From the animal experiments, Neil Lawrence guessed he had two or three more hours to live. Christmas decorations hung from the distant streetlights, out of place in the tropical west-central Florida 2032 night. Gravel crunched under Neil’s Italian loafers. Surfacing into a lucid moment, he reached a hand out to steady himself. Rough concrete block walls stretched out on either side into the darkness ahead. Neil looked around. Above, palms waved gently in the temperate breeze. The movement of his head made his vision spin and his confusion worse. Instinctively, he reached for the name tag on the lanyard around his neck but it was gone.
The scientist in him struggled to focus on the symptoms. Sweat flowed from every pore and his heart pounded so rapidly he lost count. He had to get back to Harper-Ayerst. Strict isolation in the lab was the only chance for containment, and that chance slipped further away with each second of fevered delirium. A wave of nausea hit like a fist, twisting his guts into a tight knot.
Neil opened his eyes. He was on his hands and knees. Another spasm tore through him. His vision cleared, revealing a puddle of bloody vomit. This was an observed late reaction. Maybe he’d misjudged the time he had left. He was surprised this didn’t upset him.
Neil struggled to his feet, stumbled, and fell against a rough surface, the cinder blocks scraped against his face. Ten feet away, a young woman stood in a pool of lamplight, hands covering her mouth. His thoughts fogged over again as the ground tilted up on end. Neil’s last thought was pity for the woman.
In St. Petersburg, Florida, Carter sat on his thrift store wicker couch, putting the finishing touches on an uninspired piece-of-shit story. Liz Ewing, his ACE, or assistant city editor, had dropped the story about some recent cases of Hepatitis A at a local St. Pete Beach seafood restaurant on him. The story was dull as an obituary which was where Ewing had threatened to dump him if he blew another deadline.
The restaurant owner in question had refused to comment to Carter about the allegations. That was standard fare, but the middle-aged, pot-bellied idiot had threatened Carter in an overdone Jersey accent, all lost Rs and dropped Gs. Carter shook his head on a chuckle. He transmitted the audio clips, threats and all, to the paper’s server and added a hyperlink to the appropriate text in his story.
“Guess I’m off his Christmas card list,” Carter said. He finished the story, including the one or two extra paragraphs he always threw in so Ewing could feel justified when she found and cut them.
“Done,” he said with a satisfied exhalation and pressed Send on the small, wireless keyboard. The email disappeared, simultaneously routing to the paper’s server and his personal off-site storage, with an hour left till deadline. He sighed. It was a good job, though. It paid the bills and gave him ample chance to get out with people but it still felt temporary, like he was waiting for something.
His attention drifted to where Nicole’s photo sat on his desk. It’d become a habit. He closed his eyes. It was a story they’d never have. He shook the feeling off. “Maybe it’s time to put her photo away.” But he knew he wouldn’t. Not yet. Not today.
“I wish something would happen,” he murmured. “Something big, something hot that I can grab onto and ride. Chasing police cars and fire trucks and Hepatitis A outbreaks on the beach sucks.”
He stretched and pulled up a list of old videos from the late twentieth century on his living room screen. The cops from before his father’s time had to solve cases with limited technology and primitive communications devices. He tried in vain to imagine a time before the net as he scrolled through the list.
Nothing appealed, so he opened an almost legal app he’d written with his friend Kevin’s help. Kevin was a computer genius Carter had kept in touch with since college. The app let him listen to encrypted police, fire, and ambulance calls in real time.
An agitated male voice poured from the speakers, “…BP is dropping despite fluids, Base. Currently seventy over fifty with a rate of one-forty. Temp is one-oh-four.” Even Carter recognized the vital signs as pretty bad.
He leaned forward on the couch. “Increase sound by fifty percent,” he said to the computer.
The woman’s end of the conversation was calmer. “Telemetry received, truck twenty-three. The ER doc is ready and I’m unlocking the doors. Please advise on ETA. Over.”
The woman’s voice was a familiar, nearly musical Carolina drawl, but Carter couldn’t place her.
“ETA less than one minute. Please hang on, Base. The patient just started seizing.” There was a hesitation. The ambulance’s siren wailed through the speakers for a moment. “This is county twenty-three. Patient is confirmed with seizure activity and BP is dropping rapidly.” Another hesitation. “Shit, Base, we have SVT of one-sixty-five, no, one-eighty on the monitor. Preparing to cardiovert.”
The woman’s voice returned, “Roger, twenty-three. I have visual on your lights. The ambulance bay doors are unlocked and I’ve entered the code blue. We’re ready here.”
Carter leaned forward, trying to make out which hospital he was picking up. The truck’s brakes squealed to a stop, followed by the sound of someone grinding a gear and backing into an ambulance bay. He was on the edge of the couch, straining to hear. The sound from the speakers cut off, leaving him holding his breath.
“Crap,” he said. “Might not be not newsworthy, but still gotta hand it to the medics for sheer excitement. Computer. Decrease sound to default level.” He leaned back and tried to place the voice until he dozed off listening to the soft scratchy hum of static. He dreamed of Nicole.
Evan Forester walked out of the Jiffy Mart between St. Petersburg and Largo, Florida, where he’d just bought a pack of Camels. He yawned and ran his fingers through his close-cropped blond hair. The emergency band scanner system Winslow had set up performed flawlessly, alerting Forester when certain words were used together during a transmission. He was focused on finding Lawrence, Winslow, Kim, and Cooke and failed to notice the scrawny, nervous-looking scarecrow of a man standing in the shadows a few feet from the convenience store’s door. As Forester passed by, the wraith-like man edged from the shadows toward the entrance.
Forester reached the parking lot, stopped, took a cigarette out of the pack, and lit it. Lawrence hadn’t gone home. That much was sure from the quick inspection of his house. Forester’s next stop was Susan Kim’s. She lived in a company-owned, four-bedroom ranch style house with her husband and two children. He stood looking across the parking lot toward Seminole Boulevard, trying to decide where to look for Cooke, Kim, and Winslow if they hadn’t gone home, either. A scream, followed by alternating gunshot-scream-gunshot erupted from inside the store.
Forester lifted the cigarette to his lips and inhaled. He rolled his shoulders and settled in to wait for whatever came next.
A scrawny tweaker ran limping out of the store. He stopped an arm’s distance from Forester, who still hadn’t moved. Pointing his gun at the Forester’s left temple, he said, a little too loudly, “Gimme your wallet, motherf–”
The last part of the word twisted into a strangled gurgle as Forester dropped his cigarette and in one liquid movement, raised his left hand, caught his assailant’s wrist, and twisted it down and out. The man’s hand wrenched around and back on itself, ripping tendons loose and snapping several small bones, causing the cheap revolver to fall clattering onto the sidewalk. The would-be robber’s right shoulder dropped, exposing his neck.
Forester shifted his weight and swiveled. His free hand swung up in a quick arc. The thumb-side edge crushed the man’s windpipe, breaking his neck as the blow lifted the emaciated tweaker off his feet. He landed on his back, staring blankly towards the sky as he died of asphyxiation and brainstem trauma.
The move was one of Forester’s favorites. He’d practiced it until he could do it half asleep, which he had once, in a dingy hotel room on a different continent, half a lifetime ago.
Forester regarded the dead man on the sidewalk as he might an insect he’d just swatted. “Time to get back to work.” Forester stepped off the store’s concrete walkway, crushed out his dropped cigarette with the toe of his shoe, got into his Ford Bronco, and lit another cigarette. He activated the fuel cells, rolled the engine over, and pulled out of the parking lot in no particular hurry. He drove away with his lights off. As he made a left toward Susan Kim’s house, flashing lights sped into the convenience store parking lot behind him.
A cool St. Augustine, Florida breeze stroked a loose screen in Nicole Piricelli’s open bedroom window. Along with the sound, a chill snaked its way through her. Her eyes popped open to the dark. Disoriented for a terrible moment, she was once again on that same terrazzo floor in the stuffy rental property behind boarded-up windows, covered in her abductor’s blood. It was a place she’d woken from many times. Heart thumping in her ears, she stiffened, afraid to move as the memory faded.
Forcing a breath, she moved her hand, the microfiber smooth under her fingertips. The top sheet twisted around her. She exhaled slowly. She was in her own bed. Listening for, but hearing no telltale sounds outside the window, she told herself there was no reason to be awake. Yet she was. She willed her muscles to relax.
It had been months since she’d last fought through the terror-filled nightmares into the shaking hope that they would eventually pass. And so they had. Until tonight.
This was different.
Nicole untwisted the sheet coiled around her, found her blanket where she’d kicked it in her sleep, and glanced at the clock on the dresser. Across the room, glowing blue numbers painted two-fourteen on the gloom. She let her dark-adjusted attention move around the room. No stray shadows. Rolling out of bed, she stripped off the sweat-soaked Tinker Bell pajamas Carter had given her for Christmas two years ago and dropped them on the floor.
Her eyes flicked to the security pad on the wall. Thirteen tiny LEDs shined steady green except for the one blinking amber, indicating her open bedroom window. That space was limited to a four-inch opening by steel bars bolted to the frame on either side. She moved to the brass headboard and found the holster hanging in its spot. Thumbing the quick-release, she pulled her Glock-19C into her hand, grateful for its familiar weight. On the way to the kitchen, a shiver caused her to grab the faded blue bathrobe that hung on the back of the bedroom door. She shrugged into it to ward off the goose flesh and tightened the robe’s belt.
Nicole moved quietly through the darkness with heightened awareness that fit like a second skin. She sniffed, checking for telltale scents that didn’t belong. Using her peripheral vision, she scanned the living room for any movement or a change in the shadows. She listened past the beating of her heart for stray noises, straining to detect any dissonant presence.
She moved from room to room, silent as the surrounding shadows. Each of the other two bedrooms in her house held a strategically placed, motion-activated, tiny LED nightlight, which she kept to her back. Neither contained any furniture that might conceal an intruder. Her finger moved off the trigger.
Satisfied the interior was empty, she used her smartwatch to check the cameras mounted on the eaves outside the house. The surrounding yard was silent. She relaxed and slipped the Glock into the gun-oil stained pocket of her robe before heading to the kitchen.
“House,” she said. “Kitchen lights up, twenty-five percent over thirty seconds.” As the light gradually increased, Nicole stepped into the kitchen, “House. Coffee, four cups.” The auto-coffee unit measured the correct amount and started heating water, while Nicole dropped two pieces of bread into the toaster. She was up for the day, no matter what the clock read.
She propped her chin on her hands, leaned on the cast resin counter, and stared at the slowly filling carafe. Her mind drifted on the night tides until once again she was taped to that wooden chair in that awful, sweltering rental, surrounded by walls covered in cheap paneling. The left side of her face over her fractured cheekbone throbbed. She brushed her fingertips over the spot. Her heart pounded in her chest as she thought back to the times she’d considered ending the nightmares with a finger pull of her gun’s trigger. Dread leeched into her, bone-deep, heavy and oppressive as the St. Augustine heat from that August afternoon two years ago.
“No.” She shoved the memory aside with a little more ferocity than was probably necessary. Her imagination was not going to push her around. She’d worked too hard, fought too long. The past two years had been a climb back from hell, and she’d earned every step of whatever peace had come with the ascent.
A gurgle from the coffee maker signaled it was done. She poured a cup, creamed and sweetened it, and grabbing the toast when it popped up, padded to the French doors at the rear of the house.
“House,” she said. “Lights fade to off. Security disarm. Voice code recognition, Piricelli, Nicole.”
In response, the light in the kitchen dropped into darkness over the next few seconds. The column of steady green LEDs on the security pad next to the back doors switched to amber. Nicole stepped onto the old-style, southern, wide back porch. Cool night air enveloped her, and she shivered once inside her robe. She took a deep breath, taking in the rich scents of the wetlands bordering the rear of her property. The musky scent mixed with faint salt air from the Florida coast a dozen miles to the east.
She settled into the rocking chair, propped her feet on the banister that ran the length of the porch, and sipped her coffee. Beyond the far edge of her yard, silhouettes of water oaks and pines reached toward the overturned bowl of stars. Above, the cratered face of the moon silvered the cloudless night sky. In the distance, the croaking of alligators rode over from the wetland on a westerly breeze. Alligators made perfect neighbors, she mused. Quiet and well-behaved, as long as you didn’t have small pets, they were better than guard dogs and didn’t need to be taken for a walk. She smiled at the thought. The familiar sound helped settle her nerves.
It was nothing, she told herself. Just a case of insomnia. That could happen. Everybody woke up in the middle of the night sometimes for no reason, sheets twisted into knots. No reason to make it more important than it was.
But it was important. She knew it.
Nicole blew across the lip of her cup. Her thoughts gradually turned to Carter as they often did. It was time. She’d followed his life surreptitiously since he left–since Anne Warwick, the department psychiatrist, had sent him away. Nicole read everything he wrote for his current paper, stopping just short of obsession, she hoped. His writing had gotten better with time. His ability to weave a story into the news he covered had always been good, but lately… She’d bring that up when she talked with Warwick. That must’ve been what had her awake in the middle of the night–the need for resolution. Old baggage. Had to be it. Warwick would get it.
Malone would be a harder sell. Her trainer for the past five years and her partner for three of those five, he could read her moods like the Sunday comics. There’d be no bullshitting him and Nicole knew it. She needed to do this, though. Needed to find out. Malone would understand. He’d have to, or she’d just break his legs.
She absent-mindedly stroked the scarred bed of the missing nail on her left little finger as she chewed a bite of toast. She settled in the rocker and stared to the east, waiting for sunrise.