returning to doubt about his role.
I shoved the worrying thoughts from my mind and tried to go to sleep. I thought of clouds, of fat, fluffy sheep, and numbers…
No, that wasn’t helpful. The numbers Oscar Greenbottom had in his pocket were at the core of everything. I was becoming more sure of that by the moment.
But what did they mean?
The sound of breaking glass brought me upright in the bed. I shoved the covers back and jumped out of bed, hurrying to the door and trying to listen over the frantic pounding of my heart. Silence filled the first floor of my house. The lack of sound was stark on the heels of what had sounded like a window being broken.
I tiptoed toward the stairs and peered through the bannister, my gaze caught on the long window beside my front door. Slivers of glass sparked in the light from headlights on the street. The quickly passing lights caught on something dark and irregularly shaped on the floor in front of the window.
I stared at the item for several moments, trying to identify it in the shadowed light.
It looked like a rock, which made sense given the broken window, but it had about a two-inch band of white around its middle.
With a start, I realized something was wrapped around the rock. I hurried to my closet, slipped on a pair of sneakers and grabbed the baseball bat I had propped in the corner. Then I hefted the bat over my head and headed for the stairs.
The stairs creaked under me and I jolted to a halt, my palms sweating so much the bat was slipping. Nothing moved through the darkness. No sounds came to me. So, I tightened my grip and took the next step.
After what felt like an eternity, I stepped onto the foyer floor. The rock was a mere three feet away, surrounded by a starscape of twinkling glass shards. I looked around one last time, the bat slippery in my hands, and then hurried over to pick up the rock.
Glass crunched under my sneakers. Headlights shifted past outside and I jolted to a stop, my alarm sensors on overload. I let the bat slide through my hand and rest on its wide top against the floor, the handle nuzzling my belly.
It was a pathetic weapon but it was all I had and I wasn’t letting it out of my sight.
I carefully tugged the folded strip of paper off the rock and set it back on the floor, preserving the scene for my call to the police. I unfolded it, using the soft illumination from my outside porch light to read the four, terrifying words there.
You’re dead lady.
Red and blue lights flashed across my windows, lighting the shadows in my lower level and turning the face of the uniformed officer standing in front of me a sickly sort of green. He looked at me like I’d done something wrong and I couldn’t help wondering if he’d been part of the group of cops who’d come to fetch Oscar off my porch. Then I realized the story would have been passed through the ranks down at the police station.
Death by gnome had to be a unique way to go, no matter where you lived.
Though, I supposed if you lived in Santa’s Village on the North Pole there might have been a few gnome attacks and possible gnome murders reported.
Doing a mental head shake, I shoved aside thoughts that clearly came from a place of hysteria at the center of my soul, and tried to focus on what the cop was asking.
“…death threats before?”
I shook my head. “Not this week. Though Edith Berger did threaten to lop the heads off my roses when my thornless golden hybrid beat her purple fancy rose last year at the fair.”
He jotted a note into his little book. “Is that Burger with a U? Or Berger with an E?”
I expelled air. “Neither, I made it up. Of course I’ve never had a death threat before. What kind of question is that, anyway?”
“Ma’am, believe it or not, people do get threats for all sorts of reasons. For all I know you testified against a mob boss in Chicago and you’re here with Witness Protection.”
“If I was with Witness Protection because of something that happened in Chicago, I’d like to think I’d be smart enough to hide more than two hours from the bad guys trying to kill me.”
The cop stared at me, his lean face so neutral it went full circle into judgmental. One, dark eyebrow twitched briefly upward into judgy territory before smoothing back out to neutral. “Do you think this is a joke, ma’am?”
“I don’t think it’s a joke, no. In fact, I can’t tell you how unfunny I find this. But if you’d let me talk to Officer Maxwell…”
“Sergeant Maxwell is off duty. You can tell me whatever you were going to tell him.”
I knew I was being an itch with a B, but I was tired, scared, and had no desire to go through the whole story with someone new. “How about Officer Peter Heck?”
The cop shook his head. “I’m all you’ve got.”
I crossed my arms over my chest and shook my head. “Thanks for coming out, officer.”
“Please stop calling me that. You’re making me feel old at twenty-seven.”
He sighed. “Okay, but I’ll drive by here a few times tonight, just to make sure you’re okay.”
I softened. “Thanks.”
“Would you like me to cover that for you before I leave?”
“No. Thanks. I’ve got it.”
I just wanted to be alone to think. Whatever was going on, I’d somehow stepped right into the middle of it and I needed to figure out how or why. The police weren’t going to be any help until I knew which direction to point them. In the meantime, maybe I’d get lucky and Nick would figure out who was behind the thefts and the threats.
When they were gone, I cleaned up the glass on the foyer floor, more to give me something to do to stave off panic than anything else. When that was done I went out to my garage and found a couple of pieces of plywood from a shelf project I’d done and nailed them up over the broken window. When that was done I felt slightly better. But I wouldn’t be able to relax again until I found out what was going on.
In the meantime, I decided I’d take my neighbors up on their kind offer. If I stayed with them I could keep an eye on my house and Mrs. M’s house. If I went to a hotel I’d be out of the loop. Having made that decision, I looked at my cell phone and saw it was only five AM. Too early to call the Bonds.
So I pulled a chair from my living room into the foyer and sat down facing the front door, the baseball bat resting across my knees. Sometime during the next hour, I fell asleep.
I was woken up by knocking on my door. I came awake with a gasp, the bat slipping from my fingers and bouncing off my shin before crashing onto the tile floor.
“Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!” I jumped up and hopped around, swearing softly as the pounding on the door grew in intensity. “Just a dang minute!” I shouted before I remembered I’d gone to the mattresses and really shouldn’t open the door.
I hobbled over and peered through the peep hole, only to come eyeball to eyeball with my visitor.
Argh!!! I yelped, dodging backward.
“Dee, are you all right?”
I glared at the door. “No thanks to you!”
Nick sounded as if he had his face pressed to the door. “Come on, open up. I have news.”
I hobbled over and unlocked the door, pulling it open and greeting him with a surly look. “I called the Insurance company and asked for you. They’d never heard of you.” I wasn’t going to tell him that the woman had promised to search for him in their employee records. I was ticked and he could darn well defend himself if he could.
Nick slipped through the door, eyed the chair, the bat on the floor and the boarded up window. “What happened?”
“Somebody threw a rock through my door and told me I was a dead woman.”
His eyes went round. “No!”
“Um, yes. I would have called and told you but, guess what, I don’t have your number.”
He sidestepped my complaint again. “Do you know who did this?”
I put hands on hips and glared up at him. “Of course I don’t know. If I knew, I wouldn’t have been sitting here watching the door all night.”
To his credit, Nick did look upset. “This is bad, Dee. Why is somebody threatening you?”
“I’m guessing it has to do with those numbers I gave you.”
Nick blinked. “Really?”
“Yeah,” I told him about the phone call threatening me if I didn’t give whoever it was what they were looking for. “A lot has happened since you disappeared. Again,” I added accusingly.
“Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I’ve ruled out almost everything. The numbers don’t belong to a safety deposit box. They’re not a phone number or an address. It’s not a date or a social security number. The numbers don’t seem to be coordinates…”
I grimaced. “Coordinates? Are we in the middle of some international spy thing?”
He shook his head. “That’s unlikely.”
Since I’d thought I was being outrageous with the suggestion, his calm rejection of it was alarming. “Okay, it’s not all those things, so what is it then?”
“That’s the bad news. I still don’t know.”
I frowned, trying to think. “Account number for a bank?”
“They could be a password but we don’t have a computer so that’s not helpful.” His eyes went wide. “Unless there’s a computer in either the stash house or Mrs. M’s upstairs bedroom.”
I liked that idea. “We could go search next door.” I could always call the Bonds later.
“What about Billy?” Nick asked. “We can’t risk running into him again.”
I wasn’t sure why exactly Nick couldn’t risk that, but I remembered all too well the way he’d glared at me across the yard. I walked over and peeked out the door. “His truck’s not there. Let’s go. I’ll search the bedroom and you distract Mrs. M.”
“How about I search and you distract? I’m better trained.”
“What kind of training do I need to move stuff around and look under the furniture?” I snapped at him. “There’s no way I’m giving you the goods again. You don’t come clean with any information.”
He sighed. “Okay. But if you find it we’ll both check it out. Together.”
I slipped flip flops on and stepped outside, shoving the crime scene tape that everyone seemed to ignore over my head as I left the porch. “Now you’re interested in sharing. Amazing how that works.”
We jogged up the steps to Mrs. Mouskawitz’s front door. I glanced at Nick before knocking. “You do the talking. Get her to follow you into the kitchen if possible. I’ll just slip upstairs as soon as she’s occupied.”
He nodded and reached out, giving the door an energetic rap.
It opened under the force of his knock, swinging silently into the entrance.
Nick and I shared a look.
“That can’t be good,” I murmured.
He frowned, motioning me behind him and stepping inside. “Mrs. M?” He stayed close to the door, using it as a buffer between him and whatever…or whoever…was inside. “Mrs. M, it’s Nick and Dee. Your neighbors,” he added, in case she’d forgotten who we were. Again.
There was no response. We listened for a moment. The house was totally silent. Not even the pitter patter of Penny’s little paws filled the silence.
Nick slowly pushed the door further open and we gawked at what was revealed. The tile floor of the entrance was littered in debris. A metal cookie sheet lay, overturned, in the center, the broken detritus of a dozen cookies splayed around it like broken glass.
The sight brought the scare of the night before into stark relief for me and I shuddered violently.
But the dropped cookie sheet wasn’t the only thing on the floor. The entire space was covered in clothing. Men’s clothing from the looks of it, with a few pieces of shattered pottery, some jewelry, and an empty wallet, tented on the floor as if emptied and dropped without another thought.
I swallowed hard. “Do you think this is stuff from upstairs?”
Nick nodded. “It sure looks like it.” He frowned and I guessed he was remembering the gun he’d found up there.
An icy cold filled me and I shuddered underneath it. In the hallway leading to Mrs. M’s kitchen lay an overturned basket and a trail of yarn. A ball of soft pink yarn had rolled to rest against the wall, two slim needles sticking out of its sides. Crushed beside the basket was a pair of reading glasses I remembered seeing on the old lady’s face once or twice. “I don’t see any blood.”
Nick twitched under my statement. I’d put voice to the inescapable realization that Mrs. M might have been the victim of violence.
And her little dog too.
I had a sudden thought that made me gasp. Nick glanced my way. “What is it?”
“This happened last night.”
He shrugged. “Possibly.” He thought for another minute. “Probably.”
“The rock was thrown through my window last night.”
“You think the same person did this?”
The frost in my belly spread in a violent wash, turning my hands icy with dread. “I should have had them check on her.” I’d waited too long to call the police and I hadn’t thought to have them check on poor Mrs. Mouskawitz. “I’ve killed her.”
Nick ignored me, stalking quietly toward the kitchen. He stepped carefully over the basket and slid along the wall, his eyes gliding from door to door as he moved. He stopped at the kitchen door and peered carefully around, his posture stiff. After a beat, he relaxed. “Nobody in here,” he whispered.
He jerked his head toward the steps. I nodded and, going with an impulse, reached down to tug one of the knitting needles out of the ball of yarn before starting up the steps.
Thinking of the gun we’d left behind. I only hoped I wasn’t bringing a needle to a gun fight.
I’d expected silence. A dangerous, threatening silence that matched the deepening sense of dread tightening my chest. But the second level of Mrs. M’s house wasn’t completely quiet. There was a soft whistle, the sound of wind soughing through a broken window.
It was an ominous sound, accompanied by a drop in temperature that made me shiver.
At the top of the stairs, Nick stepped in front of me. I frowned at his back. He was putting himself between me and potential danger and I didn’t like it.
Why didn’t I like it?
It wasn’t like I was exceptionally brave. And I didn’t even really trust Nick. Or at least I hadn’t. But if he was willing to protect me… Well, that meant I’d have to reevaluate my distrust.
Then there was the control issue. I hated not to be in control of any situation. A flaw I’d been battling since before I was old enough to understand my constant feelings of frustration whenever my fate left my hands and someone else took the reins of my life.
But I quickly lost my irrational irritation as a soft sound emerged from the room with the broken window. Billy M’s room.
Someone was in the room!
I reached out and touched Nick’s back. He nodded, motioning down the stairs. I shook my head. There was no way I was going to run away like a scared little mouse while he faced whatever waited for us in that room.
Instead, I raised the needle clutched in my hand, and was dismayed when it slipped southward, lubricated by copious amounts of sweat from my palm.
Nick stepped sideways, pressing himself close to the wall next to the open doorway. I followed suit, barely breathing for fear whoever was inside that room would hear the air moving through my lungs.
We waited. Listened.
Another soft sound. Like items being moved from one place to another.
Nick took a deep breath, glanced my way, and then spun around, putting himself in the door. His eyes went wide and he dived sideways, carrying me down to the floor just as the wall opposite the door splintered, flinging chunks of drywall and dust over our heads.
A tall, dark form exploded from the bedroom and leaped over us, his foot coming down hard on Nick’s hand.
Nick grunted in pain as the figure rushed the stairs and disappeared, his footsteps pounding heavily on the treads. The last sound we heard as we climbed to our feet, was the slamming of the front door as the intruder escaped our inept clutches.
“Are you okay?” Nick asked me.
Brushing drywall dust from my hair, I nodded. “You?”
He rubbed the back of one hand. “I’m fine.” He expelled air. “I should have taken that gun when I found it.”
“You couldn’t have known. If the police had searched, it would have been best if they found it. Billy M’s got some ’splainin’ ta do about having that gun.”
Nick looked toward the bedroom door, frowning. “I’m afraid old Billy’s not going to be doing any explaining.”
An icy feeling of dread tickled down my spine. “What do you mean?” Although I already knew what he meant. I was just hoping I was wrong.
Nick motioned toward the door and, my heart pounding so hard it made me weak, I stepped over and looked inside.
Billy Mouskawitz lay on his back on the floor next to the bed, his eyes open and already starting to glaze. And an extra hole in his head, right between his eyes.
Billy M was dead.