Michael Prescott: Last Breath

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Michael Prescott Last Breath
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    Last Breath
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Last Breath

Michael Prescott

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.

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