Touched by Fireby Greg Dinallo
Appearances are deceiving when it comes to Dr. Lilah Graham, a hardworking, uncompromising genetic researcher who is driven by uncontrollable impulses that even she can’t understand. When she suddenly becomes the target of a deranged firebomber while studying the link between genetic makeup and violent/b>
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Amid the flames, a killer is waiting . . .
Appearances are deceiving when it comes to Dr. Lilah Graham, a hardworking, uncompromising genetic researcher who is driven by uncontrollable impulses that even she can’t understand. When she suddenly becomes the target of a deranged firebomber while studying the link between genetic makeup and violent behavior, her tough outer shell begins to crumble and those around her suspect that something is amiss. Dan Merrick, the lead arson investigator assigned to the case, begins to rule out suspects while also developing an interest in Graham, which eventually leads him to the discovery of a startling past she has never mentioned. When her parents’ home is set on fire and her father is killed, Graham is forced to confront her repressed childhood memories of the death of her twin and her own sexual abuse.
An inferno of sex and danger, action and desire, Touched by Fire is a taut, fast-paced thriller that races to a final, fiery climax.
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Touched by Fire
By Greg Dinallo
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Greg Dinallo
All rights reserved.
The sultry gusts swept through the darkness and up the hill into Lilah's bedroom like the quickening sighs of an anxious lover. She shrugged a shoulder, letting her dress fall to the floor, then stepped out of it and began pacing back and forth in her bra and panties, ever present cigarette in one hand, palm-size cellular phone in the other.
The number she'd just dialed rang twice.
"This is Dr. Paul Schaefer," a voice said in soft, reassuring tones. "I'm sorry I'm not available to take your call. Please leave a message after the beep and I'll return it as soon as possible."
"Paul? Paul, you there? It's Liiilahh," she said, drawing out her name in a sexy whisper. She went to the window and squinted into the mercury vapor haze that rose from Westwood's narrow streets. Traffic-clogged and teeming with students, they formed a series of twisting knots that abutted the UCLA campus. An architectural collage spanning seven decades, its eclectic buildings perched on broad plateaus that stepped upward between Wilshire and Sunset—L.A.'s two legendary boulevards. Schaefer's office was in the Neuropsychiatric Institute adjacent to the medical school and research labs. He usually remained after hours dictating notes and reviewing files.
Lilah counted ten floors up and six windows over. Sheets of light came from the horizontal louvers that served as a sunscreen. "Hey, I know you're there," Lilah said, picturing him running a fingertip across his neatly trimmed mustache. "Come on, pick up and talk to me, Paul," she purred, exhaling a stream of smoke into the phone. "Come on, pick up and tell Lilah what you want."
Paul Schaefer sat behind his desk, fighting the temptation. His troubled eyes stared at the answering machine through wire-rim glasses that reflected the glare from a galaxy of designer halogens. Several of the high intensity lamps illuminated an impressive display of Schaefer's diplomas and awards. One was focused on the bust of Freud that peered sternly over his shoulder, another on the blanketed lounger that was positioned to minimize his presence during a session, the remainder on the abstract paintings that his patients often interpreted without prompting from their therapist—as had Lilah, though she wasn't his patient, and it wasn't the depths of her mind that Schaefer had been probing on that lounger.
"It's time to reach out and touch someone, Paul," Lilah went on in her suggestive whisper, running a hand over her breasts sensuously. "Come on, you know you want to. It's the next best thing to being there...."
Schaefer let out a long breath, knowing all too well she was right. He was the one who had initiated the phone sex; who, whenever he couldn't be with her, would lapse into baby talk and parrot the tag lines from phone company commercials. The thought of it, and of what had always followed, made him squirm with embarrassment. He made a notation in a file, then raised his eyes and stole a glance at the photograph of his wife and three children.
"You know what I'm doing now?" Lilah purred. "Sure you do. Let your fingers do the walking...." She listened to the hiss of the answering machine tape, hoping beyond hope that he'd respond; then, in a more desperate tone, she said, "I miss you, Paul. I really need to be with you tonight. Please, can't we talk about this?"
"No, Lilah, I'm afraid we can't." Schaefer said sharply, as if she were there.
It wasn't her need to talk that troubled him, just her neurotic insistence that it be with him instead of a therapist, as he'd advised. This wasn't the first time she'd called since that afternoon in the Getty's sculpture garden when he told her it was over. And it wasn't the first time he'd been moved by the seductive anguish in her voice, by his longing for the romantic rush of those stolen moments—moments that were suddenly being replayed in the ornately framed mirror opposite the lounger. An impromptu gift from Lilah, the mirror had served them long and well, and now served as a tempting reminder of the soaring passion Paul Schaefer so enjoyed.
"Come on, Paul," Lilah pleaded, "I know you're there. Pick up, will you?"
Schaefer aimed a universal remote at the stereo, filling the room with a pastoral symphony, then removed his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. He had made his decision, and neither petulance nor temptation would change it now.
"Why are you doing this?" Lilah asked, her voice rising. "Why are you shutting me out like this? Paul? Paul?"
Schaefer aimed the remote at the answering machine and shut it off.
The line clicked.
Lilah's brows arched expectantly then fell at the sound of a dial tone. She listened to it for a long moment, her mind racing in search of a way to provoke him. She hadn't confronted him face-to-face yet, but she could. She could drive over there right now and make a scene: threaten to tell his wife; threaten to kill herself; threaten to smear him professionally. The impulses rose and fell like the wind. Then, as if at long last accepting the finality, Lilah pressed her palm against the tip of the phone's antenna, slowly telescoped it into the body, and tossed it on the bed.
She was lighting one of the dozens of Virginia Slims she consumed each day when she caught sight of herself in the mirrored doors of her wardrobe—shiny flame-red hair tumbling across her freckled shoulders, firm breasts that could still pass the pencil test, fiat stomach, shapely hips, and those long legs that had been turning heads since high school. Not bad, she thought. Damn good, as a matter of fact. She exhaled a stream of smoke, blowing out the match, and looked over her shoulder at the mirror on her dressing table, then glanced at the one perched atop a pedestal next to the window before shifting her eyes to yet another with a carved wooden frame that hung above her desk.
There were mirrors of almost every size and shape in Lilah's bedroom; mirrors with gilded frames, rococo frames, frames of tarnished silver, sleek chrome, colorful plastic, mother-of-pearl, and stained glass; mirrors without frames, hand mirrors, makeup mirrors, and antique mirrors that turned every reflection into a faded tintype.
Lilah pirouetted in front of the long narrow one centered on the bathroom door, then did a little jeté up onto her toes, admiring the curve of her bottom that swelled against the embroidered trim of her panties. Not bad either. And not to be taken for granted. On the contrary, it had taken a lot of workouts to keep that perfectly positioned dimple men found so intriguing from being joined by countless others, to prevent that perfectly smooth bottom from looking like a couple of tired scoops of cottage cheese. Lilah's mother had the same dimple when she was young, but it had since become lost in a moonscape of cellulite. And that worried the hell out of Lilah. Ph.D.s in genetics know the theory of heredity all too well.CHAPTER 2
LIKE BEGETS LIKE the sign in Lilah's office declared. "Like begets like," she said to the students in her genetics class. "Reptiles give birth to reptiles; sunflower seeds bear sunflowers." She punctuated it with high-energy body language, billowing her lab smock. The laminated card clipped to the pocket proclaimed: UCLA DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN GENETICS; and displayed her photo, ID number, and name: DR. LILAH E. GRAHAM. "Like begets like," she repeated challengingly. "Anybody know why?"
"Genes," the science majors mumbled, making no effort to conceal their boredom.
"Genetic instructions," Lilah corrected. "Instructions written in a simple four-letter alphabet." She took a piece of chalk and wrote the letters A-G-C-T across the board. "Adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. These four chemicals make up what?"
"DNA," several students replied.
"De-oxy-ribo-nucleic acid," she said, writing it out in her physician's scrawl. "And crazy as it sounds, from broccoli to brontosaurus rex, these four chemicals are the basis for all life-forms. What differentiates them is how the letters are combined in sentences that make up a book called the genome. The data in a single human genome would fill over a hundred L.A. phone books."
Another bored murmur rose from the science nerds.
"Let's talk species," Lilah went on, undaunted. "Mice and men—their genomes vary by less than two percent; chimpanzees and men—less than one; and within a given specie—humans for example—the percentage is infinitesimal; but the impact is vast because these subtle variations account for what? Anybody know?"
"Individuality?" a young woman up front ventured.
"Yes!" Lilah exclaimed. "Whether you're a man or woman, tall or short, have brown eyes or green—"
"Big boobs or small," a gawky student interjected, eliciting a storm of protest from his female classmates.
"Well, ladies," Lilah said, above the uproar, "should any of us, blessed with two X chromosomes, happen to acquire intimate knowledge of Mr. Kauffman's short-comings, let's remember to blame them on his ancestors, not him."
The lecture hall rocked with laughter.
"These variations," Lilah resumed, "may give an individual an aptitude for law enforcement or medicine. Or determine that he or she will never be an athlete or rock star. When these variations become extreme, we call them defects, diseases, mutants."
"Birth defects," a student called out.
"The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-head," others chimed in. The responses ran the gamut from Down's syndrome to diabetes to deranged behavior.
The search for a genetic flaw that would account for the latter had long been the focus of Lilah's work; and recently, a team of Dutch researchers, studying genetic linkages within a family—a study prompted by a pattern of sexually abusive behavior among the males—found that they all had the same mutant gene on the X chromosome: a defect in the monoamine oxidase-A enzyme, known as MAOA. This raised an intriguing and highly controversial question: Is such antisocial behavior determined by heredity?
Lilah Elizabeth Graham—B.A. Berkeley, M.D. Harvard, Ph.D. Stanford—designed a research project called the OX-A study, which set out to answer this question by asking two other questions: To what extent is the mutant gene present in the general male population? To what extent in men convicted of sex crimes?
Lilah began by collecting blood samples from volunteers; then, working in the antiseptic glare of her lab at UCLA's MacDonald Medical Research Center, she extracted the raw DNA used in genetic screening. Once isolated, the sticky fibers were cut with enzymes, sized by electric current, and blotted onto a sheet of filter paper. After exposure to a radioactive probe, each "blot" was mated with a sheet of X-ray film in a standard cassette and stored at --70 degrees Celsius. The week-long process produced an autoradiograph. Those with the MAOA defect, or marker, exhibited an obvious shift from the norm in the pattern of lanes and bands.
On this afternoon, Lilah and her staff were gathered around a light table evaluating a fresh batch of X-ray-like "autorads." Her quick, incisive eyes swept across each genetic pattern, detecting the absence or presence of the tell-tale shift. "Positive," she called out, handing an autorad to Dr. Serena Chen.
The lithe, postdoctoral fellow from Taiwan with the British accent and obsessive-compulsive demeanor,nodded in confirmation, then ran a light pen across a bar-code sticker on the autorad. The corresponding volunteer's data—taken from a consent form completed and signed at the outset—appeared on the monitor.
Serena had just recorded the result with the click of a mouse when one of the work-study undergrads who distributed the mail pushed his cart through the door. He unloaded several bundles of envelopes, professional journals, flyers and the like, along with several boxes and corrugated cartons sealed with packing tape; then he collected the outgoing items and moved on. Serena set the light pen aside and pounced on the mail, ignoring the cartons as she began sorting it into neat stacks.
Lilah knew exactly what she was up to. There was nothing inscrutable about her; nothing stereotypically Asian save the black blunt-cut hair. If anything, she was a typical science nerd: brilliant, driven to excel, ruthlessly competitive; and as the laboratory's ranking junior researcher, she flaunted her ambition and IQ lest her tenure-track position be attributed to affirmative action or minority quotas.
Serena was about halfway through the mail when she held up a large manila envelope and announced, "Bureau of Prisons," getting the attention of the others. She peeled back the flap, removed the contents, and began reading aloud from the cover letter: "Dear Dr. Graham, Enclosed please find signed consent forms and background data on the first group of inmates who have volunteered to take part in your study. We understand that Dr. Serena Chen of your staff will commence work here on Monday the tenth and we look forward to—"
"Well," Lilah interrupted brightly. "It looks like we're going to be sticking violent sex offenders with needles."
"Yeah," one of the lab technicians cracked. "Serena's going one-on-one with the scuzz of the earth."
The group broke into laughter.
Lilah forced a smile. "I wouldn't be so sure of that. Serena, I think it's time we had a little chat." Serena was caught completely off guard. By the time she recovered, Lilah was striding toward her office, the staffers had dutifully resumed their work, and Cardenas, the wisecracking lab tech, had taken over sorting the mail. When finished, he grasped a mat knife in one hand, the largest corrugated box in the other, and began slitting the plastic packing tape that sealed it.
Lilah slipped into her office, leaving the door ajar. The clinical architecture was offset by pastel fabrics and daylight streaming through windows that overlooked the Medical Plaza. She settled at her desk and, in flagrant violation of university policy, lit a cigarette, then began reviewing the data sheets that had come with the letter. Each contained an inmate's criminal record, mug shot, and short biography.
Serena knocked and entered without waiting to be acknowledged. "I don't mean to be peevish," she began in a deferential tone, "but I rather assumed I'd be doing the field work on this phase of OX-A?"
"Well, you know what they say about assumptions, Doctor," Lilah said with a little smile. She was thinking J.R.s were all a little too full of themselves, when it struck her that she'd been no different. She wouldn't hire one who didn't radiate a mild aura of conceit—you have to believe you can do the impossible to have a chance of pulling it off, she often lectured. "Sorry, that was uncalled for," Lilah said, sounding as if she meant it. "I applaud your initiative, Serena, but—"
"I initiated this protocol," Serena interrupted, purposely making a play on Lilah's word. "I wrote the grants, generated the correspondence—"
"Under my guidance and signature," Lilah countered gently. She sent a plume of, smoke toward the electronic air cleaner perched on her desk. "And the pressure to analyze the data and get that paper written in time for GRASP is on me too, isn't it?" The acronym stood for Genetics and its Relevance to the Anti-Social Personality, and referred to an upcoming conference. Hosted by the Aspen Institute in Maryland, the controversial forum was barely a month away, and time—to process enough samples and produce meaningful statistics—was running out. "I think you're a first-class scientist, Serena," Lilah concluded with evident sincerity. "The best investigator I've ever had, but this prison study requires something more."
"Yes, the ability to look these inmates in the eye, gain their trust, and get them to spill their guts."
"Why? We're screening their genes, not their minds. They either have the bloody marker or they don't."
"It's not that simple. The Dutch study is taking heat for being light on behavioral data. We have the resources to get into it, and we're going to use them."
"If you mean collaborating with that head-shrinker over in Neuro-psy—"
"You have your opinion of Dr. Schaefer and I mine."
Excerpted from Touched by Fire by Greg Dinallo. Copyright © 1998 Greg Dinallo. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Greg Dinallo, a New York Times Notable Author, has published six novels: Rockets’ Red Glare, Purpose of Evasion, Final Answers, Touched by Fire, Red Ink, and The German Suitcase, Dinallo’s latest and digital-first novel. He has also written and produced many dramatic programs and movies for television. He lives with his wife in Greenwich Village, New York.
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Best book I have read in a long, long time. Dinallo at his best.