Ready or Not

Book Cover: Ready or Not

Family secrets resurface, threatening cyber sleuth Karen Sullivan’s carefully ordered life.

A week before Thanksgiving, Karen receives the first obscene phone call. The calls continue nightly and escalate in their graphic details about the dark, childhood secrets she has successfully repressed. Then the caller takes a new direction and brags about his plans to terrorize her ailing, eighty-seven-year-old father.

Determined to shut out the ugly past, slow her mounting fears, and protect Dad, Karen struggles to keep her life on the rails. She takes her volunteer shift at the local rape crisis center and imagines confiding the collision of past and present to her best friend. But her friend goes home ill before Karen can reveal her PTSD symptoms.

In a matter of hours, circumstances spiral out of control. A caller to the crisis center swears he’ll “hurt” the twelve-year-old girl he’s babysitting unless Karen “distracts him with phone sex.”

Is Karen paranoid or is the caller her anonymous caller? How does he know her name? How’d he discover where she’s volunteering? How does he connect Karen to Dad and to her best friend?

Events crash around her like a tsunami. She speaks with the twelve-year-old girl. Her best friend is brutally attacked. Her super home security system is breached. More twists and fast pacing ratchet up the psychological suspense.

On the edge, trusting no man, Karen must trust a rogue cop without revealing her darkest secrets. Can they stop the psycho before Karen becomes his next prey?

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Excerpt:

Chapter 1

Wednesday before Thanksgiving - Midnight

The success of the past four nights makes me higher than a horny teenager. I have proven that throwaway cell phones elevate the ho-hum mating game several levels above mere phone sex. Four calls on four consecutive nights to Karen Sullivan resulted in blissed-out foreplay.

The zipper on my jeans bites into my dick like barbed wire. I open my eyes and whoop as power shoots between my legs. The best is yet to come.

Ah, Karen, thy name is tease.

The alarm on my iPhone beeps. Let the fun continue.

Chapter 2

Mission Hills, KS - Wednesday before Thanksgiving - 12:01 a.m.

The last notes of Moonlight Sonata floated across Karen Sullivan’s family room and imbued the fresh snow blanketing her backyard with postcard serenity.

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Over the river and through the snow, she thought, pissed the music failed to work its magic. Karen wanted something in addition to her “find” on the Internet to be thankful for. Instead, she was fighting the urge to push up her sleeve and check her watch.

And let the bastard win. She tugged at the cuff on the sweatshirt, closed her index finger over her thumb and held the fabric in place with her other three fingers. Feeling ridiculous, she stared out the French doors at the whitened golf course.

Focus on something besides the crawling minutes. Time was PERSONAL CALLER’S obsession. Her stomach, clenched from too many sleepless nights, sour from too much green tea, knew the time. Down to the second, she’d bet.

Without looking at her watch, she flipped on the floodlights and faced her mocking reflection.

Moment of truth. She did not turn the lights on so she could see Reynard better.

If the gray fox did show up, it was because he often foraged this time of night. Foraging didn’t signal good luck—that PERSONAL CALLER wouldn’t call for the fifth night straight. Foraging meant the animal was hungry.

The truth? Lying in bed with only the bedside lamp on while PRIVATE CALLER played his game added to the obscenity. In her head, Karen recognized the bastard wasn’t standing on the golf course. Or in her backyard with a cell phone.

Too bad her head and her gut had stopped talking to each other after PC’s fourth call at 3:03 that first night. Logically, three o’clock was morning, but the black void and cosmic silence defied logic.

A glance at the security system verified what Karen already knew. All doors and windows were locked. She turned away from the French doors, managed not to jiggle the brass knobs, and pointed the remote at the CD player.

At her desk, she laid the portable phone’s receiver in front of her. She’d kiss a cobra before she brought the mouthpiece to her lips with PC on the line. Let her plan work and call number seventeen would be her last one from the bastard. Once she fried a few of his twisted little gray cells, he’d slink back under his rock and stay there.

Her heart fluttered, but the mental picture of a creepy-crawler squashed by a boulder eased the tightness in her chest. She slipped the chain on the solid brass, chrome-plated Ace Blaster whistle over her head and made a face.

So she couldn’t involve the police. She’d show the bastard. He’d find out soon enough he’d messed with the wrong woman.

The portable rang softly. Karen flinched. A small flinch. A tic. Disgusted by her body’s betrayal, she dropped the earphones into place, then mashed the TALK button. Without wasting another second, she blew into the whistle. Her ridiculous hope that PRIVATE CALLER had lost or forgotten her phone number slipped away.

Come to Jesus, you bastard. Black dots danced in front of her eyes and her ears rang. She kept blowing, spitting out the Ace Blaster when her cheeks felt ready to explode. She sucked in air. Heart racing, she raised one earphone.

“Bitch!” His scream echoed sweeter than the anthem of a celestial choir.

Chapter 3

When Karen had found the Ace Blaster online, the crushing weight in her chest lifted enough that she almost breathed normally. When she blew the whistle and heard PC scream, the weight lifted enough that she broke out laughing and couldn’t catch her breath.

The echo of PC’s scream fueled her near giddiness. After he disconnected, still screaming and swearing, Karen sat at her desk blowing the Ace Blaster for five more sweet minutes. But the crackling under her skin quickly gave way to arms so heavy that removing the earphones drained her.

The lazy drift of snowflakes lulled her, tempting her to lay her head on her desk and sleep. Her chin dropped to her chest. Sleep. Sweet, sweet … sleep … No more calls from PC. No more frantic hacking into the phone company’s databases. No more nightmares.

Wind gusted against the French doors. Karen jerked upright, momentarily confused by the snow and a dream-remnant from long-ago sleepless nights in New Mexico. She scrubbed her eyes, swallowed the sand in her throat, willed the dream back, and pushed to her feet.

Work. She had to work. Lack of sleep for the past week had destroyed her productivity. She’d never catch up. Her corporate clients consumed the info she ferreted out of cyberspace like sharks devoured fresh kill.

First things first. She grabbed her mouse. Making sure she’d covered her ass came before finding non-public records, unlisted phone numbers, financial transactions, personal data, work histories, and just plain dirt for high-paying clients. She clicked twice and brought up AT&T’s customer database.

“Goddamn, Karen …” Her heart pounded. What the hell had she done?

Made a mistake, her mind whispered. A mistake so big, she could land in jail for a very long time.

Her fingers shook as she erased the personal screen name she’d used during her last attempt at illegally changing her phone number to stop PC’s calls.

“Calm down.” She stared at the flickering monitor and willed herself to recheck every zombie computer she’d used the past week. Zombie computers PC had somehow found.

Half an hour later, she pressed a thumb between her eyebrows. Her routine use of blind screen names, chosen at random from her own cache of aliases, had always offered the best chance of anonymity every time she made an over-the-line foray into restricted files.

Thank God she’d fixed her mistake. Because without those excursions, she’d never earn the big bucks to write the big checks that kept Dad happy and well cared for. Her questionable ethics provided only one reason she hadn’t contacted the police the first time PC called.

Too late now for the police, but with any luck, her sloppiness wouldn’t derail her life. She had to believe she’d found her mistake before anyone else …

In the middle of her pep talk, her unlisted land-line phone rang. Caller ID flashed a name and number that stopped Karen’s heart. “Dad!”

Visions of him hurt—dying—blinded her. She lunged across her desk for the receiver. “Dad?”

A blip of silence caught her off guard, and she gritted her teeth, remembering PC’s silence. A moan grabbed her full attention.

“Daddy?” she whispered. “What’s wrong?”

His ragged breathing sounded like a man choking.

“Dad, you’ll be okay.” Panic shook her voice. She swallowed, modulating her tone. “I’m coming.”

“Ah.”

“Don’t move, Dad. I’ve called the nurse.”

Crooning to him, she jerked the portable phone toward her, dialed Oak Manor, listened to the signal drone on and on. C’mon, c’mon. Pick up.

“I’m waiting for the nurse, Dad.” She should be out the door, but she couldn’t hang up until the nurse stood by his bed.

Keys? With both phones to her ears, she stretched the land-line cord as far as the kitchen door. Close enough she could see the keys, not close enough to lift them off their hook.

“Charlaine Lawson.” The nurse swallowed audibly.

Stuffing her face with pre-Thanksgiving goodies? In a tight, controlled tone, Karen identified herself, then said, “Dad’s in trouble.”

“Stay calm,” Charlaine said. “I’m sure he’s fi—”

“Listen to me. He’s on my other line. He’s not fine.” Karen kept her tone low, deadly. Dad didn’t need to hear her argue with an overpaid caretaker.

“I’m in his wing,” Charlaine said, adding in a rush, “I don’t hear Barney. That’s gotta be a good sign.”

Bad sign. The dial tone in Karen’s other ear confirmed what she should’ve realized the instant she answered the phone. If Dad was in trouble, Barney would bark the walls down at Oak Manor and Karen would need her own hearing aid.

A sigh on Charlaine’s end.

“What?” Karen asked, her throat too tight to hide her terror.

“A tornado couldn’t wake your father or Barney.” Charlaine made no effort to soften her hostility. “Phone’s on the hook. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

The nurse pronounced each word slowly as if speaking to someone with an IQ of 50, but Karen stilled, the insult absorbed by shock.

Nothing out of the ordinary? Fear wrapped around Karen’s vocal cords, thickened her tongue, made her dizzy. Nothing out of the ordinary?

Nothing, except PRIVATE CALLER now had Dad’s unlisted number.

Chapter 4

At ten till one, Karen ignored the Night Emergency Bell at the front door of Oak Manor and spoke into her cell phone. “Charlaine, I want to see Dad.”

“Now? Where—?”

“At the front door.”

“Front—you drove over here? At this time of night?” Charlaine’s tsking failed to make Karen feel reprimanded, and she gave full vent to her irritation.

“At this time of night. I want to see him. As in right now.”

“You’ll scare him to death.“

“He won’t even know I’m here.” Karen stamped her feet. “Some reason you’re not opening the door? I’m freezing.”

“I don’t wonder,” Charlaine mumbled like a woman with a mouthful of food. “It’ll take a few minutes for me to get to that part of the building.”

Karen stepped out from under the overhang. It had stopped snowing, but drifts covered the sidewalks. “Meet me at the side door to Dad’s wing. It’s closer.”

“Not necessarily. Stay there and have a little patience—”

”Don’t lecture me on patience.” When silence greeted her outburst, Karen tapped the mouthpiece. Dropped signal or ruffled feathers? “Charlaine?”

Shaking now with cold, Karen stepped back to the front door. She placed her hands on either side of her face and breathed against a glass side-panel. A wisp of steam warmed her nose. She peered into the softly lit entry.

“Charlaine!” Karen shouted into the cell phone. Dammit, Oak Manor was spacious, but it wasn’t Versailles. Where the hell was the woman?

A sound like a fingernail on plastic crackled in Karen’s ear. She winced. Charlaine announced her location and then Karen saw her through the glass. When the nurse finally opened the door, she made mouth noises expressing disbelief and disapproval.

Karen jogged past her, her mind traveling ahead to Dad. She used her key at his door, opened it and shushed Barney. Tail wagging, the golden Lab put his paws on Karen’s shoulders and licked away the tears blurring her vision.

Charlaine cleared her throat. Karen gave Barney the signal to sit and whispered, “I’ll take it from here.”

“I don’t mind going in with you.” The nurse curled her bottom lip—as if smiling hurt.

Unsaid, Karen heard, I want the pleasure of showing you he’s asleep.

“No need. I know how busy you are.” Karen inched the fifty-something woman out the door, adding softly, as if Charlaine was a trusted confidant. “The fewer people who know I was here tonight, the fewer can let it slip to Dad. I know I can trust your discretion.”

“I’m a professional, m’dear.” Charlaine bared big yellow teeth. “Secrets have a way of becoming public.”

Karen stared and then closed the door. Let her have the last word.

Barney stayed by her side as she tiptoed into Dad’s bedroom. Despite the night light, she had to strain to see the rise and fall of his thin chest. She resisted the desire to kiss him.

After unplugging both phones, Karen sat next to his bed for an hour, stroking Barney’s head, and silently dared the ghosts to come out from under the bed.

Chapter 5

7:20 a.m.

“Morning, Dad.” Still fully dressed in yesterday’s clothes reeking of terror and despair, Karen sat on the edge of her bed, too tired to turn on the lamp, trying to figure out why she’d spent two fruitless hours surfing the Net for PRIVATE CALLER. She forced a bright tone. “How’d you sleep?”

“Sweetheart, you sound exhausted.”

“You know my early-bird gene’s defective.” She yawned, covering her mouth. At eighty-seven, Dad heard everything. Except last night he hadn’t heard her in his bedroom—or this daily conversational ritual would be very different.

“I bet you worked all night.” Dad’s worry pulled her back to their conversation.

“Huh-uh.” Technically not a lie—maybe because with her brain churning about PC, moral issues were fuzzy. Plus, she received no pay for the hours she wasted after returning from Oak Manor at 5:00. “Even took a couple of hours off.”

“Away from those blankety-blank computers?” He rushed on. “Did you relax?”

“I did. Honest.” God, had Charlaine said something?

“Can you even spell the word?” The throb in his voice tightened Karen’s chest, and the realization he’d dodged how he slept floated by as Karen massaged under her left breast.

“R-E-L-A-X.”

“Sweetheart, you need time for yourself.” He sighed. “Quit worrying about me. Have some fun. Stop volun—”

”I’m fine, Dad. I like keeping busy.” Learning PRIVATE CALLER’s identity and stopping him without police involvement were now a matter of pride, damn it. “You can’t be the daughter of a doctor and be a lazy butt.”

“No one better call you lazy around me.”

Karen lay back against the pillows, stretched her legs in front of her, covered the mouthpiece and exhaled. She was used to feeling like crap after an all-nighter. She wasn’t used to feeling like a failure. “You don’t have to fight my battles, you know.”

“That’s what fathers are for … battles.” The rise and fall of Dad’s bedside-voice kindled memories of Karen in bed, head on his shoulder, as he read fairy tale after fairy tale.

“… phone off the hook. Please … ”

Mouth dry, head fuzzy, Karen smacked at the phone cradled between her neck and shoulder. “What—?”

The message started again. She disconnected, turned the bedside clock closer, grimaced. Seven-thirty? She must’ve dozed off two seconds into Dad’s rant on—what?

Falling snow made the bedroom a shadowy cocoon. She swung her feet to the floor, groaned, fell back in the soft, warm covers and buried her face in a pillow.

Call him.

Hell. She grabbed the phone and punched speed dial.

Dad picked up on the first ring. “If you apologize for falling asleep in the middle of my riveting lecture on stress, I will have to deliver my boring lecture on sleep deprivation.”

Despite the fatigue taking over her body and mind, Karen managed a chuckle. “Just called to let you know I am in the bed.”

“Good. I was afraid you’d fallen asleep standing up. Now, sleep. Dream pleasant dreams. I’ll see you later.”

“As always.” Please let her sound loving instead of small and resentful. And exhausted.

“You make my life worth living, Sweetheart.”

Karen’s throat filled. Luckily, Dad had hung up.

* * *

Wind hammered at the bedroom windows, dragging Karen awake at noon. Barely conscious came closer to the truth than awake. Lord, she’d slept four and a half hours. Hours with no dreams of a faceless PRIVATE CALLER breathing in her ear. No nightmares of Dad dying. Life was looking up.

If she forgot PC had Dad’s number. Had used it to fake a call to her from Dad. She opened her eyes. What else did the bastard know about her?

The down comforter felt like an anvil on her chest. She pushed up onto one elbow, peering out the window. White now buried the golf course behind the house with what looked like six or seven inches of snow. Maybe more. Less would never deter the avid golfers of the Mission Hills Country Club.

Karen blinked against the whiteness. Snow might stop wimpy golfers, but nothing would stop her. She threw back the covers. If she hustled, she had a couple of good hours in cyberspace before going to Dad’s for their daily visit.

In the shower, she decided to search every personnel file at Oak Manor, Second Plaza Bank and Pierce Asset Management, their investment broker. All three cross-listed emergency contact info for her and Dad. Ninety percent of corporate computer crime came from the inside, why not personal harassment—when retirement homes and financial institutions hired and fired staff almost as quickly as fast-food restaurants?

Karen stepped out of the shower and toweled off. By law Oak Manor, the bank or the brokerage could disclose non-public info about her and Dad to third-party services providers. Karen rubbed her skin till it tingled and turned bright red.

Because of the providers’ access, she’d ruffled a few feathers at Pierce Asset nine or ten months ago. She’d demanded monthly, updated copies of any third-party disclosures. Pierce complied, but like Charlaine Lawson, they let her know her request was a royal pain.

Two red spots appeared on her cheeks and she wished for the hundredth time she’d gotten Dad’s congeniality gene.

Yes, but perseverance is a virtue, too.

And not just for Scarlett O’Hara. Karen yanked a clean turtleneck over her head and ran a hand through her hair. No matter how long it took, she’d find a trail to PC. She had no choice.

She had to protect Dad.

COLLAPSE
Reviews:K.C. Finn for Readers' Favorite wrote:

5-Stars

Ready or Not is a chilling contemporary tale by AB Plum, described by the author as ‘A Twisted Psychological Thriller’. Written for mature audiences, the heroine of our tale is highly successful cyber sleuth Karen Sullivan, who makes short work of searching for dirt on both employers and employees for a pretty penny. She occasionally brushes the line of the law for the sake of her ailing father who is eighty-seven and requires assisted living. At thirty-seven, life is not what she’d hoped, but when a terrifying phone call recounts the awful traumas of her childhood, Karen’s life is thrown into turmoil. With the looming threat of harming those she loves, Karen must figure out who is terrorizing her before her very life is taken away.

I rocketed through this book at a breakneck pace just to find out what happens next, and I have to say author AB Plum does not disappoint with the twists and turns of Karen’s terrifying tale. There are certainly trigger warnings to be made regarding rape and sexual abuse, because the trauma that the creepy caller puts Karen through is realistically written and sometimes heart-wrenching to read, but if you can stand the nature of the topic then the thriller and the unravelling of the plot are well worth the journey. Plum writes with conviction and real humanity, unveiling both the best and worst of us as human beings. Overall, I’d certainly recommend Ready or Not to brave readers searching for a truly terrifying thriller.

Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite wrote:

5-Stars

Thirty-seven-year-old Karen Sullivan is a woman with a childhood secret. Raped by a teenage neighbour when she was just twelve, Karen never speaks to anyone about her experiences. Self-employed, she skirts the law, working as a corporate hacker who can find out anything about anyone just by their digital footprint. In Ready or Not by AB Plum, Karen and her only true friend, RJ, are volunteers for the Kansas City Rape Crisis Hotline. In the middle of one of the biggest snowstorms to strike Kansas City in years, Karen is left alone in the Hotline building when she receives calls from a “perv” called Seth, along with photographs from long ago, showing her, her teenage rapist and her parents happily smiling for the camera. When RJ is brutally raped and murdered, it seems the past has come back to haunt Karen, but how can that be? Karen’s father had told her many years ago that her rapist, Eddie, died not long after her rape… but did he? What follows is a hunt for RJ’s attacker in tandem with a grizzled and careworn lieutenant from the Kansas City Police Department, who wants to catch this attacker just as much as Karen does.

Ready or Not is a fast-moving and taut suspense thriller that keeps readers guessing and on the edge of their seats right from the get-go. Author AB Plum’s style is harsh and frantic, drawing the reader along at breakneck speed. The two principal characters of Karen and Wiley are both drawn as extreme caricatures of the roles they perform and, as such, they work together and mesh perfectly. The abrasiveness and walls of defence Karen has built around herself over the years are slowly whittled away by the lieutenant’s persistence and equal amount of gruffness. This story works because of the author’s ability to mesh these two characters who, in many ways, are extremely similar. The twists and turns of the narrative are clever and artfully done, with the bad guys and their extreme narcissism, misogyny and evil splendidly filling out the story. This is an excellent read and one I would highly recommend to fans of the genre. It’s probably not for the squeamish but if you like suspenseful murder/mysteries, this one will be right up your alley.

Francine Zane for Readers' Favorite wrote:

"Read Ready or Not late at night at your own risk."

4-Stars

In Ready or Not by A.B. Plum, Karen receives an obscene phone call right before the holidays. No big deal, right? Only the obscene call is followed up by others that are distinctly more threatening in nature. When childhood secrets come to light, Karen realizes just how dangerous this stranger really is. From page one, Ready or Not by A.B. Plum takes the reader on a non-stop, suspense-filled journey. Plum creates a unique supporting cast that aids Karen through her moments of terror. From her eighty-seven-year-old father to the less-than-patient nurses and the jaded cop who finally convinces her to confide in him, the characters feel as real as Karen’s paranoia. The villain is a very sick individual who uses flirtation as a weapon as skillfully as a sharpshooter uses a gun.

The pace is professional, and the psychological twists that lead to a satisfying conclusion deserve two thumbs up. As a former resident of Kansas City, I could easily picture the setting. Ready or Not is a great reminder that no matter how ideal a person’s life may appear on the outside, deep-seated fears and regret may shadow them for a lifetime. Read Ready or Not late at night at your own risk. If you are like me, you will get lost in the plot and swear you will read just one more page long after your scheduled bedtime. And when you do close your eyes, your imagination will fill the shadows with unseen dangers. Plum is just that good at creating a story that stays with you long after you finish reading the last page.