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"Tell me how much she knows."
"She is a very able student." Dr. Langdon Hammer felt a surge of pride at having picked his assistant. Maura Lindsey possessed multiple degrees and a significant amount of research experience. Not just any lab could secure the services of such a dedicated and knowledgeable young doctor.
Of course, the very reasons that made her ideal as a professional also made her a problem now. Being brilliant would be her downfall.
"I'm talking about professionally, Hammer."
"So am I. She works with me every day. Just work." Dr. Hammer didn't bother to look up from the computer keyboard. He couldn't type if he couldn't see the letters, and he had to move fast. The man standing in front of him didn't like having his time wasted.
Just thinking about the man's plans made Dr. Hammer's fingers trip over the keys and accidentally erase an entire column of data. This was why he had an assistant. Entering information and other menial tasks fell to her.
"Tell me about her access to your work. How much does she see?" the other man asked.
Dr. Hammer's hand hesitated over the delete key. "All of it."
"Does she understand the ramifications of your findings?"
"Of course." As if he would hire someone incapable of grasping a world-changing scientific breakthrough. Stupid people annoyed him.
The other man paced the small space across from Dr. Hammer, the only section of the office not blocked by stacks of books and papers. "Then she's the logical choice for this."
Dr. Hammer tried one last time to argue for her. "She is invaluable to my research."
"Everyone is replaceable."
Dr. Hammer pushed back in his chair and focused solely on the conversation. The disturbing turn had his full attention now. "Not everyone."
"There are others with the same level of expertise as you."
"With enough assistance, they can reach your level."
"That would take years, possibly decades, and even then it's doubtful. On the other hand, there is no question about my success. I have achieved it."
"Which is why we came to you." The man traced his finger over the top of the crystal award sitting on the edge of Dr. Hammer's desk. "But you would be wise to remember the extent of my resources. The reach of my power."
Dr. Hammer swallowed back the lump of fear that had been forming since the other man walked into the office. "I am."
"Then we understand each other."
The man's twisted grin resembled that of a pouncing animal. "Dr. Lindsey will continue to help you. She just needs to be dead to do it."
Maura Lindsey read over the paragraph a second time. She didn't need her two doctorate degrees and a genius-level IQ to recognize something was very wrong at the Systems Institute, the government lab where she worked.
Since the task of inputting information, complying with regulations and keeping track of the paperwork fell to her, there was no way this amounted to a simple misunderstanding. Altered data and wrong conclusions. It was all right there in front of her. No matter how many times she blinked, the words in the file didn't change. Her boss, Dr. Langdon Hammer, had prepared a false interim report on their organ transplant research for the National Institutes of Health. The same report he hid from her.
He had always been eccentric. Grumpy and brilliant, private and utterly focused on his research to the point of distraction over everything except, maybe, his new wife. Married or not, he definitely was not a people person and lately he added secretive to his list of unattractive attributes.
Maura ignored the sharp change in his temperament at first. She understood the pressure of working long lonely hours in a sterile lab in the rush for groundbreaking scientific developments. But she didn't understand the lies.
She stood in the center of Dr. Hammer's office with two sets of notes in her hands. The real ones and the ones her boss compiled for his progress report. His fake progress report.
She only saw one solution—take the documents and review them somewhere else. It was a violation of her employment, and she hated to take the risk, but if Dr. Hammer saw her pawing through his papers or suspected she had questions, she might never get the answers she needed. She'd go home, spread everything out across her dining-room table and study the data. Maybe there was a reasonable explanation. If not, she'd get someone high up in NIH to listen to her concerns.
Heavy footsteps fell in the hallway, breaking into her mental plotting. The unknown visitor didn't stop or question the light being on in Dr. Hammer's office. The quick pace suggested running and no one ran in the Institute. Other than a few offices—most of which were empty— and a small area for administrative and computer work, the main floor consisted only of lab space. And only two people worked there. Dr. Hammer insisted on keeping the people with access to his findings to a minimum.
The floor above housed another lab engaged in unrelated government research on top-secret projects, but it was ten o'clock on Saturday night. Only people without a life were in the building now, and that meant she was alone except for the security guard at the front door.
"Tom?" When he didn't answer, Maura tried again. "Hello?"
She gathered up all the files on Dr. Hammer's desk and shoved them under her arm. She wanted to download everything from her boss's computer onto a drive, but the usual password didn't work. Seemed the absent-minded scientist had instituted some new security protocols that day without telling her. Since the man could barely order lunch without someone dialing the phone for him, she feared what was happening might involve Dr. Hammer using outside resources, which violated just about every clause of his confidentiality agreement and employment contract with the government.
But she'd figure that out later. Right now, she had to move.
Being as quiet as possible, she peeked out the office doorway, then slid into the hallway. If someone who shouldn't be running around was out there, she sure didn't want to meet up with him. Getting caught with stolen documents was not the way for her to keep her job, and she had worked too hard to get this assignment to lose it now.
Being attacked by a crazed burglar was not on her agenda, either.
She listened for any noise. She expected the natural sounds of the building to echo back to her. A creak here or there. The hum of lights and machines. An occasional ring of a phone. She heard nothing, and in this case, that was a very bad thing. The deadly stillness set off a whirl of panic in her stomach.
She took a few steps and glanced down to the far end of the hallway. All the doors along the way to the private offices remained closed. The steel entry to the lobby area looked to be locked up tight. The lights on the alarm panel next to it flashed green, just like they were supposed to do.
That direction checked out. So, she looked over her shoulder, back the other way to the matching panel at the opposite end of the corridor. It was the one closest to her and it led to the lab, and it was deadly dark.
No whistles or screaming bells. The fingerprint scanner was in place but not lit up as usual. The fact that the door stood wide open qualified as the biggest problem of the moment. She couldn't see inside, but didn't have to. They kept the door locked. Always.
The potential danger of the situation hit her with a clarity that threatened to knock her over, even as her brain struggled to analyze what she was seeing. Not trusting her mind to sort it all out fast enough, she fumbled in her lab-coat pocket, searching for her cell phone to call the police. It wasn't there. As usual, she'd put it down somewhere and lost track of it. Her brother insisted that habit would get her in trouble one day. She feared that day had come.
She was stuck away from the phones with nothing more than a stack of papers in her hands for protection. Defenseless and alone, the combination sent her mind spinning. Her usual calm abandoned her in favor of grinding panic. Every inch of her shook with the need to escape and find help.
She felt her way along the wall as she inched down the hallway toward the lobby and freedom. Her breath pounded in her chest, scratching her throat raw. A squeak of shoes against the tile floor stopped her. She bit down on her tongue to keep from shouting for Tom. He would have answered her before if he could have. He wouldn't play around in the lab.
No, this was someone else—stalking, hiding, waiting for her.
Forget quiet. She needed speed. She ran back into Dr. Hammer's office and headed for the phone. Before she could reach for the receiver, a deafening whoosh thundered up the hall, shattering glass in its wake. As she struggled to see what was happening, a huge boom rattled the building. The ground beneath her shook with enough force to buckle her knees and send vibrations up her legs.
A second explosion sent her body flying into Dr. Hammer's huge mahogany desk. Her middle smacked into the edge, stealing her breath and scattering papers around her feet. Her vision swirled at the edges as she fell to the floor. For a second, she closed her eyes, hoping to open them again and find out this was nothing more than a nightmare.
A harsh banging brought her back to the present. Smoke filled the hallway and heat enveloped her. She choked on the foul air as she looked around. She tried to process the events of the last few minutes but her mind refused to function.
One thing was clear. She had to get out of there. Crackling sounded all around her as the building heaved and groaned. If she didn't find fresh air and get out soon, she'd be crushed or burned alive. She refused to be a victim of either option.
On her hands and knees, she crawled across shards of glass and ignored the edges as they bit into her skin. She drew up a mental floor plan of the office and aimed for where the window should be. She'd crash through it if she had to. Anything to get outside and away from the building before it imploded.
With her mouth tucked into the sleeve of her coat, she lifted to her feet in a bent-over crouch. From this position she could see what remained of the office space. Nothing separated it from the hall now. The wall between Dr. Hammer's office and hers had collapsed, leaving a blown-out opening. Fire danced in every inch of her room as bright orange flames raced up her walls, swallowing her framed degrees and bookshelves in one hot gulp.
If she had been where she was supposed to be, she'd be dead. Snooping had saved her.
Ceiling tiles fell from above her head, barely missing her. The walls were buckling. The thundering mix of fire and falling debris filled her ears. The taste of soot lingered on her tongue. There would be nothing left soon, including her, if she didn't jump through the window. The glass had shattered leaving ragged edges. Using her elbow, she cleared a path and wiggled out the small opening. A final pop propelled her outside, throwing her through the air until she landed hard on her right side on the grassy area outside.
Pain crushed in on her from every angle as she rolled as far away from the burning structure as possible. She hurt everywhere. Her mind reeled and fingers burned. When she looked down, she saw the death grip she had on some of those files. Through all the shock and the explosions, she had held on. The realization sent a wave of relief through her. She didn't know where the papers fit together with the explosions, but she sensed on some level they did.
She dropped her head back and tried to gather the energy to get up. Smoke spiraled into the dark sky. Alarms hadn't sounded, but she held out hope someone had heard the crashing booms that even now continued to sound, or saw the flames licking against the cloudless night.
Their building sat at the end of a long private drive in McLean, Virginia. The secluded setting ensured security, or that was the theory. Now the isolation worked against her, guaranteeing that precious data she needed would be lost before the fire department got word and came screaming to the scene.
When she lifted her head again and glanced around, she could make out the outline of a large SUV near the entrance to the building. It was a car that hadn't been there when she checked in earlier. A second later, three people piled out of the front door in a rush. The bright lights of the outside parking area let her see what was happening. She recognized the straight-backed and serious steps of Dr. Hammer. He wasn't injured. If anything, he maintained his usual even pace while the men around him tried to hustle him.
Before she could call out his name, one of the other men opened the back door of the vehicle and signaled for Dr. Hammer to get in. With one last long look at the Institute, he slipped in and closed the door. The SUV took off, leaving her alone and the disaster behind.
Maura tried to put the bits she knew together in a reasonable story, but the last hour didn't make any sense. Dr. Hammer's precious work was vanishing in front of him and he didn't show any more concern than he did on a normal day when he left the office. More important, he didn't seem to notice her car was in the parking lot while the building was on fire. Either he didn't care that she could be injured or dead or worse, he wanted her to be.
She couldn't figure out why, but she knew everything had gone wrong. This was more than a problem with the interim report. This went deeper. The fire and the false data were connected somehow. Had to be.
Anxiety flooded through her, making every cell in her body quake and tremble. She didn't know who to trust or where to go.