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One more nasty surprise in this old building might send her screaming for the funny farm. Samantha Reid glared at the door in front of her. Another unexplored room to tackle. What mysterious trial lay beyond? They'd disturbed a mouse nest in one of the dryers, and herds of spiders scurried for cover every time they moved something. Did spiders run in herds? They sure seemed to around here, especially down below in the basementmice and spiders. Sam shuddered.
Good thing nothing was down there except museum-quality dry-cleaning equipment that must have dated back to the early days of the industry. That stuff could stay put until she found a place interested in carting the heavy pieces away. But up here on the main floor, she didn't have the luxury of delaying the project.
Squaring her shoulders, Sam turned the knob and eased open the door to the storeroom. She groped along the wall and flipped the light switch. A pair of fluorescent tubes flickered to life as smells of dust and chemicals nipped her nose. Her gaze scanned the twelve-foot-square room, and she puffed out a long breath that didn't stir the sweaty bangs plastered to her forehead.
How had a lifelong bachelor like Abel Morris accumulated so much junk? She stared at a maze of stacked boxes and metal shelves stuffed with dust-coated paint cans and half-empty jugs of cleaning solvent.
"Great!" Sam rubbed the small of her aching back. Her best friends, Jenna and Hallie, were going to be delighted at this discovery of a fresh room full of junkyard treasures. They'd been sorting and throwing things away for hours and had barely made a dent.
Fur brushed Sam's bare calf. She stiffened then relaxed at the familiar rumble that accompanied the touch. An Abyssinian cat wound around her sneaker-clad feet. Chuckling, she bent and scooped up the long, lean feline. The cat's motor revved up a notch as he rubbed his head against Sam's chin.
She stroked the soft, blue-gray fur. "So, Bastian, was I nuts to buy this neighborhood dry cleaners and expect to make a go of it?"
Her breath hitched, as it had many times since she signed on the dotted line. She'd paid out a big chunk of the inheritance money from her grandmother in order to become an independent businesswoman in Apple Valley, Minnesotaa healthy distance from her loving but smothering hometown. Twenty-six ought to be old enough to strike out on her own, shouldn't it? Nine years had passed since that one horrible night. Sam shook herself and deposited the cat on the cement floor. She had to stop going to that place in her mind.
The throaty tones of Hallie Berglund's television-personality voice came from the front room, followed by Jenna Newmann's bright laugh. Sam's shoulders relaxed. With the help of her friends and God, she could make a success of this business. She would.
Sam studied the room again. Her gaze caught on a toaster-size cardboard box high on a set of freestanding metal shelves in the middle of the room. The side of the box was labeled in red marker: Lost, but alas, not found. She laughed. God rest his soul, Abel Morris had been no ordinary hoarder; he was a poetic packrat. Now that was one box she had to open.
She stepped to the shelves. Her five-foot-five-inch height put the box level with the top of her head. Grasping the sides, she pulled it toward her. It was a little heavier than she liked. She put one foot back to brace herself. Something soft squished beneath the heel of her sneaker.
Bastian! Sam jerked her foot up. The box tilted toward her, threatening to land on her head. She ducked, still on one foot, teetered, and grabbed for the shelf. Off balance, she fell forward, toppling the set of shelving onto a stack of boxes, which thumped to the floor every which way, scattering contents.
Umph! Sam found herself spread-eagled and facedown atop the set of shelves that now rested on upended boxes. Acrid fumes from broken solvent bottles stung her throat and eyes. Throbbing from various body parts let her know she'd have a fine set of bruises in the morning.
Hallie's alarmed voice brought Sam's head around. The tall, slender woman stood in the doorway, dark eyes wide, long-fingered hand clamped over her mouth. A short, generous figure shoved past her into the room.
"Phew!" Jenna coughed. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, just help me up so we can get out of here." Sam struggled to push away from the set of shelves and find the floor with her feet. Two pairs of hands grasped her arms and hauled her upright. She pulled her friends with her out the door and slammed it shut.
Choking, they headed for the side exit and fresh air. The route took them between antiquated clothing presses, puffers and a pillow-cleaning machinenothing like the state-of-the-art equipment due to arrive in a few weeks.
Mere steps behind her friends, Sam barreled into the side alleyway and hauled in a breath of outdoor oxygen.
Next to her, Hallie shook her head like a dog shedding water. "Whoa! Whatever was in those bottles is potent."
Jenna pinched her nose. "Stink and a half!"
"I know." Sam slumped against the brick wall of her building. "Perchloroethylene. Perc for short. It's petroleum-based and so toxic and flammable it's all but banned in the industry. That's why I have to pay an arm and a leg to have a hazardous-material company haul it out of here. We're not to touch it well, except to clean up the mess I just made."
In the late afternoon, the two-story dry cleaners cast shade across the space between it and the print shop next door. The coolness was welcome on this late summer day. Sam's nose and eyes cleared, but a weight still pressed her lungs. How could she possibly finish this gargantuan cleanup task in time to
Stop it! Breathe in, breathe out. All would be well. This was a minor setback. She"Bastian!"
Sam tore open the door and raced back inside the building. The smell wasn't too bad from this distance, but what if she'd shut her cat in the storeroom?
A plaintive meow brought her up short. She changed direction, charged through a doorway and skidded to a halt in a small vestibule facing a closed and locked exit to the rear alleyway. She turned and gazed up the wooden stairs that skirted the wall and led to her second-floor apartment. The Abyssinian perched regally on the top landing, slim body encircled by his long tail. The jerky tip-twitch matched the glare from those copper eyes.
A muted giggle slipped past Sam's lips. "Your humble servant begs your pardon. I have mightily offended your highness. Allow me to admit you to your chambers." She trod up the stairs and let him into the apartment, then headed down to find her friends. As she reached the bottom, they came toward her from the direction of the odorous storeroom.
"I'll take that." Hallie reached for something Jenna held in her fist.
The shorter woman danced away, tucking the item behind her back. Both of them laughed, but Hallie crossed her arms over her long-tailed shirt. The two friends were a study in contrasts, like a dusky-skinned Amazon queen matched with a jovial munchkin.
But they were identical in their attention to personal groomingexcept for today.
Not on her life was Sam going to tell the elegant Channel Six news reporter that tufts of her black hair stuck out like she was Einstein's photonegative image. Nor would she inform the fastidious head chef and part owner of The Meridian "fine dining experience" that she looked like she'd been dipped in wheat flour. Thank the Lord for friends who would give up a Saturday and risk their manicured nails to help with a dirty project like hers.
Sam grinned. "What's up with you two?" She looked from one to the other.
Jenna held out her arm and opened her fist. A roll of 35 mm film rested on her palm. "I thought I kicked something when I ran out of there. I found it under one of the presses."
"Strange. Maybe the film was in that box of unclaimed property I was trying to get at when I took my tumble."
"Could be, but I want to develop it," Hallie said.
"Why? It's probably just shots of some stranger's boring vacation from sometime in the last century." Jenna surrendered the roll.
Hallie flipped the canister in the air, caught it, and stuffed it into her jeans pocket. "Call it journalistic curiosity. Besides, I don't often get a chance to process film the old-fashioned way."
Sam shook her head. "Go upstairs and order a pizza, ladies. I'll crack a few windows and open that storeroom door so things can air out awhile before I lock up for the night."
Jenna snorted. "Why not leave the windows ajar? Maybe some idiot thief will sneak in and take a few of these priceless treasures off our hands."
Thief? Sam's stomach rolled. Sensory impressions clamored for attention in her head. A door crashing inward. A dirty face with crazed eyes. The sear of burning flesh.
Sam blinked and shook off the flashback as she walked away without a word.
"Nice going, Jen." Hallie's fierce whisper carried to Sam's ears.
On the other side of the building, Sam shoved a window sash upward. Why was she still so touchy about the subject of break-ins? The incident happened when she was seventeen. She was a grown woman now. It was past time to get over it. But the pep talk didn't wash the sawdust from her mouth.
Two hours later, alone with her cat, Sam started running a bath. As the water splashed into the tub and steam rose, she opened a bottle of scented oil and poured a healthy dollop into the rising pool. The exotic floral aroma enveloped her. Wonderful!
She pulled the padded band out of her ponytail, and her thick, honey-brown hair fell loose to brush her shoulder blades. As soon as the water filled two-thirds of the tub, she eased in. Bubbles tickled her neck, and the knot in the small of her back loosened. The phone jangled, and she sat up, then shook her head and lay back again. Whoever it was could leave a message. She was going to enjoy a good, long soak.
By the time she climbed out, her muscles were relaxed and supple. Sam glanced across her shoulder into the wide mirror as she dried her back. The towel ran with little sensation across pale splotches of faded scars and puckers of skin-graft seams. She took a long-handled sponge, dipped it into an open jar of emollient, and rubbed every inch of the damaged skin until the lotion was absorbed. She rinsed the sponge, then donned pajamas before slipping into the smooth robe of real Chinese silk Jenna had brought back from a mission trip to the Far East.
On slipper-clad feet, she wandered to the kitchen for a glass of milk. Bastian, recovered from his sulk, twined around her legs and purred. Milk in hand, she surveyed her domain. Once the business was up and running, she'd have to remodel this apartment. Fifties retro was back in style, but all this burnt orange wasn't trendy décor; it was the real deal.
A blinking light on the phone caught her attention. She crossed the room and pushed the button. Static hiss came through, then a shaky sigh, followed by, "I'm coming over. We've got a big problem."
Sam frowned. That husky growl sounded like Hallie. Couldn't be. Nothing ever got the queen of poise that ruffled.
A buzz sounded near Sam's ear, and she let out a squawk. Someone was downstairs at the private entrance. The buzz sounded again, loud and long, like the person was leaning on the button. The noise let up. Gingerly, she pressed Talk. "Hello?"
Heavy breathing answered. The hair on Sam's arms stood at attention.
"It's me." A familiar voice spokefamiliar but off. "Let me in. I have to see you. Now!"
"I'll be right down, Hallie. Are you okay?"
Sam bounded down the stairs and opened the door. Hallie barged past her. She'd changed clothes into embroidered white capris and a fitted button-down shirt. Her long legs devoured the steps to the apartment two at a time. Sam trotted behind.
"What's the matter?"
Hallie didn't look at her. Lips pressed together, she was laying out photos in a long line on the kitchen table.
Sam crept forward and gazed down at the pictures. Chills cascaded down her spine. Bloody bodies. A woman's head lolled back on a couch, bright spatters on her slack face. A young girl stared from a separate frame, crimson-chested, eyes wide and lifeless. Another showed someonemaybe a manwith the barrel of a shotgun tucked under his chin and a good portion of his head missing. Samantha let out a shriek and leaped backward, hand to her throat.
"What are we going to do about those?" Sam stabbed a finger at the photos on the table.
"Burn them, shred them or report them. Take your pick. It's probably someone's idea of a sick jokea staged Halloween prank or something."
Sam shook her head. "The people look too real. And the blood."
"Lots can be done with makeup and cameras. I should know."
"But you raced over here with them. You think they're genuine. We have to turn the pictures over to the police."
Hallie blew out a long breath. "I thought you should see them first. Shall I make the call?" She pulled a cell phone from her purse.
"No! We'll take them to the station ourselves." Keeping her eyes averted from the gruesome evidence, Sam swept the photos into a stack. "I'm not having a police cruiser pull up outside and cops knocking on my door. This is an upscale neighborhood. If anyone sees, they'll wonder what hinky things are going on with the new owner." She handed the pictures to Hallie. "Put these in something. I'll get dressed."
Half an hour later, they stood facing the night duty sergeant on the other side of a thick windowbulletproof, no doubt. The man stared at them with pale eyes set in a square face above a pair of Brahma bull shoulders. Intimidation on the hoof.
Sam swallowed. Hard.
"I'm Sergeant Garner. You wish to report a crime?" The officer's voice was surprisingly gentle coming from that massive package. Graying hair and a lined face put him in his upper forties.
"I'm Hallie Berglund, reporter for Channel Six news, and this is my friend"
"Samantha Reid." Sam raised her hand like she was in grade school. Her face heated, and she offered a weak smile as she tucked her arm to her side.
Hallie placed the bag containing the film casing into the dip in the counter that allowed objects to pass under the barrier. "This was found at my friend's place of business. I developed it tonight and came up with these." She set another baggie with the prints into the tray. "They appear to be photos of a multiple murder."