REBECCA STOPPED halfway down the staircase, a little ray of doubt niggling at her suspicions. She had been running late that morning. There was a light breeze. One good gust could have blown the door open if she hadn't closed it properly. But, she always locked her door, surely, she wouldn't have been so careless.
After yesterday's fiasco, it was tempting to leave and call the police just to be on the safe side. But what if she'd just failed to pull the door closed? She'd feel like a fool. Michael would find out and doubt her ability even more. How low would his opinion be if she panicked wolf over a door she, herself had left unlocked?
"My imagination is running wild," she muttered with a sigh. But try as she would, she couldn't make herself believe it.
Still, there was no reason to be foolhardy. Michael wouldn't think much of that, either. She rummaged in her purse for her heavy flashlight to use as a weapon, should she need it. Leaving her bag out of sight on the stairs, she grasped the heavy black cylinder tightly in her fist then climbed upward, hugging the railing.
The door swung open to her left, leaving her right, and the flashlight free for action. Her left hand on the jamb, she took a peek inside, just as she had seen actors do on television. The apartment looked empty and the bathroom door was wide open as usual.
She stole another glance inside. From this angle, she could see behind the counter that hid the tiny kitchen from the rest of the room, and unless someone was hiding behind the counter or in the old-fashioned claw-foot tub, her intruder, if there had been one, was long gone.
Feeling rather foolish but still hesitant, she stood near the doorway, wishing she hadn't left in such a rush this morning. Her bed wasn't made old clothes were scattered over it, the Sunday papers still on the sofa. Not unusual after a late deadline, but it made it difficult to tell if anything had been disturbed.
Finally, her courage on the mend, Rebecca stepped into the apartment and immediately tripped over something. Still floundering, like a fish out of water, something hit her on the back of the neck. It didn't hurt. But there went all that courage.
Her arms flailing, she tried to get away from the furry thing that just kept flying into her. Back out the front door, she stumbled against the porch railing, the flashlight dangling, useless from her wrist.
Thank God for the railing. Without it, I would be in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. Her knees ready to buckle, she risked a peek at whatever had accosted her. Eyes wide, she began to tremble.
A huge, hairy spider was twirling around on a piece of nearly invisible fishing line in the open doorway. A small knife pierced the belly of the stuffed arachnid and held a piece of white paper against the white padding inside.
Her shaky fingers tried to regain control of her shattered nerves by brushing her hair out of her eyes. Cautiously, she drew closer to the mangled toy spider. Not close enough to touch it, but close enough to use the flashlight to stop the twirling bug. Splotches of red covered the white paper. She read the clumsily written note:
This could have been your blood and you'd be dead.
If someone hadn't tried to burn her alive yesterday, she might have laughed it off as a sick practical joke. But as it was, it was too much for her. She dropped the note and ran down the stairs, jumped into her car and, still trembling, sped backward down the long driveway.
At the entrance she stopped and reached for her purse to grab her cell phone, but the purse wasn't there. She'd left it on the porch when she ran. It only took seconds for her to see what she had to do. She spun her wheels backing out onto the main road, slammed the car into a forward gear and roared off toward the Seven-Eleven and the nearest pay phone.
First, she called the police, then Sarah, both to make sure she was all right and to get Michael's number. He wasn't at home and it took a few minutes to track him down, but she finally reached him at a police substation and told him what had happened.
Still unnerved, Rebecca drove slowly back to her place, for once not speeding, allowing time for the police to get there first.
Two policemen were coming down the apartment stairs as she parked beside their cars. The two laughed, teased and threw punches at each other shoulders.
Confused by their behavior, Rebecca waited for them at the bottom of the steps. They didn't have anything in their hands and didn't seem concerned about her situation. The younger officer slapped the other on the back as he passed, apparently on his way to his black and white.
"Later," he said.
"Later." The officer before her was clean shaven, had short graying hair with a neatly pressed navy blue uniform.
"Rebecca North?" The officer pulled a notepad from his pocket.
"Tell me exactly what you saw up there."
They had come down empty-handed, and his kind, almost gentle tone disturbed her. An ebbing suspicion began to nag at her.
"Why? What did you see?" she asked warily.
"It's best you tell me, in your own words."
He was too nice. Without emotion Rebecca related what had happened. The officer never once interrupted her to ask questions and by the time she was finished Rebecca knew why. His expression told all.
"A spider with a knife through it?" he said.
"You didn't see the spider?"
"No ma'am. The door wasn't quite closed but there aren't any signs of forced entry. We checked inside, things seem to be fine. A bit messy, but ... He trailed off with a shrug. "I was single once. I remember what it's like. And I remember coming home to an empty place, too. It could be spooky."
Rebecca closed her eyes. She hadn't imagined that spider. What was someone trying to do to her? Drive her crazy? Or to make her look nuts in front of the police?
Why not? It had happened once before.
The slamming of a car door roused her and she watched as Michael strode toward them. His yellow T-shirt tucked into snug-fitting blue jeans, white sneakers on his feet.
"Are you okay?" he asked, studying the confusion and fear etched on her pale oval face.
"I'm fine." His presence made her feel better and she didn't bother asking herself why. it was just good to see him again. "But my reputation might need repair. They didn't find anything up there."
Michael looked at the officer. "Nothing?"
"No spiders," the officer confirmed, staring at Michael. "Do I know you? You look familiar."
A tug of dismay creased the corners of Michael's mouth. "The name Michael Hall ring a bell?"
"Oh, yeah, right." The officer snapped his fingers. "I saw you on television after you pulled that crazy stunt. You still on suspension?"
He winced at the choice of words, hoping the review board didn't think of what he did as crazy.
"Too bad. Well, there's nothing else I can do here. Looks like someone she knows is playing a sick joke on her. Good luck with the hearing."
Rebecca sat on the bottom step, arms wrapped around her knees. He squatted in front of her. She looked dazed, but no longer seemed quite so scared.
"Are you in shock?"
Her thick eyelashes flickered but she didn't look at him.
"No. of course not."
"I had you pegged as the kind of person who'd be yelling at the top of her lungs, declaring to the world that I'm not nuts, that there was a mangled spider hanging in my doorway with a knife stuck in it."
"Sure. You'd really love that, wouldn't you?"
"Well, it would've been something to see," he admitted, trying to cajole some kind of reaction from her. She was too wooden by half, and it bothered him.
Rebecca's eyes had gone wide. Maybe it was him.
Then she shook her head, annoyed by her own thoughts. She only wished it was that easy. Michael couldn't have done this to her, at least not alone. Someone had cleaned up immediately after she left the scene.
Still, he'd been the one to find a way out of the building yesterday. Had it been planned that way? Was he somehow a part of the mystery they were trying to solve?
No, that was crazy, or at least it was too terrible to contemplate. "You missed the yelling part," she informed him. "I did that when the spider hit me."
He chuckled. Rebecca didn't. But, she used her monotone voice and blank stare to worry him. He grabbed both of her hands and pulled her up. "Come on. I think we better have a paramedic take a look at you."
"No, you don't! I'm fine." Rebecca pushed his hands away and crossed her arms. You don't believe me, either."
"I don't, huh?" Michael shoved his hands into the pockets. "I broke every speed limit on the way here. Ran a red light, too. Until today I would have thought it was impossible to get from downtown to here in fifteen minutes."
"That cop thinks I'm nuts!" She slapped her hand on the step beside her. "And you probably do, too."
"You'd think so, too, if you saw even one-tenth of the stuff most policemen deal with every day. He was probably more relieved than anything. Usually, when someone sees spiders, they're strung out on drugs and a danger to both themselves and others." He took a breath. "Did you tell him about the fire yesterday?"
The hard edge to Michael's voice added to his tough and mean. Not the kind of person she'd learned to trust yesterday.
"No. Not after he didn't find anything." She had to get a handle on this. After all, Michael was on her side. "I'm sorry," she said. "I overreacted and just took it out on you."
"And I'm sorry about the lecture. Now, can we go upstairs?"
"Why?" She stood and backed away from him.
"Relax! I'm not going to attack you." Michael rocked on his heels. She could see his patience wearing thin. "You called me! Remember? All I want to do is check things out for myself if that's okay with you." He shrugged and turned as if to leave. "If not, I'll go."
If he does have some secret agenda, I'll never find out, standing out here second-guessing him.
"Come on up."
"Don't do me any damn favors." Michael glared at her.
"All right, all right." Rebecca took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. I'm just all keyed up. Please do come up and help me try to figure this out. OK?"
While Michael explored, Rebecca quickly made her bed then shoved her clothes into the closet and shut the doors. Then back to the living room area where she stacked the newspaper, in a fairly neat pile, on the coffee table.
Furniture arrangements divided the large two-room apartment. The bath and bedroom occupied one end, the kitchen at the other, with the living room in the middle. Long narrow windows near the ceiling let natural light into the room.
Her narrow galley kitchen, stood behind a Formica topped counter, its smooth surface her dining table. White painted stools provided seating for four. She made a pitcher of iced tea and poured him a glass.
"What'd you find?"
"Dust." He got up from his knees near the front door and took the glass. "Thanks, this'll help."
"I've been just the tiniest bit too busy to worry about housework lately," she told him.
"It's fine." He gulped tea and then asked, "When was the last time this place was painted?"
"Year before last. Why?" Michael took another long swallow of the iced tea before speaking. "Have you hung any decorations around the inside of your door since then?"
"No." When he didn't continue, her impatience led her on. "What's your point?"
"I think I know how the guy rigged up the spider."
"You believe me?" she asked,
"Never doubted you. Come here. Take a look at this."
Rebecca's frazzled nerves took a soothing dip at his sincerity. She squeezed in beside him on the narrow ladder, their shoulders, hips, and thighs, touching. Was he aware of her attraction?
"See these tiny little pinholes?" He pointed to the top of the doorjamb. "Now, put a finger right there."
She did it. "It's sticky."
"Probably tape. There's an identical set of holes and a sticky spot behind the door, too, and below. If he rigged a trip wire at the bottom and used fishing line you'd never see it. In you walked; down came the spider." Michael smiled. "Enough to make anybody spill their curds and whey."
"But why?" She stepped off the ladder and put a little space between them.
"Don't have an answer for that one." He put the ladder back into the living room closet. "How 'bout, you tell me."
"How should I know?"
Her sharp tone brought a raised eyebrow to his face. But it didn't get them anywhere. "Has anything else like this happened before?"
"Other than yesterday, no!"
"Any past lovers who might be out for revenge?" His raised eyebrows settled back."Someone you scorned?"
Rebecca burst out with a laugh. "Scorned? Scorned, you gotta be kidding."
"OK, okay. Maybe that's not the right word, anymore. But, I mean...has there been anyone lately you've turned down for a date or went out with one time, and then wouldn't go out again? Something like that?"
Rebecca put her hand over her mouth, still covering a snicker. It took a moment to recover.
"I'm afraid my past isn't all that colorful. But it's got to be someone I know."
"I've lived in this apartment for almost five years and never been in the phone book. My number is unlisted. I use a post office box for my mail." Rebecca paced nervously. "You ran a police check on me, but I still had to give you my address."
He didn't deny it. You sure you're not listed at this address anywhere?" Michael shook his head intrigued. "Why not?"
"Less junk mail," she quipped. "I like my privacy."
He lowered himself onto one of the while stools, with a sigh. "Okay, what is it you haven't you told me?"
Rebecca licked her dry lips, her eyes not meeting his. "What do you mean?"
"Come on, Rebecca. Give me a break. This isn't my first rodeo," he reminded her dryly. "Yesterday, you were fire and sizzle. Today you're Minni Mouse. You're not meeting this head-on, as if you could beat it all with one hand tied behind you. So what aren't you telling me?"
"You're the one with secrets, Michael." She put her hands on her hips. "For instance, why were you suspended?"
She watched the wheels turn in his head at the switch of subject and knew she had him. If he didn't tell her himself, she'd stir up even more trouble while finding out. He let out a long breath, ran a hand over his tired eyes. Minni Mouse had disappeared.
"All right. I drove a police car through a department store window," he told her. "My superiors didn't like it."
"I bet they didn't." She tapped her index finger against her lips, humor slowly filling her face. "Oh yeah! I remember that. It was all over the news."
"Believe me, I could have lived without all the hoopla. Now, getting back to what it is you're..."
"Whoa, hold your horses, I haven't remembered all of it Yet." More than ready for a pleasant diversion, Rebecca closed her eyes and thought back to the incident. "Let's see. . ."
"Take your time," he said. "Take forever."
Rebecca read so much in her work that getting around to the Sunday paper was a luxury. Time for television even more scarce, so it wasn't any wonder she hadn't placed his name or face right away. Now, the details of the event were coming back.
She opened her eyes. "A disgruntled lover entered a department store downtown, shot a couple of employees, including his ex-fiance, then took a little boy hostage. After a standoff, he threatened to kill the child if his demands weren't met." She cocked her head to one side. "How am I doing so far?"
Michael grimaced. "You hit the high points. And you can keep the rest."
He was a sarcastic cuss, but she found him even more likable after this revelation. Michael Hall was a certified hero, or at least he was as far as the public was concerned.
To the department and certain civic watchdog groups, he was a maniac. Maybe that's the part she liked. "So you drove in, right through the window, and snatched the kid." She chuckled. "Didn't go over too well with the store manager, if I remember, or the police, either. Something about a break in procedure and a cowboy mentality they didn't need on the force. Where was your partner?"
"He switched jobs, moved to the Lexington, Kentucky the week before," Michael replied, resigning himself to the third degree. "I hadn't been assigned a new one."
Richie had been his partner for three years and Michael missed him, but in a way, he envied the man, too. His moving to a smaller town had kept him out of the whole debacle.
"All they said in the newspaper was that you acted alone," Rebecca recalled.
"The media conveniently forgot to tell that part of the story, as well as a few other bits and pieces."
Rebecca was still thinking. "You know, I do remember being annoyed at the way the story was being doled out a little at a time," she said. "And then coverage sort of vanished."
"The media didn't want to cross the department," Michael told her, "but they knew the public wasn't with them on that one."
"So what if you were overzealous? It all turned out okay. You saved the kid. Why are you on suspension?"
He folded his arms across his broad chest. "I told you before. I wasn't suspended, it's an administrative leave. Just procedure, when a weapon is fired in the line of duty.
His flat emotional response infuriated her. "You didn't kill him, the guy committed suicide. You just snatched the kid."
"True." Michael's robot expression cracked and he winced. "The Captain's words, as I recall were, " disobeying direct orders, engaging in reckless behavior, endangering others, and being just plain stupid."
"But you saved that boy's life!" Rebecca protested.
"But, what if I hadn't?"
Finally, his emotions plain, his eyes touched her heart and she spoke softly. "So you agree with them? If you had to do it over again you wouldn't act?"
"You bet your... You bet I would. That's the problem. My superiors know it, too."
Now she knew why this hearing had him worried. She remembered that this wasn't the first time he'd had his name in the paper for rash behavior. They might decide he was unstable, a detriment, no longer able to do his job. She could see that it was a job he loved and hated equally.
"If you don't mind." Michael looked away. "I'd rather change the subject."
Moody to, eh? "I like this one just fine."
"Well I don't."His fixed stare let her know he meant business. "Let's hear your secrets now. What aren't you telling me."
Rebecca turned away and stared out the window, at the budding trees outside. "You're imagining things, Michael."
He'd found her overdue parking tickets. Other than that Rebecca had no police record. He'd not find anything more. That was also why she knew it was no time to confide in him. Right now, she had other things to think about. "Okay, have it your way, but a second scary incident in two days has me worried."
"Someone decided to play games with you, today" Michael explained. "That spider might be some whacko psychological symbol for this guy, a way of telling himself you are in his web, or some such crap. It could be he just enjoys listening to you scream. If this is related to the fire, he's not done."
Rebecca looked at him, shivering at the implication. "Thank you. It looks like we're on the same page."
"Don't brush it off. Kooks like that are dangerous. If that's why he stayed around, so he could watch and hear you scream, that's bad business," Michael continued.
Blood drained from her face, leaving it ghostly white "Oh, my God." Rebecca crossed the room, opened the closet door and reached inside to punch a button.
The closet was empty, except for the ladder, but a strange sound erupted, and then the floor inside the white cubicle slow rose upward and a brass-colored cage came into view.
"The owner built this place for his parents and had it put in for them, but I've never used it. It comes up from the garages below." Rebecca folded her arms.
"I'd almost forgotten that it's there. That's probably how he got in. And I'll bet he was right there, the whole time, I was screaming my head off."
"Maybe we're starting to get somewhere."
"But how did he know about it...?" She shivered. "And how did he know I wouldn't call the police the moment I saw my open door? He must have been pretty sure he knew what I'd do," Rebecca muttered, turning to look out the window again.
Michael started to touch her shoulder but stopped.
"I'd say he or she knows you pretty well."
"She?" Rebecca turned quickly, her brown hair cascading down over her shoulder. This was the first time either of them had mentioned that possibility.
"Why not a woman? Women can be just as vindictive as a man. It's another thing the media doesn't talk much about, but more and more, these days, crimes are perpetrated by women. And as long as we're thinking of that spider as symbolic," he added, "it could represent a black widow. She's the one who does the killing."
"Ugh! I hadn't thought of that."
"Have you ever stolen another woman's man?"
He was serious. "Not that I'm aware of."
"Hmm. Well, it's still worth thinking about." He examined the inside of the elevator. "Are the owners home? Maybe they saw or heard something."
"They left Thursday for a month-long vacation in The Bahamas and none of their staff lives in." Rebecca flipped her hair back over her shoulder. "In fact, I'm the only one on the grounds now. All their employees got the same time off."
Michael grimaced. The Tudor-style house sat in the middle of the five acres, with tall shrubs and trees surrounding most of the property. The house and garage couldn't even be seen from the road.
"No witnesses," she muttered. "Or suspects, either."
"Don't remind me. Maybe we can find a common thread here. That is, other than Grandmother's figurine if we each make a list.
"In a minute," Rebecca interrupted, grabbing her keys from the table near the front door. "I'll be right back."
Michael flopped into a chair to wait but noticed a string of rainbow-colored sticky notes across the bottom of her blank computer screen. He leaned closer and tried to read the scribbled notes, but none of them made any sense to him. The smoky-colored CD storage box was open and he flipped the inside. The few that labeled were in the same incomprehensible shorthand used on the tiny notes. Whether it was bad handwriting, a deliberate attempt to deceive, he couldn't tell.
Next to the box her appointment book looked more promising. He paged through it until he heard her running up the stairs. By the time she entered the room, he was sitting back in the white rocking chair near the sofa.
Rebecca came rushing in, pink-faced from running. "I picked these up earlier today. You can see the differences that Sarah mentioned." She spread the photos out on the bar. "Can you get us access to the figurine to compare them?"
"Sure," he said, joining her at the counter to study the enlargements. After a few minutes, he scooped the photos "You're right about the colors. Let's go, I'll drive."
She grabbed her purse. "No, I'll take my own car. I have appointments later this afternoon."
* * *
THE HUGE HOUSE, deathly quiet, and cold as a tomb, showed no signs of life, to Oscar Junior, as he climbed the stairs to the second floor.
Today had given him quite a thrill. He realized it had been too long since he'd enjoyed himself so much. Topping today's little stunt wasn't going to be easy. Maybe he'd go after the man next time.
Nah! That wouldn't nearly as much fun. There was something so satisfying about a woman's scream, especially hers. She owed him at least one more.
Outside the door to his father's room, he paused preparing himself for what was to come. The old man had always taken great joy in bursting any euphoric bubble he'd ever had. This time it was going to be different. He wouldn't let the old bastard see his happiness.
Instead he'd concentrate on his next evil deed and not on his father's royal summons. He pushed the door open.
He waited until the nurse closed the door on her way out. "Traffic was heavy."
"You always have excuses!" The old man wheezed, then breathed in oxygen before continuing. "Melvin's phone still isn't working. Didn't you pay the bill?"
"Of course, I did." He slipped his hands into his pants, pockets, his fingers clenching into fists. "It won't be turned back on until later today."
"Is the piece authentic?"
He didn't face his father. It was so cold! The ornate fireplace before him had never been used, at least not by the present owner. It was the oxygen, of course. How much fun would that be, he thought, to light a match and watch that parsimonious son of a bitch go up in a blaze of glory!
He hid the smile. "It hasn't been verified, yet, Daddy!"
"What's taking so long? It's not complicated, either the piece is real or it's a fake."
His father thought all forgeries were simple, like the ones he'd dealt in to get where he was today. But he had no understanding about real works of art. Especially ones that could prove so valuable.
"It's not that easy." He stroked the small gold lion on the mantel. It, too, was ice-cold, like everything else his old man owned. "At one time, that piece was heavily copied. Some of them are really good."
A coughing fit consumed the old man and his son rushed to the door, yelling for the nurse. He couldn't let him die yet, his inheritance wasn't guaranteed.
He averted his eyes from the sickening process as the nurse tended his father. When she left the room a few minutes later he looked even paler, but his eyes held the jewel of life; the powerful, all-consuming hate, that kept the old man going.
"You wouldn't be so stupid as to try and cross me, would you, boy?" his father demanded.
He turned away, not letting the old man see his face. Given the chance, he'd take the money and run.
"I'm not that stupid," he muttered, nearly under his breath.
"You better not be. I can still get to you from my grave," he warned his son. "From my grave, do You hear me? Grave!'
"Have you come up with a new plan for our other problem?"
"I'm working on it."' Still, flush with today's successful stunt, he felt bolder. "You always told me that careful planning is the most important step, more important than the actual execution."
The old man gestured at him obscenely with his long bony middle finger. "Stop preening and go do something useful. Talk to Melvin. Tell him I want to see him tonight. But don't touch him. Not yet."