Lucy woke with the munchies the night the kidnappers came for her. She padded down the curved staircase to her dark kitchen, where the stove clock’s LED display informed her it was 2:23 in the a.m.
“Happy birthday, kiddo.” She flicked on the overhead fluorescent. “You made it to the big four-oh.”
She poured a double small-batch bourbon on the rocks, nuked a bag of 94 percent fat-free popcorn, and polished off a partial pint of Cherry Garcia just as the last kernel detonated. She smiled. Timing is everything.
She located the paperback thriller she was reading in Frank’s library—her library now, she supposed, at least until the marital assets were sorted into His and Her piles. The His pile would include the centerpiece of this room, the bloated, pigskin-upholstered “chair and a half” Frank had had custom-made over her dogged objections. God knew she’d never wanted the damn thing, any more than she’d wanted the puffed-up McMansion that surrounded it, yet five weeks after she’d asked Frank to move out—the hardest thing she’d ever had to do—there sat his throne in all its swinish glory.
And the sick thing was, she’d gotten kind of used to it. The chair was as comfortable as it was ugly, squatting before the fireplace like a sumo wrestler with seams. It was also absurdly comforting in the dead-ass middle of the night when every sigh and rattle of the huge house reminded her how alone she was. She called the chair Babe, after the movie pig.
The house would probably be sold, which suited her just fine, though that would be one more heartbreak for Frank—something else for her to feel guilty about. But all that would take time, and meanwhile there was nothing and no one to stop her from moving her home office up here from the basement.
Frank had dubbed this space his “library,” going so far as to order forty linear feet of “important” used books from some salvage outfit, plus the built-in shelves to display them. But it had been constructed as a sunroom, with skylights and a wall of south-facing windows and French doors. During the day this room was flooded with buttery light, in contrast to the windowless catacombs where Lucy had pounded out the first thirteen books of her Johnny Sherlock children’s mystery series.
She experienced a naughty thrill thinking about the unfinished fourteenth book languishing on her computer’s hard drive. With her contractual deadline less than a week away, every waking minute ought to be devoted to finishing Johnny Sherlock and the Painted Poodle. Legions of prepubescent fans were counting on her, more and more each year according to her royalty statements. And Lord knew Lucy Narby—Lucille Moss to her readers—had never missed a deadline. Dependable, responsible Lucy? It was unthinkable. Logically she should be down there right now, cranking out that sucker.
But it was 2:23 in the a.m., and the rules of logic were officially suspended at 2:23 in the a.m.
The bag of popcorn emitted a burst of fragrant steam as she yanked it open. There it was again, the stab of guilt—not over the calorie count, but the label. It was ridiculous, really. Every time she chowed down on a snack food that didn’t bear the familiar KrunchWorks logo, she felt like a traitor. Frank was nearly as devoted to KrunchWorks as he was to his family, a company man through and through. He’d forbidden her to bring a competing brand into this house, and she never had. Until now.
Lucy set her whiskey glass and the illicit popcorn within reach, lifted Grandma Willie’s freakishly unique hand-crafted quilt from it display rack, and submitted herself to Babe’s wide-load embrace. She set aside the emery board that served as a bookmark, hoping reading might nudge her toward the restorative coma she so badly needed.
She read for twenty minutes until the faint snick of a door lock brought her head up. She recognized the squeak of the exterior side door that led into the kitchen. Her pulse stuttered for several seconds until the alarm system’s warning tone stopped, telling her the code had been correctly entered on the keypad. Muted footfalls followed, moving toward the stairway. Stair treads groaned under multiple pairs of feet, ascending with unhurried caution in the dark. Overhead a floor joist creaked. Then another.
Lucy threw back her head and shouted, “Points off for inept skulking. I am so disappointed.”
All movement upstairs ceased. Lucy chuckled and sipped her bourbon. She’d raised John to be sneakier than that.
She hadn’t expected to see him until spring break. Of course, Long Island was only about a six-hour drive from Ithaca, and he’d surprised her on weekends before. She hoped this particular visit had been prompted by her birthday. His father had no doubt nagged him, as usual, reminding him to send a gift.
Frank had called her, too. He’d wanted to take her to Paris for a long birthday weekend or, failing that, at least a romantic excursion to Manhattan: La Bohème at the Met, dinner at her favorite Northern Italian restaurant, and a champagne-drenched suite at the Plaza. She’d declined as gently as she knew how, wondering how long it would take him to realize they weren’t getting back together, that their marriage was really and truly over.
John had one or two buddies in tow, by the sound of it. Possibly the paramour du jour, too. Ashleigh. The girl possessed a pretty head unburdened by deep cogitation, but at least she chose clothing that flaunted the dainty barbells skewering her nipples. Then again, what would be the point of enduring such a disagreeable procedure only to hide the result under a Playtex Cross Your Heart?
John was a discerning kid. It wouldn’t last. Meanwhile Lucy squelched any hint of maternal disapproval. That hard-won bit of wisdom had eluded her own mother.
Her visitors descended the stairs, making no effort at stealth now that they knew she was awake. She wished she’d thrown on a robe, but at least she had on matronly pj’s and not some peek-a-boo nightie. John shouldn’t get too embarrassed.
She slipped the emery board back in her book as she heard them approach. “I’m a hard gal to surprise.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.”
Lucy didn’t recognize the voice. She glanced over her shoulder. Her yelp of shock turned to helpless laughter at the sight of three cheap plastic Halloween masks. The kids had turned themselves into, of all things, the Powerpuff Girls, a trio of huge-eyed TV cartoon superchicks. They were all there: Buttercup, the brunette; Blossom, the redhead; and Bubbles, the blue-eyed blonde.
God, how she loathed the Powerpuff Girls. Diana, her five-year-old niece, forced her to watch the show every time their paths crossed. Had Lucy ever mentioned her aversion to John? She must have.
“Very nice,” she told her son, “but you’re about six months late for Halloween.”
No, wait, Buttercup wasn’t John. This guy had a more solid build. The neck was thicker, the shoulders wider under the hooded gray sweatshirt. She looked at Blossom, somewhere between six five and the stratosphere, his maple-colored hair pulled back in a long braid. And Bubbles was blond for real. John had inherited Lucy’s hair, dark as espresso and utterly straight.
Lucy stood, letting the quilt slide to the floor. A crawly sensation tightened her scalp.
Buttercup produced a pistol and a roll of silver duct tape. “Don’t fight and you won’t get hurt.”
They came at her. She fought like hell. Adrenaline surged with every dunk-shot bang of her heart. She writhed out of their grasp. Her fists and feet flew. Popcorn scattered. The CD rack toppled. The framed baby picture of Lucy and her sister crashed onto the hardwood floor, along with one of Frank’s giraffes, the eighteen-inch bronze. She lunged for the sculpture and got a two-fisted grip on its neck, holding it at the ready like a baseball bat.
Blossom, the giant, whooped. “A feisty one, God be praised!”
“Take whatever you want,” she said. “Take it and leave.”
Buttercup pocketed the gun and tore a strip of duct tape off the roll.
Lucy backed up a step. “I’ve got money.” She nodded toward the antique rolltop desk. “In there.”
They didn’t so much as glance at the desk. Bubbles, the blond one, made his move. She swung the giraffe. He ducked under it and body-slammed her against a bookcase. Pain exploded in her back as first editions went flying. She thought she heard Buttercup bark, “Easy!” as Bubbles wrenched the giraffe from her.
Inkblots crowded her vision. She blinked them away and saw Buttercup looming over her. He said, “You okay?”
Stupidly she nodded.
“Good.” He slapped the tape over her mouth and spun her toward the other two, who held her still while he taped her wrists together behind her back.
The instant they released her, Lucy sprinted toward the multipaned French doors. She was thinking of the inky expanse of woods that lay beyond her manicured back lawn. If she could just make it past the pool and gardens to the tree line . . .
She threw her weight at the locked doors. Shards of pain lanced her shoulder.
Blossom cackled in appreciation. He tilted his mask and drained the glass of bourbon.
Bubbles muttered, “Jesus, the bitch never gives up.”
Buttercup bent to retrieve the baby picture. He studied the pair of dark-haired one-year-olds through the cracked glass.
Lucy balanced herself on one bare foot and took aim at a windowpane with the other.
“Whoa!” Buttercup dropped the picture and launched himself at her, yanking her back an instant before her foot would have made contact. He wrapped his arms around her from behind. “All right, that’s enough,” he said when she continued to struggle. “We’re all very impressed.”
Bubbles swaggered up to them. “I think the lady needs a lesson in who’s in charge.” He sounded younger than the other two. “I think I’m looking forward to teaching that lesson.”
Using Buttercup’s bear hug for leverage, Lucy torqued her hips up and punched the heel of her foot into Bubbles’ thin plastic mask.
He screamed like a steam whistle and ripped off the mask. “Fug!” He held his nose. Blood seeped between his fingers. He gaped at Lucy. “Whud the fug didja do thad for?”
Lucy had guessed right. Bubbles was young, early to mid twenties. Not much older than John.
Blossom laughed and handed him a couple of tissues. “I had a feelin’ about this job.” His baritone voice was flavored by the Emerald Isle. He wagged a finger at Buttercup. “You didn’t want to listen.”
“Yeah, you’re perceptive as hell. Help me get her into the car.”
“I’b bleedeeg.” Bubbles pressed the tissues to his crooked snout. “By doze is broken.”
“Payback for that offside tackle,” Buttercup said. “Quit bitching.” He and Blossom clamped their fingers around Lucy’s arms and marched her out of the library. Bubbles trailed behind, bleating like a lost lamb.
Her assailants didn’t seem to care that she’d gotten a good look at one of them and presumably could pick him out of a lineup. This did not bode well for her longevity.
The little group proceeded through the greatroom into the kitchen, where Lucy heard, for the second time that night, the side door unlock.
John. Who else could it be?
Buttercup said, “Shit.”
Lucy pleaded with her eyes. She shook her head and mewled shamelessly under the tape. Don’t hurt him. Oh God, don’t hurt my boy.
Blossom murmured, “This is where it gets messy, lads,” as the door swung open.
Two men crossed the threshold. Neither was Lucy’s son. She felt confident of that even though both wore black ski masks that exposed only their eyes. The masks were a piquant accompaniment to their all-black ensembles: silk turtleneck, wool slacks, and lambskin bomber jacket for the portly, dark-eyed man; jeans and a windbreaker for the compact fellow with the aqua-by-Acuvue eyes.
“Who the fug are you?” Bubbles demanded.
The newcomers appeared just as bewildered. The big guy looked at the little guy. Buttercup looked at Blossom. All five of them looked at Lucy.
Don’t look at me!
“Okay, there’s been some kinda misunderstanding here.” The big guy spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture. He sounded more than a little New Yawk. “My associate and I have been retained for this particular undertaking.”
Lucy was an undertaking?
“You know anything about this?” Blossom asked Buttercup, who leveled a threatening look at Lucy, right through his mask’s perky, round-eyed grin.
She glowered back.
“This bij is bad dews.” Bubbles was busy cramming strips of paper towel in his nostrils. His hands and face were smeared with blood. “Led these dickwads hab her. Good fugeeg riddance.”
“Shut up.” Buttercup turned to the pair in black. “Get lost.”
The second man tugged on his friend’s sleeve. “Come on, Wesley, let’s go. We didn’t bargain on this.”
Wesley took a step toward Buttercup. “This is our show, my friend. We have a deposit.”
“Debosid dis, lard-ass.” Bubbles went for Wesley, but the big Irishman was quicker. He shoved the young hothead against Lucy’s Viking range, with a command to “get a fekkin’ grip.”
“We were here first.” Buttercup tightened his grip on Lucy’s arm. “End of story.”
Wesley dipped into his breast pocket and produced a knife which Lucy instantly identified as a six-inch Wüsthof boning knife. Seventy-two bucks at Zabar’s. She herself was a Henckel gal. She gazed longingly at her beloved eight-piece set in its countertop knife block right there in full view—and within arm’s reach of Lucy herself, if only she had use of those arms. She’d put a fresh edge on those blades just yesterday.
Buttercup displayed the pistol. “Go away.”
“Oh my God.” The smaller guy’s eyes widened. “Wesley, he’s got a gun.”
“Ha!” Bubbles crowed. “Broughd a dife to a gudfight, ya fugeeg abateurs.”
“This is bullshit,” Wesley said. “We have an agreement.”
“He’s got a gun, Wesley. It’s not worth it.”
His partner wheeled on him. “Why don’t you say my name again? That’s incredibly helpful.”
“You can stay and get yourself killed. I’m leaving.” Wesley’s pal slammed out of the house.
The strange assemblage stood staring at one another. Blossom turned to Buttercup. “Well, lad, what are we goin’ to do with this pesky fella?”
Buttercup shrugged. He raised the gun. “Shoot him.”
Lucy squeezed her eyes shut. Instead of a gunshot, she heard the door slam. Bubbles hooted in delight. He trilled, “Rud, Wesley, rud!” The squeal of car tires, then silence.
“That was interesting.” Blossom scratched his chin under the mask. “Let’s get her out of here before someone else shows up.”
Buttercup glanced around, looking for something. He turned to Lucy. “Where’s your purse?”
That was more like it. As a motivating factor for this freak show, filthy lucre beat out all other choices hands down. Lucy might walk away from this thing alive after all. She nodded toward the menu desk in the breakfast nook. Bubbles located her Coach shoulder bag and strolled back, pawing through it. Buttercup grabbed it from him, spilled the contents on the floor, and kicked the mess around with the toe of his running shoe. Her lipstick rolled across the antique French granite floor tiles and came to rest against Frank’s new under-counter wine cellar.
He faced her again, with an impatient sigh. “Where are they?”
Her frown asked, Where are what?
“Your birth control pills, Mrs. Narby?”
Astonishment popped her eyes.
Buttercup yanked the tape off Lucy’s mouth in one swift tear. She screamed.
“Don’t make me ask again,” he warned.
“Master bathroom. Top vanity drawer. That hurt.”
Buttercup slapped the tape back over her mouth. A minute later Bubbles had returned with her monthly pill compact, which Buttercup pocketed.
Her birth control pills. Lucy couldn’t begin to figure that one out. Granted, these creeps seemed less than enthusiastic about plundering, which left that raping thing kind of front and center, but birth control pills?
Buttercup propelled her toward the door.
It was a chilly outside—mid to high forties. Downright arctic by Lucy’s admittedly wimpy standards, especially since the only thing between her pampered hide and the elements was a pair or mismatched flannel jammies.
A nearly full moon provided the only illumination. Her five-acre property was isolated from her nearest neighbors by dense woods and a quarter-mile cobblestone driveway. She’d always appreciated the solitude. Until tonight.
The tender soles of her feet found every sharp pebble as Buttercup and Blossom half dragged her toward a dark sedan parked out of sight of the house. Bubbles jogged ahead to pop the trunk.
She screamed beneath her gag as the men hoisted her and dumped her on top of a tire iron and a set of jumper cables. The trunk also held a coil of rope. Buttercup hogtied her with practiced efficiency, lashing her ankles and tethering them to her wrists by a short length of rope behind her bowed back.
Bubbles leaned into the trunk to taunt her, now that those lethal feet were safely restrained. His nose was a pomegranate. The moonlight turned all that blood to black warpaint. “I’b gudda hab sub fud wid you, bij. Just you wait.”
The other two exchanged a look. Buttercup elbowed Bubbles aside to blindfold Lucy with an oily rag.
The trunk lid slammed shut. She heard car doors open and close. The vehicle rocked and settled. The engine rumbled to life, turning the trunk into a vibration chamber.
Trussed as she was, Lucy couldn’t keep herself from pitching to and fro as the car started rolling. Her stomach lurched. Oh yeah, she thought, that’s just what I need right now. A geyser of ice cream, popcorn, and bourbon, with only her nostrils for an exit.
She forced herself to take slow, deep breaths, forced her mind to function. Why would anyone want to kidnap her? Correction: Why would two anyones want to kidnap her, these trick-or-treat maniacs and whoever hired those two whiny chuckleheads who came late to the party?
When had it become open season on Lucy Narby?
She had to keep her head, no matter what happened. It was her only chance.
Don’t panic, Lucy commanded herself, right before something small and furry crawled up her pajama leg.