Authors: Heather Graham
With much love and best wishes for some wonderful people
who are like Christmas gifts all year long:
Aaron Priest, Lucy Childs, Adam Wilson, Dianne Moggy,
Margaret Marbury, Loriana Sacilotto, Donna Hayes,
Craig Swinwood, Alex Osuszek, K.O., Marleah and all the folks
in PR and art, and very especially for an incredible woman
who can also spellâLeslie Wainger.
The old man, frail and almost skeletally thin, stared at them in disbelief. His voice was tremulous, and he seemed to shake like a delicate, wind-blown leaf.
“You're right. It
Christmas Eve, old-timer, and you're not supposed to be here,” Scooter said.
Craig found that he couldn't speak. This wasn't supposed to happen. There shouldn't have been anyone here. When he'd hooked up with Scooter Blane, the man had been all but invisible. He and his partner, Quintin Lark, were becoming heroes in a certain stratum of underworld society for their long string of extremely profitable robberies. But no one had ever gotten hurt. Ever.
But they only hit places that were empty.
Like this place should have been today.
There had been rumors, though. Rumors that the pair could be ruthless when they chose. But rumors were just rumors. Crooks needed them, went out of their way to create them, because they lived and died for them.
Killed for them?
But the real word on the street was that the pair were experts at slipping in and slipping out. Hitting fast, disappearing.
As far as Craig had been aware, they had never hurt anyone or even, thanks to careful planning, come across anyone still working during one of their heists.
He had discovered when he threw in with them that Scooter was frighteningly savvy with electronics. He'd seen that demonstrated when they arrived tonight and Scooter had broken the alarm code in a matter of seconds, unlocking the door as if they were being invited right in by an invisible host.
Now he was discovering that Scooter was equally adept with firearms.
Like the Smith & Wesson .48 special he suddenly pulled.
here. And I'm not letting you destroy my livelihood,” the old man said now, despite the gun in Scooter's hand.
Craig was pretty sure that the octogenarian's name had to be Hudson. The sign on the small shop in the valley advertised it as Hudson & Son, Fine Art, Antiques, Memorabilia and Jewelry.
It was the jewelry and antiques they'd come for. Scooter and Quintin were becoming infamous all through the Northeast for knocking off a long string of jewelry and antique stores. They went for family establishmentsâthe type not found in malls. The kind in small towns, where the biggest crimes tended to be speeding or graffiti. They struck, then disappeared, and the insurance agencies were the ones to pay. Easy in, easy out, and no one got hurt, except in the wallet.
Craig had never heard of Scooter or Quintin using a gun.
Then again, he'd never heard of them ripping off a place where someone had remained behind after hours.
But there was a first time for everything. Here, in a little hick town in Massachusetts, they had found the place where someone was still around.
Craig felt ill.
He knew the pair were successful because of Scooter's talent with electronics, which ensured that they were never caught on videotape. No witness could ever describe their faces, because there never were any witnesses. In short, they had never been seen.
“Scooter, it's Christmas. Let's just get the hell out of here,” Craig said.
Scooter looked at him, shaking his head as he scooped up jewelry and threw it into a bag. “No, sorry, I don't think so. Even if I wanted to, and I don't, I don't think Quintin's ready to go.”
That was all too obvious, Craig thought, looking over at the other man. Already Craig had figured out that, while Scooter talked as if he called the shots, it was Quintin who really ran the operation. And Quintin wasn't all that fond of Craig, so he knew he had to be careful.
“There's got to be a safe, so open it, pops,” Quintin was saying now.
“Sir, please,” Craig said politely to Mr. Hudson, silently begging the old man to back down and do as he was told. “Open the safe.”
“I'll shoot you, you old fart, and don't think I won't,” Scooter told him.
“Do it,” the old man said.
“Come on, guys. There's a storm coming in, and we need to get the hell out of here before it does,” Craig said. “Why don't we just leave the old guy alone and get out of here?”
“Told you that the kid was a mistake,” Quintin said disgustedly to Scooter. Quintin was a big man, but not fat. He was pure muscle, with small dark eyes, a bald head and the shoulders of an orangutan. He was oddly fanatic in his dress. He liked to be neat, and he was fond of designer clothing. He was in his forties, and despite his occupation, he was quite capable of speaking and appearing like a gentleman.
Scooter was just the opposite: thin as a rail. He had a wiry strength, though. Sandy hair worn a little too long, and eyes that were so pale a blue they were almost colorless. Scooter was somewhere in his mid-thirties, and Craig was becoming more and more convinced that he had some kind of learning disability. He often sounded totally vicious, but at other times his voice held the awe of a child, and he was sometimes slow.
Craig was the youngest of their trio and the newcomer. He wondered just how odd he looked, joined up with the two of them. At twenty-five, he considered himself in good shape, but, of course, the life he'd chosen demanded that he be fit. Bitterness at the past had made him work hard. He was blue-eyed and blond, like the boy next door. Quintin had liked that about him. What Quintin didn't like about him, Craig had never quite figured out.
As they all stood there, at something of an impasse, the store was suddenly cast into pitch-darkness as a loud crack announced the splitting of a nearby power pole.
“Nobody move,” Scooter snapped.
A backup generator kicked in almost immediately, and they were bathed in a soft, slightly reddish light. In those few seconds, though, the old man had tried to hit the alarm. Craig could read the truth in his eyes and in the nervous energy that made him shake just slightly. Scooter saw it, too.
“You stupid old fool,” Scooter said softly.
“The power was out,” Craig said quickly. “The alarm was dead.”
“I don't give a damn,” Scooter said. “Open the safe. Now!”
But old man Hudson seemed totally indifferent to his own impending doom. He even smiled. “I don't care if you shoot me.”
“Just open the safe, sir. What can possibly be in there that's worth your life?” Craig asked.
Quintin looked at him contemptuously.
“Look, you old fool,” Quintin said to Hudson, “He won't just shoot you, he'll make you hurt. He'll shoot your kneecaps, and then he'll shoot your teeny-weeny little pecker. Now open the safe!”
“You must have insurance,” Craig pointed out reasonably. He was stunned at Quintin's viciousness. Not that he knew the man well. This was actually his first real job with Scooter and Quintin. Before, he had been trying to pass muster. When he'd been taken along tonight, he'd thought he'd been cleared. And he had beenâby Scooter. But Quintin was hard.
And Quintin didn't like him. Didn't trust him.
Craig knew they'd worked with another guy before, who hadn't been arrested, and hadn't been found dead. He had just disappeared. And that was how Craig had gotten in.
Well, he'd wanted in, and he'd gotten what he wanted, Craig thought, and swore silently to himself. This wasn't the way it should have gone. And now he was going to have to do something about that.
Scooter still looked ready to shoot. The situation was rapidly turning violent.
Craig reached nonchalantly behind his back for the Glock he carried tucked into his waistband. Before he could produce it, Quintin slammed him on the shoulder. “You've got no bullets, buddy,” he said softly.
Craig frowned fiercely, staring at him.
Quintin stared back, dark eyes cool and assessing. “Were you planning to shoot the old manâor one of us?” he asked. “I took away your bullets,
“Why'd you do that?” Scooter demanded.
“Didn't you hear me? I don't trust him not to shoot one of us,” Quintin said, then turned back to Hudson. “Come on, asshole. It's now or never.”
the asshole, Quintin,” Craig said. Damn it, he thought. What was he going to do without any bullets?
Finally the old man turned and started turning the dial on the safe. As soon as it opened, he stepped away, staring off into the distance, as if none of it meant anything to him anymore.
Craig felt a sudden deep, overwhelming surge of sadness. What the hell was this old man doing alone on Christmas Eve? Where was the son listed on the sign? Where was the rest of his family?
Was this really the sum of life? Men wanted sons. Sons wanted the keys to the car.
the son said.
I'll help with the business.
And then he found something else that interested him more and was gone, until one day Dad was old. And alone.
“Bag it up,” Scooter demanded, pointing to the bills and jewelry in the safe. “Bag it all up.”
“You know you're not going anywhere, right?” the old man asked calmly.
“Wrong, pops. We're going straight to New York City. Hiding in plain sight,” Scooter said happily.
Craig felt his stomach drop. Scooter had just told the old man their plans, not to mention that Hudson had seen their faces. Craig could practically see the death warrant in his mind.
“A nor'easter is coming in,” the old man said, sounding so casual. “Hasn't been one this bad in years, I can tell you.”
turning; Craig could feel it. The storm that should have gone north of them had veered south instead, he thought, then went back to wondering why Hudson was at work and alone on Christmas Eve.
“Right. Like I'm afraid of a little snow.” Scooter sniffed.
Did the old man have a cell phone? Craig wondered. He had lied before. He was certain the man had hit his alarm already, but there were no sirens drawing near, no sign of help.
Now, with no indication of panic or hurry, the man started filling the bag Scooter handed him with bills and jewelry.
“We got it all. Let's go,” Craig said.
go,” Quintin said. “Get in the driver's seat and wait for us. And don't fuck up.”
“Let's all get the hell out of here,” Craig said. “Come on. You've got what you came for.”
“Wuss.” Quintin sniffed. “Or worse.”
“What do you mean, worse?” Scooter asked.
“I'm no cop. I just don't want to do life over a couple of lousy bracelets,” Craig said, but he felt a bead of sweat on his upper lip. Quintin was one scary SOB. His eyes were like glass. No emotion, empathy or remorse lay anywhere behind that stare.
“The old guy's seen our faces, and thanks to Scooterâ” he shot the man a scathing glance “âhe knows where we're going,” Quintin said.
“And he's probably legally blind and totally deaf,” Craig argued.
“I'm not taking that chance,” Quintin said harshly.
“And I'm not going to be party to murder,” Craig said and turned to appeal to the other man. “Scooter, you're an idiot if you listen to this thug,” he said. “We'll all get locked away forever for murder, and I'm not as old as you guys. I don't want to spend the next fifty years without a woman.”
Quintin started to laugh. “Don't worry about it, kid. They lock up people like Martha Stewart. Killers, hell, they get to walk away free. Crazy, isn't it?”
“Craigâ¦we gotta do what Quintin says,” Scooter insisted.
“Even if what he says is stupid?” Craig asked.
“Fuck you,” Quintin said, casually pulling out a gun. “Keep talking like that and you won't have to worry about jail.”
Craig assessed his situation. No question it was dire. He was probably in the best shape of his life, and he was the youngest of the three of them. In a fair fight, he could probably take out Quintin, no matter that the man was an ape. But there were two of them. And it wasn't going to be a fair fight. Because they had guns. With bullets.
There would never be a fair fight with Quintin.
He turned to plead with Scooter again, but he was too late. Quintin, moving faster than Craig would have thought possible for a man his size, cracked Craig on the head with the butt of his gun.
Craig literally saw stars, and then the world went black.
As he sank to the ground, he heard the deafening sound of an explosion.
The blast of a gunâ¦
He'd screwed up.
What a great, last thought to haveâand on Christmas Eve.