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.
Clarice came into the lab, now empty but for Quinn, and perched on the lab stool beside Quinn's. "I have a million things to do. Two million."
Quinn gave her a half-sympathetic, half-disbelieving look. "Then what are you doing here?"
"Procrastinating. The moment I walk out the door, I'll be moving a hundred miles an hour until I go to bed. If I ever get there tonight."
Quinn grabbed Clarice's hand. "I'm happy for you."
"Thanks." Clarice squeezed hers back. "I'm so glad you're going out with us tomorrow night, Quinn."
"Me, too," Quinn replied weakly, hating that she wouldn't be going. It had been so long since she'd enjoyed a night out, and this one promised to be a lot of fun. And she hated to disappoint Clarice. But she didn't dare go. Not to Georgetown. "I wouldn't miss it."
Clarice slipped her hand from Quinn's and hopped off the lab stool. "Enough procrastinating. I've got to get going."
"Get some sleep tonight."
Clarice rolled her eyes. "I'll sleep on the honeymoon."
"Larry might have other ideas."
With a laugh, Clarice disappeared around the corner.
Quinn turned back to her desk, folded the lab report, and stuck it in her purse, then pulled off her lab coat and glanced down at her clothes, her stomach knotting with tension. On the surface, she was dressed normally for the lab - jeans (purple), T-shirt (red), and tennis shoes (bright blue). The problem was, when she'd dressed this morning, the jeans had been blue, the tee yellow, the shoes white. The Shimmer had struck on her way to work this morning, as it did almost every day now. Why? Why did these things keep happening to her and no one else?
Heading out of the building, she began the long trek across the NIH campus to her car, not looking forward to the long slog through D.C. traffic to get home. Traveling to and from work on the Metro had been so much easier. But public transportation of any kind was out of the question now. What if they passed through a Shimmer? How in the hell would she explain such a color transformation to her fellow passengers?
By the time she reached her car, a ten-year-old Ford Taurus, she was sweating in the late August heat. Opening the car door, she stared at the pink interior, which was supposed to be slate gray, the knot in her stomach growing. With a resigned huff, she slid into the hot car and headed back into Washington, D.C., and home.
Her life had always been a little odd. Now it was starting to come unhinged.
Strange things had happened as far back as she could remember, though rarely. Only twice had they been scary-strange rather than silly-strange, like the color changes. And nothing had happened at all after that second bad incident, in high school. Not until a couple of years ago, when the Shimmers had begun playing with her.
A couple of weeks ago, the visions started.
Yes, her life was becoming seriously unhinged.
As she neared the Naval Observatory on Massachusetts Ave., she saw one of the Shimmers up ahead, like a faint sheen in the sunlight, almost like the rainbow that sometimes appeared in water mist. They were always in the same spots, never moving, never wavering - nearly invisible walls in various parts of D.C. that she'd always been able to see, always been able to drive or walk through without incident. Until recently. Now she avoided them like the plague, when she could. But there wasn't a single route to work that didn't pass through one.
Unfortunately, one cut right through the heart of Georgetown, which was why she couldn't possibly meet Clarice, Jennifer, and the others tomorrow. How drunk would they have to be to not notice her clothes changing color right before their eyes? Too drunk. It was far too great a risk.
As she drove through the Shimmer, the hair rose on her arms, as it always did, her car interior returning to gray, and her clothes and shoes returning to normal.
In some ways, she'd gotten used to the strangeness, but in a bigger way, she was scared. Because the changes were escalating in frequency, and she had a bad feeling that it was just the beginning.
She couldn't help but wonder . . .
What comes next?
Quinn unlocked the door of her apartment on the edge of the George Washington University campus and pushed it open. The warm smell of pepperoni pizza and the comforting sound of a computer gun battle greeted her.
"Oh, nice kill." Zack's voice carried from the living room, low and even. When had his voice gotten so deep? He was only twenty-two, for heaven's sake. A man, now. A computer geek who'd long ago found his passion in game design and, more than likely, the love of his life in his best friend, if he ever woke up to the fact that he and Lily were meant to be more than programmer buddies.
Quinn locked the front door behind her, set her purse and keys on the hall table, then strode into the living room, a room she'd furnished slowly and carefully, choosing just the right shades of tans and moss greens and splashes of eggplant to please her senses. But it was the room's occupants who pleased her far more. Zack and Lily sat side by side at the long table against the far wall, each in front of a computer. Behind them, the television news flashed on the flatscreen, the volume a low hum in the room. But neither of the kids paid the television any attention. Each fiendishly tapped away at a computer mouse, staring fixedly at his monitor. Beside Lily sat a plate with a single thick slice of greasy pizza. Beside Zack, two large pizza boxes. The kid never quit eating.
Lily glanced over her shoulder. "Hi, Quinn." A sweet smile lit pretty features framed by long, sleek, black hair.
Without glancing away from the computer screen, Zack grabbed a slice of pizza out of the top box. Overlong curly red hair framed an engaging face as he wolfed down half of it in one bite and appeared to swallow it just as quickly.
"Hey, sis," he greeted absently. Though only half siblings, they resembled one another rather markedly, except for the hair. They'd both inherited their dad's lanky height, green eyes, wide mouth, and straight nose. But while Zack had that mass of curly red hair, her own was as blond and straight as her late mother's. Their personalities, too, were nothing alike, which was probably why they got along so well. Zack personified laid-back serenity, while Quinn couldn't stay still to save her life. Something had to be in motion - her mind, her body - preferably, both.
Only two things truly mattered to her. Zack and her work. In that order. She liked her job, and she was damned good at it. But if Zack gave her the slightest hint that he'd like her to follow him to California after he graduated, she'd move. Just like that.
But he wouldn't. Zack had Lily, now, if he didn't blow it with her. He didn't need his sister. He'd never really needed her. Not the way she needed him.
"Whoa!" he exclaimed around a bite of pizza as some kind of bomb went off in the middle of the game. "Did you see that, Lily? Awesome."
Quinn grabbed a slice of pizza, then turned up the volume on the television and switched the channel to the local news.
"Another person has been reported missing in downtown D.C. in a string of disappearances that has police baffled. This brings the total number reported missing in the past six weeks to twelve. This last incident is believed to have occurred near George Washington University."
"G.W.?" Lily asked.
But when Quinn glanced at her, the girl had already returned to her game, her lack of concern mired in the youthful belief that bad things only ever happen to other people. A view Quinn had never shared. Unlike most young adults, she'd never believed her world to be a safe, secure place. Never.
Quinn finished her pizza, then carried her laptop back to her bedroom and got online. Sometime later, she heard the front door close and glanced at the time. She'd been on the computer nearly two hours. Was Zack going out or coming back? Closing her laptop, she went to find out.
She found her brother in the kitchen, his head in the fridge.
"Did you walk Lily home, Zack?"
She grabbed a glass and filled it with water from the sink. "Want me to fix you something?"
Zack and Lily, both computer science majors at George Washington, had met their freshman year and become instant friends. They'd interned together this summer at a small Silicon Valley gaming company - a company who'd offered them both jobs upon graduation. Zack had mentioned that they might be doing some testing for the company over the school year.
"Were you guys playing or testing tonight?"
Zack wasn't the world's greatest conversationalist. Nine times out of ten, she had trouble getting more than one or two words out of him, though every now and then she asked the right question, usually about gaming, and he talked her ear off.
He straightened, holding a small bottle of Gatorade. "Want one?" Her brother's eyes crinkled at the corners, the unspoken love they felt for one another sparkling in his eyes.
She smiled. "No thanks."
With that, he left the kitchen, his mind wholly engaged by whatever thoughts forever zinged around his head. He'd always been that way, seemingly unaware of anything around him. And yet he'd always been there for her. Always. Zack's love was the one constant, the one absolute, in her life. And always had been.
Quinn downed her water, then poured herself a glass of wine and followed him into the living room, curling up on the sofa, utterly content to listen to Zack's tapping at the computer keyboard as she read. She tried to give Zack some privacy when Lily was here, though she was pretty sure he'd never taken advantage of it in any way. As far as she could tell, Zack considered Lily a friend and nothing more. One of these days, he was going to wake up to the fact that his best friend was a beautiful young woman who happened to be in love with him. And when that day . . .
Quinn froze as a familiar chill skated over her skin. Her breath caught, the hair lifting on her arms. Oh, hell. She'd felt this same chill more than half a dozen times over the past few weeks. Only recently had she connected it to the visions.
She set her wineglass down so fast, it splashed onto the lamp table, then she lunged off the chair and crossed to the window with long, quick strides. But as she approached, she slowed, hesitating, her pulse kicking hard and fast. She knew what she should see, looking out the window - the dorms across the street, two dozen windows glowing with light and life, cars lining the street below. Her heart thrummed with anticipation and dread at what she would see instead.
Dammit, why does this stuff always have to happen to me?