Saturday, July 15, 2006

WIP mad dash, Finished "Of Trysts...", LIGHT PLAY (ch 3)

It's been a while since I blogged. I've been so busy working on finishing book #25, and final exams, that I've really blown the blogging.

First off: finished #25! It's a romantic suspense, called "Of Trysts & Treasure". It's with a publisher now, but time will only tell whether a contract is forthcoming or not. I may have to do major revisions (that's what happens when a SF/fantasy/horror author ventures into a new genre).

Soooo, I finished Trysts, and am now working on books 26, 27, 28, 29, 30. One's an archaeology thriller, with paranormal overtones, about a 3500-year-old Egyptian artefact which ends up in NZ. It has no business being here - the fact that it is here completely changes the face of Australasion archaeology. Doesn't sound like much, does it, except my three archaeologists are a dowser (with a gift for finding artefacts), a clairvoyant (whose hands-on approach to the field yields visuals of past settings and incidents), and a medium (who can talk to the owner of the artefact).
The next one's just barely there, but it's about a woman who can walk through an art gallery and alter works of art to craft work, with just a touch. They say the soul of the artist resides in his/her work, in the truly greats. This woman can set that soul free. She leaves nice technique, but something missing in her wake.
Then we have a fantasy about a female from another world who can manipulate light. We have light shows and insect attacks (so far!). A few heroics, too, with people clambering up fire escapes and across balconies.
There's the sequel to Trysts, but this time, the focus is on the last book's best friend - her accomplice in crime, as it were. Someone's trying to terrorise her by mimicking her dead lover's habits, and setting her possessions alight.
Then, there's the one about glass rhabdomancy - a dowser who can read events in glass, simply by reassembly - rather like the 3D world hidden in Magic Eye images.

I'm attempting to write a thousand words on each of these a day. Phew!

Talk to you soon! As always, I'll leave you with an excerpt...

N. D. Hansen-Hill

Light Play
Chapter Three

Vizar had been at the glass for an hour, staring at what remained of Caroline Denaro and wondering just what he could do to defuse this situation. There was no question now about the nature of her accident, and someone would have to shoulder the blame. The female form lying so quietly in the next room was no longer specifically human, to the extent that "specific" referred to Homo sapiens. She looked to be another species altogether.

He'd handled it wrong, but he could have handled it worse. There was a policy for incidents like this, but he'd almost overlooked it, to send Denaro to the local hospital. No one had recognised the nature of her illness, until she'd begun to manifest an alarming set of symptoms, that no medical texts would have been able to explain away.

What had Caro put into her little genetic cocktail? They'd run gels and blot tests on her tissues, and come up with an alarming number of plant proteins. Daniel didn't understand how she'd been able to mesh them so well with her normal complement of proteins and enzymes, or how she'd avoided a resistance reaction. According to Tom Denning, signal transduction should have been stopped at the cell membrane. The normal conduction—of substances across the plasmalemma—shouldn't have been able to function.

Denning had no idea, of course, that they were talking about Caroline Denaro. But, Denning had scoffed at the concept of incorporating large quantities of plant DNA into animal tissues. "It always results in resistance," he'd said. "The plant guys use that resistance to selectively stimulate antigen production in rats and rabbits. Then they use the antigens to test for the original pathogen."

Denning was wrong. Not only had foreign transcripts made it across Denaro's cellular membranes, but they'd managed to do their damage without any resistance from her immune system. And the process had functioned well enough to keep her body from shutting down completely, while it underwent massive changes. While she mutated.


Aaron Solomon watched until Daniel Vizar's face was no longer lingering in the glass, then walked into Denaro's room. He had no desire for communication with his employer. To his way of thinking, the daily notations he submitted were all the contact necessary in this situation. The less said, the better.

He was worried he might inadvertently reveal his aversion to both the man and his company. The anonymity of the protective gear he was forced to don every time he went into the room was usually enough to conceal his misgivings, but for the last two weeks—since Denaro had mutated beyond all recognition—he'd studiously avoided any face-to-face confrontations. It was too difficult to hide what he knew, or at least suspected, about how Caroline Denaro had arrived at this state.

How the hell did I get stuck with this? he wondered, for the hundredth time. The last thing he'd wanted, when they contacted him, was to be caught in some weird genetic mess.

"I'm an oncologist," he said aloud, but he didn't know if he was saying it more for his own reassurance, or to dispel any spectres that might be lurking in the room. Of late he'd wished he were double-qualified in the metaphysical as well as the medical. Though, he thought, looking again at the weird texture of his patient's skin, neither degree's worth shit in this case.

He'd seen Caroline's spectre not once, but many times, over the past month. Even though she no longer looked the same as her extant image, the memory of the lady, as he'd first seen her, was still with him. Enough, anyway, to feel pretty confident with his ID of her restless spirit.

All I want is out.

It was obvious there was nothing he could do—nothing anyone could do. In his opinion, Caroline Denaro's condition was terminal. The creature lying on the bed went far beyond his expertise. Even the rate of her cell growth was out of sync with what he knew of cancer cells.

Vizar's insistence—that he stay on—had begun to terrify him. Vizar might be doing it for appearance's sake, so that he could offer proof regarding their management of what was obviously a serious mistake. But, Solomon was no fool. He had a good idea what Genetechnic was about. According to rumour, it was only surprising that "mistakes" like this one occurred so infrequently.

In his mind, they should be closed down. Activity that could spontaneously alter the human form so completely must be subversive—an obvious hazard to other living things.


For the second time that day, Cole heard Jason's voice as he walked into his house. Jason sounded tired. "This is Jason, Cole. Simon rang me about—"

"—that damned fool who's determined to kill himself?" Cole interrupted Jason's monologue.

Cole could hear the smile in Jason's voice. "Something like that. You didn't have any luck, either?"

"No. He's huddled back in his stacks of books. Did Simon tell you about that?"

"Yeah. He said Rick's house had changed about as much as he had. Stacks of books and papers everywhere."

"And Rick's taken up smoking. He'll probably burn—"

But Jason was thinking about Rick smoking. "Smoking? With pneumonia?" he asked incredulously. "What the hell's he thinking of?"

"Too much. Nothing he'll talk about."

Jason was silent for a minute, then asked Cole, "That stuff he was saying last night—do you know what he meant?" Jason had just remembered Cole's promise to explain it to him later.

"Some of it. But it's a weird story." Cole fiddled with the phone, mistakenly pushing one of the buttons as he tried to decide where to start. He suddenly understood a little better why Rick might be having trouble talking about all this.

"Quit hitting the buttons. You're hurting my ears."

"Sorry. Look, Jace, why don't you come over here?"

"Okay. Simon was going to stop by, so I'll just drag him along. Are you feeding us?" Jason was always looking for a free meal. He was still paying back his loans for med school.

"Only if you want to be on the sick list with Rick," Cole replied. "Of course, I'll feed you, you dumbass."

"In that case, I'll be there in ten minutes—as soon as I let Simon know." Jace chuckled. "He can find his own way to your table."


"Damn right. See you soon." Jason put down the phone.


Drenal Morris scanned the pink sheet, then sighed. She was behind already, and now this one was going to take a while. There was a sample of the guy's blood-tinged sputum, but Peasdale had also sent down a scraping from the oesophageal wall.

Morris looked at the list: Peasdale wanted her to test for everything from Pneumosystis to Aspergillus . Apparently, the good doctor was clueless. She needed to know if it was protozoans, fungi, or bacteria making a mess of her patient's lungs. Morris wondered if Peasdale had any idea how long these tests took, or how much they cost.

If it was either a protozoan or a fungus, it should be easy to see under a microscope. Drenal was no expert with either, but she figured she'd at least be able to ID one enough to tell if that's was she was working with. She prepared a couple of slides—one from the sputum, and one from oesophageal tissue—and slid one under the lens. She couldn't see anything as distinct as a protozoan or a fungus in the sputum, but there was a lot of bacterial growth. She smiled. That simplified things. Unless the bacteria were secondary to a viral infection, it should be fairly straightforward to plate out the bacteria and discover what it was.

Almost as a second thought, she took a look at the slide made from oesophageal tissue. She stared at it for a long time, moving the slide to peer into different cells, and seeing the same pattern repeated over and over. Quickly, with shaking hands, she prepared another slide—hopeful that the intracellular crystals she'd seen had been artefacts of her slide preparation.

The crystals were still there. They were unlike anything she'd ever seen before, and she wondered if it meant the patient had inhaled some kind of foreign substance.

This was beyond her expertise. She tagged the samples and boxed them up—to be sent to the University laboratory via courier in the morning.


"It was weird, all right," Cole told Jason over his second beer. "The ghost lady seemed to home in on Rick—"

Simon had been silent for a long time. Now he asked, "What about Rick? Why didn't he run away?"

"Couldn't," Cole said grimly, gesturing with his bottle. "She had him backed into a corner. There wasn't anywhere he could go."

"What did you do?"

Cole looked slightly embarrassed. "After I saw that Rick was stuck, I tried to grab her." He grinned as he remembered. Then he sobered, as he recalled why it had seemed so urgent. "She was reaching out to touch him, and all these thoughts about possession and zombies started running through my head."

"What happened then?" Simon still couldn't quite see the connection between the ghost lady and Rick's weird behaviour today.

"When I got back off the ground, Rick was real quiet," Cole said, remembering how pale the other man had been.

"Was he okay?" Jason wondered if maybe the experience had been enough to trigger some kind of breakdown.

"No," Cole said. "He wasn't. He was down on his knees, like he couldn't stand up." Cole frowned. "He had one hand on his chest. I thought he was having a heart attack or something." He looked at Jace. "I almost brought him over to see you then, but he refused."

"I wish you had," Jason said.

"Anyway," Cole went on, "I didn't see him after that. Not until yesterday, and we all know about that." He added remorsefully, "I just always figured he'd ring me, if something was bothering him."

"What are we going to do about him now?" Simon asked. "It's obvious he can't stay there by himself."

"Maybe I can convince him to stay here," Cole said.

Jason grinned. "How are you going to 'convince' him? By slinging him over your shoulder and dumping him in your car again?"

"Better than dragging him out feet-first," Simon remarked. "I'll help you do the 'convincing' if you want."

Cole relaxed for the first time in hours. "I think I'll let him feel guilty for a while. Then, if a few hours, when he's sleepy—"

Simon interrupted, "—and suitably remorseful?"

Cole grinned. "—and suitably remorseful, I'll go get him and drag his ass back here." He turned to Jason. "Will you come see him in the morning?"

"Yeah. I'll stop by before I go on duty. If you've managed to convince him to go back to the hospital, I'll deliver him."


Cole wasn't able to sleep. It was while he was lying there, trying to get a few hours' rest before wresting Rick away from his work, that he remembered their last basketball game. It's only been a few weeks. It was just that, in terms of their friendship, it seemed like years had gone by—years in which they hadn't seen each other.

He thought about how sick Rick had been. So sick, in fact, that Jason hadn't bothered with Rick's own doctor, but had taken him straight to the hospital. Rick should still be there.

The last thing Cole wanted to believe was that Rick had suffered a mental breakdown. Could there be another reason? Cole wondered. Like money?
Cole knew that was part of it. Rick's insurance only covered a portion of his hospitalisation, and he didn't want to build up a big bill. And he'd already made it clear he didn't want to rely on his friends. Cole tried to imagine what other things could be affecting Rick—putting him under such pressure. He hated to believe that Rick had gone off his rocker over the sight of some ghost.

The Richard Lockmann he knew would be more likely to analyse how such an event was possible. Cole recalled some of the titles on the stacked-up books in Rick's rooms, and smiled grimly. That was Rick, all right. Needing to figure out what made his ghost lady tick.

That thought led to another, as Cole recalled another facet of Rick's character: his friend was as patient as the devil when it came to one of his precious plants, or—Cole smiled—the foibles of his friends, but he had no patience whatsoever with people who played that game of neglecting themselves, only to get attention. Rick'd had a girlfriend like that once, and he'd hated it when she tried to play him for sympathy. No, Rick wasn't doing this to focus their eyes on him. It was just that his own eyes were so focused on something else, that he couldn't spare the time to get over his illness.

There was that weird look in Rick's eyes, too—the look that Cole had never seen before. Something was eating at him—tearing him up. Something he didn't really want to talk about. And there was his sudden obsession with time—like he couldn't afford to be sick, because it would jeopardise what he was attempting to do.

At that moment, Cole decided he'd waited long enough. It was time for Rick to tell all—whether he liked it or not.

Cole got dressed and went out to his car. It was nearly midnight, and he wondered if maybe he'd waited too long. It wouldn't do Rick any good to think a burglar was raiding his house.

No, he decided, as he gunned the engine. If Rick was where he was supposed to be—in bed—he wouldn't know whether it was eight o'clock, or two in the morning. Being sick, Cole reasoned, he won't know that it's too late for me to come around.


Cole, for once, made a point of being quiet as he moved through the hallway. Quiet, at least, until he reached Rick's bedroom. Rick wasn't there.

"Rick?" Cole turned on all the lights. "Where are you?" He looked around, not quite believing that Rick wasn't stretched out on the sofa, or in his bed. It occurred to him that Rick might have passed out again, so he searched between all the stacks of books and journals, but no Rick. He even went out in the dark, tripped over a chaise lounge, then picked himself up and did a thorough search of the back yard.


Suddenly she realised that the man, Rick, knew she was there. In some way he sensed her being, the way none of the others had been able to do. She'd had to be blatantly obvious in order to be seen by Tom or Sutte; had to expend a major portion of her energy to throw that scare into Daniel Vizar.

How? How could he know? She considered it objectively, trying to remember what little she'd ever troubled to read about spiritualism—then promptly discounted it. This isn't a seance, and I'm not a ghost. "I'm not a ghost!" she screamed. Rick jumped.

Maybe her out-of-body experience wasn't that far removed from those of Buddhist monks, or Indian fakirs. The thought gave her a small germ of hope. I could deal with this better if there were some precedent for it.

But, she wasn't exactly in a position to pick through books, or scan the Internet. She'd never dealt with the esoteric. In fact, most of her life she'd laughed at things like ESP, transcendentalism, out-of-body experiences, ghosts . No, she thought bitterly, I was certain such foolishness had no bearing on my life.

To date, the only person who'd seen her with any regularity was Aaron Solomon. Her so-called physician had done so little to help her body, that it gave her a perverse pleasure to torment him. At that proximity to her body, she had little fear of being unable to "go the distance"—of missing her last opportunity to re-enter her flesh before death. So, Caroline made a point of flashing herself at dear Dr. Solomon, whenever she had sufficient strength.
When her body had first ejected her, all she'd wanted was to get back in. Wandering around unfleshed, unanchored, and, for the most part, unseen, made her feel, literally, like a lost soul. Depressed, hopeless, and full of despair, her focus had been on finding her way back—on guiding her fellow scientists in the restoration of her body, without losing her hold on her flesh.

But, the flesh that had ejected her had changed. And Caroline Denaro was beginning to reject her flesh as much as it had rejected her. The idea of ensconcing herself within the confused genetic amalgam her body had become was losing its appeal. She found herself lingering more and more in the doctor's presence—an invisible observer—before forcing her way back into her body. She'd even considered handing her notes over to the man, but it was obvious he considered her a hopeless case—the only thing holding him here was Vizar's insistence. Solomon would do nothing to help her get back to what she'd been.

No, there must be some other underlying reason why this Rick could detect her presence when all the others could not. Some connection between them—something that bridged the gap between his life and her lack of it.

She remembered that touch—the moment when she'd unintentionally penetrated his chest, before recoiling in horror at her own invasiveness. Did I leave more of myself with him than I intended? At first, the idea was so macabre that Caroline once again perceived herself as some sort of ghoul.

But, then she saw how it could work to her advantage. How she could manipulate this one man in a way she'd never be able to with anyone else. Might even manipulate him into finding a way to get her back.

With this small bit of hope to sustain her, Caroline hovered unseen, conserving her strength until the man, Rick, was in a more approachable position. Until he was in the position where a single step would lead him to her notes.


"Rick?" Cole called out again. Could Rick have gone back to the hospital? Cole picked up the phone.

He laid it down five minutes later. No Rick.

Where was he? Suddenly, Cole knew. He was at the house. The other one. The one that made him nuts, Cole added to himself.

Seven minutes later he pulled up in front. Every light was on. Talk about advertising your presence, he thought. Uncomfortable with barging into this place the way he customarily did at Rick's other house, Cole rang the bell.

Rick wasn't asleep. He answered the door almost immediately.

He looks like shit, Cole thought, studying his friend. But, he knew better now than to say anything. "Are you ready?" he asked simply.

Rick looked back over his shoulder, at the steps leading up to the floor above. He turned back to Cole. "More than ready," he answered, relieved. A trace of humour in his voice brought an answering smile to Cole's lips.

"What about the lights?" Cole asked, as Rick came out and shut the door.

"Leave 'em."

"I'd hate to see your electric bill."

Rick smiled grimly. "Believe me—there are things you can see, Cole, that are infinitely worse."


Her sigh drifted through the front hall, frustration and despair echoing against the blank glass panels of the cold entryway. I should've known better than to rely on a stranger. Tom would've understood.

But, she knew it wasn't true. It was a fiction she clung to because it gave her hope. She'd tried to reach Tom, but the man was scared. He didn't want anything to do with the half-life she'd entered. Maybe all he ever wanted was a good fuck. And maybe I was the only one who'd have him. The bitterness of it ached as much as the tears she could no longer shed.

It was obvious to her that Rick had come to help out; that he'd believed her words about being alive. Caroline quickly realised he was sick, but the only pity she could spare was for herself. At least he's alive. What she worried about most was whether his weakness would overtax her strength. The strength she needed to make him follow this through.

As laborious and important as it had seemed at the time to have a hard copy of her notes, she wondered now whether it had been a mistake . Maybe if they'd had the information, they could have stopped it from happening to me—

Maybe they could have slowed down my mutation.

Caroline was spending more and more time outside her body. The sight of it now disgusted her. She couldn't be objective about her own disintegration. But, even though the idea of returning to that altered form carried its own feelings of horror, the thought of having nothing to return to horrified her more.

When she materialised, it was always in mimicry of her old form—never the new. Never to let this Rick, or anyone else, see what she had become. Never to force herself to acknowledge just how much of Caroline Denaro was left in the mutant lying so still on the bed.


Once Rick was installed on Cole's sofa again, Cole brought him a glass of juice. "Just to lubricate your throat. So you won't have any trouble talking."

Rick hid his smile at the inference. "You have juice? This must be a first." Rick looked at the glass from the side, as though he didn't trust it. "I thought your eight daily glasses of water had to be flavoured with Coke."

"I got the juice for you. Jason said that if I couldn't convince you to go back, then I'd better force lots of liquid down your throat. He recommended juice."

Rick looked embarrassed. "It must seem like I've been acting like an ass."

"Yeah. You ready to tell me why?"

Rick nodded. It was important that Cole understand what was bothering him. So he won't just think I'm losing my mind. "Remember the woman?" he asked hesitantly. "At the house?"

"Duh. How could I forget?"

"Before you came in," Rick whispered, "she spoke to me."

"Jesus! Hold on a minute." Cole reached over and turned up the heater. "A chill just went down my back."

Rick grinned. "I've been having chills for days." He grew serious. "She's not dead, Cole."


"No. It's something else. I've been researching it. I think she was having one of those out-of-body experiences."

"Don't a lot of ghosts think they're still alive? I thought that was why they wandered around scaring everybody, because they didn't have enough sense to lie down and die."

"I know who she is." Rick leaned back and took a sip of juice. This was even harder than he'd thought. He was pretty sure Cole believed he'd dreamed all this up, in one of his delirious moments. Did I? Rick suddenly wondered, doubting himself. It seemed like there'd been a lot of those delirious moments lately.



"Who was she?"

"Dr. Caroline Denaro. A geneticist. She worked for Genetechnic until a month ago. One of their top researchers, in fact." Rick leaned forward. "There's no record of her death, Cole." Rick started to cough.

Cole thought about it. "That doesn't mean she didn't die, Rick. Maybe she wants to haunt that place because somebody murdered her—and she wants them brought to justice." Cole was warming to his theory.

"Why is it easier for you to believe in a ghost, than in an out-of-body experience?" Rick hacked out.

Cole threw another blanket over him. "All I'm saying, is that it's a better bet she's dead than alive. I'd be a little careful about taking the word of a ghost—"

Rick was trying not to cough, and Cole had to strain to hear his words. "It wasn't her words that convinced me, Cole." Rick rubbed his chest, much as he had that afternoon in the house. "It was her touch."


Cole had been awake most of the night, thinking about what Rick had said. When he finally did get to sleep, it wasn't for long, and when he woke up, he was mad, and ready for a confrontation.

"Wake up, Rick." He nudged him. Rick grunted and turned over, so he was facing the back of the sofa. Cole poked him. "Dammit—wake up, Rick. I've gotta go to work. And Jason's going to be here any minute."

Rick opened one eye. "Didn't anyone ever tell you that sick people need sleep?"

"Didn't anyone ever tell you it's stupid to get in over your head?"

"What's bugging you now?" Rick sat up.

"You." Cole stomped around, but Rick didn't have to strain to hear him. He'd started to yell. "First of all, tell me one thing—this isn't one of those weird things, like that guy who fell for a statue, is it? Because, from what I saw, that lady was old enough to be your mother."

It took Rick almost a minute to figure that one out. Finally, he got it: either Cole was referring to Pygmalion, or, more likely, he was talking about the movie where the guy fell in love with one of his display mannequins. Rick started to laugh. "Not a chance."

"Then, what the hell is this? If this lady was tinkering around with genes, then she deserves what she got. It's not like she's some dying kid in Africa, for crissake!"

"And I shouldn't get involved, right?" Rick added evenly.

"Right! The reality of it is: people today don't get involved."

"Then, why am I here, on your couch? Why'd you bother?"

"Because we're friends, and I've known you forever. Besides, if you're stupid enough to get yourself into this kind of shape, then it'll make me better than you for at least the next ten years." Cole grinned. His smile faded as he added earnestly, "You don't even know this person, Rick. And don't give me any Crusader shit about damsels in distress. You're the one who always talks to me about how women have to stand on their own."

"You're right."

Cole looked like he didn't quite believe him. "Which part?"

"All of it."

Cole looked relieved. "Good. Because I've got to get to work." He reached up in the cupboard and pulled down the rejected cheese crackers from two days before. Tossing them to Rick, he said, "Food. Eat. There aren't any books on plants or fungus on my shelves, so don't even bother looking. The TV remote's at your feet. Jason'll be here soon." He'd been about to say "to drive you back to the hospital", but he changed his mind. Let Jason do the talking on that one. He finished with, "He'll let himself in, so you don't have to get up." Cole hesitated. "Just don't go out, okay?"

"Wouldn't think of it."

Cole took a long look at him, noticing the way Rick still wouldn't meet his eyes. Rick had taken his little speech on non-involvement seriously, all right. He was going to do whatever he felt he needed to—only he wasn't going to involve Cole, or any of the others, if he could help it.


Rick didn't even remember falling back to sleep. The next thing he knew, Jason was turning him over, much as he had two days before, to put a stethoscope against his chest.

"Hi, Jason," Rick said grouchily.

"Shut up. I'm trying to listen." Jason grinned.

"How am—" Rick started to ask, but Jason stuck a thermometer in his mouth.

"Can you sit up?"

"Of course I can sit up," Rick spat out around the thermometer. Jason put the stethoscope against his back. Rick jumped. "That's cold!" he grumbled.

"It only feels cold because you're so hot," Jason said reasonably.

When Jason had finished a cursory examination, Rick asked him, "Where's your bedside manner? Aren't you going to do that doctor thing—you know—give me a kindly smile and ask me how I feel?"

Jason was putting away the thermometer. "Nope. Because I can damn well guess how you feel. What are you going to do about it?"

Rick reached over to the table and picked up the bottle of pills Peasdale had prescribed. "Let's be reasonable, Jace. All they'd do in the hospital is give me pills and make me rest. I can do that at home." He saw the expression on Jason's face, and went on, "Or here, since Cole's so insistent."

Jason picked up the bottle and studied it for a moment. "How long have you been on these?"

"Since yesterday. She had me on something else before."

Something that didn't work. "Do you know whether Peasdale got back your test results?" Rick shook his head. Jason sighed. "I think you should go back to the hospital," he said bluntly. "I don't like the way your chest sounds."

Jason looked so solemn, and so much the medical practitioner that Rick wanted to laugh. The impulse turned into a cough. Jason went into the kitchen and brought back a cup of water. "Here—" He opened the bottle of antibiotics. "Have you had one this morning?"

Rick shook his head, and stuck out his hand. "Thanks."

Jason checked his watch. He wasn't sure what to do, but he planned on having a talk with a friend of his who was a psychiatrist. Maybe he'd have some idea how to handle this.

In the meanwhile, though, Jace's friendship with Rick took over. He wasn't about to let Rick die from his own stupidity. He stood up, and told Rick firmly, "You have today, you pig-headed asshole. So do what you need to do. I'm telling you right now, Rick—if there's not a big improvement by tomorrow morning—you're going back, even if I have to dope you up to do it." He gave Rick a parody of the kindly smile he'd requested, then grabbed his gear and walked out the door.


"Hey, Cat," Rick greeted the skinny tom. He pulled a can of cat food out of a bag. "It's party time." He wiped the sweat off his forehead, then squatted down, and yanked Cole's can opener out of his pocket. "Something tells me you were Caroline Denaro's cat." He sniffed the air. "I wonder if you stunk this much when she had you." He grinned. "At least I won't have any trouble coming up with a name for you."

Rick gave the smelly cat another pat, then stood up and took a look at the stairs. He figured that if the woman were going to contact him again, it would probably be in the lab. Right now, though, the upper floor seemed an awfully long way above him. He wobbled over to a designer chair by the fountain, and plopped down into it. He leaned back and closed his eyes, resting until he could get back his strength. He didn't even realise he'd dozed off, until the cat startled him awake. It was sharpening its claws on the back of the leather seat. "Cut it out!" Rick complained, as the cat's claws jabbed his right bun. But he made no complaint a few minutes later, when a bony, warm, furry body crept into his lap. Smelly or not, it was a helluva lot better than being alone.


His stinking companion was the one who warned him. At the rattle of a key in the lock, the feline hissed, then sprang off Rick's lap and raced around the corner. Rick absently rubbed the cleat marks on his leg. "Damn cat," he muttered, then suddenly realised he was no longer alone.

A man had joined him near the fountain. Rick, startled, jerked fully awake.


Justin Sacchara hadn't thought there was anyone home. There was no car in the drive. The last thing he'd expected was to encounter Lockmann under these circumstances. He'd come to do a little discreet nosing around in the man's possessions—and into his computer files, if he was lucky enough to gain access.

Richard Lockmann hadn't set the alarm since he'd moved in, so Sacchara couldn't gauge when he was in residence. If the alarm had been on, it would have been recorded at Genetechnic, and Justin could have felt a little more secure about timing his breaking-and-entering act.

Once Lockmann had seen him, there was no point in subterfuge. The man was bound to encounter him if he took a position at Genetechnic. It'd be better to see if he could talk his way out of this.

Sacchara stared at the other man for a moment, before Lockmann realised he was there. Justin wasn't impressed with what he saw. Lockmann didn't look capable of standing up, let alone running a lab. Sacchara concealed his disappointment. Unless Daniel could get someone to replace Denaro, things would remain in this limbo state, and the pressure would never be off. They needed to move ahead, find out what went wrong. Vizar was certain they had the beginnings of an incredibly profitable venture on their hands, but only if they could find a way to manipulate it. Lockmann didn't look capable of manipulating anything.

Sacchara took the initiative. "Hello," he greeted the other man. "I'm Justin Sacchara—from Genetechnic."

Rick started to get up, but Sacchara put out a hand to stop him. "Don't get up—"

Rick was embarrassed. Even though the other guy was, in essence, trespassing, he was the one who felt at a disadvantage. "I'm Rick Lockmann." He held out a hand. "Your new tenant."

"Sorry to just barge in, but there's something wrong with the alarm system."

"I haven't used it—"

"We were running a routine check of the system, and found a glitch—probably a loose wire or something." Sacchara looked apologetic. "We usually house our employees in these premises. When something goes wrong, we just run by and fix it." Sacchara smiled. "I guess I forgot to consider who our tenant was this time."

Rick nodded. "I guess I should be grateful for such an efficient landlord." Who barges in uninvited. Aloud, he added, "Next time, though—if you could give me twenty-four hours' notice—"

"Of course, Dr. Lockmann."

Rick glanced up at him quickly. So Sacchara had remembered about his title. He wondered what else Sacchara knew about him. "There's no point in your coming back. Feel free to check it out now."

Sacchara went over to a panel on the wall, and fiddled with a few of the wires. Rick had the impression he was doing just that: fiddling around to make it look like he was doing something.

In a few minutes, Sacchara closed the panel and joined him. "All fixed."

Rick pushed himself up out of the chair. Time to get this joker out of here. "Thanks." He moved toward the door. "Everything else seems to be working great."

"Don't you work at Entadyne Research Centre?" Sacchara asked. "I saw it on your application," he explained.

Rick knew Sacchara was really asking, Why aren't you at work? What's the matter, Sacchara? Afraid I won't be able to keep up the rent? "Usually," Rick said, smiling, "but I've had pneumonia, so I've taken a few weeks off." So I'll be here, if you decide to "inspect" anything else.

"How bad?"

"Not bad. I'm on antibiotics now."

Sacchara hesitated in the entryway. He studied the empty room behind him, his eyes lingering on the stairs to the second floor.

Rick turned to see what Sacchara was looking at. He gasped, at the sight of Caroline Denaro staring with intense hatred at the man by his side.

Sacchara heard him and said in concern, "I didn't mean to keep you on your feet so long, Rick. You'd better get some rest now." Rick started to close the door, but Sacchara stopped him. "If you see anything—anything at all—that might need our attention, please let us know."

"I will," Rick said quietly. He closed the door.

Caroline Denaro was still on the stairs. Rick slid down along the glass, and sat on the floor, reluctant to move too far from the door. He'd seen her several times now, but never with that look of malevolence on her face.

One thing he knew now, however. He'd been able to see Denaro very clearly, but Sacchara hadn't seen her at all. For better or worse, Caroline Denaro was becoming his problem, and he had no intention of mentioning it to Justin Sacchara, or anyone else from Genetechnic. Whatever was going on, it apparently wasn't anything that Genetechnic had been able to fix.