The sixth and final STORMWATCH novel, SNOW BLIND by Cindy Gerard, releases today!
The storm sweeps in like a thief in the night…
Winter storm Holly is the worst in eighty years bringing high winds, subzero temperatures and snowfall better measured in feet than in inches. The weather paralyzes everything in its path, but, in this storm, weather isn’t the only threat.
It started out as a simple recon mission – then the worst happened. Recon evolved into an imminent threat and Rapid Response Alliance operatives, Cara Graves and Josh Haskins find themselves with less than 48 hours to circumvent a nuclear disaster. Fighting against the clock and the worst blizzard to hit the Midwest in almost a century, Cara and Josh risk everything – including their feelings for each other – to stop what the terrorists hope will be Armageddon.
Read on for an excerpt of SNOW BLIND…
SNOW BLIND by Cindy Gerard
© 2019. By special agreement with the author. All rights reserved.
June, 18 months ago
Josh Haskins maneuvered her royal high-brow, Princess Anastasia Gerhardt – aka: Ms. Blond, beautiful and bratty – firmly behind him and away from the pack of bar lizards, fending them off as he backed toward the alley exit of the mobbed party bar.
True to form, the princess had dragged him into the middle of the obscenely rich and spoiled Italian jet set scene, dressed like a designer slut in her lipstick red mini dress and attracting every stray dog and lone wolf with a yen to howl.
“This is so bogus,” he muttered beneath a grinding rock beat and a full on testosterone blast. They came at her like worker drones flocking to the queen bee. No one, however, was allowed to taste her honey. Not on his watch.
Good Lord. This was his first official, full-fledged assignment as a Rapid Response Alliance operative? Was he hunting terrorists in the middle of the Congo? Running recon on a snatch and grab op in the Middle East? Even guarding a diplomatic cadre to a top secret security meeting? Oh, hell, no.
His first mission was to: A) keep the princess happy, B) keep the princess safe, and C) keep the princess from creating an international incident.
At the moment, C was giving him the most trouble. That and his simmering temper.
“You don’t want to do this,” Josh warned as an inebriated Romeo, stunning in a black, silk shirt opened to his navel, a boatload of bling hanging around his neck, and skin-tight do-you-like-my-package leather pants, separated himself from the pack and made a move toward the princess.
The wannabe paramour took one look at the dark rage on Josh’s face and thought better of his decision. Not so drunk after all, Josh was happy to report. The problem was, at least ten other contenders were circling the campfire, ready to take a crack at roasting Anastasia’s marshmallows.
“It wasn’t enough that you had to incite a riot in that almost dress,” he sputtered to her royal pain-in-the ass. “You had to hop up on the bar. Had to pour champagne down your cleavage and invite every Tom, Dick, and Horny to come and lick it off.”
Behind him, Anastasia giggled. “A girl’s gotta have fun.”
Josh glanced over his shoulder and glared into flirty, fiery, blue eyes. Blue like a summer sky he’d thought the first time he’d seen them. Ha. Blue like the color his balls were gonna be if he didn’t get her out of this den of dickwads and soon.
He ducked a flying beer bottle, shoved the princess more securely behind him, and swore to God that if he got her out of this mess without creating that international incident she was bent on making, he was going to throw her over his knee and whale the tar out of her sexy little behind. PC or not.
“So help me God, Antipasto,” he grumbled as he held back the pack crocked on vino and hell bent on tasting the Princess’s bountiful cleavage, “when I get you back to the hotel, we’re going to have us a little come to Jesus meeting.”
“Sounds positively … spiritual,” the princess of the newly sovereign nation of Slarovia purred into his ear in perfect English as she dug red lacquered nails that matched her dress deeper into his shoulders.
She squealed then ducked behind him when a particularly brave – read: stupid – admirer made a grab at her. A quick chop to his arm and a well-placed knee to his breadbasket dispensed with Stupid.
Another one bites the dust.
The floor was already littered with the guys’ ‘brothers in rut’ who’d thought they were going to worship at the altar of the ultimate one night stand.
Another bottle flew by just as Josh made it to the exit and backed the princess through the door and into a heat drenched Italian night pungent with the scents of garlic and wine and trouble.
Man, this sucked. Josh Haskins had never quit on anything in his life, yet five bullet-sweating, tongue-biting days into this assignment watch dogging the high-maintenance, party animal, Anastasia, and saving her blue-blooded hide from one scrape after another, and he was ready to cash in his chips.
“Babysitter. That’s all I am. A glorified babysitter,” he grumbled as he dragged her away from the bar at a brisk clip and finally left the wannabe bad boys behind.
Pale street lights and a rumbling rock beat leaked out of the bar, following them as he hustled her down the narrow, cobblestone strada.
“Slow down, would you? I can’t run in these heels.”
He ignored her sputtering protests and tried to remember why he’d agreed to this assignment. Oh, yeah. Something about saving the world.
Well, hell, what red-blooded American patriot could resist a stab at doing just that? He’d been born for the job. Or so complained any woman who had ever gotten too close and thought she might have a chance of taking over as the number one priority in his life.
So, no. Josh hadn’t been able to resist. When he’d finally received the invitation to join RRA and had been offered this cock-eyed assignment, he’d have said yes to latrine duty.
“Yes, sir, I’m up for anything, sir.” Even though it meant that Josh’s rookie run as a new recruit for the elite and clandestine international organization involved playing bodyguard to a spoiled brat of a newly minted European princess.
“I said, slow down!” The princess demanded, putting on the skids.
Satisfied that they were well clear of the nightclub, Josh stopped, turned and glared at five feet six inches of cover girl curves and cascading blond hair. Who could blame those poor Casanovas? This woman put the sex in sex appeal. She also put the Tick in ticked off – which he was. Royally.
“You know,” Josh said, nailing her with a look, “if you had the sense God gave a goat, I wouldn’t have to drag you out of one scrape after another.”
“Not up to the assignment, Haskins?”
Baiting him? She was actually baiting him? After all the crap he’d put up with in the last five days?
“Fine. Have your fun,” he ground out as the knot at the end of his rope finally unraveled. “Only from now you can have it without me. I’ve had it with this gig.”
And he’d had it with the woman, who, despite her princess to peasant regard for him, somehow managed to rile both his anger and his testosterone levels to new heights. Did. Not. Compute.
“Come on.” He latched on to her wrist and stormed off again, as angry at her as he was at himself for letting her sex-goddess looks get to him. “I’m taking you back to the hotel. Then we’re going to see about getting you a new babysitter. I’m officially turning in my nanny badge.”
Hell. He’d thought that once he’d made the grade, cracked the RRA requirements and become an operative that he’d be knee deep in international espionage.
So much for what he’d thought.
Slowly, Josh became aware that she was laughing.
He stopped – and she ran smack into him. He latched on to both arms to steady her then set her none too gently away. “So happy to entertain you.”
“Oh, you do.” Her grin widened. “I wondered how hard I was going to have to push you before you finally snapped.”
He glared at the top of her head. She’d started tugging off her sky high stilettos.
“Sweet heaven, that feels good.” Standing bare-foot on the cobblestones, she tossed both shoes over her shoulder into a hedge, giving them a good ride.
He looked from the flying heels back to her face. “How hard you were going to have to push to finally make me snap?”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Haskins. Lighten up. You passed, okay? And none too soon for my taste. I was running out of stunts.”
He waited three beats, watching her eyes as she dragged a tumble of hair away from her face. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Okay,” she said conversationally, like he wasn’t glaring daggers and contemplating wrapping his hands around that lovely slim neck and wringing it until her tongue turned as blue as her eyes.
“Here’s the deal, Haskins. I was a test.”
Another three beat pause while he watched her with ever narrowing eyes. “A test.”
“Well, Anastasia was a test. For me too, if it’s any consolation. In fact, there is no such animal – or in this case no such party animal.”
“Lieutenant Cara Graves, European base, RRA Headquarters, Barcelona. And you were my cross to bear as much as Anastasia was yours.”
He felt his temperature rise right along with his hackles. “Cross to bear?”
She sighed. “As you may have surmised by now, I’m not a princess. My name is not Anastasia Gehart-”
“Got that part,” he said through his clenched jaw.
“I’m an RRA operative who was given the assignment of testing your mettle ten ways from Sunday to make certain you were up for any task – even one as seemingly trivial and demeaning as babysitting a brat.
“So cool your jets, Haskins,” she added, not even a tiny bit rattled when he continued to glare bullets at her. “Just settle down and congratulate yourself on a job well done.”
She extended her hand. “You’ve passed muster. Welcome aboard.”
Duped. He’d been duped like a UN weapons inspector.
He ignored her hand. “This was all a set up?”
She shrugged. “Call it an initiation. Someday, I might tell you what they did to initiate me.” She smiled again and tried for another handshake.
“I don’t give a damn what they did to you.” He spun around and headed for the hotel. “You and RRA can take your muster and your initiation and stick it where the sun don’t shine.”
“Hmmm. Never said you were a poor sport on your application.”
He flipped her the bird and kept walking.
“You really want to miss your first real field assignment?” she called after him.
Josh stopped, turned, glared at her where she stood in a pool of light cast from a street lantern. Golden hair a gorgeous, messy tangle. Blue eyes challenging and amused. The thin strap of her short, slinky red dress, sliding off her left shoulder.
For an instant, he had to remind himself how ticked off he was. “Oh. A real assignment?” he spat sarcastically. “What? The queen of England due for a party run and needs a driver?”
The husky sound of her laugh had something other than his anger rising again.
“Oh, it’s waaay better than that.”
He considered her with enough skepticism to fill the Coliseum. “It had better be.”
She’d walked closer and in a low and deadly serious voice told him.
Good. God. It was good all right. As good as it got.
Twelve hours later
Josh waited patiently in the dimly lit situation room; adrenaline mainlined directly into his blood stream; his tension peaked right along with his curiosity. His ALICE pack sat on the floor beside his M4 assault rifle. He was pumped and ready for this mission. His first real mission with RRA.
And he was ready to meet his new CO. A fellow warrior – not a smart mouthed wasp of an agent who played the role of diva far too well.
Initiation my ass. Damn, he was glad to be free of Anastasia … make that Cara, he corrected with a grunt. He’d had enough of both of them, thank you very much.
He checked his watch. Less than a quarter of an hour until they deployed. The assignment was plum, as she’d promised: Infiltrate an outer island off the Malaysian coast and the hideout of the terrorist cell, Death Toll. Find the plant that produced lethal nerve gas then neutralize and destroy both the facility and the stockpile of the deadly poison. Added bonus: Capture or eliminate the terrorists responsible.
Piece of cake, he thought with a grim look at the terrain map tacked to the wall and hoped his lawyer had finished the last minute changes to his will. If anything happened to him, he wanted his nephew taken care of.
A door opened behind him. Josh snapped to attention without turning around. Only one other person had clearance for this room at this hour. His new CO.
“At ease, Sergeant.”
Josh stopped breathing. Was pretty sure his heart stopped beating, too.
He knew that voice. What he didn’t know, was why he was hearing it now.
“I said at ease.”
He turned slowly as Lieutenant Cara Graves walked into the room, combat ready in jungle camos, M16 in hand, a modified ALICE pack strapped to her back.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Josh finally managed when he could get his mouth to work.
“Wanna rephrase that, Sergeant?”
Josh swallowed, eyes dead ahead as Lt. Graves moved to stand directly in front of him.
“What the hell are you doing here, sir?” he repeated crisply.
But deep in his gut, he already knew. Damn it all to hell, he knew.
“You got a problem working with a female operative, Haskins?”
He had a problem working with this female operative.
“No, sir,” he gritted out, knowing that if he voiced his objections he’d be off the op faster than you could say, You blew it, buddy.
“Got a problem with a female outranking you?”
Lord, help him.
Oh, she knew he was ticked.
“Good.” She headed for the door. “Then grab your gear. Transport bird’s waiting to take us to the Philippines. And pull the bug out of your butt, sergeant. Let’s go save the world.”
“Remember that you heard it here first folks.”
Don McDowell flashed pearly white teeth to the camera and stacked his pages of copy on the desk in front of him. “KCRG TV 9 first alert weather is not afraid to predict that the Cedar Rapids viewing area is either going to dodge a major bullet or we’re going to get hit with potentially the most massive winter blizzard seen in this area in almost a century.”
Julie Paul, the evening anchor, gave Don a comical smile. “Wow, Don. Could you be any more ambiguous?”
Don chuckled and the camera followed the weatherman as he rose from his desk and moved in front of an Iowa weather map swirling with radar simulations, snowflakes and as an added humorous touch, question marks.
“I couldn’t be more vague if I tried, Julie. Let me try to explain why the forecast is such a mystery.”
Don manipulated the map with the touch of his finger to include several western and northern states as well as the southern part of Canada. “Many of you have been aware of Blizzard Holly, whose genesis was in Canada before she swooped down into Montana, Colorado, back up to Nebraska, then east into South Dakota.”
He turned back to face the camera. “Holly is currently blasting Minnesota and all indications are that she has no predilection to blow herself out anytime soon. Based on the route she’s taken she may – or may not,” he added with a smile of caution, “find her way down through east central Iowa.
“Why, you might ask, can’t I be more specific? Well, there are so many variables in play as of now that even the National Weather Service’s state of the art computers can’t pinpoint the storm’s path or its full effect on Iowa. Forecast details will become clearer and more accurate as this blizzard keeps churning through Minnesota.
“Those variables include a low pressure system here.” He used a hand-held remote to zero in on the map. “The jet stream over here, upper level winds, and how much cold air is in place when, or if, the storm arrives. Even a relatively small change in this low pressure system, for instance, can make a huge difference. A shift one way can create blizzard conditions while the other way could bring only a light dusting of snow.”
His expression became serious. “Here at TV 9, we realize how critical it is for you all to know what weather you may be facing in the near future. It’s almost Christmas, after all. Many of you have travel plans or family planning to visit you. For that reason, we’re taking a very cautious approach to predicting the effect Holly will have on our viewing area.”
The camera moved in for a close up. “Rest assured, we are monitoring this storm like NASA monitors a rocket launch. We’ll cut into regular programming if necessary to keep you up to date on Holly’s path and velocity and the severity of the snowfall, the wind and the cold.
“In the meantime, look for cloudy skies tomorrow with a high of twenty-three degrees Fahrenheit and north winds no more than five miles per hour. Sunrise will be at 7:31am and we should have a beautiful sunset at 4:38pm.
“Have a great rest of your evening and all day tomorrow. Julie – back to you…”
T’was the season. Family. Friends. Food. Ho. Ho. Ho. The team was definitely due for some R & R. They weren’t going to get it. Not yet. At least Cara wasn’t. Neither, she’d decided, was Haskins.
Another flight announcement over the din of the crowds waiting at Chicago, O’Hare, Terminal C, had her rising wearily to her feet.
“That’s us.” Cara shouldered her carry-on and got in line with the passengers boarding the December 23th, 12:10 pm flight from Chicago, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Her Christmas holiday. Not how Cara had seen it playing out. The RRA jet had delivered them from NYC to Chicago an hour ago but it was commercial from here on in. They didn’t want to draw any undue attention. A private Gulfstream flying into the small airport in Cedar Rapids this close to Christmas probably wouldn’t raise any red flags but it could draw some speculative attention and that was the last thing they wanted.
Keeping a low profile was already a bit tricky considering that Haskins drew the interest of most women and a few envious men. It was human nature. When you saw a six foot four, ruggedly attractive, mature male who could easily pose for the cover of MEN’s HEALTH magazine, it was hard not to stare. Especially when his gaze landed, even briefly, on you. Steel gray. Piercing. Aged to perfection from creases fed by the sun and combat and living on the edge.
So low profile? Not so much. Not with Haskins on the scene. Still, it was economy seats and a valiant attempt at playing average Jane and Joe. Carry on only. There hadn’t been time for packing so they’d each brought only specific technical surveillance gadgetry that they’d need and couldn’t buy when they got there. RRA had provided them both with night vision glasses equipped with infrared thermal imaging cameras. As far as she knew, they were the first to field test this new version.
Otherwise, if they needed anything else they’d have to buy it locally. And hope everything wasn’t sold out this close to Christmas. Guess they’d soon find out.
Icy air stung Cara’s cheeks, making her eyes water as they crossed the open tarmac toward the small airbus that would deliver them to Cedar Rapids in under an hour.
Haskins, a North Carolina boy, tucked his chin into the collar of his jacket but didn’t grumble about the cold. Haskins never grumbled. He glared. He simmered. Sometimes, he even boiled. But like a good soldier, he followed orders and did his job. Did it with precision and skill and if he had a problem with her performance as the team leader and as his CO, he hadn’t shown it on a single one of their many missions during the last year and a half.
He clearly, however, had a problem with her. With being around her. With sometimes being very near to her in the often close confines required by their operations.
She wasn’t mistaken about that. She felt something. The crackle. The sizzle. Even the occasional fissure in his concentration. And none of it had anything to do with his test as Anastasia’s baby sitter. No. This had nothing to do with Anastasia and everything to do with Cara Graves.
Aware of him walking with purpose across the tarmac behind her, she kept her eyes dead ahead, shivering against the brutal cold as she climbed the open jet stairs. In her experience, there weren’t many places colder than a flat, windy tarmac in the middle of winter.
She quickly found her seat in the sixty-passenger air bus and dropped heavily into it. Low on sleep from the scramble to make this mission, she was determined to at least catch a power nap on the hour long flight.
The flight to Iowa. A flyover state. Corn, if she remembered right. Cows. Oh, yeah. And a state fair made famous in the vintage movie Music Man and for a cow made of butter. Homeland, USA. Not exactly a hotbed of terrorist activity. Cold as a freezer the end of December – just like it was in Chicago, NYC, and Boston.
She had high hopes that with any luck, this would be a quick recon mission. They’d be in and out. Twenty-four hours max. Then she’d head back to Boston in time for Christmas dinner at her sister’s. She had big plans to gorge herself on pumpkin pie, zone out to the crackling of an apple wood fire, and watch her gorgeous five year old twin nieces plow into the presents she’d brought them.
Sometimes she wanted that. Home, hearth, kids and a dog. Yeah, especially around the holidays, she questioned her dangerous and solitary career choice. But then a mission would come up. The adrenaline would start rushing through her bloodstream and she knew why she did what she did.
Someday. Maybe. While she was still young enough to have children and not too old to learn how to cook.
Smiling at herself for lapsing into a bit of melancholy, she stowed her gear under the seat, buckled herself in and closed her eyes, peripherally aware of Haskins buckling in across the aisle.
His broad shoulders and long legs over-filled the skimpy seat. She didn’t have to look at him to know that his steely gray eyes betrayed no emotion. As usual. The man was a bit of an enigma. And she found him a bit too interesting. That was all going to change.
Right now, she needed that power nap. If she was lucky, she’d be asleep before the landing gear tucked into the belly of the jet. But instead of sleeping, she found herself thinking about Haskins again.
Why had she chosen him for this mini mission? Well, not exactly chosen. He’d volunteered like a good team member so the others could enjoy their holiday with family. Which worked out fine because if he hadn’t stepped up, she’d been going to tap him for the op anyway.
She’d decided it was time to admit that she had a little problem with him. A problem a commanding officer didn’t need with a subordinate. A problem that was universally wrong under any operational circumstances.
This was her chance to confront and dissuade said problem before anything out of order happened between them. To face and conquer it without interference from the team. That’s why she’d wanted just the two of them on this low risk, low adrenaline recon. Cooler minds do prevail. She needed to clear the air because if she didn’t, she was afraid she knew where this was heading. Sex. Maybe even something more.
Sex and work didn’t mix. Especially with their kind of work. Life and death situations didn’t allow for even minor slip ups that a distracting physical relationship could possibly initiate.
You didn’t think with your head when you were involved with someone whose life was on the line. Made stupid decisions based on emotions instead of logic. Took stupid chances.
So, yes. It was time to sort it out with him. Admit that the attraction wasn’t just on his end. Agree that they needed to face it, forget it, and forge on without acting on their more primal urges which, without a doubt, could jeopardize their future missions.
So she’d fix it. Nip it in the bud.
Satisfied that her secondary mission to clear the air with Haskins was a go, she fell asleep.
Yet as she slept, she dreamed. Unfortunately, Haskins was in the dream. Again.
The Eastern Iowa airport was small but modern and efficient. As soon as they disembarked the plane, they rode down the single escalator and headed straight toward the rental car counters.
“Better get a 4-wheel drive,” Cara said, otherwise deferring the rest of the details to Haskins to select their ride.
Outside the terminal windows, a light mix of freezing rain and snow had started falling. She didn’t like the looks of that but since she couldn’t do anything about it, she turned to her GPS to acquaint herself with the Cedar Rapids area.
Five minutes later, Haskins met her by the exit door pocketing a set of keys.
“Everyone had the same idea,” he said.
She looked up as he held out the paperwork for the rental.
“Best I could do is a small SUV. Let’s hope it’s got good traction. And did we know we were running into snow?”
She let out air between puffed cheeks. “Weather reports have been sketchy. Last I heard, the snow was going to veer back north but, apparently, we’re getting a little Christmas surprise. Let’s regroup on the road and hope we’re in and out before the worst of the weather sets in.”
After cleaning the dusting of snow off their white SUV, they stowed their bags in the back seat and Haskins settled in behind the wheel.
“Head north toward I-380. We’ve got a little ways to go.”
“Read me in,” he said, as they cleared the airport parking complex.
Need to know was standard mission protocol and up until this moment, Haskins hadn’t had a clue what they were about.
“Palo, Iowa, about twenty minutes north of here, is the site of an aging nuclear energy plant.”
“Still in use?” He flipped the turn signal and pulled out onto the on ramp.
“As of now, yes. It’s due to close in the next year or so, though. This plant has been in commission since the 70’s so obviously it’s got some years on it. In any event,” she continued then caught a gasp when the SUV hit an icy patch and fishtailed sideways.
“Sorry.” Haskins let off the gas, regained control and they continued on their way.
Windshield wipers worked at slapping away the snow that had picked up a little in intensity. The defrost fan ran overtime to keep the glass fog free.
“In any event,” Cara began again, relieved to see that Haskins had regained a solid handle on the vehicle, “RRA received a report from NSA. They intercepted a burst of cyber-chatter from an IP address in Cedar Rapids. This was a week ago.”
“And this nuc plant was mentioned,” he concluded.
“Actually, no.” She smiled grimly. “The plant was never mentioned, but Armageddon was – several times. Along with some veiled phrases that are typical of extremist groups wanting to make a big noise about a big bang.
“Before NSA could zero in on absolutes, though, whoever was communicating using this IP address got wise and started encrypting all of their messages. Then, two days ago, they went totally silent.”
“Which raised some red flags,” Haskins deduced. “Still a stretch to think we’re going to find Armageddon in the making. From locals. In Iowa.”
“Apparently this same IP user had been on their radar a couple of years ago for much of the same kind of chatter but went silent then, too.”
“Until last week when they picked up this new communication. Still,” he said, sounding dubious. “Like I said. It’s a stretch.”
“True. But stranger things have happened,” she reminded him.
“Yeah. 9-11,” Haskins mulled grimly. “Seems I remember a connection to one of the hijackers and Cedar Rapids.”
“There was that,” she agreed quietly and felt the overwhelming rush of anger and anguish and patriotism that had been the impetus for her Army enlistment and ultimately her service in the RRA.
She’d been a kid when the Towers fell, but she’d never forget the images on TV and the utter despair she’d felt for the victims and the country. Her future had been decided then and there. She wanted to serve. She needed to serve and her focus from that moment on was doing just that. As soon as she turned eighteen, she joined the Army, worked her way up to a noncom officer, furthered her education and advanced through both the service and her degrees to her position at RRA.
She’d led missions all over the world. Asia. Soviet Union. Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Central America. There wasn’t a Third World or sophisticated European country where she hadn’t laid down footprints.
Now? Now she was Iowa. The thought that she was within driving distance to the Field of Dreams as opposed to the killing fields of Cambodia made her smile. She was due for a cush assignment. She was banking on this sneak and peep being it.
Beside her, Haskins drove in thoughtful silence. She took the time to pull up the RRA message on her phone and reread the directive in case she’d missed anything. The orders had been short on info and long on speculation. Because of that sudden flurry of cyber-chatter over a very recent and very brief window of time, NSA alerted RRA to scramble together a team and check things out immediately.
Everything had moved at warp speed after that. They’d been wheels up out of LaGuardia within two hours of their return from their most recent mission in Somalia. Just the two of them. Traveling light and lean while Christmas travelers hummed along with the holiday music piped over the airport PA system between called and canceled flights.
She closed the message and stared out at the interstate which had become a ribbon of white. “Let’s hope it’s a wild goose chase.”
“Your Christmas wish?”
She smiled. “Close enough.”
They both knew that at any given time, there were details similar to theirs checking out threats, sometimes finding nothing, sometimes squashing a real menace that the general public would never hear anything about.
“The life of a shadow warrior,” Haskins said with a self-effacing smile. “Missed holidays, missed opportunities. Nothing but selflessness and sacrifice.”
“Yeah, that,” Cara said, appreciating this little glimpse of his sense of humor – something she’d rarely seen. “Regardless, whoever these people are, we need to find out if they’re some wannabe bad guys just talking to hear themselves talk or if they’re the real deal and they’re actually planning something.”
“How did NSA settle on this nuc plant as the likely target?”
“Process of elimination. There are other potential targets in the area, yes, but none as target rich and as capable of producing death and destruction as this.”
“Got it. So has security at the nuc plant been notified?”
“Not yet. No need getting everyone’s tail in a twist if it turns out to be a false alarm.”
He nodded. “So we’re strictly recon and assessment.”
“That’s the directive, yes. We need to get a read on: a) if we’re truly looking at a terrorist cell, b) and if so, if they’re actually planning something – which would most likely be destruction or damage to the plant, c) if they have a plan, how far developed it is, and d) if they have the means to pull it off.”
He grunted, tapped his thumbs on the wheel. “And it had to be at Christmas. Of course.”
“If we’re looking at jihadists, then yes. It’s the most celebrated Christian holiday. But, if they’re home grown and zealot, say environmentalists who are opposed to nuclear power on principal, they might simply want to take advantage of the winter weather to sneak in.”
“If they’re environmentalists,” Haskins pointed out, “then they’re not looking to do any real damage.”
“Right. These far out groups are happy to stage mock attacks just to point out the vulnerabilities of nuclear power, hoping to get nuc plants shut down all over the world.”
“The fools don’t think about the havoc they create. Or that they could actually get killed themselves in their staged drama.” Haskins stared straight ahead, his jaw tight. “Or that if they’re successful, a bevy of copycat attacks could be staged all over the world.
“The problem is, one of those attacks could be real then everyone’s caught off guard as radioactive waste is released and we start seeing the consequences down the road.”
Cara heard him loud and clear. “Still, I vote for environmentalists as the best case scenario. They don’t generally deal in bombs and rocket propelled grenades.”
“True that. But, let’s say it is jihadists,” Haskins hypothesized. “Al-Qaeda. ISIS. And they want to blow the plant. If they want to do the most damage we’re not exactly looking at a highly populated area. There are other nuc plants near much more densely populated cities.”
“Actually, they could do a lot of damage here. Think of Palo as the hub in a wheel connecting Chicago, Twin Cities, Omaha, St. Louis, and Kansas City and you’ve got plenty of population. The Mississippi is also a stone’s throw from the plant. There would be major devastation all the way down to the Gulf if the river is contaminated with nuclear waste.”
“Guess I need to brush up on my geography. Hadn’t realized where we are now in relation to Chicago, et al.” He slowed down for a semi when it joined traffic from an on ramp. “How much farther to Palo?”
“Not far. But this cell – and we’ll call it a cell for expediency sake from now on – is not based in Palo. Per Intel, the IP address is from a computer in an apartment on the north side of Cedar Rapids.”
“Why not in Palo?” Haskins glanced sideways at her.
“Because Palo is a barely a town. It tops out at around a thousand people. There’d be no place to hide there without sticking out like an elephant in a strawberry patch.
“So, no. Cedar Rapids is about nine miles from the plant and close enough for a base of operation. Again, if there is an operation. And we’re going to proceed as though there is.”
“Do we have a head count? Any ID? Pictures? Names? Faces of these suspected cell members?”
She shook her head. “I wish.”
“So we’ve got nothing, is what you’re saying?”
“And yet they’re thinking home grown – whether we’re talking Jihad or environmental terror?”
She shrugged. “Only because there’ve been no links or threads to any known groups from the Middle East or parts unknown to this area. Facial recognition software at major airports would have spotted any ringers entering the country and headed this way and they’ve tagged nothing.”
He pushed out a grunt. “You’re forgetting that we’ve got a porous southern and northern border that pretty much ensures terrorists could enter with a ridiculous amount of ease.”
“True, but the chatter has been pinpointed coming only from this apartment with only local contacts, which indicates they’re confined to Cedar Rapids.
“While we’re here,” Cara continued, “both NSA and RRA are all over social media trying to find and connect more dots. We’ll hear from them with details if they find a suspect. And any partial Intel we gather – names, photos – we can feed to them and they’ll run it through the systems, see what they find.”
“Could be a long established sleeper cell as well,” he said after giving it more thought. “Planted by some offshoot of Al-Queda or ISIS just waiting for the right place, right time to pull the trigger.”
Before she could comment, a weather warning buzzed in on Cara’s phone.
“Perfect,” she said after opening up the bulletin then reading it out loud for Haskins’ benefit.
“A southern boy like you is going to love this. National Weather Service just issued a blizzard watch. A huge storm could approach central through northeast Iowa within the next twenty-four hours. Heavy snowfall with accumulations of twelve to twenty-four inches of blowing and drifting snow and subzero windchill factors. Underlying ice will make road travel difficult to impossible.”
“Sounds positively chilling.”
She glanced across the front seat at him. “I guess a watch is better than a warning. Let’s hope the weatherman’s wrong or that we can stay ahead of this storm. Otherwise, it looks like we might be up for mission impossible.”
Haskins braked lightly as a vehicle ahead of them skidded sideways on a patch of ice before the driver regained control.
“Not yet we aren’t,” he said on a deep breath. “We’ve got to get where we’re going first before we’ve even got a mission – impossible or not.”
Hope you have enjoyed this excerpt!
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