Authors: Diana Killian
Wrapping the blanket in a great swath around her arm she returned to the window.
There would be noise. There was no way around that, Grace thought. Most of the glass would fall to the ground outside. But now, while they were on the other side of the house, while the rain drummed down on the roof and thundered on the gravel, now was her best opportunity. Taking a deep breath and turning her face away, Grace tapped lightly at the corner windowpane. Breaking windows did not come naturally to her. She feinted again, patting the pane with increasing force.
On the fourth blow the glass cracked across like a spider web. A few pieces fell tinkling to the mattress. Grace stopped, waiting rigidly.
She could hear nothing but the rain. Reaching with the blanket, she pulled loose the broken shards and tossed them to the ticking. When she had worked most of the glass free she wiped her thickly blanketed arm around the casement, making sure all the splinters were removed. Roughly, she dusted the sill.
Grace hastily gathered all the broken pieces of glass off the mattress and piled them in the corner behind the door. One of those shards would make a brutal weapon, though she couldn’t imagine slicing at someone’s face or throat, and that’s what it would come down to if she tried to make a fight of it. Her only thought at the moment was escape.
She tiptoed over to the heating duct and listened. She could hear someone moving downstairs. No sound of alarm. No sound of anyone coming to check on her.
Grace went back to the window and stared out at the mist-shrouded fell. She felt rain against her face. It was oddly comforting, a taste of freedom.
Nightfall opens the door
… Who had written that?
It would be hours before it was actually dark, thanks to the lingering English twilight. She was afraid to chance an escape without the cover of night. But in a few hours the Queen Mother would also be back, and if she feared one of them more than the other, it was he.
Desperately Grace tried to think. Run or wait? If she blew this chance she would be unlikely to get another. Everything in her screamed to go now, but a flicker of caution—or maybe sheer fear—held her motionless.
At last, Grace lugged the mattress back to the cot.
The hours passed slowly. The room slid into complete darkness. Grace paced up and down to keep warm. It was cold, almost bitter, for summer.
She heard the stairs creak beneath heavy feet. The key in the lock had Grace’s heart leaping in her mouth. There was no disguising the cold air gusting through the room from the broken window, nor the rain pooling on the floor, but in the darkness her jailer might not notice. Surely his attention would be on her.
Grace moved over to the cot, settling her back against the wall.
He stood in the doorway holding a kerosene lantern. The sight of the lugubrious dog mask in the flickering light had Grace biting her lip on a hysterical bubble of laughter. He began to back out of the room.
“I’m freezing up here,” Grace chattered out between teeth clicking as much from nerves as cold. “Could I have my jacket? And a light?”
“You don’t need a light. Go to sleep.” He shut the door and relocked it.
Well, it had been worth a try.
A few minutes later the lock scraped, the door opened a crack, and her duffel jacket flew in like a wounded bird, landing on the floor. The man closed and relocked the door before Grace could stir.
Gratefully she shrugged on her jacket and huddled back into the blanket. She resettled on the mattress to wait.
The hours crawled by.
The rain slowed, stopped. The wind sent skeletal fingers clawing at the remaining panes of glass. The rain began again.
Grace heard the van’s return across the echoing emptiness of the valley. Her heart began to slug against her ribs. Rising from the mattress she returned to her listening post by the heating duct.
Not long to wait before she could hear them moving below, their voices distorted by the sounds of rustling paper and the wind in the heating duct.
“What the hell do we do now?”
“—tomorrow—” That was the one with the gun. The Queen Mother.
The other man’s voice rose nervously. “What if we can’t? What if he’s gone to earth? What does the man say?”
The scent of curry wafted up through the vent. Grace’s stomach growled a hungry response so loudly she wondered the men downstairs didn’t hear.
Her lunch at Lakeside Pier was a fond memory now. Grace fantasized about the rashers of thick bacon she had left untouched at breakfast. The voices downstairs droned on unintelligibly. Grace heard something about “Delon.” Was that a person or a place? Obscenities seemed to have the best carrying power, she noted, and the two downstairs lavishly sprinkled their conversation with them.
“What do we do with the bird?”
As tensely as Grace listened she could not catch the reply to this. There was more undertone talk. The first man’s voice rose and was cut off by the Queen Mum’s stream of swearing.
Grace’s blood ran cold. “Ice Fox?” She’d watched enough TV to know what that meant.
“You’re off your bloody nut! I knew this would never work. If you cross him and—”
“Do you want to cross the man?”
Sharp silence followed.
The Queen Mother said scornfully, “You don’t think big enough, that’s your problem.”
“You think we should go into business for ourselves?”
“I think—options open.”
The voices faded out again.
After a while Grace gave up and returned to her nest on the mattress. An hour passed. She listened to the minutes tick by on her wristwatch as the house sank into uneasy slumber.
There had not been a sound from downstairs in ages. Nothing to indicate her captors were not sleeping. The first hours of sleep were the deepest. If she was going to make a try at escape it should be now. Now with darkness to cover her and the drumming of rain to deaden the sound.
Grace crossed to the window and stared down. It was about a twelve-foot drop. Far enough to break an ankle or leg, if not her neck.
In her navy duffel coat and jeans she made a suitably dark silhouette, but the bulky coat added too many inches to squeeze through the small window frame. Grace stripped off the coat, shoved it out into the tree branches where it dangled precariously and fell to the ground.
Agonizing seconds passed while Grace waited for signs of alarm. There was nothing. She decided to go ahead. She studied the window opening. Should she try head first or feet first?
A nosedive out the window did not appeal, but the other way she had no way of spotting a foothold. There was no sill as such on the outside of the window, and no screens.
Grace finally decided on headfirst. Squeezing her arms and shoulders out through the open window she groped for a branch strong enough to take her full weight. It was like trying to find an opening in a wall of brambles. Putting her eye out was a real possibility. Ducking her head Grace reached still farther till she found a limb that felt thicker than the others and grabbed on tight.
Twigs poking her head, hair and shoulders already soaked, Grace pushed the rest of the way through the window. The branch she clung to dipped with her weight. Grace found herself in a vulnerable position, spread-eagled across the drop between tree and house.
Don’t look down, she warned herself doggedly.
The tree limb sank and sprang back, and Grace had a vivid picture of herself bucked clear over the roof of the house. She bit her lip against a hysterical laugh, but all humor fled as the branch gave an alarming crack. Grace hoped to heaven the storm howling around the house would mask the sounds of her clumsy escape.
She pushed off from the windowsill with a silent prayer.
Clinging monkey-style, she shinnied toward the tree trunk, shoving through the twigs catching at her hair and clothes. She balanced unsteadily on her wooden perch. Dead leaves and sticks rained to the ground.
Grace stared down. Light from the kitchen window pooled on the ground below. Stealthily she lowered herself to the next branch, twigs snarling her hair and pulling her sweater. When she was near the ground she half fell, half dropped out of the tree, landing on her haunches in the soft mud.
Grace picked herself up off her soggy behind and hustled into the duffel coat, fingers fumbling with cold and fright as she drew the hood down over her hair. She hoped with her head covered, the long line of the navy coat and her dark jeans would present only a shadow to any watcher.
Creeping to the window, Grace leaned against the stone wall, panting softly. Fear warred with the knowledge that if she could get her car keys, her chances of escape would be much better. On foot out in this wilderness what chance would she stand once her flight was discovered? She didn’t even know what direction to run in.
Inch by inch Grace raised her head until she could peek over the windowsill. Her heart froze.
One of her captors sat at a table reading
and smoking. Facing the hall and the stairs leading to Grace’s prison, his back was to the window where Grace stood, otherwise her escape would have ended then and there. He read on unperturbed.
Grace spotted a wig and rubber mask tossed carelessly amid the Indian take-out containers. She studied the square set of his shoulders. He had long dark hair in a ponytail with a thick gray streak down the back. Grace was sure she would recognize him by that distinguishing feature alone.
Her eyes darted around the room. Her suitcases were tossed carelessly in the corner. Everything had been dumped out and pawed through. She could see one of her little apothecary bottles smashed on the floor. The two Regency romances she had brought were sitting on the table next to the man’s elbow. She did not see her purse or keys anywhere.
Perhaps they were still in her car? She weighed the risk of creeping round to the front of the house on the slim chance that her captors had conveniently left her keys in the ignition. What if the man in the house noticed she was gone? What if the Queen Mother returned? She could only too vividly picture herself caught in the headlights of the Queen Mother’s van.
Grace turned from the window and picked her way on tiptoe through the overgrown vegetable patch. Behind a broken-down shed she located a footpath and ran, pushing through the bracken, heading for the hills.
P.C. Kenton looked uncomfortable. “The thing of it is, miss,” he began to explain, “Mr. Fox left word with the Innisdale police that he’s away on business till next week. A buying trip of some sort. They’ve left a message on his machine. There’s really no point in sending anyone over.”
And you don’t believe me anyway, Grace thought bitterly.
She had walked for hours in the rain last night, covering miles of lonely dirt track before a dairy truck had picked her up.
The driver clearly thought she was yet another demented Yankee tourist, and at the first village they had come to had been only too happy to hand Grace straight over to the police station.
The police, or P.C. Kenton as it turned out, had been shocked and sympathetic. He had energetically wasted several hours with Grace exploring the country’s back roads (and getting lost several times) before finding the right deserted farmhouse. Grace’s car had been parked out front, keys hanging in the ignition. Her packed suitcases were inside.
“My suitcases were in the house,” Grace told the constable. “They put them here for some reason.”
“For what reason, miss?”
Grace shook her head.
The house itself was locked. Inside there was no sign that anyone had been there except for footsteps in the layers of dust and some rice grains on the battered table in the kitchen.
“There will be glass from the broken window up-stairs,” Grace told the constable, reading the doubt on his face.
They trooped upstairs, and sure enough there was a small pile of glass glittering in the dust behind the bedroom door.
“There, you see!” Grace said triumphantly.
P.C. Kenton nodded. He seemed more uncomfortable than reassured.
“Shouldn’t you at least take photos of the foot-prints?” Grace urged.
P.C. Kenton had obligingly taken photos, but it was clearly to humor Grace.
“It’s not that I don’t believe you, miss,” P.C. Kenton added now, hastily, as though reading Grace’s face. “It’s plain as punch you’ve been through … well,
. But the thing of it is …”
“Yes, I know,” Grace sighed. “I’ve got my car back and most of my belongings, and since there’s no trace of anyone at the farm, and I wasn’t actually harmed, why make a fuss?”
“I never said that,” protested the constable. “Kidnapping’s a serious offense. If this
a kidnapping and not a—a—?”
“A what?” inquired Grace. “A prank? They’ve taken my passport and my wallet. And my airline tickets.” And two romance novels, but why confuse the issue?
P.C. Kenton suddenly brightened. “Perhaps they were terrorists, miss! Did they say anything to indicate they might be terrorists?”
Grace shook her head. “No. I’m sure they weren’t terrorists.”
“There are a lot of terrorists about these days.”
“They weren’t terrorists. They weren’t pranksters either.”
“Then you must see how it is, Miss Hollister. If they weren’t amateurs and they weren’t terrorists, then the lads who picked you up were pros. They didn’t leave so much as a cigarette butt at that farmhouse. They’ll have worn gloves, everyone does these days. You yourself said you’d only a glimpse of the back of one chap’s head. I just don’t see—we’re not Scotland Yard, miss!”
Grace gave it up. It was no use asking a village constable to sort out attempted murder and “gewgaws.” The fact was, P.C. Kenton had his hands full with a missing cow and graffiti on a church wall. Grace thought grimly that it had never really been a plan on the part of the kidnappers to snatch her. The farmhouse room had been selected to imprison a man. A man whose wide shoulders would never squeeze though a box-sized window, and whose six-foot frame could never be supported by a half-dead tree. Perhaps, having lost Grace, her captors would return to their original plan of finding Peter Fox.
Of “icing” Peter Fox?
Grace set down the mug of tea and rose to her feet. “Thank you for all your help, P.C. Kenton,” she said. “I think you’re right. I think the best thing to do is put this out of my mind and get on with my vacation.”
P.C. Kenton looked relieved. “That’s the ticket, Miss Hollister. I’m sure those two scoundrels have realized their mistake. They know the police have their description. You won’t be bothered again.”
Right, thought Grace. The police will be looking for a giant dog and the Queen Mother. Why worry?
The message on the answering machine of Monica’s friend Calum informed all and sundry that the professor had gone to Scotland for the weekend.
“Monica, I could murder you myself,” Grace muttered inside the red kiosk. She hung the phone up with a bang.
Now what? she wondered. Climbing back into the battered mini, she unfolded a road map, blearily studying it. She was not at her best and brightest this afternoon. She had blisters on her feet, scratches on her face. She looked like a bag lady. She felt like something a bag lady would turn up her nose at.
Surely her “responsibility” to Peter Fox (assuming she had any) ended once she had gone to the police? She had told P.C. Kenton everything she knew, which was not much, and P.C. Kenton informed the chief constable of the county. The matter was now in the hands of the local authorities.
P.C. Kenton believed Grace was the victim of an elaborate but random tourist mugging. He seemed sure Grace was leaping to all kinds of wild conclusions in connecting Peter Fox’s accident to her own misadventure. And it did sound awfully far-fetched, Grace had to admit. She rested her forehead on the steering wheel and tried to think. She was so tired. She wanted to believe the constable. She wanted to believe it was all over. But she couldn’t quite convince herself.
They had taken her passport and airline tickets. Why? So she couldn’t leave the country? They had to know that she didn’t have whatever it was they were looking for. Had they taken her tickets and passport for spite? Was this the reaction of the thwarted criminal mind? Grace sat up.
So now what? She couldn’t get hold of Monica and she couldn’t get hold of Peter Fox. The police told her she was perfectly safe, but unless she drove straight to London and grabbed the first available flight out of the country (which she could hardly do without her passport and airline tickets), Grace feared she might still be in jeopardy.
She smothered another tearing yawn that was half exhaustion, half nerves. What she wanted was a hot bath, a thick steak with all the trimmings, and twenty-four hours of undisturbed sleep.
P.C. Kenton had alternately believed Grace to be the victim of a prank—given the Guy Fawkes masks—the impulse mugging of a helpless tourist, or a terrorist attack.
“They were probably drunk, miss,” he had offered by way of comfort, so maybe in the end he had believed Grace was the victim of crazed alcoholics.
But they had not been drunk and they had not mistaken Grace for anyone else. They had been dead serious, and Grace knew they were not going to give up so easily. With a sigh she put the key in the ignition and began driving once more.
It was late afternoon when Grace stopped in Innisdale, a storybook village of white cottages with slate roofs. Pots and window boxes bursting with Fall flowers decorated stoops and sills. Smoke from cozy hearths drifted into the darkling skies. Grace found the tourist information center without trouble. A two-story pink building with a giant one-armed clock facing the village square, the center shared cramped lodgings with the post office. Her inquiry brought the welcome news that her quest was nearly done. Craddock House lay less than ten miles away.
Grace got back in her car and crossed a stone bridge beneath which swans glided on peaceful water. Leaving the village behind, she drove on through a small, dark wood. Grace came upon Craddock House at the precise moment the sun drifted out from behind thunderclouds to bathe the glen in golden radiance.
For a moment Grace simply sat there blinking. It was the most beautiful house she had ever seen. From the road the ground level was half hidden behind trimmed hedges and banks of flowers, both cultivated and wild, a riot of color against the whitewashed walls and silver slate roof. Grace could count at least three chimneys and numerous diamond-paned windows. Behind the house hedges and shrubs gave way to more forest.
Grace parked well off the road under the low-hanging trees, got out of the mini and walked up the hillside path of flagstones. The afternoon smelled of wet grass and cool flowers. There was the bite of wood smoke in the air. As Grace drew near she realized the first floor of Craddock House had been given over to a shop. A long rectangular sign hung over the door. Gold script on black wood pronounced, “Rogue’s Gallery.” In a huge bow window pranced a full-sized merry-go-round charger, black mane flying, gilt hooves pawing.
An antique shop, Grace realized. She read the placard in the window beneath the charger’s hooves:
What had she expected?
Automatically she tried the door handle. To her surprise the door swung open with a soft jingle of bells, as though it had not been latched properly.
Grace stepped inside the shop, looking about herself uneasily. She was a law-abiding woman, and breaking and entering was not part of her makeup.
The room was an antique lover’s dream. A book lover’s dream. Directly over the shop the entire second story was paneled in towering bookshelves, accessible only from the narrow landing. A staircase led up to the second floor; a doorway on the landing led into what must be Peter Fox’s living quarters.
Grace’s eye fell on a fan-shaped display of war axes and pikes hanging above the staircase. One set of hooks was conspicuously bare; a recent sale perhaps.
The room felt cold and smelt of old books. Grace absently chaffed her arms as she stared about herself. There was no sign of anyone. The room, the building, felt empty. She glanced up. A ship’s figurehead hung suspended from the high vault ceiling, a full-breasted mermaid in dark wood appeared to be diving down into the room.
Grace tried to connect all this with what she knew of Peter Fox. An antique dealer? Somehow that didn’t seem to fit, and yet this hodgepodge of collectibles and curiosities did.
There were Chippendale and Prince of Wales chairs, a muffin stand supporting a large Egyptian resin cat. On the wall by the bay window were several Japanese kabuki masks. Directly across hung a very old map in muted tints, beautiful and highly inaccurate, Grace thought with a mental smile.
Her eyes fell on a squat oak dresser supporting a variety of Staffordshire pottery in blues, reds, and browns; four sixth century Grecian urns, and two grinning skulls.
. Grace shivered and walked toward the counter at the back of the shop.
“Hello?” she called. “Anyone here?”
Her voice sounded loud in the vintage silence. For some reason Grace began to feel anxious. Although the shop seemed empty, there was something peculiar …
She turned, starting up the stairs to the doorway on the second landing. The stairs creaked and Grace glanced over her shoulder half expecting to see some shadowy figure detach itself from the corners of the showroom below.
Reaching the top landing, she tried the door. This, too, opened. The man was clearly uninterested in security, she decided.
For what felt like a long time Grace simply stood on the threshold, weighing her options. And then she walked into an airy whitewashed room with high ceilings, dark, open beams and bare wood floors. It was an elegant room but at the same time a masculine room. The furniture was comfortable and old, dark woods and red leather. With unabashed curiosity she gazed about herself. There was a glass-topped curio case serving as a coffee table. A huge moon-faced grandfather clock stood against one wall. A mounted telescope aimed out of white-framed Georgian windows at the road and wood-line beyond. Books were everywhere: on shelves, on the polished floors, on a seven-foot tall chinoiserie cabinet. A pair of Wellington boots stood beside the door.
Grace’s brows rose. “Hel-low?” she called, but more softly. Although she was here on a mission, in Peter Fox’s private rooms Grace was unhappily conscious of being an intruder.
She walked quickly through the rest of the flat, a couple of bedrooms, a bath, laundry room, pantry and kitchen. The kitchen, like all the rooms, was large and airy. Gleaming kettles hung from above. Scrubbed pine table and chairs were ensconced in a cozy nook overlooking the rose garden below. Oak-leaf china shone from behind glass-fronted cupboards. An answering machine sat on the counter, blinking away in the tidy quiet.
After a hesitation Grace pressed playback.
man,” trilled one of those imperious feminine voices. “What do you mean leaving town without a
-word? You never said about the Huxleys on Wednesday, darling. Call me!”
“Peter,” breathed the next voice in what Grace supposed were dulcet tones, “you
an angel. Thank you so much. I’ll be wearing it Wednesday at the Huxleys’.” This was followed by kissing sounds.
“Double booking,” Grace muttered. “No wonder he thought he’d better skip town.”
These calls were followed by several business calls regarding pieces other dealers thought Peter might be interested in, and buyers asking him to scout around for various things. It certainly sounded legitimate.