Allison Stewart's future hung in the balance. Her job. Her research. Her attempt to make a difference.
Two years working on a new laboratory test to detect blood-borne pathogens, and the board still couldn't decide if she deserved additional funding.
Pulling in a calming breath, she slipped her hands into the powdered latex gloves and snipped off a segment of tubing from three units of blood.
Collected at a South Georgia blood draw earlier in the week, the units had been transported to Magnolia Medical's laboratory in Atlanta for processing. Ensuring the blood was safe for transfusion was top priority.
The units had passed the routine battery of tests.
They'd flunked Allison's.
She spun the segments in the centrifuge, then transferred the top layer of golden serum into the analyzer.
The test was a semiautomated procedure. Rapid, if not reliable. Given time, she'd work out the kinks.
The instrumentation clicked into operation.
If she believed in the power of prayer, this would be the time to ask for help. But God had turned His back on her years ago. No reason anything would change today.
Discarding her gloves, she wiped her damp palms against the side of her lab coat. Behind her, footsteps sounded across the polished tile floor. She turned as Veronica Edwards, the research department's laboratory manager, entered the special projects area.
"I thought you'd be tied up all afternoon with the directors." Allison noted her supervisor's drawn face and furrowed brow. Evidently, the meeting hadn't gone well.
"The board cut your funding."
Allison's chest tightened. "Did you tell them I'm optimistic about perfecting the procedure?"
"They're focused on cost reduction, not sinking more money into a laboratory test that, with time, may detect a rare prion disease."
"A rare but fatal prion disease," Allison corrected her.
"Which has never posed a significant problem in the U.S."
The muscles in Allison's neck tensed. "Great Britain didn't think it had a problem until the prion outbreak there. Remember the havoc mad cow disease caused? We're still restricting donations from people who lived in Europe during that time for fear they will infect our blood supply."
Veronica sighed. "I understand the significance of your research. If we can find a way to identify the dormant prion protein, we can lift the European restriction."
"And end the blood-shortage crisis. Magnolia Medical would control the patent on a test sure to be adopted in every blood-donor center throughout the country. The revenue alone would"
"But two years with no hint of success, Allison. It's over."
The analyzer stopped. Thirty seconds and the results would feed to the monitor.
Time to come clean. Her supervisor needed to be brought up to date.
"I ran random specimens yesterday from that last blood draw, expecting the units to be negative. Three reacted so I tested them again this morning with the same results." Allison tried to smile but knew she fell short. "They say the third time's a charm. I repeated the procedure just now."
Allison glanced at the monitor as the results rolled across the screen. "The levels are identical to the first two runs."
"Meaning three donors will soon develop neurological symptoms that will eventually lead to death."
Veronica stepped closer. "The likelihood of picking up a single positive specimenlet alone threein one blood draw is" her eyes widened "unheard of."
"We never had a rapid, cost-effective test to screen donor blood before."
Veronica held up her index finger. "A test that's still in the experimental phase."
Do or die. Allison was gambling everything on the next bit of information she needed to share.
"The three positive specimens came from donors who live in the same small townSterling, Georgia."
The lab manager's eyebrow shot up. "You accessed their personal donor data?"
Allison nodded. "According to the information I found online, the area is a haven for deer hunters. Maybe the men ate venison from deer with chronic wasting disease. I'll drive to Sterling after work tonight. If I talk to the men, I may find a common link."
Veronica shook her head. "I don't like it."
"Three days and I should have an answer."
Veronica caved. "Two days. But watch what you say. I wouldn't want anyone to be told they have a fatal disease because of a questionable result from a test that's far from ready for clinical use. And no contact with the media. We don't want any wild stories about an outbreak of mad cow disease in Georgia. Invalid test results would blacken Magnolia Medical's good name."
"But the test is valid," Allison said with conviction.
"Then find the connection with infected deer."
Veronica headed for the door, but Allison's next comment caused her to pause. "Venison may not be the source of infection."
Veronica held up her hand. "If you're thinking contaminated beef is the problem, you're jumping to a conclusion I'm not willing to consider. Find the reason for the positive reactions. See whether they tie in with a diseased deer population."
"And if not?" Allison asked.
Neither of them gave voice to the obvious. If the test were valid and if eating or handling contaminated venison had not infected the men, then an even more serious situation was raising its ugly head in South Georgia. A situation that could impact the entire southeast, if not the nation.
"Then God help us," Veronica said as she turned on her heel and left the lab.
After all that had happened, Luke Garrison was riding on empty. His sister's handicap, the trauma that had pushed her farther into a world of isolation, their father's tragic death. Ten years ago, yet the memories were too real, too fresh. Any hope for the future seemed as elusive as the moonbeams filtering through the cloudy night sky.
Luke pulled his eyes from the long stretch of highway that led back to Sterling and glanced at his sister, Shelly, sleeping in the backseat of his SUV.
"Poor thing, she's worn out," his aunt said from the passenger seat.
"So are you." Luke noted the fatigue that lined the older woman's face. Even her vibrant red hair seemed limp and lifeless in the half-light coming from the dash. "Shelly's trips to the doctor in Atlanta take their toll on you, Bett."
"You worry as much as I do about her. If only the doctor would offer some encouragement."
"We'll keep praying for a miracle," he said, hearing more optimism in his voice than he felt.
A decade of pain remained heavy on his heart.
Letting out a frustrated breath, he forced his gaze back to the road, determined to send the memories scurrying into the night.
The lights from town glowed in the distance.
Bett's eyes began to droop and her head rested on the seat back as she drifted into a light slumber.
At the fork in the road, Luke veered left onto the desolate two-lane that skirted Sterlingthe route he had routinely chosen since his father's death. No need to give the townspeople more fuel for their insistent chatter. As far as he was concerned, the less time he spent in town the better.
Up ahead, the old Wallace Bed and Breakfast stood out against the cloudy sky, the only structure on this stretch of lonely back road.
What a shame to let such a beautiful place go so long without upkeep. If repairs weren't done soon, even the few travelers who meandered through Sterling would find lodging elsewhere.
Thank you, Cooper Wallace. So much for greedy lawyers who always thought of the bottom line.
Luke glanced again at the once-stately Victorian. A light flickered in the upstairs hall window. The glass shimmered in the night.
Realization hit him full force. Fire!
He swerved to the side of the road and slammed on the brakes.
Bett's eyes flew open.
"The B and B's on fire. Call for help!"
Before she could find her cell, Luke was out of the car and running toward the shingled structure.
He tried the front door. Locked.
"Fire! Open up! Everyone out," he screamed, pounding the brass knocker against the thick oak.
Please, God, if anyone's staying the night, let them hear me.
The kitchen entrance might be open.
He raced to the back of the house, tried the doorknob and was ready to crash through the door when he raised his eyes.
A woman stood at the second-story window, frantically pounding her hands against the glass.
Heart in his throat, Luke slammed his full weight against the kitchen door, relieved when the aged oak gave way. Inside, the smoke rolled through the house, thick and black.
"Fire," he screamed again.
A middle-aged man coughed as he staggered from the darkness.
"How many people are staying here?" Luke asked.
"A guy and his wife are in the back bedroom. They're headed this way. But someone's trapped upstairs. The fire's raging at the top of the staircase. There's no way to reach her."
"Where's the night manager?"
"He left hours ago."
Before the man finished speaking, a young couple stumbled into the kitchen. The woman gasped for air.
"Get outside," Luke ordered. He reached for the woman's arm and guided the three of them to safety.
As they scurried away from the house, Luke looked up once again. An increased sense of dread slipped over him. Unable to break the window, the woman stood outlined against the deadly glow from the fire that filled the room.
Climbing onto the porch railing, Luke shimmied up the column holding the drainage spout to the overhanging roof, then hoisted himself onto the ledge that rimmed the second story.
Adrenaline coursed like lightning through his veins as he scooted toward the window, aware of the growing crackle of the flames coming from within the aged structure. A section of the narrow railing broke. His foot gave way. He grabbed the rough shingles, holding on with his fingertips, and hugged the wall to maintain his balance.
His rapidly beating heart seemed as loud as the sirens wailing through the night. Fire trucks would arrive soon, but not in time to save the woman.
He inched forward. Sweat trickled down his back and dampened his shirt.