Cameron Reinhardt is an idiot!
Yes, he had a PhD from Stanford. Yes, he was widely acknowledged as a brilliant geneticist. Yes, Director Swain called him the field's brightest rising star, the Institute's greatest asset, and a fabulous hiring coup. But this wasn't the first time Lacey McHenry wondered how the man managed to get up in the morning and make it to his office fully clothed.
She stood in the frog room's open doorway, a large, rectangular steel tank hulking against the peach-colored wall across from her. One of its three hinged covers stood open, propped back against the wall. Live frogs and toads scattered the concrete floor beneath it, watching her with bulging golden eyes; more of them had trailed slime onto the gleaming floor of the corridor behind her in their break for freedom.
Apparently Dr. Reinhardt had come in sometime that afternoon and forgotten to close not only the lid but the door, as well. She pictured him collecting his subjects and hurrying off to his wet lab at the hall's end, heedless as a teenaged boy. Never mind that all the remaining amphibians could and did escape; never mind someone else would have to clean them up.
Surely he was living proof that a man could be a genius and a moron at the same time.
Conscience pricked her. It wasn't charitable to call anyone a moron, no matter how mindless and exasperating their behavior. And no matter how tired and irritated—and disappointed—she was.
And that's really the problem here, isn't it? With a sigh, she shut the door, rerolled the already drooping sleeves of her oversized white lab coat, and set about recapturing the slimy escapees.
Just last month she'd earned her master's degree in genetics, an accomplishment she was proud of and ready to make use of. Barely out of school, she'd been hired as a research assistant with the promise of eventually developing her own projects.
She'd arrived three weeks ago on the Institute's staff shuttle from Tucson, giddy with excitement. When the shuttle van had driven through the gateway in the massive berm that concealed the Institute's campus from the highway, and she'd seen the great glass-and-granite ziggurat stairstepping out of the desert into the sky, she'd been overwhelmed with wonder. To think they'd actually hired her, that she was to work at the Kendall-Jakes Longevity Institute, premiere research site on the genetics of aging in the country, and perhaps even the world. It had seemed the opportunity of a lifetime.
Now it seemed only an opportunity to develop humility and patience. Since she'd arrived, she'd done little more than tend the experimental animals in the bowels of that great ziggurat, run errands for everyone and his brother, and wash the unending river of glassware that poured from Dr. Reinhardt's fifth-floor research team. She didn't even have her own lab coat, but instead wore the oversized castoff of a former animal technician named Carlos, his name stitched in red on the coat's breast pocket.
Moreover her fellow staff members had made it very clear that she was junior staff—welcomed warmly, but hardly fit to kiss the feet of the exalted priests and priestesses of research who were the heart and soul of Kendall-Jakes, the brilliant men and women who would usher in a new age for mankind. Men like Cameron Reinhardt, who couldn't get his socks matched, rarely cleaned his glasses, forgot to shave more than half the time, and couldn't even remember to close the lid on the frog tank.
And that, her conscience informed her, sounds very much like bitterness.
She trapped the last frog in the far corner and dropped it into the tank with its fellows. As she closed the lid, movement in the corridor beyond the door's square window caught her eye. Was that a face?
Unease danced up her spine, eclipsed immediately by a wriggly embarrassment as she realized she hadn't yet captured the frogs in the corridor. Whoever was out there would surely think—
She stopped in the doorway. Except for the frogs, mostly congregated in front of the windowless door to Reinhardt's small lab at the corridor's end, the hall was empty. The door to Dr. Poe's salamander lab opposite the frog room, however, stood ajar.
She became suddenly aware of how alone she was, surrounded by thick, windowless walls, with almost no chance of anyone coming to her rescue. Most of her colleagues were attending the ice-cream social Dr. Viascola had arranged.
Lacey's heart throbbed against her breastbone. She made herself take in a long, calming breath and told herself she was being silly. The lights beyond the lab's open door were still off, so if someone had just entered, they were now blundering about in the dark. Not only that, she should have heard the echoing clack of the locking mechanism disengage, and she hadn't. The door had probably been open all along; she just hadn't noticed.
Rerolling her lab coat's too-long sleeves yet again, she crossed the corridor and peered through the crack into Dr. Poe's lab. Darkness steeped the room, gilt by the glow of starlight from a window on the far side. She backed out and closed the door to keep out straying frogs, then hurried past the frog room to the main hall. Gleaming floor stretched past the openings for two sister corridors on one side, and mostly closed doors on the other. Only the prep room was lit, its door wide open, as she'd left it.
She heard the squeak of Harvey the hamster running on his wheel from inside the prep room, then a rustle of bedding, probably from the mice caged beside him. In the silence she could hear the muffled drone of the refrigerator, but nothing else.
I'm being silly. Given the millions of dollars Director Swain had funneled into fences, cameras, sensors, larms, lasers, and a cadre of brawny, black-uniformed guards, it was unlikely an intruder could penetrate even the rounds at large, let alone the zig itself. And even if he could, why come to the animal quarters? She'd probably seen he reflection of herself closing the tank lid. It wouldn't be the first time.
She went back to rounding up the frogs and had just dropped one into the tank and closed the lid when she heard a distinct click behind her. She caught her breath and her pulse once more accelerated. Someone was standing in the doorway at her back, blocking the exit, watching her, just as Erik used to do.
She fought down surging panic. Erik is dead. And the idea that anyone at the Institute would be watching her the way he had was absurd. If she'd just turn and face whoever was there, she'd see that.
Drawing a deep breath, she braced a hand against the tank and turned. A single frog sat on the raised threshold, sides fluttering, its golden pop-eyes gleaming in the fluorescent light.
She let out her breath and wiped sweaty palms down the front of her lab coat, feeling like an idiot. The frog hopped toward her. She stooped to grab it, then dropped it into the tank.
It's the lack of sleep, she told herself, returning to the hall in time to see two of her quarry disappear into the darkness of Dr. Poe's lab.
The fans in the physical plant below her dorm room had rumbled through her dreams every night for that first week. Even after Admin let her move, she still wasn't rested. Mandatory meetings and socials and nighttime lectures filled her evenings, after which she often had to spend several hours finishing up with the labware, before she could even start with the animals. Yet every morning breakfast was served at 7:30 a.m., regardless of how little anyone had slept.
And all that was in addition to the emotional drain of living in a new place and working among strangers she was desperate to impress. Every night she was asleep before her head hit the pillow. After almost a month of it, she knew her mounting fatigue was affecting not just her energy but her attitude.
She stopped with her hand on the knob of Poe's door, staring into the dark lab again, a square starry night sky visible through the window at the room's end. The light from the hall filtered in around her, limning shelved aquariums and Rubbermaid dishpans looming close on both sides. Didn't I just close this door?
Her nape crawled. She could almost feel someone in the darkness ahead, watching her, waiting for her. Down the hall in the prep room, Harvey's wheel stopped.
She nearly yanked the door shut and fled, but reason steadied the ridiculous panic. She drew a deep breath, pushed the door wide, and fumbled for the wall switch. The nearest bank of fluorescent lights flickered on, illuminating a narrow alcove choked with U-configured, shoulder-high wooden shelving units. The room's far end widened in the top stroke of a T, where a desk and a potted palm stood in the shadows. No one was there.
Squatting in the first U-shaped module, she nabbed one of her frogs between two of the dishpans and took it back to the main tank. Returning to move deeper into the room, she found another at the juncture of the third and fourth U's, almost to the wider part of the lab. It lay on the bare vinyl of the flooring and made no attempt to escape when she bent toward it. Only as she picked it up did she realize its hind legs were gone. She found one of them on the floor in the next U. Cool, damp, and still softly firm, its moist, ragged thicker end indicated it had been torn from the frog's body.
She stared at the limb uncomprehendingly. Even if the frog had gotten its legs caught between the pans and yanked it off in the struggle to get free, how had one of them gotten more than two feet away from the frog itself?
A cool waft of air, heavy with the scent of wet earth from the nightly watering of the grounds, washed around her. She looked up in surprise, realizing only then that the window was actually a door opened wide onto the shadow-shrouded courtyard beyond.
Even as the revelation dawned, a young man stepped from the shadows to face her. Maybe seventeen or eighteen years old, he was tall, lanky, and coarse-featured, with strong brow and jaw. He'd shaved the sides of his head close, leaving the top in a swath of peltlike hair that pointed to the big pimple in the middle of his forehead. His pale eyes glittered like bits of glass, and a nervous tic pulsed erratically at the edge of his right eye.
He smiled at her, revealing a chipped front tooth, then plucked the frog leg from her grasp and stuffed it into his mouth. She recoiled with a cry of revulsion as he grinned and chewed, cheeks bulging, saliva glistening on his lips. She heard the crunch of bones, and refused to give way further to the distress he clearly wished to cause her.
"Who are you?" she demanded, glad her voice came out firm and crisp. "You shouldn't be here."
He swallowed his morsel and drew the back of a dirty, long-nailed hand across his mouth, his palm marred with a bloody gash. He continued to grin at her, and a chill crawled up her spine. He stood at least a head taller than she and was unquestionably quicker and stronger. And there was something in those eyes that seemed older than his years. Something ... hungry.
He stepped toward her and she flinched backward, bumping into the shelves of dishpans and glass aquariums behind her and pulling a laugh from him. If you run, they always chase you, she thought. Better not to run. Better to stand and face them.
But the old fear was on her, just as it had been with Erik, though it had been four years since his death, and she knew she would take no stands, knew she was going to run.
Then out in the hallway the elevator pinged and its doors rumbled open, instantly reversing their positions. As the youth turned for the courtyard doorway, she grabbed his arm and screamed. He swung about, twisting free of her grip, then slammed her into the freestanding shelves behind her. She felt a blinding pain in her back and chest as she went down with the shelves in a crash of splintering wood and breaking glass. Water gushed around her, the room spun, and she gasped for breath.
Dimly she sensed the youth leave. Then there were others: Dr. Poe, Assistant Director Slattery, and several large security guards. The assistant director bent over her as she pointed toward the door and gasped out what had happened. She wasn't half finished before the guards had disappeared through the door after the youth.
As Slattery and Poe helped her to her feet, pain wrenched the room askew and she fought to draw more than a teaspoonful of air into her lungs. She felt them walking her forward, feet crunching on broken glass. A bright blue salamander thrashed amid the wreckage.
They were carrying on some sort of intense conversation that she had no context to grasp. Then Slattery drew his hand away from her and held it up, covered with bright red blood. "She's bleeding."
Poe hissed an epithet. "Is it bad?"
"I don't know. Her sleeve's soaked. Let's get her to the prep room."
They entered the corridor, Slattery pulling the door to Poe's lab shut behind them. Lacey's vision kept spangling with bright light, blotting the men out. Their voices grew dim and muffled. She wanted nothing so much as to lie down, to be able to breathe again.
The voices rose as someone joined them, and Slattery gave her over to the newcomer. After only a few steps, she was picked up and carried. Her arm didn't hurt, but she thought surely her back must be broken, or perhaps her shoulder blades. The last time she'd hurt this badly was when Erik had hit her with the baseball bat.
Her senses were clearing as they reached the prep room, and she realized with a mild shock that it was Dr. Reinhardt who carried her. He laid her on the floor in one corner, then shrugged out of his lab coat and wadded it up as a pillow for her. She heard the door shut and the lock click, even as Reinhardt leapt up and went to rattle the knob. The sounds receded around her, his pounding on the door growing distant, his demands that Poe unlock it, faint and irrelevant.
Panicked, she struggled to draw air into her lungs, sucking it in with a great painful gasp. The pressure on her chest vanished, her hearing returned, and as she breathed more easily, the pain ebbed to a manageable level. Reinhardt gave up on getting the door unlocked and returned to her.
In his mid-thirties, he had close-cropped auburn hair and gray eyes, which were almost hidden behind smeared wire-rim glasses. He had a pleasant face, open and almost boyish, despite its unshaven grizzle and a smudge—likely printer ink—across one cheekbone. His jeans bore similar smudges, though darker and wider, as did his tennis shoes—worn, run over, and gray with use and age. The rumpled red flannel shirt was both smudged and wet, the latter likely thanks to her.
He was blinking at her as if he had just awakened, as if recent events had transpired far too rapidly for him to follow. Likely they had. She supposed he'd come out of his lab all unawares and walked right into Poe and Slattery helping her to the prep room. Having drafted him to assist, they'd left him locked in the room without a word of explanation, and he was obviously still trying to free himself of his nucleic acids and attend to reality.
"You're Miss McHenry, aren't you? The frog girl."
Frog girl. Yes, that's all I am here, isn't it? She nodded.
Concern creased his brow as he knelt beside her, plucking at the bloodied sleeve of her lab coat. "This doesn't look good. Can you sit up?"
"There was an intruder," she said. "He knocked me into Dr. Poe's shelving units."
"Yes, I gathered that. Here, let me help you." He lifted her to a sitting position, the action making her gasp at the pain it triggered. Gently he stripped off her wet lab coat, tossing it onto the wad of his own dry coat with no thought, apparently, of the consequences. His focus was on her wound now: a six-inch, straight-edged glass cut running along the inside of her left forearm, still bleeding profusely.
"It'll need stitches," he said, stepping to one of the cabinets. He pulled out a first-aid kit and set it on the floor beside her, then turned to the sink of soapy water Lacey had prepared earlier. "This intruder," he said as he plunged his hands into the bubbles, "what did he look like?"
She told him all she could recall, realizing as she did that the youth had seemed somehow familiar, though she couldn't imagine where she might have seen him before.
Hands washed and rinsed, Reinhardt was drying them off when two distant echoing booms halted the flow of her words. "What was that?" she whispered.
"Sounded like gunshots," Dr. Reinhardt said. He stood listening for a moment, then set about cleaning and butterfly-bandaging her wound, a service he performed with a swift and practiced competence that surprised her. As he worked he pressed her to continue her story, interrupting occasionally to question her more closely about the young man. Did he speak? Had she seen him before? Did she think he was truly unbalanced, or one of Director Swain's feared corporate spies putting on a show?
He was taping the last bandage to the slash in her arm when the door crashed open and Slattery burst in. A short, swarthy, vigorous man with a pocked complexion, he had straight black hair brushed back from a high forehead, bushy black brows, and piercing blue eyes. For a moment he paused as if surprised to find them as they were, then said to Reinhardt, "You've tended her, then."
"Only temporarily. She'll need stitches."
"Probably has a mild concussion, too." Slattery turned to the man who'd followed him into the room and gestured at Lacey. "Take her to the clinic."
A second man now angled a gurney through the door as Lacey tottered to her feet. "Oh, I won't need that, Dr. Slattery," she said. "I'm fine, really."
He scowled at her. "You could hardly walk a few minutes ago, miss."
"I just had the breath knocked out of me."
"And took a good knock to the head, too, from the look of that goose egg behind your ear. A concussion's nothing to take lightly. And there's the cut to stitch, as well. I won't risk any lawsuits. Now, hop aboard like a good girl."
Reluctantly she obeyed. "Did you find him? The man who attacked me?"
"Not yet," Slattery said, his scowl deepening. Irritably he motioned for the men to wheel her away, and immediately they complied.
As they lifted the gurney over the raised threshold of the prep room floor, the pain of her cut finally began to override the pain of the cramps in her back. Maybe a visit to the clinic wouldn't be so bad after all. She didn't have to walk, and they might have some Tylenol they could give her and maybe a compress for her back. In fact, she wouldn't even object if they wanted to take some X rays, just to make sure she'd not broken something.