Beauty & the beast some.., p.9
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       Beauty & the Beast: Some Gave All, p.9

           Nancy Holder
 
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  He reached for his cell phone. Gone. Lost? Or taken? He thought of the names and messages on it, the damning connections to people he never wanted to put in danger. He had to get topside and find out what had happened while he was out. He hoped to God Catherine was safe. And J.T. and Tess. That they had information he could use to destroy this thing and shut down the operation that created it.

  Sloshing through runoff, he employed the left-hand rule—keeping track of his route by following every twist and turn on his left—as he examined the roof of the tunnel. His hope was to see either city lights or daylight. He had no idea how long he’d been out, but he wasn’t hungry or thirsty, so that told him it was probably still night.

  Finally he saw a break in the unrelieved uniformity of the curved ceiling, and to his left he spotted a ladder leading up toward it. Manhole. He climbed the ladder and pushed on the cover. It didn’t budge. Vincent closed his eyes and pictured Lafferty in her misery. What had been done to her in the name of advancing the cause of warfare.

  Anger surged through him. His body responded, his beast DNA soaking up the chemical changes caused by his emotions and feeding on them. Charged, nourished, the DNA presented and he beasted out just enough to push the cover off the manhole as if it weighed no more than a sheet of paper. By the time he poked out his head, he was back to human.

  He had emerged in a busy street, which was both good and bad. Bad for getting out of there as safely and discreetly as possible; good because there would likely be transportation—buses, subways. He’d have to clean up first.

  Traffic stopped—had to be a red light—and he slid out beneath a rumbling semi. He lay flat as the air brakes chuffed and the truck moved forward, then quickly rolled to the side of the street and crawled into the shadows. A sign on a chain-link fence read KELLY’S TRUCKING YARD. According to the address, he was in Queens.

  About twenty feet away stood a small building, practically a shed. He darted over to it and tried the side door. It opened, and he found himself inside an office. An olive-green jumpsuit and baseball cap hung on a hook beside an interior door. A quick glance inside revealed a bathroom. Vincent stripped, cleaned up quickly, and put on the jumpsuit and cap. He found a roll of plastic trash bags among some cleaning supplies inside the sink console and put his bloody clothes in one.

  Fortune continued to smile on him as he found a landline on the desk. He called Catherine.

  “Chandler.”

  “Catherine, it’s me.”

  “Oh, my God, Vincent. Where are you? Are you all right?”

  “Yes.” He knew Catherine better than anyone else on the planet, and he knew something was very wrong. “Tell me.”

  “J.T.’s been kidnapped and Heather’s gone after him—”

  “What?”

  “You weren’t at the houseboat so J.T. was going to check his office. I was down in the sewers and I missed Heather’s calls. I’ve been calling her back and I can’t get through. Where are you?”

  He fished through some papers on the desk and found a couple of invoices with Kelly’s’ full address. He read it off to her.

  “On my way,” she said.

  “No one knows I’m here. I helped myself to some clothes. And I don’t have my phone.”

  “I have it. I’ll get there as fast as I can. If I can.”

  He understood. If she heard from anyone, she’d take immediate action that might preclude picking him up.

  “I’ll check in with you in half an hour,” he told her, figuring he could manage that long and maybe longer if he stayed quiet and didn’t trip any alarms. So far so good on that score.

  “Okay.” They hung up. He wished he’d told her that he loved her. The way their lives were going, he should tell her that as often as possible, in case it was the last time he spoke to her.

  * * *

  Heather and her companion had been driving forever. Queens was filled with one-way streets and construction zones not marked on her phone’s map, and Heather, for one, was getting tired of all the detours.

  “Heather,” Cat said on the other end of the line, “wherever you are, stop and pull over. Do not do this. Leave it to me.”

  J-Bag—that was the name of the guy who had sold Heather the gun—held the phone up to Heather’s ear because she hadn’t wanted to put the conversation on speaker. She had given him 70 dollars for the gun, although she was sure she had more in her purse earlier—hadn’t she withdrawn that cash she owed Cat on the way home with Walker? Still, it made J-Bag do a touchdown victory dance, because he had gotten the gun for free.

  She was grateful down to her soul that he had offered to go with her. They were in a derelict section of the borough, passing blocks so squalid she doubted that even rats went inside them. A burned-out car had run up over a curb and she had never seen more litter in her life. J-Bag had told her not to be afraid and promised to look out for her.

  “I’m only one block away,” Heather argued with Catherine. “And you’re going to go pick up Vincent first!”

  “As it happens picking up Vincent is practically a straight line from there to where J.T. is being held. Listen to me. I am a cop and Vincent is… Vincent. There’s no reason for you to do this.”

  J-Bag pulled a joint out of his baggy pocket with his free hand.

  “Oh, my God!” Heather shrieked. “Don’t do that in my sister’s car!”

  “Do what? Who’s with you?” Cat demanded.

  Heather hesitated. She didn’t know what to say. “My backup. A friend. You don’t know him.”

  “Let me guess. Walker?”

  “No.” And Heather died a little inside because Walker hadn’t ever called back. “The thing is, Cat, J-Bag is very street-smart.”

  “J-Bag?”

  “I heard that,” J-Bag said indignantly.

  “Okay. Listen,” Heather said. “We won’t go in. We’ll drive past and I’ll take some pictures and send them to you. So that way you can plan your attack.”

  “Attack, damn.” He sucked in the smoke from his joint, held it, rolled down his window, and blew it out into the night. He smiled pleasantly at Heather as if to say, See? I’m civilized. When she batted his shoulder, he muttered, “Okay, okay, jeez, you’re worse than my mama.” He spit on his fingers, then clamped them over the business end of the joint. Then he stuffed it back in his pocket.

  “Not even pictures,” Cat insisted, but Heather could tell that her sister was liking the idea of pictures. She just didn’t want to tell Heather to go into enemy territory to snap them.

  “Who they attacking? Cuz guess what.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out a gun at least twice as big as the one he had sold her.

  “Oh, my God!” Heather cried.

  “What? What’s happening?” Cat shouted.

  “Girl, listen, I’m good with this,” he insisted.

  “Heather, pull over immediately,” Cat barked. Before Heather could protest, she added, “If I recall correctly, the people who kidnapped J.T. rammed his car. You’re one block away from their last known location. In the car of Vincent Keller’s girlfriend. If they knew enough to ram J.T.’s car, they know enough to ram yours.”

  “Oh.” Heather’s voice was small. “Right.”

  “Turn around now.”

  “Okay.”

  “I have another call,” Cat said.

  “Okay, bye.”

  J-Bag stared at her. “Just like that? You’re the person closest to a friend who is in trouble and you bail?” He shook his head. “You are not the woman I thought you were.”

  “So?” she flung back at him, but she was stung. He was right. “But she’s a cop.”

  “Yeah, and what? If you don’t do what she say, she gonna to throw your ass in the electric chair?”

  She opened her mouth. “You’re right. What the heck, J-Bag? Right?”

  “Damn straight. Park and we’ll check it out. You can take pictures and send them to her anyway. Probably get her ass—I mean, herself—here a lot faste
r, she know you stuck around.”

  “Deal.”

  He grinned at her. “I knew you had it in you. I knew you were a real woman, not some baby girl.”

  “You must not have any brothers or sisters.”

  “I got so many of ’em I don’t even know all of ’em,” he assured her. “And tell me one more time what the hell this thing is?” He held up the tranquilizer gun.

  “I used to volunteer at the zoo,” she said, grabbing it from him and putting it on the back seat. “That’s for wild animals. Real ones.”

  “You’re the strangest person.”

  “I’m really not,” she said earnestly. “Trust me on that.”

  The problem with parking was that there were too many places to park. Except for the burned-out car, there were no other vehicles, no bushes or trees; only shadows could make them inconspicuous. Heather rolled into the deepest, darkest shadows she could find and handed J-Bag her phone.

  “Could you take some pictures, please?” she asked him. “I can’t really see past you.”

  “Sure, baby. Here, hold this.” He held out his gun. She took it with one hand and would have dropped it, but she gripped her other hand around it and lowered it to the seat.

  “It weighs a ton,” she said. “How do you even hold it?”

  “Feel my arm muscles.” He grinned and flexed.

  “I’ll take your word for it.”

  “You’re missing out.”

  She sighed. On the way here, he had told her about himself. She’d been hoping J-Bag might turn out to be an undercover cop or a journalist doing a piece on gang life, but this was no fairy tale. He was a high-school dropout, his sister was a heroin addict, and he had killed two people. They had deserved it, he assured her.

  We are each the heroes of our own stories, she thought wistfully. What was the story of the people who had kidnapped J.T.? They had wanted someone to know what had happened to him, which was a good sign. But they hadn’t made any demands, which was a bad sign. And no one had heard back from Tess since she left the houseboat. Which was a very, very bad sign.

  “I think you should smoke some weed,” J-Bag said. “You are so tense.”

  “If you don’t stop with that, I’ll kick you out of my car.” She looked past him to the post-apocalyptic city block across the street. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. “It’s going to take them forever to get here. What if they’re torturing him?”

  He whistled. “Okay, so not the little kitten. You got spunk, woman. You could be my old lady if you want.”

  “That’s so sweet, J-Bag, but trust me, you don’t want me. I’m way too neurotic. And messy. I leave stuff out everywhere.”

  “But I’ll bet my kitten is a tiger in the sack.”

  “Please.” She thought about batting him, but he was taking the pictures for her with her cell phone. Her mind filled with the images of Miami Beach palm trees and a moonlit beach, contrasting them with her current situation. She’d thought things would be just peachy in New York now that she knew Vincent was not Vincent Zelansky, also known as Ass. But she still had to fight to get one moment of Cat’s attention, and three was a crowd no matter how nice and un-ass-like Vincent Keller was. Maybe if she signed on as Cat’s sidekick she’d get some quality time.

  Or die, she thought fearfully.

  “Got ’em,” he said, “and get ready to roll, because a car is coming down the street.”

  She reached for the keys in the ignition, but he stayed her with a gentle squeeze on her wrist.

  “No, wait. It’s a low-rider, and there’s a chance they won’t see us. You go screaming out of here, they’re going to follow you.”

  “Great. Just great.” She locked all the doors and rolled up all the windows. “We should probably hide.”

  She slumped down behind the wheel. He hunkered down too. She held her breath and made a promise to herself to take a gun class. Cat shot guns all the time. And not just at paper targets.

  J-Bag’s hand rested on her thigh. “Move it,” she said between clenched teeth.

  He made a little whimpering noise. “The ladies fight over me, Heather. And here you got me all to yourself.”

  “First of all, I don’t fight over guys. Secondly, we are on a life-or-death stakeout.”

  “All the more reason we should seize the moment.”

  “Get your hand off me or I’ll shoot you.”

  He chuckled… and did as she asked.

  “Don’t ever tell anyone I behaved myself,” he said. “I could never live it down.”

  “Don’t worry. No one will ever know you were in this car.”

  “It’s not too late for me to call my brothers and tell them to show. They’d do it for me.”

  “That’s so thoughtful,” she said, “but let’s wait for my sister.” So she completely loses her mind when she sees me.

  “I could go across the street, do a recon.”

  “Just stay put, J-Bag, okay?”

  Before she realized what he was doing, he clicked his door, opened it, and crawled out. Using the door as a shield, he duckwalked toward the back of the car. She sat up and stared into the rearview mirror but didn’t see him. Seconds ticked by. Her stomach filled with fluttering things. What if all this niceness had been an act? And he was going to sneak around the other side of the car—her side—kill her, and take the car?

  What was I thinking?

  But no, she trusted him. Still trusted him. Of course, she had trusted Walker, too. And look where that had gotten her.

  We don’t know about that yet, she reminded herself. Walker is To Be Continued.

  Her chest hurt; she had been holding her breath. She exhaled, and just as she ran out of air, her phone pinged. “Find My Friends” showed a new location for J.T.

  She messaged the information to Cat, and then she phoned her. Cat answered on the car’s speaker. “I see it. I’m getting close to Vincent. I am seeing you on my app, Heather. Get out of there now. And who are you with? Does he… know?”

  “No.”

  “Then take him home and wait to hear from me.”

  “Cat, J.T. is my friend too.”

  “Do it.”

  The door behind her opened and J-Bag popped into the car. Heather said, “Okay, Cat, you’re the cop,” and glanced into the rearview mirror to see what effect those words had on J-Bag. It was too dark to see him.

  “Someone’s on my other line. It’s probably Vincent,” Cat said. “Go home.”

  Heather started up the engine; keeping her headlights off, she slowly hung a U. She said to J-Bag, “My friend’s on the move and my sister’s closer to him. So I’m retreating.”

  “Yeah, now that I’m in love with you I’m all for that. I can’t have my woman getting messed up.”

  “You’re freaking me out. You’re not going all stalkery, are you?”

  He cocked his head. “You have not had good experiences with men.”

  “You can say that again,” she blurted. And then she shook her head. “We are not having this conversation now. Lives are on the line.”

  “Cuz the heart’s already been broken.”

  “Where do you want me to drop you off?” she asked doggedly.

  “At your place, sweet thing,” he said. “Of course. But I don’t want you to go back to where we met. That’s a bad place. Probably best you take me to a subway station.”

  “Is it even running?” she asked. Actually, weirdly, it wasn’t all that late.

  “Doesn’t matter.” He patted her shoulder. “This has been an interesting evening.”

  “Can I sell you back the gun?” she asked him. “I can’t bring an unregistered weapon home. Cat would kill me.”

  “You should be packing like Grand Theft Auto, your sister’s a cop,” he said. “They even got tanks now, I hear. But yeah, I’ll buy it back. For ten dollars.”

  “What? I gave you seven times that!”

  “Yeah, and now it’s used. And plus, I didn’t make any money tonig
ht, driving around with you. I have to account for myself with my brothers. All I’m coming home with so far is sixty bucks. You’re lucky I’m buying it back.”

  She sputtered. “This is robbery.”

  He grinned at her. “If you think this is robbery, you’ve never been properly robbed. C’mon, look at it from my point of view. I’ll get my ass kicked, I come home with nothing.”

  “All right. Give me directions.”

  “Give me your phone. I’ll key them in.”

  “Suddenly I’m feeling a little more protective of my stuff,” she informed him.

  “You do okay.”

  That was some sort of a compliment, so she said, “Thanks.”

  * * *

  Vincent melted out of the shadows as Catherine glided to the curb. He got in and Cat moved off quickly. She told him about the new location and he asked the same questions she had asked herself: Who had sent the address? Was it real? Or were they being sent on a fool’s errand?

  “Any word from Tess?” Vincent asked, and Cat shook her head. “Did Heather remember anything else? Anything they might have said that would give us more information?”

  “No. She had someone with her. I think it was a guy and I have no idea why she didn’t drop him off before she started looking for J.T. She knows that we have to keep the existence of beasts a secret. I’m going to have to have a talk with her.”

  “Give her the benefit of the doubt,” Vincent said. “Heather’s grown up. She had to have a good reason.”

  “You’re right. It’s hard for me to see her as anything but a flighty teenager. It was very brave of her to light out after him like that.”

  They drove in silence, both tense and worried. Before Vincent had rejoined society, J.T. had worried for their safety, but he’d never actually been harmed.

  “All I can think is that they’re trying to lure you,” Cat said. “Otherwise there would be demands by now.”

  “Unless something went wrong,” Vincent murmured. He didn’t finish the thought: unless they had killed J.T., either by accident or design.

  “We’ll get them, Vincent,” she promised. “And we’ll kick their butts.”

 
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