Authors: Dee Davis
She hit a button and the iMac sitting there sprang to life, the Braxton Labs logo filling the screen. She typed in her password and the logo gave way to the internal menu for the lab’s computer system. So far, so good.
But when she tried to access the
internet there was nothing. Just an icon spinning and spinning as it tried unsuccessfully to connect. Next, she opened the email program, again logging in with her company ID and password. But as with the internet there was no connection. Instead a box flashed onto the screen saying that the connection attempt had failed.
The hairs on the back of her neck prickled as the reality of what she’d just discovered hit home.
She was completely isolated. Yet even as she had the thought, she dismissed it. Her lab was secure. And besides, Charlie was on the desk downstairs and there were security measures in place to keep unwanted guests out. Fingerprint identification was required for anyone entering the labs from the bottom floors. And passwords and keycards were needed to access any of the labs with expensive equipment or restricted research.
Here on the autopsy floor, there were fewer restrictions, but still access was only allowed with proper identification and approved authorization. It had to be some kind of IT glitch. Despite the fact that Harrison, probably one of the best forensic computer people in the world, was one of her best friends, she’d never been particularly good at understanding the inner workings of networks and IPs and computer systems.
So before she let her imagination run away with her, she’d just head upstairs and put in a call to the head of Braxton’s IT department. Due to her propensity for working all hours, he was used to late night calls for help. And if the entire system was down, it needed to be fixed before the offices opened on Monday.
With another sigh, she glanced back at Margo’s bay. “Sorry. But, I promise, I’ll be back.” She waited for a moment, almost as if she were expecting approval. And then she shook her head at her own insanity. It was common knowledge among those in her profession that it was okay to talk to the bodies—it was only when they started talking back that one needed to worry.
Thankfully, Margo remained silent.
But something outside in the hallway rattled, and Tracy spun around, staring at the door, her heart racing.
A minute passed, and then another. Nothing moved, the only sound the slow drip of the sink in the far corner.
She sucked in a breath, cursing herself for letting her imagination run away from her. It had to be the phones.
And the computers. She was used to knowing that people were only a few nanno seconds away. Suddenly she felt very alone. And kind of foolish. Clearly whatever she’d heard was nothing to be afraid of. Probably just Charlie making rounds.
Moving on silent feet, she made her way back to the door, pausing to give it another beat. When nothing moved, she risked a peek through the window in the door, relieved to see an empty hallway, the lights, although dimmer than daytime, still functioning as they were meant to.
Pushing aside her misgivings, she opened the door and stepped out into the hall, her gaze darting first to the left and then to the right and then back to the left again. The passage way was empty, with no sign that anyone had been there at all. Maybe she’d imagined the noise.
She wasn’t exactly operating at her best. Unexpected proposals had a way of throwing a person off her game. Especially when the subject was supposed to have been off limits. An image of Seth, wearing nothing but his tux pants, holding out the rose petal covered tray filled her mind.
Damn the man.
She started toward the elevator, but a sound stopped her mid-step. It was low. A moan. Someone was in pain. She spun around, her mind trying to identify the location of the sound. There were four doors on the corridor. Eliminating the lab where she’d just been, that left three, two leading to additional autopsy labs and one a small room holding cleaning equipment.
Wanting nothing more than to head for the relative safety of the elevator to her apartment, Tracy pushed aside her fear. If someone was hurt, she needed to help them. Especially if it was Charlie. And if she were imagining the noise, better to face her fears head on. It had been a very long day—and night—and now she just needed to make sure there was nothing amiss.
She waited for another beat, but with no more sounds to guide her, she picked the closest door and after slowing inching it open, swung into the room. Like the lab she’d just vacated, tables were spread across the room and a row of drawers stretched along the back wall. Smaller than the previous lab, it was clear once the lights were turned on that the lab was empty.
Unless somebody was hiding in a drawer, which even for Tracy was too creepy to contemplate. She checked the second lab, finding nothing more than empty tables and equipment. Ever the optimist, she tried both the phones and the computers, but as before there was nothing. Connectivity clearly interrupted.
Without allowing herself to think about the action, she grabbed a scalpel off an autopsy tray. Better something than nothing. Then she flipped the lights off again and moved back into the hall. The only noise now was the continual hum from the florescent lights overhead.
She quickened her pace, heading for the third autopsy lab. But as she passed the storage closet another low moan echoed through the hallway. She shivered, then turned slowly, her gaze darting around the corridor, scalpel raised defensively as she watched for danger.
But the hall was empty. And
the sound evaporating.
Sucking in a breath, she turned back to the closet, reaching for the knob,
then froze as she spotted a splash of crimson against the antiseptic white of the tile floor.
“Blood,” she whispered to the empty hall, her mind scrambling as she opened the closet door, still brandishing her makeshift weapon.
For a moment she thought she was in the clear, the space filled only with mops and buckets and brooms. But then the groan emanated again. And she dropped to her knees as a shadow separated from the darkness of the closet.
“Charlie. Oh my God, is that you?” She reached out to grab the man’s wrist, searching for a pulse, her doctor’s instincts kicking in. Although her patients were usually already dead, that didn’t mean she wasn’t capable of caring for the living. “Where are you hurt?”
The older man moaned softly and tried to move, but he was too weak. Using gentle hands, she managed to roll him over, her stomach clenching as she saw the blood soaking the front of his shirt, the metallic stench filling her nose.
“What happened?” she asked, leaning close, trying to find the source of his bleeding.
“Ambush,” he said, his breathing coming in gasps. “Caught me from…behind. Forced me to let them up here.” He reached out for her hand, his blue eyes fading. “So sorry.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she assured him. “I’m sure you did everything you could. Right now we need to get you some help.” She pressed against the pulsing wound, praying for a miracle, her physician’s mind already accepting the futility.
“No…time,” Charlie whispered, his voice barely audible now. “You need to go.”
Tracy shook her head, still pressing against the wound. “I’m not leaving you.” Charlie was like family. He’d started with Braxton shortly after she’d founded the company. And until tonight, he’d always had her back.
“Go,” he whispered again, his tone urgent now. “Go. They’re still here.”
“Who, Charlie? Who did this?”
“Don’t know.” He shook his head and then opened his mouth to say more, but it was too late. On a soft exhale, Charlie died. Tears filled Tracy’s eyes, but she knew he was right. She had to get the hell out of here.
She pushed to her feet, realizing too late that the scalpel was still on the floor beside Charlie. She bent to retrieve it, but before she could close her fingers around the little knife she felt something hard and cold pressed against her side.
“Move one more inch and you’re dead.” The voice was cold and dispassionate, the barrel of his gun pressing into her skin. And in that moment Tracy’s only thought was of Seth. Funny how when push came to shove the truth had a way of hitting you like a two-by-four.
It was fucking cold outside. Seth pulled the collar of his tux jacket closer, wishing he had an overcoat. Springtime in New York was always a roll of the dice. But now, with the icy wind whipping down the street, he wondered if he was doing the right thing.
Maybe the smart thing would be to head for home and
his own bed. He’d sleep it off and in the morning consider his options. But a part of him knew that if he gave himself time to think, he’d let rationale win. Ignoring his heart in favor of his head. But then he’d lose Tracy.
So it came down to which mattered more. His pride or his need for her. And at the moment, still slightly buzzed from all the whiskey, need was winning the day. Besides, her building was just ahead. If nothing else he’d at least have a chance to get warm before dragging his rejected ass back to his apartment.
The darkened building rose out of the lamplight, a swirling of mist adding dramatic effect to the pale light. On the top floor he could see a glow coming from Tracy’s window. Which meant that she was still up. Hell, maybe she’d been rethinking things too.
Yeah, and pigs were circling overhead.
He slowed his steps, the last remaining shred of his dignity screaming that he should turn around and go home. He’d offered her the moon and she’d thrown it right back in his face. He sucked in a breath, the cold air racing through his lungs, and then walked up the steps leading to the building’s entrance. Tracy believed in low key. And so from the outside one would never guess the high tech labs the building housed. But looks were deceiving and the security at Braxton Labs was state of the art. Fortunately, unless she’d changed it, he knew the access code.
After lifting the plaque that covered the keypad, he tapped in the required sequence of numbers and letters, the keypad protesting as the signal light stayed stubbornly red.
Hell, she had changed the code. Not a good sign. He blew out a frustrated breath, trying to figure out his next move. Logically he figured he should call, but the idea of giving her warning didn’t seem to fit his plan to surprise and conquer. Still, it appeared to be the only option, so he slipped his hand into his pocket, surprised when
he found it empty.
Son of a bitch.
In his hurry to get back here, he’d left the phone on the bar. Probably a sign. He blew out another breath, and started to go, but then stopped, and lifted the cover again, carefully typing in the code. His heart hammered as the machine whirred and the keypad beeped acceptance. Then as the light turned green, he heard the lock in the door click as it opened.
Moving quickly before either his brain or the machine could change its
mind, he pushed through the door and into the building lobby. The fluted iron columns had been restored to their former glory, soaring up into the vaulted ceiling. It was this room that had decided Tracy on the building. A feeling of history that balanced somehow in her mind with the high tech nature of her labs.
The desk in the center was empty. Not surprising at this time of night. Charlie Baker, the building’s night watchman
, preferred checking on the building himself to watching it through the many security monitors. Many a night he’d walked past to find Charlie missing and the monitors dark. But Tracy insisted he was good at his job. And besides, she’d always laughed, who the hell wanted to steal from the dead?
Seth had always worried that Charlie was a little too old school to provide any real protection, but arguing with Tracy was pointless, and besides there were numerous other
failsafes within the building. Including fingerprint identification for all the labs and security keypads like the one at the door for all the administrative floors.
Striding through the empty lobby, he passed the main elevators, moving behind a wall at the back that divided the rest of the lobby from the access to Tracy’s private elevator.
The one that went straight to her apartment.
Again he flipped open a cover to reveal a keypad, and typed in the access code. The elevator door slid open silently in response, and he stepped inside, his gut churning as he tried to figure out what it was exactly he wanted to say. Somehow ‘I can’t live without you’ seemed a bit much considering how the last attempt to tell her how much he loved her had gone over.
Unfortunately, subtlety had never been his strong point. The elevator doors closed and the car rose with a slight lurch, humming as it sped toward the topmost floor, its only destination. Once there, the doors slid open, the hallway lights beckoning. Again Seth considered running, but pushed the thought aside. He’d made it this far. And besides his Dutch courage was starting to wane.
It was now or never.
The hallway had never seemed so short, and in what felt like only a step or two, he was standing at the door. He raised his hand to knock, then paused, his brows drawing together as he realized that it was slightly ajar. Automatically, he reached for his gun, his fingers hitting only the soft cotton of his shirt.