Deadly operative Boxers hunts evil… in Caerphilly?! Blame John Gilstrap and Donna Andrews, but don’t forget Mystery Writers of America, whose 70th anniversary provided the excuse for this dangerously charming mash-up.
“Father Dom! What are you still doing here?”
Dom D’Angelo looked up from the grant application that had been consuming his day. He smiled when he saw Mama Alexander filling his doorway. He tilted his old-school cantilevered desk lamp down a few inches so he could get a better view. Then he leaned slightly to the left for a visual angle past the stacks of papers that littered his desk.
Mama did not look happy. Born a highly-classified number of years ago, Florence Alexander was known throughout Fisherman’s Cove simply as Mama, and the honorific pretty much explained her role as everyone’s maternal overseer. While he, Dom, was the official psychologist for the children of Resurrection House, Mama was the home’s official soul.
Dom sensed that he was in trouble. “Am I supposed to be somewhere else?”
She planted her fists on her ample hips, her ultimate posture of frustration. “Caerphilly?”
Dom scowled. “What about Caerphilly?” He knew it to be a town not all that far from Fisherman’s Cove, but that was the extent of it.
“You’re supposed to be there.”
Dom raised his hands in an extended shrug. “I need more than that. Why am I supposed to be in Caerphilly?”
“The Ladies Interfaith Social Services Council. You were supposed to give a fundraising speech today on Rez House.”
“This is the first I’m hearing about it.”
“I texted you from Venice’s phone.” Venice (pronounced Ven-EE-chay) was Mama’s daughter, and a computer whiz of epic talents.
“I didn’t get a text message from you or from Venice,” Dom said.
“But you responded to it.”
Something wasn’t right here. “Are you sure you sent it to me?”
“Absolutely,” Mama said. There was an angry edge to her voice. “I even remember the number.” She rattled it off from memory. She was the very smart tree from which Venice’s apple didn’t fall far.
Dom shook his head. “That’s not my number.”
“Then whose is it?”
It did sound familiar. He pulled his own phone from his pocket and tapped in the number Mama had recited. “Uh-oh,” he said.
Brian Van DeMuelebroecke—known as Boxers to the few friends he cared to have in the world—piloted his black Cadillac Escalade off of the main road and onto a lesser road. The GPS system built into the vehicle had no idea where he was, so he was forced to divide his attention between the road and his AN/PSN13 DAGR handheld. Pronounced as “Dagger,” the military-grade GPS tracker could find anything anywhere—or nowhere, as it turned out.
Vaguely aware of a castle somewhere named Caerphilly, he had no idea that a town by that name sat in the Virginia countryside, north of Richmond and south of the end of the world. A city dweller at heart, he was largely unaffected by charm, and actively rejected bucolic. After devoting more years than he cared to remember to the finer arts of killing people and blowing things up—all for the cause of good triumphing over evil—he had a hard time accepting peaceful surroundings for what they were. Maybe that’s because so many otherwise beautiful places had sheltered people who were trying to kill him, leaving him with no choice but to render them ugly.
And even the loveliest of places had a seedy underbelly somewhere. That was the reason Venice sent him here in the first place, wasn’t it? He was to meet a lady and talk about money. In his line of work, that usually meant that a ransom needed to be paid. He didn’t understand why Venice had sent him out here on his own—usually his long-time friend and boss Jonathan (Digger) Grave took the lead on such things—but he figured that maybe this was some kind of a test. After too many years of not getting along very well with Venice, Boxers had made an uneasy peace with her, and he didn’t want to upset the apple cart by pushing back on this one. Besides, he knew that Digger was on R and R at an undisclosed location, with strict instructions not to be disturbed.
So here he was in Caerphilly-freaking-Virginia. And nearly on time. He pulled up in front of Trinity Episcopal Church, a weathered stone building with bright red front doors. He picked a parking spot a little to one side, where he could pull through and wouldn’t have to back up to leave. He threw the transmission into Park, undid his seatbelt, then moved his Beretta M9 from its resting place on the center console and into the holster that rode inside the waistband of his trousers on his right side. The 9-millimeter handgun was too big for most men to carry concealed, but at just south of seven feet tall, with the frame of a linebacker, he was one of the few who could pull it off. With the pistol seated securely, he tugged on the tail of his untucked khaki shirt to make sure the grip would not be visible.
So, now what?
Ahead and to the right, he made eye contact with a tall woman of a certain age who seemed to be paying close attention to him. She was taller than most women, and had a confident air about her that he read as suppressed aggression. “Show time,” he said aloud to the car.
He opened his door and stepped out, keeping the steel panel between him and the approaching lady. She was wearing a pale-blue dress with a silly little matching hat perched on one side of her head and impractically high heels. She’d have been a looker in her day, but the closer she got, the more sure he was that the blonde hair was a dye job.
“Hello,” she called. Her tone sounded too friendly.
Boxers said nothing. He had learned the hard way that women killers were every bit as deadly as their male counterparts. If it came down to that, the lady in the blue dress would not be the first woman he’d killed.
“Did you have much trouble finding your way from Fisherman’s Cove?” the lady asked. She continued to approach as if to welcome him to town. In seconds, she was right there, her hand extended. It was empty.
Boxers stepped clear of the door and pushed it closed. He shook her hand, taking care not to squeeze too hard. The strength of her grip surprised him.
“I’m Margaret Langslow,” she said. “Come in. Everyone’s waiting for you.” She placed her hand on his arm to usher him forward. “My—you’re very tall, aren’t you?”
“That’s what they tell me,” he said. As he accompanied her toward the front door, he scanned the surrounding rooftops for structures and shadows that could be used as cover for a shooter. Nothing.
Give it time, he thought. Sooner or later, everyone reveals their angle.
“And this is Meg Langslow,” someone behind me said. “Her mother’s on the vestry here at Trinity.”
I turned and found myself shaking hands with two unfamiliar faces—newly arrived Methodists, I assumed, since it was Mrs. Trask, the Methodist minister’s wife, doing the introducing.
“Where’s your mother?” she asked, after we’d exchanged pleasantries.
“Probably still on the front steps waiting to greet our speaker,” I said.
“And isn’t it nice that she has you to keep an eye on things in here for her,” Mrs. Trask said.
Actually, nice had nothing to do with it. Today’s luncheon was a big deal to Mother, and I knew I’d never hear the end of it if I didn’t pitch in to help. But I just smiled and pointed the new arrivals to a vacant table.
“Meg, have you heard anything from our speaker?” Reverend Robyn asked me. She was fiddling nervously with the white collar atop her black clerical blouse.
I understood. This was Trinity Episcopal’s first time hosting the newly formed Ladies Interfaith Social Services Council. And while the council’s real purpose was to learn more about various good works that the local churches could either help out with or replicate here in Caerphilly, a certain element of competition had crept into the meetings. Mother and the ladies of St. Clotilda’s Guild had outdone themselves with the refreshments, and they’d probably stripped every Episcopal garden in town of blooms, to judge by the number of floral arrangements decking the parish hall. The Episcopal ladies were circulating with trays and teapots, and the Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Jewish, Presbyterian, and Unitarian ladies were sipping tea as they nibbled cucumber finger sandwiches and petit fours.
We were already fifteen minutes past the time when our program was supposed to begin. Robyn was pacing up and down by the door, and Mother had gone outside for the fifth or sixth time to check the parking lot.
“I’ll see what I can find out,” I said.
I drifted over to the table where Minerva Burke sat with three or four other ladies from the New Life Baptist Church.
“Sorry we’re a little slow starting,” I said. “But—”
“I know. The speaker I found you hasn’t shown up yet,” she said. “He’d better have a good excuse, or my friend Florence will give him a piece of her mind! Don’t worry—I got Henry to put out a BOLO half an hour ago. Deputy Butler just texted me that an unfamiliar Cadillac Escalade crossed the county line fifteen minutes ago. He should be here any minute.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “I’ll tell Robyn.”
“Wish you could tell her to go home and get some sleep,” Minerva said. “I hear she was up till all hours taking one of her poor lost lambs from the women’s shelter to a safe location.”
“I didn’t know that,” I said. “I’ll sic Mother on her as soon as the meeting’s over. Speaking of Mother, there she is, and that must be Father D’Angelo with her.”
Mother, who was fond of dramatic entrances, had paused in the doorway to give the assembled ladies a better chance to examine the new arrival. He was tall—probably close to seven feet—and bulky, but it was obviously muscle rather than fat. Something about the way he held himself reminded me of my old martial arts teacher.
“Florence did say he wasn’t your typical priest and wouldn’t be anything like what we were expecting,” Minerva remarked as she studied the new arrival. “And she did say that he and her boss met when they were in the military.”
“Pity he’s not wearing his uniform,” one of the Baptist ladies said.
“He’s not in the military now,” another lady pointed out.
“His clerical uniform,” the first lady said.
“Reverend Wilson would at least wear a suit,” another Baptist lady sniffed.
“Now, now,” Minerva said. “He’s probably coming to talk to us on his day off.”
I decided to leave Minerva to soothe the Baptist ladies and went over to meet our guest. Maybe even rescue him from Mother, who had an unfortunate tendency to unnerve people who were meeting her for the first time.
Not that he looked particularly unnerved. Just a little . . . puzzled.
“—and of course, in the summer we have concerts there,” Mother was saying. “You must drop by the town square to see the bandstand before you leave. It’s a wonderful example of Queen Anne style architecture. But I’m sure you noticed it as you passed through town.”
“Welcome,” I said to the big man. Not a particularly brilliant conversational gambit, but at least it would distract Mother from her monologue about the architecture of Caerphilly.
“Yes, we’re so glad to have you,” Mother said, beaming up at her escort. “The ladies are so looking forward to hearing all about what you do.”
For some reason, that did seem to unnerve our guest, although he didn’t give up much, so you’d have to be watching him pretty closely to tell.
“Why don’t we offer Father D’Angelo a cup of tea and let him relax for a few minutes,” I suggested. “I know the ladies are eager to hear about Resurrection House, but let’s be hospitable.”
“There’s been some kind of mistake,” the man said. His face wore a look of profound relief. “I’m not Father D’Angelo.”
So if he wasn’t Father D’Angelo, who was he, and why had he shown up here at Trinity at precisely—well, only fifteen minutes past—the moment when our speaker was supposed to arrive?
Mother and I exchanged a look, and then turned back to him, awaiting further explanations. But the man-who-was-not-Father-D’Angelo just gazed at us. Which was odd. It’s hard to keep your mouth shut when people are looking at you expectantly. Most people just babble something—anything—to break the uncomfortable silence. This guy obviously wasn’t a babbler. Mother, too, had a positive gift for strategic silence, and I’d been working on following her example. It would be fun to see who broke down and spoke first, and for once, my money wasn’t necessarily on Mother. The-man-who-was-not-Father-D’Angelo looked as if he had all the time in the world.
No, wait. He wasn’t gazing at us. He was pretending to gaze at us, but he seemed to be focused on something behind us.
Just then I heard a slight scuffling behind me. I turned to see that a man with a gun was holding one of the ladies hostage in the back of the hall.
Chief Burke would want a description, I reminded myself. The man was around thirty and around five ten, wearing jeans and muddy athletic shoes. Not someone I knew, which meant he probably wasn’t from around here.
“Where is she?” the gunman shouted. “Where’s Cheryl? I know you people took her somewhere last night.”
I glanced over at Robyn. She was standing motionless with her hands over her mouth. In fact, everyone was frozen in place and every face wore a look of frightened horror.
Well, almost every face. Mother had narrowed her eyes and was frowning. I couldn’t quite tell if she was merely expressing disapproval or if she was up to something.
And the-man-who-was-not-Father-D’Angelo looked almost amused.
“Excuse me, ladies,” Boxers said, and he nudged past them to approach the raggedy little man who stood maybe thirty feet away. The man held a cowboy-style revolver to a little old lady’s temple with his right hand, and had hooked his left elbow around her throat. She looked terrified. Truth be told, so did her captor.
Boxers approached slowly, his hands still clear. “This is such a mistake, young man.”
To Boxers’ left, a very Baptist-looking lady of considerable girth reached up to her elaborately-flowered hat and produced a shiny silver pin that was roughly the length of a pirate’s cutlass. She joined ranks with Boxers. “You let Allison go right now!” she said.
The hostage taker tightened his grip on Allison’s neck. “Somebody better bring Cheryl to me right now, or I swear by all things holy that I will kill this woman!”
Boxers placed a hand on the hat lady’s shoulder. “I don’t think it’s time for sword play just yet, ma’am,” he said. “Do me a favor and hang back for a minute.”
“She’s my best friend.”
“Trust me on this,” Boxers said. He tried to seal it with a smile, but whatever his face produced seemed to scare her. She stepped aside and returned to her seat.
“You too, big fella,” the raggedy man said. “Back off or I’ll kill her.”
“Go ahead,” Boxers said. He continued his approach.
“What?” Clearly, they were not the words the bad guy was expecting. Judging from the ripple through the assembled ladies, they were likewise shocked.
It was time to end this foolishness. Boxers lifted his shirt out of the way and drew his pistol. This time the ladies offered up a unison gasp.
“I swear I’ll shoot!” the hostage taker shouted.
Boxers kept the M9 at low-ready and slowed his approach. “You’ll need to cock that pistol first.”
The bad guy looked confused. One of the reasons Boxers hadn’t been terribly concerned was the fact that the frontier-style wheel gun in the hostage taker’s hand was a single-action piece. Without the hammer pulled back—and his wasn’t—he could pull on the trigger all day and it wouldn’t go bang.
“Like this,” Boxers said, and he thumbed back the hammer of his big Beretta. He leveled it at the bad guy’s forehead. “Though you should know that if I see your thumb move, I’ll kill you. If you hurt this nice lady—I’m sorry, dear, is it Allison?”
The hostage bobbed her head in the affirmative, her eyes huge.
“If you hurt Miss Allison, I’ll kill you. If you point that piece at me, I’ll kill you twice. Can you see where this is going? Personally, I’m fine with whichever choice you make.”
The raggedy man’s stare turned blank as he raced through his options. That’s always more frustrating when there are none.
“What’s your name?” Boxers asked. He decided to get the guy thinking about survival. Only ten feet separated them now.
“J-Jimmy. Jimmy Hughes.”
“Okay, J-Jimmy Hughes, let’s end this peacefully, shall we? Let Miss Allison go. Don’t think about it, don’t hesitate. Just let her go.”
Tears balanced on Jimmy’s eyelids as he released his grip on the lady’s throat, and she hurried past Boxers to join the crowd behind him. Jimmy’s gun hand didn’t move, however. The muzzle continued to hover on the spot where Allison’s temple had so recently been.
“You’re doing fine,” Boxers said. “Now I’m going to take that weapon from you.” He stepped forward and gripped the pistol at the cylinder and lifted it away. Jimmy did not resist.
“I just want my Cheryl back,” Jimmy said through a cracking voice.
“Yeah, that was real romantic,” Boxers said. He de-cocked the Beretta and holstered it, keeping the other pistol in his hand. “Now apologize to these nice ladies.”
Jimmy stared back at him.
“You’re going to apologize,” Boxers said. “With teeth or without them is your call.”
“I-I’m very sorry,” Jimmy said.
Boxers turned around to face the assembled ladies. “Well, that was fun,” he said. “But I should be on my way.” He held up Jimmy’s gun. “Who wants this?”
Everybody was just standing around open-mouthed, so I stepped a little closer to our guest. Not a whole lot closer, because although he seemed to be one of the good guys, right now, he was still very much an unknown quantity.
“I don’t think anyone here wants the gun,” I said. “We should probably call the police to take charge of Mr. Hughes, and I expect the chief would like to have it.”
“Maybe you could give it to him, then,” the big guy said, handing me the gun. “Since I’m obviously not the speaker you’ve been waiting for, I’d just as soon hit the road.”
“If you’d rather we give you a head start before we call the police, we can do that,” Mrs. Washington, the hatpin-wielding Baptist lady said—though not without a nervous glance at Minerva, whose husband, the chief, might not understand why we’d let a key witness slip out of his grasp.
“I have no quarrel with the police,” the big guy said. “I just hate paperwork. If your chief really needs to reach me, Father D’Angelo will know how.”
Minerva beamed her approval. The big guy studied Jimmy Hughes as if making a decision, then turned and headed for the door. Jimmy followed his departing back and his eyes showed something that looked a little too much like hope.
“Jimmy,” I snapped. His head jerked in my direction. “Don’t even think of it.”
“Don’t worry, dear.” Mother said. “I’m sure Mr. Hughes understands that he needs to behave himself from now on.”
Just in case he didn’t, Mrs. Washington had her hatpin ready. The big guy stood in the doorway, then nodded as if satisfied, and left.
“Well, that was most instructive,” Mother said, leaving our prisoner to Mrs. Washington and turning to me. “Meg, dear, it just occurred to me—why don’t you run after that nice young man and see if perhaps you could get his name, and some contact information. Robyn suggested last month that it would be a good idea to have someone come and talk to us about personal safety and self-defense, and I think he might be just the person we need.”
Copyright © 2015 Donna Andrews and John Gilstrap
Donna Andrews has won the Agatha, Anthony, and Barry Awards, a Romantic Times award for best first novel, and two Lefty and two Toby Bromberg Awards for funniest mystery. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the Private Investigators and Security Association. Andrews lives in Reston, Virginia.
New York Times bestselling author and screenwriter John Gilstrap is the author of novels in the long-running Jonathan Grave thriller series, standalone thrillers including Nathan's Run and Scott Free, and the true story Six Minutes to Freedom, which he co-authored.