Thursday, August 5, 2010

First Chapter Wednesday--Trapped

A Forged Letter, A Golden Vial, An Ancient Curse...

Doesn't that pique your interest?
If hasn't, reading the first chapter definitely will.


Trapped by Ronda Gibb Hinrichsen

Secrets thrive in my family.” I wasn’t sure if I’d said the words or dreamed them, but when I heard a drawer slide open in the empty bedroom next to my own, my heartbeat jumped into overdrive, and I pulled the comforter up to my neck. “Sylvie? Is that you, kitty?” Suddenly, a beam of light flashed across the hall wall just opposite my open doorway, pausing momentarily on my mother’s favorite Mansfield painting, and I no longer doubted what the noise was.

Barely breathing, I stared wide-eyed at the now-dark hallway, my ears tuning out the sounds of rain and thunder to focus on the groan of the floorboards as the intruder crossed my mother’s room just through the wall. Then I heard a soft, metallic thwack. A click. A jingle of music. My mother’s jewelry box!

I clamped my lips over my mouth, silencing a gasp.

The intruder padded quickly across my mother’s bedroom carpet and into the hall, where his footsteps were still soft on the hardwood floor. He moved toward my bedroom door and stopped.

If only I could cry for help without him hearing me! But my mother’s neighbor, Oliver, was the only one close enough to hear me, and the intruder would certainly get to me before Oliver, pounding on the door with his cane, could fumble his key into my mother’s front-door lock. Besides, what could he do besides get himself hurt?

Silently, I reached to the nightstand and felt across the top of it. My cell phone was gone.
An ominous shiver trickled across my skin. I tried to remember the last time I’d had my cell phone. Oh, yes. When I’d arrived earlier that evening, I’d slipped it inside the pocket of my leather jacket just before unlocking the front door and then . . . My breathing quickened. The jacket was in the entryway closet.

White lightning flashed. Thunder cracked and rain pelted the window glass like heavy, driving sand, filling the room with so much clatter I had to strain even harder to hear the thief’s movements.

Finally, I heard him again, creeping away from my door toward my mother’s office. Another metallic scrape and then joggling. Her locked desk drawer.

For a crazy, hair-raising moment, I thought of charging after the thief, but as I held myself there in the bed, clenching and unclenching my fists beneath the sheet, I knew I had only one real alternative: to get out of the house without him seeing me.

I scanned the room. The closest window was only a few feet from my bed, but to get to it, I’d have to clamber over the dresser, slide open the window glass, then force out the screen. I could do it, but if the heavy rain and howling wind blasted through the window, blew paper across the room, or—heaven forbid—slammed my door shut, the thief would be in my room before I could get outside.

The other windows in the house were even more insurmountable, and the back door had two noisy locks and a hard-to-open knob. That left the front door.

Quick, dull thuds sounded in my ears. The thief was still trying to break into that drawer, which meant he was probably standing in front of the desk with his back to the doorway. This is my chance!

Quietly slipping from beneath the covers, I placed my bare feet on the floor and stepped gingerly onto the carpet. Blessedly, the floorboards didn’t creak. The thuds from the office continued.

I crept into the hall and inched my hand toward Oliver’s condo key on the wall hook. I grasped it.

The jimmying stopped. Warily, I leaned forward and glanced into the room. The thief was looking the other way, so I gathered the skirt of my blue silk nightgown with one hand and, still clutching Oliver’s house key with the other, dashed past the doorway. I crouched behind the brown leather armchair closest to the front door. I waited, listening, barely daring to breathe.

The rustling stopped. A lean, broad-shouldered shadow stepped into the hall and paused. He looked toward the bedroom where I’d been sleeping and then swiftly moved to it.

Guessing I had only a few seconds before the man returned to my mother’s office, I raced to the front door—it was unlocked!—and leapt down the two porch steps and around the dividing wall to Oliver’s side of the double condo. By then my heart beat so fast and my fingers trembled so violently I could barely shove the key into the lock.

Hearing my mother’s front door bang open from next door, I hurtled into Oliver’s dark entryway and bolted his door behind me. “Oliver!”

“Emi?” Oliver’s tired voice, followed by a harsh cough, came from the living room.

“I need your phone!” I rushed to him through the dark and swept my hand across the nearby end table where he usually kept it. “There’s a man in Mama’s house! He’s stealing her stuff.”

“What?” Oliver groggily pushed up from the couch, his white hair gleaming through the dark like a slow-rising moon. “Are you hurt?”

I brushed the rain from my face. “I’m fine, but I’ve got to call the police.” My teeth chattered as I groped for the lamp switch, but by the time I found it and clicked on the light, Oliver had swiped his newspaper off the coffee table and grabbed the telephone that lay beneath it.

He pulled the russet afghan from his lap. “Here, Emi. Put this around your shoulders. Let me call them.” He patted the couch cushion next to him.

Still trembling in fear over who might be outside, I gratefully lowered myself onto the couch. “Thank you, Oliver. You’re a lifesaver.”

He nodded slightly and punched in 9-1-1.

The dispatcher kept Oliver on the telephone until the Tampa police arrived about ten minutes later. After verifying that the thief was gone and that we were all right, two officers searched my mother’s condo, while another questioned me about where I was during the crime, what I had witnessed, and who else had access to my mother’s home.

“Oliver’s the only other person who has a key,” I told him.

As proof, Oliver held it out to him.

Detective Cole, a tall, black man, looked only at me. “So you don’t live here, Miss Warrin?”

“I have my own apartment.”

“And you were here tonight because . . .?”

“I’m cat- and house-sitting for my mother. She’s on a cruise in Greece doing research for her next novel. She writes romantic suspense. Joanna Michaels?”

He lifted his eyebrows.
Okay, so he didn’t recognize the name.

“Anyway, I’d told her Oliver would be happy to take care of things for her, but she insisted it had to be me. Mama just can’t get used to the idea of me living alone—uh, sorry. Too much information, huh?”

“That’s perfectly fine. You’ve had a rough night.” Detective Cole took several seconds to write something in his notebook. “Did the man threaten you in any way?”

I hugged the afghan even tighter around my shoulders. “I don’t think he even knew I was there.”
“So he was noisy?”

“No. Well, sometimes, but mostly he was so quiet I could hardly hear him. It was like he was trying not to wake—” I caught my breath. Had the thief known I was in the house the whole time? No. That couldn’t be.

The officer looked at me for a moment before moving on. “How tall would you say he was?”
“I’m not sure. The best view I had of him was during the few seconds I hid behind the chair. Several inches taller than me, maybe.”

As the detective continued writing, Oliver placed his hand on my shoulder. “You’re doing fine, Emi.”

“Thanks.”

The interrogation ended about ten minutes later when another officer tapped on Oliver’s door. Oliver opened it, and Sylvie raced inside.

When did she get out of the house? I wondered.

“Miss Warrin,” the second officer said, “we need you to return to your mother’s condo and give us a detailed report of everything that’s been stolen. We’ll need serial numbers and identifying characteristics.” He scrutinized my face with wide, rounded eyes. “And any other facts you can give us about you—or, I mean, your family—will be extremely helpful.”
I wish I knew more about my family, I thought, barely refraining from rolling my eyes. I scooped Sylvie into my arms before moving to the doorway. “Hmm. I’m not familiar with where my mother keeps that sort of information,” I said aloud. “I’m pretty sure her file cabinets are filled with her writing research and book contracts, but I’ll see what I can find.” I scratched between Sylvie’s ears, and instead of cuddling against me the way she usually did, she yowled and leapt from my arms. “Sylvie! What’s the matter with you?”

“Would you like me to go through the house with you?” Oliver asked.

I watched as Sylvie ran down the hallway and disappeared. Then I looked into Oliver’s thin, pallid face, noticing the concern etched into the wrinkles around his blue eyes.

“No, thanks, Oliver,” I said, motioning to the policemen. “I’ll be fine. Besides, I’d hate myself if you—”

He coughed.

“—caught pneumonia or something from going out in that rain.” I squeezed his hand with both of mine, stilling my trembling fingers in the process.

“Why don’t you call your mother and ask her?” Oliver said.

I groaned.

Detective Cole paused inside the doorway. “Is that a problem?”

“No, it’s not that. It’s just she won’t . . . uh . . . she worries so much, I know she’ll blow this all out of proportion and make me—”

Detective Cole lifted his eyebrows again.

“How about I call her?” Oliver asked, releasing my hand. “Maybe I can smooth things over for you.”

“Could you?”

“Of course.” He took his long, wool overcoat from the coat rack. “I’ll do my best. But here, trade me. This will protect you better.”

I slipped the damp afghan off my shoulders and handed it to him in exchange for the coat. As I shrugged into it, I noticed it smelled of coffee and peppermint—and a bit like Oliver’s favorite steak.

“Ready?” Detective Cole asked me.

“Yes.”

Just before I followed the officer outside, Oliver held up his cell phone to let me know he was about to try to reach my mother.

A few moments later, Detective Cole held his large hand firmly on the front doorknob of my mother’s condo. “Before we go in, I want to prepare you for what you’re about to see. I’m guessing things are . . . not as you left them.”

Overturned drawers, missing electronics, that sort of thing, I supposed. “I understand,” I said.
He nodded and we entered the condo. Everything was just as orderly as it had been when I’d gone to bed at 11:00 pm.

“See anything out of place?” Detective Cole asked.

“N—no.”

“Are you sure?”

Stepping past the officers who were examining the open front window and dusting for fingerprints around the doorknob, I scanned my mother’s large bookshelf, the end table where my purse still sat, the music system in the corner—back to my purse. “Can I check inside it?”
Detective Cole looked to the officer who held a camera. He nodded.

Biting the inside of my cheek and willing my hands not to shake, I searched through each compartment and pocket.

“Everything’s there?”

“Yes,” I sighed in relief.

The detective made a quick mark on his notepad. “Shall we move on?”

I set my purse back on the end table. “Oh, uh, yes.”

We made our way across the room until we reached the office. Bracing myself, I stepped inside and quickly surveyed the room. Once again, I found everything on my mother’s mahogany desk just as it should have been except—I gasped.

“What is it? Something’s missing?”

Clenching the front seam of Oliver’s coat, I hurried to the desk. My mother’s family Bible was still in the center where she always kept it, but piled next to it was—“What’s going on here?” I whispered.

Detective Cole came up behind me. “Are you all right, Miss Warrin?”

I shook my head. “This doesn’t make any sense.”

“If there are a lot of missing items, take your time. We want to get this right.” He held his notebook in front of him again.

“That’s not what I mean. Nothing’s missing. It’s just this pendant. It’s valuable. My father bequeathed it to me.” I stared at him. “It’s one of the items I knew Mama always kept in her safe.”

“It was in a safe, but the thief didn’t take it?” he repeated. “Hmm. Where is the safe?”

“Mama’s bedroom. And those letters under it—they belong in the safe too.” I started away from him, suddenly panicked.

“Stop, Miss Warrin! Before you go—”

But I was already standing in the doorway of my mother’s bedroom. Her jewelry box was open, like I’d feared it would be after hearing the thief tampering with it, but her possessions, including her diamond earrings, remained untouched except for an odd display on top of her red, silk bedspread: my blue, plastic hospital bracelet, the one the nurse had wrapped around my wrist when I was born, and my white, baby-sized undershirt with stains on the front. The bracelet lay flat across the empty space where my baby neck would have been.

“Detective!” I yelled.

The officer with a camera, Detective Thompson, rushed in next to Detective Cole, who was already standing behind me, holding my elbow.

“I’m sorry, Miss Warrin,” Detective Thompson said. “We’d hoped to warn you about this—”

“Shrine?”

“That’s what it looks like.”

I swallowed hard.

Detective Cole looked around the room. “Is anything missing?”

I scanned from corner to corner. “Nothing’s been stolen. It looks like he—he only rearranged our . . . wait a minute!” I hurried past both officers to the wide, empty space on the hall wall directly opposite my mother’s door. “The Waking Death is gone.” I pressed my cold hands against the spot where the Victorian painting should have been.

“It was an original?” Again, Detective Cole wrote in his notebook. Detective Thompson took a picture of the wall and then the shrine on my mother’s bed.

“Yes. Mama found it at a garage sale. But I don’t understand. When she had it appraised, the man told her it wasn’t worth anything. Why would the thief take it?”

“What man told her this?” Detective Cole asked.

“I don’t know. Some appraiser. But Mama has another Mansfield, Heaven’s River, in her closet. In front of the . . . the safe!”

I ran back into my mother’s room and rushed into the walk-in closet. When I clicked on the light, I saw that the other portrait wasn’t there either. But that wasn’t what drained the blood from my head. It was my unsent love letters to Daniel, open and fanned along the base of the unlocked, foot-wide safe. The beige dress I’d worn to church that morning was now crammed onto the shelf above them. And the brilliant green, silk bathrobe I’d bought in China last year was spread, carpet-like, across the floor beneath the entire grouping. “How could he have done all this before I—before you—arrived? These things were in my room.”

“He couldn’t have,” Detective Thompson said.

“Then he—” I gasped “—had to have been in my room while I slept?”

“Yes.”


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