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CHRISTIE SAT IN THE FAR CORNER of her living room with
her back jammed against the wall. Milo, her golden Lab, whined softly against her as she stared at the phone on the end table, willing the ringing to stop.
How had he gotten the unlisted number? She'd only had that phone for two days. It was her third new number in five months, but the bastard who was stalking her hadn't skipped a beat.
The first phone call had come five months ago. She hadn't recognized the voice. Male. Low. Taunting. She'd hung up, dismissing him as an annoying but inconsequential crank. Right.
Milo rubbed his head against her arm, and she rubbed him back. "You're all right, kiddo," she whispered, blessing him a hundred times. He was the only one left.
The ringing finally stopped. She wondered if she'd ever hear that sound again without terror taking over.
A moment later, the phone rang again, and this time, he left a message. The same message. You can run, but you can't hide. The same voice, electronically altered with no background sound but a dull hum. For all she knew, it was a machine calling, and the bastard was outside her house even now, watching her.
The thing was, she'd done everything right. She'd contacted the police, who'd had her log his calls, put up security cameras, tried to trace his calls. She'd hired not one, but two private detectives who'd found out a lot about her neighbors and associates, but all that did was make her afraid of everyone. She'd taped his calls. She'd talked to the FBI, who had assured her that as soon as they had any evidence at all, they'd be all over it.
She'd read books, checked sources on the Internet, had asked for help from everyone she could think of, and still, the bastard was controlling her life.
This was it, though. She couldn't take one more night of this torment. Tomorrow, she was going to call a Realtor, put the house up for sale. But she wouldn't wait around. She'd go to the bank first thing and pull out her savings. She'd take Milo with her and leave. To where, she didn't know or care. Somewhere small. Where he couldn't find her.
Tears filled her eyes, and she didn't even try to blink them back. Her life had gone to hell in the past five months. Everything she cared about had been stripped away, bit by bit.
She'd worked for one of the biggest design firms in Century City, where she'd had clients who ranged from studio executives to movie stars. She'd won awards for her interior designs, but more than that she'd loved her job.
He'd taken that from her last week. She'd been called into the big office and, with a lot of apologies and excuses, her bosses said the reason they were letting her go was because they were refocusing the objectives of the design firm. She'd come right out and asked if they'd been threatened, and while they'd denied it, Kerry and Stanley had both gotten so nervous and upset that she knew the stalker had somehow gotten to them. Her certainty had convinced the police to investigate, but they hadn't gotten the couple to talk. The bastard had scared them spitless.
She had no business being so angry. She understood the fear. But she was angry. And achingly disappointed.
She went over to the pad of paper by the phone. Her log covered so many pages it was starting to resemble the L.A. phone book. On it, she recorded every incident, from e-mail threats to inappropriate gifts, to the content of messages left on her machine. She wrote it all down. The date, time, place and description. There was a space to notate witnesses, but there were none. Still, the police could do nothing. Would do nothing. Even with the anti-stalking laws in place, the bastard was so clever he never let them get anything on him. The FBI had traced the e-mail messages, but ended up with a variety of dead ends. Tracing his calls had proved equally unsuccessful. He was using either a cloned or a prepaid cell, neither of which could be traced.
The packages that had showed up on her doorstep had been searched for clues, but not a fingerprint had been found. As for the security cameras they'd been a complete bust. Not one picture, not even a shadow.
Locks had proven useless. It didn't matter that they were guaranteed to be the latest technology and completely burglar-proof, he got through them. He got into her house. Left messages. One on her bathroom mirror, in her own lipstick. You can run but you can't hide. Two days ago, he'd eaten a piece of cake from her fridge.
He'd tranquilized Milo, which had scared her to death. Because if the tranquilizer hadn't worked, she had no doubt he would have killed her dog.
She'd stopped asking the obvious question long ago. There was no reason behind this. Just because she didn't recognize his voice didn't mean she didn't know him. He could be anyone. Her best friend's husband. The man across the street. Anyone.
So she'd crawled into her house, once her pride and joy, until it had become a prison. If she didn't break out tomorrow, it would become her coffin.
"Come on, baby," she said, standing up. "Let's get you fed."
Christie had lost almost ten pounds since it began. Her skin was pale, her hands shook. She'd stopped bothering with makeup, kept putting her hair back in a messy ponytail, and she always wore shoes she could run in. She was under siege and he never let her forget it.
As she headed for the kitchen, she glanced at her mantel, at the picture of Nate. He would have helped her. Her big brother was ex-Delta Force. He would have caught the bastard and damn quick. But Nate was dead, and that wound was still raw.
She got out Milo's bowl and his food. The irony of her situation wasn't lost on her. She'd never had patience for the victim mentality. She believed in movement, in taking charge, in handling things. Never one to back down, she'd fought for her college grades, kicked ass at work, bought her own home, never settled when it came to men. And here she was, a pitiful, terrified shadow who hadn't slept a full night in months.
She finished fixing Milo's dinner, and put it in his spot at the end of the island. Milo, unlike herself, still had his appetite. She sighed as she went to the fridge. The last time she'd eaten was hell, she had no idea. So maybe forcing some food wasn't a bad idea.
A couple of scrambled eggs was all she could handle. She ate standing by the stove. Milo had finished and was expecting his walk, which was something she couldn't avoid. Instead of taking him around the block, or even to the park that was five blocks away, she would drive to a random location. Somewhere crowded. Last night had been Melrose Avenue. The night before, Westwood Boulevard. Tonight, she'd go west. Santa Monica. Not that it mattered. He could be following her car. He could be in the house five minutes after she left. He could kill her in her sleep.
The phone made her jump, and she almost dropped her plate. Dammit, she should have unplugged it. Who was this guy? How in hell did he know so much about her life? He'd even gotten to her book club.
They used to meet at the bookstore every other Wednesday. But then the women started getting notes on their windshields. Two of them got flat tires. None of her friends had connected the vandalism to her because she hadn't told them about the bastard. But she knew. So she quit. They'd all believed her lame excuse, which was a relief, because she wouldn't be able to stand it if he hurt someone she knew.
"Milo? You ready?"
He clearly was, if jumping around and wagging his butt was anything to go by. Christie didn't even glance at the mirror as she got his leash. She just headed into the garage, all her senses on alert as she turned on the light.
Senses. She didn't have any senses left. Sleep deprivation had made her stupid and reckless, and that made her a fool. It was the house that had held her. Goddammit, she loved her home. It wasn't just the money she'd poured into it, either. She'd made it her cocoon, her safe haven. Every room created for her pleasure and delight.
She locked the car doors after Milo climbed in, and then steeled herself to open the garage door behind her. It went up slowly, her gaze locked on the rearview mirror. The car was running, in reverse, her foot resting on the gas.
The second she was clear, she jammed out, then hit the brake hard when she got to the end of her driveway. A quick check both ways and she pressed the remote for the garage door. Once it was down she tore out again, tires squealing. How she wished he'd been in the way.
"THAT CAN'T BE RIGHT," Christie said, shifting on the blue chair across from the bank's vice president. "I've never had any dispute with the IRS."
Jennifer Abbott, in her nice gray suit with her nice beige nails and her nice practiced smile, looked at her computer screen, then back at Christie. "There's nothing I can do, except advise you to talk to the IRS."
"Please check again. You must have me mixed up with someone else."
Christie watched as the woman typed on her keyboard. She thought about last night, how she'd laid in bed, planning out her move. How she would call the Realtor from a pay phone, take her savings and her dog, and head toward Arizona. There was no plan if there was no money. But he couldn't have gotten to her bank. That was impossible, even for the cleverest stalker. He was just a man. A sick, twisted prick, but still How could he get the IRS to do his bidding?
"I'm sorry, Ms. Pratchett. All three accounts have been seized and there's nothing at all we can do from here. I'll give you the information they gave us. There's a number you can call."
Christie sat very, very still. Because any second she was going to lose it, and she didn't want to, not here. Not sitting in the bank where she'd been a customer for over twelve years. She'd call the FBI, of course, but even if they did get right on it, it would still take time to clear it up. She had no hope in hell that they'd figure out who was behind this latest horror. That left her with the money in her purse, which wasn't a lot. If she were lucky, her credit cards would still be good, but she doubted it. And that meant
She had no idea what it meant. That the bastard owned her? That he'd be coming for her now? That he was laughing his ass off, knowing he'd destroyed every inch of her life?
She cleared her throat, unable to stop her body from trembling. "Can you tell me when this was done?"
"I see." Christie stood up, not quite sure her legs would hold her.
"I'm certain everything will work out in the end," Jennifer said, handing her the printout with the IRS information. Then she picked up her phone.
Dismissed, Christie headed back to her car. The drive home was a daze, and when she got into the house she didn't even bother locking the door behind her. She had nothing. Maybe a hundred bucks. Would that even get her out of town?
It had to, because if it didn't, she was going to fall apart, and no one would ever be able to put her back together again.
Of course, Milo was there with his big brown eyes and his wagging tail. She gave him a hug, then she went to her office. Methodically, without even thinking, she opened the drawers and pulled out all the paperwork she'd be taking with her. Passport, insurance, bank records — which probably wouldn't do her any good — and her mortgage papers. Everything went into her briefcase. She did the work carefully, her hands still shaking. She paused when she found a copy of her parents' living wills.