Chapter OneTINY LIGHTS WINKED on the Douglas fir standing tall and full in front of the picture window. Swags of Christmas greenery and dozens of cards decked the well-appointed living room, and apple logs crackled in the fireplace, scenting the air as they burned.
A digitized Bing Crosby crooned "The Christmas Song."
"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Frost nipping at your nose ..."
Henry Jablonsky couldn't see the boys clearly. The one called Hawk had snatched off his glasses and put them a mile away on the fireplace mantel, a good thing, Jablonsky had reasoned at the time.
It meant that the boys didn't want to be identified, that they were planning to let them go. Please, God, please let us live and I'll serve you all the days of my life.
Jablonsky watched the two shapes moving around the tree, knew that the gun was in Hawk's waistband. He heard wrapping paper tear, saw the one called Pidge dangling a bow for the new kitten.
They'd said they weren't going to hurt them.
They said this was only a robbery.
Jablonsky had memorized their faces well enough to describe to a police sketch artist, which he would be doing as soon as they got the hell out of his home.
Both boys looked as though they'd stepped from the pages of a Ralph Lauren ad.
Hawk. Clean-cut. Well-spoken. Blond, with side-parted hair. Pidge, bigger. Probably six two. Long brown hair. Strong as a horse. Meaty hands. Ivy League types. Both of them.
Maybe there really was some goodness in them.
As Jablonsky watched, the blond one, Hawk, walked over to the bookshelf, dragged his long fingers across the spines of the books, calling out titles, his voice warm, as though he were a friend of the family.
He said to Henry Jablonsky, "Wow, Mr. J., you've got Fahrenheit 451. This is a classic."
Hawk pulled the book from the shelf, opened it to the first page. Then he stooped down to where Jablonsky was hog-tied on the floor with a sock in his mouth.
"You can't beat Bradbury for an opening," Hawk said. And then he read aloud with a clear, dramatic voice.
"'It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.'"
As Hawk read, Pidge hauled a large package out from under the tree. It was wrapped in gold foil, tied with gold ribbon. Something Peggy had always wanted and had waited for, for years.
"To Peggy, from Santa," Pidge read from the gift tag. He sliced through the wrappings with a knife.
He had a knife!
Pidge opened the box, peeled back the layers of tissue.
"A Birkin bag, Peggy. Santa brought you a nine-thousand-dollar purse! I'd call that a no, Peg. A definite no."
Pidge reached for another wrapped gift, shook the box, while Hawk turned his attention to Peggy Jablonsky. Peggy pleaded with Hawk, her actual words muffled by the wad of sock in her mouth. It broke Henry's heavy heart to see how hard she tried to communicate with her eyes.
Hawk reached out and stroked Peggy's baby-blond hair, then patted her damp cheek. "We're going to open all your presents now, Mrs. J. Yours too, Mr. J.," he said. "Then we'll decide if we're going to let you live."
Chapter TwoHENRY JABLONSKY'S STOMACH HEAVED. He gagged against the thick wool of the sock, pulled against his restraints, smelled the sour odor of urine. Heat puddled under his clothes. Christ. He'd wet himself. But it didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was to get out alive.
He couldn't move. He couldn't speak. But he could reason.
What could he do?
Jablonsky looked around from his place on the floor, took in the fire poker only yards away. He fixed his vision on that poker.
"Mrs. J.," Pidge called out to Peggy, shaking a small turquoise box. "This is from Henry. A Peretti necklace. Very nice. What? You have something to say?"
Pidge went over to Peggy Jablonsky and took the sock out of her mouth.
"You don't really know Dougie, do you?" she said.
"Dougie who?" Pidge laughed
"Don't hurt us-"
"No, no, Mrs. J.," Pidge said, stuffing the sock back into his captive's mouth. "No don'ts. This is our game. Our rules."
The kitten pounced into the heap of wrapping paper as the gifts were opened; the diamond earrings, the Hermes tie, and the Jensen salad tongs, Jablonsky praying that they would just take the stuff and leave. Then he heard Pidge speak to Hawk, his voice more subdued than before, so that Jablonsky had to strain to hear over the blood pounding in his ears.
"Well? Guilty or not guilty?" Pidge asked.
Hawk's voice was thoughtful. "The J.'s are living well, and if that's the best revenge ..."
"You're kidding me, dude. That's totally bogus."
Pidge stepped over the pillowcase filled with the contents of the Jablonskys' safe. He spread the Bradbury book open on the lamp table with the span of his hand, then picked up a pen and carefully printed on the title page.
Pidge read it back. "Sic erat in fatis, man. It is fated. Get the kit-cat and let's go."
Hawk bent over, said, "Sorry, dude. Mrs. Dude." He took the sock out of Jablonsky's mouth. "Say good-bye to Peggy."
Henry Jablonsky's mind scrambled. What? What was happening? And then he realized. He could speak! He screamed "Pegg-yyyyy" as the Christmas tree bloomed with a bright yellow glare, then went up in a great exhalation of flame.
Heat rose and the skin of Henry Jablonsky's cheeks dried like paper. Smoke unfurled in fat plumes and flattened against the ceiling before curling over and soaking up the light.
"Don't leave us!"
He saw the flames climbing the curtains, heard his dear love's muffled screams as the front door slammed shut.