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Trace Elements Pilot Episode

Following are the pilot episode and Episode Seven from Nikki Gower's hit TV show, Trace Elements, featured in the books Trace Elements and Random Elements by Kate Donovan.

After a long, torturous drive, Special Agent Annika Trace arrived at the mountaintop retreat where chemist Cole Ember had both his home and his laboratory. A rusty gate stood half open, so she pushed it aside and ventured into an overgrown courtyard, alert for any sign of inhabitants or guard dogs. She would have rung a bell if one were evident, but visitors were clearly being discouraged, so she walked up to the huge front door and knocked.

No response.

She had been warned that Ember might not welcome her with open arms, so she knocked one last time, then turned the doorknob and pushed her way into a stone entry hall dominated by an imposing staircase to her left and a gorgeous fifteen-foot tapestry depicting a vineyard on the right. Straight ahead was a long, narrow hallway, which she knew from her colleague's notes would lead her to the witness's laboratory.

"Dr. Ember?" she called out. "It's Annika Trace. I left you some messages that I need to speak with you. Are you around?"

After enduring a few more moments of silence, she ventured down the hall, resisting the urge to pull her weapon just in case. It was a creepy place, probably by intention, but there were no cobwebs or rodent droppings, so someone was apparently keeping it clean and tidy.

A second door protected the lab, and she gave it a perfunctory knock, called out Ember's name again, and let herself into the room. A giant domed ceiling was ringed with high windows, but given the cloudy day, they didn't provide much light. Luckily, a large chandelier and ten or so wall sconces did the job fairly well, and each of four long stainless-steel tables sported task lighting, so she was able to quickly survey the scene.

Equipment, refrigerators, rolling carts, cabinets—everything but the mad scientist in residence.

There were computer monitors at every workstation, but only one display was active, so she walked over to it, confirmed that the words were scientific gibberish, then turned her attention to a glass dish filled with pink gel. Some exotic concoction, no doubt. Probably highly confidential and extremely lucrative, given Ember's reputation.

Leaning down, she sniffed the air above it, but there was no detectable odor, so she tentatively positioned a fingertip over the bowl, daring herself to touch the goop.

"Don't," a harsh voice advised at the same time a strong hand grabbed her by the wrist. "Unless you want to eradicate your fingerprints."

Annika spun around to a tall, well-built man in a plaid wool shirt. Dark, unruly hair, unshaven face, accusatory green eyes—not exactly what she had expected, but definitely Cole Ember despite the shaggy embellishments.

"You invented something to remove fingerprints?" she asked with a sheepish smile. "That sounds illegal."

"It's intended to remove rust. But the criminal possibilities are endless to anyone with a high pain threshold."

"I'm Annika Trace—"

"Yeah, I heard the announcements. Sorry I wasn't quick enough to bar you from the premises." He flashed a mocking grin. "What kind of name is Annika? Like Anakin Skywalker?"

"Sadly, yes. My parents were Star Wars freaks who lacked impulse control."

"How do you spell it?" He listened to her reply, then shook his head. "That's wrong. It should be A-n-a-k-a."

"There is no right or wrong, it's a made-up name."

Adopting a Vaderesque voice, he intoned, "Luke, I am your federal agent. Somehow it doesn't have the same kick."

"I agree, so let's move on, shall we?"

"I'm busy. Make an appointment, or better still, just go away completely. I haven't seen or heard from my father in two years, and I don't expect to see or hear from him again. End of story."

"The story is just beginning, Cole."

"Dr. Ember."

She smiled. "I know you talked to my colleague, but I have a completely new angle on your father's case that I think you'll like."

"Yeah, I noticed the new angle." He looked her up and down with feigned lust. "You're hot, and you've got a cool name, but the novelty's wearing off. So go away." Waving a hand in dismissal, he turned his attention to the monitor.

"Excuse me, I'm still standing here."

"Yeah, I noticed. It's annoying."

"Like I said, I have a new angle—"

"The answer is 'no,'" he assured her, looking up with icy eyes. "It was 'no' last month and it'll still be 'no' next month. Not sure I can make it any clearer."

"Do you know what a calling card is?"

He glared. "Don't bother. I'll just throw it in the trash."

"You think I drove all the way up the Highway of Death to give you a business card? I have a proposition for you, Ember." She pulled out a photo showing a dingy parking garage. Four short streaks of something resembling oil had been brushed on the side of a pillar, each streak a different color.

"What is it?"

"The color came out terrible, but in person I'm sure you'd be able to identify them. You are a chemist, aren't you?"

"I don't like games."

She smiled confidently. "Your father leaves it—or some variation of it—at each crime scene. The Bureau thinks it's just a calling card—bragging rights, to prove he was there. To prove he masterminded the brilliant scheme. But I think it's more than that. How about you?"

"I'd like to analyze it."

"Yes, I thought you might. And I can arrange that if you agree to cooperate with me."

"I never heard anything about this calling card before."

"We withheld it from the press for strategic reasons. I'm sure Agent Dillard would have shared it with you if you'd cooperated a bit more." She moved closer. "So what about it? Will you help me?"

"I'll think about it. Can I keep this photo?"

"No, I don't think so. It wouldn't be much help anyway, since like I said, the color didn't come out well."

"I can already tell it's copper, osmium, carbon, and iron. So? Are we done now?"

"You can't tell that from this crappy picture."

He arched an obnoxious eyebrow. "Am I wrong?"

"Does it mean something?"

"It wouldn't be much of a calling card if it didn't." He grinned. "I'm bored again. What else do you have?"

"A lot," she bluffed. "But it's a two-way street."

"Actually, it's not."

"You know what? I think you're right. It's a shame, but you're the real loser. When you're lying in bed tonight, tossing and turning, tormented for more information about this message, feel free to give me a call."

"I'll definitely think about you in bed tonight," he said with a suggestive chuckle, "but I'll figure out some other way to get relief."

"Lovely." She shoved the photo back into her briefcase and strode to the door, adding over her shoulder, "Like I said, it's your loss."

* * *

Annika loved driving—the faster the better—as long as the terrain was relatively flat. These hairpin turns on the edge of rocky cliffs were something else entirely, and her heart shot into her throat with every new panoramic vista of doom.

If she needed yet another reason to seethe, this was it. Cole Ember could have maintained his laboratory anywhere—he certainly commanded the prestige and paycheck to do so—but instead he had to live on the side of a remote mountain. Thank God he hadn't agreed to a partnership if it meant driving this road ever, ever again.

"Hey, Big Boy," she muttered to the dashboard of her fire-engine red Audi Quattro. "Find me something soothing to listen to. Some Nat King Cole—oh, wait, scratch that. No more Coles in any incarnation. Try Johnny Mathis."

"Are you requesting that I find a song by Johnny Mathis? There is one in your playlist: 'Misty,'" the rich, automated voice informed her. "There are four songs tagged as 'soothing': 'Misty,' 'You Don't Know Me,' 'Yesterday,' and 'Islands in the Stream.'"

Annika sighed. It was hardly a coincidence that those were her mom's favorite songs. She had heard them so often at the end . . .

"Play all four, Big Boy. If we're going over a cliff, I want it to have a celestial soundtrack."

"Shall I alert 911?"

"My hero," she said with a laugh, knowing he was preprogrammed for cries for help, especially ones involving cliffs. "But we're fine. Just play the music, okay?"

In her rearview mirror she could see the traffic piling up behind her, so she pulled into a widened cutout on the shoulder, then tried to figure out exactly where she'd gone wrong with Ember. He had a reputation as a temperamental genius and had turned the last agent away without wasting any breath, so she didn't feel bad about it, or at least not exactly.

You shouldn't have shown him the photo. But sheesh, who knew he'd guess from that half-assed shot?

Pulling the picture from her briefcase, she studied it soberly. Yes, the color seemed off, but the differences in shades probably helped him. And some texture was evident, reflecting the light in subtly different ways.

You're an idiot, Nikki. You handed him the calling card without even realizing it. He does this for a living, for crap's sake. You should have known he'd figure it out in three seconds.

But that had only been half the problem. Cole Ember had been taller, and more muscular, and more—well, masculine—than anticipated. Where was the pocket protector? The horn-rimmed glasses? Why wasn't he shy? Sure, he had a reputation for rudeness, but she had assumed it just covered up some weird antisocial fear of women. Instead, he'd been the dominant sexual participant of their little psychodrama, and Annika had been the stammering loser.

Just let it go. You gave him the calling card on a silver platter. He'll figure out the rest by himself. He doesn't need your help, so consider yourself screwed.

After stuffing the picture back into her case, she reclined her seat, closed her eyes, and tried to relax to the strains of "Yesterday," but her brain wasn't ready to let go. Would Ember really figure it out? The calling card, sure, but what about the reason for his father's signature mark? Everyone else at the Bureau considered it to be Ash Ember's middle finger to the rest of the world, but Annika didn't believe that. She saw it as something more complicated—a father reaching out to the son he abandoned so many years ago. The son who doggedly followed in his footsteps, neither disowning nor trading on the family name.

"He's trying to intrigue you, Cole," she assured the son softly. "To communicate with you, his only son. It's not about bragging, it's about reconnecting. And that's why you need me. You can identify the chemical elements, but you can't translate them. I can do that for you, or at least I could have if only I hadn't shown you that stupid, stupid picture."

* * *

Over the next three days, Annika worked alone, resisting the impulse to bring one or more of the chemists at the Bureau into her theory. They would scoff at her, and if they believed her, it would be even worse. They would blow it, overplaying their hand, trying to outsmart Ash Ember, the smartest man on the planet.

And that wasn't an exaggeration. It was a documented fact.

Their best hope was the son, a genius in his own right and one who knew Ash better than anyone. Annika needed to get close to him, but obviously that was going to be difficult for several reasons. Logistics, because he lived on top of a mountain. Psychology, because he didn't want anything to do with his father. And finally, his sexy recluse routine. It had left its mark on Annika's imagination to the point where she was the one tossing and turning every night. She had expected him to be intrigued enough by the calling card to want more information, but instead she was the one obsessed with the chemistry of the situation.

Meanwhile, she received a totally unrelated assignment involving a small-time gunrunner who had been picked up on suspicion of committing a hate crime. As a flight risk, he couldn't qualify for bail, so his tricked-out Ford Escalade was impounded. Every law enforcement agency within a zillion miles wanted a look at that vehicle, hoping to discover secret compartments, shell casings, or other clues to his armament business. Not to be outdone, the FBI sent Annika to take part in the feeding frenzy.

While going through the motions of the assignment, her thoughts remained on the Ashton Ember case. Not content with reading the voluminous files, she had visited a couple of key witnesses over the last few days, just to confirm that, indeed, no one knew anything. But at least now she had a clearer picture of the infamous "quantum alchemist." Unlike his son, he had a reputation as a charmer. A people person. A con man with the brains to outsmart everyone. Rising from poverty, his smarts had made him rich as a self-proclaimed quantum chemist—a career path he himself invented—but he had wanted more. Like so many scientific geniuses before him, he had fallen into the trap of seeking infinite wealth and immortal existence.

The world was a greedy place, but Ash had found someplace even greedier—the underworld of mob bosses and terrorists.

Forcing herself to pay attention to the Escalade, she decided it was remarkably shiny for a two-year-old vehicle. "Is this the original paint job?" she asked the lead detective, Will Sanderson.

"Yeah, probably. There aren't any records of accidents . . ." He pursed his lips, then pulled up the detailed information on his tablet. "Originally silver. Nice catch, Trace. Not sure it means anything, but still, nice. There must have been some damage at some point, and he thought it would link him to something. We'll strip it and then—"

"Wait!" She flashed an innocent smile. "Could you do me a little favor?"

"I fell for that routine once before," he reminded her with a laugh.

She laughed too, remembering how he had done some off-the-record surveillance for her in exchange for a dinner date that had ended with a kiss on the cheek.

"So what do you want?" he persisted. "And what do I get in return?"

"I want one of my guys to remove the paint. And in exchange, I'll owe you a favor. How's that?"

The detective scowled. "That's not little, it's huge."

"Then I'll owe you a huge favor in return."

"And your guys'll take care of repainting it? Good as new?" When she nodded, he muttered, "Yeah, that's probably fine. The whole project's been a bust anyway. If you find something—"

"You'll get the credit. One hundred percent."

"That's not necessary, but I'll take it." He scowled again. "But you'll still owe me?"

"Absolutely."

"Okay, then. Set it up."

Thrilled, she hurried to a corner and found Cole Ember's contact information on her cell phone. She didn't actually expect him to answer the call and was ridiculously pleased when he picked up on the first ring.

"Hey, Agent Skywalker, what's up?"

His deep voice sent a thrill through her and she had to take a deep breath before asking, "Does that rust remover of yours strip paint too?"

"What kind of paint?"

"Automotive."

"Yeah, sure. Why do you ask? And by the way," he said with a chuckle, "nice ploy."

She grinned. "If you help me with this, I'll let you see the genuine article, not just a photo. Don't tell me you haven't been curious."

He was quiet for a moment, then told her, "Fine, be here in an hour. I'll be ready."

"No, no. You need to come here."

"Nope. You've got one hour, then I'm on to other projects."

She could hear the chirp signaling disconnection, but still shouted "Ember!" in frustration. Then she redialed, but he didn't answer, and so she left a detailed, curse-ridden message even though she knew from experience he either wouldn't listen to it or would listen then delete with no response.

"Nice work, Annika," she muttered under her breath. "Now what?"

* * *

By the time she pulled the Escalade into Cole Ember's driveway, her temples were throbbing from the dizzying effects of the narrow, twisty road. To the left of the house stood a barnlike garage equipped with a metal door that had been lifted and an impressive metal grate that had been slid to the side. Cole stepped out into the light, waving cheerfully, his expression victorious.

He looked good again but Annika wasn't in the mood, so she drove right by him into an empty stall beside a beat-up Toyota Tacoma. Then she jumped out of the SUV and strode over to him. "Don't ever hang up on me again. If we're going to be partners—"

"We're not." He arched an eyebrow. "Where's the calling card?"

Annika glared. "Like I'd trust you to follow through on your part? No way. We'll do the paint first, then the card."

"It's a huge vehicle."

"Which you would have known if you'd let me finish my sentence," she told him with a sniff, then continued in a more conciliatory voice. "You don't have to remove all of it. Just enough here and there so we can figure out what the gunrunner was trying to hide."

He nodded. "Pop the hood. Let's see what we're dealing with."

She wanted to argue but decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he wanted to test his pink goop on an inside spot first. Of course, it was always possible he wanted to sabotage her engine. She wouldn't put anything past this guy.

Reaching into the vehicle, she activated the hood release, then joined Cole as he ran his finger over an edge.

"This isn't automotive paint," he said.

There was an absentminded quality to his voice, as though he was thinking on one level while talking to her on another. She remembered this from their first meeting—the way he had spoken when she'd shown him the photo of the calling card. To her surprise, she realized this was the odd, seductive quality that really attracted her. Sure he was good-looking, and probably knew his way around the female form, but this multileveled awareness stimulated her more than any of that.

A good thing to know.

"What kind of paint is it? Bulletproof or something?"

He turned his complete focus back to her. "You're very linear, did you know that?"

"I am not."

He chuckled, then pulled a coin from his pocket and slid a miniature blade out of it, watching Annika's reaction. She refused to give him the satisfaction, though, so he turned away and used the knife to pry a sample of black paint from the edge of the hood. "Let's go see what we've got."

"Okay." She shut the hood, then activated the SUV's lock and alarm, explaining, "If anything happens to this, it's my ass."

He hesitated, then touched a button on his wristwatch, and the metal grate slid back across the garage opening. "Safe and sound."

"Okay, that's cool," she admitted. Then she looked past the Tacoma to a gleaming black Porsche Carrera. "So is your car. It might almost make driving that road bearable."

"It really bothers you? Do you have vertigo or something?"

"Something."

"Too bad." He seemed about to say more, then just shrugged and walked through a side door that led to a covered walkway adjacent to the house.

Thanks for the sympathy, jackass.

As soon as they arrived in the lab, he took a seat in front of a microscope and got to work, ignoring Annika completely. She didn't want to hover but had learned her lesson about exploring his experiments on her own, so she just chose a stool a short distance away and amused herself by looking out the windows. They were too high off the floor to provide a view of anything but treetops and clouds, but she didn't dare watch Cole too closely, aware now that his scientist mode made her tingle.

"You know what I think?" he asked her finally.

"What?"

He arched an annoyed eyebrow. "Why are you making me shout? Move over here." When she had scooted her stool closer, he looked pointedly at her pantsuit. "I liked the skirt better. If you're trying to motivate me—"

"I'm not." She laughed at herself and added, "Not with my body, I mean. The calling card is my motivator, and the details that go with it. Details I'm willing to share if you play nice."

"Better stick with your body. It's a lot more interesting than my father. Anyway"—he leaned closer—"I don't think your guy used this paint to cover up evidence. It was designed for something else. As some sort of beacon."

"How can paint be a beacon? Wouldn't that make the whole Escalade a giant one?"

He locked her attention into place with his dark green gaze then nodded.

"Who's he signaling? Martians?"

"Hard to say. The point is, he can locate the vehicle in an instant when it's out in the open. So it's a good thing we garaged it."

"He's in jail, so no worries on that score," she began, then bit her lip. "It's a lot of trouble to go to, just to keep track of one vehicle. Even if the vehicle is full to the brim with weapons."

"I agree. There are likely more of them with this paint. And not necessarily to smuggle armaments. But I can still strip it for you if you want. A deal's a deal, right?" Cole added with a teasing smile.

"No, no. I'm sure you're right. The paint is the evidence. You're going to make Detective Will Sanderson look like a hero." She enjoyed his confused look then explained. "I promised to give him full credit—"

"Why? The credit goes to you. Or actually, to me. But since you were smart enough to involve me, I'm good with deferring. But not to this Sanderson clown."

"It gets worse. He gets the credit, and after that I still owe him a big favor to be named later."

"Fuck that," Cole growled. "Is this how you operate? Promising sex to every guy you meet? How about some actual detective work?"

She forced herself not to react. Instead she smiled and said, "Speaking of detective work, do you want to see the calling card or not?"

His eyes flashed with annoyance, but he recovered quickly. "I can go get it out of the Escalade—"

"It's right here." She opened her briefcase and pulled out a piece of plywood that had been painted gray and streaked with four trails of chemically accurate replicas of the calling card from the parking garage.

"What the hell is this?"

"It's a perfect duplicate—"

"You promised me the original."

"The original was on a concrete wall."

Cole exploded. "And this is what passes for evidence to your forensic team? Where did they study chemistry? Clown college?"

"I'm sure they examined the actual wall. They even brought a chunk of it to the lab—"

"And why would they do that? If painting the chemicals on a board was good enough, why bother? I'll tell you why. Because they're dealing with Ash Ember, not some art deco muralist. Chemicals react, Skywalker. With the air and with other substances. If my father applied these solutions to a concrete wall, he did it for a reason. Jeezus."

"Hey! You're the one who dragged me up here, remember? I wanted you to come to the lab, but no. That would have been too logical. Too linear. So I risk my life to bring you the next best thing, and you complain that it's not authentic enough? That I should have stuffed an entire parking garage in an SUV?"

He grinned. "The linear thing really got to you, huh?"

"Shut. Up."

His tone softened. "I didn't know the drive bothered you that much. Have you seen a shrink about your problem? I'm sure there are exercises—"

"Would you please shut up? I don't need exercises, I need to get off this stupid hill, and then stay off it." She slung her briefcase over her shoulder. "You've got the calling card. If you want more information, call me and make an appointment in my office."

A series of sharp beeps interrupted her, and she grimaced as Cole brought up an image on his laptop screen. Video from a surveillance camera mounted in the garage showed two men examining the Escalade with guns drawn.

"Oh, Lord," she murmured. "Stay here. Call this number." She scribbled her partner's information on the gray plywood with a felt-tip pen. Then she pulled her Glock and moved quickly toward the door, glancing back to ensure Cole wasn't following her.

For once he seemed to be cooperating, so she pushed through the door and moved cautiously along the covered walkway, alert to any other intruders. When she reached the side door to the garage, it was ajar, so she edged through it and was relieved to see that the two men were completely distracted and had their weapons at their sides.

The larger of the two was complaining, "How the hell are we supposed to open that fucking grate? There's no control panel or switch, and no remote in his car or truck."

"There's gotta be something here somewhere," the second man insisted, opening one cupboard door after another along the workbench side of the structure.

"Okay, boys, take it easy," Annika advised them coolly. "Set the weapons on the ground and put your hands behind your heads."

"The fed," muttered the skinny guy.

His counterpart gave Annika a sympathetic smile. "You're making a big mistake, honey. Pissing off the wrong bunch, big-time. Why don't you just let us go? I'd hate to see that pretty face busted up."

"I'm terrified," she drawled. "Put the weapons on the ground. Now."

"Do what she says, Joe," he advised. "We tried to save her, so our conscience is clear."

Joe nodded. "A waste of a perfectly good broad, but whadda ya gonna do, right?"

Annika rolled her eyes, then watched them follow her instructions, placing their pistols on the garage floor, then straightening slowly and locking their fingers expertly behind their necks. "I can see you boys have done this before," she taunted them, but before she could truly revel in her victory, a sharp whack to the back of her head sent her reeling into a world of bright lights streaking through inky darkness.

* * *

The next thing she knew, she was being shaken back into consciousness. "Hey, doll face, wake the fuck up," a harsh new voice insisted. His grip tightened on her forearms. "Stop wasting time and show us how to open the goddamned gate."

Annika struggled to stay focused. To keep the bile from her churning gut from entering her throat. "How long was I out?"

"Not long enough for the cavalry to arrive," he assured her with a snarl. "You can blame that bitch of a road. By the time they get here, you'll be dead. But not before I get a piece of that sweet ass of yours."

"Actually, help is here," Cole's voice corrected him, followed by the sound of a shotgun being pumped. "Let her go and back away."

He couldn't dare shoot, not without the risk of hurting Annika. She knew that, and so did the man in the suit, who shifted her more completely in front of himself, then produced a blade from his sleeve and held it to her throat. "Put it down, asshole."

"You can kill her, and you can even kill me," Cole said with a shrug, "but you can't get the gate open without my help. And meanwhile, the cops are on their way. So tick tock." He grinned. "Let her go and I'll open the damned thing."

"Open it or I'll slit her throat."

"Tick tock," was Cole's cool reply.

"Hey, boss," the skinny intruder murmured. "Just let the broad go. He wants to save her, right? For the pussy. He won't try to stop us as long as he knows she's safe."

"Yeah, Gus," said Joe. "Let her go and see if he opens it. If not, I'll plug him myself."

"Listen to them, Gus," Cole advised him. "I couldn't care less about the stupid SUV. The pussy, on the other hand, has some value. Tie her up and leave her here. I'll ride down the hill with you to get you past the feds. Then you can dump me off. You won't want to kill me," he added with a grin. "I mean, you do know who my father is, right?"

"Oh . . ." Annika felt the first ray of hope. Of course! Ashton Ember, criminal mastermind. This guy Gus seemed pretty important in his own right and was undoubtedly connected, but he was still someone's errand boy and certainly not in the same league.

Gus seemed unimpressed. "Some senator or something? I don't give a flying fuck."

"Trust me, my father doesn't like politicians either. He prefers to dine with your personal heroes. Cannon, Edelman, Sorvino—those fellows. But to them, Ash Ember is the real hero."

"Fuck me," Joe said nervously.

Cole chuckled. "And meanwhile, tick tock."

"If Doc Ember's your father, you'd better hope we get away clean," Gus told him with a suggestive smile. "He's not gonna be too happy with you if you fuck this up."

Oh, no . . . Ash is behind this?

Resisting a flood of panic, Annika decided Cole had done more than his share of the heavy lifting on this mess. Time for her to take over, pain and nausea be damned.

"Okay, Gus, here's the deal," she announced in a no-nonsense tone. "Dr. Ember—junior—will open the gate. You'll tie him up, being careful not to hurt him, because let's face it, you're a dead man if you do. I'll ride down the hill with you and you won't dare hurt me because if you do, the LAPD and the FBI will hunt you down like the dog you are." Shifting her attention to Cole, she assured him confidently, "The pussy will be fine. Just do what I say, okay?"

"Sounds like a plan," Cole agreed.

She had expected him to argue but took this as a nod to her professionalism. She was the law enforcement agent, so she should be the one to die. He had been irreverent but seemed to at least understand this basic truth.

Not that she had any intention of dying. But better her than a civilian, especially one who held the key to solving the Bureau's biggest case.

* * *

Once Cole surrendered his shotgun, Gus and his colleagues got to work, tying his hands in front of him with a length of cord from a spool on his workbench, then doing the same to his ankles. Turning their attention to Annika, they bound her wrists with traditional cuffs, her feet with more of the cord. Then they loaded her into the passenger seat of the Escalade, belting her in as though they actually wanted to keep her safe.

Then Gus turned to the rest of his crew. "Follow me in Joe's car. Stay close. Once the feds know I have her, they'll let us pass."

"Okay, boss."

"Doc? You're up. Activate the gate, then we're out of here."

Cole nodded, then touched a button on his shiny watch. Immediately the gate sprang to life.

Gus stared in amazement. "What's that?"

"Cool, right? You'd be amazed by what it can do. A programmer gave it to me as a gift and set it up to operate anything I want. It also starts my car, kills the engine if I want it to, and scans any room for bugs."

Don't brag, Annika warned him silently. They might steal it from you.

And worse, if they knew he had gimmicks, they might frisk him and find the coin with the knife hidden in it, taking away his best chance for freeing himself and calling the Bureau.

But it was too late. Gus's eyes shone with greed, and he told Joe simply, "I want it."

"Hey!" Cole tried to resist, but Joe and his skinny friend overpowered him and took the watch from his wrist.

"I've got a guy who can reprogram it for me. And meanwhile"—Gus grinned—"Ash Ember will agree it's a small price to pay for his son's life." Turning to Joe, he instructed, "Frisk him again. See what other goodies he has."

As Joe complied with his boss's orders, Annika kept her eyes on Cole's face, mesmerized and inspired by his calm demeanor. Neither of them were going to panic, no matter how bad things got. And if the worst happened, and Gus killed her? Well, at least she'd die in the line of duty, and Cole would live to invent amazing things.

Then Gus ruined her dream by telling Joe and his buddy, "Stay close, but not too close. There's a turnout halfway down the mountain. Give me some privacy with Blondie when I stop there."

Cole reacted with an angry tirade, struggling against his bonds, but to no avail, and Annika did her best to appear brave for his sake. He had done his best, and now he'd be haunted forever, whether Annika lived or died, knowing she had been sexually assaulted. She had wanted to protect him from this, but it was an unthinkable but real danger for every female agent, and in time she hoped he'd understand that.

* * *

As the Escalade raced down the hill, Annika tried to stay focused. Her stomach churned, not just from the vertigo but the concussion she now knew she had sustained. Maybe she really would barf after all—hopefully at the very moment he dared try to molest her. Not that it would deter him for long, since women undoubtedly vomited on him nightly, but still, she would enjoy that brief triumph in the midst of pain and humiliation.

The FBI and LAPD—maybe even Will Sanderson himself—would be there in droves, waiting in unmarked cars at the bottom of the hill. By now, Cole would have freed himself with the blade in his fifty-cent piece and would have given them the update. Maybe he would even grab his shotgun, hop in his Porsche, and speed to her rescue.

She hoped not. Joe and the other guy would kill him if he tried that. It didn't take a linear thinker to figure that out. Either Annika would find a way to overpower Gus at the turnout or she'd succumb to his creepy advances, biding her time, waiting for the better opportunity. She might end up dead, but her death would be more bearable knowing her key witness in the Ember case had survived.

When Gus reached the turnout, she struggled one last time against her bonds, but they were solid. She would have to wait for him to untie her feet, an action he'd surely perform if he wanted to make full use of her body.

"Don't panic," he told her as he killed the engine. "It's better for me if you're alive when we pass the feds."

"Trust me, I understand."

He walked around to her side and opened the door. "It won't be so bad. You might even like it."

"Just get it over with," she advised. "I'm not feeling too good."

"Who cares?"

She winced and nodded, expecting him to attack her on the spot, but instead he yanked her out of her seat while activating the remote to open the rear hatch.

Ugh . . .

When a tear slid down her cheek, she cursed herself. Was she actually willing to give this guy such emotional satisfaction? She couldn't control the physical, but she could be a man about it, woman-style.

Still, when he dragged her to the rear of the SUV, she resisted with all her might, calling him every name in the book and promising vengeance from every quarter. It only made him laugh—laugh and pant, as though she were fueling his passion instead of his fear—and she knew she should just shut up.

But she couldn't, so she shrieked until he stuffed a handkerchief in her mouth, shoved her back onto the floor of the storage area, and climbed on top of her.

And then he collapsed—suddenly and surely—his body going so limp it half crushed hers. It was almost as though he'd had a heart attack, but that was too much to pray for.

Wasn't it?

As she lay there, horrified and relieved, a black Porsche skidded onto the loose gravel of the turnout and came to a halt. Then Cole strode over to her, pulling Gus off, then grabbing her into a brisk embrace. After a long moment, he pulled the rag out of her mouth and asked, "You okay, Skywalker?"

"Cole . . ."

"Here, sit for a minute." He propped her against the fender, then leaned down to Gus's motionless body and retrieved his watch. With a wink toward Annika, he stuffed it in his own pocket, explaining, "I'll clean it before I wear it again. Just in case there's any residue."

"Watch residue?"

"Try not to be so linear," he reminded her, then the sounds of an approaching car distracted him, and before she knew it he shoved her back into the rear compartment of the Escalade and slammed the hatch shut. After pulling a gun from his waistband—her Glock, apparently—he leveled it in the direction of the oncoming vehicle.

Annika expected it to be Joe and Skinny, and apparently Cole thought so too, but it was an LAPD squad car, lights blazing, that roared into view. And when Will Sanderson jumped out, Annika had to laugh. It was so perfect—so absolutely, bizarrely perfect.

Will opened the hatch and stared in disbelief. "Annika? You're okay?"

"I'm fine."

He uncuffed her and untied her ankles, then helped her to her feet.

"Hey," Cole muttered. "Are you Sanderson?"

"Yeah. You're Ember?"

"That's right." He shoved Will in the chest. "You and Trace are square, got it?"

"Huh?"

"You made a deal with her. Now you're even."

"Yeah, sure. No problem." Will turned back to Annika. "You look terrible."

"She's concussed," Cole explained. "Get her to an ER, will you?"

"Sure, no problem." Sanderson eyed the officer who was examining Gus. "Is he gonna make it?"

"It's some sort of allergic reaction. The paramedics will know more, but I'm sure he'll survive."

An allergic reaction to Cole's wristwatch? How was that possible? Had he triggered something remotely? Maybe with the bizarre half-dollar gizmo?

She wanted to talk to him privately. To compliment him. To thank him. "Cole?"

"Just close your eyes and relax," he advised. "The ambulance is on its way."

"But—well, what about us?"

"What about us?"

"Are you going to help me or not?"

He chuckled dryly. "Yeah, I'll help. Just don't bring any more a-holes to my lab, okay?"

"Okay." She waited for him to do something. To move closer, speak gently, maybe even take her in his arms again.

But all he said was, "Looks like you're in good hands. Call me when you have something to say."

She stared as he strolled back to his Porsche like they had just finished a picnic. Then he slipped into the driver's seat, executed a noisy U-turn, and sped back up the hill.

"What an ass," Will muttered.

"He saved me," Annika corrected him sharply. Then she smiled and admitted, "But yeah, he's an ass for sure."

 

 

Trace Elements, Episode Seven: First Kiss?

Annika Trace sat at her kitchen counter and stared at the glossy photographs strewn across the black granite surface. Each picture told the same story—Dr. Cole Ember was having an affair with a stunningly beautiful chemist named Lizbeth Scott. After insisting to Annika that he dreaded attending the conference in Las Vegas, where he had been conned into making the keynote address, he had apparently found a way to lessen his misery.

In fact, she suspected he had planned it this way from the start. Why else had he discouraged Annika from coming along for some rest and relaxation? She had assumed it was his infamous fear of intimacy, but considering how far he was ramming his tongue down Lizbeth's throat in the photo, that clearly wasn't the case.

"Screw you, Cole," she muttered. "I'm such a fool. Treating you with kid gloves, hoping one day we'd have something amazing. Stupid, stupid Annika, always falling for the wrong guy. But at least your record's unbroken, right?"

As if to taunt her further, her phone vibrated across the counter, displaying Cole's name.

"Seriously?" She wanted to ignore it but refused to bow to such cowardice, so she answered with a brisk, "Agent Trace."

"Hey, Skywalker," he said in a cheery voice. "Miss me?"

"Is there something you need?"

"All business, huh? Fine, we'll get right to it. I got an alert on my watch that someone broke into my lab—"

"What?" She sat up straight. "Did you call 911?"

"Nope. They'd just add to the mess. So I was hoping you'd run out there and investigate. I booked a flight but I won't be there for hours, so if you can take the first crack at it, I'd appreciate it."

"You're coming home early?" She felt a wave of satisfaction that his tryst had been interrupted. Now she would go for the jugular. "You know how much I hate driving that windy road, Dr. Ember. Just let me send a team out there. Or better yet, you could use the locals."

When he didn't answer right away, she knew he had finally picked up on her annoyance. Still, he sounded cheerful when he said, "I thought you wanted to catch my father. My mistake."

"You think your father did it?" she asked, her tone more eager than intended.

"Yep."

"What could you possibly have that he would want?"

"Pardon?"

She grinned. Apparently the jab had hit its mark. "He's the world's most talented chemist. And a mega-genius. That's all I meant. It was probably some kids looking for adventure."

Once again, he was silent for a moment. Then he explained in a frustrated tone, "Whoever got through my security system figured out the code. Kids couldn't do that. Ash Ember could."

She sighed. It didn't sound like a routine break-in, and if any trace of Ash Ember could be found at the site, she wanted to be the one to find it. "Okay, I'll head out there shortly. I'll let you know what I find."

"I'll join you as soon as I can."

"Don't bother. I'll be finished long before your plane lands. In fact," she added coolly, "you should stay there and enjoy your conference. The last thing I need is you underfoot when I'm trying to get something done."

He chuckled. "I'll take my chances. See you in a few hours."

* * *

For once, the ride along the twisty, cliff-clinging road to Cole's barren estate didn't terrorize her. She was too busy fuming at the thought of him making love to some brainiac scientist.

No wonder he had rejected Annika's advances.

Her rage subsided as she drove through the rusty gates that marked the edge of his property. She needed to focus now—to be professional. She could wallow in self-pity later. And if by some miracle this crime scene helped her catch Ash Ember, she might just forget all about the obnoxious son.

After parking just inside the gate, she walked the remainder of the distance to the house, scanning the dirt for signs of footprints or tire tracks, both of which proved plentiful.

"No way did a mastermind leave this sort of evidence," she murmured aloud. "I was right the first time. Just thrill seekers, probably juvenile."

Still, she drew her Glock before approaching the wide-open door that led to the building's stark interior. No sign of forced entry, meaning someone had indeed used the security code. That was either a good sign or a bad one, depending on one's point of view. Stepping into the hall, she glanced up the narrow circular stairway that led to Cole's living quarters. Then she proceeded to the only interior door on the first floor. Once again, it was wide open, with no sign of forced entry. She would dust this keypad and the other one after finishing her initial sweep.

"Oh, wow," she said under her breath as she surveyed Cole's giant laboratory. Tables and stools had been upended, and every vial, beaker and test tube had been smashed. Books from towering shelves lay strewn across the concrete floor, and the refrigerator door stood open, revealing three shelves of ransacked contents.

"Poor Cole, he'll be devastated. Although it couldn't happen to a nicer guy, right?"

Her anger returned, bringing with it an interesting revelation—unlike Annika, these burglars hadn't been pissed off. Sure they had made a mess, but it seemed superficial and passionless. A smokescreen? To distract from the true purpose of the break-in?

Time to check the rest of the house.

With any luck, the perps would be hiding in Cole's bedroom or garage, and she could work out her aggressions on them. Unfortunately, after moving warily from room to room, she finally had to admit she was alone in the house.

But not for long. He's flying home, remember? Probably still glowing from all the wild sex. Ugh, if only there was someone around here to shoot!

* * *

Cole eased his Porsche alongside Annika's ancient red Audi, noting that she had parked at the outskirts of the yard.

She must have found some tracks or prints. Let's hope that put her in a better mood.

He chuckled as he remembered her lousy attitude on the phone, then he reprimanded himself. What if she had received seriously bad news? A death in the family. A fallen comrade. Some hot case pulled out from under her by an overambitious colleague.

Try being nice to her for a change. She's been great lately, hasn't she? Why not return the favor?

She had actually been much more than "nice" or "great." Fun, flirty, challenging, intuitive—she had been so amazing, he had been tempted to let himself go. To fall for her in a way he'd never fallen before.

Those sentiments had been so alarming they had propelled him back into the arms of his all-time favorite girlfriend, Lizbeth Scott. Almost as beautiful as Annika, and ten times less complicated, Lizbeth was the perfect female. Not a clingy bone in her body, and certainly no interest in a real relationship. All she wanted was to talk science and get her bell rung, and unlike most women, she wasn't really very choosy about how a guy went about it.

He suspected Annika would be supremely choosy—bossy even—in bed. It would be fun, but would require a serious investment of time and energy. In fact, just deciding whether to go to bed with her required more time and energy than he really wanted to expend.

And so, in a weak moment, he had slept with Lizbeth again, just the way he had done at every conference over the last five years. He hadn't planned on doing it this time though. He had even watched sex videos of all their previous encounters prior to leaving for Las Vegas, hoping to get her out of his system. The videos existed courtesy of Lizbeth's insatiable desire to see herself on television, and were often a great substitute for the real thing.

Let it go, he counseled himself as he approached the doorway to the laboratory. You and Lizbeth had fun together, probably for the last time. Remember the look on her face when you told her about your crush on Annika? Lizbeth's ego is too huge to withstand that, so she's probably done with you for good.

And given Annika's attitude on the phone, it was possible she was done with him too. That would be ironic.

* * *

Annika had heard Cole's car and had peeked out to double-check it was him. Now she waited, wondering why it was taking him so long to join her.

He's probably checking out the tire tracks. Playing detective, as always. And knowing him, he'll recognize the make and model, which will be soooo annoying.

She had restored two of his metal stools to their proper positions and was perched on one as he entered the lab.

"Hey," he said cheerfully. "Looks like you made a mess."

"Funny." She rolled her eyes. "What do you think of this? Too orchestrated, right? Like they made a huge show of breaking things, just to distract us from their actual agenda?"

"Seems so. But first things first, are you still pissed off? It's a good sign that you're still here, right?"

She shrugged. "It took longer than I thought. And we really need to get a team out here. I took close-up shots of the prints and tracks, but we may need more details. Maybe plaster casts."

"I can tell you what kind of tires they are, which helps with the make. You're right about the footprints, though. I'll make the casts myself and you can take them to forensics. I don't want those clowns crawling all over this place."

"Okay, well, if you're sure." She shrugged again to assure him she was bored out of her mind. "I dusted everything I could think of, so I'll head out."

"Is something wrong?" He walked over and sat across from her. "Did someone die?"

"Unfortunately, no."

He chuckled. "What's with you?"

"Nothing. I'm just tired. Not everyone was lucky enough to take a week off, you know."

"So? Do you want me to take you someplace? Maui? Paris?"

The concept stunned her. Was this how he saw women? Interchangeable, or worse, serial? Brainy scientist on Tuesday, grouchy federal agent on Wednesday—it was all the same to him.

"No, thanks. But I do have a couple of questions."

"Shoot."

Don't tempt me . . .

She eyed him intently. "Do you still think it was your father?"

He nodded.

"What was he looking for?"

"You mean, what could I possibly have that he'd want?" Cole leveled a stare right back at her. "You were right about that. Not because I can't come up with something unique on my own, but because I'm sure he has ways of knowing what I'm up to. My guess is it's one of two things: he wants more info about you, or he wants some of his old work. He left a stack of notebooks behind when he ran out on me and my mother. Probably thought they weren't worth anything, but I've gone through them, and some of the theories have become surprisingly relevant over time."

Annika licked her lips. "Why would he want information about me? How would he even know about me?"

"You're kidding, aren't you? He left those calling cards to lure me into the FBI's hunt for him. You're the liaison between me and the Bureau. Plus, if he's seen any pictures, he knows you're good-looking, so he'd want to know if we're sleeping together. You," he added with a teasing grin, "are a very fascinating female."

She ignored the pseudo-compliment. "What kind of things did he expect to find? My toothbrush in your bathroom? Or copies of FBI documents?"

"Who knows?"

"Okay . . ." She slid off her seat and walked over to a file cabinet. "This is still locked and seems to be undisturbed. It's actually the only thing in the room that wasn't ransacked. Are the notebooks in here?"

Cole nodded, then joined her at the cabinet and entered the combination into the padlock. Opening the top drawer, he growled under his breath.

Annika peered into the empty space. "Uh-oh. Did you make copies at least?"

"Yeah, but they weren't the best. I only made them in case he ever asked for them back. I planned on giving him the copies and keeping the originals for myself. Fuck."

Annika stared. Cole rarely used foul language around her, much less with such passionate inflection.

Finally she asked, "Can I have a copy of the copies?"

"No. Just drop it, will you?"

"Gladly." She exhaled sharply. "At least we know it was your dad for sure. And since there were two vehicles, and at least three sets of footprints, this could supply us with some great leads about his confederates. I'll want to come back tomorrow and look around again. Okay?"

He nodded. "Just you, though. And I'll be studying those notebooks again, so I won't have time to socialize."

"Perfect," she told him with a glare. "Sorry you had to come back from vacation early, but let's hope we get a break in the case out of it. Then you'll never have to socialize with me again."

"Annika—"

"Don't bother." Her words sounded more hurt than angry, and she regretted them instantly, so she finished the conversation in a soft voice. "Thanks for bringing me in on this, Cole. For trusting me with it. I know that's not easy for you, so I'll try to make it worth the trouble. See you tomorrow."

* * *

By the time she returned to her apartment, she felt exhausted but also encouraged by the new development. Maybe by some miracle Ash Ember himself had been in that lab. What a coup it would be to find proof of that. And even if he sent a horde of henchmen in his place, that would be fine too. They would be much more likely to make mistakes than the brilliant Doc Ember, Senior, so the chances of finding clues would be even greater.

She almost congratulated herself on getting over her failed romance with Cole when she spied the red-hot photos on her counter. Immediately her spirits plummeted, and she decided just to skip dinner and turn in for the night.

After kicking off her shoes and shedding her suit jacket, she unbuckled her shoulder holster, then squatted until she was eye level with her gun safe. Anxious to stash her weapon safely before escaping into a Cole-free coma, she entered the combination quickly.

Then she opened the safe and shrieked at the sight of snakes—tiny and slithery, red and ringed, at least four of them, maybe more. One struck her on the cheek immediately, and she screamed again, then grabbed him by the tail, aimed her Glock, and mindlessly blew him in half. Stumbling to her feet, she felt a second serpent bite her ankle, and she fired again, more wildly this time as her vision blurred. She managed to kick the safe shut before any other vipers could escape, but hopes of reaching her phone—which was still in her jacket pocket back at the table—dimmed along with her eyesight as she slumped to the floor in a heap.

* * *

When she regained consciousness, her supervisor, Jerry Lopez, and LA police detective Will Sanderson were standing beside her hospital bed, looking harried and horrified.

"Hey, guys," she murmured, her tongue unexpectedly huge.

"Hallelujah!" Jerry shouted. Then he sent a fearful glance toward a small, dark-haired nurse who was seated at a computer screen in the corner. Muttering "Sorry," he leaned down until his lips were next to Annika's ear. "We're not supposed to agitate you. So stay calm. In fact, go back to sleep."

She tried to smile, but the muscles of her face refused to cooperate, so she settled for telling him in a slurred, unfamiliar voice, "I'm fine. Woozy . . ."

"You got bit by a snake. Maybe two," Sanderson told her. His face was pale, as though the shock of seeing her this way had permanently drained it.

Unnerved, she moistened her lips, struggling to remember what had happened. She had fired her weapon—of that she was sure. But the snakes—slithery little suckers—seemed like part of a ridiculous nightmare. "Baby snakes," she told Jerry in her thick voice. "Someone planted them. Could be Ash Ember. Tell Cole."

"You think Ash did this?" Jerry demanded. "God damn it, Annika, why would he want to hurt you?"

"Don't know. Tell Cole," she pleaded. "Feel sick."

"The doctors administered the anti-venom a couple of hours ago, so you'll be doing better soon. You need to rest, kid. You almost died."

"Who . . . who found me?"

"The neighbors heard the gunshots and called 911. When the paramedics saw your ID, they called us. We got there as fast as we could, and Sanderson arrived almost as quickly. I'm sorry, Annie," he added unhappily. "Attacked in your own home, all for this stupid case? I never should have involved you in it."

"Good case," she corrected him, but her words ran together and she could see from his expression that she wasn't making sense.

"Hey, Doc," Sanderson said loudly to a short, stocky man who had just entered the room. "Annika Trace, this is Doctor McCormack. He's an expert, or so we're told."

Her vision blurred the way it had during the attack, and she had to struggle to stay awake. "Doctor?"

"Hello, Agent Trace. Let me take a look in those beautiful blue eyes." He used a pen light to examine her. "Okay, good job. Just go to sleep now. Save your strength."

As she drifted off, she heard McCormack tell the others, "She should be making more progress, but instead she's relapsing. I'm not sure what to make of it, but I'll run another tox screen."

Her throat tightened, and she knew she should sleep, but instead she grabbed the doctor's sleeve and insisted, "Cole. Cole, Cole, Cole . . ."

"I'm dialing him now," Jerry promised in a hoarse voice. "Just hang in there, kid. He'll be here soon, I promise."

* * *

Numb with concern, Cole stared down at Annika's swollen, punctured face, willing her to wake up. Her breaths came in short, irregular gasps that were so clearly painful, he could barely withstand the urge to grab her up into his arms and race her back to his laboratory. He needed to help her, and soon, or she would be lost to him, and the world, forever.

"Annika, wake up."

"The doc said it's better if she sleeps," said Sanderson, a known moron with whom Cole had had several run-ins over the last three months.

"The doctor's an idiot, and so are you. Back off." Snarling for emphasis, Cole caught sight of an unfamiliar man in a lab coat standing in the doorway. "Are you McCormack?"

"I hope you're not disturbing my patient."

"Your patient is dying, you quack. Is it true what they tell me? You administered the anti-venom four hours ago and she's getting effing worse?"

"It's a difficult case—"

"I read the chart. You still think it was a gold-ringed pit viper? Juvenile?"

"It was a pit viper," the doctor agreed. "And we're sure we used the right anti-venom—"

"Really? Based on what? Her rapid recovery? I'm taking over this case, effective immediately." He leaned down close to Annika. "Did you hear that, beautiful? You're in good hands now, so hang on. I'll have you up and running in no time."

"This is absurd," McCormack said hotly. "If you can't behave yourself, you'll have to go."

"I need to go—back to my lab. But first I'll need copies of all her records. All the lab tests. And I want that fucking snake corpse. Is that clear?"

"Whatever you want, Ember," said Annika's supervisor, Jerry something or other. "She specifically asked for you, you know."

"I'll need access to her apartment too, just in case."

"Whatever you want."

Cole took a deep breath, then nodded. "Thanks. You won't regret it."

"There's something else you should know, Ember. Someone—obviously the attacker—left a note in the safe. Right under the viper nest. It had one word, all in capital letters. FRIDAY."

"What the fuck?"

"We don't know. We analyzed the paper, ink, lettering—nothing. You can have that too, for what it's worth. I don't suppose you have any theories about the word ‘Friday'? I mean, other than it's the day after tomorrow? But some second meaning in relation to Annika? Or your father?"

Cole shook his head. "Are they predicting she'll survive until Friday? Frankly, I'll take that, given how bad she looks right now."

"It's a theory, but like you said," Jerry murmured, "we're not sure she'll even make it through tonight." He choked up, then continued. "Can I ask you another question?"

"Make it fast."

"Annika seemed to think your father planted those snakes. Why would he do that?"

"He wouldn't," Cole snapped. Then he added more diplomatically, "My father made indirect contact with me this morning. I made an offhand comment to Agent Trace that I thought Dad was curious about her. She probably misunderstood what I meant. But trust me, Ash Ember doesn't murder innocent women. Not even if they work for the FBI."

Leaning down again, he kissed Annika's swollen, purple cheek. "Stay strong, beautiful. I'll be back as quick as I can."

* * *

Working feverishly, Cole duplicated every test that had been run by the hospital, the outside lab, and the FBI. Unfortunately, he also reached the same conclusions they had. This was the correct anti-venom. It should have worked.

The snake carcasses revealed a handful of anomalies. For one thing, the reptiles were very young—so young they couldn't have survived in the safe for more than an hour, meaning the assailant had been in the apartment just before Annika's return home. Some of the markings raised new questions, not just because they didn't match any known to science, but because their region of origin must have been quite far away.

This sadist had gone to a lot of trouble to hurt Annika.

And in return, Cole intended to invest every ounce of breath into destroying him. But that would come later. For now, the only thing that mattered was tweaking the anti-venom before Annika's neuromuscular paralysis spread beyond any hope of containment.

Such a fucking nightmare . . .

When his phone rang, he almost didn't answer it, especially given the Unknown Caller designation on the display. But he didn't want to miss anything that might help Annika, so he grabbed it on the second ring. "This is Ember. Make it fast."

"This is Ember," a familiar voice told him, the joke softened by the warmth underlying the words. "How are you holding up, son?"

"Dad?"

"I heard about the girl. What a fucking nightmare. I take it there's no improvement?"

Cole sat back and forced himself to breathe normally. Then he asked, "What's it to you?"

"Do you want my help or not?"

"Yeah," Cole admitted, "I want your help. How quick can you get here?"

Ash Ember gave an audible sigh. "I'm in Brazil, so obviously not quickly enough. Just send me everything you have. I'll send you a test email in a few minutes. It'll look like junk mail—an ad from a lab coat supplier. Just attach whatever you've got and hit reply."

"Brazil?"

"Brazil this week, Canada before that. I'm on the move."

"Okay, I'll send everything. Thanks, Dad. Oh, and there was a note too. Kind of crazy. Just one word: Friday. All in caps."

"That's tomorrow," Ash murmured.

"Huh? Oh, right." Cole glanced at the clock, confirming it was past midnight. "Fuck."

"We'll figure it out, son. I give you my word."

Your word?

Cole wondered what his father could possibly be smoking to make a statement like that. Ash Ember had never kept his word. Not even before he became the FBI's most hunted criminal.

"Okay, Dad. Thanks again. Call as soon as you have something."

"One more thing, Cole," his father said quickly. "You're not going to share my particulars with your Bureau friends, are you?"

"I only have one Bureau friend, and she's in a fucking coma. So your secrets are safe with me."

* * *

It seemed to Annika she had been asleep for a thousand years. Her face still hurt, but now her neck ached as well. The tingling in her fingers had spread to her hands and feet. And she couldn't breathe.

Other than that, you're fine . . .

She tried to speak, but apparently that faculty was gone as well. Still, she struggled until she finally got Jerry's attention.

"Nikki! Oh, God, thank God. Oh, shit! Stay with me, kid. Don't pass out again."

"Cole?"

"He was here but he had to get back to his lab. To fix the anti-venom. You were right about him, kid. He's a genius for sure." Jerry flashed a sickly smile, and she knew it was killing him to say anything nice about an Ember.

So she tried to squeeze his hand in thanks, but there was no response from her traitorous arm. "Ugh . . ."

"Do you want some water? The nurse just went for the doctor, so try to stay with us. Just for another minute. Okay?"

Pain shot through the back of her neck, different from the numbness and paralysis that affected the rest of her body. "My neck."

"Your muscles are probably cramping from being in one position for so long. Listen to me," he teased shakily. "Doctor Lopez at your service."

"Neck hurts. Tell Cole."

"I'll tell the doctor—"

"Tell Cole," she repeated, then a wave of darkness crashed over her and she surrendered to it, oddly grateful not to have to talk anymore.

* * *

Cole had almost believed his father could work a miracle, right up until the second call came, again from Unknown Caller. Easing his Porsche onto the shoulder of the mountain road, he murmured hopefully, "Dad?"

"I'm stumped, son. But I'm leaving right now for the airport, so just keep her going. We'll pray the ‘Friday' note is correct."

"Oh, God, I was so sure . . ." Cole closed his eyes, exhausted. Then he rallied enough to say, "You can't come here, Dad. The FBI will grab you. I'm sure they're keeping tabs on me. And for sure on Annika now that all this is happening."

"Where were they when she needed them?" Ash grumbled.

"Where was I? I should have been with her—oh, fuck, never mind. I need to get to the hospital. The paralysis is spreading, and if I don't talk to her now, it might not happen."

"Sorry, son. I'll keep thinking. And praying."

"Thanks." Cole disconnected from the call, then drove to the hospital, his mood eerily calm. He needed to see her—there were things he had to say—but as usual, he was being selfish. She had to stay quiet. Comatose. If she became agitated, or upset, or even tearful, the venom would spread more rapidly.

So don't agitate her. Which means, you need to keep calm. Even if you see Sanderson, or that quack McCormack, just stay calm.

He repeated the mantra again and again, in the parking lot, in the lobby, in the elevator, and after what seemed like hours, when he could finally gaze down at her.

She's like effing Sleeping Beauty, he marveled. If only she had a prince instead of a fucking egomaniac.

Glancing up at the nurse in the corner, he asked, "Any change?"

"No, sir."

"I need to see her chart. Can you pull it up for me?"

"I'm sorry, sir. Privacy rules—"

"Fuck privacy rules. She's my fucking life. If that's not kinship, then what the fuck is?"

"Really, sir—" the nurse began, but Annika's supervisor interrupted from his seat near the bed, saying, "He's part of the investigation. Let him see whatever he wants."

The nurse glared but complied, then surrendered her chair so Cole could sit at the computer terminal.

"What's with the ibuprofen?" he demanded "That's new, isn't it?"

"She said her neck hurt. See?" The woman pointed to the notation "neck pain."

"Doesn't everything hurt her, the poor kid?" Cole muttered.

"That's what I said," Jerry sympathized. "But she wanted you to know, so I'm glad you're here. It would mean a lot to her."

If she knew . . .

But she doesn't know, because she's fading away.

For the first time during the ordeal—perhaps the first time in thirty years—Cole felt a sting of tears behind his eyes, but he reminded himself of his pledge: he would stay calm no matter what. As long as she could draw a breath, he would help her resist the spread of the paralysis.

Maybe that's why she wanted you to know her neck hurt. So you'd know the numbness wasn't everywhere, at least not yet.

Startled by the thought, he asked Jerry, "What did you mean when you said she wanted me to know about her neck? What exactly did she say?"

Jerry shrugged. "Not much. Just: Neck hurts. Tell Cole. Right, nurse?"

"Yes, that's exactly what she said. Of course," the nurse added quietly, "she's delirious, so she really didn't mean anything by it."

"She meant I'd find it significant," Cole corrected them, striding back to her bedside. "Hey, Skywalker! Wake up. What's with your neck?"

"Really, sir," the nurse said with a scowl. "That's not helping."

Ignoring her, he examined Annika's throat and neck, but there was nothing unusual, so he turned her on her side and pulled her hair up, inspecting every millimeter.

"Hey, Ember," Jerry objected. "They said not to disturb her."

"Why?" Cole drawled. "It might kill her? That's a foregone conclusion, so just back off and let me think." To the nurse, he added briskly, "Get me a magnifying glass, and be quick about it."

"Do you see something?" Jerry demanded, crowding against the bed next to him. "What is it? A pinprick?"

"More like an injection site," Cole told him. Then he shouted for the nurse. When she came running back, he demanded, "Did the doctor give her an injection for the neck pain?"

"No, sir." Her gaze focused on the tiny dot. "You're right. Someone gave her an injection recently. It's so odd—"

"What does it mean?" Jerry asked, his voice thick with confusion.

Cole smiled grimly. "It means the perpetrator was still in the apartment when the snakes attacked Annika. She was injected after she lost consciousness. That's what's causing the effing paralysis. We were so sure the anti-venom wasn't working—" He broke off, allowing his inner chemist to take over. "We need to reexamine every step. Every sample. And I need samples from this injection site itself."

"Are you saying there's a chance?"

"Not if you drag your feet, so get moving."

"I'm on it." Jerry sprinted out the door.

"Nurse—"

"I'm on it too," she promised, then to Cole's surprise, she gave him a quick hug. "No wonder she admires you so much."

* * *

As it turned out, this was just another curve on the roller-coaster ride, raising their hopes only to dash them when the nature of the substance that had been injected into Annika eluded their tests.

When Ash Ember called, Cole laid it all out quickly and was oddly comforted when his father said, "So maybe she has more time. The attacker said Friday, and we thought the venom would spread before that. But this isn't really venom, or at least not pit-viper venom."

"Right. That's right."

"So shall I make the trip?"

"Huh?" Cole shook his head, trying to clear it. There was something they were missing. Annika's tormentor had gone to such lengths to impress them—Central American vipers, no less, and juveniles at that. Breaking into a federal agent's apartment. Taking risk after risk. And for what?

Not just to kill. To have fun doing it.

"This guy is playing with us, Dad."

"He's smart. Brilliant, actually. And you're correct, he's also playful. Which means—well, what?"

"It means we have a chance to win. I mean, why play if it's completely rigged?"

Ash clucked his tongue. "So Friday isn't set in stone? That's what you're saying? It's a prediction, not a sure thing?"

"It's one word. So it's a sure thing," Cole corrected him. "One word. Friday. Something happens on Friday."

"Annika dies."

"No, Dad." Cole felt a burst of giddy certainty. "That note was a clue, not a death sentence. I'm sure of it now."

"Well, it's a lousy clue," Ash muttered. "The detectives didn't find anything else at her apartment? A syringe would be nice," he added sarcastically.

"You just read my mind," Cole assured him. "Hang on a minute." He opened a browser and searched the city's garbage collection schedule. "Fuck, Dad, this asshole did leave the syringe behind. And I have six hours to find it, so wish me luck."

* * *

Half an hour later, Cole, Jerry, and Sanderson were sifting through the Dumpster outside Annika's apartment building.

"This is nuts," Sanderson complained. "If you're wrong about this, I'm sending you my dry-cleaning bill."

"Fuck you," Cole said with a laugh. "Just don't stick yourself with anything, 'cause I'm not paying your medical bills."

"The gloves were a good idea, Ember," Jerry assured him. "I just hope we can get through all of this. And if we find it, I hope there's some serum left in it."

"There will be. That's this asshole's game. He left us three clues—the note, the injection site, and the syringe filled with whatever's causing the paralysis." He chuckled as he watched Sanderson shake something green, slimy and disgusting off his arm. "Careful there. Don't want to destroy evidence."

"Fuck you, Ember."

"Why don't we all just search quietly," Jerry said with a scowl. "You two are worse than juvenile pit vipers."

Cole nodded in agreement, then hefted a heavy black garbage sack out of the muck. He was about to rip it open when another, smaller plastic bag caught his eye. It was white and appeared to be stuffed with crumpled newspaper or other lightweight material.

But it was the way it was fastened at the top that made him stare in hopeful disbelief. Not a rubber band or pre-made strip. Not two ends of the bag tied together.

This garbage bag had been tied up neatly with a bow. Literally. A jaunty red bow to be exact.

* * *

Once given the correct antidote, Annika recovered quickly. Still, she slept all of Friday and most of Saturday. And every time she woke up, her boss was there, sitting in an uncomfortable-looking chair and working on his Bureau-issued tablet.

Determined to be at her beck and call.

Now she scolded him fondly. "I'm okay, you know. Why don't you head back to the office?"

"Let's give it another day. I was so sure we were losing you . . ."

"I'm glad I slept through it," she quipped.

"Yeah." Jerry didn't crack a smile. Instead he leaned forward and told her hoarsely, "Ember came through for you. For all of us—big-time. You were right about him."

"You came through for me too. Digging in a Dumpster?"

"Yeah, that's true love," he agreed, relaxing at last. "Especially since I had to listen to Ember and Sanderson bicker the whole time."

She smiled fondly as she pictured the scene. "And the perp tied it all up with a big red bow? Like it was some sort of game?"

"Or test."

"But not for me," she mused. "They were testing Cole."

"Or his father was."

She winced. Had she pointed the finger at Ash Ember? Or had Cole?

The details were spotty, so she asked her boss quietly, "Why do you think that?"

Jerry cleared his throat as though unwilling to tread on her expertise. "We've always figured Ash keeps tabs on his son, right? So it's logical to assume he heard Cole was hanging around with a fed. Getting attached to her. To you. Maybe he just wanted to see how deep it went."

She closed her eyes as a wave of dizziness came over her. The symptom was growing rarer by the hour but apparently hadn't quite gone away for good.

Finally, she murmured, "Didn't you tell me yesterday that Cole doesn't think it was his dad? Or did I hallucinate that?"

"Yeah, he's sure it wasn't Ash. Didn't provide his reasoning or any evidence to back it up, of course. I like the guy now, but damn he's full of himself."

Annika laughed lightly. "Still, we need to consider the possibility it was Ash Ember."

Jerry grinned. "That's a relief."

"Why?"

"I was beginning to think you were his acolyte or something. Every time you woke up, you'd say about four words. And two of them were always, ‘Ask Cole' or ‘Tell Cole.'"

When Annika arched an eyebrow, he admitted, "Yeah, you were right to keep looping him in."

"He's a brilliant chemist," she reminded him. "On all things science, I defer to him. But this is an attempted-murder investigation now, so we're the experts." Collapsing back into her pillow, she fought another wave of room spin. "How long before this stupid toxin stops affecting me?"

"Another twenty-four hours at least." Jerry kissed her cheek. "Get some rest. I'm gonna grab some coffee in the cafeteria, but I'll be back."

Before he could move toward the door, a nurse poked her head into the room and announced, "You have another visitor."

Annika's stomach clenched with excitement, but when the man appeared in the doorway, it was Will Sanderson, not Cole. "Hi, Will," she said, trying not to sound disappointed.

"Hey, babe." He strode over and kissed her on the cheek as Jerry had done. And to her surprise, it really was just like Jerry's kiss—affectionate, almost brotherly, with no hint of Sanderson's usual lust. "How are you feeling?"

"All better. Jerry told me how much you helped him and Cole. Digging through garbage? That's above and beyond for sure, so thanks."

"The credit goes to Ember," Sanderson admitted. "It's like he willed you to stay alive until he could develop an antidote. It was eye-opening, that's for sure."

She sighed, realizing she had never seen this side of her flirtatious colleague. Was he actually human after all?

"Where is he, anyway?" Sanderson asked. "I thought he'd be here, hovering and keeping the rest of us away. He doesn't share well, you know."

Jerry sent him an oblique glance. "He hasn't been here since she started improving."

"Seriously? I thought he'd be all over her. The conquering hero and all."

"Okay, you two. Stop talking about me like I'm still asleep."

"Speaking of sleep, you really should get some," Sanderson murmured. "You look exhausted."

She nodded. "Strange, isn't it? You'd think I'd be rested at least."

"You weren't sleeping these last two days, you were dying," he told her gruffly. "Now you need to get your strength back, so I'll get out of here. I just wanted to welcome you back."

"Thanks. You guys are my heroes too, you know. So?" she added with a teasing smile. "Did anyone happen to take a picture, or better still, a video while you were in that Dumpster?"

"She's definitely back," Jerry drawled. Then he clapped Sanderson on the shoulder. "Come on, buddy. I'll buy you a cup of coffee."

"Bye, guys," she called out, pretending to settle under the covers until they disappeared from sight. Then she grabbed her phone from the tray table and composed a quick text, saying: Where are you?

To her surprise, Cole responded within seconds. Cleaning up broken glass. How're you feeling?

All better. I want to see you, Cole.

Soon, he wrote. Rest up. Get back on your feet. Then we'll go from there.

* * *

Another day passed, and still no Cole. Dr. McCormack reluctantly discharged her, but only after she promised to go straight home and stay in bed for at least another twenty-four hours.

She kept half that promise, returning to her apartment long enough to shower, change into white shorts, a pink tank top, and white canvas shoes, and strap her holster and gun into place. Her balance felt decent, her energy level high, so she decided to drive Big Boy up the mountain rather than taking a cab. Not only would she save money, but if Cole rebuffed her—which was more than possible given his push-pull MO in this relationship—she could make a hasty retreat.

Halfway up the hill, she knew she had made a mistake. Every hairpin turn made her head swim, and while this road always had that effect on her, it felt more ominous this time. And so she pulled over whenever a turnout presented itself, then gulped some water, rested a bit, and pushed a few miles more. Finally, she and Big Boy reached the rusty gates of the Ember compound.

The law enforcement side of her wanted to park away from the house out of respect for the tire tracks and footprints, but she was woozy again, so she drove as close to the front door as possible, then steadied herself for the fifteen feet of crushed stone walkway that lay ahead of her. And that wasn't the worst of it. She had to deal with Cole, and just being here reminded her of all the times he had cold-shouldered her, just when she thought they had taken a giant leap forward.

At that moment, he strode through the doorway and right up to her car, where he yanked her door open and pulled her into a warm embrace in one smooth, exuberant movement. As if that weren't bizarre enough, he then cupped her chin in his palm, turned her face up to his, and kissed her with such passion—such dominance—she couldn't muster a response. This wasn't a sexual kiss, or at least not like anything she had experienced up to now. It was primal and instinctive, as though he were physically re-establishing his link with her, maybe even trying to reanimate her.

Then it was over, and he grappled her to his chest again. "I can't believe you drove that stupid road in your condition."

"I had to see you. You saved my life, Cole."

"I had help. Even Sanderson came through. And your boss—well, he was great. And there was someone else too. I'll tell you all about it once I get you inside."

"I know they all tried to help. But you saved me. I'm so grateful—"

"Don't thank me," he ordered her in a brisk tone. Then he pulled off her bandage and studied the fang marks. "Damn."

"They offered plastic surgery, but the punctures are so small—"

"You won't scar. I've been working on an ointment that will fix you right up." He used his thumb and forefinger to spread her eyelids apart. "You're still drugged, for Christ's sake. That quack shouldn't have released you."

"I'm fine."

"Let's get you off your feet." Sweeping his left arm behind her legs, he scooped her up, then carried her into the house and up the stairs to the living quarters. She hadn't spent much time up there, since their meetings always centered around his laboratory, but she had searched them for signs of Ash Ember and knew there were two bedrooms, a living area that doubled as an office, a kitchen and two bathrooms.

"Do you want brandy? Tea? Just water?"

"Tea sounds perfect. You can put me down—"

"Trust me, the quicker I unload you the better," he said teasingly as they entered the living room. "You weigh a ton."

She licked her lips, shocked that he wasn't dumping her onto the leather sofa, but rather, continued into the hall leading to the master bedroom. For the first time in forty-eight hours, she actually wondered if she was still in her semiconscious delirium. Her venom-induced dreams of Cole had been thrilling, although not exactly romantic. More melodramatic, like the one where she was dangling off a cliff, her hand clinging to Big Boy's bumper, while Cole worked feverishly to save her.

What if he kisses you again?

She would kiss him back this time, even if his intent wasn't clearly seduction. Not that she felt ready for a full-on sex spree, but some kissing, petting, stroking . . .

With Cole? Finally, after three long months.

Just start with another kiss, she teased herself as he deposited her on his four-poster bed.

Once he had pulled off her shoes and unbuckled her gun belt, he covered her with a sturdy patchwork quilt. "I'll get that tea now. Don't go anywhere."

"Cole?" She moistened her lips hopefully. "Are you going to kiss me again?"

He grinned. "Tea first."

She laughed as he disappeared back into the hall. As unbelievable as it seemed, this was actually going to happen.

All it took was a snake bite. Who knew?

Glancing around, she noted an entire wall filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, which didn't surprise her. While technologically brilliant, Cole was a Luddite at heart. Hard-back books, pencils and graph paper, long division by hand—he seemed so much more alive with those things than his multiscreen computers and state-of-the-art tablets.

The biggest surprise was the small combination TV-DVD on his dresser. Hadn't he mocked "couch potatoes" more than once? What a hypocrite. Grabbing the remote control, she decided to take a quick peek at what Cole Ember liked to watch as he drifted into sleep every night.

* * *

It all felt right to Cole. He had almost lost this woman. Now he had a second chance.

For what?

He knew that was the logical question to ask, but for once he didn't want to be logical. As much as he enjoyed his friendship with Annika, and as sure as he was that an affair would destroy that friendship, he simply couldn't resist any longer. He had to have her. Would he end up hurting her? Almost certainly, and that was a shame. But she wanted this as much as he did, and she'd get over it when it ended.

And what if it doesn't end? What if it lasts?

The prospect intrigued him, but only for a moment. Nothing lasted. He knew that better than anyone. As a child, he had had it drummed into his head, not only by his father's cynical worldview but by empirical evidence—his mother's disappearance, his brother's death, the grisly discovery of his sister's mutilated body, and then, as the pièce de resistance, the notoriety of being abandoned by his genius father in favor of a crime spree that rocked three continents.

"It won't last," he murmured as he poured peppermint-infused tea into two cast-iron mugs. On impulse, he plucked a green branch from a pot of ivy, then used a white paper napkin to fashion an origami rose, which he attached to the stem and placed in a crystal water glass.

She would like that. He was sure of it. So he picked up the tray, took a deep breath, and returned to the bedroom, anxious to get this long-awaited affair off the ground.

When she wasn't in his bed he scowled, realizing he should have taken her to the bathroom for whatever needs she had before leaving her alone. Setting the tray on the nightstand, he turned, then stared in horror at the TV screen, where a very naked Lizbeth was cheerfully servicing him.

At that same moment, an engine revved in the distance, followed by the sound of Big Boy's tires squealing wildly, chewing up the combination of gravel and asphalt that led to the mountain road.

Fuck . . .

* * *

In a lavish hotel suite, a dark-haired woman luxuriates in a bubble bath as she watches herself on a scene on a wall-mounted TV. On the screen, she and Cole are locked in an erotic embrace, and while the sound is turned down, one can distinctly hear the woman moaning: "Cole . . ."

Setting her champagne flute onto the tub's edge, she sinks deeper into the foamy water, her expression blissful.

The camera moves slowly toward the bathroom doorway and out into the bedroom, panning over exquisite furnishings, then zooming in on two out-of-focus items atop a dresser.

The female's voice—this time not from the video but from the tub—moans Cole's name again just as the items come into focus: a large pair of scissors and a ball of shiny red ribbon.