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Seriously, there's this thing called ‘the sun,' and it gives off this stuff called ‘sunlight' that it's important to have occasional contact with."
Samantha Carstairs narrowed her eyes and glared over her left shoulder at her best friend. Annie clearly wasn't paying any attention, which, though annoying, wasn't exactly unusual.
"Without this ‘sunlight' stuff, your body can't make any vitamin D."
"And if your body doesn't make enough vitamin D . . ." Sam barely blinked as the phlebotomy needle bit into her skin. She was too busy trying to figure out if her friend remembered that more than just her forearm and veins was still in the room. ". . . your tail is going to shrivel up and drop off."
"It would not. At most, if the tailbones softened that badly, I might develop a slight curve." Annie Cryer untied the rubber tourniquet around Sam's bicep and dropped it onto the stainless-steel laboratory counter. "Open and close your fist a few times. Your veins are being stingy today for some reason."
"Maybe because you've already sucked more blood from me than a vampire with an iron deficiency," Sam grumbled, but she made the fist obediently. She had this routine down after the last eight months of regular withdrawals. The only thing she didn't have a handle on at the moment was what had added the barely perceptible sharpness of nerves to the other woman's scent.
Annie looked up from the slowly filling vial of blood and frowned. "Have you been feeling light-headed? Damn it, Sam, I told you to let me know if you started to not feel well after the donations. I'll stop collecting from you. I've got a couple of vials left from last time. Those would last me a few more weeks, if I just cut down on the number of tests I'm running in each batch."
"It's fine, Annie. I feel fine," Sam sighed. Not because she was lying, but because it was so like Annie for the subtle approach to go flying over her head without even slowing down. Not that subtlety happened to be one of Sam's specialties. "You're the one I'm worried about. You need to get out of this building before your muscles atrophy. Have you even been back to your apartment in the past week?"
Annie shrugged and efficiently switched out vials. "There's a sofa in my office. And I can shower in the doctors' lounge."
"Not my point. You're a werewolf, An, remember? You need to get outside."
Sam knew the truth of that better than most. After all, she was a werewolf, too, a member of the same pack. In fact, her mother and Annie's mother had given birth within a few weeks of each other, and the girls had been raised as littermates from the age of four. They had, literally, grown up together.
"Sure, the way Victor Frankenstein was fine," Samantha retorted. "I'm starting to worry about leaving you alone during electrical storms."
That was only a slight exaggeration. Before today, Sam had just been exasperated. She had assumed Annie was going through one of the phases she hit every time one of her experiments reached a critical stage. She always disappeared at those times, but she usually came back a few days later, riding a high of scientific accomplishment the way a manic-depressive rode a high of dopamine. Only this time it had been weeks, Annie still hadn't crawled out from her lab, and she looked a long way from giddy with intellectual triumph. She looked almost haunted.
Annie's interest in science had always bordered on the obsessive, so it wasn't the disappearance or the single-mindedness that worried Sam. Her friend had been that way ever since grade school, which was about how long Sam had been nagging Annie to take a break now and then. Usually even when she was in the midst of one of her experimental breakthroughs and Sam came to drag her back to the world of the living, Annie would kick and scream but then spend hours describing her work to Sam in loving detail. This time, Annie hadn't said a word. If it weren't for the fact that she hadn't left the lab in two weeks, Sam would have shrugged off her worry and gotten on with her life. But Annie remained silent and didn't even mention the words "data" or "P value." It was creepy.
Not that it did Annie any good to try to explain her work. The length of time Sam had been trying to drag her friend out of her lab coat was also how long it had been since the two of them had shared a classroom. While Sam had struggled to master the intricacies of long division, Annie had been skipping grades like boxes on a hopscotch board. At fifteen, she had landed herself in the biochemistry department at Columbia University. She'd gotten her PhD at twenty-one. Her first PhD. She had two now: one in biochemistry and the other in molecular biology. Sam was lucky her bachelor's from CUNY hadn't been snatched out of her hand, rolled into a tube, and used by her professors to whack her a few times over her nose. An intellectual she wasn't.
Which, Sam figured ruefully, she should have thought of before she tried to lecture Annie on vitamin deficiencies. And Sam still didn't have an answer to the question she had come here to ask. Time for a change of tactics.
Where humor hadn't worked, maybe pity would. Or guilt.
"Annie, come on. Your mother is worried about you. And if that weren't bad enough, she's given up trying to reach you and turned on me instead. If I don't bring her proof of your continued health and well-being, I think she's going to challenge me." Sam watched her friend's face for any sign of weakening. "And you know what? I think she could take me."
"Don't be ridiculous. My mother is almost thirty years older than you, and she hasn't issued a dominance challenge in decades." Annie popped the fourth and last tube free and withdrew the needle, pressing a gauze pad against the puncture mark. Her movements remained as brisk and competent as always, but the shadows in the back of her eyes didn't escape the notice of someone who knew her better than a sibling.
"She hasn't had to. There isn't a Lupine in Manhattan who would be willing to accept one. We know when to show our bellies, sweetheart."
Annie's pen didn't even pause as she labeled the tubes. "I've never seen you show your belly to anyone, Samantha. Not even Graham."
Samantha felt her eyebrows shoot up. "You think I'd defy the Alpha of the Silverback Clan? Do I look suicidal to you? I can assure you the only reason our pack leader hasn't seen my belly is because he's never asked to. But I still do my crunches every day, just in case."
Annie turned away so abruptly, she banged her hip into the counter and sent the vials of blood skittering toward the floor.
Sam's hand shot out and caught them before they had time to fall more than two or three inches.
"All right, that does it," she growled, slapping the vials back onto the counter with restrained ferocity. Guilt could go screw itself. She switched to threats. "You seriously need to tell me what's going on with you, Annie, before I tell your mother to come down here and find out for herself."
With both her palms, noticeably shaking, pressed to the cool countertop, Annie bent forward and shook her head. "I can't."
"Why the hell not?" Sam figured she probably looked as confused as she sounded. She could feel herself scowling. "I'm your best friend. You told me when you had your first change, your first period, and your first orgasm. What could you possibly have to say that would freak me out?"
Annie shook her head, her dark hair falling forward to conceal her face. "I'm not worried about you freaking. I'm worried about you telling the Alpha."
Sam's stomach took a sudden trip on an amusement park ride, climbing into her throat before dropping so fast, gravity seemed to keep it airborne for a long, queasy moment. Damn it, this was going to be worse than she'd feared. Her instincts barked at her not to ask any more questions, but the words were out before she could stop them. "What do you mean?"
"Exactly what you think I mean, Sam."
Oh, shit. Her instincts shifted from trying to shut Annie up to trying to get her out the nearest door, window, or unreinforced concrete wall. Something very not good was going on here. So not good it bordered on bad.
For a second, she couldn't seem to remember how to speak, as if the primitive side of her brain had taken over and left her inarticulate and powerless. She watched while Annie calmly gathered up the blood vials and stowed them carefully in the small refrigerator on top of the counter. Her motions looked jerky and uncoordinated for the first time Sam could remember. Annie wasn't clumsy. She was smart, not always careful, and often oblivious, but she'd never been clumsy.
"Holy hell, An, what have you gotten yourself into?" she whispered.
Annie shook her head emphatically and slammed the refrigerator door. "Forget about it. I'm not dragging you any further into this than you already are. Right now, if the Alpha asks you, you've got no idea what's going on. You won't have to lie. Let's keep it that way."
"Are you serious?" Sam tossed the gauze into the trash and yanked down her sleeve. "Okay, (a) if Graham Winters asks me questions, you're right that I won't have to lie because I won't even need to open my mouth for him to realize something is wrong. And (b) how am I already involved in whatever it is I know nothing about?"
"I said forget it," Annie repeated, and headed for the door that Sam knew led down a short, cramped hall to her small, cramped office.
Sam stalked after her. "No, I'm not going to forget it. If I'm caught up in this, I deserve to know. And if it affects the pack as a whole, so does the Alpha."
Annie sank down into her battered leather desk chair and buried her head in her arms. "It's nothing, Sam."
Her voice was muffled, but Sam could hear the hiss of the water in the wall pipes if she concentrated, so it wasn't like she'd missed anything important.
"Bullshit. Nothing doesn't leave you smelling like a turkey on the third Wednesday in November."
"I shouldn't have said that before. You're not involved. You have nothing to worry about. Now will you shut up and please go away?"
"Sure, that sounds exactly like what I'm going to do." Sam pushed the office door shut and leaned against the panel, crossing her arms over her chest. "You have to tell me what's going on, An."
The other woman looked up, her light brown eyes glinting behind her wire-framed glasses. Her spine lengthened, and her shoulders rounded as if to puff herself up and make her size as daunting as possible. Her lips pulled back from her teeth in what would have been a snarl if she'd been in her other skin. "Oh, I do, do I?"
Sam rolled her eyes. "Don't even go there, An. I love you like a sister, but I outweigh you by twenty pounds, and I can and will kick your ass if you make me."
Annie visibly deflated. "I know," she said, rubbing her forehead as if she could rub away whatever was bothering her. "I know, Sam, but trust me, it's better if I leave you out of this."
"Kick your ass, Annie."
It was interesting, actually. Sam could almost see the scales in Annie's head bobbing up and down as she weighed her stories and tried to decide what to share.
"It's just . . . work," she finally managed, adjusting her glasses in the nervous habit Sam knew meant she was lying like a cheap toupee. "Some research I've been doing on . . . us."
Annie's chin jerked up and down. "Yes. On Lupines."
Sam's stomach took another nosedive. "You mean on me."
"You've been an important source of research material."
"Shit." Sam blew out a breath and crossed the two steps to the chair in front of Annie's desk. She sank down and braced her forearms on her knees. "What exactly are you researching, Annie?"
"I'm decoding the genome."
"And how far have you gotten?"
"I've decoded the genome."
Sam blinked. Somehow the answer didn't surprise her. "But that should be a good thing, right? I mean, decoding a genome is the first step in finding new medicines and treatments for diseases and stuff, right?"
"Sure. It's huge. With this kind of information, we could find a cure for AIDS or smallpox or anthrax."
Her head was already bobbing up and down before the words actually hit. Sam froze. Those were three diseases to which Lupines were not particularly susceptible. By "not particularly," of course, she meant "not at all." A werewolf could eat a small village full of AIDS victims and not end up with so much as a case of the sniffles. Something in werewolves' genes just kept the human virus from getting a toehold in their immune systems.
"You don't look particularly excited about that," she said.
"Oh, it's a huge step. It could mean we'd finally understand what it is that makes us Lupine. We could find out what triggers our changes, what's responsible for our speed, even what it is about shifting that helps us heal what would otherwise be life-threatening wounds."
Annie laughed, not sounding amused. "Secrets don't keep in science, and now that our biggest secret is out, it won't be long before the rest of them leak as well. We'll be the most popular kids in school."
The light dawned, and Sam swore. "And everyone will want to be just like us."
"You'll have to stop, An. You have to put this stuff away. If human scientists got their hands on what you're telling me you're working on, we'd be the next great species of lab rat."
"You don't think I know that? I'm a certified genius, Sam. The thought had occurred to me."
"Come on. I'll help." Sam stood. "We'll grab everything together and get rid of it. I can take it back to the club with me and have them throw it in the furnace if I have to. Show me what to start with."
Annie shook her head, looking as if she wanted to cry. "I can't."
"Why the hell not? You know how dangerous this is, Annie. What's the matter with you?"
"Many, many things." She gave that laugh again, humorless and more sarcastic than anything else Sam had ever heard come out of Annie's mouth. "But at the moment, the problem isn't me. I think . . ." She paused. "I think someone started spying on me."
Sam blinked. "What?"
"It's mostly little things," Annie said, "but lately I've been feeling like I'm being followed. The person doesn't always smell the same, but I swear it's happening. I can feel my hackles rising whenever they get close, and a couple of times I've set things down, like on a table at a coffee shop or next to me on the subway, and half the time they go missing. Gordon thinks I'm being ridiculous, of course."
Sam said something her aunt would have shaken her by the scruff for if she'd heard. Gordon Entwhistle was a human who worked with Annie, when he wasn't busy trying to get himself some publicity or take the credit for someone else's hard work, and Sam had hated him on sight. Unfortunately, Annie hadn't been as discerning.
It probably hadn't helped that since she rarely left the lab, Annie didn't have a whole lot of experience with men, or a whole lot of opportunities to meet them. When a reasonably attractive—if you discounted the coating of slime—and reasonably intelligent—if you equated ruthless self-preservation and a wily, cutthroat sense of ego with intelligence—man waltzed into her territory and played the smitten flatterer, Annie had reacted like any woman in her situation would have: she'd developed a crush.
Sam set her teeth. "What does Gordon have to do with it?"
"He's been very interested in my work," Annie said, her shoulders hitching defensively. "Very supportive. He's helped out a lot, Sam. Two hands make the tests go a lot faster, after all."
She was. And she was also sure that two names on a paper published in Science would make Entwhistle's career plans go a lot faster, too.
"Don't look at me like that." Annie frowned. "He has helped. It's just . . . lately . . .
"Well, maybe I'm being paranoid, but it feels like he's paying more attention than he used to. Not to me, but to the work."
"It started around the same time I started to get the feeling of being followed. That just strikes me as a really big coincidence. I'm not sure I can trust him anymore."
Sam refrained from telling Annie she never should have. "You can't think he's the one following you? You spend most of your time in the same lab with him anyway, and it's not like you wouldn't notice if he kept showing up where you were outside of here."
"I know," Annie said. "But maybe he's involved in it somehow. Sam, I know this all sounds crazy, but I'm starting to get really scared. This work is significant. There could be a lot of people interested in it, if they knew about it, for all the wrong reasons."
Sam shook her head. "That's it, An. I don't care what your plans were; you have to tell the Alpha. And if you don't, I will."
"I can't. Not yet." She held up her hand when Sam opened her mouth to protest. "I've got time, at least a few more days, before things get to the point where we need to be worried. I'm keeping the key to my notes separate from the main data, and the results from my latest panels won't be in until the middle of next week. Until those are here, the data is too incomplete to be useful to anyone. I promise."
"No, Sam, I mean it. I promise that if the danger was imminent, I'd go to Graham myself, but it isn't. And until I run tests on the samples I just took, I can't confirm half of what I've already done. It'll be okay."
For a long minute, Sam stared across the desk at her friend, reading her face, her eyes, and her body for the truth. It was her scent that finally tipped Sam's decision. She could smell nerves, yes, but not fear, and no traces of panic. Not yet.
Sam stood and nodded once. "I'll give you a week, Annie, but that's it. After that, I need to fill Graham in on what's going on. It's going to be bad enough going back to work with him this afternoon, let alone getting through the week."
Sam meant it, too, because Graham Winters wasn't just Sam's Alpha; he was her boss also. Sam worked with him at his office in Vircolac, the city's premier private club for the Other community. She served as personal assistant, assistant general manager, bookkeeper, and go-to girl. She didn't make a habit of keeping secrets from the Alpha.
Annie nodded and stood herself, jaw firming. "Thank you, Sam. I owe you one."
Sam snorted. "You owe me about seven thousand, three hundred, and forty-two, but who's counting?" Shaking her head, she turned and opened the office door. "One week, Annie. The clock is ticking."
As Sam made her way back out of the lab and into the Manhattan afternoon, she sent up a silent prayer that the alarm wouldn't go off before they were ready for it.
Copyright © 2007 by Christine Warren. All rights reserved.