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Overtired, overworked and frustrated beyond belief, Dr. Roxanne Peterson pressed her cheek to the cool glass door of her small-town clinic. Even after nearly seventy-two hours of fighting the mysterious illness that had overtaken isolated Raven's Cliff, Maine, she still couldn't believe her town was in the throes of a deadly outbreak.
And it was her town, whether or not the intransigent locals accepted her as one of them rather than a newcomer.
She'd chosen this place, these people, despite the seaside town's remote location, nearly perpetual over-cast gloom and the curse that supposedly haunted the area. Honestly, she'd chosen Raven's Cliff partly because of those things, and because her years of relief medicine in third-world countries had made her want to settle down somewhere, amidst people who needed her.
She'd never expected to be thrust back into desperate working conditions in Raven's Cliff, fighting a mysterious deadly disease with too little help and not enough equipment or supplies.
Yet that was exactly what was happening, she thought on a long sigh, looking through the glass door of the clinic to the world beyond.
It was pitch-black and raining outside, and thick fog made it difficult to see the shops lining the main street of the seaside town, which led to the town square on one side, the boardwalk and fishing docks on the other.
In past years, even this late on a rainy night, a few locals and tourists would have been window-shopping, exclaiming over the moored fishing boats, or leaning over the cliffside railing to catch a faceful of sea spray from the breakers that pounded the rocky Maine coastline.
There was nobody out tonight, though. Not with death stalking the streets of the quaint fishing village in the form of a strange disease and what it made its victims become.
The locals were calling it the Curse, referring to a local legend about the town's sea-captain founder. Rox didn't put much stock in curses, but the disease certainly had terrifying consequences. Some patients became seriously ill. Others went psychotic.
Thinking of the things that'd happened over the past few days, Rox shivered as she stared out into the rain. During her five years in medical relief work, she'd seen her share of infectious outbreaks and environmental poisonings, yet she couldn't detect any pattern in this disease. The townspeople were getting sick without apparent rhyme or reason, with symptoms that didn't match any known disease and had so far proved impervious to the broad-spectrum antibiotics and antivirals she'd tried in the way of treatment.
At the moment she was fighting a rearguard action with supportive, symptom-based therapies. Worse, she didn't have enough manpower to do the work that needed to be done. Her two full-time staff members had been among the first to get sick, and the other local doctor, who filled in for her when she needed help, was out of the country. Worse, the local hospitalsthe closest of which was some forty miles awaywere refusing to take patients from Raven's Cliff, and had barred their doctors from entering the town.
She couldn't blame the hospital administrators for their decision. In fact, she supported it. With only one road leading into the town, and the only other access from the sea, the town was eminently suitable for a lockdown quarantine that would keep the disease from escaping and spreading to other portions of the state, while the experts worked to identify, contain and cure the disease.
Unfortunately, she was currently the only expert in town, and she was running out of steam.
She was working flat-out trying to keep her patients alive, treating individual symptoms rather than the illness itself because she had no idea what was causing a flu-like disease in some patients, and violent rage in others. Were the townspeople infected with something? Were they being poisoned? Was it some sort of allergin? An environmental toxin? She had no idea, and she was nearly dead on her feet trying to keep up with the work.
She couldn't stop now, though. The death toll was up to four, the eight clinic beds were full with nonvio-lent patients and three of the violent patients were currently locked in the basement of the Raven's Cliff Town Hall, in the RCPD jail.
With no response yet from the plea for help she'd sent the Center for Disease Control, she was on her own.
Tears threatenedgrief for the dead, for the dying. For herself and the fact that she felt completely, utterly alone in the town where she'd spent the two happiest years of her bounced-around childhood.
"Knock it off," she said aloud, hearing the words echo in the waiting room. "Feeling sorry for yourself isn't going to change a thing. Getting some sleep might."
Sometimes her subconscious did a better job than her waking self when it came to shuffling puzzle pieces into place. Besides, she was so tired she was going to start making mistakes soon if she didn't catch a few hours of downtime.
Forcing herself to push away from the clinic door, she flipped the sign from Open to Closed, though that was a formality since she was on constant call. Then she flicked off the lights, plunging the waiting room into darkness. She was just about to head upstairs to her apartment when she saw movement outside.
She stopped and stared through the clear glass door, trying to make out details through the fog.
Was someone there? She could've sworn she'd just seen a figure slip from the porch to the shadows beside the fog-cloaked building diagonally across the street.
Maybe it's a dog, she thought when she didn't see the motion again. Or a raccoon. A deer. Heck, even a bear would be preferable to what her gut told her she'd seen: a human figure hiding in the shadows long after the 8:00 p.m. curfew that Captain Patrick Swanson, the chief of police, had issued earlier that day.
Rox's instincts told her to call the cops to investigate. Under normal circumstances she never would've bothered them with something so mundane but these were far from normal circumstances. Sure, it might be an animal, or teenagers refusing to let the curfew spoil the start of their summer fun. Then again, it was possible that Captain Swanson's last house-to-house sweep had missed seeing the red-tinged eyes and faintly jaundiced skin tones that were the only warning signs before the disease hit full-force.
Better to call the cops and have it be a raccoon than have a new Violent on the loose, Rox thought.
That was what the townspeople were calling the patients whose symptoms leaned toward psychosis: Violents. More accurately, as far as Rox could tell, they became uninhibited. The good tendencies in their personalities decreased and their negative sides took over, amplifying their normally controllable impulses and making them uncontrollable.
Of the four dead, only two had died from the disease itself. The other two had been murdered by one of the Violents. The threat of more such cases had left the townspeople locking their doors tight, and watching each other with grave suspicion. Are you getting sick, everyone was thinking. Am I?
Knowing she was far better making the call than not, Rox turned the lights back on and headed for the phone on the waiting room desk. She was halfway there when someone knocked on the glass door.
Her heartbeat kicked into overdrive as she turned and looked back. The glare of the lights reflecting on the glass panel meant she could only make out the indistinct figure of a man outside her door. She couldn't tell who it was. More importantly, she couldn't see his eyes or skin.
Training and compassion told her to answer the door in case someone needed her. Logic said she should wait for the cops.
Logic won, but just as she grabbed the phone, the man outside kicked his way in.
Rox screamed when the safety glass spiderwebbed and shattered inward.
Fingers trembling, she stabbed 9-1-1 on the phone. "It's Roxanne. I need help!"
It took her a second to realize the phone line was dead.
The wind howled through the broken door and driving rain spattered against the figure of local fisherman Aztec Wheeler as he stepped through the door.
He'd gotten the nickname Aztec from his straight, dark hair, sharp features and prominent nose, and his take-no-prisoners style on the high school basketball court. But this wasn't the easygoing young jock Rox had known in school, and it wasn't the grown man who'd asked her out twice since she'd come back to town and opened the clinic. This was someone else entirely.
Or rather, something else.
Aztec's dark hair was plastered to his skull and he was soaked to his yellow-tinged skin, but he didn't seem to notice the discomforthis attention was locked on Rox, and his reddish eyes were hard with anger. With rage.
Smiling terribly, he lunged across the waiting room and grabbed her.
Panicked, Rox screamed and thrashed, trying to break free from his grappling arms. She elbowed him in the ribs, but he twisted, putting his face near hers. It took her a terrified moment to realize he was actually trying to kiss her.
"Stop!" She shoved at him, but he was an immovable wall of muscle. "I said stop!"
"You should've said yes." His clothes were soaked and cold, but his skin and breath were fever-hot. "You shouldn't have turned me down like that."
Her panicked brain made the connection. He'd been interested in her, had asked her out a couple of times and she'd said no. Now, the Curse had warped his brain, turning a harmless crush into an obsession and loosening his normal control over his emotions.
She braced her forearm against his collarbone and pushed away, trying to reason with him, trying to talk to the man she knew him to be. "Listen to me, Aztec. You're sick. You don't really want to do this, the Curse is making you"
He got his lips on her ear, but instead of kissing her he bit down, hard.
Pain lanced and Rox screamed, then screamed again when he yanked at her white doctor's coat, tearing the buttons and leaving the garment hanging half off her. Panic-stricken, she kneed him in the crotch, praying he would feel it.
Aztec doubled over with a howl.
Sobbing, Rox yanked away and bolted for the broken front door. She slipped and almost went down on the rain-slicked threshold, but kept going, running into the darkness.
The rain slashed at her, soaking through her clothes within seconds as she fled through the nearly impenetrable fog, headed for the town hall and the RCPD entrance around the side of the building.
The air smelled of the sea, thick and salty. Thunder grumbled in the distance and the wind howled like a living thing.
Rox ran for her life. Tears mingled with the rain on her face as Aztec's footsteps slapped on the wet pavement too close behind her. He howled something that might have been her name, and she realized she wasn't going to make it to the police station before he caught up.
No! she screamed inwardly. She put her head down and pushed harder, her legs burning as she pounded up the street.
Aztec closed on her. He grabbed her white coat, but she pulled free and kept going. She had to keep going, had to
She saw headlights pause at a cross street up ahead. They turned toward her, creating bright halos in the thick fog.
Heart jammed in her throat, Rox waved her arms and ran into the light. "Help me!"
For half a second nothing happened, as if the driver didn't see heror more likely couldn't believe what he was seeing. Then the big black SUV accelerated toward her with a roar. When it was nearly on top of her, the driver slammed on the brakes, slapped the transmission into Park and lunged out of the vehicle, snapping to his companions inside the big car. One of them tossed something to him, and he caught it and spun toward Roxanne, shouting, "Hit the deck!"
Though she couldn't see his face through the fog, the sound of his voice instantly kicked her back two years, to another epidemic on another continent. Another lifetime.
"Down!" he barked, and she obeyed automatically, throwing herself onto the wet pavement just as Aztec grabbed her hair. His wet fingers slipped and she fell free.
Something hissed over her head and hit Aztec with a sizzling thump. Seconds later, electricity jolted through Rox as the Taser's 50,000-volt charge transmitted through Aztec and across the wet pavement, giving her an unpleasant shock.
Aztec, though, bore the full brunt of the blast. He gurgled, collapsed in a heap and lay twitching.
The wand hissed again, retracting into its telescoping handle where it would remain coiled like an electrified version of Indiana Jones's bullwhip. Rox knew this because she knew the weapon, just as, without even looking, she knew the man who carried it.
Luke Freeman, hotshot CDC toxicologist and the ex-lover who'd deserted her, sick and miserable, in a third-world hospital two years earlier, proving once and for all that "in sickness and in health" wasn't in his vocabulary when adventure called.
There was absolute, utter silence for a half second, broken only by the sound of the wind and rain. Then Luke muttered a curse and crouched down to touch her shoulder. "Rox? You okay?"
No, I'm not okay, she wanted to snap, because her body was still vibrating with electricity, along with another sort of heat, one that came from memory and hurt. Her stomach balled on a heave of denial and the small, childish wish that she could close her eyes and make all of this go away.
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