Text Excerpt CHAPTER 10:
On the short drive past boutiques filled with weekend shoppers to her place on Bank Street, Alec’s behavior froze Annalisse to the leather upholstery. When he’d bothered to talk, curt and formal blasted her side of the car, making her uncomfortable the entire trip. She couldn’t blame him. He’d been very kind to her since the gallery party and Harry’s death, and she’d offered him ingratitude in return. A sheet of solid ice separated them rather than the beautiful wooden console at her left. In fact, the entire dashboard of Alec’s distinctive car was polished to a shiny gloss, not unlike the deck on a fancy boat. The convertible had to be worth more than her annual salary—ex-salary.
“How long should we stare at the dash?” Alec leaned over, squinting into the direct sun.
“Honestly, I’ve had some body language training, and yours is a doozie.”
Alec’s expression hardened and his eyes flashed. “What happened back there?”
“You heard everything I told Mooney. Do I have to regurgitate it again?”
He shook his head. “Help me out, here. I’m trying to understand what I’ve done.” Alec squeezed the steering wheel, his frustration evident. “I feel like you’re letting everyone in but me.”
“Chase is family. We’ve been a team for a long time.”
“If you’d been—”
“It’s hot, and I’m hungry. Come inside and help me eat all this pastrami before it turns.”
He huffed disappointment and looked away.
“I’m offering an olive branch. Let’s eat, then we’ll talk.” She batted her lashes flirtatiously.
She turned to open her door and he touched her arm.
“Hold on.” Alec leapt out of the driver’s seat and bounded over the hood in one giant vault to the passenger side.
He opened her door and she slid around and made as gracious an exit she could from a car whose frame sat six inches from the asphalt.
“Give me your key.” He held out his hand in a way that suggested he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
She dug into her zipper compartment and gave him the fob, house key extended.
With a gentle nudge, Alec guided her up the steps.
She flinched from his touch but, at the same time, felt somewhat grateful for the caring gesture after what she’d been through with Peter.
He turned the knob before inserting the key.
The door gave way.
“Don’t you lock up before you leave?”
“I’m sure Chase did.”
The door swung in but caught midway on an overturned chair.
“What happened?” Annalisse felt lightheaded. She caught her toe on the threshold, and unbalanced by the tote on her shoulder, fell against the jamb, her funny bone taking the brunt.
“Ouch.” She cupped her elbow while the pain dissipated. “Who’d do this in daylight?” She scanned the room. “All my stuff.”
“Stay outside while I check the house out, but if you won’t, stick close.”
If someone had taken a high velocity fan to the room it would’ve been an improvement. Following Alec, she picked her way over magazines and binders scattered over the hardwood. Nothing was in its rightful place.
He reached back for her, his vision still trained ahead. “Stay close.” Alec locked his fingers with hers.
“My cat! Boris! Here, kitty. Alec, what if something’s happened to him? Boris! Please be hiding somewhere.” She left Alec’s side to close the front door and swallowed back tears. Her faithful little roommate had been a rescued stray. He’d shown up at the farm as a few week-old kitten, thin and hungry. A pile of trembling orange fur who’d nestled into her palm, his golden eyes unsure of her. She forced back the fear of losing him, too.
Tiptoeing around books and papers, she surveyed the damage from kitchen to living area and went back to Alec. She took his warm hand and a shiver fluttered through her body. Home invasions happened to other people. She found no logic in the break in unless the act was a random burglary.
“I’d better check for anything stolen.”
“No.” He turned to her, his Adam’s apple working his throat. He stared at her as if he were trying to read her innermost thoughts.
Neither of them spoke.
Annalisse was certain Alec could hear the banging in her chest, or maybe it was his heart hammering her ears.
Most of her paintings were ripped from the walls, twisted in broken frames, lying helter-skelter.
Chunks of white plaster at the missing nail heads and hangers marked their places. Every kitchen cupboard and drawer was slid to the stops or spilled on the tile. Pots, skillets, tableware, canned goods, junk drawer, and glassware—her favorite set of iced tea glasses were among the broken and injured. Not the work of a typical rob-and-run burglar, but the handiwork of a creature who preyed on destruction of the psyche.
“Why the demolition? What were they after?” Annalisse looked over at her pristine desk—empty.
“My life was on that computer, dammit.”
Alec broke eye contact, then dropped her hand. “Yeah, but you were gone. Stuff can be replaced. I’d better check the rest of the house myself.” He moved deliberately toward the staircase.
Annalisse set her purse down into the flipped over cushions on the couch, repositioned them, and stepped through what used to be neat stacks, years of gallery research. A groan passed her lips when she walked to the desk marred with new scratches, bereft of her monitor and tower hard drive. She looked around the room for her laptop; it, too, was missing.
Cursing under her breath, she saw her prized possession, a two-foot bronze statue of a shepherdess with a pair of sheep grazing near her feet, lying on its side next to a toppled plant stand. An expensive work of art from Florence she’d had no business buying, but she couldn’t resist. When Generosa had called from Italy describing it, Annalisse had to have it. Everyone who knew her well understood her love for sheep. Even if she’d declined Generosa’s offer to bring it back for her, she’d felt certain the bronze would end up in her hands eventually.
Alec waited by the stairs and whispered, “Your bedroom up there?” He pointed upstairs.
She nodded, lifted the mahogany stand upright and, with both hands, replaced the hefty bronze to its rightful place next to the desk. Close enough to admire its detail while she worked. “Wait for me. I need to see what’s missing upstairs.”
Standing at the oak banister, he shook his head.
“No. You’ll be safer down there. I won’t be long, and I’ll look for your cat while I’m up there.”
Boris had to be scared out of his mind. She hoped he’d escaped to his hiding place in the closet.
Whoever destroyed her home had acted with malice. They had her personal data and internet search history, where she shopped online, email correspondence as well as business contacts. A privacy breach she couldn’t afford. Compiling a list of possible suspects in her head, she felt so violated, even more so than by what had happened with Peter. Names and faces blurred together. With fingertips pressed at her temples, she willed the jackhammers in her head to stop.
Raising her arms, as if a make-believe thief told her to, she said, “I give up. I may as well set a match to this place, for all the good it’s going to do me now.”
Alec uttered a sentence upstairs she couldn’t make out.
“Alec, did you find Boris?”
The sound of shuffling filtered downstairs then a thump.
“Alec, what fell?” She looked up at an empty landing. The unnatural silence pricked the hairs straight out on her neck. “Answer me.”
A mechanical voice broke the silence. “Don’t move.”
She stopped breathing and froze, afraid to look up, but then looked anyway.
A figure in a brownish ski mask and desert camouflage occupied the top of the staircase. Holding Alec. He—or she—held him at gunpoint. One arm cradled Alec’s waist and a black pistol so close to Alec’s right ear, his curls hid part of the barrel.
She’d expected Alec’s expression to be as wild as hers must have been, but he appeared strangely calm.
“I’m all right, Annalisse.”
“Shut up.” The voice was distorted with some kind of voice altering mechanism. Deep tones, similar to a bumblebee in distress.
The masked person let go of Alec long enough to backhand him across the mouth.
The intruder sure smacked like a man.
Annalisse covered her mouth in horror. Her blood boiled as she watched the two men descending the stairs side by side. She was several feet from her pistol at the bottom of her purse, and the man who held Alec had to be the same man who’d turned over everything in her home. Where were her computers? Did he have a partner? Soon, he’d find what he wanted. She suspected that since the opening, or earlier, either she or Alec had been surveilled.
The buzzing voice came again, and an evil glint shone through the eyeholes in the mask. “You run, he dies. Get into kitchen. Let’s have a little zakuski, malysh.”
A breath caught in her lungs. They were Russian terms she understood.
She’d nearly become a main course earlier in the day. Damned if she would stand back and play appetizer to another creep.
Marlene M. Bell is an acclaimed artist and photographer as well as a writer. Her previous book, a memoir entitled AMONG THE SHEEP, offers a look into her life history, along with a selection of written works on the subject of care and breeding of sheep. She and her husband, Gregg, have raised breeding stock of nationally renowned, purebred Horned Dorset sheep for over thirty-five years. Marlene is considered one of the foremost experts in this field of livestock and writes on the subject often. Marlene’s art photographs of sheep landscapes grace the covers of publications such as, Sheep!, The Shepherd, Ranch & Rural Living, and Sheep Industry News. Ewephoric, her mail order venture, began in 1985 out of a desire for realistic sheep stationery.