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Security and Containment Facility, Southeastern Idaho August 8, 7:39 a.m.
"WHAT THE HELL AM I doing here?" Mia Kearney paced around the hospital room, talking to herself, the monitor behind her beeping in agitation as she moved too far away, stretching the leads that connected it to her body.
Despite all the testing and probing, as best she could tell there was nothing wrong with her. Nothing, at least, that she could identify. She hadn't seen anyone except medical personnel since she'd woken up a couple days ago. At least she figured it was about two days. There wasn't a clock, and no one would give her straight answers. Only that there had been a nuclear accident of some kind, the resulting radiation affecting the people of Cedar Branch.
She'd asked to see someone else. To talk to Nancy or Patrick, even Joe. But so far they'd insisted she was better off in isolation.
Her mother had always hated the idea of all the nuclear reactors in Idaho, predicting dire consequences if the plants weren't closed. Well, time had proven her mother right—if not in Idaho per se, then with incidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. All of which meant that most of the reactors in Idaho were gone. There was still a test facility, but it was miles from Cedar Branch.
Which left Mia with a load of unanswered questions. Maybe a silo? The remains of cold war posturing were scattered throughout the Northwest, but she'd always been told the nearest live missiles were in Montana. Seemed a little far away to cause a local accident. Maybe it was an attack of some kind? But why would terrorists focus on Cedar Branch? There weren't more than fiftypeople in the whole county, and only a handful in town at any point in time.
Not that Idaho was devoid of crazies. There were extremist groups all over the state. People who believed that violence was the only way to solve problems. But as far as she knew none of them lived nearby. And even if they did, Cedar Branch wasn't the kind of place one chose as a target.
New York or L.A., or even Boise, would be a better place to garner the kind of attention terrorists wanted. It just didn't make any kind of sense. And to top it all off, Mia didn't feel the least bit sick.
She'd racked her brain trying to remember the symptoms of radiation poisoning, but hadn't come up with anything concrete. Still, she was pretty damn certain that by now she'd be a lot sicker if she had in fact been exposed. All of which begged the question she'd voiced earlier.
What the hell was she doing here? She'd stopped taking the sedatives they were giving her, pretending to ingest them and then flushing them down the toilet. She just acted dazed whenever hospital personnel were in the room. But it was getting harder to be cooperative, everything inside her signaling that something was very wrong.
And it didn't help that her memory seemed to have gone wonky. The last clear thing she remembered before waking up here was buying coffee from Nancy. They'd talked about Danishes and eating and free meals. And then she'd gone to her studio and, after a couple of bites of food, had begun to work. Just thinking about her latest project ratcheted up her agitation.
The piece had been commissioned by a collector in Sante Fe. he'd seen some of her work at the gallery and requested a piece for his wife. It wasn't an exhibition in SoHo, but it was a step in the right direction. And opportunities like that didn't come along every day. All the more reason to get out of here and back to her own life. She'd tried leaving once, but hadn't made it three feet down the hall before an orderly with arms like steel girders had intercepted her and escorted her back to her room.
From then on the door had been kept locked. As if she were a threat or something.
And to make it all the more confusing, the brief glimpse she'd had of the hallway hadn't looked like any hospital she'd ever seen.
Crossing her arms, she fought to contain a shiver. Now she knew what Alice had felt like at the bottom of the rabbit hole. Only Mia didn't have a little bottle to help her get out the door.
As if on cue, said door swung open, sending her scrambling for the bed.
"You're up." The man in the doorway was a stranger–and unlike the rest of the staff attending her, not dressed in scrubs. It was almost absurd, the relief she felt at the sight of someone so seemingly normal.
"I was just testing my legs." She sat down on the bed, her feet swinging above the floor making her feel all of about two. Resisting the urge to stand up again, she tucked her legs underneath her instead, careful to keep the blue cotton gown strategically covering all the requisite places.
The man smiled, the expression easing the harsh cast of his features. Not handsome by any kind of standards, his face was still interesting, and her fingers itched for pencil and paper. The sharp angle of his jaw was bisected by the faint white line of a scar. Dark hair curled around his ears and temples, a silky wash of blue on black. His mouth hinted at a sensuous side, the sardonic twist of his lips almost making her want to reach out and touch them.
She fisted her hands. This was a dangerous man, his stance predatory, his veiled green gaze cautious and knowing all at the same time. Whoever this was, he was not her friend.
"So how'd it go?"
For a moment she had no idea what he was talking about, then realized he was looking pointedly at her legs.
"Better than yesterday. But I think all the drugs are playing havoc with my coordination." Of course, she wasn't actually taking all of them, but he didn't know that.
"They have a way of doing that." He shrugged, his eyes probing hers as he held out his hand. "My name is Nicholas Price."
Mia hesitated, not sure exactly why she still had reservations about touching him. Maybe just because he was the first person who'd been anything but perfunctory with her since she'd woken up to find reality altered. "Mia Kearney," she said, shaking his hand for only the briefest of moments before retreating farther back onto the bed. "But then I suspect you already know that." "Yes, I do." His voice was mild, almost soothing, the sound puzzling. Nicholas Price didn't look like a gentle man. "I understand you've been through quite an ordeal."
"So I've been told. But I don't remember anything traumatic. Except maybe being in here." She hadn't meant for the last to slip out. And an ugly idea occurred to her. "Are you a shrink?"
Nicholas laughed, the sound genuine, buoying her heart even as she questioned his sincerity. "If you only knew how ridiculous the idea is. No. I'm not even a doctor. I work for the government."
Her mother had always made that word seem dirty, but Nicholas Price used it as though it would explain everything. "Who exactly is it you work for, Mr. Price?"
"Most people call me Nick." There was a false note of congeniality in his voice. As if he wanted her to believe he was her friend.
But he wasn't. "I'm not most people." She pitched her voice to match his tone, and offered a smile.
Amusement crested in his eyes. "I can see that. Mind if I sit down?" He tilted his head toward the lone chair in the room. A dilapidated ladder–back that looked as though it had seen better days.
"It's your prison."
"Now why would you say that?" His expression was back to guarded, and she wondered what she'd said to put him on alert.
"Because the door's locked?" She waved at the door as if looking at it would prove her point.
"Maybe they just want to be sure you stay put."
"Now there's a blinding glimpse of the obvious. Look, why don't we just skip the social niceties. I'm a captive audience, Mr. Price. So just get on with it."
She might have been mistaken, but she thought she saw the slightest hint of admiration in his gaze. Not that she gave a damn.
"I want to know what happened out there, Mia." His use of her first name grated on her nerves. She wasn't a kid and she didn't know him from Adam. But she held her tongue. There wasn't much point in arguing.
"I already told you, I don't remember anything."
"Well, I'm not sure I believe you. Your doctors say there isn't any physical reason why you can't remember."
"So maybe I wasn't conscious when it happened."
"The nuclear meltdown or whatever it was. They haven't really been all that forthcoming."
"It was an explosion. At least that's what the briefing papers call it."
"Papers?" She couldn't help the question.
"That's all we've got to work with at the moment. The site's too hot. No one's going in there right now."
"The site. You mean Cedar Branch?" She frowned, trying to assimilate the information. "So is everyone else here, too?"
"As far as I know you're the only survivor."
"I'm sorry?" Panic rose, bitter in her throat, threatening to cut off her air supply.
"I said you're the only one who survived."
"People were killed?" The surprise in her voice must have alarmed him, and he looked away, clearly realizing he'd said too much. "Come on, Mr. Price—Nick—you can't just drop something like that on me and then clam up." The back of her eyes tightened with tears. "How many people are dead?"
He paused, still staring down at his hands, then looked up. "Everyone was killed, Mia. Everyone living in Cedar Branch is dead."
Her brain reeled as she tried to understand what he was telling her. Nancy, Patrick—Joe. All of them gone. "You're lying."
"Why would I do that?"
Bile filled her throat, the edges of her vision fading to black. She fought against her terror, trying to stay focused—to stay in control. "I don't know. But it can't be true. They can't all be dead."
He was beside her suddenly, holding a trash can as she lost her battle with her stomach, his big hand stroking back her hair as she expelled everything inside her.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, "I thought you knew."
"I want to see the bodies," she demanded, fighting against the continuing waves of nausea.
"I'm afraid that's not possible," Nick said. "They were incinerated in the blast."
She struggled to find her composure, to stop the roiling in her gut, but it was simply more than she could handle. A commotion at the door indicated the cavalry had arrived, except that Mia felt certain they weren't there for her.
A nurse pushed Nick aside, and for a befuddled moment Mia had the urge to reach for him. Fortunately, her hand wasn't up to responding. The nurse ordered him from the room, drawing a syringe as she spoke.
Mia fell back against the sheets, mind still reeling, and held out her arm, for the first time since she'd awoken into this nightmare grateful for the sedative. "WHY THE HELL DIDN'T YOU tell me she didn't know?"
Nick stood in the corridor outside Mia's room, trying to control the rage that was surging through him. He wasn't against manipulating a suspect to get an admission, but he also wasn't in the habit of torturing people just for the hell of it.
"I didn't think it was necessary." James Waters shrugged, clearly unperturbed by the pain his omission had caused. Waters was the doctor assigned to Mia's case, a government flunky who wouldn't have lasted a day in private practice. "I was told to give you access to Miss Kearney. No one said anything about briefing you. I just assumed you were aware of the situation."
It was clear from his tone that the man resented the fact that he was here at all, but Nick didn't give a damn. If he'd needed people to like him, he'd have found a different line of work. "I was briefed. But no one told me she didn't know about her friends."
"How do you know they were friends?" Waters asked, his tone bland, but his eyes sparking with interest.
"I'd say it's pretty damn obvious. She's lived and worked in the area for most of her life. And if that wasn't proof enough, one look at Mia's face after I told her certainly convinced me."
He was mildly surprised that he'd used her first name. After all, he'd just met the woman. But then holding someone's hair while they puked had a way of cutting through all the bullshit.
The doctor shrugged. "Davies didn't want her to know." Charles Davies was heading the investigation. Director of the CIA's Security and Containment division, Davies was a snake of a man. Nick had dealt with him in the past, and wasn't relishing a repeat performance.
"Does he suspect her?"
"You'd have to ask him. As far as I know, it's all pretty straightforward. A rig transporting a nuclear weapon lost control on the Old Dam Road. It broke through a guardrail, tumbled down the side of the mountain near Cedar Branch and slammed into a stand of pines. The result was a hell of an explosion that took out the town."
"Except for Mia Kearney."
"Exactly. She was found unconscious in the rubble of a house just off Main Street." Waters paused, his eyes narrowing. "So we brought her here. Obviously, we're trying to understand why she's still alive."
"A medical miracle." Nick didn't bother to keep the sarcasm from his voice.
Waters frowned. "I don't believe in miracles, Mr. Price. They'd put me out of business. But I do believe in anomalies, and I intend to find out why Miss Kearney is one."
"Then we're working on the same side." They were banal words, offered more in dismissal than anything else. Talking to underlings was a waste of time.
"Hardly." Waters's words were clipped. "We're assuming it was an accident. You're assuming it wasn't."
"I'm not assuming anything. I'm simply looking at the facts." Nick's bosses at Homeland Security had sent him here for answers, and he intended to get them. If not from Mia Kearney, then from the staff attending her.
"She was found at the edge of the destruction zone," Waters said, his fingers tightening on the clipboard he was holding. "So while she could have been in the truck, the odds are against it. Even if you assume delayed detonation, the radiation zone stretched something like half a mile beyond the physical destruction. She wouldn't have been able to escape."
"But the point is that she did. Which all by itself is suspicious. But when you add it to the facts that everyone else in the area was obliterated and that the woman was found in a nuclear shelter, I'd say that should be enough to raise a few red flags."
"Except for the fact that it was a fifty–year–old, homemade shelter that probably wouldn't have held up when it was new. Certainly after all this time it's doubtful that it would have been part of any terrorist scheme. Although it may have played a role in her survival."
"I thought you didn't believe in miracles."
"I don't. But I do believe in dumb luck. Sometimes a person is just in the right place at the right time." Again Waters shrugged dismissively. "Anyway, the point is that until proved otherwise, I'm treating Ms. Kearney as a victim. Like the rest of the people in Cedar Branch."
"Except that they're all dead, and she's not." Which set Nick's internal alarm bells ringing no matter what Waters had to say on the subject.