Amanda Gleason gently rocked her infant son in her arms.
A new baby was truly the reaffirmation of life. If she didn't know that before this moment, she knew it now. He was her child, her miracle.
She hadn't planned on facing motherhood alone. In fact, when Paul had disappeared from the picture, she hadn't even known she was pregnant. Maybe if she had, maybe if she could have told him, things would have turned out differently.
But they hadn't.
And now the weight of the world was on her shoulders. Decisions had to be made. Pressure she'd never even imagined. And a bittersweet pain that came every time she held Justin in her arms.
She touched his downy head with one finger, stroked the peach fuzz of his hair. As she whispered softly to him, his eyes opened wide and he stared at her intently, visibly fascinated by the sound of her voice. She gazed into those eyesPaul's eyesand her chest tightened. They were a lighter brown than Paul's, probably because they had yet to mature to their true color. But the shape, the lids, even the thick fringe of lashesthose were all Paul's. As was his nose, a tiny version of Paul's bold, straight nose with the slender nostrils. He even had the dimple in his cheek that was Paul's. Other than his golden-brown hair color and small, pursed mouthboth of which he'd inherited from herhe was very much Paul's son. And even at three weeks old, he was developing a personalityeasygoing like Paul, inquisitive like her. He spent hours staring at his fingers, opening and closing them with a fascinated expression. And he was always looking around, seemingly transfixed by the world.
Thank God he didn't know how much of a battlefield his world really was.
"Ms. Gleason?" A young nurse touched her gently on the shoulder. "Why don't you get something to eat? Maybe take a walk? You haven't done either all day." She reached for the baby. "Justin will be in good hands. You've got to take care of yourself or you won't be able to take care of him."
Numbly, Amanda nodded. She held Justin for one more brief, desperate moment, then kissed his soft cheek and handed him over to the nurse.
How many times had she done that in the past few days? How many more times would she have to do it?
Tears dampening her lashes, she rose, retracing her steps through the reverse isolation unit and out of Sloane Kettering's Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Unit. She stripped off her mask, gloves and gown, and tossed them into the discard bin, knowing she'd have to repeat the same sterilization process when she returned. She stood there for a moment, head bent, taking deep, calming breaths to bring herself under control. The nurse was right. She'd be of no use to Justin if she fell to pieces. And she'd done enough of that already.
Walking down the corridor, stepping into the elevator, and descending to the main level, Amanda felt the physical pain tearing inside her that always accompanied a separation from Justin. She hated leaving him. She dreaded coming back.
Outside the hospital, the world looked surreally normal. It was dark. She hadn't checked her watch in hours, but it had to be after eight o'clock. Still, traffic sped up and down the New York City streets. Pedestrians strolled the sidewalks. Horns honked. Christmas lights blinked from green and red to a rainbow of colors, then back again.
How could everything seem so normal when her entire world was crumbling to pieces? When everything she cared about was upstairs struggling to survive?
Still operating on autopilot, Amanda reached for her BlackBerry and turned it on. She didn't really care if she had any messages. But she had to checkeven if it was just to seek out some pie-in-the-sky miracle that would answer her prayers.
No miracle. Just the usual crap from the usual sourcesstore sales, promotions, photojournalist magazine sites. Nothing personal. Everyone knew better than to bother her with anything short of a dire emergency.
Correction. There was one personal message. An email from a fellow photojournalist, a friend of hers who'd been traveling internationally for months and wouldn't be aware that Justin had already been born or that his condition had turned Amanda's life upside down.
She opened the email.
I'm in DC. I had to send this to you right away. Caught it on my cell phone yesterday. 2nd Street at C Street NE. Best quality I could get. But I swear it was Paul. Take a look. I know the baby's due this month, but thought you'd want to see this.
Amanda read the words, and, for an instant, she froze. Then she clicked on the attachment, staring at the cell phone screen and waiting for the picture to load.
The moment it did, she gasped aloud, her hand flying to her mouth. The image was a little grainy and was probably taken from twenty yards away. But clear enough if you were intimately familiar with the person photographed. And she was.
It looked just like Paul.
She zoomed in as close as she could, taking in every detail of the man who now filled her entire screen. Dear God, it was Paul.
A tsunami of conflicting emotions engulfed her. But she battled her way through them. Because one thought eclipsed all the rest.
What could this mean for Justin?
It was a mere ray of hope, a complex long shot. But, to Amanda, it was a lifeline.
She fumbled in her tote bag for the scrap of paper she'd been carrying around since last April. It was well past business hours but she didn't care. She knew they worked around the clock when necessary. She wouldn't call; she wouldn't give them a chance to turn her away.
As she unfolded the crumpled paper, she yanked out the file folder she carried with her at all timesjust in case she ever followed through on her idea. Everything was in there. And it wasn't just an idea anymore.
She pressed a speed dial number on her phonea call to her oldest and dearest friend, Melissa, who lived in Manhattan and who would never let her down.
"Lyssa," she said when she heard her friend's voice. "I need you to come over and relieve me. It's not Justin. He's okay. But can you come now?" She sagged with relief at the reply. "Thanks. It's an emergency."
Cold air. Bare trees. Christmas lights twinkling up and down the Tribeca street.
At 9:15 p.m. in this residential section of Manhattan, the four-story brownstone that housed the offices of Forensic Instincts was a secluded haven, isolated from the jungle of the city. Two sweeping willow trees marked either side of the brownstone, and a sense of peace made it seem more like a home than a workplace for Forensic Instincts.
Tonight was even quieter than usual. Casey Woods, the company president, was out holiday shopping with some friends. Most of the specialized team had taken the night off. They were all still recovering from the whirlwind of cases they'd tackled over the past month and a halfall of which had been dominated by an intense kidnapping investigation.
Marc Devereaux was the only FI team member who was on-site. And he wasn't working. He was in one of the empty meeting rooms, doing a hundred push-ups, feeling the sweat soak through his workout clothes and hoping the intense exercise would help wipe away the mental ghosts that had come back, full force, these past few months.
They'd stayed quiet for a while. But since the kidnapping of that little girl
He dropped to the floor, forehead pressed to the carpet, breathing heavily. Memories cut deep. Even for a former Navy SEAL. Especially for a former Navy SEAL. Everyone thought they were impervious to emotional scars. They weren't. What he'd seen during those years might have made him a better FBI agent, and now a valuable member of Forensic Instincts, but they'd taken away something that could never be restored.
And left something dark and destructive in its place.
Marc's head came up abruptly as he heard the front doorbell ring. It couldn't be one of the team. They all had keys and knew the alarm code for the Hirsch pad. Instinctively, Marc reached for the pistol he'd placed on the table beside him. Rising, he walked over and eyed the small window on the computer screen displaying a view of the front door from the video surveillance camera.
A woman stood on the doorstep.
Marc pressed the intercom button. "Yes?"
A brief silence.
"Is this the office of Forensic Instincts?" the woman's voice asked.
"Yes." Marc could have pointed out the ridiculous hour. But he'd worked for the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit for five years. He could read people and tones of voice. And this voice sounded dazed and shaken. Panicky. He wasn't about to ignore it.
"I.I didn't think anyone would be in. I just prayed you were." Her words confirmed Marc's assessment. "I was afraid if I called you wouldn't answer. Please
may I come in? It's urgent. More than urgent. It's life or death."
Marc had made his decision long before the end of her dire plea. He put away his pistol. "I'm on my way down."
He draped a towel around his neck and headed for the stairs. Professional dress decorum wasn't high on his list right now.
He reached the entranceway, punched in the alarm code and unlocked the door.
The woman standing there with a file folder under her arm was brunette and in her mid-thirties, although the strain on her face made her look older, as did the dark circles under her eyes. She was wearing a winter coat that enveloped her body, so it was hard to make out her build. Not to mention that she was clutching the coat around her as if it were a protective shield.
She stared at Marc, taking in his imposing build, the high cheekbones, dark coloring and aristocratic nose he'd inherited from his extensive French lineage, and the brooding, slightly slanted eyes that reflected his maternal grandparents' Asian background.
His formidable appearance made the woman nervous, and she wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. "You're not Casey Woods," she said, stating the obvious. She was not only uneasy, she was in a visible state of shock.
"I'm Marc Devereaux, Casey's associate," Marc replied in a voice that was intentionally calming. "And you are.?"
"Amanda Gleason." She summoned up her composure. "I'm sorry to come by so late. But I couldn't leave the hospital until now. I don't have much time. Please, can we talk? I want to hire you."
"Hospital? Are you ill?"
"No. Yes. Please.I need to explain."
Marc pulled the door open and gestured for her to come in. "Sorry for the casual attire. I wasn't expecting a client." As he spoke, a series of deep, warning barks sounded from above. The echo of padded paws announced the arrival of a sleek red bloodhound as he lumbered to the front door. He stood beside Marc and woofed at the stranger.
"It's okay, Hero," Marc said. "Quiet down."
Instantly, the dog obeyed.
"Hero is a human scent evidence dog and part of our team," Marc explained. "But if you're afraid of dogs, I can put him upstairs."
Amanda shook her head. "That's not necessary. I like dogs."
"Then we'll head to a meeting room." He indicated the second door to the left and escorted her inside.
"Hello, Marc," an invisible voice greeted him, along with a series of wall lights that blinked in conjunction with the voice tones. "You have a guest. The interview room temperature is sixty-five degrees. Shall I raise it?"
"Yeah, Yoda," Marc replied. "Raise it to seventy."
"Temperature will reach seventy degrees in approximately seven minutes."
"Great. Thanks." Marc gave a faint smile at the startled look on Amanda's face. She was peering around, trying to determine the source of the voice.
"That's Yoda," he informed her. "He's the inexplicable creation of Ryan McKay, the techno genius of Forensic Instincts. He's omniscient
and harmless." Marc pulled out a chair. "Have a seat. You'll probably want to keep your coat on until it gets a little warmer in here."
"Thank you. You're very kind." Amanda sank down into the chair, continuing to clutch her coat and her file folder. She looked like a terrified bird being chased by a predator.
"Now, tell me what Forensic Instincts can do for you."
Amanda drew an unsteady breath. "You can find someone for me. If he's alive."
Marc sank back in his chair, intentionally trying to put Amanda at ease, even though his brain was on high alert. "Who is it you want us to find and why aren't you sure he's alive?"
"My boyfriend. He was declared a no-body homicide. The police found his car, with blood splattered all over the driver's seat and windshield, out at Lake Montauk. There were signs that he was dragged to another car. The theory was that he was killed, and his body dumped in the ocean. The Coast Guard searched for days, using every form of sophisticated equipment they had. Nothing turned up. The case was closed."
"When did this happen?"
"And you're first coming to us now, eight months later. Why? Do you have some new evidence that suggests he's alive?"
"New evidence and a new reason to find him immediately." Amanda rushed on to dispel the obvious. "I know you're thinking that, if he's alive, maybe he doesn't want to be found. Even if that's true, which I don't believe it is, he has no choice. Not now."
Marc leaned across the table and pulled over a legal-size pad. He preferred to take his notes in longhand, then transfer them into the computer. Typing into a laptop was very off-putting to clients who needed a personal connection.
"What's this man's name?"
"And why is finding him so urgent?"
Amanda swallowed, her hands twisting in her lap. "We have a son. He was born three weeks ago. He was just diagnosed with SCIDSevere Combined Immunodeficiency. His body is incapable of fighting infection. He needs a stem cell transplant from a matched donor or he'll die."
Marc put down his pen. "I assume you're not a match?"
She shook her head. "The testing said I'm not even a candidate. I was in a car accident as a child. Thanks to the blood transfusions I received, I have hepatitis C. So I'm out of the picture. And so far, so is the National Marrow Donor Program Registry. They have no match for us. The best, maybe the only hope is Justin's father." Two tears slid down Amanda's cheeks. Fiercely, she wiped them away. "I could give you a full scientific explanation, Mr. Devereaux. It's consumed my life these past weeks, and I seem to know far more about how a human body can fail than I ever thought possible. But we don't have time. Thanks to me, Justin already has an infection and is showing symptoms of pneumonia."
"Thanks to you?"
"I was nursing him. Evidently, I'm carrying a dormant virus called CMVCytomegalovirus. I passed it along to Justin. He's started to cough and he has a feverboth of which are indicators that he's developing CMV pneumonia. Plus, he picked up parainfluenza during the two weeks he was home. His breathing's uneven, his nose is running.. I didn't know he had a compromised immune system, or I'd never have let him have visitors. It's too late to change that. He's on antibiotics and gamma globulin. But even those can only suppress the CMV virus, not cure it. They can also be toxic to a child. As for the parainfluenza, there's literally nothing they can give him. Justin is less than a month old. His tiny body can't sustain itself for long. This is a lifeor-death situation."
"I'm very sorry."
"Then help me."