"TALLEY? You in there? We need to talk."
Cingle Shaker perked up when she heard Matt's voice through the cell phone. The sound wasn't great, but she could make out enough.
"Please open up, Talley. I just want to talk to you, that's all."
The reply was muffled. Too muffled to make out. Cingle tried to clear her head and concentrate. Her car sat double-parked by the front entrance. It was late. Nobody would bother her.
She debated heading inside now. That would be the smart play. Matt was on the fifth floor. If something went wrong, it would take her a while to get up there. But Matt had been fairly adamant. He felt his best chance was to brace this Talley guy alone. If she was spotted before they talked, that would only complicate matters.
But now that there was a muffled voice, Cingle could be reasonably sure that Talley was not in the lobby. In fact, from her vantage point, nobody was in the lobby.
She decided to head in.
Surveillance was far from Cingle's forte. She was simply too noticeable. She had never been a Rockette or dancer of any sort- yes, she'd heard all the rumors- but she had given up trying to dress herself down years ago. Cingle had started developing at a young age. By twelve, she could pass for eighteen. Boys loved her, girls hated her. With all the years of enlightenment, that was pretty much the norm.
Neither one of those attitudes bothered her much. What did bother her, especially at that young age, were the looks of older men, even relatives, even men she trusted and loved. No, nothing ever happened. But you learn at a young age how longing and lust can twist a mind. It is rarely pretty.
Cingle was just about in the lobby when, through the phone, she heard a strange sound.
What the hell was that?
The lobby's glass doors slid open. A little bell dinged. Cingle kept the phone pressed against her ear. Nothing. There was no sound, no talking at all.
That couldn't be good.
A sudden crashing sound came through the earpiece, startling her. Cingle picked up her pace, ran for the elevator bank.
The guy behind the desk waddled out, saw Cingle, pulled in his gut and smiled. "May I help you?"
She pushed the call button.
There was still no talking coming from the phone. She felt a chill on her neck. She had to risk it. Cingle put the phone to her mouth. "Matt?"
Damn, she'd put on the mute button. She'd forgotten about that.
Yet another strange sound- a grunt maybe. Only more muffled. More choked.
Where the hell was that damn elevator?
And where the hell was that mute button?
Cingle found the mute button first. It was on the bottom right-hand corner. Her thumb fumbled before touching down. The little mute icon disappeared. She put the phone to her mouth.
"Matt?" she shouted. "Matt, are you okay?"
Another strangled cry. Then a voice- not Matt's- said, "Who the hell…?"
From behind her, the night man asked, "Is something wrong, miss?"
Cingle kept pressing the elevator call button. Come on, come on…
Into the phone: "Matt, are you there?"
Click. Silence now. Absolute silence. Cingle's heart beat as though trying to break free.
What should she do?
"Miss, I really have to ask you-"
The elevator door opened. She jumped inside. The night man stuck his arm out and stopped the door from closing. Cingle's gun was in her shoulder holster. For the first time ever in the line of duty, she pulled it out.
"Let go of that door," she said to him.
He obeyed, taking his hand away like it didn't belong to him.
"Call the police," she said. "Tell them you have an emergency on the fifth floor."
The doors slid closed. She pressed the five button. Matt might not be happy about that, about getting the police involved, but it was her call now. The elevator groaned and started ascending. It seemed to move one foot up, two feet down.
Cingle held the gun in her right hand. With her finger off the trigger, she repeatedly pushed the five button on the elevator console. Like that would help. Like the elevator would see that she was in a hurry and pick up speed.
Her cell phone was in her left hand. She quickly redialed Matt's cell phone.
No ring, just his recorded voice: "I'm not available right now-"
Cingle cursed, pressed the end button. She positioned her body directly in front of the crack in the door so as to get out of the elevator in mid-opening and as soon as humanly possible. The elevator buzzed with each floor, a signal for the blind, and finally came to a halt with a ding.
She hunched over like a sprinter starting in the standing position. When the doors started sliding open, Cingle pried them apart with both hands and pulled herself through.
She was in the corridor now.
Cingle could only hear the footsteps, not see anyone. It sounded like someone running the other way.
Whoever it was did not let up. Neither did she. Cingle ran down the hall.
How long? How long since she'd lost contact with Matt?
From down the corridor Cingle heard a heavy door bang open. Emergency door, she bet. To the stairwell.
Cingle was counting off the room numbers as she ran. When she reached Room 511, she could see far enough up ahead to see that the door to Room 515- two doors ahead of her- was wide open.
She debated what to do- follow whoever was running down the stairs or check in Room 515- but only briefly.
Cingle hurried, turned the corner, gun drawn.
Matt was flat on his back, his eyes closed. He was not moving. But that wasn't the really shocking thing.
The really shocking thing was who was with him.
Cingle almost dropped her gun.
For a moment she just stood there and stared in disbelief. Then she stepped fully into the room. Matt had still not moved. Blood was pooling behind his head.
Cingle's gaze stayed locked on the other person in the room.
The person kneeling next to Matt.
The face was tearstained. The eyes were red.
Cingle recognized the woman right away.