Beauty & the beast some.., p.23
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       Beauty & the Beast: Some Gave All, p.23

           Nancy Holder
 
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  They went inside with flashlights on. The floor had once been covered with small, white octagonal tiles. Hundreds of them had come loose and the wind must have bunched them into ominous little piles like arcane hex signs. Their feet crunched over broken glass. The walls were weeping with decay and mold.

  They moved past a stairway toward the crime scene. Then in the darkness, Cat heard a sound that thrilled her heart then froze her blood: the fierce roar of a beast.

  A beast who was not Vincent.

  Answered by a gunshot.

  Followed by a howl of agony.

  * * *

  Gasping, the monster lay in a pool of blood, and Aliyah shrieked and clung to the man in the coat, the one who had taken her from Nurse Mueller. The monster had handed the man a little metal bottle and then it had tried to attack him.

  Now it was changing. Now it was becoming the man Aunt Indira had taken her to see in the jail.

  Her daddy.

  She screamed and shrank back against the man in the coat. Then her daddy looked up at her and tried to stretch out his hand.

  “Ali, I didn’t kill your mama,” he groaned. “They made it look like I did it. But I didn’t. I loved her. And I love you.”

  “Daddy?” she whimpered. Now she tried to push against the man in the coat but he held her fast.

  “Stay here. He’ll kill you,” the man whispered.

  “Let her go to him,” another man said as he stepped from the shadows. Aliyah recognized him. He had come to see her in the hospital.

  The man in the coat let go of Aliyah. She stood uncertainly, staring down at all the blood and the man who had been a monster, who had killed Aunt Indira. She knew that in her heart. And yet, somehow, she also knew that he had done it for her.

  The nice man stepped forward and took the gun away from the man in the coat. He had shot her daddy with that gun.

  Aliyah was bewildered, and she began to cry.

  And then the nice lady from the hospital ran into the room with another lady, whose skin was close to the color of Aliyah’s. And their arms were around her and the nice man was kneeling on the floor beside her daddy, trying to help him, and the man in the coat was on the floor, too, and they were tying him up, or something.

  Her daddy said to the nice man, “You don’t know what’s coming. You don’t know.” The nice man looked very unhappy and the darker-skinned lady walked Aliyah out of the room. Then the nice man came out and the other lady walked with the man in the coat.

  And her daddy never did come out of that building again.

  * * *

  As Catherine kept her gun pointed squarely at Agent Mazursky’s back, Vincent examined the two vials they had just taken from him: he’d beaten Cat and Tess to two of them, but Vincent had gotten to Attenborough’s first. That made four they had retrieved from the first six homicide victims, plus Howison’s. Two were still missing, as was whatever had been concealed in the case with Lafferty’s flag.

  As they walked out of the building, Tess, who was carrying a weeping Aliyah, said, “Where to now?”

  “My brownstone?” Sky Wilson said from across the walkway.

  “What the hell?” Catherine blurted.

  He was straddling a motorcycle parked beside Tess and Catherine’s squad car. He shook his head at their looks of surprise and said, “You do remember that I’m a police detective, right? And that I know how to follow a trail of clues?”

  Vincent’s default wariness kicked in, but Wilson raised a hand and said, “I haven’t figured out all of it but I know you’re more than my Yoda-partner’s boyfriend in every sense of the word more and it’s cool. Your secret is safe with me. Whatever it is, exactly.”

  Not at all convinced of that, Vincent knew they didn’t have time to argue the finer points of secret-keeping, and J.T.’s was out of the question while Farris was held there.

  “We should take Wilson up on his offer. J.T. has company and we need to figure out what’s going on asap.”

  Catherine and Tess concurred. With Aliyah in Tess’s arms, they drove Mazursky to the brownstone in their squad car. Wilson rode his motorcycle and Vincent took Mazursky’s vehicle, a white panel van. The inside was tricked out with beast-strength restraints, a cattle prod, and a tranq gun. Shyam Badal’s mobile prison. He remembered how unhinged he had become when the fear beast—Badal—had lurked nearby. Badal must have somehow repressed the release of the pheromone just now because Aliyah had been there. Nor had it triggered as he lay dying.

  They alerted J.T. that more pieces of the antidote had been found, then convened at the brownstone for a debriefing before Tess took the vials to J.T. It was still snowing, flakes heavy and gray, and Vincent’s sense of urgency kicked in. Tess would have to leave soon.

  “So Badal was the fear beast,” Vincent said to Mazursky as the group placed their prisoner in a chair and Catherine kept a weapon trained on him. “And he killed Indira Patel and Julia Hogan in revenge?”

  “He was only supposed to look for the antidote. He promised to do so if I let him loose. But he went after them immediately.”

  “Aliyah was your leverage. You got him to resume looking by bringing her to him.”

  “Yes.”

  Wilson had taken Aliyah to a bedroom and was offering her snacks from the stash of organic vegan offerings in his fridge. She had apologized a dozen times for raking his face.

  Mazursky blew air out of his cheeks. “You have no idea what’s going on. There’s another world out there, one that blows past your notions of beasts. What we’re dealing with has gone way, way beyond the scope of your understanding.”

  “Then make us understand,” Cat said coldly.

  “We’ve been working day and night to get fully informed, but we know we don’t have all of it. Badal was in jail for murder and we used that leverage to get his consent for experimentation. We attempted to duplicate what we knew of this new beast’s genetic makeup using Badal. We had some success, as you have all experienced. But it is nothing compared to what’s out there. Trust me when I tell you that.” He looked straight at Vincent. “It will make Afghanistan look like a picnic.”

  “Which is why you murdered people to collect all the pieces of the antidote,” Tess said.

  “Same old FBI,” Catherine drawled, and Mazursky shrugged, unapologetic.

  “As I said before, extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. This thing was imprisoned here in New York City by its makers, but it escaped. We had three operatives on the inside but they never got close enough to actually observe it. And they died when it broke out. We don’t know where it is, but we do know we have to get rid of it.”

  “Why should we believe you?” Catherine asked.

  He pulled out his smartphone. “Here. This is why you should believe me.”

  The screen revealed a close-up of a soldier’s face. Vincent had seen fear before, but nothing like this. The man’s face was distorted, jaw distended, eyes about to pop from their sockets. Fear was turning this human being into another entity, something never human again. Agonizing to see, unbearable to imagine. Sweat poured down the man’s face, and then blood, as a shimmering arm stretched forward and with talons instead of fingers, gouged into his forehead and pulled his face down like a sheet of wrapping paper. What was beneath…

  The person holding the camera was crying. Then there was shrieking as the camera pointed to a ceiling, whirled, revealing a room of immobilized soldiers dropping one by one into gouting pools of their own blood and organs.

  “This is the escape. I have more footage.”

  Vincent nodded. “We should watch it all.”

  “Agreed,” Catherine said thickly, and he loved her for her courage and her commitment to what clearly was their mission. It was coming time for Team Beast to step up.

  “We need to destroy this thing,” Mazursky said.

  “How can you, even if J.T. can recreate the antidote?” Tess cut in. “If no one can get near it to inject the serum…”

&
nbsp; “Pheromones,” Mazursky said. “Once the antidote is created, we’ll release it in its air space.”

  “But you just said that you don’t know where it is,” Tess argued, and then Vincent saw the light dawn on her face. “Vincent…”

  “Can track it,” Mazursky finished.

  And will, Vincent thought. He saw the tension in Catherine’s face and heard her accelerating heartbeat; he knew how afraid she was for him… for them… and he also knew that she would never ask him not to do it. It was what they were, who they were, and it was what they did. Catherine would throw her lot in with him, do everything she could to back him up and keep him safe, his partner in every sense of the word.

  “We’ll back you up,” Tess said, and his heart was warmed.

  “And me too, of course,” Mazursky added.

  It was settled then, and all parties in the room took a moment to process the nature of the threshold they were about to step across. It was one they might not come back across. But it meant the world to Vincent that they would do it together. For so many years, he had been utterly cut off from the world, and everything that he had been had been put in stasis: a man who cared, who wanted to make a difference, to find meaning in service to others. Like his brothers, who had died saving lives.

  Vincent gazed at Catherine, and she raised her chin slightly and nodded at him. It was the most intimate gesture they had ever shared.

  She is the best of me. Something moved inside him and he thought, Whatever happens next, it was worth it. Even if I die.

  The moment passed, their pact sealed. It was time to get down to business.

  “How many parts of the antidote have you collected?” Mazursky asked them.

  Catherine told him that they had two, Howison’s and Tiptree’s. He looked mildly disappointed. “I had Badal seek out the vials that you now have in your possession.” He turned to Vincent. “His drug protocol enhanced his sense of smell to a degree possessed not even by you. He literally sniffed them out like a bloodhound.

  “The flag has been a problem for us. We suspect Muirfield got wind of an attempt to smuggle out evidence of the beast experiments in Afghanistan and intercepted it en route to the Riley home. From what we have gleaned, it’s a catalyst that sets the transformative process in motion, common to many of the formulae used on the subjects. We think it’s needed to trigger the antidote. That without it, the serum won’t work. And we need it. Desperately.”

  “Which I suppose should explain the attack in the subway,” Catherine drawled. “But how did you dream you would get Vincent’s cooperation if you killed me?”

  He stared at her. “What are you talking about?”

  She told him about the attack on Mr. Riley’s house, and the firefight in the subway, and he gaped at her in astonishment.

  “They said I sent them? No.”

  “Then it was the group Lena Mueller and James Farris were working for,” Catherine said, sharing a grim look with Vincent.

  “The Freedom Fighters of New York,” Mazursky filled in. “Howison was undercover with them. You know this, right?”

  “They implicated you.”

  He shook his head. “Misdirection. Trying to confuse and distract us. The real threat that stalks this city is out there and no one has control of it.”

  When will you stop? Vincent thought. When will you human monsters stop twisting innocent people into beasts and putting the world at risk?

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  J.T. was relieved to see everyone arrive at his house in one piece. The snow was like a beast itself, crazy and raging, and the mayor’s office was telling people to get off the streets; last night had only been a dress rehearsal.

  Wilson had stayed home to watch over Aliyah, and she would not leave his side. Which was great, because no one particularly wanted him around. Team Beast was used to working under the radar by themselves, especially in a crisis. Wilson had yet to see Vincent beast out; he didn’t really know what he had gotten into. Now that he had Aliyah to tend to, maybe he would be benched permanently.

  With the others keeping an eye on James Farris, J.T. got to work on the antidote. He kept the news streaming on his desktop in the background and, given the violence of the storm, was sure that this time an Emergency Snow Declaration would be called. There had been some backlash that the mayor hadn’t done it last night. Naysayers said it was more evidence that the city wasn’t looking out for the safety of its citizens.

  “An ESD would be the best thing,” Vincent observed. “It would keep more people off the streets.”

  “Yeah, it’s not like we’re going to be taking the subway,” Tess said. J.T. raised his head and looked at her. Really looked, at his brave, fierce woman.

  I will do whatever it takes to make it right between us, if you will do whatever it takes to come back to me from this, he thought. His throat tightened. His hands trembled on his keyboard.

  Then he looked back down at the monitor. It was his silent act of courage, and as he felt eyes on him, he realized that Vincent had seen it. His oldest, best friend dipped his head and J.T. shrugged with mock resignation: What are ya gonna do?

  Time to get to work.

  He was aware that he was missing two key ingredients, and that he was trying to figure out what they were without access to the sophisticated equipment at his university lab. As a trained biochemist, he had developed his own set of beast protocols over the years, and he got out his voluminous notes about Vincent’s physiology as he attacked the problem. Taking a sample of Catherine’s blood as well, he began to categorize the chemical reactions that had occurred in their bloodstreams in order to deduce the likely solution that had catalyzed the event.

  It was guesswork, but scientifically based. He was as careful as he could be, running computer simulations rather than risking the precious droplets of chemicals in the vials. I wish I had help, he thought. He thought of Heidi Schwann, which made him think of Sara.

  And his heart led him back to Tess.

  As he worked, the weather report took a back seat to calls coming in on Mazursky’s phone. Fast, furious. The agent had a body to cover up and a beast to track down. J.T. strained to listen in but Mazursky kept pacing the hall and murmuring.

  Vincent walked over to J.T. and said, “They’ve spotted it. The good news is that it’s left the city. The bad is that it’s in the forest.”

  J.T. understood immediately what Vincent was implying. “It’s hard to use pheromones as a delivery system in the great outdoors.”

  Coming from behind Vincent, Catherine said, “We need to find a cave.”

  “Yes,” Vincent agreed.

  “Wait, what?” J.T. cried. “You can’t do that. You can’t go inside a cave with that thing!”

  “Let’s see,” Tess said from the sofa with a laptop on her knees. “Caves. Are there any abandoned structures out there?”

  J.T. let out a slow exhale and propped his forehead on his hand. Then he felt pressure on the back of his head as Tess kissed him gently and laced her fingers through his.

  “J.T., you know how cops are. We gotta pump it before we go in sometimes, get primed. But Cat and I are smart. We’re great cops.” She brushed a curly strand of hair away from his temple. “And we’ve both got a lot to live for.”

  He caught her hand. His chest hurt. He said, “Yeah, we do.”

  She favored him with one of her quirky grins. “Glad that’s settled.”

  And it was.

  It really was.

  * * *

  As they stood before the open door of Walker’s empty apartment—not a cold-water walkup, just a normal, basic apartment—Heather stared at J-Bag in utter frustration. “How can they have left? They did all this so they’d get big magazine jobs!”

  Her words echoed in the barren space. J-Bag snickered. “Girl, you mentioned your sister was a cop, right? Figure they got all freaked out and bailed. Or for all you know, they’ve traded up to some fine place because they already have those magazine jobs
in the hole.”

  “Great,” she said.

  He crooked a finger. “Come with me.”

  “Why? So we can knock over a liquor store together?” she asked.

  She followed him out of the building and back into his car. He smiled and moved into the traffic. It took her about five minutes to realize that he was driving her to the offices of Couture Bleu magazine. He gave his keys to a valet who pointedly looked him up and down—J-Bag had on a black hoodie with a red fist on it, a pair of baggy black jeans, high tops, and large leather wristbands on each wrist. J-Bag turned to Heather and said, “You’re good for the valet parking, right?”

  As she sputtered in protest, he took her hand—they were holding hands—and walked through the revolving door head up, shoulders back, as if he owned the place. The receptionist looked startled.

  “Yo, this designer is from Silverado and her Nude Look design was stolen from her by another—”

  “New Look,” Heather corrected, smiling. “Really. It’s okay.”

  J-Bag looked at her in horror. “Okay? My kitten woman is no wimp.” He turned back to the receptionist. “This is Heather Chandler, you know, and—”

  “Oh. Right.” The receptionist smiled. “We received your submission. And the note from someone named Walker that there’d been a mixup when it was sent in. The wrong name was on it. Yes? Elaine something?”

  Heather gaped at her. “Um, yes,” she said slowly.

  “Oh. My. God,” said a voice. “Look at those cheekbones. Did the agency send you over, you luscious thing?”

  Heather and J-Bag both turned. A man with a camera around his neck was slinking toward them. He held his hand out to J-Bag and said, “This time they got it right.”

  J-Bag blinked, and then he grinned at Heather. He said, “So maybe a happy ending, eh, baby?”

 
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