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Officer Maxine Wallace rested her fingers on her weapon's grip. A muscle twitched deep in her throat, steady as a clock's tick. Her nerves trilled with the sense of approaching danger.
There was no reason for her to feel so uneasy. As far as the job's duties went, this was a simple task; assist the Maryland State Police by executing a search warrant; gather evidence of whatever crimes the president of chemical-research company Cranesbrook Associates had committed that had caused him to kill people to cover them up.
Not just people, a state police detective. Determination hardening in her gut, Maxie peered through the office door. She focused on the stain in the anteroom near the glass doors. The cream carpet was still rusty red where Cranes-brook president, Sid Edmonston's, blood had seeped into the fibers and saturated the pad. She could smell it, too. That coppery, fleshy odor only came with blood and death.
She was glad the scumbag himself was in the morgue. She was glad Rand McClellan, Detective Richard Francis's partner, had been the one to fire the shots. It was only right that Rand had delivered justice for his partner's murder. It was right Sid Edmonston would never see a trial. The bastard didn't deserve to live after all he'd done.
The whole mess had started with some kind of lab accident, sending two men to the Beech Grove Clinic mental hospital and leaving one man missing. A lab accident that Sid Edmonston had been desperate to cover up. And if any of Edmonston's files and personal papers contained clues as to what he was trying so hard to hide, it was important Maxie get them to the state police barracks as soon as possible.
She pulled her gaze from the bloodstain and shivered. Now that the evidence team had moved to the lab where the accident had occurred, it was quiet in this corner of the administrative wing. Almost too quiet. If she didn't know Officer Woodard was out in the hall securing the scene, she'd believe she was all alone.
She fitted her fingers in the cutout handles of a cardboard file box and hoisted it to her hip.
Backing and turning in the tight space, she bumped against the wall. The wall shifted, almost dumping her on the floor.
What in the hell...?
She set the box down and knelt to study the wall. Sure enough, there was a loose panel. She wouldn't have noticed it, not even if she'd been looking. But with the panel skewed where she'd hit it with her hip, she could spot it easily. Pressing her fingertips against a corner, she pried the loose chunk of drywall free.
A small space between the studs hid a thin plastic case. She pulled out a pair of latex gloves. Her fingers trembled at first, making it difficult to get the gloves on her hands. Finally managing, she pulled the DVD case from its hiding spot. Factory lettering marked the face of the disk. A recordable DVD. Lab 7 was scrawled beneath it in black marker. And a date.
The date of the lab accident.
Was this the missing surveillance video from the security cameras in Lab 7? The video that showed what really happened that day?
It had to be.
A surge of adrenaline replaced her unease. If this was what she thought it was, she might have just found what the state needed to put this case to bed. She keyed the microphone on her uniform. "Four two four eight."
"Four two four eight, go ahead."
"I'm at Sid Edmonston's office at Cranesbrook Associates. I've found what looks like surveillance footage hidden inside a secret compartment in the wall. A detective with the state might want to get out here. Right away."
"Ten-four, four two four eight."
She turned off the mike, not bothering to hide her grin. Why should she? This was a major find. Major enough to possibly win her a commendation. And besides, no one was watching. She could turn cartwheels across the spacious office and no one would know.
The light padding sound of a footfall on carpet came from the anteroom.
Guess she almost cartwheeled too soon. Still holding the DVD, she stepped from the closet and peered through the inner office's open door.
No one was there.
Funny. She could have sworn she'd heard a sound. Was someone hiding around the corner? Playing some sort of trick? "Woodard? Is that you?"
No answer. No sound.
Wait. There was a sound. A familiar sound, though so out of context it made a chill run down her spine. The light mew of a person crying.
The hair rose on her arms. She rubbed her skin through the long sleeves of her uniform. "Woodard?
What the hell are you doing? This is no time to be goofing around."
The sound grew louder, erupting in jagged sobs. Definitely a man.
"Woodard?" She shifted the DVD to her left hand and unsnapped her holster with her right. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to leave her weapon in its holster. This had to be some sort of practical joke, didn't it? A jab at freaking out the female cop?
It was working.
She shook her head. She didn't freak out easily. Hell, she never freaked out. Woodard knew that. If he ever teased her, it was about how inhuman she could be.
So why was he doing this? And why was it frightening her so?
She should walk out into the hall, tell him to knock it off. But somehow her feet wouldn't move. She opened her mouth. Her voice lodged in her throat.
What was happening to her?
The tremble that had started in her hands moved through her body, seizing her muscles from the inside out. She gritted her teeth, trying to get a grip. She felt so frightened. No, not merely frightened. Scared out of her mind. As if her self-control was slipping away, bit by bit, with each sob emanating from the hall.
This was insane.
Her throat pinched, tight and dry. Her knees felt liquid. She clutched the wall, trying to keep herself on her feet. The DVD fell from her fingers.
"I'll take that." A man stepped from behind the jog in the wall that had concealed him from her view. He bent down and retrieved the DVD from the floor.
She forced her voice to work, forced her tongue to curl around the words. "No...evidence...police property..."
He straightened, the DVD in hand, as if he hadn't heard her. Or just didn't care what she said.
"Stop." She pulled out her weapon. Confusion swirled with fear. She couldn't shoot him. He wasn't threatening her. Yet she couldn't let him take the disk. Not when they were so close to finding out the truth. She had to stop—
The barrel of her gun bobbed, her hands shaking. Her palms were so slick she could hardly keep hold of the gun. She couldn't control it. She couldn't control her own thoughts, her own body.
Oh God, she was going to die.
Warmth seeped into her pants and trickled down her legs. But she couldn't think of that now. Not the humiliation, not what was happening to her, none of it. She was going to die. And there wasn't anything she could do about it.
The man took the weapon from her shaking hand and raised it high above his head.
A scream ripped through the air and echoed in her ears. A scream from her own throat—a scream of pure terror cut short by the thudding blow from the butt of her own gun.
Detective Randall McClellan of the Maryland State Police leaned forward in his chair, nailing his supervisor with his most sincere and forceful stare. "I went through the debriefing, Nick. I surrendered my weapon. I'm cooperating with the investigation. Isn't that enough? Do you have to put me on administrative leave, too?"
Detective Sergeant Nick Johnson raised a brow, his only answer.
Rand hated when he did that. "Come on, Nick. I don't need a vacation. Not while we're still finding out exactly what happened at Cranesbrook."
"You know what you have to do."
A sick feeling stirred deep in his stomach. "Talk to a shrink."
"They don't call them shrinks anymore."
"I don't care what they call them. I don't need one. I'm fine."
"I asked you to talk to someone after Richard was killed. Now that you shot his killer, I have to insist. You need a sense of closure."
The hollow feeling at the base of his throat widened at the thought of his dead partner. His former friend. "I got all the closure I needed when I shot Edmonston."
"You're not helping yourself here."
Rand blew out a long breath. It wouldn't be the first time his smart-ass mouth landed him in trouble. Not that he wasn't treading dangerously close to trouble already through no fault of his own.
"I know the media is saying I shot Sid Edmonston to get revenge for Richard's death. But that's not the case and you know it. He would have killed Lily and Gage Darnell if I hadn't taken him out."
"I'm not worried about that. I'm worried about you. We have regulations for a reason, policies in place to help officers cope. I really should be putting you on administrative leave for a good long time."
"Then, why aren't you?"
"Because I need you." Nick gave him a pointed look and slid his ancient government-issue telephone across the desk. "Make an appointment."
Rand stared at the phone, a bitter taste rising in his throat. If there was anything he hated more than people with no regard for the law, it was sitting around talking about his feelings. Just the thought of wallowing in a mud pit of emotion while some junior Freud sat back and analyzed him gave him hives. He could just see the spark of excitement in the analyst's eyes when the subject of his father came up.
"Here's the number." Nick slid a paper bearing a list of therapists who worked with the department. "Either call or go home and start catching up on your sleep."
Rand glanced down at the names. He actually felt sick to his stomach. "If I do this, I'm back on the case?"
"If you do this, there's a woman you need to talk to waiting in the conference room."
"A woman? Who?"
"Brayden Sloane's sister."
So that was why Nick was willing to take shortcuts to get him back on the job. Brayden Sloane had been one of three men caught in an explosion at Cranesbrook. After that explosion, all hell had broken loose. The difference between Sloane and the other two men was that Sloane was missing.