At the age of twenty-two, newly-graduated Nicolo Liguori was forced by his three brothers to become care-giver for his father and for the next ten years, Nick gives up his own ambitions , working during the day in the familys New York jewelry business, and returning home every night, to be at his fathers beck-and-call. Then Papa dies and Nick is freeor is he? Carlo, Marco, and Pietro expect him to continue life as usual, but Nick has other ideas. Secretly buying a motorcycle, he starts to work one day and disappears. Nick gets as far as the southern coast of Georgia before an accident disables his bike. Stranded, with no idea of the South except what hes seen on TV, Nick isnt certain what kind of reception hes going to get. Then, a pretty Southern miss and a white tank disguised as a temperamental horse named Shazam change his life as they and the citizens of Oceano teach a runaway Yankee about life and love in a small Georgia town.
When the antique Italian clock ended its ninth tinkling chime and Nicolo Liguori didn’t walk through the office door, his secretary had the odd sensation that something was wrong; at three minutes after nine, she was certain of it. Punching a button on her intercom, she said to the CEO’s admin, “Lila, we've got a problem.”
A minute later, Lila was in her boss’ office, telling him his brother was late to work and three minutes after that, Carlo Liguori was on the phone to his good friend the Police Commissioner, reporting his brother missing and demanding someone be sent to investigate.
“He’s probably just late. Had a flat tire or ran out of gas or something.” While his partner, Cameron Sanders, unobtrusively placed himself in a corner of the office, Detective Liam McCoy, assigned to take Mr. Liguori’s statement, tried to downplay the whole thing.
“My brother keeps his car in perfect running order,” he was informed coldly. “It doesn’t have flats or run out of gas. Besides, if that unheard-of event were to happen, he’d call. Nick’s very careful about letting people know where he is. At all times.”
“That’s right,” Nicolo’s secretary confirmed. “He’s very punctual, always where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be. You can set your watch by Mr. Liguori--” She looked down at her clenched hands. “--usually.”
“So his phone went dead.” McCoy conceded the Liguoris knew their brother’s habits better than he but still felt there was nothing to worry about. “Maybe he forgot to recharge it? It’s only nine-thirty. He could still be on his way.”
Karen shook her head. “Every third day at exactly 3:30 I check Mr. Liguori’s cell to make sure it doesn’t need recharging. I did that yesterday, as usual. It didn’t.”
“I suppose it’d do no good to suggest he forgot it?”
“Detective, if that had happened, he could’ve used his car phone. This is--” Whatever Carlo was going to say was interrupted by the arrival of his younger brothers, Pietro and Marco, both looking more agitated than the occasion called for.
“Lila says Nick’s missing. How can that be?” Pietro demanded.
“Technically, he isn’t missing. Yet.” McCoy put in. “He'll have to be gone for forty-eight hours before that happens.”
“Forty-eight hours?” Carlo allowed himself a brief flash of emotion. “He could be dead and buried by then.”
Lila looked startled and Karen, who’d been Nick’s secretary for eleven years now, gave the distinct impression of wanting to burst into tears.
“Sono spiacente. Sorry,” Carlo went on. “Poor choice of words, but I think you understand what I mean.”
“Of course.” McCoy realized he had to do something to mollify the three. Besides being influential businessmen they were all close friends with the Police Commissioner, who was godfather to two of Carlo’s children, and it wouldn’t look too good if a complaint got back to him concerning one of his officers’ attitude. “Tell you what. Officially I can’t do anything until the time limit’s passed but I’ll go ahead and get the ball unofficially rolling.”
That brought a slight relaxation from the three. Carlo nodded. Pietro copied the gesture, and in a moment, so did Marco.
God, they’re as coordinated as triplets, McCoy thought. Looked enough alike to be triplets, too. Tall, dark-haired, handsome in a Michelangelo-painting sort of way. Yeah, like something from the Renaissance. The Medicis or Borgias or some other close-knit Italian family clan. Ought to be wearing velvet doublets, courtly capes, and plumed caps, instead of Armani suits and Talbott ties. He could see Carlo as Cesare Borgia, riding under the Banner of the Bull and being just as ruthless…in a twenty-first century way, of course. In age, they were like stair steps: Carlo was probably forty, Pietro about thirty-eight, and Marco around thirty-six.
“Okay,” McCoy got out his pad and pretended to make notes. “So...had your brother been worried about anything lately?”
“Had he!” Marco burst out. The other two looked at him. He gave each a defensive stare. “Well, he had. You both know how Papa’s death affected Nick.”
“Your father died recently?”
“Our father died six weeks ago. Nick was his caregiver. To say he was traumatized would be an understatement,” Carlo answered. “Ma ha preoccupado per vederlo que modo.”
It worried me to see him that way. McCoy was grateful he’d once had a partner who was Italian-American and also glad Carlo at least was showing a little concern for his brother.
“He acted as if he couldn’t believe it,” Pietro volunteered. “Kept talking about Papa as if he were still alive.”
That’s a normal reaction, McCoy thought. For a few days, anyway. He began to write in earnest. Perhaps there was going to be an easy answer to this after all. “How old is your brother, Mr. Liguori?”
No answer. They looked at each other and then at him questioningly.
“Mr. Carlo Liguori, I mean.”
“He’s thirty-three. The next to youngest of us.”
“How long was your father ill?”
“He had a series of strokes eleven years ago and was almost totally incapacitated. He was wheelchair-bound, could barely speak.”
“So Nicolo became his caregiver at the age of--” McCoy did brief subtraction. “Twenty-two? Kind of young, wasn’t he?”
“Nick had just graduated from college,” Carlo answered. “We hired a nurse but Papa insisted one of us be with him at night and he refused to leave the mansion, so whoever it was had to move back home. Pietro, Marco, and I--” He nodded at his brothers. “--are all married and have our own homes so...”
“So...?” McCoy raised his eyebrows.
“We did it fairly,” Carlo went on defensively. “We drew straws, and Nick won.”
Or lost, McCoy thought.
“He was the logical choice anyway.” Marco’s interjection was a little too quick. “Our baby brother, Gian-Giacomo was just thirteen, too young for such responsibility. Nick was single, had no steady girlfriend or anyone to distract him and had just graduated.”
So you threw him to the wolf. McCoy found himself not liking the Liguori family and feeling total sympathy for the absent Nick.
“Did he take care of the kid, too?” Liam’s partner spoke for the first time. “What’s his name? John--?”
Marco shook his head. “Gian-Giacomo went to live with Pietro.”
“Anyway…” Carlo picked up the story. His brothers automatically fell silent, invisibly bowing to his right as the eldest to speak. “He worked here during the day and went home and stayed with Papa at night. He had an airtight schedule, accounted for every minute of his time so we’d know where he was in case we needed him.”
“And that’s the way it went until the day Papa died,” Marco finished.
McCoy kept writing to keep from saying what he was thinking. That life at Liguori & Sons Gems sounded like a prison sentence. “You said your brother was traumatized by your father’s death. How exactly?”
Carlo looked perturbed, as if he wasn’t able to describe Nick’s condition.
“Did he disrupt his routine, start doing anything differently?”
“No, he was just as punctual and conscientious as ever. He always called before he left the house, let Karen know he was on his way, kept his appointments, left work at the same time every night. He never deviated from that routine.”
“It takes exactly an hour and twenty-seven minutes to get from the Liguori mansion to that door.” Karen nodded at the door Nick hadn’t come through this morning. “He always called when he left the house, then walked through the door at precisely nine o’clock. On the dot.” She paused a moment, then added, “He called this morning, too.”
“You never mentioned that,” Carlo accused.
“You didn’t give me time.” She looked tearful again.
McCoy glanced at the door and back at the secretary. “So the minute he didn’t show up...on the dot...you knew something was wrong.”
“That’s correct.” She didn’t add she’d waited three minutes. Somehow, that brief time span seemed like a disloyalty.
“If he was so devastated, perhaps he went to see a grief counselor, or your parish priest, or--”
“He would’ve let me know, told me to rearrange schedules. He would’ve told me how long he’d be seeing such a person and where and when...” Her voice trailed away.
“Dio, Detective!” McCoy jumped at Carlo’s outburst, looking at him again. “My brother may be wandering around out there--” He waved an arm at the picture window overlooking the city. “--in a fugue or something brought on by grief and the emotional shock of Papa’s death!”
He paused, looking slightly satisfied, as if this was precisely what had happened and he expected the others to agree, which they did, eagerly.
“Exactly.” Pietro spoke up. “From the moment the doctor told us it was over, Nick looked as if he couldn’t believe it.”
“He went from room to room, muttering to himself, He’s gone. After eleven years, he’s gone,” Marco supplied.
“That’s right,” Carlo confirmed. “And at the funeral…I remember he gave this odd little laugh, and said, “The house is so quiet now. I don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to check on Papa.” He nodded. “That’s it! The shock of Papa's death, and the loneliness...it got to him. He’s probably had a mental breakdown and--”
“Check the hospitals,” Marco ordered. “Bellevue General. See if anyone’s been brought in who doesn’t know who he is.”
“They do that every night,” McCoy answered. “Half the people in Bellevue don’t know who they are.”
“Something just occurred to me.” Pietro looked thoughtful
The other two glanced at him as if surprised he could have an independent thought.
“Well?” Carlo prompted.
“W-what if Nick’s been kidnapped?”
“Kidnapped. Nell’interesse de Deo! Why didn’t I think of that? Of course.” Carlo looked relieved. “Someone forcibly abducted him as he left for work this morning. Yes, that fits.”
“Pardon me for asking, but is your brother good kidnap material?”
“What does that mean?” Pietro asked.
“Could you pay a ransom? Do you have the funds to get him back?”
They looked aghast, as if he’d shouted an obscenity.
“Of course we’d pay to get Nicolo back.” Carlo nearly strangled on the words.
“No matter what the cost,” Marco amended.
McCoy started to interject a question. “What if--”
Carlo cut him off. “If the ransom was higher than we can afford, we could dip into Nick’s own money.”
“His own money?”
“Our brother’s worth about...how much would you say, Pietro?” Carlo appealed to his brother who whipped a small hand unit from his vest pocket and did some rapid calculation.
“As of this morning, Nick’s holdings with the company and his own personal finances total eight million,” he announced.
Carlo looked satisfied, nodding. McCoy barely managed to stifle a whistle. From his corner, Cam choked slightly, turning the sound into a cough.
“When a ransom demand comes in, we’ll be ready, Detective.”
“Seems to me you’re grasping at straws, Mr. Liguori.” McCoy couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of his voice. “Did it ever occur to any of you that your brother just might be doing things a little differently now that he has less responsibility?”
“Frankly, no.” Carlo’s reply was flat.
“All right then.” McCoy sighed. I’m going to get no cooperation here. “Is he in a state of traumatic shock or has he been carried off by gypsies? Which would you prefer?”
“You don’t seem to appreciate the seriousness of this case, Detective. I--” Carlo’s phone interrupted whatever else he was going to say. “That’s my private line. Excuse me.” Picking up the receiver, he spoke quietly. “Si, prego? Calm down, Mrs. Iverson...when? All of them? The car, too? Don’t touch anything. The police will be there soon.”
He returned the phone to its cradle.
“That was my brother’s housekeeper. One of the maids went to get the mail and found my brother’s clothing, the shirt, suit and tie he was wearing this morning, neatly folded inside the mailbox, along with his shoes. His car was parked off the road to one side of the entrance.” He glared at McCoy. “Does that sound as if there might be something wrong?”
Biting back what he really wanted to say, McCoy saw he was going to have to investigate whether he wanted to or not.
While Detectives McCoy and Sanders were on their way to the mansion Nicolo Liguoi had shared with his father, the subject of his investigation was speeding down Highway 295 on his newly-bought Harley-Davidson V-Rod Muscle.
The wind pressed the faceplate against his forehead and cheeks and he smiled before coughing as he inhaled a lungful of road dust stirred up by a passing car. Nick cleared his throat and began to laugh in earnest. I did it. Non posso crederlo! I can’t believe it!
To underscore that thought, he gunned the Harley and sent it flying after the car, kicking up a little dust of his own.
“Okay,” Liam stopped the car just past the turn-off to the Liguori estate driveway. “So here we are.”
Getting out, he gave the scene before him the once-over as he waited for Cam to join him.
The entire estate was surrounded by a high stone wall looking as if it had been laid by hand, about six feet and a half tall and a third as thick, with the wrought iron-work resembling medieval lances embedded in its top reaching another three feet. Up the drive a quarter of a mile from the gates the house itself looked like a tidier, more serious version of the Addams Family mansion. Off the driveway and huddled next to the fence was parked one of this year’s BMW Sedans, its conservative black finish already gathering a faint patina of dust from the dirt road. An intercom system was set into the wall to the left of the metal gates and next to it stood the mailbox, its door still open.
“Let’s see if we can check this out without contaminating anything.” Liam pulled a pair of bright purple latex gloves out of his pocket, grimacing again at their florid color. Why purple? The white ones were more official-looking. Did it have anything to do with their latex content? Neither he nor Cam were allergic to the stuff, as far as he knew. “Hope the Forensics Unit gets here soon.” Snapping on the gloves, he started toward the car, calling over his shoulder, “You take the mailbox.”
Cam nodded and walked carefully across the granite chips.
It had rained the night before and the ground was still damp at the end of the driveway where the gravel thinned. Liam looked down, grimacing slightly as the wet grass transferred its moisture to his loafers. Drops of water glittered like dew on their scuffed oxblood-dyed surfaces.
“That rain last night’s going to be a big help. There are some good tire impressions here.” Without moving, he began to examine the bare ground near the car.
“Found something?” He looked in his partner’s direction.
Cam was standing near the mailbox, peering inside. Not the usual quonset-hut shaped box on a post, it was constructed to appear part of the wall. The stone base with a little wooden door still stood open, as if the maid had turned and fled in fright after seeing its contents. The interior was large, about a foot square, and from where he stood Liam could see dark garments and a pair of shoes tucked neatly inside.
“It’s just like Carlo Liguori said. Certainly a tight fit, getting it all in there,” Cam confirmed, hands hovering around the door as if wanting to touch it but knowing better. He pulled his own gloves from his pocket, struggled into them, then retrieved a pen from inside his jacket and slid it between the garments, raising them slightly. “Pair of shoes. Man, look at that shine! Dress Oxfords, black wingtips. Navy suit jacket and trousers. Label says Dolce & Gabbana. Tie neatly rolled and inserted inside one of the shoes. Looks like silk. Can’t be sure without taking it out, though.” He bent, looking closer. “Here’s something odd.”
“What’s that?” Liam returned to examining the ground, his answer only half-attentive.
“There’s no underwear.”
“You sure?” He turned to look at his partner.
The pen moved again, lifting fabric. “Yep.”
“Do you know what this means?” A very hazy idea was forming in Liam’s mind.
His partner looked around. “Either our boy doesn’t wear any or he’s running around in his skivvies?”
That earned him an exasperated grunt. “They made him change clothes.”
“If I knew that we might be on our way back to the station, case solved. Look at this.”
Leaving the mailbox, Cam made his way to Liam’s side, looking down. “Footprints.”
“Right. Three pair.”
“So Liguori drives through the gate. He’s flagged down, dragged out of his car and forced to undress. Then they stuff him into the other vehicle.” Cam pointed at the second set of tracks. “And drive away.”
“That would appear to be exactly what happened,” Liam agreed. “Open and shut abduction.”
“But you don’t think so, do you, Sherlock?”
“Not in the slightest, Watson.”
“I refuse to be as obtuse as Dr. Watson,” Cam commented, waving a hand at the mud-cast footprints drying in the nearly-noon sun. “I see a pair of dress shoes...here...then someone wearing boots walked up to him...there.” He gestured, then looked up, frowning. “...then another person, also wearing boots, walked away with the first guy.” He studied the prints again. “Ground’s not roughed up. No sign of a struggle. He just got out of the car and waited for them to approach. If they took his clothes and shoes there should be bare footprints. So where did this second pair of boots come from and where did Liguori’s prints go?”
Liam didn’t answer his question but asked another. “Were there footprints at the mailbox?”
“Unh-huh. Boots. Probably match one of these two.” He studied the second set “Yeah. That diamond patch design. It shows up good in the mud.”
Liam placed his own foot near one of the prints, being careful not to touch it. “My size. Hm. Means he was pretty tall, well over six feet.” He looked around. “And Nicolo Liguori’s physical description is?”
Cam consulted his own notebook and the scribbles he’d made while Liam was talking with the Brothers Liguori. “Lessee...age thirty-three, black hair, hazel eyes, six-foot-three, two hundred ten pounds...”
By now, Liam was walking away, looking at the tire tracks. When he was about ten feet from his partner, he called, “Looks like the Beamer drove this far.” He pointed, making a circle with his finger. “Yeah, got stopped here by something...the other vehicle blocking the road, maybe... turned around and parked over there.” He gestured to where the car stood. “The other… I’m thinking it was a truck from the width of those treads, followed it, then stopped and someone got out.”
“Liguori gets out of the car, probably wanting to know who they are...this is private property, you’re trespassing, something like that...and then… Maybe the perp had a gun, forced him to undress.”
“And supplied him with other clothes to wear.” Liam looked up. “That’s why there are no bare footprints. The other pair of boots belongs to Nicolo Liguori.” He fell silent and just stood there, looking from the tire tracks to the BMW, then to the mail box and back again. “Is the car locked?” He asked the question as if he already knew the answer.
His partner, pressed the lock, then tugged and released it. “Yep.”
“I’ll bet if you look, you’ll see the keys lying on the seat.”
Cam took a step nearer and bent and peered inside, forehead nearly touching the rolled-up window. “Right again”
When he straightened and looked back at his partner, Liam had a satisfied expression on his face. “So whoever took our boy politely let him stuff his clothes in the mailbox, then before driving away, very carefully placed the keys inside the car and locked it so it wouldn’t be stolen.”
“Thoughtful kidnappers. You sure there wasn’t a second perp?” Squatting, Cam pointed to a set of tracks off to one side. “Look here.” As Liam joined him, he went on, “I’m no forensics expert but I’m sure they’ll confirm this. That looks like a motorcycle tire to me.”
Sure enough, in the soft mud was the imprint of a single tire with very deep treads, a second one in almost direct line about six feet behind it, nearly overlapping the first.
“Someone drove away in the truck and someone rode away on a motorcycle which didn’t drive up here, but just appeared in that spot.”
“Just like Liguori’s prints disappear and the boot prints take their place.”
“You think he rode away on a motorcycle?” Cam laughed. He pulled off the gloves and stuffed them back into his pocket. “There’s not enough room in the truck so his kidnapper brings along a separate ride for his victim?”
The sound of another vehicle coming up the turn-off prevented Liam from answering.
“There’s the forensics van. Let’s leave them to take over while we go on up to the house and interview the staff. See what they can add.”