Just as my feet fell on the stone paved patio I thought I heard something off behind me. I swiveled my neck to look. A squirrel sat up on its hind legs, head turned away so only one beady eye looked in my direction as it chattered its annoyance. I laughed nervously. It dropped to all fours and sprinted off under the nearby thicket.
Taking my queue from the rodent, I strode quickly across the patio’s remaining span and wrapped my hand around the handle, pulling down. It didn’t budge. Crap. I tried the other door. It was locked too. Taking a step back, I surveyed the exterior. There didn’t appear to be any other entrances along that section. Hoisting my pack up on my shoulder then lacing my arm through the second loop, I pocketed my cell phone and moved off in search of another door.
Following the curve of the masonry walled building, I moved along the lower portion of the east wing and spotted another grouping of French doors halfway down the span. My stomach growled like thunder off in the distance, the threat of a powerful storm. It’d been some time since I’d eaten anything of any nutritional substance. My feet moved quicker as if focused on making way to the pantry and walk-in.
I should have guessed, those doors were locked and appeared to have been kept that way for quite some time. I was at a disadvantage not having spent more time exploring the interior, therefore not knowing the general layout inside. I moved on toward another set of doors, hoping they would allow me access and, equally important it seemed, unnoticed.
To get to the doors, I had to move down a grade in the landscape and bypass a grouping of ornately trimmed shrubs, circle around a carefully tended miniature rose garden then climb a few steep rock steps to a small patio. The breakfast nook? I tried the handle, breath caught in my throat. Nothing. My hand moved to the second handle, body turned askew ready to continue the search when the knob rotated, almost throwing me off balance.
At least my recall had been accurate. I stepped into the nook and quietly pulled the door closed. Should I lock it? Would I cause someone else to be locked out? Or had Mrs. Gutierrez left it unlocked for me and by leaving it unlocked, I’d cause her to get into trouble? If someone else was locked out, they could easily go around front and ring the bell. It wouldn’t make much difference whereas if I had done that, it would. I turned the lock.
I scoped out the room looking for anyone looking back. I heard some noises from the kitchen, probably dinner being prepared as the clang of pots, drawers opening then shutting muttered through the closed swinging door, but aside from that, I appeared to have come unnoticed into the breakfast nook. Sliding my pack down into my hand, carrying it from the strap at the top, I purposefully strode out of the room and glided into the kitchen from the dining side entrance.
A man I’d never seen before around Lillian’s house, wearing a navy jumpsuit and a matching colored ball cap stood next to the sink, his back towards me. Service personnel? Had the dishwasher gone wonky? The fridge on the fritz? Stove not lighting properly? Something didn’t sit right.
I took a quick inventory of the space about him. Indeed, something wasn’t right. The man didn’t have the obligatory red tool box in tow. Quicker than any wooded animal whose caught scent of a predator, I dashed out of the room. Only I had no where to go except past the opening on the far side of the kitchen that bled out into the wide hall serving as an intersection between various parts of the estate. The dining room and nook I’d just entered were dead ends unless you counted the exit through the French doors and for reasons I still can’t seem to explain, I didn’t think that would be the way I needed to go at that moment.
Peering around the corner, I watched as the figure slowly turned from the sink, rotating away from where I stood, then bolted on tiptoes down the hall towards the west wing. It seemed to me I would have a higher likelihood of coming across staff in the most regularly used portion of the house.
My main concern was to get out of sight if the intruder should decide to leave the kitchen. As it stood, I was a lame duck streaking down the hall. I peeled off to the right into the backside of the library.
No, not the library. Nothing looked familiar from the night before. A second library? A bit extreme if you asked me, especially since Lillian didn’t strike me as a person with that kind of time on her hands. I caught sight of a row of books. They were all uniformly bound in a deep blue leather cover with a narrow stripe of gold across the top quarter portion. I tilted my head to read the spine. Ah, now it made sense. Of course, how silly of me! Lillian had invested in her own personal law library.
As tempting as it was to spend some time there, I focused on finding another door out. I tracked down a second exit. It came in the shape of a door that had been built to blend in with the design of the bookcases just beyond the long, wide mahogany desk where several folders had been properly tamed into neat little stacks. I slid the pocket door open and glanced into the room lain beyond. It appeared to be a sitting room—a parlor possibly. I heard a muffled thudding and propelled myself into the room, carefully, quietly sliding the door behind me as I stepped further in.
The rhythmic thumping continued and with a flush of embarrassment that spread hotly across my cheeks, I realized it was the sound of my own heart rapidly beating. If that wasn’t enough, my unfed stomach whined with discomfort. A thought entered my mind. If I had to hid and this stranger really was a threat and had come to hunt me down, would my stomach growl selfishly and give me away?
I lurched forward with the thought. Repeating my quick surveillance of the small, late 19th century furnished room, I located three exits: the one I had just stepped through which on that side looked like an actual door; one to the left and one dead ahead. Reasoning the one to the left would put me back into the hallway, I opted to snake across the room staying close to the walls and behind the furnishings, towards the door that’d been dead ahead.
I twisted the knob and pushed it outward. It resisted, as if there was a heavy spring preventing it from opening without a magnificent amount of force. With a slight throaty grunt, I pushed harder. The door moved just a smidgen enough for me to peer around to see what was causing the difficulty.
How many times can a girl gasp before she winds up passing out? Clumped on the floor was a body. Living or not, I couldn’t tell.
“Holy mother of…” I whispered. I’m not a religious person, but at that particular moment that was all I could come up with as a sort of plea to a higher power for a bit of help. I crouched down behind the door and pushed my fingers around through the gap trying to make contact with the body.
The door rubbed my skin red and raw as I wiggled and jammed my fingers further around the edge. Pressing my shoulder and as much weight as I could against the hollow core door, it finally slid open a bit further.
Shit. I was wasting time.
Wasting? What if that person was alive and needed my help? I shoved harder and heard a sprinkling sound, the preamble to a door ready to split. A moan.
“Hello?” I whispered as loud as I dared. “Are you okay?”
The body moved, feet swished, a weight against the door. I pressed my face to the opening.
“Oh my God,” I breathed.
Even though the picture was obviously several years, maybe even longer, old, I instantly recognized the angular bags of the face that stared back at me.
“Are you okay?” I asked, feeling my breath slap against the door’s frame heatedly.
“I haven’t a clue. I don’t’ even know where I am. I don’t suppose you could be of any help.”
“Given that you’re pretty much responsible for me being here, I’ve got nothing to lose by doing so.”
“Me? What the hell? Who are you?”
“Lisa Knowles, but I don’t expect you to know that. I doubt you’ve ever heard of me before now.”
“And yet you know me?”
“You are Jeff Danvers, correct?”
“Listen, we don’t’ have time for this. I think one of the people responsible for you…”
“I thought you said you were responsible?” His voice cracked. I watched as his elbow doubled and he pushed his hand to his short carrot-red hair.
“That you are responsible for me being here. It’s someone else that’s responsible for you being here. Oh for crying out loud! Listen, there’s a bad guy just down the hall and may be on his way here. Can you move?” I listened as he began testing the functions of his limbs. “A bit sore, some bruises possibly, probably even a concussion but nothing appears to be broken.”
“Good. Then move away from the door so I can open it up.”
I didn’t need to look at him to know that he’d been studying me the moment I pushed open the door; my skin prickled much the way I figured a person magically transformed into a cactus plant would feel. “Stay with me.”
Remaining in the house no longer seemed wise. Instead, I moved in a direction towards – hopefully—the front of the house. The back was too secluded and increased the changes of… well, I didn’t care to think of what that entailed. We wove through a few more rooms until coming upon a set of French doors leading out onto a veranda at the front of the estate.
A panel-body van was parked off the side near a service entrance I presumed and my guess was that it had something to do with the man inside. We moved away from it towards the side where I remembered one of Lillian’s staff moving the car after we arrived late Sunday night. I hoped there would be a stable of sorts where some other cars might be found.
“Lisa,” Jeff whispered from my shoulder. “There’s someone up on the balcony.”
I glanced up, but only saw a vague form, dark enough in the setting sun’s glow so that I couldn’t tell whom it was. We hunkered down in the bushes. The nasty part about that, aside from the scratches, was that while it did a good job of hiding us, it also worked in reverse; obscuring our view of the balcony. We crouched for what seemed like an eternity until I finally peered up to see if anyone was still there. Someone was, but had stepped back to the door, opened it and disappeared inside. We pushed quietly forward.
At the corner of the mansion we drew up and Jeff waited as I peered around the side. There was a building and it did look like a car stable with a bay door open. I waved Jeff to follow. We rushed across the gap into the stable through the open, vacant bay; Lillian’s, no doubt. It was dark but clean. There hadn’t even been the lingering odor of exhaust but then Lillian had left hours ago. Jeff moved out from behind me, feeling his way into the blackness as his eyes adjusted to the dark. I looked alongside the wall in hopes of finding some keys.
I heard the popping noise of a car door being opened and moments later, Jeff’s forced whisper. “Got ‘em. Let’s roll.” I moved towards the slight shadows.
“Where’d you find them?”
“On the floorboard beneath the mat. Used to work as a kid at a dealership. They did that with their used cars on the lot.”
“Ah,” I nodded, holding my hand out.
“I’ll drive,” he said instead of giving me the keys.
“Not a chance in hell. You could have a concussion, remember?”
Apparently he didn’t see a need to argue as he palmed me the keys and stalked around the front of the BMW, rounding it to the passenger side. We ducked inside at the same time.
“Should we open the bay door first?” I asked.
“No,” I was genuinely surprised by his answer. “We can’t take that risk. I’d rather wear egg on my face and cough up the dough to have the door fixed and the scratches taken off the fender than run the risk of being dead.”
“All right,” I nodded. “Buckle up then.”
“It’s a simple aluminum door,” he patted the dash, already buckled. “Just give it even pressure on the gas and it should give way. Once it does, thought, step on the pedal so we clear it before it slams down on us.”
I swallowed, instantly regretting my decision to man the helm.
“Can’t I simply go through the open bay?”
“Now that’s a novel idea,” he laughed warmly, flashing his teeth at me.
“Good thing I chose to drive, huh?” I fired up the engine and cranked down hard on the steering wheel. “You may want to duck down just in case.”
He stuffed himself into the well of the BMer even though for his height it seemed rather difficult, even painful as I sped out of the bay toward the road. I tried to appear nonchalant so kept myself from swiveling my head about to see if we were being watched, forcing myself to study the mirrors instead.
When I reached the road and waited for a clearing in the evening rush hour traffic, I began to wonder if maybe I acted too hastily since I hadn’t seen anything or anyone make an attempt to stop or chase us. I wasn’t sure if I was more relieved or freaked out when, just as I moved out onto the road, I saw the “service man” bolt to the van and jump in.
“We’ve been spotted,” I informed Jeff.
“Move fast,” he said from his hiding place. “Don’t worry about cops. We need them right now, so just get. “
“Then get buckled up. After all I’ve been through because of you, I’m not about to get into an accident and have you turned into a pile of mush.”
“Because of me?” He slid up into the seat. I kept an eye on the rearview mirror waiting for the van to reach the street.
“Yeah. Where have you been, Mr. Danvers?”
The van appeared and was making some good time as no one else had come in either direction since I merged onto the road. I pushed up closer to the bumper of the Cadillac ahead of me before sliding out around it and shooting past. The driver blared the horn.
“Nice,” he laughed sarcastically. “Wonder if that’s his age, IQ and shoe size.”
“He just flipped you off,” Jeff said as he smiled and waved at the driver. “Yeah, buddy, you’re number one!”
“Jesus, he’s barreling down on us,” I breathed. The van swayed back and forth as it came up on the Cad, which pulled off the road in a plume of dust. I sailed past a Toyota Tercel and a Honda Civic trying to get some distance.
“God, this isn’t right!” I screamed. “What if there are kids in those cars?”
“You’ve got a powerful engine,” Jeff’s voice was stern, paternal. “Just keep your eyes on the road, blare your horn if you have to. You’re three minutes from the police station.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
“What? Driving like a lunatic?”
“No, going to the police.” The engine purred though I had the accelerator pushed all the way down.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You can’t be serious!”
“Serous as a train… as a heart attack. Would you mind telling me what’s going on?”
I snuck a glance over at him. “You really have no clue, do you?”
“None whatsoever.” His hand shot out and clutched the dash. “Cop car ahead.”
He ducked his head and looked out the side view mirror. “You’ll need to do a one-eighty and get the cop to chase you.”
“Just do it.”
I yanked up on the emergency brake. The car slid around, front wheels locking as the rear wheels skidded in a semi-circle until I released the brake and floored it, letting the steering wheel glide back into position beneath my hands.
“Turn left up here.” A beat. “Now.”
I yanked the steering wheel as the siren yawled from behind us.
“Got a cell phone?”
“Yeah, but it’s dead,” I answered just as I realized what he was trying to do. “See if there’s one in the glove box.”
He popped open the glove compartment and flitted his fingers through the few items inside. Nothing. But in looking through the compartment between our seats, he produced a corded phone and turned it on. The sirens wails grew more insistent. I kept pace with the van while Jeff dialed the phone.