Not Charlotte’s web
Charlotte is a glittering presence at the party. Her red lips mouth funny, filthy things. Glossy black hair spills down her slender back like an oil slick. More dark queen than Snow White, she is powerful in her allure. Ned, a slight, sandy-haired accountant, is her most loyal friend. Not that she appreciates him.
A magnetic star, both bright and hot, Charlotte occupies the center of the room. Tall, broad-shouldered men orbit around her, dancing their devotion. Ned, a dark moon, stands in a dim corner. He smiles and listens to a solemn blonde describe the Byzantine politics of a cat rescue organization. Women like talking to him, he thinks. They can tell he’s a good friend.
The instant Charlotte’s wineglass is empty, he excuses himself and rockets to the bar. He scrounges through the cheap stuff until he finds a pricey Bordeaux. He brings a generous crystal goblet to Charlotte with the proud swagger of a cat gifting his owner a dead mouse.
Charlotte accepts the offering with an elegant smile. When she thinks he isn’t looking, she leaves it on an end table, untouched. Ned is so crushed he ignores the blonde, who hardly notices. He almost doesn’t follow when Charlotte slips out with yet another V-backed muscle-man.
Ned sits in his car with the heater on, listening to the news. The man Charlotte went home with lives in a safe, wealthy neighborhood. He can afford to let his attention wander.
Charlotte and her conquest entered the building ten minutes ago. He has hours to wait. He tells himself it’s worth it. He is Charlotte’s protector, her secret knight. He feels a tremendous sense of satisfaction knowing she is safe because of him. He sips his coffee and turns up the volume on the crime report.
A twenty-four-year-old man, wrapped in silk thread and drained of blood, was found in his Edgewood apartment Thursday morning. Police believe he is the latest victim in the Black Widow murders. Sources say the investigation is centered on a woman.
Ned chuckles. Murderers are almost always men. But then he remembers. He followed Charlotte to Edgewood on Wednesday night. She was visiting another sculpted young stud at his apartment building. When she left at four a.m., her hair and clothes were a disheveled mess. She smoked a cigarette and gazed at the moon, as if she knew Ned was watching. She drove home slowly and erratically, like someone in a daze.
Ned frowns. An alien thought forms deep in his cerebral cortex. It pokes at him like a pebble in his shoe. Could Charlotte really be a killer? He imagines her leather-clad form standing over a tightly bound, helpless male, his gym-built muscles no defense against the Black Widow. He finds himself smiling. He likes this image. He likes it a lot.
It also explains so many things. Charlotte is flirting with strong-armed hunks not because she wants them, but because she wants to kill them. It’s also why she can’t be with Ned himself, why she must hold him at arm’s length. He is her friend, and she would never, ever hurt him.
If Charlotte is leaving cigarette butts at her crime scenes, she needs his help now more than ever.
At three a.m., Charlotte appears under a street lamp, a faded predator with a bruised mouth and rumpled, untucked shirt. She smokes half a cigarette and throws it to the ground. She seems to be in a hurry.
Once she turns the corner, Ned springs into action. He sprints to the entrance of the apartment building and plucks the still-burning cigarette from the ground. The filter is stained red with Charlotte’s lipstick. He brings it to his lips, tasting the warm ghost of her presence. He inhales and scorches his lungs. He coughs so hard he doesn’t hear the man creep up behind him.
The hand that clamps over his mouth is as hard and unyielding as iron. A sharp knife pierces his side. Something soft — like silk — brushes his cheek. A harsh whisper pierces his ear. “You’re not the only one who’s stalking Charlotte.”
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