A sharp crack snapped the silence in half. Sophie shoved her fist into her mouth, determined to strangle the scream clawing its way up from her belly. If it had only been just a sharp crack, she could have dismissed it. The museum’s basement was overpopulated with more artifacts than three lifetimes worth of curators had been able to catalog. The harsh snap could have been a displaced shelf, a fallen item or even the old air recycling system kicking on.
The body crumpling to the floor shot down any other reasonable possibilities. Royce Hinkley, curator, art expert and head of the Seven Fates exhibit lay dead. His empty eyes stared across the open expanse between the stacks. Sophie tore her gaze away from him and stared at the hard metal support for the shelves housing minutiae from dozens of Egyptian excavations.
A shuffle step and the man with the gun stood between she and Professor Hinkley. Sophie shrank against the stacks, holding her breath. She prayed that the shadowy depths of the archivists vault would hold her secret as deeply as it held the ancient’s.
“Non.” The distinctly melodic French splashed the reality of the situation at her. “He was trying to double cross us. He did not have the Buddha. Oui. I will check in tonight.”
Sophie flattened herself against the metal struts, her pulse hammering her into place. The man’s gun vanished and he bent, seizing Professor Hinkley under the arms and then hoisted him.
Dear God…he killed him already. What more could he want with him?
Professor Hinkley’s head flopped, bouncing like a bobble head as his assailant balanced the corpse’s weight over his shoulders. Sophie swallowed back the gorge that burned up her throat. He turned, heading away from the Egyptian stacks and towards the Mesopotamian. Sophie kept herself as still as possible, holding her breath until the last shuffling step faded away.
Only then did she look down at the Buddha peeking out from the bottom of the cart. The golden man seemed to be winking at her.
“Doctor Kingston, I believe you.” Detective Bryant leaned against the corner of the desk, staring down at her with sad brown eyes that told a tale of pity and patience. He wore an air of disappointment like a rumpled, stained tie, discoloring his disposition. “I understand what you think you saw and I appreciate that you took the time to report it. But our crime scene unit has been over the vault, we’ve talked to your co-workers, we’ve spoken to the director, Doctor Hinkley is on a leave of absence, he began it this morning.”
“Leave of absence?” Since when? Professor Hinkley had been excited about new possibilities for his Seven Fates exhibit. If he’d planned a sabbatical, he would have had to find coverage for his projects.
The Detective shrugged. “We’re trying to contact him, but his sabbaticals seem to be something of a legend among your co-workers, no one else is reporting him missing and unless the lab turns up any trace evidence, I’m afraid there’s not much else we can do.”
Sophie opened her mouth, and then shut it again. The clock on the distant wall ticked past 8 p.m. Twelve hours since she’d seen the Professor’s dead body. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw his head bounce as the shooter picked him up. She could hear the dulcet French intonation of the words as the man spoke into a phone.
She’d hidden in the stacks like a coward for more than thirty minutes before daring to make an escape and call the police. Despite arriving quickly, sweeping through the vaults and inspecting the crime scene, they’d found nothing.
Not even blood.
It wasn’t possible.
She’d seen the professor shot. She’d watched him crumple to the ground. Sophie swallowed the gorge that threatened her once more.
Could I have imagined it?
The thought pinged against her conscience. It simply wasn’t rational.
The six-floor walk up over the bakery had never seemed as long as it did tonight. Sophie’s legs burned with each floor, the fatigue dragging her under like a riptide on a summer beach. She’d declined the walk to the door by the detective, all too aware of the sympathetic glint in his gaze. She’d answered his questions for hours, but with no success. No body, no crime.
A bang behind her sent her pulse rabbiting. Sophie looked over her shoulder to see Mrs. Bruno tugging her overpacked, two wheel shopping cart up the stairs, one thump at a time. Keys looped over her fingers, Sophie pivoted and darted down the steps to grab Mrs. Bruno’s cart before it overbalanced and carried the old woman and her groceries down the stairs.
“And where is your grandson?” She asked in lieu of a hello. Mrs. Bruno’s well-lined face wrinkled up into a smile.
“He had a hot date with Eppsie’s granddaughter!” She huffed a laugh, leaning against the wall to catch her breath before charging ahead. Freed of her burden, her fifth floor neighbor was quite spry.
Sophie put her back into it and tugged the shopping cart behind her. “I thought she was dating the Lemmons’ grandson.”
“Oh, she was.” Mrs. Bruno paused at the fourth floor to let Sophie catch up. “But he’s going off to college in California next year and told her they should date other people to experiment.”
Laughter burst the sick bubble of exhaustion souring Sophie’s stomach. “Seriously?”
“Seriously. So my grandson, he called me and said he’d asked her out and she said yes. He didn’t want to give her a chance to change her mind or her stupid boyfriend to wise up.” Mrs. Bruno’s eyes twinkled cheerfully. “My grandson is smart, like his grandfather. You don’t hesitate when a lady says yes. You hesitate, you lose.”
“Well, I hope it works out for them.” They’d reached Mrs. Bruno’s floor and Sophie tugged the cart over to her door. “Do you need some help putting groceries up?”
“No dear. You need to go upstairs, shower, freshen up and take yourself out to Tony’s. Or you can head over to Popa’s by NYU to catch one of those Professors.”
Sophie did not roll her eyes or snort. Mrs. Bruno meant well. She had been trying to fix Sophie up with a nice young man for 18 months, ever since Sophie moved into the walk up. Mrs. Bruno had lived here for forty years and often boasted that 608 was the lucky number. She’d found a match for ten occupants. She planned to make Sophie number 11.
“No, I’m good. If your grandson has a date the next time you have to shop, call me. I love shopping with you.”
“I’ll be baking on Sunday.”
Mrs. Bruno’s version of thank you always involved fresh blueberry muffins and cranberry scones. Sophie gained five pounds after every favor. Fortunately, the muffins were worth every pound.
“Great! Have a good night, Mrs. Bruno.” Sophie leaned one foot onto the stairs heading up to the sixth floor, but waited until Mrs. Bruno closed and locked her door. When the third dead bolt closed with a snikt, she relaxed the false cheer in her smile.
Exhaustion crept up her limbs as she climbed her way up to the sixth floor. The image of Royce Hinkley’s face swam into her exhausted vision. The cops said he wasn’t dead. They hadn’t found any evidence of his death. She couldn’t have imagined the gunshot. Her passion was the past, not cops and robbers or gun battles at the O.K. Corral.
Sophie slid her key into the locks and undid them one at a time. Tears burned her eyes and a sob stuck in her throat. She hadn’t liked Doctor Hinkley, but no one deserved to be shot.
Had he been shot?
The last lock gave and Sophie leaned on the door and opened it. Her bag weighed hard on her shoulder and all she could think about was a shower or a bath and a good night’s sleep. Then back to the museum to her archive and to making sense from chaos. Dr. Hinkley could come back from his sabbatical and it would turn out to just be too many episodes of her favorite crime shows infecting her with their gestalt.
She pushed inside, purse sliding down her arm and dropping on the floor. Hitting the lights with one hand, she shut the door with the other and snapped the locks into place, one at a time. It took her a moment to focus, to see the man sprawling in relaxed pose on her sofa, his ankles crossed, one over the other.
Dark hair tumbled over a ruggedly good-looking face of chiseled features under a growth of stubble. His eyes were soft amber, like fine liquor and his lips were full and even as they spread into a smile.
“Bonjour, cheri.” The lilting French rolling off his tongue sounded as sexy as it was unexpected.
She opened her mouth and screamed, scrambling for the door locks and just as she wrenched open the door, he leaned past her and pushed it closed.
“I’m sorry, Professor Kingston, I didn’t mean to startle you.” The heat of his body burned into her as he pressed her against the door.
Sophie stared at him. The shooter’s French from the museum washed over her. But this man was taller.
“What are you doing in my apartment?”
“I need your help.”
“Breaking into my apartment is a bizarre way to ask for help.” How do I sound so very calm? Her heart beat against her ribs like a hummingbird desperate for escape.
“Oui.” Tall, dark and French had the grace to look abashed. “My apologies. I waited at the museum for a few hours, and then outside your apartment building. I admit, I got a little tired. I came inside to see if you’d gone out of town, but fortunately, here you are.”
Sophie’s mouth fell open further. Her heart stuttered over his grin, but quickened at the sense of outrage.
“Are you going to let me go?”
“Are you still going to scream?”
“I’m thinking about it.”
“Well then, I shall hold you here until you have considered the options. Oui?”
“My options?” Sophie’s eyebrows climbed. Was this man for real? Outrage smothered fear. “My options? You broke into my apartment. You’re holding me against my will. You just confessed to stalking me. And you want me to consider my options? Are you out of your mind?”
The bastard grinned. Grinned! A broad, toothy, flashing grin that sent shivers up her spine. Her stomach flipped over. He brushed so close the scent of his aftershave tickled her nostrils. She fought the urge to take a deeper inhale, to taste the flavor of the man on her tongue.
“I’ve been accused of worse, cheri. Fortunately for you, I am not insane. But I do need your help and I do need to talk to you without you screaming for help and putting us through a long night of uncomfortable questions.”
“I suppose you have a counter offer?” Had she gone completely insane that morning? Imagining a coworker felled by a bullet? A day of bad coffee and questioning at the police station? She was hungry. She was tired. Maybe that explained why she would entertain this lunacy.
“Of course. Dinner. Some wine. A conversation. After which, I go away and you get some sleep.” Her uninvited guest trailed a finger down her cheek, sending shivers radiating across her flesh. “And forgive me cheri, but you look very tired.”
“I’ve had an abysmal day. I am not in the mood for entertaining much less having a meal with someone I don’t know and who broke into my apartment and is currently threatening me.”
“I am not.”
“Yes. You are.” Sophie punctuated the words with a hard shove against his chest. To her surprise he stepped back, nimble as a cat and held his hands out wide.
It was her chance. She could slip out the door and make a run for it. If nothing else she could yell her lungs out. She knew all of her neighbors. Valorie across the hall with her five kids would call the police in a heartbeat.
But Sophie didn’t yell.
She didn’t yank the door open.
She didn’t bolt.
“What’s your name?” Sophie asked instead.
“Then we chat? Perhaps over wine?”
“No, then I check your references and perhaps we meet tomorrow for coffee.”
He laughed then; a long, inviting, warm chuckle that beckoned her to abandon caution for the sheer exhilaration of leaping.
“I am not sure what references you intend to check. Is there a database for cat burglars?”
“Is that what you are?”
“An outdated term to be certain, but I rather doubt that you will find me listed under some typical B & E reference of a library database.” His too sexy mouth twitched. He enjoyed the banter.
Call me crazy, but so am I.
“Then maybe Interpol would be a better reference point.”
“You wound me little bird. Interpol is extremely low brow for someone of my caliber.”
“And I only have your word for that.” Sophie countered.
“True.” He stepped back, giving her more space and still, Sophie didn’t make a run for it. Despite her better judgment, the Frenchman intrigued the hell out of her tired mind, arousing her curiosity. He aroused a lot more than her curiosity, but she ignored that traitorous thought.
Sophie studied the man standing in the middle of her living room. Surrounded by the muted, antique colors of soft golds and browns, he was a splash of color, vibrant, alive and very raw. The twinkle in his eyes teased her, dared her.
“Why are you here?”
“No. Physically. Here. My apartment. Why are you here?”
“Call me quirky, but I think that’s exactly what this situation calls for.”
His laughter washed over her. The corners of Sophie’s mouth tugged wider. She loved the sound of his laughter and her smile spread wider at the sound of it.
“My name is Pietr Sauvage. I am here because I need your help.”