Smokescreen: Total RecallWar Games Series #3, a Quick-Read Novella
Aided by U.S. Customs Agent Ben Kelly, Captain Darcy Clark, a woman with perfect recall, must face her deepest fear: an incident like one that changed her entire life–to prevent a mass massacre on Independence Day.
Colonel Sally Drake was not happy. “General Shaw, surely you aren’t suggesting that we disclose the unit to this man. This—” she checked her scrawled notes “—Custom’s agent, Benjamin Kelly?” Sally frowned. For national security reasons, less than two hundred people in the world knew her unit existed. That was a significant fact for him to remember.
“I’m not suggesting it, Sally,” the general said. “Secretary of Defense Reynolds and I are ordering it.”
“Just do it.” His tone sounded sharp. Evidently, he wasn’t at peace with the order either, and he went on to confirm it. “Look, I know all your objections and ordinarily I’d agree with them. But when you wear a military uniform and the Secretary of Defense and your commanding officer say jump, you don’t even ask how high. You just follow the order. So follow the order, Drake.”
Sitting in her office chair, she leaned forward over her desk and dragged a hand through her short, spiky hair. She did indeed wear a U.S. military uniform—air force—and as much as she hated it, General Shaw held authority, so she accepted the edict—if not with grace, with bitter resignation and a great deal of concern. There was only one Secret Assignment Security Specialist in the S.A.S.S. unit who had the unique qualifications for the mission he’d assigned, Captain Darcy Clark, and while she had extraordinary skills, she did not come without special challenges. Would Darcy willingly take on this mission? Could she take it on—willingly or not?
Sally’s stomach churned and knotted. Forget feeling confident. She’d gladly settle for having a clue. That she didn’t had her concern plunging into worry. “Yes, sir. We’ll be expecting Agent Kelly within the hour.”
“Keep me in the need-to-know loop,” the general said. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this entire situation, and I don’t want to be blindsided—especially knowing the secretary is going to be watching closely and reporting to Homeland Security and the president.”
He had a bad feeling? She swallowed a grunt. This mission had all the makings of a disaster, and it’d be her ass and rank on the line, not his. When a mission failed, generals were rarely sacrificed. The fallout flowed downhill to the lower-ranking commander—that’s who got the axe—regardless of who issued the orders. “Yes, sir.”
Sally hung up the phone and grumbled. “Typical. Just freaking typical.” Secretary Reynolds dumps the mess on General Shaw, and he hadn’t missed a beat in dumping it on her.
She swiveled her seat to a windowless wall and stared deeply into a garden mural, wishing for two seconds she could disappear in the foliage and just catch her breath.
You’re the S.A.S.S. commander, Sally. You wanted this job, remember? Competed toe to toe with Colonel Gray, the egotistical jerk, to get it. Well, these are the perks, hotshot. Handle them.
“Oh, shut up,” she told herself, kicking off the floor to turn her seat back to her desk. She picked up a memo from Darcy, who assimilated Intelligence from all the reporting agencies, compiled it, and then briefed the unit. Significant chatter had been intercepted on GRID—Group Resources for Individual Development—the terrorist group that was, by presidential edict, S.A.S.S.’s top priority and, by nature, its albatross. What were they up to now?
Darcy had penned a note on the margin. “Colonel, the pattern is intact and consistent. Brace. Kunz is gearing up for GRID’s next attack.”
Thomas Kunz, a German American-hater, ran GRID with single-minded authority and had made it the leading authority and broker of U.S. intelligence, technology and personnel. His goal was to take the U.S. down by any and all means possible, but he preferred economically. GRID and S.A.S.S. had butted heads and matched wits four times so far, and so far the S.A.S.S. had been successful. Unfortunately, the wins had been surface clutter. The S.A.S.S. hadn’t destroyed Kunz’s operation, only ticked him off and stiffened his resolve.
“Maggie?” Sally depressed the intercom button on her phone.
“Could you get Kate and Amanda to my office ASAP, please?”
“I’m on it, Colonel.”
“Thanks.” Sally again looked at the report. Katherine Kane and Amanda West had firsthand experience with GRID. Both had survived the encounters. But even after taking out four GRID compounds worldwide, believing Thomas Kunz had been killed twice and arrested and convicted and parked in Leavenworth once, the truth was, the S.A.S.S. hadn’t touched him. The men killed or arrested were all Kunz’s body doubles, positioned to fool the S.A.S.S. into believing they had gotten Kunz. And the S.A.S.S. had believed it—if only short-term.
Most worrisome to Sally and her entire unit was that they had no idea exactly how many more body doubles or compounds Kunz had in operation. Worse, they had only identified thirty of the estimated ninety body doubles Kunz had substituted in high-level government positions around the globe to access classified information. He’d substituted medical and dental records, X-rays and biometric scans, successfully undercutting all preventative security measures. Worse, the real government employees were being held hostage—somewhere. Most likely, in several obscure locations. Less than a dozen had been rescued to date. And so sensitive, classified information continued to funnel out of top secret locations and minds and into Kunz’s greedy hands, and the government employees he’d had body-doubled remained Kunz’s hostages.
That worried Sally most of all. Kate and Amanda shuffled in; Amanda wearing a crisp blue skirted uniform, and Kate in her habitual slacks, which told Sally that Kate’s laundry was done. Only if it wasn’t would she wear the skirt that required nylons and heels—both of which Kate considered to be devices created by men for the sole purpose of torturing women. “Sit down,” Sally said.
They took the seats opposite her desk, and Amanda hiked her chin. “Is this about Darcy’s memo on GRID, Colonel?”
From their expressions, both of her top-notch covert operatives were having a tough time swallowing the report. She couldn’t blame them. After the previous GRID encounters, neither of them could be eager for another confrontation. Amanda had been held captive for three months and Kate nearly had lost her life. “More or less.” Sally leaned back in her chair. “We’re getting a visitor in about half an hour.”
“A visitor?” Stunned, Kate grunted. “Here?”
“I know.” Sally held up a staying hand. “It’s General Shaw’s runoff straight from Secretary Reynolds.”
Kate shook her head, clearly as baffled as Sally by the edict. “Not good.”
“Secretary Reynolds isn’t a fool, Kate.” Amanda looked over at her. “If he’s sending someone here, I’m certain he has good reason.”
“Whatever.” Kate grimaced. “But it’s our asses he’s putting on the line, not his own, Amanda. You might want to remember that.”
“Excuse me,” Sally interjected, and then waited until she had their full attention before going on. “Foolish or wise, it’s happening. Accept it.”
Amanda smoothed back a long lock of dark hair. “So what exactly is going on, Colonel?”
“It’s GRID, of course,” Kate answered, then swerved her gaze to Sally. “Isn’t it?”
“Naturally.” Sally cocked her head. “Intel suspects Thomas Kunz is planning to smuggle radioactive waste into the U.S. It also suspects he has a sleeper cell of GRID operatives already positioned somewhere within our borders who will use it in bombs targeting…” she paused to refer to her notes for the exact wording, “an undisclosed but significant, high-priority, densely populated site.” She looked back to them. “Perhaps more than one site.”
Amanda absorbed the news in silence. Her expression didn’t alter or reveal her reaction—excellent attributes in a covert operative.
Kate’s demeanor changed significantly. No longer challenging or defiant, she homed in and focused intently. “Kunz is pulling his usual.”
“What usual?” Amanda asked. “Wanting to inflict as much short- and long-term destruction as possible.”
“Yes, and what’s terrifying is that he’s damn good at it,” Sally said. “Radioactive or dirty bombs have a relatively small kill zone—a few city blocks, typically—but the long-term impact on health… Well, suffice it to say that the ramifications are significant.”
“How significant?” Amanda instinctively looked to Kate. Explosives and weapons of mass destruction were her area of expertise.
Kate frowned, but answered Amanda. “You have the kill zone, but the damage doesn’t stop there. Think of it like a wave that ripples outward from the explosion site, carrying with it health challenges like radiation burns, an increase of various types of cancer, severe birth defects.” Kate grimaced. “How far the ripple extends from the blast depends on the strength of the explosives used, of course, but it’s certain to be wicked. We’ll see significant increases in health challenges for years.”
Amanda frowned. “So at the outer ripple rim of those impacted, it could take time for symptoms to appear.”
“I hate to say it, but it’s even worse than that.” Kate explained. “For every challenge we see, there’ll be half a dozen with tentacles that we don’t. Challenges medical professionals will tag ‘etiology unknown.’”
Sally’s skin crawled. How any terrorists could attack civilians like this and justify it as rational was beyond her. Sick bastards. “Intel considers July 4th Kunz’s likely target date.”
“Independence Day. Hoping to make us dependent.” Amanda clenched her jaw and shifted on her seat. “Kunz does love to pop us on dates significant to us.”
“Apparently,” Sally agreed. He’d done it twice already. “This time we have a kicker to keep things really interesting.”
“A kicker?” Kate asked.
“The man that Secretary Reynolds is sending here is a U.S. customs agent named Benjamin Kelly. He’s a chief inspector and etymologist on the U.S./Mexico border.”
“The visitor and GRID are connected?” Shock riddled Amanda’s tone, and she didn’t bother trying to hide it.
“Homeland Security thinks so,” Sally said, tapping her pen on her desk blotter. “If Kelly’s story is as compelling as General Shaw claims, it’s going to require drastic measures.”
Kate nodded. “So what do you want us to do, Colonel?”
“There’s nothing you can do.” Sally wished there were. If there were, she wouldn’t feel this sense of impending doom.
“Me, then,” Amanda said.
“There’s nothing you can do either—outside of support roles, which you’ll both have to do.”
Kate let her head loll back. “Colonel, I know you’re not considering Maggie for this mission.”
“Not yet,” she admitted. “Maggie needs more training but, when the time comes, she’ll be an excellent field operative, Kate.”
“No doubt, ma’am, but that time damn sure isn’t now. Not on this.”
Kate had little patience with new recruits to the unit, and Maggie had been with them less than three months. She showed infinite promise, but she hadn’t yet gotten past sticking strictly to the rules. In the S.A.S.S., that tended to get operatives killed. Yet with time, risks and a few narrow-miss attempts on her life, she’d adjust. “No, not on this. It isn’t yet Maggie’s time. Not yet.”
“Then who?” Amanda asked. “Max, one of the other guys?”
Sally hedged, took the circuitous route. This news would be less popular than assigning Maggie. “We need to insert an operative as a custom’s agent on the border between Texas and Mexico—at the entry station at Los Casas.” Now came the hardest part of this. “I’m assigning Darcy.”
“Darcy? You can’t be serious.” Clearly distressed, Amanda stood up, her mouth drawn and tight. “Colonel, Darcy can’t do this mission. She can’t even stand being around other people. Since the fire, she’s been incapable of any kind of field work, much less a mission of this magnitude.”
“Dr. Vargus disagrees. He says she can do it—if she will.”
“Can? Will? Good God, Colonel Drake, the woman lives like a monk to avoid hyperstimulation attacks.” Kate shot out of her chair. “She can’t go to a shopping mall without getting knocked to her knees and you want her to do this? She works in a vault with old furniture and files because she can’t take being around us. You can’t throw her into the field at a busy border crossing.” Mutiny filled Kate’s eyes and a warning filled her voice. “She’ll lose it, Colonel.”
“Kate’s right, Colonel,” Amanda said, agreeing with her for the first time since they had entered the office. “Do this and the S.A.S.S. will fail on this mission. She’ll try—Darcy always gives a hundred percent—but she will fail. She just can’t handle it.”
“She will handle it, Amanda, Damn it, she has no choice.” Sally stiffened, motioned to the chairs. “Sit down. Both of you.”
They did, but rebellion rippled off them in waves. Sally ignored it, because inside she was rebelling, too. But, damn it, Darcy was the only operative who could do what must be done to stop this attack. “Now, listen. I know Darcy’s challenges. I also know Dr. Vargus’s professional opinion on Darcy’s challenges. He’s a hundred percent certain she can learn to shield herself from the sensory input.”
“Not to dispute the good doctor or you, ma’am,” Kate said, her voice droll. “But this mission doesn’t sound safe enough for anyone to use it as a training ground to learn anything.”
“Do we ever have safe training grounds?” Sally countered.
“Valid point, Colonel,” Amanda said. “But Darcy would have better odds of success learning while on vacation or in some situation where she could control her exposure without consequences to others.”
“Uh-huh. Totally logical, Amanda, but also unrealistic.” Sally cocked her head. “She’s had five years to do that and she hasn’t. Regardless, our backs are against the wall now. We have no choice, which gives Darcy no alternative.” Knowing that grated Sally’s nerves raw. “The bottom line is that the S.A.S.S. needs her to stop Kunz from killing a lot of innocent Americans. The buck can’t go beyond there. So if Darcy has to face demons in unfavorable circumstances to make that happen, then she’s going to have to face them—and I expect both of you to help convince her she can.”
Kate had mutiny in her eye. “Permission to speak freely, Colonel.”
She had been speaking freely since entering the office. But she either didn’t realize it due to being upset, or she’d been holding her harshest opinions in check. Sally dared to hope it was the former. “Go ahead.”
“You’re coming across like these hyper-stimulation attacks are all in Darcy’s head, and they damn well aren’t. She needs that self-imposed isolation to function and avoid the attacks. I’ve seen her have one. She suffers, Colonel. She gets little warning, can’t see clearly, loses control of her muscles—they totally lock down on her. I’ve seen her collapse and lie there unable to move so much as a finger. The whole time, she was in intense pain. This mission isn’t something she can just do anyway, damn it. That’s my point. You’re demanding more than she can give.”
“Kate’s right, Colonel.” Amanda chimed in. “The head injury she suffered in that fire wasn’t a walk in the park. She was in a coma for three weeks. Normal noise and activity are sheer hell for her.” Amanda chewed at her lip. “She’ll try, but she won’t last five minutes at a busy border station.”
“You two haven’t said anything I don’t already know,” Sally admitted. “Do you think I’ve been in a coma? Why do you think she works alone in a vault? Why do you think I approved her waiver to live outside the twenty-five mile radius to headquarters? It’s a requirement for all of us, but I let her move to Rainbow Lake because she can be isolated and at peace there. As her commander, why do you think that I know I have this ace operative in her and yet I never assign her to missions in the field—and that’s not to diminish the value of what she does here. God knows, she’s saved our asses many times, piecing together seemingly unrelated bits of Intel. But she was an ace in the field, and I could use her there. Yet I don’t.” Sally paused, but Amanda and Kate realized the questions she had asked were rhetorical and didn’t respond.
Silence fell between them. They all wanted to protect Darcy. In a very practical sense, she’d already forfeited her life for the S.A.S.S. and none of them wanted to ask her for more. But Sally had no choice.
That truth crept through her. “I’ve done as much as I can, but I can’t protect her now. Not this time. I have an obligation and a responsibility to protect Americans. And Darcy Clark is my best means of protecting them. I have to assign her to this mission. Let me say this again. Only she can do what must be done.”
“I caught that when you said it before. But, Colonel, what can she do that Amanda or I can’t?” Kate asked. “We’ve gotten the same S.A.S.S. training and we might not be aces in the field, but we damn sure aren’t slouches. If Darcy can do it, we can. You know we can.”
“No, you can’t, Kate,” Sally insisted, and then gave in to her own frustration about this. “Neither can I, or I’d do it myself.”
That surprised them. Amanda recovered first and asked, “Why can’t we do it, Colonel?”
Sally frowned. “Because none of us has total recall. Darcy does, and we need it because we can’t bring in equipment and remain undetected.” The bluster in them deflated and resignation slid into place on their faces. Sally captured a shuddery breath. “That’s why only Darcy can handle this mission.” She cleared her throat. “Now, we’re all worried—and that’s justified—but we must move forward and stop this attack. I support Darcy and I expect you two to support her—and to help reassure her that she’s capable of tackling this mission. Dr. Vargus says that support will help, but only if it’s genuine.”
Amanda stood up. “Colonel, how can we do that? We just gave you all the reasons we don’t think she can do this mission. How do we convince her we think she can?”
Sally stood up, looked them right in the eyes. “Get genuine. That’s a direct order.”
Knowing an exit line when they heard one, the two stood up.
“Dismissed.” Sally waved them out.
They left her office without a word, though the mutiny in Kate’s eyes had now spread through her entire body, judging by her stiff gait and ramrod spine. But Amanda would talk her around.
Grateful for that, Sally collapsed back into her chair, hoping to hell she hadn’t just made a decision that would kill thousands of innocent Americans and Darcy Clark and Ben Kelly.
If what General Shaw said proved true, this Kelly had guts and grit, and his coming forward gave the S.A.S.S. the opportunity to save thousands of lives. And he’d done so knowing that if Thomas Kunz or his GRID goons ever learned of it, he’d be murdered.
Guts and grit.
She admired that.
Readers’ Group Guide
1. Total Recall is the story of the mental and physical recovery of SASS agent Darcy Clark. A traumatic episode in her career gave her a curse and a blessing – total recall. This ability has the power to physically shut her down if she is over stimulated with noise and conflict, while leaving her mentally alert. She has devised a way to live and work by remaining secluded physically, but in touch electronically. Is this solution part of her feeling guilty about the episode that killed her friend and left her with this ability?
2. When Darcy Clark meets U.S. Customs agent Ben Kelly, she begins to feel some of the sensations from which she has emotionally immunized herself. Ben also has had a difficult past that has shaped him into a reserved man, but not one as closed off as Darcy. Do Darcy and Ben have similar methods of dealing with a painfully present past? People have different ways of coping with personal history. What would be another way for either of them to cope and be productive and insightful people?
3. It is often stated that “love heals.” Would you say watching the progress of Darcy’s life and career after the introduction of Ben Kelley illustrates this belief? Why do affection and gentleness have such healing power? What was your reaction to the scene where Ben rubs Darcy’s feet? On a romantic scale, how would you rate this action? Can a foot rub be more romantic than a kiss?
4. Overcoming Darcy’s affliction requires a number of factors; the total immersion in a scenario of self-sacrificing action, belief in the rightness of her mission, trusting her compatriots, and ultimate self control over the debilitating effects of her mental powers. Does this paint a picture of a woman of extraordinary personal discipline? How can someone achieve this degree of personal control? In what circumstance would it be necessary? How does the factor of personal control shape our daily life? Often it seems the little things are more difficult than the big picture things. If she had to, would it be hard for Darcy to quit smoking, to go on a diet or stop biting her nails? What is the critical factor for Darcy in the success of her change?
5. The bad guy, Thomas Kunz, is described as good-looking, blonde and affable. He is also a cold-blooded killer who stops at nothing to achieve his aims. How does physical appearance influence our perception of “the bad guys?” Do we expect them to be repulsive, ugly, or dirty?
To forgive but not forget is a talent almost superhuman. How can such a talent help or hinder life? Could you handle such a talent? What changes would you have to make in order to utilize such an ability?
5 Stars “Total Recall” [a Novella] by Vicki Hinze. The terrorists plan to bring their trademark destruction to the United States by bombing the White House during a Fourth of July fireworks gala. U.S. Customs Agent Ben must stop them because cancellation is not an option because that means giving in to the terrorists. He turns to incredible photographic memory Special Agent Darcy as his only hope to stop a catastrophe. These three novellas star courageous strong women with a special skill each and the men who love them risking their lives to try to keep them safe in precarious situations. Each exciting tale is high octane super fast so that fans of romantic suspense with a touch of sci fi will want to read supercharged SMOKESCREEN. — Harriet Klausner
“Hinze pens a gripping tale with a chilling scenario.” — Romantic Times
TOTAL RECALL is a novella published in a 3-story collection under the title, Smokescreen.