Since a brain-altering drug killed most of Luke Kincaid's town
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The envelope bore Luke Kincaid's name and the address of Fort Detrick, and held a single sheet of paper. There was only one line of text on the page, written in precise, capital letters.
AND TO OBEY THE SCOUT LAW.
It was signed with Jack Barnett's scrawl.
This was the third time in the past three weeks that Luke had been summoned to a pharmaceutical or chemical company by a letter from Jack. Each time when he arrived, the place would be ripped up, trashed, and there would be these cryptic notes to him, with bits of the Boy Scout Code. The first note read "On my honor, I will do my best," and at the second location, "To do my duty to God and my country." Now this.
Why the ever-loving hell was his former roommate and ex-friend leaving him these notes?
Luke crushed the page between his fingers. Catching himself, he sighed and smoothed it out, folding it and tucking it into his pocket. Martins would want to see it. Not that it would help. They hadn't found any trace of Jack or his partner in crime, Parker Sinclair, on the other notes. Still, their commander would be pissed if he destroyed evidence.
What was Jack playing at? They'd been Boy Scouts together, sure. But that had been a lifetime ago. Back in their pack days, Jack would have never listened to an antisocial hermit's ramblings about being the "Evolved Race." Jack had barely listened to their den mother.
Around Luke, the entire floor of the Simpkins Pharmaceutical building looked like a war zone. Work tables were capsized. Paper and office supplies littered the floor. There were puddles of chemicals spilling out of their broken glass containers. Computers had been smashed. Nearby, his partner Kenny wielded a fire extinguisher, spraying what remained of a blaze in the corner. He could have done it without his hands — he was telekinetic, like Luke — but he wouldn't want to scare the civilians.
Like the administrator in front of him, cleaning the smudges off his glasses. Luke gestured to the room. "Do you know yet what was stolen?"
The other man shook his head. "I have the inventory list, but it might take us days to match it up with the stock that remains."
"Hours. It might take you hours to match it up." Luke folded his arms over his chest. "Not even that long."
"I need to know what's been taken ..." He glanced at the man's name badge. "Doctor Khan. I need to know as soon as possible."
"I understand, Mr. Kincaid. But the supply list is extensive, and we don't have that many people who can do this ..."
"The FBI will be here within the hour. They'll help you put the puzzle together."
Dr. Khan gulped. "The FBI?"
"Yes. The FBI."
"Is that ... necessary?" The doctor rubbed his forehead. "This is a research facility. Are you certain this wasn't done by some kids having some fun?"
"Yes. I'm certain." Luke fingered the note in his pocket. "Trust me. It's necessary."
The doctor sighed before he tapped on the face of his phone. From his grimace, someone somewhere wasn't happy that the FBI would be paying Simpkins Pharma a visit.
Luke had met the same reaction at the last two companies. Seemed no one liked having the feds around. Not that he cared much. They needed information. Fast.
He left Dr. Khan to soothe corporate ruffled feathers and joined Kenny. Letting the fire extinguisher fall to his side, the other man rubbed his dark hair. "Man, they know how to make a mess."
Luke surveyed the remains of the room. Sections of the research facility were untouched. Other parts — the ones that he suspected had housed specific components — were completely destroyed. "They knew what they were looking for."
"Just like the other times."
It did look the same. Jack and Parker were searching for the components to make Solvimine, a drug that either gave a person superhuman powers or killed them. God willing, they hadn't found what they came for.
Luke propped one hand on his hip and rubbed his chest with the other, doing his best to loosen the tension squeezing him. It didn't help. He'd need to go running tonight. "Let me call Martins, see what he wants us to do."
"Why don't you just call Beth? You know he's going to send her anyway."
"Yeah. I know."
Kenny smirked. Pulling his cell from his pocket, Luke walked away before his friend could give him a hard time.
Lieutenant Colonel Martins didn't say hello. "What happened?"
"Another break-in. Same as the other two."
A loaded pause split the line. "Was it them?"
"Yes, sir. I received another note from Jack."
Martins cursed. "More of the damn Boy Scout Code?"
"Yes, sir. 'And to obey the Scout Law.'"
"What does he mean?"
"I don't know." Luke had been trying to figure out what was going through Jack's mind for weeks, but he still didn't get it. He worried that by the time he figured it out, it would be too late.
"Are you getting a list of what they've taken?"
"Yes. The doctor in charge isn't happy about it. Said it would take a long time to match up the stock with the inventory of what should be here."
"Is he hiding something?" Martins didn't trust anyone. After everything he'd seen, Luke wasn't much better.
"I don't know. Kitty wasn't here." Kitty Laughton, a girl from his hometown who had also been changed by Solvimine, could hear thoughts. She had the flu today. "I don't think so. Just seemed like he didn't want the inconvenience."
"Yeah, well, neither do I."
Luke snorted. "What are your orders?"
"Get Beth over there. She can piece together his inventory in a snap."
He'd been afraid Martins would say that. "Yes, sir. I'll give her a call."
Martins must have heard his reluctance. "Kincaid? I shouldn't have to remind you to be civil to her. She's head of research. She's an asset."
Warning received, loud and clear. "Yes, sir."
Luke disconnected the call before opening his contacts and locating Beth Jenkins's phone number. He scowled at it.
He tried to be civil to Beth. It was impossible not to admire her. At twenty-one, she was an expert in her chosen field. But on Solvimine she was misguided. She wanted to research the drug, to pull it apart and understand it. As far as he was concerned, the drug and its research should be buried deep, wherever the government hid information about Area 51 and the Loch Ness Monster. Then they should throw away the key.
As Luke stared at the phone, Kenny trotted up beside him, interrupting his call preparation. "Hold up. You need to see this." Warning colored his tone, his mouth in a grim line.
Dread pooled in Luke's stomach. He slipped the phone into his pocket without hitting send and trailed his friend to the stairwell.
A man in a security guard uniform sprawled on the landing floor. He was half on his side, his mouth open, his eyes fixed. His legs dangled on the concrete stairs, as if he had fallen while still climbing. Both hands were at his throat.
"Curtis," Dr. Kahn gasped. He must have followed them, but he didn't say more, turning away quickly. Luke heard him gag behind them.
He let the steel door to the stairwell slam closed, addressing the man hunched over the nearby trash can. "Dr. Kahn. Go downstairs. Cordon off the entrance to the stairwell. I don't want anyone getting up here until the feds arrive." When the doctor only stared at him, Luke prodded him, pointing toward the elevator. "Downstairs. The door."
"Right." Rubbing his mouth on his sleeve, the man straightened. He stumbled a few steps before hurrying away.
"It was them, wasn't it?" Kenny sounded older than his twenty-three years.
Luke sighed. "Probably." With wooden fingers, he retrieved his phone from his pocket.
He shot off a message to Martins. We have a body. Not a burglary ... a murder.
The response was immediate. Call Beth back. She'll know which teams to contact.
Luke glared, running his hand over his head. Beside him, Kenny still stared at the stairwell, pale even with his dark skin. "Parker did that?"
"Probably. Jack can kill someone easy, but I bet that was Parker. Probably convinced him he shouldn't breathe." Even saying the words made him sick. The horror they were all capable of ... it surprised even him sometimes. "We won't know until Beth gets here, though."
Kenny nodded. Without another word, he walked away and gave directions to quarantine the area. Luke clenched his fists, irritated.
Sometimes, it was like the rest of them didn't get this part. Was he the only one who thought about this, how easily they could kill? All humans could kill, with a gun, a knife, their bare hands ... There were plenty of monsters out there. But them? They had the ability in their heads. Some were so fast that anyone who fought them wouldn't even see it coming. Kenny? Him? They were telekinetic. On impulse, he could send a sharp object through a person, could smash them against a wall without lifting a finger.
But Parker and Kitty? It was even easier for them. They could convince people to kill themselves.
Kenny didn't know how thin that line was — one wrong move, one mistake or accident away.
The soldier's face from La Junta swam in his memory — the first man he'd killed, without even intending to — and Luke swallowed hard. The soldier was never far from his mind.
He stretched his head from side to side, doing his best to loosen the tension in his neck, trying to focus, to pack that all away. Glaring at his phone, he jabbed the home button. As soon as the screen unlocked, there was Beth's contact. He hit send.
Four rings and then his call dropped into voicemail. You've reached the number you most recently dialed. Please leave your message.
At the beep, he said, "Beth, there's been another pharmaceutical company break-in, at Simpkins Pharmaceuticals. A security guard is dead. I'll need you to sort out what's been taken, and we need Forensics. I'll send directions. Thanks."
He disconnected, and then he shot her a text, too, with the location of the Simpkins facility. He'd wait for the feds to investigate, to find out exactly how close Parker and Jack were to recreating Solvimine.
He refused to accept that they might be too late.
They were already too late for the security guard in the stairwell.
The buzzing of Beth's phone interrupted the usual beeping and whooshing in her mother's dimly-lit room.
Her mother didn't notice, staring straight ahead. Her hands rested on her lap, the hospital sheet pulled up to her waist, her face passive. The nurses had lifted the gates on each side of the bed. Nursing home regulations. Her mom hadn't moved in weeks.
Beth glanced down. Luke's name blazed across the screen. She stared at it as it vibrated, not picking it up. When it signaled that she'd missed the call, she stood, leaving her mother's side and pulling the door closed behind her. In the hall, she leaned against the wall and watched the phone until the voicemail indicator lit up.
Hitting play, she lifted the phone to her ear. Luke's deep voice filled her head, the rumble of it warming her.
The words echoed through her skull, but she listened to the message again to be sure she'd heard them right.
A security guard was dead.
Dead, dead, dead.
She wrapped the hand not holding her phone around her waist, hugging herself. Her stomach churned and her throat felt thick.
What had happened? This had been the third time a pharmaceutical company had been robbed over the past weeks, but no one had been killed before.
Jack Barnett and Parker Sinclair had broken into the last two companies in the dead of night, when no one was there. Why was it different now?
Luke's text followed the voicemail, probably sent immediately after he'd finished on the phone. It said the same thing. Another pharmaceutical company break-in. Simpkins Pharmaceutical. Security guard dead. Must sort what's taken. Need Forensics. Thanks.
It wasn't logical to send a text after leaving a voicemail.
She shook her head. People weren't always logical. Why did she expect them to be? She hated to admit it, but she didn't always think straight, either, especially when it came to Luke.
Returning to her mother's room, she closed the door softly behind her. Her mother might have sunken into the recesses of her mind and far from Beth, but she definitely didn't like loud noises.
Slipping back into the seat next to the bed, Beth slid her mother's long, thin fingers into her own. "Hey, Mama, I have to go. Work. I'll be back to see you on the weekend."
Her mother said nothing. She hadn't responded to her in two months, but Beth always hesitated, hoping for some reaction.
Leaning forward, she kissed the paper-thin skin on the back of her mother's hand. It smelled like the lavender lotion Beth had smoothed on her hands and arms earlier. "I love you."
As she gazed into her mother's unresponsive face, she silently vowed the same thing she always did: she was going to find a way to get her mother back. She'd promised her father she'd take care of her mom, and that's what she was going to do. The research was so close.
If she could figure out how Solvimine opened brain pathways, maybe she could use that to unblock whatever tangles held her mother hostage in her own mind.
Beth unfolded her fingers from her mother's and left. Hurrying to her car, she slipped into the front seat and turned on the heater. It might be almost March, but winter hadn't loosened its grip on the DC Metro area. As she waited for the fog on her glasses to clear, she rubbed her hands together in front of the vent, shivering and trying to prepare herself to talk to Luke.
She replayed his message once more, letting it pick up on the Bluetooth in her car. While the mention of someone's death sliced through her, he only sounded resigned. Unsurprised.
Which pretty much summed up how he approached everything: with a complete lack of emotional response.
Her friend Blue had told her that Luke used to be different, before his father was killed and he was changed by Solvimine.
She wished she could have seen that.
Pressing the callback button on her cell, she waited while the phone rang through her speakers.
"Beth," Luke answered. She closed her eyes on his deep voice, bracing herself.
"Luke. Hey." She forced herself to sound upbeat, to pretend she wasn't rattled, the same as she always did when they talked. "I need more details."
"I assumed as much."
She wrinkled her nose. Thoroughness wasn't a flaw. She needed to give other people instructions, so she asked a lot of questions. It was what intelligent people did. "How did he die?"
"Not sure. I'm not the forensic scientist." Luke's sigh blistered the airway. "Looks like he was suffocated."
She would let the investigators know. "And the rest of the place looks like the others?"
"Yes." In true Luke fashion, he didn't elaborate.
She studied the map he'd sent her. From where she was in DC, and considering the slushy roads, it would take her at least two hours to get to them. "I'll let the Bureau know. They'll send the nearest teams to you. I'll have them gather the inventory and the inventory list." She paused. "And I'll have them send Forensics for the body as well. They'll take longer, I'm sure. But the list of what's been taken shouldn't take that long to gather. I'm two hours away, so I'll go right to the office and get started."
"You're two hours away?"
"Yes." She didn't expand. Only Martins and Kitty knew about her mother's progressing Alzheimer's and about Beth's frequent trips to the VA Medical Center in DC to see her. It wasn't something that came up in light conversation. As her mom's condition deteriorated, Beth found it harder to discuss it. Her guilt crowded all the words out. "All right," he said, though his tone said it was clearly not all right. "I'll meet you there."
Excitement soared through her at the prospect of being near him.
No. She forced that all down. There wasn't time for that. And she was the last person he'd see that way.
She glanced at the clock on her dashboard. "It's late, Luke, almost eight. I know you've been working all day." It would be easier if he wasn't there. Her body did traitorous, butterflies-racing-in-the-stomach things when he was around. It made it hard to argue with him. And they always argued when they were together.
"I don't sleep anyway," he offered, as if that were a valid explanation. "I'll see you when you get there." The line went dead, and her radio kicked back on, blaring through the Jeep's speakers.
She lowered the volume and glared at her phone as she flipped on her headlights.
As if investigating a murder and burglary wasn't going to be difficult enough, she'd need to do it under Luke's intense gaze. Heat sliced through her blood as she carefully turned out of the parking lot and headed for the interstate.
As she hit the highway, she dialed in to headquarters and started giving instructions. It was going to be a long night.
Excerpted from "Absolved"
Copyright © 2017 Marnee Bailey.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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