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0615 Monday Morning
Whidbey Island, Washington
Joy Alexander forced herself to ignore the clock and leisurely sip her morning coffee. She had more than an hour until her first day at the law firmher first civilian job after a decade in the Navy. Since the law office was seven minutes away, tops, and she'd already showered, she could afford to enjoy the view a bit longer.
Five minutes. She waited for the satisfaction she usually felt when she thought about her new life, her new career. But this time she didn't feel it. Had to be first-day jitters, that was all.
The blue of the water changed to gray as the Strait of Juan de Fuca glistened in the morning light. Even though she'd planned to make the switch to civilian life for the last three years of her career as a Navy JAG, right now it felt as though it'd happened in the blink of an eye. She stretched her arms over her head, enjoying the taut feel of her muscles after last night's yoga class. She'd traded years of Navy PT tests and the sweaty gym for poses in a pristine studio, and she had no regrets.
The flutters in her stomach were purely physical reactions to her excitement at her new job.
The rumble of jet engines reached her ears a split second before two Navy F-18 Growlers shot across the sky, overflying her house, leaving the Whidbey Island airspace for the Pacific Ocean. She wondered if an aircraft carrier was waiting for them. She watched their shapes grow smaller as they gained altitude and distance. A second round of jet noise rushed over her house, but this was lower, slower. Turbojets. Sure enough, a P-8 Poseidon, followed by its predecessor, the P-3 Orion, flew by and their flight appeared slow and laborious after the showiness of the fighter jets.
The P-8 and P-3 platforms didn't land on carriers, but instead performed reconnaissance and antisubmarine missions. No doubt a Naval exercise was afoot. She'd often observed the aircraft over the past year from her home base of Naval Air Station, Whidbey Island. They always made her feel comfortablethey were that familiar to her.
She tried to ignore the pang of nostalgia; it would do nothing but increase her anxiety about starting her civilian life.
Joy had no room for anxiety in her carefully structured routine.
Scanning the horizon yielded nothing in the way of wildlife, the real reason she loved sitting out here. Not one whale spout. A cargo ship and a smaller fishing vessel floated in the distance, and she wondered if the small boat was out there to whale watch. Maybe it belonged to an amateur photographer, hoping to get shots of the Navy's power. Aviation buffs were serious about observing Naval flight operations and referred to the loud noise of the jets as the "Sound of Freedom."
She certainly felt it was. She'd proudly been part of supporting the operators who served all over the globe in missions that ranged from humanitarian aid to the ugliest aspects of war.
Would working in a civilian firm ever be as rewarding? She doubted it. But it was time
A single burst of bright light came out of nowhere, as if an invisible finger had lit a match against the sea. She gasped at the immediate appearance of a fireball, followed by dark smoke.
As the reality that she'd seen an explosion registered, the tiled floor of her sunroom shuddered, and a soft boom rolled across the beachfront.
Normally, she'd associate the blast and its vibration with one or both of the F-18s breaking the sound barrier. But she'd seen the explosion. Had it been an aircraft exploding?
No, the fireball was too low.
Fighting her shock she forced her gaze to remain steady on the same distant spot where she'd identified the cargo ship with a fishing boat in the foreground. Her observation could prove instrumental in helping Search and Rescue.
She blinked as the reality registered.
Only one of the two vessels remained. The smaller fishing boat was gone, vanished in the few minutes it had taken the smoke to appear.
She waited for her brain to make sense of the images. Migrating whales, inbound storms, cargo shipsthose were all common sights on the ocean. But clouds of dark black smoke rising above the horizon, spewing from the flash of a fireball? Never.
It was what had preceded the explosion that made her hands shake, made her know with certainty that while she'd resigned her Navy JAG commission last month, she would never let go of her sense of duty. Something, no, someone, had done this on purpose, possibly as a threat to the aircraft. The timing of the blast was too close to the overflight.
You could be wrong.
Joy stood in her sunroom and ignored her internal prosecutor as easily as she denied the pain from the hot coffee that spilled on her hands. She placed her cup on the mosaic-tiled café table she'd brought back from Italy and grabbed her binoculars, a gift from her parents when she'd resigned her commission. She dialed the area into focus with the familiarity born of long watches on board a Navy ship. From her sunroom she was more accustomed to looking for whale pods or bald eagles.
She saw ominously dark smoke and snakes of bright flame reaching toward it. She adjusted the focus. Was she sure that had been a small vessel? It'd had a low profile; probably wasn't anything bigger than a fishing boat. The cargo ship was still there, but too far away to make out many details.
What had made that little boat explode? She rested the binoculars on her chest as she scanned the horizon, even though she knew it by heart. Her home sat on a West Beach cliff, and the only land nearer to the explosion was farther north, toward the base, where the land curved westward into the strait.
This hadn't been some kind of base exercise gone wrong. The Navy didn't drop weapons in Puget Sound.
Calm down and think.
What had she seen?
It was always the Navy's fear that a terrorist would procure a rogue weapon like a surface-to-air missile, a SAM, and take out a plane. It was a threat for anyone who flew after 9-11.
Had she just witnessed that fear come true?
She shook her head. No. If one of the aircraft had been shot out of the sky, the explosion would have been greater, the impact louder and more tangible. Plus, the explosion had occurred well after the aircraft flew by.
She'd never served downrange, never had a Patriot missile fly over her head on its way to attack an enemy missile, never had to worry about getting into bio-chem gear. Her entire Navy career had taken place in courtrooms Stateside and overseas, with one carrier tour at sea and one trip to Guantanamo Bay to serve as defense lawyer for a suspected terrorist.
Where she'd worked with an enlisted SEAL, a man she'd never forget.
She squeezed her eyes shut against the intrusive memory.
She wouldn't think about him today. She'd spent enough time obsessing over the man who'd rattled her scrupulous professional demeanor.
The last trial of her Norfolk tour that resulted from the brief time in Guantanamo Bay had almost done her in. It had convinced her that her Afghani defendant was innocent, however, and she took the case to trial in Norfolk.
That took six grueling months, but with the help of an honest SEAL and other operatives who gave their testimony, she'd been able to free an Afghan man who'd been wrongly apprehended, a true victim of circumstance. He was safely in the Witness Security Program, his life under the protection of US Marshals.
She'd also been able to help the same SEAL keep his name free of any accusation of wrongdoing. The case had changed her in an elemental way and reminded her why the fight for justice was paramount.
The SEAL had affected her more than any other man in her life.
She opened her eyes.
Her phone lay on the kitchen counter where she'd left it. She should call the base, the police or at least her new boss and tell someone what she'd witnessed.
Her hands jerkily grabbed the pink-cased phone. Immense vibrations shook the porch screens as the wap wap wap of SH-60 helicopters burst through the air. Any sailor who'd spent time around a Navy base, air station or on board a ship knew the sound meant help was on the way.
She wasn't the only one who'd seen that explosion. That was the sound of the Naval Air Station's Search and Rescue team. For ejected aircrew, floating in the ocean awaiting their ride back to the aircraft carrier or nearest land, it was a lifeline. In this case, she wasn't sure who could have survived an explosion that made an entire boat disappear in a matter of seconds.
An ugly premonition raised goose bumps on her arms. She was afraid that people had been lost in the fiery blast. This far away, her binoculars too weak, she couldn't tell.
She looked for the return of the P-8 or P-3.
They were reconnaissance platforms; it was in their mission description to find mishap clues.
Today was the start of her life as a civilian. Yet one terrible act, and she was back in uniform mode, even if she wore a fancy suit and dress shoes that made her feel feminine.
She cradled the phone. The emergency and NAS operators would be inundated with calls. Would the details of what she'd seen make a meaningful difference to any aircrew at this point? SAR was on the scene. She could wait and phone in her observations after she'd finished getting ready for work.
Then she changed her mind and quickly dialed 9-1-1.
With one blast, she might be in the middle of an international terrorist event. And late for her first day of work.
FBI Agent Brad Iverson didn't stop swearing the entire time he raced along the rocky shore of Whidbey's West Beach. The inflatable powerboat he'd driven back, landing within yards of the shore, was safely destroyed and lay at the bottom of Puget Sound. His clothes were wet and cold, but that wasn't anything he hadn't experienced before.
But he'd never had to take out an enemy, not since he'd left the Navy and become a civilian agent.
Getting the hell out of sight andhe hopedto his vehicle, where he could securely call his boss, was priority one. Because the remaining three suspects in the domestic terrorist cell he'd infiltrated during his current undercover op couldn't be allowed to find him. As soon as they suspected he'd neutralized their fourth man, they'd be after him. If they captured him, they'd throw him in a pit and keep him there, until either their deadly mission was complete or he diedpreferably both.
Brad thanked God for his Navy SEAL background and, currently, his FBI training. It had saved his life. Now he had to prevent anyone else from becoming a target.
A sharp rock punched through the bottom of his running shoes and his ankle twisted too far to the right. Brad ignored the jolt of pain that flashed up the side of his leg.
He had minutes. As he took in the beach's length he could see flashing lights.
Damn it. Getting to his car wasn't happening, not now.
He couldn't afford the time it would take to explain himself to local law enforcement. He didn't even have his badge on him; it was safely locked in his desk drawer at the Bureau in Seattle, standard procedure when you were undercover.
He had to avoid being seen. The terrorists couldn't figure out he was still alive, not yet. An unintended camera shot of his face on the local news could prove disastrous to the Bureau's entire operation.
Past missions had seared the thin line between life and death into his soul. He'd hauled shipmates, alive and dead, off the battlefield. Brad knew death, and he knew failure. Neither were strangers.
But he wasn't about to let this op become a failure. Which left him with one option.
He'd have to break into her house. Wait until she got back from work, if she'd already gone. Otherwise, he'd face her in the next twenty minutes. The woman who had gotten under his skin like no other, yet had remained unattainable to him.
The woman he hadn't been able to get out of his mind since he last saw her, more than eighteen months ago.
Any plans he'd dreamed up to rekindle what he hoped had been a mutual attraction were smashed like a jungle bug against a Humvee windshield. He bent over, hands on his knees as he tried to calm his breath as it came in jagged gulps. Half crouching, half leaning against the side of a huge tree that'd been washed ashore, he knew that in his dark clothing he'd be tough to spot from the air.
She's right up above me.
He double-checked his coordinates and took in a few more deep breaths.
"Holy hell." His body wasn't that of a twenty-something anymore. Yet he had to force it to perform as it had on countless SEAL missions.
Joy Alexander's house was on a cliff directly above him. This wasn't the way he'd intended to see her again, but the entire nine-month operation, not to mention his life, was at risk.
You could expose her to the same danger.
Not if he made it up the cliff in short order.
He darted to the base of the cliff wall, where he hid behind a second pile of petrified trees, and pulled out his phone. He steadied his hands so he could pop the phone apart. Years of operational experience had taught him how to control the adrenaline surges inevitable in his line of work.
The phone's SIM card snapped out easily enough, and he put it in his pocket. The rest of the phone he smashed against the rock cliff. Not because he had tohe'd already disabled the batterybut because it felt good to smash something the rat bastard terrorists had given him.
He couldn't use this phone, and his one secure cell phone was in his vehicle. Even if he had his Bureau phone, he wouldn't use itnot until he had time to make sure the terrorists weren't looking for him, waiting for a cell phone signal to tip off his location. For now he had to stay alive and find a place to shelter while he figured things out.
He wiped his mind clear of all thoughts other than getting to the top of the two-hundred-foot wall in front of him.
The shale of the cliff cut his fingers, and blood dripped down his wrists. He wiped the sweat from his brow with his forearm. Gloves would've been smart but they lay with his destroyed inflatable on the ocean floor.
He was going to need help. It wasn't the how or the where that gave him pause. It was the who.
He'd done his research well. He knew exactly where she lived.