REBECCA RAN up the creaky stairs, then down the hallway. That partially boarded-up window in the room where she'd left the lunatic was the only way out that she knew of. All she had to do was get past him.
A damaged board hung loose from a door-casing; she grabbed it and pulled it free, happy to see a nail sticking out of the end.
Dashing past the man, she swung the nail in front of his face and drew some satisfaction that he ducked back, scattering contents from the open duffel. His eyes never left her, but he didn't react, except enough to keep clear of her weapon.
Neither black-gloved hand held a gun and she breathed a silent sigh. He didn't chase her.
Maybe he has a plan for getting out of here.
"I don't know why you want me dead, mister, but unless you want to roast with me, you'd better listen." She positioned herself between him and the door. "I know you blocked the door downstairs and started a fire, but if you want to get out of here, you're going to have to show me the way."
"Fire?" He stood up, a frown his only response to her wild-eyes and little nail.
"You started it. Now smoke is coming out of the air ducts." The man glanced at the nearest the duct. Nothing was issuing into this room, yet.
He sidled over to the dusty window and peeked out through the crack. Rebecca kept the board at the ready.
"The windows of the buildings across the alley are boarded up, too," he said, "No chance anyone will hear us yell."
He twisted the old-fashioned window lock a quarter turn and pushed up, but it wouldn't budge.
"It's been nailed shut."
"No kidding." She moved over to another window and stood on tiptoes pressing her nose against the dirty glass, but she couldn't see the sides of the building. She stepped back and swung the board with all her might.
"Wait a minute," the man yelled. "I'll…"
The glass shattered. She scampered away to avoid the flying shards. "I think you did too good a job getting the fire started; we may not have a minute." She knocked the jagged shards from the edges and stuck her head out to gulp a lung full of the cool, late March air.
"You going to show me the way out?" She turned and waved the board again.
"Look." He made no move toward her. "I didn't start the fire, and the only way out that I know of is through the door."
"Then, we'd better find another way, fast," she said, the relief of almost believing him sounding in her voice. "'The front door is jammed tight."
He turned toward the door, but Rebecca jumped in front of him, the nail blocking his way.
"Oh, no you don't," she shouted. "You're not getting out of here without me."
"I told you," he yelled back. "I didn’t' start any fire, and I'm not trying to get away without you."
"We're two stories up, and there aren't any window ledges or fire escapes. I didn't even see a drain pipe."
"They steal the metal and sell it for scrap," the man said. "Used to be they'd steal anything that wasn't nailed down. Now, they pry it loose and steal the nails, too."
She could see that he was studying her face, assessing her. The panic in her eyes showed, and she knew it. He might panic, too and do something stupid.
Like take her puny board away and toss her out the broken window.
He looked out, and it gave Rebecca a moment to examine him. He was five or six inches taller than her five-foot-five, his face almost angular; his sandy-brown hair brushed the collar of his blue denim jacket. White cobwebs streaked his sleeves.
"I smell smoke now," he said.
Rebecca arched a brow at his puzzled look. "What’s your name? If I die in here, at least I want to know the name of the man they find me with."
“Micheal. What’s yours?”
Finally convinced, she tossed the board aside and held out a hand. "Rebecca. Rebecca North."
"We're not going to die in here. There was a padlock hasp on the front door, but no padlock. Maybe someone didn’t know we were in here and put it back.”
”Could you maybe shoot the lock off?" Rebecca didn't ask why he carried a gun. She wasn't sure she wanted to know.
"Shooting a lock, like they do in the movies, doesn’t work very well. Besides, I don't want to go slinging stray bullets around." Michael moved back into the hallway as he spoke. “I checked the back door when I came in. It's boarded up and nailed shut.
"You don't need to worry about stay bullets hitting anyone around here," she said.
"Maybe not," he went on. "But, shooting a lock off is an absolute last resort."
"We're pretty close to last resort."
Michael sprinted down the hallway with Rebecca right on his heels down the stairs to the front door. She kept her flashlight on him, as he pushed and yanked on the knob with both hands. No success.
Next, he pulled a tiny flashlight from his pocket and aimed the beam at the upper door hinge.
"Damn." He shook his head, squatted, and touched the lower hinge.
"I was hoping to pop the hinge pins out," he told her. "But they're not the kind you can do that with."
His grim expression sent Rebecca heading back for the stairs. "We can still get out the upstairs window. Tie those clothes together like they were sheets and use them as a rope."
"Those rags? You gotta be kidding."
"A broken leg is better than burning alive."
Michael grabbed her arm. "And if you land on your head? On concrete? You can die from a two-story fall, too."
"We can die from suffocation in here." She pulled her arm from his grasp. She saw smoke in the air now. Rebecca coughed and placed a foot on the first stair. "Well, do you have a better idea?"
"Give me a minute!" Michael paced the room looking for something useful."
Rebecca watched the black halo forming at the ceiling. The dense, acrid smoke worked its way lower, but still, no flame.
"Your minute's up."
“Anytime now,” Rebecca almost shouted. "Looks like it's last resort time."
Michael met her at the front door, the black gun in hand. His flashlight tucked beneath his right arm.
"Step back a few feet and aim you light right above the doorknob, and keep it steady," Michael muttered. "If I angle this right," "this might work."
Rebecca flinched and slammed her eyes shut at the blast in the enclosed space. But then, she opened them and saw the narrow stream of daylight coming in through the bullet hole. Michael grabbed the knob and tugged furiously, slammed his shoulder against it, and even kicked. But still, it didn't budge.
"You missed," Rebecca accused.
As he knelt down in front of the door, Rebecca moved in closer. With her chin almost touching his shoulder she peered through the circular opening with him. "The door doesn’t look all that thick," she said.
"No, it isn't." Michael pulled a small knife from his pocket and opened it. He twisted the thin silver blade around in the hole until he hit metal. With pokes and jabs, he scraped until he uncovered part of a long nail.
"I don't believe it!" Rebecca straightened up. "Someone nailed the door shut and set the place on fire!"
"Looks that way," Michael agreed.
Rebecca turned toward the stairs. "I'll jump out a window before I choke to death in here."
"Not so fast. I've got another idea."
"I hope it's better than your last one."
"That one was yours," he reminded her.
Rebecca followed him over to a boarded-up window facing the street. Her flashlight revealed a ledge a foot and a half wide under the window.
Michael laid down on the bench, legs up, and placed his sneaker-clad feet against the plywood window cover.
"Get up here beside me. Together, we might be able to kick the board loose."
Rebecca scrambled up, pulling her maroon sweater down as she positioned herself beside him on her back. Too dark to see him, she felt his warm breath on her face, their shoulders touching.
"Right. Keep your feet close to mine and use the edge of this board above our heads for leverage." His hand guided her's to the spot. "Ready? One... two ... three!"
Their feet hit the board but it didn't budge. They hit it again and again until, panting with exertion, smoke stinging their lungs, they felt the cool outside air flowing over their ankles. Whether from their labors or the fire, the air around them seemed unbearably warm.
"Wait." Rebecca sat up and bent over the glowing pocket of daylight gulping in breaths of fresh air as she studied the situation. "Place your feet right here." She guided them to the spot where a row of nails held the board. "Okay, now hit it!"
He hit the board soundly, and then Rebecca grabbed his ankles, her hands firm as she repositioned them.
"Again!" She moved his feet twice more before satisfied. "Stop, I think I can get out now."
Michael sat up as Rebecca slipped her legs through the opening. Carefully, she eased herself down, doing her best to avoid the nails, but her sweater snagged one, as she slipped past. Once her feet touched the cement she grabbed the board and propelled herself through.
"Are you all right Michael yelled, unable to see her now that she was on the ground.
"I'm fine. Just tore my sweater. Can you get out?"
His voice was growing hoarse from the smoke. "No, the hole's not big enough. Don't worry about me, find a phone and call 911! There's a pay phone that still works two blocks toward downtown."
"I got a phone in the car," she said, "Back in a flash."
Later she would have to ask how he knew this neighborhood so well. In fact, there were a whole bunch of things she wanted to ask.
* * *
ACROSS THE STREET a man sank into the shadows watching Rebecca dash to her car and make the call. His plan hadn't worked quite the way he'd laid it out but it had been fun listening to them pound and claw at the walls of their death trap.
That they had gained their freedom was a testimony to their resourcefulness, and will make it more enjoyable next time. This was not only going to be profitable but a lot of fun, too.
A minute later the woman went running back to the barred door and rattled the knob in frustration. Then twirling around, she ran back to her car and opened the trunk, returning with a tire iron a moment later.
Yes, she is resourceful. I'll have to remember that.
While her attention was focused on prying the rest of the boards off the window, he slipped around to the alley in back of the building, got into his car and drove casually away.
* * *
BLACK SMOKE BILLOWED OUT, as Rebecca, at last, flung the sheet of plywood away. But the smoke was all that rushed out.
"Michael!" she yelled. Fearing he'd passed out from the smoke, she crawled back into the window and got down on all fours trying to stay under the smoke. "Michael, where are you?"
"Middle of the stairs," he called back.
Rebecca crawled toward the stairs, ascending them by touch, unable to see through the smoke. When she reached him her eyes were stinging, tears sliding down her face.
"Are you nuts!" Rebecca croaked, her throat raw from breathing the fumes. She started to stand.
Michael pulled her back down. He had the duffel bag in his hand, the contents stuffed back inside. "Stay low."
They slid down the stairs with the bag between them, dragging it through the window just as two fire trucks and an ambulance arrived. Paramedics rushed toward them and firemen with axes began smashing their way through the door. Two others raced past, into the burning building. Blaring sirens announced the arrival of yet another pair of fire trucks. This area would see urban renewal eventually, but a massive conflagration wasn't the city's choice for demolition.
A few chaotic minutes later Rebecca sat beside Michael on the curb across the street, breathing bottled oxygen supplied by the paramedics. Bewildered, she watched the color slowly return to Michael's pale face and inhaled deeply to clear her own dizziness.
Flames began to appear from the upper floor windows, adding to the gray overcast of the darkening rain clouds. Nearby, two Policemen hovered, waiting to speak to them.
A warm hand touched her shoulder, as she sucked in a gulp of oxygen, which made her even more light-headed. Then again, maybe it wasn't the excess oxygen at all. Michael’s callused fingers caressed the hollowed curve of her bare shoulder and a tingling hot sensation shot through her.
Oh, my God!
Only once before had she reacted that way to a man's touch, and that had been a disaster.
She stole a glance at Michael but found him looking down at her chest. Her torn sweater had slipped down to her elbow, giving him a full view of her sheer lacy black brassiere and creamy skin.
She sucked in another gulp of oxygen as his fingers brushed across her breast, sending a warm glow through her. But he was only holding up the torn edge of her sweater covering her as a paramedic approached them.
"How you feeling?"
Rebecca lowered the clear triangular mask she'd been breathing from and looked up at the paramedic. "I'm doing fine. Do you have a safety pin?" He nodded and left.
Michael lowered his mask, his hand still on her shoulder. "Thanks for coming back in to help me."
"I hope that bag was worth risking your life for."
His fingers still pressed lightly into her shoulder, holding her sweater up, and now even more disturbing. Their eyes met for a brief moment before they were interrupted by a big hairy hand reached over her shoulder with a silver safety pin in it.
"Hello, Michael," the paramedic said, as she took the safety pin and handed her oxygen equipment over in exchange.
Just then, two uniformed officers walked up. Both men in their late twenties with very short hair and slender builds, their blue uniforms and shiny black shoes identical.
"Michael, Michael, you just can't stay out of trouble can you?" the boyish-looking, red-haired cop teased.
"Seems he can't," the one whose pocked face told of past acne agreed. "Captain's not going to like this."
"Do you know everybody?" Rebecca muttered, "First the paramedics and now them."
"Not everyone," Michael replied softly, "but I've worked this area." He looked up at the policemen as the paramedics left with their equipment.
"You guys out for a Sunday stroll?" Michael grinned at the red-haired cop.
Both smiled back. "Sure. Just like you, right? What's going on here? Who's she?
"She's with me. Name's Rebecca North." He stood and offered Rebecca a helping hand. "Do me a favor and don't run a check on her until tomorrow afternoon. By then her fines will be paid. I promise."
The red-haired cop winked and grinned shyly. "No problem" He took out a notepad. "Give us the details."
Rebecca crossed her arms and leaned back against the side of the red brick wall, ready to hear a few details herself. How did he know about her parking tickets?
"Why don't you start with Ms. North?" Michael suggested, turning to face her. "What were you doing here?"
All three looked at her expectantly. "I'm a free-lance insurance investigator. I got an anonymous phone call, Friday afternoon, about a piece of artwork I'm looking for. A marble figurine. It was supposed to be in that burning building."
A big, fat drop of rain splattered down on the officer’s notepad. For protection, they all scurried back farther under the eaves. Rebecca, Michael and the cops, crowded in the alcove of a deep sunken doorway.
"Any idea who this anonymous caller was?" the pockmarked cop asked.
"No," she replied, sullen. "Male voice. He gave me the tip, the address and then click. Curiosity got the best of me. So, I had to check it out."
"Uh-huh." He scribbled a note on a new sheet of paper. “And just why were you looking for this…figurine?”
Rebecca brushed droplets of rainwater off her face. "A friend asked me to help find it. It was stolen in a recent burglary."
"One we know about, I trust?"
"It was reported," she said. "Whether you know about it or not I couldn't say." Rebecca thought she heard Michael snicker, but when she glanced at him, he had a straight face. "The piece has no monetary value anyway," she continued. "It's just a keepsake."
"Who are you working for?"
She gave them Sarah Hall's name and both cops turned a sharp glance to Michael, who shook his head but didn't say anything. Her curiosity aroused, she asked, "What do you know about Sarah Hall?"
"Not much," the red-haired cop replied.
His innocent expression let her know that questioning him would be a waste of time. "Is that all?" she asked.
"Yeah. That’s all for now. Someone will be in touch with you if we need more information." The pockmarked policeman looked at Michael, a smirk covering his face. "And what were you doing here?"
Michael stuck his hands into the pockets of his jeans. "I got an anonymous phone call, too. The caller implied that I'd find information in there about an unsolved case I worked a while back." He shrugged, with a nod toward the burning building. "And, like her, I had to check it out."
"Looks like curiosity almost did the cat thing on you both. What happened?" the redhead asked.
"Someone nailed the door shut after we were both inside, and started fires on each end of that building."
The pockmarked cop nudged the green duffel bag with his toe. "What's this? Your laundry?"
"Not mine, but somebody's. I found it inside, Michael said. “I thought maybe there might be something in there to tell us what's going on."
A lightning bolt streaking across the dark sky. The crack of thunder, and then a deluge. The wind whipped sheets of water into their refuge. Rebecca crossed her arms, as chilled goosebumps rose and her clothes stuck to her skin. But the rain wasn’t alone in making her shiver. The thought that someone had deliberately tried to kill her sent her mind into high gear. Why? Who hated her so much they wanted her dead?
* * *
NOTICING HER MOVEMENTS, Michael shrugged out of his jean jacket and draped it around her shoulders. "Can't this wait until later?" he asked the cops.
"One more question." The pockmarked cop looked at Rebecca. "Did you see anyone in the street?"
"There was a man in there when I got here. I saw him leave, but I was too far away to see his face. I could see that he was white, maybe five eight or nine, with long straggly hair." Rebecca shivered again. "Sorry, that isn't much help."
A loud crash across the street turned them to watch as parts of the buildings caved in; rain pouring down had not done much to slow the inferno. Firemen huddled in the middle of the blocked-off street watching from a safe distance as more of the second story crumbled. There was little they could do, except keep the fire from spreading and the rain was taking care of that for them.
"I need my rain gear," the red-haired cop muttered. He picked up the duffel bag. "You know the rules, Michael. I have to take this in, or we're all in trouble.
He nodded as the policemen left, his attention still on the scene across the street.
* * *
REBECCA GOT NONE of the hoped-for answers, but plenty of new puzzles. How did Michael know who she was? Why did he know about her unpaid parking tickets? Who was he and what was he really after?
"We can go." Michael touched her lightly on the shoulder. “Standing here in the rain isn't going to help.” He turned and started toward his truck.
”No you don’t.” Rebecca stood there, staring at his back unwilling to leave this spot until she had some answers, especially those only Michael could provide.
Unsolved mysteries weren't something she handled well, and usually, she didn't have to. In her job she made sure few if any details were ever left unlearned. This wasn't going to be any different.
She wasn't going to let him walk away without filling in some of the blanks. She hurried up close behind him before he turned to look at her, she plucked a thick piece of paper out of his pocket.
He quickly stepped toward her, wrapping his arms around her and trapping her hands beneath his chin. "Slip the photo back into my pocket before someone sees it. Now!''
A quick glance confirmed her suspicions. He was after the figurine, too. "Where'd this come from? Why didn't you tell the cops about this? You lied to them."
"Michael," the pockmarked policeman yelled from down the street. "Get out of here! The media's arrived."
He abruptly let her go, snatching the photo from her and smoothly stuffed it back into his pocket. "I'll explain later, at Sarah's."
"What! Are you working for Sarah, too?"
"No answers till we get there."