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Death in the Fort - Chapter Two

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Jan Hoffman | The Journal Gazette

Chapter 2

I have incredibly bad luck. You should know this about me.

In the third grade, a girl named Katie - quiet, freckled, cool purple leg warmers - spilled a cup of water on her lap. And I, being the scholar I was, immediately pointed to her lap and said, "Pee."

It wasn't, of course, but that didn't stop the whole class from torturing her for the rest of the year, calling her "Pee Pants" and, during moments of special inspiration, "Katie Pee."

Anyway, I think I'm still paying for this misguided attempt at humor - like some kind of karmic debt. Because I've had a lifetime of bad luck, complete with an ex-husband, several cats (now deceased), two dead parents and a scattered and non-stellar college career to prove it. (I'm on the 10-year plan toward graduating.)

So it was no surprise I was the one who found myself inside Darleen Fitz's incredibly empty apartment last week. And I mean empty. Front door flung open, furniture gone; closets open and empty, displaying that ragtag collection of bare hangers everyone leaves behind when they move.

"Darleen? Hello?"

It was a creepy experience, standing in the middle of Darleen's empty living room, so recently stripped of all her stuff. I took two steps forward, clutching the casserole dish I'd borrowed, and called her name again. My voice sounded stupid - kind of high and scared. I guess, in the back of my mind, I was thinking someone was going to jump out and "get me," whatever that means.

"NO!"

I whipped around to see Jessica entering Darleen's kitchen through the back door, holding a stack of RSVP cards.

"No." She said it again. For emphasis. She likes to do things for emphasis. "This is unbelievable. Where is she?"

"I don't know," I said. "It looks like she's moving."

"Oh, man. Does this mean she's not coming to my party?"

The party. I was really sick of hearing about this stupid party. Jessica had been planning it for weeks, a "theme party" supposedly, although I was still unsure what the theme actually was. At the time - and it changed every few days - she was describing it as "The Waltons meet Burning Man."

Now, I'm not usually a violent person. But for the sake of variety, I picked up one of several balled-up pieces of masking tape that were lying next to Darleen's sink and threw it at Jessica's face.

It stuck to her neck. She looked at me as if I'd just killed her entire family.

"I'm sure she'll be back. The doors aren't even locked. Look," I said. "She left a box."

Of all the junk still in Darleen's apartment - the crushed shoe boxes, filled with empty toilet paper rolls and broken broom handles, the random lamps missing shades - this box looked different. Nicely packed and sealed.

"Let's take this." Jessica picked up the box. "We'll leave a note. She'll have to come over to get it and then she can tell us whether she's coming to the party or not."

"Fine," I said. "But we're leaving it in the garage. We barely know this woman."

"Yoooou," Jessica said, trying to sound spooky and waving the box under my nose, "are really paranoid."

She was right. I was really paranoid. But I was also right. As it turned out, we weren't alone in the kitchen that day. Someone else was there - curled up inside a pantry closet in that kitchen - watching us.

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