With a quick breath, she stepped forward and lifted shaking hands to the windowpane, curving her hands around her eyes to close out the light from the room. And, just as she'd feared, she stared at an impossible sight. A line of two-story row houses, decrepit and crumbling, lit only by the moonlight falling from above, stood where the dorms should be. This street, unlike the real one, was unlit, unpaved. Uninhabited?
Three other times over the past weeks, after she'd felt that odd chill, she'd looked out the window to find this exact same scene. Why? If it weren't for all the other strangeness in her life, she might think she was hallucinating. Or going insane.
Maybe I am.
The sound of a horse's whinny carried over the sound of the real traffic, for the normal sounds had never died away despite the change in scenery. Her eyes widened. Maybe her imaginary street wasn't quite so uninhabited after all. She pushed up the window and leaned forward, as close to the screen as she could get without actually pressing her nose against it.
"Zack, turn off the light and come here." As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wanted to pull them back. She'd spoken without thinking. Then again, if he saw it, too . . .
Zack never did anything quickly, but the tone of her voice must have gotten through to him because he doused the light, except for one computer monitor, and joined her a handful of seconds later.
"What?" He folded his long length and peered through the screen beside her.
Quinn swallowed. "I thought I heard a horse. Do you see one?"
His shoulder brushed hers as he turned and looked in one direction, then the other. "Nope. Probably just one of the mounted cops." He straightened and returned to his computer.
Quinn pressed a fist against her chest and her racing heart. Just once, she'd like not to be the only freak on the planet.
The distinctive sound of a horse's clip-clop grew louder, overlaying the true traffic sounds. And then she saw it, pulling a buggy down that empty dirt street, a dark-cloaked figure holding the reins. A moment later, incongruously, a yellow Jeep Wrangler burst onto the scene, swerving around the carriage, causing the horse to sidestep with agitation. The buggy driver shouted with anger. And then the strange sounds and sights were gone, and Quinn once more stared at the dorms and cars that were really there.
At the sound of Zack's frantic voice through the cell phone the next morning, Quinn leaped from her lab bench, her free hand pressing against her head. "Are you sure?" God. The disappearances!
"We were going to meet out front and walk to class together like we always do. But she never showed up. And I can't find her."
"She's not picking up her phone?"
"No. She texted me to say she'd be here in five minutes, but that was fifteen minutes ago, and she's not here. She's not anywhere, Quinn. I've been walking around looking for her."
"Zack." She'd never heard him sound so frantic - she'd never heard him sound frantic at all. She scrambled to think of a logical, safe explanation for Lily's disappearance and couldn't come up with a single one that fit Lily's serious, responsible nature. "Have you called her mom?" Lily lived with her parents about six blocks away.
"I don't know her mom's number."
Crap. "Do you know either of her parents' names?"
"Mr. and Mrs. Wang."
"Zack. There have to be hundreds of Wangs in D.C."
"Where are you?"
"Starbucks on Penn."
A couple of blocks from their apartment. "Stay there. Inside. I'm on my way."
Thirty minutes later, after handing off her work to a fellow technician, racing to her car, and flying through more nearly red lights than she cared to admit, she found Zack right where he'd said he'd be, his body rigid with tension as he paced. He looked up and saw her, the devastation in his expression lifting with relief. As if she could fix it. Oh, Zack. His T-shirt was plastered to his body, his face flushed and soaked with sweat. He loved that girl, she could see it in his eyes, even if he didn't know it, yet. If Lily was really gone, her loss was going to slay him.
And his grief was going to slay Quinn.
She took his hand, squeezing his damp fist. "Where have you looked?"
"Around." His eyes misted, his mouth tightening painfully. "She's not here, Quinn."
"We'll find her."
But he wasn't buying her optimism any more than she was. The cops hadn't found a single one of the missing people, yet. Not one.
"Do you know where she was when you last heard from her?"
"She was close. Within a block or two of our apartment."
Quinn cocked her head at him. "Doesn't she usually buy coffee on her way to class?"
He blinked. "Here."
"Have you asked if they saw her?"
His face scrunched in embarrassment. "No." He pulled out his cell phone as he walked up to the counter, stepping in front of the line and holding out his phone and, she assumed, Lily's picture, to the barista. "I'm looking for my friend. Did she get coffee here a little while ago?"
The man peered at the picture. "Yeah. Lily, right? She ordered her usual mocha latte no-whip."
Zack turned away, and Quinn fell into step beside him as they pushed through the morning-coffee crowd and left the shop. She squinted against the glare of the summer sun. "She went missing between here and the street in front of our apartment. It's just two blocks, Zack." And the chances they'd find her, after Zack had already looked, were slim to none.
Together, they walked down the busy sidewalk, dodging college kids, locals, and tourists as they searched for any sign of Lily or what might have happened to her. Quinn's chest ached, as much for Lily as it did for Zack. His anguish, thick and palpable, hung in the steamy air.
When that familiar chill rippled over her skin, it startled her. Oh, hell. Not here. Not now.
They were nearly to the block their apartment sat on, the street where, just last night, she'd seen an old-fashioned horse and buggy. In the dark. Surely she wouldn't see it in bright daylight.
Her pulse began to race in both anticipation and dread. What if she saw that strange scene again? What if, as always happened when she peered out the window, she suddenly couldn't see the real world? Would she start running into people? Maybe walk in front of a car?
She grabbed Zack, curling her fingers around his upper arm.
His gaze swung to her, hope wreathing his face. "Do you see her?"
"No. I just . . . I don't feel well."
His brows drew down, and he pulled her hand off his arm and engulfed it in his larger one, closing his fingers tightly around hers.
Hand in hand, they crossed the street, pushing through a throng of backpacked college kids, and walked around the construction barricade that was blocking her view of her building. As they cleared the barricade, Quinn swallowed a gasp at the sight that met her gaze. Superimposed upon a small section of her apartment building, to the left of the entrance, was what appeared to be a house of some sort. Or row house. It was set back and partially illuminated as if by a spotlight, surrounded by shadows. A crumbling, haunted-looking house that wasn't really there.
Holy shit. She pulled up short.
"You see something."
Zack's words barely registered, and she answered without thinking. "Yes."
His excitement penetrated her focus. "I'm not sure." But she started forward, her gaze remaining glued on that impossible sight. The shadows fully blocked the sidewalk, extending almost to the street, as if the vision were three-dimensional, as if a slice had been cut from another world, a square column, and dropped into the middle of hers. But the house didn't appear to actually stand within that column. In fact, the column didn't appear to quite reach the front of her apartment building at all. It was as if the shadows acted as a window into the world where the house sat, alone and abandoned.
She frowned, trying to make sense of it. Why, when the scene appeared at night, was she able to see what appeared to be the entire landscape of . . . what? Was it another world? Another time? No, it couldn't be another time. Not with a Jeep Wrangler racing across the landscape.
Why could she see it when no one else could? And, clearly, no one else could. People were walking right through those shadows as if they weren't there.
She had no intention of doing the same. With her luck, her face and hair would turn purple.
Zack squeezed her hand. "What do you see, Quinn? Something to do with Lily?"
"I'm not sure. Probably not," she replied out of habit, not about to admit to her weirdness. If Zack knew about it, he'd never said a word. And if he didn't, if he'd remained happily clueless all these years, well, there was no need for him to find out now. "Just give me a moment, Zack." She let go of his hand. "Wait here."
Quinn eased forward, dodging a couple of college kids as she neared that strange column of spotlight and shadows. It wasn't a spotlight, she realized, but sunlight illuminating the front stoop of a house that stood only about twelve feet away. Mold and mud splattered the ancient brick; glass, long since broken, left gaping holes for windows; and the front door hung askew, dangling on one hinge. On that door, a tarnished lion's-head doorknocker sat cockeyed and snarling at unwary visitors. Visitors long gone.
It looked so real.
The column itself was only about six feet wide, yet the house sat farther back than those six feet. To either side of the spotlighted front stoop, shadows and darkness lingered, like a nightscape cut by a beacon of sunlight. Yet people continued to flow through that shadowy column, oblivious. Unaffected.
Quinn hadn't even realized Zack had followed her until she saw him reach for the bright green ballpoint pen lying on the sidewalk just inside the shadows.
Instinctively, she grabbed his bare forearm just as his arm . . . and her clutching hand . . . dipped into the shadows. Energy leaped at her through the hand that held him, attacking her with an electrical shock that raced over her body like crawling ants, shooting every hair on her arms and head straight up.
Her breath caught, her eyes widened. Her brain screamed, Let go of him! But her fingers couldn't react in time, and, suddenly, they were both flying forward.
Perched on her stool in the chilly lab of the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, Quinn Lennox studied the lab results on the desk in front of her. Dammit. Just like all the others, this one revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing. She'd run every blood test known to science, and they all claimed that the patient was disgustingly healthy. Utterly normal.
The patient wasn't normal and never had been, and she wanted to know why. She wanted to be able to point to some crazy number on one of the myriad blood tests, and say, "There. That's it. That's the reason my life is so screwed up."
Because those lab tests were hers.
At the sound of her boss's voice in the lab doorway, Quinn jumped guiltily. If anyone found out that she'd been using the lab's equipment to run blood tests on herself, she'd be fired on the spot. She set the lab report on her desk, resisting the urge to turn the paper over or slip it in her desk, and forced herself to meet Jennifer's gaze with a questioning one of her own.
"Did you have time to run the McCluny tests?" Jennifer was a round woman, over forty, with a big heart and a driving need to save the world.
"Of course," Quinn replied with a smile. "They're on your desk." She might be running tests she shouldn't be, but never, ever at the expense of someone else's.
"Excellent." Jennifer grinned. "I wish I could clone you, Quinn."
Quinn stifled a groan at the thought. "One of me is more than enough." Certainly more than she could handle.
"Hey, you two." Clarice, in a T-shirt and shorts, a fleece hoodie tied around her waist, stopped in the doorway beside Jennifer. It was after 6:00 P.M., and most of the techs had already left for the day. Clarice was clearly on her way out since she'd taken off her white lab coat. But she should be, considering she was getting married in two days. A curvy redhead, Clarice had been one of Quinn's best friends in her first couple of years at the NIH. Before everything had started to go wonky, and Quinn had been forced to retreat from virtually all social events.
Clarice clapped her hands together, the excitement radiating from her so palpable that Quinn could feel it halfway across the lab. The woman practically had the words bride-to-be dancing in fizzy champagne bubbles over her head. "Are you two going to meet us at my apartment tomorrow night or down in Georgetown? Larry and two of his groomsmen are available to drive anyone who needs a ride home afterward."
The bachelorette party. Bar-hopping in Georgetown. Quinn nearly swallowed her tongue, forcing down the quick denial. No, she would not be going. Absolutely not. "It's easier for me to meet you there," Quinn replied. No excuse was good enough short of sudden illness. And it was too soon for that.
"I'll meet you at your apartment." Jennifer patted the younger woman on the shoulder. "You look radiant and happy, Clarice. Exactly how a bride-to-be should look. Not a bit the stressed-out crazy person so many brides turn into these days."
"Oh, I'm a crazy person, don't worry. I'm just happy-crazy."
"Stay that way. See you ladies tomorrow," Jennifer said with a wave, and disappeared down the hall.