Stealing company secrets didn’t give Claire Carter a thrilling rush, but the constant urge to pee or puke never wavered. A security guard locked a hallway door, forcing her to switch to Plan B. When she climbed into the building’s aging air duct, she never expected to be crippled by claustrophobia. The fear of being swallowed by the coffin-like duct turned her muscles to jelly, and her heart skipped beats. Wheezing, she forced herself to imagine what justice would finally feel like.
I can’t breathe.
On her stomach with her arms in front of her pushing the camera, she felt squeezed, a weird dry-drowning sensation. Forward progress slowed as the duct narrowed. She tasted panic—a cross between sour milk and burnt chili—when her hands-free headlight died. Claire belched a long, stinky exhaust of defeat. Crybaby tears threatened surrender at the same time a thunderstorm raged, making the building shudder.
She’d measured the duct length from the blueprints, but cramped inside it the span appeared longer than fifty-nine feet. Claire focused on her reason for breaking into the old research building. Erin Fuller’s smiling face came out of memory. Erin had been her best friend, and Dymond Enterprises killed her. It might have taken two years for her to die, but they killed her all the same.
Breathe. Keep moving.
Dr. Brigham Dymond, CEO of Dymond Research Enterprises, had merged his company under ZeNovo Pharmaceutical’s umbrella. ZeNovo began as a generic drug company in New Orleans, but added the new drug development arm to their repertoire with the FDA’s blessing. The merge created a new wing called DyNovo. Dr. Dymond’s team would move into the new DyNovo building in New Orleans in late July.
Grunting, Claire forced her muscles to move.
Dymond’s team had performed benchmark research in Mobile on a new drug, Quellaprine, taken as eyedrops. The research patients nicknamed the drops EZ, after the eye chart used in their weekly vision tests. A ZeNovo board member claimed to a Forbes reporter the name came from The Big Easy, New Orlean’s nickname. Either way, EZ stuck and became an instant success in clinical trials.
Claire gritted her teeth and inched forward.
Erin died in an off-book clinical drug trial, and they recorded her death under study dropout rate. To unravel the truth of how Erin died, she had to infiltrate their corporation to steal their secrets.
She’d followed regulations and notified the FDA. The clinical research organization she worked for fired her, claiming breach of contract. By then EZ had spent two years in clinical trials and had already applied for fast-track status to prescription. When the FDA granted approval, she cried. Then ZeNovo filed corporate espionage charges against her.
I can’t breathe.
Leo Zeglar, her lawyer, contacted the Department of Justice to file for whistleblower protection, but he advised the review process might take years. Until the DOJ acted, she had to answer ZeNovo’s charges because she’d stolen their proprietary data. The court case forced her to hand her stolen proof over to Zeglar.
Claire slithered the last twenty feet to the ceiling grate. Made it. She inhaled the cooler air like sweet perfume. The duct around the grate had widened as well. She removed the headlight and reached for a small light in her leg pocket. Clamping the penlight between her teeth, she positioned a camera lens to record the empty conference room below. Sweat stung her eyes and her fingers turned clumsy. The icy fear of discovery raised its ugly head.
Focus, Claire. Focus.
All she ever wanted was to protect people from the same drug that killed Erin. She’d realized too late that whistleblower protection laws were a farce and carried the same weight as air. She gave the FDA proof that two of ZeNovo’s generic drugs had faked their way through the system without a single FDA audit, plus, the company forged safety data on their new drug, EZ. Nothing happened. Their lack of curiosity spoke volumes, but not as damming as their silence.
The FDA denied the existence of off-book studies in court. She’d shouted at the regulatory official, “You can’t find what you don’t look for!”
A sympathetic bailiff had warned her, she’d lose the case. His warning came as the first inkling that justice might not be blind. Whatever her camera recorded was going on YouTube. Truth shouldn’t be dimmed by corruption.
The room lights flickered on, and for once it felt like the angels gathered on her side. She held her breath as two men appeared.
“I’ll make coffee,” the younger man said, putting a briefcase on the polished table.
The other nodded and answered a text message.
Claire peered down.
“Pile-up on Springhill Avenue delayed me. Sorry, Ray,” Leo Zeglar said in his booming voice.
She gasped before clamping her hand over her mouth. Disbelief followed warning shivers, clawing up her spine. Leo Zeglar had a solid reputation for defending underdogs and winning big cases. She’d trusted her lawyer with intimate details of her life. Rage threatened, but she wouldn’t scream over his betrayal. She needed to toughen up if she planned to confront the monsters of industry. I can’t let them win.
The men shook hands like old friends and exchanged family news before sitting. All trust evaporated. An invisible noose squeezed her neck with each breath. She swallowed past a growing lump in her throat and realized she’d been alone from the start. At least she’d hired a private investigator to be her secret wingman. Leo didn’t know about Brad Gateway.
The younger man carried in a tray with a coffee thermos and white mugs.
Ray asked, “What happened at the hearing?”
“Thanks, no coffee for me,” Leo said. He slid a document across the table. “The judge granted a one week extension because Claire didn’t show. I made excuses for her. Ray, I promise there will be no further delays. Sorry.”
“Where is Miss Carter?” Ray asked, and sipped coffee.
“Claire sent me a text saying Erin Fuller died,” Leo said with a shrug. “She went to the funeral.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Claire claimed to have proof Erin participated in secret research at a place called Sweetwater. She’ll share the evidence when she returns.”
“Where is she now?”
“Yellowhammer, I guess.”
“You guess? Erin Fuller died two weeks ago!”
Leo held up both palms to calm the other man. “Watching her best friend’s slow death made Claire determined to get justice. She finds the courtroom proceedings archaic, and she’s getting harder to manipulate.”
“Get control of her!” Ray slammed the white mug down. “It’s critical.”
The younger man wiped up the spill and refilled the mug.
“I’m not a babysitter,” Leo said. “Hire a dick to follow her.”
Ray’s fist pounded the table. “Claire Carter is dangerous! We can’t shut her down until you lose her case.”
“I advised Julian not to file charges against her! The documents I gave the DOJ lead nowhere. My plan was working until Julian wanted revenge. Claire fights back!”
“She stole data that could put our friends in jail.”
“She claimed EZ drains the brain of its neurotransmitters, true?”
“No? She told the judge if he didn’t rule against ZeNovo, people would die.”
“Whose side are you on?” Ray asked.
“Yours. The espionage charges were petty, understand? I expect the DOJ to notify me this week that Claire has no case. Tell Julian to drop the charges.”
“Can’t you tell the judge that your client is hysterical?”
“Are you joking? The woman isn’t hysterical…the problem is…people trust Claire. I think the judge believes her. I know the court reporter and bailiff do.”
“The judge is the important one.”
Leo cleared his throat. “If EZ is as flawed as she claims, Julian had better get used to lawsuits.”
“Why?” Ray flung his coffee at Leo’s face.
Leo yelped and raised his arm.
“What are we paying you for?”