"Perfect timing," Tiny announced as Jackie and Vincent stepped into the light and warmth of the kitchen. "I'm just taking out the first batch of cookies. By the time you change into dry clothes, they should be cool enough to eat."
Jackie smiled at Tiny and shook her head as he pulled a sheet of cookies out of the oven. The man had changed into cream-colored joggers and maroon slippers and was wearing the I'm the cook! apron again. He was six feet, seven inches and two hundred and eighty pounds of domesticity running about the kitchen in a pink apron and flowered oven mitts.
And he was her best friend in the world, Jackie reminded herself as the scent of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies hit her.
"Tiny, you're going to make me gain ten pounds on this job if you keep cooking like this," she complained, drawing her towel tighter around her.
"It's your fault," Tiny said with a shrug. "Your hinky feeling made me nervous and?
"Cooking relaxes you," Jackie finished with amusement.
"What hinky feeling is that, dear?" Marguerite asked, drawing Jackie's gaze to where the woman sat leafing through one of Tiny's women's magazines full of recipes. Seated at the table, she was a knockout in the short black dress she'd worn to go out with Vincent earlier and didn't look a day over twenty-nine or thirty. Damn, Jackie thought, there were some real benefits to being an immortal.
"Jackie sometimes gets these feelings," Tiny explained as he carried his tray of cookies to the cooling rack. "A sort of tension and anxiety just before something happens on a case. She had it earlier tonight."
"Before something happens?" Marguerite asked with interest.
"Usually something bad," Tiny muttered as he used a spatula to slide the cookies from the tray to the cooling rack before they began to stick.
"How bad?" Vincent asked with a frown of concern.
Tiny grimaced. "She had it the time I got shot."
"Shot?" Marguerite asked with alarm.
Tiny nodded. "We were working for Bastien. He suspected someone was sneaking out paperwork and samples of some of the different miracle medicines his scientists were working on."
Jackie grimaced as she recalled the occasion Tiny was talking about. Argeneau Enterprises was heavily into medical research. It could be a very lucrative field, especially if you saved on expenses by stealing someone else's ideas and research. That had been happening at Argeneau's and the Morrisey agency had been called in to look into it. This was at the start of her father's illness, when he'd started delegating more important cases to Jackie. She and Tiny had been on the job.
"Well," Tiny continued. "We had narrowed it down to two suspects and were following one of them after he'd left work when Jackie got her hinky feeling. He parked in a big public lot and left on foot, and we parked and followed. He led us down this alley and Jackie really started getting itchy, but the man was way ahead of us so I was sure it would be all right." He shook his head. "Then, all of a sudden, two guys jumped out from behind these bins and took a couple of shots at us."
Tiny scowled. "The bastard knew we were following and used his cell phone to call his buddies and set us up before leading us to the parking lot."
"Were you badly hurt?" Vincent asked with a frown, but Jackie noticed his gaze had moved to her and was sliding over her as if looking for possible bullet wounds.
"Nah, I was just winged," Tiny assured them. "But ever since then, when Jackie starts getting her hinky feeling, I get nervous."
"Has she ever been wrong?" Marguerite asked.
"Never," Tiny answered solemnly as he finished with the baked cookies and moved to start plopping little balls of batter on the now empty tray.
"Oh." Marguerite considered that and then frowned as she saw Jackie shiver. "You're turning blue, child. You'd best hurry upstairs and change."
"She's right," Vincent said, urging her toward the door. "Go change."
Jackie didn't need much urging. She was cold and ready to get out of her wet swimsuit. Casting a grateful smile Vincent's way, she hurried up the hall, then jogged up to her room.
With the thought of freshly baked cookies spurring her on, Jackie made a quick job of changing and running a brush through her still-damp hair. Vincent was in the office when she returned below. She could hear him talking on the phone as she reached the ground floor. Despite the lure of the cookies, she detoured that way to see what was going on. He was hanging up as she reached the doorway.
"That was Bastien." Vincent stood and she saw thatas fast as she'd been, he'd been fasterhe wore tight jeans and a chest-hugging T-shirt.
Jackie nodded. "Is everything all right?"
"Fine. He was just checking on how things were going with Aunt Marguerite here." Vincent walked around the desk, moving toward her. "I offered to call her to the phone, but he was just heading to bed so asked me to say hello to her for him."
Jackie smiled at the amusement on his face, guessing that he suspected the going to bed tale was just an excuse for the man to avoid his mother. Bastien had made comments over the years that suggested she could be a bit interfering when it came to her children's lives. Having lost her own mother when she was young, Jackie wouldn't have minded some of that interfering herself, but supposed the grass was always greener.
She opened her mouth to ask if there had been any messages from her firm that she needed to know about, but paused as her gaze ran over the spotless desktop.
"What is it?" Vincent asked, noting her sudden stillness.
"Did you move the papers that were on the desk?" she asked, stepping past him.
"No. There were no papers on the desk when I came in," he said, following her.
"I'm sure I left the employee list on the desk this evening. I planned to work on them tomorrow morn? Jackie froze again as her gaze landed on the French doors. One wasn't quite closed. She whirled on Vincent. "Did you turn the alarm off when you came home?"
"No, of course not," he assured her, then added, "It wasn't on."
"What?" she asked with amazement.
"I thought you'd turned it off while you were out at the pool," Vincent said with a frown.
"No. I only released the kitchen door." Jackie turned back toward the hallway to shout for Tiny, then hurried over to close and lock the French doors.
"What's wrong?" Tiny hurried into the room with Marguerite on his heels.
"The French doors were open and the employee list is missing," Jackie said tersely as she began to quickly search the desk, checking the drawers to be sure she hadn't put it in one of them without thinking, then checking the floor in case the papers had simply fallen off. She knew even as she searched that it was a waste of time. Jackie distinctly recalled setting the papers in the center of the desk so that they would be the first thing she saw in the morning.
"Why didn't the alarm go off?" Tiny asked with a frown, pausing beside Vincent on the opposite side of the desk. Marguerite remained by the door, a concerned expression on her face.
"That's what I want to know." Jackie straightened from searching the floor under the desk. "Vincent said the alarm was off when he and Marguerite came back."
"Impossible," Tiny said firmly. "It was on when we came back from our walk."
"Yes, it was," she said grimly. "And apparently one of us turned it off between when we came back and when Vincent and Marguerite returned."
"One of us?" Tiny asked with amazement. "Impossible, Neither of us would turn it off."
"Not on our own, no," she agreed. "But we could have been controlled and our memory of it wiped."
Jackie was acutely aware of how her comment affected everyone. All three people stilled. Marguerite's eyebrows flew up in surprise, Vincent looked as if he'd turned to stone, and Tiny just looked disbelieving.
Giving up on finding the papers, she moved around the desk and out into the hall to the panel by the front door. Tiny followed, peering over her shoulder at the alarm.
"It's not just off, the entire system is shut down," he said with dismay.
"What does that mean?" Vincent crowded up next to them in front of the panel.
"It means it has to be reset," Jackie muttered and set to work doing so.
Vincent watched for a minute, then glanced toward Marguerite. The woman had followed, but was staying well out of the way. "Bastien called. He said hello."
"Thank you," Marguerite murmured.
Finished with the alarm, Jackie turned to move back into the office.
"What are you doing now?" Vincent asked, trailing her.
"Calling the security company. They monitor the cameras. Our best hope is that the motion-sensitive cameras caught our saboteur on film as they approached the house," she explained, picking up the phone.
Jackie hung up ten minutes later, the apologies of the night manager still ringing in her ears.
"No tapes?" Vincent guessed grimly as she sat back in the desk chair with a sigh. He, Tiny and Marguerite had heard her end of the conversation, of course, and managed to piece together enough to understand that much.
"No tapes," she affirmed. "The manager thinks they somehow forgot to put discs into the machines."
Tiny made a face at the possibility and asked, "The saboteur?"
Jackie nodded. "We were too slow. After leaving here, he must have paid them a visit, removed the discs, and any computer copies, then wiped the memories of the men."
They were all silent for a minute, then Jackie stood. "Those cookies ought to be cooled by now, Tiny. Is there any coffee to go with them?"
Tiny nodded silently, then straightened abruptly, his face covered with horror. "The second batch!" he cried and rushed from the room.
Jackie, Vincent, and Marguerite followed more slowly. They arrived in the kitchen to find Tiny dumping a tray of blackened cookies into the sink and waving his big oven mitt-covered hands around to dispel the smoke in the air.
While Marguerite hurried over to soothe the distraught giant, Vincent rushed to open the door to let the smoke out. Jackie had started to follow Marguerite to Tiny's side, but froze as the alarm suddenly went off in response to Vincent's opening the door. The house was filled with a shrieking wail.
"Well, at least we know it works!" Vincent shouted as Jackie whirled on her heel to hurry back up the hall to the security panel.
"What now?" Tiny asked when they finally all settled at the table. Jackie, Tiny, and Vincent had cookies and coffee. Marguerite had passed on the cookie and was drinking blood rather than coffee. She claimed the caffeine hit immortals harder than mortals. The warning hadn't deterred Vincent.
Jackie took a sip of coffee, sighing as her muscles finally began to relax. The last few minutes had been a bit stressful as she tried to concentrate on recalling the security code with the alarms blaring in her ears and the phone ringing. Vincent had answered the phone to find the security company calling to be sure everything was all right, and requesting the code word that proved it was really him and that everything was okay, but Vincent hadn't been able to hear them over the alarm. Once Jackie had finally got the alarm shut off, it had taken a few tense moments for their muddled minds to recall the code word Allen Richmond had given them. They'd recalled it at the same moment, Vincent barking it into the phone even as Jackie said it at his side.
Relieved, they'd hung up and had reset the alarm yet again before returning to the kitchen where Tiny had removed the evidence of his burnt cookies. He'd poured coffee and set a plate full of the first batch of cookies on the table. Now, they were seated around it, all four of them looking glum.
"Now, you and I each recount what happened from after we returned from walking the perimeter, to when Vincent came out to the pool," Jackie announced.
"Why?" Tiny rumbled.
"To see if our memories match events," Jackie said. "Either one of usor both of uslost some time somewhere for however long it took the saboteur to make us shut off the alarm so he could come in, get the papers, and leave."
Tiny shook his head, obviously still not believing either of them could have been controlled like that. Jackie understood. As humans, they tended to depend on their minds, counting on their perceptions and calculations day in and day out. The concept of the mind letting you down was difficult to accept.
"I'll start," she announced, hoping to make it easier for him. "Okay, what I recall is that we were talking about Jaws the movie when we came back. I unlocked the door and punched in the code to keep the alarm from going off while you locked the door."
Tiny nodded, but Jackie simply continued running through the details of changing and so on, then returning below. She recounted every minute she could recall until she stopped swimming to find Vincent in the pool. She then stopped and took a sip of coffee, frowning over the spots where there might be time missing.
"Your memory seems intact," Marguerite commented, but Jackie shook her head.
"There were several places where my memories could be false," she said with a sigh and then glanced at Tiny. "Your turn."
"My memories are pretty close to yours," Tiny said with a frown. "I remember telling you about not swimming in the local pool after seeing Jaws ..."
Jackie frowned as Tiny continued recounting what he recalled. She was listening closely, but thinking this was useless. They might never know which of them had turned off the alarm and it didn't really matter who had done it anyway. The fact was it had been done, and now the employee list was missing.
"Wait a minute," she said suddenly, stopping Tiny's recounting. "Say that again."
When Tiny stared at her uncertainly, Jackie prompted. "You came downstairs..."
"I came downstairs and walked through the kitchen and outside and you were?
"Back up," Jackie interrupted again. "I want you to go slowly and say exactly what you remember. You came out of your room, and closed your door, and walked downstairs..."
"I came out of my room," Tiny repeated slowly. "I closed my door, then turned and walked to the stairs. I came down the stairs and walked through the kitchen and outside?
"How did you get to the kitchen?" Jackie asked.
Tiny stared at her blankly.
"Do you remember walking from the stairs to the kitchen door?" she said more specifically. "You keep skipping that."
The giant sat back slowly, a frown beginning to pull at his face. "I remember walking downstairs..." Tiny's voice faded as he struggled to recall getting from the bottom of the stairs to the door to the kitchen.
After a moment where his hands clenched and he started to look upset, Jackie reached out and covered one of his hands with hers. "It's okay."
"I don't remember walking from the stairs to the door," Tiny said with shock.
"It's okay, Tiny," Jackie said quietly.
"I let him in," the giant said with horror that for those few minutes he'd had no control over himself or his actions. Jackie understood that horror. It was what she'd felt when she'd realized what Cassius had done to her.
"I didn't even catch that he didn't mention walking from the stairs to the door," Vincent said with quiet admiration.
"No, neither did I," Marguerite admitted.
Jackie shrugged. Despite her distracted thoughts, she'd been envisioning the walk while Tiny had spoken, reliving it as she'd experienced it. In her mind she'd reached the bottom of the stairs then Tiny was saying he was walking through the kitchen. It had been like a movie skipping a scene in her mind.
"I let him in. I turned off the alarm." Tiny peered at Jackie. "I'm sorry, Jackie. I don't know?
"There's nothing to be sorry for, Tiny," she assured him quietly. "Believe me I know." She emphasized the last word, her gaze steady on his, then she simply said, "Cassius."
Tiny sat back in his seat, slowly nodding his head. He understood. She'd been there. He sighed. "So, I guess this tells us that the saboteur's name must have been on the employee list."
Jackie was silent, her thoughts moving over what the missing papers could mean.
"Doesn't it?" Tiny asked when she didn't immediately agree.
"Maybe," she acknowledged.
Vincent frowned from one to the other. "The name must be on the list. Why else would he take it?"
"To send us in that direction," Jackie murmured thoughtfully.
"What?" Marguerite sat up. "I don't understand."
"The list is easily replaced," she pointed out. "We simply have to have Lily fax us another copy in the morning. So, if the saboteur took the list because his name was on it, it was a waste of time and barely slows us down. But there's another issue here."
"What issue?" Vincent asked.
"How did he know the list was here?" Jackie asked.
Tiny straightened in his seat. "It's someone in the office."
"What?" Vincent frowned.
"There are only two possibilities here," she pointed out. "The only people who could possibly know that Sharon and Lily brought over the list of employees today are the people in your office. Either the saboteur is someone from your office, or the saboteur broke in for another reason and just happened to see the employee list there with his name on it and took the opportunity to steal it."
Jackie pursed her lips, then said, "The second option is possible, but doubtful. It calls for a lot of chance and luck on the saboteur's behalf."
"I suppose this means we should go through the house and make sure nothing else is missing, or has been disturbed," Tiny suggested reluctantly.
"Yes," Jackie agreed with a sigh, her gaze sliding to the clock on the wall. It was nearly one o'clock in the morning. By the time they finished searching the house... She didn't even want to speculate on how late it would be.
"I'll search the house," Vincent said, having caught her glance at the clock. "You and Tiny just check your rooms, then go to bed. I'll check the rest of the house. I'm probably the only one here who knows what belongs where anyway."
"Vincent's right," Marguerite agreed. "It's late for you. I can help him check the house."
When Jackie hesitated, Vincent assured her, "I'll wake you if we find anything wrong."
Jackie felt like she was shirking a responsibility, but nodded and stood. "Then I'll go check my room and go to bed."
Tiny hesitated, then stood as well. "Same here, I guess."
Murmuring goodnight, the two of them slipped from the kitchen and started upstairs.
"Jackie?" Tiny said as they walked upstairs.
"Hmmm?" she asked.
"I told you, it's not your fault, Tiny," she said firmly. "I know. I've been there. Cassius controlled me the same way."
"I know. And I'm not sorry for turning off the alarm. Well, I am," Tiny corrected himself dryly. "But when I said sorry it wasn't about that. I'm sorry for what I said earlier today, about Cassius and Vincent and stuff. I didn't realize what it must have been like. I've thought many times over the years thatwell, you weren't in control, so shouldn't let what Cassius made you do upset you so much. I didn't understand how not being in control could be the most damaging part. It's like your own mind betrayed you. Like it let you down. Anything could have happened between my memory of coming down the stairs and walking through the kitchen. I don't even know how much time is missing. It really is scary."
Jackie was silent as they finished mounting the stairs, then turned to him as they reached the upper landing. "Yes, it is scary. But you weren't wrong when you said what you did today. I was judging every immortal by Cassius, and that's wrong. You did me a favor giving me hell today. Vincent isn't Cassius and I was being rude and mean and bitchy to him. I was punishing him for what Cassius did. And he didn't deserve it. You were right about Vincent too, I think he is a nice guy. And I am attracted to him and I was scared by that and reacting badly."
Stepping forward, Jackie gave Tiny a hug. "They have skills and abilities we don't and in some ways that leaves us at a disadvantage if they use them against us. But just because they have them doesn't mean they're all going to use them against us. My believing that is like my assuming because you're bigger and physically stronger than me, you're going to use it against me. I should know better than making blanket judgments like that."
Tiny nodded thoughtfully. "So, you're cautioning me not to be afraid of them now like you've always been?"
"Basically, yes." Jackie chuckled and turned away to head to her room. "Sleep well, Tiny, I want you rested for tomorrow. We're going to Vincent's company to catch us a saboteur."
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