Focused on the petri dish in front of her, Dr. Isabel Santiago steadied her hand and applied a drop of the FC-5 virus to the latest batch of microscope slides. The task was easier said than done, and it had nothing do with her bulky biohazard suit and rubber gloves and everything to do with the noise filtering into the lab through the speakers.
“I think I diagnosed the source of those headaches you’ve been having. It’s your…music.” Isabel shifted her gaze to the wall of windows, the protective glass that separated the basement Tru Tech lab—affectionately called the Legion—from the clean room.
Maddy Calhoun, a doctoral student and her best friend, sat in the other room, fingers tapping as she performed the role of Isa’s safety spotter. “Don’t be hating my playlist. The Psychotic Zombies are all the rage right now—something you’d know if you went out with me more than once in a blue moon.”
“If they’re the kind of education I get on girls’ nights out, I’m kind of glad that I stay in as often as I do,” Isa joked. Maddy leaned into the two-way mic. “Isabel Santiago, you owe me. Do you have any idea what I could be doing on a Saturday night? Or who?”
Beneath her headgear, Isa chuckled. “That neighbor who lives on the floor above you? What’s his name? Clint? Carson?”
“Cody.” Maddy wrinkled her nose. “And, no. Been there and not doing that again. Don’t get me wrong. He was drop-dead gorgeous, and the things he could do with his tongue? Have mercy. But afterward? There was nothing. I shit you not, Is, we were looking up at the stars and I commented on the Milky Way, and he thought I wanted to drive to the nearest 7-Eleven for a candy bar.”
Isa swallowed a laugh as she safely tucked the FC-5 samples back into their spots in the biohazard fridge. “It couldn’t have been that bad.”
“It so, so was. But stop trying to change the subject. I expect payment in full for Saturday.”
“I let you play your music.”
“Not cutting it. I had a big night planned for the two of us. I’m talking slinky dresses, drinks—and did I mention that the place was owned by brothers? Brothers, Isabel. Hot gods all derived from the same gene pool.” Maddy fanned herself with a stack of papers. “I need an ice bath just thinking about them.”
“Sorry to kill your plans of debauchery, but I really need to assess this latest batch of samples and start new ones with Tony’s recommendations. He had an interesting thought about changing the class of antivirals.”
“My interesting and your and Tony’s interesting are way different from one another. And just so you know, mine is the one that’s spot-on and if luck’s on our side, is the one that could potentially lead to multiple orgasms. Seriously, Isa. Sharing hobbies with a man who’s triple your age isn’t exactly a cause for bragging.”
Isa chuckled at the image of a ninety-some-year-old Anthony Winter, but her one-time mentor, now an epidemiologist with the Global Health Organization, wasn’t a day over sixty-four and traveled to far-off places most twenty-year-olds wouldn’t venture.
“I’m ready to step into decontamination now,” Isa announced. “Maybe we can forgo the slinky dresses and hot gods and grab a quick drink on the way home.”
Maddy pouted. “Not the same thing.”
As sad as it may be to someone with Maddy’s active social life, it was viruses that took up most of Isabel’s waking hours. Ebola. Smallpox. She worked on all of them and a lot more in the name of the United States government. Most researchers waited their entire careers to be given the opportunity Tru Tech Industries had given her—her own basement lab equipped with all the latest cutting-edge tech. But all that responsibility came at a price.
Her personal life.
Isa stepped into decon, and the second the airtight door locked her inside, a mixture of foaming germicides blasted from the wall-mounted nozzles. She lifted her arms and let the liquid run over every inch of her suit, while Maddy, watching from the corner video monitor, directed her on which areas needed an extra dose.
Fifteen minutes and a change of clothes later, Isa stepped into the clean room. She had just opened her mouth to give in to her friend’s need for hot god brothers when the light above the lab’s private elevator came on, alerting them they were about to get a visitor.
Only a select few personnel had the clearance to visit the Legion, so when Frank, the Legion’s soon-to-be-retired security guard, stepped out, Isa wasn’t surprised.
“Perfect timing.” Isa smiled, always loving the time of the night that the older man made his rounds. “Tell us how the retirement party plans are coming.”
Frank’s wide, panicked eyes shot her way. “Doc! Ru—”
Someone pushed him from behind. As the older man crashed into the table against the wall and hit the ground, four additional figures stepped off the elevator.
Isabel’s brain didn’t register the intrusion until the one nearest her aimed his gun at the center of her chest.
“Going somewhere, Dr. Santiago?” His clear blue eyes locked on her through the slits of his black ski mask.
The intruders fanned out. The one nearest Frank grabbed him by the uniform and dragged him along the floor to the other side of the room while his friend did the same to Maddy.
Isa’s gaze instantly snapped to the panic button a good twelve feet away.
“Don’t do anything you’ll regret, Doc. And trust me, if you touch that alarm, you will regret it.” Blue Eyes shifted his stance—and his gun—closer. “Turn around.”
Isa’s nerves froze her feet to the ground. She trained for spills, exposures, and the occasional equipment breakdown. Armed men in her lab wasn’t part of Tru Tech’s annual continuing education.
“I don’t know what you’re doing here, or how you got inside, but this is a secure building,” Isa’s warning well flat even to her own ears.
“Yet my friends and I managed to get in just fine. And I should think what we’re doing here would be pretty obvious…or maybe you’re not as smart as I’ve heard. Now fucking move.”
He dug the muzzle of his weapon into her back and nudged her across the room.
Maddy sobbed into Frank’s shoulder where they both sat huddled on the floor, a trickle of blood dripping down the older man’s forehead. His small taser—if he still had it—couldn’t compete with assault weapons.
Blue Eyes yanked Isabel to a stop in front of the lab’s sealed door. “Let me inside.”
Isa lifted her chin in staunch defiance and ignored the tremor in her voice. “You have no idea what’s in there.”
“Actually, I do. Last warning.” He aimed his gun at the center of her chest. “Let me inside the lab. Now.”
No way in hell was Isa opening that door.
Maddy released a loud wail, the sound temporarily pulling Blue Eyes’ attention away from the door. Isa leapt for the panic alarm. She flipped open the cover, fingers brushing over the button at the exact time a hand fisted in her hair.
“I don’t fucking think so.” Her assailant swung her face-first into the wall.
Pain exploded behind her eyes, dimming her vision. She barely registered Frank lurching to his feet, rushing the man. A shot rang out, echoing in the basement like an exploding bomb.
Isa watched in horror as Frank jerked backward, his white uniform shirt blossoming red before he dropped to the ground. “No! Frank!”
Blood seeped through the security guard’s fingers at an alarming rate, pooling on the floor beneath him. “I’m…fine.”
In a few minutes, he’d be anything but fine.
For a split second Isa was transported back to her med school emergency medicine rotation. In the aftermath of a mass shooting, casualties rolled in, one immediately after another. People shouted for her help—or for her to help their friend. Hospital staff ran from one patient to the next, quickly triaging and assessing, and like the others, Isa had kept pace next to her attending…until suddenly she couldn’t anymore.
People had looked to her for help in their scariest, darkest time, and she’d failed them.
“No. No. No.” Isa dragged her focus back to the lab.
She hadn’t been able to save some of those people at Virginia Hospital Center, but she sure as hell wouldn’t lose Frank. Isabel whipped off her lab coat and dropped to her friend’s side in an attempt to stanch the flow of blood.
“You can go to hell,” she threw at the man holding the gun, “because I’m not opening that door. Those viruses are locked up for a reason.”
Blue Eyes aimed his gun at her head. “You have to the count of three to open the lab door, or your blood will mix right along with your friend’s. One. Two. Thr—”
“I’ll do it!” Maddy struggled with her captor as she attempted to step forward. “I’ll do it! Just don’t hurt anyone else. Please.”
“Maddy,” Isabel warned, shaking her head. “No.”
They didn’t handle simple strains of influenza. A single small mishap could jumpstart the worst pandemic the world had ever seen—and it would’ve happened on her watch.
Tears poured down her friend’s face. “I’m sorry, Isa. I—I have to. Frank’s already…I’m not letting something happen to you too.”
Maddy’s brute walked her to the control panel and after an eye scan and entering her personalized code, the air locked door slid open with a whoosh.
Blue Eyes nodded to the two men standing off to the side. “Get what we came for and make it quick.”
“I don’t know how you think you’re getting out of here. There’s one way into the Legion and one way out.” Isa glared.
“You let me worry about that, sweetheart.”
Isabel’s throat dried. He didn’t seem worried about anything, and that made her worry. The men ransacked her lab, purposefully toppling empty beakers and tipping wheeled carts as they made their way toward the back of the lab. One of them stopped in front of the cryo unit where she kept her samples of FC-5…and pulled out what looked to be his own travel case.
Her heart leapt to her throat. “No!”
Isa lurched to her feet. She’d made it two steps when Blue Eyes shoved her face-first against the glass wall. His masked mouth brushed against her ear, making her cringe. “You really must have a death wish.”
Isa squirmed against his grip, and it tightened. “Please don’t do this. You have no idea the people that virus could hurt.”
“Sweetheart, I don’t care who it can hurt. I care about who it can help—me.”
His men stepped out of the lab, the one with the case announcing, “Got what we need.” He nodded toward Isa and Maddy. “What do we do about them?”
“Leave them. For now.” Blue Eyes’ mouth brushed against her ear as he leaned closer. “Until next time, doctor.”
He released his hold on her, and the men backtracked the way they came, guns trained on the women as they retreated to the elevator. Isa wasn’t telling them the fault in their plan.
The elevator only had two stops.
Upstairs security wouldn’t let them strut across the lobby and breach the exit.
Isa dropped to Frank’s side as they disappeared into the elevator. “Maddy! Hit the panic button, and then call security. We need an ambulance. Now.”
Frank released a wet cough that ended on a wheeze. “I’m okay, Doc. Just a little flesh wound. I’ve gotten worse scrapes yanking the weeds in the garden.”
Isa smiled wanly and applied more pressure to the wound. All too quickly, her coat soaked up the older man’s blood. “I’m sure you have, Frank.”
The day she’d left bedside medicine, she’d vowed never to put herself in the position where she’d have to lie to a patient again.
And yet here she was.
“You’re going to be fine, Frank.” Isa lost her fight against brewing tears. One drop fell down her cheek, quickly followed by another. “Stay focused on the hammock waiting for you when you get to your Caribbean bungalow. But you should know that I wasn’t kidding about going with you. I may stow away in your luggage.”
“The more the merrier.” Frank sucked in a sharp breath, the effort making a shrill whistling sound. “We’re all be just…fine…Doc. Just…fine.”
Isa knew better. Anyone willing to break into a government-sponsored lab wouldn’t give two thoughts about the kind of destruction their actions could cause. If those men released FC-5 into the general public, no one be would fine.