DECK THE HALLS and THE CHRISTMAS THIEF
TWO HOLIDAY NOVELS
from Thursday, December 22nd
Regan Reilly sighed for the hundredth time as she looked down at her mother, Nora, a brand-new patient in Manhattan's Hospital for Special Surgery. "And to think I bought you that dopey crocheted rug you tripped on," she said.
"You only bought it. I caught my heel in it," the well-known mystery writer said wanly. "It wasn't your fault I was wearing those idiotic stilts."
Nora attempted to shift her body, which was anchored by a heavy plaster cast that reached from her toes to her thigh.
"I'll leave you two to assess the blame for the broken leg," Luke Reilly, owner of three funeral homes, husband and father, observed as he hoisted his long, lean body from the low bedside armchair. "I've got a funeral to go to, a dentist's appointment, and then, since our Christmas plans are somewhat altered, I guess I'd better see about buying a tree."
He bent over and kissed his wife. "Look at it this way: you may not be gazing at the Pacific Ocean, but you've got a good view of the East River." He and Nora and their only child, thirty-one-year-old Regan, had been planning to spend the Christmas holiday on Maui.
"You're a scream," Nora told him. "Dare we hope you'll arrive home with a tree that isn't your usual Charlie Brown special?"
"That's not nice," Luke protested.
"But it's true." Nora dismissed the subject. "Luke, you look exhausted. Can't you skip Goodloe's funeral? Austin can take care of everything."
Austin Grady was Luke's right-hand man. He had handled hundreds of funerals on his own, but the one today was different. The deceased, Cuthbert Boniface Goodloe, had left the bulk of his estate to the Seed-Plant-Bloom-and-Blossom Society of the Garden State of New Jersey. His disgruntled nephew and partial namesake, Cuthbert Boniface Dingle, known as C.B., was obviously bitter about his meager inheritance. After viewing hours yesterday afternoon, C.B. had sneaked back to the casket where Luke had found him stuffing rotted bits of house plants in the sleeves of the pin-striped designer suit the fastidious Goodloe had chosen as his last outfit.
As Luke came up behind C.B., he heard him whispering, "You love plants? I'll give you plants, you senile old hypocrite. Get a whiff of these! Enjoy them from now until Resurrection Day!"
Luke had backed away, not wanting to confront C.B., who continued to vent verbal outrage at the body of his less-than-generous uncle. It was not the first time Luke had heard a mourner telling off the deceased, but the use of decaying foliage was a first. Later, Luke had quietly removed the offensive vegetation. But today, he wanted to keep an eye on C.B. himself. Besides, he hadn't had a chance to mention the incident to Austin.
Luke considered telling Nora about the nephew's bizarre behavior, but then decided not to go into it. "Goodloe's been planning his own funeral with me for three years," he said instead. "If I didn't show up, he'd haunt me."
"I suppose you should go." Nora's voice was sleepy, and her eyes were starting to close. "Regan, why don't you let Dad drop you off at the apartment? The last painkiller they gave me is knocking me out."
"I'd rather hang around until your private nurse gets here," Regan said. "I want to make sure someone is with you."
"All right. But then go to the apartment and crash. You know you never sleep on the red-eye flight."
Regan, a private investigator who lived in Los Angeles, had been packing for the trip to Hawaii when her father phoned.
"Your mother's fine," he began. "But she's had an accident. She broke her leg."
"She broke her leg?" Regan had repeated.
"Yes. We were on our way to a black tie at the Plaza. Mom was one of the honorees. She was running a little late. I rang for the elevator..."
One of Dad's not very subtle ways of getting Mom to hurry up, Regan thought.
"The elevator arrived, but she didn't. I went back into the apartment and found her lying on the floor with her leg at a very peculiar angle. But you know your mother. Her first question was to ask if her gown was torn."
That would be Mom, Regan had thought affectionately.
"She was the best-dressed emergency-room patient in the history of the hospital," Luke had concluded.
Regan had dumped her Hawaii clothes out of the suitcase and replaced them with winter clothes suitable for New York. She barely made the last night flight from Los Angeles to Kennedy, and once in New York had paused only long enough to drop off her bags at her parents' apartment on Central Park South.
From the doorway of the hospital room, Luke looked back and smiled at the sight of the two women in his life, so alike in some ways with their classic features, blue eyes, and fair skin, but so different in others. From the Black Irish Reillys, Regan had inherited raven black hair, a throwback to the Spaniards who had settled in Ireland after their Armada had been destroyed in battle with the British. Nora, however, was a natural blonde, and at five feet three inches was four inches shorter than her daughter. At six feet five, Luke towered over both of them. His once-dark hair was now almost completely silver.
"Regan, I'll meet you back here at around seven," he said. "After we cheer your mother up, we'll go out and have a good dinner."
He caught Nora's expression and smiled at her. "You thrive on the urge to kill, honey. All the reviewers say so." He waved his hand. "See you girls tonight."
It was a commitment Luke would not be able to keep.
Across town, apartment 16B at 211 Central Park South was in the process of being decorated for Christmas. "Deck the halls with boughs of holly," Alvirah Meehan sang, off-key, as she placed a miniature wreath around the framed picture of Willy and herself accepting the $40 million lottery check that had changed their lives forever.
The picture brought back vividly that magical evening three years ago, when she'd been sitting in their tiny living room in Flushing, Queens, and Willy had been half asleep in his old club chair. She had been soaking her feet in a pail of warm water after a hard day of cleaning Mrs. O'Keefe's house when Willy came home, really bushed, from repairing a burst pipe that had sent showers of rusty water on the newly pressed clothes at Spot-Free Dry Cleaners down the block. Then the announcer on television began to read the winning lottery numbers.
I sure look different now, Alvirah thought, shaking her head as she examined the picture. The brassy red hair that for so many years she had dyed herself in the bathroom sink had been transformed by Madame Judith, to a soft golden red with subtle shadings. The purple polyester pants suit had long ago been banished by her classy friend, Baroness Min Von Schreiber. Of course, her jutting jaw was the same, a product of God's design when he molded her, but she'd gotten down from a size sixteen to a trimmer size fourteen. There was no question about it -- she looked ten years younger and a thousand times better now than in the old days.
I was sixty then and looked like I was pushing seventy. Now I'm sixty-three and don't look a day over fifty-nine, she told herself happily. On the other hand, she decided, looking at the picture, even dressed in that bargain-basement blue suit and skinny little tie, Willy managed to look handsome and distinguished. With his shock of white hair and vivid blue eyes, Willy always reminded people of the late, legendary Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O'Neill.
Poor Willy, she sighed. What bad luck that he feels so rotten. Nobody should be stuck with a toothache during the Christmas season. But Dr. Jay will fix him up. Our big mistake was to get involved with that other guy when Dr. Jay moved to New Jersey, Alvirah thought. He talked Willy into getting a dental implant even though it hadn't worked last time, and it's been killing him. Oh, well, it could be worse, she reminded herself. Look what happened to Nora Regan Reilly.
She had heard on the radio that the suspense author, who happened to be her favorite writer, had broken her leg the evening before in her apartment in the very next building. Her high heel had caught in the fringe of a rug, Alvirah mused -- the same kind of thing that happened to Grandma. But Grandma wasn't wearing high heels. She had stepped on a wad of bubble gum in the street, and when the fringe of the rug stuck to the bottom of her orthopedic sneakers, she went sprawling.
"Hi, honey." Willy was coming down the hall from the bedroom. The right side of his face was swollen, and his expression was instant testimony to the fact that the troublesome implant was still killing him.
Alvirah knew how to cheer him up. "Willy, you know what makes me feel good?"
"Whatever it is, share it right away."
"It's knowing that Dr. Jay will get rid of that implant, and by tonight you'll be feeling much better. I mean, aren't you better off than poor Nora Regan Reilly, who'll be hobbling around on crutches for weeks?"
Willy shook his head and managed a smile. "Alvirah, can I never have an ache or a pain without you telling me how lucky I am? If I came down with the bubonic plague, you'd try to make me feel sorry for somebody else."
Alvirah laughed. "I suppose I would at that," she agreed.
"When you ordered the car, did you allow for holiday traffic? I never thought I'd be worried about missing a dentist appointment, but today I am."
"Of course I did," she assured him. "We'll be there long before three. Dr. Jay squeezed you in before he sees his last patient. He's closing early for the holiday weekend."
Willy looked at his watch. "It's only a little after ten. I wish he could see me this minute. What time is the car coming?"
"I'll start to get ready."
With a sympathetic shake of her head, Alvirah watched her husband of forty-three years disappear back into the bedroom. He'll be feeling a thousand percent better tonight, she decided. I'll make some nice vegetable soup for dinner, and we'll watch the tape of It's a Wonderful Life. I'm glad we delayed our cruise until February. It will be good to have a quiet, at-home Christmas this year.
Alvirah looked around the room and sniffed appreciatively. I love the smell of pine, she thought. And the tree looks gorgeous. They had placed it right in the center of the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Central Park. The branches were laden with the ornaments they'd accumulated over the years, some handsome, some battered, all cherished. Alvirah pushed back her large, round glasses, walked over to the cocktail table, and grabbed the last unopened box of tinsel.
"You never can have too much tinsel on the tree," she said aloud.
Three more days until Christmas, twenty-six-year-old Rosita Gonzalez thought, as she waited for Luke Reilly behind the wheel of one of the Reilly Funeral Home limos, standing near the hospital's Seventy-first Street entrance. Mentally she reviewed the presents she had bought for her five- and six-year-old sons, Bobby and Chris. I haven't forgotten anything, she assured herself.
She so wanted them to have a good Christmas. So much had changed in the last year and a half. Their father had left -- not that that was any loss -- and her ailing mother had moved back to Puerto Rico. Now both boys clung to Rosita as if they were afraid she would somehow disappear too.
My little guys, she thought with a rush of tenderness. Together, the three of them had picked out their Christmas tree last night and would decorate it tonight. She had the next three days off, and Mr. Reilly had given her a generous Christmas bonus.
Rosita looked in the rearview mirror and straightened the driver's cap over her waterfall of dark curly hair. It sure was a stroke of luck when I got the job at the funeral home, she thought. She had started working part-time in the office, but when Luke learned that she moonlighted as a limo driver, he told her, "You can have all the extra work you want here, Rosita." Now she frequently drove for funerals.
There was a tap on the driver's window. Rosita looked up, expecting to see the face of her good-natured boss. Instead she found herself locking eyes with a vaguely familiar countenance, which, for the moment, she could not place. She opened the window a few inches and was rewarded with a belch of cigarette smoke. His head darting forward, her unexpected visitor identified himself in staccato tones: "Hi, Rosie, I'm Petey the Painter. Remember me?"
How could I forget? Rosita wondered. A mental image of the brilliant chartreuse shade he'd painted the main viewing room of the Reilly funeral home in Summit, New Jersey, flashed through her mind. She remembered Luke Reilly's reaction when he saw it. "Rosita," Luke had said, "I don't know whether to laugh, cry, or throw up."
"I'd throw up, Mr. Reilly," had been Rosita's advice.
Needless to say, Petey the Painter's services had no longer been requested nor required in any of the three Reilly funeral homes.
Petey had gratuitously added bright yellow to the moss-green paint Luke had selected, declaring that he thought the place needed a little livening. "Relatives of dead people need cheering up," he'd informed them. "That green was really depressing. I had a little extra yellow paint in my car, so I threw it in for free." On his way out, he'd asked Rosita for a date, which she'd promptly declined.
Rosita wondered if he still had flecks of paint in his hair. She looked at him, but couldn't tell. A cap with earmuffs covered every inch of his head and shaded his narrow, bony face. His wiry frame was encased in a dark-blue storm jacket. The turned-up collar of the jacket grazed the graying stubble that shaded his chin.
"Of course I remember you, Petey," she said. "What are you doing here?"
He shuffled from foot to foot. "You look great, Rosie. Too bad your most important passengers never get to feast their eyes on you."
The reference, of course, was to the fact that Rosita sometimes drove the hearse in funeral cortèges.
"You're funny, Petey. See you." She began to raise the window but was stopped by Petey's hand.
"Hey, it's freezing out. Can I sit in the car? I need to ask you something."
"Petey, Mr. Reilly will be here any minute."
"This will only take a minute," he explained.
Reluctantly, Rosita threw the lock that opened all the doors. She had expected him to go around and get in beside her in the front seat. Instead, in a lightning-fast motion, he opened the back door of the vehicle and slid in.
Thoroughly annoyed with her intruder, she swiveled her head around to face him in the back of the limo, whose tinted windows shielded anyone seated there from the view of the outside world. What she saw took her breath away. For a moment she thought it was a joke. Surely that couldn't be a gun Petey was holding?
"Nobody's going to get hurt if you do what I tell you," Petey said soothingly. "Just keep a nice, calm look on your pretty face until the King of the Stiffs gets here."
A weary and preoccupied Luke Reilly emerged from the elevator and walked the short distance to the door of the hospital, barely noticing the Christmas decorations adorning the lobby. He stepped outside into the raw, cloudy morning and was glad to see his limo waiting near the end of the driveway.
In a few strides, Luke's long legs brought him to the car. He knocked on the window of the passenger side, and a moment later was turning the handle of the back door. He was inside and had closed the door behind him before he realized that he was not alone in the backseat.
Luke's unerring memory for faces, coupled with the sight of paint-flecked boots, made him realize instantly that the man sitting opposite him with the gun in his hand was none other than the idiot who had turned his viewing room into a psychedelic nightmare.
"In case you don't remember me, I'm Petey the Painter. I worked for you last summer." Petey raised his voice. "Start driving, Rosie," he ordered. "Turn right at the corner and pull over. We're making a pickup."
"I remember you," Luke said quietly. "But I prefer seeing you with a paintbrush instead of a gun. What's this all about?"
"My friend will explain when he gets in. Nice comfortable car you got here." Again, Petey raised his voice. "Rosie, don't try any funny stuff like running a light. We don't want no attention from the cops."
Luke had barely slept the night before, and his mind was blurry. Now he felt somehow detached from reality, as though he were dreaming or half asleep, watching a movie. He was alert enough, however, to sense that this unlikely kidnapper might never have held a gun before, which actually made him twice as dangerous. Luke knew he could not take the chance of throwing himself forward in an attempt to overpower his captor.
Rosie turned the corner. The car had not quite stopped when the front passenger door opened and another man joined them. Luke's mouth dropped: Petey the Painter's partner in crime was none other than C. B. Dingle, the disgruntled nephew of the late Cuthbert Boniface Goodloe.
Like Petey, C.B. was wearing a cap with earmuffs that fit loosely over his balding head, and a bulky, nondescript storm jacket that covered his butterball-shaped torso. C.B.'s round, pale face was half covered by a dark, bushy mustache that had not been present at his uncle's wake the day before. Wincing, he pulled off the fuzzy disguise and addressed Luke.
"Thank you for being on time," he said cordially as he patted his lip. "I don't want to be late for my uncle's funeral. But I'm afraid you're not going to make it, Mr. Reilly."
Where are they taking us? Rosita agonized as, following C.B.'s instructions, she turned right on Ninety-sixth Street and headed for the FDR Drive north. She had seen C.B. at the funeral parlor only yesterday, had met him a couple of times before when he came to the funeral home with his uncle, who kept changing his mind about the plans for his last farewell.
Irrationally, she almost smiled, remembering that Cuthbert Boniface Goodloe had stopped in only last month to inform Luke that the restaurant he had chosen for a reception after his funeral had been closed down by the Health Department. She had driven Mr. Reilly, Goodloe, and C.B. to the Orchard Hill Inn, which Mr. Reilly had suggested as a replacement. Mr. Reilly told her later that Goodloe had painstakingly studied the menu, eliminating the most expensive items from his guests' future selections.
That day C.B., as usual, had been practically kissing his uncle's butt, which obviously had done him no good. Yesterday afternoon the viewing room had been filled with shocked but grateful members of the Seed-Plant-Bloom-and-Blossom Society of the Garden State of New Jersey -- a group commonly known as the Blossoms -- whose goal to spruce up every nook and cranny of New Jersey had just received a much needed million-dollar shot in the arm. The buzz was that Goodloe's dying words to his nephew had been, "Get a job!"
Had C.B. gone crazy? Was he dangerous? And what does he want with me and Mr. Reilly? Rosita wondered as, even inside her gloves, her fingers turned to ice.
"Head for the George Washington Bridge," C.B. ordered.
At least they were going back to New Jersey, Rosita thought. She wondered if there was any hope of appealing to C.B. to let them go.
"Mr. Dingle, you may know I have two little boys who need me," she said softly. "They're five and six years old, and their father hasn't supported or seen them in over a year."
"My father was a crumb too," C.B. snapped. "And don't call me Mr. Dingle. I hate that name."
Petey had overheard. "It's a dumb name," he agreed. "But your first and middle names are even worse. Thank God for initials. Mr. Reilly, can you believe C.B.'s mom saddled him with a name like Cuthbert Boniface, in honor of her sister's husband. And then, when the old geezer passes away, he gives just about everything to the stupid Blossoms? Maybe they'll name a new strain of poison ivy after him."
"I spent my whole life pretending to like those stupid names!" C.B. said angrily. "And what do I get for it? Career advice three seconds before he croaks."
"I'm sorry about all that, C.B.," Luke said firmly. "But your problems have nothing to do with us. Why are we here, or more precisely, why are you and Petey in my car?"
"I beg to differ -- " C.B. began.
Petey interrupted: "I really like that expression. It sounds so classy."
"Shut up, Petey," C.B. snapped. "My problem has everything to do with you, Mr. Reilly. But your wife is going to have a million ways to make it up."
They were halfway across the George Washington Bridge.
"Petey, you tell Rosie where to turn. You know the way better than I do."
"Take the Fort Lee exit," Petey began. "We're going south."
Fifteen minutes later, the car pulled onto a narrow road that led down to the Hudson River. Rosita was on the verge of tears. They reached an empty parking area at the river's edge, facing the skyline of Manhattan. To the left they could see the towering gray span of the George Washington Bridge. The heavy stream of holiday traffic crossing back and forth on its two levels only increased Rosita's sense of isolation. She had a sudden terrible fear that C.B. and Petey might be planning to shoot them and throw their bodies into the river.
"Get out of the car," C.B. ordered. "Remember we both have guns and know how to use them."
Petey aimed his revolver at Luke's head as he and Rosita reluctantly left the familiarity of the car. He gave the weapon a quick twirl. "I watched reruns of The Rifleman doing this," he explained. "I'm getting real good at twirling."
"I'll be your escort," C.B. told him. "We have to hurry. I have a funeral to make."
They were forced to walk along the shore, past a deserted marina, to where a dilapidated houseboat, its windows boarded up, was anchored at the end of a narrow dock. The boat rocked up and down, as the river lapped restlessly against its sides. It was obvious to Luke that the worn and aging craft was sitting dangerously low in the water.
"Take a look at the ice that's starting to form out there. You can't be planning to put us on that thing in this weather," Luke protested.
"In summertime it's real nice," Petey boasted. "I take care of it for the guy who owns it. He's in Arizona for the winter. His arthritis is something awful."
"This isn't July," Luke snapped.
"Sometimes you get bad weather in July too," Petey responded. "One time there was a real bad storm, and -- "
"Shut up, Petey," C.B. growled irritably. "I told you, you talk too much."
"You would too if you painted rooms all by yourself twelve hours a day. When I'm with people, I like to talk."
C.B. shook his head. "He drives me nuts," he said under his breath. "Now be careful getting onto the boat," he told Rosita. "I don't want you to slip."
"You can't do this to us. I've got to go home to my boys," Rosita cried.
Luke could hear the note of hysteria in Rosita's voice. The poor kid is scared stiff, he thought. Just a few years younger than Regan and supporting two children on her own. "Help her!" he barked.
Petey used his free hand to grasp Rosita's arm as, fearfully, she stepped down onto the deck of the swaying vessel.
"You're very good at influencing people, Mr. Reilly," C.B. complimented. "Let's hope you're as successful for the next twenty-four hours."
Petey unlocked the door of the cabin and pushed it open, releasing a dank, musty smell into the cold outside air.
"Whew," Petey said. "That stink'll get you every time."
"Move it, Petey," C.B. ordered. "I told you to get an Airwick."
"How thoughtful," Rosita said sarcastically as she followed Petey inside.
Luke glanced over at the Manhattan skyline, then looked upriver to the George Washington Bridge, taking in the little red lighthouse underneath. I wonder if I'll ever get the chance to see all this again, he thought, as C.B. pressed the gun in the small of his back.
"Inside, Mr. Reilly. This isn't the time for sightseeing."
Petey turned on the dim overhead light as C.B. closed the door behind them.
On one side of the small, shabby space was a seating area consisting of a Formica dinette table surrounded by a cracked, imitation-leather banquette; directly opposite was a matching couch. The furniture was all built-in units. A small refrigerator, sink, and stove were adjacent to the table. Luke knew that the two doors to the left probably led to a bedroom and whatever passed for a bathroom.
"Oh, no," Rosita gasped.
Luke followed her stare, and with dismay realized that two sets of chains were bolted to the walls in the seating area. They were the kind of hand and ankle restraints commonly used to restrain criminal defendants in courtrooms. One set was next to the couch, the other near the banquette.
"You sit here," Petey directed Rosita. "Keep me covered, C.B., while I put her bracelets on."
"I got everybody covered," C.B said emphatically. "You're over here, Mr. Reilly."
If I were alone, I'd take my chances and try to grab his gun, Luke thought angrily, but I can't risk Rosita's life. An instant later, he was sitting on the banquette, chained, with Rosita opposite him on the couch.
"I should have asked if either one of you cares to use the facilities, but now you'll just have to wait," C.B. said cheerfully. "I don't want to be late for my uncle's funeral. After all, I am the chief mourner. And Petey needs to get rid of your car. When we come back, Petey'll bring stuff for your lunch. I won't be hungry, though. My uncle paid for my meal today, remember, Mr. Reilly?"
C.B. opened the door as Petey turned out the light. An instant later the door slammed shut, and Luke and Rosita could hear the grating of the key turning in the rusty lock.
Trapped in the shadowy darkness of the swaying boat, they both remained silent for a moment as the reality of their precarious situation hit both of them.
Then Rosita asked quietly, "Mr. Reilly, what's going to happen to us?"
Luke chose his words carefully. "They've already told us they're looking for money. Assuming that's all they really want, I promise it will be paid."
"All I can think about is my kids. My regular baby-sitter is away until next week, and I don't trust the girl who's filling in. Her Christmas dance is tonight. She didn't want to work at all today, but I begged her to. She expects me home by three."
"She wouldn't leave the boys alone."
"You don't know her, Mr. Reilly -- she won't miss that dance," Rosita said with certainty, a catch in her voice. "I've got to get home. I've just got to get home."
Regan opened her eyes, groggily sat up, swung her legs over the edge of the bed, and yawned. Her bedroom in her parents' apartment on Central Park South was as comfortably familiar as the one in the family home in New Jersey in which she'd been raised. Today, though, she did not take time to appreciate the charming ambience of the peach-and-soft-green color scheme. She had the sensation of having slept a long time, but when she looked at the clock, she was glad to see it was only a few minutes before two. She wanted to phone the hospital and see how her mother was doing, then catch up with her father. She realized that beyond the fact that she was feeling the effects of the news about her mother's accident and the hurried red-eye flight, she was filled with undefined anxiety. A quick shower might help me clear my mind, she thought, and then I'll get moving.
She put in a call to La Parisienne, the local coffee shop, and placed her usual breakfast order: orange juice, coffee, and a toasted bagel with cream cheese. This is what I love about New York, she thought. By the time I get out of the shower, the delivery boy will be ringing the bell.
The strong spray of hot water felt good on her back and shoulders. She quickly washed her hair, stepped out of the shower, wrapped herself in a robe, and rolled a towel around her head.
Ten seconds later, her face glistening with moisturizer, she answered the door for the delivery boy. She was glad he pretended not to notice her appearance. In his job, he's seen it all, she thought. But he did produce a sunny smile when she gave him a generous tip.
Moments later, the bagel unwrapped, the coffee cup in her hand, she phoned her mother's room. She knew the nurse had to be there, but no one picked up. The ringer is probably turned off, she thought. She hung up and dialed the nurses' station on that floor.
What seemed like several minutes passed as she waited for her mother's nurse to come to the phone. It was a relief to hear the friendly, professional, and reassuring voice of Beverly Carter. She had come on duty this morning, just as Regan was leaving. Although they had spoken only briefly, Regan had instantly liked the slim, fortyish black woman, whom the doctor had introduced as one of their finest private nurses.
"Hi, Beverly. How's my mother?"
"She's been sleeping since you left."
"I've been sleeping since I left," Regan laughed. "When she wakes up, tell her I called. Have you heard from my father?"
"Not so far."
"I'm surprised. But he did have that funeral. I'll give him a call. Tell my mother she can always reach me on my cell phone."
Next, Regan dialed the funeral home. Austin Grady, the second in command at "Reilly's Remains," as Regan and her mother dubbed the funeral homes, answered. His initial greeting, as usual, was suitably subdued.
"Austin, it's Regan."
The somber tone turned jolly. "Regan, hello."
Regan was always amazed at the way Austin could switch gears so rapidly, his demeanor of the moment dictated by the demands of his job. As Luke had observed, he was perfectly suited to this line of work. Like a surgeon, he was able to disassociate himself from surrounding emotions.
"Is my father there?" she asked.
"No, I haven't spoken to him since he called early this morning to send for a car. Your poor mother," he commiserated in a most upbeat tone. "What's going to happen next? And I know your father was really looking forward to the trip to Hawaii. I understand she tripped on a new rug you bought her in Ireland."
"Yes," Regan said quickly, guilt about her purchase washing over her again. As her best friend, Kit, always said, "Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving."
"Austin, my father told us he was going to be there for a funeral you were having today. Didn't he show up at all?"
"Well, no, but the service went beautifully. The old guy had been planning it for years. Your father probably realized he didn't really need to come." Austin chuckled. "Right now the mourners are all enjoying a free lunch across town. The deceased left the bulk of his estate to the Blossoms. They're all at the restaurant, and they look like one happy group. They inherited enough money to buy sprinkling cans for every plant in the state of New Jersey."
"Lucky them," Regan said.
"Your father has a 3:30 dentist's appointment on his schedule. I don't think he'll miss that."
"Thanks, Austin." Regan hung up and dialed Luke's cell phone. After several rings his voice mail came on. As she listened to her father's voice telling the caller to leave a message, her sense that something might be wrong deepened. Her father hadn't been heard from in hours, even to inquire about her mother. She left a message for him to call her.
She sipped her coffee and thought for a minute. I can't just sit here, she decided. She glanced at the clock. It was now 2:35. She called the dentist's office to confirm that her father had not canceled his appointment.
"Please ask him to wait for me," Regan said to the receptionist. "I'm leaving the city in a few minutes, and it shouldn't take me more than an hour to get there."
"Will do," the receptionist promised.
Regan hurriedly dressed and dried her hair. After Dad has his appointment, we can do the errands together, she thought. Then we'll drive back to the city to see Mom.
But even as she pulled on her coat and ran down to grab a cab, Regan somehow knew that that wasn't what she would be doing this afternoon.
How long had he and Rosita had been locked up in the dark, chilly houseboat? Luke had no sense of time. It seemed like hours. They could have left the light on, he thought angrily.
After C.B. and Petey the Painter took off, Luke had tried to reassure Rosita. "Trust my hunch," he told her. "When those jerks come back, they'll tell us what they want. And when they get it, they'll let us go."
"But we can identify them, Mr. Reilly. Do you really think they can be that stupid?"
"Rosita, probably nobody else could be that stupid, but I believe it of that pair. It won't be long before we're missed. Don't forget, my daughter's a private investigator, and she'll have everyone looking for us."
"Just as long as someone takes care of my kids. I'm so afraid that ditzy baby-sitter will dump them with someone they don't know. My little guy, especially, is painfully shy."
"If there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that when Regan realizes we're missing, she'll check on your kids."
They hadn't spoken for a while. It was only about ten feet across the cabin to the built-in couch where Rosita was chained. Had she dozed off? Luke wondered. The lapping of the water against the sides of the boat made it impossible to hear any sound of movement from her.
"Rosita," he said softly.
Before she could answer, a thud on the deck startled both of them. The sound of the key grating in the lock dispelled Luke's hope that whoever was outside might be a potential rescuer.
The door opened. A somber trickle of light and a blast of cold air preceded Petey and C.B. into the cabin.
"How are our campers doing?" C.B. asked jovially as Petey snapped on the overhead light. "I hope you're not vegetarians. We bought ham and cheese sandwiches." Both men were carrying grocery bags.
It was with mixed emotion that Luke noted how small the bags were. Either they were planning to have them out of here in a short time, or there would be frequent take-outs from the local fast-food outlets in Edgewater.
"Either one of you want to go to the can?" Petey asked solicitously.
Luke and Rosita both nodded.
"Ladies first," Petey said. He released Rosita's hand and ankle shackles. "You can close the door, but don't get any stupid ideas. Besides, it don't have a window."
Rosita looked at Luke. "Could you lend me a dollar for the attendant?"
When it was Luke's turn inside the tiny cubicle, he considered his options and realized he had none. Even if he could overpower Petey when he was refastening the chains, C.B. would be standing with his gun trained on Rosita. I have to play along with them, he thought.
While Luke, Rosita, and Petey ate their sandwiches, C.B. sipped coffee. "I'm full," he said, looking at Luke. "That restaurant you suggested wasn't bad. The veal parmigiana was the best I've had in ages. Although I'm surprised I could digest my meal, having to look at those nerds from the Blossom Society. It was only the thought of you two back here that got me through."
"You could have brought me back some veal parmigiana," Petey griped. "I think this rye bread is a little stale. And he didn't put enough mayo on mine." He peered over at Luke's sandwich. "Let's switch halves."
Luke grabbed the second half of his sandwich and took a big bite out of it. He laid it back down on the wax paper. "Be my guest." Luke was inordinately pleased to see the disappointed look on Petey's face.
Petey looked at Rosita. "No dessert for the boss. You can have his Twinkies."
"I'd rather choke," Rosita snapped.
"Now that we're one big happy family, let's get down to business." C.B. crushed his empty coffee cup and stuffed it into the deli bag.
"Be careful, the pickles are still in there," Petey protested.
C.B. groaned and dumped the contents of the bag on the scarred Formica table.
"Don't get mad," Petey said. "I wasn't at some fancy lunch. I feel like I've been on a bus all day. Once I dumped the car at Kennedy, I had to take a bus to the Port Authority. Then I hadda wait for another bus to Edgewater. Then I hadda wait for you at the bus stop. You were too cheap to let me take a cab. You've been riding in a nice warm car all day -- "
But Petey wasn't finished. "I had my four dollars ready to pay when I crossed the George Washington Bridge. Then when I'm waiting in a long line to hand it over, I discover there's an E-Z Pass on the floor of the car. I stuck it back up on the windshield and switched lanes fast. Some jerk almost plowed into me. He starts honking his horn like a crazy person. Then I saved you more money when I went over the Triborough Bridge. You should have noticed that E-Z Pass when you rode up front. I'm surprised at you."
C.B.'s eyes bulged. "You used the E-Z Pass? You moron! I took it off so they wouldn't be able to track us. Now they can check and find out where it's been used."
"Really?" Petey looked awestruck. "I'll be darned. What will they think of next?" He turned to Luke and Rosita. "C.B. is so smart. He reads a lot of detective novels. I never had much chance to read. Mr. Reilly, I know he really likes your wife's novels. I think one of them is even autographed."
"When you release us, I'll get him another one. And when is that going to happen?"
Petey reached for a pickle. "Explain our plan, C.B. It's so good. In a few days we're going to be on a beach somewhere with a million dollars in our suitcase."
C.B. interrupted Petey. "I'm telling you for the last time, Petey. Keep your mouth shut!" He pulled Luke's and Rosita's cell phones from the leather pouch where he had stashed them. "Mr. Reilly, it's nearly 4:30. We're going to get in touch with your family and tell them we want a million dollars cash by tomorrow afternoon."
Rosita gasped. "A million dollars?"
Petey piped in. "He's got viewing rooms all over New Jersey, and his wife sells a lot of books. Hey, C.B., maybe we should ask for more."
C.B. ignored him.
"I can guarantee my family will pay you the money," Luke said carefully. "But it's Thursday afternoon of Christmas weekend. I don't know how they'd be able to get it by tomorrow."
"Believe me, they can," C.B. said. "If they want to."
"He read it in a book," Petey volunteered. "Banks do things for important people, like opening their doors at all hours. And you're a real important person."
"But my wife is in the hospital," Luke protested.
"We know that. Where do you think we picked you up?" C.B. asked. "Now -- who do you want us to call?"
"My daughter. She just got in from California. She'll get you the money." He gave them her cell phone number: "310-555-4237."
Petey started scribbling the number on a piece of paper he had torn off the brown deli bag. "Say that again"
Luke repeated the number slowly.
C.B. turned the phone on and began dialing.
"That implant came out smooth as silk," Dr. Jay assured Alvirah. "I have Willy on oxygen now. I'd like you to wait a little while before you take him home. He's still groggy."
"That laughing gas really knocks Willy out," Alvirah commented. "But he sure was looking forward to it. He's been in such misery."
"Well, give him a couple of days, and he'll be good as new. The prescription for antibiotics should clear up his infection." Dr. Jay's pleasant, bespectacled face broke into a smile. "He'll be able to enjoy the Christmas holiday. I know I'm looking forward to it." He looked at his watch. "I have one more patient, and then I'm on vacation."
"Any big plans?" Alvirah queried with her usual genuine interest in the comings and goings of her fellow creatures.
"My wife and I are taking the kids skiing in Vermont."
"Nice," Alvirah said, shaking her head. "When we won the lottery, I made a list of all the things I've always wanted to do in this lifetime. Skiing was one of them. But I haven't gotten around to it yet."
She did not miss the alarmed expression on Dr. Jay's face. "I bet you think I couldn't do it," she challenged.
"Alvirah, I've known you long enough. Nothing you do would surprise me."
Alvirah laughed. "Don't worry. I won't crash into you on the slopes just yet. If the weather reports are right about a storm, you should have some great skiing."
"If it does hit, we'll already be there. We're leaving tonight." Dr. Jay looked at the door. "He's never late," he murmured more to himself than to Alvirah, then said, "I'll check on Willy and start to wrap things up around here."
As the doctor left the waiting room, Alvirah admitted to herself that she really had been worried about Willy -- more worried than she had allowed herself to realize. Willy has always been so healthy, she thought. I won't even let myself consider that something could be seriously wrong with him. She was so deep in thought that the ringing of the office bell startled her. That must be the patient Dr. Jay is waiting for, she reasoned. She jumped up to answer the door as a buzzer released the lock.
Alvirah immediately knew that the slender, dark-haired young woman who came into the waiting room was not the patient Dr. Jay was expecting. She had clearly heard him say that "he" was never late.
She quickly sized up the newcomer -- around thirty, very attractive, wearing a handsome suede jacket, jeans, and boots; obviously preoccupied. She smiled fleetingly at Alvirah as she looked at the empty reception desk.
"Everybody except Dr. Jay has gone home already," Alvirah volunteered cheerily. "He's waiting for his last patient."
Alvirah could see that the look of concern on the young woman's face immediately deepened.
Dr. Jay appeared at the doorway. "Hi, Regan. Where's your father? He's holding up my vacation."
"I was hoping to hook up with him here," Regan said.
"Well, he should be along any minute. I expected him half an hour ago."
"It's so unlike my father to be late."
"There's a lot of traffic out there," Dr. Jay said with a wave of his hand.
The expression on Regan's face, however, remained clearly troubled.
"Is anything wrong?" he asked her.
Regan walked closer to the doctor and lowered her voice, a useless exercise, since Alvirah Meehan could hear a mouse sneeze from three rooms away. "It's been kind of crazy," she began, and briefly explained about her mother's accident.
That's who she is! Alvirah thought: Nora Regan Reilly's daughter. Of course! I thought she looked familiar. She's a private investigator, just like me. Only she has a license. Alvirah sat up straight and cocked her head, praying they didn't move into Dr. Jay's private office.
"I thought I'd help my father do some shopping this afternoon after he saw you," Regan was saying. "Because we were planning to go to Hawaii, we don't have a Christmas tree or any food in the house."
I love Hawaii, Alvirah thought.
"What worries me," Regan continued, "is that I can't reach my father on his cell phone, and he hasn't called my mother since he left her room at the hospital this morning. And now he isn't here. None of this is like him." Her voice was forlorn.
Uh-oh, Alvirah thought. She's right. Something's wrong.
"Well, let's wait and see," Dr. Jay said reassuringly. "He'll probably be here any minute. If he isn't, with all that happened today, it must mean that he simply forgot. He's obviously got a lot on his mind. I'm sure there's a logical explanation."
He looked over at Alvirah. "Willy should be ready to go in about fifteen minutes."
"Take your time," Alvirah said, grateful that Willy wasn't ready yet to walk out the door. She watched as Regan restlessly crossed to the window, looked out at the parking area, then sat in the straight-backed chair opposite the couch.
After a moment, Alvirah leaned forward. "I just want you to know that I've read every one of your mother's books and I love them. I was so sorry to hear about her accident. I can see you're worried about your father, but take my word, when something happens to a wife, husbands are useless. They forget everything."
Regan smiled slightly. "I hope you're right. I'm going to try calling him again." She pulled out her cell phone and dialed. "No answer," she said. "I'll try the hospital."
Let him be there or have called, Alvirah prayed as Regan spoke to her mother's nurse.
Regan put down the phone. "My mother is still asleep, which is good. My father hasn't called, which isn't." She stood up and once again walked to the window.
Alvirah wanted to say something comforting, but she knew there was nothing to be said. Had something happened to Luke Reilly?
Nearly twenty minutes later he was still not there.
"Okay, Alvirah, you can collect your patient," Dr. Jay said as he came down the hall, his hand under Willy's arm.
"Hi, honey," Willy said feebly.
"Take him home and let him sleep it off," Dr. Jay instructed. "And have a great holiday." He turned to Regan: "Any word?"
"Dr. Jay, I think it's obvious my father isn't going to make it today. I'll call a cab to take me to the house. I'm sure I'll catch up with him there."
"Don't you live here in Summit?" Alvirah asked, but didn't wait for an answer. "I know you do. It says so on the book jackets. We've got a car and driver outside. We'll drop you home. Come on, Willy."
Before she could protest, Regan found herself sitting next to Alvirah in the backseat of a sleek, black limo. Willy, his legs stretched out, his eyes shut, was leaning back on the opposite seat.
"I've taken driving lessons three times in the last three years," Alvirah explained. "The instructors always found excuses to pass me off on someone else." She laughed. "I can't blame them. You wouldn't believe all the parking cones I've flattened."
Regan smiled. She instinctively liked Alvirah and realized now that she had heard her name somewhere before. As the car pulled onto the main road, she said, "I feel as though I know you from somewhere. Your name is familiar."
Alvirah beamed. "I know you're a private investigator, and I guess you could say I'm kind of in your business. I've accidentally been around when the police needed help. Then I've written about what happened for the Globe. I'm what you might call 'a roving crime correspondent.'"
"Roving isn't the word," Willy volunteered, without opening his eyes. "Alvirah's always at full throttle, looking for trouble."
Regan laughed. "My mother sent me a couple of your columns. She enjoyed them and thought I'd be interested in the cases. She was right." Alvirah's coat was open. Regan leaned over. "Is that your famous pin with the hidden microphone?"
"I never leave home without it," Alvirah said proudly.
Regan reached into her pocket. "I'm going to try my father's office."
But there was nothing new: Austin Grady still hadn't heard from Luke.
With a sigh, Regan clicked off the phone.
For the next five minutes, Alvirah did a running commentary on the Christmas decorations of the various houses they passed. Finally Regan said, "That's our house up on the left."
"Oh, lovely," Alvirah breathed, craning her neck to get a better look. "A lot nicer than the houses I used to clean, I'll tell you that."
It was obvious that no one was home. The Reilly house, unlike its neighbors, was in total darkness.
The long driveway extended to the garages at the rear of the house. The chauffeur stopped at the walk that led to the front door.
"Let me go in with you while you check your messages, Regan," Alvirah said, a note of concern in her voice.
Regan knew what Alvirah meant. If there had been an accident, there might be a call on the machine. "I'll be fine, Alvirah. I can't thank you enough. You need to get Willy home."
Reluctantly Alvirah watched Regan go up the steps and disappear into the house. The car began to move slowly down the driveway. They were just turning back onto the street when the soft ring of a cell phone made Alvirah look around quickly. I don't have mine with me, she thought. Then she spotted it. The phone Regan had been using was on the seat next to her, its green light flashing.
I'll answer it, she thought. I bet it's her father. She picked it up and flipped it open.
"Hello," she boomed happily.
"Regan?" The voice was deep and raspy.
"I'll get her," Alvirah said, as she yelled for the driver to go back. "Is this her father?"
"It's a message from him."
"Oh, good," Alvirah shouted.
As Alvirah jumped out of the car and ran up the walk, she did not hear C.B.'s comment to Luke: "Whoever answered your daughter's phone has a voice like a foghorn."
Fred Torres hung up his uniform and closed the door of his locker with a decisive snap. "That's it for two weeks, Vince," he said to his partner. "It's anchors away for me."
"I wish I were going sailing in the Caribbean," Vince Lugano said as he pulled on a sweater. "While you're on deck with a beer in your hand, I'll be putting together a fire engine and a dollhouse."
The tiny lines around Fred's dark brown eyes crinkled when he smiled. "You love every minute of it," he said.
"I know I do," Vince agreed, looking with affection at the man who had become his best friend since they were sworn in as police officers in Hoboken, New Jersey, six years ago.
Fred was twenty-eight years old, just under six feet tall, lean and muscular. His olive complexion, dark hair, and general good looks made him the perfect target for well-meaning friends who just happened to have an available sister or cousin. He was about to begin his final term at Seton Hall Law School after the holidays.
Vince, the same age as his partner, was two inches taller and twenty pounds heavier, with sandy hair and hazel eyes. He had never been interested in anyone except his high-school sweetheart, whom he married five years ago.
"What time do you leave?" Vince asked.
"I've got an eight o'clock flight tomorrow morning."
"You'll be at Mike's party tonight?"
"See you there."
Fred had intended to drive straight home to his apartment in a small brownstone at the south end of town. But he impulsively stopped when he turned the corner that led to his street and spotted the dazzling array of poinsettias in the flower-shop window. It won't take that long, he assured himself as he went in and selected a plant. He had met Rosita Gonzalez at a party a month ago, and they'd gone out to dinner together a couple of times since. He had invited her to the party tonight, but she didn't have anyone available to baby-sit.
As he got back in the car, he smiled, thinking of her and remembering the night they had met. They both had arrived at that party at the same time. He had parked behind her. She had been driving a glistening black limousine. As they walked up the steps together, he introduced himself and said, "You certainly arrive in style."
"Wait till you see what I go home in," Rosita had joked. "Among my activities, I drive a limo. One of the guys I work with will be dropping off my car and taking this one."
When the party ended, Fred had walked her out to her twelve-year-old Chevy. "Just call me Cinderella," she said with a smile.
She seemed so young, with her long, dark hair and infectious laugh, that it was hard for him to believe that she was the mother of two little boys.
"Does Cinderella have a phone number?" he asked.
And now, as he found himself driving to her house, Fred wondered if this was such a good idea. There was more traffic than he had expected, and he hadn't begun to pack for his trip. He admitted to himself that showing up at her house might be sending Rosita the wrong message. He had no intention of getting too involved with anyone at this point. For the foreseeable future, he wouldn't have enough time to devote to a relationship -- especially one that involves kids, he thought.
Rosita lived in a modest garden-apartment complex not far from Summit. The shortest day of the year was yesterday, Fred thought. I can believe it. At 4:30 it was completely dark. He parked in a visitor's space, went up the path, shifted the festively wrapped plant to one hand, and rang the bell of Rosita's ground-floor unit.
Inside the apartment, seventeen-year-old Nicole Parma was in a state of near hysteria. At the sound of the chimes, she rushed to the door. "Your mother probably forgot her key," she yelled to Chris and Bobby, both of whom were sitting cross-legged in front of the television set.
Neither one of them looked up. "Mommy never forgets her key," six-year-old Chris said matter-of-factly to his younger brother. Only eleven months apart in age, they could pass for twins.
"But Mommy said she'd be home by now," Bobby said, his voice low and troubled. "I don't like Nicole. She won't play with us like Sarah does." Sarah was their regular baby-sitter.
Forgetting all of Rosita's warnings about not opening the door until she knew who was on the other side, Nicole flung it open. Fred did not miss her look of acute disappointment when she saw him standing there.
"Is Mrs. Gonzalez home?" He took a step back, not wanting to suggest that he would make any attempt to enter unless invited.
"No, and I expected her over an hour ago!" The answer was almost a wail.
"It's Fred!" Chris shouted, jumping up.
"Fred!" Bobby echoed.
Both boys were at the door, crowding past Nicole to greet him.
"That's Mommy's friend!" Chris told her. "He's a policeman. He arrests people."
"Hello, you two." Fred looked back at Nicole. "I just wanted to drop this plant off for the boys' mother."
The boys were pulling at Fred's jacket.
"I can tell it's all right if you come in," Nicole said. "Rosita should be here any minute."
"Mommy better be here soon," Chris volunteered as Fred stepped inside. "Nicole's freaking out. She's got to get ready for her dance tonight and doesn't want to look ugly 'cause she lovvvvves her boyfriend. Ha ha ha, Nicole."
If looks could kill, Fred thought, as the young girl glared at Chris.
"You brat! I told you to hang up the phone when I was talking before."
"Kissy, kissy, see you later, I can hardly wait." Chris made a loud smacking sound with his lips.
"Kissy, kissy," Bobby repeated, mimicking his brother's sing-song tone.
"Come on, guys," Fred said. "That's enough." He saw the tears shining in Nicole's eyes. "You're running late, I guess."
"Really late," she confirmed, as her mouth quivered and the tears began to roll down her cheeks.
"Hasn't Rosita called?"
"No. I tried her cell phone, but there was no answer."
"She must be on her way home." The same impulse that had made him stop at the flower shop elicited the next words from his mouth: "Look, I've got some time. I can wait with the kids." He started to pull out his police ID. "You can see the boys know me."
Chris ran over to an end table and picked up a framed picture. It was a group shot taken at the party where Fred and his mother had met. "There he is!" he cried, pointing at the photograph and running over to Nicole. "That's him in the back row."
Nicole barely glanced at Fred's ID or at the good-times snapshot before she was out the door, one arm already in the sleeve of her coat.
"She's a pain," Chris observed. "All she did was talk on the phone with her boyfriend. Yuck."
"She wouldn't play checkers," Bobby said quietly.
"She wouldn't?" Fred said, his voice suitably incredulous. "I love to play checkers. Let's find a place to put Mommy's plant, then we'll see if you two can beat me. Red or black?"
When Regan opened the door, Alvirah waved the cell phone at her. "The call you've been waiting for!" she said breathlessly.
Regan grabbed the phone. "Dad?"
Without hesitation, Alvirah stepped inside and closed the door. I just want to make sure everything's all right, she told herself. But an instant later, judging by the look on Regan's face, she was certain that something was very, very wrong.
Instead of the voice Regan had been expecting to hear, she was chilled by a curt command, "You'll talk to him in a minute. Get rid of whoever is with you."
This isn't the police or a hospital calling, Regan thought. She made a snap decision to let Alvirah stay. Not that she would have had much choice. Alvirah's two feet were practically glued to the marble floor. But the concern in her eyes made Regan glad for her presence. "Thank you, Alvirah," she said loudly. "I won't keep you." She reached past her and noisily opened and closed the door.
That guy doesn't want anyone else to overhear what he's telling Regan, Alvirah thought. Yanking open her coat, she quickly unhooked the sunburst pin that she always wore, turned on its tiny hidden microphone, and handed the pin to Regan.
Regan's eyes widened at first, and then she nodded, realizing what Alvirah intended. "Let me talk to my father," she said as she held the sunburst pin next to her ear and the earpiece of the phone.
"Not so fast," the gruff voice snapped. "I've got a list of demands."
In the houseboat, Petey nodded his approval. "Kind of like a top-ten list," he whispered to Luke, with a friendly punch to his manacled arm.
C.B. glared at him.
C.B. continued. "You must have one million dollars in cash by tomorrow afternoon. It must be in one-hundred-dollar bills, in a duffel bag. At six o'clock on the dot, and I mean on the dot, be in your car driving into Central Park at the Sixth Avenue entrance. You will receive a phone call telling you where to leave the money. Do not call the police if you want to see your father and his cutie-pie chauffeur again. Once the money has been received and counted, you'll get a call about where to pick them up."
Copyright © 2000 by Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark