Somebody wanted him dead.
Adam lay sprawled over cobblestones in Seattle’s lower downtown section. Awakened by the morning’s chill, his eyes blinked under a smear of blood. Cold rain falling from boilerplate skies washed across his throbbing forehead. As much as he intended to dispatch himself from the gutter of a downtown alley, a voice halted him; listening, waiting … for what?
Someone in the dark of night had clobbered the 31-year old mineralogist. Whatever blows he survived would not be the last attempt on his life. For that he was certain. Memory of his plight in the late-night hours drifted into his aching skull. A vehicle, silent, unseen, had suddenly appeared from nowhere. A blunt instrument struck him from behind. Somehow, he’d managed to get back to his feet. Then to a dead sprint. But the spins overtook him … to a notch between ancient brickwork and a pungent garbage receptacle. It was there, concealed from those wandering upon the streets, Adam Harlow had lain unconscious.
Who was after his blood instead of his money?
Propping himself up now, he gingerly slid a hand inside his jacket to find his wallet hadn’t been pinched—the quarters and some folded singles he kept for amicable beggars.
Adam touched his throbbing head, gathered strength and got to his feet. His eyes swept the surrounding brick structures, putting him within six blocks of the lab. His home. The bustle of morning foot traffic at the corner brought him relief. It was in the denser sections of town daylight hours were reasonably safe.
He hungered for a single egg in boiled ramen—a decent, affordable meal considering what others nearby were foraging. Adam staggered blindly toward a rusted drainpipe protruding from the brick wall. Enough water dribbled from it to rinse his face clean. Carefully he raked the half-dried blood from his hair. He’d been lucky. A more careful probe to his scalp suggested the gash was superficial; the benefit of being a moving target?
Walking south along First Avenue, he anticipated warming the leftover pot of soup he’d prepared yesterday over a single burner. Then he could doze on the little cot in his underground lab—a direct result of his encounter with an intriguing female scientist who represented a top-secret project inside NASA.
Rounding the corner at Jackson Street, he found a handwritten sign taped to the café’s front entrance. CLOSED. Trying the knob, it turned under his hand. He stepped inside and pulled the door gently shut, pausing long enough to glance at a clock on the wall to his right. Almost noon! What the hell was happening? The joint was dark. Stone silent.
“Over here, Mister Harlow.” The voice came from a dimly lit corner of the room. Sonny’s tone conveyed the imperative rather than the café owner’s usual singsong greeting. “I want you to talk with Detective Fischer … now, sit down, my friend.”
Adam paused long enough to notice a stretch of police ribbon cordoning off the kitchen entrance to the Underground. Had the health department come to inspect? Shut him down?
Adam knew little about Renee DeLong. Assuming the role of a research scientist, she could have been an astronaut. Part of an energy research project, DeLong had recruited him from a pool of hundreds of engineers and scientists around the country. The task: Resurrect a lost fuel formula. The federal government had been seeking a highly volatile liquid alternative to the nation’s failing gasoline supplies.
Under the moniker of Aqualene, its properties were highly complex, derived of a specific blend of largely ignored minerals whose elements when correctly and precisely processed, could rapidly extract the hydrogen from saltwater. Through a potent yet stable fusion sequence, an incredible burst of heat and explosive energy was generated. Clean heat!
Harlow was dealing with something he knew little about, yet it was him to embrace such wild adventures. A fool since childhood for long-shot odds, challenges yielding lofty results, big returns. But for Aqualene his doubts had been adding up, and fast. The minerals cited by NASA were largely unfamiliar to the average mineralogist. A reanalysis of lunar rocks had played a part in the discovery. There were more scientific unknowns, anomalies, obstacles …than there were answers. And with no financial backing to carry him; a winner-take-all compensation package.
Logistics presented another issue.
“Absolutely NO Internet transmissions!” DeLong had stipulated this condition as a matter of security. One that required travel. Given the state of fuel supplies, travel by land, sea or air had become a major undertaking. Cost was prohibitive and procurement scarce at best.
Hundreds of minds were on the Aqualene project. Many inside clean, safe, warm government labs. Positions filled by tenured scientists. Meanwhile, Adam Harlow had been working from a five-pound bag of lunar & earth-bound minerals, along with a diluted sample of the formula. Working inside a dingy space beneath the streets of Seattle’s condemned historic underground section. DeLong had pulled some strings with the city, arranging for him to occupy the unseen spot, disguised as a tectonic monitoring station for the U.S. Geological Survey.
Pulling off his jacket, Adam slid into a chair across from Sonny and the detective.
His mind raced for clues. A fire in the kitchen? Nothing smelled burnt. A robbery? A restaurant was as likely a place as any to make off with some quick easy cash. The thought of a holdup crossed Adam’s mind, yet the restaurant owner showed no obvious signs of personal trauma.
The possibilities were countless. Times were tough and crimes of the desperate nature occurred daily, all over town.
Detective Fischer looked Adam up and down methodically, noting the broad shoulders outlining a slender but powerful frame and muscular forearms. Adam’s wire-rimmed lenses gave his brown eyes an unassuming, gentle appearance.
Adam looked first to Sonny and then to the plain-clothes cop. “Okay, tell me … what’s going on here?”
Fischer delivered a slight nod over to Sonny.
“Earlier this morning … two men show up,” he began. “And they start demanding entry to the underground corridor. So I ask ‘em: ‘Who you guys looking for?’ They wouldn’t give a name. One of ‘em, a tough bruiser of sorts, he says he needs to speak with a technician in a laboratory run by the Geological Survey.”
Adam waited for Fischer’s interjection. Nothing.
“Next thing I know they’re forcin’ their way past me and headed downstairs. That’s when I called the police.”
Fischer raised a finger and drew in a breath between taut jaws. Slowly he phrased his first question: “Do you know what they were looking for, Mister Harlow?”
Sonny locked an expectant gaze on Adam, his curiosity heightened.
Adam’s mind raced for an explanation. Something to satisfy Fischer … without getting into details. He’d been ordered to keep this Aqualene business under his hat. The wrong people would be snooping around to learn what they weren’t supposed to know. Was the lab under some degree of automated surveillance, a low level of security of which DeLong had expressed serious doubts? The underground section of Seattle was now largely barricaded by the city. For decades a few access routes had remained open for employees working the steam tunnels. Once a popular tourist venue, the rest of Seattle’s old Underground city was now declared too unstable.
Adam had permitted himself to recruit a few friends to handle some of the repetitive testing. The operation was piecemeal and part-time. He’d rationalized help, in light of improving his odds of discovery. Having only two qualified assistants sure as hell beat going about it solo.
One person he’d allowed into the lab was Moi Song, a Chinese exchange student who helped write computer algorithms. She’d been working upstairs part-time for Sonny while studying coding at the University of Washington. They’d become acquainted in the café. Initially, Adam had hesitated. But time was a major factor, so he elected to offer her a few extra hours a week, to develop a computer search model. Hiring strangers carried risks. That he knew. On the other hand, accomplishing nothing was guaranteed failure.
Adam’s thoughts returned to the detective’s question.
Like a hole in the head, he needed the cops and the media profiling him for running an undisclosed research operation in a condemned historic section of 19th century Seattle. A confession could jail him for handling classified data, if not conspiring to reconstruct a highly combustible substance beneath metropolitan streets. Weeks … or months might pass before the police department could verify Adam’s legitimate connection to NASA’s recovery project.
Fischer leaned forward and peered into Adam’s eyes. “Mister Harlow, tell me, what is the nature of your business downstairs?”
“It’s all really quite tedious and mundane,” Adam sighed, his eyes scanning the vacant restaurant again. “I analyze soil samples, some of which contain sedimentary compounds embedding highly intricate molecular structures, indicative of regional tectonic shifts.”
Brilliant, how it all rolled off his tongue. And in some round-about way, it might well have been true.
More importantly, Fischer seemed to be buying it. He shrugged a shoulder and began tapping on his electronic tablet.
Adam and Dr. Heinrich Mann, a professor of Atmospheric Sciences on loan from the University of Wurzburg in Germany, had shared data on NASA’s venture two weeks earlier. That was hours before Mann deployed for a study post aboard the International Space Station. The two conceded the lost secrets of Aqualene would take tens of thousands of trials to arrive at the exact molecular structure that had mysteriously vanished from NASA’s test equipment late last year. Mann had agreed to stay in touch and was eager to hear what news Adam could offer on whatever progress he was making. Likewise, the doctor promised to do what he could aboard ISS to decipher more details about NASA’s minerals. It was likely against protocol, but Heinrich Mann was game.
Adam’s mouth became dry as he gazed back at the detective. What was it that caused his chest to suddenly tighten? Something bad had taken place down in his underground lab to invite a police investigation! Before Adam could prepare himself for more specific inquiries, Fischer was on the prowl from a new angle. He glanced at his tablet.
“Mister Harlow, tell me: How well did you know Gamil Kabib?”
Adam blinked. A knot grew deep in his throat as he played back the detective’s question in his head. Suddenly he sprang to his feet. “What do you mean: How well did I know Mister Kabib?”
After meeting the middle-aged chemist from Cairo in the steam tunnels where he worked for the city’s maintenance, Adam had hired Gamil Kabib six hours a week to help run the algorithms that Moi had programmed into Adam’s laptop. He’d been very efficient, testing and evaluating NASA’s stash of minerals. Mr. Kabib had been scheduled to come in early that morning, after pulling a late shift at the steam plant some blocks north of Adam’s location. Hours before Kabib’s arrival, Adam had gone out for fresh air to return with a late-night snack.
With reserved horror, Adam Harlow began to piece together the puzzle.
The detective’s jaw stiffened. His brows furrowed and tracked his subject carefully. “Mister Harlow, sit down!” Deep lines on his face representing years in the business twisted as he spoke slowly, mindful that Adam understand his every word.
“Gamil Kabib was murdered earlier this morning.”
Adam sat stunned, a jumble of emotions boiling up inside him as he cursed and muttered nonsense aloud.
Fischer patiently sipped from a water bottle and gave Adam time to unravel before moving forward with his questions. His study of the young man revealed a mix of Native and Anglo blood.
Methodically, gracefully, as if to be following some ancient rite, Adam mourned his loss, manifested his anger, and gradually collected his wits.
“I was hoping you could offer us some clues, Mister Harlow.” Fischer spoke quietly, yet eager to move on with business. “I suspect these characters didn’t have time to find whatever they were after. Evidence suggests Kabib startled one or both in the underground corridor, not far outside your laboratory.”
Adam gulped and stared past Fischer toward the kitchen’s back entrance to the stairs. Haunted by Gamil’s last goodbye, he clenched a fist. “Any chance they’re still down there?”
“Strange thing,” Fischer added. “They split up and ran in opposite directions. The killer took off somewhere up the line toward the steam plant.”
“And the other one?”
“My partner found the accomplice lying in the alley with a slug in his hip … from the same firearm that was used on Kabib.” The detective swiped and peered at his tablet. “Richardson’s the name, Thomas Richardson. Sound familiar?”
Half listening, Adam mumbled the name aloud. “No. I…I don’t know anyone by that name. Where’s he from?”
“He was carrying a Texas driver’s license. I suspect the two men were hired by someone of power and influence, looking for something important, valuable … worth killing another man for. Though many are killed for less these days.”
Adam coughed. “Look, I need to get into my lab.”
“No dice. Not unless I escort you down there, but only for a minute or two. We’re likely to muck up the evidence needed to nail this guy.”
Adam turned to Sonny. “What about your employees?”
“They’re okay, Mister Harlow. I sent ‘em home for the day. Miss Song is waiting to hear from you.”
Adam could breathe easier. At least one from his lab was out of harm’s way. Fischer made a note of her Chinese first name, rhyming it aloud with soy, then closed his notebook and led Adam down the decayed wooden stairs into the corridor.
Immediately Adam detected the acrid smell of gun powder lingering in the musty cavernous air. Fischer hadn’t taken ten steps when he halted and pointed to the dirt path ahead of them. “I suspect the two were busting up the place when Mister Kabib came through. My partner found his body over there.” The cop’s flashlight skipped over to a spot a few yards beyond the lab’s entrance.
Adam felt a sudden urge to vomit, sighting traces of Gamil’s blood stains on the ground. A swirl of confusing odors entered his nostrils. Burnt gunpowder, blood, and something else. Something odd smelling, unfamiliar.
Cataloging the odor in his mind, Adam managed another question. “Any evidence of a struggle?”
“Not yet. Only that Kabib somehow got in their way.” Fischer wagged his finger toward the ground. “That, Mister Harlow, leads me to wonder about the circumstances. There’s little physical evidence to suggest a premeditated motive. Unless, the gunman had somehow mistaken him for ….”
A mix of anguish and fright swelled up in Adam, somehow wishing he’d been the one in Habib’s shoes. The man had been doing his best work under hard-luck circumstances to feed his wife and two kids. Such tragedy as this was unthinkable!
Adam fought to push violence and revenge from his thoughts as he stared over Fischer’s light beam. The binder he and Gamil had used to keep notes about Aqualene was open, its pages scattered across the discarded door that served as a workbench. Some of its pages were bent and tattered. Others were missing … along with his laptop!
Fischer pulled out a business card. “We’ve taken pictures and fingerprint samples. Soon as I hear back from my tech in Forensics, I’ll notify you.” He looked down at the narrow army cot. “For now, I suggest you find another place to lay your head.” Fischer reached out toward a small messy sideboard and poked a pencil drawn from a coat pocket at some open containers. “Anything hazardous here?”
Adam paused as his eyes swept over vials in a square wooden box beneath the workbench. A blue substance oozed from three of the upright vials.
“You know. Toxic chemicals, acids, flammables … hazardous substances!”
Adam was silent. He glanced around the lab, remembering what he’d been told about Aqualene: Many times more powerful than fossil-based fuels, DeLong had insisted. It would correctly be identified by its subtle blue hues; a foamy consistency once the properties were perfectly balanced.
A labor of love, she had confessed of her own efforts while outlining the non-salaried assignment. Yet it was said to be a dangerous undertaking despite the handsome reward for whoever could turn up the right formula.
Was the value of such a purse bearing out its truths? Someone had taken a lethal whack at Adam in the middle of the night. Someone who’d known his whereabouts at the time he’d been out of the lab? Had leveraging unimaginable gains been behind the attack?
Fischer repeated his question.
Adam shrugged. He saw nothing he could honestly deem dangerous … except evidence first responders had collected samples of the spilled liquids from the workbench and the dirt floor. Had it been that Kabib detected some variation of Thorium in the mix—a distance relative to Uranium? Had Mr. Kabib derived and begun to analyze the very formula NASA was seeking, the one having identical properties of Aqualene?
Electing to add no more to this conversation, Adam let silence fall between them. Suddenly Fischer was all business.
“I’ll need to get a HAZMAT team in here as soon as we’re finished with the investigation. Anything you want back will have to be claimed at the downtown precinct, with this receipt.”
Before leaving, the detective dusted more fingerprints and repeated his orders that Adam stay out of the lab. Fair advice, considering the odds Richardson’s partner was apt to return, and would kill anyone else who got in his way.