Frank DeBurra had said Charlotte was involved with him, with the “wrong people.” What had she gotten herself into?
Tim interrupted my thoughts.
“How far into the bedroom did you go?” There was an urgency in his voice that I hadn’t heard in a long time. Not since my own trip to the emergency room ten years ago. My boyfriend at the time rode a Harley; I was twenty-two and felt invincible. I did wear a helmet. But it didn’t keep my leg from getting broken in three places when the bike fell on top of me after we got sideswiped by a car on the highway. My boyfriend? He wasn’t so lucky.
“I didn’t go in,” I said, concern in my voice now in response to his. “What, is there a problem?”
The uniforms had managed to rouse a few residents, who were being herded toward the elevators. A busty woman wearing a tight shirt and jeans carried a small white dog that started yapping. A middle-aged couple was still in their pajamas, but the uniforms were telling them they couldn’t go back in; they had to evacuate.
I caught Tim’s eye, but he was distracted. There was another condo on the other side of the hall, and he strode over to the door and banged on it like there was no tomorrow.
“Police. Ma’am? You have to leave the building,” he shouted after a muffled reply on the other side of the door.
The door opened a crack, and I could see Tim leaning in, talking to someone. Finally, she stepped outside. She was short, dark-Mexican from the look of it. She held a dust rag. Cleaning woman, most likely. Her eyes were wide as Tim hustled her past me.
I didn’t quite know what to do or where to go, but since everyone was leaving, I didn’t want to stick around to see why. Something in that condo wasn’t safe.
I went over to the elevator and tugged on Tim’s sleeve. “I think I’ll go downstairs now,” I said.
Before Tim could answer, we heard the ding of the elevator and Frank DeBurra stepped into the hall. I didn’t have a chance to react, though, because two men and a woman came out behind him. They were all wearing big white hazmat-type suits with booties and gloves. They held face shields and goggles.
“Who’s still in there?” DeBurra asked Tim, ignoring me.
DeBurra looked at his companions. “Go on in,” he growled.
They stuck on their face shields, making them look remarkably like those guys at the end of E.T., and went into the condo. The residents were all on the other elevator now, going down. I wished I were with them, because DeBurra was staring at me. “Why am I not surprised to see you here?” he asked.
I had no idea what he was talking about.
“She came here because Charlotte Sampson called and said she wanted to meet her,” Tim volunteered.
I shot him a look, but it was too late now.
“I told you to call me when she contacted you,” he scolded.
I didn’t take well to his tone. “I figured you’d be following me anyway,” I snapped back.
He looked from me to Tim. “She didn’t get anything on herself, did she?”
“I don’t know.”
“What about the Sampson woman?”
“Brett says she wasn’t here.”
“Yes, she was,” I said. “Just not when I got here.”
“How do you know?” Tim asked.
“One of the cops in there found a pink hoodie. Exactly like the one Charlotte has. It can’t be a coincidence. She wanted me to meet her here. She knew what I’d find.”
“Maybe she’s okay,” Tim said hesitantly.
“We’d better hope so,” DeBurra said.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “What’s in there?”
“Why is the air-conditioning still on?” DeBurra growled, but not to me or Tim. He was talking to one of his team, who had just come out to join us.
“The guard is going to get it shut off now. It’s on some sort of main circuit.”
“Now. It needs to be turned off now.” I thought DeBurra was going to have a heart attack; the veins in his neck were bulging, and his face was bright red. He turned back to me. “You have to tell me everything you know.”
“Everything about what?” I asked.
“Did Charlotte Sampson tell you what was going on? What is the extent of her role?” Before I could answer either question, however, he turned back to Tim. “You know, this puts that queen’s death into question now.”
“Trevor?” I asked. “What does this have to do with Trevor’s death?”
DeBurra looked sorry that he’d said anything.
I couldn’t pursue it, though, because the woman who’d come in with DeBurra was coming toward us. She’d pulled off her hood.
DeBurra nodded at Tim. “Leslie’s going down with you. She’ll show you what you have to do.” He turned to me. “This is Detective Holcomb. Do what she tells you.” As if I wouldn’t. DeBurra went into the condo, and Leslie Holcomb indicated that we were to follow her.
More white-clad aliens got off the elevator and headed to the condo. I hesitated, but Tim took my arm and said in my ear, “We need to go outside. DeBurra’s going to need to ask you more questions.”
“I’ve got some questions of my own,” I started, but Tim shook his head.
“This isn’t the time. You’ll know what’s up soon enough. You need to try to think of where Charlotte might have gone; you need to get in touch with her.”
“Is she in danger?” I asked.
“She could get very sick.”
I thought about Trevor getting sick in my shop. And then Wesley Lambert. “Is it some sort of swine flu thing?” I asked. “Who are those guys in there in those suits?”
Tim didn’t answer. We went down in the elevator with Leslie and stepped out into the lobby behind the waterfall. It was pandemonium, condo residents filing outside like it was a school fire drill. Three ambulances had joined the one that had arrived first, their lights joining those of the cop cars that crowded the circular drive. Leslie waved us past the residents and brought us outside, around the side of the building to the delivery entrance, where a large box truck stood. A sort of round contraption had been set up next to it.
She looked at both of us and said, “You’re going to have to disrobe.”
My heart jumped into my throat. “What?” I sputtered, turning to Tim. But he was nodding.
“We have to wash,” he said. “Homeland security regulations.”
Homeland security? What was going on?
“I’m not taking my clothes off here,” I said defiantly.
Leslie did not look pleased with me. “It’s regulation,” she said firmly. “We’ll make sure you have privacy.” She turned to Tim. “Over there.” She pointed to another white-suited person on the other side of the truck. The four uniforms and two paramedics who had gone up to the condo were there, too.
Tim squeezed my arm. “It’s going to be okay. Just do what she says, please?”
From just the tone of his voice, I could tell that this was serious-more serious than anything I’d experienced before. Tears sprang into my eyes as I nodded. “Okay,” I agreed.
I followed Leslie around the other side of the truck, where there was another setup. Looking more closely, I saw it was a sort of shower.
She brought me behind a curtain and surveyed me. I was used to being studied, but she wasn’t looking at my ink.
“Take off your earrings,” she instructed. “And your watch. Do you have any other piercings, any other jewelry on your person?”
I shook my head, my hand shaking even more as I struggled with the posts and the hoops that ran along the length of my ears. She disappeared for a few seconds and came back wielding a pair of scissors. She approached me, and I instinctively stepped back.
“You can’t take your shirt off over your head,” she said, her voice soft and her eyes kind. “I’m sorry about this.” And with one movement, she slipped the scissors under the back of my shirt and slid them up to the neck, expertly cutting so I could take it off over my arms.
“Why did you do that?” I asked, handing her all my earrings and my watch.
“You have to take off everything.” Again her tone was kind, almost apologetic. “You have to take a shower. You might have gotten some on you, and you have to be decontaminated.”
Decontaminated? Now I truly felt like that kid in E.T.
It was as if a weight was sitting on my chest; my arms and legs felt leaden. I stripped off my clothes, and Leslie’s eyes took in my tattoos this time.
“Nice,” she managed to say just as she led me into the shower. She handed me a container of liquid soap. “You have to wash thoroughly.”
Instead of a showerhead, though, I saw she held out a sort of wand. It was a hose.
It was not an experience I would ever choose to repeat. I did what I was told and used the soap. Fortunately, the water was lukewarm, but the stream was so strong that it bounced off me almost as soon as it hit my skin, spraying every which way.
Leslie appeared at one point, and I was too exhausted to even feel like I had to cover up. She took the wand and aimed it at my back.
Finally, it was over. I felt like Rocky Balboa must have after the fight with Apollo Creed. Every muscle, every bone hurt. I almost expected my skin to be wiped clean of all my ink.
Leslie disappeared for a second, leaving me naked and shivering despite the warm desert air. When she reappeared, she handed me a white towel. “Dry up and change into this,” she instructed, holding out a suit like hers in her other hand.
I took both towel and suit and contemplated the severity of this situation as I dried off and put on the suit. I hoped it wasn’t see-through, since there was no underwear. I stepped outside the shower and saw her waiting for me.
“What about my clothes?” I asked.
“Confiscated.” She was a woman of few words.
“Can you tell me what exactly I came in contact with up there?”
Leslie shook her head.
“I just went through complete humiliation and let you sandblast me with water. I think I’m owed an explanation.”
Tim was coming around the side of the truck, also dressed in a white suit. We looked more like twins than ever. He’d overheard my comment. “She’ll find out soon enough,” he said apologetically to Leslie.
To me, he said, “Brett, Wesley Lambert was making ricin up there. And there was enough to kill all of us.”