It had to be a mistake.
James Parker sat paralyzed, watching as a jagged line plunged and leaped across his computer monitor. No.... It couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible. Ray had botched the experiment. Put a healthy control mouse in the wrong cage. That had to be it.
He tapped the Escape key and scrolled back through the data for mouse 87. If the data were from a control mouse, the line should have stayed at the same level throughout the—
His hands crumpled to the keyboard. The signal. It had started out flat. And then, halfway through the second day, it began to rise, jumping more and more as the mouse’s movements grew more pronounced.
The computer screen went suddenly hazy. The mouse’s movements? As in walking? Was it possible? He switched the display back to real-time mode. No doubt about it. The line was twitching like a coffee drinker on rage. Without taking his eyes off the screen, he flopped his hand across the desktop and hit the speed dial on his speakerphone. The phone picked up on the first ring.
“Hello?” His mother’s worried voice.
“Mom, you’re not going to believe this. I’ve got a moving mouse.”
“James? Is everything okay? It’s after eleven o’clock.”
“Mom, I’ve got it. I’ve finally found a lead! I’m watching the motion detector readout right now. A five-month-old muscular dystrophy mouse. It couldn’t even pick itself off the floor of the cage when we started the experiment. But now it’s moving like crazy. More than the controls.”
“Honey, that’s ... wonderful.” Her voice trailed off.
“Mom, this is for real. The signal’s way above the noise. And this batch of compounds—they came from the new docking studies.” He scrolled over to the data for mouse 87. “I knew it! Adrenaline 355! Remember the adrenaline analogs I was telling you about?”
“That’s great.” Her voice sounded flat.
“I can’t believe this!” Parker cried out. “You should see the motion indicator. It’s pegging the top of the chart! Can I talk to Jenny? Has she gone to bed yet?”
“She won’t mind being woken up. You know she won’t. She’d kill me if I waited till morning.”
“James, I ... Jenny can’t ...”
“It’s okay. I won’t get her hopes up. I won’t be able to check on the mouse until tomorrow morning when Ray comes in—if he bothers to show up. Today makes the fifth day this month he’s missed work. I ought to—”
Something in his mom’s voice sent a chill through his body. Jenny. Something was wrong.
“James, your sister is back in the hospital. Your father and I just got back. We were going to call you, but we—”
“The hospital?” His mind raced in a thousand terrifying directions. “She’s going to be okay, right? Her heart’s fine. They just got back the tests.”
“She’s in stable condition, but her heart’s very weak. And it’s only going to get weaker. Her muscular dystrophy is accelerating.”
“But my experiment ... adrenaline 355. It could help her. I know it could.”
“Maybe.” Her voice choked off. “Maybe it’s God’s answer to our prayers.”
“I know it is. You should see the motion detector. It’s—” Parker stared at the screen. The line had taken a sharp nose dive to the bottom of the chart. Flat line. Not even a squiggle.
He checked the x-axis. The chart was still scrolling. It couldn’t be the network connection....
“Parker? Are you okay? Parker?”
“Mom, I’ve got to go. Something just happened. I’ll call you in the morning, okay?”
“Love you. Bye.” He stretched out a pronated hand and swatted an oversized button on his speakerphone. Dragging his arm back across the desk, he grabbed his joystick control and swung his wheelchair in a tight half circle. He jammed down on the joystick, and the wheelchair leaped forward, racing across his laboratory and out into the empty hallway of the chemistry building.
The adrenaline was working. It had to be. Something was just blocking the motion sensor. That was it. Maybe the mouse was moving so much it vibrated the sensor loose. There were millions of explanations. He stopped outside the elevators and jabbed at the Down button, toggling his footrests up and down as he waited for an elevator to arrive.
“Finally!” The doors slid open with a ding, and he guided his chair inside. “Come on!” He punched the D button for the lower basement five times before the doors finally closed. The elevator took a lifetime to reach the bottom.
“Come on!” The doors opened and he darted out into a dimly lit hallway. He sped through the maze of corridors, making his way toward the vivarium facility that housed his animal room. Raising his footrests all the way, he rammed into a set of swinging doors. No time to change into sterile scrubs. He guided his chair to the door of his animal room and inserted a key into the lock. Pulling down on the L-shaped handle with both hands, he pushed against the door.
No good. The air pressure inside the lab was pushing against him. “Hello? Anybody down here?” His voice echoed through the empty hallways. Inching his wheelchair back a little, he jammed down on the joystick and rammed into the door. “Hello? Anybody at all?” He rammed the door again. He was running out of time, and it was all his fault. After fighting so hard to get them to build an animal facility in the chemistry complex, he’d been too cheap to spend grant money on the door to his own animal room.
Holding the knob open with a trembling left hand, he spun his chair around and smacked his footrest into the door. The door popped open with a swoosh of escaping air. Before it could close, he angled his footrests into the gap, wedging the door farther and farther open. He was in!
Parker hurried across the animal room to the high rack of mouse cages that lined the back wall. A tangle of black cables cascaded down the front of the rack, connecting each cage’s motion sensor to the monitoring station in the corner of the lab. He scanned the ID numbers on the metal tags hanging at the front of each cage. Wouldn’t you know it. It was on the second row from the top. Too high up for him to reach without help.
He crossed the room and pulled two wooden dowels from the workstation. One short and one long. It had been over a year since he’d used the poles to pull an overhead cage out of the rack. He wasn’t sure he could still do it. He positioned his chair beneath cage 87 and reached up with the long pole. Popping open the flag-like latch that secured the cage in place, he hooked the long pole under the lip of the cage and slid it out of its slot, inch after inch after painstaking inch. When the cage was almost halfway out, he reached up with the short dowel and wedged its tip into a circular slot in the bottom of the cage.
Almost there ... He eased the cage farther out until the two slots at the back of the cage were exposed. Carefully transferring the long pole to the slot in the far corner, he was just about to pull the cage from the rack when it dipped sharply, twisting the dowel from his grasp.
Grabbing the long pole with both hands, he jammed it up into the base of the cage as the dowel clattered to the floor. For a heart-stopping second, he thought the cage was going to crash down on him. His arms trembled violently. If the cage fell, it could crush the life out of any chance he had to determine what had happened to mouse 87.
Parker tore his eyes from the suspended cage. The dowel lay on the floor about a foot away from his chair. Wedging the base of the long pole against the cushion of his chair, he leaned over, straining with outstretched fingers. No good. The dowel was a good six inches away.
“Dear God, please ...” Parker extended his arm until his ribs ached, but it was too far away. If the mouse was still alive ... If the adrenaline analog had actually given it strength, even for a few hours ...
He sat up and clung to the pole with both hands, hugging it to his chest while above him, suspended by the force he applied to the pole, hung the life of his only sister.
“Jason, no!” Darcy reached for the door of Jason’s new Miata. “I really have to go. I’ve got work to do.”
“But it’s after midnight on a Thursday night.” Jason leaned in closer. “The chemistry library’s dark. Nobody’s there. Let me give you a ride home.”
Darcy turned to survey the dark buildings that made up the chemistry complex. “They just forgot to turn on the entrance lights. The stacks and carrels are probably full of students.”
“Darcy, it’s midnight. Trust me, nobody’s there.”
“No problem.” Darcy pushed open the door and started to get out. “Lee-Hong works late. He can give me a ride home.”
Jason reached over and caught her by the forearm. “I saw Lee-Hong this morning. He said he’s never given you a ride. He doesn’t even own a car.”
Darcy slumped back into her seat, stealing a glance at Jason out of the corner of her eye. He didn’t seem mad. Not really. Just a little confused. She flipped open the mirror on the visor and pretended to brush a strand of hair out of her eyes. Confused was good. She could definitely work with confused. She turned on him with her best whipped-puppy-dog expression. “I suppose if I were to tell you I’ve been working all night in the lab, you’d think I was an overachieving, no-life geek.”
“Of course.” Jason’s pale, overlarge eyes crinkled into a smile. “We’re all overachieving geeks. We wouldn’t be at Cal Berkeley if we weren’t.”
Darcy’s face relaxed into an apologetic grin. “So you don’t mind? I’ve got prelims coming up and I don’t have a single result. Channing’s ignoring me. She’s ready to pull the plug. I know she is—”
Jason held up a hand. “It’s okay. Things will work out.” His features hardened into a frown. “But not tonight. You practically fell asleep in your curry.”
“I know. Just two hours to finish up a gel. I’ll call—”
“I also checked on the Berkeley Safe Walk Program. It hasn’t been running for over two years.”
Darcy could feel the heat rising to her face. She turned back to the mirror, trying to force herself to relax. She could just insist. Get out of the car now. Jason wasn’t her guardian. She didn’t have to get his permission.
“Darcy, I ... It’s late. Let me just take you home. I don’t care if ... I mean, we’re grad students. We’re supposed to live in hovels. I just got lucky.”
Hovels? Darcy could feel the tension draining out of her muscles. She looked back at Jason and smiled. “Why don’t you just drop me off here? If you saw my hovel, you’d have to fumigate me before letting me back in your car. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I mind fumigation so much, but sitting on plastic sheets gives me heat rash.”
“Don’t worry,” Jason said, “I’ve got Scotchgard.” He started the car, put it in gear, and pulled out onto the deserted campus street. “So, where’s this hovel of yours?”
Darcy closed her eyes and tried to visualize a map of the city. Where was this hovel of hers? “I guess I know what I’m getting for Christmas—another flea-collar necklace and a pair of tree-shaped, air-freshener earrings.”
“Okay, it’s on Thirty-seventh Street.” She’d seen the street sign once when she’d gotten lost her first week in Berkeley. The name was Thirty-seventh Street, wasn’t it?
“Thirty-seventh?” Jason asked.
“That’s right,” Darcy said firmly. She’d been scared to death. The bullet-ridden street sign had made quite an impression. “Down Telegraph, on the right, almost to Oakland.”
“See? That wasn’t so hard.” Jason turned right and sped down a dark narrow street. “Know what your problem is?” He turned and flashed her a smile. “You worry too much—over nothing. You’ve got to learn to relax. Chill.”
“Well, your problem is you don’t watch where you’re driving.” Darcy braced her hand against the dash as Jason swerved back into his lane.
“See what I’m saying?” Jason was looking at her again. “Relax. We’ve got the road to ourselves.” He glanced forward and pulled the car into a squealing right-hand turn. “All it takes is perspective. Perspective and a good set of tires.”
“And a desire to spend Friday night alone,” Darcy threatened.
“Okay. Okay.” The hum of the engine wound down, and the car slowed to a reasonable speed. “I was just trying to get you to loosen up a bit. You know, seize the moment. Have some fun.”
“Jason, it’s late....”
“I know, let me guess. You need to get up early tomorrow to work on your research.”
She could almost hear the pouting in his voice. Why did he have to make it so hard? She looked out the passenger window as Jason turned slowly onto Telegraph Avenue. The car was barely crawling now. Another stall tactic? She rested her head against the window and watched the deserted sidewalks scroll silently past. Empty shops glowed feebly against the cloying darkness. Leather-studded mannequins cowered behind spray-paint-streaked bars. Blanket-wrapped cocoons huddled in the shelter of shadowy entryways, homeless pupae hibernating until their day of emancipation.
“Where is everybody?” She shook off the dark thought. “It’s barely midnight.”
“It’s way too dangerous these days,” Jason said. “Apparently some people have the sense not to walk home alone at night.”
“Better be careful.” Darcy allowed a little playfulness to creep into her voice. “Some people may get so paranoid they’ll stop going out for Thai food.”
Jason didn’t respond. Had she gone too far? She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. He was leaning forward over the steering wheel, peering ahead through a shroud of heavy fog.
“What—” Jason hit the brakes and the car skidded to a halt. Twenty yards ahead of them, illuminated by the fog-choked beams of his headlights, a mob of twenty to thirty people filled the street. “What do they think they’re doing? They can’t just stand—”
“Wait!” Darcy grabbed Jason’s arm before he could hit the horn. The mob was shuffling toward them with slow, uneven steps. Blank faces. Glassy eyes. Their arms hung limp as they drifted from side to side, weaving a serpentine path up the litter-strewn street. A low keening whistle sounded through the chill night. An answering whistle.
“Glass-heads,” Darcy hissed. “Get out of here. Quick!” She braced both hands against the dash as Jason threw the car into reverse and backed down the street. The glass-heads drifted after them, wide obsidian eyes staring sightlessly after the retreating headlights.
Jason swung the car around and slammed on the brakes. Then, shifting to Drive, he sped away.
“I can’t believe this!” He took a hard left. “You’ve been walking home all this time?” The tone of his voice bordered on anger.
Darcy shrunk away from him. “They’re not supposed to be dangerous, you know.”
“That’s not what I hear.”
“And I suppose prisons give inmates glass because their prisoners aren’t violent enough?”
Jason took another left, a little slower this time. “You still shouldn’t be walking alone at night—especially not these days. Murder is still murder, whether the murderers are on glass or not.”
“Okay, okay.” Darcy threw up her hands in mock surrender. “I confess. I’m a geek. My life is so dull I have to walk home from the library just to get a little excitement.” She watched Jason, waiting for a smile, a grimace, a shake of the head—anything to show he wasn’t really angry.
“I’m serious. I don’t want you out alone at night.” Jason turned to look at her. His eyes were soft, pleading.
She swallowed the retort that had been forming on her lips. “Fine. I promise to be careful. No more walking the streets of Oakland ... after tonight.”
“You can’t very well expect me to stay home and let you win.” Darcy made a face. “As soon as you drop me off, I’m walking right back to the chemistry library just to prove people really are there.” She stared Jason down, formulating a response to the objections she saw gathering in his eyes.
Jason shook his head and turned back to the road. Good. He was smiling.
Darcy relaxed in the padded leather seat and closed her eyes. Time to keep her mouth shut. One more syllable of provocation and he’d probably blow.
“Here’s Thirty-seventh.” The Miata slowed to a stop at a dark intersection. “Which way do I turn?”
“Oh. Um ...” Darcy leaned forward and gazed out the windshield. It was too dark to tell. “Right, I think. I’m not used to coming this way.”
Jason swung the car into a wide turn and drove slowly down the center of a trash-littered street. Heavy mist formed sickly orange halos around unevenly spaced streetlights. Most of the warehouses appeared to be abandoned. She searched right and left for something that could pass as an apartment building. Maybe she should just give up and ...
“Right here.” Darcy pointed to a low building on their left, the only building on the street that had a light glowing outside its front door. “This is it. Hovel, sweet hovel.”
“Wow.” Jason stopped the car and stared up at the dilapidated building. “I had no idea. Now I understand—”
“Why I haven’t let you take me home?”
“Why you spend so much time in the lab.” He grinned at her and started to open his car door.
Darcy grabbed him by the arm. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To escort you to your hovel.”
“I don’t think so.” She climbed out of the car and hurried around to push Jason’s door shut. “Turn your back on this car for five seconds, and it will be stripped down to its hubcaps.”
“Come on, Darcy. At least let me—”
“Good night, Jason. Thanks for the ride.” She jogged toward the silhouetted building, her eyes fixed on the staple-pocked surface of the door. Stepping confidently onto the cement stoop, she gripped the rusted door handle and waited. Behind her, she could still hear the hum of the Miata’s engine. What was he waiting for? She twisted the knob in both directions. Locked.
Turning around, she gave the okay sign and waved Jason away. “Go on. Get out of here,” she mumbled under her breath as she dug in her purse for keys.
The car turned so that its headlights were aimed right at her.
Great. She pulled out her keys with a flourish and dangled them in the air for Jason to see. Then, after waving again, she pretended to insert a key into the lock and stepped toward the door. One more wave and ... Jason was on his way.
Finally. Darcy heaved a sigh of relief and collapsed against the door. For a second there, she’d thought he was planning to stay the night. Now all she had to do was—
The hiss of distant voices sent shivers up her spine. Spinning away from the door, she dove for the cover of darkness. The whispers sounded again. A low keening whistle. It was getting louder. She crept along the side of the warehouse, searching up and down the shadow-blanketed street. Another pack of glass-heads. Two, maybe three blocks to the north. If she was careful, she could get past them. But it was going to be a long, long walk back to the campus.