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First pages

Prologue

Death in degrees

Jackie Milburn didn’t do fear.

The late-night walk to her car had never provoked an accelerated heartrate. Tonight, however, a bone-deep foreboding arose from vestiges of instinctual awareness, all merging to question her mission’s strategy. If she failed, millions would suffer.

Indistinct shadows granted a cozy ambiance where she often lurked, but the dingy light filtering through overhead branches mocked her bravado. Shadow limbs shook with laughter as Fate’s sense of humor colluded with nature to saturate creation’s mindset with malice.

Regardless of Destiny’s intentions, she squared her shoulders while scanning the deserted parking lot. A sense of relief washed through her afterdepositing the damning evidence in the USPS blue box. Always have a backup plan. This was the biggest scoop of her career, and would spotlight one of Delaware’s billion-dollar companies as high-tech thugs. The evil shits would never expect an investigative reporter to mail the high-tech mechanisms. Precautions taken with the dispatch ensured no one could trace the recipient.

It wouldn’t take CSV Pharmaceuticals long to discover crucial evidence missing and then ferret out their traitor. She prayed Dr. Sorenson made it out of the country alive—not as shark chum. Paranoia had compelled her to refuse him the number to her newest burner phone. Intuition saw the last one tossed overboard after tapping out a quick message. She’d always survived by instinct and prayed they served her well—one more time.

Making the last stop to pick up her go bag would supply the necessary items to disappear. Various colored and styled wigs, plain lens glasses, makeup, and diverse fashion ensembles would allow her to blend in with any crowd.

Trembling fingers failed to punch the unlock button on her key fob. Instead, her headlights cut a swath through the misty ground cover, a beacon to any waiting goon. Shit. The subsequent knocking of heart against ribs rivaled the best hammer drill while sweat coated her palms and face despite her warmed exhalations sending puffed smoke signals in the frosty air.

A slow, deep breath reclaimed her sense of calm. The subtle scent from emerging camellia blossoms drifted on the night’s currents and settled her spirit. There. This is who I am.

The sudden thrust of a phantom arm emerged from the dark to pin her against a hard chest.

“Oomph.” The steely limb angled to apply pressure which tilted her head back. After the collision forced air out, shock produced a gasp which inhaled a sickly sweet odor from the cloth covering her mouth and nose.

Momentary panic barred all reason. Instinctive reaction initiated clawing at the vicelike grip while subsequent kicking and twisting of her body yielded no compromise in her position.

In her periphery, she caught sight of a malevolent smile and glinting darks eyes under a black fedora. The boogeyman did exist.

Lethargy and disorientation. Another breath or pass out from hypoxia. No more pain. All her muscles relaxed, against her will. The invading blackness closed in from the periphery to testify to her loss.

NO! The enraged cry died in her throat.

 

A rhythmic throb pounded in Jackie’s head, each wave of torture surging through her brain with the force of stormwater runoff, minus the available capacity.

Unless a small rodent had crawled up her nose while she slept, someone had inserted a foreign object the size of a baseball. That she breathed instilled hope. Foul odor suggestive of someone scraping her sinuses then leaving the infectious material in her nasal cavity defied logic or reference in reality. She’d never been easy prey for colds or flu. Slow, controlled breaths helped ease the nausea.

Instinct held her still, eyes closed, assimilating information provided by other senses. The bed beneath her wasn’t her own. The coarse blanket covering her body scratched sking she’d never considered sensitive. A reddish tint from bright illumination infiltrating her closed eyelids carried a new level of fear. In the background, she heard the clink of metal on metal, as if someone washed silverware. Or surgical instruments.

Murky and vague impressions of the previous night crashed through her mind to shape a rough sketch of recent events. All foreshadowed a painful death.

Murmured words echoed in the long tunnel between hazy, drugged awareness and full consciousness. Pituitary gland manipulation, nanos stimulating hormones, diabetes insipidus, and dissolving chips. None of it made sense.

Tensing one arm, resistance came from a strap holding her tight. Bright lights shining in her face reminded her of the dentist’s office. Cracking open an eyelid, she saw a mask rested on her chest, the instrument responsible for her counterfeit sleep. Two men stood by a stainless steel counter, facing away from her.

In contradiction to her frozen state, the small part of her brain activating fight-or-flight sent a surge of panic racing through tightening muscles. Intuition manifested the scenario by which she’d either escape soon or die trying. I’m in no shape to fight.

“C’mon, Morfran. She’s not even coconscious yet, much less in any shape to interrogate. Let’s grab some coffee while you expound on the virtues of torture techniques which leave no traceable evidence.” The scratchy voice sounded tired, edgy.

“Yeah, all right. I want her good and awake for what I have in mind anyway.” A low chuckle boded ill.

The near-silent snick of the closing door breathed new incentive into her exhausted body. The immediate environment lacked the normal sounds of a hospital, yet a certain clinical odor mingled with the foul smell in the room. The foul smell is in me.

Whether they relied on a locked door or underestimated her metabolism in ridding her body of drugs, they’d not refastened the handcuff attaching her non-IV arm to the gurney before leaving.

Scrim-backed tape securing the intravenous line ripped the hair out by the root but freed her to move about the room. Surgical instruments covering two trays explained the mariachi band and off-key trumpet in her brain. Several of the odd assortment blades hinged at right angles to the handles.

Oh God, they chipped me?

Standing brought a wave of dizziness, unbearable headache, and a new fear taking root. I’m a guinea pig. A moment to allow her body’s calibration reduced the probability of falling unconscious to the floor but yielded no clarification of her situation.

In grim anticipation, she touched the bridge of her nose in expectation of of a large goose-egg lump. The softest graze brought nausea to roil in her empty stomach. Nothing could hamper the impetuous to escape.

A glance around confirmed what her mind had already processed. She stood in the back room of no legitimate clinic. They left my clothes and shoes on? Her chambray shirt and light jacket retained specks of blood from the unauthorized operation.

Her line of work had taught her to pick most non-latch locks. Using their own tools against them, she swiped two instruments lacking the hooked beak design and headed for the door.

 

For the third time, Jackie woke on the cold ground to the drone of a small engine and throbbing pain, her new normal. The incessant whine, reminiscent of a weed-eater on steroids, grew louder as she swept the mental cobwebs away to get her bearings.

Three feet away, a signpost proclaimed the highest peak in Maryland. Backbone Mountain, Hoye Crest. Confusion clouded her reasoning for hiking up the mountain trail, something she’d done several times in the past. A short distance away, the grassy footpath led to a logging road and back toward civilization.

A light dusting of snow speckled nearby jagged rocks the color of a sparrow’s eggs while the cold beneath her left shoulder and hip seeped into her spine. Her light jacket and jeans weren’t much help. Knots of matted hair snagged on a rock when she tried to push off the sharp stones into a sitting position. Maximum effort yielded minimal results. Shaking arms and blurred vision coincided with the gnawing hunger and clammy skin recognized as the precursors of low blood sugar. Reaching in her jacket pocket for the hard candy always present, she found it empty.

A new wave of anxiety washed over her. Knowing where she was didn’t clear the mystery of precisely what her kidnappers had done. What are nanos? Visions of small machines munching her gray matter urged her thoughts to the task at hand. She needed food and shelter.

Vague flashbacks consisted of a blind dash through the woods without knowing her location and tripping over fallen logs and uneven ground. A need to rest had preceded each slumping to the ground. She hadn’t been idle long enough to incur hypothermia.

Weak rays of first light pierced the eastern cloud cover to strobe through bare-limbed branches clacking in the capricious breeze. Beyond them, a hovering drone was fitted with a sleek, shaded lens to its anterior housing. It wasn’t enough for the bastards to try and kill her, they had to record it, too.

The pricks knew her identity, which meant her digital files had been destroyed. They’d erase her, too, if she didn’t find a place to hide.

Time ceased to matter when she woke to the drone mere feet away, her minature reflection in the lens a testament to her worth. In the face of her imminent demise, she held an ace that would bite them in the ass when least expected. The reams of information and specimen sent to her friend on the west coast would ensure the investigation wouldn’t die. The half-necklace she’d slipped into the package would reinforce the message and stop the bastards from looking for the matching half. Her friend would recognize the significance of the gesture.

Clever as the bastards were, they’d never see Megan coming.

Chapter One

In the Achak Valley and tucked under a lap blanket on the sofa in her rented house, Megan Chauner studied the obscure and confusing printouts. A second infusion of morning coffee hadn’t helped unravel the mystery. Jackie’s hand scribbled note claiming the reams of research dire and life-changing, challenged her reasoning skills to find a purpose or explanation of why even a psychotic scientist would attempt such ridiculous, illegal trials. Considering the studies and scholars involved, the stakes must be tremendous.

When she’d first received the encrypted text, she’d thought it a joke. But early the next morning, when she’d driven to her godparent’s house, Megan found she wasn’t the first to open the mysterious package. Instead of calling her old roommate, she’d followed the included instructions and checked with Jackie’s editor. He’d reported her missing. Drama and theatrics had never characterized their friendship.

She’s flying under the radar until I decipher this scientific crap.

The puzzle of why the package had been sent to a third party became apparent. Research concerning quantum tunneling microscopic findings, nanotechnology, and self-dissolving microchips strained her sophisticated education to digest. If not for advanced training in veterinary ophthalmology, Megan wouldn’t have comprehended the neurosurgical techniques performed via sinus cavities. Though veterinary and human biology differed, where one led, the other followed.

“Okay, Swiffer. How about a break? Let’s catch the morning news.” The golden’s presence imparted a layer of normalcy to a world gone mad, his soulful, caramel eyes full of wisdom only dogs possess. “C’mon, boy. Up you go. We’re gonna be here a while, so we might as well be comfortable.”

Without hesitation, her four-footed partner hopped up to lay his head on her lap. After receiving the expected ear and belly rub, he resettled to face the kitchen, offering his flank as an armrest.

The TV correspondent’s solemn expression forewarned of tragedy as the picture of Jackie’s face flashed beside him. Hikers had found her body on a trail in the Allegheny Mountains.

Shock blossomed into full-blown fear.

“Oh shit. No, no, no. This can’t be happening.” The room’s contents faded out of focus with the hot tears brimming her eyes. The pencil used to make notes snapped in her fingers.

Swiffer’s whine underscored the buzzing in her ears. A jostle and adjustment of positon permitted him to rub against her shoulder. Chocolate-brown eyes, so expressive, beseeched her to understand he felt her despair and offered solace in a nuzzle and soft chuff.

On screen, the newsman went on to other stories as if Jackie’s passing only mattered for that split second and affected no one. The frown plastered on his face mere seconds ago, reversed as the audience now viewed a kindergarten class preparing a handprint. Thanksgiving decoration. She saw no reason for thanks.

Swiffer licked the tears on her cheek.

Organized, methodical, and prepared had defined Jackie’s life. Hiking alone with no provisions wasn’t a remote possibility. After caring for her brittle-diabetic mother and dancing on the fringes of diabetes herself, the reporter wouldn’t have ignored the warning signs of low blood sugar. “A health-food nut doesn’t die of insulin shock when not taking insulin.”

An attack on a nanoscale scientist ended the morning broadcast, the reporter again adopting a concerned façade. The death of Dr. Sorenson, renowned scientist, provided further evidence of a conspiracy and subsequent cover-up. His name appeared multiple times in the documents on her lap. He’d been mugged and left for dead in a filthy alley on the far side of the city from where he worked and lived. No one offered speculation as to what he might’ve been doing. Bizarre behavior of Dover’s homeless population rated another footnote. Their desperate plight boosted the station’s ratings each year during the holiday season.

After opening the package, she’d known her life had jumped track, if not the extent until watching the news. She reviewed the precautions taken per the instincts of her now-dead friend. Deletion of all traces of her current existence; location, social media, and known ties with the outside world had seemed ludicrous. Her college roommate had prepared her with the know-how when it came to living under the radar. Jackie taught me, and she was OCD with details. How did they track her down?

Megan’s veterinary partner hadn’t understood why she needed to take leave, but would cover the practice until she returned. If I return. No doubt he considered her deranged and in need of medication considering her preoccupied spiel of bullshit.

Fake credentials created by her friend in college wouldn’t withstand close scrutiny. Cash and a tight-knit sweater eased the purchase of the souped-up clunker that had soared a hundred miles after she’d rented a home near Portland. The goal was to interpret the information and pass if off to the proper authorities. What if the authorities I contact are corrupt? Had that been Jackie’s downfall?

The anonymity of securing a rental home in the foothills obtained over the internet was a double-edged sword. The cabin she inhabited was remote enough to afford privacy but if found, too far away for timely police intervention.

Elusive references led her to search the internet for news describing the careers of neurosurgeon Nijaguana Mathad and ENT surgeon Salil Nair. What she found confirmed Jackie’s notes. The original procedure, endonasal endoscopic skull base surgery, performed in 2009, was theorized to be the beginning of an incredible journey. A path no one anticipated.

“Holy shit, Swiffer.” Warmth from her partner’s cuddling couldn’t counter the cold seeping into her bones.

“I knew scientists were using nanotechnology, but I’d never think to employ it like this. I wonder if they’re responsible for the weird behavior of Dover’s homeless and veterans.”

Screen after screen translated studies into layman’s terms. “India, 2015, Pharmaceutical Nano Systems.” Megan continued reading about the applications of nano particles and carbon nano tubes in drug delivery during cancer treatment. “Christ, they’re using them in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, ophthalmology, and immune response assessments.” She felt like she’d taken a left turn into a twisted sci-fi fantasy.

“What did you step in, Jackie?”

Digital breadcrumbs revealed British surgeons, Schmidt and Sorenson, picked up where earlier research left off, with a slightly different tangent.

“According to Schmidt’s bio, he’s spent the bulk of his career studying nanos and ophthalmology. And now, it’s real.” The last bit of information stated the two doctors were joining with a Dr. Salinar in Dover, Delaware.

Jackie’s scribbled warning to not trust anyone from any agency may have been her last communication. Keen instincts had led her to be one of the top journalists in her field yet hadn’t prevented her death.

It had to have been murder. “Shit, Jackie, I’m just a vet. What am I supposed to do with this?”

Friend and foe wore the same expressions, and until she threw a spotlight on the current research, she was a target. If the government was involved, they’d have more thorough resources at their disposal.

The reference to testing planned for Portland’s population could indicate a facility or a target population, but finding it might prove impossible. “So what’s their end game, Swiffer?” Megan stroked the golden retriever’s soft fur, comforted by her furball’s presence.

Swiffer chuffed and nudged her knee in commiseration. “Yeah, boy, this is more than fishy. It’s a smorgasbord of why and what the hell.”

Page after page of scientific jargon brought new layers of anxiety. “Shit. It’s like grasping the end of a thread and finding it leads to the darkest reaches of moral corruption.” Phrases like “building devices on a molecular level” and “transmitting signals via the blanket” sketched a horrifying future where no one was safe. What type of signals would they transmit? Visual, audio, memories?

Another section detailed the fiery lab accident and death of a scientist working in a large biotech firm in Dover and how his lost research set back the scientific community. The obituary portrayed him as a loving husband and doting father of two small children.

One question stood forefront in her mind. Had she covered her tracks sufficiently to protect her identity? Jackie had been more than her equal in skill and intuition and was dead, passing the ball before her execution.

The sound of boots stomping up the porch steps brought Megan to full consciousness in her isolated surroundings. Her imagination conjured an enraged and mindless animal who’d come to wipe her from existence. If they’d tracked her this far, it seemed odd they’d send more than one assassin.

Chapter Two

Swiffer scrambled to the back door and roared his intruder’s bark. The vicious snarling grumbles should’ve given any sane person pause, but the mysterious they had already proven their lack of sanity on paper.

Her heart stuttered as her mind conjured an automated robot bearing her image as its target. Information overload prevented her brain from delegating directives. She became an observer in an otherworldly nightmare.

Cool air replaced the warm blanket after it slid to the floor. Wearing camouflage tank top and boy shorts, she’d present as somewhat less than intimidating to anything fiercer than a rabbit bearing a pocket watch.

Trembling legs supported her weight after she’d locked her knees. Her normally quick wit failed to conjure a plan. He’d be inside before she could get dressed. Her car was parked out back, so she wasn’t fast enough to circle around even if she managed to grab some clothes and her wallet first.

Swiffer rocked forward and sidestepped while continuing his vocal threat, ready to defend her with his last breath. He’d never offered to bite but radiated a rage never witnessed.

An open floor plan provided a bird’s-eye view of the shadowed intruder trying to key the backdoor lock. Wildlife curtains fluttered with the doorknob’s rattle, the Canadian geese flying yet traveling no distance when the shadow shoulder rammed the doorframe and shook the glass inset.

Morbid fascination cast her glance to the framed rage on the porch. He was so tall she’d have to tilt back to see his face if standing close.

Not a place I want to be.

If he intended to break in, he would have smashed through the glass. Instead, he raged at the door as a mortal enemy. Garbed in death’s colors, he wore a leather duster and a wide-brimmed hat which shadowed his face.

Curiosity carried her two steps forward.

“Swiffer...” The intended command issued in a harsh whisper cut short when the shadow growled.

After Jackie’s suspicious death, there’d be no more hiding. Since they’d tracked her to Portland in short order, she’d have to deal with him, whatever the outcome.

How do you stand against the force of a hurricane?

A moment’s pause.

Despite the bogus obstacle between them, she felt his pent-up rage waiting for a soft target. It wasn’t until Jackie’s picture flashed through her thoughts that fate returned her body’s functions to conscious control.

It was his measured chest expansion that sucked all available courage from the atmosphere, a slow syphoning from a colossal creature not acquainted with apprehension, uncertainty, or fear. In slow motion, the wide brim sloped upward to reveal the reaper’s face, a fraction at a time; bristled square jaw, lean cheeks straddling a straight nose—and then those eyes.

Glacier blue framed by thick coal lashes anesthetized her mind. Those artic orbs would burn before anything could penetrate the depths of his thoughts.

They’ll be the last thing I see.

Full lips pursed before he cocked his head to the side. Still, he said nothing while his gaze pierced the air thickened with her fear. He’d locked onto his next target.

Megan.

Spellbound and unable to move, her heart raced faster than the myriad expressions now twisting his handsome features. She wondered if he’d smash through the glass inset and take her by the throat.

The temporary standoff wouldn’t last long, and Megan had only one weapon. In the study, her CO2, gas propelled tranq pistol lay on the desk. The dosage might be a little light for the current beast but would be enough to subdue the grisly long enough to secure him and make her escape. If she couldn’t reason with him, she’d drug him.

A cold fury smoldered underneath the hardened jaw and narrowed eyes while the feral gleam assessed his quarry. Here was a man who mowed down anything in his path.

 “Go away. I’ve called the police.” Perhaps he’d interpret her fist’s tremor for a threat.

“Go away? This is my house! Open this door or I’ll smash it in.” Again, he rattled the door in threat. “And for the record, I am a cop.”

“Show me your badge.” Her burner phone could have been miles away as it sat uselessly on the sofa.

“I don’t have it on me. I’ve been on…vacation.” As if offering proof, he nodded toward the suitcase by his side.

“Well, if this was your house, your badge would be here, but it’s not.” Though her words appeared to energize the brute to a new level of rage, she held her ground, only because she was frozen and Swiffer stood between them.

“You’ve searched my house? Looking for anything in particular you could sell?” Figurative steam rolled off him in waves.

Sensing he was about to blow, Megan took a step back. “I rented it, asshole. It’s mine for six months.”

“You’ve slept here? Eaten here? What the hell?” Garbed in a reaper’s cloak and with murder in his eyes, he rammed his gloved fist through the lower pane of glass. His gaze never left her face, his intention clear in reaching for the interior brass knob.

Swiffer bore his own agenda and lunged for the intruder’s hand. Two furious creatures growled their wrath.

Shattering glass tinkled to the floor as she turned and fled. Hopefully, either the glass or her dog tore his glove to leave droplets of blood, hence his DNA for the police to find. Terror galvanized her thoughts to high speed.

“Swiffer, come!”

Barefoot and clad in next to nothing, she ran for the office, snatching up her phone en route and urging Swiffer to follow.

Clicking nails didn’t overshadow the soft snick of the door followed by crunching glass under boot. The bearish thug had entered the kitchen and wouldn’t be far behind.

Transition between the rug anchoring the matching sofas and gleaming hardwood registered as cold against her bare feet yet didn’t compare to the icy terror encircling her vertebrae. When she slammed and locked the office door, small satisfaction boosted her spirit. Again, Swiffer faced the door with curled lip and a growl rumbling in his chest.

Adrenaline supplemented her strength in sliding the heavy end table into barricade position. From the desk, she grabbed her dart gun and checked its load. She’d have one shot. Even with a direct hit, it would take the drug several minutes to slow the brute. Time enough for him to snap her neck.

Another door rattled under his attack. Leaning against the small barrier to hinder his progress, she tried to catch her breath and think. The door employed a simple knob lock, the problem being that the lock cylinder is in the knob and could be broken off using a crude weapon. What would Jackie do?

Calling nine one one wasn’t an option. If he was the assassin who murdered Jackie, he might have a partner listening to police channels, able to intervene before help could arrive, especially at her remote location. At the very least, she’d give away her location.

If she killed the enraged grisly on the other side, she’d have the police on her trail. I’m not a killer. Glancing at the bank of windows overlooking the lake, she’d have small chance of escaping without confrontation. If the creep heard sirens in the distance, would he run?

“Open the door. Let’s talk.”

Hysterical laughter bubbled up from her chest. “Would that be before or after you’ve snapped my neck?”

“I’m not going to hurt you, damn it. I’m trying to figure out what gives you the right to move into my home while I’m on vacation.”

“First of all, if this was your home, there’d be more of that lived-in feeling. All I’ve seen are a few kitchen necessities and furniture, which came with the rent. The landlord said vacationers often leave things behind.”

“I left some stuff in the dryer.”

“Cremated remains of missing socks?”

“What?”

“Dryer lint.”

“What?”

“Your lint trap was full.”

“That makes no sense. Why would I want to keep lint? You’re sounding a little strange. I only trap things I want to keep.”

Spoken like a predator. “Right…Humor doesn’t become you. Maybe you should stick to growling.”

“I was staying here temporarily to help my family. After I was injured, I took time off to regroup. Change of scenery.”

“Sounds like bullshit to me.” If the stranger carried a gun and started shooting through the door, the room offered little in the way of cover. To determine if she could reason with him, she needed to start from a superior position. The boy shorts and tank top could provide a brief distraction, long enough for her to sedate him. She’d have to open the door a few inches.

“Look. I’m not going away. I saw you pick up your cell when you streaked through my living room. Nice camo, by the way. Call nine one one and let’s get this straightened out. Okay?” Exhaustion and disgust tinged his tone.

Silence filled the void when she waited to feel him pounding his way into the room.

What’s he up to?

Despite the muffled quality of his words, an undertone of sincerity had surfaced to again question her first impression of an assassin. On the other hand, she couldn’t afford to have an official investigation started.

Functioning gray matter provided a middle ground.

“I can prove I’m here legally. Go to the kitchen and you’ll see the rental agreement on the table.”

Another pregnant pause.

Heavy asymmetrical steps drifting away indicated he was at least playing along with the charade.

He has some kind of leg injury.

Minutes later, roared expletives left little doubt that he considered the cabin his own.

When his booted echoes approached and stopped near her door, she waited.

Silence.

What was he planning?

“Okay. I read the agreement. It seems we’ve both been had. So I’m guessing you’re not the one responsible for my stuff missing.”

“So you actually had pictures on the walls?” Tentatively, Megan thumbed the lock off with her left thumb while clammy fingers made gripping her dart gun difficult. Leaning against the barricade probably wouldn’t secure it against one of his thrusts. An eerie stillness trailed the small click. No forceful shove tested her strength. Swiffer growled.

“No. I enjoy viewing the 3D portraits of nails on each wall.”

 “Well? Do I have to talk to the wood planks or are you going to open up? After all, you’ve got your hellhound for protection.”

“At least he has a semblance of manners.”

“He bit me.”

“You deserved it. ’Sides, even without wearing gloves, your hide is probably thick as an alligator’s. There’re two things he doesn’t like, guns and anything that threatens me. You’ve included both in your warm welcome.”

“I’ve done nothing but try to enter my house.”

“Because most people have to break the door down to get inside their own home.”

“My key didn’t fit.”

“Imagine that. Gee, my key fit my house. And I’d think that was normal—wouldn’t you?”

“Somebody switched the locks while I was away.”

“Sounds convenient.”

“So call your landlord.

“I didn’t keep the number.” So I couldn’t lead my troubles to someone else’s door.

“Sounds Convenient.”

Turning her own words back on her didn’t help his cause. Still, he wasn’t trying to bully his way through. Perhaps he’s had enough of Swiffer.

Scooting the barrier back several inches but keeping her weight against it left her room to shoot while maintaining minimal cover. As if placating a tiger, she pulled the door back enough such that he couldn’t get his arm through.

She was rewarded with a loud huff. The only other sound was the tapping of his boot on the hardwood.

“Peachy. I’m supposed to talk through the gap? Seriously? What are you—ten?”

“I’m a woman whose house has been broken into and I will shoot you if you make a wrong move.”

“Like you keep a gun in the office? Most homeowners keep one in their bedroom, maybe the kitchen, too…”

Another brief pause.

Nothing. No movement, not even a huffed sigh.

In slow motion, she slid the table back several more inches but kept behind the door with her gun barrel pointed chest high. It would be easy enough to step back if he pushed the barricade aside, giving her a big, close-up target.

Edging a half step back and closer to the door’s gap, she eyed him like the demon he resembled.

His quick intake of breath in sync with his gaze zeroing in on her gun advised she’d poked the bear.

“Fuck no. Not again.” The blur of his hand’s movement toward the gun produced an instinctual reaction.

She pulled the trigger.

A deep roar of rage filled the air as his weight edged the table back. If not for his obvious leg injury, she wouldn’t have held it long enough for the drug to begin taking effect.

Each tick of the clock rendered a thousand different what-ifs wherein she’d never received Jackie’s fateful text message. Instead, she played with Swiffer in her backyard, enjoyed long hikes, and dreamed of cooking gourmet meals. The only nano part of that existence was her love life. In helpless desperation, she looked around for anything which could serve as a weapon. To break the ceramic lamp over his head would only piss him off.

By the time he showed signs of slowing down, the door had opened enough for him to wedge his shoulder in the opening. With a bellow of fury, he threw the door wide, the force hurling her back to land on her ass.

She looked up in stunned disbelief as his body filled the doorway. All the things she’d never done and would never get to do ceased to matter with the thought. What will happen to Swiffer? It didn’t strike her as sad that her only true connection to the world was her best friend. Swiffer.

The air vibrated when thunder boomed in his chest to erupt in a stormy growl. The beast shook his head, midnight locks flying about in disarray.

One step was as close as Swiffer would allow as he latched onto the beast’s thigh, twisting back and forth in an effort to maim.

She didn’t know which animal was more enraged or growled louder. With dart gun still in hand, she scrambled over to the desk to reload.

“Swiffer, no!”

Her furry protector disengaged but stood his ground.

A stumble-step back pitched the two-legged bear against the wall, dazed and shaking his head. A slow-motion slide ended with him landing in a heap. “You drugged me? I’m gonna tear you to…” Garbled speech ended as his head dropped to his chest.

Swiffer whined as the intruder’s head bobbed once then remained still.

“I call it sleepytime. So good night, asshole.” Short-term safety didn’t solve the next immediate problem. “What should I do with you?”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Reily is a West Coast girl transplanted to the opposite shore. When she’s not working with her dogs, you can find her curled up with a book or writing her next story. Past employment as an ICU nurse, private investigator, and work in the military police has given her countless experiences in a host of different environments to add a real world feel to her fiction.


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