High Rhymes and Misdemeanors (4 page)

BOOK: High Rhymes and Misdemeanors
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The turnoff lay just a few yards ahead.

Three yards.

Two yards.

Grace cut the wheel sharply and the mini spun out, gravel spraying beneath its tires. Very nearly turning over, the mini rocked back onto all four tires, managing to stay upright, and sat there, its engine running.

Shaking, Grace leaned over the wheel, fully expecting to see the black van go hurtling past in her side mirrors. Instead the van screeched up perpendicular to the mini, effectively blocking entrance to the road. The cab doors flew open and two men got out, striding to where Grace idled.

Shock held her speechless. For a moment she thought it might be Mutt and Jeff, but no, something about their height and builds didn’t match up. One of the men was a little taller, one was a little broader. They were dressed in dark casual clothes, jeans and sweaters, and they wore wigs and Halloween masks: the taller man, a flop-eared hound dog; his stockier companion, a beaming caricature of the late Queen Mother.

The driver, the Queen Mother, reached the mini first, and yanked on the passenger door handle, which was fortunately locked. Belatedly Grace’s survival instincts kicked into gear. She turned the key in the ignition, which was already running, causing an alarming grinding of the engine.

Fumbling, she found the unfamiliar shift and threw the car into reverse, dislodging the second man who was tugging on the handle of her door.

As the first man thumped hard on the windshield, Grace looked up. He was pointing an enormous black gun at her. The glass between them seemed like no barrier at all as he made a convincingly threatening gesture.

Grace didn’t know what to do. In her entire life she had never faced a genuinely violent situation—barring the occasional brawl between the young ladies of St. Anne’s. She had never held a real gun, let alone had one pointed at her. Staring wide-eyed, Grace tried to think with a brain that felt freeze-dried.

“Get out of the car!” The man on Grace’s side pounded on her window. He wore black leather gloves, deadening the sound of blows heavy enough to break the glass.

Grace turned off the engine and the car shuddered to a stop. Numbly she felt for the seat belt release. She unlocked the door. What choice did she have? They could shoot the tires of her car and smash the window in. They could shoot her through the window for that matter. Even if she could get past the guns, she wasn’t going anywhere with their van blocking the main road.

The man sporting the hound dog mask jerked open the car door and grabbed Grace’s arm, dragging her out of the mini. Grace fell against the side of the car.

The other man, the one with the Queen Mother mask and the gun, came around the hood of the car. He said, his voice muffled through the mask, “Where is he?”

“Who?” Grace gasped.

“The fox.”

“The w-what?”

The Queen Mother turned to the hound dog. “This is the right bird? You’re sure?”

“It’s her all right.”

The Queen Mother slapped Grace hard, open palmed. Grace’s head rocked back. She saw stars.

“Don’t mess me about,” he snarled.

“I’m n-not!” Tears of fright and fury sprang to Grace’s eyes. Her teeth felt loose. She put her hand up to her jaw. One thing burned in her brain, she was not going to cry in front of these animals.

“Where’s Fox?” the other man chimed in. “We know you’re in it together.”

“What are you talking about?” Grace cried. But her mind began to turn over. Not
the
fox, as in a four-footed woodland creature, but Fox, as in Peter. As in the man who didn’t want police involved even after an attempt on his life. A man who disappeared in the middle of the night—apparently with good reason.

The guy in the dog mask began to rummage through Grace’s purse in the front seat. The other man waved the gun before her nose. Behind the mask his pale eyes were cold and menacing.

Grace chattered out, “I don’t know him. Last night was the first time I ever laid eyes on him. I don’t know where he’s gone. I don’t know anything about him.”

The man in her car turned his head, his mask askew and said, “I saw you kissing the life back into him last night.”

“That was mouth-to-mouth resuscitation! I never saw him before,” Grace insisted. “I’d have done the same for anyone.”

“Why did you follow him out there if you didn’t know him?”

“I didn’t! I was out for a walk. I just found him in the stream.”

The Queen Mother said slyly, “Teach you to mind your own business then, won’t it?”

“She knows him all right,” the dog mask interrupted triumphantly, holding aloft Grace’s copy of
Walker’s Britain
. “His address is scribbled here.” He indicated the flyleaf where Grace had jotted down Peter Fox’s address.

Both masks turned accusingly to Grace. She said helplessly, “I don’t know him.”

The Queen Mother uttered an ugly chuckle. “That’s your story, you stick to it. I suppose you don’t know anything about gewgaws either?”

This can’t be happening,
Grace thought dizzily.
I’m dreaming
. The rain pattering on her face, bouncing off the cars, soaking the ground where they stood told her she wasn’t.

“Nothing in here,” the man in the car continued, rifling the contents of Grace’s shoulder bag. He pulled out her passport. “Grace Hollister, thirty-three. She’s American.” He made a sound of contempt.

“Save the inventory,” barked the Queen Mother. “Fox won’t have left the stuff with her.” He jerked his head toward the van. “Come ahead, we can’t stand about all day. Someone’s liable to come by.” He reached out a massive, gloved fist, and Grace shrank back.

Grabbing Grace’s braid, he hauled her face up to his plastic one. The Queen Mother’s face smiled benignly, at odds with the threats issuing through the molded lips. “Listen up, ducks, you do what I tell you and maybe you won’t get hurt.”

“What do you need her for?” objected the hound dog.

Blue eyes shifted briefly from Grace’s. “Use your loaf,” he snarled. “We’ll trade her for the gewgaws.”

“Fox won’t go for that.”

“He’d better.” The mask turned back to Grace. “For your sake.”

“You’re making a mistake,” Grace got out desperately.

Neither man listened. The Queen Mother shoved Grace forward toward the van.

In less than a minute Grace found herself facedown on the grease-stained carpet in the back of the van. She could hear the mini’s engine gunning as the van doors slammed shut. Rain rattled on the metal roof.

“Keep your head down,” the Queen Mother ordered, settling in behind the steering wheel. “Try to see where we’re going and I’ll break your nose for you.”

Grace believed him. She cradled her head on her arms as the van’s engine roared into life. The van backed up sharply and she dug her fingers into the carpet, trying to keep from tumbling forward. A moment later tires skidded back onto the main road, and they hurtled down the highway.

For what felt like ages they drove, the van clattering alarmingly as they banged down on potholes. The driver did not speak, fiddling incessantly with the radio knobs, finally settling on a talk show.

As Grace’s initial shock and fear wore off she was able to think rationally, and the first rational thought that occurred was that if her abductors bothered to wear masks and didn’t want her to see where they were headed, then there was a good chance they did plan on letting her go.

On the other hand, if her rescue depended on Peter Fox’s cooperation …?

Grace could not imagine what her Good Samaritan stunt yesterday had involved her in, but apparently attempted murder was just the beginning. Pulling Peter Fox out of that stream just might have been the biggest mistake of Grace’s life.

Would Peter Fox be willing to trade gewgaws for Grace? What were gewgaws exactly? Jewels? Or was it some modern slang for drugs?

Perhaps these two had attacked Peter last night, and not Mutt and Jeff. Could two separate sets of thugs be after the man? Just who was Peter Fox? What had he involved her in?

Fingers clenching the diesel-smelling carpet as the van fishtailed left and right, Grace no longer doubted the seriousness of that attack on Peter’s life.
Had
he left the inn last night of his own free will? Maybe he was already dead.

Then again, maybe he was on the run. If so, how would he find out about Grace’s plight? If Peter Fox did know Grace was in trouble, maybe he didn’t care, especially if he were a crook, too.

The van finally left the main highway, bumping along a dirt track; Grace tried to keep straight which direction they were traveling in, but the smell of dust and exhaust fumes under the rear doors made her a little nauseous. She reminded herself that if she did survive she would need to know where to bring the police.

Grace could only rely on herself. Monica wouldn’t worry if she didn’t hear from her until Grace missed their flight. That was eight days—no, seven days now—away. By then Grace could be long dead.

With a suddenness that took her by surprise, the van lurched to a stop. How long had they traveled west? At least an hour. Motionless, Grace waited for the next development.

The driver turned around in his seat, commanding Grace to stay down. She obeyed, listening as he climbed out, hearing the crunching of his feet on gravel as he came around to the rear of the van.

The mini’s engine whined as it parked behind the van.

The next instant the back doors of the van flew wide. Before Grace could sit up she was hauled out into the misting rain, and shoved against the bumper. All this pushing and pulling was beginning to make her mad, a healthy reaction to being victimized. She leaned against the van and glared at the two men in their silly masks.

“Look, you have got—”

“No, you look,” the Queen Mum shot back. Twisting Grace’s arm behind her back he swung her about so that she had a clear view of the abandoned farmhouse and outlying buildings. “Take a good look. What do you see?”

Despite the pain in her arm and shoulder, Grace looked. It was obvious the whitewashed buildings had not been inhabited for years. Weeds overgrew the vegetable garden and flowerbeds. The yew trees surrounding the house were wild and brambly. The house had a couple of broken windows and a tumbledown chimney. Slates were missing in patches from the roof.

There was not another house as far as the eye could see, nor even another road. Nothing but rain-swept empty hills disappearing into gray mist.

“Nothing,” she bit out.

“Too right,” said the Queen Mum. “Nothing. No phone, no gas, no electric and
no body
. There isn’t anyone to hear you scream, so scream your bloody head off. And there isn’t anywhere to run, so don’t get any bright ideas. You’ll be wasting your time—and mine. And I don’t like people who waste my time.”

Together they trooped into the house. Uneasily Grace gazed about. Mildew stained the walls, cobwebs draped from light fixtures. The floor was beginning to rot.

Marched up a narrow flight of stairs, Grace found herself thrown into a room with multi-paned windows looking over the outlying sheds and lonely moors. In one corner of the room stood a cot; in the other, a metal bucket. That completed the furnishings.

The door locked behind Grace.

Picking herself up, Grace examined her prison more closely. In the dying light she could see faded wallpaper peeling from the walls in sheets. The wooden floor was thick with years of dust and dirt. Listening to the pinpricks of rain against the windows, Grace was nearly overcome with despair.

Angrily she pushed these feelings aside. Feeling sorry for herself would accomplish nothing. She had to start using her head. Going to the window, Grace stared out through the tangle of tree limbs. She felt round for the catch. It took her several minutes in the fading light to identify the old-fashioned latch. By the time she found it, Grace had also noticed bright shiny studs fastening the sill down.

Frustrated, she stood back and studied the window. It was made up of four panes of glass, each about two-by-two across. Voices drifted eerily up from downstairs. She traced their source back to the heating register on the floor. Kneeling down beside the fancy iron grid covering what must have once been the heating duct, she listened tensely.

“When will you be back?” It was the other man. The dog mask man. Grace’s heart lifted. One less kidnapper improved her chances of escape fifty percent. And if she had to be left alone with one of them she preferred Man’s Best Friend to the gun-toting Queen Mother.

The Queen Mother growled something that Grace couldn’t pick up through the air shaft.

“What if he doesn’t come through?”

“He will.”

“Maybe she’s telling the truth. Not much his usual style, is she?”

“They’re all his style.”

More that Grace couldn’t hear. Then one of them, she thought the Queen Mother, snarled, “I’ll bring something back. Don’t be a bloody nit. One of us has to watch her. You might be recognized.”

“Twenty years later? Not bloody likely.”

Their voices faded. They must be walking out toward the cars.

Grace hopped up, swiftly crossing to the cot and grabbing the moldy mattress. She dragged it under the window. Wildly, she visualized shoving the mattress out and jumping after it, her fall cushioned by the rotting stuffing. A quick reality check stopped her. The branches against the windows were too close to throw anything down—even if she could stuff the mattress through the small frame, which was unlikely.

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