Beauty & the beast some.., p.24
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       Beauty & the Beast: Some Gave All, p.24

           Nancy Holder
 
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  Then the photographer said, “The mayor just called the Snow Emergency Declaration. We’re all going to be stuck in here together for a long time. Why don’t we get started? I love what you’re wearing. What’s your name?”

  “J-Bag.”

  “Let’s just start with working poses.” He looked over. “Janine,” he called. “Look at this hunk. I’m thinking cover?”

  And Janine Deveraux, the editor-in-chief of Couture Bleu, glided over on her skinny high heels and her perfectly cut little black dress and beamed at J-Bag. “Move over Tyson Beckford,” she drawled. She grinned at J-Bag. “Love the look. We’ll have to build a wardrobe. Tux?”

  “Tux,” the photographer agreed.

  And Heather just started laughing as hard as she could.

  * * *

  “I have it,” J.T. announced, holding up the vial. It was clear, and somehow Vincent imagined it would be the color of blood. So much blood had been spilled to obtain it. “I don’t know if it’s going to work, though.”

  “I don’t know if this is, either,” Vincent said, holding up his fighter pilot’s helmet.

  Each of them was holding a helmet. The antidote would be mixed with oxygen and circulated through their systems. This had been the last thing that Major Howison had been trying to tell him: “Bone do” had been his attempt to say “bone dome,” the military term for helmets. “Oxygen” signaled that it was a fighter pilot helmet.

  Ever since Howison had died in his arms, Vincent had wondered how Major Howison had withstood being in Shyam Badal’s proximity when the fear pheromones had been released. The clearest answer was that he had to have been given some version of the antidote. Mazursky claimed ignorance and of course he was believed. Why would he have ordered so many murders to get the vials if he already had the formula?

  But mulling his words coupled with remembering the smell of the warehouse—like the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, or flight helmets that had been burned in the fire—had yielded this answer. He hoped it was the right one.

  “We’ll be back soon,” Tess said, wrapping her arms around J.T. “You know we will, right?”

  He swallowed hard. Vincent watched him struggle to remain upbeat. He knew it was bothering him that he was “babysitting.” But surely he had to comprehend that his creation of the antidote was nothing short of miraculous. There had been no way to test it. Like so much else, they would have to chance it in the field—daring to give all if it didn’t.

  “Be careful,” J.T. ground out, and he walked through to the door.

  The snow cascaded like supernaturally thick rain. New York was under siege, and there was no one on the streets. Mazursky had ordered Humvees, and as Catherine, Vincent, and Tess joined him inside the lead vehicle, Vincent sensed deep, palpable fear tugging at every nerve ending in his body. They all put on their masks. They had on body armor and heavy boots. They buckled in and trundled off in a world of pure white. Vincent and Catherine held hands and took deep breaths of the mixture.

  Mazursky said through his microphone, “The Bureau won’t forget this.”

  And Catherine retorted, “It escapes me why we should care.”

  They drove, Vincent eavesdropping on every call Mazursky sent or received on his radiophone.

  Before he regained his composure, Vincent suffered a moment of panic. They’re coming for me. To take me from Catherine.

  No. That’s over.

  They went on a winding road that Vincent had never been on before, despite innumerable trips to these woods. He and his brothers had cross-country skied here. He had brought Catherine here for picnics in the spring.

  Suddenly, birds billowed into the air and scores of wild animals darted in front of the Humvee. The driver slammed on his brakes, slowing, swerving, as the terrified animals panicked and fled. Deer, raccoons, possums, wild turkeys shot across the road.

  The fear spread more deeply into his bones. Catherine held his hand tightly and took heavy, rattling breaths. He tapped her forearm, asking after her status.

  “I’m losing it,” she said.

  “It’s not real,” he replied. “Catherine, you know it’s just chemical. It’s not real.”

  But it was real. It was monstrous; they came across the eviscerated carcass of a deer, and then of a man, and then of another man… and then of twenty men, one of Mazursky’s scouting parties. Their deaths were so recent that blood steamed from the snow. Thick and richly red, there was so much of it, so much.

  More dead.

  The Humvee driver started screaming. Catherine sagged, and Tess and Mazursky were gripping each other by the shoulders as the miasma of horror invaded them.

  Vincent said, “Stop the vehicle. Here.”

  Doubled over, Catherine said, “No, Vincent. It will kill you. I will die if it kills you. I won’t be able to live.”

  “You’re okay,” he insisted. “It’s just the pheromones.”

  But inside he was agreeing with every word she uttered.

  It would kill him.

  The plan had been for them to get as close to the fear beast as they could, and then Vincent would get out of the Humvee and lope through the snow, inviting it to track him. Over his shoulder, he had slung a rocket launcher, and in the payload, there was a hollowed-out projectile filled with the antidote in gaseous form. When the rocket was aimed at the fear beast and launched, it would burst open and deliver the pheromone ammunition. Or so it was hoped. Mazursky had supervised the engineering of the device, as, he conceded, the United States military had used similar devices against other enemies.

  There were more rocket launchers in the Humvees, but all of the vehicles had stopped in their tracks, their occupants too terrified to proceed. Their weapons, therefore, were useless.

  Soon the snow was blinding, and Vincent directed his circulatory system to feed his thermal imaging capabilities. Trees glowed orange; more animals bounded out of the forest, some colliding with him. He stayed on target, focused, one leg following the other through the blizzard.

  One leg…

  One…

  Afghanistan. Guns shooting. Men shooting. Beasts perishing. Death, death. Destroy. Retaliate. Fight back. Rend. Dismember.

  He had to find the cave. Get to the cave. Draw the fear beast inside. If only it would come.

  It can’t come after me. It will kill me.

  Vincent shook as his jaw clacked against the bottom of the helmet. Rage coursed through him. Rage was better than fear. Let others fear him. Let them quail and quake. He would tear them apart with his teeth. He would…

  Muirfield. Hunting him down. Years. Years waking up in the dead of night in a cold sweat: Is it them? Are they here? Do I hear soldiers? Choppers?

  He was tiring. The snow blocked him. Ice was freezing the blood inside his veins. In the oxygen hose, he tasted something metallic and wondered if the antidote was changing because of the cold. If it would stop working. If he would get inside the cave and launch the payload and nothing would happen and he would die in agony. He would be ripped—

  His beast side threw back its head and roared.

  And it was answered.

  * * *

  “I can’t stand it. We have to retreat,” said the Humvee driver. Cat was seated by the passenger door, half-turned toward him. “Where’s my gun? Defend!” He whipped out his weapon and pointed it at Cat. “Enemy!” he screamed.

  “No!” she cried. She lifted her own weapon. The driver was sweating. He began to laugh and cry. His hand wobbled but Cat could see that he was preparing to pull the trigger. Her world telescoped to his fingers on the metal.

  She was about to open fire when her door burst open and someone dragged her bodily from the vehicle. She fell into the snow just as the driver opened fire—and Mazursky went down, bleeding from a dozen wounds. Blood spurted onto the snow.

  The driver kept firing. Cat flipped herself over on hands and knees and crawled toward the side of the Humvee just as Tess leaped out. She reached down and took Cat’s
wrist; without a beat she began to drag her as she moved on instinct, fight or flight. They both had on their helmets; Cat forgot her words, her thoughts. She scrabbled in the snow to keep up as they madly charged into the black woods, the dense branches, the icy pond with a thick crust…

  …and the liquid, unfrozen water beneath.

  They crashed in.

  And they went down.

  * * *

  Bullets and bombs. Guns pointed at him. Death. Kill first.

  Run.

  Run.

  Run.

  In a sheer panic. Trying to remember the mission; there was a mission; he was a man—

  Beast-Vincent roared and caught the scent. Left, right, up the hill, through the copse of trees; right, right, right. Tracking his prey, running it to ground.

  It roared back, more loudly, more horribly. The world became a vast star field of glowing blackness, luminescent. He kept after it, his animalistic survival instincts unable to assess the danger as he bore down on it. Huge, unknowable, revolting.

  With a savage howl of frenzied triumph, Beast-Vincent threw himself at it. It fell back, then shot into the air and landed on him, and threw him fifty feet upwards; trees raced up to bombard him in the face, the neck. He cracked and broke. Then again, it grabbed him up and slammed him down with unbelievable force.

  It was killing him. Let it let it let it.

  With his helmeted head in its mouth, it began to drag him. The snow was scarlet with his blood. His arms and legs were wrenched from their sockets; his joints twisted and cracked like chestnuts in a fire.

  Let it.

  He was barely conscious. Roaring and growling and batting at it without any awareness of doing so. His mind was back on the streets when he had been the vigilante and millions of New Yorkers wanted him dead. Hunted everywhere, hated, Beast-Vincent.

  And then he thought of Catherine. His half-closed eyes opened and he saw her smile. Her beautiful eyes. Heard her voice saying, “You are not a monster, Vincent. You saved my life.”

  Saved her life.

  Save it now.

  It was dragging him, but miraculously, he still had his rocket launcher. He clung to it with all his might as the fear beast pulled him over boulders and streams streaked with ice water. It was going somewhere; it had a destination.

  He saw Catherine’s face again. His beast attributes faded and he was just a man.

  With a rocket launcher.

  It took him a moment to realize that the fear beast was heading for the very cave Tess had selected for him. It raced inside. Vincent’s body armor was coated with blood and mud. He held on to the launcher.

  And then his helmet was yanked off, and the full force of the creature’s fear pheromones assaulted him. He tried to move, to aim the launcher, but as before, he went completely limp. He crumpled to the ground and cowered on his knees, dropping the launcher to shield his face. He saw something coming down at him, but what it was… if it had ever been human…

  He couldn’t defend himself. He couldn’t move even one single finger. Lift an arm.

  The world fuzzed out, becoming white, becoming Catherine’s beautiful face.

  If I don’t do this, what happens to her?

  That was the greatest fear. The worst thing he could think of. The thing that he dreaded more than a painful death or even the end of the world: the end of Catherine Chandler, the woman he cherished, respected, loved.

  For some, that fear would be their undoing. It would utterly unnerve them. Shatter them.

  For Vincent, it gave him back his humanity.

  And in that moment, summoning all the effort in his entire body, his spirit, even his soul, he forced himself to stand up. He grabbed the launcher.

  Assemble, load, fire.

  He collapsed.

  * * *

  We’re drowning, Tess thought. Words penetrated the sheer panic that had engulfed her. She sucked on the mask for oxygen and antidote, but it was dragging her to the bottom of the pond. In her mind’s eye she saw her brothers grouped around her, yelling at her to save herself; and then she saw J.T., telling her he loved her.

  There was an explosion. The water literally shook, and her eardrums pounded.

  Then she was rising up through the water; someone was pulling her out. Her back arched as the faceplate was pulled up and she breathed in the heavy snowfall. Gasping in the crystalline white.

  It was Mazursky, bleeding so much that she couldn’t imagine how he was still alive.

  “Cat?” she bellowed, coughing up water.

  And Cat said, “I’m here.”

  * * *

  When Vincent awoke, he was lying in the cave on his back, and there was a small campfire burning beside his right foot. On it was a metal coffee pot. As he sat up, he discovered a note on his chest:

  Thank you for corralling and destroying our little problem. We are in your debt. You might consider the possibility that you are fighting for the wrong side. You can’t imagine the other creations we have at our disposal, or fathom what we will do next. The world is ours, and it’s for our friends. And you, Dr. Keller, can be one of those.

  We urge you to join us. If you do not, you will face horrors that will make this seem like a pleasant interlude.

  Why did we spare you?

  You are unaware of what you are capable. You were not engineered to stop progressing. When faced with dangers that call upon your body to evolve, you will do just that… you will become, truly, the king of beasts.

  We look forward to observing this. And you can be sure that we will be doing so.

  Soon.

  With regards,

  Howard Thornton

  President and CEO, Thornton Industries

  Vincent crumpled the note and began to drop it into the fire when he stopped himself. Instead, he sniffed the paper and closed his eyes. Focused. Saw the soldiers hoist up the dead fear beast. Saw them carry it out.

  He reached the edge of the forest just as the helicopter rose into the snowstorm and left with the corpse, dangling from a net. Even from here, he could smell that it was dead.

  He stared after it a moment, savoring victory—over a monster, and over his own fears—and then he went in search of Catherine.

  CHAPTER TWENTY

  SIX MONTHS LATER

  Seated at Mr. Riley’s beside, Vincent leaned forward and murmured his confession into the old man’s ear. Told him the story of Lafferty’s request that he, Vincent, helped her escape. How he had refused, and consigned her to death.

  “And I’m sorry,” Vincent said. For a moment he thought Mr. Riley had fallen asleep… or worse, and he checked the old man’s pulse. It was fluttering. Mr. Riley was dying.

  Twin tears traced glittery tracks down the sick, careworn face, and Vincent knew he had heard it all. “I’m so sorry,” he said again.

  “Son, you couldn’t even save yourself,” Mr. Riley murmured. It was a struggle to speak. With great effort, he lifted his hand and it hovered limply in the air, as if seeking Vincent. Vincent slid his hand beneath it, and Mr. Riley grasped his fingers, his grip surprisingly firm.

  “I didn’t know if I should tell you the truth,” Vincent said. “You believed all these years that she died a hero.”

  “But she did.” Very slowly, Mr. Riley’s eyes opened and fixed on Vincent. “She volunteered all the way. Enlisted. Worked her ass off to get into Delta Company. I was so proud. She told me how hard it was over there. And how you kept her spirits up. Told her not to be a big baby.”

  Vincent remembered. His throat tightened as memories of that night on patrol flooded back, when Lafferty broke down and told him she wanted to walk into the desert and never come back. Away from the carnage and the people who hated them and the little children who begged for the scraps from their mess tent. That was before the experiments.

  He wouldn’t tell this old man that, ever.

  But he had told Lafferty that the people there were counting on them—the freedom fighters, the civilians who ne
eded this war to end—and the people back home, who had given this conflict their best: their young men and women. Sons, daughters, brothers, sisters.

  He had told her to be brave, and to fight with valor, and he’d sworn he would survive if she would. They’d made a pact. She’d hugged him and called him her brother.

  “I wish I’d never met her,” Vincent said. “That she’d stayed home—”

  “Hush your mouth, boy,” Mr. Riley snapped. “My Roxie did die a true hero.”

  “For the wrong cause. They betrayed us.”

  “Not everyone. Some people believed they were making you safer.” Like Cat’s mother, Vanessa Chandler. “And Roxie stepped up. She volunteered. Who would have died in her place? Maybe an ambassador who negotiates a lasting peace in the Middle East. Or a doctor who discovers how to cure the disease that’s killing me.

  “She was a hero,” he said again. “Like you.”

  He squeezed Vincent’s hand again—less firmly this time—and gave him a little smile.

  “You’ll take care of Aliyah, you and Detective Chandler? I left everything to her. It’s not much, but it’s more than she’s got now.”

  “We’ll take care of her,” Vincent promised. Given all the violence and trauma in her young life, Aliyah was doing remarkably well. He and Catherine had told her the truth about beasts—that they were not magical, but a product of science, and that one day there would be no more beasts. One truth and one half-truth, then. One fond hope.

  Mr. Riley gasped. “Amanda and Roxie are waving at me,” he said. “I see them.”

  “Then go to them,” Vincent said quietly. “And say hi to Lafferty for me.”

  “I will.” The old gentleman smiled. His eyes fixed, and Vincent knew he was gone.

  Outside in the hospice garden, roses bloomed.

  * * *

  He walked into the conference room at Thornton Industries with an easy swagger and an air of confidence. Mr. Howard Thornton, president and CEO, smiled at him and said, “Welcome aboard. I trust your journey was a pleasant one?”

  “Yes, sir, but if I may make a suggestion… you need to rearrange the interior of your private jet. The feng shui is off.” He adjusted the prayer beads around his wrist.

 
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