For the rest of this week, three crime/thriller e-book novels are still on special offer from Crooked Cat Publishing through all of the Amazon sites. The three books are PILL WARS by Vanessa Knipe, MESSANDRIERRE by Angela Wren and CATALYST by yours truly.
Here is the first chapter from Catalyst, #1 in the continuing series of adventures featuring Catherine Vibrissae, model, chemist, orphan, Avenging Cat:
Chapter One: Cat among the pigeons
Rock climbing was much easier than this, Cat Vibrissae thought. She did that for a hobby – though never at night – and enjoyed it. But climbing the outside of a modern building was something else. How those people could do it for fun was beyond her. What were they called? Stegophilists. Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates started it when they scaled the college buildings in the late 1800s – always at night. She was used to the adrenaline rush of climbing with bare hands and feet on cliffs above rugged rocks and aggressive waves. But this was very different. Tonight the effects seemed more pronounced: she was sure that she could feel the increased heart rate and her gut constricting. And her mouth was very dry. Still, if she was going to fulfil her vow to her father, she had no choice. This was the only way to penetrate the seventeenth floor office of Rick Barnes.
Finding hand-holds on the face of a modern building was not easy at the best of times, but at night it was worse and had to be done by feel alone. Street lighting and advertising signs didn’t help this high up – but at least the darkness ensured she wouldn’t be visible. Here she would find no holes made by burrowing animals or nesting birds. Simply rigid straight edges of concrete and marble. Clean lean lines as envisioned by the architects. God, how she would dearly love to hammer pitons into the stone facade and secure a few karabiners and snap-rings and ropes, but that would make an unacceptable amount of noise and, besides, it would take far too long. But the ropes would have eased the strain on her fingers, wrists, arms and legs. Tough. Just get on with it.
If she hadn’t also done plenty of free climbing, she’d never have contemplated this. Her coach had used the phrase, “Make the geckos jealous.” Unfortunately, she didn’t have suction pad feet. At least her soft Five Ten Anasazi climbing shoes acted like ‘magic fingers’ and enabled her feet to cling to the narrowest of ledges and feel the features she stepped on.
When she started this climb, the air had been quite calm, not too balmy, an ideal June evening, with hardly a breeze disturbing her long auburn ponytail. Refreshing, even. But now, fifteen stories up, the swirling air currents tugged at her slim-line backpack and black cat-suit and threatened to blow her off the side of the building. Specks of dust and leaves flicked against her cheeks; she was really glad she wore wrap-around goggles.
Toe tips only. Using her toes and not her instep allowed her hip a broader moving range to allocate her gravity centre as needed. The technique required her to move her hip over her feet – “follow gravity”, her coach had said. “The hip is the centre of gravity.” Simple, really. Placing her hip over one foot relieved both her other foot and her hands for the next move. And so on.
Keep calm. She passed behind the huge metal sign for CERBERUS WORLDWIDE, which, thankfully, wasn’t illuminated at this time of night.
Here, she decided to rest for a few minutes and looped a leg over a stanchion and suddenly her heart leapt as two disturbed pigeons flapped their wings and flew out and away, leaving behind a stomach-churning stink of bird-shit. At least the bird-flu scare had petered out; and since pigs can’t fly, there was no risk of swine flu either. Ha, ha…
The silly joke didn’t calm her, though. After that shock, her heart was hammering more than ever.
Two days ago it had been pounding for a different reason.
Cat’s heart quickened as Rick Barnes let her into his Richmond apartment and shut the door behind them. She brushed her slightly clammy hands down her grey pleated skirt. This was the culmination of two weeks’ dating, waiting for the right time to accept his invitation to stay overnight.
His grey-blue eyes glinted in the light from the chandelier. He seemed particularly dashing tonight in his black tux and bow-tie. “Yet another wonderful meal – thanks to your company, of course.”
“Of course,” she said playfully. How gallant. He smiled with slightly moist thick lips, lips she’d tasted on several occasions at her own rented apartment’s threshold. She had refrained from commenting on his rather large beaked nose, even though it was difficult to avoid; he almost gave her a black eye when they first kissed. It gave him a predatory aspect, but it was she who regarded him as her prey.
The wall-mounted telephone by the door rang. “Can you pour us brandy while I get that?” he said, and moved towards it.
“Love to.” She strode over to the drinks cabinet.
He lifted the phone, listened and spoke briefly. “I won’t forget, Loup,” he said. “Don’t worry. No, of course you don’t. The land purchase is going ahead, as planned.” He replaced the receiver and sighed.
She felt her legs tremble ever so slightly as she removed the stopper from the brandy. Her stomach was involved in some kind of African tribal dance, she felt sure. Anticipation or fear?
As Rick walked over to her, Cat turned her back to him, fingered her elaborate signet ring over his glass, and then poured a generous measure of the liquor into both glasses.
She turned to face him. His glass, she reminded herself, was in her left hand.
“It’s nice to see you have a good appetite,” he said, “not like most models I’ve met.”
“I don’t subscribe to that size zero nonsense.”
“So I see.”
She chuckled, liking his forthright appraisal of her. “I find that constantly walking up and down and quickly changing into fresh clothes burns enough calories.”
“It was a good show,” he said.
“It was. It wasn’t too hectic. February was murder, fashion weeks in both Madrid and Milan! Do you go to many clothes shows?” She handed him his glass.
“Thanks.” He didn’t bother drinking from it but eyed her. “I like beautiful women, so sue me.”
She sipped her brandy. The fiery liquid burned her tongue and sent tiny prisms of pleasure cascading round her mouth. She licked her lips and they tingled and she looked at him over the glass rim. “All week, you’ve flattered me. I’ve never been chased before.”
His thick dark eyebrows arched. “I’m surprised. Anyway, I also invest in a few clothes designers, if I like their stuff. I noticed a few there tonight: Christopher Bailey from Burberry, and also Julien MacDonald and Matthew Williamson.” He grinned. “I like to spread my portfolio, you know?”
“Models aren’t part of your portfolio, are they?”
He laughed, a warm deep sound, and ran a hand through his thick black hair. “No, of course not. I took a liking to you. A strong liking.” He clinked his glass against hers. “It seems to be mutual. Call it fate or chemistry, if you like. I think we get on really well, don’t you?”
“Yes – otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
Infuriatingly, he still hadn’t taken as much as a sip from his glass.
“That’s a delightful perfume you’re wearing tonight, Cathy.”
“You like it?”
Rick sipped his brandy. At last! She willed him to drink all of it.
“Manifesto Rossellini,” he announced, “if I’m not mistaken.”
“I’m impressed.” She was amused, despite herself. “Most men haven’t got a clue about fragrances.”
“My secretary, Mandy, she always uses L’instant de Guerlain.” He tilted the glass back, downed its contents and put the glass on the cabinet. Finally.
Then he shrugged out of his dinner jacket and slung it on the back of a chair by the mahogany desk.
She wondered if she’d find what she wanted in his desk’s drawers. Doubtful. “Really?”
“Yes.” He loosened his black bow tie and then fumbled with his waistcoat buttons. “I haven’t come across Rossellini in a long time, actually.” He moved near and she didn’t falter, her bottom against the edge of the drinks cabinet.
Rick leaned his head forward so that his nose was just above the hollow of her neck. Her ultramarine designer blouse was opened to show off her cleavage, but she noted he was enough of a gentleman to close his eyes as he sniffed delicately. “Hmm, it suits you.”
“Thanks,” she said, gratified. She’d been diligent in preparing for this night’s seduction, starting with a shower, body spray and then applying the perfume on her lower body and working her way up to her wrist, neck and cleavage, where it would stay warm longer and be more effective. That’s what customers paid for: expensive perfume lasted longer than cheap varieties.
He stepped back a pace and opened his eyes. “Allow me?” he asked, reaching out to the topmost fastened button of her blouse.
Cat put down her nearly full glass, the corners of her mouth twitching in anticipation. She studied his face as he unbuttoned the blouse. His lashes were long and fine. The touch of his hands as they brushed against her seemed to send electrical charges through her entire body.
“Should I stop?” he asked. “I haven’t got my signals crossed, have I?”
“No, don’t stop. Me, I never got my Girl Guide semaphore badge…” She raised a hand, ran it over his craggy features, and it made a faint rasping sound. His firm jaw was already prickly with fresh stubble.
His steely gaze was penetrating. “I’m not quite the Boy Scout tonight, am I?”
Cat shook her head and smiled. “Maybe I can award you a badge of some sort.” She eased her arms out of the blouse and gently threw it on top of his jacket. Its sheer luminosity had evoked some gasps from the side of the catwalk earlier in the evening, she recalled. “We’ll see, later.”
“No hurry for later. I like now.” Rick kissed her neck, his big hands brushing over the lace cups of her ivory Lise Charmel bra.
She felt her nipples respond, becoming hard nubs against the fabric.
“You’re good,” she whispered.
“I’d rather be bad.”
She pulled his bow tie free and discarded it behind her. “The night’s young yet.” She kissed him, her nose knocking against his.
“Sorry, it’s me,” he whispered, tapping a big finger against the side of it. “It’s rather large,” he confessed, “but it means that I’m blessed with an acute sense of smell.”
“Like that fellow in the book Perfume?”
“I hope not. He murdered virgins to obtain the perfect scent, didn’t he?”
He not only reads books but remembers what he has read, she thought. Cat almost felt sorry for him. Almost. “Well, I’ve got nothing to fear, since I’m not a virgin.”
He put his hands on her shoulders. “I won’t respond to that – save to say, you’ve been divine all week, just like your scent.”
“Thank you. But why are you a company lawyer, when you could work for any perfume conglomerate you fancied?”
“Actually, I offer my services to the Cerberus chemists in Barcelona when they come up with a new fragrance.”
I know. That’s why I’m here! “Big nose, big hands,” she said in an amused tone, glancing past the noticeable bulge in his trousers to his patent leather black shoes.
“Yes, big feet too.” His eyes shone, amused. “It’s true what they say, Cathy.” He embraced her with powerful arms, his body’s firmness enticing.
Her fingers unfastened his shirt buttons and they slid inside, brushing his chest hair. With immense effort she resisted the overwhelming warmth that suffused her. “Not here, Rick.” She kissed him then gently eased away and raised an eyebrow. “Shall we go where it’s more comfortable?”
“Yes, good idea.” He grinned and enveloped her hand in his.
He led her across the room to a door and opened it.
The bedroom was huge, with a King-size bed.
He stifled a yawn.
“Am I keeping you up?” she asked.
“Oh, decidedly,” he replied, his eyes dancing playfully, acknowledging the double entendre. He swept her up into his arms and walked through the doorway.
She hoped he wouldn’t succumb right now and drop her.
Then he lowered her to the bed, which was quite firm with only a little bounce. “Comfortable enough for you?”
“It’s lovely, Rick.” She raised her arms and put her hands behind her head. She kicked off her high-heeled shoes and they fell to the floor.
“And so are you,” he said, gazing at her.
He has all the right words. Pity he’s Mr Wrong.
Rick hastily tugged his shirt out of his waistband and up over his head. It joined her shoes on the carpet. His muscles rippled. Abruptly, his eyes glazed over and she rolled out of the way moments before he slumped face down onto the bed at her side, his legs dangling over the edge.
Nearly pinned under him! That might have been awkward.
Her pulse racing, Cat slid off the bed. She unzipped her skirt and stepped out of it. Then she climbed back on the bed and hooked her hands under Rick’s hairy armpits. Straining, she began hauling him fully onto the mattress. It was difficult as there was little purchase and she was inclined to bounce. She was soon sweating with exertion.
Finally, he lay entirely on the bed.
He made a slight snuffling sound but otherwise didn’t stir. She was confident that he wouldn’t wake – she’d been very careful and given him only enough powder to knock him out for about five hours. She unfastened his belt and, after a slight struggle, pulled off his trousers. A mischievous part of her was tempted to tug off his marine blue Michael Kors boxer briefs to verify the adage he’d alluded to, but she refrained. It somehow seemed wrong, since she’d drugged him.
Kneeling beside him, she thought he was certainly a fine specimen of manhood, his broad chest clustered with hair, his torso and arms muscular and toned. Sighing at what might have been, Cat managed to shove him under the sheets.
She swung her legs off and stood, picked up her skirt, and walked into the lounge where she retrieved her blouse from the ladder-backed chair. She buttoned up the blouse and put on the skirt; the pleats draped uncreased. Then she knelt beside his jacket that was draped over the chair.
Her pulse rate increased as she pulled out his wallet. The usual credit and debit cards, a Durex sachet, a credit card sized calculator and a photograph of a woman and two young girls – probably his wife and daughters, the damned cheat… Then, tucked tightly against the lining, she spotted a thin slip of paper. She read and memorised the number sequence. It looked like a security code – either for the computer or a digital safe. A few days earlier, over dinner, Rick had confessed that he was hopeless at remembering passwords and codes, which had convinced her that tonight’s seduction was worth the risk. And so it was, she realised. Her heart raced because she was finally in a position to begin in earnest her campaign against the Cerberus Corporation.
Rick knew her as Cathy Gledhill, the name she adopted for her modelling work. Cat on the catwalk. She had been lumbered with the sobriquet ‘Cat’ at the convent school and it stuck. Her father had hated it. To him, she was always Catherine, never Cathy or Cate.
When she stood in front of her father’s open coffin in his village church, she’d fought back the tears. Her chest had felt fit to explode but somehow she’d controlled herself. Although she knew that the fatal car crash hadn’t damaged his face at all, she was still surprised at how serene he looked, as though he was simply asleep, leathery cheeks about to rise and fall with shallow breathing, his thick bushy grey hair surrounding his head as usual, like a halo. She half-expected his unkempt moustache to twitch as it did when he was about to laugh, his grey-green eyes sparkling with mischief. But his eyes were closed. Bending over him, she had kissed his cold forehead for the last time and vowed to break those who had destroyed him.
The wind up here must have blown something in her eyes; she raised a finger to wipe the moisture away and its tip bumped against the goggles. Instead, she blinked her eyes clear.
The sweat at the base of her spine had dried and she felt a slight chill over her kidneys. Time to get moving. Heaving a big sigh, she started climbing again – only two more storeys to go.
Finally, she reached the window ledge of Rick’s office and carefully pulled herself up. Sitting here, her legs dangling, she paused to admire the view and regain some strength in her limbs.
The cityscape was beautiful, lights of varying shades of yellow glinting. Fairy lights. The office block opposite was illuminated in parts, like a half-completed advent calendar offering an insight into other secret lives; in some windows she could see a few dedicated souls working late; in one she glimpsed a couple lying on the top of the conference table, indulging in unspecified overtime that entailed divesting their clothing. She envied them their sense of abandon but not the deceit that probably went with it. She didn’t like the lying that her vow made necessary, but accepted the need for it. The end justifies the means?
She briefly thought of Rick lying in his bed and was surprised at feeling guilt.
Mentally shaking herself, Cat turned to the uPVC window. Clearly, Rick and his staff didn’t think much about climate change or wasting energy, as all the overhead lights were on. His office was large, with an enormous expanse of fawn-coloured carpet and a wide walnut desk. There was the computer, in power-save mode, and a printer on top of a wood cupboard. On the opposite wall was a framed portrait of the head of Cerberus – or should that be one of the mythical three heads?
She guessed that when he posed for that portrait, Loup Malefice was about ten years younger; he was now sixty-three. Cat recognised him from the countless photographs in Fortune and other business periodicals. Pasty complexion, dun-coloured eyes and pencil-width whiskers that extended from the bottom lip to the cleft chin; his moustache was the waxed type, curled at the tips. He looked supercilious and untrustworthy, maintaining a thin smile that concealed yellowed teeth.
Windows this high up wouldn’t be alarmed, for obvious reasons. Many modern offices were not fitted with opening windows, relying on climate-control systems to maintain a constant temperature. Fortunately, this wasn’t one of them: the opening section was the top half.
Still sitting on the window ledge, Cat unfastened the large suction cup from the back of her belt. It was designed to pull out dents in car bodywork. She reached up and placed the rubber against the centre of the bottom half of the window and closed the clamps; it gripped tightly, wouldn’t budge. She clipped the suction cup’s rope to a snap-ring on her waist and slowly stood up, her knees beginning to wobble. Primordial fear of heights – endowed through genes since we all lived in trees, she told herself – threatened to plunge her out and down.
Even with the security of the line attached to the suction cup, the sweat of fear beaded her forehead. Totally irrational. Strange, she never experienced this anxiety when free climbing. Hard pavement was no worse than jagged rocks. Perhaps it was the idea of the city itself. Rocks and mountains seemed more natural.
She resisted the instinctive response to close her eyes. That would disorient her and definitely send her out into space where she’d really test the strength of the suction cup.
Focussing on the window frame, she slowly unclipped a screwdriver from her belt and wedged it in the join between frame and window. Careful not to lean back, she applied weight precisely and forced the window catch. She replaced the screwdriver and lifted open the window.
Her hazy reflection in the window revealed a couple of dead leaves on her shoulder. Standing quite steady, she brushed the street dust and leaves off her shoulders, arms and knees with her hands. She didn’t want any telltale signs to be discovered on the fawn carpet.
From a belt-pouch she withdrew a pair of light latex gloves and put them on then checked the other belt-pouches and the waterproof canvas bag – all secure. Everything must have a place.
“You must keep your room tidy, Catherine, dear,” her mother had said more than once. “I won’t always be here to clear up.”
After her mother was taken away by the very disease her father’s products were being tested to cure, Cat incessantly cleaned and tidied the house, constantly asking her father, “Will Mummy come back, now that I have been good?” She lost her mother when she was seven and persisted in being obsessed about tidiness and cleanliness until her teens, when her father’s doctor friend finally helped her to pull out of it.
Patience and love helped, too, of course.
Now, she paid out sufficient slack in the rope and hauled herself up through the window. As she twisted round, gripping the frame for support, some metal tools clanged against the glass; but there was nobody to hear. She eased her legs in, careful not to snag the harness of her slim-line backpack.
Once on the interior sill, she unclipped the rope and jumped to the floor, landing lightly on the thick pile.
She turned to check the inside windowsill and the carpet around her feet. No give-away marks or scuffs, no leaves or specks of dust. She slowly let out her breath.
Leaning on the desk, she moved the mouse over the pad and instantly brought the desktop screen back to life. As expected, he hadn’t set up a password.
It didn’t take long to find the financial and personnel files. She took out a memory stick from her belt pouch and inserted it in the USB port. Should be a doddle. But the flashdrive wasn’t recognised. Damn! Incompatible, of all things.
Her mouth was very dry. A sign of stress which she normally associated with extreme sports rather than using a computer. Still, this was her first burglary.
She put the memory stick away. She had no alternative, so she sent the relevant files to the printer, selecting the draft option to speed things up.
While the inkjet was churning away, she checked the rest of the room.
An alarm console was beside the door and next to it was a single walnut filing cabinet, which didn’t even have a lock, probably because that would have spoiled the appearance. Inside the top drawer were five files which interested her:
COSMETICS – TESTING
PLASTICS & BIODEGRADABLES – MANUFACTURING
DRUGS – VARIOUS
JEWELLERY – ACQUISITIONS
She recognised at least a couple of the titles – she was presently printing details about them from the computer files. At risk of duplication, she decided she’d come back to these. For now, her prime reason for the break-in beckoned.
As she had hoped, the safe was behind the portrait of Loup Malefice.
Brilliant! The four-digit code opened it. She breathed a sigh of relief. Thanks, Rick…
She recalled yesterday’s phone call from Rick. He’d been contrite. “I’m sorry you left before I woke up,” he said.
She’d left a note. “I thought you seemed tired, so went quietly,” she whispered. “I’ve got an all-day shoot, so had to leave early.” True enough.
“Oh.” His tone was quite deflated.
“My taxi’s waiting…”
“Right, I won’t keep you, then. Can I call you again?”
“Of course.” She’d sensed her heart flip at the prospect, even though he was working for the enemy. Besides, he might prove even more useful. “When I get back, we can make arrangements.”
“I’d like that. And, Cathy, I’m really sorry. I’m afraid I don’t know what happened, I don’t normally–”
“Not to worry, Rick.” Let his ego down gently. “It was a really lovely evening.”
“Thanks,” he said and she’d hung up.
Grudgingly, she had to admit that she’d enjoyed her time with Rick, though he could be a little arrogant, but at least now her persistent efforts had proved worthwhile.
She opened the safe and immediately noticed a snub-nosed revolver and a wad of fifty-pound notes. Her heart lurched: was she getting involved in something too big? A gun, for God’s sake! She forced herself to breathe steadily.
Taking the small Olympus digital camera out of her left-hand belt-pouch, she unclipped the lens cover and photographed the contents of the safe and then checked the image – no blurring, it had come out fine.
Gingerly, she picked up the revolver. It was quite heavy, about two or three pounds in weight. On the left side of the barrel was the marking ‘STURM RUGER & CO INC SOUTHPORT CONN USA’. On the right side, ‘RUGER GP 100 .357 MAGNUM CAL’. What she surmised was the serial number had been scratched out, which suggested that it was stolen. The bank notes came to £2,000. There was also a little green book and a folder with some incriminating photographs of Sebastian Dipple, a politician she recognised. There was another folder entitled CATANANCHE, which piqued her curiosity.
Cat went over to the desk light and switched it on. Unhurriedly, she photographed all the pages of the little green book, the sparse pages of the CATANANCHE folder, as well as the lewd photographs.
She was tempted to take the weapon and the money, but she didn’t want Rick to suspect that anyone had invaded his office, let alone his safe. Using the digital photograph as a guide, she carefully replaced every item in the safe, as she had found them, then closed and locked it.
She returned to the filing cabinet and removed the five files. There were far too many pages to photograph. She settled on the first half-dozen of each file, plus the indexes. Then she replaced the files as she found them, and shut the drawer
Almost done. She went over to pick up all the pages from the printer tray and put them in a waterproof canvas bag strapped to her shoulder, and then zipped it up.
The desktop screen was as she had found it; it would time-out to power-save mode shortly. Clicking on the lens-hood, she packed away the camera and gave the room a final visual check.
As she moved over to the windowsill, something nagged at the back of her mind and she hesitated. Double check. She scanned the room again. Of course, the printer! She hadn’t planned on using it, relying on the flashdrive. Careless.
There were several reams in the cupboard under the printer and she broke one open and replaced the blank sheets in the feed-tray. She reckoned that the ink-usage wouldn’t be noticed.
Satisfied now, Cat pulled herself up onto the sill and eased out of the window, reconnecting her waist-belt to the suction cup rope as she did so. She swung out and down, gingerly placing her feet on the outside sill. Then, taking a ball of blu-tack from another pouch, she squashed the putty-like substance against the catch and closed the window. The broken catch wouldn’t be noticed until such time as someone tried to open the window, if ever.
Adrenaline was surging through her again as she unclamped the suction cup from the glass and secured it to her belt. Very carefully, she checked the harness and turned, her back to the window.
Now or never, she decided and thrust off from the relative security of the stone windowsill. It was disconcerting and shouldn’t have been. She’d leapt from cliffs and mountainsides without any qualms, enjoying those exhilarating few seconds of free-fall. The unforgiving concrete below posed no greater danger.
One-hundred mile-per-hour wind-rush tugged at her face and clothes and adrenaline coursed through her. Every jump was subtly different, each one indescribable. After four seconds, Cat pulled open the extra-large gliding parachute that billowed from her backpack, lines tugging at her harness, slowing her descent to about one thousand feet a minute.
With the ease borne of practice, she steered away from the buildings, towards the park. Street furniture and trees loomed up and then she passed them as her twelve seconds’ parachute ride ended and, slightly breathless, she landed on soft grass.
She bundled up the parachute and stowed it in a bag.
Cat was surprised how elated she felt, her pulse racing, her heart pounding. It had taken her four years to get to this point. She intended to inflict a lot of damage on Cerberus and, armed with this new information, she would make them rue the day they steamrollered the Vibrissae family business.
Six hours later, Rick Barnes opened his office door because he wanted to collect some papers for a meeting. Ignoring the alarm’s beeping, he referred to a slip of paper pressed against the wallet in his free hand and deactivated the console.
As he moved over to Loup Malefice’s picture, Rick’s nose twitched.
When he keyed in the combination of the safe, the same code as the door, he sniffed the air. “Manifesto Rossellini,” he mused and paused with his hand on the safe door. “Now, that is interesting,” he said to the empty room.
#2 – Catacomb
#3 - Cataclysm