Lacey Brockman looked up from her computer screen, tension spiking through her.
She shook it off. The old house turned office in downtown Murphy, North Carolina, creaked and groaned on a regular basis. Her boss would have locked the doors on his way out. Ruben was good like that.
She squinted at the computer screen in her basement office. Earlier that afternoon, she’d had a complaint about delayed payments. Ruben had said he’d research it later.
But tomorrow was Friday, and he was leaving on vacation for nine days. Chirbani Clinic was one of Advanced Medical Billing’s biggest clients. Not someone she wanted to leave hanging.
Another creak sounded, long and plaintive. She tightened her hand around the mouse. It was only 7:00 p.m. But in early January, the sun set sooner than that. Everything was dark outside the wide, squat windows set into the top of one wall.
She rolled her shoulders. Her ex would be smart enough not to accost her at her place of employment. Especially now that she had the restraining order. In fact, for the past two weeks, the threatening notes had stopped, and she hadn’t seen the silver 370Z sitting kitty-corner from her house or business since.
As she returned to the dates and amounts on her screen, tension crept across her shoulders. Why had she never noticed the almost incessant groans the house emitted?
Because she wasn’t used to being there alone. Six others worked with her, and the office was usually filled with activity—the shuffling of papers, the click of computer keys, brief conversations at the water cooler.
Now she’d gotten herself spooked. For no reason other than that she had an overactive imagination. No one was upstairs. She’d have known if someone had kicked in the door or broken a window. Besides, what she’d heard wasn’t footsteps. More like faint crackling and creaking.
She fished her cell phone from her purse and crept toward the stairs, ready to dial 911 if needed. An odor wafted to her, faint, then growing stronger—pungent, hot, smoky.
Something was burning.
She raced up the steps two at a time and flung open the door. Thick gray smoke rolled past her down the hall. She clasped a hand over her mouth and nose and ran into the open living room and dining area.
Flames licked at the partitions dividing the perimeter into four work areas. The entire entry was ablaze, the fire sweeping across the floor. She’d escape out the back, then call for help.
As she passed the kitchen, her heart stuttered. It was even worse there. Flames engulfed all the cabinets and were working their way up the walls. Smoke curled toward her, stinging her eyes.
She turned the dead bolt and flung open the door. It moved about two inches and jerked to a stop. Her heart slammed against her rib cage in an erratic rhythm. Someone had trapped her inside.
She tried to tamp down her panic. The building had probably shifted, binding the door. She just needed to force it open. She stepped back and threw her weight against it. It didn’t move. Something seemed to be holding it closed from the outside.
Panic flared anew. Her lungs burned, and her body screamed for oxygen. Unable to hold her breath any longer, she grabbed a fistful of her shirt and pressed it to her face.
When she drew in a gulp of air, her throat closed by reflex, and a coughing fit drove her to her knees. With shaking hands, she dialed 911. When the dispatcher answered, all she could manage was a raspy croak and more coughing.
After dropping the phone, she rose, stumbled to the nearest window and flipped the locks into the open position. It wouldn’t budge. The wooden window frame had been sealed permanently shut by decades of painting and repainting. Two others were the same way.
In a last desperate attempt to escape, she picked up a chair and slammed it against the window. She’d have to break more than just glass. The wood that separated the six-by-nine panes would have to be destroyed before she could climb to safety.
Glass shattered and wood splintered. Each effort brought on more coughing. Darkness encroached on her vision.
The sirens were closer. But not close enough.
She fell to her knees. Ivan. He’d warned her. If he couldn’t have her, he’d make sure no one else could, either. The restraining order meant nothing. God, please help me.
The sirens had died away. A few feet away, the back door swung open, and a flashlight beam swept through the smoke.
“Over here.” Had the words made it past her lips? She tried again and more coughing overtook her. The flashlight was closer now.
She stretched out a hand. A gloved one grasped it, and a fireman dropped to his knees beside her. Strong arms slid beneath her and lifted. She squinted, trying to see the face behind the plastic shield. But the darkness encroached further.
A single word blended with the roar of the fire and an even louder squeal inside her head. “Lacey?”
Then everything went black.
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