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There ain’t no such thing as free.

CHAPTER 1

THE LIQUOR STORE MANAGER had a death wish. Why else would you reach for the secret alarm when a guy in a rabbit’s head mask was pointing his sawed-off shotgun in your face? It wasn’t worth playing hero and dying to save your own money, let alone for some rich guy who didn’t know you from Adam and barely paid you minimum wage.
But he went for it nonetheless.
Luckily for him, Todd Hollis, the guy with the sawed-off didn’t see him do it. He was too busy watching the clerk stuff great wads of cash into the bag he’d thrown at her.
Unfortunately for him, Todd’s half-wit cousin, Sonny, the one in the Ronald Reagan mask, did. A lot of people said Sonny didn’t make it all the way to the end of the production line, there were important parts of him missing, but his finger wasn’t one of them. It worked just fine. He squeezed the trigger on his nine-mil automatic twice in quick succession, throwing the manager backwards, knocking him away from the panic button before he even got close.
The guy slammed into the back wall, a red stain spreading across his chest, blossoming out from under his black clip-on tie, as he slid slowly down the wall and settled into a twitching heap on the floor.
Sonny only meant to do it once, just to wound the guy—in the chest?—but he was so fired up and twitchy he’d pulled the trigger twice before he knew it.
‘What the fuck?’ Todd shouted, his voice drowned out by the clerk’s scream.
He spun around, saw the not-quite-sane glint in his half-wit cousin’s eye and knew there was a sick smile hiding there behind Ronnie’s inane grin.
‘What the fuck! I said nobody gets hurt.’
‘He was going for the panic button.’
‘So what’s wrong with shouting at him, telling him to back off, shooting into the ceiling? Jesus Christ.’
Behind them the door to the store’s office flew open. They both spun around, guns raised. Mason King, Todd’s long-time partner, saw the guns come up and dropped to a crouch behind a stack of wine cases.
‘Whoa, it’s me. What the hell’s going on?’
He stood up slowly now they’d seen him but Sonny’s gun was still pointing at him. He called across to Todd.
‘Hey, get that retard to point his gun someplace else. What part of nobody gets hurt doesn’t he understand anyway?’
Sonny took a step forward.
‘Who you calling a retard? Shit-for-brains.’
Todd put a hand on Sonny’s arm, pushed it down until the gun was pointing at the floor.
‘Take it easy you two.’
Behind them the clerk’s scream had subsided into a high-pitch, keening wail, the noise escaping from behind the hand that covered her mouth. Todd turned and took a step towards her. Her hand almost disappeared into her mouth, her eyes stretched wide.
‘Will you quit making that god-awful noise?’
He raised his gun as he said it without thinking, as if he was waving his hand, like he’d forgotten he was holding it. The clerk shrieked louder.
Behind Todd, Mason squared up to Sonny. He was a lot older, in his mid-forties, and getting heavy around the middle, but he carried himself with the same kind of quiet violence you see in grizzly bears.
‘Did you just call me shit-for-brains?’
Todd whirled back towards them, in time to see Sonny reach up and rip his mask off. He stuck his face into Mason’s personal space, so close they could’ve kissed if Mason had been stupid enough to pull his Tricky Dicky mask off.
‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?’ Todd shoved Sonny hard on the shoulder, pushing him away from Mason. ‘Put your mask back on, dummy.’
‘Don’t you—’
Todd backhanded him across the mouth, the slap connecting with Sonny’s lips and busting up through his teeth and his nose and eyes, snapping his head sideways.
‘I told you we should never have brought him along,’ Mason said. ‘Kid’s barely out of short pants. Got all the sense of a barn door, too.’
Sonny touched his lip and looked from one to the other, undecided whether to respond to the slap or the words first.
‘We need to get moving,’ Todd said, breaking the tension. ‘Help the clerk with the cash.’ He gave Sonny a push. ‘And put your mask back on.’
‘It doesn’t matter now—’
‘Just put it on.’
Sonny pulled it back over his head as he walked towards the clerk. Together they pulled cash out of the register and stuffed it into the duffel bag.
Todd looked up and saw the CCTV camera above the cash register winking at him.
Shit.
He raised the sawed-off and blew it into a million little pieces.
‘Hope that makes you feel better,’ Mason said, his voice resigned, ‘because it sure as hell doesn’t make any difference now.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘We might be in the middle of Hicksville, but that thing uploads directly to the cloud.’
‘Shit.’
‘Exactly. If junior hadn’t shot the manager, we might have been able to get him to log into their online account and delete it . . .’
They both looked at Sonny.
‘At least it’s only his face on camera,’ Mason said.
There was an uncomfortable silence.
‘What are you saying?’
Mason shrugged.
‘Depends on whether you can trust him to keep his mouth shut when they arrest him, which they will now he’s taken his mask off.’
Todd gave an angry head shake. This was the last thing he needed.
‘He’s your cousin. It’s your call.’
Todd would’ve been lying if he said he wasn’t tempted to empty the other barrel into the back of Sonny’s head.
‘Come on, let’s go.’
He called out to Sonny.
‘What the hell are you two doing over there? We’re leaving.’
Sonny came out from behind the counter, one hand under the clerk’s arm, pulling her after him.
‘Not her.’
‘She’s coming with us. She saw my face.’
Todd thought about the CCTV, thought about real-time recording to the cloud, thought about raising the sawed-off and blowing Sonny’s stupid head clean off.
Mason picked up a fifth of Old Crow Bourbon and dropped it in his pocket, watching the thoughts passing behind Todd’s eyes, thoughts he’d put there.
‘Could be a technical hitch with the system.’ He shrugged. ‘Who knows, maybe their internet connection went down, maybe they didn’t pay the bill. We haven’t got time to argue.’
‘Hello? Earth to planet Todd,’ Sonny said in a tone of voice that almost got him another slap. ‘She – saw – my – face. She can ID me.’
Me too, now she knows my name, dickhead, Todd thought, the temptation of the trigger under his finger calling to him.
He looked at the girl, at the pale unhealthy skin looking like death warmed up, the bright red lipstick that went well over the real boundaries of her lips. He took in her tight jeans and even tighter white blouse, the buttons undone more than appropriate for the weather outside. Maybe they sold more liquor that way. Or maybe the girl got invited to more parties. It sure as hell worked as far as Sonny was concerned. Todd didn’t reckon he was bothered at all about her seeing his face. He supposed he’d been the same at twenty.
‘Okay.’
The girl grabbed her coat and they all hustled outside. The parking lot was empty apart from the stolen Toyota waiting for them at the curb, Loyd at the wheel. A thin covering of snow covered the asphalt. Todd got in the front, the other two in the back with the girl between them.
‘What’s with her?’ Loyd said.
‘Just go,’ Todd said. ‘We’ve taken too long already. The cops will be here any minute.’
Loyd pulled away, spinning the wheels on the wet snow before he got it under control and eased onto the highway, heading north.
‘What the hell went on in there? I heard shooting. Sounded like somebody’s nine mil and then your shotgun.’
‘The retard shot the manager,’ Mason called from the backseat and pulled the fifth of Old Crow out of his pocket. He twisted the top off it and took a swig, passed the bottle between the front seats to Todd.
Sonny glared at him but kept his mouth clamped shut in a tight line.
‘Shit,’ Loyd said, a three-syllable word. ‘Killed him?’
Mason gave a short humorless laugh.
‘I don’t think he’ll be going to the Christmas party.’
‘He was going for the alarm,’ Sonny said. ‘What’d you expect me to do? Ask him nicely please don’t touch that.’
‘That’s why you brought her with us?’
Mason shook his head.
‘No, I think that’s got more to do with the tightness of her blouse and junior here just entering puberty.’
They all laughed except for Sonny and the girl who was rocking back and forth, her arms wrapped tightly around herself, sniffing wetly. Todd held the bottle of Old Crow over his shoulder. Sonny reached for it and Mason slapped his hand away.
‘Uh-uh. Grown-ups only. You wouldn’t like it anyway, not enough sugar and chemicals. No wonder you kids are so hyper.’
He took another pull on it, watching Sonny over the bottom of the bottle, his eyes challenging him to try to push it down his throat.
‘It gets better,’ he said to Loyd.
Loyd met his eyes in the mirror.
‘What would you do if I called you a retard?’
‘Punch you on the nose, maybe.’
Mason nodded.
‘Yeah, sounds reasonable. But would you take off your mask first?’
The car was silent for a moment while the words sunk in.
‘Jesus Christ.’ Loyd let out a long breath. ‘Really?’
‘Yeah, really.’
‘He shouldn’t have riled me,’ Sonny said, his voice petulant.
‘That’s not all.’
If it wasn’t for the fact that they were all in it together, you’d have thought Mason was enjoying himself. He took another swig of the Old Crow.
‘CCTV records straight to the cloud.’
Nobody said anything for a long while, the rhythmic slapping of the wiper blades and the girl’s snuffles the only sounds. Outside the snow was getting heavier, big fat wet flakes reflecting in the car’s headlights.
They drove for another mile or so, then Loyd turned off the highway into a long since abandoned tractor dealership. He drove through the customer parking lot and around behind the main buildings, where he parked beside an ancient, nondescript Dodge minivan. They all piled out and quickly transferred everything into the new vehicle.
Loyd ducked down under the dash as Todd shone the beam from the flashlight on his cell phone. He touched together the two brown starter wires he’d cut and stripped earlier. The engine wheezed and turned slowly over but didn’t fire.
‘Who stole this piece of shit?’
‘Who do you think?’ came from Mason’s side of the back seats. ‘Been better if we let the girl here do it. Junior doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.’
Sonny gave him a dirty look, had the sense to keep his mouth shut for once. He didn’t like the way Mason’s fingers flexed around the whisky bottle every time he opened his mouth.
Loyd tried it again. The engine coughed into life sounding like a smoker on a cold morning. Sonny gave Mason an up-yours smile, and they all sat shivering and waiting for the windshield to clear as five people’s excited breath steamed up the interior.
‘Somebody turn on the radio,’ Mason said from the back. ‘There must be something on the news by now.’
Todd found a local station and they didn’t have to wait for long before their worst fears were confirmed.
Using CCTV footage, police have identified one of the three armed robbers who held up the Liquor Warehouse near Warrensburg earlier tonight as Sonny Day. During the course of the robbery, Day shot and killed the store’s manager and the gang took a female clerk hostage with them as they made their getaway in a white Toyota Corolla driven by the fourth member of the gang. Police have warned—
Todd turned it off with an angry stab of his finger. Mason laughed.
‘I don’t see what’s so damn funny,’ Todd snapped.
Sonny Day?’ Mason laughed some more. ‘Is that actually a real name?’
Sonny looked out the window, didn’t respond. His jaw was clenched tight enough to crack his teeth.
‘That’s just about the most inappropriate name I ever heard. Hey, junior, next time your parents have a kid—which they won’t after you popped out last time—get them to give me a call. I’ll come up with something. Rainy night would be more like it—’
‘Why don’t you shut your mouth? I’m getting pissed with all your—’
‘You’re getting pissed? Because I called you a retard and laughed at your stupid name.’ He gave that an irritated head shake and jabbed his thumb into his chest. ‘I’m getting pissed because I’m probably going back to jail because of you.’
Todd turned towards them.
‘Just give it a rest you two. It isn’t helping any.’
‘What now?’ Loyd said, drumming his fingers on the wheel.
In the back Mason said, ‘Junior’s ugly mug is going to be all over the TV news—’
Sonny lunged at him, not caring now, squashing the girl between them. She let out a surprised yelp as his elbow caught her in the mouth. Todd leaned back and gave him a resounding slap upside the head.
‘Enough!’
He grabbed his collar and threw him back into his seat while Mason was still deciding whether to poke him in the eye with the whisky bottle or not. Sonny pushed open the door and climbed out, letting in all the cold air. He slammed the door so hard the minivan rocked on its suspension.
‘Hey, Loyd, get your foot on the gas,’ Mason yelled. ‘We’re better off without him.’
Loyd looked at Todd who shook his head.
Mason groaned.
‘Aw, man.’
Todd gave him an ugly look.
‘If we leave him here, you think he’ll take the rap for us? For his good buddies who left him behind in the snow. Get real.’
Mason couldn’t argue with that. Didn’t mean he had to like it.
‘We could take the eighty-seven north and be in Canada in less than two hours.’
Loyd shook his head.
‘No way, not in this weather we couldn’t—’
Todd slammed his palm on the dash, quietening them.
‘Don’t be so stupid. That’s exactly what they expect us to do. There’ll be roadblocks set up already. Southbound too.’
‘That leaves east or west.’
‘West,’ Todd said with enough conviction in his voice to make them look at him. ‘Into the mountains. I know just the place where we can lie low for a day or two until we decide what to do. There’s an old hotel, closed for renovation.’
‘Now, Loyd,’ Mason yelled. ‘Go, go, go, before junior stops sulking and gets back in.’
Todd nodded and grinned at Loyd.
‘Take it nice and easy. Let him run down the road after us until he’s worked off all that excess testosterone.’
‘No problem,’ Loyd said, the words riding out on the back of a low chuckle, ‘I reckon my apartment moves faster than this heap of junk anyway.’
Todd reached between the seats and patted the girl on the knee. She didn’t look up, kept on staring at her hands in her lap.
‘You’ll probably thank us for tiring him out too, won’t you, sweetheart?’
Loyd pulled away and they set off to the sweet sound of Sonny’s enraged shout. Mason leaned past Loyd and gave the horn a mocking toot. The old minivan trundled down the road at a steady ten miles per hour, bursting at the seams with seething, pent-up anger and frustration just looking for an excuse to erupt.
God help anyone who got in their way.

CHAPTER 2

THE BACK WHEELS OF THE RENTAL SUV slipped on the wet snow as Evan turned into the private drive that led to The Lodge, an exclusive boutique hotel sitting on the banks of its own private lake twenty miles further into the mountains from the more famous Lake Placid.
Gina’s hand rested on Evan’s thigh and she gave it a squeeze as the car slid sideways.
‘Careful, I don’t want to spend the weekend digging us out of a ditch.’
‘No? What do you want to spend it doing?’
She smiled. Some things didn’t need to be spelled out. She looked across at him concentrating hard to get the car back on track, studied his profile. He was handsome, but not in the way that made you think he’d hold up the bathroom every morning. His look was more rugged, his face just on the right side of craggy, his smile a bit crooked, his hair not fully tamed. Weathered skin, crow’s-feet around the eyes, strong chin and nose. She could think of worse ways to spend the weekend. The SUV righted itself and they continued down the tree-lined drive, the snow still falling, but more gently now.
‘It’s so beautiful. I can’t believe this is real.’
A couple of months earlier—although it felt like a lifetime ago now—they’d had dinner at a steakhouse near Louisville, down in Kentucky, while he was on a case. He’d never forget it—she’d never let him for starters—but it was the night before Gina was abducted while he overslept in her bed. He hadn’t known that at the time, of course, and on the way out he’d dropped his business card into a jar and forgotten all about it.
Then, a month later, he took a call telling him he’d won a weekend for two at a newly-renovated hotel buried deep in the mountains of upstate New York. He called her up and invited her and she’d jumped at the opportunity. It could hardly turn out as badly as last time, after all. There’d been a catch—the hotel wasn’t officially open yet and they, along with two other lucky couples, were assuming the roles of luxury guinea pigs.
Evan pulled up in front of the main building and parked next to the only other car, an expensive Mercedes SUV. They sat with the engine running admiring the beautiful old building and enjoying the sense of peace and solitude when a news item on the radio caught their attention.
Using CCTV footage, police have identified one of the three armed robbers who held up the Liquor Warehouse near Warrensburg earlier tonight as Sonny Day. During the course of the robbery, Day shot and killed the store’s manager and the gang took a female clerk hostage with them as they made their getaway in a white Toyota Corolla driven by the fourth member of the gang. Police have warned that the men are armed and extremely dangerous and should not be approached under any circumstances.
Evan reached over and switched it off.
‘That poor girl,’ Gina said.
‘Yeah. You, more than anyone, can sympathize with how she must be feeling.’
They were both quiet a few beats as thoughts of Gina’s ordeal filled their minds. Evan gave her leg a squeeze.
‘Let’s hope it turns out as well for her as it did for you.’
‘It won’t.’ She leaned over and kissed his cheek. ‘It couldn’t possibly turn out that well.’
He grinned at her and she felt a thrill inside her, but it soon passed as she thought again about the poor girl’s plight.
‘I’m afraid I don’t think it’ll end in a good way at all. Not where people like that are concerned.’
He shook his head. ‘We passed through Warrensburg.’
‘Did we?’
‘You were dozing at the time.’
‘I was not!’
‘Snoring too.’
‘Now I know you’re lying.’
‘I remember seeing that liquor store and thinking maybe we should get a bottle of champagne there instead of paying for it here.’
She slapped him on the arm but she was smiling.
‘You cheap—’
‘It must have been just before it happened. The timing’s about right.’
She covered her mouth with her hand, didn’t want to think about what might have happened.
‘Thank God you decided not to be so tight. You might have been in there when it happened. It could have been you who got shot, playing the hero.’
‘That doesn’t sound like me.’
He was trying to make light of it but she knew that’s exactly what would have happened if he’d been there. A shiver went through her.
‘Try to remember you’re on vacation, okay?’
‘You know what they say—no rest for the wicked.’
She laughed. ‘If that was true, you could sell your bed, you’d never need it again. Come on, let’s go in. I don’t want to talk about it any more.’
They climbed out and he got their bags from the trunk, took them through into the lobby, a tasteful mix of old world charm and modern convenience. Off to the side a log fire crackled in a massive stone fireplace, comfortable chairs flanking it, a faded antique rug on the floor.
‘Mr. And Mrs. Guinea Pig checking in,’ Evan said to the clerk on reception.
Gina kicked him. The clerk was polite and well trained enough to pretend he hadn’t heard. He introduced himself as Luca Ebersold, he was Swiss, and he was actually the manager. They were operating on a skeleton staff on account of there being so few guests.
‘Who else is here?’ Gina asked.
‘Just one other couple. And their daughter.’
Gina raised an eyebrow.
‘There were two other lucky couples,’ Luca explained, putting particular emphasis on the lucky, ‘but one of them cancelled.’
‘Really?’
Luca shrugged like he couldn’t understand it either.
‘Then Mr. Harris called and asked if they could bring their daughter, Emily. She’s seven. I thought why not? We’ve got more than enough space.’
It sounded as if Luca wasn’t as thrilled as he tried to make out at having an excited seven year old running around his newly-renovated luxury hotel. Like he’d thought of a dozen good reasons why not, but he’d been overruled. She glanced around and noticed a number of expensive looking antiques tastefully placed around the lobby.
‘She must absolutely love it here.’
Luca smiled. ‘She does. And so will you.’ He passed a key across. ‘I’ve put you in the Treetop Suite. Don’t worry, it’s not a tree house suite’—he gave a small, professional smile—’but we call it that because it’s located on the top floor of the main lodge. It’s got stunning views of the forest, the lake and the mountains. The windows wrap around the entire suite.’
‘It sounds amazing.’ She took the key. ‘We might well spend the whole weekend in the room,’ she added for Evan’s benefit.
‘I think he put us up there because he’s worried you’ll make too much noise,’ Evan whispered as they started up the magnificent oak staircase. ‘Doesn’t want little Emily saying Mummy, why’s that lady screaming? Is somebody hurting her?’
The room was everything Luca had said.
‘Look at this.’ Gina ran her hand over the massive antique four poster bed that seemed to grow out of the floor, the intricate carvings still well-defined.
Evan gave it a shake. ‘Solid too. At least we won’t disturb little Emily.’
‘There’s a fire too.’ She walked over to the wood-burning stone fireplace and turned her back to it, warming herself. ‘By the time we finish in front of the fire here, all you’ll be good for in bed is sleeping.’
‘You reckon? I like a challenge.’ He grinned at her, opening the French doors that led onto a private covered balcony. He stepped out and looked down, over the pristine snow covered lawn to the boathouse and frozen lake beyond and the mountains beyond that, drawing the clean, crisp air deep into his lungs.
‘Aren’t you going to shut that?’ she said, as he came back inside, leaving the door slightly open.
‘No. Fresh air’s good. And it helps the fire draw.’
She pretended to shiver. ‘You better come over here and find some other way to keep us warm.’

END OF EXCERPT

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© JAMES HARPER