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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.
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.
"So, 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, "So 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 cherrywood 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.
So 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. So 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?
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.