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Blood spatter patterns were fascinating, indicating the force of a blow, the trajectory of a bullet and the truth or lies of witnesses of a crime.
Callista MacBride, head of the Kenner County Crime Unit, liked studying blood spatter because it couldn't lie, because it was a science that had definite answers, predictable results.
It was rare for the Kenner County Crime Unit to be quiet, but on a cold Wednesday night in February, Callie found herself alone. Hunched over a magnifying glass to study the blood spatter left behind at a scene where a young Ute woman had died in what the locals thought was a bear attack, Callie was comforted by the familiar white noise around herthe whoosh of warm air from the furnace, the hum of the various refrigerator units and the sound of her own breathing.
There were times she still couldn't believe she was here in Kenner City, Colorado, running the lab that served the four corner areas of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.
This small operation was a far cry from her previous job as a forensic expert for the FBI in Las Vegas. This lab lacked the high-tech equipment she had grown accustomed to in Las Vegas and it suffered budget issues that occasionally made her want to pull her hair out. Yet she loved the creativity and enthusiasm of her coworkers.
She'd decided to work late because she hadn't wanted to go home and have too many hours to think about Julie. She coughed as her throat tickled and she tried to shove away thoughts of Julie Grainger, the murdered FBI agent who had also been a friend.
Her body had been found nearby on Ute territory and the murder had sparked a massive investigation between the Ute authorities and the Colorado police. The FBI, especially the Durango office, was also involved and the mood at the crime lab had been somber.
She frowned and slid the photo of the blood spatter out from beneath the large magnifier and inserted a photo of the victim and her wounds. She squeezed her burning eyes closed for a minute, then opened them again and studied the wounds.
At first glance they certainly appeared to have been made by giant sharp claws, but there had been no bear scat or tracks found nearby. It was February, certainly not the time of year for any bear to be out and about wandering the area.
In this case it wasn't so much what she was looking at that bothered her, but what was missing that made her leery about the supposed attack. There should have been more evidence of a marauding bear in the area.
Sheriff Patrick Martinez had been troubled by the lack of tracks as well, which was why he had brought the photos and forensic evidence in to be studied before making a final ruling on the case.
She coughed again, the tickle in her throat irritating her. Maybe it was time to call it a night. Her eyes burned and had begun to tear and she was exhausted. She raised her head from the magnifier and a panicked alarm went off in her head.
A faint layer filled the room. And where there was smoke, there was fire. She jumped up from her chair, a new spasm of coughing attacking her. She had to find the source of the smoke.
The hallway just outside the lab, she thought. There was a fire extinguisher in the hallway, along with an alarm that would bring the fire department. With all the smoke, why weren't the alarms ringing?
She crouched low, where the air wasn't quite so thick, and headed in the direction where she thought the smoke was originating. She crawled out of the main lab door and into the hallway where the smoke was thicker, more noxious. It seemed to be coming from beneath a supply closet door.
Her head pounded as she gasped for air. Her vision blurred as her eyes filled with tears. Slowly she crawled toward the door, wondering what might have started the fire.
She finally made it to the supply closet and placed a hand on the door. Although it was warm, it wasn't hot.
She pulled it open and black, lethal smoke rolled out. She fell back, racked with uncontrollable coughing. Air. She needed clean air. She was dizzy. Someplace in the back of her mind she realized that she'd done everything wrong.
She should have gotten out and sounded the alarm. She should have never tried to play the hero. The dizziness grew more intense and she fell to the floor, trying to find a breath of air to fill her lungs.
Stupid, Callie, she thought. You're smarter than this.
It was her last conscious thought.
She came to with the wintry morning sun shining in her eyes from a nearby window. She winced against the brightness and reached up to touch her face, finding an oxygen mask covering her mouth and nose.
The hospital. She was in the hospital. How had she gotten here? Who had found her? The last thing she remembered was collapsing on the floor in the hallway at the lab. She yanked off the mask as she thought of the lab. Oh, God, had it burned?
"You're supposed to be wearing that mask." The deep, familiar voice came from one side of her and she turned her head to see Sheriff Patrick Martinez seated in a chair next to the bed.
She half rose from the bed. "The lab," she croaked and then coughed to clear her throat.
"Is fine," he assured her. "The hallway outside had a little smoke damage, but the lab itself is okay and the nurse just checked your vitals and you're going to be fine."
Callie breathed a sigh of relief and flopped back against the pillow. She had a pounding headache but other than that she didn't feel too badly. "How did I get here?"
"Bobby O'Shea couldn't sleep last night. He decided to go into the lab and get some extra work done. He found you on the floor in front of the supply closet and dragged you out, then called the fire department."
Patrick's blue eyes were darker than usual as he looked at her. "If he hadn't shown up when he did, you and I wouldn't be having this conversation right now. I'd be talking to you in the morgue."
Callie fought a shiver that threatened to walk up her spine. "It was my fault. The minute I saw the smoke I should have gotten out of the building, but instead I foolishly decided to investigate and see where it was coming from."
"Tell me exactly what happened." Patrick pulled a notepad and pen from his pocket.
It took her only minutes to explain to him the events that had led to her being overcome by the smoke. She explained finding the fire in the supply closet and opening the door to check it out.
When she was finished he leaned back in his chair and stuck the pad and pen back into his pocket. "The fire was intentionally set, Callie. Who knew that you'd be working late last night?"
"Anyone who knows me at all," she replied dryly. "It's not unusual for me to be in the lab late. I'm there most nights until the wee hours of the morning. Surely you don't think this is about me?"
Patrick raised a dark eyebrow. "Wasn't it just a week ago that somebody tried to run you down with a car?"
Callie pulled the sheet tighter around her and averted her gaze from Patrick's. "I still think that was just some dummy on a cell phone not watching where he was going."
"That's two close calls, Callie. And that makes me nervous." He unfolded his long length from the chair and stood. "Needless to say we're investigating the fire, but to be honest I don't feel optimistic about learning who might have set it. I'll keep you posted, okay?"
"Okay. The smoke alarms didn't go off," she added.
"We'll check it all out. You just need to get some rest."
She nodded and then forced a smile. "Are you crazy with wedding preparations yet?" In two weeks Patrick was marrying Sabrina Hunter, a Ute police detective.
"Bree and I have agreed not to get crazy," he replied. "It's just going to be a small wedding without frills or fuss."
"I'm looking forward to it," Callie replied. "Oh, and Patrick, last night I was studying the photos from the Mary Windsong death. I'm not convinced we have a marauding bear in the area. I think you might be looking for a murderer."
Patrick sighed. "I was afraid you were going to tell me that. We'll talk more later. I'll be in touch," he said and then with a nod of his head he left her room.
Restless energy filled her. She wanted out of here, needed to get back to the lab and assess the damage. Other than the headache and the irritating cough, she felt fine. She found the call button and punched it to get the attention of a nurse or a doctor.
Almost immediately a man wearing a white coat and a nametag reading Dr. Westin entered the room. "Ah, I see my patient is awake."
"And ready to get out of here," she replied.
"Oh, let's not rush things. I'd like to at least keep you through the afternoon for observation and we'll talk about letting you go home this evening if no other symptoms arise through the course of the day. I'll send the nurse in to get vitals and in the meantime it's important that you just rest."
Callie wanted to protest, but she bit her tongue, knowing he was probably right. The doctor left and a nurse came in to take her vitals, then she was once again left alone.
Two close calls in one week. Patrick's words came back to haunt her. Was it merely a case of bad luck or was it something more ominous?
Del Gardo. The name leaped into her head and brought with it a ball of tension that ached in her chest. He was the number one suspect in Julie's murder, but more than that, he was the man that wanted Callie dead as well.
"Hey, boss, how are you doing?" Ava Wright walked into the room, the sunshine from the window shimmering in her wavy red hair.
Callie smiled at the fragile-looking woman who worked as a forensic scientist on Callie's team. Petite Ava might look fragile with her porcelain complexion and big blue eyes, but Callie knew she was tough as nails. She carried with her a bouquet of multi-colored flowers in a glass vase.
"I'm fine," Callie replied. "And ready to get out of here. Those flowers are beautiful."
"I thought they would give you something pretty to look at while you're here." Ava sat in the chair Patrick had recently vacated, a dainty frown creasing her forehead. "Are you sure you're okay? Bobby told us that you were completely unconscious when he carried you out of the building. He was scared to death for you. We all were when we got to work this morning and found out what had happened."
"Please tell everyone I'm fine and should be back to work first thing in the morning," Callie replied.
Abruptly Ava jumped out of the chair. "Be right back," she said, a pale cast to her face. She dashed into the bathroom and Callie could have sworn she heard the sound of retching.
Ava reappeared a moment later, her hand splayed across her stomach. "Sorry, I tried a new breakfast drink this morning and apparently it didn't agree with me."
"I hope you haven't caught the flu bug that's been going around."
"I don't think so. But, I think I'm going to scoot out of here and see if I can find something to soothe my tummy."
"Go on, get out of here and take care of yourself," Callie said. "And thanks for the flowers."
"See you in the morning," Ava said and with a wave of her hand, she left the room.
The morning passed with a number of visitors stopping in from the lab to check on her. After she'd picked at her lunch and the tray had been taken away, she lowered the head of her bed. She was tired. While the steady stream of visitors had been welcome, she now found herself exhausted.
She closed her eyes and tried not to think about the fact that it was possible the fire had been intentionally set, that the goal of the arsonist had been to kill her.
She froze at the sound of the deep male voice and prayed that she was already asleep and suffering a nightmare. But she knew she wasn't and she opened her eyes and stared at the tall, lean man.
His light brown hair was much longer than when she'd last seen him, but his deep brown eyes still held the brooding darkness that had always been such an integral part of him.
He was the man she cursed on a regular basis and the last person on earth she wanted to see at the moment. "What in the hell are you doing here?" she asked.
The first thing that entered Tom Ryan's mind as he gazed at Callie was that at some point over the last three years she'd cut off all her long, luxurious pale hair.
Still, the short and sleek blond cap suited her, emphasizing the elegant bone structure of her face and those amazing blue eyes of hers, eyes that at the moment held all the warmth of an iceberg in glacial waters.
"If you came to make sure that I'm okay, then your question has been answered and you can leave now." She squeezed her eyes closed.
If she was upset at the very sight of him she was really going to go ballistic when she found out why he was here. "It's a little more complicated than that, Callie." He shrugged out of his winter coat, walked over to the chair and sat next to her bed.
"What's more complicated?" she asked as she once again opened her eyes to glare at him.
"The Bureau is concerned about you. With Julie's murder and now the fire, we think you need protection." He watched her features intently. The only sign of her displeasure was her lush lips pressing thinly together.
He'd once believed he knew her thoughts almost before she knew them herself, but that had been a lifetime and many mistakes ago.