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A dockyard in Boston
Wind whipped the rain-soaked body of the forty-something male who lay prostrate on the pavement. Two pennies, one shiny, one dull, sat on his closed eyelids. Even so, FBI agent Angel Carter thought he looked shocked, as if he couldn't believe he was dead.
Behind her, a Boston police officer made notes and muttered. About the federal presence, Angel imagined. Or maybe he didn't like the traditional "time of death" pool taking place around him.
"Four hours," one of the patrols said.
"It's forty degrees," another argued. "Factor in the wind chill and we're talking thirty or less. The guy's stiff and blue. I'll go under three."
Their voices swirled around Angel's head like the stinging pellets of rain. She studied the corpse and waited patiently for the official pronouncement of death.
At length, the medical examiner stripped off his gloves and blew on his hands. "Someone sliced him up real good, Angel." He pointed. "Opened the carotid artery, which is why you'll find a diluted stream of blood from the dock halfway to your place.
Guy's big and well built. Probably put up a fight, but only with one hand. He was trying to stem the blood flow with the other."
One of the uniforms leaned in. "How long d'you figure, Doc? I'm in for three and a half hours."
"Joe's the one who puts the stamp on the time of death," Angel reminded him.
"I only confirm that he is in fact dead." The medical examiner signaled the ambulance attendants. "And this one definitely is. Has been since a minute or two after the knife sliced his neck."
Angel had trained herself long ago not to let a victim's facial expression affect her. Easier to focus on the wounds.
As theME left, Angel's eyes followed the gash on the victim's neck. "It's a jagged slash. Either the killer had an unsteady hand or the victim was struggling. Second thing makes more sense."
Uninterested, the uniform moved off. Another pair of boots sloshed in. The woman wearing them hunkered down. "The victim's name is Lionel Foret. Forty-two years old. Officially, he lived in Boston, but his work appears to have taken him between here and DC."
"So his soggy credentials say. State Department. Bergman might know more by the time we check in."
"He has the look of a politician. Or a lawyer. Whatever he is, Bergman barked at me to get down here, and in the year and a half I've known him, he's never barked."
"Ditto." Liz fingered the man's coat. "His clothes say major money, but with the exception of his driver's license and a few credit cards, his wallet's empty. My guess is he was rolled by a junkie."
The skin on Angel's neck tingled, as if an army of invisible ants were marching across it. She glanced behind her. "Do you feel something, Liz?"
"Other than waterlogged?"
"I think we're being watched."
FBI agent Elizabeth Thomas blew out a steamy breath. "Any thief desperate enough to slice a guy in this weather won't be hanging around to observe the cleanup crew. He's long gone and probably high as Franklin's kite by now. Which is why we'll nail him before first light."
"If the perp's an addict."
"Okay, it's an assumption, but my money's on the easy answer this time."
Sensation, like a finger stroked across the back of her neck, sent a shiver of reaction down Angel's spine. "Okay, this is way too weird." She whipped her head around, but saw only shadows behind the fish processing plant. "Someone's back there."
Liz rose with her. "I promise you, Angel, there's no one. We told the cops to secure the area, and they did. All shadows duly checked, all boxes on the list ticked empty." She nudged her partner's high-heeled boot with her toe. "Maybe your brain's starting to freeze. You're not exactly dressed for this weather."
"I was at a play when Bergman called."
"Lucky you. I'd just settled my toddler into bed and was thinking about streaking my hair for the holidays. Can you believe Thanksgiving's only three weeks away?" She squinted at the threatening sky. "It seems like summer just ended."
"Apparently you turned Rip Van Winkle and slept through last week's blizzard."
"That was a freak storm."
"That was six inches of snow the last week of October. Normal for Juneau, but in Boston I expected a glorious New England fall, up to and hopefully through Thanksgiving. Didn't get it last year, and so far this one's a rerun."
"Write to the Tourist Bureau. They print the brochures." Liz ran her fingers through her short blond hair. "Was the play good?"
"The first act was."
Although she scanned and rescanned the darkness, nothing moved except the rain, currently being driven sideways by a gale-force wind that gusted in hard from the water.
And still the sensation persisted, a featherlight breath on her face, then along the line of her cheek to her throat.
Liz nudged her again. "We need to get inside. You might have grown up in Alaska, but I'm a Corpus Christi girl and highly susceptible to wet rot. I swear on my nine years of federal service, there's no one and nothing back there."
One final hint of warm, and suddenly it was only the wind on her cheeks.
Angel shook her head. "Weird," she murmured one last time. But she had to admit as the victim's body was prepped for removal, that despite the unsettling aspect, the sensation had felt strangely like a caress.
Completely sensual, and in an instant, completely gone.
He watched her from the narrow walkway that split the old processing plant in two. She'd sensed him. He'd seen it in the way her eyes cruised the shadows, as if she'd known more than rats and cockroaches lurked within them.
Suspicion had come first, followed by speculation. Then, when the feeling persisted, impatience.
In unguarded moments, Angel Carter wore her emotions on her face, her incredibly beautiful face. Those same emotions added an element of intrigue to her already exotic features
And he was thinking like a man obsessed.
Still, he didn't move, didn't let his gaze waver. Didn't mean he missed the body at her feet, but he'd seen that already, before she'd arrived.
"Someone's back there, Liz "
He heard the determination now, and his lips curved. He should go, leave her with partner and corpse, let her draw her conclusions and see where they led.
Icy rain slid along his neck beneath his upturned collar. The man in black. The man who lived in the dark. A phantom. That's how people described him. He didn't care. Phantoms could slip in and out undetected.
Except, apparently, by an Angel.
When her partner set a hand on her arm, he knew it was time to vanish. He'd done what he'd come to do. Now it was her turn.
The shadows shifted as the ambulance arrived. He allowed himself one last look, then disappeared into the heart of them.
The hands of the clock ticked slowly toward 2:00 a.m. Angel had spoken to her boss three times since viewing the body and his sniveling assistant twice. This time she had a somewhat different number in mind.
She was positioning her thumb over the seventh digit when the head of forensic pathology pushed through the lab door. His smile was automatic, his chuckle a welcome sound in the sterile grid of hospital corridors.
"He won't mind," Joe Thomas assured her. "Two, four, six o'clock. Time of day or night is irrelevant to Noah Graydon. As you should know after eighteen months of back-and-forth phone conversations."
Angel's own smile blossomed. "Good to hear, Dr. T, but in actual fact, I was calling my mother. And after almost thirty years of close association, I can promise you time means a great deal to her. More than her new Harley, in fact."
"Amazing woman." Joe used a blue checked handkerchief to polish his glasses. "She crunches numbers in Alaska for the better part of four decades, then meets a long distance trucker and decides to go off and live the life."
"Everyone should live the life." Angel closed her phone, met his brown eyes. "Not sure about the Harley yet, but I'm always open to new. Why did you think I was calling Noah?"
"Come on, Angel, I've met Bergman's snotty assistant. The voice of reason would be a welcome change after that. Unfortunately, in terms of your latest murder victim, I'm leaning toward a mugging gone awry."
"Been talking to your wife, huh?"
"Yes, I have, and yes, the word junkie came up, but she's only trying to keep things simple after that nightmare of a childnap-ping case you two were involved in."
Angel dropped the cell phone into her coat pocket. "So what's the deal with Foret?"
Joe crooked a finger. "Come into my parlor, pretty fly, and I'll show you."
"Great, I get to see a naked dead man on an empty stomach. Missed dinner," she explained, "along with the ending to the play."
"Who was the unlucky guy?"
She shed her coat, grinned. "A podiatrist your wife and my so-called friend introduced me to last week. He looks, talks and acts like a department store mannequin. He has polished skin, Joe, right down to the cleft in his chin. He also has an icky foot fetish which I'll be kind and not go into. Now fess up. Why did you think I was calling Noah?"
He pinched her chin before snapping on a pair of medical gloves. "Cat with a fish, Angel, that's you. Okay, I thought that because it's what you do when you're feeling edgy, and Liz told me about the shadow thing tonight. You thought someone was watching you."
Unperturbed, Angel circled the examining table. "Watching all of us, Doc. I'm not totally paranoid."
"Just ultra sensitive to dark shadows. And bats."
"Some people would call the shadow part intuitive."
"Was anyone lurking?"
"Not that I saw, but shadows shift, and anyone in them would know how to move fast. I'm not saying there's a deep dark plot involved here, but I'm not thinking junkie either. The pennies on Foret's eyelids," she elaborated at Joe's slight frown. "It's too old-world for someone who's desperate."
"Are you thinking hired hit?"
"Could be. Foret worked for the State Departmentthat's all the information Bergman has or is giving us right nowbut I'm guessing he was high level. He was also on that dock for a reason. We'll start there."
"Well, deep breath, stomach muscles tight, let's have a look at Mr. Foret's wounds."
The better part of an hour crawled by, leaving in its wake the eerie sense of mortality that struck her from time to time.
As Joe's colleague had suggested, it was the slash to Foret's carotid artery that had done the job. He'd bled out swiftly with little time to react and only one hand with which to defend himself. Most of the scoring was on his throat and neck, but there was also a nick on his collarbone and a shallow scrape on the back of his hand.
"There's possible blood and or skin under the fingernails of his left hand," Joe noted. "I'll have those things plus the contents of his stomach analyzed and on your desk by noon."
"Sunday dinner should be fun."
Joe blinked at her through his wire-rimmed glasses. "Is it Sunday already?"
"Between home, work and the Victim's Support Center, you and Liz work way too hard." Angel moved away from the table, shook the smell of death from her hair and arms. "You should take a cruise."
"We thought about it, but I get seasick."
She couldn't resist a laugh. The man dissected dead bodies, but a few ocean swells did him in. The human mind fascinated.
She heard a thump. The door to the examining room swung open, and a second Dr. Thomas squished in.
"Liz called," he explained before his brother could ask. "There's a liver coming in from Atlanta. The patient's being prepped for transplant surgery, so I decided to drop in and thaw my nimble fingers. Dead guy on the table aside, have any new donors been wheeled in tonight?"
Twisted amusement rose in Angel's throat. "Foret's are the only body parts in the vicinity, Graeme, so put your eyes back in their sockets, go upstairs and scrub."
Several inches taller and a great deal more handsome than his comfortable-looking older brother, Graeme Thomas was nevertheless an inherently nice guy. Didn't mean he couldn't flirt with the best of them. "You talk so sweet, Angel." Flashing a grin, he set his cheek next to hers from behind, wrapped his arms around her waist and swayed. "Sure you won't marry me?"
"That would make me what? Wife number four?"
"It's my lucky number. Come on, what do you say? You, me, Elvis, a neon chapel? I'll even rent us a pink Cadillac."
She smiled and patted his exposed cheek. "Really tempted, but I'll settle for dinner and a DVD."
"Topped off by a chat with Noah Graydon?"
"Not you, too." She sighed out a breath, disentangled and turned. "Noah's a friend, okay? On the invisible side, but if people can connect through the Internet, then the phone should be a no-brainer."
"I guess." But he caught her hand. "The Vegas offer stands. You get tired of a voice on the phone, you know where I'll be."
"Yeah, up to your elbows in body parts. I'll hold tight to that image. Send the report over when you get it, Joe. I'm going to try for" she brought her watch into focus "whoa, four straight hours of alone time. Tell Liz I'll finish the prelims, and she should go ahead and streak her hair."
"Are all women anal with their priorities?" Graeme wondered aloud.
Angel pulled on her gloves, worked the fingers down. "No more so than men with their HD TVs and game-day rituals. Good luck in surgery, Graeme."
Her boot heels echoed in the empty corridor outside. Swinging her coat on, she murmured, "It's like being the last live cell in a dead body. No way could I do your job, Dr. T."
Still, as her newly emancipated mother liked to say, life tossed what it tossed. Go with it or go crazy.
At twenty-nine, Angel didn't think life had tossed all that much her way yet. But three girlfriends and a messy divorce later, her father had done his level best to drive his first wife crazy. Thankfully, poetic justice had intervened. He'd wound up with a shrew for a second wife along with the proverbial stepchild from hell. As Angel saw it, occasionally life and fate got together and tossed a very satisfying fair ball into the mix.
Deep in the pocket of her black coat, her cell phone began to hum. At three-something in the morning, the news wasn't likely to be good, but ever the optimist, she pulled it out.
The number on the screen brought a smile to her lips, even if it didn't surprise. For all his solitary ways, the man knew everything, often before anyone else in the department.
She greeted him with an amused, "Well, hi there, tall, dark and mysterious. What's got you up so late on a Saturday night?"