The trees on the hill should be a perfect cover, Pelham thought.
He moved quickly up the incline from the side of the road, where he’d hidden his car. The sun was low in the sky. He didn’t have much time before the Kirby woman would be running down the path toward the Science Building. For the last five days Rachel Kirby had been putting in twenty-hour workdays, taking only four hours to rest at her condo before going back to the lab to work. Today should be no different. She’d drive her car to the parking lot three miles from the Science Building and run the rest of the way.
Pelham knelt as he reached the trees and gazed down at the campus below. A few students were strolling on the sidewalk, and there was a girl sitting on the steps of the English Building working on her laptop.
Should he take them out? It would confuse the motivation. The police would think he was just a nutcase if he didn’t focus solely on Rachel Kirby. But it would also raise a public outcry and make the chase hotter for him.
Oh well, he’d decide later. His instincts were usually good when it came down to the final moment.
He opened his gun case.
Rachel turned at the front door to see Allie coming down the stairs. “I’ve got to get back to the lab, Allie. I’m late.”
“Not too late to talk to me for a moment.” Allie closed the door and leaned on it, blocking her way. “You’ve got to stop this, Rachel. It was bad before, but now you’re being stupid. You’re working yourself to exhaustion.”
“I have a few problems to iron out. I’ll rest when I get back on level ground.”
“If you don’t have a breakdown.” Her sister smiled. “We can’t have two invalids around here. Letty would quit on us.”
“I haven’t heard Letty complaining.”
Allie’s smile faded. “No, you wouldn’t. Letty is like you. Nothing is too good for me. Even if it means that you’re both strained to the max.”
Rachel didn’t want to hear this. She had known it was coming. Allie had been too quiet, and Rachel had been aware of her sister watching her, but she had hoped to avoid a confrontation. “We’re not strained. I don’t need much sleep, and I’m as healthy as a horse. And Letty wouldn’t have her life any other way. She loves taking care of you.”
“I know that. She’s going to hate it when—”
“Shut up, Allie.”
“Why? I’m not afraid any longer. I’ve accepted it.” She looked her in the eye. “I want you to accept it, too, Rachel. It’s time.”
It was worse than Rachel thought it could be. “The hell it is. It’s not going to happen.”
“It’s already happening. When I go through one of these downward spirals, it gets harder to walk, and I lose control of my hands. My toothpaste went every-place but on the brush this morning. And my eyesight is getting worse.”
“Your eyesight? When did this start?”
“Just in the last couple of weeks. I tried to tell myself it wasn’t happening, but I’ve lost a little of my peripheral vision. It scared me.” She made a face. “And then it made me mad. At any rate, it was a wake-up call.”
“You know how GLD works. Symptoms come and go. It may be years before it gets any worse.”
Allie nodded. “I know that. Next week it may correct itself, and I’ll have a good period. But I have to be ready. You have to be ready.”
Rachel closed her eyes. Dammit. Allie had been struggling with this disease since she was a child, but the past few years had been especially brutal. Globoid Cell Leukodystrophy, aka GLD or Krabbe’s Disease, was a rare disorder of the nervous system that most commonly attacked infants. They seldom lived past the age of two, but late-onset GLD patients such as Allie were all over the map in terms of symptoms and prognosis.
Allie brushed her hair away from her face. “You can’t stop it by working yourself to death for me. That’s not what I want. Do you want to know what I want?”
“It doesn’t matter whether I do or not, you’re going to tell me anyway.”
“You bet I am.” She smiled. “I’m lonely, Rachel. I want you to spend time with me instead of in that lab tilting at windmills. The battle is over. Let’s make our peace with it and enjoy.”
Every gentle word Allie was speaking was tearing her apart. “It’s not over,” she said fiercely. “I won’t let it be over.”
“You can’t work miracles, Rachel. You’ve already gone above and beyond. You started a research foundation for me, for God’s sake. Because of you, half of the computers in the free world are working on a cure for GLD.”
“The foundation is close to a breakthrough. They’ll come through. I just have to keep—” Allie was shaking her head. “Don’t you dare give up now. I won’t have it.”
“I’ll fight as long as I can. You deserve that from me. I deserve that for myself. But I’m not going to pretend anymore. Now will you stay home and get some rest?”
Rachel shook her head. “I’m fine.”
Allie moved away from the door. “Then go on and tilt at some more windmills. But when you get tired, come home and be with me.” She started up the stairs. She was moving slowly. It was another sign of the toll the disease was exacting, Rachel thought in agony. When she was going through a down spiral, all the energy and vitality that was Allie was shaded like a lamp with the light turned low. She was two years younger than Rachel and, when she had her full strength, far more attractive. Her huge dark eyes, peaches-and-cream complexion, and sleek red-gold hair gave her drama and fascination. But today her eyes were shadowed. She seemed thinner and more fragile than she had even last week.
“I’ll try to take some time off tomorrow,” she called after her.
“That will be nice.” Allie looked back over her shoulder. “Stop frowning. It’s okay, Rachel. I’m not trying to lay a guilt trip on you. I’ve made a good life for myself. I keep busy. I paint, I work on my cars, I do stained glass. But I love you more than anyone in the world, and I want you to be part of that life. I just had to tell you how I felt.”
“You’re wrong, Allie.”
“Maybe. Don’t work too hard tonight.” She disappeared around the turn of the stairs.
Rachel stood gazing after her, feeling pain twist through her. It always amazed her how much inner strength was housed in that fragile body. Allie had always had a loving serenity that could occasionally erupt into a puckish humor that was completely different from Rachel’s own character. Rachel burned with energy, and Allie glowed with soft warmth. Yet sometimes, Allie could be an overwhelming force.
A force that had to keep on existing, dammit.
Keep calm. Emotion wasn’t going to help her keep Allie going. Only work and determination would do that and, in spite of what Allie had said, Rachel would give everything she had to give.
Stop standing here brooding. She was already late getting to the lab. Lately, everything had seemed to be falling apart, and this latest breach in the flow could be devastating. She had to stop it before it affected the foundation.
Before it affected Allie.
She opened the door and ran down the steps but didn’t jump in the car as she usually did. She had too much emotion tumbling through her and she had to burn some of it off so that she could work tonight. She’d run the eight miles to the lab, and maybe it would clear her head. Her usual jog of three miles from the parking lot wasn’t enough.
Pelham’s hand tightened on the rifle.
There she was.
Rachel Kirby had come around the corner of the path. She was running hard, her forehead knitted with concentration. In her navy blue running suit, she looked even smaller than her five foot two. She appeared almost childlike, with her delicate features and short brown-gold hair, her face glowing with energy and life. Beneath the canopy of oak trees, she could have been an innocent little girl called home to supper.
She was far from innocent.
That delicacy and air of youth and pseudoinnocence was just another of her weapons. There was nothing childlike about that cobra. She was filled with venom and power. She knew exactly what she was doing and thought she could get away with it.
Sorry, bitch. Not this time.
He lifted the rifle and sighted down the telescopic lens.
Just a little closer . . .
Lord, it was hot.
Rachel could feel the heat sapping her strength and breath as she ran down the path toward the Science Building. She had a stitch in her side that was like a dagger thrust. She hated running. Hell, she hated exercise. She ran because she knew it was good for her, and in her work, this daily run was the only way she could be sure of getting enough exercise to stay strong and functioning. But increasing the miles today had taken its toll on her, and the thought of Allie’s words still haunted her.
Focus on something else. Like her job, maybe. Oh, yes, she knew how to obsess on that. Ask Allie.
With the computer systems she’d designed, at least there was a sense of order, clear-cut answers to the problems that came her way. Not messy like life.
This project, however, was different from the others. It was important. And sometimes, she was paralyzed by the thought that millions of lives could be at stake.
All those lives, but only one that truly mattered to her.
Just a mile more.
She smiled and waved at Professor Bullock as he parked his car in the lot. He hated her guts, but there was no use giving him ammunition by showing animosity. The best way to handle jealousy was to pretend it wasn’t there.
“You’re out of shape. You’re panting like a pregnant mare.” Simon Monteith was suddenly trotting beside her. “And why are you sucking up to that effete bastard?”
“Shut up, Simon. I wasn’t sucking up to him. I was being civilized.” He was right, she was wheezing, she realized with disgust. “And I didn’t invite you to join me. Why aren’t you in the lab? What do I pay you for?”
“My brain, my initiative, and for putting up with you.”
“Why aren’t you in the lab?” she repeated.
“Dinner break.” He beamed. “And when I saw you gasping and suffering, I thought I’d show you how physically superior I was to you. I don’t get much chance. Are you noticing how easy I’m finding this little dash? I’m not even out of breath.”
“I’m noticing that you’re twenty-four to my thirty-two. Dammit, you were still playing college football when I hired you two years ago.” She added sarcastically, “Children always have more endurance.”
“You used to have endurance. A year ago you ran the Boston Marathon. I was impressed. Then you went to pot.”
“I doubled my miles today. Besides, I’ve been a little busy lately.”
“Yeah, making Val’s and my lives miserable.” He paused. “How is Allie doing?”
“The usual.” No, not usual. Today she had seen sadness and bewilderment and the beginning of resignation. “She said she missed me. She told me to give it up.”
“And it made you feel guilty and torn and angry. So you decided to run from your house to the lab and get rid some of the emotion.”
She didn’t deny it. “And I had some thinking to do. I’ve been bothered by the amount of computing power we’ve lost in the last week. It’s like our system has suddenly sprung a leak.”
“Rachel, some loss of processing power is unavoidable. With power irregularities, network congestion—”
“Not this much. It’s being siphoned off somewhere. It probably just comes down to one line of code.”
“Out of millions.”
“Yes. And it’s starting to make me crazy.”
“Which means everyone around you is going to catch hell tonight.”
“I can’t. What would you do without me?”
“Get someone who wouldn’t give me the guff you throw at—” Her cell phone rang, and she glanced at the ID. “Norton.” She ignored the call until it went to voice mail. It was the third time he’d phoned in the last two hours, and she didn’t want to deal with the bastard now. She’d get angry and upset, and she had to focus on the work tonight. “Has he been calling the lab?”
He nodded. “I told him you were in Jamaica lying on the beach and had thrown away your cell. Is that okay?”
She smiled. “Perfect.”
“Except that since he’s with the NSA, he probably knows every move you make. Why is he in such a stew?”
“I halved his computer time.”
He gave a low whistle. “That would do it.”
“Too bad. This blasted leak is making me come up short. I wasn’t about to take any time away from the medical research. I don’t even know what project Norton is working on. He’s probably trying to pave the way to build a new and better bomb. Screw him.”
“He can cause trouble. The National Security Agency is nothing to fool with. There are all kinds of ways for Norton to undermine you. Those government dudes are pretty sneaky.”
“I’ll deal with it.”
“I know. You always do. Just a comment.” He looked away from her. “And, actually, I lied. I wasn’t at dinner. I was at Jonesy’s relay lab in Galveston checking on something.”
Her gaze flew to his face. “You found the leak?”
“Maybe. I found a thread that may lead to it.”
“I’ll tell you at the lab.”
He shook his head. “I think you need incentive to keep you going.” He speeded up, leaving her yards behind. “This pace is too boring for me. I’ll see you at the lab.” He darted a sly look over his shoulder. “If you make it.”
She muttered a curse under her breath as she watched him lope away from her. Simon had a puckish and sometimes devilish sense of humor, and she wasn’t in the mood for it right now. Then she smiled grudgingly as she trotted after him. At least he’d taken her mind off the pain in her side, and his teasing incentive was making her speed up her pace. She wished she could stay pissed at him, but she had known Simon had that wicked slyness when she’d hired him. He was brilliant and, as he’d said, innovative, and those qualities often were accompanied by idiosyncrasies. And if that brilliance had led him to finding the processing-power leak she had been searching for, then she’d put up with anything he threw at her.
And Simon usually knew better than to step over the line in his little jabs. He must have found out something at the relay station. Eagerness surged through her at the thought. Even if he had a clue, it would be something they could work on.
And, hell, maybe Rachel needed him pricking at her occasionally. She would probably become obnoxious if she was allowed to have everything her own way. Most of the people surrounding her would say she was already there.
He and Val had worked to exhaustion for the last few weeks, and she hadn’t been easy on either of them. She was lucky they didn’t walk out on her.
The Science Building was just ahead, thank God. Simon was probably already lolling at his desk and waiting with that Siamese cat smile for her to walk into the lab. Bastard. She’d have to think of some way to make sure he paid. Maybe she’d work on getting in shape and leave him in the dust. His male pride would be—
Excerpted from Storm Cycle by Iris Johansen and Roy Johansen.
Copyright © 2009 by Johansen Publishing.
Published in 2009 by St. Martin's Paperbacks.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.