I luxuriated in the blistering hot water of the shower. Being clean had never felt so good. The dust of the explosion rinsed off my body and drifted down the drain. The fantastic bathroom in the penthouse suite had dual showerheads that pummeled me with hot spray.
Arriving back at the hotel early that Thursday morning, we had gotten some strange looks, covered in dust and smudged with soot, with Andreas half naked and covered with obvious blood, but we ignored all the strange looks and marched straight up to our room to clean up. I was exhausted, but clean, by the time I emerged from the shower, wrapped in the fluffy white hotel bathrobe. We had all taken turns washing up, and I was the last.
Andreas and Aislinn were sitting on the couch. He was still pale, but looked much better, only small patches of fresh pink skin remained from his near death ordeal. She was apologizing to him. “I should have caught onto that booby trap earlier,” she berated herself. “I’m a professional, I should have known.”
“Don’t beat yourself up over it,” he comforted her. “We’re all ok, and obviously this trap wasn’t your usual fare, or I know you would have caught on sooner.”
She frowned, unwilling to be comforted, blaming herself for the destruction of the building and for his near-death experience. “Hey, at least it wasn’t a total loss,” I pointed out. “I got a whole bunch of those files before the building blew.” I ran over to my backpack, emptying its contents on the coffee table. “Did you get anything of use out of that computer before the explosion?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “It happened too fast. I had barely gotten through the first layer of security. I lost half my equipment, too. At least the police and fire fighters didn’t know we were there, I made certain of that.”
Andreas began rifling through the files. “Why rig the building to explode?” he mused. “What are they hiding?”
I grabbed the nearest folder. Inside, pinned securely onto the two-pronged fasteners, was the life of a man named Jackson Farraday. The contents of the folder contained an extremely detailed background of Mr. Farraday, from medical records to school records, names of friends, personality profiles, employment records, favorite foods, the fact that he was right handed, and so on. It was essentially a detailed history of his entire life. A DVD in an envelope was included. I slipped it out. It was unlabeled. I set his file aside, deciding to check out the DVD later.
“Rhi,” Andreas said with alarm, “Isn’t this your stalker?” He handed me a folder with the name ‘David Walker’ emblazoned on the tab. I gasped, and flipped it open. Sure enough, it was. With candid interest, I flipped through it. It seemed he was indeed an attorney, and everything he had led me to believe about him seemed to be true. His presence in this mystery was as much of a mystery as before, if not more so. I rolled my eyes and tossed his file aside.
“Where’s my file?” I demanded. We searched through the stack. “I know one of these had my name on it.”
Aislinn found it buried at the bottom. It was a depressingly thin file. I opened it, and only found one slip of paper. I pulled it out. It was dated last Wednesday, the date of the accident. “Attempted save; altered; specimen retrieval authorized,” I read out loud. I was perplexed. That was all it said. I sighed and scratched my head. “Great, I’m a specimen. Aren’t I special?” I said sarcastically. I paused to collect my thoughts. “Well,” I finally said, “That’s awfully cryptic, but how did they know? It has the right date and everything!”
Andreas looked thoughtful. “You went to the hospital, did they run any tests?”
I shrugged. “No idea. Maybe. Is that standard? I don’t remember.” I tried to, I really did, but that night was really jumbled, everything happened so fast. I mostly just remembered hating the hospital and wanting to leave.
He nodded. “Maybe we need to take a look at your hospital records from that night.”
I cringed. “More breaking and entering?”
Aislinn sniggered. “Don’t be daft, they’re your records, all you have to do is ask for a copy.”
“Oh,” I said sheepishly. That made sense. “Ok, so what we have is detailed files on the lives of a couple dozen random people. What’s the common thread that links them together?” I mused, standing up and pacing. “What do we do next?”
Andreas yawned. “You need to visit that hospital, we need to find out why we were nearly blown to bits, and we need to track down that damn vampire Lucas motioned. But right now, I’m going to take a nap, I’m beat, I’m blown up, and I need to recharge.”
I was too wired to sleep. How could anyone sleep at a time like that? But I didn’t argue with him. Aislinn, too, excused herself, and they both disappeared into the bedroom to sleep.
I sat down at the coffee table and busied myself with the files. There were twenty-five, including mine, which I decided not to count since it was essentially empty. I grabbed the closest one and flipped it open, determined to find something these apparently random strangers had in common.
I found myself staring at the life of one Lydia C. Green. Born in Boston in 1967, she was quite the scholar, eventually earning a PhD in molecular diagnostics from the University of Connecticut, and worked at Johns Hopkins. She was married, with two kids, and seemed to live the perfect life.
I sighed, and reached for the next file. This one was a guy named Peter L. Watkins. He was only 18, and about to graduate high school in Fort Worth, Texas, and was the high school quarterback. I rolled my eyes. They had absolutely nothing in common.
Next! I found myself staring at Fiona O’Brady. She was a troubled teenager, in and out of foster homes in south Florida. Her parents had died when she was only five. I felt a pang of sympathy for her.
I was learning all sorts of things about these random strangers, but none of it was useful. I gritted my teeth and grabbed another file. This one was a man named Travis Sutton who worked for a medical laboratory in research and development. I tossed it aside with a growl and grabbed the next file. Just when I flipped open the life and times of Sharon Gray, a light bulb went off in my head. Scrambling to find Sutton’s file again, I flipped it open to the employment section. I grabbed Aislinn’s laptop, and googled Afferent Analytics, the laboratory Mr. Sutton worked for. I drummed my fingers on the table impatiently, waiting for it to load. There were over a million hits, but the first one took me straight to the company’s website. I clicked on the “about us” link and glanced over it. That led me to a “partners” link. I clicked it, and scrolled down the page, excitement permeating every nerve. There, at the bottom, listed as one of the partners, was one Marshall Lewis.
“Bingo!” I squeaked excitedly. I grabbed Lydia Green’s file again and looked up Johns Hopkins on the computer, and learned that TerraGen Industries was one of their largest contributors.
So far that was two out of twenty-four. I shuffled through the files looking for David’s. I furrowed my brow perusing through his, trying to find some link, however tenuous. The firm he worked for, Baumann and Lambert, was a small boutique law firm that did a lot of environmental and technological law. I looked up his firm, and clicked on the first couple of links, which lead me nowhere. I sighed, stumped, realizing this was like hunting for a needle in a haystack. I changed my search, looking for both Baumann and Lambert and TerraGen, and suddenly there it was, my link: David’s firm did consulting for Marshall Lewis’ company. It was a weak link, but a link nonetheless.
I excitedly began searching through the rest of the files, trying to connect the dots, and after two hours of exhausted internet searching and a lot of creative thinking, I had a notepad filled with scribbled notes that connected all twenty-four seemingly random people in one way or another to either Marshall Lewis or to his company. Young Peter Watkins’ father was a cytogeneticist who worked for a lab that was a subsidiary of TerraGen. Even the orphaned Fiona O’Brady was connected – her parents were ecoterrorists who died attempting to blow up a laboratory owned by TerraGen that conducted experiments on animals. Sharon Gray was attending Harvard Medical on a scholarship sponsored by TerraGen.
I was so excited by the time I closed the last file that I just couldn’t contain myself. I didn’t want to wake up the sleeping beauties, so tiptoed out of the suite and did a very quiet happy dance in the hallway, letting out a loud whoop of glee.
I decided to take a break, so I threw on my clothes, grabbed my purse, and headed down to get an espresso from the restaurant I had spied near the lobby.
My phone rang when I got in the elevator. It was Grant’s new ring – I had changed it to “Born to Be Wild” after learning he was a werewolf because it amused me. “How’s my favorite wolf?” I asked with a smile.
“I’m good,” he replied. “Just wanted to let you know our mutual friend has finally spoken.”
“David?” I said, perking up immediately. “Really? What did he have to say for himself?” I demanded. This was a morning of good news and success, and I was thrilled.
“He just keeps mentioning the name Warren O’Dell. Does that mean anything to you?” he asked.
“You’re kidding!” I said. “This just gets weirder and weirder.” I told him what we had learned from Lucas about the vampire Warren O’Dell, and his mysterious disappearance.
“I’ll contact my buddy in the police department and see if he can dig up anything,” Grant said after I had finished.
I was surprised. “You have a buddy in the police department? I thought I knew all your buddies.” I pouted a little.
He laughed. “Cut that out, faker,” he teased. “Weres make great detectives. The nose knows. He’s a member of my pack. Have you made any progress there?”
“Oh Grant,” I said excitedly, “I think we might have hit on something big. We should be back soon, I’ll fill you in on all the details! But be careful, something big is going on, and I don’t know what exactly yet.”
“You’re preaching to the choir, hon,” He drawled. “Now come back home soon, the greenhouse misses you.”
I ordered myself a caramel latte – the nectar of the gods, except for when I was hanging around vampires – and took a seat at the little café to enjoy it.
I had a thought, and flipped open my phone again, dialing information. I had them connect me with Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. Waiting patiently on hold with a hopeful song in my heart, I was eventually connected to the medical records department and spoke to a helpful woman named Robin.
“Yes, I’d like a copy of my records, please. I was a patient last Wednesday,” I informed Robin. She took down my name and birth date and looked me up in her computer.
“Everything seems to be in order Miss Maddox,” she informed me. “All we need is your signature on a release form and payment of twenty-five cents per page.”
A form? Crap. Money? I thought fast. The hotel probably had a fax I could use. “Can you accept a fax signature? And do you take Visa?” I asked her.
Why yes, yes she could, and yes she did. I gave her my credit card number and then ran over to the front desk quickly and asked them for their fax number, and passed it off to Robin the records agent. I hung up and waited for my fax. It arrived not a minute later, and I swiftly filled it out, signed and dated it, and faxed it back. I dialed up the hospital again, and asked to be reconnected to Robin in medical records.
“Hi Robin, this is Rhiannon Maddox, we spoke a moment ago. I’m faxing the release back to you, how soon can I pick up my records?”
She informed me that they would be ready within twenty-four hours for pick-up or shipment.
“Oh, I’ll pick them up,” I said, and then I hung up.
After all of that I wearily made my way back up to the penthouse. I grabbed Aislinn’s laptop again, and popped in one of the DVDs from the files. It was packed with all sorts of files. I loaded the first one, but all it seemed to be was a never-ending string of code, all a repeat of the same letters over and over in completely random order: A, G, T and C. I was unskilled at cryptography, and was stumped as to what it could mean. I stared at it for a few minutes hoping for a revelation, when I actually, much to my surprise and delight, had one. A, G, T and C were the bases that encoded all DNA. I didn’t know how to make heads or tails of it, so I closed it out and opened the next file, and it was more of the same. I rolled my eyes, frustrated, realizing that this was just beyond my expertise. What I wouldn’t have given at that moment to have Kat’s brain.
Instead, I shut the computer down and flopped onto the couch, having finally decided I was ready for a nap. Caffeine aside, I hadn’t slept in over thirty-six hours, and my adrenaline had worn off.
I dreamed I was in a forest, an ancient forest. It was pouring rain, and lightning flashed and thunder boomed. I looked around frantically for Andreas, hoping he would protect me from the lightning, but he was nowhere to be found. Thunder slammed into the earth near me, and the trees snapped and blazed into flame. I coughed as the smoke wafted in my face, and ran away, but I couldn’t escape the choking smoke, it was everywhere, the entire forest was on fire.
“Rhiannon, wake up,” Andreas shook me. I opened my eyes, coughing, in the hotel room, not in the forest, but the room was filled with smoke. I stood up disoriented, trying to breathe, but the hot smoke-filled air just burned my lungs. “Get low!” Andreas shouted, and I dropped to my hands and knees, where the air was clearer.
Aislinn was shoving my haphazardly scattered folders back into my backpack, coughing through the smoke. “Someone set a fire right outside the door!” she shouted.
“Grab what you can,” Andreas said to us. He ducked into the bedroom, running low, to grab his bag. I snagged my overnight bag, muffling my mouth in my sleeve.
Aislinn grabbed my hand, and we staggered through the smoke to find Andreas. My eyes were tearing and burning. He met us at the bedroom doorway with his bag over his shoulder. “I’m too weak to teleport us far,” he coughed.
I tried concentrating, but I hadn’t rested much, and the smoke was distracting, I couldn’t focus; I could barely breathe, let alone focus. I shook my head. “I can’t either.”
He grimaced. “Alright, hold on, I’ll get us as far as I can.” He teleported us to the lobby, where he collapsed in utter exhaustion, into a pile of sooty angelic manliness on the floor. Aislinn and I helped him to stagger up onto his feet, resting on both of our shoulders. The lobby was filled with smoke, and I was too disoriented to know which direction was the exit. I spun around in confusion.
Suddenly two firemen swam into my smoke-filled view. “This way!” one of them said, and escorted us out of the doors onto the sidewalk, where mayhem and chaos ensued. The street was clogged with fire trucks and paramedics, and people rushed everywhere trying to evacuate the burning hotel. I looked up, and fire poured out of the windows on the floor below ours and out of the roof above ours, and I gasped, realizing how close to death we had been. Aislinn and I helped Andreas to the sidewalk across the street, where we collapsed, exhausted, stinking of smoke and covered in soot, but alive. I took in deep breaths of the sweet fresh air, grateful to be alive.
The street was sheer chaos. Hotel guests rushed out of the hotel and fire fighters rushed in. The police were trying to maintain order, and had cordoned off the area with yellow tape. Television camera crews were standing at the edge of mayhem, vultures drawn to the smell of the dying corpse as the building burned. And oh how it burned. It was more than just our floor, it was the entire building. Whoever had set it on fire hadn’t meant to take prisoners, hadn’t cared to leave survivors, and hadn’t given a damn about all the other victims involved. It was purely heinous. I sent a silent prayer to the fire fighters, hoping they would be able to rescue anyone left inside the building. Let no one die because of me.
“We can’t stay here,” Andreas gasped. “Someone knew we were here, someone who wants us dead or out of the way.”
I stood up and looked around frantically. Taxi cabs were beginning to fill up the periphery of the blocked-off street, like parasites waiting to suck the fire survivors of their money to take them away to someplace less flammable. “Come on,” I said, helping him up to his feet. We made our way to a taxi.
“Where to?” asked the driver.
“The Art Institute,” I said, figuring we could lose ourselves in the museum. Apparently they had more French impressionist paintings than France. No time like the present to find out.
He shook his head, but dutifully dropped us off at the museum a few short blocks away. I was sure he was hoping for a larger fare. I was too distracted to appreciate the towering statues of lions that guarded the wide steps leading up to the entry way. In any other state of mind they probably would have been impressive.
The girl at the ticket counter wrinkled up her nose at is, obviously in disapproval of our smoky sooty state, but sold us three tickets anyway. I forked over the cash and asked her where the restrooms were. She was only too happy to point the way.
We took a few minutes to clean up and change in the museum restrooms. I still reeked to high heaven of smoke, but at least I felt cleaner, and a fresh change of clothes helped. Aislinn and I joined Andreas back in the lobby. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days. His face was drawn and pale, and there were deep shadows underneath his eyes. I took his hand, concerned.
“I’m all right,” he assured me, squeezing my palm.
We casually strolled through the museum, trying to take on the air of tourists. Bemusedly spotting Monet’s unmistakable water lilies, I realized that we had made it to the French Impressionists section, where we took advantage of a vacant bench and sat to talk softly.
“That fire was deliberate. Someone disabled the alarm on our floor,” Aislinn said softly. “Who knew you two were coming here?”
Andreas sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Anyone who could access the passenger’s list for the flight would have seen Rhiannon’s name on it.”
I looked at him, tight-lipped. “I told you we should have just teleported here,” I hissed.
Andreas shook his head. “It doesn’t explain how they knew we were at the James,” he murmured. “No one but you knew that,” he told Aislinn pointedly.
“I rented that room under a false name, none of us were connected to it,” she said, shaking her head fervently. “Did you tell anyone what hotel you were staying at, Rhiannon? Your business partner? Perhaps that vampire?”
I shook my head. “I didn’t tell Lucas. Grant called this morning, but I didn’t tell him that, either.” And then something occurred to me. I looked over at Andreas guiltily. “I called the hospital this morning and gave them the fax number to the hotel,” I admitted in a whisper. Good god, that fire was all my fault, wasn’t it? All that damage, and potential lives wasted. I gasped, and covered my mouth.
Andreas looked at me furiously, and Aislinn looked at me like I was an idiot.
“What?” I said defensively. “I’m not used to being a fugitive, I don’t know the rules, how was I to know?”
Aislinn’s expression changed to amusement and she let out a peal of laughter. “Rules for fugitives?” she beamed.
Andreas shook his head and frowned. “It’s a moot point, what’s done is done,” he said tightly. “We need to get out of Chicago, and I’m betting the airports aren’t safe.”
“The train stations and bus stations are probably being watched, as well,” agreed Aislinn, with a nod of her head.
Andreas sighed. “I’m too weak to teleport, and Rhiannon is too drained. We need a safe place we can hole up for a while.”
Aislinn looked thoughtful. “I think I know just the place.”
She led us out of the museum. I silently bid the French impressionist paintings adieu, realizing I would have to come back another day to properly count and inventory them for comparison with France’s collection. Then, of course, I would have to schedule a trip to France. Another time, after I got my life back, perhaps.
Aislinn hailed us a taxi and led us to a rather seedy motel on the far side of town, in a run-down district. The motel accepted cash, rented by the hour, and didn’t ask for names. It was as enchanting on the inside as on the outside. I eyed it skeptically, expecting to see roaches running across the floor.
Andreas flopped down on the bed. There was only one bed, and it creaked and squeaked.
“You two sleep,” Aislinn ordered. “I’m going shopping for disguises.”
I crawled onto the bed and curled up next to Andreas. He draped an arm around me and pulled me in close. For once I decided not to complain about his over-protectiveness. I’d been nearly blown up, and burned down, but I was alive and safe. Feeling secure in his arms, I drifted off to sleep.