include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for Triggered Response (Security Breach) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

This page may contain adult content. If you are under age 18, or you arrived by accident, please do not read further.




Triggered Response

Security Breach

Patricia Rosemoor

New York Times & USA TODAY Bestselling Author



Copyright © 2006, © 2019 Patricia Pinianski

Second Edition

Previously print-published

Cover Copyright © 2019 Patricia Pinianski


Triggered Response from Dangerous Love Publishing

Distributed by Smashwords


This is a work of fiction, a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons or events is coincidental. This novel may not be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written permission from the author.



SECURITY BREACH SERIES


An explosion in a secret defense lab changes the lives of three men forever.


Book 1: Chain Reaction by Rebecca York

Gage Darnell never should have taken the job of security chief at Cranesbrook defense contractors. And when he rushes into the lab after a secret project goes up in smoke, he's exposed to vapors that leaves him with a strange new power. But that's only the beginning of his problems. He wakes up confined to a mental hospital, and after he breaks out, he's framed for murder. His only way to escape from the cops is to "kidnap" his wife, Lily, who thinks he's crazed and dangerous. Will she trust him enough to come back to their marriage bed, and then help clear his name and save both their lives?


Book 2: Critical Exposure by Ann Voss Peterson

Echo Sloane doesn’t like Detective Rand McClellan’s insistence that her brother caused the Cranesbrook lab explosion. But when her baby is kidnapped and the ransom demanded is her missing brother, she must turn to Rand for help. Danger closes in on them when they encounter another man who lived through the lab explosion. He's determined to use the power he acquired to destroy anyone--including Rand and Echo—standing in his way.


Book 3: Triggered Response by Patricia Rosemoor

His brain was on fire, and he fought going back to the raging inferno of his private hell. Despite the power he now possessed, he couldn’t even remember his name. According to the news, he was Brayden Sloane, former security expert at Cranesbrook Labs, now wanted for murder and kidnapping. He couldn’t remember that, nor the woman who claimed to be his wife. Claire Fanshaw needed Bray to find her friend who'd disappeared following the explosion. Until Bray regained his memory, she'd stick to him like glue. But what would he do when he realized the woman in his bed was a stranger? And what would she do if the cops were right about Bray?


Triggered Response proved to be the most challenging book I’ve ever written, because I wrote it during a year when I lost four people dear to me. I dedicate this book to them.

In loving memory of my husband, Edward Majeski, November 7, 1937–October 18, 2005, who died of a glioblastoma (brain cancer); my father, Walter Pinianski, October 17, 1917–February 10, 2005, who was murdered by a home invader; my aunt Jeannette Voelker, d. October 31, 2004, of cancer; and my uncle Ray Fucci, d. August 2005, who also died of a glioblastoma.

I want to thank everyone who helped keep me sane and got me through 2005. Linda Sweeney, Ruth Glick, Ann Voss Peterson, Sherrill Bodine, Cheryl Jefferson, Rosemary Paulas, Jude Mandell, Cathy Andorka, Arlene Erlbach, Judy Veramendi, Michael A. Black, Marc Paoletti, Marcus Sakey, Rob and Beth Flumignan, Julia Borcherts, Frank Crist, Dana Litoff, Darwyn Jones, Megan Campbell, Andre Frieden, Sharon Doering, Tina Hickman, Florence Majeski, Scott and Alan Majeski; and numerous other people for big and small kindnesses that kept me going.


Prologue

Three weeks before the accident


The light in the lab’s storeroom was on.

Mac Ellroy was inside, checking the vials. Why the hell was the lab tech in here after hours? And what did he think he was doing messing with the chemicals?

“Find what you’re looking for?”

Mac spun around, guilt all over his pretty face. His spiked hair seemed to stand on end as he choked, “I— I was just checking on things.”

“Doing inventory?”

“R-right.”

Mac was obviously lying. He was pretty much an open book. Not an ounce of subterfuge in him. None that was convincing, anyway.

“So, where’s your list?”

The lab tech looked around as if he really had one. “I, um, must have put it down somewhere…. Maybe it’s out here.”

Mac left the storeroom for the lab proper. One of the monkeys started chattering and a couple of the control rats skittered around their cages. Seeming oblivious to the familiar noises, Mac went from table to table as if he really might have put something down on one of them.

“Or maybe you’re just snooping. Do you have a problem with your work?”

Mac stopped in front of the window. On the other side of the glass, moonlight shone down on the peaceful lake surrounded by small boulders and natural grasses. Framed as he was, not moving, not saying anything, the lab assistant looked like part of a still-life painting.

Then his square jaw tightened and the fine skin around his dark eyes pulled in little lines. “Don’t you have a problem with it? Doesn’t developing Project Cypress bother you? How do you sleep at night?”

“It’s necessary work. We live in an unstable world.”

“But this—”

“Is simply another tool to accomplish what’s necessary. Obviously, you don’t agree.”

“No, I don’t.”

“You’d be more comfortable being taken off this particular experiment, then.”

Mac nodded. “I would rather work on something else.”

“That can be arranged.”

“Really? Good. Good.” Mac breathed a sigh of relief. “But first you need to know that some of the chemicals are missing.”

“Missing?” He really had been taking inventory?

“I noticed one of the vials seemed a bit short. That’s why I came back to the lab, to check the rest. Someone has tampered with the chemicals. You have a problem here.”

“I know I do.” He realized what he had to do wasn’t pretty. “Why don’t you show me?”

Eager now to share his findings, Mac turned toward the storeroom to lead the way. His mistake.

The fire extinguisher was on the wall, right there, right outside the storeroom door.

Mac never saw it coming.


Chapter One

Twelve days after the accident


His brain was on fire again.

He did his damnedest to stop from being sent to his private hell, but as always, he was dragged kicking and screaming back into the raging inferno.

The crags of Hades surround him, blazing hotter than the sun gone nova. The desert air is so intense that it blisters his skin. His mouth so dry that he can’t swallow. Can hardly breathe.

He glances through dark glasses at the two men behind him. Both look like him—camouflage pants and armless T-shirts, heavy boots and helmets, carrying holstered pistols and K-bar knives and submachine guns. The mission went off as planned. They found the camp in the maze of caves and will use the GPS system to guide in the Afghani guerillas who’ll route the enemy from their cover.

And then the American helicopters will take over.

Still, he has to be vigilant. The enemy could be anywhere…waiting…. He senses danger like bugs crawling over him. One misstep and they’re dead men.

Circling, he moves back against rock until their carefully sheltered Humvee comes into sight. Peering around between them and the vehicle, he sees no indication that the enemy is anywhere within shooting distance. Al Qaeda snipers could be positioned anywhere up in those rocks above them.

Sweat trickles down his spine as he signals the other men. Though they’re all equipped with radios and headsets, he figures better to keep from making a sound. He indicates they should get back to the truck. He’ll cover them and bring up the rear.

He raises his MP-5, ready to trigger the submachine gun at the slightest movement, at the smallest hint of light reflected off an enemy’s weapon.

The seasoned guy goes first.

Trigger-finger tense, he turns this way and that, vigilant as his buddy goes for the driver’s door. He signals the other one, the youngest kid in their unit. His dark skin is ashen, but if he’s afraid, that’s the only sign.

Running for the vehicle, the kid takes a fatal step, explodes like a child’s piñata. Instead of candy and toys, his body bursts into bits of flesh and bone.

And blood. Pink mist.

Covered with the kid’s life force, he loses it and runs to the Humvee. His gorge in his throat, he throws himself into the passenger seat, his driver buddy’s tortured-sounding curses ringing in his ears. The vehicle takes off, throwing him hard back against the seat.

Something inside him finally breaks. An inner explosion inside his head. He can’t breathe. Even closing his eyes can’t erase the image of another senseless death heaped on dozens of others he’s seen.

His brain is on fire.

Burning. Melting.

But he has to be okay. Has to. People are counting on him. His Special Ops unit… the ones who aren’t dead yet. The government that sent him here. The people back home.

He has to be okay. Has to.

He forces back the flames.

Only to have a second flash of sound open his eyes.

An explosion throws a wall of heat at him. Amid rubble and smoke, a white lab-coated body lies there at his feet. Not the kid. Not in the mountainous desert. Not all those years ago. Somehow, he traverses through space and time. A different place, a different explosion, a different victim…

“No! Not again!”

Flying up out of the nightmare, he realized he’d been asleep in the bunk in the Baltimore homeless shelter where he’d been placed. He began to shake. His brain was on fire. Burning again as it had night after night after night. He fought back and pushed the images away as he always did because he had to be okay. Had to.

Whoever he was.

***

SECURITY EXPERT SOUGHT FOR QUESTIONING

The headline glared up at Claire Fanshaw as she picked up the Baltimore Sun on the way to her office on the opposite corridor from the Cranesbrook Associates laboratories. A quick glance at the text of the article made her frown and slow her step.

“Think he’s responsible?” asked a woman from accounting.

“What?” Claire stopped and gave the bespectacled brunette a questioning look.

“Brayden Sloane. For the explosion.”

“It’s not my place to be pointing fingers. Does everyone around here think he’s guilty?”

“He did go missing on the day of the accident. If he’s innocent, then why hasn’t he shown up since?”

“I don’t know.” Claire frowned as she thought about it again. “Maybe something happened to him.”

“Not only do the authorities want to question Sloane about the lab explosion but about his niece, Zoe. Just a baby. She disappeared yesterday. Kidnapped, poor little thing. He must have had something to do with that, too.”

Thinking the attractive young woman was telling the sad tale with too much relish, Claire murmured, “Time will tell, I guess,” and moved on.

She tucked the newspaper under her arm and headed for her office, situated in the wing opposite the one that held the labs. In charge of computer services, she’d agreed to take the job for her own personal reasons. And now this article amplified her growing suspicions.

She and Brayden Sloane might not be friends—she’d wanted full access to Cranesbrook’s computer system, including high-security files, and he’d argued that she was overstepping her bounds—but she didn’t believe he was a villain. He’d seemed a straight arrow, the kind of guy who was zipped up a little too tight, but honest. And he wasn’t the first man connected with Cranesbrook to have disappeared.

A reminder of her purpose here.

A couple of men in lab coats came out of Dr. Nelson Ulrich’s office, one of them saying, “The cops finally released the lab. About time.”

“Not that it’s usable after the accident. It’ll take weeks to clean it up and get it working again.”

“Project Cypress has already been moved to one of the new labs. It’ll be up and running by Monday. I imagine it’ll stay there.”

Claire lingered, wanting to know more about Project Cypress, but apparently her very presence buttoned lips. The men, silent now, passed her as they made their way back to their labs.

She glanced at the office suite of the late Sid Edmonston, the former head of the company. The broken glass door had been removed so that it stood open, the blood-stained carpet was covered with a plastic runner.

Shuddering at the reminder of violence, she entered her own office, small but well-furnished with a heavy cherry wood desk, credenza and bookshelves that glowed a deep red against the neutral walls and carpeting. She’d hung a few framed art museum posters and had set a crystal vase with a bouquet of fall flowers on the credenza. Anything to surround herself with color.

Sliding behind her desk, Claire stared at the computer that mocked her. How irritating that she’d been working here for nearly a month and was no closer to prying open company secrets than when she’d been hired.

She’d spent years as a transient student, going from university to university, from program to program, finishing none. The one constant for her had been computers. They’d fascinated her, maybe because they were so honest—computers didn’t lie—and she’d become an expert without ever getting a degree. Not that her employers were aware of that fact. Impressed with her computer skills, none of them had actually checked her academic credentials. She’d always seen that they’d gotten their money’s worth in hiring her.

She had reason to be frustrated.

Obviously, whatever had been going on in Lab 7 hadn’t been reported via normal channels. She’d checked report after report, everything she’d been able to get to. Nothing. Cranesbrook dealt with government contracts that required different levels of security clearances. This project was off limits to all but the head of the company and the scientists working on it.

When security chief Brayden Sloane had denied her access, Claire had programmed a key logger to help her crack the password. She’d installed the tiny program on the computers of personnel connected to Project Cypress—Dr. Nelson Ulrich, Director of Research, Hank Riddell, the research fellow and Wes Vanderhoven, the head lab assistant. To that short list, she’d added Dr. Martin Kelso, Director of Operations and Acting President of Cranesbrook until the corporation’s board chose a replacement for the late Sid Edmonston.

The logger sat on the keyboard driver and recorded every key struck by the person at the computer. It could break down which keys were struck in small-time increments. Unfortunately finding the password this way hadn’t worked.

Claire finally realized that Cranesbrook was obviously using some kind of physical key to enter the code, which meant it was a very, very long sequence. Since she didn’t know the nature of the key—a physical object rather than program—there was no way for her to intercept the password. More than likely, the object was some kind of flash drive rather than a disk. Or better yet, an SD or Secure Digital chip—the kind found in digital cameras, cell phones or other tech devices. An SD could be downloaded through a slot in the front of the computer’s CPU. All of the Cranesbrook computers had this feature, so that would make sense.

Too bad she had no way of finding the physical key that would be her “Open Sesame.”

Claire suspected whatever had been going on in Lab 7 was military hush-hush, some kind of new bio or chemical weapon that called for a special government encryption. She’d gone for the brute-force attack. Multiplying large prime numbers fifty digits long or better and trying out the results one at a time to see if she could unlock the encryption was incredibly time-consuming.

So far, no go.

If she were a Blackhat, she would enlist every hacker she knew, but she wasn’t out to break government security. She simply wanted to find a credible reason for her friend having disappeared from sight.

But what if the reason wasn’t credible? She needed to get to the truth of the matter. What if foul play and a cover-up had been involved?

What then?

Would she really be able to expose the people responsible and bring them and their damn project to their knees?

Thinking that far ahead scared Claire. Even though she didn’t always tell the truth, she was basically a good person with an ability that gave her more power than sometimes made her comfortable. She was only doing this because something had happened to her best friend, Mac Ellroy.

Taking a deep breath, she decided to make another attempt to crack the password.

She brought up the program and clicked on Start. Numbers flashed across the screen as the multiplier compiled one hundred possible ways in to Project Cypress. It would take her at least an hour to go through these potential passwords. She cut and pasted the first number into her encryption program.

If only she could get to those computer files that might provide some explanations, then maybe she could settle down, get rid of the paranoia that followed her around like a black cloud.

The first number she tried didn’t work—no big surprise, she’d been doing this for weeks now—so she cut and pasted the next in line.

The work on Project Cypress had triggered an explosion in the lab itself and far-reaching chaos within the company. Now, less than two weeks later, several people were dead—Cranesbrook’s CEO, one of the security guards and two cops. Who knew if Wes Vanderhoven would ever be himself again, his mind having been affected by the accident.

The second try gave her another error message.

In some kind of bizarre coincidence, Zoe Sloane had been kidnapped. How in the world did a baby fit into the picture other than through her relationship to her uncle, the missing security chief?

She entered number three.

A knock at her office door jarred Claire back to her job. “Come in,” she said, even as she tapped a key that set her screen saver to life.

Her heart nearly stopped when Dr. Ulrich entered. The fiftyish scientist wore his lab coat buttoned one off and his graying blond hair styled in a comb-over that didn’t fool anyone into believing he wasn’t going bald.

He peered at her through wire-rimmed glasses, saying, “I need some information about a new computer program that will help us organize the results of our research. Can you have someone get that for me?”

“Of course, I’ll do it myself.” She picked up a pen and held it poised over a pad of paper. “The name of the program?”

“Bio-Chem Tracker.”

“Got it.”

Ulrich stood there, staring down at her as though he expected her to get him the information right this moment. Her pulse skittered through her veins. Her computer was still working on the password to his project, and if she took off the screen saver, he would see the big error message that was bound to be there and know what she was up to.

“Is there something more you need?” she asked, keeping her voice pleasant. “Information on another program?”

“Don’t you just…pull it off your computer?” He waved his hand in the air as if he were trying to pull a rabbit from a hat.

“Oh, you want it now.” She gave him an expression that was at once distressed and conciliatory. “I have some work that I need to get to for Dr. Kelso first, you understand. Unless this takes priority, of course.”

“Everything in its order, I suppose,” Ulrich mumbled, but he didn’t look too happy.

Claire gave him her most dazzling smile. “I can have that information to you tomorrow morning, Dr. Ulrich.”

“Very well.”

He left her office shaking his head. Not until he was out the door did her tension begin to dissipate. Waiting until her pulse steadied and she was certain Ulrich wasn’t going to pop back in on her, Claire turned off the screen saver and entered the next number.

Mac Ellroy had worked in Lab 7, too. When he’d called to tell her about the job opening for Supervisor of Computer Services, he’d hinted that the Project Cypress experiment was something he’d never imagined working on, but he’d kept his oath of secrecy as to content. And then only a few days after she’d interviewed for the job, he’d disappeared. Luckily, she hadn’t used Mac as a reference or she wouldn’t have been offered the position.

The official story was that the lab tech hadn’t liked the isolation of St. Stephens, so that he’d quit, moved back to Washington.

But if he had come back to D.C., the first thing Mac would have done was demand she meet him at their favorite wine bar for a spill-all. He hadn’t told her he was going anywhere. His land phone had gone out of service, and he wasn’t answering his cell or returning her messages. His landlord here in St. Stephens had said he’d gotten notice of Mac’s leaving via an e-mail. Supposedly, Mac had simply cleared out and had left an extra month’s rent on the kitchen counter.

In cash.

Nothing in Mac’s handwriting, not even a check.

Claire had called every mutual friend and acquaintance in D.C., but no one seemed to know where to find him, not even Mac’s ex-boyfriend. Benjamin had already moved on to a new lover, and Mac was the last thing on his mind.

But Mac had certainly been on Claire’s. Still was every time she looked at the ring she wore on her right hand—the class ring that Mac had bought her as a high-school graduation present because she’d had no money to buy one for herself. They’d joked that their matching rings would bind them together forever.

But now Mac had vanished.

Had he stumbled onto something in the lab that had made it necessary for him to disappear?

Or had someone saved him the trouble?

She wondered, as probably everyone did, about Brayden Sloane, another “missing person.” He’d last been seen on the night of the lab accident. Was the security expert in part responsible for the terrible things that had happened at Cranesbrook both before and after the accident?

Or was he yet another victim?


Chapter Two

“If you don’t want that, I’ll be happy to eat it,” a wizened old man said, a wrinkled, blue-veined hand snaking out over one of the two plank tables in the dining room.

His mind had been wandering again, but once awakened to reality, he lowered his arm and prevented the theft.

“If there are leftovers, they’ll give you more.”

He shoveled in his food—the only way he could think about the stew that filled the hole in his belly. The food was as austere as the facility. In addition to several bedrooms fitted with multiple sets of bunk beds, there was a common room filled with not-so-gently used furniture, this dining hall, three toilets and a shower room.

Though he remembered little more than bits and pieces of his life—not enough to connect the dots—he knew he didn’t ordinarily live at this low level.

He remembered the feel of a real bed with a real mattress and the taste of a medium-rare rib eye and the touch of hundreds of needles of water spraying on him from multiple directions at once. He had other memories, too, precipitated by touching various objects, most notably a set of keys that had remained in his pocket. Like a car that was low and fast, a house whose back porch had a water view, an attractive redhead who aggravated him.

What he didn’t remember was his name. Or his address. Or where he worked. Nothing that would give him a clue as to his identity.

He could conjure nothing of true significance, no fully fleshed scenario that had taken place before he’d awakened on a boat in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. The owner and his friends hadn’t been too happy, especially not with the way he’d looked. One of them had called him a bum.

But at least they hadn’t thrown him overboard, and when they’d realized he was hurt, rather than simply dump him at the marina where they’d docked, they’d taken him to an ER and had turned over his wallet to the guy at the intake desk.

Big mistake.

By the time the triage nurse had wheeled him into her cubicle, his wallet had disappeared, and with it any clue as to his identity. Even so, the hospital staff had kept him overnight for observation, sticking him in a bed against the wall in the ER with the other insurance-free indigents.

His mind had worked furiously to grab on to something that would tell him who he was; he hadn’t been able to sleep all night.

In the morning, the doc taking care of him said that it might take some time, but most likely memories would start trickling in. The hospital social worker had placed him at this homeless shelter for men. He’d slept, but every night he’d been visited by the recurring nightmare. Maybe there was more wrong with him than a few stitches could fix.

He’d lost count of the days he’d been here as easily as he had of himself. The memories had started coming back, but at a really slow trickle.

“Are you done with your newspaper?” he asked a salt-and-pepper-haired man who sat on the other side of the table.

“Be my guest.” The guy shoved it at him. “Nothin’ but bad news anyhow.”

“Thanks.”

As he took the paper, their hands collided, and he was hit with an image of the man very different from the one sitting across from him. The guy wore a hard hat and clung to a metal span high up on an open floor of a building-in-progress. Nausea hit him as though he were afraid of heights, then dissipated as quickly as the image of the construction worker.

His hands trembled as he smoothed the Baltimore Sun out in front of him.

What the hell had that been about? It wasn’t the first time he’d had an episode like that, either. Touching things had become a chancy proposition. He never knew what was going to pop into his head. Was he going crazy? Is that why he couldn’t remember who he was?

He glanced at the date on the paper’s masthead and realized he’d been at the shelter for eleven days. How was he ever going to get out of here and back to where he belonged when he couldn’t even keep track of time?

His gaze dropped to the lead story. SECURITY EXPERT SOUGHT FOR QUESTIONING. Two photos accompanied the article. One of a baby, the other of a man who looked amazingly like the guy in his mirror. Spiked dark hair, pale gray eyes, broad forehead, square jaw.

He really could be the guy in the photo.

His stomach knotted as he skimmed the article.

Brayden Sloane…brother of Echo Sloane…uncle of a kidnapped baby named Zoe…partner in Five Star Security in Baltimore…formerly in charge of security for biggest client, Cranesbrook Associates in St. Stephens, until a mysterious explosion twelve days before…

Twelve days ago, he’d somehow ended up in a boat coming from St. Stephens.

Coincidence?

Brayden Sloane. It seemed to fit. Unable to deny he looked like the man in the photo, he tried on the name. Brayden…Bray. That was it, had to be. Right? At last, he thought he had a name.

What about the rest?

Remembering the second part of the recurring dream—the explosion in a lab, a white-coated man on the floor—he thought that might have happened at this Cranesbrook Associates. But what about the baby? His niece?

He vaguely remembered a round little face, dimpled cheek and a tiny hand that clung to his finger. The thought tightened his chest and he felt anger surge through him that someone would hurt her.

He took a deep breath and tried to remember the past, but no matter how hard he tried, nothing new came to him. Bits and pieces of memory floated around in his brain but he simply had no control over what he could latch on to.

Kind of like the touching thing. Only, those memories belonged to other people.

He finished skimming the article. The authorities were looking for him in connection with both incidents. Did they merely think he had information or did they really think he was a criminal?

Was he? Of what exactly was he guilty?

Bray didn’t know.

He couldn’t have kidnapped his niece, though. When she’d gone missing, he’d been right here at the shelter, as he had since being released from the ER.

As to the incident at Cranesbrook, he simply didn’t know his own involvement. That lack of knowledge being the stumbling block to turning himself in. What if they locked him up for good? Then he might never know what really happened.

First, he needed to find out more. The truth. See if he could jump-start his memory. To do that, he would have to get to St. Stephens. To Cranesbrook itself.

But how? In addition to the set of keys in his pocket, he’d found some bills and change. A little less than twenty bucks. He’d spent nearly five already. Not to mention he didn’t know where he was going.

Approaching the volunteer at the food table, a soft-looking, middle-aged woman, easy to talk to, he asked, “Hey, Sophie, can you tell me where St. Stephens is?”

“Across the Chesapeake, honey.”

“Any way to get there other than by boat?”

“Sure. You could drive down through Annapolis and take the bridge over. Well, if you had a car. I don’t know if a bus goes across the Chesapeake or not. Did you remember something, honey? Do you know who you are, where you belong?”

“I only wish. Thanks, Sophie.”

He did have keys to a car, only he didn’t know where he’d stashed the vehicle. Maybe in St. Stephens. And he wouldn’t have the bucks for a bus anyway. That left only one option he could count on.

He wondered how long it would take his thumb to get him where he needed to be.

***

Still at her computer, Claire entered another number…another…and another….

She spent all afternoon wasting her time on what proved to be a futile task.

The whole time, her mind kept spinning, kept looking for reasons why people associated with the mysterious Project Cypress weren’t safe.

Her worst fear was that her best friend had been the first one to die because of it. And then his death had been covered up. A professional cover-up, she thought. The reason she’d still taken the job at Cranesbrook when it had been offered to her.

The only reason she’d applied for something so far from D.C. in the first place had been to be near Mac. She’d been lonely and had wanted to be near the only person who really felt like family to her.

And now he was gone and others were dead, and a mystery shrouded the two owners of Five Star Security in particular.

Her thoughts strayed to Gage Darnell, Brayden Sloane’s partner. Gage had been affected by the lab explosion, had been taken to Beech Grove Clinic along with Wes Vanderhoven. But unlike Vanderhoven, who was still there for all she knew, Gage had escaped.

She didn’t get that part—why he’d needed to escape the clinic as if he’d been held prisoner.

Suddenly it hit her—the significance of the wire transfer that had gone from Cranesbrook to a Dr. Morton at the clinic the morning after the explosion. She’d seen it by accident, really, and had thought nothing of the money that had changed businesses. Only she was thinking of it now.

Two million bucks for what?

She switched gears and ran a search on Beech Grove Clinic but found no documents that pertained to the accident or to the men brought there or to the money.

Cover-up money?

Unable to find the entry, she tried again. No dice. Nothing. It was gone. Poof. As though it had never existed.

Cover-up money covered up?

Frustrated, Claire gave up for the moment. Tired of entering numbers that didn’t work and checking files that had no answers for her, she felt as if she would never solve anything from her desk. The next step, then, was to see if she could find any answers in Lab 7 itself now that it had been cleared.

Answers the authorities hadn’t been able to find.

She sighed.

She didn’t even know what she was looking for. She only knew she had to try.

***

Thumbing for rides didn’t work nearly as efficiently as a steering wheel and an accelerator, Bray soon learned. For one, the average citizen was wary of picking up a stranger. Truck drivers were far more accommodating, perhaps because they spent too many hours alone in their cabs.

He’d picked up his easiest ride down to Annapolis. The driver had offered him gum, and in taking a piece, Bray had seen the guy with a group of little kids surrounding him as he handed out sticks of gum from a big pack.

Getting across the bridge that spanned the Chesapeake was a bit trickier. So was the driver. Bray didn’t get anything off him until his map got knocked to the floor and the driver asked Bray if he could get it. Suddenly, Bray was driving through a desert of saguaro cactus and figured the guy was a long way from home.

Heading south along the eastern shore had been the big problem. No eighteen-wheelers going his way. Only lots of suspicious drivers. He’d managed it, though, walking maybe a third of the way.

Finally, he’d caught a ride with an older woman who had two dogs big enough to tear him to bits if he made a wrong move. Patting one of them, he saw the dog on his back, wiggling like a puppy for his mistress, who was wearing a smile she apparently saved for her pets. Without so much as a change of expression, she’d let him off at the edge of town.

Here he was, hours later, approaching Cranesbrook on foot.

The sun had set and deep shadows gave the place an added spooky feel as darkness fell. Ahead, chain-link fence topped by razor wire surrounded several red brick buildings. A security station was set up at the entrance and a guard in gray was checking incoming vehicles.

Bray clung to the side of the road where his approach could be hidden by clusters of bushes and trees. He watched intently, but didn’t see the guard glance his way as he checked in a car and then a van. A supply truck rumbled down the lane and as it passed Bray, a cigarette butt flicked out of the window and landed at his feet, as if he were meant to pick it up. So, he did.

Immediately he saw the driver and the uniformed guard chatting away like old buddies….

Maybe they were. And maybe that would give him a way into the compound, Bray thought, noting the back of the truck was only half-gated.

Some buried instinct took over and he seamlessly slipped through the shadows as the truck came to a stop.

“Hey, Johnny, kinda late for a delivery,” he heard the guard say.

“Hormones, Howard, hormones. They get a man right where he lives.”

Bray ducked low and, without making a sound, crossed to the back of the delivery truck.

“New woman, huh?” the guard asked as Bray found a toehold for a boost upward.

“Nothing permanent. Met her in that new nudie bar up on the highway. She’s on her way west. Needed someplace to stay last night.”

Lightly hauling himself over the gate, Bray noted how familiar this felt to him, as if his body was trained for this kind of activity. His pulse had quickened but that was the only effect the subterfuge had on him.

“You gave it to her?” the guard asked.

“I gave it to her, all right—all night!”

The two men laughed lewdly as Bray settled down among bushes and small trees. The truck was filled with landscaping materials. Manure included. Catching his breath against the permeating odor, he decided to wait until the truck passed the main building before ditching it. Suddenly he realized he knew the landscaping office was in a building on the other side of the grounds.

An honest-to-God new memory that belonged to him rather than someone else!

As the truck started up again, Bray wondered if, once he was inside, all his questions would be answered as easily as he’d gotten into a supposed high-security complex.

Peering out through the branches of a bush, he saw the security station recede and the main building come into view. Out of nowhere came the thought that the building had two wings—one of offices, the other of labs—both facing a little nature preserve with a lake and rock and grasses in the center. If he remembered that much, he might remember more once inside.

Staying low, he crawled to the gate, waiting for the moment the truck would drive through a darkened area and counting on the driver having no need for his rearview mirror.

That would be…

Now!

Bray slid up and over the gate, dropping to his feet and rolling. He kept rolling off the road into the grass. The truck didn’t so much as slow down.

Keeping to the shadows, he got to his feet and, gaze roaming over the open area to make sure no one could surprise him, ran toward the back of the main building and the rear door that had a keypad entry. Another memory that came back to him out of nowhere.

Once inside, would he remember everything?

Would he get inside?

It suddenly occurred to him that he might not be able to figure out the security code. The newspaper article had said Five Star Security had been replaced by another company, one that had probably made all kinds of changes.

Not that he actually remembered the code his own company had used—a realization that hit home as he stopped at the back door and stared down at the mechanism.

Now what?

Instinct brought his fingers over the keypad. Tentatively touching it, he nearly jumped out of his skin when a series of numbers whipped through his mind. This was just like the images he’d been having all day touching objects that belonged to other people.

Their memories?

Or was he simply out of his mind?

One way to find out. He quickly entered the numbers on the keypad.

Click.

The door opened.

He was in.

***

Claire waited until the end of the day to go poking around Lab 7. It wasn’t unusual that she was at Cranesbrook long after the majority of the staff had left. Everyone thought she was so dedicated to her work, when in reality, she was dedicated to finding the key to Mac’s disappearance.

Knowing she was outside of her element and playing with fire, she grabbed a folder of information on that new computer program Dr. Ulrich wanted to buy. She swept out of her office with the folder under her arm as though she meant to deliver it to Ulrich, who’d left his office a while ago.

At least that was what she would tell the director of research if she ran into him.

Claire knew she could convince anyone of anything. When you came from a family where no one told the truth on a regular basis, you learned to spin a good tale at an early age. The ability to make a lie sound like reality was something she was good at, right up there with her computer skills.

No one was inside the suite, but the door wasn’t locked, either, which meant Ulrich was still somewhere on the complex premises. Where he might be, she didn’t know, but she was going to wing it.

Knowing he had to have an extra set of keys to the labs, she quickly searched his assistant’s desk. Marge was a nice woman with a relaxed attitude, something Claire was counting on. Sure enough, the assistant had left a ring of keys at the back of her top desk drawer. Most of them were marked with a numeral. Two with a 7.

Noting the cuts were different, Claire took them both and tucked the keyring back where she’d found it.

Her heart fluttered as she made her way down the laboratory corridor. So far, so good. No one in attendance. She heard some muffled sounds in some of the labs—voices, a scrape, a crash followed by a curse—but no heads poked from the doorways to see what she was up to.

Standing in front of Lab 7’s door, Claire felt her stomach tighten and churn. The door was soot-stained, looking worse for the wear, but it was closed. Probably locked. She reached out, took a big breath, then tested the handle, expecting she would have to use the key. She didn’t. That it turned made her more nervous. Was someone already inside? Ulrich?

Her fingers tightened around the folder. She pasted a smile to her lips—just in case she had to use her cover story—and opened the door.

The lab was dark.

Shoulders sagging with relief, Claire stepped inside and pulled the door closed behind her. No doubt the lab was open because Project Cypress had just been moved and someone figured you didn’t need to lock an empty lab.

A little light came in through the windows that faced the center of the Cranesbrook campus with its lake surrounded by rocks and natural grasses. No one ever went out there—not that she had ever seen—but anyone in the wing across the way could see into the lab, as well, a reason not to turn on the room lights until she’d closed the blinds. Circling a lab table, she crossed the room and did so.

That accomplished, she pulled a Maglite from her pocket, but before she could click it on and sweep the narrow beam through the darkened room, something flitted at the edge of her vision. Her stomach knotted and the breath caught in her throat. What the hell was that? Her pulse thrummed. She stood perfectly still and listened hard for any sound.

Nothing.

Not even the intake of breath.

And yet she knew she wasn’t alone.

What should she do? Switch on the Maglite? Face down the other person? An intruder like herself? Who else would be in the abandoned lab in the dark?

Sensing she’d put herself in danger, Claire decided that the smart thing would be to book out of here as fast as her feet would carry her.

But no sooner did she take a single step than a big body bumped up against her back and a hand covered her mouth. She jammed her elbow backward and got a single “Oof!” in response, but the grip didn’t loosen. Though she tried to twist and turn, she couldn’t free herself. The folder went flying as she stomped backward but missed her attacker’s foot.

He was so damned strong. What was she going to do?

The only thing she could think of.

She let herself go limp, hoping the surprise of her dead weight would make him let go.

Instead he went down with her, crashing to the lab floor. Though she writhed in his arms, the only thing she accomplished was to free one arm and twist around so she was facing him as he landed on top of her.

Shrieking in frustration, Claire snapped on the Maglite and shone it in his battered, beard-shadowed face.

Her eyes widened and she gasped, “Brayden Sloane, get the hell off me!”



Chapter Three

His touching her wreaked havoc on him. Irritation and attraction warred with one another, and for a moment, even though her face was still in the dark, he clearly saw reddish brows knit together in a frown over annoyed green eyes.

Familiar…

He shook himself and demanded, “You know who I am, right?”

“Of course I know. Now, get off. Please.”

Bray picked himself up off the floor. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

He thrust a hand into the pool of light, but she ignored his offer of help. Instead she scrambled to her feet and, backing away from him, shone that bright light directly into his eyes.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded.

“Trying to get to the truth.” She wasn’t on the up-and-up herself, he realized, not sneaking around in the dark with a Maglite. He instinctually remembered her if not her name. “What about you?”

“The same.”

“You’re trying to get to the truth? About what?”

“What happened in here,” she said. “The accident, of course.”

The lab explosion in his dream. He’d seen it again when he’d touched the door handle. Nearly overpowered by the memory, he’d made it inside the lab. He’d gone shaky for a moment and had stood quietly, trying not to let the memory eat at him, fighting to regain control.

That was when he’d heard the noise outside the door and had prepared himself for an assault. He hadn’t meant to be the one doing the assaulting, but he couldn’t let her blow the whistle on him, not when he had no answers.

“Maybe we should turn on the room light,” he suggested.

“Good idea.”

She backed away from him and a few seconds later, light cast a fluorescent glow over the space.

Bray didn’t know what he’d expected, but the lab was less threatening than it had been in his dreams. There were signs of something having happened—the door to an inner room was split, hanging crookedly on its hinges, and there were streaks of soot on the nearby walls and tables. But other than that, it simply looked like an empty lab.

The woman put him more on edge than his surroundings. Her red hair waved around her oval face and brushed the shoulders of her navy pantsuit, its starkness offset by a sparkly green scarf and matching shoulder-duster earrings. Her equally green eyes were rounded, and she was biting her full bottom lip as if trying to decide what to do about him.

“You’re not thinking about screaming, are you?” he asked as he crossed toward the inner room, sending his gaze into every corner.

“I don’t scream.”

“Because if you did, you’d get caught.”

“I work here.”

“Not in this lab,” he reminded her as he flicked the inner room light on.

More damage. A table with a broken leg. A couple of shelves that had collapsed. Other than the damaged furniture, the room was empty. He touched the table and was rewarded with a replay of the explosion, of the man in the white lab coat on the floor.

His pulse rushed through his head, filling it with sound, and he barely heard the woman state, “I could say I saw you and followed you.”

He whipped around to face her and felt the heat for a second, but he quickly got himself under control.

“Is that a threat?” he snapped, pacing toward her.

She backed up another step. “I—it could be.”

Bray could see she was still wary of him but undecided, so he stopped just outside of her personal space and brought the question into the open. “Do you think I did it?”

“What?”

“The lab accident. Do you think I was responsible?”

“Were you?”

He’d tried to grab on to the truth since getting inside, but nothing new had come to him. “I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“Just that. Something happened to me… I must have hit my head pretty good, I guess,” he said, “because I don’t remember. Not about the accident. Not about anything. That’s why I came back.”

Expression disbelieving, she asked, “If you have no memory, how did you know to come to Cranesbrook?”

“Today’s Baltimore Sun. Even I couldn’t deny the resemblance when I saw my picture on the front page. Made for some interesting reading, but I don’t know what the hell to believe. I thought I would find out for myself, only so far no go.”

Her red-rimmed mouth rounded into an O, making Bray wonder what it would feel like under his.

“You don’t remember anything?” she asked a little breathlessly.

“Nothing I can get hold of. Fragments… dreams… visions… whatever you want to call them.” Nightmares he couldn’t seem to escape. “Nothing substantial. Seeing that article in this morning’s paper was the first real breakthrough. I thought maybe by coming here I’d remember something.”

“No wonder you just vanished,” she murmured, her voice low, as if she were debating what he’d been saying. “People think it’s because you’re guilty.”

“What do you think?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know for sure, but I’d say not. Unless the straight-arrow act was just that.”

“Nice that someone’s willing to give me the benefit of the doubt.”

“Of course, I would.” She bit her lip again, then blurted, “You don’t remember me at all?”

Just that she annoyed him. Not that he would tell her that. “Vaguely. Sorry.”

She took a big breath. “Well, wives give their husbands the benefit of the doubt.”

“Wives?” Her statement shook him. “You’re saying we’re married?” How could he forget such an intimate connection? “I don’t even remember your name.”

No sooner had she said, “Claire. My name’s Claire Fanshaw,” than he heard a sound coming from the hallway.

Someone’s coming, he mouthed, and indicated she should turn out the room light.

Without hesitation, she hit the wall switch as he grabbed her other hand and pulled her behind the door. His mind was racing as he started to plan what he would do if they were discovered. He could push Claire down and then when the enemy appeared—

What the hell was he thinking? That he would hurt some security guard who was only doing his job? Apparently, he was used to violence.

Maybe he was guilty.

The footsteps drew closer.

Claire snugged up against him, her derriere to his groin, her silky hair sweeping against his cheek. The sexless suit hid soft curves that, despite the situation, set him on fire. He wanted to groan but he didn’t dare make a sound. Instead he froze and sublimated his breath as the footsteps stopped right outside the door.

Stiffening, Claire pressed into him harder but remained equally silent.

The knob rattled and the door swung open and Bray told himself to take it easy, not to hurt anyone. The room light went on. He could hear the man’s breathing. The man didn’t move, just stood there on the other side of the wooden panel as if he were carefully checking things out.

Damn!

The folder that had flipped out of Claire’s hands was on the floor for anyone to see.

Tension wired through Bray, but just when he thought the guard was going to discover them, the light flicked out and the door swung closed. And Claire went limp against him. She was trembling, probably scared out of her wits. Not that she would admit it, he was certain. She had some moxie going for her, he would give her that.

The footsteps receded and silence reigned. And then Claire took a big breath and stepped away from him. Once more the Maglite clicked on.

“Now what?” she asked.

“Now we get out of here.”

“But I haven’t even looked the place over carefully.”

“I looked carefully enough for both of us.”

They weren’t going to find anything revealing because everything but some furniture had been removed. And he didn’t think he was going to get any more of his weird visions than he already had.

Sighing, Claire nodded and crossed to where the folder had landed. “I guess you’re right,” she said, picking it up and straightening the contents. “There really is nothing here to see anymore. I need to go the front way so I can sign out, or tomorrow someone may question how and why I left without doing so. And the keys. I need to return the keys.”

“Do whatever you have to.”

“What about you?” she asked.

“I’ll get out the same way I got in—through the back door.”

“But you needed the code to get in. Ace Security changed it when they took over.”

“Okay.”

She gave him a look but she didn’t try to make him explain how he’d figured out the new code.

“Will you wait for me?” she asked. “I can bring the car around in about ten minutes.”

“And raise someone’s suspicions? I’ll come around to the parking lot and find you.”

“You will be there, right? You won’t forget?”

“Don’t worry, my short-term memory is just fine.”

“All right. You probably don’t remember what I drive, though. It’s a dark blue Honda CRV.”

“I’ll find it,” he assured her, stepping to the door and pressing his ear to the panel.

Nodding, she clicked out her light. He opened the door a crack and peered out. Not so much as a foreign shadow grayed the hallway.

“Clear,” he whispered, and gave her the signal to go.

Claire hesitated only a second, as if she wanted to say something to him, then brushed by him as she made her way out.

Bray found himself watching her, appreciating the slight sway of her hips as she sauntered down the hallway like a woman who was simply late on the job.

He shook himself. He couldn’t get lax. Couldn’t let the enemy have the upper hand.

Even as he scanned the corridor before slipping toward the exit in the opposite direction, he realized his thinking was inappropriate.

This wasn’t the military and there was no enemy here.

***

Staring out of a window into the dark, he watched her race across the Cranesbrook parking lot.

Claire Fanshaw. Who the hell was she, really?

A cop? A Fed? Or just an ordinary woman too nosy for her own good?

He’d caught sight of her as she’d taken the lab corridor and, wondering what she’d been up to, he’d followed. Discreetly, of course. And when she’d disappeared, instinct had taken him straight to Lab 7.

She’d been inside.

The moment he’d snapped on the light his gaze had been drawn directly to the folder on the floor. The folder she’d been carrying. It had taken all his will not to let his temper get the best of him. Not to swipe up the folder to see what was in it and demand she show herself. That simply would have been foolish.

First, he needed to know who she was, what she wanted, what she already knew. He needed to know if she was a threat or a minor inconvenience.

The lights of her vehicle flashed as she approached it. A nearby shadow separated in two and the silhouette of a man dressed in khaki raced for the CRV. Even as the shadow-man opened the rear passenger door, he looked toward the building—and the light—just for a second. But a second was long enough to get a quick look at his face.

Brayden Sloane!

What the hell was the former security chief doing on the grounds? Where had he been for nearly two weeks? What did he know about what had happened in Lab 7?

His stomach cramped and acid reflux soured his mouth. Sloane’s reappearing was an unexpected complication. When the security expert had disappeared, he’d assumed the man had gone off and died somewhere. Maybe drowned in Chesapeake Bay, only to be washed up in some remote area at a future date.

He hadn’t expected this.

His jaw clenched tight as he helplessly watched the vehicle head for the security station. He might have believed Claire to be an inconvenience, but Sloane was a liability, one that couldn’t go unchecked. And if they were a team, working together against him, they were doubly dangerous to his plans.

He would have to take care of them both.

But first he had an experiment to conduct.

On himself.



Chapter Four

Waving to the security guard as she drove out of the Cranesbrook lot, Claire couldn’t believe her own audacity. Bray was scrunched down across the back-seat floor, at least half convinced they were man and wife.

What had she been thinking?

She hadn’t been. The lie had been a gut reaction, one meant to keep Bray with her so she could get information out of him. She’d even switched her class ring to her left hand, as if it were her wedding ring. Desperation was the mother of creative invention.

Maybe with Bray’s help, she could figure out the mystery of Lab 7. Well, not Lab 7 anymore, since Project Cypress had been moved, but the mystery of Mac’s sudden disappearance, the thing that drove her, that kept her up at night.

“It’s safe to get up now,” she said, checking the rearview mirror in time to see Bray sit up.

She considered pulling over to let him get in the front passenger seat. Then revised that idea. She felt more comfortable with a little distance between them. Not that she suspected he would hurt her. But it had been difficult to think clearly with him too close. When they’d hidden behind the lab door while the security guard had checked out the area, Bray’s nearness had threatened to suffocate her.

“So where is home?” he asked.

“We’re not going home.”

“Why not?”

“They might have someone posted, watching for you there.” She was making this up as she went along, but it didn’t sound too far-fetched, she reasoned.

“They?”

“The authorities are still looking for you as a person of interest.”

“Because of Zoe’s kidnapping.”

Because of what had gone on at Cranesbrook, Claire thought. Everything related back to Project Cypress, starting with Mac’s disappearance. “You remember your niece?”


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-32 show above.)