I killed it.
Dr. Rita Davenport tilted her head and opened her mouth to catch the raindrops. Spring had hit London with a lion’s roar. Twirling in circles, she laughed at the weather gods—just like them to rain on her parade. Well, not her parade alone—the whole team back in Oregon deserved the credit.
What a day!
A bit dizzy, she stopped. Pressing a hand to her temple, she bent over slightly and waited for her world to steady. Joy burbled through her, welling from an emotional hot spring.
But underneath, there was something else, someone else, dark and…hungry.
She could hear it, whispering, calling to her.
A flush of fear. She bolted upright, her gaze lasered into the shadows.
There’s nobody there, Rita. Get hold of yourself. You’ve had a long day.
Little food, even less sleep, amped on adrenaline, riding a high, Rita told herself. The hotel first, then the airport, then the luxury of a business-class ride home. A glass or three of Champagne, a Xanax and she’d be fine.
But worry niggled at her. She clutched her umbrella to her chest, then adjusted her briefcase, which hung on a strap across her back. She didn’t think to open the umbrella against the rain. She was cold, so very cold. A shiver racked through her rattling her teeth.
A sinister whisper, louder now. “Run.”
She whirled around, scanning the darkness. Danger lurked in the shadows.
A familiar fear, it oozed through the web of her mind jumbling thoughts, fracturing logic. Panic seized her, stealing breath.
Think, Rita. Think!
Swallowing hard, she still clutched her umbrella—a tether to the real, a defense against the unreal. A game she’d used in the past—hold something tangible…something of this world, of life.
She pushed at the wet strands of hair sticking to her cheeks and forced herself away from the fear. Another shiver. Her teeth chattered. What had she done with her overcoat?
Where was she? Struggling to regain her focus, she shielded her eyes against the rain and cataloged her surroundings. A wet street. Streetlamps. Tudor buildings, most not more than two stories, lined both sides of the road. On the ground floor, the shops stood dark, the light having moved to the apartments above. Darkness surrounded her with dread.
Headlights coming at her on the wrong side of the street. A klaxon horn. She leaped back, stumbling on the curb, then catching herself.
Light streamed through the windows of the pub down the street. Distant voices, happy, raised in a struggle to be heard over the music. A guitar and a plaintive horn, then a lovely, fresh voice, strong, alive…real.
Had she come from there? She couldn’t remember. Squinting into the night, she struggled to read the sign under the weak bulb above it.
The Whistle and Goose? Yes, that’s where she’d been, where Logan and her colleagues celebrated. The light called her back. The voices didn’t speak when she was in the light. And it would be warm there.
She took a few halting steps in that direction when a voice stopped her, this one louder than the voices that followed her and hid from the light.
“Rita! There you are. Wait up.” A warm baritone that agitated her.
She worked to pull up a name. Dr. Evans Hunt. That was it. He hurried to join her, the tails of his open tweed jacket flapping behind him. His stomach strained against his shirt. Spots of rain peppered his khakis.
Arriving red-faced in front of her, a smile splitting his face, he seemed unmindful of the weather, the darkness pressing close, the voices calling. “How’s the party?” He lifted his chin toward the pub. He towered above her.
She followed his gaze. The light no longer beckoned, its brightness suffocated by fingers of fog, poking, prodding, searching, enveloping.
“I…I don’t know.” She chewed on a lip and fought the urge to run.
“That good, huh?” Dr. Hunt raised an eyebrow, and his smile widened as he self-consciously ran a hand through his thick shock of still-brown hair, making the tangle worse. “I must look like…”
“A man running through the rain and the darkness.” Like the tendrils of fog, fear slipped through her defenses. Rita felt the falseness of her attempt at a smile. She rubbed her arms against the cold, but it had burrowed deep.
Dr. Hunt didn’t seem to notice. “I’m sorry I’m late. A couple of our colleagues from New Zealand cornered me in the bar. You know David Thorne?” He didn’t wait for her nod. “A brilliant geneticist, but he has a fondness for the grape if you know what I mean. And an awe-inspiring tolerance. I couldn’t keep up, knew that going in—the wisdom and limitations of age—so I didn’t even try.”
Evans’s enthusiasm would’ve been infectious if Rita hadn’t been so cold. So scared. Something hunted in the darkness pressing in around her, blocking the light. Its hot breath brushed the back of her neck and she shivered. “What do you want?”
“You,” the voices whispered.
“What?” Evans’s face swam back into view. “Want?” he repeated as he shrugged, never losing his smile. “Nothing more than normal.” He brayed a self-deprecating laugh. “You already gave me most of it. The conference! You were brilliant. Well done.”
A hint of light rode in on his laughter, pushing back the darkness. The voices muttered then retreated.
The conference. Our paper! Of course!
“Say, why aren’t you using your umbrella?” Evans’s words tumbled on a wave of enthusiasm as he covered her under the protection of his, not that it was much defense from the looks of him. “You’re soaked. And you’re freezing.” He shrugged out of his jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders.
She stood straight, letting her arms fall to her sides, still gripping the handle of the umbrella as if keeping a sword at the ready. “It went well? The conference?”
In his excitement, Evans ran past the hint of a question in her voice. “You had them hanging on every word, my dear. No discord! No argument. Unheard of in the annals of Alzheimer’s research. Especially for a first paper and a novel approach that might put most of them out of business. We trod on a few toes today, but they couldn’t deny our work. A huge win, Rita—you should be ecstatic. Now the last phase of funding should be assured. We can move forward. We have a chance to offer very real hope where there is none.”
“They know?” Rita’s voice was a hoarse whisper.
“Of course they know.” The voices echoed her fear. “Run, Rita. Run before they take it all.”
Dr. Hunt’s smile went limp; confusion clouded the joy. “Of course they know. That’s the point. We depend on our network of specialists. You told them! Boy did you ever!”
Rita felt her control unraveling. They’d take it all. “The more they know, the more they can do to stop us.”
Evans pursed his lips as he finally sobered. “Why would you think that?”
She knew what they wanted, what the voices told her. They wanted to take her research, to shut down the project. “They’re pretending to want to help.”
“Do you have proof of that?” Evans’s voice turned serious. The world of pharmaceutical research was dog-eat-dog, staying ahead of the pack, outsmarting them if need be, the only path to survival. And sometimes putting your work out there was the only way to claim it.
“We’re talking about huge sums of money, Evans. Money ruins everything.”
“He wants the money, then he’ll take it all.”
“Money as the root of all evil, is that it?” Evans’ happiness fled, anger replacing it. This was old territory for the two of them. “Let it go, Rita.”
“If you’re going to quote the bible at least get it right,” Rita snapped. For a moment she felt like her old self again. The familiar argument galvanized her. She peeled off his jacket and thrust it back at him.
“The love of money, I know.” His smile faded; the look in his eyes hardened. He took the jacket without argument. “Rita, you’re brilliant, but you’re a pain in the ass. This is how it works. Results cost money.”
“Ah, the great altruist worrying over money. Is that all I am to you, Evans? Money?”
“Of course. Without money we can’t find a cure.”
Although she expected it, she staggered back as if slapped.
“He’s using you,” the voices whispered. “He’s one of them. He’ll take it all.”
“What about the funding?” He seemed oblivious to the dagger he’d buried.
“Money. You see. Everything comes down to money.”
The argument surrounded her with the familiarity and comfort of an old sweatshirt, bringing her back to herself, to this man—her boss, her nemesis, sadly nothing more. “Evans, you know they’ll try. They have to. Their economic lives are at stake. We may have this round of funding in place; I’m not sure. It hinges on how well our paper was received.”
“It couldn’t have gone better. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Your money people will be thrilled.” Evans’ smile broke through again.
To be so focused. Rita struggled to hold on as her thoughts threatened to scatter. The voices grew louder now.
She pressed the heel of her hand to her temple as she glanced back at the light from the pub, barely a glow now, shrouded and white-cold.
“They’re waiting for you there. They know what you have.”
She shook her head. “Quiet!”
“I didn’t say anything.” Evans’s voice held a hint of concern. “Rita, what’s the matter?”
She shrugged away from his outstretched hand. “Nothing. It’s nothing.” She pushed back at the fear and the voices. “My money people want an interest in future profits. This is the last round of philanthropic investment they will do.” Rita released her temple and held up her hand, silencing the rebuttal. “Evans, you know this.” Darkness feathered the fringes of her reality, the aperture of light closing. Her hand shook, and she examined it with the same cool objectivity that she would a foreign object.
“They get a tax benefit.” Exasperation crumpled Evans and he looked like the Ph.D. he was—although he did have an Indiana Jones side to him. But Evans Hunt searched the world for botanical cures rather than holy relics.
“It’s not enough.” She stuffed the offending hand in a pocket. The mumble of voices grew louder, buzzing in her ears.
“It’ll have to be.” Evans bit down on the snap in his voice. “We’re doctors. We are not looking to make a financial killing off human suffering.” With a pocket square, he dabbed at his nose, then gave up and blew. “Damned cold. Came on all of a sudden.” He tilted the umbrella so he could see from under it and raised his gaze to the heavens. “This weather. April in London. It’s a wonder we don’t all have walking pneumonia.” He sneezed, then wiped his nose on the damp rag he’d tugged from a pocket. After stuffing it back, he reached for her elbow. “Come, let’s get inside. We should join the party.”
She shrugged away from him. “Don’t be stupid; it’s always about money. The money to fund the research, to get things done, to cure them, to save them, to buy a private jet and a house in the Hamptons. Suffering is quantified every day. No one will do it without a profit.”
Evans gave a mirthless laugh. An angry red claimed his cheeks. “Jesus, Rita, you’re even more cynical than usual. What’s the matter with you?”
She shivered as a chill raced through her. The rain increased. The pop of the raindrops off the taut fabric of the umbrella sounded like distant gunfire. Evans had never liked her. She saw that now. His contempt lurked in the sly, tight grin, the hint of superiority in the tilt of his jaw.
Money. It gave life and, in return, exacted a slow death.
The chant of the voices grew louder. Run, Rita. Run. Bad men. She backed away from Evans. With the rain pelting her, she raised her face and asked him, “Do you hear them?”
Finally, he focused, his brows snapping into a frown. “Hear who?” He reached for her. “Say, are you okay?”
“You don’t hear them?”
She backed away. Hurried little steps.
Evans followed. “Rita. What’s the matter?”
She turned and ran.
Evans’ voice trailed after her. “Rita! Stop!”
“They want it all. They’ll destroy you. Run!”
A wild fear surged through her. She was powerless against it. The voices, the fear consumed her.
Putting her head down, she raced through the rain. Her ankle turned on an uneven cobblestone. She yelped, then kicked off her heels and ran.
Finally, gasping for breath, she slowed. Drenched, wild with worry, she fought for air in ragged gasps. Darkness smothered her. And something evil lurked inside—a hand reaching up to pull her into the darkness.
Light, she needed light.
She pulled her briefcase around to cover her chest like a shield. They couldn’t take her work…the team’s work…. Nobody wanted it, not really, not in the way all the others thought. It was too simple, too easy. Too inexpensive. No, they didn’t want it; they just didn’t want the world to have it.
He would protect it. He’d promised.
The sound of her heart pounding drowned out the voices and calm leaked in between the beating rush of blood.
It was late. The streets foreign and unfamiliar, almost empty. The stores closed. The homes above hidden. Light from within an eerie glow that framed the shutters holding it in.
Safety there. An odd thought, Rita shook it off.
Where am I?
The rain wormed inside her collar like a snake seeking warmth.
She could hear a voice calling for her.
A man, head down, hurried toward her. Rita took an involuntary step to the side, hoping the darkness would hide her.
The man looked up, startled to find her standing there.
“Are you one of them?” Rita whispered. She held the collar of her raincoat together at her throat.
Taking in her bedraggled state, he paused. “No.” He gave her another look, taking in her nice clothes, her computer bag, the expensive purse.
“You’re not one of them?” Rita glared into the darkness over the man’s shoulder. “I can hear them.”
“Who?” He followed her gaze. “There’s no one there.” The man took her arm. “We both need to get out of the rain. Let me help you.”
Rita jerked her elbow free. “Here.” She thrust her unopened umbrella into his chest like a weapon. “I need to go.”
Another quick glance over his shoulder. “There’s no one there.”
Rita gave a weak smile, but the voices grew louder.
“Don’t trust him.”
She staggered a little bit. “Can you hear that?”
“Run. You can’t trust him.”
Rita rubbed her arms. She was cold, so very cold. The fog of darkness blotted out her light. Something evil. No…someone evil. The man in front of her—his face blurred, his features shifting, cruelty twisting his mouth.
She gasped, raising her arms, a flesh-and-bone shield, as she backed away.
As quickly as his face had shifted, it returned to normal.
Rita blinked and staggered again—her world tilting, then righting like the dizziness after a carnival ride. Pulling in a deep breath, she marshaled strength and shook away the haunting. What’s the matter with you?
“I’ve got to go.” She turned and ran, seeking the cover of darkness.
When she glanced back, he was gone. And she was alone. But the feeling, the cold, the worry, wouldn’t leave her. There’s no one there.
Voices whispered in the dark, taunting her.
The breeze had picked up, a herald rushing in front of the intensifying storm. Rita laughed at her fears. It’s only the wind.
But the voices shouted her down.
She twirled again, her briefcase in one hand clearing an arc around her. The rain trickled into her eyes, filming her vision—she didn’t care. She couldn’t see them, but she knew they were there. They were after her. Like wolves circling a lone fawn, they remained hidden, waiting.
Home. Portland. I want to go home.
Rita worked for her thoughts, but they skittered into the darkness, rats running from the light. Dark thoughts nipped at the edges.
They’ll try to take this away.
Fear choked her gasp. Shivering now, the cold serpent of fear curled in the pit of her stomach.
Enemies. They’d do anything to stop her.
Footsteps behind her. She gasped as her heart leaped.
A glance as she ran.
The welcoming sign for the Underground shone like a beacon, calling her. She’d be safe there in the light, away from the darkness.
She batted at ghostly hands squeezing her throat.
Tugging at the scarf wound around her neck, she pulled it loose, then let it trail through her fingers onto the wet pavement as she ran.
Another glance behind. No one.
But she knew they were there. She could feel them. Hear them.
She fled, her briefcase a shield clutched tight.
Down the stairs. Over the turnstile.
When she saw the light, she leaped toward it.