A face to die for, p.7
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       A Face to Die For, p.7

         Part #6 of Forensic Instincts series by Andrea Kane

  “Hmmm?” Dani murmured.

  “Beaker’s owner, Mrs. Simpson, is on the phone. She’s stuck at work, but she’s freaking out about the amount of blood Beaker had on his feathers when she brought him in. She’s been on the Internet all day, reading about how small a bird’s blood volume is and how serious it can be when they lose too much of it—even a parrot of Beaker’s size. I calmed her down, but she wants to talk to you. I know you’re backed up, so I can tell her again how well he’s doing, unless you want to take the call?”

  Dani looked up, her attention now fully locked on what Jessie was saying. She understood how anxious Maura Simpson was. Beaker was her feathered baby, and she adored him. Dani would take a million owners like that over the ones who didn’t care. Restoring good health to her patients was number one in her book. Bringing joy and relief to their owners played a close second.

  Fortunately, Beaker’s injury—a blood feather—had been an easy fix, despite how bad it had looked and the fact that there could have been complications. Dani had used a hemostat to pull out the broken, bleeding feather, applied a little pressure to the area, and Beaker had responded beautifully.

  “Is Beaker still behaving normally—eating, drinking, and not picking at his feathers?” she asked Jessie. “I checked on him earlier, but I was in surgery for hours and I’ve been swamped with patients since then, so I haven’t had a chance to get back to the recovery room again.”

  Jessie’s head bobbed up and down, visible pleasure on her face. “He’s not picking at his feathers, so I don’t think an Elizabethan collar will be necessary. As for eating and drinking, he’s doing both. He’s also crazy about the new food you switched him to. I guess he doesn’t realize he’s getting healthy by eating great-tasting meals. I wish it worked that way for me.” A rueful glance at her hips.

  “Tell me about it,” Dani commiserated.

  Jessie’s brows rose. “You’re kidding, right? You’re probably a size two.”

  “Dr. Dani, your four-thirty appointment is here,” the receptionist’s voice echoed from the intercom into the examining room.

  “Give me five minutes, Rosa,” Dani responded. She placed down the file and headed for the door. “If I’m thin, it’s because I never have time to eat,” she told Jessie. “If I did, the pounds would fly on, trust me.” She paused in the doorway. “I’ll take the call. Beaker will be ready to go home when Mrs. Simpson arrives. I’ll give her follow-up instructions then.” A hint of a grin. “He doesn’t like being contained. My index finger can attest to that.”

  Jessie laughed. “Yeah, he’s quite a character.”

  “And he knows it,” Dani added. She looked over her shoulder at the examining table. “Could you please set up the room for me so I’m ready for Gomer?” she asked, referring to the guinea pig who was her next patient. “I’ll grab the phone and be back in five.”

  * * *

  Two hours and six patients later, Dani was still making phone calls at her desk—some return calls and some calls checking in on her recent patients. Thankfully, it was a good day. No bad news to report and no bad news received.

  At long last, she pressed end for the final time that workday and let her head sag back against the headrest of her chair, stretching her legs out in front of her.

  Damn, she was tired. Her hours were insane, usually seven to seven, with surgery taking up the middle chunk of the day. And she was on call every third weekend, as well. It was pretty draining. But it was even more rewarding. And given the professional competition out there, she felt lucky. She was getting the chance to do what she loved in one of Minnesota’s best veterinary practices.

  She’d been hired two years ago, right after graduating with honors from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, having earned her DVM. The staff and the partners were great, the animals they treated ran the gamut from dogs and cats to turtles and iguanas and everything in between, which was giving her a broad spectrum of experience, particularly surgical, which was her passion. Plus, she was less than an hour away from home, so she could drop in on her mom and dad—and get a home-cooked meal—whenever she wanted to.

  In an uncharacteristically impulsive move, she’d recently applied to—and miraculously been interviewed by—Metropolitan Animal Clinic, a renowned veterinary hospital in Manhattan, New York. She’d been drawn to the opportunity because of the clinic’s emphasis on cutting-edge surgical procedures. But she was still on the fence about the whole thing. The next step would be a working interview, where she could be observed in action—and that would place her one step closer to making a decision she doubted she wanted to make. It was an amazing opportunity, but it would mean uprooting her whole life. And truth be told, she was becoming more and more reluctant to do that.

  No, instinct told her she’d be staying right here, which was just fine with her. Life was good. Not to mention that her social life was looking up. She’d run into her college boyfriend, Gabe Hayward, at a regional veterinary conference. He’d been an animal science major, she’d been pre-vet. They’d broken up for the usual reasons college kids did—to find themselves and their paths in life. She’d heard from friends that he’d gone on to be a vet tech. At the recent conference, she’d learned that he’d expanded his interests and his education and was now a physical therapist for animals—a skyrocketing field. He was still as bright and as hot as she recalled.

  That said, she’d learned a lot from him over dinner—about cold laser therapy for animals with arthritis, about water treadmill therapy, about the use of ultrasound. And after dinner, she’d also learned that the chemistry between them was still very much there. The snag was that he lived and practiced in Cleveland, so their renewed relationship thus far had been limited to the few heated nights at the convention, a quick overnight just this week, and a bunch of phone calls and texts. Definitely not what the doctor ordered.

  Still, as was evidenced by their recent “quickie,” it was only a two-hour plane flight separating them. The subject of one of them flying over to see the other on their next mutual weekend off had come up in their last round of text messages. If they could make that happen, Dani’s love life—or at least her sex life—would be on the upswing.

  And speaking of interesting new people in her life…

  Dani picked up her iPhone again, this time migrating to her photos. She scrolled down until she found the picture Sarah had taken of Gia Russo. She’d looked at it a dozen times, and the resemblance never failed to startle her. It was like looking in the mirror and seeing a far more sophisticated version of herself, with a more stylish haircut and some expertly applied makeup. Clearly, a New York girl. But all that was topical. The shape of their faces, their features, even their dimples—they were identical.

  Was that conceivable? Obviously, it was. Maybe the concept of a doppelgänger wasn’t so sci-fi-y, after all.

  Chatting with Gia was a lot more fun than doing Sudoku puzzles on her iPhone to relax.

  Time for another Facebook message.

  Angelina’s apartment

  West Eighth Street

  Lina opened her front door, smiling when she saw Casey and her lovely, refined blonde companion standing there. “Hi.” She gestured for them to come inside, and her gaze shifted from Casey to her colleague. “You must be Claire.” L
ina extended her hand. “It’s great to meet you.”

  “Likewise,” Claire replied, returning Lina’s handshake and immediately getting warm vibes from her, as well as from her surroundings. Oak floors. Fuzzy white love seat and butterfly chairs. Bright aqua and hot pink accents, from the throw pillows to the curtains to the wall of picture frames that held an array of family photos. Everything was bold, funky, and eye-catching—just the way Casey had described Lina. “Thank you for seeing us,” Claire added politely.

  “Are you kidding?” Lina shut the door behind them. “I couldn’t wait. A real psychic…” She stopped herself. “Claircognizant,” she corrected, “in my living room? I was thrilled when Casey called and asked if you could try picking up vibes here. Brianna should be home in a minute. She ran out to buy something for Bandit’s cage—not that it isn’t already a ferret condo.”

  Claire’s lips twitched. There was something instantly likeable about Angelina Brando. She was open, intelligent, and just plain real, despite the fact that her Dolce & Gabbana sundress had to have cost over a thousand dollars.

  “I made herbal tea and bought shortbread cookies from a health food store. I hope that’s okay?” Lina glanced quizzically at Claire.

  “For claircognizants, you mean?” Claire couldn’t resist teasing her. “Seriously, that was very kind of you. And, yes, I drink herbal tea nonstop and I could eat a whole tray of shortbread cookies on my own. So I appreciate you thinking of me.”

  Lina beamed. “I set things up at the coffee table. Brianna has been sleeping on the fluff-couch, as we call it, and a lot of her personal things are out here.” A roll of her eyes as a small racket ensued from a cage sitting atop the end table. “Including Bandit. He’ll be happy to throw wood pellets at you if you’re interested.”

  Claire’s brow furrowed, and she walked over to the large metal cage, where Bandit was currently snaking his way through a plastic play tube. She watched him reach the bottom and then snuggle into a plush scarf, blinking at her in curiosity.

  “That scarf…” Claire murmured.

  “Yes, it’s a Burberry and, yes, it’s cashmere,” Lina supplied with a sheepish look. “I turned out to be a bigger softie than I thought. Bandit was so attached to the thing that I finally gave it to him as a nesting present.”

  Claire shook her head. “That’s not what I meant. What was there before, until recently?”

  “You mean Bandit’s former nesting home? Brianna’s NYU T-shirt.”

  “Gray? With purple and black lettering and an insignia that’s partly worn away?”

  “That’s the one.” Lina looked über-impressed. “Bandit’s claws did the damage. Wow. You really are good.”

  Claire was lost in thought. “Brianna frequently wore it on campus when she went running—until Bandit inherited it a month ago. So it actually moved from her personal space to her academic space and back. Does she still have it?”

  Lina glanced around. “It’s here somewhere. Brianna will find it in a minute. She’d never part with that shirt. She reclaimed it after Bandit went upscale. The only thing is, the T-shirt’s been washed a bunch of times since then. Is that okay?”

  “Hopefully, yes,” Claire replied. “What I need goes a lot deeper than the washing machine and dryer.”

  A key turned in the lock, and Brianna walked into the apartment, carrying a small brown bag and giving everyone an apologetic look. “I’m so sorry I’m late. The gourmet pet store finally got in the higher-protein food I’ve been waiting to give Bandit. If I’d waited, it would have been gone.” She gave Casey a tentative look. “I hope you’re not upset that I went out alone. Normally, I stick with Lina or other friends. But the pet store is just a few blocks away. And it is daytime.”

  “No problem,” Casey replied. “And not because I’m happy with your decision. But I knew you were safe. The day after we took your case, I assigned a security guy to you: John Nickels, one of our best.”

  Brianna blinked. “I never saw anyone.”

  “That’s the idea. I’ll introduce you to John before we leave.”

  “I… Thank you.” Brianna sounded as taken aback as she did grateful.

  “This is serious stuff, Brianna,” Casey reminded her. “We don’t want to give Hanover any opportunities to get close to you. We’ve got eyes on him, too.”

  Brianna shivered. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’ll try to make Mr. Nickels’ job easier by sticking to the rules.”

  “Wise idea.”

  “Have you been here long?”

  “Five minutes,” Casey assured her. “You didn’t miss anything. Go ahead and feed Bandit while we settle in. But first, do you remember where you put your NYU T-shirt? The one Bandit used to sleep in before the scarf took over?”

  “Sure.” Brianna put down the bag and headed across the living room to a small suitcase—one of two that sat open in the corner. Neatly, she moved a few articles of clothing and pulled out the shirt. “Here it is. A little worse for wear but still functional.” She handed Casey the shirt, giving her a questioning look. “Why do you need it?”

  Casey let Claire reiterate what she’d just told Lina.

  “That’s amazing. Feel free to examine it all you want.”

  Claire took the shirt and walked over to the corner where Brianna’s suitcases were. There, she sank down to the floor and settled in cross-legged. “I want as much proximity to your things as possible,” she explained. “Now all I need is a little quiet. Not silence,” she added, a smile tugging at her lips as she heard Bandit dashing around at the sight of his new food. “Just minimal soft conversation.”

  “You got it,” Lina said.

  Claire lay the T-shirt across her lap, then shut her eyes, moving her fingers lightly over the material. Instantly, she got an image of Brianna running. At first, it was recreational jogging, pacing along as she cleared her head and strengthened her body.

  Abruptly, it changed, and Claire’s fingers stilled where they were. Brianna was no longer exercising. She was fleeing, running away, her chest pounding, no longer with exertion but with fear. In the shadows stood a man. Tall. Lean. Smoking a cigarette. First watching, then striding straight in Brianna’s direction. Coming after her. Closer. Closer. Not a threat, a reality.

  The man was evil. And he was closing in fast.

  Claire’s eyes fluttered open. She realized she was tightly gripping the T-shirt.

  And she was clutching it right where Brianna’s heart would be.


  It was Wednesday, and the world’s conventional workweek was halfway gone. To Gia, that meant that the crux of her work week—Friday and its weekend frenzy—were just around the corner. She had two more days of scheduled meetings and venue scouting before the onslaught of weddings and rehearsal dinners began.

  She had to be crazy to thrive on this. But thrive she did.

  She was shrugging into her blazer, ready to head out of the office for a final run-through with the electrical engineer who’d be handling her Friday night wedding, when the Facebook Messenger tone on her iPhone binged.

  She finished wriggling her right arm into its sleeve and picked up her cell. Given the communications with her newfound loo
kalike, she no longer ignored that particular bing. The two of them had messaged back and forth a bunch of times since Sunday, and Gia was starting to really look forward to hearing from her new Facebook pal. Dani was warm and witty, and while their worlds were very different in some ways, they were very much alike in others. They both had demanding careers and warm, loving families, plus a riot of who-could-top-whom storytelling.

  Yup. The message was from Dani.

  Hey, Doppelgänger. I was thinking about you and wondering if your day was turning out to be as exhausting as mine. Then I remembered that you deal with humans—brides, no less (are they human?)—while I deal with animals (they’re better than humans). So, any way you look at it, your exhaustion trumps mine. Surgery on a bullfrog versus pulling apart two humping people? No contest.

  Gia began to laugh. Dani not only had a great sense of humor, she told it like it was. Very Midwest refreshing. If Gia were as frank as she, she’d be out of a job in a New York minute.

  She scrolled down, and the next paragraph surprised her.

  I’ve been working without a break for two years now, and my boss just kindly informed me that I need to take several mental health days off. As it so happens, I met an old flame at a recent veterinary conference, who, just my bad luck, lives in Cleveland. I thought I’d fly there for a day (and a night ) and then maybe continue on to New York. I know you’re crushed with work, but I’d LOVE to meet you. What do you say? It’ll be midweek next week, so it won’t interfere with your “wedding weekends.” Can you swing it? Just let me know and I’ll start packing.

  Gia felt a surge of anticipation. This would be Dani’s first real trip to New York, since the only other time she’d been here was for a day-long job interview. It would also be their first chance to meet, hang out, and get to know each other. How exciting was that? Gia would swing it, no matter what she had to move around to make it happen.

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