Beauty & the beast some.., p.20
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       Beauty & the Beast: Some Gave All, p.20

           Nancy Holder
 
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  “Hey, I have a call on the other line,” J.T. announced. “Hold on.”

  Let it be Vincent.

  J.T. came back on the line. When he didn’t speak right away, she pushed back from the desk and got to her feet, as if bracing herself for the very worst news she could hear.

  “That was Vincent. Lena Mueller’s dead. Shot at point-blank range. By Mazursky.”

  “Mazursky?” Her blood ran cold. So not the news she had been hoping for. “And Aliyah?”

  “He took her. Vincent said he’s trying to track them and he’s not staying in one location long enough for you to rendezvous. He did ask me to call Mr. Riley, which I did, but he isn’t answering his phone. It could easily be out of service because of the storm.”

  “Or he could be in trouble.” She typed in his address and got directions and subway schedules. “I’m going there now.”

  “The mayor just announced that the city might issue a Snow Emergency Declaration. If that happens, all public transportation will stop. You might wind up stuck someplace. Vincent said you were hurt pretty badly at the brownstone. Are you sure you’re up for this?”

  She was touched. Of the quartet, she and J.T. had perhaps the most prickly relationship, a holdover from when he saw her as nothing but a threat to Vincent’s safety. It meant something to her when he dropped the sarcasm and showed real concern for her.

  “I’m fine.” She had to be. That was the way she did her job… and ran her life.

  After she hung up, she found Farris and told him that she had a lead and she’d share it as soon as she could.

  His expression darkened. “I would never have hired Lena Mueller in the first place. In fact, I tried to get her transferred to another facility, and that was only because I knew I could never get her fired. Her union is too strong.”

  “Why didn’t you like her?” She heard herself using the past tense. “Don’t like her?” she amended. Mueller’s body had not yet been discovered by anyone except Vincent. As far as this man knew, she was alive.

  “There’s just something about her, I could never trust her.”

  “Your instincts about her were right,” she said. “You’re good at what you do.”

  “Yeah, that’ll look great on my application for food stamps.”

  There are a lot of steps between there and here, she wanted to tell him. Maybe he’d be able to keep this job… or get another in another state. If they were right, that’s what Joe Bishop had done.

  He gestured to the magazines. “What are those?”

  She filled him in, and together they paged through one. He was quiet, intense, angry. “Those men who came around. I figured them for old army buddies.”

  “They could have been.”

  “Let me put those in a bag for you,” he said. “Hold on.”

  She didn’t want to cool her heels any longer than was necessary. But she couldn’t exactly hand-carry half a dozen slick magazines under her arm in a storm, so she waited while he left his office, then returned a few minutes later with a nicely plasticized, reinforced shopping bag from an organic grocery store chain. He held it open while she slipped the magazines in. Then he added his card. She had already given him one of hers.

  “I’d appreciate any information you can share,” he said. “I only saw that little girl a couple of times, but when these poor folks are here, they’re mine, you know?”

  “I get that. We are doing everything in our power to find her.”

  “And I get that.”

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  Since Lena Mueller had left the facility via the back way, Cat did too. The guard gave her a wave as if he knew her. He didn’t ask her for any identification, nor to sign out in his register. Lax. Did Farris know that one of his weak links was sitting right here?

  The back way was a parking garage. That meant security footage with license plate numbers—Christmas, to a cop. She made a mental note and added it to the list of items she would request if and when she found it necessary to give Vanek Memorial another look.

  She went through a door into what was becoming a full-fledged blizzard. Her battered bones ached with the cold and she half-walked, half-hobbled to the subway entrance with her fingers crossed. The heat and a squeal of brakes told her that the trains were still running. So far, so good.

  Had Mazursky shot Lena to get Aliyah away from her? If his intentions in doing so were good, why hadn’t he informed Cat of what he’d done? Why didn’t he call her now? There was always a chance that his and Aliyah’s safety would be compromised if he checked in. She had to table that for now.

  She got on the next train and headed for Mr. Riley’s. Although she was underground, she whipped out her phone and checked it. No bars. Then she awkwardly dropped it in the shopping bag, and decided to leave it there. It was actually easier to get to.

  The car was nearly empty. A scrawny kid cocooned in a selection of hoodies scrutinized her, then looked away. A man wearing a thick overcoat was determinedly reading a newspaper. The rhythm of the car lulled her; she was exhausted and sore. It was tempting to transfer to the B train for Bleecker Street, which would take her mere feet from her building.

  Determined, she made the necessary transfers to Mr. Riley’s house, oriented herself, then climbed to street level, grimacing when she entered an Arctic blast. She was the equivalent of six city blocks from Mr. Riley’s front porch and now, with all her heart, she wished she’d dared to drive so she wouldn’t have to do this. Supremely glad that she told J.T. she was going to Mr. Riley’s, she imagined herself lying half-frozen in a snow bank, and Vincent discovering her and digging her out. Everyone had limits, and maybe she should have been more honest about what hers were.

  Except… Mr. Riley might be in trouble. And maybe she could have asked Tess to send a squad car, but what if the beast sent out its pheromones on unsuspecting unis?

  She slipped the grocery bag over her shoulder as she sank up to her thighs in the snow, which was still falling. Glowing squares bobbed like balloons—windows. She pictured the houses on either side of Mr. Riley’s home—the one that would be closer to her sat approximately fifty yards away. Next came the tree swing and then the path to the porch. Almost there, then.

  Shivering, she quickened her pace as best she could, but felt as though she was staggering along at a snail’s pace. She kept her hand extended to feel for landmarks and as her gloved hand made contact with fence posts, her numb fingertips burned.

  She had to stop twice to catch her breath, and then she groped her way onto the porch. This time, her boot went through the porch. She grabbed onto a wooden post and slowed her descent just enough to save her ankle from twisting. Then she fell forward against the door, the noise serving as her knock.

  “Mr. Riley!” she shouted, but the wind swallowed up her words. She knocked with a double fist and then grasped the doorknob to extricate herself from the hole in the porch.

  The knob turned; the door swung open, then canted sideways as it ripped away from the topmost hinge. The room inside was dark and as icy as a tomb.

  Cat reached behind herself and closed the door as much as she could, which wasn’t much. She pulled her gun and with her free hand, searched the magazine bag for her phone, intending to use it as a flashlight. Her fingers closed around what felt like a fuse. She set it on the floor, then pulled out her phone and shone the light on the object.

  It was a transmitter.

  Catherine repeatedly smashed her heel against it. Rapidly she searched the house, clearing each room as she went. And then, in the back bedroom, there was a shape on the floor. Mr. Riley.

  She cleared the room, holstered her gun and crouched beside him. She laid two fingers against his neck. He had a pulse.

  “Mr. Riley, it’s Detective Chandler,” she said clearly. “Are you hurt?”

  “Men,” he rasped. “The flag.”

  She panned her phone across his face. There were bruises on his forehead and cheeks. A cut on his cheek.

 
; “Where is the nearest phone?” she asked.

  “Nightstand.”

  She rose, grabbed the handset, and called 911. She identified herself, described Mr. Riley’s condition as best she could, gave his address, and added that a home invasion had been committed. The dispatcher promised police and rescue units but cautioned Cat that they would be delayed because of the storm.

  After she hung up, she returned to Mr. Riley’s side. He rose to a sitting position, rubbing his head.

  “Are they still in the house?” she murmured.

  “I don’t know. I guess I fainted. They wanted Roxie’s flag. I told them I never got it.” He made two fists and pressed them against his forehead. “Then these other men came.”

  Her detective’s mind ran possible scenarios: The Rileys never received the flag that had draped Lafferty’s casket at her military funeral. Someone intercepted it. Sounds like two different groups came after it tonight.

  She grabbed the blanket off the bed, wrapped him in it, and murmured in his ear, “Stay down.”

  “There’s a flashlight in the nightstand drawer,” he whispered.

  She found it but didn’t turn it on. Despite the darkness and the wailing of the snowstorm, she moved silently into the hall. She didn’t know if the power was out because of the storm or because Mr. Riley’s attackers had cut it.

  Methodically she cleared the rest of the house as best she could, on high alert as she assessed her situation. All her subway transfers had been below-ground. The snow had been falling relentlessly while she’d walked to the house, and she’d destroyed the bug soon after. But given the level of technology their adversaries were capable of, Cat had to assume that they knew exactly where she was.

  Farris had to have put it in the bag. He’s involved in this. Whose side? How many sides are there?

  She had to get Mr. Riley out, but first priority, of course, was his immediate safety. Mr. Riley had prudently put on his storm windows—she hoped he’d had help—and they served as barricades, but the broken front door was an invitation to danger. She ran into the kitchen on the balls of her feet with her hand over the flashlight to subdue the beam, and rummaged around for a screwdriver to work on the hinges. She then grabbed a wooden broom from his pantry and laid it between two chairs, threw her weight on it and broke it into two jagged pieces. She hurt all over.

  She took both pieces and wedged them under the door to keep it in place, then attempted to fix the upper hinge. No luck. Her hands were shaking, she was too injured and the hinge was ruined. The best she could do was push furniture up against it. She went back into the kitchen and put a chair underneath the knob of the kitchen door. There was another phone attached to the kitchen wall; she grabbed it and called J.T. She quickly filled him in.

  Then she said, “Has the Snow Emergency Declaration been announced?”

  “No. And I haven’t heard from Vincent.”

  “Okay. Mr. Riley has a car. I’m going to check it out. I’ll keep the line open but I’m setting the phone down.”

  “You have a gun, right?”

  “J.T., I’m a cop. I always have a gun.”

  “I have such mixed feelings about hearing that. But right now… don’t you think you should just wait for help?”

  “J.T., I’m a cop. I am the help.”

  “Right.”

  “I’m putting the phone down. Keep the line open.” Then she pulled out her gun and waited. If someone was listening in, she didn’t want them gathering around Mr. Riley’s garage for a welcome party. Instead she went back to the bedroom to check on Mr. Riley.

  He was unconscious, but he had a pulse and he was breathing. Cat sucked in her breath and gently shook his shoulders.

  “Mr. Riley? This is Detective Chandler. Can you hear me?”

  No response.

  She made sure his air passage was clear. Then, instead of disturbing the barricaded front and back doors, she snuck back into the bathroom, put her gun away, and opened the window beside the sink. There was no storm window, so that was a blessing.

  A gale of snow raged in at her, pushing her backwards. She planted her feet and forced her way through. At least her landing was soft. She couldn’t even see the garage, which meant she couldn’t see anyone coming after her. She didn’t have a built-in thermal imaging system like Vincent.

  As she had anticipated, the garage window was still unsecured. She scrambled into the garage and got into the car, jammed the key in the ignition… and nothing. Not too surprising, so she methodically ran through all the protocols for starting a car in winter in New York before she sat back in the seat for just an instant and took stock.

  Back in the house, she bent over Mr. Riley and passed her flashlight over his face. His skin looked gray, but his eyelids flickered, and then he opened his eyes.

  “I think I’m okay now,” he said, “except that I’m very cold.”

  “Did your power go out because of the storm?”

  “I don’t know.” His voice shook.

  And then she heard a noise from inside the closet. I cleared that, she thought. Doors that opened outward, which meant an intruder would have the advantage if she attempted to open it.

  She said calmly, “Mr. Riley, do you have any pets?”

  “Not anymore.”

  As she moved in front of him, she set her flashlight on the floor in front of herself. It would illuminate her target and make it more difficult to see her. Then she stood in a good, wide stance and held her gun straight out. It was ready to go.

  The door burst open and she pulled the trigger. A black shape flung itself at her and she raised her knee and shot again, aware that Mr. Riley lay directly behind her.

  “Move!” she bellowed at him.

  When she fell, she smacked against his shoulder but that was all. As the weight of the attacker toppled onto her, she rolled sideways, hitting him—it was a man—as hard as she could on his temples with her gun. She kept hitting him and then she shot him again. Suddenly the flashlight was on him—Mr. Riley was holding it. She patted the perp down for weapons and found nothing but a .45 on the floor, already sopping wet with blood. She’d shot him in the chest and he was bleeding profusely.

  His eyes were lifeless and she tore off the balaclava. The dark brown face was mottled from the pummeling she’d given it, but it was not one she recognized.

  There was a noise on the roof. Both of them started. Then to her amazement, Mr. Riley put the flashlight on his bed, leaned over, and picked up the bloody .45. He had to use both hands to lift it but he had hold of it.

  “Are there any other exits?” she asked him as she arranged the blanket over his shoulders.

  “It’s an old house,” he said, as if that were an answer. She took it as a “no” and realized that the only exit that made sense for them was the kitchen door. It would be too difficult to get him out the bathroom window and she had barricaded the front door.

  “Let’s go.” She kept the flashlight aimed toward the floor, counting on the ambient light to keep him closely behind her. She couldn’t afford to check on him; this was the best way to save his life.

  There was loud pounding on the roof. She kept her cool and tried to count footfalls. Maybe one target, maybe two.

  They got to the kitchen door. The phone handset was still lying on the counter. She picked it up and said, “J.T. One dead. Holing up here until help arrives.”

  “One… right. Got it,” he said tersely.

  Then Cat replaced the handset on the counter, put her finger to her lips, and saw that Mr. Riley had lost his blanket. No time to do a thing about that now; she pulled the chair away from the doorknob. When she opened the door, she caught it so that it wouldn’t slam against the house. The wind was still blowing, but not as hard.

  They got outside and the first thing she processed was that it was no longer snowing, but visibility was bad. She moved right, her intention to skirt around the front of the house. It was dark and frigid and she had no idea if the old man was be
hind her. She got to the path with the barren bushes and he bumped into her. Good.

  She grabbed his hand—it was as spindly as a branch—and half-led, half-dragged him along the path. The tree with its swing was ahead but she wasn’t sure where. She needed both hands free to feel her way, and if he was going to keep hold of his slippery, heavy .45, Mr. Riley did too. A tiny part of her brain nagged that he might trip and accidentally shoot her with it, but again, all that mattered was the next step forward into the snow. And the next and then next.

  She had no idea if the people on her roof were still up there, or if they had figured out she and Mr. Riley were attempting an escape. If the man she had killed was important to them, or just a foot soldier. No time for that now. Thinking would just get in her way. She had to strategize.

  Her knees knocked into the swing. She knew where she was now. Mindful of the .45, she grabbed Mr. Riley’s shoulder and pulled him around the tree. The .45 slipped from his hands and thudded half an inch from her toes. She held onto him and felt him swaying.

  “I’m okay,” he whispered.

  She squatted down and retrieved the gun. They staggered toward the street. She was pretty sure she’d reached it when her feet didn’t sink down as far. She turned left and quickened their pace. If the subway was still operating, the station’s bright lights would give them away. But if it wasn’t still running, they would be sitting ducks.

  Blue-white underground illumination gave her some hope. Steamy heat gave her more. She flashed her badge at the station agent, who helped her guide the sick, shivering man through the turnstile. He was having trouble moving. As best she could, as quickly as she could, Cat helped him descend the stairs.

  One man stood on the platform, gazing at them with interest. Catherine kept her arm holding the .45 down at her side.

  “No trains have come in the last fifteen minutes,” he said. He was bundled up against the cold and wore a hunter’s cap with earflaps. “But it’s warmer down here than it is up there.”

  “That’s for sure,” she replied. She covertly slid the .45 into her coat pocket, took the coat, and laid it over Mr. Riley’s shoulders. She chafed his hands, alert for hostile movements on the part of their platform mate. “It’s a bad storm.”

 
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