Beauty & the beast some.., p.7
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       Beauty & the Beast: Some Gave All, p.7
 

           Nancy Holder
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  “Funny thing,” Cat said aloud. “In New York, we classify all homicides as abnormal.”

  “Cat? Are you okay? Who’s with you?”

  “My partner,” Cat bit off. Heather’s forehead wrinkled. Cat didn’t have a partner. “Hey, listen, could you check with J.T.? And call me back?”

  “Um, sure. Yes,” Heather said.

  Cat ended the call.

  Heather speed-dialed J.T. while she climbed onto the fire escape and went up on the roof, hoping that Vincent would magically be there. But she was all alone with a great view of the skyline when J.T. answered.

  “Heather?”

  “Um, yeah,” she said. “Cat just found Vincent’s phone at the crime scene and there’s some guy with her. I guess she couldn’t talk so she asked me to call you. Is Vincent with you?”

  “No.” She could hear the anxiety in his voice. “Hang on while I swallow an entire bottle of Tums.”

  “This isn’t funny,” Heather said, smoothing back her hair.

  “Oh, believe me, I’m not laughing.”

  “Could he be with Tess?”

  “Why would he be with Tess?”

  “I don’t know. Why is his phone at a crime scene?” She went back down the fire escape, and into Cat’s room. She looked around for clues to Vincent’s whereabouts.

  Cat’s top dresser drawer was open. Heather glanced inside. Nothing seemed out of place.

  She closed it.

  “Hold on,” J.T. said. “Tess is on the other line.”

  Heather drummed her fingers on top of Cat’s dresser. Then she left the room and went back to her room to look at her corset. That’s what was different. The muslin loops had been refastened. And half of the top one was missing.

  “Walker, what the hell?” she cried.

  J.T. came back on. “That was Tess. She’s at the houseboat. He’s not there.”

  “Is there anywhere else he might go if he’s in danger?” she asked.

  “A thousand places. The sewers… my office,” J.T. said. “That’s one of our rendezvous points. I can’t leave here. I have to watch the security cameras.”

  “I could check your office,” Heather offered. She wasn’t sure about offering to check the sewers.

  “I’ve got the only key. Here, with me.”

  “Well, I could come over to your place and watch the security cameras while you go to your office.” When he hesitated, she scowled as if he could see her. “J.T., I’m not some flighty kid anymore. I’m a grown-up woman and I’m more tech-savvy than Cat. And you wouldn’t hesitate to ask her.”

  “Okay, yeah, I’m sorry. Yes. Come here and I’ll go there.”

  “On my way,” she said, then glanced down at herself. “After I change.”

  PATEL CRIME SCENE

  “I offended you,” Wilson said. “Somehow. About…?” He smiled at Cat.

  He didn’t know that she’d palmed Vincent’s phone on the dock, and that she was wild to get rid of her new partner so she could search for him in earnest. Wilson couldn’t know that she was looking for anything specific, and he had spent half his time with his eyes closed, breathing rhythmically.

  Panning the walls with her flashlight, she said, “No, it’s just that I usually do this part alone. Immerse myself in the scene and try to imagine what happened.” Like an apex predator, only not one-tenth as useful.

  “The energy is very negative,” he ventured. “Violent.” He slumped and shook his head. “It’s draining.”

  “Oh, wow, you must be jet-lagged,” she said. “You should go home and rest.”

  “Well, ‘home’ is a hotel tonight,” he said. “My apartment’s got a plumbing issue. Unless I find some other place to stay…” He smiled at her.

  No way. I’m telling Tess.

  “I’m staying here,” she said flatly. “By myself.”

  A text came in from Heather: Vincent not home. J.T. going to university to look. I’ll watch computers.

  Cat replied, OK, stay in touch.

  Tess was right; even after the CSUs had carted away carloads of evidence, the crime scene remained a chamber of horrors. Although she couldn’t track the way Vincent could, she could reconstruct some of the details of the crime. The violence, the savagery. The broken window had let in fresh snow and rooms were freezing; the blood that had been left behind was crystallizing. Destruction, everywhere. Aliyah Patel had witnessed at least some of this. It was getting to Sky, too.

  “So I’ll see you tomorrow,” she prompted, giving him her patented fake smile. Then her eyes widened in surprise as he opened his arms and threw back his head.

  “Divine Shiva, bless this place. Cleanse the evil from these walls and floors. Let the wheel turn!”

  He began a singsong chant at the top of his lungs. Cat regained her composure, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, “All right. We’re done here.” She was the senior partner. He had to do as she said.

  “This place is shimmering with a black aura,” he argued. “It needs to be cleansed.”

  “Tomorrow,” she said.

  “You shouldn’t stay here alone.”

  “I have my trusty aura-smasher.” She pulled away her coat and showed him her gun.

  “I’m serious. The vibes here are dangerous.”

  “We’re in a dangerous business. I’m telling you to go.”

  He pressed his hands together and bowed. “Got it. I’ll just grab a cab, then.”

  “Good.”

  He gave her one last look and then he departed the scene. She rubbed her arms for warmth and walked the rooms, searching for signs of Vincent. She explored the halls and the stairwells. The other residents had been told to find other places to stay tonight. Cat doubted any of them would be sleeping in hotels.

  She went back outside into heavily falling snow and hurried back to the dock to look for footprints before they were obliterated. She was too late. The snow was rapidly piling up.

  Then as she watched, she noticed that the snow wasn’t accumulating in the eastern corner of the dock, and she hurried over. Pointing her flashlight downward, she saw that a sizable gash in the wood about four feet wide had been obscured from view by shadow and trash. It appeared to be new. A beast could have done it. So was a beast down there?

  She angled the beam. Bingo. The gash had created an entryway into the city sewer system. She texted Tess to see if she could provide backup, but her former partner didn’t reply. It was foolish to even pretend that Cat would wait for Tess to arrive. Still, she tried not to be too foolhardy as she sussed out how to descend without hurting herself. A coil of frayed rope lay atop a trio of paint cans. She gave it a few experimental tugs between her hands; when it held, she looped some around her waist, tied it to a pole, and then leaned back to put tension on it. Still good.

  She unwrapped the rope and dropped it into the hole. Then she grabbed on and began to shimmy down. Her ear was cocked for any sort of noise. For all she knew, a beast that was not Vincent was down there.

  One, or more.

  * * *

  Heather arrived in record time with a giant purse that was apparently all the rage (what did he know?), and as soon as he showed her how to key in various search patterns on the cameras, J.T. drove to Northam University. The parking lot was almost empty and he walked quickly but cautiously from his car to the bio building. He kept compulsively checking his phone, praying that someone would let him know that Vincent had been found and was fine. Preferably that news would come from Vincent himself.

  He was halfway to his office but nearly hung a U-turn when he caught sight of Sara and Mr. Tenure gazing at each other beneath the energy-saving fluorescents like they were about to launch into the big show-stopping love duet from Phantom. What were they doing here? There was a third person with them—a young, attractive woman in a black turtleneck sweater and a black wool miniskirt over black tights and boots that hugged her calves. She wore a spectacular pair of thick black-rimmed glasses that reminded him of Harry Potter, but in a c
ute-nerd-girl way. Not that he was checking her out at a time like this.

  “Dr. Forbes,” Sara said formally as he approached. Even beneath the bad lighting, he could see a flush spread across her cheeks. She was still pissed off at him. Why? She’d found true love. With a guy who had tenure. So it had all worked out for her, right?

  “Oh, this is Dr. Forbes.” The other woman’s eyes widened as she pushed up her glasses—cute—and stuck out her hand. “I’m Heidi Schwann. I was just telling Dr. Holland that I was hoping to be your teaching assistant next semester and here you are.”

  None of this was computing, and J.T. didn’t have time for it. But he took her hand and shook it.

  “I’m Heidi’s thesis advisor,” Sara said. Then the flush deepened and she added, “And of course you know David.”

  “Tenure. Bioluminescence,” J.T. said with forced joviality. “Congratulations.” J.T. wanted to punch the guy in the face.

  “Thanks.” David put a proprietary arm around Sara’s shoulders. Smug bastard. “Life is good.”

  Just die, J.T. thought. “Great. Well, I have to get into my office. I’m running a protocol at my house but I forgot a key… piece of research that I only have in hard copy.” He knew he didn’t have to explain anything. But he was very nervous, and getting more nervous by the moment.

  “Oh, may I walk with you?” Heidi Schwann chirruped. “I’d love to hear about your work.”

  “I have to make a couple of quick calls,” he said apologetically. “Then I have to get back. I left my program running.”

  “Oh.” Her head bobbled up and down like, well, a bobblehead… and then she continued to walk beside him. He was just about to make it clearer that he needed his space when he caught sight of the door to his office. It was ajar. It was always locked, always. Someone had broken into his office. Was it Vincent? Who else could it be?

  Unfortunately, there was a long and mysterious list.

  He reached for the knob and looked back at Heidi. “So, I’ll catch you sometime tomorrow?” he hinted. Was she trying to look past him into his office? Yes. That was exactly what she was doing. Luckily the lights were off.

  He waited. Finally she stirred. “Sorry, what? Oh, tomorrow. Sure. Of course.” She jerked her hand forward in an almost inhuman way, like she was one of those octopus aliens in Galaxy Quest. Eager to be rid of her, he shook her hand briskly again and smiled at her to take out the sting of the quasi-rejection.

  “Tomorrow,” he repeated.

  She pushed up her glasses again. “What time?”

  It dawned on him that she might be even more socially awkward than he was. He had no idea what time he would be in tomorrow. If he would be in tomorrow.

  “Noon.” A nice round time, easy to remember, easy to make excuses about if he needed to.

  “Good.” She almost hopped with happiness on the balls of her feet. She was actually quite charming. “Okay then.” She gave him a little wave, exactly like the aliens in Galaxy Quest, and then she took a couple of steps backwards, as if she wasn’t quite sure what to do next.

  Exit stage left, J.T. mentally prompted her. Then, to his relief, she did just that. He watched her toodle down the hall until he was satisfied that he would be able to shut the door behind himself and get it locked if she made a U-turn and headed back to him again. Maybe he should start carrying a weapon. He wished he’d thought to bring the ol’ tranquilizer gun. It had been nearly a year since he’d given it any thought—Vincent had made amazing progress controlling his beast side—but the time was definitely nigh to keep it handy. In fact, he wished he’d thought to give it to Heather before he’d left.

  The door squealed on its hinges as he pushed it open. So much for the element of surprise. He thought twice about shutting it before he flicked on the light. The place was a shambles. File cabinet drawers hanging open, lecture notes strewn everywhere, his office canister of gummy worms lying on its side and a few colorful gelatinous delicacies scattered on the floor as if they’d crawled to freedom. Surveying the mess, eyes darting into the darkened corners of the room as he shut and locked the door—no way did he want Heidi or anyone else to stumble across his threshold, see this, and ask questions—he began to take inventory so he could figure out what was missing. All he kept in his office was university stuff. Papers to grade, hard copies of committee notes, cards and notes from graduates who kept in touch. Nothing seemed to be missing. All the good stuff was at his place.

  At his place.

  “Oh, God,” he blurted, and dialed Heather. She picked up on the first ring.

  “J.T.?” she whispered. “I think someone’s outside sneaking around.”

  He went on red alert. “Are all the doors and windows locked?”

  “Yes. I checked.”

  “Call nine-one-one.”

  “But what if they see all this equipment?” she whispered fiercely. “Won’t you get in trouble? I should call Cat.”

  He blew out of his office, shut and tried to lock his door—the mechanism was broken—and dashed toward the front of the building. David, Sara, and Heidi were gone.

  “If Cat’s still at the crime scene, she’s too far away. Power down and call the police now. If you don’t, I will.”

  “Okay, okay. Oh, my God, I’m freaking out.”

  “Stay calm. I have a baseball bat under my desk. And the tranq gun’s behind the bar. Get over there and grab it.”

  Heather squeaked. “I thought I heard a growl.”

  Let it be Vincent. No, wait, not if he’s growling.

  “Call the cops and get the tranquilizer gun, Heather,” he ordered her. “Then get back on the line with me and stay on the line.”

  “All right. I’m putting you on hold but just to call the police.”

  “Good. That’s go—”

  He was talking to dead air. He took the opportunity to run flat out to the parking lot and leap into his car. Good thing he had login passwords on all the computers at the club. There’d be no actual motive for the police to interest themselves in his stuff, but to open anything up they’d have to have a warrant. Which they would not have.

  As he turned on the engine and the headlights came on, he registered the startled presence of Heidi Schwann in the empty parking space beside the one he’d used as he backed out. Had she been waiting for him? How did she know which car was his? And why wasn’t she wearing her glasses?

  He gunned the engine and went into reverse, scrutinizing her in the rearview mirror. The situation was fishy all around: a grad student he didn’t remember hanging around campus at night, asking to be his TA, trying to follow him into his office, which had been ransacked. Maybe she was the beast-maker’s spy. Or maybe she was the beast-maker herself. Any number of gorgeous women had turned out to be evil villainesses since Muirfield had come into their lives.

  “Or they’ve been beasts,” he said aloud, thinking of Tori Windsor as he wheeled the car around and shot toward the street.

  Could Heidi Schwann—

  He heard the car horn and the squeal of brakes before he felt the impact. Heard the crunch of metal on metal. Torso thrown forward, air bag deployed. It hurt. His glasses cut into his face. His head swam. He tried to move but nothing seemed to be working.

  Footsteps.

  Running toward him.

  Someone shouting, “Oh, my God, are you hurt?”

  Sounded innocent enough. Maybe this really was an accident. Maybe no evil government agent was running toward the car, attempting to kill him.

  His door was flung open. Muzzily he lifted his head and was about to turn it to speak to his rescuer when a piece of damp, smelly cloth went over his face.

  Then again, maybe it was someone trying to kill him.

  From far away, he heard screaming. As he was dragged out of the car, he realized that it was coming from his phone, and that it was Heather.

  CHAPTER SIX

  “Oh my God, oh my God!” Heather shrieked as she opened J.T.’s front door for the two uniformed
police officers. “My friend was just in a car accident!”

  The uniforms stared at her. One tall, one short, both of them were women.

  “You called nine-one-one because your friend was in a car accident?” the tall one asked in an incredulous tone of voice.

  “No,” Heather assured her, sweeping backwards so they could come inside. “This is his house. I came over to, uh, turn off his curling iron and then I heard a noise so I called him. And he told me to call you and then I heard him in a crash!”

  “We can check on that for you, miss. What is his full name, the location of his vehicle, and his license and registration?” the short officer asked. She whipped out a little notebook.

  Heather got nervous. She wasn’t sure if J.T. had found anything in his office. What if something was in his car? What if it was Vincent, beasted out and tranq’ed?

  “Well, he’s Dr. J.T. Forbes,” she said.

  “What do the initials stand for?” the officer asked.

  Heather smoothed back her hair. “I don’t actually know. But everyone calls him J.T.”

  “Do you know his location?”

  “I’m not sure.”

  The officer gestured to her phone. “Is he in your ‘Find My Friends’ app?”

  Wow, who knew the police could be so tech-savvy? She covered her face with her hand and held up her phone. “Wait. I can call him back!”

  She hit redial and left it off speaker. The phone connected.

  “J.T.!” she cried. “Are you all right?”

  “This is Private X,” a voice said. It had been electronically distorted. “Is this Heather Chandler?”

  She jerked hard. “Who are you?” she demanded. “Private who?”

  “We have Dr. Forbes. If there is someone with you, do not react to this call. Repeat: Do not react.”

  The hair on the back of Heather’s neck stood straight up. She licked her lips and said, “Um.” The uni looked at her strangely. “So hi, J.T. Are you all right?”

  “He’s safe. For the time being. If anyone tries to locate him… or us… that will change. Do you understand?”

  “Ah, yes.”

 
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