A destitute old man leaves a valuable painting in a gallery at the Ringling Museum of Art — and triggers a countdown to disaster. A cryptic note left with the painting links it to Genevieve Swift, a visiting curator from the Louvre and her father, a professor of history at Cambridge. In Gallery 3 something unknown is eating the paint on the face of a small lion in one of the museum’s sixteenth-century paintings. A young girl who touches the painting becomes dealth sick. Paintings at a new exhibit in the Searing Wing suffer a similar fate with more people falling ill.
Professor Hunter McCoy, investigates the strange events and uncovers a link to a secretive and deadly group called the Legacy. As he peels away layer after layer of the Legacy’s secrets, McCoy realizes that a countdown has already begun—a countdown that if unchecked, could cost countless lives and ruin the ringling Museum of Art itself.
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Hunter McCoy barely heard Genevieve Swift’s frantic whisper from nine hundred miles away in Sarasota, Florida—but her terror came through loud and clear.
“Hunter,” she said in a voice shaking with palpable fear, “someone’s in the house.”
“What? Listen. Get out of there now, fast. Go to the neighbors. Call 911. Go.”
He heard a muffled crash in the background.
“Hunter!” she shrieked. “It’s a man. I—” She cried out, then a thud.
“Genevieve,” he shouted into the phone then watched in horror as—call ended—call ended—call ended—scrolled across the screen.
What the hell just happened?
While too self-disciplined to panic, it still took all his self-control to steady himself and call 911.
He told the emergency operator he’d been talking to a woman at her home in Sarasota when an intruder attacked her. After identifying himself, he gave the dispatcher Genevieve’s name and address. To the operator’s credit, she took him seriously and made the necessary connections to a dispatcher in Sarasota who told Hunter the police were on their way.
Desperate for news, he repeatedly tried calling Genevieve’s phone but got no answer. Between calls, he contacted the airport and managed to get the last seat on an American Airlines flight leaving Charlottesville, Virginia at 6:55 pm that would get him to Sarasota around 10:30.
With little more than an hour to make the flight, he rushed back to the loft apartment he maintained not far from his office and lab at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, packed a bag, drove to the airport, got through security in record time, and boarded just before the gate closed.
The crowd roared, wanting more blood. Despite the exhaustion clouding his consciousness, Hunter managed to duck, but still the blow that bounced off his head rattled him to the core. He stumbled backward, trying to regain his balance as the man with no face closed in for the kill. Stunned, he had to think fast. The faceless man was a monster, even bigger than Hunter’s own solid six foot-two inch frame. An approving partisan cheer went up from the man’s colleagues who were guarding the mouth of the cave and its lone prisoner, Hunter’s brother, Marine Sergeant Gary McCoy.
Knowing his only chance was to lure the man into a mistake, Hunter feigned another stumble and let his hands drop as if he was wiped out. Seeing his chance, the monster launched a flying kick directly at Hunter’s chest that would have finished him had it landed. Hunter timed it perfectly and leaned to the side just as the man’s horizontal body flew past, hitting nothing but air.
When the monster landed, and before he could recover, Hunter was all over him. He twisted the man’s arm behind his back then snapped it off, ripping it free from his body. Blood spurted from the torso, covering Hunter in gore. As he backed off, horrified, he watched the creature slowly rise and with his one good arm rip off one of his own legs. Then he began beating Hunter with it.
His brother Gary reached out from the cave, beseeching him for help.
Struggling again, Hunter lashed out and heard a sharp female cry. He continued to flail until pinned down by several strong arms.
“Mr. McCoy. Look at me. Open your eyes. Do it now.”
Confused but unable to move or escape, he fought to open his eyes. Bright light assailed his retinas. Reflexively he closed his eyes again.
“It’s all right. Try to relax. You’re okay. We’re here to help.”
Help? What the—?
“Sir. You’ve been hurt. But you’re safe now. Just relax.”
“That’s it. Good. That’s good. You were having a nightmare. Breathe. Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. That’s good. Now do it again.”
Slowly he began to reopen his eyes, squinting at first, getting used to the brightness. Two young men in blue scrubs were holding him down. He was lying in a bed. A woman in a white jacket was wiping his forehead with a damp cloth.
“I’m Dr. Virginia Olesin,” she said. “You’re in Sarasota Memorial Hospital.”
“What? Why am I here? What happened?”
“You were hit by a car. You’re lucky to be alive.”
Hit by a car?
“I put eight stitches in your scalp. They’ll dissolve on their own. Your left shoulder was dislocated. I reset it. It’ll be sore for a while but there’ll be no permanent damage. You have no internal injuries that we could find. Other than that, you’ve got lots of bruises and scrapes. Like I said, you were lucky. How are you feeling?”
“I’ve been better,” he said, only now becoming aware of the ache in his shoulder.
Then it came back to him in a jolt of anxious recollection—Genevieve. He was in Sarasota to find Genevieve. The phone call, a man had attacked her, he’d called 91l. He’d gotten a flight from Charlottesville to Sarasota. He’d been unable to reach her and hadn’t heard from the authorities. He remembered trying to rent a car at the airport. Then—then, he couldn’t remember anything after that.
“Where was the accident?” he asked, trying to make sense of things.
“The police report said it was a hit-and-run, just outside a car rental agency at the airport.”
Hit and run?
He tried to sit up, but dizzy from the sudden movement, lay back on the pillow. “I’ve got to make a phone call.”
“Of course, but you should try to relax.” She walked out of the room, leaving him alone.
He realized he didn’t have his cellphone, or his wallet for that matter. Where were they? Had they taken them? He clutched at the bed’s handset and punched the call button. When the nurse arrived he practically shouted at her.
“My cellphone. Where is it? I’ve got to make a call right now.”
“It’s probably in the emergency room. Take it easy. I’ll go check.”
Ten minutes later she was back with his phone and wallet, but then placing her hand on his forearm asked, “Mr. McCoy, do you know someone named Genevieve Swift?”
“What? Yes. Why?” he frowned, picking up on the tension in her voice and demeanor. Something’s wrong.
“Um, well, she’s here in the hospital.”
“Here? Is she okay?”
“She’s been hurt.”
“She’s in a room downstairs. They brought her into our emergency room last night—”
“I’ve got to—” He moved to get out of bed until the nurse pushed him back.
“And she’s going to be okay. You can see her later.”
Nuts to that.
Throwing back the covers, he swung out of bed and stood wobbling on the cold tile floor. Then the room began to turn. The last thing he remembered was the nurse wrapping him in a bear hug that dragged both of them to the floor.
Dr. Virginia Olesin had just shaken him awake and was examining his pupils. Satisfied, she said, “I understand you tried to storm our emergency room to find your friend.”
Hunter found the handset with the bed control buttons and brought himself to a semi-sitting position, fully alert now.
“Is she okay?”
“She’s doing much better. She suffered a blow to the head at her house last night. Apparently, there’d been a break-in. A neighbor found her when his dog wouldn’t stop barking. He called 911. When she came around in our emergency room she was a little delirious and kept asking for someone named Hunter. Your nurse wondered if that might be you and came up to ask you. When you leapt out of bed both of you crashed to the floor.”
Relieved that Genevieve was all right he asked, “When can I see her?”
Dr. Olesin smiled, backed up to the door, looked out into the hall, and nodded. “How about right now?”
Genevieve, in all her tall, slim athletic beauty, wearing a robe over a hospital gown, and with a bandage similar to his own covering the back of her head, appeared in the doorway and rushed across the room to his bedside.
“Don’t wear him out,” Dr. Olesin admonished her. “He’s had a concussion, and you need some rest, too.”
Genevieve kissed him and their hands found each other while the doctor and nurse left them alone. For a moment neither of them spoke. He gently cupped the bandage accenting her shiny black, shoulder-length hair. “Are you okay? What happened?”
Glancing around to make sure they were still alone, she hiked up her hospital gown, stood on one leg, and raised her lovely bare thigh.
Completely ignoring the small bandage just above her knee, Hunter chose instead to carefully examine her wonderfully naked thigh.
“I was asking about the bandage on your head,” he said, “but I have to tell you, this view is definitely making me feel better.”
Back on two legs she smoothed her gown and flashed him that familiar superior smile. “Good.” Then, turning serious, she touched the bandage on his head. “They said you were in a car accident. Where was it? Were you driving?”
“I’ll tell you what I know in a minute; it’s not much. Tell me about you first. We were on the phone and—”
Genevieve put her fingers to his lips to shush him, sat down, and spoke in a low voice.
“I’d just gotten to my place after work last night, around five. I parked in the carport and headed for the side door, but before I could insert the key I noticed the door was open a few inches. I knew I’d locked it before I left in the morning.
“I stepped into the kitchen, trying not to make a sound. It was awful. Every cabinet door was open, every drawer was open, even the refrigerator door. I remember walking into the living room. Everything was a mess there too. That’s when I called you. Then I heard a noise and knew someone was still in the house. I turned and saw a man. He must have hit me, because I don’t recall anything after that. I woke up in the emergency room with a major headache and a cut on my leg. I must have been a little delirious because apparently I told everyone I had to find you.”
“That sounds delirious all right. You didn’t recognize the man?”
“No, but I had a plan.”
“You had a plan?”
“Was it a good plan?”
“I thought so at the time.”
“So what was your plan?”
“I was going to put you in charge of finding out who did this and why. That is, until they told me you were here, too.”
He smiled and nodded. Neither of them spoke for a while.
Genevieve pressed her hand to his cheek. “I know we didn’t plan on you coming down for another two weeks, but in spite of what happened to you, I’m glad you’re here now.”
He chuckled and lay back against the pillow. “Now that I think about it, spending time with you is dangerous. I mean, look at our history. When I’m at the medical school, doing my job, nothing even remotely alarming happens. Then we get together, and people come out of the woodwork trying to kill us. They tried in Spain and Portugal two years ago. They tried in Belgium and Italy last summer. I mean I should get combat pay. Spending time with you is downright life-threatening.”
She brought her face close to him and sweetly asked, “Hunter?”
“Which shoulder was dislocated?”
“The left one, why?”
She punched him hard in the right arm. Then, bringing her face even closer, she kissed him—a long slow kiss that he returned in full. Finally coming up for air, they gazed at each other silently for a moment before she said, “But we do have fun, don’t we?”
He sighed, lay back, and thought about that. It was true. The only thing keeping them apart was the Atlantic Ocean. She worked in Paris as a curator of pre-twentieth-century western art at the Louvre, and he was an assistant professor of physiology at the University of Virginia Medical School.
Now, for the first time ever, they were both on the American side of the pond, even though they were working in different states. Best of all she was here for a whole year. But it was late spring, his classes were over for the semester, and his schedule allowed him some free time. He’d be able to stay in Sarasota with her for a while.
He pressed the call button. The nurse returned almost instantly.
“Ms. Swift is going to spend the night here—in this room. Could you ask someone to roll in another bed?”
Both the nurse and Genevieve gaped at him.
“Hey,” he said, putting his hands up in supplication, “someone seems to think you’re a punching bag and maybe that same someone tried to turn me into road-kill. I’m not letting you out of my sight until we find who did it and why.”
The familiar recurring nightmare he’d had, fighting the monstrous man in front of the cave, was a constant reminder to Hunter that he was never far from the guilt he’d experienced at not being able to save his brother’s life.
He’d been in charge of a Marine unit sent to capture a terrorist leader in the mountains of Pakistan. His brother Gary had been part of the squad. He’d made a personal vow after losing Gary that he’d never let anyone in his care be harmed again. Right now, Genevieve was at the top of that list.
Whoever you are, I’m coming for you.