“I need a clue.”
Cecilia Lu stared across her microscope at her coworker. He was snoring quietly on the couch. His entire body looked like a scarecrow with the stuffing pulled out, and no wonder. They’d both been logging twenty-hour days and were no closer to solving the mystery of the Detroit Flu than when they’d first showed up a week ago.
“No really,” she continued. “You know, like a place to look. Because right now, as far as I can tell, the answer could be in the neurotransmitters. Or the blood. Hell, it could be the phases of the moon because I sure as hell don’t know.”
She stared at the monitor where it was trained on their latest patient. The image on the screen was just too unbelievable to credit. But when she blinked her eyes and looked again, there was Brittany still looking like something out of a horror film. Brittany was a sweet girl. A gymnast with a B+ average at school and a laugh that made Cecilia think of unicorns snorting. It was both earthy and magical at the same time. But instead of the perky strawberry-blond girl who appeared in her social media profile, Brittany now had reddish black fur on her face, slit-shaped yellow eyes, and nails that extended in sharp, curved points like claws. Even her ears had changed into tufted points.
The girl had come in hysterical and bloody; she’d tried to claw out her own eyes. They’d knocked her out in the ER and sent her straight up here to the Weird Ward as it was now called. Yes, the CDC had jurisdiction of all the strange cases because—the theory went—the CDC had all the answers.
And now Brittany lay slack-jawed and restrained, but all Cecilia could see was the dark hair against white hospital sheets.
For most people, the illness put them in bed with congestion and a killer headache. Others threw up for a couple of days, which was how the disease had gotten its “flu” name. This last outbreak had added hallucinations to the list of symptoms, and now half the city was in bed seeing elephants wearing tutus on their ceiling. Clinics and hospitals quickly became overwhelmed by society’s most vulnerable members—the elderly and the very young. Add in crazy people seeing things, and the ERs had gotten many times the normal cases of gunshots and car crashes.
And then there were Cecilia’s cases. People like Brittany who came in deformed. Some arrived crazy. Others went insane afterward. Every one so far had died, and their autopsies showed deformities in their brains. Something happened to their nerves causing them to warp. And the brain had a whole lot of nerves to warp.
“Maybe I should get something to eat.” Her stomach rumbled at the thought, but that might just be a reaction to the sludge they called coffee in this hospital. She’d been drinking it nonstop since the day she arrived. “Some kind of brain food.” She leaned back in her chair and stretched her spine. How long had she been slumped over that microscope? “Bet I’d know the best foods if I were a brain surgeon. And I’d know if the answer is in the neurotransmitters, too. If only I’d studied neurology, then maybe I’d have a clue.”
Or maybe not. Dennis on the couch—the one who had collapsed in exhaustion—was one of the top neurologists in the world, and he was as confused as she was.
Cecilia hopped off her stool and stretched her aching back. She thought about ditching her lab coat as she went in search of brain food, but it had deep pockets that held her many different colored pens, her Detroit Flu dedicated notepad, and her phone. No sense in—
“Dr. Hayes? Are you Dr. Hayes?”
Cecilia spun around on her toe, pretending for a moment that she was Brittany doing a gymnastic move. Such are the things her brain did when it was exhausted.
“Sorry,” she said as she finished her spin, smiling as she…
Big guy. Big black guy with the broadest shoulders she’d ever seen and a jagged scar that cut across his jaw. It was an old one, probably happened years ago and had never been stitched properly. Poor guy. A good plastic surgeon could have made it nearly invisible. Instead, it was one of the first things anyone saw when they looked at his face. But even with the scar, she had to admit he looked pretty sexy. It wasn’t just his muscles and cut body, but also because his expression seemed warm and open. Like he was a big, soft place for her whole being to rest.
She blinked, startled by her own thoughts. Must be the exhaustion. Meanwhile, she smiled as she dropped down onto her heels and walked toward him. “Dr. Hayes isn’t here. He had to go back to DC.” Or more accurately, he’d fled when he realized he was as clueless as the rest of them. She hadn’t thought the man was a coward, but two hours before the quarantine, he declared he had “important business” in DC and hopped on the last flight out of Detroit.
“Can I help you?”
The man gave her a weary smile as he gestured to her name on the lab coat. “Dr. Lu? Are you with the CDC?”
“Yup. Started with them right out of school.” Then she abruptly jumped to his side. “You’re bleeding!” His forearm had dark red spots in the shape of an animal bite. Most of it had sealed over, but some of the punctures were jagged and still bleeding sluggishly.
She grabbed his wrist with her right hand, turning the wound toward the light. Wow. He had big hands, and it was impossible not to notice the strength in his wrist and forearm. Attraction stirred inside her, and she covered her embarrassment by yanking gloves out of a nearby box.
“Let’s get you down to the ER. Did you know the animal that bit you?” There had been scores of reports of pets going crazy. Docile lapdogs suddenly becoming vicious terrors. Old cats that barely moved from their spot in the sun abruptly tearing around and howling. The CDC didn’t have reliable statistics on it, not with the human problem their main focus. But Cecilia had heard enough stories just from the hospital staff to guess that the two were related.
She wanted to see if she could isolate the same bizarre enzyme in afflicted pets as she’d discovered in her patients, but she wasn’t a veterinarian. She’d already sent the request up the chain of command, but it would take some time. Plus asking the police to bring in any “crazy pets” that they found was like asking guys in a war zone to stop fighting for their lives to play with the wildlife. It was frustrating because she could take the samples herself. You didn’t need to be a veterinarian to pull blood and saliva, but she didn’t have the credentials or the resources to get the pets in the first place.
“Um, yeah,” the man answered. “It’s okay. I was an army medic. Already treated it.”
She rolled his wrist to look at the underside of the bite. “That’s a really big bite. Was this dog a pet?” She looked up, her mind scrambling with hope. Was this her clue? “Was it unusual for him to react like this? I mean, if he was a pet, did he suddenly get wild? Do you know where he is? Can you take me to him?”
Her questions came out rapid fire, her mind already sorting through research possibilities. She steadfastly ignored the fact that the last thing she should do is wander off after dog saliva samples. But it wasn’t like she was making progress here.
“Yeah, I can,” the man said. “And this was definitely weird.”
She snorted. “That’s what they call us. The Weird Ward.” Then she sobered as she realized that was probably an inappropriate comment. They were the CDC, after all. They were supposed to inspire confidence and scientific know-how. “I mean…um…” She flushed. “Look, let’s get you down to the ER to get those wounds cleaned up.” She wanted to take samples of his blood and swab the wounds even though he’d already doused it with antiseptic. You never knew what interesting stuff could survive an alcohol swipe. And she wanted to stay with him. He was the first warm, comfortable person she’d been around in a very long time. Everyone else was either a patient, panicked family, or another uptight scientist like herself, completely absorbed in fighting a possible pandemic. “Give me the address of the dog. I’ll have the cops pick it up.”
“Cops are spread too thin, and nobody gets close to my dog without me.”
She pounced on his words. “So this was your dog? Your pet? He doesn’t bite people normally, does he?”
“Of course not.” He turned and used his free hand to grab her elbow and started leading her out of the lab. “I can take you to him, no problem.”
She laughed as she fell in step with him. “I’m not equipped to handle a dog. Certainly not an angry one.”
“It’ll be fine. He’s my—”
“First things first. Let’s get you to the ER. What’s your name? I’m Dr. Lu, but you can call me Cecilia.”
“Hank Coleman,” he said, extending his good hand to shake hers. His palm was huge, easily dwarfing hers, but it surrounded her in a pleasing warmth. As did his eyes. Light brown in a dark face. The edges crinkled when he smiled at her, and though everything about him felt sexy, what she most noticed was how he felt calm. As if everything inside him was quiet when every part of her was edgy, ragged, and way too caffeinated. She liked that about him, and she felt herself settle into his rhythms as they walked.
“Nice to meet you, Hank,” she said, her words coming out a little breathless. “Tell me more about your dog. What breed? How old is he? How long have you had him?”
They walked together to the elevator as she peppered him with questions. He answered easily, frowning when he couldn’t remember the creature’s exact age and had no clue about the breed. The dog was a mutt, he said, with the sweetest temperament until this morning.
They stepped into the elevator, and she waited for him to continue. He was just talking about his dog, but she loved the cadence of his deep voice. She could stand there listening to it for hours just to hear the rich timber of it. But he’d apparently run out of words and stood there, looking awkward.
“Tell me more about when he bit you. Did you notice anything different? Like was he foaming at the mouth or barking strangely?”
“Um, nothing like that. He was angry. Wouldn’t stop barking.” His words stumbled to a halt, and she frowned. Most patients couldn’t stop talking about their attack. They usually rambled in a disorganized way, often focusing on all the wrong details. But Hank, here, seemed to be a man of very few words. That made him intriguing to her—and sexy as hell—so she focused even more on the details of his face, his body, and his words.
“What did you do that made him attack?” she pressed.
He rubbed his face, and she began to think something was off. As if he felt uncomfortable and that made her uneasy. But before she could ask him for more details, the elevator doors opened. They were on the main floor, but instead of heading to the ER, he steered her toward the outside door.
“This way,” she said as she tugged away from his grip. Or she tried to. He held her fast. “The ER—”
“I don’t need the ER. My car’s in the parking lot.”
She dug in her heels. She wasn’t one to judge based on size, color, or even an ugly scar, but she also wasn’t stupid. “I’m not going with you to get your dog.”
“He’s in my car. I brought him in because he’s not right.” Hank gave her an aw-shucks kind of shrug that was downright adorable. “That’s why I went to the CDC. He’s not okay. Thought you guys would know something about that.”
“You’ve got him in a cage? In your car?”
He nodded. “Look, I can keep him quiet. I just want you to look at him.”
“Let me get security to help.” Safety had been drilled into her from her first days at the CDC. Protocol stated that she not walk outside with him even if it was just across the street into a well-lit parking lot. Except when she looked around, security was nowhere to be seen. Probably all in the ER dealing with a full house of hallucinations. All the hospitals had been overrun since the first appearance of the Detroit Flu. But once the quarantine went into effect, it had been wall-to-wall patients in every ER in the city. And the clinics. And even a dental surgery center.
Hank turned and looked her in the eye. His demeanor was quiet, his entire body language gentle. “Look,” he said softly. “I know I look scary, but I really am not here to hurt you. I served honorably as an army medic. I save people. Here, I’ll show you.” He pulled out his wallet and showed her his military ID.
She flushed, feeling stupid for doubting him. He didn’t seem scary. In truth, she was really attracted to him. His car was right across the street. But most important of all, she really wanted to look at his dog. She’d seen too many of the Flu victims at their worst. She needed to know if Hank’s dog was acting just like that. If there were physical changes like with the humans. Plus, dogs didn’t get hysterical like humans did. At least not in the same way. If this was finally the big clue she’d been waiting for, then she was really anxious to get on with it. It seemed silly to wait for security when the dog was just across the street.
“Okay,” she finally said. “Let’s go.”
His body softened then with a smile that came from deep inside. She could see the relief as it flowed through him, but it didn’t quite meet his eyes. What she saw there was more of an apology. As if he was sorry for the trouble he was causing. Which was silly because this had to be the clue she’d been praying for. And how nice of the universe to deliver it in such a sexy package.
So she kept him talking, asking him questions as fast as they came to her, and they came really fast. He answered in frustrating monosyllables or something worse like “I don’t know. You’ll just have to see.” Talk about nonspecific.
They made it to a beat-up Chrysler 300, and he unlocked the back door and swung it wide with a see-for-yourself gesture. She started to duck to look inside when he caught her arm.
She paused in a semi-crouch. “Yes?”
“I’ve been ordered to do this by my alpha. I disagree, but only an idiot disobeys in a crisis. And I don’t see another way.”
She didn’t know what to think. His words didn’t make any sense, but when she started to react, he added two more words.
And then it was too late.