Jan Coffey The Project

ISBN 13: 9780778324065

The Project

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9780778324065: The Project
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Revised and reissued as Cross Wired.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Thursday January 3, 6:57 p.m. New York

Freezing rain, razor-sharp on the skin, continued to fall. Across the five boroughs of the city and into the suburbs, traffic moved at a crawling pace on every expressway. The Cross County was the usual parking lot, and the Henry Hudson was down to one lane. But the worst was the Cross Bronx, completely shut down because of a horrendous accident.

The driver of the limo leaned over and switched off the radio, apparently abandoning all hope of finding a reasonably clear route out of the city. Now they would simply inch along, one car in a line of the thousands of other commuter vehicles going north on the FDR Drive.

In the backseat, the passenger pushed aside the work he'd brought and glanced at his watch. He was going to be late for dinner. His daughter and her husband and three children were in from the West Coast until Sunday. Christmas week had been spent with his daughter's in-laws in New Hampshire, and this week the gang had been with them in Connecticut. He'd have liked to have it the other way around. He'd been home most of last week. This week, though, with the exception of New Year's Day, his schedule was booked.

His wife phoned him at the office to tell him their daughter was now considering staying for another couple of weeks with the kids in Connecticut. He looked again at the electronic scheduler and shook his head as he paged through it. There wouldn't be any relief now until the end of the month. Not until the company's big deadline. He wouldn't be able to spend any time with them.

He reached for his cell phone to call his wife. He had an eight-thirty breakfast meeting in the city tomorrow morning, and he contemplated telling the driver to turn around and take him to his apartment in Midtown instead. He could do without this commute tonight.

The cell phone rang before he could make the call home. He looked at the display and felt his spine stiffen. A bitter taste edged into his mouth, and he considered not answering the call. He wished that were an option, but it wasn't. He knew he'd be answering.

He even knew what the call was about. His old partner had phoned him daily this past month. Old skeletons were peeking out of the closet. This wasn't the first time; over the years, the episodes had come in waves. But this one was worse than anything they'd faced before. There was no getting around it. Still, they just had to put up with situations like this until the test samples were all gone. The last time he'd counted, there were only seven left.

Seven.

He pressed the button on the console and waited until the window between him and the driver slid shut before answering the call.

"Hello, Mitch," he said, looking out at the blackness enshrouding the East River.

"Have you been watching the news this afternoon?" his partner asked without a greeting. The agitation in his voice was clear.

"No." He reached for the TV remote and turned it on.

"There's been another shooting, this time in San Francisco."

He switched the channel to CNN and muted the sound. In a moment, the closed captions began to scroll across the bottom of the screen. "Was he one of ours?"

"Yes," Mitch said, his voice rising.

"Did he live?"

"No."

Six left, the passenger thought grimly.

"Then we don't worry about it." He glanced at his watch again. "I've got to go."

"Wait," his partner snapped before he could end the call. "This is different from anything we've seen before. The violence is worse."

"That's not because of us," he said calmly. "All the test cases have been the same. The ones that remain are the earliest specimens. They're older now than the others were. Adolescent hormonal shifts are complicating the equation. That can result in more damage."

"Curtis, they're flipping every couple of days," his partner said, obviously trying to keep his voice down.

"How could you be so relaxed about it?"

Unlike his old friend, who'd turned his back on industry and was quickly becoming fossilized teaching biology to imbeciles in the California state university system, he was having a late-career resurgence. Over the course of this past year, all the doors were again opening. Money was pouring in. His name was the talk of the business. For a change, everything was going right.

It was hard to imagine that the two of them had, at one time, worked so closely. They had always been like night and day in terms of composure, in their goals, in their hunger for results, in their willingness to take risks to succeed.

"Listen to me, Mitch. I'm not relaxed about any of this." This was exactly what the other man needed to hear. "But there's nothing we can do about it, just as there was nothing we could do about it three years ago when we lost a large sample size, or fourteen years ago when we found out everything was going wrong and we had to shut the project down."

"You're not hearing me," the other man said, his voice now bordering on hysteria. "There are others who are getting dragged into this. Innocent people." He spat out each word slowly. "And there is something we can do about this. We can identify them, pull them out of..."

"Do you really want to tell the world what we did? It's not only your neck and mine that we're talking about. How about our investors? Do you want to expose them? And do you really think they would put up with it? Do you really believe that coming out into the open would solve all the problems?"

The pause on the other end of the line gave him some reassurance. His partner was still as timid as he'd always been. He needed to keep Mitch from panicking, but fear was good.

"I want you to stop watching the news."

"I...I can't."

"You can," he said forcefully. "There are only six left, Mitch, and they're taking care of themselves. Time is on our side. All we have to do is sit tight, and everything will go away."

There was another pause at the other end. He couldn't understand why his old partner couldn't quite fathom the probable consequences of this "coming out." So many careers would be ruined. More than a few corporations and major hospitals would be rattled to the foundations, possibly irreparably. Some would go down. Politicians would lose their seats. Some of them would end up in jail. The Merck fiasco with Vioxx wouldn't hold a candle to what they'd be facing. There'd be criminal charges in this case. He didn't want to go there.

"Are you still on the line?" he asked. "I'm here," Mitch said heavily. "There's one thing that I can't shake loose."

"What is it?"

"What happens if one of them does make it through after an episode of violence? What happens if one of them survives?"

There would be more detailed tests, interviews, close scrutiny. The intellectual and psychological conditions of the object would become unstable. And then there was the possibility of early memory triggered. There would be no end to their problems.

"You leave that to me. I've taken care of those kinds of details before. I'll take care of them again when I need to."

Monday January 14, 11:56 a.m. Wickfield, Connecticut

During the night, a thick crust of ice had formed on top of the six inches of snow that had fallen over the weekend. The pale disk of a sun had done nothing to soften it this morning. The street and the two driveways at the end of the cul-de-sac had been plowed, but the large pair of boots punching through the snow between the two houses carved its own path.

His head hurt. The pounding was louder. Voices, faces, places, numbers, all writhed in his pulsing brain.

He ripped a branch off a young oak tree that snatched at his jacket. Icicles showered down on him in retribution. He threw the branch fiercely to the side, and it bounced and skittered across the unbroken glaze of snow. He blinked through the gray haze that seemed to cover everything. Sky, snow, houses, everything was gray, and yet his eyes still stung from the light and the pain in his head.

He barely noticed the cold, but it was a labor to breathe. Somewhere, in a dark corner of his mind, the idea pulled at him that he wanted to lie down on the snow and just go to sleep. But he couldn't. His feet kept stomping ahead of him toward his neighbors' back porch.

The pounding voices in his head wouldn't go away. He knew where he had to go, what he had to do, how to end it all.

He didn't bother to knock on the door. Neither car was in the driveway. He turned the knob and pushed open the kitchen door. Wickfield was safe. Nobody locked their doors.

He'd been in the house many times. He knew they were in the basement. The cat appeared in the doorway leading to the living room and stared at him with distrust for a moment before disappearing. The pulsing flashes of light and the voices were getting louder. He had to stop them.

He stumbled across the kitchen, his boots leaving clumps of gray snow on the tiled floor. He yanked open the basement door with such force that it rebounded off the wall and smashed him hard in the shoulder. He didn't feel it, not at all, and went down the wooden steps without bothering to flip on the light switch.

The cabinet was against the wall on the far side of the chimney. The four rifles seemed to call to him through the glass display front. The barrels, long and blue-gray, looked cool and smooth. The wooden stocks gleamed with a warmth that seemed unnatural. He pulled the knob. It was locked. He looked around him and saw the old fireplace tools against the basement wall. His fingers wrapped around the poker.

A phone started ringing upstairs. He didn't pause. He didn't care. His head hurt; that was all he knew. He took one big swing at the cabinet. Glass flew around him, blanketing the floor with glittering shards. He reached inside and touched the barrel of one of the guns. It was cool and smooth, just as they said it would be.

It would all work out now.

Finally, he could end the pain. Silence the noise.

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