THE CEILING FAN STOPPED.
Sarah Stevens was so accustomed to the slight whirring noise of the fan that the lack of it immediately awakened her. She cracked open one eye and peered at her digital clock, but there weren't any bright red numerals shining back at her. She blinked in sleepy confusion, then realized what was wrong.
The electricity had gone off. Oh, great.
She rolled over onto her back, listening. The night was quiet; there was no rumble of thunder to signal a violent spring storm in the vicinity, which would have explained the loss of power. She didn't close the curtains at night, since her rooms faced the back where the grounds had privacy fencing, and through her bedroom windows she could see the faint gleam of starlight. Not only was it not raining, the sky wasn't even cloudy.
Maybe a transformer had blown. Or an auto accident might have taken down a utility pole. Any number of things could have caused the power outage.
Sighing, she sat up and reached for the flashlight she kept on the bedside table. Regardless of why the electricity was off, her job was to minimize the effect it would have on Judge Roberts, make certain he wouldn't be inconvenienced more than necessary. He didn't have any appointments in the morning, but the old dear was fussy about what time he had breakfast. Not that he'd be cranky about it, but any change in his routine upset him more now than it had even a year before. He was eighty-five; he deserved to have breakfast when he wanted it.
She picked up the receiver of the telephone; it was a land line, so the loss of power wouldn't affect it. Cordless phones were great, until the electricity went off. In additionto this one, Sarah had made certain a few strategically placed phones in the main house were land lines.
No dial tone buzzed in her ear.
Puzzled, and growing slightly worried, she got out of bed. Her two rooms were over the garage, with her combined living room and kitchen area facing the front, while her bedroom and bath faced the back. She didn't switch on the flashlight; this was her home, and she didn't need guidance to make her way to the other room. She parted the curtains covering the front windows and looked out.
None of the strategically placed lights on the Judge's manicured lawn were lit, but to the right, the soft glow of the neighbor's security lights threw long, dense shadows across the lawn.
The electricity wasn't off, then. A breaker could have kicked, but that would have affected only part of the house, or the grounds, but not both. She stood very still, logic and intuition combining: (A) The electricity was off. (B) The phone lines were out. (C) The next-door neighbor had electricity. The conclusion she reached didn't require much of a leap: someone had cut the lines, and the only reason for doing so would be to break into the house.
Cat-silent in her bare feet, she ran back to the bedroom and got her nine-millimeter automatic from the bedside table. Her cell phone, damn it, was in her SUV, which was parked under the portico in back. She raced for the door, only briefly considering detouring to get the phone from her vehicle; her first priority was to protect the Judge. She had to get to him, make certain he was safe. He'd had a couple of credible death threats made against him during his last year on the bench, and though he had always passed them off as nothing, Sarah couldn't afford to be so cavalier.
Her quarters connected to the house via a staircase, with doors at both top and bottom; she had to switch on the flashlight as she went down the stairs so she wouldn't miss a step and fall, but as soon as she reached the bottom, she turned off the light. She paused for a moment to let her eyes readjust to the darkness, and as she did she listened, straining her ears for any sound that didn't belong. Nothing. Silently she turned the knob and opened the door in increments, an inch at the time, every nerve in her body alert. No strange sounds greeted her, so she stepped forward.
She was standing in a short hall; to her left was the door to the garage. Silently she tried the knob, and found it still locked. One door down was the laundry room; then directly across the hall was the kitchen. The battery-operated wall clock in the kitchen ticked monotonously, very loud now without the hum of the refrigerator to mask the sound. She eased into the kitchen, the glazed ceramic tile cold beneath her feet. Skirting the huge cooking island, she paused again before entering the breakfast room. There was more light here, because of the big bay window that looked out into the rose garden, but that meant she was more likely to be seen if any intruder was watching. Her pajamas were a pale blue cotton, as visible as white. She would be an easy target.
That was a chance she'd have to take.
Her heart slammed against her rib cage, and she took a slow, deep breath to calm herself, trying to control the adrenaline rushing through her system. She couldn't let herself get sucked under by the whirlpool of excitement; she had to ride it, keep her mind cool and disengaged, remember her training. She took another deep breath and eased forward, minimizing her exposure by hugging the wall as closely as she could get without actually brushing against it. Slow and easy, she thought. One step at a time, placing her bare feet carefully so she was always balanced, she worked her way around the room and to the door that opened into the back hall. She paused again, listening.
No. A muffled sound, so slight she wasn't sure she'd heard anything at all. She waited, breathing halted, eyes deliberately unfocused so her peripheral vision could detect any movement. The hall was empty, but after a moment the sound came again, slightly louder, from . . . the sunroom?
Two formal parlors, and the dining room, were on the front side of the house; the kitchen, breakfast room, library, and sunroom were all on the back. The sunroom was a corner room, with two walls composed mostly of windows, and two pairs of sliding French doors opened onto the patio. If she had been planning to break into the house, Sarah thought, she would have picked the sunroom as the best entry point. Evidently some else had, too.
She sidled into the hall, paused half a heartbeat, then took two swift steps that carried her to the side of the huge, hundred-year-old buffet that was now used to store table linens. She went to one knee on the thick carpet, concealed by the bulk of the buffet, just as someone came out of the library.
He was dressed in dark clothes and carrying something big and bulky. The computer terminal, she thought, but the hall was too dark to be certain. He carried his burden into the sunroom, and she heard more of those muffled sounds, rather like the scuff of shoes on carpet.
Her heart was thudding, but all the same she felt a little relieved. The intruder was obviously a thief, rather than a criminal bent on revenge against the Judge. That wasn't to say they weren't in danger; the thief might be violent, but his movements so far were those of someone bent on stealing what he could and sneaking away. He was organized and methodical, witness the disabled electrical and phone lines. He had probably cut the power in order to disarm the alarm system, then cut the phone lines as an added precaution.
The question was, what should she do?
She was very aware of the weapon in her hand, but the situation didn't call for lethal force. She would shoot if necessary to save the Judge's life, or her own, but she wasn't about to shoot someone over some electronic equipment. That did not, however, mean she was inclined to let him get away.
It was also possible he was armed. Burglars as a rule didn't carry weapons, because if luck wasn't with them, the jail sentence for armed robbery was so much stiffer than for a simple robbery. Just because most burglars weren't armed, though, didn't mean she could afford to assume this one wasn't.
He was big; from what she'd been able to tell in the dark hall, he was around six feet tall, and burly. She could probably handle him in a face-to-face situationunless he was armed, and then all the training in the world wouldn't stop a bullet. There was a big difference, her father had told her, between being confident and being cocky; cocky would get you killed. The best thing to do would be take him by surprise, from behind, rather than risk getting shot.
A whisper of sound warned her, and she held still as he moved into the hallway, reversing his path from the sunroom to the library. Now would be a good time to make her move, catch him when he came back out with his arms full of stolen goods. She placed her flashlight on the floor, then transferred the pistol to her left hand and silently began rising from her crouch.
Another man came out of the sunroom.
Sarah froze, her head exposed above the edge of the buffet. Her heart kicked sickeningly hard, almost taking her breath. All the guy had to do was look in her direction; her face, pale and distinct in the darkness, would be clearly visible.
He didn't pause as he stealthily followed the first man into the library.
She sank back against the wall, shaking with relief. She took several deep, quiet breaths, holding each a few seconds to calm her racing heart. That had been entirely too close; another second and she would have been standing, fully revealed.
There being two men instead of just one definitely put a different spin on things. Her risk was now doubled, and her chance of success halved. Slipping outside to her SUV and calling 911 on the cell phone was beginning to look like the best option, assuming she could get there undetected. The biggest problem for her was leaving the Judge unprotected. He didn't hear well; they could be in his room before he knew it; he wouldn't have a chance to hide. The old dear was valiant enough to fight any intruder, which would at the least get him hurt, and at the worst, killed.
Her job was to prevent that from happening. She couldn't if she was outside talking on the phone.
Her nerves gave one quiver, then settled down. She'd made her decision; now she had to forget everything else but her training.
There were scuffing sounds from the library and a faint grunt. Despite her tension, she began smiling. If they were trying to hoist the fifty-five-inch television, both of them would have more than they could handle and their hands would be occupied. Maybe there wouldn't be a better time to take them than right now.
She stood and stepped silently to the library, putting her back against the wall beside the door and daring a lightning-fast peek inside. One of the thieves had a penlight clamped in his teeth, allowing her to see that they were indeed wrestling with the behemoth television. Bless their hearts, they had also ruined their own night vision, making it difficult for them to see her.
She waited, and after a few more grunts and a whispered curse, one of the thieves began backing out of the library, using both hands to grip one side of the television while the other man held the opposite side. She could almost hear their bones creaking under the weight, and thanks to the thin beam of the penlight as it shone straight into the first man's sweaty face, she could see the strain in his expression.
Piece of cake.
Sarah smiled. As soon as the first thief was clear of the doorway, she stuck out her bare foot and caught his left ankle, flipping it upward. He gave a startled yelp and crashed to his back in the hallway. The huge television slammed sideways against the doorframe, then toppled forward. The man on the floor yelled in alarm, the sound changing abruptly to a high-pitched scream as the television crashed down on his pelvis and legs.
His partner tried to catch his balance, his arms flailing. The penlight dropped out of his mouth, and in the abrupt darkness he said, "Fuck!" as he pitched forward. Sarah helped him along, pivoting and landing a punch to his temple. The punch lacked her full force, as he was already going down, but it was enough to sting her knuckles and send him sprawling bonelessly across the bulk of the television, which elicited even more screams from underneath. The unconscious man slowly slid to one side, crumpled and limp; a blow to the temple usually had that effect.
"Sarah? What's going on? Why is the power off?" The Judge's voice came from the top of the back stairs, rising over the yells of the man pinned under the television.
Accurately judging that neither man was going anywhere in the next few minutes, Sarah went to the bottom of the steps. "Two men broke into the house," she said; between the Judge's partial deafness and the yowls of pain, she had to yell to make certain he heard her. "I have it handled. Stay there until I get the flashlight." The last thing she needed was to have him tumble down the stairs in the darkness, trying to come to her aid.
She retrieved the flashlight from the floor beside the buffet, then returned to the stairs to light the Judge's journey down, which he made with a speed that belied his eighty-five years. "Burglars? Have you called the police?"
"Not yet. They cut the phone lines, and I haven't had a chance to get my cell phone from my truck."
He reached the bottom of the steps and peered to the right, in the direction of all the racket. Obligingly, Sarah turned her flashlight on the scene, and after a second he chuckled. "If you'll give me that pistol, I believe I can keep these two under control while you make that call."
She handed him the pistol, butt first, then stripped the phone cord from the hall phone and bent over the unconscious thief. He was the big one, and she grunted with the effort it took to roll him over. Quickly she pulled his arms behind him, wrapped the phone cord around his wrists, then bent one leg backward and secured his wrists to his ankle. Unless he was extremely agile hopping on one footand with a concussion, no lesshe wasn't going anywhere, regardless of whether or not there was a pistol trained on him; neither was the guy pinned under the television.
Copyright 2002 by Linda Howard