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Authors: Bianca D’Arc

A Darker Shade of Dead

A Darker Shade of Dead
A Darker Shade of Dead
B
IANCA
D'A
RC

KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.

www.kensingtonbooks.com

All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.

This book is dedicated with all my love to my mother, who passed away while this book was being written. She was an educator, researcher, law professor, and the inspiration for my own career aspirations. We went to law school together, took the bar exam together, and worked together briefly.

She was always my greatest adviser, and when I had a decision to make about whether to take a really good job or decline the offer and continue to write, she was the one who surprised me by saying, “Do what you love.” She advised me to turn down the job opportunity and write. I have never regretted that decision, which allowed me to spend time with her and take care of her when she suddenly fell ill with cancer.

I miss her more than I can possibly explain. My life is as a shadow now, and I have no idea when or if it will ever become real to me again. I thank God for the time I had with my dear mom, and I thank her for always being such an inspiration. I love her with all my heart, and I know that love was returned unconditionally.

So I'd like to dedicate this work in memory of my mother, who left me too soon.

I love you, Mom.

With special thanks to Joy Roach, who helped me when I was in a pickle. Thanks also to Frances Bamford, who celebrated the sale of this novel, and the others in this series, with me over a scoop of ice cream.

Prologue

Quantico, Virginia—eight months ago

“T
his blows.”

Dr. Sandra McCormick's voice echoed around the morgue. Well, it wasn't really a morgue. At least it hadn't been. The large room had been a perfectly good laboratory until the senior team members had decided to perform tests on cadavers. Now it was a morgue.

The temperature had been lowered to near freezing, and Sandra shivered in her lab coat. She'd donned her heaviest jacket under the lab coat she had borrowed from one of the men on the team who wore a much larger size, but it still wasn't enough. She was cold, dammit.

Cold, miserable, and all alone on night shift because she was low man on the totem pole. The science team had been together for a few months, working for the military on ways to improve combat performance. Specifically, they'd been trying to come up with substances that, when injected into people, would improve healing and endurance in living tissue. They were at the point now where they'd graduated from in vitro testing in Petri dishes to something a bit more exotic.

They weren't ready to try in vivo testing on living animals or people. Instead, the senior scientists had decided to take this grotesque step, administering the experimental regenerative serum to dead tissue contained in a whole, deceased organism. Personally, she would've preferred to start with a dead animal of some kind, but only human cadavers would work for this experiment since the genetic manipulation they were attempting was coded specifically for human tissue. They didn't want any cross-contamination with animals if they found a substance that actually worked.

As a result, she was stuck in a freezing cold lab in the middle of the night, watching a bunch of dead Marines. It was kind of sad, actually. Every one of these men had been cut down in their prime by either illness or injury. They had all been highly trained and honed specimens of manhood while they were alive. Some of them had been quite handsome, but their beauty had been lost to the pale coldness of death. They were here because they had no next of kin—only their beloved Corps—and their bodies had been donated to science.

The room was dimly lit. Sandra only needed the individual lights over each metal table on which the bodies rested to do her work. She'd holed up at a desk in the far corner of the giant lab space, entering the data she collected hourly for each body into a computer. Her fingers were already numb from the cold, and it had only been three hours. Five more to go before the day shift would release her from this icy prison.

She heard a rustling sound in the distance as she blew on her fingers to try to warm them. Her chair swiveled as she lifted her feet, placing them on the runners of the rolling office chair.

“That better not have been the sound of mice scampering around in here.”

Contrary to most medical researchers, Sandra had never really been comfortable with mice. Little furry rodents still made her jump, and she shied away from any lab work that required her to deal with the critters.

The room was dimly lit. The only illumination came from the computer screen and desk light behind her and the single light over each table. The whole setup gave her the creeps.

Deciding to brave the walk to the bank of light switches on the far side of the room near the door, Sandra stood. If she had to sit here with a bunch of dead bodies all night, the least she could do was put on every light in the damned room. Why she'd ever thought the desk light would be enough, she didn't know.

She'd gone on shift at midnight and was slated to take readings every hour until 8 a.m. when her day shift counterpart would relieve her. Scientific work sometimes required a person to work odd hours. Experiments didn't know how to tell time. When the researchers were running something in the lab, she usually got tapped for the late night hours. Normally she didn't mind. The lab was usually a peaceful, comforting place.

But not now. Not when it had been turned into a morgue. Or maybe it was more like Dr. Frankenstein's dungeon, only without the bug-eyed servant named Igor. She'd definitely seen that old Mel Brooks movie one too many times in college. Thinking about some of the funnier lines from the comedy classic made her smile as she walked down the aisle of tables toward the door and the light switches.

“It's alive…”
As she walked, chuckling to herself, she did a quiet imitation of Gene Wilder from the scene where he'd given life to his monster.

One either side of her were slabs on which the cadavers rested. A breeze ruffled one of the sheets that had been pulled over the body on her right.

It must've been a breeze. The sheet couldn't move on its own, right? She quickened her step, a creepy feeling shivering down her spine as the smile left her face.

A hand shot out of the dark and grabbed her wrist. She screamed. The fingers were cold. The flesh was gray. But the grip was strong. Too strong.

It pulled her in. Closer and closer to the body she'd checked only forty-five minutes before. He'd been dead at the time. Immobile. Now he was moving and—oh, God—his eyes were open and he was looking at her. His stare was lifeless as he drew her closer.

She did her best to break free, but the dead man was just too strong. She beat against his fingers with her other hand. When that didn't work, she tried pushing against his cold shoulder. Nothing seemed to help. She hit his face, his chest, anyplace she could reach, but he wouldn't let go.

He drew her closer until she was leaning across him, her arm over his head. Then he opened his mouth…and bit her. She gasped as his teeth broke through her skin. Blood welled as the icy teeth sank deep. Dull eyes looked through her as the dead man chewed on her forearm.

She went crazy, struggling to break free. She must've twisted in the right way because after a moment, she felt herself moving more easily. The next second, she was free.

He sat up, following her progress. She heard noises all around the lab now, echoing off the shadowed walls. She looked around in a panic. Other bodies were rising all around the makeshift morgue.

“How in God's name…?” She gasped, clutching her bleeding arm to her chest as six tall bodies slid off the laboratory tables to stand in the dim, chilled room. She was so scared, she nearly wet her pants. The fear gave her a spike of clarity. She had to get out of there.

She ran for the door. Hands grabbed at her lab coat. She stumbled but caught herself before she could fall to the cold floor. She let her arms slip backward so the oversized lab coat came off, held in those strong hands that had come at her out of the darkness. She had no idea what had gone wrong with the experiment, but she wasn't about to stick around to ask questions. These guys were huge. Big Marines who were easily twice her size. And they didn't seem friendly.

If she could just get to the door. She ran, dodging and weaving around the tables and the reaching arms. They tried to grab the jacket she'd worn under the oversized lab coat, but they had a hard time getting hold of the slippery nylon fabric, thank goodness.

She crashed through the door, running for her life. She had to get help. She had to rouse the entire team. She had to get the MPs, the Marines, and, hell, the National Guard if she could, to stop these guys.

She turned to look over her shoulder just once as she ran into the fringe of trees on the heavily wooded outskirts of the base. What she saw chilled her to the bone. In the dark of the night, she could see the dim, yellow, rectangular glow of the open doorway. Outlined there were the hulking shapes of dead men. The dead Marines were following her path outdoors at a slow, steady, lurching pace.

Chapter One

North Carolina—the present

“I
diot!”

Sandra swore as another driver zoomed up behind her car at what seemed like light speed. It was some kind of off-road vehicle or giant SUV because its headlights were at the perfect blinding height in her rearview mirror. The jerk had his brights on. She felt like she was under an interrogation lamp as he rode her bumper.

“Why don't you just pass me, you moron?” she muttered, annoyed to no end by the inconsiderate driver behind her.

It hadn't been a tough decision to decline the military's offer of transport by air. First, she would've had to leave Long Island days ago, allowing some faceless military personnel to do the job of packing her private things. No, thank you. She didn't like the idea of some stranger going through her personal stuff.

Second, Sandra wasn't good in airplanes. She avoided them, preferring to drive whenever she had to go anywhere, if at all possible. Her father had died in a plane crash. Since then, she had been unable to face the long tin tubes of death.

Third, her beloved car would've been left behind. The old Caddy was the only thing she had left of her father, the late Dr. Henry McCormick. He had loved it almost more than he'd loved her, lavishing attention on it every weekend with long hours spent washing and waxing the thing by hand. She kept up the tradition in his honor, though she probably didn't spend quite as much time as he had on the old car.

This gas guzzler was also her last link to her dad. It was a land yacht, so long road trips really weren't that uncomfortable. She could sleep happily on the sumptuous padded leather of the seats and had room for almost anything she wanted to bring with her. They didn't make cars like this anymore, her father had often said. He'd loved the giant car and she did, too.

But the vehicle behind her could go straight to hell as far as she was concerned. What was the guy thinking? He'd zoomed up out of nowhere on the dark, deserted stretch of highway and instead of passing her, he'd been riding her tail pipe for the past ten minutes.

“Finally.” She felt a stab of relief when the car pulled out from behind her to the passing lane. But he didn't pass. He crept up on her side, matching her speed and veering unsteadily into her lane.

“What is your problem?” she shouted even as she took evasive action. The giant SUV was going to hit her!

A panicked look out her window told her the SUV driver knew exactly what he was doing. She'd seen two male faces in the front of the giant vehicle. The driver and another man who was staring at her out the passenger side window. She knew him. She'd worked with him months ago.

Rodriguez. He may have a Ph.D. in molecular biology, but the man had always struck her as a pig. He thought he was some kind of smooth Latin lover. In reality, he was gross. A disgusting specimen of a man who thought he was super macho but was really a fool.

“What the hell is he doing?” she shouted aloud, talking to herself as the SUV came closer.

She chanced another look. It was definitely Rodriguez. He was pointing to the side of the road. He wanted her to pull over, and it looked like if she didn't comply willingly, his driver would be happy to force her off the highway.

It was the middle of the night on a deserted road. No way was she going to pull over like some lamb to the slaughter. She gunned the engine. The Caddy responded like an old tiger being let out of its cage. The big engine roared and she pulled ahead of the SUV.

But not for long. The giant black beast had quite a few horses under its hood as well. It kept pace with her around the next long turn of the highway and began to pull even with her again. She kept a panicked eye on it in her mirrors. She thought she saw the rear passenger window slide downward. A split-second later, she saw what looked like a handgun emerge from the blackened square of the backseat window.

The Caddy shuddered and jumped as the left rear tire blew. Sandra screamed. The steering wheel shook in her hands as she slammed on the brakes and tried to control the car. The bastard had shot her tire!

Her whole body shaking in fear, she moved the Caddy off to the shoulder. But first she hit a little button she'd had installed for just such emergencies. Thankfully, the SUV hung back as her call connected. She spoke aloud, confident the small microphone in the passenger compartment would pick up her words.

“My car has a flat tire. Could you please send help?”

She didn't want anyone to know she'd spoken with Rodriguez if she could help it. Chances are, this little middle-of-the-night meeting had been arranged because she'd ducked every attempt Rodriguez had made to contact her. She knew he was working for the enemy. Dr. Sellars had told her Rodriguez was part of the small group that had restarted their forbidden research. Sellars had tried to recruit her, and she had no doubt that Rodriguez wanted the same thing.

She gave her location to the operator as she rolled to a stop. There was little time. She had to disconnect the call or risk having Rodriguez know she'd already sent out an SOS. She didn't think he wanted her dead. Not yet, at least. She hadn't done anything to him personally. Heck, she hadn't even heard him out.

But he had to know she had been recruited by the military in the past few days. Otherwise, he never would have known to find her on this lonely stretch of highway that led ultimately to Fort Bragg, her new place of employment. She had crossed the border into North Carolina a little while ago. She still had quite a ways to travel, but Rodriguez's presence here confirmed her suspicions. He was most likely the person behind the sporadic zombie infestations at the base.

She rolled down her window but didn't get out of the car as she watched Rodriguez slam the passenger side door of the SUV now parked behind her. Its headlights glared over her car like twin spotlights giving everything a sharp black and white glow.

“You've been avoiding me, Dr. McCormick,” Rodriguez accused as he walked up to her window. He gave her an oily smile—an expression she remembered with distaste from their previous time working together.

“I've been a little busy. And I told Sellars I wasn't interested in renewing the research.”

“Then why are you here? A little birdy tells me you're working for the military again. I can't imagine what else they would want with you besides your knowledge of our last experiment. Now why would you throw in with the government goons when you could be working with me? I can definitely promise I'd pay better.”

“It's not about the money. It never was, for me.”

“Then you are a fool.” Rodriguez looked away, cursing her under his breath. He seemed really angry and she grew even more afraid. She didn't think he would kill her. At least not yet. He'd try to woo her over to his side, if he possibly could. She expected he would give her a chance to decide in his favor before he took any truly drastic actions. He turned back to her, that oily grin back in full force. This couldn't be good.

“I know you let them out, Sandra.” His voice dropped to a low, menacing tone. “You were the only one on duty. You ran away and left the door open. You let them rampage across the base in Virginia. You killed all those Marines. You, Sandra!” He badgered her, shaking his finger in her face, his eyes wild. The guy looked a little crazy, but his words were all too true.

Sandra's guilt was overwhelming. He wasn't saying anything she hadn't thought about over and over since it had happened. If only she'd closed the door behind her, locking the reanimated cadavers in the lab. But she'd been too scared. And because she was a coward, scores of innocent men had died, turned into those ravening creatures, prolonging the cycle of death.

“Stop it,” she whispered. Rodriguez smiled evilly.

“I know something else I bet you wouldn't want getting out.”

Dear God, what else? Sandra scrambled around in her mind, wondering what in the world this cretin could have on her. She'd never deliberately done anything bad in her life. Of course even the most casual of mistakes could be blown out of proportion and distorted to make her look very bad indeed.

“I know our late, unlamented colleague, Dr. Sellars, asked for your help with a certain formula. I also know that you solved his little scientific dilemma. You gave him the missing link to his equation. What do you think your military friends would think about that?”

She could say nothing to his threat. The commander wouldn't understand. He'd already read her the riot act about having continued her research to work on the serum she'd developed. That could be excused, he'd told her, because it saved lives. But he'd never understand why she'd helped Sellars. He'd never understand how Sellars had played on her vanity and her naïveté, coming to her with compliments and supposedly innocent questions.

She'd helped Sellars complete his chemical equations and solve the little scientific puzzles he'd posed to her. Only later did she piece together the conversations and realize he'd been using her. She had contributed to his new version of the contagion and she hadn't even known it at the time.

No way would Commander Sykes or his military superiors understand how stupid she'd been. They'd lock her up and throw away the key if they knew. And nobody would ever trust her again.

Sandra couldn't afford that. Not when she was finally working on a way to redeem her mistakes. She wanted the chance to solve the zombie problem once and for all. A scientific solution that would render the contagion obsolete. Her after-exposure serum was the first step. She only needed time and funding to perfect it. From there, she'd move on to a preventative that would stop the contagion in its tracks before it had a chance to infect anyone else.

“I can see I've given you something to think about.”

“What do you want?” The words were dragged from her in a pained whisper. She could see her plans for the future—her plans for redemption—crumbling before her eyes.

“I want the same thing you gave Sellars. Your help. Your knowledge. Your expertise on the intricacies of our creation. I'm refining it, you know. Making it better. Making the creatures more intelligent. Not by much, I'll grant you, but enough so they're able to follow simple directions.” He looked inordinately pleased by the horror he'd created. “They make a much better army when you can keep them under control.” His obvious glee made her sick to her stomach. Only a fiend would find glory in the death, torture, and subjugation of others.

“You want me to work with you on the contagion?” Her voice was flat, dull. She felt her own horror growing at what he was trying to force her into. Worse yet, she didn't see that she had any alternative.

“Yes, Sandra. I want you on my team.”

She heard a distant flushing sound. The sound of all her hopes and dreams going down the toilet.

“I just joined another team. You're too late.” She had to try to salvage this situation.

“It's never too late.” Rodriguez looked over his shoulder at something behind him on the road. “You think about what I've said. I'll give you a little time to come to your senses, but I won't wait long.” He slammed his hand on the hood of her car, right over her head. It was a frustrated move, and she realized why he was retreating. Flashing lights shone in her rearview mirror, drawing closer.

Saved by the cavalry. At least for now.

Rodriguez flicked a business card at her. She caught it in a reflexive move and glanced at it. It wasn't printed. It was just a blank card with a handwritten number on it.

“Call me.”

He climbed into his car and sped away before she could tell him it would be a cold day in hell before she called him. The highway patrol car pulled up behind her, and she was occupied with the concerned young officer for the next fifteen minutes while he verified her identity and waited with her for a tow truck. He either didn't notice or didn't comment on the way her tire had blown. It hadn't died of natural causes. It had been blown off by a bullet. One that was even now lodged in the old rim.

Luckily, car repair places weren't like hospitals. They weren't required by law to report gunshot wounds to their patients. With a well-placed
donation,
she ought to be able to get her car fixed with no questions asked. Either that or she could invent a sob story of some kind. It would depend on the nature of the mechanic who answered the summons for a tow truck.

 

As it turned out, Sandra hadn't needed to resort to either method. The guy who sold her a set of rear tires didn't bat an eyelash at the damage. He was more concerned about getting her to buy two tires instead of the one she needed to replace. She let him spin his tale about how the tires needed to be balanced properly and then quietly paid for two overpriced retreads. Anything to get back on the road.

She managed to pull into the base entrance only a couple of hours behind schedule. She stopped at the guard shack to identify herself and show the papers she'd been given, inviting her here. They searched her car and before they were through, Matt Sykes showed up, a concerned wrinkle between his brows.

“I heard you had some trouble on the road,” he said as he walked up to her. “Glad to see you made it here all right.” He shook her hand, and she could tell he was moderating his strength so he wouldn't crush her fingers.

That was considerate. She'd shared too many handshakes with men who didn't realize they were crunching her bones in their gorilla grips. It was nice to see the commander was thoughtful enough to consider such things.

“How'd you know about the flat tire?” She blurted out the question before she thought better of it.

“You're too important to this team to take chances with, Sandra.” He tugged off his sunglasses, pinning her with his compelling, dark blue stare. “The minute that trooper ran your I.D., it sent up an alert that reached my desk a few minutes later. If you'll recall, I was against your driving here all by yourself. It would've made more sense to fly. We could've had you here in an hour.”

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