Ten minutes after walking the elite Back Bay townhouse and investigator Tessa Leoni already doesn’t like what she sees. Signs of an abduction. Clearly the work of professionals. At best, the entire family has been kidnapped. At worst…
The more Tessa learns about the Denbe family, the less she likes their chances. What might have looked like the perfect existence—a powerful CEO, his adoring wife, their angelic child—is not what it appears. Husband, wife, daughter—magazine perfect, but each hiding dark secrets…
Tessa knows more than she’d like to about families riddled with lies. What she doesn’t know is where the Denbes are and if any of them are still breathing. She’ll have to climb over unbending feds and territorial local cops to find out, and if she’s not fast, the Denbes’ chances of survival will quickly become little more than touch and go...
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Here is something I learned when I was eleven years old: Pain has a flavor. The question is, what does it taste like to you?
Tonight, my pain tasted like oranges. I sat across from my husband in a corner booth at the restaurant Scampo in Beacon Hill. Discreet waiters appeared to silently refill our glasses of champagne. Two for him. Three for me. Homemade breads covered the white linen tablecloth, as well as fresh selections from the mozzarella bar. Next would be tidy bowls of hand-cut noodles, topped with sweet peas, crispy pancetta, and a light cream sauce. JustinÕs favorite dish. HeÕd discovered it on a business trip to Italy twenty years ago and had been requesting it at fine Italian restaurants ever since.
I lifted my champagne glass. Sipped. Set it down.
Across from me, Justin smiled, lines crinkling the corners of his eyes. His light brown hair, worn short, was graying at the temples, but it worked for him. He had that rugged outdoors look that never went out of fashion. Women checked him out when we entered bars. Men did, too, curious about the new arrival, an obvious alpha male who paired scuffed work boots with two-hundred-dollar Brooks Brothers shirts and made both look the better for it.
"Gonna eat?" my husband asked.
"I'm saving myself for the pasta."
He smiled again, and I thought of white sandy beaches, the salty tang of ocean air. I remembered the feel of the soft cotton sheets tangled around my bare legs as we spent the second morning of our honeymoon still sequestered in our private bungalow. Justin hand-fed me fresh peeled oranges while I delicately licked the sticky juice from his calloused fingers.
I took another sip of champagne, holding it inside my mouth this time, and concentrating on the feel of liquid bubbles.
I wondered if she had been prettier than me. More exciting. Better in bed. Or maybe, in the way these things worked, none of that mattered. Didn't factor into the equation. Men cheated because men cheated. If a husband could, he would.
Meaning that, in its own way, the past six months of my marriage hadn't been anything personal.
I took another sip, still drinking champagne, still tasting oranges.
Justin polished off the selection of appetizers, took a restrained sip of his own champagne, then absently rearranged his silverware.
Justin had inherited his father's twenty-five-million-dollar construction business at the age of twenty-seven. Some sons would've been content to let a successful business continue as is. Not Justin. By the time I met him when he was thirty-four, he'd already doubled revenue to the fifty-million mark, with a goal of achieving seventy-five million in the next two years. And not by sitting in some office. Justin prided himself on being a master of most trades. Plumbing, electrical, drywall, concrete. He was boots on the ground, spending time with his men, mingling with the subcontractors, first one on the site, last one to leave.
In the beginning, that's one of the things I'd loved most about him. A man's man. Comfortable in a wood-paneled boardroom but also played a mean game of pickup hoops and thought nothing of taking his favorite .357 to light up the firing range.
When we were first dating, he'd take me with him to his gun club. I'd stand, tucked into the solid embrace of his larger, stronger body, while he showed me how to position my hands on the grip of a relatively petite .22, how to sight down the barrel, home in on the bull's-eye. The first few times, I missed the target completely, the sound of the gunshot startling me, causing me to flinch even with ear protection. I'd fire into the ground or, if I was very lucky, hit the lowest edge of the paper target.
Time and time again, Justin would patiently correct me, his voice a low rumble against the back of my neck as he leaned over and helped me level out my aim.
Sometimes we never made it home. We'd end up naked in the closet of the rifle range, or in the backseat of his SUV, still in the parking lot. He'd dig his fingers into my hips, urging me faster and harder, and I'd obey, out of my mind with gunpowder and lust and pure mind-blowing power.
Salt. Gunpowder. Oranges.
Justin excused himself to use the bathroom.
When he left, I rearranged the pasta on my plate so it would appear as if I'd eaten. Then, I opened my purse and, under the cover of the table, doled out four white pills. I popped them as a single handful, chased down with half a glass of water.
Then I picked up my glass of champagne and steeled myself for the evening's main event.
Justin drove us the five minutes home. HeÕd purchased the Boston town house pretty much the same day weÕd confirmed that I was pregnant. From doctorÕs office to real estate office. He brought me to see it after reaching a verbal agreement, the big-game hunter showing off his trophy. I probably shouldÕve been offended by his high-handedness. Instead, IÕd walked through four and a half stories of gorgeous hardwood floors, soaring nine-foot ceilings and intricate hand-carved moldings, and felt my jaw drop.
So this is what five million dollars bought you. Bright, sunlit rooms, a charming rooftop patio, not to mention an entire neighborhood of beautifully restored redbrick buildings, nestled shoulder to shoulder like long-lost friends.
The townhome was on tree-lined Marlborough Street, just blocks away from tony Newbury Street, not to mention walking distance to the Public Gardens. The kind of neighborhood where the poor people drove Saabs, the nannies spoke with French accents and the private school had an application process that started the baby's first week of conception.
Justin gave me carte blanche. Furniture, art, draperies, carpets. Antiques, no antiques, interior decorator, no interior decorator. He didn't care. Do whatever I had to do, spend whatever I had to spend, just make this our home.
So I did. Like that scene out of Pretty Woman, except it involved slathering painters and decorators and antiques dealers, all plying their wares while I sat my pregnant bulk on various divans and with an elegant wave of my hand ordered a bit of this, a dash of that. Frankly, I had fun with it. Finally, a real-world application for my fine-art skills. I could not only fashion jewelry out of silver-infused clay, I could renovate a Boston brownstone.
We were giddy those days. Justin was working a major hydroelectric project. He'd helicopter in and out, literally, and I'd show off the latest progress on our home, while he rubbed my lower back and brushed back my hair to nuzzle the side of my neck.
Then, Ashlyn. And joy, joy, joy. Happy, happy, happy. Justin beamed, snapped photos, showed off his precious baby girl to anyone who made eye contact. His crew filed into our Boston town house, muddy boots left in the gleaming foyer so a bunch of former Navy Seals and ex-marines could make googly eyes at our sleeping daughter in her pink-coated nursery. They swapped tips on diaper changing and proper swaddling, then set out to teach a newborn how to burp the ABCs.
Justin informed them their sons would never date his daughter. They accepted the news good-naturedly, then made googly eyes at me instead. I told them they could have whatever they wanted, as long as they'd change diapers at 2:00 a.m. This led to so many suggestive comments, Justin escorted his crew back out of the house.
But he was happy and I was happy and life was good.
That's love, right? You laugh, you cry, you share midnight feedings and eventually, months later you have really tender sex where you realize things are slightly different, but still, fundamentally great. Justin showered me in jewelry and I took up the requisite yoga while learning hideously expensive places to buy baby clothes. Sure, my husband was gone a lot, but I was never the kind of woman who was afraid of being alone. I had my daughter and soon Dina, who helped out so I could return to playing in my jewelry studio, where I fashioned and created and nurtured and glowed.
Now, Justin slowed the Range Rover, starting the futile search for curbside parking. Our town house included a lower-level garage, a luxury nearly worth the property taxes, but of course Justin saved the space for me, leaving him to play the highly competitive game of street parking in downtown Boston.
He passed by our town house once and my gaze automatically went up to the third-story window, Ashlyn's room. It was dark, which surprised me as she was supposed to be staying in for the evening. Maybe she simply hadn't bothered with the overhead light, sitting before the glow of her laptop instead. Fifteen-year-olds could spend hours like that, I'd been learning. Earbuds implanted, eyes glazed over, lips sealed tightly shut.
Justin found a space. A quick reverse, a short pull forward and he'd neatly tucked the Range Rover into place. He came around the front to get my door and I let him.
Last few seconds now. My hands were clenched white-knuckle on my lap. I tried to force myself to breathe. In. Out. Simple as that. One step at a time, one moment after another.
Would he start by kissing me on the lips? Perhaps the spot he'd once discovered behind my ear? Or maybe we'd both simply strip, climb into bed, get it over with. Lights off, eyes squeezed shut. Maybe, he'd be thinking about her the whole time. Maybe, it shouldn't matter. He was with me. I'd won. Kept my husband, the father of my child.
Door opened. My husband of eighteen years loomed before me. He held out his hand. And I followed him, out of the car, down the sidewalk, neither of us speaking a word.
Justin paused at the front door. HeÕd been on the verge of punching the code into the keypad, when he stopped, frowned, then shot a quick glance at me.
"She disarmed the system," he muttered. "Left the door unsecured again."
I glanced at the door's keypad and saw what he meant. Justin had installed the system himself; not a mechanically controlled bolt lock, but an electronically controlled one. Punch in the right code, the system disarmed the locks, the door opened. No code, no entry.
The system had seemed to be an elegant solution to a teenage daughter who more often than not forgot her key. But for the system to work, it had to be armed, which was proving to be Ashlyn's next challenge.
Justin tried the knob, and sure enough, the door opened soundlessly into the darkened foyer.
My turn to frown. "She could've at least left on a light."
My stiletto heels clipped loudly as I crossed the foyer to flip on the overhead chandelier. No longer holding on to Justin's arm, I didn't walk as steadily. I wondered if he noticed. I wondered if he cared.
I made it to the wall panel. Flipped the first light switch. Nothing. I tried again, flipping up and down several times now. Nothing.
"Justin...," I started in puzzlement.
Just as I heard him say: "Libby..."
A funny popping sound, like a small-caliber gun exploding. Whizzing. Justin's body suddenly arching. I watched, open mouthed, as he stood nearly on his tiptoes, back bowing, while a guttural sound of pain wrenched through his clenched teeth.
I smelled burning flesh.
Then I saw the man.
Big. Bigger than my six-two, two-hundred-pound husband who worked in the construction field. The massive black-clad figure loomed at the edge of the foyer, hand clutching a strange-looking pistol with a square-shaped barrel. Green confetti, I noted, almost hazily. Little pieces of bright green confetti, raining down on my hardwood foyer as my husband danced macabre and the faceless man took another step forward.
His finger released on the trigger of the gun, and Justin stopped arching, sagging instead. My husband's breath came out ragged, right before the big man hit the trigger again. Four, five, six times he made Justin's entire body convulse while I stood there, open mouthed, arm outstretched as if that would stop the room from swaying.
I heard my husband say something, but I couldn't understand it at first. Then it came to me. With a low, labored breath, Justin was ordering me to run.
I made it one step. Long enough to glance pleadingly at the darkened staircase. To pray my daughter was tucked safely inside her third-story bedroom, rocking out to her iPod, oblivious to the scene below.
Then the huge man twisted toward me. With a flick of his wrist, a square cartridge was ejected from the front end of what I now realized was a Taser, then he leapt forward and planted the end of the barrel against the side of my leg. He pulled the trigger.
The contact point on my thigh immediately fired to painful, excruciating life. More burning flesh. Screaming. Probably my own.
I was aware of two things: my own acute pain and the whites of my attacker's eyes. Mask, I realized faintly. Black ski mask that obliterated his mouth, his nose, his face. Until he was no longer a man, but a faceless monster with white, white eyes, stepping straight out of my nightmares into my own home.
Then Justin lurched awkwardly forward, windmilling his arms as he rained feeble blows on the larger man's back. The black-masked figure turned slightly and with some kind of karate chop caught Justin in the throat.
My husband made a terrible gurgling sound and went down.
My left leg gave out. I went down as well. Then rolled over and vomited champagne.
My last thought, through the pain and the burning and the panic and the fear...don't let him find Ashlyn. Don't let him find Ashlyn.
Except then I heard her. High-pitched. Terrified. "Daddy. Mommy. Daddy!"
In my last second of consciousness, I managed to turn my head. I saw two more black forms, one on each side of my daughter's twisting body, as they dragged her down the stairs.
Briefly, our gazes met.
I love you, I tried to say.
But the words wouldn't come out.
The black-masked figure raised his Taser again. Calmly inserted a fresh cartridge. Took aim. Fired.
My fifteen-year-old daughter started to scream.
Pain has a flavor.
The question is, what does it taste like to you?
The tweeting of her cell phone woke her up. This surprised her for two reasons. One, because, in theory, she no longer had a job where phones rang in the small hours of the morning. Two, because it meant she must've fallen asleep, something else that, in theory, she hadn't done for months.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Catch Me:
“New York Times best-selling author Gardner always plays in the big leagues, but this scare-your-socks-off thriller is a grand slam, packed with enigmatic characters (some good, some crazily evil), expert procedural detail, and superb storytelling.”
— Library Journal on Catch Me
“Gardner has become one of the best psychological thriller writers in the business. The compelling characters, the shocking plot and the realistic atmosphere of how police operate make this a "must read" for any suspense aficionado.”
— Associated Press on Catch Me
“The creepy meter is off the charts—though not sensationalized—with children the target of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse at the hands of both strangers and parents. And, somehow, miraculously without any contrivance, Gardner’s conclusion delivers a welcome glimmer of hope.”
— Booklist (starred review) on Catch Me
“Gardner’s sixth Det. D.D. Warren thriller grabs from the get-go.”
— People on Catch Me
“A solidly enjoyable thriller that will keep you on the edge of your chair as you turn the pages and listen for any strange noises around you.”
— Huffington Post on Catch Me
“Irresistible.” — Kirkus on Catch Me
Reading Group Guide
This is my family: Vanished without a trace.
Justin and Libby Denbe have the kind of life that looks good in the pages of a glossy magazine. A beautiful fifteen–year old daughter, Ashlyn. A gorgeous brownstone on a tree–lined street in Boston’s elite Back Bay neighborhood. A great marriage, admired by friends and family. A perfect life.
This is what I know: Pain has a flavor.
When investigator Tessa Leoni arrives at the crime scene in the Denbes’ home, she finds scuff marks on the floor and Taser confetti in the foyer. The family appears to have been abducted, with only a pile of their most personal possessions remaining behind. No witnesses, no ransom demands, no motive. Just an entire family, vanished without a trace.
This is what I fear: The worst is yet to come.
Tessa knows better than anyone that even the most perfect façades can hide the darkest secrets. Now she must race against the clock to uncover the Denbes’ innermost dealings, a complex tangle of friendships and betrayal, big business and small sacrifices. Who would want to kidnap such a perfect little family? And how far would such a person be willing to go?
This is the truth: Love, safety, family.it is all touch and go.
ABOUT LISA GARDNER
Lisa Gardner is the New York Times bestselling author of fourteen previous novels. Her Detective D.D. Warren novels include Catch Me, Love You More, and the International Thriller of the Year award–winning novel, The Neighbor. Her FBI profiler novels include Say Goodbye, Gone, The Killing Hour, The Next Accident, and The Third Victim. She lives with her family in New England, where she is at work on her next novel.
A CONVERSATION WITH LISA GARDNER
How did you come up with the idea for Touch & Go?
I've always wanted to kidnap a family. Abduction is a time-honored suspense hook. Add to that the dynamics of a family in turmoil, and you have great possibilities for murder and mayhem. The issue was how to take such a classic set up and make it fresh. I mean, where would you take this family? Wilderness? It's been done. Basement? It's been done. Caverns, bunkers, bomb shelters, ditto. Then, one day I toured a mothballed prison, and my writer's mind went, GOT IT.
For your research for Touch & Go, you toured a recently built prison. What was that like?
Initially, I wasn't incredibly excited about touring a new prison facility. Having visited a number of occupied prisons, I thought an empty building would be pretty boring. But how many times do you get a chance to check out a maximum security facility before it opens, right? Turns out, empty prisons are creepy. The size and scale of everything is nearly mind-boggling. Sure, the cells are tiny, but the prison blocks themselves, the yawning hallways, the sprawling cafeterias, the endless echo of your own footsteps. Let's face it. I had to use the space for evil. I also learned there are a number of unopened new prisons, plus mothballed old prisons around the country. So I did a bit of digging, and yes, created my own fictional amalgamation. I'd never gotten to design my own prison before. It was kind of fun!
Touch & Go involves a number of characters, a whole family, the group of people who kidnap them, and a number of law enforcement personnel. Which characters were the hardest to write and which came easily? Do you have a favorite?
For Touch & Go I moved the action to my own backyard in northern New Hampshire. That meant I needed a New Hampshire detective. Thanks to the good graces of the county sheriff's department, I got to spend several days interviewing the sergeant overseeing the detectives unit. It was fascinating! After all these years of looking through D.D. Warren's Boston cop eyes, to take on a law enforcement world that is so rural and back country and crazy. As Sergeant Santuccio put it, north of Concord is a completely different playing field, where back up can be hours away, most officers have drawn their weapons at least once on the job, and no one has enough officers, investigative tools or time to get things done right, and yet that's exactly what they do again and again. Amazing! All this research went into the making of my new character, Sergeant Wyatt Foster, a cop who wants to be a carpenter, or a carpenter who wants to be a cop. I think he steals the show.
Libby Denbe is a very realistic and flawed character. Did you intend her to be seen as a hero or as partially deserving of her fate?
Libby is.raw. That's how I viewed her the entire time I was writing the novel. A smart, capable woman, astute enough to realize that she has screwed up her life, but just not emotionally ready to pick herself up and rebuild. She's hurting, still grieving for her fractured marriage, her unrealized dreams. Does she deserve what has happened to her? That's a good question for book clubs to debate!
How did you start writing?
I've always loved to read and I've always loved to write. That geek in the back of Latin class who was working on a short story instead of listening to her teacher's lecture-that was me! One summer, I decided to see if I could write a whole novel. I spent my days drafting a book and my nights working as a waitress. The results were one complete, albeit truly dreadful novel, plus shorter hair that I'd caught on fire twice serving an appetizer called flaming saganaki. Realizing my future in food service was limited, I focused on polishing my novel. The rest, as they say, is history.
How many books have you published so far?
Touch & Go will be my 28th novel.
Can you tell us a little about your writing schedule, editing and revision process, novel development, etc.? How long does it take you to write a story?
I like to write first thing in the morning. I'm always trying to get a certain number of scenes done each week. Sometimes that means writing a few hours a day. Sometimes that means writing ten hours a day. It depends on how fast the hamster is turning the wheel in my brain. I start with a general outline of each novel. The major plot points, key scenes, research that needs to be incorporated into the story, etc. I change a lot as I write, however, so the end novel may bear little resemblance to my starting idea. Sometimes characters take over. Sometimes I come up with a better idea for a plot point or a plot twist, so I reorient the story to make the new and improved concept work. It usually takes me six months to draft a novel, then three months to polish it.
How do you do your research?
Whenever possible, I try to interview professionals in the field. Personally, I don't have a law enforcement background, so I generally start with a call to some poor detective who has the misfortune to pick up his phone. I'm honestly touched and amazed by the thorough assistance I've received. I've interviewed FBI agents, ATF agents, state police, local police, corrections officers, etc., and every single one of them has taken significant time out of his or her day to answer my questions. They are very nice people doing very tough jobs.
Who are your role models? Which writers have influenced you the most?
I remember being twelve-years old and reading M.M. Kaye's The Far Pavilions. I was completely enthralled by that novel. The way she made the setting, history, and characters come so richly alive. From the beautiful romance to the gritty battle scenes, I thought reading that book was one of the most intense experiences I'd ever had. Of course, I was twelve. But I still love that novel. I reread it every few years, and every few years I'm enthralled all over again. I also enjoy Stephen King, Lee Child, Linwood Barclay, C.S. Harris, Tess Gerritsen and Karin Slaughter.
What has been your favorite question or comment by your fans?
I like it when fans tell me I've kept them awake all night, or made them forget to feed their kids dinner, or kept them from going into to work because they simply had to finish my book. It gives me a warm feeling inside. In all honesty, I'm really honored by how much people enjoy my novels and I love to hear from readers.
I'm an aspiring writer. Can you give me any advice on finding an agent or editor?
I recommend that any serious writer join a writers group. Three great organizations are Romance Writers of America and its suspense subchapter Kiss of Death; Mystery Writers of America; and International Thriller Writers. These groups offer local chapters where you can meet other aspiring writers as well as published authors. They also sponsor local conferences where you learn about the craft of writing, the business of publishing, and pitch your book ideas directly to agents and editors. All in all, a lot of support and services in return for fairly modest yearly dues.
What is the best and the worst thing about your job?
Best thing about being a writer is working in my pajamas, not to mention that chocolate is a "brain food" which explains most of my afternoons. Worst thing is deadlines. I wish I could just play with my characters forever. But sooner or later, all good writers must wrap up their stories and hand them over. D'oh!
Any surprising/hidden talents other than writing?
Actually, I think one of the lynchpins of my career is that this is it. See, I wrote my first book when I was 17 and sold it when I was 20. Normal authors don't do that, because they're busy exploring other talents. They're creative types flirting with drawing, playwriting, TV producing, home decorating, legal, medical or journalistic careers, etc., etc. Not me. I tried a little bit of everything, and failed each time. Can't draw, suck at poetry, have no patience for the corporate world. But somehow, I love stories. Give me a single line, and I can tell you the movie or book it's from. Freakish, but there you have it. I love books, books love me, and I've been publishing ever since.
If you weren't a writer, what would be your fantasy career?
I would love to be a criminologist! I don't have a strong enough science background to go into forensics, but it's the criminal mind that fascinates me the most anyway. I feel each of my novels explores the same basic, primordial question: What is the nature of evil? Interestingly enough, there isn't one answer. Hence, I've gotten to write fourteen novels, instead of just the first. Evil can be born (The Perfect Husband), evil can be made (Say Goodbye), evil can be both, a combination of nature and nature (Catch Me), and I'm sure there are even more answers to that question, meaning I have to get busy writing more books!