AVENGING ANGEL

(the Mindhunters series, Book 2)

(ISBN: 9781426894152)


Prologue


March


Grains of sand glistened white in the moonlight, bright against the midnight-black backdrop of her wet hair. With the back of his gloved hand, he brushed a few stray strands off her cheek and to the side, so that it fanned out around her with the rest. He smiled in satisfaction. More sand from the beach sparkled against the pale skin of her face and arms. Blue lips were parted slightly, as if she could take in that last breath she’d been gasping for so recently. Blank indigo eyes stared up at him. He gently closed them. In its wetness, her white sundress clung to every curve, a hint of dark nipples showing through.

She was, in a word, perfection. He’d do her justice.

Taking her limp wrist gingerly in his hand, he lifted it, positioning her arm outward and upward. He repeated the action with her other arm, then tilted her chin up toward the sky.

Sitting back on his haunches, he took in his creation. Even better than I’d imagined. Young. Pure. Ready to embrace what was to come. And she had. She’d done exactly as he’d asked, and he would honor her sacrifice.

He stood and stepped out of the protected cove, the soft sand giving way under his feet. He’d brush away all traces of his footsteps. Nobody would ever know he’d been here.

The tang of salty air hit his nose and cooled his perspiring skin, causing a light dusting of sand to encrust his bare arms and legs. He looked up and down the deserted stretch of beach. Nobody would see them here, hidden in the cove—not that anyone was around at this early hour of the morning. He’d chosen the setting carefully, as always.

He turned back to his victim. She had once been known as Lisa, but with his help, she’d emerged from the frothy waves of the ocean as one of his angels. The Angel of Water. Now she would rise to her eternal reward. Pulling his equipment from the bag he’d stashed behind the rocks earlier, he began his process with a thrill of anticipation for the result. The full moon would begin its descent soon, and his light would be gone. He had to work fast.



Chapter One


July


Noah slid the key into the slot. Blood pumped harder through his system as the lock gave way with a satisfying click. He pushed open his friend’s apartment door. The stench of forgotten food hit him squarely in the gut, causing his empty stomach to clench. Thank God he hadn’t had time to grab breakfast. After jumping on the first flight from Chicago to New York City, he’d opted to get here as soon as possible instead.

“Diego?” Noah called. The hum of the air conditioning unit in the window was his only answer.

He shut the door and walked into the darkened apartment. Despite the morning sunshine, with the blinds closed and the window unit cranked to Igloo, the place was like a tomb. He winced. Poor choice of words, given recent events. And his friend had every right to hide out for a few days if he wanted to. But damn, it took real dedication to ignore what had to be over two dozen calls from the extensive Sandoval family.

Noah grimaced, one finger lifting the lid of an old pizza carton lying on the kitchen counter. An almost-empty milk jug sat next to it, the obvious cause of most of the unpleasant odor, although the greasy Chinese food containers were probably equally responsible.

Noah’s heart twisted. His friend had obviously hit the wall. Though Diego was an NYPD homicide detective, finding his niece’s murdered and partially torched body in an abandoned warehouse had driven him into a cave. Still, the Sandoval family was so close. Always had been. Diego should have been able to lean on them.

When they’d called him with this latest news, Noah had immediately taken some personal leave. Besides, as a homicide detective himself, murder investigation was just as much his area of expertise as Diego’s.

Turning away from the cluttered kitchen, he kicked a pile of laundry—dirty or clean, he didn’t know—out of his way and excavated a path to the bedroom. His knock on the closed door received no answer, so he opened it. Another subchamber of the dark, cold cave lay before him, but the dim light from the cracks in the blinds revealed that this one had an occupant.

“Diego?”

The body sprawled on the bed didn’t respond. A pillow lay over his head, an arm on top locking it in place. He wasn’t dead, though. He might want to be, but his chest rose and fell in a regular rhythm under the thin white sheet.

Sitting down on the side of the bed, Noah flipped on the bedside light and nudged him, adding a light punch to the man’s biceps. “Diego.”

The pillow shifted and dark eyes slid open. Diego tugged the earbuds from his ears, hard rock blaring from them as he tossed them to the nightstand next to his iPod. He rubbed his hands over his haggard face. Despite holing up in his apartment for days, he appeared not to have slept. “What do you want?”

“Nice to see you, too,” Noah said, surprised at the degree of relief that coursed through him upon finding his friend alive and responsive. He’d been more worried than he’d admitted to himself. “I came to check on you. You couldn’t call your family and let them know you were still alive, after all they’ve been through this week?”

“Didn’t want to talk to them. To anyone.

“What the hell? The Diego I know wouldn’t sit around and wait for…death.”

Diego scowled at him and pulled himself into an upright position against his headboard. “I’m not waiting for death.”

“So, what then? You’re moping?”

Diego swung his feet to the floor and sat beside Noah with his head cradled in his hands, his elbows on his knees. “No, I’m reviewing the information in my head—over and over and over again—until I figure out what the fuck I’m missing.”

“You can’t do that at the police station?”

The bed shifted as Diego rose. He paced back and forth in his plain white T-shirt and gray jogging shorts. “I was told I couldn’t look into it. Hypocrites. Like they wouldn’t want to be in on an investigation that involved any of their family members. They’re afraid that, in my emotional state, I might contaminate more evidence.” The hard edge to his voice showed just what he thought about his colleagues labeling him emotional. He slammed the side of his fist against the wall. “Fuck.”

More evidence?”

Diego’s jaw clenched, but he didn’t meet Noah’s gaze. From the bits and pieces he’d gotten from the Sandovals, Noah knew something had happened at the scene when Diego had found Natalee. Apparently, something emotional, whatever that meant. But, hell, how was he supposed to have reacted?

Whatever had happened, Noah would get to the bottom of it. “So you took a leave of absence, too, huh? Guess that means I’ve got a partner in this investigation.”

Diego stopped and stared. His dark, bad-boy, Antonio Banderas good looks transformed as a slow smile spread across his features. “Partner?”

Noah held his arms out at his sides. “I’m at your disposal for two whole weeks.”



Vanessa surreptitiously glanced at the clock on the wall behind her employer’s head. It was nearly five, and her fellow sales associates squirmed and fidgeted. They were all eager to go home. Willowy, fiery-haired Fiona caught her glance and rolled her eyes before looking back to their boss, Lance Atherton. Beside her, tall, broad-shouldered Jesse smothered a knowing grin.

“It’s vital that we’re all on the same page here,” Lance was saying. “Atherton’s is just starting to make a name for itself as the premier art gallery of New York City.” And Lance was obviously worried that his name was about to be tarnished by a lowly intern’s murder. “While we’ll all miss Natasha—”

“Natalee,” Vanessa corrected through gritted teeth for the third time that week. Her fists clenched. After what had been done to Natalee, her frustration had been steadily building, especially when Lance didn’t seem to care about anything except the bottom line.

He cleared his throat. “Yes, of course. Natalee. She seems to have been well liked, for an intern.”

“She was an intelligent, talented girl with a bright future. And she was dedicated to this gallery.” The thought of the young woman being brutally murdered sent a shiver down her spine.

Lance pursed his lips, and his pale cheeks thinned, emphasizing his hawkish nose. “All the more reason to keep our mouths shut. The less we get involved, the less the gallery is in the news—in a bad way, that is. Natalee wouldn’t want her death to tarnish our reputation.”

Jesse spoke, his perfect white teeth flashing against mocha-latte skin. “This kind of publicity could actually help the gallery. Everyone loves a good murder mystery.” A mop of short, dark dreads moved as he shook his head. “People are drawn to the morbid.”

Lance put his hands on his hips, or where his hips would have been if he had any. “Absolutely not. Nobody breathes a word to anyone about this murder or you’ll be looking for a paycheck elsewhere. Especially with the charity auction tomorrow night. The exposure from that is much more likely to yield fruit.”

“And by fruit, he means money,” Fiona muttered under her breath. “That kind of fruit doesn’t grow on trees.”

“As your employer, I’m telling you to avoid the media and police. Keep this matter private. Let the police investigate in their own way.”

“And if the police ask us questions directly?”

“Answer, if you must. But—” Lance held up a finger, “—keep your answers to a minimum. We want them to wrap up this case as quickly, but as quietly, as possible.”

“And to find Natalee’s killer, of course,” Vanessa added.

“Of course.” He frowned at her. “I don’t intend to hinder an official investigation. I just don’t want my name tied to it, if possible—especially when the media gets hold of this story. We don’t want the gallery to seem unsafe.”

“She was taken from the alley just out back, at five o’clock in the afternoon, on her way to the subway.” And when Vanessa had left an hour later, she’d been the one to find Natalee’s purse on the ground. She’d been the one to call the cops. Confusion had turned to fear for her protégé, and guilt. If it hadn’t been for her, Natalee would never have had the job, never been at the gallery, and she’d still be alive today. “Still, there’s no reason for them to assume it was linked to Atherton’s.”

“But the media would have a field day speculating. You know how it works. They’ll start insinuating this area of town is unsafe. Chelsea is the center of the New York City art world, which means it’s the heart of modern culture in this country. Think about what would happen to our livelihood if people stopped visiting here because of an isolated incident.”

“Maybe it is unsafe,” Jesse said.

She couldn’t disagree. From what Vanessa had heard through bits of information released to the media, what Natalee had endured was nothing short of horrific.

“We are not going to perpetuate that myth.” Lance’s gaze moved over them. “I trust I’m clear on this.”

Ready to return to their preparations for the charity auction—the gallery’s first black-tie gala event—so they could escape for the evening, the three of them quickly nodded, then scattered when he waved a hand at them in dismissal.

Vanessa scooped her chestnut hair behind her ears, trying to control her shaking. Turning toward the small office she shared with Fiona and Jesse in the corner of the gallery, she stopped when Lance placed a hand on her shoulder.

“I hope you understand my position.”

She swung to face him but avoided eye contact. “I understand where you’re coming from.”

“And why.”

She was silent a moment, unable to rein in her temper. She looked up at Lance. For the thousandth time, she wished she were taller than her five-foot-four frame. “I’ll never understand why. Finding justice for Natalee is worth our full cooperation.”

Lance closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose as if praying for patience. “I’m not suggesting we don’t cooperate.”

“No. You’re saying don’t offer up anything the police don’t specifically ask about.”

“You have to understand the pressure I’m under to make this gallery a success. Landing this auction was quite a coup. It’s been mentioned in the society pages for months. If this event overshadows it…”

“Event?” Vanessa’s cheeks heated. “Natalee was kidnapped and murdered. It wasn’t an event.

“The police will handle it. Natalee’s murderer will be caught.”

Vanessa blew out a breath. Arguing would be a waste of her time and energy. She comforted herself with the thought that she’d already done what she could to help the investigation. Earlier in the week, well before Lance’s decree, she’d given the detectives what information she had. She hadn’t been able to tell them much other than the time Natalee had left and where she’d been headed, but it was something. And if they asked for more now, she would give them more, Lance Atherton be damned. Because someone out there had killed a vibrant young woman for no apparent reason. “I have work to do—if you want this auction to go ahead on schedule, that is.”

Lance smiled and patted her shoulder, obviously relieved at her capitulation. “Of course. Don’t let me keep you. Oh, and I almost forgot. Kenneth called earlier.” A speculative gleam lit his hazel eyes. “He mentioned they’re planning to redecorate their offices at the firm. He will be coming to the auction, won’t he?”

Lance wanted to use her relationship—or ex-relationship—with Kenneth Barnes to create more business for the gallery. Biting the inside of her cheek, she turned away. “Maybe. Thank you for the message.” She waited until Lance disappeared into his office across the hall before going into her own and dialing Kenneth’s number.

“Hey, baby.”

Kenneth’s surprising good cheer hit her like a blast of icy air. He’d been MIA for weeks since their last argument. Her hurt pride had been too large a chunk to swallow, so she hadn’t called him. Here he was, sounding as if nothing had ever happened, when she thought they were over.

“Lance says you’re thinking of redecorating.” Could that be the only reason he was looking for her now?

“I didn’t mention it? Huh. Guess I’ve had a lot on my mind with my current caseload.” That was an understatement. “Look, baby, I’m sorry I haven’t called. They’ve piled the work on me and I want to make partner and all…”

Vanessa rubbed at the pounding beginning at her temples. As a high-profile criminal defense attorney, Kenneth was always busy. She waited for him to say something more, anything about his disappearing act. The silence stretched on, finally broken by a sigh from Kenneth.

“I have a lot to make up for, I know.” His tone was contrite, but then, he was good at sounding sincere. It was part of what made him a good lawyer. “I was wrong. There, I said it. Now will you talk to me?”

She checked her slender wristwatch. She had things to do before she could leave for the night. She doubted she’d have the energy for personal issues of this magnitude until the auction was over. “Now’s not really the time.”

“I know you’re busy too. You’ve got that charity thing tomorrow night. I’m still invited, right?”

She didn’t need the tension, but he was a charming, well-liked individual. Perhaps he could help work the crowd of rich and powerful patrons while she made sure the auction ran smoothly. And it would make her boss happy. “If you can make it.”

“Excellent. I’d like to get together for a drink tonight, if you’ll be up.” Which meant he planned to come to her apartment around midnight, as per his usual pattern. Probably wanted to talk her into letting him spend the night at her place.

But whether that was because he missed her or because it would be convenient to his place of work, she didn’t know.

Vanessa winced. Was she just a warm body? A place to sleep, with the occasional intimate encounter? That was what their relationship had been downgraded to in recent months. She’d become some kind of comfortable, permanent booty call. At thirty-three, Vanessa wanted more. But they did need to talk. She’d had a lot of time to think while they’d been apart, and it was time to bring the gavel down on their relationship.

She sighed. “Sure. Midnight should be fine.” She doubted she’d sleep much tonight anyway, with all the auction preparations running through her head.

“I gotta go, baby. Got a client on the other line. See you tonight.”

“Bye,” she said, but the hum on the line told her he’d already hung up.

Shoving aside her misgivings along with her irritation, she gathered her things and let the prospect of going to the warehouse cheer her. It was a large building, and the portion that faced the main street had been walled off to form a separate space with tall windows that let in an abundance of natural light by day. Several of the gallery patrons had indicated an interest in learning to draw and paint, and when she’d pointed out to Lance that providing classes would only increase their loyalty to the gallery without much overhead cost to him, he’d agreed to make part of the warehouse into an art studio. She taught an oil painting class one night a week there, but mainly it was a refuge, a place to escape and create when she had the time.

The moist summer air chased away the chill of her air-conditioned skin as she stepped out onto the sidewalk. The scent of roasting lamb from the Greek restaurant down the block tickled her salivary glands, but dinner would have to wait. The evening was pleasant, and the neighborhood unusually quiet. She turned onto a street where the shadows lengthened in the setting sun, and troubles came back to haunt her.

Natalee’s body had been found in an abandoned building less than two miles from here. Vanessa had a hard time believing anyone would have a grudge against the sweet, earnest girl. Certainly not enough to take her life, or to do the things that had been done to her.

Vanessa rubbed her arms against a sudden shiver. She could return to the gallery and ask someone to walk with her, but when she’d left, Fiona had been busy double- and triple-checking the arrangements for the auction, and Jesse had been on the phone with a client. Besides, if Lance caught her standing around, he’d be angry that she was wasting time. The man had the sensitivity of a wild boar.

Her three-inch heels clicked along the sidewalk at a brisk pace. The hairs on the back of her neck rose and she glanced over her shoulder. A man had stopped several yards behind her and appeared to be studying a pottery display in a storefront window. Was he following her? She couldn’t be sure. Medium height and build, with brown hair, he seemed average in every way. She supposed he was what the police would call nondescript. Except for the little hook in his nose that made it slightly skewed. Those were the kind of details her artist’s eye noticed, and that would be helpful in describing him to the police.

One hand came up to tug on his ear. Was he concentrating or trying to hide his profile?

She hurried to the next intersection and chanced another look as she crossed at the light. The man was gone. In fact, the street was now empty. Eerily so. Her heart thumped wildly. She felt the dampness of perspiration at her forehead.

Once within the safety of the warehouse building, she locked the door with trembling fingers and slumped against the wall, exhaling a breath of relief and inhaling the reassuring aroma of oil paints, charcoal pencils and turpentine.

Your imagination’s just running overtime. But her body didn’t believe it. It was several minutes before her muscles stopped quaking and she could push herself away from the wall to begin her night’s work.






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