Read Last Breath Online

Authors: Michael Prescott

Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Police Procedurals, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Suspense

Last Breath

LAST BREATH
 

 

Michael Prescott

www.michaelprescott.net

 

 

 

I don’t think any tragedy in literature that I have ever come across impressed me so much as the first one, that I spelled out slowly for myself in words of three letters: the bad fox has got the red hen. There was something so dramatically complete about it; the badness of the fox, added to all the traditional guile of his race, seemed to heighten the horror of the hen’s fate, and there was such a suggestion of masterful malice about the word “got.” One felt that a countryside in arms would not get that hen away from the bad fox.

—Saki (H. H. Munro), “The Unbearable Bassington”

Prologue
 

 

C.J. Osborn was ten years old when the boogeyman came for her.

Some months earlier she had decided she was old enough to be left without a baby-sitter. A baby-sitter was for babies, by definition, and she was no baby. She rode horses—well, ponies—and climbed steep trails in the Big Maria Mountains and explored the shadowed canyons near her home. She shot rifles and pitched horseshoes. She was too much of a tomboy to be satisfied with her given name, Caitlin Jean, and so she had become C.J., a name that suited her better. Certainly at the advanced age of ten, she could be left alone for an evening, even if home was a ranch house in a remote outpost of the Mojave Desert, and the nearest neighbors were a half mile away.

“If there’s any problem,” C.J. explained to her mom and dad in her calmest, most adult tone of voice, “I can call you. Or the Gregsons. Or the police. I know what to do.”

Despite her arguments, for the first half of 1985 her parents continued to hire Liddie Wilcox to sit for them when they went out, even though Liddie, presently sixteen, had begun baby-sitting at the age of twelve, only two years older than C.J. was now.

Finally, in August, after months of sustained prodding on C.J.’s part, her parents relented. They were attending a birthday party at a restaurant in Blythe, the nearest big town, twenty miles down Midland Road. They would not call Liddie. “You’ll be on your own,” C.J.’s dad warned. “You sure about this?”

“I’m sure,” C.J. said with no trace of doubt. What was there to be worried about? What could possibly go wrong?

Before leaving, her parents gave her the phone number of the restaurant, and the numbers of the half-dozen neighbors within a two-mile radius, and the number of the Sheriff’s Department, and a great deal of advice, which she only pretended to listen to.

Then they were gone, the old Chevy pickup rattling down the dirt road into the smoldering sunset. C.J. waved to them until they were out of sight. Then she was alone, really and truly alone, and she hugged herself for joy. She was a grown-up now.

Inside the house, she locked all the doors and windows, as her parents had instructed; the swamp cooler in the attic was sufficient to cool the place. She could hear it thrumming through the ceiling as she made dinner. Her mom had left a complete meal in the fridge—chicken, peas, and mashed potatoes, arranged in a tray like a TV dinner. All she had to do was heat it up. Not much of a challenge, but she felt a thrill of accomplishment when the meal was ready. “I did it myself,” she said smugly, almost persuaded that she had prepared the dinner from scratch.

She carried her food into the den and watched TV while she ate, a custom ordinarily forbidden in the Osborn household. But, as she reminded herself, she was the head of the household for the moment. She could do what she liked.

By nine o’clock she was beginning to get sleepy. Excitement had given way to drowsy boredom. She lazed in an armchair in front of the TV, congratulating herself on having taken her first step into adulthood.

That was when she saw the light.

A dim glow wavered outside the window of the den, not close, maybe twenty yards away or even farther, shimmering like a will-o’-the-wisp. She watched until it vanished beyond the window frame.

A first prickle of fear worked its way through her belly and up her spine. What she had seen was the beam of a flashlight. At least she was pretty sure it was.

There was no reason for anybody to be prowling the grounds of the ranch with a flashlight. And prowling was the right word.

Prowlers were burglars—or worse.

She almost ran to the nearest phone. But she couldn’t be absolutely sure of what she’d seen. It might have been some trick of light—the high beams of a car on the power line road, maybe, or the reflection of a shooting star. Or maybe the product of her overworked imagination. People were always telling her that she fantasized too much.

Still, she took the precaution of rechecking every door and window to be certain every latch and dead bolt was secure. She turned on all the lights in the house. Darkness, she felt, was her enemy.

Finishing her rounds, she stopped in the kitchen to turn on the overhead light and to take a long, sharp knife out of the cutlery drawer.

The knife was not much protection, but if somebody was out there ...

She turned off the TV and the swamp cooler. She wanted no extraneous sounds to distract her.

In perfect silence she sat on the sofa in the living room and listened.

Was someone out there? A drug addict or some other desperate person? She could picture him—him, yes, it had to be a man, women didn’t prowl around in shadows and scare little girls. He would be shaggy-haired and beefy, and he would smell of stale sweat, and his eyes would glitter like small, polished stones.

There were vagrants in Blythe, panhandlers and shopping-cart people, who had that look. Maybe this man was one of them. If there was a man. If she hadn’t imagined the whole thing.

She comforted herself with the thought that there was no way a prowler could enter the house without being heard. To get in, he would have to force a door or window. She would hear the splinter of wood or the shatter of glass.

Unless he could pick a lock. But she doubted he could defeat any of the dead bolts on the exterior doors.

She ought to be safe. Anyway, there might not be anyone outside at all. Already the glow she had seen through the window was beginning to seem like an image in a dream. Was it possible that she really had dreamed it—that she had dozed off and …?

Wait.

A noise.

The creak of wood.

From the rear of the house, where the laundry room was.

There was a door back there, but it was dead-bolted like the others. He couldn’t get in that way.

Could he?

Another creak. Closer than the last.

Footsteps.

That was what she was hearing—soft footsteps on the wooden floor of the hallway that led from the laundry room to the back bedrooms.

He was in the house.

It was impossible—there had been no sound—but somehow he had penetrated all her defenses, and now he was coming, closing in on her.

Suddenly the knife seemed like very poor protection, pitifully inadequate to the threat she faced. She needed help.

She left the living room, the hasp of the knife gripped in her shaking hand, and entered the kitchen. The phone sat on the counter, a black rotary-dial model. She lifted the handset from the cradle and dialed nine, then one—

She stopped.

New footsteps.

In the living room.

He had made it that far.

If she said anything into the phone, he would hear her, even if she whispered. He would hear her, and she would never finish what she had to say.

Carefully, making no noise, she hung up the phone.

He was searching the house room by room. He would look in the kitchen before long.

There was no way out of the kitchen except through the living room, and he was in there now.

Hide somewhere. Under the table? No good—he would see her easily. In the cabinet under the sink?

She looked inside, but the interior was crammed with dustpans and sponges and cleansers. She could never make enough room for herself.

She remembered the crawl space.

It ran underneath the house. Her dad had climbed down there more than once to fix the plumbing. The trapdoor that afforded access to it was in a corner of the kitchen, recessed in the hardwood floor.

She crept to the trapdoor and pulled on the metal ring embedded in the wood. The door was surprisingly heavy, but fear gave her strength. She lifted it, and miraculously the hinge, recently oiled, made no sound.

There was darkness below, and she had no flashlight or matches, and no time to find any. She lowered herself into the pit. Her Keds immediately touched bottom. She set down the knife on a bed of gravel, reached up, and eased the trapdoor shut.

Safe. Maybe.

She waited, huddling in the dark. Her fingers groped in the gravel until they found the wooden hasp of the knife. She drew it close to her.

Through the floor above her head, she could hear the vibrations of his footsteps. He was close—not in the kitchen but maybe in the den. He must have seen her through the window, and even if he hadn’t, he would know someone was home. The TV must be still warm, and the remains of her dinner sat on a tray on the coffee table.

He must be a burglar, but she had never heard of any homes being burglarized here in Midland, a hardscrabble town at the eastern edge of California, near the Colorado River, a town of ranchers and miners and people who wanted to be left alone. Nobody out here was rich. There was nothing to steal.

Then why was he here? And why tonight of all nights—the first night when she had ever been left alone?

Was he—the thought came to her like a sliver of a nightmare, intruding on rationality—was he
after
her?

Had he deliberately waited until she was alone? Waited for his chance to get her?

Crazy idea, but she couldn’t shake free of it. Fears from earlier phases of her childhood returned to her. The monster in the closet. The bear under the bed. The boogeyman.

That was what he was. The boogeyman, the terror of all children.

And now he was in the kitchen.

She heard the tread of his steps moving closer to where she lay, diminishing, approaching again. He was circling the kitchen. He must suspect that she had gone in there. But how could he know?

Maybe he had searched every other room, and this was the last place left. Or maybe he could smell her, the way a bloodhound sniffs out its prey.

Stop it. Stop thinking like that.

She was safe. She had to be safe. He couldn’t know about the crawl space. He couldn’t possibly find her.

Nonetheless, she wriggled a few feet away from the trapdoor until she found a vertical plumbing pipe in the darkness. It was thin and provided little cover, but she dragged herself behind it anyway, the knife still clutched in her hand.

The footsteps drifted nearer.

Had he seen the trapdoor? Had he guessed?

She waited, breath suspended.

Then—light.

A faint but brightening fan of light from the kitchen as the trapdoor was raised.

It lifted noiselessly, as it had before. In the sudden spill of light she looked around the crawl space for another exit or a better hiding place. There was nothing—only the gray spread of gravel, confusions of plumbing pipes here and there, the cobwebby subfloor that made a low roof overhead, and patches of darkness in the far corners.

If she could reach one of those corners she might kick through the latticework and escape outside. It was worth a try.

She started to crawl, and abruptly the light from the open trapdoor dimmed as a human figure crouched over the entryway.

She froze. Any movement, and she would be visible to him.

She couldn’t see him, only his shadow on the gravel floor. He was squatting down, motionless.

Then the shadow disappeared in a new blaze of light. His flashlight had snapped on.

The long orange beam probed the crawl space, tracking over the dirt and the plumbing pipes and the whorls of spider webs. Dead insects littered the dirt—husks of beetles, dried remnants of houseflies. A few yards from her lay something small and skeletal, which might have been a long-dead mouse or pack rat.

The beam played over one side of the crawl space, then blurred in C.J.’s direction and finally settled on her. She looked into the bright cone of light with frightened, blinking eyes.

From behind the light came a voice—a male voice in a whispery falsetto, the most evil voice she had ever heard.

“I spy,” he breathed, “with my little eye ...”

Laughter, soft and mirthless, fading away.

The flashlight wavered. There was movement. He was shifting his position.

Climbing down.

Down into the crawl space with her, and when he did, there would be no place for her to go and no hope and no chance.

Blind terror drove her forward. She saw a slim, trouser-clad leg swinging down, and she lashed out at it with the knife.

He was quick, almost quick enough to anticipate the blow. The knife brushed his calf and tore the trouser leg, and then he was out of reach, squatting above her again.

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