Mira glanced up as Bella poked her head in the doorway of the computer room that doubled as Mira’s office. She quickly closed the program she’d had open on her desktop, hiding the evidence of her spying efforts.
Bella’s dark hair was pulled into a tight ponytail that dangled down her back. Dressed in clinging workout clothes that showed off muscles Mira could only dream about having, Bella was either on her way to the gym or had just finished there. There was no sign of sweat or fatigue to give away which one, but then again, Bella always looked fabulous, even when she was sweating.
“Ready for some sparring, sugar?” asked Bella. “As mad at me as you are, I thought you might enjoy it.”
Mira was mad, but not at Bella. Adam was the real villain here—something Mira refused to forget even if others here did. “I thought you were leaving town.”
“I am. Plane leaves in a couple of hours. Thought I’d kill some time in the ring. Wanna join me?”
“Not today. I have something I need to go do.”
Bella propped a hip on Mira’s desk, showing off an envy-inducing body of Amazonian proportions. “You’re not planning anything stupid, are you?”
“Just a personal errand.”
“Liar. You’re up to something.”
“You’re imagining things. I have a very secretive pile of laundry that needs to be dry cleaned.”
“It’s not even six yet. Since when do you leave work before ten?”
“Since I was shot. I’m still not one hundred percent. I get tired easy.”
“Bullshit, doll. Since we’ve started sparring, you’ve got more stamina than ever.”
“Maybe I’m just tired of spending my life on work. Ever think of that? I am capable of having a personal life.”
Bella snorted. “Yeah, right. You’ve spent more time here since leaving the hospital than you ever did before. So. Why all the lies? You know you can trust me.”
“As much as you trust me?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I told you Adam Brink was bad news. I told you what he did to me. And you still hired him.”
Bella’s amusement dried up. “I had no choice. His employment here was part of the contract.”
“You could have negotiated harder.”
“You think I didn’t try? Of course I didn’t want the man who’d drugged you and sold you out anywhere near here. Hell, I would have put a much-needed bullet through his dick if it had been left up to me. But it wasn’t. Would you have rather I’d turned down the contract?”
“We could have found another way to help those people without it.”
“Sorry to burst your bubble, sugar, but that’s not true. As much as I couldn’t care less about the money, it goes to buying things like shiny new weapons. Not to mention the access to intelligence we’ve gained in the deal. You can’t say government resources haven’t helped.”
“I do like having access to the toys, but that means Adam has access, too. You know we can’t trust him.”
“I don’t trust him. But I do have to find a way to work with him. So do you. This is bigger than either of us or our feelings. People out there are suffering. They need all the help they can get, even from Adam. You should hear Gage talk about how badass Adam is. I swear he uttered three whole sentences. In a row.”
Mira didn’t bother hiding her shock. “That was a lot for a man of few words. But what if Adam is only helping for some nefarious purpose?”
“Then we stop him. However we have to. At least we know where he is if he’s working with us every day. Dr. Stynger is in the wind, and we haven’t had so much as a hint of where she may have gone.”
Mira nodded, trying to keep the sick feeling in her gut from showing on her face. “I’ve been searching for her. Scouring the data we recovered last year for any clue as to where she might be.” She hadn’t been spending as much time on it as she should have, though. Too many hours had been spent watching Adam, tracking his movements, monitoring the cameras she’d planted in his house and car. No one else could do the work for her because no one else could know what she was up to.
Even now, Mira itched to open the program she’d closed so she could follow his every move.
Bella sighed. “Stynger’s a ghost. It’s why she’s been able to do so much harm. But we will find her.” That was Bella’s scary voice—the one she reserved for the people she planned to kill.
“I have programs running even as we speak,” Mira assured her. “If anything pops up, we’ll be alerted so we can pounce.”
“Guess that’s all we can do for now.” Bella pushed away from the desk. “Are you sure you don’t want to go a few rounds with me?”
“Not when you’re pissed off like this. I still have bruises from the last time.”
A slight smile tickled the corners of Bella’s lush mouth. “I still have a few you gave me, too, honey. You’re getting better all the time.”
“You haven’t given me much choice.”
“Now you know how I feel about employing Adam. I don’t like him. I don’t trust him. But he does a hell of a job. He’s found and helped more victims of your father’s experiments than the next two men combined. Think what you want about him, but he is one efficient bastard.”
Apparently, Adam had worked his charm on Bella, too. If there was one way to worm his way into her good graces, it was by doing his job well. A few weeks from now and Bella would forget all about how her new star employee had come to them.
“I’ll agree with the bastard part, at least,” said Mira. “Just hope he minds his manners while you’re away. I’d hate to use what you’ve taught me in the ring and break your new favorite toy.”
Bella grinned in amusement at that. “If you do decide to break him, promise you’ll let me watch. I’d pay good money to see that fight.”
Mira rolled her eyes. “Sure. That’ll happen.”
“Don’t underestimate yourself. You may look all sweet and gentle, but there’s a fierce streak in you half a mile wide. My guess? Adam’s going to bring that right out. I’m counting on it.”
With that, Bella left Mira to the hum of her computers.
Mira spent the next hour completing her research on the man in the file Bella had given her. It didn’t take long for her to lay out a picture of his life. Like so many other victims of the Threshold Project, Corey Lambert led a life that was bleak and filled with pain. All thanks to her father’s work.
It made her wonder if there was hope for any of his subjects to find happiness.
Those thoughts were too dark for her to face now, so she distracted herself with what had become an all-consuming hobby of hers: tracking Adam.
She pulled up her surveillance video and audio recordings, sending them through several filtering programs designed to call her attention to key words and actions. Every conversation Adam had, she recorded. Every place he ever went, she tracked him. Every room in his home had hidden cameras and microphones. His car was bugged with surveillance devices as well as redundant tracking systems. She could find him through his phone, his company-issued dog tags, his keys, his car; even the soles of his shoes had been implanted with tracking devices while he’d been in the shower at the company gym.
Wherever he went, whatever he said, whomever he met, Mira would know. And when Adam finally showed his true colors and revealed his real boss, she’d know that, too. So would Bella and everyone else.
Maybe then, after he was thrown in some dank prison cell, she’d be able to stop thinking about him.
By the time she’d gone through all the recordings and reports her programs had generated, it was well after dark. The office was empty. She was exhausted and probably should have gone home to sleep, but her mind was still reeling, trying to assimilate the news that Adam was now her partner.
The lab report he’d given her sat on her desk, taunting her. The results were easy enough to alter—at least they would have been for her—but why would he go to so much trouble? What possible goal could he have for putting her at ease?
Maybe he was trying to get her to lower her guard. Not in this lifetime.
Mira brought up a screen showing Adam’s current location. Several different transmitters confirmed that he was at home, so she activated the cameras she’d hidden there until she found him.
He sat alone at his kitchen table, eating a microwaveable dinner. He stared straight ahead, eating methodically, almost robotically. There was no TV on in the background. No radio. He had no book or cell phone to distract him. Just dinner and the rhythmic pattern of the fork moving between the plastic tray and his mouth.
Oddly, the sight reminded her of the one meal they’d shared a few months ago. He’d been so animated then, so warm. He’d paid attention to her every word, touching her hand now and then with a gentle caress of his fingers.
That night she’d anticipated each touch with nervous, girlish excitement. She’d barely tasted her meal for all the butterflies fluttering in her stomach.
His attention on her had been rapt. Absolute. He hadn’t even glanced at anyone else, including the pretty waitress who’d served them or the busty hostess who’d seated them.
She’d felt beautiful that night—something she had never felt quite so keenly before or since. No other man had ever put her under his spell so completely.
Mira could have fallen for the man who’d sat across from her that night. Which made her a total idiot.
The real Adam was the one she watched now. Cold.
And now he was her partner.
Bella was insane for forcing the two of them together.
Mira could have worked with anyone but Adam.
Then again, Bella was known for testing her employees. Their work was high-pressure, high stakes. If Mira was going to crack by being paired up with a man she hated, then how could she ever expect to be allowed in the field?
And she had to be allowed in the field. It was the only way to undo some of the damage her father had caused to countless innocent lives.
If working with Adam was the only way to make that happen, then she would be the best partner the man had ever known. He’d hardly have to lift a finger. Bella could have no excuse to keep Mira behind a desk the way Adam wanted.
As far as Mira was concerned, pissing off Adam was just icing on the cake.
Once again she opened the file Bella had given her. The subject’s information stared up at her, black-and- white proof of her father’s evil.
The secret files that had been recovered last year had all been decoded. There was a massive amount of data, and Mira had spent the past several weeks working to organize it into some helpful format. Test subjects were referred to by codes, and small bits of information about them were scattered through dozens of different files. She had done her best to construct a database to merge all the information together, but there were so many missing pieces. Some victims had been assigned multiple IDs for different experiments. She could spend the rest of her life trying to piece it all together and the picture would still be incomplete.
But there were some pieces that were visible. A few names. People like Corey Lambert, whose file she held in her hands.
His life was a wreck, thanks to Mira’s father. Police records showed he’d been jailed a handful of times, mostly for disorderly conduct and assault. He’d filed for bankruptcy a couple of years ago. He was chronically unemployed. Two marriages, two divorces—both within the last three years. No children, which was a small blessing.
Mira still had no way of knowing if what her father or the other scientists had done could be passed on to future generations. There were mentions of genetic manipulation, but she was no doctor, and the notes she’d decrypted made little sense. From what Dr. Vaughn had said, most of the notations seemed to refer to ideas rather than actual research.
But they’d discovered only a small number of files—a tiny fraction of the whole puzzle. There was no way to know if those ideas had turned into something more as time went on.
Movement on her monitor brought her attention back to Adam as he rose from his kitchen table. Cameras followed him to a spare bedroom filled with exercise equipment. He stripped off his T-shirt, leaving him wearing only a pair of knit running shorts.
Lean muscles followed the contours of his body, easily covered by the suit he usually wore. The scar where he’d been shot was a faint, pinkish pucker of skin in the midst of his naturally tan complexion.
She absently rubbed her matching scar where the bullet had gone through him into her. She hated that they had even that small connection.
He got on a treadmill and started to run.
Mira knew from experience that he’d be there for at least a couple of hours. She had no idea how he could sprint like that for so long, but she’d seen it often enough to know how much stamina he had.
So far, he hadn’t found any of her surveillance devices.
Unless he had, and this recording of a marathon running session was his way of distracting her while he slipped out to do something horrible.
That had to be it. No real person could run like he did for hours, breathing evenly, barely sweating. It had to be a trick—a way to bypass her surveillance measures with a repetitive, monotonous activity that was easily reproduced.
A welcome wave of anger swelled in Mira’s chest, distracting her from thoughts of her soulless father and all the damage he’d caused.
Adam wasn’t going to trick her so easily. She was going to collect proof that he wasn’t the man he pretended to be, and once she had that, Bella would have no choice but to send him away and find Mira a partner who didn’t remind her of just how gullible she could be.
She gathered her coat and purse and headed for the door. Only when she was halfway there did she stop. After several long seconds, she turned back to her desk and pulled out her revolver. There was no way to know how Adam would react to her discovering his lies, and she needed to be ready for anything.
A few minutes later, she drove by his house. Through the plain, functional blinds covering his windows, she could see his shadow moving as he ran.
All that anger trickled out of her.
She’d been wrong. He really was still here, not slinking around out in the night, torturing kittens or whatever it was he liked to do in his spare time.
Her head fell back on the headrest with a thump.
At this rate, she was never going to find proof that Adam was evil all the way through.
Which made her wonder . . . what if he wasn’t? What if she was the unreasonable one, hoping to see what she wanted? If that evil streak wasn’t there, she was wasting a hell of a lot of time looking for it.
She had to remember her real goal. Adam was simply a distraction from finding and helping the people her father had hurt. Even now, while she sat in her car outside of Adam’s house, Corey Lambert was in pain. Suffering.
She had the power to help him, or at the very least tell him why he felt the things he did, why he couldn’t seem to get his life under control. Maybe the simple relief of knowing that he wasn’t alone would be enough for him to get himself back on track.
It had worked for others. The lucky few who hadn’t fallen too far to be saved.
What if tonight was the night Corey cracked? What if tonight was the night he gave in to the urge to do that one unspeakable act for which he’d never forgive himself?
Mira wasn’t going to sit around and simply hope it didn’t happen. She was going to do something.
Bella would have told her to go knock on Adam’s door and drag him along with her. She would have lectured her that it wasn’t safe to go alone.
But what Bella didn’t yet realize was that it was far safer to walk into a bad situation alone than it was to go into one with a devil by her side. For all she knew, Adam would turn on her the first chance he got.
He’d done it before.
Mira had spent her life trying to prove herself to others. First to her father, then to Bella. It was time to start proving things to herself.
She was smart. Strong. Determined. And armed. She could handle a conversation with one broken man who couldn’t even manage to keep a job.
And if she couldn’t, she had no business being in the field at all. Better to know now before she got someone she cared about killed.
She pulled away from Adam’s house and headed across town. At the first stoplight, she made sure her phone’s tracking system was on and the panic code that would dial her best friend, Clay, was partially keyed in. All she had to do was hit one button, and Clay would come running.
Now, he was a man she could trust. Too bad she’d never felt more for him than she would have for a brother. He was happily involved with Dr. Vaughn, and Mira could not have been more pleased with his choice. She doubted it would be long before the wedding invitation arrived.
With that happy thought in mind, Mira pulled into the run-down neighborhood where Corey Lambert lived.
A lot of trailer parks were really nice, filled with shiny, well-kept homes inhabited by people who took pride in where they lived.
This was not one of those places.
The mobile homes here had seen better days. Patches of long, winter-brown weeds grew everywhere. The most prevalent colors were rust and the sad, dingy yellow of decaying paint. A few large trees had grown up here, indicating the age of the trailer park.
Mira inched along the cracked road, searching for the right address. A lot of the lots held vacant, collapsing mobile homes abandoned by their tenants long ago. Even the boards over the windows looked rotten and on the verge of collapse.
The whole place had a sad vibe that made her wish her father was alive to see the price of his precious experiments—right before she forced him to live in one of these run-down deathtraps.
She didn’t need to check the house number to know she’d found the right one. Standing outside a rusting trailer was Corey, furiously pointing his finger at a small woman. She cowered back from him, wrapping her arms around her middle and hunching her shoulders as if to make herself a smaller target.
The woman backed up another step, until she ran into the chipped metal railing along the stairs leading into the house.
Corey looked just like his photo: worn-down, angry, desperate. His shaggy blond hair and beard needed a good wash, as did the pit-stained wife-beater he wore. His gut stretched the fabric enough to show her that visits to the gym weren’t high on his list of priorities.
That gave her the confidence Mira needed to get out of the car. She kept her headlights splashed over the scene and the car’s engine running, just in case. Her cell phone was in her jacket pocket, and under her left arm was a shoulder holster filled with enough firepower to remind her to be careful.
“Corey Lambert?” she asked as she approached.
He turned and squinted, lifting his hand to shield himself from the glare of her headlights. Even from here, Mira could see how bloodshot his eyes were, how much his hands shook.
He was not a well man.
“Did you call someone?” he asked the woman, his tone sharp with accusation.
She flinched and hugged herself tighter. “No. I’d never do that to you.”
Corey took another step toward the woman.
A little ripple of fear slid up Mira’s throat. She slipped her hand into her pocket and gripped her phone. “No one called me.”
“You a cop?”
“No. I’d like to talk to you.” “I’m busy.”
“Busy making what might be the biggest mistake of your life,” said Mira. “Now, please, all I need is a couple of minutes.”
“Whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying.”
“I’m not selling anything. I swear. I’m here to help you.”
He whirled on her, his face warped with anger. “Do I look like I need your help?”
That ripple of fear turned into a full-blown wave. She had to fight the need to take a step back, away from his anger.
Calm. That’s what she had to be now. Firm but calm.
“Yes,” she finally said. “You do need help. I know what was done to you. I know how you suffer.”
“Pfft,” he hissed. “Get the hell out of here, lady. You don’t know shit.”
“I do. You have headaches. Maybe even black out sometimes. And the nightmares . . . they seem so real. You’re angry all the time. Cry for no reason.”
He looked at the woman and issued a harsh “Get in the house.”
The woman scrambled away fast, as if glad for any excuse she could find to leave.
Corey turned back to Mira.“You’re seriously starting to piss me off, lady. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll get the fuck out of here.”
Mira didn’t budge. This was too important. Corey had been damaged by her father, perhaps irrevocably. It was her duty to see to it that he got whatever help she could offer.
She squared her shoulders. “You hear things, maybe smell them, and it sets you off just like that.” She snapped her fingers. “You can’t control what you see or how you feel. The terror is so real, you swear you’re still in that room with the doctor and all those needles. He’s hurting you, and he won’t stop, no matter how much you beg.”
Some of the anger fell from his face and his skin went pale behind his beard. “Who the fuck are you?”
“A friend. I want to help.”
“Just leave me alone. That’s all I need.”
“No, it’s not. What was done to you can be fixed.” She hoped. “I know people who can take away the headaches, end the nightmares. All you have to do is come with me.”
Skepticism quavered in his voice. “Where?” “I can’t tell you. You have to trust me.”
“I don’t even know you. For all I know they sent you here.”
He moved closer. She wasn’t even sure how he got that far that fast until he grabbed her arms.
Corey lifted her up until only her tiptoes reached the ground. His grip was crushing, making pain shoot down to her fingertips. Fear exploded in her gut, and her fingers scrambled to hit the right button on her phone to call in reinforcements.
He snarled, his face only inches from hers. She could see each vein in his bloodshot eyes, each groove that fear and pain had carved around his mouth. “You go back to wherever it is you came from and tell them to back the fuck off and leave me alone. I know they’re watching me. I know they have some way of getting in my head. You tell them to stop.” He punctuated his words with another hard shake that dislodged the phone from her hand.
“No one’s watching you. I can prove it. Just come with me.”
His hand flashed across her face so fast she didn’t see it move. It was the jerk of her head to the right and slightly delayed pain that told her she’d been hit.
Shock numbed her for a second as she struggled to digest the fact that she’d been hit—that she was in far more danger here than she’d thought.
The tang of blood hit her tongue.
Corey tightened his grip on her arms and shook her hard enough to rattle her skull. “If they get in my head again, I’ll come find you,” he promised. “I’ll make you pay. Understand?”
Honesty was quickly becoming difficult, but she wasn’t sure what else to do. “I swear no one is in your head. That’s just a side effect of what was done to you when you were a kid. Please let me help you.”
“They got to you, too, didn’t they? Filled your head with lies, made you do things you didn’t want to do?” There was a crazy light in his eyes—one that was starting to glow a bit too bright for her peace of mind.
She shook her head. “This isn’t about me. I—”
He hit her again, and this time the blow was hard enough to send her flying back onto the concrete. She landed hard. The back of her head hit something even harder.
The edges of her vision went swampy for a second before she managed to fight it off. By the time she did, Corey was standing over her.
He reached down and pulled her revolver from inside her open jacket. “You came here to kill me, didn’t you?” She tried to deny it, but her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth. Her whole body felt slow and heavy, and her normally swift mind was drawing a total blank as to what to do now.
“Maybe this will send them the message to stay the fuck away from me.” Corey aimed the gun at her chest.