High Rhymes and Misdemeanors (6 page)

BOOK: High Rhymes and Misdemeanors
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Next up, the first woman’s voice, now petulant. “Peter,
darling,
I know you’re there! The lights are on. Are you avoiding me?”

When had this been, Grace wondered? Had Peter possibly returned home and left again?

Two hang-up calls followed, then a voice Grace recognized and which sent chills down her spine. “Nobody home? Pity. I’ve got an item you’ll be interested in, Fox. An American export. I’ll be in touch.”

Then, another message: “Don’t mess me about, Fox. I’m not a patient man. Ask your mate Delon. The item for exchange has an expiration date.”

The hair on the back of Grace’s neck stood up.

There was one more hang-up call before a new voice came on, ponderous and authoritative. “Mr. Fox, this is Chief Constable Heron. We should be obliged if you would ring the station when you get in, sir. Thank you.”

The machine beeped one last time signifying the end of messages. Her nerves jangling, Grace went back downstairs, closing the door to the flat behind her.

She had not been imagining things, she had not been mistaken. Her abduction was directly linked to Peter Fox. Apparently he had something the Queen Mother and cohort wanted. Or at least they believed he had something, which was pretty much the same thing.

Where Mutt and Jeff figured in, Grace could not imagine. Frankly she didn’t want to know. She was already too deeply involved. These thugs knew her name, had stolen her passport so she could not escape out of the country. They knew what flight she planned to be on. Given the time they’d had to plow through her things they might even have figured out where Monica was staying, Grace thought in alarm.

With difficulty she reined in her panic. Even if her abductors traced her to Monica, the bright spot was that Monica was undoubtedly in Scotland with Calum Bell. Monica should be safe enough for the time being.

It also meant Grace was on her own. The one person with all the answers was Peter Fox, and Peter Fox had apparently—as one of the thugs put it—gone to earth.

But sooner or later he would return home. Should she leave him some kind of warning message? Grace hesitated, trying to think. Her lack of sleep was catching up. Belatedly it occurred to her that the first place the Queen Mum would think of looking for her would be in the fox’s lair. He had believed from the first that they were in it together; so to him it would make perfect sense that Grace would try to rendezvous with Peter.

She had to get out. Fast.

Grace made her way downstairs, and hurried along the aisle crowded with furniture and a bronze bust of—for a wonder—Romantic poet Lord George Gordon Noel Byron.

She couldn’t explain what kept her exploring when she knew that even now her attackers might be closing in on the house. Curiosity, or perhaps some half-formed notion of leaving Peter a note caused her to slip behind the counter and follow a short hallway into what appeared to be a back office. It smelled … unusual. She couldn’t place the odor. The deepening gloom made it necessary to turn on a light.

The office seemed to also serve as storeroom. Crates and boxes filled metal shelves. There was a suspiciously neat desk, a computer, and several broken pieces of furniture. Nearly backing into a mounted lion’s head, Grace sucked in her breath sharply. Her nerves had about had it.

Grace tried to open a drawer, looking for blank paper. The drawers were locked. The desk was locked but he left his front door unlocked? Something odd about that.

An old Vuitton steamer trunk sat on the floor. Inside a nest of papers was a headless marble torso with an impossibly perfect set of breasts. A somber picture of Dutch windmills stood propped against the trunk. Beside it on the floor lay a leather-bound ledger.

Grace knelt and picked up the ledger. A bold, elegant hand had scrawled notations a cryptologist wouldn’t have been able to decipher. Grace started to tear a page out of the ledger when something caught her eye.

She stared at the wall in front of her. At first it appeared that one end of the shelves crammed with china figurines and record books stood out from the wall, but looking more closely she realized that the wall itself was crooked. There appeared to be a narrow opening between the wall and the shelf.

A secret passage?

Grace scooted over and examined the opening carefully. The shelf was bolted to the wall, the china figurines and record books glued to the shelving. Grace tugged on the shelf and a portion of the wall swung soundlessly out, revealing a doorway about four feet high.

The doorway led off into darkness.

Grace ducked under the doorway and stood, peering into the gloom. She seemed to be in a passage. Grace caught her breath in horror at what she could make out in the light from the storeroom. Now she recognized the dreadful scent stealing through the shop.

A man lay sprawled on the bare stone floor. This time it was not Peter Fox, and this time the man was definitely dead. His staring eyes testified to that.

The cause of death was unmistakable as well. Buried in his chest was one of the decorative-looking battle-axes from the stairwell display. There was blood everywhere. Blood on the stone walls, blood pooling beneath the body.

It looked as though in his dying moments the man had tried to write something on the wall in his own blood.

Ignoring the buzzing sound in her brain, Grace leaned forward to try and make out what was written. She heard a soft click as she brushed against the doorway. The significance of that sound did not register until a moment later when the door swung silently shut behind her, shutting off all light.

The last thing Grace saw before the passage plunged into blackness was the bloodstained word
Astarte
.

Grace opened her mouth to scream. Nothing came out but a whisper. She tried again. It was like in a dream when no sound would come. Her vocal chords felt paralyzed. She couldn’t seem to get enough air to yell. She tried again, and again there was only a frightened choke of panicked sob.

Grace turned, falling to her knees and scrabbling at the door.

She believed it was the door; in the pitch blackness it was impossible to tell. Not a glimmer of light revealed the entrance frame. With desperate fingers Grace felt along the stone. There had to be some clue. She pried and clawed at what felt like an indentation. Nothing happened. But there had to be something, a hidden spring or button …
something
.

Grace forced her thoughts away from the thing that lay in the darkness with her. Hysteria would not save her. Tearing her hands to pieces on century-old stone would not help.

Taking a deep shuddering breath, she made herself stop. She sat back on her heels and tried to think. She was in no immediate danger. Despite the rank smell, she wasn’t going to suffocate. The dead man couldn’t hurt her.

But what if his killer came back? He would find her trapped here …

Was she trapped? She tried to visualize what she had seen before the lights went out. Had she seen a staircase in the shadows beyond the corpse?

Grace scrubbed at the tears blinding her. It sank in on her that she still had her shoulder bag slung over her shoulder.

With shaking hands she opened the flap and sifted through the contents till she felt her keys. On the key ring was a tiny pocket flashlight. Grace switched it on. A beam of light about the circumference of a quarter cut the Stygian gloom.

The light had an immediate steadying effect on Grace. Yes, there did seem to be a steep flight of narrow stairs winding out of sight but it was not a proposing sight. More calmly, though her hands still shook, she tried once more to find the hidden catch.

Twenty minutes later she was still trying.

At last Grace was forced to admit that either there was no way out from this side of the secret panel, or that she had been repeating the same motions for so long she could no longer tell what she was seeing and feeling.

She got to her feet, leaning against the cold stone, telling herself she could step over the thing blocking the stairs. A stairway had to lead somewhere. She might have more luck at the other end of the passage.

Swinging the pocket flashlight toward the stairs, Grace’s breath came out in a shuddering gulp as she took a long look at the body. He was a small man of about fifty. His artificially red hair was oiled flat. His sunken dark eyes stared up in an expression of terror.

There was no telling how long he’d lain there—not by Grace anyway, who wasn’t getting any closer to him than she had to. The blood on the wall had dried, the blood pooled beneath had congealed. Grace stared at the word written in blood. What could Astarte, the Phoenician goddess of love and fertility, have to do with any of the events of the past days?

Had Peter Fox killed this man and then fled on a supposed business trip? Or had this man been killed in mistake for Peter Fox? Grace had no idea and she didn’t care. She wanted only to escape Rogue’s Gallery, get to the nearest police station, and from there to the American Embassy and an airport.

Passionately she wished she had never met Peter Fox. Never gone for a walk in the woods of Kentmere, never come to the Lake District—or England. It was knowing Peter Fox that had gotten her into this mess. Peter Fox was a dangerous man to know.

Grace directed the pinpoint of light to the stairs once more. Steeling herself, she stepped over the body, hopping a little to avoid the blood. Her feet echoed emptily on the narrow stone. The steps were deep and there was no railing. Grace kept one hand against the wall to guide herself and climbed cautiously. Her initial surge of adrenaline had faded. She felt she was moving in a haze of weariness.

Maybe I’m dreaming, she told herself. Maybe I’ll soon wake up and find myself still in bed at the Tinker’s Dam.

Some way up, the staircase made a sharp turn. Grace’s flashlight picked out a recess like a shelf or a deep window built into the wall. She would have missed it if she hadn’t been climbing so slowly. The stairs wound out of sight in the inkwell of blackness.

Grace played her flashlight over the recess before her. Was this an opening of some kind? Perhaps another door? Grace crawled on to the shelf, which was about as large as a steamer trunk, and traced the flashlight beam slowly around the corners.

Grace could detect no latch, nothing like that. But unlike the passage opening downstairs, this panel was wooden. If nothing else, she thought, she could kick it in, if necessary. As she felt around the edges Grace felt the panel move. Her heart leapt. The mechanism was so simple, so neatly constructed that she had nearly missed it.

With delicate fingertips Grace slid the panel to the side. It moved soundlessly into the wall revealing what appeared to the ray of her flashlight to be the inside of a tall narrow box. “Coffin” came to mind, and she hastily banished the image.

Grace inspected the box with her flashlight. There was a simple turn latch. Grace flipped it over and the door swung open. Meeting her astonished gaze was a stretch of crimson-and-peacock Oriental carpet. A telescope pointed out of the white Georgian windows of Peter Fox’s living room.

She crawled though the case of the grandfather clock, and got to her feet. The weighted door swung shut behind her. At the soft click Grace nearly jumped out of her skin.

Dusk now shrouded the still rooms. She could hear rain brushing softly against the windows. Grace snapped off her flashlight and headed for Peter’s kitchen. She was just lifting the phone receiver when she heard a door shut downstairs. The sound of whistling carried clearly through the wooden floor, floating nearer.

Grace froze. Her eyes flew around the room seeking another exit. She heard the scrape of a key in the lock. Carefully Grace replaced the phone and darted behind the kitchen door. She wasn’t sure if her reaction was guilt or fear.

Through the crack she spied the living room door swinging open. A light switched on, bathing the room in homely glow.

Peter Fox was home. Grace relaxed a fraction.

He wore Levis and a brown leather flight jacket. He carried a black Gladstone bag. He was staring down, frowning at his keys. The rain spangled his fair hair and the shoulders of his jacket. From behind the door Grace caught a hint of wet evening and clean male.

She tried to decide what to do. The body in the basement changed everything. She couldn’t be sure Peter had not killed the man. Warning Peter now seemed second priority to escaping this house and getting to the police.

Fox’s light, restless gaze swung around the room.
He’s wondering why the door wasn’t locked,
she realized, holding her breath.

But he seemed to find nothing amiss. He dropped the Gladstone, and pulled some envelopes out of his pocket, shuffling through them absently. Grace, her thoughts flying ahead in panic, concluded,
he’ll come into the kitchen to check his phone messages

Her eyes raced desperately around the kitchen. There was no way out. Even if she could get to the window without being seen, she couldn’t leap two stories down.

Grace’s eyes zeroed back to Peter Fox. She watched him toss his mail to the glass-topped curio table. He walked out of Grace’s line of vision. She waited tensely. Where was he? What was he doing? Should she make a run for it now?

Her tension spiked as he began whistling that same jaunty tune. He must be in the bedroom, she decided, gauging the sound. The whistle faded. Grace heard the muffled rush of running water, the rumble of old plumbing.

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