Needles of hot water pounded upon her bare back. Steam filled the large tiled stall, fogging the glass doors. Kat Danvers stood beneath the spray, hoping the shower would clear her mind, help her shake the feelings of lethargy and dizziness brought on by too many drinks that had washed down a handful . . . or was it two . . . of her favorite pills.
The three Vees.
No wonder her mind was sludge, her vision blurry, her every movement seeming exaggerated. A bad taste crawled up her throat and she had the feeling as if she were slogging her way through quick sand. She let out her breath slowly. Wondered if she’d throw up.
Come on, snap out of it, Kat. Pull yourself together!
Her conscience never seemed to miss an opportunity to nag at her.
She closed her eyes and leaned her arms against the slick tiles. The water was so hot it nearly scalded. She needed to sober up and fast. As quickly as she could she twisted the faucet hard. Immediately the hot water turned to ice and she gasped, sucking in air through her teeth. Her mind cleared for an instant.
She felt it then, an odd sensation. As if something stirred and she heard a faint, indistinguishable noise over the rush of cascading water. Her eyes flew open and she tried to peer through the misty glass. Did she see a shadow pass through the open doorway to the bedroom? Or was it her imagination? A trick of her tired, over-drugged mind and blurred vision. She needed her contacts or her thick glasses.
It was probably nothing.
And yet her skin crawled beneath the frigid spray, tiny goose bumps of fear pebbled her smooth, wet skin.
“It’s all in your mind,” she muttered, but turned off the water anyway and stood, shivering and dripping while her ears strained to hear anything out of the ordinary.
There was nothing. Just the steady drip of water from the shower head, a soft rumble of the heater, the strains of Christmas music drifting from hidden speakers and farther away and muted the quiet hum of traffic in the city. But nothing else. No sound of a shoe scuffing over the thick carpet of the presidential suite, no rattle of the room service cart, no click of keys in the lock . . . nothing out of place.
Sluggishly, she clicked open the glass door and reached for her robe.
“Mama . . .”
A tiny voice. A girl’s voice.
Kat’s heart clutched. She froze.
No! It couldn’t be. She wouldn’t believe it. No toddler’s voice had spoken. Her mind was playing tricks on her again . . . that was it. The drugs and booze had combined to-
Kat’s knees nearly buckled.
Frantically she stepped out of the shower and nearly fell on the slick marble as the notes of Silent Night filled the room. “Baby?” she whispered.
Barefoot, leaving a trail of water, she stumbled toward the door, somehow managing to force her unwieldy arms through the robe’s sleeves. Get a grip! You’re hallucinating again and you know it. There is no baby. Your daughter is not in any of the other rooms. Grab hold of yourself! Grasping onto the doorjamb, she peered into the bedroom. The king sized bed was rumpled, a small impression visible on the comforter where she’d fallen asleep earlier. Her near-empty glass was sweating upon a bedside table near two empty bottles of pills.
The closet door was ajar giving her a view of her clothes neatly lined on hotel hangers.
The sound was distinct. Clear.
Coming through the open French Doors.
“Oh, sweetheart,” Kat cried, her voice cracking as she turned quickly–too quickly– toward the living area and fell against the night table, scraping her arm and cheek. The antique lamp tumbled to the carpet, its bulb shattering.
Don’t believe it, Kat! Don’t think that she’s alive. Don’t you dare trust your foolish heart.
But she couldn’t stop that tiny sliver of hope from burrowing into her heart as she climbed to her feet again. The room spun. Using one hand, she braced herself on the wall and chairs as she staggered into the living area. She blinked hard. Tried vainly to focus. Nothing seemed disturbed. Nothing out of place. Flowers and a fruit basket sat upon a glass-topped table. Two Queen Anne chairs and a small love seat surrounded the antique fireplace where flames burned quietly.
No boogie-man lurked in the shadows.
Her daughter wasn’t waiting for her. Of course not. Her imagination and paranoia were working overtime again. She was falling apart. Unraveling. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and cringed at the foggy image. Disheveled, wet hair, a gaunt body draped in a robe too large, no makeup on a face once beautiful and now ravaged by pain and guilt. Tears, unbidden, filled her eyes. She was losing her mind. Bit by bit.
Wiping her hand beneath her nose she chided herself for being a fool. She, a woman who had always known what she’d wanted and gone after it. She who had used her beauty and brains to snag the wealthiest man in Portland. She, who had so recently had everything any woman could ever want. And now she was reduced to shards of harsh memories, sleepless nights and long hours trying to dull the pain with prescriptions and alcohol.
Cinching the robe around her thin body she felt a draft . . . the tiniest breath of wind against the back of her neck. She looked over her shoulder. Saw the curtains near the balcony doors move. But she’d locked the French doors just before her shower . . . right? She’d taken her drink onto the small verandah and stood overlooking the city, contemplating suicide and finally discarding taking her life as too dramatic, too frightening, too self-defeating.
So why was the door unlatched?
Hadn’t she come back inside and turned the dead bolt behind her. Yes . . that was right. After securing the lock, she’d taken one last swallow of her drink, then left the glass on the bedside table before stripping and heading unsteadily for the shower? That was right, wasn’t it?
Or was she mixing things up?
Why couldn’t she remember?
Why was everything so fuzzy?
Maybe she’d imagined locking the door.
Maybe she had heard someone prowling through these rooms while she’d stood under the shower’s spray.
Her throat turned to dust.
Again she sensed a presence.
Something eerily out of place.
She started for the telephone.
A scared little voice.
Kat’s heart nearly stopped. “London? Baby?” The sound was coming from the verandah, through the crack in the door. This was insane. She should reach for the phone. Phone hotel security. Call the police.
Like you did before?
And have them all look at you like you’re crazy?
Have them exchange glances as they noticed the vials on the night stand?
Have them suggest you “talk to someone?”
Is that what you want to go through again?
Heart thudding, she inched her way to the exterior doors where the curtains billowed slightly and the chill of December seeped inside. Through the sheers she saw a dark shadow. Small. Shivering.
Precious, precious child!
Kat yanked open the door.
A blast of winter hit her hard.
A cacophony of street noise, traffic, music, voices rushed up nineteen floors.
The huddled little figure moved.
“Oh, honey–” Kat whispered, her throat suddenly tight.
The interior lights turned snapped off.
The figure turned a face toward her and even through the fog in her mind and the semi-darkness of the city, she recognized the face; not of her missing daughter, but of a treacherous, wicked liar.
“You,” she spat, trying to turn away. Blindly, she flailed, trying to escape.
Strong fingers grabbed hold of her shoulders and a fierce, intent weight shoved her closer to the short brick wall surrounding the verandah. Kat screamed. Her knees hit the century-old brick work and she tried to gain purchase to grab something, anything, to no avail. The force of the body slammed against her back side, the sheer determination of her attacker, propelled her forward, closer to the edge and the crumbling “No! Oh, God, no!” Kat cried, seeing a hand in her peripheral vision. Gloved fingers clutched a bit of brick. Kat cringed.
Pain exploded behind her eyes. Blackness pulled her under. She started to sag, but was propped up, pushed forward, the railing hitting her in her middle and disintegrating with her weight. Suddenly she was falling, sailing through the cold night air.
Then she blacked out.