Beauty & the beast some.., p.16
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       Beauty & the Beast: Some Gave All, p.16

           Nancy Holder
 
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  “The people we’re targeting created FFNY as a cover for their operations. The FFNY’s mission was to locate and capture the beast and to find the serum that enabled it to secrete a complicated set of pheromones that evokes a fear response in anyone within a fifty feet radius.

  “The organization in control of FFNY is called the Thornton Foundation. They’ve been attempting to extend the field of influence. For obvious reasons, of course. Let one of these things loose on a field of engagement and you can not only force your enemy to retreat, but to also keep a healthy distance from you in the first place. Like a force field.”

  “Why kidnap Dr. Forbes?”

  “You mean, do they know that he’s shielding Dr. Keller?” He lowered his voice. “We think they suspect, but we don’t think they know. Dr. Forbes was mentioned prominently in some correspondence that remained intact when Muirfield was destroyed. I believe he was pretending to cooperate with your former medical examiner, Evan Marks. Who did give his life in service of the greater good.”

  “What kind of correspondence?” she asked sharply. “And why do you know about it?”

  “Emailed discussions of their research, a set of notes about Dr. Marks’s findings and Dr. Forbes’s opinions, and about Dr. Marks’s plans to present his findings at a symposium. And his secret deal to ally himself with Muirfield, which, as you know, he recanted.”

  Though she retained her stone face, she took a moment to grieve Evan’s death. Flirtatious and brilliant, he had been a bright spot in some dark days. Until he had decided to destroy Vincent to “protect” her. More than one man had gone down that route… and died because of it.

  “And of course, it’s no secret that Dr. Keller was in Delta Company and served in Afghanistan during the time period that Muirfield was engaging in testing. That he disappeared for a decade, and only recently resurfaced. Excellent grounds for conjecture that Dr. Forbes is… privy to the inner workings of a clandestine project no longer acknowledged by anyone who participated in it.” He smiled as if to indicate that she knew exactly what he was getting at.

  “To sum it up, Dr. Forbes is on the front lines, Detective. And so are you. And so is Dr. Keller.”

  She was aware that he hadn’t mentioned Tess. That was good.

  The door opened and Vincent appeared on the threshold, utterly human, his dark eyes boring into the FBI agent’s face. His broad shoulders were squared and he stood poised as if to strike. Beast and man, Vincent was a protector first and foremost. J.T. appeared behind him, clearly not loving the situation.

  “J.T.’s office wasn’t ransacked by anyone we’re acquainted with,” Vincent announced. Cat translated: not Heidi Schwann, Howison, or… this guy.

  “How did you ever get a cover as a Ph.D. at a university?” Cat asked Mazursky.

  “With tenure?” J.T. added.

  Mazursky smiled. “In my case, it was the opposite way around. I was recruited after I got my Ph.D.” He smiled at J.T. “But before tenure. By the way? Sara misses you. I think if you tried, you could win her back.”

  J.T. blinked. “I don’t think you and I should talk about Sara.” He hesitated. “Unless she knows.”

  “About all this?” He gestured with his still-raised arms at the four of them, himself included. “She doesn’t. And honestly? The situation has escalated to the point where I’m going to have to make some changes in my cover. Such as leaving the university.”

  “Escalated,” Vincent said.

  Mazursky looked at the three of them. “I’ve been compromised. Before he was killed, Major Howison got word to me that someone in the Thornton Foundation suspected I was undercover, too. He didn’t know if they had proof, but my handler wants me to get out of here.”

  “Gee, that’s too bad,” J.T. muttered. “What about your career?”

  “J.T., are you kidding? He’s in the FBI now. He’ll have lots of opportunities for research in biotech,” Cat said harshly.

  “Your tax dollars at work,” Mazursky replied.

  Cat’s phone buzzed. She said to Mazursky, “You can put your hands down.” He did, and she checked her phone. It was Tess. OMG. HURRY! WORK ON FOOTAGE. SKY’S ABOUT TO CALL THE BANK. She held up the phone so that Vincent and J.T. could see the message… but Mazursky couldn’t.

  “I have to get home,” J.T. said.

  “I’ll make sure you get there,” Vincent said, but Cat could hear his hesitation. There was a lot to discuss with Agent Mazursky.

  “Houston, we have an elephant in the room,” J.T. said.

  “The problem is,” Mazursky ventured, “we don’t have a lot of time to get to know each other. To figure out if we can trust each other. That thing is out there somewhere. Killing people. Even if you decide I’m a bad guy, I’m one hundred percent human. Easily contained. That thing? Not so much.”

  “He’s right, Catherine,” Vincent said.

  Cat said, “Agreed. But we move slowly. You give us cause to regret trusting you… and I won’t consider you an innocent anymore.”

  “And neither will I,” Vincent said.

  Fear flared in the man’s eyes. Then he nodded. “Both of us have some puzzle pieces but so far, I don’t think either side knows what the picture on the box is supposed to look like.”

  Cat tried to imagine what this new beast could look like. Aliyah Patel had seen it. It was time to make that visit to the little girl a priority.

  “Okay, question,” she said. “Is Sky Wilson one of your operatives?”

  “Who’s she?” he asked, and Vincent grunted appreciatively.

  Just because he acts ignorant doesn’t mean he is, Cat reminded herself.

  * * *

  “Okay, so get off my case. Literally,” Tess said into the phone, just as Sky leaned his head in the door and gave the jamb a jaunty rap. She hung the phone up. “Yeah?”

  “It may be true that all things come to he who waits,” he began, “but I’ve been waiting a long time for that ATM footage.”

  Not by New York standards, she thought. But she couldn’t risk having him call the bank to complain. “I’ll call the bank myself.” She picked up the handset. “How’s the forensic accounting coming?”

  “Well, I told you about the abuse issues with Aliyah Patel,” he said. “I thought maybe her social worker had been bribed by her aunt to leave it alone, but I don’t see any unusual deposits in her checking or savings.”

  “I doubt she was even paying attention,” Tess said sourly. “Or maybe Indira promised to do better and Hogan let that suffice.”

  He frowned. “I know social workers are overworked and their caseloads are unreasonable, but how do you ignore a stack of evidence like that?”

  She pursed her lips. “I guess that’s what the public’s saying about the one-twenty-fifth. Seven murder victims, and we’re guessing you’ve found an eighth. What do you think, some crazy gangbangers on PCP?”

  “Aliyah Patel could tell you about that,” he ventured.

  “I called the hospital. She’s still catatonic. They won’t clear us to talk to her right now. Not even if we bring crayons or hand puppets,” she muttered. She was lying. She didn’t want Sky Wilson anywhere near a witness to a beast attack.

  “Please don’t judge me too harshly,” he said pleasantly, “but what about bringing in a shaman? I know a couple.”

  “Don’t even.” Tess glared at him. “That’s all I need. The clear sign that Captain Vargas is unfit for command.” She held up a hand. “I’m not fishing for reassurance. Just, let’s leave the woo-woo stuff for Malibu, all right?”

  He smiled and bowed his head. “Yes, ma’am. About the first six vics. I assume this citywide homicide task force has filed detailed reports?”

  “Yes.” But not in the context of beast-makers and beasts. Of course she couldn’t tell him that.

  “Do you mind if I read them over? I’d have a fresh perspective. Detective Chandler’s taking personal time so I’m without my Yoda.” He smiled at her again, this time as if she really
should smile back. She didn’t. “Or… I did notice a large stack of files on her desk, speaking of an overwhelming caseload…”

  “I’ll leave it up to you,” she said. “Either way, you’re earning your paycheck.”

  “Okay.” He turned to go, then turned back. “I know it would be inappropriate for me to give you a neck massage—”

  “Goodbye,” Tess snapped.

  He shut the door and she sighed and picked up her phone to make yet another call. Because life, you know? Just never complicated enough.

  * * *

  Vincent and J.T. returned to the gentlemen’s club while Cat and Agent Mazursky decided to pay a visit to a very frightened witness—Aliyah Patel. Cat was glad. It was past time. Plus she wanted Mazursky to see first hand the toll this was taking on innocent people. It was all well and good to frame the situation in terms of the rich and powerful versus cops, soldiers, and government agents. But as with the first wave of Muirfield experiments—poor orphaned children whom no one would miss—Aliyah Patel was being given a raw deal. Maybe Mazursky and the Bureau were all about finding the serum and investigating the monster, but her priority was protecting the citizens of New York. The rest of the world, yes, if possible. But New York was her home, and these were her neighbors.

  The sky was low and gloomy gray; pine trees dipped in a bitter wind that stung Cat’s cheeks and nose with frozen needles. She rubbed her gloved hands together, reminding herself to be grateful even for this hard, brittle day: For so many, there were no more days at all.

  A dozen emails and text messages came in and she prioritized them, smiling at an e-card Heather had sent her: On the screen was a diva in a black-and-silver evening gown smoking a cigarette in a long, black lacquer holder and arching one penciled-on brow at the viewer. The text read I’m not apologizing, dahling. Well, not exactly. Chandler women were stubborn and proud. She still couldn’t believe Heather had mixed it up like that. She wanted to be proud of her but the only thing she felt when she replayed last night in her mind was pure, unadulterated fear. Heather could not be part of this bleak, dangerous world. Heather was the porch light, the sunflowers in the garden.

  Mazursky scrolled through his own smartphone missives—Cat imagined that many of the questions she and he had about the other would be answered if they simply swapped phones for thirty seconds—and then he put it in his pocket.

  Mistrust sleeted against Catherine’s heart and then they reached their first stop: a low concrete building at Vanek Memorial State Mental Health Facility. One window was lit and a security guard stood behind a sheet of bullet-proof glass, waiting for them to step right up. They had to present their credentials and relinquish their weapons in a metal tray at the bottom of the window. The man examined their pieces of identification carefully, then made a call. Mazursky stamped his feet for warmth and flashed Cat a little smile.

  “How suspicious of me were you? I mean, before I identified myself as an agent?” he asked her.

  “I’m still suspicious of you.”

  The guard sent back their IDs with two visitor badges and told them sternly to wear them at all times.

  “And don’t lose them, or you might wind up in here,” he finished. Maybe it was meant to be a joke, but Cat didn’t laugh and neither did her companion.

  They were about to enter the mental health holding facility where Aliyah had been admitted. A clutch of narrow grimy windows, all of them covered with wrought iron bars, alleviated the grim face of the building. A trio of smoking chimneys coughed into the air, coating the scene with a Victorian, sepia look. A hundred years ago, this place would have been called an insane asylum.

  After the intake guard stowed their guns, a buzzer sounded and the main gate opened. It was metal and it creaked and squealed on rusted hinges. A guard in a gatehouse asked them to wait until an escort arrived—a heavy-set matron named Lena Mueller with short gray hair and matching eyebrows, who didn’t smile or say hello as she shepherded them into the main building.

  The interior was more depressing than the exterior. Few lights were on; the white paint on the walls was peeling. A bulletin board contained out-of-date safety flyers and a faded map of the facility with fire escape routes marked by red arrows. There were innumerable doors with buzzers, and guards, and orderlies, and finally they were walking down a gloomy corridor signposted PEDIATRIC CARE UNIT. Cat was appalled at the idea that Aliyah, who had already suffered so much, was incarcerated here. There was no better word for it.

  Finally they came to a door with a tiny square of glass in the center. Chicken wire veined the window, obscuring their view. Beside the door was a file in a holder. Patel, Aliyah. The silent, cranky Ms. Mueller pressed a buzzer, which was answered. Then she used a swipe key as well as a metal key and the door swung open like the beckoning fingers of a witch with an oven and an appetite.

  In profile, Aliyah was sitting in a medical gown on a cot with her back against a brick wall. She was staring down at her hands, and her hair hung in front of her face, effectively shielding her from view. She was so small that her feet didn’t reach the edge of the narrow bed. Her shoulders were slumped and she made no effort to acknowledge Cat and Mazursky’s entrance into the room.

  Just as she did not acknowledge the man seated on an orange plastic chair facing her:

  Sky Wilson.

  “What the heck?” Cat demanded, as Sky smiled calmly and got to his feet.

  She had the presence of mind to glance over at Mazursky, to see if he recognized Sky. If he did, he kept a very good poker face.

  “Detective Chandler,” Wilson said. “I thought you were taking time off or I would have let you know that I was coming here.” Was that a veiled dig that she hadn’t informed him of the same thing? “I think I’m making progress with my friend Aliyah here. I’ve been working on her throat chakra, the seat of communication. I can feel her increase in connection.” He smiled at Agent Mazursky. “Are you one of her doctors?”

  Cat gave Agent Mazursky a long, hard look. If he said the wrong thing—anything—in front of Wilson, they were going to have a big problem. Mazursky seemed to get it; he inclined his head and said, “I’m David Mazursky. I’ve been brought in as a consultant on this case.”

  Cat turned to the matron and pointedly thanked her. The woman told Cat that she’d be outside the door. She showed her where the panic button was—big and red and up too high for Aliyah to reach.

  “I’m sure we won’t need it,” Wilson said to the woman’s stiff, retreating back, then looked up at Cat. “Well, it’s catatonia. That much is evident.”

  He rose from his chair and indicated that she should take it. There were no other chairs in the room. When she remained standing, he sat on the cot beside Aliyah instead. Aliyah didn’t move a muscle.

  “I did my time in violent crimes,” Wilson said. “This is trauma, pure and simple. But Aliyah wants to talk to us. She’s melting the wall between us with her laser-beam eyes. It’s her superpower.” He smiled at the little girl, who didn’t smile back.

  “I thought we were going to leave the interviewing to Mrs. Kuhl,” Cat said. She took the chair so that three adults weren’t hovering over the little girl.

  “You don’t perform delicate surgery with a table saw,” Wilson replied. “Mrs. Kuhl simply doesn’t have the proper tools.” He waved a hand in front of Aliyah’s wall of hair. “I can feel the heat of your laser eyes melting the wall, Aliyah. Your words are floating in the bubbles, just like we talked about. Once the wall has melted away, the bubbles will pop, and your words will be freed.”

  He turned to Cat and Mazursky. “Hold out your hands. You can feel the heat from the wall as it melts away.”

  Catherine wanted to brain him. But there was no way she was going to argue with him in front of Aliyah or Mazursky, so she held out her hands.

  She did feel heat. A warm strip of air between Aliyah and her. Mazursky didn’t seem to feel anything, or if he did, he gave no indication. His face was a combination of annoyanc
e and curiosity.

  Cat glanced upward to see a vent in the wall. She heard a puffy little blowing noise. The source of the heat, then, and no New Age woo-woo.

  “Okay, Detective Wilson,” she said firmly. “It’s time to—”

  “Mmmm,” Aliyah mumbled to the floor.

  Cat was galvanized. She glanced toward Wilson, who was beaming at the little girl.

  “Pop,” he whispered. “There goes a bubble. And out comes a word.”

  “Mmmm.” Her thin fingers flexed. “Mmmon…”

  Monster. That was what she was going to say. Cat caught herself sitting on the edge of her chair in anticipation. She held her breath.

  “Mmmo.” Her legs twitched.

  “Pop, goes another bubble,” Wilson chirped. He clapped his hands. “Way to—”

  Aliyah flung herself at him and raked his face with her fingernails. Fissures of blood sprang open as he fell backward and she landed on his chest, clawing at him. She was kicking and shrieking, and screaming one word, over and over again. Not monster, no:

  “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  As Aliyah attacked Sky Wilson, Mazursky pressed the panic button and a siren like a ship’s klaxon whooped. The door was open in two seconds and the matron rushed in with two attendants in white uniforms. They dive-bombed at Aliyah and hoisted her off Wilson. She kicked and screamed as the three adults tried to contain her. Her eyes were wild. Spittle flew from her mouth.

  Wilson grabbed at his face and said, “It’s all right, Aliyah. You’re safe.”

  They were pressing her against the bed, holding her down. A flash of movement and then she went limp. The matron wheeled around with a syringe in her hand.

  The older of the two attendants knelt beside Wilson and barked at the other one to get gauze and antiseptic. But Wilson pushed himself to his feet and, covering his face, edged past the man and sank down beside the cot. He put his hand on the crown of Aliyah’s head.

  “It’s all right. You’re safe. You are divinely protected. No one can harm you. Don’t be afraid. Nothing can hurt you here.”

 
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