Rebecca North attached a telephoto lens to her camera and attempted to focus a clear shot of the man, half a block away. He turned, this time back toward his truck and took something from behind the seat. Looking both ways again, he strode forward, and grasped the door handle to enter the abandoned, dilapidated apartment building. Finally, he stood still long enough to snap the image.
She slipped the camera into a hidden compartment under the dash, started her car, and shifted into drive. The vehicle rolled silently up behind the man's truck where she studied the deserted street, just as he had done, before getting out of her car.
She eased the car door closed and followed the man inside.
Flashlight in hand, Rebecca ascended the dark, narrow stairwell. As an insurance investigator, she was much more at home prowling computer files than snooping the halls of a spooky, old, building.
This is sheer insanity to follow a strange man into a place like this.
When she first pulled up, she had noticed at least one person was already here, but not the stranger she’d followed through the door. The person she’d observed appeared to be some poor homeless dude who’d chosen this place for refuge. She waited for him to leave, intending to enter as soon as he was gone, but the man in the pickup truck arrived. Now, all bets were off.
She knew from the beginning that coming here was not one of her smartest moves. But now, with a strange man in the picture, the back of her neck kept reminding her how nuts this was.
She glanced down at her hundred-dollar blouse; a sure sign to some, that she'd have more than a couple of dollars in her purse.
There was a big difference between the mayhem one might expect here on a Saturday night, and what she was likely to encounter on Sunday morning in broad daylight, nonetheless, she couldn’t shake the icy fingers chasing up and down her spine.
But, if one really had to be here, Sunday morning must be the best time. No amount of rationalization would help, if the guy upstairs turned out to be dangerous.
Where is he, anyway?
She patted her pocket where her cell phone should have been and remembered she'd left it plugged into the charger in her car.
Of course, no matter how foolish she was being, there was no backing out now. Her client’s appeal touched her, and Rebecca wanted to find the little marble figurine the elderly woman held so dear.
According to an anonymous call she'd received late Friday afternoon, the little statuette was in this building. Whether it was or not, she was not about to show up on Friday night or on a Saturday. But, the call spurred her on. It might actually be here. Or at least, there might be some clue to the anonymous tipster. At this point, that call had been her only lead.
How about the guy? Could he be the tipster?
A moment at the second floor landing, gave pause to listen for the man. Nothing.
Down the dark hallway, dim light spilled from a doorway casting shadows across the opening. Her flashlight revealed another doorway just to her right. The filmy cobwebs across the opening told her the man had not entered that room. The light revealed more doorways each of the next two had their own complement of dusty cobwebs. She couldn't see if the cobwebs were still in place in the last one.
Inching forward, her flashlight showed her crumpled wads of trash littering the speckled green linoleum.
One of the discarded McDonald's boxes came to life, and scurried toward her. Stifling a scream, she jumped back, and watched a fat brown rat shuffle off the container, and boldly waddled through the doorway to the room in front of her.
She wrestled with the horror and won, reminding herself she'd be lucky if these were the only kind of rats she encountered up here.
Common sense told her to run, but, she was too close to finding the figurine. The mysterious caller told her the statuette was in one of these second floor rooms.
Even more careful now, Rebecca moved forward and paused at the first room on her right. The light seeping around the boarded-up windows revealed nothing. Her flashlight found nothing, except the rat sitting in one corner, munching whatever it had retrieved from the McDonald’s box, its beady, black eyes examining the last morsel.
Across the hall, she found the room’s twin, minus the rat.
Outside the third room a creaking sound made her bolt through the doorway like a frightened rabbit. Adrenaline piqued, she hovered at the entrance, and realized there had been no cobwebs across the doorway. Someone had been here before her.
Where was the pickup truck guy? Was he the one who'd knocked down the cobwebs? It was more likely the tenant she'd seen leave. As if to answer her question, another rat waddled past her, through the doorway, into the hall.
Her flashlight found the same here as the last two rooms. Nothing. A few seconds of quiet gave her the courage to forge ahead. One more room. Out into the corridor, and through the last doorway. Dirty gray light trickling around the boards over the window, exposed half the empty room, the rest lay hidden by the door and jagged fingers of shadow.
Could the figurine actually be here in the naked recesses, behind that door? There was only one way to find out. Her back against the wall, she peeked around the half open door.
From somewhere downstairs, a noise exploded the silence, then another and another and another. She jerked her hand back, pasting it against her thumping heart.
Gunshots? No, that was more like someone hammering.
A glance down the hallway showed her nothing. She slumped against the wall in silence until her pulse slowed.
Those bangs had probably been someone breaking in to steal copper piping or the furnace. This is a big building. They wouldn’t come up here. Her rationalization evaporated with the realization that any metal in this building would have been stolen long ago.
With no more sound invading her nerves, she extended her hand and pushed hard on the middle of the door. It swung in, coming to a stop with a solid thump. Not even a rat-squeal followed but her pulse skyrocketed. Clicking rat's nails on the linoleum raised a new crop of goose bumps.
Rebecca listened, and heard nothing except for the pounding of her own hear. Taking a firm grip on the flashlight that had been dangling from a strap on her wrist she leaned forward peering around the doorjamb, half expecting the man to peer back at her.
She was indeed being watched. Two rats sat on a dirty sleeping bag. Except for a sleeping bag, and an army-green duffel, this room like the others. Rebecca picked up a McDonald’s box and flung it at the rats. Without the squeal, they rushed after it, then turned away when they found it empty. She kicked the duffel bag into an area better lighted by the poorly boarded window. She knelt and yanked the drawstring.
"Thank God, I wore gloves," she muttered as she pulled out the dirty underwear and faded, ragged jeans. She quickly searched through the pockets, and rolled them out on the floor for a pat down. Nothing, in the threadbare denim pants, she tossed them aside and checked the pockets of slightly cleaner shirt.
Some ancient instinct tickled the back of her neck and she glance toward the door. The man stood a few feet away, dressed in dark clothing and wearing tight black leather gloves, similar to her own, his face hidden by shadows.
Her scream cut the silence and her grip on the flashlight tightened. In a quick motion she flung the shirt into his face.
The deep masculine voice startled her, but didn't slow her down. Rebecca swung her flashlight toward him.
"Take it easy!" he yelled. "I'm not after you!"
Not fazed by his words, she grabbed the duffel bag and hurled it in his direction, the dirty clothes scattering into his face.
Something inside the duffel bag began hissing and a jet of smoke poured out. He leaped back, tripping over his own feet, away from the steady stream of spewing tear gas. His shoulder hit the wall with a thud. A rat shot by, running for cover. Dust, that had been clinging to the walls for years, dribbled over his head and shoulders.
Rebecca followed the rat. Out of the room and down the stairway, never looking back. That looked like a gun beneath his jacket. That figurine was important, but she was outta here. At the front door, she turned the knob and jerked. It didn't budge. She slammed her shoulder against, with the same result.
From upstairs, she heard the man coughing. She’d only caught a whiff of the tear gas, but when he slammed against the wall, that cascade of dust from both the duffel bag and overhead left him sputtering as she dashed into the hallway. He would be after her in a moment.
Rebecca smashed against the door again and again, but the door, which had swung open so easily, just minutes before, was now jammed solidly shut. To her right an air vent poured smoke into the room.
Stealing metal, my foot! They’ve set the place on fire!
Could the man upstairs have locked her inside, started a fire and somehow escaped. No! He hasn’t had time. He’s still up there, waiting for her to panic so he can kill her at his leisure and leave her remains to vanish in the blaze. Or, he could even be some kind of nut, or druggy committing suicide, and wanting company.
Rebecca looked around wildly, imagining strange shapes in the smoky haze.
"Snap out of it!" she barked aloud, then took breathe to try and take back reality. The smoke attacked her lungs and threw her into a spasm of cough. She drew the fabric of her sweater over her mouth until the coughing subsided.
Calmed by the sound of her own voice, she still couldn't argue with the facts. She was trapped in a burning building, with a mad man!