Desert Isle Keeper
Touch and Go
When my children were little I became well acquainted with the wit and wisdom of a nationally known purple dinosaur. One of his numerous oft-repeated songs told me that, “a family is people and a family is love, they come in all different sizes and different shapes but mine’s just right for me.” What the song doesn’t tell you is that like all living things, a family can change. Sometimes it is no longer right for you. Sometimes something outside comes in and devastates this thing we so love and value.
Libby Denbe had the perfect family. Or so she thought until she caught her husband, Justin, a handsome and wealthy Boston construction mogul, cheating on her with a travel agent barely out of high school. Since then their marriage has been a demolition site, the cleanup and rebuilding being nothing short of hazardous. She greets the date night that is supposed to signal the start of their new, revamped marriage with great trepidation. She can’t eat the meal served at the fancy restaurant and instead pops pills with her champagne. She walks on wobbly feet into her home, dreading the evening’s finale of reunion sex with every fiber of her being. But what happens as she enters the house makes all her other concerns seem paltry: she and her husband are tasered and their daughter is manhandled before their helpless eyes. The three are trussed up like Thanksgiving turkeys, drugged, and whisked away from their lovely home. Where they are taken shocks Libby to her very core.
Switching jobs from cop to corporate investigator has meant Tessa Leoni rarely gets woken up by the bleating of her cell phone anymore. When the call comes at 6:30 am on a Saturday morning, she is shocked. Not just because it is her boss on the line, a man who rarely if ever works weekends, but because he woke her from a sound sleep. Tessa hasn’t slept soundly in years. She heads to the home of Justin and Libby Denbe armed with something she never seemed to have as a cop – information. Normally she wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a crime scene but the home is actually owned by the company, Denbe Construction, and the firm had hired Tessa’s company to handle security problems. As she liaises with the local cops, Tessa discovers that they know very little. The family is gone, their cell phones, iPads and other electronic gadgets all sitting on the kitchen counter in a pile. No ransom call. No notes. The only clue is a non-descript white van seen in the area. But Tessa holds a trump card. Justin Denbe had been given a jacket with a GPS tracker for his birthday. It had been a bit of an in-joke, a way for his crew to remind him that he was often hard to find. Now it may just save him and his family. When the tracer is activated, it shows the family is no longer in Massachusetts.
New Hampshire county cop Wyatt Foster gets the call that the jacket is in his area. As he searches for the jacket he begins to wonder why all three family members were kidnapped. Wouldn’t one have sufficed? Wouldn’t it have made sense to leave somebody behind to deal with the ransom? As Wyatt inserts himself fully into the case he becomes more and more disconcerted by what he finds. There is something happening here that is no mere kidnapping for money. But just what is it?
This book alternates between third-person chapters which deal with Wyatt, Tessa and the contingent of Boston cops and FBI who are investigating the case, and the first-person account of Libby’s life as a kidnap victim. Its extremely fast pacing, ratcheting momentum, and plot twists have you racing through each portion wondering just what the heck is happening. At one point I suspected everyone except myself of somehow being involved in whatever was going on. And that’s the great thing – until close to the end we aren’t sure of exactly what that is. I had an idea of what could be occurring but I could never completely get it to gel into a cohesive solution. Towards the end I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.
Since I am not going to talk plot and destroy the fun readers will have on the roller coaster ride that this mystery is, I’m going to talk characters. Libby is the first character we are introduced to. Our initial impression is of a fragile, rather broken woman who pops pills and drinks alcohol to numb her way through life’s problems. As we get to know her we realize Libby is a whole lot more than that – there is grit and steel beneath the soft exterior. She thinks and fights her way through her captivity, showing gumption I didn’t expect of her. The deeper we get to know the character the more we realize we don’t really know her at all. In the end I found myself liking her a whole, whole lot.
Husband Justin and daughter Ashlyn are equally complex characters. From the start of the novel we know that Justin is a cheater, a larger than life figure who thinks he deserves it all. As the novel progresses we see more depth – and less – as we alternate between view points. We also realize that no one in that household knew what the other was up to. Both Justin and Ashlyn carry big secrets, the kind of secrets that lead to even bigger trouble. How does that affect what is happening? We are never sure.
On the other side of the equation we have Tessa, who is working desperately to find them. Fans of Gardner know Tessa from Love You More which was a slick, twisted ride of a tale. The author loves to write really strong women and by that I mean tough all the way through to their core. Tessa makes most of the others look like wimps. If they let women into the special forces, this would be the one who made it all the way through and wound up leading a squad of SEALS. She is methodical, relentless, bright, and tenacious and yet has just the right amount of heart to make her a loving mother and caring investigator. She wants to get the Denbes back alive. And what Tessa wants, she goes after with her whole being.
Wyatt is the counter point to Tessa. He is an excellent investigator who sees what others miss but the edges are softened with him. He knows how to have a full life, not just carve out moments for himself but to really live in each of those moments. He likes what he sees in Tessa and as the two follow the case to wherever it leads them, he finds himself wanting to see a whole lot more of her. There is definitely damage in Tessa’s past but does she have room for him in her future?
Rounding up our leads are the three kidnappers. I only mention them because I found myself utterly fascinated by two of them – Radar and Z. Mick is your typical criminal – mean, malicious and a bit crazy. But the other two are noticeably different. We know they have a military background. We know they act within the parameters of “the mission.” They aren’t cruel and, in fact, at some moments show compassion. Radar sees Libby’s struggle to overcome her pain med addiction and helps her through it on the sly. Z’s actions at the end of the novel show honor and integrity beyond what could be reasonably expected of him. Make no mistake – these are remorseless killers and if the mission is to kill you, they’ll do it. They just won’t torture you for fun first. Still, there was something there that I would really, really have liked to explore more. I hope the author comes back to these characters. She did such good work creating them it would be a shame to let that go to waste.
There are lots of other characters involved too, including detective D. D. Warren but Libby, Tessa, Wyatt and the kidnappers are our stars.
I am so happy to be able to give this book a whole-hearted recommend. Even as you see the end coming there is so much to keep you reading. You will find yourself staying up way past your bedtime to reach the big finale. It’s worth the ride.