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Glancing over her shoulder, Abby Carter quickened her pace along Fifth Avenue, aware that the man in the tan overcoat still followed her, had been behind her for the last seven blocks.
Shit! she thought. Maybe he'd been back there the whole fifteen blocks since she'd left her apartment for the early-morning walk to her job at the gallery. How would she know? Her eyes were on where she was going, not on where she'd been. But after initially spotting him she couldn't get him out of her mind: tall, scruffy, and with a mass of thick long hair that obscured his features. He was another street person who'd zeroed in on her, she decided, the third time in the past ten days.
Abby made a quick decision as she waited for the light on the next corner. She flagged down an approaching taxi, its tires squealed to a stop, and she jumped in, leaving her pursuer to stare after the cab as it sped away.
For a moment Abby took deep breaths, realizing that she'd been frightened, that the man had definitely been a threatening presence.
"Miss, where to?" The cabbie spoke with a heavy East European accent. "Uptown, downtown, crosstown?" he asked, his dark eyes meeting hers in the rearview mirror.
"Um," Abby said, momentarily too shaken to remember the gallery address. She pushed back the strand of reddish brown hair that had fallen over her face, then managed to give him the street and building number.
"That's only a few blocks away, yes?"
Abby nodded and ignored the driver's questioning glance. She knew he wondered why she'd bothered to take a taxi for such a short distance. She wasn't about to explain. Instead, she gave him a large tip after he'd pulled in to the curb, even though she was spending more than she could afford. In seconds she was safely inside the gallery. A short time later she forgot all about her random stalker as she began cataloging new art pieces into the gallery. Her fear had been transitory; it was part of living in a city. A slender young woman with long chestnut hair and matching eyes would always be the target of someone on the streets. She smiled wryly. It was just as her aunt Carolina, the woman who'd raised her, had always warned, especially after Abby had decided a few years ago to pursue her art career in New York City. "If you're beautiful you'll be the target of predatory men. You just have to be aware of that fact, Abby."
That thought vanquished Abby's last trace of fear. The incident had been random. No one had followed her for any special reason, only because she'd presented herself on the street at the wrong time -- and that everyone she knew said she was beautiful.
• • •
Abby stared at Neville Figg, her superior. "Are you saying I'm fired?"
The rail-thin man got up from behind his desk. "Of course not -- we hate to let you go but we have to because of our low-volume sales." Abby could almost smell his bad breath as he came around his desk, pushing his glasses up his nose. "The gallery is losing money and we have to cut corners."
"So I'm the one who's expendable?"
There was a silence as he made the final steps to face her. It was right after lunchtime and her summons into his office had been unexpected. She kept her gaze level, knowing that he was right about the sales volume, but she'd believed that revenue would be better once they were into the holiday season.
"We wished not, Abigail, but that is where we find ourselves -- you are an asset that we can no longer afford."
"Maybe you should reconsider, Mr. Figg, because you need to employ someone like me to generate income -- like I want to do online -- sort of like an eBay, even an Amazon-type format, where this gallery can display its inventory."
Mr. Figg's smile was patronizing, his round eyes owlish behind his oversize glasses. "We'll consider that, Abigail, for future reference," he said, evading a direct answer.
Shit, she thought, for a moment longer staring into his opaque gaze. She'd really been let go. She was now an aspiring artist in New York City without a job -- or an income to pay the rent -- and winter was coming in just a couple of months.
Abby managed a smile but the fear of paying her bills in two weeks was already on the top of her priorities. She'd been saving her money, dollar by dollar, for such a contingency -- losing her job -- but she hadn't reckoned on the reality of its happening so soon. She didn't have enough set aside for next month's expenses, let alone the rent and the costs of pursuing the possibility of having her own art show.
Damn! she thought. Even though she'd recently started freelancing as a street portrait artist at tourist spots, she hadn't generated much extra income. She'd started at the wrong time. Tourist season was almost over: Sketching in summer attracted many subjects and a steady flow of money; sketching in the wind, rain, even snow, of fall and winter attracted no one. Plain and simple, it was the worst time of the year for her to lose her job. She had few options.
She wondered what her boyfriend Sam would say now. He was a commercial artist, a tall, blondish, wiry man whose brown eyes sometimes twinkled with humor, a man she'd met seven months earlier at a gallery opening, and she'd been impressed by his astute observations about the artists and their work. Captivated by his charm, she'd fallen for him and they'd become a couple shortly thereafter.
It had all seemed like a wish come true. But was that only because she fitted his perfect mold of a woman who praised him?
Of course not, she told herself as she worked to finish up the tasks she'd started that morning. Mr. Figg had told her to finish out the day but not the week, even though the gallery would pay her salary for the week. She was not to return tomorrow.
Abby felt like the proverbial piece of dirt -- the lowlife who couldn't hold a job at twenty-eight years old -- as she gathered her things at closing time and left the gallery. She wasn't in the mood to walk all twentysome blocks to her apartment, so she again hailed a cab. Too hell with the cost, she thought, remembering an old English saying: In for a penny, in for a pound. She'd think about financial ramifications later.
The taxi took her uptown to her apartment house, where she paid the driver and then climbed the steps to the front entrance of her building, thinking about checking her mail for a letter from home. Surprisingly, Jacob Sell, her sixtyish landlord, was waiting for her and let her in the door before she could use her key and head to the mailboxes.
Abby stepped into the vestibule and Mr. Sell made sure the outer door closed behind him. He took her arm and steered her to his own apartment on the groundfloor level. His plump wife stood in the open doorway.
"My dear," the woman said, fingering her graying hair nervously. "I'm afraid we have some bad news for you."
"What?" Abby asked, wondering what could be worse than losing her job.
"Just come inside, dear," the older lady said, ushering her into their apartment. "Jacob, make sure the door is shut behind you," she added, her gentle request sounding ominous to Abby. "We don't want to be disturbed."
"It is," her husband replied as the door closed and he stepped into the room.
"What's happened?" Abby asked, glancing between them. She suddenly felt apprehensive, noting the exchanged glances between the older couple. "Please, just tell me what's happened."
The woman took hold of her arm and steered her to the sofa, where Abby had no option but to sit down. "We're so sorry, Abby dear. The call came while you were gone."
"What call? From whom?"
"A Detective Williams from Carterville," Mrs. Sell said.
"Oh my God," Abby said, and tried not to feel alarmed. That was the town in upstate New York where she'd grown up, where her aunt Carolina still lived on the Hudson River.
There was a momentary silence.
"The detective was looking for you, Abby." Another pause. "We didn't have your work number to give him."
"So I took a message," Jacob said. "I have his number for you to call him back."
"But why was he looking for me?"
Mrs. Sell moved closer on the sofa where she'd seated herself next to Abby. She took Abby's clenched hands in hers. "I'm afraid we have bad news."
"What? Just tell me."
A brief silence went by.
"Sweetheart, we're sorry to be the ones to tell you but your aunt Carolina was found dead this morning," Mrs. Sell said, gently. Her voice lowered. "As Jacob said, we have the detective's number."
Stunned, Abby jumped up, unable to stay in their apartment one more second. "Why are you telling me this? It can't be true!"
She ran to the door and yanked it open. After managing to thank the older couple who only meant well, she took the stairs two at a time to the second floor.
With her key in hand she ran to her apartment door. She needed to be alone.
How could her beloved aunt Carolina be dead? It was impossible.
She stumbled into her apartment and slammed the door behind her.
And then she realized that a whole new terror awaited her in the evening darkness.
She wasn't alone.
Copyright © 2007 by Donna Anders