Chapter Thirty-two

We make our way through the L-shaped pottery exhibit. We’re turning the corner into the base of that L, which ends in two doors—one leading back into the main area and the other to the temporary exhibit. From the sounds of it, the snakes and fire haven’t made their way into the general party, but I suspect no one is going to let us walk out. After all, we might have the real necklace.

I want to say that’s fine. We don’t have it. So let security frisk us and search my bag. Again, though, that’s me being naive, and this time I recognize it before I say anything. If this was a regular event, with a regular stolen necklace, I’d trust the guards to check us and set us free. But there are other forces at work here. Magical forces plus criminal ones. 

Someone switched out the necklace, and Connolly and I make excellent scapegoats. Sure, we’re the ones who spotted the forgery, but that could be part of the setup. I’ve read enough crime novels to see that one coming a mile away.

Wait! This is the wrong necklace. Now, in the ensuing confusion, I will sneak out with the real one, mwah-ha-ha!

We’ve barely stepped around the corner when the door behind us creaks open. We both drop to the floor. The door opens, light flooding in, and then it shuts, and flashlights click on.

“They’re in here,” Hector whispers. “Now move fast before those idiot guards figure it out.”

His lowered voice suggests we weren’t supposed to hear that. His idea of a whisper, though, is my normal speaking voice, and it bounces back to us easily.

I glance at Connolly. He motions for us to creep toward the doors. We do that, crouched down, and get two feet before Hector speaks.

“Miss Kennedy and Mr. Connolly. I know you are in here, and I know you have the necklace. I also know you two children aren’t the masterminds behind this. Convenient that Vanessa slipped out right before you examined it. I’m guessing she has the necklace, and she’s long gone, escaped before the chaos.”

His heavy steps thud into the room, with the faint drag of that injured foot. We use the sound to make our way across the room, stopping when Hector does.

“My wife can be very . . . persuasive. I’m sure you’ve realized by now that her abilities go far beyond dream shaping. She has seduced you, and I don’t mean she’s taken you to her bed. Maybe she did, and maybe she didn’t. Her greater power is the ability to seduce without even batting her lashes. Believe me, I spent a very long time entranced by Vanessa’s charms.”

More thumps. A whisper I don’t catch, presumably from one of his men.

“What I am saying,” he says, “is that I don’t blame you for getting caught up in this. You are truly children, in over your heads, and it is my wife’s fault.  All you need to do is come out and speak to me. Tell me the truth.”

We’re nearly at the door. One lunge, and we’d be there. But we’re listening. We’re both listening, in spite of ourselves. 

“I have something you want,” he says. “Something you were supposed to buy with that necklace. Yes? You know what I’m talking about. I won’t say more, because I suspect you haven’t shared that particular secret with your new partner. The problem is that if Vanessa has the necklace, she’s not giving it to you. I’m sure she promised to help with your . . . sibling issue, but now that she has the necklace, all bets are off. My wife might be endlessly charming, but she’s as sharp-toothed as those vipers. Beautiful and deadly and amoral, as you are about to discover.”

“Sir,” one of the men whispers. “Listen.”

They’re still in the other part of the room, and we haven’t moved, so whatever Hector’s man hears, it isn’t us. As they go silent, the sound they’ve noticed travels to us. It’s a rustling. Like a whisper or clothing rustling.

It’s not us. It’s nowhere near us. It’s back in the other half of the room, where we . . .

Where we were.

I grin as I realize what we’re hearing. Then I creep to the door, ignoring Connolly’s sharp look of worry. I motion that I’m not leaving yet. I’m waiting for something. Something I know is . . .

“Hands up!” a voice barks . . . in the other part of the room.

There’s no answer except a curse and then a crash, as a two-thousand-year-old vase smashes to the floor, freeing the baby copperhead I dropped inside it. I’m happy about its escape—I’d been trying to figure out how to come back and free it—but I’m far less happy about the destruction of a priceless Greek artifact.

Still, it’s the distraction I was waiting for, and I yank open the door and shove Connolly through, following right behind.

We get five steps into the temporary exhibit before my eyes adjust enough for me to look around.

“It’s the exhibit on Alexandria!” I whisper. “I’ve been wanting to see this. I got an e-mail about it, and I meant to make plans to come—”

“And you can do so after we get out of here,” Connolly says, pulling me through the displays. 

“But as long as we’re here . . .”

He turns to look at me.

“Kidding,” I say. “Geez, you really do take me for a ditz, don’t you?”

“No, I take you for a creature of limitless unpredictability and dauntless intrepidity. I would not put it past you to sneak in a quick tour while fleeing evil henchmen, and I mean that in the best possible way. Now come on.”

“I really am coming back,” I whisper. “Did you know that there were supposedly a thousand curse scrolls in the Great Library of Alexandria? Some theorize that they were rescued, along with—”

“I would love to hear this,” Connolly says as he continues steering me toward the exit. “Tomorrow. Over breakfast.”

“I’ll hold you to that, you know. But in return, you can tell me all about the marvels of actuarial science.”

A soft chuckle. “Careful. I might take you seriously.”

“You can. I’m interested.”

He hesitates for a second, and in the dim light, I feel his gaze on me, but I can’t see his expression. Then he snaps out of it and murmurs something I don’t catch.

We’re at the exit door in a few more running strides. We pause there, listening. Silence from the room we left, though I’m sure they’re still there, searching. 

I ease open the door. We get through just as the other door opens. I’m about to shove our door shut, but Connolly keeps hold of it, very carefully and quietly letting it shut. It’s almost closed when Hector calls back to one of his men, his voice booming.

“Forget this bullshit,” he says. “I’ll take it up with my wife. Lars? Get back to the hotel and check on our guest. Make sure Vanessa didn’t do an end run around me and stage a jail break.”

Connolly and I look at each other. Then we take off.

***

We don’t run out the nearest exit. We have a new goal to pursue—Hector’s henchman, Lars, who has just been dispatched to check on Hope. Hector launched a homing pigeon to show the way to my sister, and we are following that bird.

Now, one might think, at a black-tie fundraiser, all un-alarmed exits would be sealed to prevent people from sneaking in. I say so to Connolly and his look reminds me just how little I understand this world.

Yes, if this were an invitation-only event—like our smaller gala—people might try to sneak in. But the larger gala is a fundraiser, meaning if you don’t have the funds, you’re sure as hell not going to risk the humiliation of being discovered sneaking in. 

Which is all to say that the exit doors aren’t going to be guarded. Or they wouldn’t be, if there weren’t fire and snakes and a stolen necklace. Luckily, I know this building well enough to also know an exit that may have been overlooked—one used by school groups. Sure enough, it opens and doesn’t set off any alarms. 

Once out, we need to find Lars. I hadn’t seen him at the party—presumably he’d been stashed in some henchman closet. That isn’t a problem. We get outside and swing around the front to overhear Hector at the door, where he is, well, hectoring the guards who are under orders not to let anyone leave right now. All we need to do is wait out of sight until Hector’s man has been patted down and allowed to leave. Then we follow.

We’re expecting Lars to need to retrieve his car from the valet. Then we’ll run to the parking lot, get Connolly’s car—he has another key—and track the guard from there. Which shows how little we both understand evil henchmen. Lars’s car isn’t in the valet lot. That would be really inconvenient if you had to make a quick getaway. 

We follow Lars to a lot a block away. When he heads in to fetch his car, Connolly waves down a passing taxi. He’s opening the door for me just as the Lars’s car appears. It veers onto the road without stopping at the curb.

“Follow that car!” Connolly says to the taxi driver.

“Did you just say . . .?” I begin.

His cheeks heat. “Er . . .”

“You did, and I’m totally swooning.”

He smiles as he shakes his head. “Get in. You follow him, while I get my car and catch up.”

“Oooh. Adventurous and practical. I think I’m in love.”

“We’ll plan the wedding later. Now go.”

***

I can joke about swooning, but honestly, I’m impressed as hell. It takes guts to tell a taxi driver “Follow that car!” with a straight face. To actually have them do it, instead of laughing you out of the vehicle? That says you have a little extra something that makes people listen, no matter how ludicrous your request. Then having the quick wits to realize the best course of action is to split up and retrieve your own vehicle, rather than both hop into the taxi? It truly is swoon-worthy.

Connolly and I stay in touch by phone. The driver does his job admirably. It isn’t exactly a high-speed chase. It’s Manhattan—following a car just means trailing it from backed-up traffic light to backed-up traffic light. Here’s where Connolly’s driving skill comes in handy, that ability to swing between perfect gentleman and inconsiderate asshole. He must channel the latter for this one, because within ten minutes, he’s coming up behind us. 

“I’m going to switch cars,” I say. “Can I pay before you pull over?”

“I don’t think—” the driver begins.

A horn tap, and Connolly is beside our passenger window. He pulls down his visor, plucks out a bill and presses a hundred to the window.

“Hey, I keep emergency money in my visor, too,” I say to the driver. “Only mine’s a tenner.”

“You and me both, lady,” he says, shaking his head. 

I put down the window, reach out and grab the money, which is actually a trickier maneuver than it seems in the movies.

I hand the bill to the driver. “Keep the change.”

“Now I suppose you want me to pull up on his other side so you can jump across moving vehicles.”

“Could you? That’d be kinda awesome.”

He smiles and shakes his head. “If your idea of awesome is spending the rest of your date in the morgue.”

“It could be. Except for the being dead part. Just pull over up here, and I’ll switch cars the normal way.”

He does that. As I’m leaving, he calls, “Enjoy the rest of your date with Mr. Bond!” and I flash him a thumbs up. I’m barely in the car before Connolly’s pulling from the curb, in hot pursuit of Lars. Well, slow pursuit, but it’s good pursuit, with Connolly being careful to stay a few car lengths back or in another lane, trusting me to keep an eye on the henchman while he drives.

After twenty minutes—or about five Manhattan blocks—Lars pulls into a parking garage. It’s a private one, so we can’t follow, but there’s a public one across the road. While traffic is still crazy at this time of night, the garage isn’t—the nearby buildings are all offices, except for a boutique hotel that’s under renovation. Before Connolly parks, he lets me out to keep an eye on the henchman. 

I start jogging into the garage. Then I stop and take off my heels so I can run quietly. 

It’s a narrow garage under a building, and it must be for that hotel under renovation, because it’s nearly empty. I need to hide behind a bin and watch Lars. I’m peeking out when I see the decal on the bin.

Voden Construction.

The man walks to a door, flicks his security card and goes inside. I see the door closing and, with it, our chances of getting inside. Then I see how slowly it’s closing. I dart over as fast as I can and wedge my purse in. By the time Connolly catches up, I’ve replaced my purse with a piece of steel from the scattered debris.

“It’s Hector’s company,” I whisper as we go in.

He nods, and the lack of surprise tells me he already noticed a sign—he’s just not taking this detective moment from me. I appreciate that.

Knowing little about construction, I’m not sure what you’d call this. A renovation? A reconstruction? Basically, it looks as if they’re redoing an old office building as a luxury boutique hotel. With that re-whatever, they’re stripping its soul. They’ve torn up gorgeous floorboards, rich with the patina of age. The original wood paneled walls? Shredded. The intricate brass fixtures? Heaps of scrap metal and broken glass that make my antique-shop-owner heart weep.

This floor of the hotel is in shambles, but when we hear footsteps overhead and take the stairs up, we find a level near completion. The hall is still ripped up, but an open door shows what will be a very modern, high-end hotel suite. That matches what Hope said, including the fact that these rooms—being in the middle of the hotel—lack windows.

My sister is here.

I started this evening hoping to get a clue about who might be holding her captive. Instead, not only did I solve that mystery, but I found her. We hadn’t discussed the possibility of freeing her because it seemed beyond our reach. Yet here we are, with Hope in this very building. An empty building, only one henchman between us and my little sister.

Connolly’s nudge me snaps me from my thoughts. Then I realize he’s prodding me toward an open doorway. The henchman’s footsteps have stopped, and we don’t want to smack right into him. We step into the room to listen. 

The henchman has paused around the next corner. Opening a door?

No, not a door. The door to my sister. 

Tears spring to my eyes, and I glance away, but Connolly catches the movement.

“Everything okay?” he whispers as the man begins talking, obviously making a call, his voice too low to hear.

I nod. “Just . . . it’s happening so fast. She’s here, isn’t she? Hope’s here, and we’re going to—”

I press my hand to my mouth. “Sorry. I’m just . . .”

“Your hair looks lovely like that.”

I look up sharply, frowning. “What?”

“Your hair. It looks lovely.”

I stifle a laugh. “It did look lovely, an hour ago. Took an hour to get it pinned up and curled just so, and I don’t want to imagine what it looks like now.”

“Better. It was fine before. This is better.” 

He takes out his phone, snaps a shot and then shows me. It’s as bad as I’d expect after fleeing venomous snakes, crawling across museum floors and walking through construction zones. Half my hair has escaped the updo, and the curls are now frizzy exclamation points around my face. Then there’s the dust and dirt and cobwebs.

I press my hand to my mouth to keep from laughing. “Thank you for the cleverly crafted distraction.”

“And thank you for the adorable photograph, commemorating our adventure.” He pockets his phone and takes out something else. “You left this in my car.”

It’s my derringer. Seeing it, I break into a grin. 

“Now trade this for your shoes,” he says. “I can carry those.”

I shake my head. “I’ve got them.”

He puts out a hand. “And leave me defenseless?”

I pass them over, and he wields the heel like a dagger, making me stifle another laugh. Clearing my mood so I can focus.

“Thank you,” I say. “You really are something, Aiden Connolly. Something completely unexpected.”

“The good kind of unexpected?”

“The best kind.” My cheeks heat, and I’m thankful for the near-dark.

“So the wedding is still on? My mother will be delighted.”

I choke back a laugh. “I doubt ‘delighted’ is the word. Now, let’s get out there before Lars finishes his call.”

Connolly lays a hand on my arm. “He didn’t have a gun earlier, but he could have taken one from his car. Be very careful.”

“I will.”

13 thoughts on “Chapter Thirty-two”

  1. Stephanie says:

    Fantastic! Thank you for sharing!

  2. “Connolly’s nudge me snaps me from my thoughts.” There’s an extra “me” in there! 🙂

  3. Now I’m worried for them. Does anybody else feel like this is a trap? Hector can’t find them in the museum, so he conveniently tells his sidekick to head on out to the hotel. They follow and get themselves caught in the process? Wouldn’t an evil henchman notice he was being followed for half an hour?

    1. Same. He “whispered” that at a very convenient time

  4. Love Aiden’s assessment of Kennedy:
    “…a creature of limitless unpredictability and dauntless intrepidity…” and the Bond routine;-)
    Found a typo –
    just as the Lars’s car appears.

  5. Shannon S says:

    What a great chapter! Loved it!

  6. Shayla Marshall says:

    This should probably be “Connolly’s nudge snaps me from my thoughts.” or “Connolly nudges me, snapping me from my thoughts.”
    I’m looooving this story!!! The waiting kills me! But at least this way I’m aware of what day of the week it is! Haha

  7. “Enjoy your date with Me Bond” made me cackle like a lion.

  8. When Hector says “Miss Kennedy and Mr. Connolly. I know you are in here…”

    He would probably address Kennedy as “Miss Bennett” instead like he did in the showroom.

  9. Patricia Paton says:

    I’m not looking for errors, although maybe you want us to. I’m just enjoying the story immensely!

  10. Nothing of value to note but I have to tell you, I ship Kennedy and Connolly! I ship them so hard and I love this story very much!

  11. Love it! Can’t wait for Friday! Although I am worried about them falling into a trap but who knows what’ll happen, I always enjoy that about your writing, Hector literally could’ve been an idiot or could’ve set a trap. I’m sure the heels will provide some comedic value in an upcoming fight or something like that!
    Thanks for writing this!!!

  12. This has some serious Karl/Hope vibes from the novella Chaotic. Which I adored, and honestly like seeing the flavor of again. Though I kept waiting for either of them to make a quip about looking good in cobwebs or chaos! I don’t know if this was the intent.

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