Grandpa's warning echoed in Margaret's ears like he'd growled it moments ago instead of twenty years ago. "Girl! If you won't stay out of that danged attic, at least stay away from the north end. I ain't had time or money to get those floor boards fixed. They could crack like matchsticks. You could get killed. Why, when I was growing up, Clem Jankins fell through his attic floor and broke his dern neck." He'd pointed out exactly where the floor was weak and she'd religiously avoided the spot.

Now, as she crouched, panting, behind the generations of dusty keepsakes, and abandoned treasures in the attic, she wished a rotting floor was all she had to worry about.

Sweat soaked Margaret's dark hair trickled between her shoulder blades as she tried to comprehend the scene as footsteps grew louder. It was only a matter of time before he found her. There was no safe place to hide. No escape.

She realized she was holding her breath and exhaled, emitting a raspy sigh. Leaving the rambling old house vacant for five years had been a mistake. But the pain the house caused her after Grandpa died had been too much. Today was the first time she'd actually visited the house since then.

Back then, Margaret had arranged for the windows to be boarded up against vandals until she could afford to do something with the house. Vandals! She wrapped her arms around herself to still their trembling. She'd just witnessed a murder. It seemed like some sort of weird nightmare, but the reality was that the dark-haired man with the snake tattooed on the back of his hand was methodically searching for her in the crumbling Victorian house.

She almost felt betrayed as she thought of how she'd tromped though the house earlier, assessing the extensive structural defects. What she'd blundered in on must have been a drug deal gone bad. Whatever the case, the killer was after her.

Only her memory that the door at the bottom of the attic stairs still held it's skeleton key had given her some time. A primitive sort of instinct pushed Margaret up the flight of stairs into the huge, crowded attic.

Margaret caught the sight of her pale tear-streaked face in the battered mirror she'd hung ages ago when she'd spent hours playing dress-up here. When she was a confused child, this disorderly room had been her escape. Despite the suffocating cloud of fear surrounding her, she couldn't miss the irony of the situation. How many times had she outwitted monsters by hiding in one of the innumerable closets, alcoves or trunks?

Today, in her flight, she'd locked the attic doors at both ends of the staircase. She tried not to think of the fact that even a child could shatter the rotted frames with one kick. Frantically, she muscled the trunk in the front of the door. The footsteps faded momentarily as the stalker checked another room. Margaret took a deep breath and tried to calm the racing of her heart.

The musty odor that permeated the attic reminded Margaret of the first time she'd set eyes on the old house. The Victorian mansion had stood as a landmark in the late 1800's, before the city had sprawled up around it. By the time Grandma and Grandpa bought their dilapidated dream house, a deteriorating inner city neighborhood had encroached.

That first summer, when she was twelve and had been shipped off by her frustrated parents to help take care of her ailing Grandma, her resentment had faded instantly when she saw the house. It was perfect fuel for the daydreaming that occupied all her free time.

The dusty crystal chandeliers and remaining shreds of brocade wallpaper had fueled her imagination. Boxes in the attic provided exotic props. Sometimes, costumed in decrepit taffeta, she was a debutante trying to catch the eye of a rich suitor. Other times, she was a swashbuckler draped in a shredded green velvet cape.

The sound of another door slamming downstairs jolted Margaret back to the present. She willed herself not to panic. Fear knotted her stomach. The man downstairs was no fantasy.

His search of the nooks and crannies that abounded in the old building had given her some breathing room. In a way, all those nooks and crannies were the reason she was here today. Now that she was grown, she appreciated the architectural value of the old house. In fact, if the damage was repairable, she'd intended to live here.

In the past few months Margaret had made an exhaustive study of Victorian architecture. Even with the abundant dry rot, restoration would cost a fraction of a new house. Although it had been years since she'd been inside, she knew exactly what she wanted to do with the house and she couldn't wait to get started.

Originally no part of the walls or ceilings had been left undecorated. Besides the carved woodwork, elaborate light fixtures and furnishings, Victorian builders had perfected "graining," or painting the patterns of the expensive woods and marble on cheaper substitutes. She'd read about a local artisan who had mastered the old art of graining and these last weeks had been saturated with plans and anticipation of living in this house.

In spite of the stifling heat, a chill crept up Margaret's spine. Anger stirred along side her fear. She'd witnessed a murder in her refuge! Her anger smoldered. This beloved house had been violated.

Holding her breath, she listened. Footsteps approached the bottom of the attic stairs. He'd direct his search upward any minute. Rage and terror seized her. She had to do something. An Idea churned in her desperate mind. The barricaded attic door would give her a few minutes.

As quietly as possible, she grabbed boxes and odds and ends of rickety furniture, tugging and arranging them strategically, leaving a meandering passageway. It was heavy work but she managed to complete her task, then positioned herself at the opposite end of the attic just as her stalker reached the upper landing.

The doorknob made a tentative turn. When it didn't yield, the man applied more force. Frustrated, he started kicking at the door. Although the frame cracked immediately, it took a little longer for his efforts to budge the heavy trunk which impeded his progress. Finally he managed to push the barricade aside far enough to squeeze through the opening.

Unseen, Margaret managed to deposit her trembling body behind a massive oak dresser, with a yard long piece of 2 X 4 clutched to her bosom. It wouldn't stop bullets, but if her plan worked. . .

All was silent. Margaret envisioned the gunman standing in the doorway, trying in the dim light to decide where she was hiding amid the jumble. Silent tears coursed down her cheeks as every nerve in her body anticipated the man's next move.

"All right, lady. I know you're in there. Come out and you won't get hurt," the man snarled. His voice raised a few decibels, betraying his exasperation. "You know I'll get you eventually. There's no place for you to go."

He stood silent for a moment, then his heavy footsteps advanced across the attic's bare floor. Margaret's heart stopped with each one.

She held her breath again as the floor creaked under him. He stopped. The floor groaned as the man swore under his breath and took another step.

A horrific cracking shook the whole attic. A primal scream was followed moments later by a muffled thud.

Quietly Margaret squeezed around the dresser and, on her belly, edge up to where dust still billowed around the jagged hole in the floor.

As the dust abated she peered into the dim recesses. Her taut muscles began to relax, and tears of relief replaced frightened ones. Below, resembling a rag doll tossed aside after play, lay her assailant, head and limbs at bizarre angles.

Grandpa's warning hadn't been far off.