Beauty & the beast some.., p.3
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       Beauty & the Beast: Some Gave All, p.3

           Nancy Holder
 
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  She reread the note and tried to remember if Vincent had actually told her that he had seen Lafferty die.

  What if she has evolved into this new beast that’s tearing New York apart?

  Mr. Riley shuddered. “I can’t go to my grave without knowing what happened to my girl. I’ve been her daddy since before she was born. I was on the older side, but I kept up with my little tomboy as best I could. Her real father was Hector Lafferty; a good man, a cop, shot in the line of duty. We had Roxie keep his last name to honor him, and I thought that was proper. But she was mine. My daughter.” He heaved a sob. “When our girl died, my wife, Amanda, just faded away. She kept saying she was going to look for Roxie in heaven. That our angel still needed us…” Agony stretched his vocal cords like violin strings. He seemed to shrink before Cat’s very eyes, fear and worry pressing down hard.

  As Vincent turned around, a muscle jumped in his cheek, a vein pulsed in his forehead, and the merest hint of a yellow glow flickered in his eyes. The rising tension in the room was affecting him, too. But where Mr. Riley shrank before potential danger, Vincent responded with the first signs of beast aggression. Cat tried to subtly clear her throat as a warning for him to calm down. Mr. Riley was lobbing emotional grenades at a sorely misused veteran with a deep connection to him. Even a normal human would react to that.

  “I’ll find out the truth,” Vincent said in a low, fierce voice.

  “But did you see anything like that?” Mr. Riley blurted. “Her chained to a bed? In pain? This guy, this Private X, would you have known him? Or the other one, Karl Tiptree?”

  The man’s despair was hard to take. When he burst into tears and sank back onto the sofa, Cat sat down beside him and took his hand. Vincent turned away again.

  “We’ll find out,” she assured him.

  “Find out quick,” Mr. Riley pleaded. “I don’t have much time. I can’t die like this. Wondering.” He gestured toward the portrait. “They told me her death was quick. That she didn’t feel a thing. There was no body to bury. But there’s a headstone with her name on it in Arlington National Cemetery. Military honors. Killed in action. I’ve been there every single year on the day that I got the visit from the army with the notice. June twenty-first, two thousand and two. My roses… she always loved them so. I’ve let the house go, can’t manage, but you should see my rose bushes in the spring. I put them on her grave. Her empty grave.”

  Just like I put calla lilies on my mother’s empty grave, Cat thought. For over ten years, she hadn’t known that her mother had been moved, her new plot marked with a headstone bearing only her first name out in a field behind an abandoned Muirfield safe house. Cat suspected that her biological father, former FBI agent Bob Reynolds, had done it, but she hadn’t asked, and she was loath to have any contact with him whatsoever. His team had begun this nightmare, and he had made Vincent’s life a living hell.

  And Roxanne Lafferty’s as well, if she was still alive.

  “We’ll help you, Mr. Riley,” Cat promised. She glanced up at Vincent, who still kept his back carefully turned, so she couldn’t see if the glow in his eyes was intensifying. She had to get him out of there.

  “We need to go,” she gently told the old man. “I have to take this letter for a while.” Analysis for DNA and other forensic data would be strictly off the books, of course. And as soon as they left, she and Vincent would start looking for the FFNY, and digging into Tiptree’s past.

  “I made a copy of the letter,” he said. “For me. I can’t stop reading it. Staring at those words.” Another tear rolled down his cheek and he gave his head a quick, angry shake. “Being sick has made me weak.” He turned to Vincent one more time. “Son, you need to tell me what you saw. What happened there.” His chest shook with the effort to inhale. “Why you had ‘amnesia’ for ten years.”

  Vincent finally turned around. The glow had vanished. He was entirely himself.

  “Mr. Riley, I don’t want to put you in any danger. The less you know, the safer you’ll be.”

  The man smiled grimly. “I’m already dying. You’re a doctor. Surely you can see that.”

  Vincent lowered his head, acknowledging the truth. “You must have other loved ones to protect.”

  “I’m alone. This is it.” He swept an arc, taking in the room. “For the love of God, tell me.”

  Vincent glanced over at Cat, and she gave him a quick nod. This man deserved to know something. Maybe they couldn’t tell him all of it, but Vincent would be careful with the truth. Cat trusted him to divulge as much as he deemed appropriate.

  “There were drug trials in Afghanistan,” Vincent said after a pause. “And Lafferty was among those who were experimented on. The drugs were supposed to make… the subjects… stronger, faster. To give… them… an edge in combat.”

  She noted that he was not including himself in the experimental group. That was wise.

  “Things didn’t go as planned. She had a reaction to the… medication, a seizure. A doctor gave her an injection, and then she was escorted away. I visited her in the infirmary later, and she seemed fine.”

  Cat listened hard. Was that the truth, or was he trying to comfort the old man?

  “But did she return to combat duty?” the man persisted. “Did you see her die the way they said she did?”

  Cat could practically observe Vincent’s mind working as he considered his next words. “I visited her several times in the infirmary,” he said, surprising her further. “I never saw her in the field again. But the infirmary was destroyed in the firefight you were told about.”

  Cat shielded her confusion from Mr. Riley by placing the letter in an evidence bag. Vincent had told her that when he and the other supersoldiers had gone on a rampage, the infirmary had been destroyed. Had Lafferty been inside? Did Vincent carry the guilt of that death as well as that of all the others that she knew about?

  Cat’s own mother had been at that camp, and put her life on the line to protect the “beasts” the government project known as Muirfield had created. She was the doctor who had given Lafferty the shot to stop her seizure, and J.T. had replicated that formula when Vincent had exhibited similar symptoms. Back in Afghanistan, Vanessa Chandler had requested time to work with the beast-soldiers, to reverse the medical damage that had been done to them. But all the government had wanted was to “shut them down.”

  To kill them. To do that, they were willing to kill her, too.

  “So, if there was a mortar attack, an assault, she may have died in the infirmary when it was destroyed,” the man said slowly, reluctantly. And suddenly Cat realized that he was hoping that his stepdaughter was alive. A monster, maybe, even a serial killer, but still here. The idea stunned her. Still, she herself had absorbed the shock that Vincent had killed people, and still loved him. Yet to hope that it was your child who was tearing innocent civilians limb from limb…

  “That might have happened,” Vincent said vaguely, “but I can confirm that she never returned to the field of engagement.”

  Cat’s phone buzzed. It was a text from Tess. NEED YOU PRECINCT ASAP. She showed the message to Vincent and said to Mr. Riley, “We need to go, Mr. Riley. Before we leave, we’re going to look around your property.”

  “Thank you. I have a garage out back. Here are the keys.” As he fished in his pocket, he looked so relieved that she wanted to give him a hug. Instead she began to clear his house, walking slowly through the rooms, checking for signs of unusual activity, and for electronic surveillance equipment. Vincent was right behind her; away from the man’s view, he beasted out slightly. She was depending on his tracking senses to augment her search.

  When they were finished with the house, Vincent reported, “Nothing in here.”

  They left through the kitchen door into the backyard. About ten yards away, a detached garage sat in drifts piled up to the windows. If the old gentleman owned a car, he hadn’t used it in a while.

  She peered into the window and spotted a sedan, and beside it, a mo
torcycle. The forlorn motorcycle was coated with dust. Stepping back, she indicated that Vincent should look in, too. With a shake of his head to indicate that no one was hiding inside, he opened the garage door. Cat went in, and tried the car door. Locked. The car was so old that it didn’t have an electronic lock. She found the correct key and opened up the car. It smelled old and abandoned, a thing of the past. A life shutting down.

  They went back inside. Mr. Riley anxiously rose as if he’d been awaiting a verdict.

  “How do you get to your medical appointments, Mr. Riley?” Cat asked.

  “Usually? Subway.” He raised his chin as if daring her to state the obvious: that a terminally ill man of a certain age shouldn’t be taking the subway for any reason, much less for his cancer treatments.

  Her phone buzzed again. Tess was impatient.

  “I’d like you to get locks on your garage door,” Cat said. She pulled out her card. “The city can help with that. And with transportation as well.”

  “I’m fine,” he said reflexively. He kept his face neutral and respectful.

  But when he turned his attention to Vincent, his face sagged, and it was obvious to everyone in the room that he was not fine.

  “I’ll be back as soon as I can. With answers,” Vincent promised.

  The man exhaled, as impatient for those answers as Cat was.

  As she and Vincent left the house and retraced their steps on the path, Mr. Riley shuffled out after them. With a pair of gardening shears, he snipped off the single exquisite red rose and presented it to Cat.

  “Be careful, Detective,” he told her. “Live a long time. Longer even than me.”

  She took the rose with a faint sad smile. Her professional distance already sacrificed to her instinctive need to protect, she put her arms around the old man. He melted against her, utterly bereft.

  “I’ll be in touch soon,” she promised him.

  “Answers,” he pleaded. “Justice.”

  Cat said, “I won’t stop until we’ve laid this to rest.”

  Vincent remained silent and stared at the snow as it tumbled from the sky. Then he walked to the car, a towering figure all in black, moving with the stealth of an animal.

  CHAPTER THREE

  AFGHANISTAN, 2002

  The beast that was Specialist Vincent Keller bared his teeth at the flaming debris plummeting from the smoke-choked sky. He growled at the fiery rain, then threw back his head and shrieked as a burning ember sizzled against the fresh gouges in his cheek. He slapped his bloody hand against the wound as he waggled his head in rage, grabbed the nearest object, and flung it hard.

  It was a soldier.

  Others came and ran beside him as they reached the blazing building. Somewhere deep, beast-Vincent knew that this was a sacred place, the house of the sick. Infirmary. But the beasts’ roars drowned out any rational thought and his heart, his muscles, his life’s blood were screaming at him to rip, to shred, to destroy.

  Against all logic, ammo had been stored in the same building as the wounded, and as the flames reached mortars and grenades, the building detonated like a bomb. The blowback knocked the beasts off their feet. Beast-Vincent landed hard on his back, bellowing, devoid of any sense of fear.

  Lacking any sense at all.

  Then from the fragmenting structure, something ran. It was on fire, and chains dangled from its wrists. It was a pillar of smoke and bright orange flames; its screams shattered the eardrums of the human soldier it charged. The man blasted machine gun fire at the ground in front of it, a warning.

  Impossibly, it kept coming.

  The man shouted a name and dove to the ground.

  The thing ran over him, crackling feet thudding hard on his back. His lungs compressed, the man groaned once, and then he collapsed into the embers and ash.

  * * *

  “And that’s what I remember,” Vincent said to Catherine. They were headed back to the precinct. Catherine was driving and Vincent rode shotgun while she expertly wove in and out of the busy New York traffic. “About that day.”

  “Oh, my God,” Catherine said. “That’s horrible.”

  “Yes,” he said. And there were other days, days that he hadn’t discussed, and he knew that she could tell he was holding something back. It’s all right to tell someone your darkest secrets. Catherine hadn’t said that. Her little sister Heather had. But at that time, Heather had had no idea just how dark the world could be.

  Sad to say, her eyes had been opened.

  “And you think that the man the… burning creature… trampled might have been this ‘Private X’?” Catherine put on her left-turn blinker and swerved around a street sweeper. She huffed and activated lights and siren. Tess had called again to share a few more details about the newest homicide. Even Vincent, a hardened soldier and an ER doctor, had been sickened by what they’d heard.

  “I don’t know,” he said. “I do remember that there was something familiar about him. I think I’d seen him in the infirmary hovering around Lafferty, which jibes with that note. But with the soot, and the blood…

  “After that, I ran into the barracks and saw your mother, and I was going to tell her about him. So she could help him. Then Colonel Johnson pulled out his gun to shoot her and I beasted out again. By the time I pulled myself back together, the soldier was gone.”

  He didn’t add that he had risked capture and execution by retracing his steps to find the distressed man. And to look for Lafferty’s burned body, if it had indeed been Lafferty’s. No one could have survived being engulfed in flames like that.

  He blinked.

  Except… he had encountered a beast who could have survived. The psychotic arsonist Eddie Long had been made not only fire-resistant, but also somehow able to create fires and direct them at his enemies. Long had nearly killed Vincent, and Vincent’s FDNY firefighter nephew Aaron as well.

  “Something’s bothering you. Something else,” she prodded, but by then they had pulled into the precinct parking lot. Catherine rolled to a stop and Tess emerged from the precinct headquarters and strode toward them, filled with purpose. Vincent noted that she was dressing more formally these days. She’d lost weight, and not just from the job—she and J.T. were having a few issues and Tess wasn’t handling it well. Since Tess and J.T. no longer had to work closely together to cover up Vincent’s existence, they were a bit at a loss to figure out what they had in common, once they came up for air from their romantic encounters. He was pulling for J.T. on this one. Tess, too.

  “So you said the little girl in the article that Mr. Riley showed you was named Aliyah Patel,” Tess said by way of greeting, as he and Catherine got out of the car. “And her aunt is Indira?”

  “Yes,” Cat said. Vincent shut his door.

  Tess grimaced. “Well, guess who’s in interview room A. Completely catatonic.”

  Catherine took a beat. “Saying feels like choosing. I don’t want it to be either one of them.”

  “Aliyah’s in the room,” Tess said. “We think Indira’s our latest vic. Beast vic,” she emphasized.

  Catherine shared a look with Vincent. He was sure they were thinking the same thing: that it was way too coincidental that they had just been talking about the Patels with Maurice Riley. That a picture in the Post of Aliyah less than a week ago had presaged an attack on them… and now the girl was at the precinct.

  “Crime scene is unbelievable,” Tess said. “I’ve got a team from CSU there, blotting up the evidence. Tissue and bone samples have been sent for testing. Vic was unrecognizable, but we’ve ascertained that Indira was home when the attack occurred.”

  “Where was Aliyah?” Vincent asked.

  Tess gave them both one of her patented you-aren’t-going-to-believe-this eye rolls. “The attacker forced entry through Aliyah’s bedroom window. Aliyah was in bed. Then it—I forgot, we’re saying ‘he’—tore her bedroom door—which was locked from the outside—off the hinges. He must have searched for Indira. He went into Indira’s bedroom, t
hen moved into the living room, where Indira had apparently fallen asleep watching TV. Hard to tell from what’s left of the body. But there was an empty bottle of whiskey and plenty more crushed into the carpet.”

  “It definitely sounds like the beast was targeting the aunt,” Catherine said. “He bypassed Aliyah and had to make an effort to get to Indira.”

  “Not much of an effort,” Vincent observed. “When I’m transformed, ripping off an interior door is like tearing up a piece of cardboard.”

  “Right,” Tess said. “Which is why I already have a call in to the social worker you told me about, Angela Alcina. Turns out she’s left the job. But she wasn’t the Patels’ official social worker. She just helped Mr. Riley find Gheeta Patel’s daughter and referred his complaints about alleged abuse to the proper channels. The name of their caseworker is Julia Hogan and guess what? She’s missing.”

  “So… Mr. Riley alleges abuse by the aunt, caseworker does squat, now the aunt is dead and the caseworker is missing,” Catherine mused.

  “I already have a warrant to examine both of their financials,” Tess said. “It wouldn’t be a day without some computer time, eh, detective?”

  Catherine made grumbling noises.

  “I’ll check out the crime scene for beast activity,” Vincent said.

  Tess smiled grimly. “Figured you would. Thanks.” She pulled her phone out of her jacket pocket and pressed a couple buttons. “I’ve sent you the address. Just don’t upset the CSUs. As has become standard operating procedure for us, we’re going to have to monitor the samples that they bag and tag, and do everything we can to swap ’em out. So far there have been no reports containing the slightest hint of cross-species DNA in any of these seven cases.”

  “What about fingerprints?” Vincent asked.

  “We’ve run them through AFIS and IAFIS and nothing’s matched.”

  Nothing to connect Lafferty to these crimes, then, Vincent thought with a rush of relief. Catherine had tracked him down because of a partial print he had left on a button. As a member of the armed forces, Lafferty’s prints would be on file, just like his.

 
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