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Mladeline Westfield never saw the car coming.
It was late at night, and chilly for the beginning of November. She'd turned up her coat collar, and was waiting to cross Park Avenue at East Eighty-Eighth Street. Lost in thought, yes, and with more than enough reason these days. She was an emotional wreck. But navigating between pedestrians, taxicabs and speeding motorists was second nature to her. She'd been a Manhattan resident for most of her life.
She'd watched for the walk sign to flash from red to green. Even then, she'd paused briefly to glance around.
The crosswalk was still.
She took her initial steps into the street.
The screech of tires was her first warning. Then came the flash of motion from her peripheral vision.
Her head snapped around, and she came to a dead stop, staring like a deer in the headlights. A black SUV was roaring in her direction. It veered sharply at her, leaving no doubt that its goal was to hit her head-on.
Self-preservation kicked in. She lunged away, hurling herself backward and crashing to the sidewalk, a pile of wet leaves doing nothing to cushion her fall.
The impact of her body slamming against the concrete rocketed through her. Her head struck the groundhard. She cried out in pain, saw stars.
Somewhere in the dim recesses of her mind, she heard the screech of brakes and the sharp swerving of tires, and the terrifying thought occurred to her that the driver was going to try again.
"Miss, are you all right?" a gravelly male voice inquired as the man it belonged to rounded the corner.
Madeline had never felt such great relief at the sound of another human voice. She looked up to see an elderly gentleman, with a full head of white hair and a lined face, holding a leash. The Brussels griffon at the other end of the leash was eye level with her. He trotted over to take a sniff.
"No, Max!" the man said. He was staring down at Madeline, his forehead creased in concern. "Did you trip? Can you move?"
He hadn't seen what happened. He wasn't a witness.
As Madeline opened her mouth to speak, she heard the SUV's engine roar in the distance as it sped down Park Avenue.
" She shifted her weight and winced. Her right side was killing her. Her head was throbbing violently. And "Max" looked like two dogs, not one. Double vision. A concussion. Not to mention some major bruisespossibly even some broken bones. As an RN, she recognized the signs.
Seeing the agony in her eyes, the man reacted.
"I'm going to call 9-1-1 and get you an ambulance." He took out his cell phone.
Madeline nodded her thanks. She tried again to move, and was rewarded with jolts of pain. She inhaled sharply, causing shooting pain in her chest. So she lay there quietly and waited.
The ambulance seemed to take forever to arrive. Maybe it was the pain talking. Or maybe it was her nerves. But she finally saw the red whirring light and heard the siren. Lenox Hill Hospital was nearby. That's where the EMTs would transport her. It wasn't the hospital she worked in, but she did know some people there.
Not that it mattered. She passed out as they arrived at the E.R.
When she came to, she was in a hospital bed with a bandaged arm, a taped midsection and an ice pack resting on her hip. Her head felt like a jackhammer was splitting it in two.
She lay there for a moment, willing her mind to work. Then she remembered what had happened and everything inside her tensed up.
It hadn't been an accident. It was attempted murder. That SUV was gunning for her. The cops wouldn't believe her story. Why would they? They hadn't believed her the first time. And that had only been a robbery. Now someone wanted her dead.
She flinched, knowing she had a concussion, a few broken ribs and a badly bruised hip. She wished she had some painkillersanything to take away the throbbing and to knock her out. She wanted to sleep. She knew she couldn't. Not yet. Not until the doctor saw her and checked out her neurological responses.
She'd be here overnight. They'd keep her for observation. Then, if she remained stable, they'd let her go home.
A wave of panic set in, followed by utter resignation. She couldn't do this alone, not anymore. She'd put off the inevitable for as long as possible. It was time to get helpand from a specific source.
Seeking out that source was going to be even more painful than her injuries.
* * *
It was 8:45 a.m.
The Forensic Instincts investigative team was hard at workbut not on a case.
Instead, they were scrambling around their Tribeca brownstone, trying to get the place into some semblance of order before their next job applicant arrived.
Having just wrapped up a high-profile corporate espionage case, they'd normally be debriefing. Instead, all their notes, reports, follow-ups and computer files were in uncharacteristic disarray. The phone was ringing off the hook. Their voice mailboxes were exploding. And this was not the way Casey Woods intended to run her company.
She'd made her position clear several weeks ago. The minute their current case was closed, they were hiring a receptionist-slash-assistant. From a small start-up investigative firm, they'd catapulted into a highly sought-after company, thanks to the combined efforts and stellar results achieved by their brilliant team.
Until now, there'd been the six of them, each of whom was a critical and integral part of FI. Starting with Casey herselfwho was the company president and behavioral expert, and who had the extensive academic credentials and professional experience to be the firm's anchorevery member of the FI team had a standalone résumé.
They were no longer New York's best kept secret, and their client list was growing daily. Thus, the need for someone to man the front desk and to assist the team as needed.
So far, they hadn't had much luck.
At the moment, Casey was upstairs on the fourth floorthe floor that served as her apartment during the few hours that she actually lived thererunning a brush through her shoulder-length red hair and adjusting the collar on her green cowl-neck sweater. Hero, Casey's bloodhound and the team's human scent evidence dog, was already poised in the bedroom doorway, waiting expectantly for his mistress to leave her apartment and go downstairs to her real home: Forensic Instincts.
"I'm coming, boy," she told him, looking in the mirror and giving herself a quick once-over, before heading for their morning interview. "God knows what we have in store this time."
Ryan McKay was still downstairs in his man cave, affectionately known as his lair, which filled the entire basement level of the brownstone. It was the technology center of Forensic Instincts, complete with their serversLumen, Equitas and Intueri, from the Latin words for light, justice and intuition. Part data center, part electronics lab, Ryan had more high-tech equipment than a small university.
Despite its serious purpose, Ryan left enough room to maintain two areas of personal spacehis free weights and fitness section, and a small competition ring for his self-built robots.
Right now, he was enjoying neither. He was printing out pages from FI's just-closed case.
While the pages were printing, he was on his iPad, reading the latest issue of Sound on Sound magazine. The software review of Audio Detracktor was compelling. The reviewer described how it was developed by three of genius college studentsa math whiz, a computer geek and a musical prodigy. Audio Detrack-tor would analyze an audio file, separating the component tracks and instruments into layers. Each isolated layer could be played independently, giving the listener the ability to hear insignificant sounds in a rich recording. Sound on Sound had written about experimenting with Eric Clapton's "Layla," Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-A-Lula" and Paul McCartney's "Yesterday." They were even able to isolate the sound of a flying guitar pick bouncing off the floor. Guitarists would often lose their picks in midperformance, which is why they always carried extras with them. But to actually hear the sound of a tiny plastic piece hitting the ground? Awesome.
Just as Ryan was about to swipe to the next page, his iPhone began vibrating in his pocket, reminding him of a scheduled meeting. Glancing at his calendar entry, he scowled at its purpose. Interview. Emma Stirling. Another teenybopper receptionist he had to talk to.
He understood Casey's decision to establish a more professional office environment, as well as to get some help answering the phones and doing odds and ends. But he'd lobbied strongly for a virtual assistant, aka software, installed on one of their servers. A virtual assistant was smart, predictable, not female and never took a coffee or bathroom break.
The perfect receptionist.
Casey and Claire had overruled him. They felt a personal touch was needed. A flesh-and-blood human being, not a machine. Marc was indifferent, although he saw the value of both. And Patrick had been married long enough to know when to avoid a losing situation.
Ryan's pocket buzzed again. Time to stop procrastinating and get this over with. Full of attitude, he marched upstairs ready to meet and nix Emma Stirling.
The rest of the team was already congregated in the second floor's main conference room, pouring coffee and settling down around the sweeping oval conference table.
Marc took a gulp of black coffee and eyed Ryan. "Nice of you to join us." A corner of his mouth lifted. "You look thrilled to be here."
Ryan scowled. "You know how I feel about this. I was about to do something usefullike order a cool state-of-the-art app while I was preparing the case wrap-up. Instead, I'm here, ready to meet another substandard candidate."
"Great attitude." Claire walked over just in time to hear Ryan's statement. "Did it ever occur to you that we might find a white elephant? There are still a few of those out there, you know."
"Is that a prediction, Clairevoyant?" He loved to get at her with that nickname he'd coined.
"No." She shot him a don't-get-me-started look. "It's an optimistic fact."
Patrick was already seated, scratching Hero's ears.
He glanced over at them. "Play nice, kids. We have a reputation for professionalism to uphold."
"Yes, we do." Casey seated herself at the head of the table. "And, like it or not, we're going to eventually have to hire someone. My standards are as high as yours, Ryan. Maybe higher. But I'm not giving up. This place is not going to continue as chaos central."
"I hear you." Ryan got himself some coffee and turned to peruse the group. "So should we do rock, paper, scissors to decide who's going downstairs to let this one in?"
"I can handle that electronically, Ryan." An invisible computerized voice echoed from everywhere in the room, and a wall of floor-to-ceiling video screens began to glow. A long green line formed across each panel, pulsing from left to right, bending into the contours of the voice panel.
"Good idea, Yoda," Ryan replied. "Disarm the Hirsch pad when the doorbell rings and advise our job candidate to come upstairs. That alone should scare the shit out of her."
Casey couldn't help but smile at Ryan's assessment. As for Yoda, Ryan's extraordinary artificial intelligence system, he'd become an honorary FI team member. Sometimes, it was hard to remember that he wasn't human. Then again, he'd been built by Ryan, who was very human. Bottom line? Ryan was a genius and Yoda was omniscient.
"Has everyone reviewed this candidate's application?" Casey asked.
"Yup." Marc was his usual straightforward self. "She sounds like a juvenile delinquent who never did hard time."
"She sounds like a kid who needs a chance," Claire chimed in. "She was bounced from foster home to foster home and spent a lot of time on the streets."
"I have to agree," Patrick said. "I know she's got a juvie record, and that would normally turn me right off. But in this caseher parents died in a plane crash when she was eight. There were no relatives to take her in. So she spent ten years in the system. That's tough."
"And we're not exactly squeaky clean ourselves," Marc commented drily. He glanced at Patrick. "Other than you, Special Agent Lynch."
"Not so much anymore," Patrick retorted. "You've corrupted me."
The whole group chuckled.
"Yeah, we're the maverick investigators," Ryan said, coining a phrase from an article written about them. "So, if this girl has a brain, I'm willing to cut her some slack."
"Some slack?" Casey repeated, shooting Ryan a look. "I'm hoping you'll do more than that."
"I wouldn't count on it. I still think a virtual assistant would be the best choice." Ryan held up both palms to ward off oncoming arguments. "But I've accepted that I've been overruled. So let's get this show on the road."
Right on cue, the doorbell sounded.
"Applicant number twenty-seven has arrived," Yoda announced.
"Punctual." Casey glanced at her watch. "Okay, Yoda, go ahead and let her in." She interlaced her fingers on the table in front of her. "Oh, and, Yoda? Leave out the applicant number when you announce her. Just stick to her name. Applicant twenty-six nearly took off when you made that reference. Let's not scare off applicant twenty-seven. It's starting to sound like we're scraping the bottom of the barrel and each one of them is it. Either that, or we're looking for perfection and can't find it."
"That would be accurate," Yoda pointed out.
"True, but we don't want to intimidate the girl before she even gets upstairs."
"Very well, Casey. Name only."
Yoda's words were punctuated by the beeping sound of the alarm system as he disarmed it.