This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be re-produced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal.
More information about the writer can be found on
Cover Design & artwork: Cynthia Fridsma
First Printing: 2019
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To the people of Boston, who inspire me to keep writing about your beautiful city.
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I worked on a chapter-to-chapter basis with my editor, Lee Ann. During that time, I enjoyed the intensive contact with my editor and I would like to thank her for her hard work and suggestions.
I’d like to thank my husband for his endless support. And I’d like to thank all my readers as well because you are my inspiration to keep writing.
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The story starts in December 2017. It’s freezing cold when Medical Examiner Natalie Principal arrives at the intersection of Westland Avenue and Hemenway Street in Boston, to inspect a charred body behind the wheel. The victim falls apart when she touches it. Since the car doesn’t show traces of fire, Natalie’s afraid the victim was exposed to a deadly dose of radiation. She informs the ATU—Anti Terrorism Unit—about a possible terrorist threat of a dirty bomb.
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“Three years ago, I walked down the aisle,” she whispered. Her glance slid around in the room that was once filled with her belongings. Her dog, Woof, looked up at her. His tail swirled excitedly.
Rose smiled faintly and sank down and petted the old German shepherd. He was her only companion since her husband had vanished without leaving a trace. God, she missed him. A teardrop streamed down her face while she petted Woof. In her mind, she wandered off to Detective Johnson. He had investigated her husband’s sudden disappearance since day one. Johnson had searched for him, but after two years he still hadn’t found a clue, still drawing a blank. The last time anyone saw Alex was in his lab at BU (Boston University), along with a few highly classified students. Rose kept track of them because they too disappeared one by one. The only student left was Megan McDonough. The last time Rose contacted her was ten days ago, when Megan made clear she didn’t want to talk to her anymore.
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“Where do we go from here?” she asked Woof, who tilted his head in response.
“Aunt Rose? It’s time to go!” Cousin Lewis called.
She glanced over her shoulder. Lewis stood before the entrance to the living room, leaning in against the white wall with his hand. Rose’s eyes narrowed and she bit her tongue to suppress the urge to tell him to stop doing that. His greasy hands, smeared with dried-up oil, would leave marks on the wall. But this was no longer her home. She’d sold it a month ago to a newlywed couple. They gave her a month to move out. That day had arrived, and all that was left were her memories of the place—she always expected she’d stay here until the day she passed away. Alas, no such luck. Fortunately, she’d sold it for a decent price.
With a bitter taste in her mouth, she stood and glared at the stain on the wall. Her heart ached, and it was hard for her to keep her emotions in check. One last time she glanced around, then she decided to take a picture with her cell phone. The living room looks so empty now. She swallowed a lump in her throat.
Lewis tapped her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Auntie. But it’s time to let go and move on.”
She nodded, wiped the tears from her face, and put her cell phone away. Then Woof started to bark and ran off.
“What’s the matter, Woof?” Rose called in a hoarse voice.
“Come on, Aunt Rose. It’s time to go!” Lewis said in the background.
She ignored him and followed Woof. Where did he go? Then she noticed the tip of his tail as he walked downstairs to the basement. Its door was wide open. Rose frowned and walked downstairs. On the concrete, she noticed an object, under a layer of dust. She gently dusted it off. It was a
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black disk with a handwritten label—SCR4000. Rose recognized Alex’s handwriting. Electrified, she just stood there, staring at her husband’s handwriting. With trembling fingers, she touched the label. Her heart pinched in her chest. She closed her eyes. Was it her imagination, or was Alex nearby? His hands tenderly touched her shoulder.
Alex’s presence shredded into pieces, leaving an empty pit in her stomach. Rose opened her eyes and turned. Lewis stood behind her.
“Are you all right?” he asked softly.
“Yeah, I’m fine, thank you,” she said, and sighed.
“What are you doing down here, anyway? Did you lose one of your contacts? I know you wear them,” he said, and grinned.
Rose squinted at him. To Lewis, almost everything was a joke. Then she looked at Woof, who sat down in front of her.
“No, my contact lens didn’t get lost. I was just looking at this,” Rose said, and flashed the disk to Lewis.
Lewis smiled, baring the few teeth he still had.
“Gosh . . . is that why you’re down here?”
“Woof called me, remember?”
“Well, um, he barked,” Lewis chuckled. “Don’t know if you can say he called for you to come down here and have a look.” Lewis scratched the back of his head. “What is it, anyway, that you’ve found?”
“A computer disk, I think.”
“Oh. Well, I noticed it when I moved a few boxes. It didn’t seem important, is all I’m sayin’, because it was lying on the floor. Dusty and all. I almost stepped on it too.”
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“This is a computer disk, with your uncle’s handwriting! Perhaps it’s important.”
“If you say so,” Lewis said, and picked imaginary pieces of lint from his shirt. “But we have to go now, Aunt Rose,” he said, licking his lips, and looked at her.
Rose didn’t want to leave. Not after this discovery. In her gut, she had the feeling she was on to something. But Lewis tugged at her sleeve. “Come on, Aunt Rose. There’s nothing here except . . .” his face blushed.
“Except what?” Rose asked, folding her arms.
“Except for the message on the wall.”
“The one right behind you. There used to be a poster. I took it off, you know. I liked it. Do you want me to show it to ya?” He didn’t wait for her reaction as he grinned and unfolded a poster from under his shirt, showing Red Sox player “Big Papi” Ortiz.
Rose let out a deep breath and turned her back to read the message on the wall she hadn’t noticed at first. Dreamscape. She frowned. “What does it mean? Dreamscape?”
“Perhaps a movie?” Lewis replied, turning his attention to the poster in his hands. “I will give you a room with a view,” he chuckled, and rolled it up.
A door upstairs opened.
Woof growled softly, turned, and ran upstairs. Rose, still puzzled about the mysterious message on the wall, just stood until a woman screamed for help while Woof barked wildly.
“Aunt Rose!” Lewis tugged at her sleeve again.
Rose nodded slightly and went upstairs. In the hallway was Woof, standing in front of a young woman who leaned her back against the wall.
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Her face was all sweaty. A box labeled ladies’ underwear was lying upside down near Woof. Some red lingerie was on the black-and-white floor tiles.
Lewis whistled behind Rose’s back while Rose stared at the black-haired woman with the pale face.
“Please, keep your dog away from me!” the woman squeaked when she saw Rose.
“It’s all right. Woof is harmless,” Rose said, and smiled. She petted Woof’s head. Woof stopped barking and swayed his tail, looking up at Rose as if he was trying to say: “I will keep you safe.”
“I’m sorry he scared you,” Rose apologized. “We were about to leave after one last look.”
The woman stared wordlessly at Woof while Lewis picked up the lingerie from the floor and handed it to her.
“Woof, come on, boy; leave the nice lady alone,” Rose said as they walked toward Lewis’s car parked in front of the house. It was an old, rusty, 1970s Chevy pickup, loaded with her belongings.
After Lewis brought her to her new home, Rose sighed while Lewis helped her move her belongings inside. She had sold most of her stuff during garage sales over the last month. But some things, she wanted to keep. More than enough to fill Lewis’s old pickup, she thought somberly, and looked around at the apartment she had rented. After Lewis brought in the last box to the living room, she handed him two hundred dollars.
“That’s way too much, Auntie,” Lewis said.
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“I know we agreed on one hundred, but I decided to double it. You have been a great help.”
“I’m glad I could help,” he chuckled, and put the money away in his pocket. “Now, I’m off to Texas, back to Maggie Sue and the kids,” he said, and after a short goodbye, he drove off.
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The old, yellow Nissan Stanza came to a halt near the intersection of Westland Avenue and Hemenway Street. Natalie Principal exhaled. It was rather quiet on the road. The full rush hour hadn’t started yet. Which was fine by her, because she hated to drive during rush hour. Death doesn’t wait for the right time. It comes and goes as it pleases. She stared at the clock attached to the dashboard. It was 5:30 a.m.
Natalie’s glance slid to the police car that blocked the intersection with its flashing lights on. Then she grabbed her ME bag from the passenger’s seat next to her and opened the door. A passing car was detoured by an officer.
She pulled her winter coat tight against her body. Her breath almost froze in the air as she passed by an eight-story complex until she reached the crossing and glanced at the blue sedan that blocked the road. The door on the passenger’s side was wide open. She shivered at the sight as she could almost sense someone had died in there. Trying to get out or . . . Natalie hoped it wasn’t someone young. Seeing a body is never
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pleasant, but when it’s someone young—or someone you know—it makes it even harder.
“Hold it right there, ma’am,” a six-foot-tall officer said with his right hand on the grip of his gun, still in its holster.
“It’s OK,” Detective Pete McNamara said. “This is Natalie Principal, the medical examiner.”
Natalie held up her badge attached to a lanyard around her neck. Under the dimmed light of the streetlamps, she noticed the police officer’s face was blushing. He cleared his throat and stepped hastily away.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” Pete said and lit a cigarette, then paused. “I know these are bad for my health. But at 17 degrees, they keep me warm.”
He coughed before inhaling again. Natalie didn’t answer, and glanced at his face with a stark expression on her face—noticing bits of gray in his hair.
“Good morning, Pete,” she said, and put her ME bag on the cold asphalt. She sank to her haunches. Her breath made little puffy clouds, as though she smoked a cigarette too.
“And a good morning to you, Nat,” Pete replied, breathing in more smoke. “I hope you didn’t have your breakfast yet.”
She looked up at him. “Is it that bad?”
“The victim is all burned in there,” he said, and pointed with the tip of his cigarette to the car.
She sighed and put on a pair of white latex gloves and used a face mask to cover her nose and mouth before she picked up her ME bag and went to the car. A blackened body was sitting behind the wheel.
“Like I said, the victim is all burned,” Pete said in the background.
She held her breath because of the foul aroma in the car—even with the face mask on it was hardly bearable. Natalie had to breathe through her
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mouth to not get dizzy. Behind her, Pete used a flashlight to shine for her. She peeked over her shoulder and nodded a thank you. Then she turned her attention back to the body. It was badly burned, beyond recognition, making it difficult to distinguish if it was male or female. A deep frown drew across her face because the car—an expensive Mercedes—didn’t show traces of fire. Cautiously, she touched the victim’s hand on the wheel. It pulverized under her gloved hands into a black powder. She cursed herself under her breath for not being careful enough. Then she realized it’d be almost impossible to conserve the body before transporting it to the morgue. Involuntarily, she glanced at the powder on the driver’s seat. She wiped it into a plastic evidence bag and pulled back from the car.
Pete turned off his flashlight. “Well?”
“It’s impossible to tell,” Natalie said, and took off her face mask. “If I touch the body, it falls apart.”
“How’s that even possible?”
“I have no idea. The victim must have been exposed to an extreme heat, or just maybe a high dose of radiation . . .” As she spoke, all the hairs on her neck were electrified. Her heart pounded like crazy and she had to gasp for air to get a hold of herself.
“Hey, Nat, are you OK?” Pete asked.
Natalie waved him away and held her breath. After a while, she straightened her back and looked at him. “Do you know what this means? It implies we could all have been exposed to a deadly amount of radiation, right here, right now.” Tears wetted her face.
Pete said nothing, but his enlarged eyes spoke volumes. Finally he managed, “Are you sure?”
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“We have to put this whole area on lockdown until we know more,” she said, removing her gloves and wiping the tears from her eyes.
Pete scratched his head and went to the two officers. “It’s possible we have been exposed to a high level of radiation.”
The two officers exchanged glances.
“Wh-what about my wife and kid? Will I ever see them again?” the six-foot-tall officer asked, and looked from Pete to Natalie.
“I frankly don’t know,” Natalie said. “All I know is that we have to protect the public from radiation. We have to put this place on lockdown,” she continued. “Maybe it’s not caused by radiation. But until we know for sure—”
“I’ll call my wife,” the officer said.
“This is the first time I’m glad I’m not married,” his colleague added.
“Please, don’t contact your family yet,” Natalie said. “You don’t want to cause panic. And first, we need to know if the body has indeed been exposed to radiation.”
“Don’t you have a Geiger counter with you?” Pete asked her with a hard expression on his face.
“I’m an ME. A Geiger counter doesn’t come with the job,” Natalie said wryly. She pulled her cell from her bag to call her boss, Chief Medical Examiner Dave Edmunds.
“Dave Edmunds,” Dave said on the phone.
“It’s Natalie. I’m at Westland Avenue and I’m afraid we’ve run into something serious.” She paused to take a deep breath. “The victim’s body pulverizes when I touch it. The victim must have been exposed to an extremely high temperature or—”
“Or a high level of radiation.”
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“My thoughts exactly,” Natalie said with a cold shudder that went down her back. “I think it’s for the best that we lock down this whole area until we know what we’re dealing with. I also think we should notify the ATU on this.”
“Why do you want to involve the ATU in—”
“Just think about the failed suicide bomber in New York at rush hour on December 11, nearly four days ago. This too could be an act of terrorism. But it’s your call. The scene looks like it’s staged,” Natalie whispered, and went on, “the car, it looks brand new. And the body, it’s burned down completely.”
“All right. Bring the ATU up to speed,” Dave gave in. “I’ll inform Mayor Walker and I’ll talk to the head of the Centers for Disease Control. Take care of yourself.”
After she hung up, Natalie glanced at Pete and the two officers standing by. “I just spoke to my boss, Dave Edmunds. He’ll notify the head of the CDC. They’ll send a unit to handle this situation. In the meantime, all we can do is wait and make sure no one gets near this area.” Then she stared Pete straight in the eye. “I hope you don’t mind if I go back to my car and wait for the specialists to arrive.”
Natalie stepped into her car and turned on the engine. Her chest ached while she blasted the heater to its max. With the engine running, she listened to the radio and looked out the window, watching the tall officer standing on the street accompanied by his colleague and Pete. With a pit in her stomach, she grabbed her cell phone.
“I know what I said,” she whispered, still glancing at the tall officer.
“Principal residence,” her father said.
Natalie sniffed lightly. “Yeah, hi, Dad. Is Mom at home?”
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“She’s upstairs, packing her bags,” he grinned. “And you know how she is when she packs her things.”
Natalie nodded. “Yeah, she doesn’t want to be bothered then.”
“We’re going to Aspen for two weeks. But she packs like it’s for a month.”
“Right. I nearly forgot. To celebrate Christmas.”
“It’s expensive, but it’s also the best place to spend the holidays. Don’t forget, you promised to come next week,” her father said, sounding excited.
“No, no. I will be there,” Natalie promised, and tried to ignore the burning feeling down in her stomach. Someone knocked on the car window. Startled, she glanced over her shoulder at Pete.
“I’ve got to go now, Daddy. Please, say hi to Mom,” she said and lowered the window.
“They’ll arrive any moment now,” Pete said, and blew on his hands.
“I’ll be glad when it’s over. One way or the other,” Natalie said. “Hey, do you want to sit next to me? At least it’s warm in here.” She managed to show a smile.
“Nah, I’m good. The cold keeps me sharp.” He tapped his forehead and walked back to the two officers.
“Well, OK. It’s your funeral,” she muttered under her breath and quickly closed the window. A few minutes later, the sound of blaring sirens drew her attention. Natalie counted to ten and then she dialed Jack Hunter, the head of the ATU branch in Boston—the Anti-Terrorism Unit.
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1 – Rose
Rose woke up exhausted after Woof jumped on the bed to lick her in the face.
“Woof, not now!”
She softly pushed him aside and yawned, stretching her arms and legs. Waking up after a bad dream eats all your energy for the day. When she glanced at the nightstand, she expected to see Alex’s picture. But it wasn’t there! She frowned until she realized she was in her new home. She still hadn’t unpacked most of the boxes, and his picture was probably in one of the unopened boxes downstairs, or somewhere in one of these boxes around the bed. Woof jumped from the bed, carefully avoiding the boxes.
“God, I just had the worst dream,” she complained, and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Woof, sitting across from her, softly barked and tilted his head. He’s so cute when he does that.
She sat up straight on the bed to pat his head while thinking about her bad dream.
“Oh, Alex. What happened to you?” It was a question she’d asked every morning for the last two years. At least she’d found a new clue. She leaned
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toward the nightstand and gazed at the disk she’d put on the nightstand next to her cell phone. With a sigh, she took hold of the disk and stared at the handwritten label. SCR4000? She shook her head. Her hand reached out to her cell phone and browsed the Internet for more information.
“SCR4000. Best-selling products, auto twirler rotisserie for . . .” she read aloud. “Somehow, I don’t think it’s linked to the disk,” she mumbled, and looked at Woof. Still, she opened the first result to see what it was all about. Um, it’s a restoration tool car, truck thingy.
With a scowl, she glanced at Woof. “I don’t think we’ll find the answers on the Internet.”
Woof put his head on her lap.
“You’re hungry, aren’t you?” she asked him.
Woof rolled his eyes as if he wanted to say of course. A dog knows more than we realize, she decided, and stood.
She plucked a dress from one of the boxes to get dressed, all the while thinking about the message on the wall she had discovered yesterday. It surfaced on the basement wall because of Cousin Lewis, who liked the Big Papi poster so much he took it off the wall, revealing the handwritten message underneath. Dreamscape.
Rose was determined to discover what it meant. Today, she’d pay a visit to BU to speak to the head of the university. President Michael Thalberg. She had met him only once. That was almost two years ago. He’d denied Alex was working for BU. But in her gut, Rose knew he lied. And with this disk, she’d confront him.
“That sounds like a sound plan.” She nodded at Woof. “But first, we’re going to have breakfast.”
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She went downstairs into the kitchen, closely followed by Woof. Then she opened a brown kitchen cabinet, looking for the dog food.
“Ah, there it is.” She stood on her toes to grab the bag. “Pure Balance Wild & Free Bison, Pea & Venison Recipe Food for Dogs,” she read aloud and presented it to Woof. He barked in response. Rose took a bowl from the dishwasher. Woof’s ears move forward at the ringing sound of falling meat chunks. She put the bowl on the ground across from Woof, who started to eat.
“Enjoy your breakfast,” she said lovingly.
So, what will I be eating? She frowned at the fridge. She grabbed some eggs, mushrooms, and an onion. She trimmed the onion into little slices, along with the mushrooms. She mixed them together with two eggs and salt and pepper. After pouring the mixture into the frying pan, she stirred the mixture a few minutes, then scraped the scrambled egg onto a plate and turned on the radio on the kitchen table and started to eat.
“Breaking news. The intersection of Westland Ave. and Hemenway Street in Boston is on lockdown. People within a radius of six blocks are advised to stay indoors. We don’t know all the details yet. But rumors are this has something to do with an abandoned car at the . . .” the radio announcer was saying. But Rose stopped paying attention to the radio and picked up her cell phone, eager to know what was going on.
A sound in the kitchen made her look up. She held her breath until she realized it was Woof, who pushed the now empty bowl aside as he came nearer to her.
She faintly smiled at him and then browsed the Internet on her cell phone until she found a live news video about the lockdown. Two officials wearing protective white clothes with yellow radiation banners
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approached a blue car at the intersection. The camera zoomed in on the scene. All the blood receded from her face when she recognized Alex’s car. Her heart pounded heavily in her chest.
Rose put her cell phone on the table and ran a shaking hand through her hair. The radio announcer said something about the car, but his voice was nothing more than a faint whisper. Haunting images of her bad dream, in which Alex’s face crumbled into a pile of dust, made her dizzy. With a thud she hit the tiled kitchen floor, taking the chair with her. The radio clattered in her face. Ouch!
She pushed it away.
From a far distance, she noticed Woof. He licked her face while she slowly came to. Her ears buzzed. She touched her pulsing forehead and pinched her eyes. She took a few deep breaths to calm down while Woof stopped licking her face and sat beside her.
After a while, she felt good enough to stand and leaned, with trembling hands, on the kitchen table. Then she pulled the chair to its feet to have a seat. Rose fumbled for the phone and dialed 9-1-1.
“This is 9-1-1. Where is your emergency?” a female operator said.
“Um, it’s not really an emergency,” Rose said.
“Ma’am, I must warn you that you face heavy fines and even jail if you misuse and abuse 9-1-1,” the operator warned.
“I’m sorry. But I didn’t know whom to call. I’m calling because of the situation at Westland Avenue that’s happening right now,” Rose said in a sharp tone.
“Westland Avenue?” The operator paused for a second. “OK. Yes, there’s an emergency going on down there. Do you have family nearby Westland Avenue?”
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“No. Only I recognize it’s my husband’s car down there. The license plate has a Red Sox logo. The license number is RS1775 . . .” her voice broke off as she sniffled and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” Rose said. “My husband, Alex Gibbon, has been missing for two years, and seeing his car—” A sob tore down her throat.
“I see,” the operator said softly. “Please hold. I’ll put you through to one of the operating agencies.”
After two, maybe three beeps, a man on the phone said: “This is Tony Rodrigues from the ATU speaking. Ma’am, I understand you have information about the blue sedan at Westland Avenue?”
“Y-yes, I do,” Rose answered.
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