As a newly minted private investigator, Nicole Graves expects to take on legal cases for corporate clients. But when her client’s son, Brad Rexton, is killed trying to protect his wife, Ashley, from a home invasion-turned-kidnapping, the firm is hired to investigate. Nicole soon discovers that Ashley is not the person she claims to be, but her real identity remains a mystery.
Meanwhile, a long-delayed and undesired inheritance is finally deposited into Nicole’s bank account. Within a few days, someone dear to Nicole is kidnapped in the same manner as Ashley. The perpetrators demand Nicole’s full inheritance as ransom. She’s willing to hand the money over but finds it’s not so easy. The kidnappers have an uncanny ability to track her every move, and they suspect a trap. When their most terrifying threat is delivered to her door, Nicole is faced with a terrible choice: Should she count on the police or risk going it alone?
“Nicole Graves is a charming and straight-shooting heroine” – Foreword Reviews
“Boyarsky’s weightless complications expertly combine menace with bling, making the heroine’s adventures both nightmarish and dreamy.” – Kirkus Reviews
“Nicole Graves is the best fictional sleuth to come down the pike since Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone.” – Laura Levine, author of the popular Jaine Austen Mysteries
The Nicole Graves Mysteries
1. The Swap
2. The Bequest
3. Liar Liar
4. The Ransom
All Nicole Graves Mysteries can be read as stand-alone novels.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Nicole Graves arrived at work to find a manila envelope on her desk. It bore a yellow sticky note from her boss:
Take a look at this. Then come to my office and I'll explain.
She pulled out the contents of the envelope. First was a news article she'd seen in the paper several days ago. It described the home invasion of a wealthy couple in which the wife was kidnapped. This was the third such incident in as many months. Nicole had read about the crimes and found them intriguing, especially since kidnapping of adults for ransom was rare in Los Angeles and other American cities.
In the first case, the husband, whose name was never disclosed in the news, followed the abductors' instructions to the letter. They'd warned him not to call the police, and he didn't. He delivered fifty thousand dollars ransom in cash — unmarked bills of assorted denominations — as demanded. The drop point was L.A.'s downtown central library, behind the books on a shelf holding copies of Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well. Only after his wife was released did the husband report the crime to the police. The tabloids had a field day with the story, referring to the perpetrators as the "All's-Well Kidnappers." It did have a certain ring to it.
In the second case a month later, Craig Reina also followed instructions not to involve the police when his wife, Victoria, was kidnapped. He delivered the ransom to a public park, where he'd been instructed to leave it under a slide set. After twenty-four hours passed with no sign of his wife, Reina finally called the police. Now, six weeks later, Victoria Reina was still missing, and the police didn't seem to have a clue to her whereabouts.
The third case, described in the article Jerry had left, took place five days ago. In this instance, the kidnap victim's husband had been killed, and his wife was still missing. In the previous kidnappings, the wife had been taken while the husband was left drugged, tied up, but otherwise unharmed. The intruders had disguised themselves so well that no one could give a physical description, except that the kidnappers were three in number and probably male. Not only had they covered their faces and worn gloves, none of them had spoken a word during the home invasions.
Nicole was insatiably curious when it came to crimes serious or bizarre enough to make the news. She found two aspects of these incidents intriguing. One was the way most crimes and attempted cover-ups were so badly bungled that the perpetrators had to be stupid, crazy, or both to imagine they'd get away with it.
When Nicole had read about the first two home invasion-kidnapping cases, she'd been puzzled by the relatively modest amount of ransom when the victims were extremely wealthy and probably would have paid a great deal more. Were the guilty parties kids, unaware of how much money to demand? Or was this rash of kidnappings something else altogether, like a sophisticated insurance scam or a weird, twisted prank that was the product of a sick mind?
In the most recent home invasion, which involved Brad and Ashley Rexton, things had gone wrong from the start. Brad Rexton was found dead at the scene, the victim of blunt trauma to the head. It appeared he'd tried to fight off the intruders and had fallen or been knocked down and struck his head against the corner of a marble fireplace. The intruders had disconnected the home's security cameras, approaching them from behind to avoid being caught on video. However, they'd missed one camera hidden in the front shrubbery. It showed three men in hoodies and ski masks carrying Ashley, limp and apparently unconscious, out of the house. They put her in the back of a white van with no visible license plate and got in. The van started up and disappeared from view.
This case stood out from the others in several ways. For one thing, the ransom demand was much bigger. A message, traced to a burner phone with no clue to the identity of its owner, had been left on the couple's voicemail. The caller demanded twenty thousand dollars in cash, less than in the other cases. But this was described as a "good faith" down payment on a whopping $10 million that had to be delivered before Ashley's release. That amount was to be wire-transferred to an offshore account. The kidnapper said he'd be in touch with further instructions after the cash payment was received.
The crime had taken place on a Saturday night. Brad's body, along with the phone message, hadn't been found until Tuesday morning, when the Rexton's housekeeper arrived. That evening, the police held a press conference. The police chief, quoted widely on the news, said, "We're putting all our resources into finding both missing women — Victoria Reina and Ashley Rexton — and apprehending those responsible for the death of Bradley Rexton."
After the crime was reported, the bank discovered that the couple's joint checking account, holding a relatively modest $9,562, had been cleaned out the night of the kidnapping at various ATMs. In addition, a failed attempt had been made to hack Brad Rexton's investment account through the bank's website. As of now, no clue had been found to Ashley's whereabouts. Nicole knew who the Rextons were. Robert Rexton, the father of the murdered man, was CEO of Rexton Enterprises, Inc., a land development company that happened to be a client of Nicole's employer, Colbert and Smith Investigations. As a newly licensed PI, Nicole had done work for Rexton Enterprises when they were trying to collect a settlement from another business that had hidden its assets. Nicole had found a shell company holding the money, and Rexton had gotten his settlement.
In the envelope with the news clipping were an address book and a daily diary. Each had "Ashley Rexton" stamped in gold on its red-leather cover. Nicole flipped through the pages, noting the neat, feminine handwriting, which she presumed to be Ashley's. The books brought up a question: Why hadn't they been turned over to the police?
More importantly, why had Jerry left this material on Nicole's desk? Surely, he didn't expect her to investigate a murder-kidnapping when law enforcement would be all over it. She was intrigued, of course, but Colbert and Smith never took on cases that were the province of the police. Nor did they look for missing persons, except for the rare occasions when an important client's minor child ran away.
Nicole got up and, with the envelope under her arm, walked down the hall to her boss's office. The door was open. She went in, sat down, and placed the material on Jerry's desk.
"What's this about?" she said.
Jerry leaned back in his chair and put his feet on his desk. "Rexton asked us to look into his daughter-in-law's background. Find out who she was, where she came from, and what she was doing before she walked into his son's life."
Nicole shifted in her seat. "She was married to Brad for over a year. Sounds like she and her father-in-law didn't have much of a relationship."
"You're right about that," Jerry said. "Rexton said he spotted her as a gold digger the moment he laid eyes on her. She never talked about her past, and she clammed up when anyone asked about it."
Nicole held up the envelope. "The address and date books — shouldn't they have been turned over to the police?"
"Rexton gave the police copies. He told them that was all he'd found. For some reason, he wanted to keep the originals. They were left on his yacht; the couple had borrowed it shortly before the home invasion. Rexton says the police weren't interested in Ashley's background. He got the impression they thought it was irrelevant. But he believes Ashley was behind her own kidnapping and responsible for his son's death. Before the wedding, he told his son he was going to have an investigator look into her background. Brad got so angry that Rexton backed off."
Nicole flipped through the pages of the address book. It held a fair number of names. "You want me to contact these people and interview them? You realize, don't you, that the police will get wind of it. They won't like it."
"I agree, but Rexton is one of our biggest clients. I tried to talk him out of it. When he wouldn't see reason, I said I'd put my best investigator on it."
"Gee, thanks," Nicole said. "I'd be flattered if I didn't know it's going to be a waste of time that will rile up the cops." She paused for a moment, staring at the envelope before going on. "What's Rexton thinking? If she's still alive and is being held hostage, wouldn't the kidnappers be trying to shake the ransom out of him? Or if she really was behind the whole thing, wouldn't her husband's death have motivated her to disappear?"
"I knew you'd see the angles," Jerry said.
Nicole gave him an incredulous look. "This is just plain dumb. The police have all kinds of resources we don't. What can we do that they can't?"
"Look," Jerry said. "Rexton's a very important client and always wants results, like, yesterday. He's used to giving orders and having them followed. The police aren't doing his bidding. His reasoning is that if we can track down deadbeats and sift through shell corporations, how much harder can this be? He's given us her contacts, as well as her date book. Start out by calling Rexton. Make an appointment with him and find out what he does know about Ashley. Today's Thursday. See if you can get in later today or tomorrow so you can start the investigation as soon as possible. You'll want to interview the people in her address book and anyone else who might know about her past. Nobody expects you to get involved in the kidnapping case, much less find her. In fact, be careful to stay clear of the police investigation."
As she was heading for the door, Jerry said, "Thanks for being such a good sport about this, Nicole."
She gave him a mock frown. "Don't be ridiculous, Jerry. I'm a terrible sport, and you know it."
They both laughed.
Nicole went back to her office and made the call. Rexton's secretary said he was out of the office for the day but could meet with her at three thirty the next afternoon.
This taken care of, she began going through the date book, comparing it to the address book, making a list of people to contact. She decided not to call anyone until she talked to Rexton. But she'd already made up her mind that the first person she'd get in touch with would be Antonia — no last name given, just the word "housekeeper" — who appeared under A in Ashley's address book. According to the paper, it was Antonia who'd found Brad's body. And, as their housekeeper, she could probably shed some light on the couple's relationship.
When Nicole finished looking through the address and date books, she went online and did a search for information on Ashley, then turned to one of her company's subscription databases that provided a deeper look at individuals. She was relieved to find only one Ashley Rexton in L.A. This made her job infinitely easier than having to track down someone with a common name, like a Jane Smith or a Robert Jones.
Nicole then used Google to find photos of Ashley. It came up with glamour shots that looked as if they'd been taken by a professional photographer. Ashley was a generic Southern California beauty with long, straight blonde hair parted in the middle, blue eyes, full lips and unrealistically lush eyelashes.
Nicole scrolled the record to a news article announcing Ashley's marriage to Brad Rexton the year before. It included a photo of the couple. She studied it closely, noting Ashley's beauty again. Focusing on Brad, she was struck by the contrast between bride and groom. The bride was as lovely as she had been in her glamour shot, dressed in a designer suit and a little hat with a veil. She was beaming broadly.
The groom was more restrained, smiling self-consciously. He was seriously overweight, dressed in — given his proportions — what had to be a custom-tailored suit. He wore no tie, and his shirt was open at the neck, giving the impression that he didn't much care about his appearance. His dark hair had been gelled and combed straight back. His heavy eyebrows slanted downward, and he sported an unkempt mustache and beard. At least in terms of appearance, he and his bride were an odd match.
The database said Ashley was twenty-eight and showed she was a licensed medical assistant. A partial social security number was given, not unusual for a database report, but not enough for Nicole to check it out. There was no record of arrests or convictions. Scrolling through Ashley's record, Nicole found it went back only six years. At that time, she was listed on a website as a staff member of an orthopedic clinic in Albuquerque. But records showed she'd left Albuquerque for Miami in the middle of that year. She'd changed cities several times since: from Miami to Vail. Next was a move to San Francisco, on to Seattle, and finally to Los Angeles. She'd rented an apartment in L.A. only a month before meeting Brad Rexton. Other than that, there was little to go on. The records showed no credit rating, education, place of birth, or relatives.
Ashley's report was unusual in being so incomplete. Her frequent moves weren't that odd for a young person not quite settled in her profession. One thing did strike Nicole as strange — the absence of known relatives. Maybe Ashley had been a runaway in her teens or an orphan, aged out of foster care. But, as Nicole knew, it was hard to draw conclusions with so little information. One possibility was that she was born to U.S. citizens abroad and, except for the stint in the orthopedic clinic, had no employment records in this country. If she'd lived abroad, that would explain the missing place of birth and relatives.
Perhaps Ashley Knowles wasn't her real name. Nicole could think of a lot of reasons why someone might use an assumed name. Maybe she was a con artist who was after her husband's money, as her father-in-law suspected. But there were other possibilities. She might have a past she wanted to hide, perhaps trouble with the law. She might have creditors looking for her. She could be hiding from a stalker or a difficult family situation. Maybe she'd won the lottery and wanted to insulate herself from begging relatives. She probably wasn't in the witness protection program, since they would have provided her with a credible past. Still, there were a lot of legitimate reasons why Ashley might change her name. Of course, there were illegitimate ones, as well.
* * *
The next afternoon, Nicole drove out to Rexton Enterprises in Santa Monica. It occupied the top floor of a distinctive white office building overlooking the bay. Each floor was recessed from the one below, giving the exterior a stair-step effect. Inside, the lobby was minimalist in décor so that the front wall of windows, with its view of the beach and water, provided the focal point. Blond, parquet floors were polished to a high gloss.
In the elevator, Nicole turned off her phone so her interview of Rexton wouldn't be interrupted. She introduced herself to the front-desk receptionist and was directed down a long corridor, where a secretary was stationed next to a pair of wide double doors.
"You must be Nicole Graves," the secretary said. "He's expecting you." She got up and knocked on one of the doors. If there was a response from inside, Nicole didn't hear it.
"Go right in," the secretary said.
Nicole was ushered into an enormous office that at first appeared empty. As in the lobby, floor-to-ceiling windows faced west, and the afternoon sun was almost blinding. As her sight adjusted, she looked around and, still seeing no one, fixed her eyes on a gold statue standing on a mahogany table in the center of the room. The statue was a stunning copy of Winged Victory, except that this version was no more than three-feet high, gilded, and — unlike the original — complete with arms and a head. She was gazing up at a wreath she held aloft.
"Why don't you take a seat over here?" The voice came from Nicole's left. She turned and, for the first time, noticed a man sitting at a desk. He had gray hair and was dressed in a light gray suit and tie, which blended into the subdued tones of the office. Except for Winged Victory and a few splotches of color on some abstract paintings, the decor was completely neutral. As in the lobby, the understated décor amplified the bright hues of the beach, water, and sky visible through the big windows.
As Nicole walked over to the desk, she noticed it was completely clean except for a silver-toned telephone with a lot of buttons. Facing the desk, a high-backed chair awaited her.
Without getting up, Rexton reached his hand over his desk, and Nicole leaned in to shake it. "I apologize for not standing," he said, "but, as you can see ..."
He left the sentence unfinished because, as she bent forward, she saw that he was in a wheelchair. "Have a seat," he said, "and we can get started. Would you like some coffee? Water perhaps?" His voice was deep and commanding. Clearly, he was used to being in charge and had no use for small talk. He didn't smile, nor did he appear bereaved. He betrayed no emotion at all.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Ransom"
Copyright © 2019 Nancy Boyarksy.
Excerpted by permission of Light Messages Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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