Scott Nicholson

Chronic fear


“Surely you didn’t think we could let you live, after what happened.”

Dr. Alexis Morgan’s lungs froze in shock at the words. She didn’t recognize the male voice on the phone, and the caller ID had been blocked. She’d answered out of habit, because she’d become a reliable source not just for academic types, but among the pop-culture journalists as well. Answering the phone was the price of becoming the Carl Sagan of the mind’s vast cosmos.

Alexis made herself take a breath, glancing around her office in the University of North Carolina neurosciences department, seeking reassurance in the fat books lining the shelves, the research notes pinned to the bulletin board, and the cold eye of the computer screen.

Yes, everything was normal, or at least typically abnormal.

“Who is this?” she finally managed to whisper.

The voice chuckled on the other end of the line. “You could call me a ‘watchdog,’ but that wouldn’t narrow it down much, would it?”

“If you’re threatening me, I’ll report you to the university police.”

“That would be wonderful, Dr. Morgan. Then they’d open up that whole barrel of monkeys and my work would be done.”

“I’m a neurobiologist, not a kindergarten teacher. I’m afraid you have the wrong-”

“You didn’t like playing second banana, did you? You want it all to yourself.”

She should have thumbed the phone dead. But people tended to let things slip that revealed secrets they’d hidden even from themselves. No matter how carefully the psychological vault was built, it always had a crack. Maybe she could bait him out.

“Is Burchfield behind this?”

“We gave you a chance to forget,” the voice said. “But, no, you just had to keep digging.”

Because the neurosciences department dealt with sensitive information as well as private health records, the technical security was high. But the best hacks were employed by the people with the most power, and right now, Senator Daniel Burchfield was in the running for the most powerful position on the planet.

“Halcyon is dead,” Alexis said.

“See, you didn’t forget,” the voice answered. “But you never wanted to forget, did you?”

She couldn’t really place the age of the caller. She flipped through a mental file as she might go through a series of brain scans, trying to summon a face, but she was pretty sure she’d never heard the voice before.

Of course, she could have heard it and had her mind wiped clean. One of the lasting effects of the Monkey House trials was that stretches of the past were garbled or blank, like a cassette tape with Coke spilled on it.

“If you were just going to kill me, I’d be dead,” she said. “So I must have something you want.”

“Maybe lots of somethings.”

“And maybe you can save us both some time by telling me what it is.”

“What fun would that be?”

“You can tell your boss that Halcyon is buried, and so is the past.”

And a lot of people along with it.

After a pause, the caller continued. “We know you’ve been playing around in your lab. Here’s what you need to-”

Alexis killed the signal. That was the only thing she needed to do: make him shut up.

Her main research lab was three floors below. For some reason, even in its modern science buildings, UNC still confined much of its research to the basement. It was a tradition dating back to Memorial Hospital’s founding, when the dead were wheeled away in the middle of the night and kept out of view of the living patients. Mortality was bad for business.

Unless you were in the business of murder.

Alexis thought about calling Mark, but he always turned off his cell when he was at the shooting range, and he’d be wearing ear protection, anyway. Besides, she didn’t want to scare him until she knew what the caller wanted. Mark was scared enough already, considering what was happening inside his skull.

She hurried from the office to the elevator. She hit the button twice but the light was stuck on floor seven. That was the outpatient floor, the one on which Anita Molkesky had undergone intensive therapy for her bipolar disorder and suicidal ideations.

We were so close to getting away with it, Anita. But you know that there’s really only one escape.

Alexis gave up on the elevator and made for the stairs, jogging down the three flights with her heels clacking on the concrete. She passed an intern she recognized, mumbling an impersonal greeting. Only three people had keys to her lab, except for the master key held by housekeeping. But the cleaning staff was under orders not to enter any labs without direction, since most of the research was proprietary, classified, or potentially hazardous to human health.

She reached the basement, wondering whether the mysterious caller had been from a legitimate federal agency, a drug company, or that special class of mercenary operating slightly beyond the influence of either. Burchfield trolled in all three of those murky pools.

Alexis had projects going in three labs, but two of the labs were shared. The private one was a perk, containing functional MRI, PET, and CT scanners for her neural research. The department head had granted it as an unspoken reward for her work on the president’s bioethics council. She’d resigned from the council three months before, citing personal reasons, although the council’s shift in focus from mind-changing drugs to synthetic biology had made her a bit of a dinosaur anyway.

But this was one dinosaur that didn’t plan on going extinct. Not until she’d saved her husband, the world, and possibly herself, in that order.

Her imaging lab was in the farthest corner of the basement floor, which was underground on three sides with a main entrance to the rear, a rectangular hallway connecting the labs. Although the hallway was brightly lit, she could feel the weight of the earth and the darkness that waited beyond the waterproof concrete walls. It was early evening and much of the research section was empty, but a few doors were open. She didn’t glance in, lest someone call out to her in greeting.

She had a feeling she didn’t have much time.

She rounded the corner and saw two men outside the imaging lab. They were dressed like hospital interns in green scrubs, with cotton masks fitted over their mouths. The lab door was open.

“Hey!” she shouted.

The two men glanced at her, then each other. The taller one bolted to the left, where the hallway led back to the main entrance. He carried a white canvas bag in one gloved hand, and its bulk and sagging weight made her think it held machinery or books.

Alexis started after him but the second man stepped forward, blocking her path. She was so enraged by the invasion she didn’t consider that he might be armed.

“You’re not allowed access,” she shouted at the fleeing man, but he was already around the corner.

The remaining man spread his arms as if to tackle her if she tried to run past. Most of his body was covered, but his dark eyes and brown skin suggested someone of Indian or Middle Eastern descent. There was a large Indian and Pakistani population in the medical department, but she had a feeling this wasn’t an inside job.

“I’ve called the police,” Alexis said, hoping she sounded more commanding than she felt.

“We are the police,” the man said. She detected a Middle Eastern accent, but his voice was muffled enough that she couldn’t tell whether he was the same man who’d called. Had the caller wanted to tip her off, or send her into danger?

The sounds of conversation and shoes squeaking on hard tiles came from around the bend, in the direction

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