EXCERPT: CHAPTER ONE
Friday, 3:51 p.m.
"Black Cherry Chutney," Carina Monroe whispered, hiding her face behind the memorial program so no one could see that she was talking to herself. "Yellow roses. And Tanner."
She peered over the top of the program, pretending to fan herself. Well-dressed men and women were slowly filling the rows of white chairs arranged on the bright green lawn. The memorial was taking place outside because too many mourners were expected for the cemetery's chapel. Carina supposed she should be grateful that it was a perfect spring afternoon; rain would certainly have complicated things.
At least the burial was over: Carina didn't think she could bear to look at the casket for another second, a reminder not only of what she'd lost but also of the fact that she was now truly alone in the world.
Carina wondered if the lab was helping to foot the bill. Mountain Grove was the most beautiful cemetery in the area, and no expense had been spared here either: the chairs were covered with white slipcovers, potted lilies adorned each row, and floral arrangements overflowed the area around the platform. Discreet staff assisted people in finding seats, and white-shirted caterers worked efficiently to set up the long tables of refreshments that would be served following the service.
She scanned the people arriving, the staff members, even the vehicles lining the service drive that disappeared around the building. Good—no one seemed to be watching, not even the security detail assigned to keep an eye on her. So no one had heard her doing her daily appreciations, a habit she'd begun after her mother, Madelyn, died last June and her therapist suggested she think of three things she was grateful for every day.
The therapist hadn't been particularly helpful, but maybe that was because Carina made a practice of lying to him. The biggest lie was that her mother's career had been so demanding that the two of them hadn't been close. Carina insisted that her life wasn't that different now that her mother was gone—she'd been taking care of herself since she was in grade school, she said, and going to live with Uncle Walter after Madelyn's death was just a change of scenery.
Besides, as Carina frequently reminded the therapist, Madelyn hadn't been especially maternal. She'd been reserved, not very affectionate, uncomfortable with intimacy—the exact opposite of nurturing. So, Carina insisted, she'd stopped depending on her mother long ago for emotional support.
It wasn't true, of course. Carina, who'd never known her father, couldn't recall a day in her life when she hadn't wished her mother were more available. But it was easier to pretend that everything was fine, and once Carina was committed to that version of the story, there didn't seem to be much point in being honest about anything else, so she simplified things further by telling the therapist what he seemed to want to hear: I'm sleeping well, my appetite's good, I'm doing great in school.
Yeah. Not so much.
But to Carina's surprise, some of the therapist's advice wasn't too bad. Like telling her to return to the track team right away; training did keep her sane. Seeing her friends never failed to cheer her up, even if she felt like she was sleepwalking through their get-togethers.
And then there were the appreciations. They seemed stupid at first, but just thinking of things to be grateful for and saying them out loud every day did make her feel better. Carina usually did them first thing in the morning, but today had been a mad dash to get ready for the memorial. This was the first chance she'd had to catch her breath, the first moment she'd been left by herself all day.
She wasn't sure if it was cheating, but one of her appreciations was always the same, ever since she'd met Tanner Sloan last September. He was the best thing to happen to Carina for as long as she could remember. The other two were kind of lame today, but what could you expect on the day you buried your last living relative? Besides, Carina truly did appreciate her manicure, the deep red polish called Black Cherry Chutney. And she was grateful for the bouquet of lilies and yellow roses that had arrived this morning, a gift from her best friends, Nikki and Emma.
She looked for them in the crowd; they had promised to come, along with most of the track team. She finally spotted them in line to be seated, far back behind the chairs, and resigned herself to not being able to talk to them until after the service. The security staff would never allow her to go sit with them. The two guards assigned to her, nearly identical men named Baxter and Meacham, had taken up posts at either end of her row, as though they were guarding a bomb rather than an orphaned high school girl.
Earlier in the day, when Uncle Walter had been laid to rest at the private graveside service, the security staff had had their work cut out for them keeping uninvited guests away from the cordoned-off area. But the memorial service was open to the public, and Baxter and Meacham were busy screening the crowd for suspicious characters. What constituted a suspicious character, Carina had no idea, but since her uncle had worked for the Calaveras National Laboratory on projects involving national security, the presence of armed guards was evidently a matter of course.
If Carina had had her choice, she wouldn't have a security detail, much less hundreds of people she didn't know, at her uncle's funeral. But she was glad Baxter was there. He'd gone to work at the lab five years earlier, and he had always been kind to her. And when he was moved from the general security pool to head up the team working on Madelyn and Walter's project, he'd taken a special interest in Carina. He had gone above and beyond the call of duty, driving her to activities if Madelyn and Walter couldn't get away from work. Baxter was the one who came to get her when she caught the flu at school. He teased her about boys as though she were his kid sister, not his bosses' daughter. At her mother's funeral, it had been Baxter who'd made sure Carina had a small pack of tissues for her purse. On her birthday, he'd sent a card; he'd signed it "The Team," but she recognized his handwriting. He'd even come to watch her compete at the state track championships last year.
Meacham, on the other hand, was all business. He hardly ever spoke unless it was into his little Bluetooth mike, and never, ever cracked a smile. He looked like all the other security guards employed by the Calaveras National Lab: young, fit, reasonably attractive men in their twenties and thirties. Dark suits, starched white shirts, sunglasses, buzz cuts—it was like they had all trained with the Secret Service.
Meacham and Baxter had been waiting when Carina and Sheila Boylston pulled up at the funeral home. Sheila Boylston was the guardian Uncle Walter had appointed in his will, and a longtime friend and colleague who'd worked with Madelyn and Walter for years. Sheila had shown up at Carina's school as soon as she'd heard the news about the accident, and by that night she'd moved Carina into her sterile condo with its sharp-angled furniture and echoing minimalist rooms.
Carina flashed back to the memory of arriving at her mother's funeral, when Walter had comforted her in the car. Sheila had tried to make Carina feel at home, and Carina knew she meant well, but there was no way she could lean on her for support the way she'd leaned on Walter then.
Madelyn Monroe's funeral hadn't been this well attended, but that was probably because her job at the lab hadn't been as high profile as Uncle Walter's. Their work had started to attract public attention only after her death. Her suicide had caused quite a stir for a while, especially since rumors always flew about the secret projects being conducted at the lab, but Carina knew that their research was far less exciting than it seemed. "Basically, we're building the modern K ration," Uncle Walter always said. Researching ways to optimize nutrition for the armed services might have been important work, but it was also dull.
Still, Walter was the head of their division, and he'd been interviewed on television half a dozen times in the last year because of a massive contract that was rumored to be in negotiations, one that would bring hundreds of jobs to the city of Martindale, California. Peace protestors and lobbyists from the capital were frequent presences at the lab, as were scientists visiting from all over the world, all of whom brought media attention. That explained the news crews milling around with their cameras at a barely respectful distance.
It was bad enough to have a security detail at your loved one's funeral; knowing it was going to be broadcast around the country was downright depressing. Carina checked her watch: still ten minutes to go. She pressed her hand to her forehead. She'd been feeling light-headed and feverish all morning but had chalked it up to the stress of the funeral and the delayed sense of loss and grief. But now her pulse was racing and a strange, jittery sensation had taken over her nervous system.
Maybe if she went to the restroom, splashed cold water on her face, she'd feel better. She scanned the people gathered at the front of the room and spotted Sheila standing with the minister and the mayor. When they had arrived for the memorial, Sheila told her at least twice to let her know if she needed anything, and not to go anywhere without telling her, but Carina couldn't catch her eye. She sighed—she was seventeen years old, not five, and perfectly capable of going to the bathroom by herself.
Still, when she got up and started to make her way down the row, Meacham hastened toward her, looking worried.
"Miss Monroe, is something wrong?" he asked, taking her arm so that they blocked the aisle. His grip was light, but Carina bet he could break bricks with that hand. She stared into his sunglasses, seeing only her own face reflected back, and tried a smile on him. Unlike Baxter, Meacham didn't fall for her smile; his expression—or lack of an expression—didn't change.
"Oh, hey, Meacham, I was just on my way to the ladies' room." She stared into his sunglasses, challenging him to look away.
"I'll be happy to accompany you."
"I'm not sure that's allowed," Carina said, her temper beginning to fray. "They usually don't let men in there."
This was getting ridiculous. At every event sponsored by the Calaveras National Lab—even company picnics—you could spot men like Baxter and Meacham. The lab was surrounded by high-security electric fencing, even though it was disguised to look like iron scrollwork at both entrances, and there were two separate guard booths that you had to pass to gain admission. Carina had made a joke once that the second guy was there in case you shot the first guy, and Walter had looked startled and failed to laugh along with her.
Ordinarily, the security staff took pains to stay in the background, but today there were at least two dozen of them, and Carina had seen several of their vehicles—dark-windowed SUVs with the lab's parking sticker across the back—parked close to the event.
Meacham didn't respond to her attempt at a joke, so Carina gave up and started down the aisle to the main building, threading her way through the guests while he trailed after her. She scanned the crowd for Baxter and found him at the other end of the row, his hands behind his back. He glanced over at her with a hint of a smile, and she gave him a covert little wave.
When they got to the restroom, Carina put her hand on the door and turned to face Meacham. "Seriously, Meacham, I think I can take it from here."
"I'll be right outside." He took off his sunglasses, revealing cool gray eyes, and leaned against the wall, focusing on the people walking up and down the corridor. He glared suspiciously at a man pushing a cart stacked with coffee cups.
"Hey, Meacham . . ." Carina paused in the doorway, her curiosity winning out. "Why are you following me around? No offense, but I can't believe there's much of a security risk. I mean, my uncle wasn't exactly a celebrity or anything."
Walter might have been high up in the lab's hierarchy, but at heart he was a geek, a guy with not one but two PhDs, from MIT and UCLA, who had trouble making conversation at parties but could talk for hours about DNA-binding proteins. He was usually dressed sloppily and had to be reminded to get haircuts, and he misplaced his car keys almost every day. He'd done pioneering work with viral genomes and lectured all over the world, but he couldn't name a single celebrity or popular television show. The lab had hired a coach to help him with his media appearances, but the man Carina would always remember had an awkward smile and wore wrinkled shirts, and was the kind of guy who could disappear in a crowd or even a packed elevator.
Meacham squinted at her, his mouth turning down in a faint frown. "His work was highly classified."
Carina rolled her eyes. Of course people paid attention to her uncle's project because of the jobs it would bring to the community, but she doubted that anyone cared very much about modifications to the diet of armed services members.
In the bathroom, two women were touching up their makeup at the sink. Carina thought she recognized one of them from some social function, and when she saw the woman's look of sympathy reflected in the mirror, she bolted into an empty stall rather than have to deal with making small talk. She'd had plenty of that already today, accepting the condolences of everyone who'd approached her at the graveside service. She'd have to grit her teeth and get through more socializing after the memorial, but at least Tanner and Nikki and Emma were out there somewhere, and they would be at her side the minute the official part of the program was over and they were allowed to mingle. Once she was with her friends, everything would be easier.
When Carina emerged from the stall, the bathroom was empty. She washed her hands and dabbed her face with a dampened paper towel. The feverish sensation hadn't faded; she didn't really feel ill, just sort of . . . hypersensitive. Her pulse was still racing, her nerves buzzed with electricity, and everything seemed magnified. Sounds were louder, colors brighter; she could make out the conversations of people many yards away.
She stood for a moment looking in the mirror, not yet ready to go back outside and deal with Meacham. She thought she looked okay, especially considering she'd cried most of the night, once she was alone in Sheila's guest room with the door locked. She'd expected her eyes to be puffy this morning, but they weren't—the facial she'd had yesterday must have worked wonders on her skin.
Sheila wasn't exactly a warm and fuzzy person herself, and Carina figured it was easier for her to book four hours of hair and beauty treatments at the most luxurious spa in town than to actually ask her about her feelings—but she appreciated the gesture. Besides, it was better than sitting around a strange house thinking about Walter and the life they'd shared, the life that had shattered overnight when his rental car hit an embankment on his way from the Houston airport to give a talk at Rice University.
Carina's long chestnut hair had been trimmed and accented with highlights. Her brows were shaped, and she'd had a steam facial and exfoliation, as well as a pedicure and gel manicure.
Before the salon visit, they'd gone to a boutique downtown, the kind where the clothes have no price tags and they offer you herbal tea or champagne while you shop. The saleslady had studied Carina and then brought her things to try on without ever asking her size. Carina had chosen a dress that she'd never have picked on her own but had to admit looked good on her: a deep shade of navy blue, close fitting but not tight, with a wide neckline that showed her collarbones and a skirt that flared out to swirl above her knees.
When the saleslady rang up the dress—and high-heeled navy sandals to go with it—Carina was shocked by the cost. But before she could protest, Sheila laid a hand on her arm and handed over her credit card.
"For Walter," she said. "Let's send him off in style."
Now Carina turned to check the back of her dress in the mirror, appreciating the smooth fabric, the way it draped over her hips. It was probably wrong to be thinking of Tanner at a time like this, but she was looking forward to him seeing her in the dress. Especially after last night.
Coloring at the memory, Carina took off her ring, the only jewelry she wore, so she could dry her hands. The ring had been a gift from her mother on her sixteenth birthday, a couple of months before she died. Carina didn't often wear it because it was bulky and tended to spin on her finger, but the large green stone looked perfect with the navy dress. Green had been her mother's favorite color, and the jade was veined with several shades from pale celery to deep pine.
There was a knock at the door. "Miss Monroe? Everything okay?"
Meacham. Of course. Carina sighed before answering. "Just dealing with a feminine issue," she said maliciously. Maybe that would embarrass him enough to make him go away.
"I'll be right here," he said after only a brief hesitation. Okay, so maybe they covered that at secret agent school.
Carina picked up her ring and examined the stone, which was carved into a hexagon and polished to a bright shine. One of the prongs looked a little crooked, and Carina tested it with her fingernail.
It seemed to give, and Carina's heart sank. That was all she needed today, to lose the stone from the ring, but she had brought only a small handbag without a secure closure and she didn't want to risk storing the ring in the bag. Trying to decide whether it was safe to wear the ring, she slipped the tip of her polished fingernail under the prong, looking for damage along the small, sharp bit of white gold that held the stone in place.
As she brought it up close to her eye, she noticed that the prong wasn't like the others—it was hinged at the bottom, a minuscule clasp lifting away as she tugged at the tip. She caught her breath when it snapped backward, and the stone popped out.
It didn't fall all the way out. Carina gingerly tapped the stone. Solid: something was keeping it in place. Holding the ring under the fluorescent light, Carina looked underneath at the flat surface of the setting.
It wasn't entirely flat. Etched into the gold were characters of some sort . . . numbers. They were so tiny that Carina could barely make them out, but as she squinted, they came into focus. Two rows of numerals, with a few letters mixed in. There were fifteen or twenty characters in all.
"Miss Monroe? I'm going to need to come check on you if you don't come out now." Meacham sounded annoyed. Carina hastily pushed the stone back down, and it snapped into place. She slid it onto her finger just as the door to the ladies' room opened and Meacham stood in the entrance, glaring at her with suspicion.
"So sorry to keep you waiting," Carina said, forcing a smile. "Little wardrobe malfunction. But don't worry, I've got everything under control."
Pushing past Meacham before he could respond, she hurried back toward the crowd, which seemed to have doubled since she'd been gone. She waved at her friends, but they didn't see her. She scanned the people filling the seats and standing along the walls and in the back, searching for Tanner, but there were easily a few hundred people assembled and she didn't see him anywhere. Baxter was hovering at the other end of her row, looking anxious.
She allowed Meacham to help her to her seat, giving him her best innocent look, eyes downcast. While she waited for the service to begin, she took a plain white envelope out of her purse for the third time since leaving the house, running her fingers over the smooth surface, tracing the letters of her name. She couldn't bear to read its contents yet, not here, not alone. She returned it to her purse and picked up the program from where she'd left it under her seat, and stared at her uncle's photograph. He was looking directly at the camera and laughing, wearing a suit and tie—a photograph that did not reflect the shy man she'd known and loved.
Carina concentrated on keeping her breathing slow and even. All around, the buzz of murmured conversations failed to cover up the fact that this was one of the loneliest days of her life.
© Sophie Littlefield