“You are free to choose, but you are not free to alter the consequences of your decisions.”
– Ezra Taft Benson
Pulling away from Tom’s tight embrace, Joey blushed as she faced Kirsty. He closed the door that they had left hanging open.
Kirsty didn’t waste time asking about their passionate display. “She left before dawn. I was up by then and she was gone – but it could have been in the middle of the night, too.”
“She wasn’t with you at all?” Joey asked, ignoring Tom’s startled look.
“No, she wasn’t, but we’d better get out and start looking for her. The cops are busy this morning, but that doesn’t mean they won’t pick up a suspected truant runaway.”
“If they did, I can smooth it over,” Tom said.
Joey’s attention was caught by the morning news Kirsty had been watching. “I notice my boss didn’t call me. What did I miss?”
Kirsty glanced at it distractedly as she put on her coat over the unofficial uniform of jeans and t-shirts that they all seemed to have adopted. “A young man, murdered in bed. Not that far from here. They’re calling it ‘brutal’. Not really news in New York, is it?”
“Kirsty…” Joey froze as she realized what she was hearing. Kirsty turned back to the television.
Howard Hutchins was in rare form on camera, gleaning every scrap of story he could short of getting arrested for interfering with an investigation. He had just turned away from a huddle of cops leading a teen to an ambulance.
“Police are on the lookout for a young blonde woman, alleged to be involved in the murder. When we get a sketch –”
Kirsty turned it off and faced them. “That doesn’t mean it’s her – but I’m going over there to start looking.”
“Why the hell would it be her?” Tom asked, indignant.
“We can’t rule out the Cenobite’s influence,” Joey insisted, though her guts twisted at the thought. She touched Tom’s arm gently. “It isn’t her, it couldn’t be.”
“Can’t rule them out personally, either,” Kirsty added. “What if they killed this kid and took her back?”
“We’re going with you.” Joey headed for the door. Halfway across the floor, Tom had taken her hand. Not caring what Kirsty thought of it, she held his hand tightly.
Joey got them closer than they might have managed otherwise by playing up to Hutchins’s vanity, but there weren’t many more details released about the murder.
“They’re saying the suspect vanished,” the blustering veteran reporter told them, “but someone saw a blonde girl getting into a taxi one street over. They’re talking with Yellow Cab now.”
“Thomas Ramsay! What are you doing here?”
They all turned to see a policeman smiling at Tom, his hand out. They shook hands and Tom introduced them to Captain William Bowery.
“We’re looking for a missing girl, but not the one you’re after.”
“When did she go AWOL?”
“Maybe last night, or right before dawn.”
“Under the wire for the twenty-four hour rule. Why don’t you grab Hicks and give him the stats on her? We’ll try to help you out.”
~ ~ ~
After a day of hunting and checking in with Officer Hicks every hour, they returned defeated to Joey’s condo. Throughout the day, they kept checking back to see if Lenore had returned, but found no sign of her.
The one time Joey had spoken to Hicks, it became disturbingly obvious that the murder suspect’s description was a perfect match for Lenore, but the officer seemed reluctant to say so to Tom. So far, Joey hadn’t had a chance to share that news with Kirsty, although she had to have realized it already.
Kirsty had offered to cook, saying she needed to stop thinking for a while. Joey got drinks for them and then sat on the couch beside Tom.
“Joey, there’s so much I don’t understand.” He took her hands in his. “If Jack knew what those creatures were, and saw what they did to his father, why would he try to perfect the device just to open a puzzle box and give himself to them?”
“I don’t think he was well. You said he’d been committed. Maybe he wanted to fight them?”
“Why have Renée with him? If they’d killed her, that would be the end of the project.”
Joey shook her head. “Not the end of it. Only killing Louis would do that. You should read the files and the other things in that box,” she said, pointing to the document box on the coffee table.
“But if his improvements had been lost –”
“I don’t think that would be as vital a problem. Some of the notes in there are observations of a doctor named Channard. He studied all of this as an obsession, including the Merchant family line. One of the things he discovered was that the Merchant heirs are plagued by dreams and nightmares, and most of them are about the Elysium Configuration. That’s why he wanted to purchase the original drawing. I think if Jack’s work had been lost, Louis might eventually figure it all out anyway.”
Tom frowned. “Why would this monster take my daughter after killing Jack?”
“I don’t know. They don’t usually do that. They arrive and kill, nothing else.”
Tom looked toward the kitchen and raised his voice. “What do you think?”
Kirsty came into the entryway and leaned on a wall. “He’s a monster with a plan. Lenore said she was told to learn about pleasure and pain, which she jumped into doing with a cold calculation. She also calls Elliott her father.” Kirsty paused and then sighed. “I think he took her for a reason. He let Elliott influence her so she’d be able to appeal to Joey and I, since he knows we’re fond of the captain. Then they used God knows what to make her a teen…”
“I’ll never figure out how to cope with that,” Tom muttered. “She was the sweetest little person – full of love, hated to see anyone feeling sad… How could those monsters turn her into a fanatic for their sick cult? In a year?”
Joey whispered, “We may not ever know. I’m so sorry.”
“They don’t call it Hell for nothing. I hope we can still save her and protect Louis, but we need to figure out the Cenobite’s motives. I … realize this sounds paranoid, but I think he partly did it to lure me in, since she was dropped off in the house I was trying to sell. In addition – and this may be the real plan – he is probably trying to use her to find Louis.”
“Yes,” Joey agreed. “Elliott wouldn’t let me tell him anything about Louis, afraid that the Cenobite would know it, too. We know from Bobbi that the Cenobite wants the Merchant heir to make the device work. He thinks it’ll break down the wall between his world and ours, so he can wage his war on a bigger scale.”
“He might not be wrong,” Kirsty said, “and Louis isn’t up to fixing it, I bet.”
“Then he’ll move to plan B: killing him to end the bloodline. I guess he could capture him like he did Lenore – raise him to want to help them.”
Tom was silent, his face full of fear. He got up and called the policeman again.
~ ~ ~
After dinner, Kirsty collapsed on the couch. Joey cleaned up to have something to do while Tom sat at the kitchen table and spoke on the phone. She heard the change in his voice as he called home to check on Bobbi. A twinge of regret struck her, hearing the soft concern in his tone. Then he abruptly sounded annoyed.
“Marta, I want to speak to Bobbi. Would you give the phone to her, please? She’s not taking calls? You tell her it’s me. I understand that. Look, where is Louis? With you? Okay. Well, when the lady of the house remembers who the man of the house is, would you have her call me? I’m with Kirsty and Joey. We haven’t had any luck, but we’re still trying. Tell her that.” He closed his cell phone with a snap and watched her. “Never hire an old-fashioned German housekeeper. Damn woman takes Bobbi literally. I sign her paycheck – I should be exempt from the ‘do not disturb’ order.”
Joey smiled absently as she turned away from the sink. “We should go out again, keep looking – but I’m beat. Maybe if I could just rest for a little bit, I could get back to the hunt.”
They stared at each other across the brightly lit kitchen. Even with everything upside down and a mess, she couldn’t help taking in his heavy, sculpted body in the tight jeans, with the black t-shirt stretched over his chest.
Tom ran his fingers through his hair and smiled at her self-consciously. “What are we going to do about this, Miss Summerskill?”
“I wish I knew, but I won’t push – I mean, I don’t expect anything.” She tried to pass him but when his hand touched her arm, she melted. Turning to him as he rose, she let him embrace her. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’ve never behaved like this before.”
“Maybe we should just grab that short rest and get back to it, like you said. I’ll camp out in the armchair. Go up and take a nap. I’ll set my watch and wake you in an hour.”
She nodded and slipped by him, pausing on the second stair. Their eyes met, and she swallowed hard. Lifting her hand, she held it out to him. She held her breath when he hesitated. Then he took her hand and let her lead him up to her bed.
They were slow and gentle with each other this time, trying to be quiet to avoid waking Kirsty downstairs.
Joey barely remembered her last lover – some hopeless dolt in college? Did that new photographer at the station count, how many years ago? This man put them all to shame. He could be gentle and fierce, almost at once, and he made her feel strong and vulnerable at once, too.
“Joey,” he whispered in her ear as he fell still after their desire was sated. “I wish … things were different.”
She kissed him deeply and then tried to smile through rising tears. “So do I.”