“Come,” he said gently. “Let me make you a cup of tea.” Harold’s remedy for just about everything.
“Okay, I—” Grace turned at the sound of the bell over the door. Customers. She drifted away. Customers meant sales for Harold. They could have their tea afterward.
Only…they didn’t look like possible buyers of art. As a matter of fact, they looked dangerous.
Grace moved back to Harold’s side.
Grace lived alone in New York and she knew the look of dangerous men, enough so that she’d never been in trouble because she knew enough to avoid the dangerous places they congregated. The Feinstein Art Gallery was the last place on earth she’d think of in terms of trouble.
But trouble was walking through the door, right now.
Three men, one tall, broad, with bad skin, dressed in a long black leather coat, the other two short and wiry, one dressed in an expensive fleece track suit, the other in jeans and a bomber jacket. They came into the gallery in single file, footsteps echoing on the hardwood floor, then fanned out, as if covering territory. They didn’t look alike but they shared a look of cold menace, staring at her and Harold like sharks eyeing minnows.
Something cold and nasty had just entered Harold’s bright and civilized gallery.
In here, both she and Harold could forget for a moment what was out there, cocooned in art and hot tea.
But now the outside world was in here, lined up in front of them like gunslingers awaiting the signal to shoot. There was a moment of utter and complete silence as the three men stared at them, menace coming off them in almost visible waves. Fear made her senses diamond bright. Her heart kicked up its beat, sounding loud in her ears, like a drumbeat.
Grace moved closer to Harold in an instinctive attempt to protect him, though there was nothing she could do against three tough-looking men. But Harold was so vulnerable, so fragile. He was elderly and had a heart condition. Her shoulder touched his and she could feel that he was trembling.
At least she was young and strong. And had a can of Mace in her purse. She clutched the strap of her purse, surreptitiously fingering the clasp. She kept the Mace handy, in a side pocket. No sense in having a weapon if you had to dig down to the bottom of a purse to find it.
With a strong indrawn breath, Harold drew himself up and looked the men in the face. “May I help you gentlemen?” he said. She was so proud of him for his firm voice.
It happened so fast, she had no time to react.
Subconsciously, she was waiting for them to respond. Centuries of civilization had drummed it into her DNA that a query requires a response. Whatever bad thing the men might be bringing into the gallery, it would be after answering a question posed to them.
What happened next had nothing to do with civilization. It came straight out of the caves. Not a word was spoken. Shockingly, Leather Coat stepped forward, punched Harold in the face, then stepped to the side, hooking a big, beefy arm around her neck in one smooth motion.
Harold fell to the floor like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Blood lined his mouth and his nose spattered blood with each heaving breath.
With a cry, Grace lunged toward him, but was brutally restrained by the huge arm around her neck, holding her so tightly he was cutting off her air. She brought her hands up to claw at his sleeve but could find no purchase against the sleek leather and the hard, ropy forearm muscles underneath.
The man shifted, lifting her until her toes could barely reach the ground, tightening his arm until she saw stars dancing in front of her eyes. Inside she was screaming, scrabbling madly to get to Harold, but she was held as contemptuously as a doll off the ground, and only a high-pitched mewling sound escaped her lips.
An icy metallic ring dug into her temple. She shifted her eyes to the right to understand what it was.
A gun. A huge, black, terrifying gun, held against her head.
“Stop,” the man said simply. His voice was deep, guttural, inhuman, the tone one of utter command. There was nothing Grace could do. In another thirty seconds, she’d be unconscious anyway from lack of oxygen.
Resistance was not only useless, but any hope she had of helping Harold required her to be conscious and upright.
She stilled instantly.
“Good,” the man grunted, rewarding her by letting up a little on the pressure against her throat. Her feet hit the floor at the same moment her throat spasmed, wheezing as air burned its way back into her lungs. If she’d been free, she would have bent forward in an effort to breathe better, but the man maintained his hold around her neck, letting her know exactly who was boss.
The rim of the gun tightened against her temple until the skin broke. A trickle of warm blood dripped down the side of her face.
With every choked breath, she breathed in a nauseous combination of rank sweat overlaid by an expensive men’s cologne. The combination was so horrible she was almost sorry she could breathe again.
Outside the window, a businessman hurried by, coat whipping in the wind. A few heavy drops fell to the sidewalk and he put a burgundy leather briefcase over his head to shield himself from the rain that was beginning to pelt down.
He could have been on the moon for all the help he was.
Fleece Track Suit checked his watch, then looked at Leather Coat. “It’s time.”
The man simply lifted her off her feet again and, as compact and disciplined as a phalanx, the three men—Leather Coat holding her as if she were a doll being carried to another part of the playground—walked together quickly to a side door, the one that Grace knew gave onto an alleyway flanking the gallery. She’d once helped Harold dump cartons in the alleyway, a dank, dark cul de sac, the feral urban counterpoint to the airy grace and light of the gallery.
There was one small window set in the gallery’s north wall, overlooking the alley. She looked through it and gasped. There were two men there, one aiming a big black gun at the back of the other. The man holding the gun was tall, heavy, with long reddish-brown hair, his victim shorter, broader, with close-cropped dark hair.
The long-haired man with the gun tightened his grip on the trigger. Grace was horrified to think that she was about to witness a cold-blooded murder. If she could have, she’d have screamed a warning to the victim, but she barely had enough air to breathe. And even if she could scream, not much sound bled out through Harold’s thick windows.
Instinctively, though, she fought against the man holding her, trying to get some kind of sound out. Maybe if she kicked the wall…