I tore my gaze from the porch that wrapped around the drug dealer’s house and cringed at the number on my phone’s call display.
Mom said there’d be days like this.
Tanner, still decked out in his SWAT gear, peered over my shoulder as the phone vibrated insistently in my hand. “Good thing you’re a field-hardened FBI agent, so you don’t let little old ladies scare the pants off you.”
I sent him a silencing glare. Ignoring his grin, I turned away from the rest of the team traipsing in and out of the building, and clicked Connect. “Hi, Nana,” I said, injecting fake cheerfulness into my voice. “What’s up?”
“I need you to come see me.”
“You nee—are you okay?” My heart stuttered. If anything happened to Nana . . .
“Of course I’m okay. Stop stammering, girl.”
Tanner, still hovering close enough to hear her strident tones, snickered.
I placed a muffling hand over the phone.
“Excuse me,sir,” I said sweetly. “Don’t you have a forgery to Bubble-Wrap?”
“Forgery?” His stunned look was so comical I forgave myself for rushing to a verdict before my usual careful perusal. Not that I was in any serious doubt about this particular painting.
“Really?” he said, broad shoulders slumping. When I arrived on scene, he boasted they’d turned up art so hot it was still smoking.
“Yup. Fake.” I, too, felt a pang of genuine regret that the “Renoir” hanging in the drug dealer’s den wasn’t the one on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.
But I’d left Nana hanging.
Straightening my shoulders, I put the phone back to my ear. “Sorry, Nana. Um, I have to be at the youth drop-in center by seven to teach the art class, so . . .” I glanced at my watch and cast about for a workable solution, but there just wasn’t enough time. “I’m afraid—”
“Never mind,” she interrupted. “Obviously, you’re at work.” Where you shouldn’t be taking personal calls, her tone implied. “Call me when you get home.”
“Okay,” I said to dead air.
Annoyed at myself for the guilty feeling I couldn’t stop from churning my stomach, I turned to study the front of the house once more. Something was niggling at my brain.
“Um . . . Tanner,” I said, hesitating.
“There’s something . . .” I squinted against the dropping September sun, mentally reviewing the interior.
He grinned. “Stop stammering, girl. Spit it out.”
“Ha, ha.” Wait . . . “Oh, that’s got to be it!” I stuffed my phone in my pocket and headed back inside.
Tanner followed me. “What’s it?”
I stopped at the door to the den and glanced at the window three feet from the side wall.
“Serena? What’s going on?” Tanner pressed, trailing me to the next doorway, this one into a bedroom.
“The window is three feet from the wall, just like in the other room.”
“Where’s the attic hatch?”
“Mason checked the attic.”
“Don’t I always?” Tanner said. “I’m a funny guy.”
“Uh-huh.” He actually had the quickest wit of any guy I knew, even if he did run to cheesy puns sometimes.
Not that I’d admit that to him.
“Over here.” He steered me toward a stepladder set up near the back door. “But there’s nothing up there except insulation and mice.”
“Mice, huh? Are you trying to scare me out of looking?” I started climbing, and Tanner moved in to hold the ladder steady.
I pushed open the hatch and stuck my head into the attic. “See?” Tanner said.
“Yes, I do.” I stepped down a couple of ladder rungs and flashed him a grin. “A false wall six to eight feet in from the back of the house.”
Tanner squeezed past me and beamed his flashlight around the vacant space. “Unbelievable. Mason should’ve caught that.”
“The wall’s covered in cobwebs and dust. It wouldn’t have registered unless you were looking for it.”
Tanner muttered something I couldn’t make out, but having been on the receiving end of his displeasure during my FBI training—granted, always earned—I didn’t envy poor Mason.
Tanner hoisted himself into the attic, then balance-beamed his way across a joist to the wall and examined every inch of it. “I don’t see any way to access what’s behind it.” He shone the light over the attic’s insulation-covered floor and then the shoe impressions he’d left in the dust on the joist. “It doesn’t look like anyone else has been up here recently. There must be another ceiling access panel.” He climbed back down, eyeing me with interest. “How’d you know to look for a secret room?”
I shrugged evasively.
Tanner followed me back to the room where the fake Renoir had been found and swept his flashlight beam over every inch of the ceiling. “There’s no other way up there that I can see.”
I maneuvered around the agent photographing evidence. The wall between this room and the next was decorated in wood panels and elaborate moldings that looked uncomfortably familiar. I ran my fingers along the moldings.
Tanner studied me. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for a secret panel.”
“Uh-huh. And you seem to know exactly what you’re doing here, Nancy Drew, because . . . ?”
I expelled a breath. “There was one at my grandfather’s house, okay?”
“Your grandfather? The one who was murdered?”
“Yes.” I blew away a strand of long, blond hair that had escaped my ponytail. “Maybe you could be helpful instead of giving me the third degree?”
“Sorry.” Tanner beamed his flashlight at the section of paneling I was running my hands over.
My breath caught as my fingertips made contact with the pressure sensor I’d been seeking. “Tanner, I’ve found—”
Primed to open it, I tossed a frown over my shoulder. “Are you really going to pull the SWAT-clears-every-room- first rule on this one?”
“No, I thought I’d rock-paper-scissors you for the privilege.” He motioned me to get out of his way.
My finger still on the sensor, I sidestepped two feet so he’d have a clear view as I pulled back the panel. “You ready? I’ll slide it open and you can call the all-clear.” I slid it three-quarters of an inch and froze. “Uh-oh.”
Tanner cursed. “Please tell me you’re messing with me.”
I gulped. “You don’t hear that ticking?”
He crouched down and shone his flashlight through the gap I’d opened. “Blast, Serena, don’t move a muscle.” Yeah, got that.
“Tanner, could you stop using that word?”
© 2016 Sandra Orchard