Noah Merchant planned to spend the fifth anniversary of his wife’s death getting drunk in the Irish bar down the street from his new house. It’d only been a month since he’d moved back to the States from England and he was already second guessing his decision. The years away had made him almost forget what it was like to be home without the woman he loved. Even being in a different State didn’t help ease the raw emptiness that Therese had left behind when she’d died.
To make it worse, his best friends were thousands of miles away, his kids were visiting their grandparents in Atlantic City, and memories were pressing in hard. For one night, he needed to forget he was a responsible parent, a conscientious employee, and an honorable ex-cop. For one night, he needed just to drink all of the memories under the table and hope that he could leave them there.
Unfortunately, his new boss had other ideas. Now, instead of drowning his sorrows, he was knocking on the door of the prosecutor’s star witness. Their very reclusive star witness. And the cherry on the top of his turd-cake of a night? He was partnered with the team psycho.
Somewhere Therese was laughing her ass off.
Noah almost smiled at the thought.
Instead he watched Violet Lee, an ex-cop from Scotland, pound on the door of the old brick warehouse that was located in the less desirable end of downtown Houston.
“She isn’t in there.” Violet scowled at the door. As though it’d personally offended her. “This is pointless.”
Noah checked his phone. “It’s the right address, so she definitely lives in here. The message says she’s got an apartment on the top floor.” He glanced up at the three-story brick building. There were no lights on in any of the windows.
“I’m telling you.” His partner thumped the door again. “She isn’t in there. This is a waste of time.”
Violet wasn’t known for her patience—he’d learned that the hard way when they’d worked together in the London office of Benson Security. To say he’d been dismayed when she also became part of the Houston team would be putting it mildly. But then, she was the least of his problems. As far as Noah was concerned, Benson Security standards were slipping. His new team was full of crooks, criminals and law enforcement personnel who’d been fired from their jobs. It wasn’t reassuring.
“She has to be in there,” he told Violet, with all the patience he could muster. “She suffers from agoraphobia.”
The diminutive ball of barely contained rage that made up Violet Lee glared at the door. “Then she’s just refusing to answer. I don’t like it when they don’t cooperate.”
Yeah, he’d found that out the hard way in London too. Yet again, he tried to explain that not everyone they dealt with was the enemy. “This woman isn’t a perp. She’s a very important witness in a high-profile case.”
He pulled up the details their new boss had texted and called the witness’s number. There was no reply. He stepped back into the street and eyed the building. It was long and narrow. Three stories high with lots of dark windows. There was a faded sign over the street-facing windows on the ground floor that said Bella’s Curiosities. A note had been pinned to the shop door saying it was permanently closed and the business now only operated online.
Noah peered through the dark and dusty storefront window. The interior was crammed with all sorts of crap, the kind of things you’d find in a garage sale, and most of it was covered in dust. With a sigh, he looked up and spotted a camera in the corner above the door. A brand new, state-of-the-art camera that testified to the place not being abandoned, even though it had that air about it.
He rang the bell again; the one Violet had abandoned, declaring it didn’t work. “Can you see an alarm system?” Maybe they could call the security company to see if it’d been tripped.
“Aye, it’s one of those crappy ones you can knock out by cutting the main wire. The wires aren’t even hidden.” She pointed through the small window beside the hefty door. “I can see them from here.”
“But it’s still functioning?”
“Looks like it.”
“Then nobody got here before us and disarmed it. She still has to be inside.”
Violet wasn’t impressed. “She could have let an attacker in and then reset the alarm. Maybe a delivery guy or maintenance or someone from the DA’s office. They’re the one with the leak, aren’t they? They must have gotten to her already. She’s probably dead.”
“You are a ray of sunshine, aren’t you? She could be sleeping. Or in the bath. Or wearing headphones. There are a million reasons why she might not hear the door. We’re two floors beneath her and she isn’t expecting anyone to turn up. She’s probably just occupied.”
Eyes narrowed at him. “You were one of those nice cops, weren’t you? The kind who joins the force to actually serve instead of hunting bad guys.” Her words dripped with disgust as she opened one of the many zippered pockets on her cargo pants and brought out a set of lockpicks.
“You can’t break in.” Noah pinched the bridge of his nose, wishing desperately that he was sitting in O’Laughlin’s nursing a single malt, instead of dealing with Scotland’s most unhinged cop.
“Watch me.” She set to work.
It was like being partnered with Dead Pool. Violet’s moral code was more a list of suggestions, and he was pretty sure she had a fetish for violence. There was a reason her nickname on the force had been ViolentLee. Whenever a suspect died in an unexpected manner, the rumor had been that they’d died Violently.
As far as Noah could see, it was a nickname well earned. “Seriously, you can’t just go around picking locks.”
“Well, we sure as hell can’t break down the door. It’s reinforced. And we can’t climb through the windows because of the bars.” She pointed at the metal security shutters that had been pulled across the inside of each window.
“We don’t need to break in at all. We can call the local cops or the security company. They’ll get us in and walk us through the building.”
“The DA called Benson Security because she isn’t sure who she can trust in the local force. And I can pick any lock I want to pick. In case you’ve forgotten, we aren’t cops anymore. We don’t need to follow the rules.”
“Uh…yeah you do. They’re called laws. Everybody needs to follow them.”
“Boy scout,” she muttered as carried on breaking in.
There was no dealing with her. Instead, Noah stared up at the camera. “If you’re watching. We’re security specialists with Benson Security, and former cops. We’ve been sent here by your contact in the Harris County District Attorney office. Our orders are to ensure your safety. Your location has been compromised. We are not breaking in to harm you, only to check on you.”
“You about done?” Violet frowned at him. “Can we get this woman and get out of here now?” She swung the door wide.
“You in a hurry?” Noah reluctantly followed her into the store, making sure to close and lock the door behind him. He didn’t think there was anything in the shop to tempt a thief, but this wasn’t the greatest of areas and junkies weren’t known for being picky.
“Hell, yeah, I’m in a hurry. I didn’t take this job to babysit weird witnesses. And The Bachelor is on tonight.”
Okay, he did a double take at that little piece of info. “You watch The Bachelor?” For some reason, he assumed she only watched documentaries about serial killers, or YouTube videos of preppers turning everyday objects into weapons.
“It’s psychology in action.” She glanced over her shoulder at him. “So many personality disorders in one place, all being examined under camera.”
“Ah, so you watch it for the romance,” he teased.
His reply was Violet’s trademarked look of death.
“So,” he said, changing the subject. “According to the new boss, our babysitting gig is living on the top floor.”
“Then we go up.” Violet pushed the stairwell door open.
The stairwell was wide, the walls inlaid with Art Deco tiles in shades of blue. It was the kind of decorative touch you’d never see in a newer industrial building, where everything was concrete and metal. It made Noah wonder when exactly builders had decided that function meant ugly.
“In a few years, when gentrification has made it this far south, this building will probably sell for a fortune and get turned into trendy condos.” He ran his fingertips over the tiles. “Then the place will be overrun with avocado toast-eating, micro-brewery snobs, who won’t appreciate its history.” He gestured to a plaque built into the wall: Watson and co, exotic imports ltd, est. 1905. “Wonder what they imported.”
“Avocados?” Violet suggested with a dead pan expression.
They pushed open the doors to the second floor, finding only abandoned offices inside.
“Nobody has been in here in a long time.” Violet pointed to the undisturbed coat of dust on the floor. “What a waste.”
They carried on to the third and top floor, where they were confronted with a recently installed, steel-reinforced door.
“This is more like it.” Violet retrieved her picks and eyed the multiple locks.
“We knock first,” Noah ordered, doing exactly that.
There was no reply. He dug out his phone and called the client’s number again, while Violet blithely set about breaking and entering. There was a faint ringing sound from inside the apartment, but no reply.
“Phone’s in there.” Now, he was worried. The information they had was scant, only that the woman was the key witness in a high profile case, and that some very dangerous people would like to stop her testifying. Because there was a leak in the DA’s office, those dangerous people now knew where she lived—and that she wasn’t likely to run from them. Apparently, Annabelle Simmons hadn’t left her apartment in years.
“We’re probably too late,” Violet said. “Do we still get paid if the client is dead?”
“She isn’t the client. She’s the witness. The client is the DA’s office. And if she’s been killed, why lock up on the way out?”
“Why do killers do anything? Because they want to, that’s why.” She pushed the door open. “Whoa, not what I was expecting.”
Almost all of the top floor had been turned into one vast open-plan space. Apart from a couple of doors at the other end of the building, which Noah assumed led to a bathroom and storage, the rest of the space was one large room. It was lined with oversized windows on all sides and three sky lights overhead. Support columns broke up the massive area, with partitions dotted around to separate sections according to their function.
To their right, in the area that was directly over the shop, were three sofas and several low tables. The middle section held a kitchen area with island counter and old wooden dining table. Just beyond that was a work space, partially shielded from view by two rolling partition screens. It had two drawing tables, a computer set up, and easels holding memo-boards that were covered in pinned images. Behind the work area was a more permanent partition made of glass bricks. Through the glass, he could make out the outline of a bed. To the left of the bed area, in the corner near the doors, was a treadmill and exercise ball. And hanging right in the middle of the whole space was an old-fashioned swing, suspended from the ceiling.
“I could be agoraphobic if I got to live somewhere like this. Lots of light and space, a place to work out, it’s perfect.” Violet checked out the work area. “Cartoonist? No, comic book artist.” She glanced at him. “Must make a good living to afford this building. Think she owns the whole thing? Or is just renting this space? But then, why wouldn’t her landlord turn the second floor into apartments too? It’s money down the drain to leave it empty.”
“I think she owns the building and doesn’t want anyone else in it.” He paused at a noticeboard filled with photos—all taken from the windows of her apartment. On the table beside them was a state-of-the-art camera with telephoto lens.
A series of photos showed a woman holding the hand of a small child. The girl had a balloon, and the pair were laughing. There was something deeply sad about the images. As though longing was part of the images. It made Noah wonder what it must be like to watch life happening outside the walls that were both sanctuary and prison. Had to be lonely, that was for sure.
“Does all her shopping online,” Violet said. “Looks like she’s in some Facebook groups too. So, she isn’t just walking around her apartment, talking to herself. That’s something.”
The glow of the street lamps seeped into the space, bathing the area in warm, diffused light. There were white shades on most of the windows, but none of them had been pulled down. Was it because there weren’t any neighbors overlooking her, or because being unable to see out would make her feel trapped?
He rounded the glass partition to check out the bedroom area and froze in place. “Uh, Violet. I found our witness.”
“Is she dead?”
“Why is that always your first thought?”
“Experience.” Violet came up beside him and they stared at the witness together.
Annabelle Simmons was younger than Noah’d expected, early thirties at the most. It was hard not to notice that her skin was smooth and blemish free, seeing as all she was wearing were French cut panties and a camisole. She lay sprawled on her stomach across the massive bed. Her nose was red, her mouth was open, and she was softly snoring. All around her were crumpled tissues, and beside her left hand was an empty bottle of cough syrup.
“Well that explains a lot.” Violet walked over to the bed and picked up the cough syrup. “This is the kind with alcohol in it. Did she drink the whole bottle? I think she took it with these.” She held up some well-known decongestants. “There’s a warning on the label about making you sleepy. I think the witness may have medicated herself into a coma.” She leaned over and prodded the woman’s shoulder.
One loud snore erupted, but Annabelle didn’t move.
Violet narrowed her eyes. “I’ll get a jug of cold water.”
“Coffee would be better.”
“Not for her to drink, dumb ass. To throw at her and wake her up.”
“Let me try something a little less aggressive. Wouldn’t want you to drown the witness.” He crossed to the bed, put his hand on her shoulder and shook gently. “Miss Simmons, we need you to wake up now.”
She just groaned.
He shook her more firmly. “Annabelle, you have to wake up. You’re in danger.”
“This is pointless,” Violet said. “I’m getting the water.”
“Give me a minute.” He squeezed her hand. “Annabelle Simmons, you are in danger. Wake up!”
Annabelle shot upward so quickly that the back of her head caught Noah on the chin and sent him reeling. She knelt in the middle of the bed, long dark hair everywhere, eyes wide and unfocused, staring at them in dazed horror.
“We’re the good guys,” Violet said unhelpfully.
Noah rubbed his chin. “We were sent here by the DA. You’re in danger and need to be taken to a safe house.”
Annabelle blinked several times as her gaze cleared somewhat. As it began to register that there were strangers in her home, her breathing sped up and she inched toward the edge of the bed.
Noah held out his hands in a calming gesture. “Please don’t be alarmed. You can check out our story with the DA, but you’re in danger and you need to come with us. Please put some clothes on, we have to hurry.”
“No,” she whispered. “Not again.”
Before he knew what she was going to do, she launched herself out of the bed and slammed her hand on the wall beside the huge mirror that sat between the two doors.
“Stay away from me,” she shouted as the mirror slid open.
“Panic room,” Violet snapped. “Grab her before she gets in there.”
It was too late. Annabelle threw herself through the gap.
And all Noah could do was follow.
Narrowly making it into the room before the concealed entrance slammed shut behind him.